Always and Forever

Lorelover

Rating: R
Genres: Romance, Action & Adventure
Relationships: Harry & Hermione
Book: Harry & Hermione, Books 1 - 7
Published: 06/09/2015
Last Updated: 30/09/2016
Status: In Progress

This is an alternate ending to the original story. It starts at the end of Harry's third year, and continues thru his seventh. There is action in many of the chapters, but it's not the focus of the main story. I believe the overwhelming focus should be the main characters. I'm trying to write about a realistic and honest relationship between Harry and Hermione.

1. Reflections


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

This is my first attempt at a novel length, fanfiction story. The story is based on the Harry Potter series, written by J.K. Rowling. My story, “Always and Forever” is an alternate ending to the original. It starts at the end of Harry's third year, and continues thru his seventh. To better understand this story, one should be familiar with the first three books in the series.

This story was first posted on fanfiction in February 2015.

It doesn't have to end the way Rowling wrote it.

Having studied engineering in school, and never getting better than a “C” in English, this is very much a learning experience for me. Any feedback will be graciously received.

Another FanFiction author wrote;

“J.K. Rowling created a magical romance, sadly she herself couldn't see it.”

I couldn't agree more!

.

AN: First, I hate author notes, but here's mine, take a good look, you won't see many.

I thought I'd give you some notes about this story, so you could decide if it was your cup of tea or not.

One; it's a long story. This first chapter begins to setup the next seventy or so and tries to explain some of the differences from canon for the first three year.

Two; this is a Harry and Hermione story… enough said.

Three; one or more of your favorite characters' may get beat up a little. All I ask is that you hang in there. Some of them will make a great comeback.

Four; there will be parts of this story that are completely different from canon. However, the parts that are the same, I will try to tell from a different point of view to avoid just repeating JK's original work. Also, I'll take most of my canon from the films.

Five; while there is action in many of the chapters, it's not the focus of the main story. I believe the overwhelming focus should be the main characters. I'm trying to write about a realistic and honest relationship between Harry and Hermione.

I sincerely hope that some of you, will take the time to review. Good, Bad, or Ugly, tell me what you think, especially the errors (spelling, grammar…)

.

.

Chapter 1

Reflections

.

Harry was currently staring at his two best friends as he sat silently in the corner of their compartment. The only sound being the rhythm of the steel wheels on the tracks as the Hogwarts Express took them home. Occasionally, Ron would let go with a round of soft snoring, and then he'd seem to catch himself only to be quiet again. Luckily, it never lasted long enough or became loud enough, to wake Hermione. Since Harry wasn't tired, he sat there and either stared out the window watching the countryside slide by, or like now, he'd take a moment and watch them sleep. Alone with his thoughts, Harry soon found himself remembering his third year at Hogwarts.

Harry turned to look back outside, only to have his eyes refocused on the reflection in the glass. Hermione was sound asleep. She was younger than him! The idea still amazed Harry. During his first year around the end of September, Harry had noticed one day in particular that Hermione seemed a little depressed, kind of melancholy. Up until then, she had always been fairly upbeat, and full of energy. He had asked her about it, and of course, she had said she was fine, “Just a lot on my mind,” she'd said, and at the time he had let it go, thinking nothing more about it. Then, the following year it happened again.

Harry had woken up feeling a bit off. A bit of a dream he couldn't remember, something lying just on the edge of his subconscious. As the day progressed, the feeling faded, until Harry again noticed Hermione was being very quiet, and then he remembered the previous year. `It must be something,' he had thought, `today must have some meaning, but what?' Maybe she had lost someone special to her, like he had. She did kind of act the way he did, on Halloween. Harry was determined to find out what was bothering her. He had tried talking to Dumbledore, but had no luck. Then he wrote Hermione's parents, her mother acted concerned of course, but would only say that if Hermione didn't want to talk about it, then neither could she. Mrs. Granger did thank Harry for his concerns, and told him it was probably nothing, and not to worry.' She knows,' he had thought.

Hermione had again claimed she was fine, but Harry didn't stop there this time, he went to Professor McGonagall. Harry explained everything to her. He had told her about talking to Professor Dumbledore and writing Hermione's parents. Finally, in desperation he added, “Professor, I know something is bothering her. I don't want to intrude… I just want to help.”

Initially, McGonagall had been very adamant about keeping Hermione's secret, but she too had noticed Hermione's loneliness, and so had decided to help. “Harry, I need your solemn word, that if I tell you why Miss Granger is feeling this way, you will not tell another soul… not even Mr. Weasley.” Professor McGonagall had pinned Harry was a stern look, “Do I have your word Mr. Potter?”

“Yes ma'am, I swear.” Harry remembered saying.

“September nineteenth is her birthday.”

“I don't understand, why would…”

McGonagall raised her hand to stop him, “That's all I can tell you. Maybe someday Miss Granger will tell you more.”

“Yes ma'am,” Harry had known that it was all he was going to get from his head of house. “Thank you for your time professor.”

“You're welcome… Harry, remember, not a soul, Miss Granger does not wish for anyone to know.”

Harry had nodded his understanding before leaving. He had decided that he could still do something special for her and keep her secret. However, by now Hermione's birthday had long since passed, Harry would have to wait until third year to surprise her.

Harry smiled to himself as his thoughts ran forward to that day, Hermione's thirteenth birthday.

oOoOo

Dinner was over, and it was a mysterious Harry that led Hermione through the halls to a yet to be determined destination.

“Harry, where are you taking me?” huffed Hermione, “I'm really not in the mood for another one of your adventures.”

“Patience Hermione, we're here.”

“Here? And just where is here, we're in the middle of the hallway Harry,” Hermione's temper was growing short.

“You'll see, but first I need you to close your eyes.” Harry was wearing a devil of a smile.

“Harry I'm not going…”

“Hermione please,” he pleaded with a smile, then turning more sincere. “I promise, if you don't like this, you can hex me all the way back to the common room.”

Hermione had her hands on her hips, she was torn, part of her just wanted to be left alone, the other part didn't… especially today. With another huff, “Fine,” and she closed her eyes.

Harry tickled the pear, and the passageway opened leading to the kitchens. Harry carefully led Hermione to a small table near the back. Turning her just so, he moved to stand behind her. “Open your eyes,” he whispered next to her ear.

Hermione shivered slightly at the feel of his breath on her neck. Slowly, she opened her eyes, “Oh my!” In front of her stood about twenty house-elves, all wearing tiny paper hats proclaiming `Happy Birthday'. Around them were hundreds of balloons, some tied in groups to various fixtures, others just floating free. Wide-eyed Hermione slowly turned taking it all in. Next to her on the right was a small table, on it sat a beautiful cake. It was shaped like a book, but not just any book, this one resembled, `Hogwarts a History'. The writing on the cake said, `Happy Fourteenth Hermione,' and was accompanied by fourteen candles, which were already lit.

Hermione turned further to face a sheepish looking Harry. With tears in her eyes and a look of wonder, she whispered, “How…”

Not knowing whether Hermione was happy or upset, Harry answered with a nervous smile, “In first year, you said you were fine. Last year too, but I didn't believe you the second time.” Harry spoke softly as he stepped a little closer. “I don't know why you want to keep your birth date a secret, and I have sworn that I would not tell anyone. However, that doesn't mean I can't do something special for you on this day.” Hermione only nodded her understanding. “You don't have to tell me anything Hermione, and if you want me to forget all this next year, I will.”

Hermione was speechless. She looked back down at the cake, smiling, she bent down and blew out the candles. “There's one too many,” she said quietly, never taking her eyes off the cake.

Harry looked down at the cake and did a quick count, coming up with fourteen. Confused, he replied, “There's fourteen, what do you mean?”

Hermione looked back up at Harry, “Have a seat Harry.”

The reluctant sound of her voice had Harry complying without a word.

“There is an ancient rule Harry,” Hermione began. “It states; a child not yet age eleven on September first, may still be allowed to attend Hogwarts, if all of the following conditions are met. First, they must be age eleven by the first full moon following Halloween. Second, they must have the recommendation of at least two current professors at Hogwarts. Finally third, and most importantly…” Hermione paused, unsure if she should continue. Harry gently touched her hand and smiled reassuringly, “It's okay Hermione, you don't have to go on if you don't want to.”

After taking a deep breath, Hermione continued, “No Harry, I need to get this out, even if you're the only other one who will know.”

Harry sat back, and waited patiently for her to go on.

“A child will only be considered under these rules, if… if they show exceptional ability and maturity at age ten.” Hermione closed her eyes; her secret was out, if only to one person. She waited, certain that Harry would make some comment inadvertently ridiculing her. Something like, that figures, or, so you have to be a bookworm? She knew Harry would never say anything mean on purpose, but after years of hearing disparaging comments about her intellect, she was still a little defensive.

Tired of waiting for the inevitable Hermione opened her eyes, “Well?”

Harry sighed, “I'm sorry, but I don't see the problem. You're brilliant, maybe even gifted. Obviously, the professors know this too. You should be proud Hermione.”

Hermione smiled, pleasantly surprised, then went on to explain, “Harry… they already call me a bookworm, know it all, show off, and my favorite, insufferable. This would only add fuel to the fire.”

“Okay, first year in the beginning I could see, you really didn't have many friends back then…”

“I didn't have any friends.”

“Fine, but you do now. Hermione, who cares what a bunch of berks say, they're just jealous. Your real friends don't think that, I don't think that. Hermione I am proud of you, and you should be too… you're better than that!” Harry finished in an agitated tone after getting a little worked up.

Hermione sat there staring at Harry. For the second time in just a few minutes, she didn't know what to say.

“Hermione if you still want to keep this a secret, I won't tell, but I'm still going to give you a little party every year. You shouldn't be alone on your birthday, believe me, I know.

Because she did believe him, Hermione consented, “Okay Harry, but for now this stays between you and me. I need some time to think about what you've said. We'll see about next year later.”

“Well… when you say between you and me… you mean, you, me, Professor McGonagall, and about a hundred house-elves.” Harry laughed seeing her quickly glance around the room. “Don't worry, they're sworn to secrecy too.”

Hermione turned back to Harry and gave an uneasy smile, “Thanks Harry.”

“No problem.”

“No, I mean, thank you for doing all of this. Thank you for not laughing at me.”

Harry turned to face Hermione directly and stared straight into her eyes for a few seconds before slowly nodding, “You're welcome Hermione.”

Returning to the present, Harry smiled to himself, he liked sharing this little secret with her. This year was over and still no one else knew.

oOoOo

Remembering Hermione's first time in the kitchens made Harry laugh quietly to himself. After she got over the shock of him knowing about her birthday, she started asking questions about the elves. Finding out they all work for free, she nearly blew her top. Hermione was outraged; she had called it `slave labor!'

Harry knew a little about Dobby of course, but he had learned about elves, mostly from the Hogwarts house-elves. During second year when Hermione had been petrified, Harry had missed quite a few meals sitting by her bedside. Fred and George finally decided to let him in on one of their many secrets; where the Hogwarts kitchen was and how to get in. This allowed Harry to eat at a time of his own choosing. It was during those late-night meals that Harry learned about the life of a house-elf. One or two would sit with him, and they would talk while he ate, just to keep him company.

Harry with the help of a couple of brave elves, managed to calm Hermione down enough to see it from the elves' point of view. A half-hour later, Hermione had a better understanding of the relationship between wizards and house-elves. However, before letting it go, she promised to look into the situation further when she had more time, as it still felt wrong to her.

As much trouble as Hermione had understanding the elves' way of life, the elves had in understanding her concern. They were grateful though, and even more so, that she had calmed down enough that she was no longer a threat to destroying the kitchen.

oOoOo

As Harry continued to study the reflection, he focused on Ron. Ron was changing; Harry didn't know why, but Ron was definitely changing. Looking down, he found Crookshanks looking up at him. He reached over and started to scratch him, while his thoughts returned to Ron, and how he had acted this last year. Harry closed his eyes as he recalled one particular fight between his two best friends.

“Hermione, you know it's true, that… monster you call a cat, has eaten Scabbers,” Ron had yelled, his face flushed with anger.

“Don't be ridiculous Ron, Crookshanks would never do that,” Hermione pleaded.

“Sure, you'd stick up for your pet. I've seen the way you carry him around, pamper him, like he is some kind of… royalty or something. Wouldn't be surprised if you put him up to it.” The last bit had sounded rather vindictive.

Harry had heard his fill, “Enough Ron! Hermione would never do any such thing.” Calming down a little, he went on, “and I don't think Crookshanks would either.”

“Yeah, well where is he then?” A red-faced Ron had demanded.

“How should I know? Maybe he just ran away. What I do know, is you've had it out for Crookshanks from the beginning.”

“Well maybe when he starts after Hedwig you'll change your mind,” Ron had stated angrily, before he had turned and stormed away.

Hermione had settled uneasily onto the couch, shaken and hurt by Ron's accusations. This hadn't been the first time he had accused her and Crookshanks of terrifying his rat. Harry had sat down next to her, and had gently taken her hand giving it a squeeze of reassurance. Hermione slowly laid her head on his shoulder and sniffed, “You don't believe him, do you Harry?”

“Of course not, he's just being... a git.”

Hermione had closed her eyes and had started to settle down. She was beginning to see a pattern. Whenever things went wrong for Ron, he would lash out, mostly at her. It seemed the more upset he could make her, the more satisfied he was. Thank goodness for Harry, he was her buffer. She liked the fact that Harry would let her fight her own battles, but he was always there it seemed, whenever it just became too much, and she needed a little backup. Harry may not have always known exactly what to say, but he was getting better. Besides it really didn't matter, as long as he was just there for her she felt better, just like now, and she had told him so, just a moment later.

oOoOo

Hearing a soft sigh, Harry looked over at Hermione, and found her fast asleep with a little smile on her face. `I wonder what she's dreaming about,' thought Harry. They still had three hours to go before reaching King's Cross station. If it wasn't for all he had on his mind, Harry might also have fallen asleep to the gentle rocking of the train. After a quick glance at Ron who was also still sound asleep, Harry turned his gaze back outside the window, his thoughts returning to his third year. Thinking of Ron some more, Harry couldn't help but wonder about why his best friend had started acting differently since the start of term.

He seemed normal enough at the beginning of the year as Harry remembered his first meeting after summer just before the start of third year.

As Harry descended the stairs into the main room of a Leaky Cauldron, he had paused momentarily to take in the site before him. As usual, the Weasley's had pretty much taken over most of the dining room. Percy was chastising the twins for some hideous act; a mark against the family honor no doubt, at least as it appeared to him. The Twins of course were in full drama mode, playing the part of the innocent as only they could. Mrs. Weasley was talking to Ginny, Hermione, and some other girl whom Harry didn't recognize, her hands moving in animated sync. The best the girls could do, was nod their heads in agreement to whatever lecture she had been giving them. Mr. Weasley had been standing off to the side, talking with someone Harry had never seen before. Finally, Harry had spotted Ron, sitting alone at one of the tables eating. Harry continued down the stairs, and after catching Hermione's eye, he had made his way over to sit with Ron.

“Hey mate,” Harry had said with a smile as he sat down.

“Hey Harry, how was your summer?”

“Oh you know, the usual… work like a slave, fight with the Dursley's, and… blow up my aunt.” Harry said the last part with a snicker.

“Oi, heard about that, brilliant as far as I'm concerned,” laughed Ron, he had thought it quite hilarious.

“Yeah thanks, don't know how Dumbledore will feel though.” Smiling, and looking back at the girls, Harry added, “Who's that girl with your sister and Hermione?”

“Oh, she's just our neighbor, Loony. That's her father over there.” Ron had jerked his head in the direction of Mr. Weasley and the stranger.

Harry knew Ron had no problem, calling people he didn't like funny names. “Ron, what's her real name… and why don't you like her?”

“I'm okay with her, that's what everyone calls her.”

“Ron, I doubt that, besides she seems nice enough.”

Ron looked over, “Yeah she's nice enough… just a little… well, different… you know?”

“Yeah, I know.” Harry had nodded. He knew all about being thought of as different.

“Her real name is Luna… Luna Lovegood.”

Harry had stared at her for a moment wondering what made her so different, and then had quickly turned away when she looked over.

When Harry looked back a second time, he caught Ginny looking at him. She gave a little wave and quickly looked away. He remembered her blushing furiously. Harry also remembered how hard it had been getting her to relax, and just act normal whenever he was around. Thankfully, with Hermione's help, she had finally come to grips with her hero worship by the end of term.

After Hermione had excused herself from the giggling girls, she had come over to sit with her boys. “Hi Harry, how was your summer? I hope you had some fun.”

“You might say I had some towards the end, it was actually rather… uplifting.” Harry had smirked. “How about you?”

Hermione only raised an eyebrow, she had already heard about the incident with his aunt, but she had decided to let it go. “Oh yes, I had loads of fun, we went to France on holiday...”

oOoOo

Back then, Ron had been so… normal, well normal as compared to how he had acted during first and second year. He didn't seem to be angry all the time like he was now. This year, especially towards the end, Ron always seemed to be trying to start something, particularly with Hermione. He would take something fairly insignificant and try to turn it into more, especially if it concerned something between himself and Hermione, Harry thought. It was as if he was trying to drive a wedge between them, like he didn't want either of them to be happy.

Looking back at all the fuss over his new Firebolt, it seems more obvious now than it did back then, as Harry remembered some of the things that had been said.

“Harry! She is the one responsible for you losing your Firebolt, how can you sit here with her?”

“Ron just stop, I don't even know why you're so upset, it is my broom after all.”

“Yeah and what good is it, if you can't use it?”

“I told you, as soon as Professor Flitwick is done checking it, they'll give it back.”

“Wouldn't have to wait if Hermione hadn't gone behind your back.”

“Look mate, she did what she thought was best at the time. Yeah I wish that she would have at least talked to me first, but what's done is done. Hermione and I talked it over, we're good with things the way they are. Next time, she'll talk to me first, and I promised, that I would stay calm and listen to what she had to say.”

“So, she made it out to be all your fault?”

Harry remembered sighing sadly, “Well, it mostly was… the fighting part afterwards anyway. I overreacted, she was only looking out for me. I know that now, and I told her so. I apologized to her Ron, you should do the same.”

“Right… that's not going to happen, I didn't do anything wrong.”

oOoOo

Ron never did apologize, and Harry was fairly certain he wouldn't have been able to make him. Instead, Harry decided to be a better friend to Hermione. It wasn't just the Firebolt incident; she was always looking out for him, from helping with homework, to rescuing his Godfather. Next year, he'd be sure to let her know, both in words and actions. Although they didn't know it, she was slowly displacing Ron as his best friend.

Harry stopped scratching Crookshanks for a moment, who responded with a soft mew. “Oh, sorry fella.” Harry returned to his duty, keeping Hermione's ginger cat happy. `I just hope he grows up a little next year, don't know if I can handle another year of him being mad at Hermione all the time,' Harry thought as he leaned back and closed his eyes. Sitting there in peace, his mind continued to race through his third year. He couldn't help the smile that formed as he remembered the look on Draco's face, when Hermione had him at wand point, while she told him off. However, it was the solid punch in the nose ending the confrontation, that made it so brilliant. `Merlin help Malfoy, and his goons, if she ever really learns how to fight!' he thought. His smile grew bigger as he remembered later, holding her in his arms while she cried. They had just left Hagrid's hut, and were halfway up the trail when it happened. Stopping, they turned and looked back in time to see the executioner's ax come down with a sharp crack, ending Buckbeak's life. Horrified, Hermione turned to Harry. She wrapped her arms around him and cried into his shirt. Surprised and clueless, all Harry could think to do, was gently hold her and rub her back. Harry was thankful that later, they had found a way to save that magnificent creature.

Crookshanks had finally, had his fill. He got up and stretched long and leisurely, then as if to say thank you, he nuzzled Harry's hand before jumping off the bench to lie on the cool floor. Harry actually liked Crookshanks, and it seemed the feisty cat like him as well. Ron on the other hand, always seemed to be in need of a healing charm after an encounter with the feline. Apparently, Ron's hair color didn't automatically make him an ally to the ginger colored cat.

Naturally, it didn't take long before Harry's thoughts turned to Sirius. This time last year, Harry didn't even know that he had a Godfather. No one had bothered to tell him, probably because Sirius was locked away in Azkaban. The whole thing was so surreal. First finding out about Sirius, then Pettigrew, somehow they would have to find a way to prove Sirius was innocent. Second, learning that Professor Lupin was a werewolf. That alone was a big surprise. Lupin was so soft-spoken; Harry was certain he was a kind and gentle man.

It had most certainly been a very busy year, besides his regular classes and Quidditch, Harry had to deal with dementors, and yet another crazy person supposedly trying to kill him. Harry couldn't help but to quietly laugh out loud at the very thought. After a quick glance to Hermione, he decided that as busy as his year was, it paled in comparison to Hermione's. Her year was so bad; she had resorted to using a Time-Turner!

Harry actually knew a fair amount about Time-Turner's, and a little about time travel in general. In addition to practicing with Professor Lupin on the Patronus Charm, Harry had also started reading other textbooks about defensive spells, some of which included manipulating time somewhat. The Impediment Jinx used to slow down your opponent, was the only other spell he had learned this year beyond what was taught in class. Harry had learned that the spell worked by slowing down time locally relative to your target. Although he hadn't learned any others, Harry did read a little about other time manipulation spells, and a little about Time-Turners. All of which had similar cautions. Messing around with time was dangerous, and the more you interfered with time, the more dangerous it became. If a Time-Turner was capable of reversing time by several hours, then it stood to reason that it was far more dangerous than the simple jinx, Impediment.

Looking back now, it seemed ironic that Hermione was the one flirting with danger. Normally, she was the voice of reason.

Harry remembered his reluctance at first to using the Time-Turner with Hermione, fortunately everything had worked out somehow. He had even managed to get Hermione to fly with him, which was most definitely the highlight of his year.

Leaning back, eyes closed, Harry smiled as he mentally went back in time to when he had first learned that Hermione was using a Time-Turner.

oOoOo

“More time!” Harry turned to Hermione, “what's he talking about Hermione? What did he mean by, `what we need is more time'?

Hermione hadn't been quite sure yet herself, but had a pretty good idea it had something to do with her Time-Turner. So, coming to that conclusion she had said, “Harry, come over here, we need to hurry!” She had then reached into her robes for the delicate chain that hopefully held the answer to their current problem.

Harry had moved closer and stood in front of her, but was still just as confused as ever, “Hermione, I don't understand…” his voice trailed off as he recognized the Time-Turner she had pulled out. “Hermione is that a…”

A little surprised that Harry recognized the tiny device Hermione cut him off, “A Time- Turner, yes Harry, it is. How did you… never mind we have to hurry!”

“But they're dangerous. How did you get…”

“Harry stop, we don't have time for this!”

Harry raised an eyebrow, not appreciating the joke, even if she hadn't meant it as one.

Hermione sighed, realizing how strange what she had just said must have sounded. Under different circumstances, she would have slapped her head at the bad pun. However, at the moment, she was in a hurry and needed Harry to just go along with her. Stepping closer, and holding up the long chain, ready to slip it over his head, she asked, “Harry… do you trust me?”

Harry remembered standing there, staring into her eyes. She had never lied to him before, had never tried to trick him. Never let him down. Of course he trusted her. “Always!” Came his one-word reply.

Without wasting another second, Hermione had slipped the chain over his head and around his neck. After three turns of the hourglass, the room began to spin.

oOoOo

It was later that same evening, when Harry would get even with Hermione. Buckbeak had just finished chasing off Professor Lupin who had been in his werewolf form. Harry and Hermione had held on to each other, both still shaken from the experience of nearly being viciously attacked.

As their nerves settled, Harry had loosened his arms from around Hermione and had slowly released her. She gradually let her death grip on his robes go and had stepped back a little.

“Hermione, are you okay?”

She gave a shaky smile at his concerned voice, “Yes… yes I'll be okay in a bit, still just a little bit un-nerved is all.”

Harry smiled back, then after a glance at Buckbeak his smile faded. Hermione had been through so much already tonight it didn't seem fair, but he wasn't going to leave her alone, not now, and certainly not here.

Harry turned to Buckbeak, and gave the customary bow. After being acknowledged, he approached. After a few quick words of thanks, he climbed up, settling on Buckbeak's back.

Hermione had followed Harry's example, then walked up and stood next to them. “Harry, you remember which tower, and which window, right?” She didn't like the idea of being alone in the forest, but there was no way she was going with Harry, and he had to go now.

Harry waited a moment as a thought occurred to him, then smiling, he stuck out his hand to help her up.

Hermione looked at him in horror, “Oh Harry, I can't… you know how I feel about flying, I just can't. You go, I'll meet you back in the infirmary.”

Harry continued to stare at her, never pulling his hand back. Then after what seemed like forever, his smile turned serious. “Hermione… do you trust me?”

Hermione glared back at Harry, shocked that he had used her own words against her. Her features softened when she realized it was only fair. She had asked him for a leap of faith, now it was her turn. Trying to keep the fear out of her voice, she answered, “Always!” Reaching up, she let Harry pull her up behind him. No sooner had she wrapped her arms around his waist, than they were airborne.

Hermione had hung on for dear life pressed tightly into Harry's back with her eyes squeezed shut. With her arms wrapped around his waist, she was sure if she had squeezed any harder, she would have broken a rib. Then slowly, subtly, she began to think, `well this isn't so bad,' and she smiled into his back after scooting yet a tiny bit closer. She still didn't dare open her eyes, but she did loosen her grip after giving Harry a quick little squeeze, to let him know she was doing better.

Harry felt Hermione relaxed a little, and looked down at her hands after she gave him a quick squeeze and smiled. He knew how much she hated flying, but was glad she trusted him enough to come along tonight. He didn't know why, but he rather liked having her hanging onto him while they rode Buckbeak.

Unfortunately, the moment was broken when Buckbeak decided it was time to dive towards the Castle. It was hard for Harry to believe possible, but Hermione had somehow tightened her grip on him even tighter than before, as she let out an ear-piercing scream that would have made a banshee proud.

oOoOo

Harry was both happy and sad at the same time. He had a godfather, but he couldn't live with him yet. He had good friends, but they would all part ways very soon. Harry felt he had learned a lot this last year, about magic, and his life. But there was so much he still didn't know, again about both magic, and his life. Did he have any other family, did Sirius, other than the ones he already knew about?

Harry, with his eyes still closed, and his head resting on the back of the bench, released a long sigh. So much, had happened this last year from Ron acting up, to the dementor attacks, to a truly magical flight with Hermione. The last thought brought a smile to his face.

“Careful Harry, someone might take you as a perv, with that goofy smile.”

The smile however, never left his face as Harry opened his eyes to find Hermione watching him with keen interest. “I thought you might sleep the whole way home.”

“It's good to see you smiling Harry,” Hermione said softly, careful to keep her voice down so as not to wake Ron. “I don't suppose you'd care to share your thoughts?”

Harry turned and stared out the window for a moment, and then at the images that shown on its surface, before turning back to see a warm smile on Hermione's face. Harry smiled back, “Just… reflecting.”

2

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

2. Parting Ways


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 2

Parting Ways

.

Getting off the train at Kings Cross meant the official end to Harry Potter's third year. The mood was somber as Harry, Ron, and Hermione grabbed their trunks and make for the exit. Before they passed through the barrier to the Muggle side of London, Ron spotted his family. The sea of red hair was quickly becoming a large group, so with a promise to write he said a quick goodbye and was off. Once on the other side of the barrier, Hermione made Harry promise to write, and with a smile told him she'd do the same. The last couple of weeks they had spent a great deal of time together and now all too soon it was ending.

Hermione wasn't sure what made her do it, but it had felt right, so after a moment of just looking at each other, she stretched up on her toes and gave Harry a quick kiss on the cheek. “Bye Harry, remember, you promised to write,” Hermione said with a shy smile, then reluctantly turned and started for her parents.

“Bye,” was all Harry could get out. `She just kissed me, Hermione just kissed me,' the thought keep repeating itself in Harry's head. He brought his hand up and touched his cheek, smiling, he watched her walk away. Harry had never been kissed before, not by anyone. He was sure his parents had kissed him, but of course, he couldn't remember that far back. It was a strange feeling, although not unpleasant, just the opposite in fact. It…warmed him, made him feel special. He never realized until now, how important they could be, if given at the right time, and to the right person…like now.

“Hurry up boy, I haven't got all day, get your crap and get a move on.” At the sound of his uncle's voice, Harry's smile quickly faded, and after gathering his crap, he turned for the car. Vernon Dursley's tone was so harsh and loud several people turned and stared, including Hermione, who while watching, saw Vernon, who was impatient with Harry's pace, give him a shove forward almost knocking him down. Hermione wanted to run over and give him a piece of her mind, but realized it would probably only make matters worse. She waited until they were out of sight, then with damp eyes slowly turned and ran to meet her parents.

Hermione's mum Emma, couldn't help but notice her daughter's sad look as she came over to meet her, and her husband, even though she had hidden it quickly with a smile. “Mum, Dad!” she yelled, running the last little way to reach them.

“Hello pumpkin,” her dad said as he wrapped her in a big hug.

“Hi dad” she replied with just a tiny bit less enthusiasm than normal. Emma was watching her daughter a little more carefully now. Finally, Hermione let go of her dad and turned to her mum, “Hi mum.” Mother and daughter shared a long embrace.

“Hi honey, it's so good to see you again.” As they pulled apart Emma added, “How was term, and more importantly, how are you?”

“Good, and I'm fine.” Hermione could see her mother was not convinced. Knowing her mum must have seen her earlier, plus the fact she was pretty perceptive about things, Hermione continued, “I'm fine mum really, it's just I'm a little sad for a friend of mine, he always has a terrible summer.” Seeing the look her parents were sharing, she explained further, “Its Harry, you remember him, I wrote about him in some of my letters. Anyway, he lives with his aunt and uncle, and they hate magic, so they hate him.” Emma did in fact, remember a certain boy named Harry Potter, as Hermione had written about him in not just some of her letters, but in every single one of them.

“Oh, the poor dear” her mother said softly.

Her father also had a look of concern in his eyes, but finally said, “Well I don't suppose there is much to be done about it here and now, best be getting on.”

During the ride home, Hermione told her parents all about her last term, leaving out some of the more dangerous parts of course, as she didn't want to upset them. After arriving home in good spirits, Hermione took her things up to her room. She had let Crookshanks out, who immediately checked the room to see if it was still the same, and satisfied that it was, he curled up on the bed for a nap. As she was putting the last of her stuff away, Hermione thought back to last year.

Hermione had just called the werewolf, to lure it away from the other Harry, and now it was coming right for them.

“Hermione, why'd you do that?”

“To save your hide,” she answered him.

“Yea but now it's after us!”

“Right, hadn't thought of that.”

“RUN!” Harry yelled, grabbing her hand. They took off running into the forest as fast as they could, but they were no match for the speed of a werewolf, and it caught them very quickly. Even though they had both known it was Professor Lupin, they also knew he would kill them in his present form. Catching them, Lupin the werewolf had them trapped. As a werewolf, he stood almost eight feet tall on his hind legs, and was now looking down, snaring at a trembling Hermione. Holding on to Harry, she turned away from the beast and buried her head in his chest unable to watch anymore. As Lupin slowly moved towards them, Harry pushed Hermione behind him and stepped forward slightly shielding her. “NO!” shouted Harry, “me, fight me.” The werewolf turned his gaze towards Harry, and lunged forward, his jaws open and claws out, he was ready to rip him apart. But just before the werewolf could reach its prey, Buckbeak appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. He jumped over Harry and drove Lupin back, and then chased him off.

A lot had happened very quickly after that and Hermione really hadn't had a chance to think much about it. Now as she sat on her bed remembering back to that night, she realized she had been truly terrified, all Hermione had wanted to do was save the other Harry, so she did something very uncharacteristic. She had just acted without thinking things through, as there hadn't been any time. Then suddenly they were running for their lives. Thankfully, they had ran back towards Buckbeak, and he had saved the two of them from what would have been most certainly, a gruesome death. However, the best part, the part that put a smile on Hermione's face, was the fact that Harry had tried to defend her, at least the best he could under the circumstances. No one had ever put their life on the line like that for her before, except Harry. `He was trying to protect me,' the thought taking a little time to sink in. That was the second time he'd put himself between her and a monster.

oOoOo

For Harry the ride home, if you could call the house on Privet Drive a home, was the same as always. His uncle would mutter something about freaks, or curse at another diver for some unseen infraction, while never saying a word to the boy in the back seat. Harry just tried to ignore him and sat quietly so as not to irritate him any more than he already was. Since no one was talking, it made for a very long ride back. Harry couldn't help but think back to the last year at school and Sirius. Oh how he wished he was going home with him instead. Thinking about Sirius and the rescue, lead him to remember what happened when he and Hermione had first found Sirius Black while going after Ron.

They were all in the shrieking shack still unaware of Sirius's innocence. Hermione stepped up next to Harry's side, her wand at the ready, “If you are going to try and kill Harry, you'll have to fight me too.”

Harry could still hear the intensity and determination in her voice, although she had been scared, she wasn't going to let anything happen to him without a fight. It was a side of Hermione you rarely got to see, and it would make any Gryffindor proud. He was sure Ron hadn't noticed, but he most certainly had. Where she found the courage, Harry wasn't sure, but Merlin help anyone who thought she was bluffing. Harry was rudely brought out of his musings by his uncle Vernon.

“I said, Hurry up boy.”

Harry snapped out of it, and quickly got out of the car. “Yes sir,” he acknowledged, then grabbing his trunk and Hedwig, he made his way upstairs to the relative safety of his room.

After making dinner and cleaning the kitchen, Harry was back up in his room. He had put all his things away and had let Hedwig out for the night, so there wasn't much left to do. Lying on his bed starring at the ceiling, Harry was trying to get his thoughts in order. `Let's see I think this summer since I'm stuck here anyway, I'll do myself a favor and try to make the most of my time.' The last few days Harry had spent a fair amount of time thinking about his life. Where he was going, what he had done. After all that had happened last year, he knew he had to make some changes, life was too short. Even with the help of Hermione's Time-Turner, they barely were able to save Sirius, not to mention themselves, they just were not prepared enough. With all that in mind, Harry got up and went over to his desk to make a list.

Do all my Homework.

Read ahead for next year.

`That should make Hermione happy,' Harry mused. Truth of it was, without her help last year he wouldn't have got nearly as good of grades as he did. `Next year I'll show her my thanks by being better prepared, and I'll try and work harder too,' He thought.

Try to work out, get/stay in shape.

Read a non school book for fun.

Write regularly to my friends.

With that last though, Harry decided to write both Ron and Hermione now to see what their plans were for the summer. Setting aside the list and getting a fresh piece of parchment, Harry started on his first letter. Knowing Ron wasn't much for letters, he kept it short.

.

.

Ron,

Hey mate, hope you made it home safely, say hi to everyone for me alright. Well, this is just a quick note to let you know that I made it back to the Dursleys okay. Also I was wondering what your plans are for the summer, write back when you know. Well, got to go, bye.

Harry

.

.

Dear Hermione,

Hi, how are you, did you get home alright? (I know it's only been one day, but I wanted to write you). And how is your family, I trust all is well. Also I was wondering what your plans are for the summer, are you going on holiday with your mum and dad, and if so when will you be home, so I know when to write. Well I'm back at the Dursleys, and they haven't changed a bit, well maybe Vernon and Dudley; they do look a little larger, if you can believe that. Now on to a more positive note, I plan to make the most of my time this summer. You'll be pleased to know, don't laugh, I've made a list. I plan on getting all my homework done early so I have time to read ahead for next year. Maybe if you have time you can check some of it for me, that is if you want to of course. Also I might read a non school book just for fun. I don't know how much free time I'll have for that, but I do know I have to stay busy, or I might just go bonkers. I'm going to try and work something out with Vernon. If you can think of something I might like, do you think you could loan it to me, I promise I'll take special care of it. Anyway that's all for now, write back when you can.

Your Friend,

Harry

.

.

After Harry finished the letters, he rolled them up and waited patiently for Hedwig to return so he could send them off. While he waited, it was only a matter of time before his thoughts drifted back to Sirius and what life would be like living with him. Harry didn't really know him personally, but he felt as if he could trust him. In the short time they had spent together Harry could tell how much Sirius cared for him, and he looked forward to the day when his name was cleared, and they could see each other again.

Hedwig finally returned and the sight of her instantly brightened Harry's mood. He gave her some water and stroked her feathers affectionately. Hedwig danced a little on her perch and made a soft clicking sound, happy for the attention. “Hey girl if you don't mind I have two letters for you, do you feel up to it now?” Harry asked, he didn't want her to go if she was too tired from hunting. Hedwig appreciated the concern and was fine with going now. So she flew over to Harry's desk, and gave him a nudge with her head and stuck out her leg as if to say, well what are you waiting for? Harry chuckled “Okay girl, thanks, take this one to Ron first, then go to Hermione. You can stay the night if you want because she might want to reply back.” As Harry finished tying the letters to Hedwig, he added, “Plus I'm going to sleep now anyway. I'll leave the window open for you either way.” Hedwig nipped his finger affectionately then flew off into the night.

Unlike Ron who decided to read Harry's letter a bit later, Hermione was excited to get a letter from Harry so soon. Eager to sit down and read it, she quickly thanked Hedwig and made sure that she had plenty of water, and a few owl treats. “Thank you Hedwig, do you mind staying a while so I can send Harry a letter back?” Hedwig flew over to the perch Hermione had bought for her, and settled down. She clicked her beak softly, closed her eyes and quickly went to sleep. After reading Harry's letter, Hermione was still too excited to sleep and was trilled Harry wanted to do his homework early. But what really made her happy was that he valued her opinion enough to ask for a recommendation on an extra book to read. Not wanting to wait, Hermione sat down and wrote Harry back.

.

.

Dear Harry,

I'm so glad you got home safely. Yes, I was a little surprised to get a letter so soon, but I was happy to get it none the less. First, yes we are going on holiday, but I don't know where or when yet. I'm sure mum and dad will till me early enough so I can make plans, and as soon as I know, I'll write and tell you.

Now then, I think your plans to stay busy this summer are absolutely brilliant, although I hope you manage to find some time to have a little fun also. Maybe for your birthday, or near the end of summer we could spend a day together and do something. Harry, you have to know that I would be very happy to look over your homework, though I'm sure it'll be fine. And as for a book to read, let me think on that for a day or two. I know several that I think you would like, but I'd like to send the best.

Well it's getting late, so I better be off to bed. Hedwig looks like she is planning on spending the night, so I'll send this first thing in the morning.

Your friend,

Hermione

P.S. I know you're probably thinking how great it would be to live with a big black dog, and I don't blame you, as I'm sure it would be, but try not to let it get you down.

.

.

With nothing further to say, Hermione checked her letter over one last time, then sat it aside on her desk. After changing for bed, and making sure Hedwig was alright, she turned down the covers of her bed and crawled in. Lying in the dark, Hermione thought about how much she loved her parents and missed them when she was away at school, but summer did tend to get a little lonely, especially now that she had friends. Even now after three years she still sometimes had trouble believing anyone wanted to be her friend. `Your Friend Harry,' Hermione though as she remembered his letter. Sure she had other friends now too, but Harry had been her first real friend, and somehow she knew he would always be, her best friend. `Maybe this summer will turn out better than I first thought,' and with that thought running through her head, she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

oOoOo

The following day while Harry was working in the back garden he came up with an idea. Considering how little the Dursleys had let him eat at breakfast it was obvious he would never get into better shape or even stay in the shape he was in now. `I'll write Gringotts and see if they're able to send me some Muggle money,' Harry thought, that way he could buy his own food. As Harry finished working in the garden, he continued to think through his plans for the summer.

As Harry was finishing up with the kitchen after dinner, he thought now would be as good as time as any. Normally, Vernon's mood didn't get any better than right after he had eaten, like a fat lazy dog, it was the best time to approach him.

“Uncle Vernon can I have a moment,” Harry tried to keep his voice light.

After a nasty glance up at Harry for his audacity Vernon barked, “Make it quick boy.”

Trying to be as polite as possible in hopes that it would improve his chances, “Well sir, as part of my summer studies this year I need to be outside… I know how you feel about me and the neighbors, and ah… well you know.” Harry took a quick breath, “Anyway I thought, if I had a little more free time, I could do my work at the park, or even a few rows over.”

Twisting around so as to give Harry the full effect of his outrage, he bellowed, “MORE TIME, just what exactly do they want you to do, and, AND WHAT OF YOUR CHORES?”

“It's nothing to do with magic, nothing freaky, it's kind of like biology, observing nature, that sort of thing.” Harry knew his uncle's real concern were the chores and keeping his wife happy, that meant not letting the neighbors see anything that could be thought of as out of place. “And of course, my chores would come first; I'll make the extra time if you'll allow me to be gone longer.”

Timing was everything; Vernon's favorite show was about to start. Knowing how much his uncle enjoyed the tele, he had finished right on time. Not being able to find fault in his nephews request and not wanting to miss anything… “Fine” came his reluctant answer.

After a quick thank you, Harry made hast to his room; he had several letters to write. Satisfied with the outcome of what would be the first of several negotiations, he sat down at his desk and got to work.

oOoOo

It was becoming a normal routine; he would get up early and do his chores outside for an hour and a half, then come in and take a shower before going downstairs to prepare breakfast. Afterwards, it was back to the rest of his chores for the day. He found that if he worked nonstop, he could normally be done by ten and then have the rest of the day to himself.

Harry would run to the park, sometimes taking a roundabout way of getting there to make his run longer. After a short cool down, he'd work out for about an hour or two, Later, on his way home, Harry would stop by the local grocery store and buy the necessary food items to make enough healthy meals to last him until his next visit to the park. Finally, after returning home he would spend the rest of the day reading and working on his summer school work.

It was two days later, and Harry had only just come back from the park as he liked to call it. Harry decided to write Hermione, and tell her all about his new schedule, and his fresh eating habits.

Reaching his room, he found Hedwig waiting for him with a letter. “Hello girl, got something for me” Hedwig cocked her head as if to say, “I can't believe you just asked me that,” and stuck out her leg clearly not in the same good mood her master was in. “Okay…”

To show him she wasn't really upset, Hedwig clicked her beak and patiently waited for him to untie the letter. Harry checked to make sure she had plenty of water, and gave her a treat, then sat down eager to see who it was from. The neat and nearly perfect scroll told him immediately, it was from Hermione. With a smile he didn't even know he was wearing, Harry sat down.

.

.

Dear Harry,

I've decided you're right! Wizards are lazy; they rely on their magic entirely too much. So I'm copying a page out of your play book… I've started working out also. Mostly calisthenics and some running, I want to get into shape, not get all muscle-bound. Mum says I'm mental, but dad thinks it's great. He also had a good idea… Karate. I've already checked around and guess what? There's a school only five blocks from you, but the best part is, there's a sister school run by the same instructor, that's close to my house. His name is Kim, he's Korean. I told him about our situation (nothing about magic of course) and on Fridays, he teaches at both places. He said he would be happy to give one of us a ride one way, and I think I can get my dad to help with the ride back. I'm including his brochure so you can check it out yourself. Harry I really hope you can find a way to attend, we could take a few classes together, wouldn't that be great! Let me know what you think. On another subject, I got your transfiguration paper, but haven't had time to go over it properly yet… sorry. But don't worry, it's on my high-priority list. Also my parents have decided we're going to France for holiday. The bad news is, we're leaving next week, the good news is, we're only going for a week and a half. That's pretty short for us, but it seems they're even busier than me. I should be home by the fiftieth. Well I'm glad you're eating better, maybe Molly won't try to stuff you into a coma later. Hedwig is starting to give me the eye, so I best end it here. Looking forward to seeing you before school starts.

Your friend always,

Hermione

.

.

Harry smiled, she was always thinking of ways to make things better for him. And it didn't go unnoticed how she had signed this letter. Harry was pretty sure it didn't mean anything special, just that she hoped they would always be friends. As far as Harry was concerned, he felt the same way.

oOoOo

Hermione had only just finished packing for their trip, as they were leaving the next day, when Hedwig showed up with a letter from Harry. “Hermione, Dinner,” her mum called from downstairs. “In a sec mum,” she answered back, anxious to read what he had written. Dinner could wait.

.

.

Dear Hermione,

I think it's great you're working out and running and all. Not that I thought you needed it mind you, but everyone could stand to be in better condition. I suppose I should shut my mouth and quit before I say something stupid, or am I too late? I know it's only been a short while since I started myself, but I can already feel the difference. I'm beginning to like it, and I find myself looking forward to it. And I really feel better too. Also be sure to thank your dad for the great idea, I met Mr. Kim, He's brilliant. By the way, he said you're an excellent student. Of course I told him you're excellent at everything. I'll be working with him Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And I'd love to take classes with you on Fridays as well, even if your dad can't give you or me a ride, I could always take the Knight Bus. Let's see what else… oh yea, don't worry about my schoolwork, I'm sure you're very busy right now. And thanks for the book I'm actually, really enjoying it. I also couldn't help noticing some parallels. Who would have thought, Harry Potter reading for fun!

Well, I got to go, let me know when you're back and when we might be able to meet up.

Your friend,

Harry

.

.

Hermione was ecstatic, not only was Harry learning karate like her, but he also liked the book she'd sent him. And now all she had to do was get her mum or dad to help with the transportation, and she'd be able to see him a couple of times this summer.

She almost literally bounced down the stairs and floated into the kitchen for dinner. As Hermione sat down her mother studied her, the rather large smile on her face not going unnoticed. Something was different this year, and Emma had a pretty good suspicion as to the cause of her daughters greatly improved moods. She was much happier, a spring to her step, and the spark in her eyes was brighter. “Someone's in a good mood… and you're late to dinner,” Hermione's father added with a smile of his own, so she'd know he wasn't really mad at her.

Hermione blushed slightly, “Right, sorry mum, dad… I'd just got a letter from Harry and I… well I just wanted to read it real quick, that's all.” She finished in a rush after seeing the shared look pass between her parents.

“Isn't that the third one this week?” Emma knew her daughter was starting to have `those' kinds of feelings for her best friend. She also knew Hermione didn't know it yet. She had always had a very hard time when it came to friends her own age. Emma knew Harry was her first real friend, and while she never told Hermione, she was glad he was such a good one… still she couldn't help but to tease a little.

Hermione looked back and forth between her parents and saw the mirth in their eyes. She decided to play along, “Hmm… well yes I think your right…only three… what a shame; I thought he liked me.”

“Yes a genuine tragedy, what shall you do,” her dad sighed straight faced, although it was obvious he was on the verge of laughing.

Hermione saw her chance, “Exactly, a tragedy… but I just know you'll help, won't you daddy?”

Seeing the overly exaggerated fake plea for help on her face, he answered too soon, “Of course pumpkin, anything.” Her mum smiled and shook her head; he'd never learn.

“That's wonderful daddy. I knew you would! I think I need to see him face to face, you know in person. If you could drive me to Surrey, I could share a karate class with him, and Mr. Kim could bring me home… that's after holiday of course.”

Dan caught by surprise, glanced at his wife who was laughing out right now, and managed a confused, “What… wait, what just happened?”

Taking pity on him, Emma got up and went to her husband and wrapped her arms around him, “Why honey, you just prevented a tragedy of course!

oOoOo

Harry sat at his desk thinking, Hermione had been gone for a week now, “She'll be back soon girl, so I'm going to write her a letter,” He said to Hedwig. “I'll send another letter to Ron also; we'll see if he answers this one.” Judging by the look Hedwig was giving him, even she knew it was a waste of time. “I know girl, but since you're going to Hermione's anyway, why not?”

After finishing a quick letter to Ron, Harry sat back down to compose his letter to Hermione. He wanted it to be there waiting for her when she got home.

.

.

Dear Hermione,

I've missed writing you. I know it's only been a little over a week, but it feels like more. So, how was your holiday, how was France? By the way, is that the first time you've been there? What did you do? Do you speak French? Sorry, guess I have a lot of questions. You know it occurs to me, that even though I have known you for three years, there is so much I don't know about you. Like what is your favorite song, or what your favorite color is? I don't know what my favorite song would be, since I never get to listen to music, but my favorite colors are red and gold, like Gryffindor. Anyway, I've been working hard to get ahead, and I'm looking forward to having some fun later. Also, I wrote Ron again, but he still hasn't answered. I don't know if he's too busy or just plain lazy. Interesting choice of reading you sent me, and yes, so far I think it's brilliant. Oh I almost forgot, what do you say about a karate class together next Friday, the twenty second? Well that's about it, write back soon, and tell me all about your trip.

Your friend,

Harry

.

.

“Well that's it for tonight girl I'm turning in, I'll send these letters tomorrow. I'll leave the window open for you tonight, so you can come back when you want, okay?”

Hedwig clicked her beak, and then watched her master slide into bed and close his eyes, before hopping over to the window sill. With one last look to make sure he was going to be okay, Hedwig took flight into the dark night.

oOoOo

Early the following night after Harry had finished his shower; he sat in his room and got ready to send his mail. As he tied the letters to Hedwig, he gave her instructions, “Okay girl, take this one to Ron first, you can give it to anyone at the Burrow so don't wait around. Then go to Hermione's and wait for her to return. I don't really know when they will get home.” Harry paused a moment and studied Hedwig. She in turn thought he was challenging her to a staring contest, so she turned both Amber eyes on him. She'd never lost a staring contest yet, and Hedwig wasn't going to lose tonight either. “You know girl, you might have to wait a long time, and I don't want you to get hungry or anything,” Harry started, breaking the mood. “Can you hunt with a letter?” Hedwig nipped his finger and bobbed her head. Harry smiled at the affection, “Okay, then wait as long as you can, but if it gets to be too much, just come back home, and will try again some other time.” Hedwig gave a click of her beak and took off for the long flight to the Burrow.

oOoOo

Hedwig reached her first destination just after sunrise, and found Ron's bedroom window open. Swooping in, she landed on his bedside table. Ron was fast asleep, but that didn't stop Hedwig from trying to wake him. She clicked her beak rather noisily, next, she tried pecking him softly, then a little harder.

“Oy…what…Hedwig!” Ron snapped barely awake, “it's only just light out, give a guy a break.” Ron laid his head back down and rolled over ignoring Hedwig, “Ruddy owl,” he mumbled into his pillow.

Hedwig hopped on the bed, nipped Ron's ear a little harder than necessary, then using his head as a launching pad, she took flight. Downstairs she maneuvered into the kitchen where she found Molly just starting breakfast.

A few minutes later after being relieved of Ron's letter, and having a bit of bacon and some water, Hedwig hurried out the window and was on her way east.

oOoOo

It was nearly five o'clock in the evening by the time the Grangers drove up their drive. The whole family was quite tired from the trip, and therefore, very happy to be home. Hermione in particular, seemed to get a second wind as she opened the car door. Dan glanced at Emma, and could tell she had noticed as well, neither had to guess where the sudden energy had come from nor why.

Hermione was first out of the car and halfway to the door when she heard it. A faint hoot seemingly meant only for her ears, a hoot she'd know anywhere. Freezing in place, Hermione looked up and searched the nearby trees. There, on a lower branch of the tree closest to her bedroom window sat a beautiful white owl.

“Hedwig! I'll be right there.” Leaving her bags forgotten on the walk, she ran to the house and unlocked the door. As quickly as she could, she made her way upstairs and into her room, and opened the window. Hedwig wasted no time either, and immediately flew in landing on her perch. Hermione hurried over, “Hello Hedwig, what a wonderful surprise,” she beamed, “you have a letter for me girl?” Hedwig stuck out her foot; she was probably just as anxious to get rid of the letter, as Hermione was to receive it. Her rush to untie it was interrupted by soft laughter behind her. Turning around, she found both her parents standing in her doorway, each holding one of her bags.

“Told you,” her dad said smiling to his wife. Dan sat the bag down and started back downstairs. “I'll get the rest brought in.” He said over his shoulder.

Setting the other bag down next to the first, Emma came in and sat on Hermione's bed. “Well, since we helped carry in your luggage, it's only fair that you help with dinner.” Although Hermione's mum was tired, she couldn't help but have a little fun with her daughter, “That is of course… after you're finished reading Harry's letter.”

Hermione responded indignantly, “Mum! You don't even know if it's from Harry.”

“Right, let's see; snowy owl, check, giddy daughter, check. Yep, it's from Harry all right.”

“Mum!”

“All right, all right… look, take care of Hedwig and read the letter, then be down in the kitchen in fifteen minutes to help, okay?”

“Thanks mum.”

Emma stood up to leave, then turning to Hedwig, “I do hope they're not wearing you out dear.” Emma could have sworn, that Hedwig shook her head no.

oOoOo

Knowing they'd be too tired to cook dinner, they had stopped on their way home and picked up some takeout. After Hermione had finished setting out the plates and utensils, she pulled out a chair and was about to sit down when, her father asked, “So, when are we going to meet this Harry Potter chap, proper like?”

Hermione noticed the smiles on both of her parents faces, “Well, how about next Friday after karate,” she suggested with a straight face.

Her mum just raised an eyebrow, suspecting there was more planning behind this than just a random date.

“Next Friday?” The mirth was suddenly gone from her father's eyes.

“Yes, Friday the twenty-second. Kim can bring Harry here in the early afternoon, so he can join me in class. Then maybe we can bring him over here for a bit, before you drive him home.”

Dan glanced at his wife who was smiling at his predicament. Turning back to his daughter, “Yes, I think perhaps that might be a good idea.” Dan was now wearing a smile of his own, although to Hermione, it looked more like a sneer. Yes, Dan thought he would very much like to meet this boy.

Hermione was quick to pick up on his change of mood. “Daddy, promise you'll be nice.”

“Of course pumpkin; just a friendly chat… get to know each other… you know.”

“Mum!”

After dinner and unpacking, Hermione sat down and wrote Harry back. She told him, that yes she did speak French fairly well, and yes she'd been there many times before. She told him briefly about where they had gone on this particular trip, and that they all had a good time. She also told him, that she too had missed his letters, and was glad to be home. My favorite color by the way, is blue, but I'm also partial to green, she wrote. Hermione went on to say she wasn't sure about a favorite song, and then asked what his favorite Muggle desert was, because she already knew what he liked at Hogwarts. The last thing she said in her letter, was to confirm next Fridays meeting, and to invite him over for dinner as well.

oOoOo

Harry wiped the sweat from his eyes, besides being hot outside, he was in a hurry. As soon as he was finished with his chores, Harry wanted a quick shower, then he'd be off to the park. Today, Harry was going to the small group of shops nearby to try and find some better clothes to wear. Harry was meeting Hermione's parents tonight. Of course he had met them before very briefly at Kings Cross, but tonight he would meet them formally. Being invited to dinner after class, Harry wanted to make a good first impression.

Later wearing his brand new clothes, Harry made his way towards the dojo where he would meet Kim, and together they would go to Kim's other dojo by Hermione's house. In his backpack slung over his shoulder Harry carried his other new things, plus his workout clothes, and a small package wrapped in plain brown paper.

“Ah Harry, right on time, thank you,” Master Kim said, with a slight bow.

Harry returned the bow, “You're welcome sir.” Harry then went and sat against the far wall, legs crossed. This was what you did when you entered Kim's dojo, you waited for him, the master, to instruct you… even, if it was only when to get up to leave.

A short while later, Kim and Harry walked into the dojo by Hermione's house. Harry obediently started over towards the wall and was about to sit down in the ready position when Kim addressed him, “Mr. Potter, what do you think of my other dojo?” He said gesturing around the room.

Harry stood and looked around, it seemed almost identical to him, only a few small differences. “The room looks the same sir. Maybe some of the pictures and such might be different, that's all I can see for now.”

Kim walked up, and stood a few feet in front of Harry. “So… same room… same teacher… same student. What else the same Harry?”

Harry shifted uneasily, was this some sort of test? “Well, ah… it would make sense that the class lessons would be the same sir.”

“I agree, what else?”

Harry racked his brains for a minute, then answered, “Rules... ah the rules of conduct should be the same.”

Kim smiled, “Very good Mr. Potter. You will be sharing class, not only with Miss Granger, but with twenty-one other students. Rules… good for all.”

Harry bowed slightly at the waist, “Yes sir,” and sat down.

Master Kim liked young Harry, and he liked Miss Granger too, in fact, he liked most of his students. He was only making sure that Harry knew he would not tolerate any boy girl fooling around, at least not during class.

It was almost two o'clock, and the first of the other students started to show up. Not surprisingly, Hermione was the very first one to come in. She stepped through the doorway and stopped, facing the empty classroom she bowed. It was kind of funny, seeing as the classroom was still empty, but that was the way she was taught; it was the proper way to enter Kim's dojo. Hermione then turned towards Harry, beaming, it must have taken all her willpower not to run over to him.

As she neared, Harry stood again, and although not necessary, he bowed to her. “Hello Miss Granger,” he said in a very formal voice.

Momentarily taken back, Hermione froze. Then, noticing the tiniest of smirks on his face, she returned the bow, “Hello Mr. Potter.” Straightening back up, she saw him smiling. Unable to resist any longer, Hermione almost leapt the last few feet and pulled Harry into a tight hug. A second later, a surprised Harry returned the embrace.

“Oh Harry, it's so good to see you again. I'm awfully glad you could make it here today.”

“Me too,” replied Harry, as they both sat down to wait for class to start. “And it's great to see you so soon also. Although to be honest, I am a bit nervous about tonight.

Hermione couldn't keep the smile off her face, “Don't be silly Harry, I'm sure once they get to know you, they'll like you… you'll see.”

The class work was on simple punches, and their counter blocks. Kim had paired up all the students, and of course he put Harry and Hermione with each other. “If you must fight together, then you must practice together.” He told Harry, after he had expressed concern about hurting her.

They were halfway through the lessons when it happened. Hermione had thrown a punch with the right hand. Harry countered by sidestepping, then blocking with his left arm, while at the same time reaching across with his right hand and grabbing her forearm and pulling. The move was fairly advanced, and required perfect timing. If done correctly your attacking opponent was pulled off balance, and put in a poor defensive position. Unfortunately for Harry, he hadn't moved fast enough, and got tangled up with Hermione as she stumbled forward. Both lost their balance, Harry falling backwards, and Hermione forward. Harry wrapped his arms around her as they fell in an attempt to hold her in place to cushion her fall. Hermione pulled both her arms in front of her and grab hold of Harry's robes, trying to hold him up. The final result was two very red-faced students. Harry ended up flat on his back, with Hermione lying on top of him. To the rest of the class, their position on the floor together looked rather cozy.

Too shocked to move, they both just stayed still, lying there. It was Harry who finally smiled and said, “Remind you of anything?”

Hermione gasped, “Harry James!”

Harry laughed as he rolled her off to the side, “Hermione, get your mind out of the gutter, I was talking about the tunnel… under the Whomping Willow?”

oOoOo

Hermione had just let go of Harry as the angry willow whipped them about. Harry landed with a thud flat on his face. Groaning, Harry rolled over on his back to set up. The timing couldn't have been better, or worse depending on your point of view. No sooner had Harry finished rolling over, than Hermione came flying into the tunnel, landing right on top of him, face to face.

Both were blushing like crazy, because of the darkness of the tunnel, and the intimate position they were in. If anyone had seen them, they would surely have suspected the worst. Next, Hermione discovered there was just no way to get off a boy in this position in a lady-like manner. Fortunately, the seriousness and urgency of finding Ron kept her embarrassment to a minimum.

oOoOo

While Harry helped her up, a blushing Hermione sheepishly replied, “Oh…of course.”

Harry smirked, “Just what did you think I meant?”

Swatting his arm playfully, a smiling red-faced Hermione said, “Harry, stop!”

Before their little verbal game could continue, a mildly amused Master Kim walked by and said in passing without even looking at them, “Rules, Mr. Potter.”

Harry cleared his throat, “Yes sir.” Looking back at Hermione, he immediately started smiling again. He really liked having fun with her, and judging by the smile on her face, she felt the same way.

Later with the fun over, and both back to work, Harry started to get edgy. The closer they came to the end of class the more nervous Harry got. “Relax Harry you are doing fine,” Hermione whispered.

Harry returned a weak smile and nodded. Hermione had mistaken his case of nerves as having something to do with his performance in class. Harry knew the real reason though; it was what he'd be doing after class that had him rattled.

The class returned the bow to Kim, “Class dismissed,” came his gentle voice, followed by a clap of his hands.

As they and the rest of the students filed out the door, Hermione spotted her father, “Daddy! Hi, have you been waiting long… oh this is Harry Potter, you remember him don't you?” then turning to Harry, “Harry, this is my father, Daniel Granger.”

Dan's smile grew as he greeted his daughter, “Hi pumpkin, and no, not long.” Dan Granger then turned his smile to Harry; he would be nice for now, for his daughter's sake. “Hello Harry, it's a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Harry stepped forward a little and took Dan's offered hand. “Hello Mr. Granger, thank you for having me over.” Harry took a quick glance over at Hermione. Her eyes slightly moist, making them seem to sparkle; they gave away her happiness. Harry couldn't help but smile, his nerves fading a bit. This was worth it. He rather liked seeing her happy.

In that brief moment, while he was shaking Harry's hand, Dan Granger looked into the young boy's eyes. What he saw, surprised him a little. Fear for sure, but then again, what thirteen-year-old boy wouldn't be afraid of a girl's father. Dan also saw honesty; he liked that. What really caught his attention though, was how much older his eyes looked, as if he'd seen more than a normal thirteen-year-old should have at his age. It was far too early to tell just what kind of young man Harry Potter was, but for the moment, he appeared to be a good lad. Even though his fatherly instincts were yelling at him, he decided to give the boy a chance, but at the first sign of trouble…he silently promised himself, he'd step in and do whatever was necessary to protect his daughter.

It seemed the short car ride home was more than enough to recharge Hermione's batteries, as she practically burst from the car as soon as they had stopped. “Come on Harry!” She was so excited. “I want to show you around, oh, and you have to meet my mum of course!”

Harry glanced at a chuckling Mr. Granger, who only shrugged his shoulders at his daughter's enthusiasm. Harry barely had time to smile back, before being pulled towards the house. It occurred to him that this was so typical of Hermione, eager to learn, but also eager to share, whether it be knowledge, or something personal.

“Mum, we're back. Where are you?” Hermione yelled as soon as they were through the front door.

Mrs. Granger had just finished putting some last-minute touches on dinner when she heard Hermione callout. After drying her hands, she turned around at the same time Hermione ran into the kitchen. “Hi honey,” Emma started, before turning to Harry, “and who is this strapping young man?”

Harry almost turned around to see who she was talking about. Suddenly, the kitchen seemed a little warm.

“Mum! You know right well this is Harry Potter. Harry, this is my mum, Emma Granger… who loves taking the mickey out of me.”

“Hello Mrs. Granger, thank you for having me to dinner.” Harry smiled, not nearly as nervous with her as he had been with Hermione's father.

“Oh Harry dear, that will never do. Please call me Emma… you don't want me to feel old now do you?”

“No ma'am, er Mrs.… Emma.” Harry was turning red again. “Sorry, that will take some getting used to.”

Emma laughed, “No problem Harry, I'm a patient woman.” Turning back to Hermione, “Why don't you show Harry around dear, before…” she hadn't even finished her sentence before whirlwind Hermione turned and pulled a surprise Harry away. Emma raised an eyebrow, then smiled. She loved seeing her daughter happy. Hermione had never been this enthusiastic or pleased about a friend coming over before. Sadly, this was probably the first time that one came over because they wanted to.

oOoOo

After giving Harry a quick tour of the upstairs, Hermione stopped in front of the door to her room. “Lastly, this is my room Harry,” Hermione said lightly. Since both were still wearing their karate robes she added, “Why don't you go back to the bathroom and change, I'll change in my room, and wait there for you. Just knock when you get back, okay?”

Hermione was finally slowing down. Harry nodded okay and headed back down the hall to change.

A short while later Harry stood outside her door, and after knocking softly called out, “Hermione, are you decent?”

Her muffled reply filtered through the door, “One sec Harry,” a moment later the door opened. Hermione pulled it open all the way. “Welcome to my room Harry, you can come in, but we have to leave the door open of course. It's the proper thing to do when a girl has a boy in her room, and they are not married yet.” Hermione stopped suddenly. She hadn't meant to say yet, it just slipped out.

Harry turned towards her to find she had turned red and had a hand covering her mouth.

It took Harry a second to figure out why she thought that last part might have been too much information. Harry reasoned, that like a lot of girls, Hermione must have thought about being married, maybe even dreamed of what it might be like. He briefly wondered if she'd been as lonely as him sometimes, and just wanted a family to call her own. “It's okay Hermione, I'm sure one day you'll be able to close the door… when you're much older, of course.”

Hermione had raised both eyebrows, her face showing worry. She hadn't meant to say the last part, at least not out loud. She had only been reciting the house rules, but Hermione wondered if Harry would realize that, or if he thought, she was talking about the future, their future. She watched Harry for a sign, to see if he was going to make an issue out of it, or worse, maybe laugh at her. After hearing his response, she relaxed. Harry seemed to understand.

Harry moved further into the room taking it all in. It was so Hermione, definitely a girl's room, but not too girly. Most of the walls had book cases against them, but in a few of the open areas, she had hung some pictures. Some were of family, and some were from Hogwarts; all were nonmoving of course. There was one on her nightstand, and it caught his attention… it was of the two of them. They were standing side by side arms around each other's waists, smiling like crazy. Colin had taken it right after Hermione had come back to the Great Hall from the infirmary after being un-petrified. For a moment, Harry got lost in thought.

oOoOo

McGonagall entered the infirmary; she had been checking with Madam Pomfrey on a regular basis, as the assistant headmistress it was her job to check on the progress of the petrified students. Since two of them were her cubs, she took a special interest in seeing how the cure was coming.

Standing next to Pomfrey's desk, she looked around. Her gaze stopped on a familiar sight. “I see he's back yet again.”

Pomfrey looked up from her paperwork to make sure they were talking about the same thing, and then replied, “Oh yes, everyday. He sits there talking to her, even though I told him she couldn't hear a thing he said, but he insists… so.”

McGonagall smiled, “Did you know, that his grades have actually improved slightly. He's been taking notes for her.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes… actually, I'm surprised Mr. Potter hasn't started taking his meals in here.”

“Oh Merlin, please don't give him any ideas,” Pomfrey laughed.

oOoOo

After administering the mandrake potion, Pomfrey sat back and waited. It only took a moment before the effects took hold. Hermione blinked, and then blinked again. It was as if she was just opening her eyes. Slowly, the room around her came into focus. Memories came flooding back. Strangely, one of the first was of flowers. Rolling her head to the left, there they were, as promised. She didn't know how, but she knew Harry had promised to bring her flowers for when she woke. He had said that the infirmary was too dull, `you should have something special waiting for you when you wake.'

“Well my dear, how do you feel?”

Hermione looked to the right, finding the school nurse checking her with her wand. “A little stiff ma'am… no pun intended.”

“No, I should think not. Well at any rate, that should fade away quite quickly once you start moving about.”

“Thank you ma'am.” Hermione turned back to look at the flowers again.

“They're from Mr. Potter.”

Never taking her eyes off them, Hermione smiled, “I know.”

Pomfrey raised an eyebrow, `Interesting,' she thought.

oOoOo

Two hours later Hermione was released from the infirmary. Dinner had just started, so that was her first destination. Entering the Great Hall, she stopped at the head of the Gryffindor table, and looked down its length. She spotted her two best friends; Ron was sitting across from Harry down the right side. She smiled at him. Madam Pomfrey had told her, that Ron had come to visit her once with Harry, right after she had been petrified. Down the left side was Harry. It seemed that Harry had come to visit every day without fail. Pomfrey had told her that she had to practically curse him, to get him out. Oddly, like the flowers, she had already known that.

The Hall quieted slightly, and Harry looked up to see why. There standing at the foot of the table staring at him, was Hermione. Harry stood up as Hermione started down the row, slowly at first, then breaking into a run. Harry reached out and caught her as she engulfed him in a tight hug. As Harry was returning the embrace, Hermione tilted her head up and whispered in his ear, “Thank you Harry.”

Before the dinner crowd got the wrong idea, they broke apart.

“Harry, Hermione,” Colin called.

Beaming, they both turned arm in arm, to face him and his camera.

oOoOo

“That was the first time you know.”

Hermione's voice brought Harry back from his thoughts, “Hmm, oh really?”

Harry studied the picture, and then as if he'd only just heard her first comment, “First time for what?”

Hermione's eyes moved from the face in the picture to the real one beside her. “That was the first time you hugged me back… I mean, like you really meant it.”

Harry was still looking at the picture, and remembering that day. He spoke so softly, Hermione almost didn't hear him. “I did.”

“Hermione, Harry, dinner's ready,” Emma called up the stairs.

“Coming mum.”

oOoOo

“So Harry, Hermione tells me you play Quidditch,” Dan said, trying to find some common ground like sports to ease the conversation along.

“Yes sir,” Harry answered rather formally.

“He's a seeker, daddy. Youngest one in over a century,” Hermione beamed.

“That's so, well you'll definitely have to tell me more Harry, oh and please… call me Dan, at the very least when we're in a casual situation, okay?”

Harry, after stealing a glance at Hermione, said, “I'll try sir,” not realizing he had done it again.

“Right…” Dan chuckled while shaking his head.

Dinner continued on for a while longer, and then the group moved out into the garden where their conversation continued. Harry was finally beginning to loosen up. They had talked about school, Quidditch, and about the Granger's work. Harry learned that Mr. Granger was actually, Dr. Granger, a Dentist, and his wife worked with him part time taking care of the office. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Dan and Emma had sat in a pair of patio chairs, and while there were two more available, Harry and Hermione ended up sitting together on the love seat. The two had stayed close all night, a fact that both the Grangers noticed.

Without going into any detail, Harry mentioned how it appeared weird things always seemed to happen to him, like last year, and finding out he had a godfather. He said, he thought part of the problem was his lack of knowledge of the world around him. Harry told the family, he was going to turn over a new leaf. He was going to study harder, and try and learn as much as possible about his family, and the wizarding world in general. Everyone thought that was a sensible thing to do, especially Hermione, who instantly promised to help.

Suddenly, as if just realizing that he had left the stove on or something, Harry jumped up, “I almost forgot, I have something for… it's in my backpack by the door…ah, I'll be right back.”

Both Dan and Emma turned to Hermione, who could only offer a shrug. They didn't have to wait long to find out what Harry was talking about. A moment later he returned slightly out of breath carrying a small package.

Harry slowed down as he approached the Grangers. Stopping in front Emma, Harry handed her the plain wrapped parcel. It was about the size of the book only much lighter.

“I heard somewhere that when invited to dinner, one should bring something... a gift I reckon.” Harry begun. “Anyway this is for you, actually for the both of you.”

“Harry, that's sweet, but you didn't have to bring anything.”

Harry stood there fixed in place. Was it not expected? Did he misunderstand the tradition? He really didn't have much of an education in these matters, and Harry began to worry.

Mrs. Granger could sense his anxiety building. He was trying so hard to make a good first impression. Smiling she said, “Well it's a wonderful thought Harry, thank you. Now then, let's just have a look, shall we.”

Harry watched as she carefully removed the wrapping, as if the paper itself was something special. `So that's where Hermione gets it from.' Harry could tell the exact moment she realized what it was.

“Oh… Harry… this is…” she turned to her husband, “Dan, look!”

Both Dan and Hermione moved over next to her, to see what she was holding. In her hand was a framed photo of Hermione. It was taking last year during one of their classes with Hagrid. Hermione was sitting on the ground, her knees tucked up under her. Next to her lying down, was a baby unicorn, barely a month old. She was gently petting the small creature, with a look of sheer wonder on her face, while wearing a huge smile.

“A boy named Colin took it last year. Hermione had once told me, that you had said you wish you had some pictures of her from school. I asked him to develop it as a Muggle photo, that way you can put it out with the rest of your pictures.” Harry finished quickly.

Hermione sprang up and grabbed Harry in a tight hug. “Thank you Harry, that was very thoughtful,” Hermione smiled while wiping at a tear that threatened to fall.

Dan Granger stood up as well; he didn't like the idea of a boy being his daughter's best friend, but he had to admit, this boy was different. As he faced Harry he smiled and said, “Yes it was Harry, thank you.” And after silently asking for the picture, “I'll just go and put this out, so everyone can see it.” Since the picture didn't move, and a baby unicorn just looks like a baby horse, Dan was sure no one would ask any awkward questions.

“Hermione dear, make sure your dad finds a good spot for that.”

Seeing the look her mother was giving her, Hermione knew she wanted a moment alone with Harry. “Sure mum, I'll just be inside Harry.”

Harry watched her go. He wanted so badly to go with her, knowing too, that Mrs. Granger wanted to see him alone.

Coming up slightly behind him, she touched his arm, “Harry?”

Harry startled a little, but quickly recovered. Turning to face Mrs. Granger he answered, “Yes ma'am.”

Emma chuckled and shook her head once. “Harry, relax.” Turning him a little, so they were more face-to-face she continued, “Harry that's the second precious gift you've given this family.” Seeing the question in his eyes, Mrs. Granger went on. “I know you gave Hermione a gift at Christmas; she still uses it by the way. But I'm talking about you giving her a birthday to remember. You probably don't realize just how much that meant to her, and because I'm her mother… to me also.”

Harry didn't know what to say, or how to respond, he just stood there and stared back.

“Harry what I'm trying to say is… thank you for being there for her. Thank you for being her friend.”

The look of confusion in Harry's eyes was gone, replaced with one of honest determination. “She's my best friend Mrs. Granger… I'll always be there for her.”

Mrs. Granger smile grew bigger, and with moist eyes she pulled Harry into a gentle embrace, “Of that I have no doubt Harry.”

.

.

AN: Names are a funny thing. I chose to give Hermione's parents, the first names of Daniel, and Emma. Yes, I know it's cliché, but I don't care. I don't remember the very first story I read that did this, but at the time, I liked it... so, I guess it just stuck. I also think, it's a nice and simple acknowledgment to a pair of talented actors. While we are at it, and even though it hasn't come up yet, I will use Jane, for Hermione's middle name. If the toad woman ends up needing a middle name, I guess I'll use Jean.

AN2: A note about Hedwig. Supposedly, Snowy Owls don't `hoot' per say. They make a kind of soft bark, or clicking noise. In checking JK's work, I found that she has Hedwig hooting. So I'll probably use both, depending on which sounds the most appropriate at the time.

.

.

2

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

3. Happy Birthday


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 3

Happy Birthday

.

For the next few days, Harry's routine went back to normal, up early to do chores, then off to the Park. Later, back home to read and study. He still went to karate class three times a week, and of course, he wrote to Hermione at least once, but usually twice a week. They continued the game of, `what's your favorite, and a new one, `I bet you didn't know.'

It was fairly early Saturday morning, and Harry was out front working in the garden. Already covered in sweat and dirt, Harry was hard at work pulling weeds. The Dursleys were all still inside, so it was a curious Harry, who looked up when a car pulled into the drive. It only took a moment before he recognized it. Surprised, Harry stood up and tried to wipe his hands clean. Hermione was the first out, almost even before her dad had parked.

“Harry! Surprise!” Hermione yelled as she ran towards him.

“Hermione!” Harry yelled back just as excited, and started walking to meet her halfway, ready for his hug. Suddenly, he stopped just a couple of feet short, “Hermione wait.” He said, holding up his hands to hold her back. At her confused look, Harry added quickly, “Hermione I'm filthy, and all sweaty. As much as I'd like a hug, I'm afraid you'd need a bath afterwards.”

Hermione laughed, “Oh?” And then upon closer inspection, “I think you may be right,” but the smile never left her face.

Harry smiled back, then turning to her parents, “Hello Dr. Granger, Mrs. Granger.”

Emma smiled, “Hello Harry.”

Dan looked around, the garden was in beautiful shape no doubt because of the efforts of Harry. He was also fairly sure that no one in the house appreciated his hard work. It was barely ten o'clock in the morning, and it was obvious Harry had already been working for several hours. Meeting his eye, Dan gestured around, it looks great Harry, you've done a fine job.

Harry looked around quickly, no one had ever commented on his work before, and it felt nice, “Thank you sir.” Harry then glanced at Hermione and Emma, “It's great to see you all again so soon, but ah, what are you doing here?”

Emma smirked, while Hermione explained as if it should have been obvious, “Tomorrow is your birthday.”

Dan walked up, “They've got a plan Harry, I suggest you just go with it.” Smiling, Dan looked away towards the house, “Mr. Dursley home?”

Harry peeked over his shoulder, “Yes sir. They're inside.”

Dan could sense his apprehension, “Harry do you mind if I have a word with them?” Dan had a vague idea of what Harry's home life was like, mostly from the subtle signs Harry unconsciously gave off. He also remembered the conversation with his daughter about how they hated magic, and so by association, him as well. Harry himself seemed to keep quiet about it, at least in front of him and his wife. Another small sign of abuse, or at the very least a poor home life.

Harry took a moment to answer, “Ah, no sir… shall I fetch him for you?” He figured if they'd come all this way, that he owed him at least that much.

“It's okay, I'll just go and knock.”

Vernon Dursley did not like being disturbed, especially on his days off. Hearing the knock at the door he grumbled, “Who the ruddy hell…”

Dan was met by a red-faced over-weight angry man. “Mr. Dursley?”

“What's it to you?” Vernon spat.

Dan's impression of Harry's home life was falling rapidly, as well as his regard for Mr. Dursley. “I'm Dr. Granger; I work in health services… may I come in?” He wasn't really lying; dentistry was a part of health services, but he knew phrasing it that way would be more intimidating.

Vernon stole a glance at Harry and the girls, “You always bring your family with you to work?”

Dan smiled, it had worked. Mr. Dursley thought he was here in some official capacity. “Oh I'm not working today… yet.” The `yet' part said softly but with a hint of suspicion. “Harry and my daughter are friends you see.”

Vernon paled very slightly, but Dan noticed nevertheless. “We,” Dan looked back to his family for a moment, “would like to take Harry for the weekend. We can have him back Sunday after dinner, say around eight or nine?”

Vernon would have loved to have said no, but not knowing if Dr. Granger was a freak or not gave him pause. His daughter most likely was if she was his friend. Chances were, both he and his wife were too. However, even if they weren't, he didn't want any trouble with health services. “Fine, you'll be taking him now I suppose?”

“That would be most helpful.” Dan's answer sounded more like a threat than a request.

Vernon grunted, “Send the boy in then; I'll have him clean up and then you lot can be off.”

Without another word, Dan turned and walked over to Harry, “Looks like you're coming with us. He wants a word first though Harry.” Dan couldn't help but smile after noticing the look on Hermione's face.

Harry nodded, and quickly made his way over to his uncle, “Sir.”

Contempt in his eyes, Vernon leaned down slightly and whispered to Harry, “You'll be on your best behavior, and you will not speak badly of this family. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir.”

“Go wash up, and be quick.”

oOoOo

As Harry slid into the back seat next to Hermione, she took his hand without even thinking about it. “Now that you're clean, you owe me a hug.”

“Sure.” Harry grinned through a small blush. “Well this is a nice surprise, being rescued from the Dursleys.” He said trying to start a conversation, and ease his embarrassment.

“Oh, you think we rescued you?” Hermione smirked.

Harry shrugged, “Well yeah, anything is better than being there.”

Dan had been listening to their banter, and decided to chime in. “Harry my boy, I don't know how to break this to you.” Harry gave him his complete attention, as this sounded serious. “You see, they…” Dan ticked his head towards his smiling wife and daughter, “they have it all planned out. I'd say we'd be lucky to survive till dinner.”

Harry was only mildly concerned, he trusted Hermione after all. That didn't mean he wasn't totally confused though, and his face must have shown it.

While Hermione kept smirking, it was clear she was on the verge of bursting out in laughter. It was Emma, who answered his unasked question. “Daniel really! Harry don't listen to him, we're going to have a great time. Hermione told me she already read through all her books twice. Therefore, I figured you might have also… so we,” she nodded to Hermione, “thought it would be a good idea to go to Diagon Alley a little early, and do a bit of shopping.”

Harry glanced at Hermione; she was almost bouncing in the seat with excitement. This was one of the things he liked about her; she had so much enthusiasm. She was always full of energy. Looking at Dr. Granger in the mirror, Harry said, “Oh, well that doesn't sound like a… bad thing.”

After his experiences in the military, then dental school, and even after standing by his wife's side, when she gave birth to Hermione, Daniel Granger wasn't afraid of much. Now however, he grimaced as he spoke, “Harry… you do realize, there's no such thing as… a bit of shopping.” After taking a long breath he continued, “Obviously, you've never been shopping with them, before.”

It was true; Harry had never gone shopping with them. In fact, he'd never been shopping with any girls before. Harry still couldn't see the problem. Maybe Hermione's father was just unusually adverse to it or something. With a small unsure smile, Harry said, “I still think it'd be better than staying home. I don't mind giving it a try.”

Hermione squeezed his hand, “Daddy's just teasing Harry, it'll be fun. He may not like it, but I'll bet you will.”

Harry relaxed, “Yeah, why not.”

oOoOo

Diagon Alley still amazed both Harry and Hermione, but it was the two older Grangers that were especially awed. They made a quick stop at Gringotts for gold, and so Harry could arrange to make sure that Kim continued to get paid. Then they were off to buy everything they would need for the coming year. New robes, potion ingredients, and of course books; loads of books! Hermione always wanted to buy extra books, and this year to her pleasant surprise, so did Harry.

“Oh no! I'm afraid I've turned Harry Potter into a bookworm.” Hermione laughed, after noticing several additional books in his arms that were not on the school list.

Harry gave her a stern look for a moment, and then broke into laughter himself, “Yeah well, it's only fair.”

“How's that Harry?” Emma asked.

“Well… you see… I may have turned Hermione into a bit of a rule breaker last year.”

Hermione put on her most innocent face, while Mrs. Granger turned to her daughter, “Is that so?”

“I can't imagine what he's talking about.” Hermione said with the most serious of expressions on her face.

“I don't believe imagination has anything to do with it.”

Dan and Harry shared a look, both knew Emma wasn't really scandalized. They also knew, Hermione had a very good idea of what Harry was talking about. Dan figured if Harry had brought it up, then there couldn't be much to it, he was sure he'd hear all about it someday.

oOoOo

After lunch, a few hours later, Harry again slid into the back seat next to Hermione. Leaning a little closer he whispered, “That wasn't so bad, you were right, I did enjoy myself.”

Dan's hearing was excellent, “It's not over yet Harry.”

Harry looked up confused and surprised, “Hun?”

Hermione and her mother just laughed.

oOoOo

Stopping in front of a huge building, (one that might actually make Hogwarts look small in comparison) had Harry staring in awe.

“Harrods of London,” Dan started, as he too peered up at the massive structure. “Feared by mortal man for eons.” Then as if only now remembering Harry was present, “I wonder,” he said, turning to look at him, “how will a wizard fair?”

“Honey will you stop with all the drama already,” Emma chastised.

“Just stay close Harry, and keep your eyes open, and you just might make it through this.” Dan said, completely ignoring his wife.

Harry flashed a bright smile; he knew Dan was having fun. “Yes sir. I'll follow your lead.”

Dan looked at Harry and smiled back, he had an ally. “Right then, together, into the trenches.”

Emma shook her head while trying to hold back her laughter. She knew when her husband got like this, it was best not to encourage him. Especially now that it seemed he had another male to interact with.

Hermione rolled her eyes and huffed, “Honestly daddy, you make it sound worse than the Great War.”

Shopping at the huge department store didn't take nearly as long as Diagon alley, mainly because there was no book department. Also they were there mostly to buy clothes for Harry, although they did pick up a few things for Hermione. Dan and Emma insisted on paying for Harry's things, calling it an early birthday present.

Harry was a little concerned at the amount of money the Grangers were spending on him. “Mrs. Granger, this is brilliant and all, but… don't you think it might be a bit much? This is going to cost a fortune.”

“Harry, a couple of pairs of pants, and a few shirts is not going to cost a fortune. It will be fine.” Seeing that he was still not convinced, and still a bit apprehensive, she added, “Besides, this is not all for your benefit.” Emma glanced pointedly at Hermione. Her daughter was having more fun than anyone else was, picking out clothes for Harry.

Harry watched Hermione, she was on a mission. He had always felt somewhat ashamed of his clothes, but for some reason he never got around to doing anything about it. Like so many other things between them, Hermione picked up the slack where he left off. Harry knew she wasn't ashamed of him, or the way he dressed. That wasn't the reason. No, she did it because she knew he needed it, it was one small problem she could fix, so she took it upon herself to do this for him. Looking back at Mrs. Granger, “Okay… but please, don't let her get too carried away,” he said with a smile.

oOoOo

“Hermione dear, why don't you help Harry get settled into the guest room while I see about dinner.”

Hermione couldn't help but laugh at the expression on Harry's face after hearing what her mother had just said, “Sure mum. Come on Harry.”

Harry obediently followed Hermione up the stairs. After putting away the few things he had in the closet, Harry turned to find Hermione sitting on the edge of the bed watching him. “Hermione, you knew?”

“Of course Harry, it was my idea,” Hermione replied with a grin.

Harry looked around; the bedroom was so much different from his back on privet drive. It was quite a bit more spacious, and had a large window that lit the room brightly. The room was clean and well furnished. In short, it was everything Harry's room back home, was not.

Hermione continued to watch Harry as he took in his surroundings. He looked so serious, almost concerned, she was starting to worry, “Harry, you alright?”

Harry turned to Hermione and noticed her concern, “Oh, yeah I'm fine.” While Harry glanced around again, he added softly, “It's just such a great room. I… I can't believe I get to sleep here tonight.”

Hermione troubled her lower lip for a moment before hopping up and latching onto him. “Oh Harry,” she whispered into his shoulder. Sometimes she forgot just how fortunate she was. She knew Harry's home life was terrible, and although she had never seen his bedroom, she never thought it could be so bad that he would be amazed by their simple guestroom.

Harry quickly realized why she was upset, “Hermione it's okay, really,” he said, as he awkwardly patted her back trying to comfort her.

Hermione pulled herself together with a single thought. She would try to do whatever she could to help make his life a little more bearable. Letting go, she squared her shoulders, grabbed his hand and with a half smile said, “Come on Harry, let's see how dinners coming.”

Harry, glad that she had finally made peace with her thoughts, again let her lead him by the hand down to dinner.

oOoOo

Emma Granger watched with interest as Harry sampled each slice of pizza. Earlier, she had asked Hermione if she knew what Harry might like for dinner. Her daughter had told her that his favorite was pizza, probably some sort of combination of sausage, pepperoni, onions, and maybe tomatoes. When she had asked Hermione what she meant by `probably', her daughter hesitated, and only continued when pressed to explain.

“Harry's never actually had pizza mum, he's only seen it… that is, when the Dursley's eat it.” Never in her life had she heard of such a cruel act been inflicted on a child. She wanted to believe that maybe Hermione was exaggerating, but now, seeing Harry savor the taste as if this was his very last meal on earth… she knew. Hermione had not exaggerated, if anything she had understated his situation.

“So Harry, tomorrow you'll be fourteen, what would you like to do?” Dan asked.

“Oh, well, I'm actually fine with staying right here.” Harry began, then seeing their look of surprise, “You all have done so much already, shopping, new clothes, and now dinner. This is by far the best birthday I've ever had.” Harry looked down for a moment to get his emotions under control. He raised his head and added in a soft but sincere voice, “Thank you.”

Hermione who was sitting right next to him took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, “You're welcome Harry.”

If the Grangers could have had a second child, both agreed that they would have loved to have had a son. As Dan sat finishing his dinner and watching both Harry and Hermione, he couldn't help but feel something for the boy. What a waste he thought, surely there were plenty of families that would have cherished the chance to have raised him. To of had a chance, to have a son in the family was something he could appreciate. Dan Granger came to the conclusion, that the Dursley's were not only mean and cruel, but also stupid and foolish as well.

Dan knew he could not make up for the years of neglect, but he could help now. “Harry, I don't know about you, but I'd like to get out tomorrow. There must be somewhere you haven't gone, someplace you'd like to see. Perhaps there's something you've heard about and would like to try.”

Looking around, Harry could tell the whole family wanted him to say yes to something. Hermione in particular, she almost had a pleading look about her. With his gaze locked on her, he said, “Well, I've never been to the beach. I hear it's quite fun… you know, all that water.”

Hermione was again squeezing his hand, and this time she didn't let go. “Oh, that would be fun Harry, it's been ages since I've gone.” Turning to her father, “What do you think daddy, can we go?”

oOoOo

The next morning Harry woke after spending a wonderful night in the biggest, and the most comfortable bed he had ever slept in. At first, he thought maybe he was experiencing his first earthquake, but as slept left his cloudy mind, he realized someone was jumping on his bed.

Hermione stopped bouncing and sat down, when she noticed Harry starting to stir. “Morning Harry, happy birthday!” She beamed.

Harry yawned, and slipped his glasses on, then through blurry eyes he managed, “Morning Hermione,” though without nearly as much enthusiasm.

Hermione laughed at his disheveled look. “Oh, did I wake you?” She asked in her most innocent voice.

Harry smiled, “No, not at all, been up for hours.”

“Great, then get up and get ready, breakfast is almost on the table.”

Harry raised an eyebrow, as Hermione leapt off his bed and practically raced downstairs.

oOoOo

Twenty minutes later, showered and dressed, Harry entered the kitchen. Sitting at the table was Dr. Granger, reading the paper and enjoying a cup of coffee. The sight that caught Harry's eyes though, was Hermione at the stove. She was wearing an apron, and carefully tending to something in a pan. Her mother was nearby, keeping an eye on her, ready to help if needed.

Hermione always put forth her best effort in everything she did. Harry of course knew this, but is still amazed him. She was trying so hard to make this breakfast perfect. It was only a meal after all.

Dan looked up, “Ah Harry, have a seat, coffee?”

“No thank you sir,” then turning to Mrs. Granger, “do you need a hand, can I help?”

Hermione, surprised by Harry's appearance so soon let out a little, “Eep!”

Emma, looking over her shoulder, “Of course not Harry, don't be silly, it's your birthday. Take a seat and have some juice, or coffee.” Looking back at her daughter, she added, “Hermione is almost done with the eggs, we'll eat in a minute.”

A moment later, Hermione turned away from the stove and brought with her a pan full of scrambled eggs. Her mum brought a platter of bacon, and a second plate with some toast.

Together they sat down, Hermione next to Harry, and Emma next to her husband. Emma smiled as she poured herself some coffee. Hermione just sat still, as if waiting for permission to start, with a slight look of concern on her face.

Harry touched her hand. “All right, Hermione?”

Hermione half smiled for just a second, “Ah, oh yes, I'm fine.”

“She's just a little nervous Harry,” Emma jumped in with a smirk, “her first time cooking breakfast and all.”

Hermione turned red, “Mum,” she hissed, clearly embarrassed.

That's when Harry figured it out. She had made breakfast for him. That's why she looked a little lost at the stove. That's why she was so nervous. She was waiting to see if he liked it.

Harry reached out and took a helping of eggs, then some bacon and toast. Without hesitation, he tucked in. Careful to swallow first, he turned to Hermione, “Its brilliant Hermione.” Seeing that she was still uncertain, “Really… it's perfect.”

Dan nodded in agreement, although he was quite certain, that at the moment, his opinion didn't carry much weight.

Hermione's features relaxed, and the worried look on her face turned into a bright smile. “Thanks Harry.” She said before tucking in herself.

Emma smiled, she knew this was important to Hermione, and was glad Harry had noticed.

As soon as breakfast was over, Hermione ran out and brought back a few presents while her mum cleaned up. Dumbledore sent him a book, and Hagrid sent some rock cake. Harry laughed, and when Hermione looked at him with a brow raised, he showed her the cakes and said, “Good thing I know a dentist.” There were also two cards, one from the Weasleys, and to his surprise, one from the Longbottoms

.

“Well it's a bit of a drive, so why don't you two get ready, and I'll pack the car,” Dan said as he got up to talk to his wife.

oOoOo

Harry stood at the edge of the bluff staring out over the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. It went on for as far as the eye could see, seemingly forever. There was an unnatural pull, to venture out, to see what lie beyond the horizon. `It must be what attracts men to the sea,' Harry mused. But it was also calming, he hadn't felt this relaxed since last year during Christmas holiday while staying in the Castle virtually alone.

“Beautiful, isn't it?” Hermione asked softly.

“Yes,” answered Harry, as he continued to stare straight ahead, “and peaceful.”

Hermione stole a quick glance at him, “Yes… very.” In that instant, she understood how he felt. His life was full of turmoil, always in a state of upheaval. Yet here, for a small moment in time, all was at rest. Order replaced the chaos that normally sought him out. She stood next to him, leaning slightly against his side, content to share this moment… this eternity, with him.

Dan and Emma sat on a little bench a short ways back and watched the interaction. Sharing a look, they both knew without saying a word. They may only be best friends, but their friendship was far deeper than most. And it was only now just starting to bloom.

As it warmed up, Hermione slipped off her shorts, and pulled her tank top off to reveal and modest blue one-piece bathing suit. Feeling a tiny bit self-conscious, she wrapped a short cover up around her waist. She could tell Harry was trying not to stare, but was still getting quite an eye full. Feeling turnabout was only fair play, “Harry, you are wearing your trunks aren't you?” Hoping he'd get the hint.

Harry had the decency to blush slightly, “Yeah, sorry, I was…ah…”

Hermione let him off the hook with a smile, “It's okay, but hurry up, I want to see how warm the water is.” Harry quickly took off his jeans and threw them on the growing pile of clothes. Hermione couldn't help but notice his reluctance to remove his shirt though. Moving to stand in front of him, she asked gently, “Harry?”

Harry stopped and stood frozen in place. He should have known Hermione would notice his hesitation. At first, he was just going to leave his shirt on, but then he'd been caught looking at Hermione. He hadn't meant to stare, but he had never seen a girl with so little on before, and certainly not Hermione.

Now he felt like a hypocrite for trying to stay covered, even though his reasons were different. Seeing the genuine concern in her eyes only made it worse. How would she feel about him after she saw? Would she think differently of him, treat him different? Realizing she was still waiting for a reply he started, “Hermione, I… there's something…” Harry sighed and looked down frustrated unable to find the words he wanted.

Hermione moved closer and touched his arm, “Harry, whatever it is… it's okay, I'll understand.”

Harry looked back up, “No one has ever seen… seen…” then without saying another word, Harry grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled up and over his head removing it.

A little surprised by his abrupt action, Hermione stepped back slightly, then wondering what could possibly be the problem, she looked down at Harry's chest. Nothing looked out of the ordinary; Harry looked just like she imagined any other normal fourteen-year-old boy would look like, maybe just a little underweight. Raising an eyebrow, she opened her mouth to speak, but stopped as Harry slowly started to turn around. Letting out a small gasp, Hermione's hands flew to cover her mouth. Crisscrossing Harry's back were the remains of scars inflicted many years ago. They were healed now, but it was obvious they would probably never fade completely. They reminded her of the same kind of wounds a sailor of old might have received while lashed to the mast of a sailing ship and flogged for his crimes. Harry however, was a child. How could anyone justify doing that to him even now, yet alone a couple of years earlier? They couldn't, not and still be human. Just what kind of hell on earth had Harry lived through? She would find out, someday, but not today. He honestly needed her to understand, not to interrogate him. He needed her comfort, not her pity. Hermione moved forward.

Harry stood motionless, waiting, staring at the sea. Any moment now, after the shock had worn off, she would start asking questions. There would be a righteous fire in her eyes, and she would demand justice. He really couldn't blame her; his life was so much different from hers, how could she possibly understand?

Harry jumped a little at her touch. She had said nothing, instead she had stood right behind him and touched his shoulder. She gently traced one of the many scars with the tips of her fingers. Harry closed his eyes, no one had ever seen his back before, except for the Dursleys of course. Hermione hadn't said a word, she didn't scream about the injustice, or howl in outrage. She hadn't recoiled in horror. Maybe… maybe she did understand.

Hermione ran her hand down the cruel mark and back up again. Then after a moment to collect herself, she gently urged him to turn around. Facing each other, Hermione stared into his pain filled eyes, “Harry… don't be ashamed, you've done nothing to deserve this.”

His voice cracked as he asked, “How can you be so sure?”

She took his hands in hers, and while shaking hers head slowly said, “What could you, or any child have possibly done to deserve something like this? Besides Harry… I know you.”

Harry closed his eyes and in a whisper barely audible said, “Thank you.”

Emma and Dan had seen the scars too, if only from a distance. It was another small piece of the puzzle that was Harry Potter. Emma also couldn't help noticing how it was the little things he seemed to enjoy the most. Things most people would take for granted. `Maybe because he never got to enjoy them before,' Emma thought, remembering dinner last night.

They spent the whole day at the beach. Harry and Hermione played in the water, and chased each other up and down the beach. A small restaurant served them lunch outside on a patio, and later the group just laid about on the sand, soaking up the warm sunshine. Finally, as late afternoon approached, and it started to cool down, it was time to leave.

oOoOo

Hermione released Harry from her hug, “Remember, I'll see you again in about three weeks, in Kim's class.”

Harry smiled, “I'll remember, and Hermione… thanks, I had a great time.”

Hermione had nearly cried, she'd had some pretty lousy birthdays herself (though she was sure none were as bad as his) so she had a fairly good idea how he felt. “You're welcome Harry; I had a great time too.”

“Dr. Granger, Mrs. Granger, thank you again for having me over, and for all the gifts.”

After Emma finished giving him a hug, Dan reached out to shack his hand, “You're welcome Harry, we're just glad you had a good time.”

“The best sir, I don't think I'll ever forget this day.”

Harry stood on the walk and waved goodbye as they drove off, Hermione's face, plastered to the rear window.

Prior to this year, Harry had never really given much thought to birthdays. But after seeing the look on Hermione's face last September, and now, knowing first-hand what it's like to have someone recognize your special day, Harry had decided he would try to remember all of his friends on their birthdays. With that thought in mind, Harry sat down at his desk, he had a few thank-you letters to write, and an apology for missing Neville's birthday.

oOoOo

Neither Vernon nor his aunt Petunia, had been happy about his absence, knowing he'd have a good time, instead of doing his chores around the house. Harry had almost missed karate on his first Monday back because of all the extra work they'd given him. Finally, by the end of the week, he'd caught up, and things had returned to normal.

Harry and Hermione continued to exchange letters about twice a week. They talked about all kinds of things, and even keep their, I bet you didn't know game going. In one of his letters, Harry had asked, what was the happiest and saddest thing about last year? He had smiled when she wrote back that helping him to save Sirius and Buckbeak, was definitely the happiest. He was surprised however, to learn just how upset Ron had made her with his accusations about Scabbers. She never told anyone before, but she had cried herself to sleep a couple of times, because of what Ron had said. Harry vowed to himself to try and not let anything like that happen again.

oOoOo

A week and a half later, Thursday, August 11, was Ginny's thirteenth birthday. Harry knew because he had asked everyone in the letters he sent out after his own birthday.

.

.

Dear Ginny,

Happy birthday, I hope you're having a good time. I would normally ask you to save me a piece of cake, but with Ron there, I know I would be asking the impossible. I'm sorry I don't have a gift to send along for you. It's very hard to get out during summer, but if you'll take a rain check, I'll try and make it up to you this Christmas. Thanks again for my birthday card. Oh and asked that brother of yours why he hasn't written. Well, I'd better go, I'll see you at school.

Harry.

.

.

oOoOo

Harry was so busy time seemed to fly by. There was barely a week to go before school started, but what he was really looking forward to, was seeing Hermione again. In just three days, they would meet at Kim's dojo near Harry's house. It was to be their last class of the summer, but also, they would test for their yellow belt. Both of them had worked very hard, and were quite excited about the prospect of moving up a class level.

Having just sent Hedwig off with a letter to Hermione, Harry was still sitting at his desk when pig arrived. Flying through the still open window, the overexcited little owl zoomed about until Harry was finally able to catch him. “Well little fella let's see what you've got.” Harry carefully untied the letter then put the tiny owl on Hedwig's perch to rest.

.

.

Harry,

Great news, we're going to the Quidditch World Cup. Ireland versus Bulgaria, it's going to be brilliant. Be ready to go by noon, dad will pick you up tomorrow.

Ron.

.

.

Harry sat the letter down and leaned back in his chair. A chance to go to the World Cup, he could only imagine how exciting that would be. He loved Quidditch, maybe not as much as Ron did, but still, and he'd get to see some top-notch teams in action.

A thought suddenly interrupted his growing euphoria, Hermione, could she go? Would she want to go? Without a doubt, Harry knew she would. `She'd go because Ron and I wanted to, regardless of whether she really wanted to or not.' That last thought bothered Harry. `She's always doing something for us, putting us first, putting me first.' All he had to do was remember last year, `heck even this summer!' Ron couldn't even bring himself to write!

Realization hit home like a thunderclap. How many times had he ignored her feelings, or needs? How many times had he been selfish? `Too many,' a guilty voice inside his head said. Sure, he had done nice things for her, but only if they did not conflict with his own needs or desires. Reaching for a piece of parchment Harry started his letter to Ron.

.

.

Ron,

That does sound great, and I know you'll have a good time. However, I'm afraid I can't go. Please tell your dad, so he doesn't waste his time coming over here for nothing. I know you think nothing could be more important than Quidditch, but for me, there is. No I'm not crazy, and no the Dursleys had nothing to do with my decision. You see mate, I already have plans for the last week before school, plans I don't want to change. Please try to understand. I'll see you soon at King's Cross.

Harry.

.

.

oOoOo

Hermione sat on the floor next to the back wall of Kim's dojo, the one near Harry's house. She almost hadn't come, but decided this was easier than explaining to her father why she didn't want to see Harry. Of course, she wanted to see Harry, but her father would assume otherwise if she tried to change her plans at the last minute. After reading her letter from Ron, inviting her to join him and Harry for a trip to the World Cup, she knew that Harry wouldn't be here. After all, who would turn down a chance like that? This was only a karate class; there was just no comparison. Sure, it was their last class for the summer, and yes they were going to test for a new belt, but it still paled next to the Quidditch World Cup. When she hadn't heard from Harry, she figured Harry probably just felt a little guilty about ditching their last class, or maybe Harry just assumed she would join them at the Cup. Hermione had honestly thought about skipping class also, but later decided not to, for two reasons. One, she really only liked watching Quidditch when Ron or Harry were playing. Secondly, she thought Harry would have a better time without her there to remind him about missing their last class.

“Galleon for your thoughts,” Harry whispered in Hermione's ear as he sat down next to her.

Hermione let out a startled yelp. She had been so lost in thought; she hadn't even seen Harry come in, yet alone approach her. “Harry!” She gasped in surprise.

Harry part confused, and part surprised, answered, “Yes… you were expecting someone else?” Harry watched as Hermione's emotions ran the gamut from surprised, to shocked, to confused, and finally, to happiness.

“I… I didn't expect to see you. What are you doing here? Why aren't you with Ron?”

“Hermione, I told you I'd be here.”

“Yes I know, but that was before the World Cup… surely…”

“There'll be others,” he smirked.

“But you love the Quidditch, and you haven't seen Ron…”

“Hermione stop. Look, Ron only wrote last night, one days notice. He didn't even ask, he just assumed I'd go, `Be ready by noon,' he said.” Smiling, Harry took one of her hands and squeezed it, “We've been working towards this all summer. I know this is important to you, it's important to me also, and I know part of you is doing it for me. Yeah the World Cup would have been great to see, and I'm sure it would have fun, but this came first.” Harry gestured around the room, “This is important; it could really help someday.”

Looking around, Hermione tried to gather her thoughts. If she was honest with herself, she was glad Harry had chosen to come here instead, but it had been a huge sacrifice on his part. Then there was Ron, he was sure to be mad at both of them.

Turning back and looking Harry in the eye, she could see he meant every word he had said. Finally, she smiled and squeezed his hand back, “Thank you Harry, and you're right, this is important to me, but more importantly I'm just happy you choose to come here.”

oOoOo

Three hours later, two sweaty students sat and waited for Hermione's father to come and pick her up. Originally, Dan had planned on being there to watch his daughter take her test, but at the last minute he was called into his office for a minor emergency.

“Oh, I almost forgot… here,” Harry said, after reaching into his gym bag and pulling out a small set of books.

With a clever look on her face, Hermione asked, “So, what did you think of them? Did you like them?”

“It sure didn't take long to get hooked on them, that's for sure. And yeah, of course I did, I loved them.”

Hermione smiled, Lord of the Rings were some of her favorite books, and she had hoped Harry would enjoy reading it as well. “I'm glad you liked it Harry.”

“You know, we could have fun talking about it around the others, I doubt many would know of it.”

“Don't be a git Harry,” Hermione laughed. She did however like the idea that she and Harry had something special they could talk about. This could be something that they had shared in common, like Ron and Harry shared Quidditch. “It would be fun to discuss it though, you know, maybe talk about some of the differences between the story and our world.”

Harry laughed too, “Yeah I know.”

“Hello pumpkin, Harry. Well, how did you two do?” Dan Granger asked, interrupting them.

Hermione jumped up beaming, “Look!” She twirled around, to show off her new yellow belt.

“I had no doubt... sorry, I missed it though,” turning to Harry, “and…”

Harry smiled, “Hello Dr. Granger.” He held up his newly acquired yellow belt in his hand, unlike Hermione, who was actually wearing hers.

“Excellent, well done, both of you.” He made a point to look both of them in the eye as he congratulated them.

oOoOo

A few days later found Harry waiting anxiously on the Muggle side of platform nine and three quarters, waiting for Hermione. He didn't have to wait long though, and soon both he and a cheerful Hermione were waving goodbye to her parents.

“Think we should wait for Ron if he's not here yet?” Harry asked nervously, not sure how he would react after they had turned down their invites to the Burrow this summer.

Biting her lip for a second before answering in typical Hermione fashion, “Yes, we don't want him to think we don't care. We may have hurt his feelings too, so we need to reassure him as soon as possible.”

Harry nodded his understanding, Hermione had it figured out as usual, he let her do all the talking if possible.

Immediately after stepping through the barrier, they came face-to-face with their other best friend, and he looked more than just a little miffed!

.

.

18

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

4. Back to School


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 4

Back to School

.

Harry and Hermione entered the platform, and stopped abruptly, all around them the chaos of hundreds of students, as they made ready to board the train. Directly in front of them however stood Ron, anger clearly marking his face, he'd been waiting for them. Before either Harry or Hermione said a word, he spoke.

“So, too busy to come to the Burrows. Too busy to see the World Cup!” He turned his harsh glare on Hermione, “This looks like your doing.”

Harry stole a glance at Hermione, she clearly looked upset, maybe even slightly hurt at the harsh accusation. `Not even on the train yet and already picking on Hermione.' with that thought, Harry changed his mind about letting Hermione do all the talking and spoke up, “Look who's talking mate, you were too busy to even write a letter.” Harry's temper was starting to rise.

“Write a letter, how in the bloody hell does that compare. Idle chitchat, all that is.”

“Well, if you had bothered to write, you'd have known what we were up to, and why we were so busy.” Harry's voice loud enough now, to start drawing attention, “And, if you had written sooner about the World Cup instead of waiting to the last minute, we might have been able to make other plans.” Harry was getting more and more worked up, “Don't you think we'd have liked to have gone?”

Ron just stared at Harry, then turned to Hermione, his face turning redder, “We?”

Now it was Hermione's turn to get mad, although she controlled her temper better than Harry. Ron's tone implied something negative or improper, “Yes Ronald, we. Harry and I both enrolled in a Muggle class this summer. The same class, but at two different schools. We… had our final test the very next day after the World Cup.”

Turning to Harry and completely ignoring Hermione, “Let me get this straight, you skived off going to the Quidditch World Cup… for some stupid Muggle thing?”

Before Harry could answer, Hermione took two steps forward to stand directly in front of Ron. “Stupid! Muggle! Thing!” Accenting each word with a sharp jab of her finger to his chest.

Seeing they were really starting to draw a crowd, and to try and show some support for Hermione, Harry stepped up behind her and touched her elbow to let her know he was there.

Ron looking down now at Hermione, “Well that's just bloody mental, and you know it.”

Hermione's eyes flashed with anger, “First, you should watch your language, and second, I know no such thing.”

“Oi, you're not my mother, don't…”

No one saw Mrs. Weasley approach, but they heard her, “No she's not… but I am. Furthermore, she's right; you will watch your language or spend the whole trip to Hogwarts with soap in your mouth. Is that understood?”

“Yes ma'am,” came Ron's startled reply.

“Good, now get on the train, and mind your temper. I'm sure after the three of you cool down, you'll work this out.”

Ron turned and left without another word.

“I'm sorry dears, he was terribly disappointed when neither of you came by.” Holding up her hand to stop any response, she went on, “Missing a Quidditch game is not the end of the world, and as you pointed out Harry, he didn't give you much time to change your plans. I told him to write as soon as we got the tickets; but you know him about as well as me I suppose. Anyway, it's good to see you both, and Harry, don't think I haven't noticed the Dursleys are feeding you better, that's good. Now, best get a move on, don't want to miss the train… off you go.”

It was a slightly bewildered Harry and Hermione who waved one last goodbye before boarding the train.

Making their way down the corridor while looking for a compartment, they ran into the Patil twins. "Hello Padma, Parvati," Hermione said smiling.

"Hello Hermione, Harry..." Padma trailed off, as she scrutinized Harry, and then Hermione. "Harry, is it me, or did you do something different to yourself this summer?"

"What do you mean, I..."

Padma and Parvati were now both eyeing Harry and Hermione. Parvati smiled, "Not just Harry, you too Hermione. You both look... nice, hum no, better... oh I don't know, you look..."

"You both look great!" Padma finished for her sister, with a wicked smile.

“Ah, thanks,” Harry answered sheepishly.

“Yeah, thanks,” added Hermione with a bright smile. She then gently grabbed Harry by the arm and started pulling him away, “Come on Harry, or we'll never find a compartment.” As they walked away, she said over her shoulder, “Bye…We'll talk later, kay?”

oOoOo

Hermione had been reading one of her new course books, since shortly after pulling out of King's Cross. It was about a half-hour later when she looked up to see what Harry was doing. He was just sitting there, staring out the window, obviously upset about Ron. She was just about to say something when their compartment door opened. Turning, she found Ginny standing there with a grin on her face.

“Hey guys.”

Hermione smiled, “Hi Ginny, how was your summer?”

Harry gave her a nod hello. Glad that she and Hermione had become friends.

"Oh it was okay, not nearly as good as last summer, what with going to Egypt and all." Smiling a little brighter, she added, “But the World Cup was good…best part really…Too bad you missed it.” Her smile faltered a little as she went on, "Look, I'll admit I was a little disappointed that neither of you made it the Burrow this summer, but I think I understand why. Ron said something about a Muggle class you both took or something. Anyway, we can talk about it later if you want."

"Of course we do," Hermione answered without hesitation. Harry again nodding in agreement.

"Great... well I had better get back." Then turning to look at someone standing in the hallway just out of view, her look became stern. She put her hands on her hips and with a dangerous look said, "Well... don't just stand there!" Then moved aside.

A moment later, Ron peeked around the corner of the door. The look on his face no longer one of anger. He genuinely looked scared, most likely of his sister. "Hey..." he said in a weak voice.

Harry and Hermione shared a quick look, then after turning back to Ron, they both broke out laughing.

Ron's disposition quickly changed back to anger again and both Harry and Hermione promptly stopped laughing.

"Look mate, I'm sorry for laughing," Harry started with a smile slowly returning, "but the look on your face after what Ginny said... well, it was like she was channeling your mum or something."

Hermione smiled, "Oh come on Ron, it was funny. Now come on and sit down so we can talk."

Ron stumbled forward after a shove from his sister. She shut the door and left. Ron glared after her for a moment, then slowly sat down but said nothing. Finally, after a few minutes of tense silence he spoke. "Sorry about earlier," he began softly, "I know I overreacted, I was just so... mad I guess."

Hermione glanced at Harry, she knew this was mostly between them, so with a look, told him; she'd stay out of it... at least for now.

Harry gave her a quick smile, thanking her. Then leaned forward resting his forearms on his knees as he began to talk to Ron.

"Ron, I tried to tell you in my letters. This summer I changed... I... I didn't just want to sit around all summer... doing nothing. I didn't want to waste all that time. I decided to try and make a change, make the best of the situation." Harry could tell Ron was trying to understand, but was still not quite getting it. "I worked out a deal with the Dursley's, I would do my chores first thing in the morning, and would eat my own food. This gave me some free time in the afternoon. I started working out, and eventually started going to those Muggle classes Hermione told you about. I also worked on my schoolwork," Harry half laughed, "I actually got ahead."

Ron chuckled, "Well I guess now, I can go to you for help if Hermione's busy."

"Look Ron, I'm sorry... we're sorry," Harry gestured to Hermione. "We didn't know you had tickets, heck we didn't even know about the World Cup."

Ron looked pensive for a moment, "Well I guess I can't blame you, if you didn't know."

Hermione glared at him, irritated he hadn't even acknowledged his part in the situation.

Harry noticed her look, and knowing what was common, gave her arm a gentle squeeze, telling her it wasn't worth getting upset about. Then turning back to Ron, "So, we okay then?"

Ron smiled, "Yeah, we're good."

Hermione shook her head slightly and muttered softly to herself, "Boys," before returning to her book.

oOoOo

Although both Harry and Hermione were surprised by just how upset Ron had been, it was nothing compared to the surprise Dumbledore had just given the school.

“I'm sure it's quite an honor for Dumbledore to have his school chosen to host the Triwizard Tournament.” Hermione said softly, “It's too bad they had to cancel Quidditch and all. Will you miss it terribly?” She asked, looking at Ron and Harry.

"Well it is a shame canceling Quidditch," Ron started, "but this tournament does sound wicked."

Harry was also disappointed about not being able to play Quidditch, but at the same time excited to see something new. "Yeah, can't wait to hear what it's all about."

"Yeah... or for it to start."

Harry just nodded, then turning to the girl sitting next to him, "What do you think Hermione?"

She smiled at their enthusiasm. "Well, it does sound interesting, testing one's skill and abilities. I just hope it's not barbaric." Looking thoughtful she added, "I guess we'll know more in a couple of days when the Headmaster announces the rules and such."

As soon as Hermione stopped talking, a flash of light from above caught their attention. The three of them tilted their heads back to look at the ceiling, which had started to act strangely. More and more students were turning their attention to it. Meanwhile, nobody had noticed the unusual stranger who had entered the Hall from a back corner. That changed a moment later, when he fired a spell up into the rafters. The ceiling settled down, and immediately returned to normal.

"Who do you suppose that is?" Asked Seamus.

Harry, and the others turned to look.

"I think it's Mad-Eye Moody," answered Ron.

"Alastor Moody, the Auror?" Hermione asked... `Is the Headmaster expecting trouble?' The last thought she keep to herself.

Dumbledore appeared to welcome the man, then he turned to address the school interrupting any further conversation or thought on the matter. "May I have your attention please." The Hall quickly quieted down. "I'll keep this brief since I hate to interrupt your dinner." Gesturing towards the weathered looking old wizard standing next to him, "May I introduce, Alastor Moody, our new defense against the dark arts professor."

As the Hall gave a welcoming round of warm applause, Harry leaned over and whispered in Hermione's ear, "Looks like he's been on the receiving end of one too many dark spells."

Hermione could only nod her head in agreement, and the thought caused a shiver to run down her spine.

oOoOo

Saturday finally arrived; it was barely noon, and yet the Great Hall was already packed. Students could hardly wait for lunch to finish, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron were no different. Today was the day Dumbledore promised to say more about the Tournament.

"I don't know why he can't just start already."

"Honestly Ron," Hermione huffed, "some of us would like to be able to pay attention and take notes, can't do that and eat at the same time."

"Take notes, Hermione this isn't class, you don't take notes."

"I can take notes if I..."

"Don't be..."

Harry cut them off, "Guys!" Stopping the argument before it got too far out of hand. Ron just stopped and went back to eating.

Hermione, looking a little sheepish said in a small voice, "Sorry." From their exchange of letters during the summer, she knew Harry hated to see them fight. Somehow she would have to learn to be more tolerant of Ron. Hermione was brought out of her musings when Dumbledore stood to address the school.

"Eternal glory...” Dumbledore paused a moment for effect, "exciting as that may be, there is more, much more to the Triwizard Tournament. While our three schools will choose champions for the main competitions, many more will compete.” Looking around at the slightly confused faces he went on, “Starting with this Tournament, in addition to the main competitions or tasks, there will be a series of smaller competitions, or more precisely, demonstrations. Professor McGonagall will tell you more about them in a moment.” Dumbledore gave a slight nod of recognition to McGonagall, then turned back to the Hall and continued, "In the past, each school started the competition with but one champion. This year we will try something new, each school will start with four champions. For Hogwarts, that means one from each house. Additionally, the number of tasks will be increased." Dumbledore waited a moment for the murmurs to settle down. "The first task will reduce the number of champions to six, two for each school. The second task will further reduce the number to three, one for each school. They will be our final champions, and together they will all compete in four more tasks to a final conclusion. However, only one will emerge victorious." Dumbledore paused for a moment to take a sip of water before continuing, “What these tasks will be, and how the champions will be scored, will be announced just before each task begins."

Again after waiting for the noise to die down, Dumbledore became serious. "Glory... is not the only possible outcome that is eternal... so is death." The Hall was now completely silent, hanging on his every word. "Thank Merlin that hasn't happened in a couple of centuries, but it has happened.

Hermione's eyes grew large, "Students have died?"

Ron shushed her not caring about the past.

Hermione glared back.

“The school and the professors will of course take every precaution to prevent serious injury or worse, but there will be no guarantees."

Dumbledore continued, "These tasks are meant to challenge our best. They are designed to test your knowledge, skill, and cunning. They will also test patience, and loyalty. And they will most certainly test... your courage. Do not make the decision to enter lightly, for if chosen, there is no turning back, you will have entered into a magically binding contract. Unless eliminated during the first two tasks, a champion must continue to a final outcome. There is no quitting. You are not allowed a change of heart. Believe me when I say these tasks are not for the weak, nor the faint of heart." He smiled after a quick glance around the room ending on the Gryffindor table. "Because of the seriousness of this tournament, there will also be a few new rules. The date of the first task is already set for October twentieth. To be chosen as a champion you must be of age by that date, that is to say, a champion must turn seventeen no later than October nineteenth."

The Hall immediately erupted in noise, mainly shouts of how unfair this new rule was.

"Rubbish!" The twins hollered.

"Silence!" Came the sonorus amplified voice of the headmaster. The Hall quickly quieted down, although it was terribly obvious, there were still a lot of upset students. "These restrictions are in place for your safety. Put there by not only our ministry, but the ministries abroad as well. You will respect them."

Then changing his persona instantly, Dumbledore gave a short smile and peered over his glasses at the assembly. "Since it is obvious that many of you who are younger would also like a chance to participate, I suggest you continue to pay attention." Turning to Professor McGonagall, "Professor if you would please."

"Thank you Headmaster," McGonagall began in her typical stern fashion. "While it may not give you, `eternal glory,'" she spoke the phrase with a hint of distaste. "The demonstrations, or what they're called officially, the Skills and Knowledge Demonstrations, will give you a chance to learn some magic not taught at your school. It will give you a chance to make new friends, and see firsthand how things are done elsewhere. Lastly, it will give you a chance to prove yourself, and your school worthy." Professor McGonagall knew this part of the tournament wasn't nearly as exciting, but it did give many more students a chance to participate, especially the younger ones.

"This part of the tournament is open to all students, although first and second-year students will have a difficult time of it, and therefore, I don't recommend it for them. The first thing you need to know is; we will choose our students to do these demonstrations first. In fact, they will be chosen before the other schools arrive. Likewise, they will have chosen their student before coming here. Next, and more importantly, if you sign up and are chosen for, the Skills and Knowledge Demonstrations, you cannot enter your name to become a champion.” McGonagall took a moment to look around the Hall to make sure everyone was still following before she went on, “Chosen students will work in both groups, and singularly. They will demonstrate their proficiency in Charms, Transfiguration, and Potions. Each demonstration will be judged much like the tasks that the champions will face. Points will be awarded, and winners announced, however, unlike the task the champions will face, these demonstrations will not be any more dangerous than normal class work." McGonagall took a breath before continuing, "Anyone wishing to participate in this part of the tournament may sign up at any time from now, until midnight Thursday, September twenty-second. Two students from each house will be chosen, one at least a fifth-year or above, the other a fourth-year or younger. Your Head of House will answer any further questions you may have, as well as monitor the sign-up list in your common room. Duplicate lists will be kept here in the Great Hall so that all can see who has signed up regardless of their house affiliation. Remember the deadline is September twenty-second, students chosen to participate will be announced at dinner Sunday the twenty fifth." Stepping back she turned to Dumbledore, "Headmaster."

Professor Dumbledore rose and gave a nod of acknowledgment to McGonagall, then once again addressed the students, "The following day, both Beauxbaton and Durmstrang will arrive here in time to join us for dinner. They will of course bring with them, their own students chosen to participate in the demonstrations.” Taking a breath, he went on, “In addition they will bring several candidates who have shown an interest in entering as champions. Each school will also bring a few select friends, and obviously some staff. We would have loved to have invited the entirety of both schools, but alas even Hogwarts has its limitations and will be near that limit with nearly one hundred additional guest. Lastly, after introductions and dinner, more will be announced about the tournament, such as deadlines, and how to enter.” Dumbledore took another deep breath, and let it out slowly, then with a curious smile said, “I think perhaps that was the longest announcement I've ever made…certainly in recent times, well, no matter. So, remember if you have any questions, do not forget to ask them. Now I'm quite sure I've said enough.” Satisfied no one was going to ask any questions here and now, Dumbledore smiled, nodded once, and returned to his seat.

oOoOo

Although Hermione was a little concerned about the safety of the champions-`It had been over two hundred years after all, surely things have changed since then,'- she found herself getting more and more excited by the minute, "Imagine, learning something new, maybe something they don't even teach at Hogwarts." Hermione was boiling over with thoughts as she spoke the last of them out loud the next day at breakfast with Harry and Ron.

"Only you could find a way to turn this into some kind of study session," Ron remarked a little exasperated.

"I happen to like learning new things," Hermione glared then a second later smiled, "and thank you for not talking with your mouth full, it's a nice change."

"You're welcome."

"Wow, a civil conversation," Harry smirked.

"I'm trying," Hermione smirked back.

He knew she was putting forth an effort to keep the arguments down, and when Ron wasn't looking, Harry mouthed, "Thanks."

"Anyway, there's also going to be a lot of new faces at school soon. Maybe we'll make some new friends," Hermione added.

Ron stopped chewing for second, "Yeah, that's right! Oi I hear a few of them Beauxbaton birds are part Veela, wouldn't mind getting to know one of them."

Ron had managed to say all that with his mouth half-full of food, only swallowing after he finished talking.

Hermione closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Ron was definitely making it difficult.

Turning from Hermione to Ron, Harry said, "Really Ron? I thought you'd be more interested it in one of the Durmstrang students." Ron's mouth fell open in shock. Harry laughed, "I'm not calling you a poof Ron, I meant you could talk Quidditch."

Seeing Ron relax, Hermione joined Harry in laughter, "Priceless," she whispered.

Harry smiled, happy he'd managed to keep the peace. "So, Hermione, can I safely assume you'll be signing up then."

Trying to poke a little fun back at her, Ron jumped in before she could answer, "Oi Harry, are you kidding, not only will she sign up... she'll drive McGonagall spare until they make the announcements."

Hermione smiled at Ron, "Git." Turning back to Harry, "Of course I'll sign up, it's a wonderful opportunity." Then with a pointed look to Ron added, "And I'll not be driving anyone spare, Ronald."

Ron smirked, but had enough common sense to recognize, that she had used his full name, and so keep his retort to himself.

Harry actually thought Ron might just be more right than wrong on this one, but wisely kept his thoughts to himself behind a knowing smile.

When Hermione turned back to Harry and noticed his smile, she arched an eyebrow. Harry was slowly shaking his head, and had raised his hands in surrender. Hermione huffed, then a moment later started laughing while turning a bit red. They were right, and she knew it. Now hoping to draw attention away from her blush, she asked, "What about you Harry, going to sign up?"

Harry straightening up and said in a sober voice, "Me? Not hardly," shaking his head again, "no... I just want a nice quiet year, but you can be sure I'll be cheering for you though."

Hermione smiled her thanks and nodded in understanding. For Harry, each year so far was anything but normal, yet alone... quiet. "I can understand that." Then turning, she asked Ron, "How about you?"

Ron actually put his fork down as he thought about his answer, earning another smile from both Harry and Hermione. After a moment, he picked it back up and shovel some eggs into his mouth before beginning his answer. Harry groaned, while Hermione rolled her eyes. They had thought they were making progress, apparently not.

"Well, we all know I'd be pants at trying any one of those `demonstrations.' Not to mention, there's no way they would pick me over you. No, I'll do the same as Harry and root for you."

"Oh, well thanks Ron, still if you want, you should..."

Ron cut her off, "No, ain't no big deal anyway, no glory and all that." Ron glanced down the table at his twin brothers, "I'll bet they try to enter anyway... maybe I should talk to them, you know, just in case."

"In case of what Ron?" Harry asked.

"In case they figure a way to enter of course. I'd get them to show me how as well." Ron got a faraway look on his face, "Triwizard Champion," he said softly to no one.

Harry and Hermione shared a look and a smile.

oOoOo

Thursday afternoon, Gryffindor and Slytherin had DADA together. To say their first class with Professor Moody was interesting, would have been a huge understatement. Harry couldn't help but compare this new teacher with the ones from the past. Like Professor Lupin, Moody was certainly competent, especially compared to the two losers Quirrell, and Lockhart. The biggest difference being their style of teaching. Lupin had been easy-going, and friendly. Whereas Moody was more intense, harsh even.

"Honestly, I don't understand how he could have possibly thought that lesson was even remotely appropriate to teach to fourth years."

"I thought it was wicked."

"Really Ron? While obviously, you didn't see how upset Neville was getting."

"Well I don't know why; it's not like he was the one under the Cruciatus Curse."

"Ron, Hermione's right. For whatever reason it was really bothering him, Professor Moody should have noticed and stopped." After a moment Harry added, "But at least we might actually learn something this year."

"If we're not all too traumatized," huffed Hermione.

After bumping into Neville on their way to their next class, Harry thought, Hermione might just be all too right about Professor Moody. And then a second thought occurred to him, why was Neville affected by the Moody's demonstration of the Cruciatus Curse so much more than the rest of the class; had he experienced personally? Harry hoped not, but decided he'd have to wait for a better time to talk to him about it.

oOoOo

The following week things pretty much returned to normal. One thing that did stand out, at least for Harry as far as he was concerned, was recreational Quidditch. A small group of students led by Fred and George had managed to convince Professor McGonagall into letting them organize some impromptu Quidditch games for fun. Harry and Ron were of course among the first to sign up.

Before agreeing, McGonagall had laid down some rules. First, the games could not interfere with the tournament in any way. Obviously, they could not have a game during any of the events. Second, they could not have or form any formal teams. Each game would have to have different players, furthermore each team would be formed from different houses, or even students from the other schools. And last, either Madam Hooch or a professor would need to be present at all times to monitor and referee the games.

As the first of these recreational games made ready to start, Professor McGonagall turned to the student sitting next to her, "I must say Miss Granger, I didn't expect to see you here today."

Hermione closed her book and turned in her seat towards her Head of House, "Really, why is that Professor?"

"Well, I didn't think you were a fan of Quidditch. I know you turn out for all the Gryffindor games, but this isn't a house game, it's just for fun."

Hermione looked around at all the others gathered and noticed how excited they all looked. It seemed they were all there just to watch, regardless of the outcome. They just wanted to get outside, do something different... have a little fun. She looked down at the book in her lap, then a moment later Hermione put the book away, back in her book bag. Turning back to McGonagall, she said after a slight hesitation, "I like to have fun too Professor."

McGonagall arched an eyebrow, "Indeed, well good." Turning back to the game now underway, she couldn't help the small smile forming on her face as she thought, `Might have something to do, with a certain forth year Gryffindor, who just happens to be playing today.' Although she knew her prized student would never admit it.

As the game progressed, both teacher and student cheered for the players. Each cheering just a little louder for their favorites. During one of the lulls in the game, McGonagall again addressed Hermione, "Miss Granger, I'm happy to see that you've decided to sign up and be part of the tournament." It was easy to see the excitement in her eyes as Hermione responded.

"Oh yes! I can hardly wait. I do hope I get chosen, I mean... what an opportunity. Don't you agree Professor?"

"I most certainly do Miss Granger."

Hermione desperately wanted to ask the one question that had been on her mind since she had signed up last week. Although she knew she had a very good chance of being chosen, her insecurities sometimes got the better of her. Sometimes she needed reassurance. Sometimes she needed to know that all her hard work was really worth it. In a way, she needed this… to prove her own self-value. Had it not been for a personal vow she made to herself, she probably would have asked right here and now, what her Professor thought of her chances.

Professor McGonagall prided herself on knowing her lions, and seeing Hermione worry her bottom lip, she had a fair idea as to what was bothering her student. With a knowing look, she said in a neutral tone, "I'm fairly certain Miss Granger, that you will not be disappointed."

Hermione was never one to be slow on the uptake, "Oh... well thank you for the encouragement Professor." Hermione then turned back to the game with a smile on her face that reached ear to ear.

oOoOo

As the following week was drawing to a close, Neville took a moment to survey the Great Hall before sitting down to dinner. Soon, the students who were going to compete in the Skills and Knowledge Demonstrations would be chosen. Although school had been fairly normal, or even a bit boring so far, there was a very real excitement in the air. Students seemed more energetic. They talked more quickly as if they had too much to say, and too little time to say it. He had briefly considered adding his name to the list, but after seeing who all was on it, he decided against it.

"Hello Neville, have you forgotten where to sit?"

Neville broke from his thoughts to find a pretty blonde-haired girl smiling at him. She looked both curious and amused at the same time. "Ah... no just thinking. You know, everyone seems..."

"Different? Preoccupied?"

"Yes, exactly." Neville studied the girl for a moment, "I'm sorry, but how do you know me?”

“You don't have to apologize Neville, a lot of people know who you are.”

Neville smiled, “Oh, well…I see” Luna smiled back, but didn't say anything else.

A little taken back, Neville cleared his throat, then said weakly, “Yeah…well, although I've seen you around... I'm afraid I don't know your name."

"Well, I'm glad a Wrackspurt hasn't messed with your memories," Luna said quite seriously, "and to ease your fear, I'm Luna Lovegood." Then without another word, she turned and walked away.

Neville stood there a moment longer staring after her, `Wrackspurt?...Strange, but kind of nice,' he thought before making his way over to his own table to eat.

oOoOo

Sunday morning Ginny watched with interest as Hermione entered the Hall for breakfast. She smirked after noticing her look around and then frown before sitting down. Quickly putting on a normal face she asked, "Hey... something wrong?"

"Hey Gin... have you seen Harry?" Completely ignoring Ginny's question.

"No, not yet anyway," Ginny turned to her brother, "how about you? Have you seen Harry, do you know where he is?"

Ron shrugged, "Dunno, maybe he's having a bit of a lie-in."

Hermione's eyes narrowed, "Doubt it." Stealing a long glance at Ginny before continuing, "He's up to something."

Ginny laughed and waved her hand, "Oh Hermione, really... he's late for breakfast, that's all. I mean Merlin!"

Hermione continued to look at Ginny, she wasn't ready to let this go, "It's not just this morning, he's been acting strange all week. Just yesterday... what?" Hermione sighed, "Oh all right, maybe it's just me. But..."

Ginny cut her off by hopping up quickly, "Right then, I'm off, won't be wasting my Sunday morning wondering what Harry Potter is dreaming about." And she quickly left.

Hermione now turned to Ron, "What's with her?"

Without missing a bite Ron answered, "Dunno."

Hermione huffed, "Humph, really Ron? That's all you have to say?"

“Ah… Dunno,” Ron said with a smirk, before retuning to his breakfast.

oOoOo

As Harry plopped down on the bench next to Hermione for breakfast the next morning, he gave her a little nudge with his shoulder, "Hey, morning," he smiled at her.

"Hey yourself," Hermione smiled back, "where in Merlin's name have you been lately?"

"What do you mean?"

"Harry... I've hardly seen you the last few days."

Harry wiggled his eyebrows, "Miss me?"

"Prat," she said smiling as she slapped his arm, "now answer the question."

Harry laughed, he really was in a good mood, "Hermione! I don't know... I... I've been busy I guess. You know I hope to play Quidditch again next week, so I've been trying to get ahead a little." It was the truth, although not the whole truth. "Oh before I forget," Harry covertly slipped Hermione an envelope, "happy birthday," he whispered, trying to change the subject.

Hermione took her card, and cautiously looked around, "I'll read it later." Turning back to Harry with a look of appreciation she added, "Thank you Harry."

"Don't mention it," he smiled.

oOoOo

Hermione couldn't help but smile all through class that morning; Harry's good mood was completely infectious. Plus the fact that he had remembered her birthday only added to her giddiness. Later at lunch, she had finally found some time alone to read his card. Only to find a note on the back telling her to wait till after their second and last class of the day before opening it.

Later, it was a mysterious Harry that pulled her out the door of their Charms classroom, refusing to say anything except `come on'.

"Harry, what on earth has gotten into you? Where are we going?"

Harry stopped only to reply, "Do you trust me?" A grin on his face.

Hermione rolled her eyes, "Harry!"

"Do you?"

"Always," she said softly.

"Then come on," Harry said, as he continued to lead a frazzled Hermione outside.

A few minutes later, they were down by the shore of the lake. Harry suddenly came to an abrupt stop and turned to Hermione, "Okay from here you have to close your eyes."

"Harry... I..."

"Please," he pleaded.

Hermione sighed, she could never refuse that look, "Fine."

Standing beside her, Harry placed an arm around her waist to guide her, and slowly led her little further down the shore. A moment later he stopped. Letting go, he moved away slightly.

"Harry?"

"Open your eyes Hermione," he said softly.

She was standing right in front of a huge old oak tree. The one she liked to sit under on a warm day. It was her favorite place outdoors to go and read. Only today, there was a blanket all spread out under the shade of the mighty oak. In the center of the blanket sat a picnic basket, next to it, a couple of plates and two glasses. However, what caught her eye was a small pile of brightly wrapped packages. Birthday presents.

This was the second-time Harry had done something nice for her on her birthday. She knew he must have done almost all of this by himself, as no one else knew what today meant to her. Just as a lone tear started to fall, Hermione turned and grabbed Harry, wrapping him in a tight hug. "Oh Harry," she murmured into his neck.

Harry hugged her back gently. He loved seeing her happy; it made all the effort worthwhile. Then before it got too awkward he said, "You still have my card?"

Hermione slowly let go of Harry and took a half step back, "Of course, it's in my bag."

Harry took her hand, and led her over to sit on the blanket, "Great, you can open it after you open all the rest of your presents."

That's when Hermione noticed there were quite a few, "Harry, please tell me you didn't spend all your money on me."

Harry laughed, "Would it matter?" Seeing the stress on her face Harry went on, "Hermione, no I didn't... I didn't have to. Most of these are from other people. People who couldn't be here today, or didn't want to draw attention to your secret." Harry then started handing Hermione her gifts one at a time for her to open. There were two from her parents, one from each. There was also one each from her grandmother, and great aunt. One from Professor McGonagall, and lastly one from Harry.

As she opened her last gift, Hermione realized just how observant Harry had become. He had given her a new book bag, apparently he had noticed how her old one was literally falling apart. "Thank you Harry, just in time too."

"You're welcome Hermione, but you know... a new book bag needs to be broken in proper... open your card," Harry said, the last part a bit softer than the rest.

Hermione arched a brow, then opened the envelope and pulled out the card. It resembled a book, a book without a title. Opening the card she read,

.

The bearer of this card.

May redeem it at Flourish & Blotts.

For any book of their choosing.

.

Down near the bottom, signed in a messy scrawl she read,

.

`Happy Birthday Hermione,

Your Friend, Harry Potter.'

.

Hermione found herself getting teary-eyed again, "I think this is the best birthday ever." Then only just realizing, "Harry, how did you..."

Harry held up both hands to stop her. Then with a look that would be more at home on Luna's face simply said, "Magic." Hermione stared back at him for a second, before both broke into loud laughter.

They sat on the blanket and continued to talk and laugh until it was nearly dark. Together they had shared a small cake, complete with candles, courtesy of the Hogwarts elves. Soon, it was time to head back, and with Dobby's help, they were able to get all of Hermione's presents safely and secretly, hidden away in her trunk.

As they made their way back up to the Castle Hermione asked, "Seriously Harry, how did you get my presents from all my family?"

"Well to be honest, your mum and I kind of had it worked out before we left for school." Seeing her serious look, Harry knew she wanted more details, "Your mum collected all the gifts from your family, and then we used Hedwig to bring them here. Actually, to Professor McGonagall, she kept them in her office till today. Then Dobby helped me with the rest." Harry chuckled, "McGonagall even smuggled me out of school on Sunday, so I could get your bag. Ginny caught us as we were leaving, we told her we were secretly checking a few details for the tournament, and I had volunteered to help her. McGonagall even swore her to secrecy to help sell the story."

Hermione had stopped walking, and just stood there staring at Harry.

"What?"

Hermione shook her head and laughed, "I don't know how you do it Harry!"

Confused, Harry asked, "Do what, exactly?"

Hermione gestured towards the lake, "This... I've always found it... incredible, how you would get yourself involved in something, or just set your mind to something, and the next thing I know... I'm involved, or Ron, or... somebody else. Not that I'm complaining mind you." She quickly added after seeing the look of concern on his face. "And now... now you've gone and managed to get a Professor involved. Helping you with one of your extraordinary adventures. Merlin, she even lied for you... amazing!"

"More like a small fib really. Besides, it was for a good reason. A great reason." Harry was still slightly worried, and it showed on his face. The last thing he wanted was for Hermione to be upset with him on her birthday.

"I suppose," Hermione smiled.

"You mad?"

Hermione tilted her head slightly, "No, of course not." She then realized why Harry had asked. Stepping up to him, she pulled him into a gentle hug, "Oh Harry, I didn't mean it to sound as if you go looking for trouble or anything." Tightening her grip, she went on, "And for what it's worth, I wouldn't trade our little adventures together, for all the tea in England."

"You mean that... really?"

"Yes Harry, I do," pulling back a little she added, "I know you Harry, your heart is always in the right place. Why else would McGonagall help you?"

Harry smiled, suddenly feeling a little warm, "Thanks."

Hermione beamed, "Come on, let's go."

oOoOo

The deadline for students wishing to enter the demonstration portion of the competition passed without much fanfare. So it was a very exciting group of students, who anxiously waited for dinner to finish. They could hardly wait, to see who would be chosen to compete.

Luna Lovegood, was probable the most isolated and unknown student at Hogwarts. She went about her daily business, mostly ignored. She was practically invisible. The few who did know her treated her with disdain, like she didn't belong. She knew she was not well-liked. As proof, one only had to hear what they called her, 'loony.' Although it bothered her sometimes more than others, she could deal with it. It wasn't, not having any friends that got to her. It was always being excluded, being left out. Not being a part of something. As a third-year student, Luna knew she stood very little chance of being selected, but she had entered anyway. She entered, because here was a chance to do something good for her house, gain them some recognition, and maybe some for herself by association. She just wanted to be a part of something. If nothing else, it offered her an opportunity to meet new people. Maybe people who would not judge her by her looks, or her actions.

Neville stopped just inside the doors to the great Hall and smiled, there she was... it was his turn. He moved forward and stood just behind the pretty blonde girl, "Hello Luna, have you forgotten where to sit?" He said in a voice full of mirth.

Tilting her head back, Luna looked up to the ceiling as if searching for something only she could see. "Hello Neville," she answered with a small soft smile, turning slightly to face him as he moved to stand beside her, Luna continued, "are you still happy with your decision not to sign up?"

"How did you know I hadn't signed up?" Neville asked, boggled by this seemingly simple third-year girl.

"The sign-up sheets are posted Neville, all one has to do is look," she replied gently with a nod towards the adjacent wall.

"Oh right, I forgot," Neville answered sheepishly. He couldn't help but wonder if she had memorized all the names, or had only looked for just his. Returning his gaze to her, he was slightly startled by how intense she looked. Feeling his shyness starting to rise, he quickly asked, "How about you, did you sign up?" Hoping to change the atmosphere.

"Oh, yes... but I doubt I'll be picked. I'm not very well liked." Luna again seemed to stare into nothingness, "In fact, I'm surprised you're still here talking to me."

Neville was shocked; he knew firsthand what it was like to be unpopular. He was clumsy, short, and not very good at magic, but at least he knew he had a few friends. Not great friends, and not many friends... but still. As Neville continued to watch Luna, he thought he saw for just an instant... a flash of pain in her eyes, then it was gone. Covered by that distant... dreamy look she so often wore.

"Luna... for what it's worth, I hope you do get picked."

Luna now turned fully, so she stood face to face with him. Lifting her head a little, she stared deeply into his eyes, looking for the truth in his last statement.

Before he lost his nerve, Neville went on, "And even though I hardly know you, I for one, think you're nice."

A second later Luna smiled, "Thank you Neville... I think you're nice too."

oOoOo

Harry looked over at Hermione and smiled. She was a ball of barely contained energy as she sat and worried her bottom lip. Typical Hermione. Leaning over Harry whispered, "Nervous?"

Hermione's head snapped around to look at Harry as if only now realizing he was there, "What...ah no... why?"

"Hermione, you're practically bouncing off the bench, Harry said with a smirk. `She wasn't just nervous, she was worried too, worried she wasn't good enough to get chosen,' Harry thought. "Hermione, don't worry, I'm sure you'll get picked."

"How can you be so sure Harry?" There was a genuine curiosity evident in her tone.

"Because you're brilliant Hermione, and most everyone knows it. They'd have to be completely nutters not to pick you."

Hermione relaxed, it wasn't just some shallow comment to make her feel better. Harry meant every word and she knew it. After taking a deep breath Hermione nodded, "Right... okay, thanks Harry." Then hoping to change the subject for at least a few minutes she asked, "How was the game yesterday? I mean I know you didn't play, but I assume you went and watched?"

"Yeah I did," Harry smiled at her obvious attempt to change the subject. "As you know, there is a list of everyone who wants to play. Once you play in a game, your name automatically goes to the bottom of the list, that way everyone gets a chance to play. Turns out, that list is pretty long, so, maybe next time," Harry answered her un-asked question as to why he wasn't in the game. "It was a good game though, and I learned something. I'm probably a better player, then a spectator," he finished with a grin.

"Well that works out splendidly, because I'm a better spectator.”

They shared a laugh just before the noise in the Hall grew quiet. Professor McGonagall got up and approached the podium, "May I have your attention please. The moment some of you have been waiting for has finally arrived." McGonagall stole a quick glance at Hermione. "It's time to announce those chosen to compete for Hogwarts, in the Triwizard Tournaments, Skills and Knowledge Demonstrations." McGonagall paused a moment to make sure everyone was quiet, "The selection process was done by a majority vote. Each staff member voted for two students from each house. Any ties were broken by the Headmaster.

If I call your name, please come forward and stand next to your Head of House." McGonagall almost smirked, the students were on pins and needles.

Finally, she began, "In no particular order then, from Hufflepuff, fifth-year student Mr. Zacharias Smith." Immediately, the badgers erupted in cheers. "From Slytherin, sixth-year student Adriun Pucey." More cheering, this time from the snakes. "From Ravenclaw, third-year student Miss Luna Lovegood." Luna smiled, not because of the small reluctant clapping from her own table, but from the excited cheers coming from a single Gryffindor. Harry and Ron shared a quick look of amusement for their dorm room friend.

"From Gryffindor, sixth-year student Mr. Fred Weasley." The attention on Neville now shifted to Fred as loud applause broke out. Harry gave Hermione's hand a light squeeze to tell her it wasn't over yet. "From Ravenclaw, fifth-year student Miss Cho Chang. From Hufflepuff, fourth-year student Miss Hannah Abbott. From Slytherin, fourth-year student Mr. Draco Malfoy."

For Hermione, this was it. She didn't know why she wanted it so bad, but she did. She was wound up tighter than the mainspring in her old watch.

"And last but certainly not least, from Gryffindor," Harry could have sworn McGonagall was dragging this out on purpose. "Fourth-year student... Miss... Hermione Granger." Their Head of House finished with a tiny smirk, and a slight nod to Hermione.

Hermione squealed with delight, and bolted from her seat. The rest of the table clapping loudly, giving their congratulations. Fred gave her a bow as she approached. Neville, for the second-time tonight was clapping like crazy. Ron looked around and smiled, 'This is great,' he thought, `this might actually be pretty fun.' Still smiling, he caught Hermione's attention, "Alright Hermione!”

"Thanks Ron." She mouthed.

Harry turned in his seat as Hermione returned, and took both her hands in his. Hermione settled down for a moment as she stared back at him. "I told you. Now everyone will know what I know... just how brilliant you really are. Next, you're going to win this... you'll see."

Hermione couldn't help, but be awed by his sincere confidence in her. One thing had changed for sure though, now she needed this for Harry, just as much as for herself.

AN; I always thought the Triwizard Tournament was a bit lacking. Three tasks that only last for about an hour; two of which take place out of sight…not much entertainment value. Also, only three student (not counting Harry) total…from all three schools…not much participation. That's why I added the extra tasks, and the demonstrations. So obviously, my timeline will be different from JKR's to fit my needs.

.

.

AN: In chapter three, I wrote that Harry had never seen the ocean… Ops, I forgot that he had; When Hagrid came to pick him up just before first year. My thanks to “Mad Library Scientist” for pointing that error out to me. I'll try and go back and fix that when I have some more time.

.

.

22

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

5. The New Arrivals


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 5

The New Arrivals

.

The following day proved to be just as exciting. Settling down in the Great Hall after witnessing the arrival of both a magical ship, and a flying carriage, everyone was anxious to see the students from their sister schools.

Just before dinner started, Dumbledore approached the podium to make an announcement, “My I have your attention please,” then after a pause, “most of you have witnessed the arrival of our very special guests, please treat them as such.” Dumbledore looked at the closed main doors to the Great Hall and paused again. Then with impeccable timing, continued, “Now, please join me in welcoming the lovely ladies from the Beauxbaton Academy… and their headmistress, Olympe Maxime. As Dumbledore gestured towards the main doors to the Hall, they opened. In came a small group of girls, all of whom were very pretty, some quite striking. As they entered, they seem to almost float, or glide across the floor in a dance like way. The effect was almost hypnotizing.

Hermione couldn't help but think, that one of the criteria for being chosen was their looks… their beauty. As she looked more closely, she realized they were more than just pretty, they were gorgeous, every single one of them, some were exceptionally stunning. And, as if to add salt to the wound, a couple were at least part veela.

“Honestly Ron, close your mouth,” Hermione chastised, “they're just girls.”

Ron just ignored her, he was practically half standing by the time the small group of students had passed.

Hermione thought he might just get up and go after them. “Ron! For Merlin's sake, sit, down. You don't see Harry acting like a fool.” It was true, and although Harry was watching with keen interest, he wasn't acting like some lovesick puppy. Hermione smiled at him, `He's not that shallow,' she thought.

Harry caught her eyes on him and smiled back, then glancing at Ron, his smile grew. “Oy mate, control yourself.”

Ron finally sat down with a goofy smile on his face.

Hermione couldn't help it, she just had to take the mickey out of him a little, “So Ron… did you see any that you might fancy?”

Ron sobered a little, “Well yeah, weren't you watching?" Then as if to verify his comment, Ron turned back around to stare at the Beauxbaton girls, totally oblivious to the snickers from both Harry and Neville. Hermione smirked while shaking her head at his antics.

Moments later, Dumbledore announced the arrival of the Durmstrang students, "And now our friends from the north, the proud sons of Durmstrang, and their headmaster, Igor Karkaroff. Again, attention turned to the doors as they opened revealing a small group of roguish looking young wizards. They marched in, loud and bold, in stark contrast to the near waltz like entrance of the Beauxbatons. Their long staves, drumming a cadence on the stone floor, as they proceeded towards the front of the Hall. Bringing up the rear, marching slightly behind the others… one stood out. He moved with confidence, tall and proud.

"It's him," Ron stated in awe.

"Who?" Hermione asked.

Harry, also interested in the answer, split his attention between the new arrivals, and his friends.

"Viktor Krum."

Hermione felt a little heat rise to her face, as the Bulgarian in question glanced their way for a moment.

Harry raised an eyebrow, "The Quidditch player?"

Hermione looked at Harry, a little surprised that he knew of him.

"Yeah, we saw him play at the World Cup," Ron answered a tad bit coolly.

Harry took a quick glance at Hermione and noticed her look of concern. Apparently, Ron wasn't quite over their absence from last summer. Hoping to move on without conflict Harry added, "I hear he's pretty good," knowing full well he was.

"Pretty good! Are you having me on Harry? He's bloody fantastic, brilliant, probably the best seeker ever to play!" Ron returned, obviously getting excited.

Finnigan laughed, "Oy Ron, Harry was right." Seeing Ron's confused look, he went on, "You are more interested in the Durmstrangs."

Remembering Harry's comment from before, Ron turned red, and glared at Finnigan.

Finnigan only laughed harder, then looking at Harry said, "You sure he's not a poofter?"

"Stuff it Finnigan," Ron said while glaring at him.

Harry laughed, but when Ron turned his glare on him, he quickly said, "I think Ron only admires the way he handles a broom stick...” Harry regretted his choice of words immediately, “Not that broom stick."

Finnigan smirked, "Supposed you're right. After living with him for three years, we'd probably know by now, yeah?"

Hermione smiled, as she watched the byplay.

As the last of the visiting students settled in, Hermione took a moment to look around. While the girls from Beauxbaton mixed in, and sat among the different houses, the Bulgarians sat together at the end of the Slytherin table. She wondered briefly if it was because their respective headmasters had told them to act that way, or they simply did it on their own. Any further thoughts on the matter would have to wait as her own headmaster approached the podium to speak again.

"Welcome, welcome, yes it is indeed a pleasure to have such fine representatives from our neighboring schools, here with us tonight. We," Dumbledore gestured around the Hall, "invite you to enjoy all Hogwarts has to offer, and only ask that you share with us all that, what you think we would find interesting." Peering over his spectacles he continued, "While we may have been brought together here for a tournament... a competition, please do not lose sight of the fact that we are all wizards and witches... brothers and sisters in the larger sense. While competition can bring out both the best and the worst in someone, I'm confident that all of you will use this opportunity to grow, and to learn. That you will emerge a better individual for having tried... regardless, of your individual outcome at the end of the year." Dumbledore took a long breath hoping his words of wisdom would find heart.

"In a moment, as promised more about the Triwizard Tournament." Excitement in the Great Hall ratcheted up a notch. "But first I would like for all the students from our three schools who have been chosen to compete in the Knowledge and Skills Demonstrations to come forward, so that we can start to get acquainted."

Hermione glanced left, then right. Slowly, students were starting to stand. Hesitantly, she rose, suddenly aware of a great number of eyes upon her. Reaching her feet, she looked for Harry, only to find him staring back at her. Hermione's nerves settled instantly. Harry's eyes shone with pride and happiness for her. Smiling she gave him a quick nod, which he returned, then she turned and headed for the front of the Hall, confident she at least had his support. Reaching the front, Hermione turned and stood in a line shoulder to shoulder with twenty-three other students.

Dumbledore reached out wide with both hands, "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you some of our finest minds... let's show them our appreciation." Dumbledore led all three schools in a loud round of applause. As the cheering and clapping died down, "Please give them the continued support they deserve by attending their demonstrations."

While Harry was watching Hermione, Neville's eyes were fixed on Luna. “Harry, what do you know about Luna Lovegood,” he asked off-handedly.

Harry turned to find Neville still staring at Luna, “Ah, well not much really; third-year Ravenclaw, I think she lives near Ron. You should ask Ginny, she knows her, they're friends.

After dismissing the students back to their seats he continued, "I feel, I must repeat myself, at least about the basics of the tournament. We will start with four champions from each school, all of them must be seventeen years of age by the time of the first task, which is scheduled for October twentieth. The first two tasks are designed to reduce the number of champions down to one per school. From that point on, each champion will stand alone... from there what awaits each student, glory, or something else... only time will tell. Each remaining champion must complete four additional tasks, four extremely dangerous tasks in order to win, but more on that later. Here now to explain the new rules in more detail is Mr. Barty Crouch, head of the department for International Magical Cooperation… the IMC.

As Mr. Crouch droned on about ministry policy, the students quietly began to talk amongst themselves.

“How do you suppose he'll enforce the age rule?" Asked Seamus.

"Probably some sort of spell or charm placed on or around the cup," Hermione answered, "I wouldn't be surprised if it were put there by Dumbledore himself."

Before the conversation could go much further, Mr. Crouch finished and Dumbledore raised his hands to silence the Hall.

A rather tall and slender looking crate covered in what looked like jewels, or gemstones, was brought in. Dumbledore moved to stand beside it, after tapping the top of it with his wand he stepped back and watch for a moment. Slowly, the crate seemed to just melt away leaving a large but plain looking goblet, which appeared to be made out of stone standing about 5 feet tall. All eyes were now on the goblet, and as the last of it was revealed, a bright blue flame erupted from the top and burned silently. ”The Goblet of Fire," Dumbledore announced solemnly.

Harry looked around the table after hearing the twins say `wicked' simultaneously.

Everyone was staring at the cup, most in fascination, some in awe. One in particular though, looked concerned, maybe even a little afraid. "Hermione, you alright?"

She turned and looked at him sharply for a long moment, and slowly nodded her head yes, before turning back to the goblet. Maybe it was the blue flame, or possibly the hard cut of the dark grey stone…Hermione didn't know, but there was something about the goblet that bothered her. Maybe even scared her, but why? There was no logical reason for it, just…a feeling.

Harry wasn't completely convinced. She may have said yes, her eyes definitely said no. Dumbledore's voice stopped any further thought on the matter.

"Anyone wishing to submit themselves as a candidate for champion, only has to write their name on a piece of parchment and throw it in the flame before the last hour of Saturday, October first," he said while gesturing to the goblet next to him. Turning from the goblet back to the Hall, and leaning forward slightly, his next words he spoke slowly, and in a near whisper, "Do not do so lightly." His underlying message of grave caution, was clear to everyone. After barely a moment, he straightened back up to his full height and continued more loudly, "As of this moment... the Triwizard Tournament has begun."

oOoOo

Later that night, a tiny explosion from a small table in the corner suddenly disturbed the peaceful quiet of the Gryffindor common room.

Hermione looked up to find Colin staring back at another third year with a stunned expression on his face. Judging by the black soot, she was fairly sure he had just lost a round of exploding snaps to his friend. Smiling to herself, she entertained the idea of asking if she could borrow his camera, but then thought better of the idea. Taking a short break from her reading, Hermione looked around the common room. It was the twins that next caught her eye. They were sitting off by themselves, deep in conversation. Occasionally one would nod his head at something the other had said, and both would break into sinister smiles. `No doubt about it, they're up to something.' After smiling at the thought for a second, she went back to her reading confident that their prank would make itself known soon enough.

oOoOo

October first, just happened to be a Saturday as well as the first Hogsmeade visit of the year. Tomorrow would be one week exactly since Dumbledore declared the start of the Triwizard Tournament. However, it was tomorrow night, after dinner to be more precise, that everyone was eagerly awaiting. That's when the champions would be announced, and the tournament would begin in earnest.

Madam Rosmerta sat two butterbeers down on the table causing Harry to smile, "Thanks ma'am."

"No bother dearie," she smiled back kindly, "where's that young witch, you lot are normally with?"

"Oh... that would be Hermione. She stopped to talk with another girl from school. She'll be here shortly," Harry relayed quickly. "If you see her come in, go ahead and bring her a butterbeer, I'm sure she'll want one."

"I'll keep an eye out."

"She's nice," Harry stated, as he watched her return to the bar.

Ron shrugged, "Yeah, I suppose." Leaning forward a little, he changed the subject, "So who was that girl Hermione was talking to anyway?"

Harry thought for a second, Hermione had pointed her out to him a few days earlier, but he hadn't seen her since. "Ah, she's one of the students who will be doing a skills demo. A fourth-year from Beauxbaton named, Nicole... something."

"Nicole Lescuier," interrupted Hermione as she sat down with a pointed look to Harry for forgetting her name.

Wearing a sheepish smile he replied, "I would have remembered... eventually."

Hermione raised an eyebrow, but before she could say anything, Madam Rosmerta sat a butterbeer down in front of her. Hermione looked up in surprise.

"This young fellow thought you might want one," Rosmerta ticked her head towards Harry, "he took the liberty of ordering for ya."

Hermione smiled at Harry, completely forgetting about Nicole. "Thank you Harry," then turning back to their hostess, "yes, he was right. Thank you ma'am."

Madam Rosmerta looked back and forth between the two of them, then with a nod turned and walked away. Only then did she let a knowing smile appear on her face.

"So Hermione, how's it been going with getting ready for the demo? You've been so busy lately. Is this Nicole girl going to be your partner?" Asked Harry.

"Yeah, what's she like, is she a veela?" Ron added quickly.

"No, she's just a plain old regular witch like the rest of us Ron," Hermione answered, her tone clearly letting him know she was growing tired of his infatuation with anything veela. "In fact, she's a Muggle-born like me." Then turning to Harry, she continued, “And yes, we've decided to pair up for the first demo.”

Harry smiled, "And is she also top of her class?"

Hermione smiled, then thought for a moment, "I don't know, it's never come up... but she is quite intelligent, so maybe."

“How'd you two end up together?”

“Well for this first demonstration they wanted us to work in pairs, and it had to be someone from another school,” Hermione began. “Remember the next day? How I had to spend the afternoon with the others who were also giving demos? Well we pretty much just sat around and talked, trying to get to know each other.” Hermione went on to explain how her and Nicole hit it off right away. Both were fourth-year Muggle-borns, and both were very bright, so they quickly decided to team up.

"Can a Muggle-born also be a veela?"

Harry laughed.

"Honestly Ron, is that all you think about?" Hermione huffed. "As far as I know, there are only a couple of girls from Beauxbaton that are actually veela." Knowing his next question, she went on, "And no, I don't know which ones."

"Why don't you just ask one of them Ron?" Harry suggested.

Ron paled, "Are you mental?"

Harry laughed again, "No, don't think so... Hermione?"

She seemed to study him for a few seconds, "No, I don't think so either," then joined him laughing. Her good mood suddenly changed when she noticed a student at another table reading the Prophet.

Harry noticed the change, “Hermione?”

Turning back to Harry, “Have you read what that Rita women has been saying?” she asked angrily.

“Yeah, I have. Been trying to ignore it,” Harry said solemnly.

oOoOo

Sunday morning seemed to drag on forever. Breakfast was almost over when Parvati spotted her sister heading over to join her.

Padma sat down, “Hey."

Parvati smiled, "Hey, it's been a while, are you already bored with your fellow Claws?"

"Maybe, then again... maybe I just wanted to see how my brave twin was doing."

"Oh, I'm just fine..."

"Good, so ah, anything interesting happening in Gryffindor?" asked Padma with an innocent smile.

Both girls broke into brief giggles; it had been quite a while since their last little impromptu get-together to compare the goings-on of their respective houses. It seemed the higher up in grade they got, the less time they had for catching up with each other.

Parvati thought for a second, then with a smirk said, "Not much... but, I'm sure you heard about the Weasley twins trying to fool the goblet."

"Oh yeah, I did. I think by now, the whole school knows. Really, an aging potion. Did they really think that would actually work?"

"Who knows with those two? Hermione did try to warn them, but of course, they knew better."

"Of course!" Padma laughed.

oOoOo

Lunch and early afternoon passed agonizingly slow, then suddenly, it was time for dinner. The moment the school had been waiting for. Time seemed to pick up the pace, rushing forward towards some finality. Hermione thoughts became humorous, `Father Time must be having a good laugh about now.' However her smile only lasted a few moments as she again felt that odd feeling in the pit of her stomach, something was off. Try as she might though, Hermione couldn't put her finger on anything noteworthy. She would just have to wait and see, `Probably just my nerves.' Looking up, she pushed both thought aside as she watched Ron and Harry approach.

"Hey guys," she smiled, "excited?"

"Peckish!" Ron answered as he drop-down next to her.

Hermione rolled her eyes and shook her head a little at his antics, but keep smiling anyway. With a slightly aspirated look, she turned to Harry and raised eyebrow in silent question.

Harry wasted no time and answering, "Well yeah, of course." He continued to stare at her, waiting to see if she had something else to say. That's when he noticed it, a fleeting look, a look of concern. It only lasted a brief moment before she schooled her features. This was the second time he'd seen that look; concern, confusion, doubt. "Hermione?"

Even though she was looking right at him, she didn't see him. She was lost in thought for a split second. It was right there, on the edge of her consciousness, a thought hidden in the shadows of her mind, close, yet so far away. What was bothering her? Something to do with the tournament? With herself, her partner... Harry? Hermione snapped out of it when she heard her name.

"Sorry, what?"

"You alright? You looked a little lost there for a moment."

"Oh yeah, ah sorry... just nerves," she said, then looked away towards the Goblet of Fire, only to get lost in thought again.

Harry studied her for a moment longer, `She'll tell me more when she's ready.' Harry was rudely broke from his thoughts by Seamus, who had thrown a dinner roll at his head.

"Oi Harry, don't stare, ain't no one ever told you it's impolite?" He said before bursting out laughing.

Harry knew what he was implying, and felt a little heat rise up the back of his neck. While Seamus laughed, Harry responded with what he would later defend as, `the most appropriate action.' He picked up a dinner roll, and returned fire, then added, "Shut it Finnigan."

Seamus stopped laughing, but the smirk never left his face. Harry smiled in satisfaction, before turning back to dinner.

oOoOo

Dumbledore stood and approached the podium. He waited a moment until most had noticed him, then raising his hands to calm the rest he started, "If you'll all please take your seats, the moment you've been waiting for has arrived, the selection of the Triwizard Champions." After a short pause to let the tension rise, he continued, "The order called is of no importance, but when called, please come forward and stand here." Dumbledore gestured to space next to him. Stepping forward he reached out his hand and slowly moved it a small arc around the room. As he did so, the torches on the wall when out. A rather impressive display of wandless magic, thought both Harry and Hermione, and no doubt many others.

Moving over to stand next to the Goblet of Fire, he waved his hand once more. The silent blue flame turned red and roared to life as it seemed to spew out a burnt piece of parchment. Dumbledore reached up and grabbed it as it floated down. Reading aloud, "The first champion is for Durmstrang, Mr. Vasil Demetrius.

The Durmstrang students cheered, while Vasil made his way forward.

Again the fire turned red, "From Beauxbaton, Miss Fleur Delacour." More cheers. The Goblet seemed to take the schools in turn, choosing the champions.

"From Hogwarts, Mr. Roger Davis." All of the claws were on their feet cheering for one of their own.

And so it went, from Durmstrang; Rodomir Asparukh, and Andon Aleksandar. The one student who got the most attention though, was Viktor Krum. He walked forward with an air of confidence none of the others could match.

Harry couldn't help but notice, that when he stole a glance at their table, Hermione and Ginny both turned red, while Ron did the opposite, and turned white.

The other champions from Beauxbaton were; Marie Elise Gilbert, Renee De La Rue, and Claudine Du Moulin. While the other three Hogwarts students chosen were; from Hufflepuff, Cedric Diggory, from Slytherin, Derrick Wilkes, and the last name to come out of the cup was from Gryffindor, Alicia Spinnet.

By the time Alicia had made her way to the front, the entire Hall was on its feet cheering and yelling encouragements. Harry was no different, clapping enthusiastically for all, but mostly for Alicia... she was a lion after all, one of their own. Fred seemed especially proud, and both Ginny and Hermione noticed, and laughed at his enthusiasm. Harry also noticed, that three of the Hogwarts students were sixth years. `Must all have early birthdays,' He thought, then looking over to Fred and George, knowing how hard they tried to get in, `too bad, they just missed it.'

The students quietly down and began taking their seats as Dumbledore again began to speak. "Now here before us, we have our twelve champions, but in the end, only one will go down in history... only one will hoist the Triwizard Cup." As he finished, he turned with a deliberate suddenness and pointed to a covered object now sitting on the previously empty table beside them. More wandless magic, as the final word left his mouth, the cover flew off, revealing the spectacular looking Triwizard Cup.

In the surreal silence that followed this dramatic scene, the Goblet of Fire started to rumble back to life. As everyone turned curiously back towards it one more time, its fire turned red, and spit out another piece of half burnt parchment. Hermione's eyes cautiously followed the tiny still smoldering scrap, as it floated downwards, that ill feeling coming back with a vengeance. A concerned Dumbledore reached out and grabbed it, then stood in silence for what seemed an eternity after reading the name that had been written on it. Still looking down, he said in a quiet voice full of disbelief, "Harry Potter."

Harry jolted, no way, this can't be happening. All around him, he could hear people starting to murmur things. Without even looking, he knew all eyes were on him. Turning quickly, Harry looked to his friends for support, for help. He found none. Instead, in their eyes, he found contempt, and repulsion, as if he was the lowest form of scoundrel. Someone, you don't talk to, or even about, at least, not in proper company. Pausing on Ron for a moment, his first friend, Harry was surprised to see the hard look on his face, the hatred in his eyes. Finally, Harry's gaze stopped on Hermione. Her eyes told a different story, hers were full of worry, but for what? Was she worried about him, or worried that he had cheated?

Shaking his head slightly he ventured, "Hermione... I didn't... I don't know how..."

Hermione nodded quickly; she had to reassure him, "I know Harry, I know." She knew just by the look of shock on his face. She also knew he was worried that she'd not believe him.

"Harry Potter!" This time the headmaster's voice was loud and clear, and it carried a hint of anger.

Harry just sat there staring back at Hermione trying to read her. He had to be certain she believed him.

Hermione reached forward and touched his arm, never breaking eye contact.

"Harry Potter!" Dumbledore was quickly becoming impatient.

"It'll be okay Harry, go, I believe you... go!"

Harry saw the truth in her eyes and the concern on her face, and it gave him the courage he needed. After a hesitant nod, he turned back and stood. He took a quick glance around the room, only to find many angry faces looking back at him. Squaring his shoulders he raised his head high and walked forward towards Dumbledore and the others champions.

As Hermione watched Harry walk away, she knew no one would believe him. They were always ready to believe the worst. Maybe they were a little jealous, or maybe it just made them feel better thinking `The Great Harry Potter' was not so different after all. One look at Ron and she could tell, Ron was definitely upset... sure that Harry had wronged him personally somehow. She'd deal with him later, remind him, that he was Harry's best friend. For now, she was going to stay focused on Harry. She'd be damned if she was going to let him go through this alone, especially since it appeared no one else was going to support him. Hopefully they, the professors, would figure out what had happened and set things right, and then hopefully all would be back to normal in a couple of days.

As Harry disappeared into the antechamber, Hermione wondered if this was what had been bothering her since she first laid eyes on the goblet. Did her subconscious somehow foresee this coming? Was it just a strong case of intuition? She didn't know, how could she, nothing like this had ever happened to her before. After one last look at the Goblet, Hermione got up to leave, that's when she noticed, her odd feeling had never left.

Stopping just short of his headmaster, Harry said in a loud voice, "I did not enter, Sir."

Dumbledore looked at him impassively for just a second, before reaching out and gesturing for him to follow the others. All of them, silently made their way to the antechamber in the back of the Hall.

The Great Hall grew noisy again as students began to whisper about the turn of events. "He's not seventeen," someone said. "He's a cheat!" Another yelled. That was the last thing he heard before the door to the chamber closed. There was no doubt what the students thought, and it wouldn't be long before Harry discovered what the professors thought too.

oOoOo

An hour and a half later, Harry stepped through the portrait hole and into the Gryffindor common room. It was obvious they had been celebrating, probably on Alicia's behalf, something that he would not have begrudged her. Moving further into the room all eyes fell on him, and the room went silent. Harry looked around trying to ascertain the feelings, that the others had towards him.

"Well, look who finally decided to join us," Ron slowly stood as he continued, "wasn't enough getting your name picked, and going off with all the other champions?" Ron tone becoming more sarcastic by the second, "Couldn't come back with them... no, had to make your own special entrance."

"Ron," Hermione chastised, "you don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, but of course you do, you know everything. Well, I'll tell..."

Harry had half expected Ron to be upset, but nothing like this. He was also having a hard time understanding why Ron was being so mean to Hermione. Finally, Harry's face hardened, "Enough Ron! You got a problem with me, fine, but don't take it out on Hermione," Harry's tone clearly daring him to try.

Ron turned an ugly glare to Harry, "Right then, tell me Harry... tell us all... why did you do it?"

Harry stepped further into the room and looked around, slowly studying each face. Each had the same look; they all wanted to know. They all thought the same thing. Like Ron, they all thought he had somehow entered his name. However, the last person his gaze fell on had a completely different look. Hermione looked to be near tears. Whether it was because of what Ron had said to her a moment ago, or if it was because of his current situation, he didn't know.

"You all want answers... that right?"

Dean spoke up, "Think we deserve that much, don't you?"

"Fine. I'll tell you, what difference does it make, you're going to believe what you want anyway," Harry said simply. "But first, I... would like to know something." He waited a moment before continuing, "Do any of you lot... believe me, when I say I did not put my name in the goblet. Do any of you believe I'm not a cheat?"

Without hesitating, Hermione walked over and stood next to Harry, making it plain to everyone that she did indeed believe in him.

Harry gave her a grateful smile, then turned his attention back to the room. Silence filled the next several seconds while Harry waited for an answer. Looking around again Harry nodded his head a little, "Well at least I know where everyone stands."

Then, speaking directly to Alicia, he started, "Miss Spinnet, as I told you a while ago while we were with the others, as far as I'm concerned, you are the one and only Gryffindor champion." Harry continued by directing the rest of his comments to the rest of the room, "I'm only going to say this once; I don't want to be a champion, I didn't enter my name in the bloody tournament, and I don't know how it got there. I don't know what is going to happen, nor do I know what the professors are going to do." Harry took a deep breath before going on, "I do know this though, I'm going to try and find a way out. I don't want to compete... I don't want any of it."

"That's it, that's all you have to say, and you expect us to believe you! You're a git Harry, a bloody git." Ron stormed up the stairs, and a moment later the door to the fourth-year boy's dorm room could be heard slamming shut.

That seemed to signal the end of their little impromptu meeting, and the rest of the students quickly broke up.

Hermione took half a step forward and opened her mouth to start berating everyone. She stopped when she felt Harry's hand on her arm holding her back. One look at his face, and she knew he wanted her to just drop it. What was wrong with these people? Surely, they knew Harry would never do something like this, Merlin, they've known him as long as she had.

"Oh Harry, I'm so sorry," Hermione said softly.

Harry turned so that he was facing her, "It's not your fault Hermione."

"I know, it's just... well I feel bad for you. I know you didn't want any of this. These are our friends, your friends... why can't they see it too?"

Harry smiled, "I guess, some friends are just better than others."

Hermione smiled back, she knew what he meant, and was glad he thought so. "Harry, what about the professors, what did they say?"

Harry's smile faded as he replied, "Well at first it was hard to tell, everyone was yelling at once. Dumbledore seemed worried, and must have asked me three or four times if I had put my name in the goblet. They all argued for quite a while. Then it was just Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Snape." Harry took a moment to consider his thoughts before going on, "I'm pretty sure neither Maxime, nor Karkaroff believed me, and of course, you know Snape would never believe me. Professor McGonagall... I don't know, she only seemed worried that I was too young to compete."

"Well that's true, you are. It puts you at an unfair disadvantage. What about Dumbledore?"

"Well again at first, he seemed pretty sure I could get out of the tournament, but a little later, he seemed... almost in favor of it. Said I had no choice, I was bound by a magical contract." Harry shook his head, "I don't know, it was weird, it all happened so fast." After a moment of silence, Harry looked down and sighed, "Honestly... I don't think any of them really believed me."

Both stood quietly lost in thought. Hermione looked around, there were only a few students left in the common room as it was getting late. "Harry... were both tired, it's been a very long day, let's call it a night." Taking his hand, she gave it a gentle squeeze. "Give me a chance to sleep on it Harry. Don't worry, we'll think of something."

Harry squeezed her hand back and nodded, "Thanks," he said with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. It may have been one of the worst nights of his life, but Harry was thankful for one thing; having a friend like Hermione. "You're right, it's late, we should turn in. See you tomorrow?"

"Of course,” Hermione acknowledged softly. “Oh and Harry, you should write Sirius,” she quickly added, “you know he'd want to hear about this.” Harry just nodded his head slowly in understanding.

Just before Hermione reached the stairs, she stopped and looked back. Harry was still standing there in the same spot, he hadn't moved an inch, "Harry?"

He looked up, it was just a glance, but he knew what she was thinking, "I'm okay Hermione... was just thinking I really don't feel like facing Ron again tonight."

It was Hermione's turn to nod in understanding. A moment later she watched as he finally started towards his dorm. "Goodnight Harry," she said, before hurrying up to her own room.

"Night Hermione." As Harry reluctantly climbed the stairs, he thought, `Maybe I'll catch a break, and everyone will already be in bed.'

oOoOo

Over the course of the next few days not much changed. The students all seemed to be in a good mood, laughing and joking about class, or what might be happening in the tournament. Their mood changed however, as soon as they spotted Harry. Nasty comments and hard glares seemed to zero in on him everywhere he went. Even his own common room was hostile territory. Nobody actually said anything directly to him, but as the old Muggle saying goes `if looks could kill.' In a way, the silent treatment was worse. Several times Harry had said hi, or something similar in passing, just out of habit, only to have the person ignore him. The one individual who hurt him the most though, was Ron.

"You don't want to admit you put your name in the cup... fine, at least tell me how you did it."

"Ron, if I didn't do it... how am I supposed to tell you how I did it?"

"I thought we were best mates Harry, I can't believe you won't even tell me."

That was the last time Ron had talked to Harry.

Harry wasn't the only one Ron was fighting with. Just outside the Great Hall, Ron stopped Hermione as she was about to leave. He was going to give her a piece of his mind. He was going to get her to see reason.

"Honestly Ron! Harry is your best friend, how can you say such things about him? You've known him as long as I have." A furious Hermione all but yelled.

Neville had stopped Luna a moment before, to ask her what she was doing for her demo. He was hoping to find a reason to spend a little time with her, so he thought he'd offer to help. A few minutes later, a shy Neville smiled as Luna accepted his offer. Their warm moment ended quickly when Ron started to yell.

"He's a cheat Hermione!"

"No he's not. How come you don't seem to mind, that your brothers tried to enter? Why aren't you mad at them? And we both know, you would have tried if you thought you could have gotten past the age line."

"That's different!"

"Really, how so?"

"They never actually entered.”

"They tried."

"So what..." Ron sighed, "What is it with you Hermione? I know you're smarter than that, I know you don't believe him either. So why... why are you taking his side? Why are you acting this way?" Ron's voice was hard and angry. There was no doubt he believed everything he said. He was convinced that not only was Harry lying, but that she was too.

Hermione stepped forward, and now only inches from Ron's face, she answered him in a low dangerous voice, "You're right Ron, I am smart... smart enough to know that Harry is telling the truth, and that's why I'm taking his side." Ron just glared back, but before he could reply Hermione continued, "And, as to how I'm acting? It's called friendship. Something you seem to have forgotten." Hermione stepped back and turned, and started to walk away. After a couple of steps, she stopped and looking over her shoulder, she added, "Apparently you don't know either one of us as well as you think."

Neville and Luna stood off to the side quietly watching the fight. A moment after it ended Neville turned to look at Luna, "I think she's right Luna. And I think... just maybe... that I've made a terrible mistake." Neville said in a guilty voice.

Luna gave him a sad smile, and said, “It'll be alright Neville, but we both need to talk to him.”

That had been over four days ago.

The professors of course would talk to him, whether or not they believed him, he still didn't know. Harry Potter currently only had one friend in the castle.

After a lousy day, just thinking of her brought a smile to Harry's face. Then as if she knew, Hermione entered the common room and went straight to him.

"Hello Harry," Hermione glanced around, "still getting the cold shoulder from everyone?"

"Well, not everyone," Harry also glanced around, "but yeah mostly. Hey, at least I have more time to study... what with no idle chitchat and all."

Hermione chuckled, "I suppose there is that. Have you heard anything about the first task yet?"

"No, Dumbledore told us there'd be an announcement tomorrow night."

"And nothing about you, still no help getting out of the tournament?"

"No, none," Harry sighed, "I'm pretty sure he wants me to compete."

Hermione worried her lower lip, she couldn't help but think the same thing. "And what of Sirius, any word?" She whispered.

Harry leaned forward and answered her just as softly, "He's worried too, `very suspicious' he said." Harry sighed before continuing, "All he could say was to be careful, and keep my friends close."

Hermione reached out and took his hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. She couldn't help but notice the irony in the way Sirius used the word friends.

oOoOo

As the first rays of sunshine broke through Harry's dorm room window, he couldn't help but think as he rolled over and moaned into his pillow that Friday had come way too fast. He didn't know what was going to be worse; potions, with Snape, or Dumbledore's announcement, later after dinner.

Hermione was already up, and was just coming back from her shower, when a small posse met her. They started in on her as she started to dress for the day.

"Hermione, why in Merlin's name are you being so nice to Potter?"

"Why are you even talking to him?" Added Parvati. Lavender nodded her head in agreement.

Hermione took a small breath and pinched the bridge of her nose; it was way too early for this. She had been taking a little heat for standing up for Harry. Of course, it was nothing in comparison to what Harry was going through. Besides, it didn't matter she thought, she believed Harry, and he was her friend; of course she would stick up for him. Turning to answer Lavender first, she started, "Because I believe him. Honestly, anybody who knows him would." Shifting to look at Parvati, "He's my friend, and even if I doubted him - Which. I. Don't. - I would still talk to him."

Lavender really didn't care why, she was only hoping to get a little gossip material. Parvati on the other hand, noticed the fire in Hermione's eyes as she spoke. Everyone knew Hermione was smart, very smart, Parvati also knew she was honest, plus Hermione knew Harry better than probably anyone. If Hermione Granger believed him... maybe, just maybe, he was telling the truth. Parvati pulled Lavender away before things could get ugly. Later, she would definitely have to think about this some more.

oOoOo

Making his way to the Great Hall for dinner, Harry chuckled to himself. After being harassed by Snape for the last two hours in potions, he doubted anything Dumbledore had to say after dinner could make his day any worse. Alone with his thoughts, Harry sat down at the Gryffindor table and looked around, there was nobody within ten feet of him, and he was pretty sure it was going to stay that way. `Hell, Draco stands a better chance at having a friendly conversation at this table than I do.' No sooner had Harry finished that thought, when Hermione plopped down across from him.

"Evening Harry."

"Hello Hermione, how was your day?"

Hermione let out a long breath, "Good, but let's just say I'm glad it's Friday."

Nodding his head in understanding, "Yeah, I only hope I'll be able to enjoy, at least part of the weekend."

Seeing Harry lost in thought, Hermione started fixing a plate of food for him, before making one for herself. "Well, we should know soon enough."

Harry noticed her making his plate and smiled. Reaching for the pumpkin juice, he poured two glasses. "Yeah."

oOoOo

Forty-five minutes later, Dumbledore stood and approached the podium, "I see most of you have finished your dessert, so... it must be time to tell you about the first task." Dumbledore paused, and peered over his spectacles, as if to make sure everyone was listening. "Again, as you know, the first task is designed to reduce the number of champions from twelve... thirteen, to six… or maybe seven.”

Half the student body turned and looked at Harry, Dumbledore's slip had only highlighted his involvement.

"Dueling will be the first task. Champions will only duel other champions from their own school. Each duel will be timed, and scored, allowing each champion to be ranked from first through fourth. Third and fourth places will obviously be eliminated, thus leaving six, two from each school... plus of course Mr. Potter." Pausing for a moment to look at Harry before he continued, "Mr. Potter will then duel one champions from each school, whether it be the first or second ranked champion, will be determined by random draw. This way, each champion, including Mr. Potter, will compete in three duels to determine their final score. Therefore, the last three with Mr. Potter, will be to determine his final score only, as his three opponents will have already had been ranked. If Mr. Potter manages to score higher than any one of the six champions, he will continue on with them." Dumbledore paused to let this information sink in.

Hermione was grateful for the break as she had been very busy taking notes, and was making a list of questions. If Dumbledore didn't answer them tonight, she'd have Harry ask about them tomorrow.

A moment later, Dumbledore continued, his voice even as if he'd given this lecture many times before. "The first task will last two days, and will begin on Thursday, October twentieth. There will be four separate duels from each school, for a total of twelve, beginning immediately after breakfast, and concluding just before dinner. The task will continue the following day with six more duels in the morning. During lunch, the first twelve champions will be ranked, and then from the final six, three will be chosen to duel Mr. Potter. Those final three duels will occur shortly after lunch." Dumbledore again paused, this time to take a drink before his voice dried up from his unusually long announcement.

As the details of the first task were being given out, the noise level in the Great Hall had risen steadily. At the head table, the professors all seemed to be in quiet conference. Looking around the Hall, Harry noticed, most all the students were whispering amongst themselves, some pointing towards their champions, and occasionally someone would point at him.

The headmaster ready to resume, raised his hands to quiet the Hall, "All of the duels will be performed here in the Great Hall. Each will be judged by a panel consisting of a member from each school, as well as three members from the ministry, two from the department of International Magical Cooperation, and one the department of Magical Games and Sports. If there are no unforeseen complications, we should have the final results ready to be announced immediately after dinner.”

Professor Dumbledore stopped and smiled for a moment before going on, “Finally the part that I'm sure you're most interested in... champions will only be able to use spells from an approved list. That list will be posted here in the Hall tomorrow morning during breakfast." Dumbledore started to turn away, but stopped as if remembering something. "If anyone has any questions, please ask your Head of House. Now I feel I have talked for far too long once again. Thank you for your indulgence."

By the time the headmaster reached his seat, the peaceful calm that it existed during his explanation of the first task, quickly turned energetic. Students speculated on such things as, which spells might possibly be allowed, and of course, who they thought might win. The volume level of their conversations gradually rose to level where Harry had trouble hearing his own thoughts.

`Dueling... against sixth and seventh years. Not only that, but the two best, from each school no less.' It was hopeless, what chance did he have. His, would be the last duels of the task, the one's people would remember. He would go from scorn to ridicule overnight, how utterly embarrassing. However, before Harry's thoughts got any darker, something else occurred to him. If he placed last, which he was quite sure he would... then it would be over, at least for him anyway.

Hermione finished her notes and looked up, `He looks so lost,' she thought. "Harry? Harry! Are you all right?" She asked, waving her hand in front of his face.

"What..."

"Harry, you alright? For a moment, you looked…well…"

"Oh, sorry... just thinking."

"Yeah... I'm sure." Hermione was thinking too; she'd need to get that list of spells as soon as possible. She had no doubt, that there would be a few that, Harry would be unfamiliar with, or maybe never even heard of. They'd have their work cut out for them.

oOoOo

Harry was up bright and early the following morning. It was only a little after five o'clock in the morning as Harry made his way down to the common room. At least three, sometimes, four times a week, Harry would get up extra early and go out for a run. Over the course of the summer, he did manage to get in a little better shape. Now it seemed more important than ever to stay in shape. Reaching the bottom step, he was slightly surprised to see Hermione sitting there in her running clothes waiting for him.

Hermione heard him coming down and looked up as he approached. She smiled at the confused look on his face. "You didn't honestly think I was going to waste all that hard work from last summer, did you Harry?"

"How long have you known?"

Hermione stood and slowly started walking with Harry towards the portrait hole. "Well... only just recently. I think it's great. Also…I'd like to start running again, and if you let me, I'd like to join you on a more regular basis."

Harry stopped walking for a moment and turned to look at Hermione, "You would, would you?" He smirked.

Hermione reddened just a little, but before her courage faded she answered, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I would."

As they made their way out to the grounds, to start their warm-up routine, Hermione asked, “Harry, do you think we should practice our Karate?”

Harry thought for a moment, then stopped in the middle of a deep stretch, and said, “Well, I doubt we'll learn anything new, but I suppose it would be a good idea to keep practicing what we already know.

Hermione nodded, “Yeah, I was thinking along the same lines.” Then after a second, she added, “Maybe once a week, we could shorten our run to make time for it.”

Finished with the warm-up, and ready to start running, Harry just nodded, “Yeah, sounds good.”

oOoOo

Later that day, after lunch, Harry and Hermione sat on the couch in the common room quietly discussing the various spells on the dueling list.

"Hermione, even if I do learn even half of these, where am I going to practice them?"

"I don't know yet Harry, but I'm sure we'll find a place. Maybe Professor McGonagall can help."

"Maybe," he acknowledged skeptically.

Neville, who had been sitting in the armchair only a few feet away reading, couldn't help but overhear. Every day since the fight between Hermione and Ron, Neville had been thinking about Harry Potter. If he was honest with himself, he knew he didn't know him as well as he thought, but that didn't mean he agreed with Ron, in fact, just the opposite. He may not have had the same convictions as Hermione, but he was willing to give Harry the benefit of the doubt. "Guys, um sor-r-ry I wasn't eavesdropping, really, but I might know a place where you can practice."

Harry and Hermione looked at each other for a moment, then both turned to Neville, and Harry asked, “No offense Neville, but why are you telling us this? I thought you didn't believe me."

Neville looked conflicted as he started, "I don't know what to believe Harry. I'll admit, it doesn't seem like something you'd do, but then again, you're always getting mixed up in… something. Although it's usually not your fault," He said the last part with a small smile. “Anyway, we're in the same house and... and well housemates should give each other a chance, you know... like friends would."

Harry turned to Hermione, "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to take a look."

Hermione nodded in agreement, then turned to Neville, "So, you think you know a place we could use?"

Yeah... well maybe... actually, I'm not really sure, I'll show you... if you want." Suddenly, Neville wasn't quite as sure of himself as he was only a few minutes ago.

Hermione shrugged, "Why not? We've got nothing to lose."

Harry nodded, "Okay," then turning back to Neville, "lead the way."

Neville's face brightened as he hopped up, "It's up on the seventh floor. Found it by accident last week." He began as he led them out of the portrait hole.

Harry and Hermione followed close behind, as they listened to Neville tells them, how he came across this weird room.

"I thought maybe I had found a shortcut from Divinations, back to the main hall. I was in a fairly deserted part of the castle, when I heard Draco and his goons coming the other way." Harry and Hermione shared a glance.

"Well it quickly dawned on me how alone I was, and I thought, `I need a place to hide,' so..." Neville looked at Harry sheepishly, "I turned around and started back the way I came. Only seconds later I heard Zabini coming from up ahead. I was caught in the middle. I turned around again desperately looking for any place to hide. Then out of nowhere, this door appears in the wall practically right next to me." Neville slowed a little as if to remember something about the event. "Anyway... I thought anything was better than staying out in the hall trapped between those guys. So I opened the door and when in."

Hermione's curiosity aroused, "What did you find?"

"Nothing really, it was just an ordinary room... but there were lots of hiding places!"

Hermione looked at Harry with one eyebrow raised. "Just what he needed," She said softly.

Again, Harry nodded, "Yeah... but why?"

Hermione slowly shook her head, then looked at Neville. He just raised his hands palms up. "Don't know."

oOoOo

"Are you sure this is the right place Neville?” Hermione asked, as the three of them stared at a rather unremarkable piece of blank wall.

"Yeah, I'm positive."

Harry could see that Neville was getting a little frustrated with himself. "Neville, calm down a second, and close your eyes. Now try to remember everything you saw."

Neville took a deep breath, and closed his eyes for a few seconds. He sighed, "I don't get it. I know it was right here. I just don't know how to make the door show itself." Neville gave Harry and Hermione apologetic look, "I'm sorry guys, I'm just wasting your time."

Hermione wasn't ready to give up just yet. "Neville, it must have been something you said, or did. Let's reenact it, okay."

Neville gave a weak smile and nodded okay. "I was walking this way..." after walking a few steps he stopped, then turned around. "Then I came back, then turned around again." After repeating his actions, nothing happened.

"You didn't say anything?" Harry asked.

"No." Then more softly added, "I was too busy thinking of a place to hide."

Hermione chewed her bottom lip for a minute, before a slow smile appeared on her face. Turning, she walked a short ways down the hall, then turned around and walked back. Then once more turned and walked away a couple of steps. No sooner had she stopped than a door started to appear on the wall, right where Neville said, it should have been.

Harry raised a brow at her smirk, "Care to explain?"

Still smiling, "Sure, but inside," Hermione said, as she ushered Harry and a very relieved looking Neville through the door. Once inside, all she could do was stare. "Wow!" Then glancing at Neville, who also looked shocked, asked, "Is this how it was before?"

Not trusting his voice, Neville just shook his head no.

"Brilliant," Harry said. Then turning to the others went on, "This room is perfect for training in. It has everything!" Harry was ecstatic, as he went off to examine the room more carefully.

Hermione smiled at his enthusiasm, then at a more casual pace started walking around, taking in the room.

The room was quite large, about fifteen by thirty meters at least. The most prominent item in the room was a dueling stage in the center. Off to the sides were various training aids, like target dummies, and small moving targets to practice accuracy. All in all, Hermione had to agree, the room was exactly what they needed.

Neville spoke up for the first time since entering the room, “I don't get it. Why is the room different this time?"

Harry walked back shaking his head, "I don't know Neville... it's almost like..." he paused, unsure of his thoughts.

"The room knows what you need, or want, and... it just provides it for you," Hermione finished for him. Walking back towards the door, she stopped and closed her eyes. Moments later, a small couch and chair appeared out of nowhere, right in front of a warm crackling fire. Turning back to the boys, "You're right Harry... it's perfect."

Sitting on the couch, she beckoned them over, "Come on, sit. We need to work out a plan."

Harry sat next to Hermione on the couch, something Neville noticed right away. After taking the other seat, he asked the very question Harry had been thinking. "Hermione, how did you do this?" gesturing around the room with his hand.

"This time, I just closed my eyes and imagined what I wanted. Earlier out in the hall, as I paced back and forth, I kept thinking, `I need a room to train in,' and here it is. Not only did this room provide what I asked for, it knew exactly what kind of training room I needed." Looking around again she added, "It's really amazing."

The three of them sat in silence for a moment contemplating the significance of their discovery before Harry wondered aloud, "I wonder if this room has a name?"

No sooner had he finished, then a plaque appeared above the mantle of the fireplace proclaiming, "Welcome to, the `Room of Requirement.'"

Hermione beamed, while Harry chuckled and said, "Well that answers that." Then, looking at Neville, he smiled, "You did good Neville. You did good."

Still a little shocked he could only reply softly, "Bloody hell."

Hermione considered chastising him for his language, but considering the accuracy of the statement, she quickly decided to let it slide, and just smiled.

Harry noticed her restraint, and just laughed. Things were starting to look better.

oOoOo

Sunday mornings in the Great Hall were normally very quiet, few students were up before eight, most preferring a bit of a lie-in. Knowing this, was why Padma was surprised to see her sister waiting for her at the Ravenclaw table deep in thought. "Hey, what earth shattering news has got you up so early?"

"Morning. No news, just got a busy day and I wanted to talk to you before either of us got going."

"Kay…”

"What do you think about Harry Potter, and how he got into the tournament?"

Padma raised her brows, whatever she was expecting, this wasn't it. "Why the sudden concern for Potter... oh you're not..."

"No, no, nothing like that," Parvati gasped. "Look, he's in my house, you know. So I've been thinking about the whole situation a bit lately. I saw him when his name was called, he looked... scared. Then there's Hermione, she believes him without a doubt." Parvati stared at her sister, "I don't know anymore. I guess I'm having second thoughts. What if he's telling the truth?"

"Well, he's not exactly the brightest boy at Hogwarts, but he'd have to be foolish, stupid even, to enter as a fourth year." Padma smiled at her sister, "I guess I'm not so sure either." Taking both of Parvati's hands she said, "Look, talk to Hermione, see what she has to say, it might help."

Parvati pulled her sister into a hug, "Thanks sis, that's a good idea," then after letting go she added, "well I'd better get going. See you later?"

"Sure, let me know how it goes."

Later that day, while on her way to dinner, Parvati spotted the one person she wanted to talk to, "Hermione, you got a moment?"

oOoOo

Over the course of the next week and a half, Harry spent practically every free moment he had in the Room of Requirement practicing for the first task. Ron was still mad at him, and most of Gryffindor was still giving him the cold shoulder, Neville and Hermione being the only exceptions.

Neville finally decided he needed to talk to someone about Harry. He needed to figure out where he stood with regards to him. The only person Neville could think of, that might actually consider talking about Harry's situation rationally, was Luna. He felt that even though she was only a third-year, she seemed to have a certain wisdom about her that made her seem older. Of course, the fact that he thought she was cute, only seemed to help him make up his mind.

The day after he had shown Harry the room, Neville and Luna sat down, specifically to talk about Harry. Neville related to her about how worried Harry had been about the task. He explained to her how he was becoming more and more convinced of Harry's innocence. Luna then told him, how she had been fairly certain from the beginning. Neville asked her why she hadn't said anything sooner.

“Why would anyone care what Loony had to say?” came Luna's no nonsense reply.

Neville knew how nicknames could hurt, and if used long enough, they had a tendency to stick, he was going to nip this here and now. “Luna, please don't call yourself that. I may not always understand you, but I promise I'll always try. And I for one, care what you have to say,” Neville reassured her. Neither said a word for several seconds as she stared back at him.

Finally, she seemed to reach a conclusion. Luna's blank expression turned into a simple smile as she said, “Thank you Neville.”

After a while, both decided that Harry would have been smart enough to know about some of these problems beforehand, and as Luna pointed out, cheating did go against his character. It didn't take long to finally agree, that Harry was telling the truth. Later that night, both had approached Harry and apologized, and offered to help. Neville even accompanied him a few times to help with practice. Hermione on the other hand, as busy as she was, went with him whenever she could, which was most of the time. She even insisted that he duel against her to make it more realistic. It was because of her efforts to help him that Harry found himself in his current situation with his least favorite teacher.

"Mr. Potter, to what do I owe this most unexpected visit? Snape growled.

"Thank you for seeing me Professor," Harry started, trying to be as respectful as possible. "I need...err I would appreciate your help with a potion sir."

Snape sat up and leered at Harry, "I see. Came here hoping I would help you brew a potion to help you through your first task." Before Harry could interrupt he went on, "I'm afraid not. I can't do that... even if I were so inclined. However, I'll be sure Madam Pomfrey is well supplied with Skele-Gro and Blood-Replenishing potions."

"Err thanks…I think. But this is not about the first task. In fact, it's not for me at all sir."

Snape's brow rose a tiny amount, his interest only slightly piqued, "Is that so, well then, what are you on about, Potter?"

Harry reached into his school bag and pulled out a piece of parchment, and handed it to Snape. It was a summation of the potion that Hermione was working on for her demonstration. She was stumped on how to prepare one of the ingredients, and after several hours, neither she, Nicole, nor Harry had been able to find an answer. Harry had suggested, that she go to see Snape herself. However, Hermione was absolutely sure he wouldn't help, and she wasn't going to beg, or waste her time. That wouldn't stop Harry from begging though, if that's what it took. He was bound and determined to help her at least a little.

.

.

AN: Although Cedric, Alicia, and Roger are all sixth-years, we'll assume they all had birthdays in September, or October. For Cedric, JKR mentioned he was born in ether September, or October, However there is no mention of any birthdates for Alicia, or Roger, at least, none that I can find.

According to JKR, both Beauxbaton and Durmstrang are co-ed. However, in the movie `Goblet of Fire', we are lead to believe they are not. I kind of like that idea, so for this story, we will assume that's the case.

Hopefully, I have not confused you to much with all the changes. I'm trying to explain my version as best I can without getting too bogged down in details. If you have a question, or just want to know more, let me know, and I'll try to respond with a satisfying answer.

.

.

27

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

6. It Begins


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 6

It Begins

.

Breakfast seemed to pass by quickly and without incident, it would seem the students were more interested in the upcoming dueling competition, than Harry, or anything else, and that suited him just fine.

Everyone was cleared from the Great Hall for a few minutes, so that it could be converted to a dueling arena, complete with shielded spectator stands. Harry and Hermione sat together up high, and towards the back, and watched as students filtered back in. Hermione had indicated earlier that she wanted to be able to see everything so as to better evaluate the duelist. Neville and Luna both liked helping Harry, and so ended up spending a fair amount of time with not only Harry, and Hermione, but with each other as well. So it was no surprise to anyone, when they sat down immediately in front of them. Everyone else, was still avoiding Harry as if he had the plaque.

"Your attention please," Dumbledore began, "good morning, and now that breakfast is over... we are ready to begin the first task."

As Harry sat in the stands, he was both nervous and curious at the same time. Nervous as to what he would eventually have to face, yet curious as to how he might compare.

"What's the matter Potter, come to see how real champions duel, hoping to pick up a few last minute pointers?" said Malfoy with a sneered, as he walked by.

Harry was about to respond, but then after a quick glance around, he realized it would do no good. None of the other students thought any better of him, so, he settled for simply ignoring the Slytherin prat.

"Don't pay any attention to him Harry," Hermione said from beside him.

"Thanks, I'm not," smiled Harry, “think we'll learn anything?" he asked, gesturing towards the dueling platform.

Malfoy scowled at both of them for ignoring him, then after a minute he lost interest and left. Harry smirked.

Hermione smiled, "You love doing that don't you?"

Harry glanced over his shoulder at the retreating back of the blond-haired Slytherin, "He's a git." Turning back to Hermione, he added with a smirk, "But yeah."

Hermione laughed before referring back to his original question, which she answered more seriously, "I'm sure we'll learn something, style, technique, maybe their favorite spells or something." Smiling, she went on, "I saw you come in just after me, but I needed to talk to Professor McGonagall for a few minutes before I could join you."

Harry raised a brow in question, "Something about the tournament, or school?"

"A little of both actually, nothing terribly important, but I'll tell you later. I want to concentrate on this for now."

Harry nodded in agreement and turned his attention back to the duel that was about to begin.

Hermione immediately took charge, "Harry, Neville, Luna, I want you three to just watch the champions duel. Try to notice any patterns, or favorite spells. You're looking for their style; aggressive, defensive, fast and reckless, or slow and deliberate. I of course will take notes, so if you see anything of interest that you are afraid you might forget, just say it out loud, and I will write it down. Then later after dinner we can get together and discuss what we saw." The three nodded in understanding, and then waited quietly for the first round to begin.

Standing in the middle of the dueling stage, Dumbledore began to explain the first task, "Round one will begin in just a few moments; it will consist of two champions from each school dueling each other. We'll start with Durmstrang, Viktor Krum versus Rodomir Asparukh, then from Beauxbaton and will have Fleur Delacour versus Marcie Elise Gilbert, and from Hogwarts Cedric Diggory versus Alicia Spinnet." Dumbledore paused a few moments to let the cheering died down. "After a short break, we will continue with; Vasil Demetrius versus Andon Aleksandar, Renée De La Rue versus Claudine Du Moulin, and finally, Roger Davis versus Derrick Wilkes."

Harry looked around, he really couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, other than the obvious excitement, but he could feel it. It was like a small electric current traveling through the air. His fellow students were not just excited, they were eager to see just who was the best. Which school was better? He couldn't help feeling a little dishearten. Though he desperately wanted out of the tournament, he really didn't want to let his school down. Feeling Hermione give his hand a gentle squeeze, he realized she knew what he was thinking. He also realized, more importantly, that he didn't want to let her down either.

Harry's attention was drawn back to Dumbledore as he continued. "After lunch we will begin round two. The champions we'll switch opponents, and again there will be two duels from each school giving us a total of twelve for the day. That will be followed by dinner before turning in for the night." Then in a gesture that reminded Harry of a Muggle boxing match, Dumbledore pointed to one end of the platform. "On this end... I give you Viktor Krum." Immediately, there was a loud round of applause, "And on this end... I give you Rodomir Asparukh." He gestured to the other side, while the students again cheered loudly. Dumbledore then exited the stage and turned to face the opponents. "Gentlemen, you know the rules... you may begin."

oOoOo

As soon as he had entered the common room, he spotted her, he knew she was working hard at coming up with a strategy for tomorrow. Harry quietly sat down next to Hermione, careful not to disturb her thoughts. As he sat there watching, he couldn't have been more appreciative, and if he was honest with himself, amazed! Not only was she the only one other than Neville and Luna, who believed him about his involvement in the tournament, but she had spent every spare moment she had helping him. `And she's asked for nothing in return,' he thought.

Hermione paused in her work and glanced up, then smiled. "Harry," She started, "did anything about all of the duels you saw today... stand out?"

Harry took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, "Well, some seem to concentrate on only a couple of spells, but they were very fast." Then after a moment of thought, he continued, "While others seem to try and use as many different combinations as they could think of."

Hermione smiled back, "Yes I noticed that too, but something else caught my attention after a while, and once I noticed, it stood out like a sore thumb."

Harry looked down, brows scrunched together in concentration, trying to remember everything, but nothing else came to mind. Looking up to Hermione, he shook his head slightly, "What?"

"They didn't move. I mean none of them Harry, they all just stood there. They either blocked the spell, or they got hit!"

Harry slowly smiled, "Yeah, now that you mention it, I don't remember seeing anyone dodge out of the way either." Hermione could almost see the gears turning. "So... if I could dodge some of their spells... I would last longer."

Hermione smile faltered; he really didn't think he stood much of a chance. He was only looking to get through this, to survive. Of course that's what she wanted too, but after what she saw today, she also thought he actually had a pretty good chance of making a fair showing. Maybe he could even win a round or two.

"That's true Harry," She started, "but there's more to it." She needed to convince him. She needed him to believe what she believed. Now going into full lecture mode, "Harry, first, while they're throwing spells and shielding, they'll be wearing themselves out more quickly. Second, since you won't need to block as much, you'll be able to concentrate more on your attack."

Harry was listening very carefully, slowly nodding his head. He could see where she was coming from, and it made sense. Another thought occurred to Harry, she always seemed to see things more thoroughly. He was getting better at thinking things through, but he still had a ways to go compared to Hermione. Glad once again she was on his side, he couldn't help but smile.

"Feeling a little better about tomorrow?" She said smiling back.

"Yeah... thanks to you."

She knew he meant it, and it made her happy. All the effort was worth it. He was worth it.

oOoOo

Harry sat at the Gryffindor table, staring at his barely touched lunch. In a few moments, Dumbledore would announce the six winners from the earlier duels. Hermione was sitting right beside him. She had already finished her lunch, and was ready to take notes. Together, after the last of the duels earlier this morning, they had sat down and briefly talked about the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent. Now all they have to do was wait and see who had won, and then more importantly, who Harry would have to face.

The Hall quieted down as Dumbledore approached the podium. As the last of the voices fell silent, he began, "Normally I do not make announcements at lunch, but this is not a normal year... is it?"

Harry noticed that his voice held a bit of tension. Harry also noticed, Hermione seemed to tense as well. It seemed he was not the only one who was nervous.

"First, I would like for all twelve students who have participated so far, to please stand up." After a short pause, Dumbledore gestured to them, "All of them have preformed well and should be proud. Let's show them our appreciation." Again, after a slightly longer pause, Dumbledore raised his hands to quiet the Hall. "Well, without further ado, I will give you what you've been patiently waiting for. Again in no special order, the six semi-finalists are: From Beauxbaton, Miss Renee De La Rue, and Miss Fleur Delacour.” Dumbledore had to wait a minute the cheering died down. "From Durmstrang, Mr. Vasil Demetrius, and Mr. Viktor Krum,” once again he had to wait for the Hall to quiet down. "And finally from Hogwarts..." he paused seemingly just to add to the suspense, "Mr. Cedric Diggory, and Mr. Derrick Wilkins.”

By now, most of the Hall was on their feet clapping, and cheering loudly. Even Harry was up and clapping enthusiastically. Hermione, was probably the only one who could still see the nervousness in his eyes.

As each name had been called out, it was also written down on a small piece of parchment, and then placed into a deep bowl. Later, that bowl and its contents, would determine who Harry would duel.

As the cheers faded, Dumbledore again spoke, "Congratulations students," he bowed his head in recognition to them. "You six will continue on to the next task. Three of you will be asked to return here in just a little while." Then standing up a little taller, he looked towards Harry, "Mr. Potter, if you would please join us?"

Hermione gave his hand a quick squeeze for support. In return, Harry gave her a half smile of thanks, then rose, and a moment later he disappeared into the antechamber with Dumbledore, McGonagall, and the others involved in the tournament.

oOoOo

Harry had only been gone about ten minutes, before he returned to find Hermione anxiously waiting for him. She was deep in thought biting her lower lip. He smiled briefly, it seemed as though their emotions had reversed. Now that he was about to begin, his nerves had settled down. He was finally doing something. She on the other hand, could now only wait and watch.

The Hall had already been reconfigured for the final three duels by the time Harry sat down. "Hey... Hermione, don't worry, it'll be okay."

"Who?" was all she said.

Harry sighed, he knew she wouldn't like his answer, "Cedric, Renée, and... Viktor."

Hermione tensed, and the look of worry on her face increased. Renée was pretty good, but only average in ability. Cedric was better, and he was quick. He would be very hard to beat. But it was Viktor that bothered Hermione. He wasn't very fast, but he always used powerful spells. They weren't dark, but they were meant to take you out, fast and hard. If Harry was not extremely careful, he could get hurt... badly.

They had been working hard the last few days, practicing spell work, working on strategies, and so on. In addition, she had spent some time in the library reading all she could find, about past tournaments, unfortunately, it wasn't much. She knew the tournament was dangerous, and she knew students had died in the past, but she didn't have any specifics. She had managed to keep those thoughts in the back of her mind... until now. Granted, this was a fairly well controlled situation, but it was still only the first task. Hermione wasn't sure her nerves would last long at this rate. Looking at Harry, she could barely imagine how he must be feeling.

Snapping out of her thoughts, Hermione began quickly, "Okay, we've talked about this. With Cedric, you'll probably have to be more defensive, he's fast, so it will be harder to stay clear. Viktor... oh Harry be careful, he's... he's..."

"Hermione," Harry reached out and took her hands, "I'll be careful. It'll be okay."

Hermione seemed to collapse in on herself a little, "You better be." She stared at him for a moment, and then looked away, "I don't like this. I don't want you to get hurt." Turning back, "Why you?"

Harry chuckled, and tried to ease her worry, "Good question. I guess, because I'm Harry Potter." He could see she didn't care for his sense of humor, "Sorry. Look, I promise, I'll be careful. Don't want to miss your demonstration on Monday now do I."

Hermione slowly shook her head, and gave him a weak smile. It was so like him. Here he was, getting ready to duel three older students, and yet he still found time to think of her. "That's right, and you better be there... and in one piece."

oOoOo

After her talk with Hermione a while back, Parvati had been paying more attention to the both of them, but especially to Harry. He was at such a huge disadvantage, why would anyone want that? Then, there was Hermione, who loathed cheating of any kind. Surely, she wouldn't make an exception, even for Harry. Those thoughts and more, ran through her head as she watched the current exchange with interest. The more she watched, the more she thought about it, the more ashamed she became of herself. She decided, she would talk to Harry later. She just hoped he would be in good enough shape to listen.

oOoOo

As Harry returned Cedric's bow, he thought, `this is it.' Harry didn't waste any time, he quickly fired off a stunner. Cedric was caught off guard for a second, and had to put up a hasty shield, but then wasted no time of his own, and returned fire. Harry ducked, the first spell missed, going just over his head, but a second was coming fast.

"Protego," Harry's shield flared, but held.

For the next several minutes, both boys traded spells. Like everyone else, Cedric barely moved, he really didn't have to though. He either shielded himself, knew the counter spell, or took a small step to avoid a direct hit. Harry did come close to hitting him twice, but even still, he was fairly sure, he was losing the duel.

Harry was getting a little frustrated, he just didn't know as many spells well enough to push Cedric out of his comfort zone, but at least he felt he was somewhat holding his own. `For now anyway,' Harry thought sadly. Harry moved left and right, and he ducked several times, but he avoided moving and dodging too much, so as not to tip off the other two champions of his strategy. Additionally, Harry knew Cedric was fast enough to get him, even if he ended up rolling around on the ground or something.

Harry was beginning to tire, `Maybe something a little different,' he finally thought. Harry fired a low powered stinging hex just off to the right of Cedric, causing him to move left... into his second spell just on the edge of his shield.

Cedric's eyes grew wide. As fast as he could, he slashed his wand out and down, only just barely blocking Harry's last spell. He had to smile, Harry was giving him a good fight, `Better than Davis,' he thought ironically. Although he wasn't going easy on Harry, he also wasn't taking this as seriously as he should. If he wasn't careful, Harry might just beat him.

Smiling, Cedric wondered if Harry would like a taste of his own medicine. After trading a couple of quick spells, Cedric shot a stinger to Harry's left. Expecting him to recognize his own trick, he added a second spell, a much stronger stunning spell to the same spot.

Harry recognized the stinging hex at the last second and thought, `No way.' He decided to allow the spell hit, since it really didn't do much, then he'd be able to return fire faster. `Oh shite, two,' Harry realized a moment later. Now Harry was forced to dodge right or be hit, there wasn't enough time for a shield. No sooner did he move, then he was thrown back, and his wand flew from his hand. Caught by a modified version of his own trick, Harry had been disarmed by perfectly timed, “Expelliarmus.” It was over.

oOoOo

Harry stood and looked around. The Great Hall was silent. `At least they're not laughing,' ran through his head as he dusted himself off. In fact, he hadn't done that bad, and he managed to last quite a while against his first opponent. Turning toward Cedric Harry smiled, and then did something no one else had done... he gave Cedric a deep bow.

Cedric stood and stared at Harry not quite sure what to make of his final act. If anyone had a right to complain that, the odds were against him, that this whole thing was unfair, it was Harry. Yet here he was graciously acknowledging his loss. Cedric still wasn't sure how he felt about the events leading to Harry being in the tournament. However, this small act of honor that Harry was showing now, sure didn't lend any credence to the stories of how he had cheated to get in.

Cedric finally smiled thinking, `The hell with it. He at least deserves the benefit of doubt.' Laughing a little, he walked up to Harry, and stuck out his hand, "Well done Harry. That was actually one of my trickier duels."

Harry looked at Cedric offered hand not quite believing his eyes, then after only a slight hesitation, reached out and shook it. "Thanks," he said softly, then added, "nice move at the end."

Cedric laughed again, "Thanks, but actually, it was your move... I just added a bit."

Harry laughed too, "My luck, you're a fast learner."

They stepped off the platform together and gave each other a nod, before heading off in different directions. Harry spotted Hermione beaming at him, and went straight to her. Just before he reached her, it seemed she couldn't hold back any longer. Hermione launched herself at Harry, who stumbled back a little as he caught her.

After a quick Hermione hug, she pulled back, "Oh Harry... you did fantastic."

"Really?"

"Yes! Absolutely brilliant."

Harry replied, "Thanks," with a sheepish smile.

"You have thirty minutes before you go up against Renée. Do you want to talk about it, or just take it easy?"

Harry felt he did better when he went on instinct, plus they'd already talked about her earlier and he didn't want to over think the upcoming duel. "I think... just relax," he said as he led her over to a table that held some refreshments.

Harry grabbed two glasses of pumpkin juice, and then turned to hand one to Hermione, only to find her staring at him. "What?" He asked, one brow raised in question.

"You," she answered, "you don't do normal. It's just not in you." When his second brow rose, she explained, "Everyone's duel ended with one or both opponents looking grim, or angry, or hurt, but not yours. What were you guys laughing about?"

They sat down, and Harry told her everything while they waited. Then too soon it seemed, it was time for his next duel.

Even though it seemed longer, the duel with Cedric had lasted just over five minutes. The one with Renée was over in less than one. She just didn't know how to deal with a moving target. Harry dodged and rolled all over the place. He never even had to put up a shield. After only about a dozen spells, Harry tried his trick again, this time with success.

Renée pulled herself up off the floor with a huff, wondering just how she had managed to lose to a fourth-year. More angry with herself than with Harry, she stood straight, then after a slight nod of her head, she gave him a shallow bow. She may have lost, but she would still show the proper respect, just as he had done earlier.

If she was going to follow his example from earlier, then Harry would follow Cedric's. Walking up to her, he smiled and said, "Well played Miss De La Rue, I'm sure I just got lucky."

"Luck? Emm of that I'm not so sure Mr. Potter," she replied while shaking his hand.

`Too down, one to go,' Harry smiled at the thought... until he remembered who was next.

oOoOo

Ron had watched from the stands, and his mood went from good to bad, to worse. When Cedric had beaten Harry, Ron smirked, `Serves him right,' he thought. But then suddenly they were laughing, like old mates chumming it up. Then Harry goes and wins his duel with the French girl, `What the bloody hell!' Now Ron's only hope, was that Krum would put him in his place. `Would teach him right for showing off.'

Again, Harry had a half hour break before he would have to face his last duel. Looking around, his gaze fell on Viktor. The tall Bulgarian was staring straight back at him. His face was devoid of emotion, he gave nothing away. Try as he might, Harry couldn't read him. He knew his own face told a different story, nervous for sure, fearful... probably. He only hoped that Viktor couldn't tell just how unsettling their little staring match was to him.

"And now for the last duel of the first task," Dumbledore's voice rang out through the Hall.

"Well, this is it," Harry said with a nervous smile.

"You're doing great Harry, you're going to be fine," replied Hermione. It was as much for her peace of mind, as it was for Harry's. As he stood to leave she quickly added, "Good luck."

Harry glanced towards the stage, then back, "Thanks," then walked away ready for his last match.

They stood straight and proud, facing each other. Wands at the ready in front of their faces, both gave a shallow bow of respect as was custom. If Harry was honest with himself, he was not only nervous, but scared as well. He'd already seen the results of some of Viktor's work. Not just broken bones, but nasty compound fractures. Not just cuts, but deep lacerations. Two of his opponents had to be carried away to the infirmary, unable to walk on their own, one had been unconscious. He had no reason to believe his outcome would be any different.

Viktor regarded the small boy in front of him, had he cheated? Viktor wasn't sure, it seems foolish and therefore unlikely, but then again, he really didn't know Harry Potter very well. He had watched him duel, and had been a little surprised. Mr. Potter had shown more courage and ability than he thought possible for someone his age. Still, Viktor didn't consider him a threat. For the briefest of moments, he had considered going easy on him. `No, if he is to be a champion, he should be treated like one, regardless if he chooses this or not,' he thought.

"Begin!"

Harry stood and waited ready to defend, Viktor had always started out fast. `What's he waiting for? Is he going soft on me?' were Harry's last thoughts before a barrage of spells headed his way. He dodged the best he could, but a bludgeon spell just barely caught him on the left shoulder, spinning him around and dropping him to the ground in pain. Even though it only slightly connected, it had hurt like hell. Harry wouldn't have been surprised if his left shoulder was now dislocated. As he spun, Harry cast a quick shield hoping it would hold in case Viktor fired another spell. Hearing the telltale hiss, as a stunner deflected off of it, he was glad he had managed it.

Viktor paused, expecting Harry to yield. There was no need to be excessive.

Harry slowly stood, wand at the ready, a slight grimace on his face from the pain in his shoulder.

Viktor was mildly surprised. His opponent was outmatched and hurt... yet he would not give up. Lifting his head a little as if to ask, are you sure? He received his reply when Harry nodded back.

Hermione watched horrified, one hand over her heart, and the other over her mouth, to keep herself from screaming out loud. Her heart was racing with anxiety and fear. Harry had yet to fire a single curse, and he was already hurt.

Now that Harry had his answer, that Viktor wasn't going to treat him special, he didn't wait for him to cast first again. Viktor was putting large amounts of power into his spells. `I'll use a different tact,' Harry thought as he fired a quick low powered stunner. After pausing for only a split second, he fired again in quick succession, "Stupefy, Stupefy, Diffindo."

Viktor raised a quick strong shield, and then realized he was overpowering it against Harry's weak attack. Thinking Harry was only going to fire the one spell, he readied to attack again, only to find it necessary to have to raise a hasty shield again. Then for the second time in only seconds, he was once more surprised. Harry's second stunner wasn't much stronger than the first, but the third one was, and it shattered his shield. Caught off guard he jumped in pain as the cutting curse left a fairly good-sized gash in his right leg.

This time, it was Harry who paused. Mimicking Viktor, Harry ticked his head up and raised an eyebrow in question.

Hermione caught her breath; it seemed Viktor, could be hurt. Although proud of Harry for managing to score a hit on Viktor, it meant he wasn't going down without a fight, and she started to panic again.

Viktor smiled, hell he almost laughed as he regarded the small boy standing in front of him. Harry may not have a lot of power, or a great deal of knowledge of spells, but he was still a worthy opponent. He used what he had to great advantage, speed and intelligence. Viktor realized at that moment, that it would only be a matter of time before Harry Potter truly became a force to be reckoned with.

The duel resumed with both trading spell fire. In very little time, it was fairly obvious that Harry was losing. He was barely able to stand with one foot broken. Blood from a cut to his head ran down his face, some of it getting into his eyes making it hard to see, but he fought on. And although Viktor was winning, he too, had taken a few more hits.

Neville watched with rapt attention. He was slightly awed by Harry's skill. However, it was his sheer determination, his stubbornness, the will to continue, to not give up that really amazed him. Harry was hurting; you could see it when he moved. Although after a glance at Hermione, he would be hard-pressed to say just who was in more pain.

Viktor was beginning to tire, how Harry managed to stay on his feet he would never know. Realizing this, he knew he had to finish this quickly. Summoning all his strength, he let loose with several spells in quick succession. Harry's shield held for the first couple, then failed, and he was blasted backwards violently landing with a sickening crunch.

The last thing Harry heard before his world went dark, was Hermione's scream.

"Harry!" Hermione was out of her seat and racing towards the platform. "Get out of my way!" She yelled, wand out and ready to curse anybody who tried to stop her.

Professor McGonagall mentally pushed aside the disgust she felt for what she had just witnessed. Students fighting students, hurting each other... trying to kill each other. She was rudely broken from her thoughts by someone shoving past her, "Miss Granger?" She questioned. Seeing she wasn't going to get a response, she grabbed Hermione by the arm in an effort to stop her, only to find a wand in her face.

Hermione gasped, "Oh, sorry ma'am," and tried to continue on.

"Miss Granger, please stop." McGonagall could see the desperation on her tear-stained face and felt for her. She knew they were close - Harry and Hermione. Always helping each other. She had also seen firsthand how protective they were of each other. This was but yet another example. "Miss Granger, please let Madam Pomfrey do her job." It was both part a plea, and part an order. Seeing the anguish in her young lion's eyes she added softly, "I'll tell her to allow you in the infirmary, so you might see him while he recovers." That seemed to placate the young witch, at least for a few seconds.

After a moment Hermione turned back to her Head of House, "Who could have ever thought this was a good idea?" looking around before going on, "Who would think this... glorious?"

McGonagall rarely showed emotion in front of her students, but if there was ever a time for an exception, this was it. Reaching out, she pulled Hermione into a gentle embrace and whispered, "I don't know."

Although it only lasted a few seconds, Hermione was nonetheless surprised by the display, but still quite grateful. Stepping back, she looked up into the older woman's eyes, and in that moment, she knew she had an ally. Nodding her head in understanding, she whispered back, "Thank you."

Harry was levitated away, unaware of his champions in arms, two of Hogwarts strongest women.

oOoOo

Harry woke to an all too familiar feeling. Stiff muscles, crisp scratchy sheets, and that oh so unique smell, yep, he had woken in the hospital wing. Slowly opening his eyes, he started to reach for his glasses, when somebody handed them to him. "Hey," he managed with a raspy voice as his world came into focus.

"Hey yourself," Hermione answered smiling while handing him a glass of water, "how are you feeling?"

"Well it felt like I was hit by the Express," Harry started as he rubbed his neck, "but not too bad now... just a little sore."

Hermione nodded once, her face grave, "You looked pretty bad when they brought you in, but Pomfrey said it wasn't as bad..." her voice broke a little, "as bad as it looked."

"Easy for her to say," Harry replied dryly.

Hermione tried to put on a brave face, "Yes, well I'm just glad you're okay now," her smile not quite reaching her eyes.

Harry mentally kicked himself, of course she would have been worried. Reaching over, he grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze, "Hey... I'm fine... really." Then after looking around, "Just a little irritated about being here is all." Turning his attention back to her, he asked, "How long have I been out... wait, how long have you been here? You look tired."

Hermione smiled and shook her head, "One night, and I'm fine, just didn't sleep much last night." `Here was Harry lying in a hospital bed, recovering from a dislocated shoulder, three broken bones, and about a dozen cuts, yet he's worried about me.'

"Well not that I don't enjoy your company, but you need your rest, and I'm sure you still have work to do for your demonstration on Monday."

"Yes, well I'll take a kip after lunch." Turning pensive, she went on, “I'm still no closer to figuring out that potion's problem though. Oh, speaking of potions, that reminds me, Snape wants to see me today."

"Really?" Harry asked, not quite meeting her eyes.

Hermione studied Harry for a second, then raising a brow, "You wouldn't know anything about that would you?"

"What... I..." Harry started, but was interrupted.

"Excuse me Mr. Potter, I vas hoping to have a vord with you, yes?" Viktor stood straight, as if at attention, his appearance and manner, straight and formal.

"Ah, sure." Harry glanced at Hermione, who only shrugged, "What can I do for you Mr. Krum?"

"I... I vish," Viktor hesitated ever so slightly, as if what he had to say was out of the ordinary. "I vish to apo-lo-gize. I did not mean to hurt you so badly, I... I thought your shield vould be harder to break. I only vanted..."

Harry held up a hand to stop the rambling Hungarian. "Viktor stop! It's okay, I'm okay," smiling, he went on, "I kept changing the power of my spells trying to fool you. Guess I did. Look, you did what you had to do."

Viktor seemed to relax, "Thank you for understanding." Stepping closer, he reached out his hand to Harry, "You fought vell, and vith honor."

Harry slowly took Viktor hand and shook it, "You as well Mr. Krum... and thanks."

Viktor, again seemed to snap to attention, "Good day Mr. Potter, Miss Granger," and after a curt nod to Hermione, he turned to leave.

Hermione called out after him, "Oh, and congratulations Mr. Krum." He looked back and again nodded his thanks.

"He finished first, I take it?" Harry asked.

"Yeah, he won all three of his duels for fifty-eight points, Cedric also won three, for fifty-seven points. You've got forty-three points, putting you in fifth place!"

"Wow... I never thought..."

Hermione just beamed.

"So how did the others do?"

Hermione sat up straighter, "Well, Fleur placed third with fifty-one points, she showed a lot of skill. If she hadn't made that one terrible mistake, she probably would have won all three. then Renée; the girl you beat, she placed fourth just ahead of you with forty-four." Seeing his puzzled face, she explained further, "Renée won two duels just like Claudine, but hers was faster, so she scored higher.” Smiling proudly, “Her worst duel was against you."

Harry nodded in understanding, "Oh."

"Anyway," Hermione continued, "Derrick got thirty-nine, and Vasil thirty; he would have scored higher, but he used an illegal curse."

Harry's smile faltered, "Of course now, that means I'll have to do the second task."

Hermione smile fell as well, "Yes, that's right... well we'll just have to face that one together also, right?"

"Right, but first we have your demonstration to finish preparing for."

Hermione was beaming again at the mention of we.

Harry and Hermione continued talking for a while longer about things other than the tournament. "So anyway, I can't wait till next Saturday, maybe we'll be able to take a break," Hermione mused.

Harry nodded, "Well it is a Hogsmeade day, and... oh hi Parvati, did you need Hermione?" not appreciating the interruption, Harry's voice was a little cool.

"Hello Hermione," she gave a half smile, then turning her nervous gaze on him, "actually Harry, I've come to talk with you… that is, if it's alright?"

A little surprised Harry answered, "Ah sure... I'm not going anywhere." He turned and looked at Hermione with an eyebrow raised in question. Hermione returned a soft smile and a small shrug. "Well I need to see Professor Snape now anyway. Harry, I'll see you, tomorrow?"

"Yeah sure... bye," Harry then gestured for Parvati to sit, "so, you wanted to talk?"

Parvati sat down cautiously with both hands in her lap, and started to fidget. "Harry, I'm sorry," she said softly while looking down.

Harry sat up a little straighter and looked at the girl sitting by his bed, he wasn't sure how to respond, "Parvati...”

"Harry please," she interrupted, "this will be difficult for me to say, but I need to tell you.” Parvati paused to gather her thoughts, “At first, when your name came out of the goblet, I was shocked. I didn't know what to think. Everyone was calling you a cheat... and worse," she added softly. "I'm embarrassed to say, I let their comments influence me. I… I went along without thinking. I should have known better. My parents taught both me and my sister to think for ourselves, and the importance of loyalty to friends. If I had just one-tenth the courage of Hermione..." when she looked up, Harry was taken back by the steel in her eyes. "It won't happen again Harry... I promise."

"Thanks, that means more to me than you know."

Everyone, except her parents, had always compared Parvati to her twin sister Padma. She was both smarter, and more athletic. Parvati always seemed to fall short, but she never held it against her sister. For a long time now, she had resigned herself to second place behind Padma. It really didn't bother her; she'd always support her sister. What did bother her, was the notion that somehow, being second was the same as being last. That she didn't try at all, didn't put any effort into her work. That she was lazy, and therefore unworthy.

"It hurts when people think the worst," she said softly, while looking down.

Moved by the emotion in her voice, all Harry could manage was an equally soft, "Yeah."

“And just so you know Harry, I've talked to my sister about this, I'm pretty sure, she feels the same way.” Then Parvati turned and stared at the exit, at the very doors Hermione had just left through, "You're lucky to have her as a friend."

Harry turned also, and with a small nod and a smile, quietly said, "Yes, I am."

oOoOo

After knocking, and hearing a muffled, enter, Hermione stuck her head in the partially open doorway. "You asked to see me sir?"

Snape looked up for only a moment before he answered, "Miss Granger, have a seat."

Hermione eased into the office and quietly took a seat in front of the Potion Master's desk. Knowing his disposition, she waited patiently for him to start.

"How are you progressing with your demonstration project?"

Hermione was mildly surprised, and it must have shown.

"Miss Granger, as a Hogwarts student your performance is a reflection of your school, and as the Potions Professor, did you not think I would take an interest in your doings?"

`And a reflection of my Potions Professor,' She thought. "Yes sir, of course." Setting up to her full height, she began, "My partner and I have everything worked out... except for one minor..."

"You are having trouble heating the Erumpent Fluid,” Snape interrupted with a small sneer.

"Yes sir," she acknowledged, ignoring his attitude. "We can heat it separately, but then it won't combine properly. When we heat the mixture together; as we believe should be the proper way, the Erumpent either spoils the mixture, or explodes."

“And do you know why?"

"Yes sir, it appears as though the Erumpent Fluid goes through more than one transformation as it heats up and becomes unstable."

Snape actually smiled, "An excellent assumption Miss Granger." Then turning more serious he asked, "Can you think of a way to bypass that?"

Hermione's brow scrunched together in concentration for a moment, "I suppose... if there was some way to bring the potion to temperature instantaneously..."

Snape stood suddenly, startling her. "There are many things that are not taught until the NEWT level, and still more that are not taught until one studies for his mastery." He picked up book up off his desk and handed it to her, "Flash boiling; you'll find the technique at the bookmark." Sitting back down he added, "Please return the book as soon as you're done with it."

Hermione sat there momentarily speechless, hardly believing he was actually helping her. "Thank you sir, I will return it promptly." Receiving no other response, she stood to leave. Halfway to the door she realized something else, he had known ahead of time what she was having problems with, how else would he have known what to bookmark. Stopping, she turned back, "Sir, how..."

Snape stopped her with a glare, "Apparently you have a considerate friend."

Hermione smiled at the thought, `Harry.'

Snape sighed annoyed, "Now if you don't mind Miss Granger, I am rather busy."

“Of course sir," she replied, quickly leaving his office.

oOoOo

Harry was released from the hospital Sunday morning. After breakfast, he had spent pretty much the rest of the day catching up on his schoolwork. He had missed Hermione completely at breakfast, and had only been able to talk to her briefly at lunch. They were both quite busy. Not seeing her again at dinner, he was certain she was busy working on her project, and knew just where to find her.

Stepping through the doors into the library, Harry gave Madam Pince a nod hello. She only raised a brow and went back to work. Being in a rather good mood since completing the first task, Harry smiled and headed straight to Hermione's table. Reaching it his smile grew. Hermione and her French partner, Nicole, were in an animated discussion, about something Harry was sure he wouldn't understand. Books and parchment strewn all over the table, he coughed to get their attention.

“Oh, Harry, hey. Sorry, I didn't see you coming in." Hermione said after she looked up. Nicole stayed quiet, not quite sure what to make of the Hogwarts champion.

Harry waved off the apology, "You were busy… you also missed dinner." Before she could argue he went on, "So, I brought dinner to you, and I brought enough for two," he added looking at Nicole, who promptly turned pink.

Hermione sat her quill down and leaned back in her chair. With a smirk and one raised eyebrow, she turned to Nicole, "Allow me to reintroduce Harry Potter, my very own personal hero." Looking back up at Harry, "And Harry, you of course remember Nicole Lescuier," she finished with a chuckle.

Harry blanched a little, "It's just dinner Hermione."

Without taking her eyes off of him, "And did I forget to tell you Nicole, he is also the one responsible for the final solution for our potion?

It was apparent to Nicole, that there was more to them than what was visible on the surface. Calming down, she began to enjoy this little dance of theirs, and decided to join in. "No Hermione, you did not mention this!" Then after joining Hermione in staring at Harry, she added in an awed voice, "I did not know you are so talented... in Potions of course."

Harry kept looking back and forth between Hermione and Nicole, "I... er, I'm not... I just..." then it hit him; they were both smiling so hard they were ready to burst.

Harry plopped down in the seat across from them and let out a long breath, "Oi you two, talk about taking the mickey out of someone."

Both girls laughed, and Harry soon joined them. Calming down before Madam Pince came over, Harry asked, "Hermione, how did you know?"

"Harry, someone had to have told Snape, and I knew it wasn't Nicole."

"But it could..."

"I asked."

"Really, and he told you."

"Said it was a friend, a considerate friend."

Harry looked down suddenly feeling warm, "I knew you'd never go to him."

After a moment of silence, Harry chanced looking back up. Hermione was sitting across from him with a soft smile on her face.

"Thank you Harry."

Again, Nicole joined in, "Yes, thank you Harry."

Another brief moment of silence passed before Harry spoke, "You're welcome." Then clapping his hands together he added, "So, anything I can do to help now, or should I just stay out of your way?"

oOoOo

The Great Hall after breakfast was nothing like it had been for the dueling task. Then, everyone sat in stands back away from the stage, and could only watch. Of course, that had been necessary for the safety of the students. Now however, they were no stands. Harry noticed students and professors alike could not only come right up to the table where the demonstrations were taking place, but were encouraged to. It was definitely a friendlier environment.

For the Skill and Knowledge Demonstration in Potions, everyone had to pair up.

Twenty-four students made twelve teams. Today, six of those teams were giving their demonstrations. Tomorrow the other six would finish up. The six teams were further broken up into two groups of three teams each. One of the groups would go in the morning, and the other group would give their demonstrations after lunch. Hermione was happy she was in the first group. Unlike Harry, she would get her demonstration done early, and then be able to relax and watch as the rest gave theirs.

Each team would give their demonstration twice, once just for the judges, and once for anybody else that wanted to watch.

Breakfast ended early as the demonstrations were scheduled to start at eight sharp. Harry had only barely been able to grab a bite before the house tables were moved out of the way. Harry stood near the back of the Hall and watched, as things got underway. Hermione and Nicole were just getting started. One would work with the ingredients and the cauldron, while the other one would explain what they were doing. Occasionally, during a natural break in the process, they would trade roles. It was quickly becoming obvious that they were well prepared, and worked well together. Along with them, Zacharias from Hufflepuff, and his partner were also just getting started. The judges, would watch them both. Moving back and forth the short distance between the two teams, effectively, keeping an eye on both. Draco and his partner were also in the first group, but unable to watch three Demonstrations at the same time, Draco and his partner, would give their first demonstration to any student who wanted to watch.

Harry decided to go watch Draco. That way, he wouldn't chance being a distraction to Hermione. It worked better like this anyway, because Draco was supposed to be demonstrating to the students, he'd be judged later.

Considering who Draco's Head of House was, Harry was expecting a good show, and Draco didn't disappoint. Harry missed his opening introduction, so he wasn't completely sure what Draco's potion was supposed to be about. However, after a while it became fairly obvious that it had something to do with flame or fire suppression judging by all the flare-ups. One thing for sure, it was very flashy. And although, he and partner didn't seem to like each other very well, you could tell they had put aside their differences for the most part, to get the project done.

"Think they'll burn the place down?"

Harry turned around to a smirking Neville, and smiled, "Not much chance of that with my luck. How have you been?"

Neville smiled back, "Good, you?"

"For now... good, I think." Turning back to the demonstration Harry asked, "Doesn't look like Draco likes his partner."

Neville chuckled, "No, I doubt he does." Seeing Harry's confusion he added, "She's a Muggle-born named Collette, a year older, and I hear... she is quite feisty."

"Well that would explain it, how'd you know?"

"Luna told me."

"Oh?”

"Seems Draco waited too long, to try and find a partner, so..."

"So by the end of the day… Draco won't know who to insult, Collette, or Hermione, or even, you or me,” Harry laughed.

Neville nodded. Now that the first task was over, Harry had calmed down somewhat. It was good to see him smile, and relax a little for a change. "Thought you'd be over there," Neville ticked his head towards Hermione's table.

"Oh as soon as the judges leave, I'll head over straight away." Harry turned to Neville, "You going to watch?"

"Of course, don't know if I'll understand anything, but it should be interesting."

Looking across the way to Hermione and Nicole, Harry's eyes seemed to come to life. "Definitely, and exciting. They'll be doing something new, something that's never been done before."

"Well, we had better get front row seats then."

oOoOo

"It is not uncommon after a serious accident, that the victim would need several potions. Some may be given together, some not." Hermione was in her element. Either learning new things, or sharing that knowledge with others, was something that gave her great joy. Hermione loved teaching others, "The problem arises when time is of the essence. For example; suppose, someone is badly injured and bleeding; a Blood-Replenishing Potion would probably be given right away, as too much blood loss can cause other difficulties. The problem is, the person is most likely also in pain, but you must wait at least fifteen minutes before giving them a Pain-Relieving Potion, or risk one potion interfering with the other. If you're a pain, especially great pain... fifteen minutes can seem like fifteen hours."

Hermione couldn't help but notice Harry absentmindedly nodding in agreement. She never told anyone, but Harry was one of the reasons she works so hard on this project.

"Sometimes it's a particular ingredient that causes the problem. Normally, Fluxweed and Knotgrass don't mix. Oddly enough, Fluxweed and Knotgrass, are both ingredients in the Poly-Juice Potion, and are mixed without difficulty in that particular potion." Hermione stepped back to takeover working at the cauldron, while Nicole took over speaking seamlessly. "However, both are prepared differently when used in other potions, and normally they can't be mixed. For example; Fluxweed in the Blood-Replenishing Potion, and Knotgrass in the Pain-Relieving Potion." Making sure everyone was still following, she continued, "So, we needed some kind of buffer. It turns out, Bundimun Secretion undiluted works fine for Fluxweed, and Erumpent Fluid works for Knotgrass."

At the mention of Erumpent Fluid, Neville cringed, and the Weasley twins smirked. Harry smiled and leaned forward a little, anxious to hear how the girls solved the heating problem.

Hermione took over, "I see some of you are familiar with the main problem with Erumpent Fluid, when heated, it becomes... unstable." With a glance to the twins, "While that might not be an issue for some, it certainly would be for this potion."

Hermione checked with Nicole to make sure she was ready before she continued, "The solution is in how you heat the potion, and I also think it is the most interesting part of this demonstration."

After adding a pre-measured amount of the temperamental fluid to a cauldron containing the other ingredients, Nicole moved it over a flame to heat.

Everyone except Harry, backed up.

Hermione smiled, she loved the confidence that he had in her. "If you'll notice, Nicole has her wand touching the cauldron, and she is holding a spell on it," Hermione spoke softly so as not to break her partner's concentration. "The spell forces the heat of the flame into the cauldron only, no heat is transferred to the potion... yet. At a predetermined time, four minutes and twenty seconds in this case, she will remove the spell, and the stored heat will transfer instantaneously, a technique called flash boiling or flash heating. This allows us to heat the Erumpent Fluid, and maintain a stable mixture."

A moment later as Nicole was moving the cauldron to a spot where it could cool, Hermione finished, "After cooling, the potion is ready to be administered, and will act like a Blood-Replenishing and Pain-Relieving Potion in one. Of course, before it can actually be used, it will have to undergo testing by a Potions Master, and a Healer. So... I suggest you all continue to be careful." She said the last part while staring at Harry, who had the decency to blush.

oOoOo

Tuesday night dinner in the Great Hall seemed to last unusually long. It might have been the large variety of delicious food, or perhaps it was just left over excitement from earlier. But more likely it was the expectation of the pending announcements. Whatever the reason, Hermione sat with eager anticipation, her eyes constantly shifting to the head table, waiting for a sign of things to come. Nicole sat beside her just as excited, and it must have been contagious, because Harry found himself stealing glances to the front of the Hall as well.

"May I have your attention please," Professor McGonagall said in a loud clear voice. The Hall quickly quieted down. "First, I would like to congratulate all the students who participated in the Potions Demonstration." McGonagall led the Hall in a loud round of applause. When everyone settled down again she continued, "Next, as most of you know, only the top four students from each school will participate in the remaining demonstrations. I want you all to know the judging was very close. All of you showed excellent skill and knowledge in this tricky subject." Here she paused momentarily and glanced at a sheepish looking redhead sitting at the Gryffindor table. "Some of your demonstrations were more... interesting than others, but all had great merit."

Harry could've sworn he heard Fred laughing at something his brother George said, a ways down the table.

"Now what you've been patiently waiting for, your scores." Pulling out a parchment, she began to read, "From Durmstrang…” McGonagall proceeded to read the names of the top four students and their scores. Then went on to do the same for Beauxbaton. "And finally, from Hogwarts... Miss Hermione Granger, thirty points. Miss Cho Chang, twenty-nine points. Mr. Draco Malfoy, twenty-six points. And finally, Miss Luna Lovegood, twenty-five points." With a gentle nod to Luna, she added, "Miss Lovegood also happens to be our youngest competitor. Also one final note, had it not been for a rather spectacular explosion, Mr. Fred Weasley would have tied for fourth place." With a rare smile on her face, McGonagall led the Hall in another round of applause.

"You'll find the final tally for all the students, and all the upcoming events by the way, posted in the same place you found the sign up sheet. Thank you, and I think that's all for tonight." She returned to her seat as the Hall clapped one last time before people started to get up to leave.

oOoOo

Harry walked just behind Hermione as they were leaving the Great Hall. He was smiling so hard his face hurt. He was truly happy for his best friend. Hermione was ecstatic, and beamed as she graciously thanked people for their complements. It was her day, her turn in the spotlight, and Harry couldn't have been more proud of her. Of course, he knew she hadn't done it all alone, Nicole worked just as hard, but she was over with her own friends and classmates, enjoying her own celebration. Harry continued to hang back, careful not to become a cloud over Hermione's moment. He was content just to watch. Then someone caught his eye. Harry moved quickly, "Draco!” he called out, “Congratulations," Harry said as he offered his hand.

The entire group of Slytherins that Draco was with, stopped and stared. Some looked surprised or confused, others looked suspicious, even angry. If it had been a joke, the look on Draco's face would have been worth a million laughs. As the seconds passed, Harry began to think that maybe he'd made a mistake. Just before he was going to turn around, Draco stepped forward. He took a long dissecting look into Harry's eyes, and then seemingly reaching a conclusion; he reached out and shook his hand, and with a curt nod said, "Thanks." Harry returned the nod, then turned and left as quickly as he had come. He left in search of two Ravenclaws; he wanted to congratulate them also, before returning to his own common room.

Snape watched with mild interest as Harry headed for Cho and Luna. Professor McGonagall had been congratulating Hermione when Harry took off towards Draco. Both were a little concerned at first, and also watched with interest, then smiled knowingly to each other at the outcome.

oOoOo

Later, that evening in the Gryffindor common room, Fred and George grabbed Ginny as she walked by, heading for stairs to her dorm.

"Hey!"

Ignoring her protest, the twins pulled her over to their table in the corner of the room, "We need to talk."

Ginny panicked, "If this is about..." the twins entire demeanor changed as Ginny started talking. Realizing who she was talking to, she stopped, then after a rather long silence she said with caution, "Kay… forget that. What do you two troublemakers want?"

Fred and George shared a knowing look; something was up with little Ginny; they'd find out later, for now it would have to wait. Turning serious again Fred started, "Have you noticed your dear brother Ron?"

George added, "Something's up, he's..."

"A moron." Ginny supplied.

"Obviously," Fred said without missing a beat.

"But doesn't he seem to be more of a moron lately?" Questioned George.

Fred shook his head, "Why is he so angry at Harry?"

Ginny looked surprised, "Well for one thing, Ron was really looking forward to showing off. Getting the tickets, talking Quidditch and everything… you know?”

“Yeah, we thought about that, but we think there is more going on…”

Ginny rolled her eyes, “Obviously… the main reason is because Harry cheated to get into the stupid tournament."

"Did he?" George was serious again, something Ginny found a little unnerving, "because we're not so sure."

"What?"

Fred sighed, "Look, we tried to cheat too, and everybody knows it, how come Ron's not mad at us. How come nobody's mad at us? Also, we didn't just try, we tried hard... I mean really hard."

George nodded, "And, you know we're good at those kinds of things. I mean Harry's pretty smart and all, but come on, do you really think he could beat the goblet, if we couldn't?"

Ginny stood up suddenly, "Oh Merlin, that makes way too much sense, why didn't I think of some of those things before?" Ginny paused while she took time to think. "If he's telling the truth...Oh shite. We need to write mum right away!"

.

.

AN: Thank you all for reading this, and for the kind reviews.

.

.

24

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

7. Luna's Insight


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 7

Luna's Insight

.

Dean Thomas, never did like Harry all that much, and now, with Harry's involvement in the tournament, he was being more open about it. As for Seamus Finnigan, it seemed he was on the fence with regards to Harry. Besides Ron, Neville Longbottom was the only other boy in Harry's dorm, and it was pretty clear by now how he felt. Since Ron was still angry with Harry, it meant he really only had one ally. Dean knew this, and used it to his advantage. When ever Ron would start to cool down, Dean would say something to wind him up again. He was having too much fun, and to let Ron apologize would put an end to it.

Dean ticked his head towards a small group walking up ahead, “Oi, look who…The Cheat, the Squib, the Bookworm, and Loony.”

Seeing Neville walking next to Harry, set something off in Ron; what right did he have to act like Harry's mate, and for some reason, seeing Luna with them, bothered him as well. Ron picked up their pace, intent on catching them.

Even though the weather was still nice, one could tell fall was upon them by the nip in the air. Covered up in light jumpers and mittens, Harry and Hermione, along with Neville and Luna made their way to Hogsmeade.

Neville and Harry walked side-by-side talking about classes, while Luna and Hermione followed along a few steps behind.

"You and Neville seemed to be getting along quite well," ventured Hermione.

"Oh yes, he's very nice."

"Nice?" Laughed Hermione softly, "nothing more between you?"

"Well yes, there is more," Luna said, as if it was obvious.

Hermione turned her head and question her, with a raised eyebrow.

"Nargles.”

"Excuse me?" Hermione asked. She was still getting to know this girl, and it was times like this that confused her.

"You wanted to know if there was more `between' Neville and me. There is, Nargles.

"I see."

Luna looked at Hermione as if to say, really? Then, with her typical dreamy look, went on, "He has a mild case of Nargle infestation. Until it clears up, we will just be friends, just like you and Harry

Hermione bit her lip as she thought about Luna's last comment, "I don't think Harry sees me that way."

"It's not about thinking," replied Luna casually.

"Luna, we're just friends, good friends. I..."

"Well well, look here Dean, if it isn't Potter and his fans," sneered Ron loud enough to turn a few heads. "Come to celebrate have we, though I don't know why after that beating Krum gave you. Pathetic, completely pathetic!"

Ginny had been walking with a small group of her friends just up ahead, when she heard her brother lash out at Harry. Turning, she couldn't help but stare as the scene played out before her. Having not heard back from her mother yet, Ginny was indecisive as to what to do. She could only pray her idiot brother didn't muck it up too badly.

"What's your problem Ron?" Harry asked hotly.

"You are Potter, you and your sidekick complete with fan girls."

Ron was really beginning to piss him off. In the past few weeks, Harry had found he like the normally shy Neville. Once he got him out of his shell, Harry thought he was quite intelligent, and at the same time, fun to just hang around with. And of course, besides Hermione, Harry was also growing fond of Luna as well. Harry took two steps towards him, "I thought you weren't talking to me; which by the way, suits me just fine." Harry started, getting madder by the second. "But if you can't keep your mouth shut, then you bring it to me and leave my friends out of it."

As Ron was a little taller than Harry, he tried to intimidate him by stepping forward also, "Maybe I should do that now."

Hermione had finally had enough, "Ron! For heaven's sakes, why don't..."

"Why don't you stay out of it," snapped Ron.

Seeing the hurt in Hermione's eyes was all it took. Harry was going to give Ron a good thrashing. Reaching out, he grabbed his robe, intent on pulling him off balance and forcing him to the ground, it was time to put his yellow belt to work.

"STOP!" Snape hollered, "let go of him Mr. Potter. Ten points from Gryffindor for allowing yourself to be baited. Now, you and your friends get going before I decide to revoke your Hogsmeade visit."

Harry glared at the professor for a moment, then quickly calmed down as Hermione came over and stood next to him. "Yes Professor," he nodded, then turned and started away pulling Hermione with him.

"And you Mr. Weasley, ten points for starting an argument and then trying to cause trouble..."

"Ten points! Me! He's the one..."

"Enough Mr. Weasley. You would do well to learn how to control your mouth. Especially when you prattle on about things, you know nothing about. Ten more points for arguing with a professor." Snape's sneer turned hard as he added, "And if you want a detention as well, then by all means, go and start something else with them again later." Professor Snape pinned him with a glare for a couple of seconds more, just to make sure his message sank in, before continuing on his way to the village.

As soon as Snape was a safe distance away, Dean laughed, "Good show... bloody good show Ron."

"Shut it."

Dean only laughed harder, "Come on," he said while slapping Ron on the back.

oOoOo

"That place never ceases to amaze me," Neville commented as he and Harry left Zonko's to meet the girls.

"I know what you mean, but you know what amazed me?"

"What?"

"How much time the Weasley twins were spending in there."

Neville chuckled, "Now that's a scary thought."

"Especially, if you're a Slytherin," Harry said with a smile.

They continued their walk to the three broomsticks, while speculating on what kind of mischief the twin might cause in the near future. Entering the pub, Harry spotted Hermione and Luna sitting at a corner table. He made his way over with Neville right behind him.

"Hey, how was Scrivenshaft's?” Harry asked as he approached their table.

"Hi Harry, Neville," greeted Hermione as the boys sat down. Luna just smiled at them, then scooted a little closer to Neville after he had settled.

"Oh, it was okay, nothing special. I just needed to buy a couple of new quills." After answering Harry, Hermione went on, "And Zonko's?" She asked with a raised eyebrow in question, "anything I should be worried about?"

Neville laughed, "Actually we were wondering the same thing when we saw the twins there."

"Yeah, they looked way too excited," Harry added.

Luna smiled, "I find, that if you remember our school motto when dealing with them, you'll have nothing to worry about."

"Sleeping dragons ay," Harry said while nodding in agreement.

Luna in turn just nodded back.

"I only wish a certain other... younger Weasley, felt that way about Harry."

Harry looked at Hermione, "Oi, you think I'm a dragon?"

Hermione saw the mirth in his eyes, "Maybe... but in a good way."

"Not sure there is a good way when it comes to dragons," Neville said with a chuckle, "just glad there are none around here." Then he turned serious, "Speaking of Ron, what's his problem?"

Hermione leaned forward, "I don't know. I've thought about it and I really just don't know. He knows Harry as well as anyone, how can he not believe him, yet alone act so... so vile?"

"Maybe he's scared." Luna said softly.

Harry, Hermione, and Neville, all turn to look at the young Ravenclaw. It was Hermione who asked the question that all three had been thinking, "Scared... scared of what? He's not the one being forced to compete in this ruddy tournament. A deadly tournament I might add." The last part said a bit more softly, while turning her gaze on Harry.

Luna blinked, she hadn't meant to upset anyone. It was obvious Hermione was worried for Harry's safety, even though most of the time she hid it well. Her normally bright demeanor dulled as Luna said quietly, "I'm sorry."

Hermione looked apologetic, "It's okay, I didn't mean to sound mad at you," she said, and gave her new friend's hand a gentle squeeze.

After a moment of silence Neville asked, "Luna, what exactly do you mean when you say he might be scared?" As soon as he had finished, Neville glanced at both Harry and Hermione, as if to ask if it was okay to continue along this line of talk.

After seeing them both nod their encouragement to her, Luna went on to explain, "I've known Ron for a long time. He has always had a hard time... fitting in, trying to find his place between his little sister and all of his older brothers. I think being mates with you Harry, made him feel special, part of something; although for all the wrong reasons. Then he sees you join the tournament. You went somewhere he couldn't follow. He was lost, and again, he didn't fit in... and he got scared."

Quick to defend Harry, Hermione started, "Harry didn't join the Tournament! He didn't ask for any of this. How is it his fault?"

"It's not," Luna said. "We all know that, but Ron is blinded by his anger." Looking around at her friends she could see they were still unsure and upset. "I wouldn't worry about it, he will eventually calm down and see things more clearly."

Something she had said was still bothering Harry, "You said, `for all the wrong reasons'."

"Yes, I did."

"Why? What do you mean?" Asked Hermione.

Luna leaned back and stared off at nothing in particular for a moment, before answering. To all at the table, it appeared as though `dreamy' Luna was back.

"Ron needs to find out who he is, and more importantly, what he wants out of life. He is not going to find that living in the shadows of his brothers, and he's not going to find it living in the shadow of the boy-who-lived either."

Luna seemed oblivious to the stares coming from her friends.

Neville and Harry were both mostly of the same mindset. Neither fully understood exactly what Luna had met, but both could see some truth in it.

Neville smiled as he thought this would be a good way to spend some extra time with her. Discussing just what she had meant.

Harry felt exactly the same, except he was planning to go over this conversation with Hermione. Looking over at her now he couldn't help but smile. She was obviously deep in thought. He could tell by the look on her face; the way her brow knit together, and her eyes focused on an inner thought, only she could see.

`Loony, they call her Loony Lovegood,' Hermione thought, `what a wretched nickname.' She was just getting to know this very confusing girl, and Hermione would be the first to agree that, Luna would sometimes do or say things that were... well, loony. However, even in the short time she had known her, Hermione had seen the girl's intelligence. This was a good example; because she looked at things differently than most people, she saw things they didn't.

Hermione continued to sit and stare at Luna as she worked this out. She was only a third year and probably a fair bit younger than herself. Yet here she sat, offering some profound insight into the mind of one Ronald Weasley. To say she was a little impressed would have been an understatement. Hermione was pretty sure she'd be listening a little bit more carefully to her new friend from now on.

"Well I reckon that'll take a bit to sort out," Harry mused, trying to lighten the mood. "At least there's hope we'll be friends again, which is more than I can say about that effing cow, Rita Skeeter.”

"Harry, language!"

"Sorry Hermione, but you know what she's been saying."

Hermione did know. It seemed things like facts, and the truth were of little concern to the Prophet, or to Miss Skeeter. The rag more closely resembled a Muggle tabloid, than a legitimate newspaper. Normally, Hermione would just ignore the nonsense they published, but since Rita's meeting with Harry a few weeks ago, she seemed to be on a vendetta against him. To Hermione, that made it personal, and she couldn't ignore it. She wouldn't just let it go, she'd find a way to deal with Miss Skeeter, sooner, or later.

"I know Harry, and I'm not defending her. In fact, I agree she is a complete toerag. I just don't think we should drop to her level."

"Might as well tell me off now Hermione, because I think I'm going with Harry on this one." Neville said with a smile.

Luna and Harry laughed while Hermione glared. Then after only a second she couldn't hold back the smile any longer and joined in, laughing with them. A moment later she stopped suddenly. “Oh, look who just walked in…together.”

The others, turned their heads to follow her gaze. Viktor and Alicia were making their way to a table. “Hmm, I thought Alicia kind of fancied Fred,” mused Harry.

The group sat silent for a moment, then Neville said, “Yeah, me too. Pretty sure he fancies her though.”

“Might be nothing,” Luna added.

Hermione nodded, “Well, it's none of our business anyway.”

The group turned away, and continued their conversation about the poor quality of reporting from a certain journalist.

oOoOo

Hermione pulled her scarf tighter. It was hard to believe, but in just one day the weather had turned considerably colder. It seemed winter was trying to make an appearance by Halloween. As she looked out over the Quidditch field, Hermione could easily imagine it covered in snow. Then out of the corner of her eye, she saw him. Harry was climbing the steps carrying his broom, and heading straight for her. She could tell he was mad by the way he carried himself and the way he moved. Just as he reached her, she called out, "Harry, what's wrong?"

Harry sat down rather abruptly next to her, "Bunch of gits," was all he said for a moment. Then turning quickly he looked at her, "Anybody here you want to see play?" He asked, gesturing to the field.

"Well... I..." Hermione stammered, "That is, well I thought you would be playing." She was glad the air was so cold, it would hide her reddening cheeks.

Harry looked out over the field for a moment, then as if having made up his mind, he stood suddenly and offered his hand to her, "Want to go inside and get something warm to drink?"

Hermione nodded, and took his hand to stand. Without another word, Harry led her back to the castle and into the Great Hall, only releasing her hand when they had finally sat down.

"Harry?" Asked a concerned Hermione.

"'You're not welcome here Harry,' they said, `might tarnish the game!'," explained Harry in a tight voice.

"Oh Harry, I'm sorry, I know how much you miss flying." She said as she took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. She could tell he was more upset, than mad.

Looking at Hermione, Harry could easily see the concern in her eyes. She was worried about him... again.

"Hermione, yes I'll miss the flying... and the game, but that's okay... really. You don't have to worry, I'll be fine." Seeing she wasn't convinced, he went on, "Look, it's not being told I can't play, I can deal with that. It's being told I'm a liar and a cheat even if indirectly. It's being told I'll tarnish the game. That's what hurts. That's what makes me mad."

With a sad look on her face, Hermione nodded in understanding. There was not much she could do to help in this situation, Harry would have to work it out on his own. She however, would still offer whatever support she could.

oOoOo

Monday morning sitting at breakfast, Hermione could almost feel the tension radiating off of Harry. "Harry you still upset about yesterday, or did something else happened?"

Harry looked at Hermione, "Huh?" Then realizing what she meant, "Oh, no nothing like that." He paused before going on to explain, "It's just this day... Halloween... you know?"

Halloween had never been a good day for Harry, "Oh…yeah, I know."

Harry was just taking another bite of toast when he saw Pig swooped down and crash into the pitcher of pumpkin juice, right in front of Fred and George.

After cleaning up the small mess, Fred relieved the crazy little owl of his burden, and sent him on his way.

Harry smiled as he watched the scene play out, again grateful that Hedwig was his owl. `I think I'll take her some bacon after Herbology,' Harry thought. He watched as Fred handed the letter to George, and then called for Ginny to join them. He was about to look away when he heard Fred call to him.

“Oy Harry, got one here for you too," Fred smiled, then laughed, "don't worry mate, it's not red, how bad can it be?"

Harry raised both eyebrows in suspicion, "Don't know, but I guess we'll find out."

Hermione watched the exchange while thinking, `Here we go.'

Harry noticed the look on Hermione's face as he pocketed the letter and sat back down. "I'll read it later during our next break, works out great, I was going to the Owlery to see Hedwig anyway, might want to send a reply," Harry said, answering her unasked question.

Hermione shook her head and smiled, "Kay." She knew Harry would tell her all about it later.

oOoOo

A short while later as they made their way up the stairs to the top of the Owlery, Harry glanced back over his shoulder at Hermione and smiled. She was about to burst from curiosity, and he knew it.

"Harry Potter! What are you laughing at?"

"I'm not laughing, in fact, I haven't said a thing!"

"Well, maybe not on the outside, but on the inside you are, I can tell by how you're smiling."

What... a bloke can't be happy?"

"Of course you can be happy. I'm glad you're happy." After a short pause, she went on a little softer, "I don't suppose it has anything to do with the letter you got?" Hermione asked casually as possible, all the while mentally crossing her fingers.

Harry stopped and turned to her, and with the most innocent face he could muster, he asked, "What letter?"

"Harrrry!”

"Okay okay, don't get miffed Hermione, I was just having a bit of fun is all." Harry reached into his robes, pulled out the letter, and then handed it to her. Smiling he asked, "You're not mad are you?"

Hermione huffed, "Oh... I s'pose not." She reached out tentatively and took the letter, then after a sigh she added, "No Harry, I'm not mad. It is your letter after all, I've no right..."

"Hermione," Harry interrupted, "thanks, but with all that's going on, if anyone has a right, it would be you. I shouldn't have teased you, I'm sorry."

Hermione smiled, "Come on Harry, let's go see Hedwig."

While Harry spoiled Hedwig with a plate full of bacon, Hermione read his letter.

.

.

Dear Harry,

How are you dear, I hope you are doing well?

I don't know what the Headmaster was thinking by hosting the Triwizard Tournament, never mind letting you participate. The whole thing is nothing more than a load of codswallop! You can bet your last galleon, I'll be having words with dear old Professor Dumbledore.

.

.

Hermione cringed, as powerful a wizard as Professor Dumbledore was, there was no magic that could protect him from the verbal wrath of Molly Weasley.

.

.

Harry, I've heard some of what the other students have been saying about you. And yes, I know Ron is one of them. I'll be having words with him as well. It's a bad job listing to them Harry, just ignore them.

Arthur and I want you to know, that we believe you, and we're behind you. If you need anything, you send that beautiful owl of yours, and we'll do what we can.

Love, Molly

.

.

"Well, what do you think?"

Hermione looked up with moist eyes to find Harry staring at her. "I think, you have more people who believe in you then you know."

“Yeah, I guess you're right,” Harry said reluctantly.

Hermione knew that look' “What?”

Harry sighed, “It's just…I wish one of the professors believed me. There have been a couple of times I would have liked to have been able to talk with one.” Seeing the look on Hermione's face Harry quickly added, “Hermione no, don't get upset, it's not like that. You are the first person I think of, when I need help…really. And you are always there for me.” Harry gave her a little smile. “Thank you, by the way,” he said softly.

“Harry, you don't have to thank me for that…you'll never have to. I'll always be there,” Answered Hermione, just as softly. “So then why…”

“Hermione, sometimes there are things, that I know only a professor could help me with.”

“Oh yes, of course. I know what…” Hermione stopped mid sentence, and then looked pensive for a moment. She started to rub her hands together nervously and slowly looked away. Then in a quiet voice said, “I didn't realize it at the time; how important it would be to you… I forgot to tell you,” looking back, Hermione continued in rushed, worried voice, “Oh Harry, I'm so sorry…I”

Harry stepped closer, and gently grabbed both of her hands. The letter had already made her a little emotional, and now something else was starting to really get her upset. “Hermione… take it easy… calm down, I'm sure whatever it is, it will be okay,” he pleaded. Harry watched as she took a deep breath and waited for her to get herself under control. “Now, what's this all about? What did you forget?”

Harry was being so patient, she couldn't help but give him a weak smile. “Remember the first day of dueling,” Hermione started, “when I got there early?”

Harry nodded yes.

“I wanted to speak with Professor McGonagall. I was having trouble finding information on the Tournament, and I wanted to ask her about it. But we ended up talking about you instead.” Hermione smiled at the thought. “She said she was glad I was helping you, and that you had friends who believed you. I asked her if she did…If she believed you were telling the truth.” Hermione's voice hitched, “Oh Harry, she is so proud of you! She had believed you from the start; she was just so worried you'd get hurt, she never got around to saying anything to you.”

Seeing the tears treating to fall, Harry didn't hesitate, he pulled Hermione into his arms, and gave her a gentle hug. Still holding her, Harry said warmly, “Hermione, there's nothing to forgive, no need for an apology.” Releasing her, so he could look her in the eyes, he went on, “It's been so crazy around here lately. We both have been terribly busy…Merlin, it's a wonder I remember to put pants on in the morning!”

Hermione stared up at Harry for a second, and knew he meant every word. “Thanks Harry,” she said with a warm, and slight embarrassed smile.

“No worries Hermione.”

Hermione needed him to understand why her emotions were getting the better of her lately. “This whole thing scares me so much… I get so worried about…I try, but…well, sometime it just catches up to me when I least expect it, you know?”

Harry answered her in a detached voice, “Yeah… I know…” Harry stared at her for a long moment. He had known all of this had been hard on her, but up until now, he never realized just how hard, and it made him appreciate her all the more. Harry moved a little closer and took one of her hands in both of his, and said, “Hermione, you are a great witch, and the most amazing person I've ever known…Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.” Still holding her hand, he placed it over his heart, and added, “Don't worry, we… we will get through this. Both of us.”

Hermione stared at her hand as he held it to his chest, and slowly nodded. It seemed that whenever one's faith would slip, the other was always there to break the fall…just like now. Hermione smiled, and it grew as she thought of his kind words. “Yes…the both of us,” she whispered, knowing exactly what he meant.

oOoOo

The following afternoon Harry, Hermione, and Neville, shared a glance as they settled into their seats for Potions. Snape, who normally liked to make an entrance, was already there, sitting behind his desk busy writing something. The class waited patiently for him to finish; no one was foolish enough to interrupt him.

Finally, Snape lowered his quill and looked up. Slowly standing up, he first made eye contact with Hermione, then looked towards Draco. He slowly moved around to the front of his desk, and then leaned back against it.

"Before we start today," he began in an unusually gentle tone, "I would like to acknowledge two exceptional students from this class; Mr. Draco Malfoy, and Miss Hermione Granger."

Gryffindors and Slytherins alike both seemed taken back. Rarely did Professor Snape hand out praise, especially to a Gryffindor.

"For those of you who showed school loyalty by attending the potion demonstrations, I'm sure you will agree with me, that their performance was exemplary. In doing so, they honored our school and this very class. That is enough reason for me to thank them." Again looking at Draco and Hermione, the professor finished with a nod to each, "You should both be proud. Ten points each."

Then all too soon, it was back to business as normal. "Well, what are you waiting for, afters? The directions are on the board... get busy."

oOoOo

It was the first time since Harry started Hogwarts that a Halloween went by without something bad happening. After that milestone, the rest of the week seemed to fly by. Sitting down at the Gryffindor table for dinner Friday night, Hermione was painfully aware of the tension in the air. "Honestly Harry, why did Dumbledore have to wait to the very last night before telling us what the second task would be?"

Harry looked around before answering, "Dunno. Must want it to be a surprise."

Seamus smirked, "Yeah, just what you need... more surprises."

"Stuff it Finnigan," Neville said.

"Wanker!" countered Seamus.

"Enough..." Hermione started to yell, but was interrupted by the Headmaster.

"May I have your attention please," Dumbledore looked out over the students and waited for them to quiet down. "Tomorrow, starting at two in the afternoon, we will begin the second task of the Triwizard Tournament. While the first task tested one's skills and adaptability, this one will test your mind, and your faith. It was decided not to tell you about this task until tonight, because we felt there was nothing you could do to prepare. You're either ready, or you are not. You will either succeed or you will fail." Dumbledore said with far too much drama.

Pausing, Dumbledore took a sip of water, then continued, "Tomorrow each champion will face a gauntlet. It will consist of a series of `gates'. Their faith, along with their mental and physical strength, will be tested at each of these gates. Some of the gates will be the same for all, others will be unique for each champion. The outcome of each test will determine the path they will take to the next gate. Obviously, a successful outcome will result in an easier path, saving time. This will continue until they are all finished, either by passing the last gate... or by failing completely at some point. The task will be timed, and each champion will be scored based on his or her final time. Failing to complete the entire task, will result in a score of zero. Obviously faster is better, however... one would be wise to exercise at least some caution mixed with good judgment. In this particular task, there'll be no extra points for either style or daring."

Neville looked over at Harry and saw him share a look with Hermione and thought, `One has the strength, the other has the faith. Too bad they couldn't share.'

Making sure he still had their attention Dumbledore finished, "The lowest scoring champion from the first task will enter the gauntlet at two o'clock tomorrow. Then each half hour afterwards, another will enter. Thus in order from the lowest scoring champion to highest. Therefore, we will start with Mr. Vasil and will end with Mr. Krum who will approach his first gate at five o'clock. Once started, it will take each champion between one and two hours to finish. If my math serves me, dinner may be a little late."

Dumbledore raised his hands one last time for quiet, "The viewing stands will be open immediately after lunch tomorrow. I suggest you come early, as there will be more information given out then. Lastly, champions, you are not allowed in the viewing stands at any time, and you are required to report to the champion's tent no later than one thirty." Dumbledore gave a tired sigh then finished up with, "And now... I think I've said enough... so, it's good night."

oOoOo

Immediately after stepping through the portrait hole, Harry searched for Hermione. She was sitting at her favorite table, hard at work on something. Spotting her, Harry started her way, but was intercepted after only taking a couple of steps.

"Harry, we were wondering," Fred began, gesturing to his brother George, and his sister Ginny, "if we could have a word with you?"

"Won't take long, we promise," added George. Ginny nodded vigorously in agreement looking hopeful.

Harry glanced back over to Hermione, and found her staring right back, with a look of concern on her face. He gave her a small nod to tell her he was all right, and saw her visibly relax. Then with another look, he let her know he'd join her in just a moment.

None of this went unnoticed by the three Weasleys, especially Ginny. Of course Ginny knew, that Harry and Hermione had always been close, but every since his name came out of that damn Goblet, they had been growing closer. If Ginny was honest with herself, she knew she was partly to blame. After all, she could have stood up for Harry like Hermione had. She might have even been able to help, but she didn't. She stood by and watched as the whole school turned their backs on him. All except for Hermione Granger. Ginny Weasley had mucked up her friendship with Harry but good. If that relationship was ever to develop into something more, she'd have to work hard to restore it, starting now. Any further thoughts had to wait when Fred started talking again.

Fred, looking about as serious as Harry had ever seen, began, "Were sorry Harry. Sorry we didn't believe you from the beginning. Sorry for being stupid."

George went on from there, "At first when your name came out of the Goblet, we were shocked, then amazed. I'm sure you know we tried to enter. We wanted it so bad, and then, when we heard your name, well..."

"Of course we knew you would never admit it, neither would we if we had been successful. That would be admitting guilt, and that would be stupid." Fred added almost apologetically, "We just had to know... how'd you manage it."

"So even though it was too late, we worked even harder to try and figure out a way to enter," said George.

Fred could tell Harry was beginning to get mad, and so held up his hands to hold off his remarks. "Harry, the harder we tried the more obvious it became."

"You didn't put your name in the Goblet of Fire," said George plainly.

"I see," Harry said, "and this timely apology wouldn't have anything to do with a certain letter from home, now would it," he asked, both eyebrows raised slightly.

Ginny who had been quiet all this time finally jumped in, "Harry, they came to me a while back, long before we got our letter from mum. They had already figured it out, and when they told me I... I... well it nearly made me sick after I thought about it, and realized how callous I had been to you.”

"We only wrote our mum to make sure she knew what was going on. We told her how badly we had acted towards you, and ask her for advice on how to set things right. Oh and we also asked what to do about our brother the git," added Fred.

George nodded sagely then added, "Yeah, and you can be sure she laid into us as well for taking so long to get it right. You're family, you deserve better from us, she said."

Ginny nodded in agreement with both her brothers, then took over, "Harry, Hermione got it right from the beginning; anyone who knows you should have realized right away that you were telling the truth." Stepping a little closer she added softly, "And even if they weren't sure, they still should have stood by you. That's what friends do, that's what we should have done. I'm sorry..." Ginny glanced at her brothers, "we're sorry we forgot that."

Harry was moved, he could hear the passion in Ginny's voice and knew she meant what she had said. And neither Fred nor George had cracked a single joke, or even smiled during the whole conversation. They had meant what they had said too. Harry hated not being able to talk to his friends, he couldn't stay mad, so with a half smile he said, "Thanks guys, that's great to hear."

Ginny's face lit up, "You forgive us?"

Harry's smile grew, "Of course... you can't stay mad at family."

Ginny squealed and grabbed Harry into a hug. Fred and George finally laughed and patted him on the back.

Stepping back from the small redheaded group, Harry looked over to Hermione and smiled at what he saw. She was quietly laughing as well, her eyes moist and full of joy... joy for him. However, his smile dropped as quickly as it had come, when his gaze settled on Ron coming down the stairs.

Ginny picked up on his quick change in mood, and after following his gaze she knew why. "Don't worry Harry, I'll straighten him out, you'll see," she said with determination.

"Just don't hold your breath Harry, she may have to spit fire before she gets through to our ickle Ronniekins.” Fred warned.

.

.

16

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

8. The Gauntlet


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 8

The Gauntlet

.

Neville watched Harry push his food around his plate for a moment before speaking up, “What time do you start Harry?”

"Three o'clock."

"What are you going to do till then?"

"Nothing much, I only have a few more minutes before I should leave. I have to be in the champions tent by one thirty," Harry said, then looking up added, "from the viewing stands, you guys will be able to see and hear things that are happening inside... so I can't be there... might see something that would give me an advantage."

“Oi Neville, what's got your plums in a twist? You look more scared than Harry,” Dean asked with a smirk.

“Neville's not scared,” Luna said as she sat down next to him, “he's just concerned for a friend, we all are.”

Ron saw his opportunity and took it, “Oh really…all his friends are concerned for him, all three of them?”

Ginny decided to take action, it was time to do more than just talk. She knew her dorm mates would probably give her a hard time later, but right now, she didn't care. She'd deal with them when the time came. Standing up, she said loudly, “Four!”

Never ones to miss an opportunity, the Twins quickly jumped up and said together, “Six!”

“Seven!” Parvati said as she too rose up from the table, and then quickly moved away from Lavender, and stood next to Ginny.

Ron stood up too, now glaring murderously at his sister. “Three, seven…big deal, that's nothing!” he yelled.

“On the contrary Ronald, it is something, it's something very special,” Luna said softly.

“But you don't see it, do you Ron?” asked Hermione. But before he could answer, she tilted her head slightly and continued, “Sadly, I think that's the real problem.”

“Doesn't matter,” Harry said slowly raising, “I'd rather have seven true friends, than seventy dodgy ones.”

Ron was turning redder by the minute, but before he could say another word, the clock struck one.

The noise in the Hall rose as benches were slid back, and student began to make for the exit. The second task was about to begin,

Harry reached for Hermione's hand, “Walk with me?”

As the pair left, neither noticed the rare smile play across the face of their Head of House.

oOoOo

They walked slowly and in relative silence, as they made their way to the champions tent. Just as Harry was not allowed in the viewing stands, Hermione was not allowed in the tent. Stopping just outside, Harry turned to her, "Well... any last minute advice?"

Remembering Dumbledore's words about one's strength and faith, Hermione looked him in the eye as she said, "Stay focused Harry. You have it in you. You can do this... I know you can."

Harry stared back at her almost in awe. It really amazed him, how much faith she had in him. His voice was a little shaky as he asked softly, "Do you really think so?"

Hermione lifted her head a little higher to show her conviction, "Yes, I do Harry," then, with a little more warmth in her voice she added, "Because... I believe in you." Before he could see the tears that were building behind her eyes, she gave him a long hard hug, then turned and started for the stands.

Harry watched her walk away for a moment, then he too, turned and entered the tent.

oOoOo

After Hermione had left Harry off at the champion's tent, she had made her way to the grandstands. She could care less about watching the spectacle that was the second task. And she only vaguely cared about the other champions. No, she realized she was only there to watch one champion. She would follow his progress, as if to do so, insured his safety. Hermione was only worried about him, about Harry. Did that make her callous, was she being selfish, not to worry about the others? 'No,' she thought, `they have plenty of people to worry about them.' She would focus on the one individual, few others would worry about.

She sat down in the stands near her friends, but not so close as to encourage any conversation, she didn't want to be distracted. Looking around, she noticed Susan and Hannah from Hufflepuff sitting together, no doubt ready to cheer for Cedric. Ginny was sitting with a couple of friends, and would occasionally look over. A couple of rows down sat Neville and Luna. Hermione smiled at the pair and briefly wondered if she'd be sitting like that with Harry, if it won't for the Tournament.

In front of the stands was a huge display, like a giant billboard one might see along a roadside, only very much larger. Currently it was blank, but soon it would show the gathering crowd what was happening inside. Inside the gauntlet.

As Hermione sat quietly in the stands, and waited for the second task to begin, she thought, a gauntlet is about a challenge. If you were challenged, didn't you have a choice as to how to respond? `He was never given a choice,' she thought. Harry had to accept, he had to take up the gauntlet.

oOoOo

Inside the tent, Harry sat with his eyes closed, trying to control his breathing less he lose what little lunch he had managed to eat. It wasn't the unknown that bothered him so much, but rather, it was the waiting. Waiting to be challenged by some unknown. Strength and faith, what exactly did that mean? That he will need his strength, to find the faith to get through, or that he has to have faith that he will find the strength he will need. Those thoughts were a perfect example of why he hated waiting... too much time to think.

Harry felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and looked up.

"It's almost time Mr. Potter," Professor McGonagall said softly. The compassion in her voice was plain to hear.

Harry gave a nod and slowly stood on shaky legs, "Yes ma'am." It had been nearly an hour since the first champion had entered. He had yet to come out.

McGonagall led Harry through an opening in the side of the tent, and then along a narrow walkway high up on the edge of a cliff. She stopped in front of an opening to a cave. "Here is where you'll start Mr. Potter. From this point forward... you'll proceed alone. Your time will start as soon as you enter," McGonagall gave his shoulder a light squeeze, "Good luck… Harry."

Harry stared into the cave, and then looked back at his professor. With as much courage as he could manage he answered in a thin voice, "Thank you ma'am, I'll do my best." He gave her a quick half smile, then before he could change his mind, he turned and quickly entered the cave.

For Harry, the second task had begun.

Watching him walk off to face his very own unknown, she knew he was scared. She could see it in his eyes, but she knew he wouldn't turn back, wouldn't quit. Long after he had left she whispered, "Merlin help you Harry Potter."

oOoOo

Back in the stands, Hermione sat wondering how she could have forgotten just how nervous she had been the last time. She sat and studied the giant board in front of her. The main part was split in two halves. One side showed a kind of map, and where each champion currently was. The other side showed a random view of one of the champion as they worked there way through the Gauntlet. Off to the sides were their names along with their current time since starting the task. Below their names were a few minor stats, such as their current ranking, whether they were hurt or not, and even if they were conscious or not. If Hermione thought she was nervous before, then she didn't know what to call her current state. Harry had just reached the first gate.

oOoOo

After walking a short distance, the cave opened up into a small chamber lit by torches along the walls. Harry looked around cautiously before he moved further into the chamber, that's when he noticed someone off to the side, "Hello Professor."

"Hello Mr. Potter, welcome to the first gate," Professor Flitwick greeted. Then he gestured behind him, "To approach this gate, you must first answer a riddle. Answer correctly, and you will be allowed to continue through the gate, and to be tested. But be warned Mr. Potter, after passing the gate you cannot turn back and your faith will be tested as you step into the void. You may choose not to try, and bypass the gate, but you'll have to take a much longer route. Should you choose to try, but answer wrong, you'll have to take an even longer route."

"What... what exactly is the void, sir?" Harry asked with some trepidation.

"I can say no more Mr. Potter. Do you wish to attempt the gate?"

Harry looked beyond his Charms Professor, clearly they were three paths. Obviously, two were easier, but considerably longer. While the other apparently shorter, but of course not so easy. His mind made up Harry said, "I wish to attempt the gate sir."

Professor Flitwick nodded, "Very well Mr. Potter." Beckoning him forward to make sure Harry heard him correctly, Flitwick asked, "What belongs to you, but other people use it more than you?"

`Hermione would probably get this in an instant,' Harry thought. Just thinking of her name gave him hope. Then it came to him, "My name sir."

Stepping aside and gesturing to the gate, the tiny Professor said, Mr. Potter, you may proceed," then he gave a shallow bow before walking away, seemingly disappearing into the shadows.

Harry took the offered passage only to come to sharp stop a short distances later. The path ended abruptly. In the dim light, Harry could see no other way to proceed, except down, straight down. The walls were sheer and smooth. There were no handholds, no footings, and no stairs... nothing but a sheer drop-off. Peering over the edge Harry couldn't see a thing, certainly not the bottom. It was a vertical shaft that seemed to go on forever into darkness. Your faith will be tested, Harry silently remembered his professor's words of warning from only a moment ago. `No shite,' and with that last thought Harry stepped off into the abyss.

oOoOo

Her arms held tightly in front of her as if holding herself, Hermione sat numbly in the stands, one knee nervously bouncing up and down. She sat staring at the board, at one name in particular, and only half paying attention to the others. The board would randomly changed from showing one champion to another, trying to show at least most of the action. While she watched, the view on the main board suddenly changed and she saw him.

The view was from inside the cave, slightly above and to the right, facing Harry. It clearly showed him standing on the edge of what appeared to be a sort of overhang with a steep drop-off. Hermione tensed when he closed his eyes, and then a second later, gasped when he stepped off into nothingness. In a fraction of a second, he was gone. Intellectually Hermione reasoned he'd be okay. Surely, they wouldn't let him jump to his death. But Hermione would not breathe again, until she knew for sure.

oOoOo

It had only been a few seconds, but to Harry, it felt like hours. Falling through the blackness he didn't think he had ever felt more alone. He wasn't even sure which way was up anymore, and he was beginning to worry about what he would eventually hit, and of course how hard. Suddenly, he felt it. The unmistakable feeling of a charm. It was slowing his fall, impeding gravity. Then without warning, he crashed into, or rather through, the surface of a body of water. It was still pitch black and not knowing which way was up, meant he didn't know which way to swim to reach the surface, Harry was about to panic. Finally, he touched bottom. Re-orienting himself, he pushed off and swam upwards, and a moment later was rewarded with smell of fresh air.

Thankfully, Hermione was always thinking ahead, trying to prepare him for whatever he may encounter. She had showed him how to fasten his glasses with a strap that tied to the back of his robes so they wouldn't get lost if knocked off. Reaching up, he pulled them off the top of his head and pushed them back on his face where they belonged. Looking around he found himself in the middle of what appeared to be an underground lake. A short ways away, he saw a rather large fire burning high up the bank. Without wasting any more time, Harry started to swim.

oOoOo

The view on the board had changed back to Vasil, who was struggling with some sort of vicious looking vines. So Hermione had gone back to studying the map. Finally the little dot next to Harry's name started to move. It crossed a small underground lake, then started moving away from the shoreline. Hermione took a breath, for now... she could breathe again.

oOoOo

Harry was halfway up to the fire before he calmed down enough to remember he was still soaking wet. Without stopping, he used a quick drying charm on himself and thought, `I've got to relax a little and try to stay focused.' As Harry approach the large fire he looked around, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The flames danced and lit the entire inside of the cave up nicely, but there was still nothing to see. Moving a little closer, he stopped near the fire. Looking up through the flames he could see an arch starting to appear out of thin air on the far side, and beyond that there were three pathways lit by torches. Walking around the fire to get a closer look at the arch, he stopped right in front of it. Standing about ten feet high, it looked to be made out of stone. As he looked more carefully, he saw the writing inscribed across the top, not unlike the mirror of Erised. Thankfully the writing wasn't written backwards, it simply read,

.

Welcome to the second gate.

I look for but one answer.

Touch me, for a question.

Harry touched the arch, and then stepped back to read the following,

A wizard on his way to St. Mungo's.

Came across seven witches.

Each witch had seven sacks.

Each sack held seven cats.

And each cat had seven kits.

Kits, cats, sacks, and witches.

How many were going to St. Mungo's?

Give me your answer, and I will judge.

.

Harry stared at the riddle for a moment, `What the hell,' he thought, `ah, seven times seven, ah, forty-nine, times seven... no... too obvious...' “Oh, seven to the fourth power,” Harry answered confidently.

The arch pulsed with light, then slowly started to fade. Behind him, the fire died down and when out. Harry noticed, that beyond the arch, two of the pathways had gone dark, making it clear which way he was to go. Before starting forward, he again looked up at the arch, it was fading fast, but one word across the top still glowed bright, One. Harry stared confused at the one-word answer, until it too started to fade away. What a quick sigh, Harry started down the only path available to him while rethinking his answer. It didn't take long before it finally came to him and the answer made sense, `Of course, one. The wizard... he was the only one going to St. Mungo's.' a few seconds later Harry groaned, "Oh Merlin, Hermione's going to rip me a new one.”

oOoOo

Hermione stared at the board. Harry had been stationary for a couple minutes at the second gate. Finally, he had started moving, "Oh no," she whispered. He was taking the longest route. Looking over at his stats, she found out why. Next to the number two, written in red lettering was, `Riddle'. "Oh Harry," she whispered again. She knew Harry wasn't the fastest with logic puzzles or riddles, hopefully there wouldn't be anymore.

oOoOo

It took Harry nearly twenty extra minutes to reach the third gate, he had lost a lot of time. Like the first gate, the path led to the edge of a cliff. Only this time it was obvious he was somehow supposed to cross a nearly thirty foot wide chasm. Harry could clearly see an alternate path that zigzagged down the side of the cliff, probably leading to the fourth gate, though at the expense of more lost time. Moving a little closer to the edge and taking a better look around, Harry noticed writing carved into the rock face.

.

Sometimes, in order to see, one must turn out the light.

.

Harry sighed, "Bloody riddles." Harry then closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm himself. Opening his eyes a moment later, he looked around. On both sides of the chasm were several brightly lit torches. Smiling, Harry took out his wand for the first time since starting this task and extinguished the torches. It took only a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and that's when he saw the bridge glowing faintly in front of him. The color and shape of the jagged edges of the rock that made up the bridge, matched perfectly with the color and shape of the rocks on the opposite side of the rift. With its natural camouflage, it had been nearly invisible in the light, which also washed out the soft radiant glow from its surface. Harry moved quickly, and once safely across, he relit all the torches. Now with his path clearly illuminated again, he wasted no time heading for the forth gate.

oOoOo

Hermione smiled, probably for the first time since she had sat down. Harry had figured out his third riddle rather quickly, and she was quite proud of him at the moment. `Maybe I didn't give him enough credit earlier,' she thought. Suddenly, the crowd seemed to gasp in shock as a whole, and Hermione's smile was gone in an instant. Vasil was being carried from the last gate on a stretcher. His robes were torn and bloody, and he was unmoving. A quick check of his stats calmed her fears if only marginally. He was only unconscious, thankfully still alive, if only barely. Hermione remembered him entering with confidence, he had certainly started out strong. Yet ninety-two minutes later, something had gone horribly wrong.

oOoOo

Once again Harry's path lead to a cliff, only this time he was at the bottom. The route was clearly marked, he had to climb, there was no alternate path. Hoping there was a pattern, Harry looked around for a clue. Sure enough, written at the base of the cliff was a simple note,

.

To reach the top, climb sure, but quick.

.

Harry thought that odd. It seemed to him, that one would want to climb with caution. Making sure of your hand and foot holds, and taking care not to tire one self out. It was hard to estimate how high the cliff was, but it was certainly high enough, that he was sure he wouldn't want to fall. Harry decided to compromise, he'd be careful, but climb as fast as possible without exhausting himself.

The ascent was going well, after only several minutes Harry figured he was about half way to the top. Having been in pretty good shape, and being able to use both his arm and legs to climb, he was hardly tired at all. He was about to reach for his next hand hold, when he heard a deep rumble from below. Looking down, Harry saw the cause. The rock ledge he had used to get to the base of the climb, had receded completely into the wall of the cliff.

“Great, no going back now,” Harry said to no one, as he continued his climb. A minute later, Harry stopped for a moment to catch his breath, and took another look down. Something about the rock face looked different, but he didn't want to waste a lot of time studying it. The cliff was nearly vertical, and only lit by the torch light coming from the other side of the chasm, he was certainly glad he had relit them as well. He was just about to resume his climb when he suddenly noticed what was different. Harry stared in horror, all of the hand and foot holds he had used at the bottom of the climb, were gone, replaced by smooth rock!

Harry quickly turned his gaze upward, and started to climb. He needed to hurry, because soon, there'd be nothing left to climb on. He should have known, Harry thought, nothing is that simple, there's always a catch. The alternate route, was falling. The simple note had been a clue after all… be quick.

Harry was almost there, just a few more feet. No sooner had he looked over his shoulder, than he wished he hadn't, the smooth rock face was only inches from his feet. It was going to be a race to the top. Hot and sweaty, Harry struggled upward as fast as he could. He was nearly there, when his left foot slipped out from under him, the smooth rock had caught up to him. His right foot soon slipped as well, his toe holds were gone. Taking a deep breath, Harry pulled with the last of his strength, using only his arms. His muscles were already tired, and now as he pushed them to the limit, they seemed to burn. He could feel one of the hand holds he was using start to recede into the rock. One last heave with trembling arms, and Harry had managed to hoist himself onto the ledge. He laid there half on, and half off for a few second and rested. At the moment, he didn't think he even had the strength to push himself up to stand. Harry would have liked to have just laid there a while, but he knew time was of the essence. As soon as he felt a little strength return, Harry struggled to his feet and started for the fifth gate.

oOoOo

Hermione had been hyperventilating while she watched transfixed as somehow Harry managed to find the strength to finish the climb. Only now that he was relatively safe, at least for the moment, did she relax. Her breathing slowly returned to normal and she thought, `It's a good thing he's been working out.' Hermione made a mental note to tell Harry her thoughts on this, and to double her own efforts.

oOoOo

"Hello again Mr. Potter."

Harry smiled as he reached the fifth gate, "Hello Professor."

McGonagall gave Harry a quick look over, "I see you're still in one piece."

Harry dropped to his knees to rest, "Thanks for the confirmation, I wasn't quite sure myself."

McGonagall smiled, "Rest for the moment, but remember the clock is still running." She studied Harry as he regained his strength. `Was he strong enough for what was to come?' She wondered. "Mr. Potter, beyond this gate lies your hardest and longest challenge yet. The previous challenges tested you from without, this one... will test you from within. Are you ready, and do you wish to try the gate?"

Harry stood up and looked down at his feet for a moment, then after a deep breath he looked up, and with his head held high, he answered his Head of House, "Yes ma'am," his voice was loud and clear.

McGonagall nodded, "Very well, answer my question and you may pass to the direct route. What is so fragile, that when you say its name, you break it?"

Both stood completely still not saying a word. Harry's eyes were closed in deep concentration. His time nearly up, he opened his eyes and smiled, "Silence."

"Very good Mr. Potter, you may pass. And Mr. Potter, do remember your answer, it will mind you well in the near future... regardless, of your past."

Harry nodded slowly, not quite sure what to make of her cryptic words. Without saying another thing he turned and headed for the sixth and last gate.

As Harry followed the path onward, the cavern quickly narrowed, and at the same time the ceiling lowered. The passageway was rapidly becoming harder to navigate. He would often have to step around or over an obstacle that try to block his path. To make matters worse, they were no longer any torches to light the way, Harry had to use his wand for light. Entering a slightly wider part of the cave, Harry stopped to take in his surroundings. He couldn't be sure, but it felt as if he was being watched. No sooner than he started forward again, than he thought he heard a faint noise, something or someone was behind him, "Who's there?," he called, but no one answered. "Just my imagination," Harry said softly to himself. However, a little voice in the back of his head said, `In here... I doubt it.' He had only taken a few more steps when he started hearing it again, whispering. But rather than slow down or stop again, Harry quickened his pace.

Was it only now that the cave seemed so… dark and foreboding? Or had it always been like this. Was it only his imagination?

Turning a corner, the cave opened up into a large cavern, only this was completely different than all the others. Where the others were bare with nothing but rocks and sand, this one was full of plants and trees. He could almost swear he was outside in the forbidden Forest if it weren't for the high ceiling of the cave. How they grew down here, Harry had no idea. Fortunately there was a faint blue-white light filtering down from above, almost like moonlight, so Harry could extinguish his wand. The ground was covered with a low fog about 2 feet thick, and as Harry cautiously walked forward, it swirled behind him in his wake.

"Well this is... unexpected." Harry mumbled.

"What's the matter Potter, are you scared?" Came a voice out of the shadows.

"Ron! Ron is that you?" Harry asked confused, "what are you doing here?" There was no answer, then a moment later Harry heard whispering again.

Harry noticed he was sweating, even though the air held a definite chill, as evident by his short rapid breaths, visible in front of him. He was scared. Harry realized his heart was pounding so hard in his chest, he wondered briefly if Ron could hear it. He needed to move, to move fast. Harry was quickly being overcome with an unexplainable feeling of dread. He had to get out, he had to get out now!

Fear was rapidly taking over as Harry recklessly pushed on, almost at a run. He was barely conscious of his surroundings, and only in the back of his mind, did he notice Ron's laughter fading away behind him.

Fear's grip was becoming stronger as Harry continued to struggle through thick undergrowth. It almost seemed as though the plants along his path conspired against him. They slowed him down, and held him back. He desperately needed to get out. He moved in slow motion like one did in a nightmare. As that single thought threatened to consume him completely, he heard her. A voice he had not heard in a very long time. A voice he now only heard in his dreams. The voice stopped him dead in his tracks, "Mum?”

"Yes Harry, it's me."

Not more than ten or fifteen feet in front of Harry, the voice seemed to coalesce into the ghostly outline of Lily Potter. Harry stared, too shocked to move. It can't be real, she can't be real... can she. "Mum... are you really..."

"Yes Harry, I'm really here." The ghost was slowly becoming more... solid.

Harry wanted to believe... but she was dead... wasn't she, she died for him, didn't she, but here she was. "Why are you here mum?"

oOoOo

A different kind of fear was taking hold of Hermione as she sat and watched. Harry was slowly losing touch with reality. She wasn't even sure if he knew he was still in the cave anymore, or that this was only someone's sick idea of a test. The enchantments in the cave were playing off of his fear, much like a Bogart. However, no spell would break this charm. Harry was truly alone, a victim of his own fear, trapped in his own mind.

oOoOo

"To see you one last time," answered the incorporeal being.

"What do you mean? I'll see you again... someday. I'll see you and dad."

Lily spoke a little louder, "He is strong Harry. He will keep us apart... forever." Then Lily's voice took on a hard edge as she continued, "I died for you… for what, this?" She gestured around angrily. "If I had known you were going to let him kill you, that you were just going to throw your life away... I should have stepped aside."

Harry dropped to his knees in anguish and cried out, "Nooo!" He had let his mother down. She regretted giving her life for him. Harry was now regretting it too.

oOoOo

The tears were now flowing freely down Hermione's face. They dropped from her chin and soaked into her robes just above her knees, knees that were pulled up firmly against her chest. She never wanted anything more badly that she did at this moment. He needed her, and she needed to be there for him. She needed to hold him, and tell him, he was wrong. It was only the cave talking, not his mother. Lily would never regret giving her life for him.

oOoOo

A deep sarcastic laugh rumbled through the cavern. "Harry Potter... pathetic. This time. You. Will. Die." Voldemort voice was cold and calculating.

oOoOo

Hermione's hand flew to her mouth to cover her gasp. A moment later she felt a hand on her shoulder, turning she found the concerned gaze of the only adult at Hogwarts that might understand.

"I didn't realize his memories were so... strong. I don't know if he'll have the strength to reach the gate," McGonagall said sadly.

That seemed to snap Hermione out of her self induced haze of sadness. "No! Harry will make it, he'll find a way. He'll find the strength, I know he will." `He has to,' the last part she kept to herself.

oOoOo

Harry watched in grief stricken horror as his mother stepped aside. There standing behind her was Voldemort, a cruel smile on his face.

Fear was winning.

"This is how it should have been Harry, and now we shall set the past right," Voldemort sneered, and slowly raised his wand.

Harry was still on his knees, he bowed his head and thought, `So this is how it ends.' But no sooner had he thought that, than a recent memory played back in his head, `…regardless of your past.' Harry closed his eyes as he tried to remember. `Remember your answer, it will mind you well.' Harry thought harder… "Silence," he whispered.

Harry was confused, what did it mean? Do I need silence? No, that couldn't be it. There was no way he could make Voldemort stop laughing. Maybe... I need to be silent. Harry relaxed and closed his mind. He focused only on himself and tuned out, the rest of the world. Voldemort's taunts slowly faded away. Soon he felt more at ease, more at peace, no sound... silence. That's when he heard the whispers again. Only now that it was quiet could he tell they weren't coming from outside, they were in his head. He focused on the sound, focused until he could hear them clearly. "I believe in you Harry, you can do this." Hermione!

Harry's eyes snapped open, and with renewed strength he stood. He smiled at his mother, and she smiled back, then nodded her approval, before quickly fading away. Harry turned his attention towards Voldemort and pulled his wand.

Voldemort screamed in rage, "You will die Harry Potter." After bringing his want to bear he yelled, "Avada Kedavra.”

At the same instant, Harry also yelled, "Confringo.”

The blasting curse left the glowing tip of Harry's wand and collided with the killing curse from Voldemort's. The cave exploded with a blinding light, and then a few seconds later faded away. As the spots left his eyes, Harry looked around ready for the next attack, only to find himself alone. His vision now back to normal he looked around again this time in awe. The cavern was completely empty, no plants, no trees, and no Voldemort.

Fear had lost.

Harry had reached the last gate, but there was no one there. There were no signs, or inscriptions to read. Too tired to care, Harry sighed and stepped through. As soon as his body crossed the plane of the archway that marked the gate, Harry heard a loud gong and the exit to the cave just appeared in front of him. He took a few more steps and walked out into the fresh air of early twilight.

The second task was over.

oOoOo

Harry started for the exit tent as instructed earlier so he could be checked over by Madam Pomfrey. He had only gone a few feet when he heard her.

"Harry!"

He turned just in time to catch a racing Hermione as she crashed into him.

"Oh Harry, I was so afraid for you, I thought I would die more than once," she said very quickly. "And at the end... oh... but you made it. I knew you would Harry." As soon as she had finished, she tightened her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder. She needed reassurance, she needed to know he was all right, and currently the feel of his body held tight against hers was the only thing that might possibly convince her. A few second later, after realizing how intimate this particular hug was becoming, she released him and stepped back hoping the darkening sky would hide her rising blush.

But it wasn't quite dark enough, and Harry smiled when he had noticed the color of her cheeks. Reaching out, he took her hands and gave them a squeeze, "It was because of you... you know."

Hermione tilted her head and worried her lower lip while she tried to puzzle out the meaning of his words.

Harry dropped one of her hands, but held fast to the other as he began to slowly continue his walk to the tent. Only then did he offer an explanation, "At the end... I was only able to keep going because of you." Harry paused, "Remember what you said before I started?"

They came to a stop and turned to face each other again. Staring into his eyes, Hermione gently nodded yes.

Harry gave her a sheepish smile, "I didn't want to let you down."

"You didn't."

.

.

14

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

9. Of Crabs and Cramps


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

AN: Thanks for your patience, and of course, your kind reviews.

.

.

Chapter 9

Of Crabs and Cramps

.

As Harry's mind slowly drifted towards consciousness, he noticed a familiar scent, vanilla. Even before he opened his eyes, he smiled and said, “Morning Hermione.”

“Morning Harry,” she said, leaning forward a little to examine his still closed eyes. “How'd you know I was here? Are you peeking?”

Harry opened his eyes, and with a growing smile said, “Now you know I don't cheat.”

Hermione raised one eyebrow, “No, I suppose not, but that doesn't answer…”

“I could smell you.”

Hermione's other eyebrow joined the first near her hairline, “Well since I just got out of the shower, I guess I had better look into finding a better soap.”

Harry laughed while scooting back a little, so he could sit up. “Your soap is fine Hermione, it's your shampoo,” seeing she was still waiting for an explanation, he went on, “Vanilla…your hair always smells faintly of vanilla.”

"Oh…" Hermione leaned back in her chair, not quite sure how she felt about that.

"I hope you don't ever change it... I... I like it. Whenever I smell vanilla, it reminds me of you." Both teens turned away slightly embarrassed.

Unable to believe he had just said such a personal thing, Harry tried to ease the tension by changing the subject, "Madam. Pomfrey says I should be able to leave this afternoon."

Hermione turned back, "Oh that's great news Harry. I was afraid she might make you spend another night here."

"I don't know why I even had to spend one."

"You know why Harry. You were exhausted, both physically and magically. You really did need it."

"I suppose," Harry relented, "so, you're up early."

"Well, I know how much you love being here, so I thought I'd come and join you for breakfast," Hermione said with a look, that brokered no argument.

Harry nodded, "Sounds good."

A short while later Harry wiped his face with a napkin and moaned, "I don't think I could eat another bite."

Hermione stood and chuckled, "That's because there isn't another bite."

"Hey, you said I need to regain my strength."

Reaching over she took the tray from his lap and sat it on the side table next to her own, "Yes, but I didn't necessarily mean you had to do it all in one meal."

"Well at least I didn't talk with my mouth full of food."

"Um, that's true," she said playfully. "Listen, as much as I'd like to hang around here with you and the other goldbrickers, I can't; I have some work to do... some of it is even due tomorrow."

Harry put on his best-looking stern face, "Hermione Granger... waiting until the last day to finish an assignment?"

Yes, well, I was a bit distracted," she smiled.

Harry stared at her for a moment then nodded, "I know... thanks Hermione."

"No worries," she said softly. Then a second later her voice returned to normal, and she asked, "So, what are you going to do? Want me to bring you your books or something?"

“No, I think I'll write a nice long letter to an old friend."

"I'll bet he'd like that," Hermione said as she turned for the door, "I'll see you later at dinner."

"Yeah sure, bye."

oOoOo

.

Dear Padfoot,

How are you? I hope this letter finds you doing well. It's been a couple of weeks since I last wrote, so I thought I'd send you an update. Well let's see... it's Sunday morning, the day after a second task. Madam Pomfrey insisted I spend last night in her care, but I expect to be released this afternoon. I swear, she makes such a fuss. A couple of little cuts and scratches, and you'd think I was missing a limb or something. Well at least she cares, and I know she means well. Since I'll be here a while, I hope you don't mind a long letter.

The second task was really different. It was a little physical, but mainly it just messed with your head, especially towards the end. It was so real, I kind of forgot where I was. I don't know if I've ever been that scared before. Anyway, I can hardly believe it, but I managed to come in second for this task. I was only three minutes behind Fleur. Then it was Cedric, followed by Renée, and can you believe it, Viktor came in fifth. Derrick and Vasil were last, although I don't know the order, (if you really want to know, ask Hermione). So unfortunately, that means I have to go on now, to the end. I just hope it's not the end of me!

Adding the scores from the first task puts me in third place overall. As it stands right now, Cedric is in the first with eighty-two points, Fleur is second with eighty-one, then me with seventy-nine, and finally, Viktor with seventy-seven. I hate the fact that I'm part of the final group and have to continue on, but part of me is also just a little bit proud. I somehow managed to hold my own against some older students. With most of the school still calling me a liar and a cheat, it helps just a little if you know what I mean. And with that thought, I have to tell you Padfoot, Hermione has been great! She keeps track of everything; the scores, dates, rules, everything. But most of all, she is always there to help me. A few others have come around and believe me now, but she believed me from the beginning. I honestly don't know what I'd do without her, I'm sure I'd have never made it this far.

As for everyone else, well Neville and Luna are still with me. The Weasley twins and Ginny, plus the Patil twins say they believe me now. However, Ron is still being a total git. Luna thinks it's because he's afraid. I don't know about that.

I've been keeping an eye on Bagman and Crouch like you suggested, both seem a little weird, but nothing dark stands out. Of all of them, Karkaroff seems the most suspicious. It's like he's always ready to make a run for it. Also, I don't know if it means anything, but on a couple of occasions, I've caught Moody staring at me.

Well, that's about it for now, as soon as I know anything about the third task I'll write again. Until then please take care and be careful.

Harry

.

oOoOo

Hermione had just finished lunch, and was on her way back to the library. She wanted to continue the work she had started after leaving Harry in the infirmary earlier in the morning. Now that the task was over, she could relax and spend more time on her studies. `Be nice to get caught up, maybe even get a little ahead before the next task,' she thought, `before my brain shuts down again with worry.'

"Hey Hermione, hold up."

Hermione stopped and spun around, "Hey Ginny, what's up?"

"Where are you off to?" She asked, cautiously.

"The library... I've loads of work," Hermione replied, trying to convey the fact she was in a hurry.

"Oh, do you mind if I tag along, there's something I want to talk with you about." Ginny noticed the older girl glance down at her overstuffed book bag, "I know you're probably very busy. I only need a few minutes of your time, I swear, I won't keep you long."

Ginny looked as though whatever she wanted to talk about was important, so with a sigh, Hermione agreed, "Fine, but remember, you said it wouldn't take long."

"Thanks Hermione," Ginny said as they continued on to the library.

A few minutes later, both girls were sitting down at one of the many tables the library offered. An uneasy silence hung in the air. Hermione looked around casually, aside from a couple of Ravenclaws there was only one other person in the room, Viktor Krum.

"Hermione, I wanted to talk to you about... Harry," Ginny whispered nervously. The change to Hermione's demeanor was instant. She went from relaxed and maybe slightly annoyed, to tense and focused in a heartbeat. Her eyes were no longer soft and casual. Now they pinned her with an intensity that actually scared Ginny a bit.

"What about Harry?" Hermione asked softly, but with a sharp edge.

Ginny looked down at the table deep in thought. She hadn't realized how hard this was going to be. Just asking any girl what she was about to ask would be hard enough, but Hermione wasn't just any girl. She was Harry's best friend. She was older and smarter. Most importantly though, she was not someone you wanted to make mad. On top of all that, Ginny considered her a good friend.

Looking up Ginny sighed, there was just no easy way to say it, without just saying it. "Hermione, do you... fancy Harry?"

Of all the things Hermione had expected, this wasn't even on the list. It caught her completely by surprise. "What?" She blinked, setting up straighter in her chair.

"Hermione, I know you like Harry, and I know you're close, but do you fancy him?"

Hermione of course, had heard her the first time. Now having had a moment to let the question sink in, she was ready to reply, "Ginny... you know I'm not one of those kinds of girls who are always going on about boys. Besides, that's a rather personal question, don't you think?"

"Yes of course, you're right on both counts. Look Hermione, I'm not trying to start some kind of rumor or anything... I just want to know."

Hermione studied the girl across from her, "Why?" She asked, even though she already knew the answer.

Ginny knew she had to do this right. Ordinarily, she wouldn't have cared about Hermione's feelings, but this was different. If Harry liked her, even just a little, and she was fairly sure he did, then she didn't want to upset him, by making Hermione mad. Plus, as most anybody would tell you, you didn't want to get on her bad side. Ginny could handle a wand pretty good for a third-year, her older brothers saw to that. But Hermione was in a league of her own. The sweet and caring girl could easily turn into a lioness if aggravated, and Ginny had no intention of provoking the sleeping brown haired beast. In fact, she was certain that all but a few sixth and seventh year girls felt the same about her.

Ginny began to fidget, "Because... because I do.” She immediately turned red, and started to wring her hands. "Oh Hermione, we're friends... I don't want to fight with you, and I certainly don't want to get hexed halfway across the country for stealing your boyfriend."

Hermione flopped back into her chair and deflated a little, "Ginny, he's my best friend. Besides, he doesn't see me like that." That last part had stung just a little as she said it. She knew Harry cared about her a great deal, she could tell just by his actions, the way he treated her. She was his best friend, someone he could trust and confide in. Hermione loved the fact that he felt that way, but she was also quite sure he wouldn't see her as potential girlfriend material. She didn't have the kind of beauty that hormonal boys looked for when they started thinking of girls in that way. It wasn't just her looks, it was also who she was; an ordinary Muggle-born, a bossy bookworm… she was plain and simple, not really the stuff girlfriends were made out of.

"Maybe... maybe not, but I'm not asking you what he feels."

Hermione leaned forward again. `How do I feel,' she asked herself. She knew her feelings for Harry were different than any feelings she had for anyone else. They were…stronger, more intense. Hermione knew she cared for him…deeply, `but in what way?' She wondered. Did she have romantic feelings for him…'maybe,' she wasn't sure, since she always tempered her thoughts as soon as they started drifting into that very dangerous territory. After all, she didn't have any experience in that sort of thing.

She did know however, that his friendship was very important to her; more important than anyone else's. "To be honest Ginny... I'm not sure how I feel." Seeing the exasperated look on her friends face, she tried to clarify. "Like I said, he's my best friend, something that I value very much. I don't ever want to lose that." After a soft sigh she went on, "This last summer we grew closer, there's no doubt. But now with this stupid tournament, we're both running around like crazy just to get things done. I... I just haven't had a lot of time to think about such things."

Ginny just sat there and stared at Hermione. She really hadn't quite known what to expect when she thought to ask, but she had hoped for something more definite. Frustrated she asked, "Well what am I supposed to do?"

Hermione eyed the girl for a couple of seconds, then her stare became sharp again. The edge in her voice was back also, "Ginny... I don't want to fight either, but if the time comes that I find I do want to be more than just friends with Harry... I will. So for now, you do what you think you have to, all I ask, is that you're honest about it, especially to Harry. And Ginny, if you hurt him, regardless of how I feel... I'll give you a fight you'll never forget."

Ginny nodded.

Really, the only thing she knew for sure, was that she just wanted Harry to be happy. If that meant burying her feelings for him, then she would. Hermione's face softened, and she reached forward and took hold of one of Ginny's hands. "Ultimately, it's up to Harry... right? If you're honest with him and treat him right, and he chooses you... I promise I won't hex you. However, once I have my feelings sorted out, and if I find that I want more... I'll let him know. And if I'm not too late, I'll fight for him too, okay?"

Again, Ginny nodded, "Okay, I guess that's only fair. Thanks Hermione." Ginny slowly rose and started to turn for the exit. `Maybe I stand a chance,' she thought, `as long as Hermione continues to be uncertain.'

"Oh and Gin remember, Harry has had a hard life, and I don't think it's going to get any easier in the near future. He'll need a strong girlfriend, one that will stand beside him no matter what. He'll need his girlfriend to understand him, both the good and the bad."

Ginny smiled, "I can do that."

Hermione watched her walk away, `Really Ginny, because I'm not sure you can.' Then her thoughts turned to Harry, `How do I feel about him? I'm going to have to think on that a bit. Harry is too important to me, to mess up our relationship, but I'm not sure how I'd handle him being with somebody else, even Ginny.' Actually, Hermione wasn't sure anyone was good enough for him. Shaking her head, she decided to think about it more later, right now she had work to do.

oOoOo

Harry sat down gingerly at the Gryffindor table for lunch. It had only been two days since he was released from the tender ministrations of the school healer, and he was still a tiny bit sore. He had left for the Hall a bit early so he wouldn't have to rush, and now found himself alone. His peace and quiet however, only lasted a moment.

"Hello Harry, mind if I join you?"

Harry looked up into the nervous eyes of his dorm mate Seamus Finnigan. "Way too tired and stiff to try and stop you," he answered indifferently while gesturing to the seat across from him.

Seamus sat down rather quickly, "So Harry, you ever find out what happened with the Cup and all?"

`Are you kidding me?' Harry thought. "What's to find out? I cheated right. I somehow managed to fool an ancient magical artifact. I also managed to outsmart the greatest wizard, since Merlin." The venom in Harry's voice was plain to hear.

Seamus flinched, then holding up both hands in a placating fashion said, "Sorry Harry, stupid question." Putting his hands back down he went on, "I made a rash decision blaming you Harry. I've been thinking more and more about it lately, like the things you just said. It doesn't add up, and well… I really don't think you're that kind of guy." Seamus paused a moment and stuck out his hand, "I'm sorry for what I said."

Most of the school was still ignored him, but as Harry sat there looking at Seamus, he could tell the boy was telling the truth. After all, what purpose would there be in lying, except maybe as a prank, and Harry really didn't believe Seamus would stoop that low. Smiling, Harry reached out and shook his hand, "Thanks mate."

After a few seconds of awkward silence, Harry glanced around the table, "Well... care to join me for lunch?"

"Sure... thanks."

Seamus started to fill his plate, but Harry could tell something was still bothering him. After making eye contact he subtlety asked, "What?"

Seamus sighed, "I thought you'd be more upset, maybe tell me to piss off or something."

Harry stared for a second, and slowly nodded, "I was mad, still am even, at some." Harry shrugged his shoulders, "Can't stay mad forever though, and I've had time to do a little thinking myself, and I can see how it might have looked at the time. Besides, I could always use another friend," he added with a laugh.

Seamus finally relaxed and laughed too, "I could too, so I'm glad you feel that way Harry." Then turning a bit more serious, but still smiling, "You know Harry, I'm not the only one who starting to change their mind."

Harry swallowed a bite of egg, "Oh?" He asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Yeah, I think after the second task, people started to think, and well... I think some must have come to the same conclusion as me."

"Well maybe I'll get killed in the next one and convince a few more." Harry hadn't meant for it to sound so harsh, but it did.

Seamus wasn't sure, but he had a feeling most of Harry's resentment was aimed at Ron. He was supposed to be his best friend, Ron should have believed Harry from the beginning. Taking a chance he ventured, "He'll come around Harry," then trying to lighten the mood, "hopefully, you won't have to die before he does."

oOoOo

Thursday, a couple of days later, Harry was feeling much better. He, Hermione, and Neville had just sat down to breakfast when Hedwig made an appearance. Swooping down she landed gracefully on the table in front of Harry, suspiciously close to the side of his plate that had the bacon on it.

"Hello girl, let me get this letter off of you, then you can help yourself to some of my breakfast, kay?"

Hedwig barked softly and held out her leg, all the while eyeing Harry's plate. Harry laughed as he untied the letter, "Hungry girl?"

"Of course she is Harry," Hermione said as she reached over and stroked the snowy owl, "she's probably been flying all night. Haven't you girl?"

Hedwig nuzzled the side of Hermione's hand in appreciation before turning her attention back to the bacon.

"Sorry girl, help yourself." Harry said smiling.

As Neville slowly ate, he watched the interaction between the three. It was obvious that Harry loved Hedwig, and Neville was sure that if his familiar was capable of love, then she loved Harry back. Oddly, he was also sure that Hedwig cared a great deal for Hermione. Many times Hermione had commented, that Hedwig would come and find her on her own whenever she needed to send a post. `She sure doesn't do that for anyone else,' Neville thought.

Then, there was Hermione and her familiar, Crookshanks, the terror of Gryffindor tower, if you were to listen to Ron. As far as Neville was concerned, the little ginger half Kneazle was nice enough, `Never bothers me.' Funny thing was, the cat never did care much for Ron, but he just adored Harry. Also, nobody could ever; if they dared try, pick up the little lion, except of course for Hermione and sometimes Harry. It seemed they were the only ones Crookshanks allowed that honor.

Hedwig and Crookshanks also got along with each other, `As if they knew it would be important to their owners that they got along,' Neville thought. `One thing for sure,' he further mused, `I haven't seen a single mouse since those two showed up.

Having had her fill, Hedwig decided it was time to leave and launched herself off the table. Unfortunately for Ron, her flight path of choice, seemed to be straight at his head.

Ron saw her coming out of the corner of his eye and managed to duck in the nick of time, nearly planting his own face in his food. "Bloody owl," he snipped. Picking up a roll, he got ready to throw it at the departing bird, but after looking around he thought better of it, and chucked it at a laughing Neville instead.

Harry had just finished reading Sirius's letter, and looked up just as the roll flew by, missing its intended target and hitting a confused second-year instead. He turned to Hermione for an explanation, only to receive a blank look. Seems she had been busy trying to read over his shoulder and also missed Hedwig's low-level departure.

It was Neville who finally filled them in, and after a few laughs, they decided it was time to head for class. While they walked Hermione asked, "Was that from Padfoot Harry?"

"Yeah, didn't you read it?" Smirked Harry.

Hermione had the decency to look down for a second before answering, "Well I tried... but short of getting up and standing behind you, I couldn't really see it very well."

Harry laughed, "You can read it later during break if you want, or... I can summarize it for you."

Hermione was well aware that Harry would leave out anything bad... and then some, if she let him do that. "Well, if you don't mind... I'd rather read it myself," she said rather tentatively.

Still smiling, Harry just handed her the letter, "You know I don't mind."

Hermione took the letter and pocketed it, then bumped shoulders with him, "Prat."

Harry pretended to look hurt. He knew she was only kidding, her smile gave it away.

oOoOo

A short while later, most of the fourth-year Gryffindors were leaving their Transfiguration class and heading back to their common room. They all had a two-hour break before lunch and most just wanted to take it easy. As Harry headed upstairs to his dorm to put away his books, Hermione sat down near the fire to read Sirius's letter.

.

.

Dear Harry,

Congratulations, I knew you could do it. I'm so proud of you Harry, and I'm sure your parents; who I know are watching over you, are too. Although, I have to say I wouldn't have been upset if you hadn't passed, at least then you'd be out that damned Tournament.

I don't know if you are aware of this or not, but Karkaroff is a Death Eater. The only reason he is running free is because he gave up the names of all of his Death Eater friends a while back. That, and he supposedly renounced his ways. Just him being there bothers me, but that he is nervous... that really bothers me. What's he hiding, or who is he hiding from? He's made a lot of enemies Harry, on both sides. A man like that can become very desperate. As for Moody, I think he's just trying to keep an eye on you, no pun intended. He's a good man Harry, and a good friend of Dumbledore's.

Something's up Harry, I can feel it in my bones. Please be careful. Trust no one except your closest friends. Listen to Hermione, she's a very smart witch. I'm afraid I can't comment on Ron, I really don't know him that well. On the other hand, I'm glad young Neville is with you, the Longbottoms are a good family.

Now I'll bet the Black family vault, that Hermione is reading this too, and that's fine by me. So Hermione, I only have one thing to ask of you... please take care of Harry for me. I know it's a lot to ask Hermione, but you're the only one there I trust at the moment, and you're probably the only one he'll listen to.

I can't tell you how much I wish I could be there myself, but that's not possible. Have faith though, I'm working on it, and I hope to see you both soon.

Love, Padfoot.

.

.

"Well, what do you think?" Harry asked as he plopped down on the opposite side of the couch from Hermione. When she looked up, Harry noticed she had tears in her eyes and the hand that was holding the letter was trembling.

"Oh Harry," she cried faintly.

Harry quickly scooted over next to her and grabbed her free hand, "Hey, hey what's this about?" Hermione tightened her grip on him and sniffed as she looked down. "Please Hermione, don't cry." Taking hold of her other hand too he added softly, "Talk to me, tell me what's wrong."

Hermione felt a little foolish for crying even though she knew why. She had been trying to stay busy, so she wouldn't have time to think about it. The Tournament, the tasks... the danger. Sirius's letter was just the catalyst to bring all the horror back into focus, and her emotions finally caught up with her.

She turned to face Harry more directly and looked up into his concerned eyes. "Oh Harry he's right, I should be taking care of you... not the other way around." Hermione looked down again, "Yet here I sit, crying, like a little first-year schoolgirl."

Harry smiled and gently said, "And you have been Hermione, you have. Merlin, without your help and support... I never would have made it." Harry reached up and gently lifted her chin to look her in the eye. "Hermione, knowing that you believed me, that I didn't put my name in the Cup would have been enough, but you didn't stop there. You stood up to others on my behalf, you didn't just believe me, you believed in me, I don't think you know how much that means to me." He let that sink in before he went on, "Me, this Tournament... all my problems... they're not your responsibility." He watched her worry her bottom lip for second and then gave her a look to tell her not to protest, "They're not, yet you run to my rescue, to help me anyway. That is why you are so special. Hermione you do so much more than just take care of me."

Hermione couldn't stop herself, she launched herself into Harry's arms and wrapped her own tightly around him. With a hitch in her voice, Hermione whispered, "Thank you Harry, that's the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me." Refusing to let go, she went on after a moment, "It's not fair. Forced to compete, and with students far older no less. The way others treat you. Ron! And poor Padfoot... it's just not fair!" she finished, on the verge of tears again.

Hermione finally released him and leaned back, "Sirius would be so disappointed in me," she said sadly.

"Nonsense Hermione, I'm sure he'd be very proud of you." And then Harry said in a stern voice that sounded oddly like their Head of House, "Miss Granger, I'm ordering you to take the rest of the day off from Harry Potter guard duty."

Hermione laughed as she wiped at the last of her tears. She knew Harry hated to see her cry. He always said he didn't know what to do with a crying witch, and yet he always found a way to put a smile back on her face. "Fine, but after a good nights sleep, I'll be back on duty first thing in the morning."

Harry smiled, "I wouldn't have it any other way." They'd talk about the letter some other time.

oOoOo

The one thing Draco Malfoy had in common with Harry Potter, was that neither like getting up early. But for different reasons both were normally up before everyone else in their house. Draco needed peace and quiet in order to study, and in the wee hours of the morning, Slytherin's common room was always deserted. He had tried getting his work done in the evening, but there was always just too much commotion. If he tried to stay in his room to study, someone would always stop by and interrupt him, almost like clockwork. He once tried the library, but he never really felt comfortable there. So, getting up around five o'clock every morning gave him the quiet time he needed, and as a plus he was always on time to breakfast and class.

Of course, there's a downside to everything, and in this case, it meant, that even if he had nothing to do and tried to sleep in, he would find himself wide-awake by five thirty at the latest.

There were only a couple of other students up this early on a Saturday, let alone already dressed and down in the Great Hall having breakfast. As Draco helped himself to something to eat, he looked around. Down at the end of his table sat two seventh year Slytherins working on some class project. There were three girls sitting at the Ravenclaw table having a quiet conversation. It appears that nobody from Hufflepuff was up yet, at least nobody was down for breakfast. Then there was the Gryffindors, and currently there was only one person sitting over there, Harry Potter.

Why was Potter always up so early? Draco briefly wondered if it was for the same reason as himself. `No, I doubt It, he doesn't seem that studious,' he thought. Draco continued to watch Potter as he ate his breakfast. `I wonder if he's telling the truth, he's stupid, but stupid enough to actually put his name in the goblet? And if he was that stupid, how did he managed it?' Draco smirked, `Dumb luck or bad luck, he still stinks. Maybe I'll get lucky, and the Tournament will kill him.' The last thought gave Draco pause, did he really wish Potter dead? Draco shrugged mentally.

"Good morning Draco," Daphne said as she settled a couple of feet down from him.

"Morning."

"What's our arch enemy up to today?" She asked after noticing that Draco had been staring across the hall at Harry.

Draco broke his gaze away from Harry to face her, "What?"

Daphne never looked away, she just ticked her head towards the Gryffindor table.

"Oh... don't know, don't care. I was just wondering how stupid Potter really was." And after having said that, Draco returned to his meal his thoughts turning to other things.

Daphne raised an eyebrow in thought as she looked away from Draco and over to Harry, `Can't be too stupid, he's doing far better than Vasil.' Then she too, returned to her breakfast.

oOoOo

Hermione dropped a notebook on the table and slid in next to Harry, "Morning, you're up early, have you started your morning workout routine again?"

Harry smiled, "Morning Hermione, and yes, well sort of anyway." The look she then gave him clearly said, explain. "I started back at it today, but only about half as hard. Thought I'd take it slowly, half today, maybe three quarters tomorrow, and then on Monday go back to a full routine."

Hermione nodded in understanding, "Sounds like a good idea, besides, you don't want Pomfrey to get a hold of you if you overdo it."

Harry laughed, "No, I don't. What about you? Are you going to join me again?"

Hermione answered with a smirk, "I started back right after the second task."

"Really? Why didn't you say something?"

"Because I knew you would want to join me, and it was too soon."

Harry smiled and shook his head, "Yeah, you're probably right." Seeing Hermione raise an eyebrow Harry amended, "Okay, you are right."

Hermione laughed, "Good answer. Seriously though Harry, I've been meaning to mention how much I think your workouts helped you in the last task, especially that climb up the cliff."

"Yeah, I had similar thoughts myself. Hey, if you don't mind a change the subject, do you want to talk about the letter from Padfoot?"

Hermione sighed, it was a worrisome subject, but she knew Harry needed to talk about it, maybe make some plans, "Sure, I really hate to think about it, but I guess we should."

For an hour and a half, they had talked about who might be involved in some kind of plot. Their main suspects were Karkaroff, and Bagman. Both had been acting very suspiciously. When Harry mentioned Moody, Hermione agreed there was something definitely off about the man. They also discussed various possible reasons why someone would want Harry in the Tournament. Of course, the most logical conclusion was to see him hurt, or even killed. One thing for sure that Hermione agreed with Sirius about, was they needed to be careful, and extra observant. Finally, they talked about trying to find a way to get Remus back at school.

The Hall was slowly starting to fill the students for breakfast, as Harry and Hermione made their way out. Both had schoolwork that needed to get done, and so made their way to the library.

oOoOo

"Harry, how much detail did you go into on how to cut ginger root?" Hermione asked.

"Not much, just a couple of sentences really," answered Harry. He had always liked reading, and learning new things. It was just some of the homework; like writing essays and revising for tests he didn't care for. He'd been mildly surprised to discover he was actually beginning to enjoy even that part of schoolwork, although he would never admit it to anyone except Hermione. Every since he started studying during summer, he found that if he just stayed on top of it or maybe a bit ahead it wasn't so bad.

"Thanks, that's about what I have. Hmm there he is, as usual."

Harry looked up, "Who?"

"Oh..., Ah Viktor Krum. It seems he's here all the time. Funny though, doesn't seem to be the studious type."

Harry looked over at Viktor and studied him for a moment before he remarked, "No... he doesn't. Hey, if we hurry and finish this up, we can still make lunch. You hungry?"

Hermione quickly rechecked her work then said, "Yeah I am actually, give me five minutes and we'll go."

oOoOo

It was fairly light out Monday morning when Harry had come down the stairs to the common room. Yesterday he had managed to get through most of his regular workout, and today he was planning to do the full routine. Still a little sleepy he didn't notice the small group sitting on the couch talking softly until he was almost on them. "What..."

"Morning Harry," Hermione had obviously been awake longer than him.

"Morning Hermione... Ginny?" Harry asked half confused. He had never seen Ginny up any earlier than necessary, he knew she liked to sleep as long as possible.

"Ginny heard about our morning run; she asked if she might be able to join in." Hermione stated, answering his un-asked question.

Ginny smiled, "Morning Harry, I hope you don't mind. After seeing what it's done for you, I'd kind of like to give it a try."

Harry really didn't think she had any idea what she was getting herself into, but she had sounded just a tiny bit desperate. "Well ah, no I don't mind."

Ginny's smile fell, "Are you sure? It sounds like you do mind."

Harry glanced over to Hermione, "Did you tell her what it's like... you know, first starting out?"

Hermione nodded, "Yeah, we talked about it for a bit. She still wants to give it a go, so I loaned her some running clothes."

"I won't slow you down Harry, I promise," pleaded Ginny.

Harry laughed, "It's not me you'll be slowing down, but if Hermione doesn't mind, then neither do I."

Hermione sighed, she knew why Ginny wanted to do this, and it had nothing to do with getting in shape. On the other hand, if Ginny did manage to continue, it might encourage others to start working out a little. After all, they didn't all have to work at it as hard as Harry did.

"Look, I have an idea,” Hermione started, “why don't we jog to the lake to warm up? We'll do our stretches and calisthenics down there. Ginny can follow along until she gets the hang of it. We'll start our run from there, and go along the shoreline, if Ginny gets too tired or can't keep up, she can stop or just walk for a while. We'll come back the same way, so we can pick her up on the way back."

Harry glanced from an amused Hermione, to a beaming Ginny, "Well, guess I'd be barking to argue with that."

A half-hour later down by the lake, a sweat covered Ginny began, "Right, let me get this straight. You run down here slowly, to warm up. Why not use a warming charm? Second, you stretch...hmm, well that's kind of makes sense. Next cal-lo-stin-tics, or something like that. I mean really, sit-ups, push-ups... is it really necessary? Isn't there a spell or something?"

Hermione smiled, both her and Harry expected something like this, “Ginny, the point of all this is to make the body stronger, leaner, and faster. It also helps your magic. There might be a spell or potion that would help, but we like doing it this way. Plus, we can do this at home, where we can't use magic. Besides, once you get in shape, it's a lot easier. That's what Harry meant earlier when he asked if I had told you what it was like in the beginning. We struggled for a while too, but now…well we actually like it.”

“You really get used to it? You like doing… this?” Ginny asked, having a hard time believing anyone could.

“Yeah, I do, and I'm pretty sure Harry does too. We still get tired sometimes, but that because the stronger we get, the harder we push ourselves.” Hermione laughed, “I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. Look, it's not so much the work out that great, it's later. After I've had a shower and some breakfast. That's when I feel it, like I've been recharged. I have more energy, and I feel sharper too; mentally I mean.”

Ginny couldn't help but get caught up in Hermione's enthusiasm, “Okay…so now we run?”

Seeing Harry was getting impatient, Hermione kept her answer short, “Now we run.”

Harry had to give her credit, even though she was in better shape than most because of Quidditch, she was still in poor shape. Quidditch, though physical, just wasn't really that strenuous. But Ginny was hanging in there. She was really trying. That however, came to a halt about fifteen minutes into the run.

Exhausted, Ginny finally yelled, “Aaaah…That's it, I can't go any further!” Slowing to a stop, she had bent over to try to catch her breath.

“Ginny, don't stop, keep walking, just go slow,” Harry called back over his shoulder.

“Are you mental, I'm dying here!”

“Ginny, keep moving for a couple of minutes until you cool down, or you might get cramps,” Hermione offered.

“Crabs!” Ginny hollered horrified.

Harry laughed while Hermione tried to keep a straight face, “Cramps Ginny, Cramps.”

“Oh thank Merlin's beard, and what do you mean might… I'm already one big cramp.”

Harry and Hermione had circled back to keep talking to Ginny. “Look, just keep walking till you get your wind back,” Harry said, “And when you're ready, start back towards the castle. We'll meet up with you along the way…Okay?”

Still out of breath, Ginny nodded, and waved them on.

Harry and Hermione resumed their run, this time at their normal pace, both remembering what it was like when they first started.

“Five to one, says she won't come with us tomorrow,” Harry said while maintaining his stride.

Because Hermione knew Ginny had other reasons, she gave the girl better odds, “I think she'll last till the end of the week.”

Twenty minutes later, they slowed to a walk as they caught up with Ginny. Even walking, she seemed to be moving rather slowly, and it appeared as though she had picked up a limp as well. Good thing they were fairly close to the castle.

oOoOo

Turned out, neither Harry nor Hermione were quite right about Ginny. She had lasted until Wednesday, then took Thursday off, but came back on Friday. Ginny had told them she was going to give it a couple of weeks and see if it truly did get easier. However, she also made it clear, there was no way she was giving up her lie-ins on the weekends, and she would probably only be able to make it three, or maybe four times a week. Still, she was determined to give it a go.

.

.

2

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

10. There Be Dragons


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 10

There Be Dragons

.

The week had gone by rather uneventfully, with only an occasional snide remark, usually from a Slytherin. Ron had been fairly quiet, and so had the twins. For Ron that was a good thing, however with the twins, it was usually a sign to be on the lookout for a prank.

Harry and Hermione had finished their morning workout and run, and had settled down to do some school work. By lunch, they were fairly well ahead so decided to take the rest of the day off and just relax.

Sitting in the Great Hall, Harry slowly nibbled away at his lunch, while Hermione sat across from him reading something for fun. Harry stared at her for a moment, `Something for fun, that could be anything from fiction to... advanced Arithmancy,' he thought with a smile.

Sensing his eyes on her, Hermione looked up, "What are you smiling about?”

“You…you love to read.”

Hermione raised a brow and smirked, “And you're just figuring this out now?”

Harry shrugged, “No…I um…”

“Hey guys,” Neville announced as he sat down next to Hermione, effectively saving Harry from his not so articulate answer.

Turning, Hermione greeted him, “Hello Neville, what have you been up to this morning?”

“Well…unlike you two, I slept in for a while, and kind of hung around the common room. Oh, and I had a nice little talk with Ginny.”

Harry snorted.

“Ignore him," Hermione said, "what did she say?"

"Umm, that every muscle in her body was sore, and even though she still thinks you're both mental, she's going to keep at it for now."

"Got to give her credit," Hermione said looking at Harry.

"Yeah, I s'pose, but it's only been a week." Then looking back at Neville, Harry asked, “So, you've been in the common room all morning, or did you sleep in that late?”

“Pretty late yeah,” Neville answered, “but actually, I spent the last hour helping Luna look for her shoes.”

“She lost her shoes?” Hermione asked, a little surprised a girl Luna age would be so careless.

No, Nargles took them… and… ah,” Neville started turning red, “that is… well Luna said it was Nargles,” he finished quickly.

Hermione just raised a brow slightly and nodded, “Oh…” Automatically accepting Neville's explanation without further question since it involved Luna.

"Excuse me Miss Granger."

Hermione turned around to find her Head of House behind her. "Hello Professor," she answered with an easy smile.

While Hermione was busy with McGonagall, Harry leaned towards Neville, “Hey, I've been meaning to ask,” he said, his voice low so only Neville would hear, “what's up with you and Luna? If you don't mind me asking?”

Neville turned red as he squirmed in his seat, “It's okay Harry. I…Ah. I think she's nice.”

Harry nodded, “Ah, I see.”

“It's not like that Harry, we're just friends. I mean…I like her and all, and she great to hang around with, but…”

“You're just friends…right.”

“Right, exactly,” Neville nodded.

Harry was about to add something else, when something McGonagall said caught his attention.

"I was wondering if I might have a word with you tonight after dinner?" McGonagall asked in a rather serious voice.

Hermione quickly racked her brain, but could find no apparent reason for a private meeting. "Yes, of course Professor. May I ask what this is about?"

McGonagall hated to alarm her, but she didn't want to give anything away. So with a gentle voice she said, "Miss Granger, I assure you, you're not in any trouble. However, I'm afraid it will be a delicate conversation, and I would rather have it in private."

Hermione was still a little concerned, but answered, "I understand ma'am.”

McGonagall gave a slight tip of her head, "Thank you," then looking at Neville and Harry, "thank you for your patience gentlemen, good day."

Harry raised an eyebrow, "Gentlemen?"

"Obviously, she forgot who she was talking to," Neville said. Causing both him and Harry to burst out laughing.

Hermione rolled her eyes, then smiled, "You guys are terrible." Unfortunately, it only made them laugh harder.

oOoOo

"Good evening Miss Granger, please have a seat, and thank you for being so punctual."

Hermione sat down in a comfortable chair across from McGonagall, a small tea table between them. "Good evening professor," she said, growing more nervous by the second.

McGonagall sighed, "Miss Granger, I can see how upset you are, please try to calm yourself. This has more to do with Mr. Potter than you." It was the wrong thing to say, as Hermione went from mildly nervous, to visibly worried.

"I don't understand ma'am, if this is about Harry... has he done something..."

"Miss Granger, goodness, how can I help you, help him, if you will not calm down?" McGonagall said cryptically.

Hermione took a deep breath, "I'm sorry Professor, it's just... please, go ahead."

"What do you know of the third task?" McGonagall really didn't think any of the students would know anything, but with Harry and his friends, one never knew.

"Nothing, just like the last task. We assumed they'd keep it secret, until the very last moment."

The we part didn't go unnoticed, as McGonagall poured two cups of tea, and offered one to Hermione. "What I'm about to tell you must remain a complete secret. You cannot tell anyone, except Mr. Potter, and even then, you must ask for his word of confidence as well. Do I have your word?"

Hermione studied the face of her favorite professor. She had seen that look before. It was the look McGonagall wore, when she didn't think Harry would pass the last gate of the second task. "It's bad, isn't it?" She asked distantly.

"I only found out myself this morning, after breakfast..."

"How bad!" Hermione interrupted.

McGonagall hesitated, but didn't chastise her student for her rudeness, "Bad... quite frankly, I don't know how it could be worse." Noticing the deepening fear in Hermione's eyes, she went on before she could interrupt again. "I had to take a magical oath, we all did, so as not to warn the champions. I can't tell Mr. Potter or you what the third task is, but because the oath was poorly worded... I can recommend some things to work on. That is why I asked to speak with you. I wouldn't even have been able to say this much to Mr. Potter directly. And I think he's going to need all the help he can get, so naturally, I thought of you.

Hermione smiled briefly before the gravity of the situation returned. Turning serious again, she stated frankly, "You have my word. Now what can I do to help?"

McGonagall spent the next hour telling Hermione the characteristics of the spells and charms that she thought Harry should try to learn. In the end, all Hermione knew for sure was that Harry was up against something powerful, that it was probably spell resistant, and had something to do with the fire. And because McGonagall also felt the situation was serious enough, she gave both her and Harry unrestricted access to the library, and they could skip any classes they felt necessary.

With their meeting concluded, Hermione was half way to the door, ready to leave, when she stopped. She didn't turn around, she just stood there staring blankly ahead, debating rather or not, she really wanted to ask one last question. The very question, that had been bothering her for some time now.

McGonagall watched and waited patiently. Knowing her student well, she knew Hermione now knew just how dangerous the Triwizard Tournament really was, the next task in particular. She was also fairly certain what Hermione was struggling with. Part of her hoped, she would just say goodnight and leave, without asking.

“Professor?”

“Yes.”

“How many?

“How many…” McGonagall hesitated.

“Professor Dumbledore said, `That students had died…' but I can't find any records in the library.”

McGonagall briefly considered pleading ignorant. `No,' she thought, `she deserves the truth.' “I'm not surprised you couldn't… it's not a particularly bright spot in our history.” Sitting down, she closed her eyes and said in a flat, quiet voice, “Too many…Far too many. In nearly every Tournament, one or more, lost their lives…while looking for eternal glory. Sadly, the only thing eternal… was their death.”

After a long moment of silence, Hermione took a shuddering breath, and said, “Thank you Professor… for being honest. Goodnight,” and left, without ever turning around.

oOoOo

Hermione thought about going straight to the library after her meeting with McGonagall, but decided it was already getting late, and she knew Harry would be waiting up for her. She also knew, that she was both too tired and upset, to get any real work done.

Stepping through the portrait hole, Hermione spotted Harry sound asleep on the couch with an open book in his lap. She smiled at the sight, `He's trying so hard.' She gently sat down next to him and touched his arm, "Harry," she called softly.

A moment later, one eye cracked open, slowly followed by the other. "Hey, you're back. How did it go? Everything all right?" He asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine. You, on the other hand are obviously tired, you shouldn't have waited up."

Harry was awake enough now to tell she was holding something back. After studying her for a moment, he said, "Hermione, you knew I would wait up," smiling, he added, "just as you would for me." Then setting up a little straighter he asked more seriously, "Tell me, what's wrong?"

Hermione smiled while shaking her head, "I should know by now, I can't keep anything from you."

Harry gave a nod, "That's right, now spill."

"McGonagall knows about the third task." That got Harry's attention. Speaking softly but in a serious tone Hermione went on, "She can't talk to you about it at all, but she was able to tell me a few things."

Harry looked confused, "I don't understand, why you but not me?"

"She had to take an oath not to tell you anything, but apparently it was poorly worded, enough so, that she was able to give me some hints. A loophole, so to speak."

"So... what's it about?"

Hermione rung her hands, "I don't know exactly, she couldn't tell me. All she was able to do, was give me some advice on what to help you study."

Harry nodded again, but was starting to get frustrated with all the security. Looking up he noticed her worrying her lower lip, and she looked to be near tears. His frustration quickly turned to concern, and he turned more towards her, "Hermione, what's wrong?"

Seeing his concern for her, she lost control and pulled him into her arms. "Oh Harry," she sobbed, "she said it's bad, really bad... I'm so scared for you. She gave me lots of hints, but... but I don't know where to start. If I mess this up... I'll…"

"You won't mess anything up. Besides, it's not your responsibility, remember?"

Pulling back a little to look into his eyes, Hermione voiced her concern, "Harry, students have died in this... Tournament."

“That was a long time ago.”

“But it still happened, and it was only a long time ago because the last Tournament was a long time ago.” Then looking down she continued in a near whisper, "I can't let that happen."

Even though she didn't say she was talking about him, Harry knew she was. Ducking his own head down and looked up into her eyes he asked, "I? What happened to we?" When Hermione returned a weak smile, he went on, "We'll… figured this out, and just like before, with your help, we'll get through this.

Hermione raised her head, and after taking a deep breath, nodded.

"But I want you to remember something. This Tournament wasn't your idea. You... didn't get me into this. So regardless of what happens... you are not responsible... okay?"

Hermione wanted to object, but she knew he was right, "Okay."

Harry smiled, "Good," while giving her hand a squeeze. "Now, it's late and I'll bet you are as knackered as me. Let's call it a night and turn in, we can talk about this tomorrow."

oOoOo

The following day a calmer Hermione explained everything to Harry. They spent most of the day in the library looking up spells, trying to determine what he should try to learn. They considered both the complexity and the length of time available to them, to narrow down the long list. Even with all the uncertainty, the two of them managed to stay calm, mostly by keeping busy. Hermione was glad Harry wasn't in a panic, that would have only made matters worse. How he was able to stay focused was a mystery to her, and if she was honest with herself, she'd have to admit it was his influence that kept her own panic at bay. Little did she know, all that was about to change all too soon.

After their Monday morning workout and run, Harry and Hermione decided to skip their Herbology class, giving them the entire morning off. They headed down to the lake to start practicing some of the new spells they had found. Just before lunch, their impromptu practice was interrupted.

“Hermione!”

Both stopped what they were doing, and looked over. Standing about twenty feet away up the bank was Ron. Between being so busy, and Ron not speaking with them, they'd hardly seen him, except for classes. Hermione couldn't help but notice the tension rise. It didn't help that Harry never took his eyes off Ron as he watched him with growing suspicion. Although he was with Dean, Ron looked nervous, as if he wasn't sure this was a good idea. As soon as he had her attention, he waved Hermione over.

Hermione raised a brow then looked back at Harry, “Be right back.” Wondering what this was all about, she wasted no time and quickly walked over to Ron. “Well?” Her look made it clear he'd better get to the point.

Ron spoke softly, almost in a whisper, as if, what he had to say was a secret, “Tell Harry, Hagrid wants to see him.”

Hermione stared at Ron in disbelief. He wanted her to deliver a message to Harry! The same Harry who just happened to be standing right behind her. “Unbelievable,” she grumbled, then turned around and walked the short distance back to Harry.

Now it was Harry's turn to raise a brow. Between the smirk on Ron's face and the scowl on Hermione's, Harry couldn't wait to hear what she had to say.

Hermione stopped in front of him and looked down while pinching the bridge of her nose. A second later after a sigh, she said, “Ron said…” emphasizing said, as she glanced over her shoulder at the red head in question, “Hagrid wants to see you.”

Harry's other brow went up, “That's it?” Then seeing Hermione start to chew on her lip, he added, “sorry.” Stepping around Hermione, he addressed Ron directly with a glare, “That's it?” Getting no reply he when on, “That's all he said! When Ron? Now? After class? When does he want to see me? Is it important?”

Ron glared back, but didn't say a word. Turning his attention to Hermione, he started to wave her over again.

Hermione couldn't believe how immaturely Ron was acting. She put her hands on her hips, and stomped her foot on the ground. Then with a huff she shouted, “I'm not an owl Ron!”

“Fine!” Ron yelled back, then stormed off with a smirking Dean following close behind.

Suddenly, Hermione felt bad, she had chased Ron away before he had given Harry any answers. Slowly, she turned around expecting to see him fuming. Instead, she got a surprise, “What are you smiling about?”

“Obviously you're not an owl,” joked Harry, “you hate to fly!” Seeing her smile he finished, “Break almost over, and we have him for our next class anyway. I guess if it was really important, Hagrid would have come himself…right?”

Relived, Hermione nodded, “Right.”

oOoOo

It turned out, Hagrid had been just as vague, Meet me at midnight, and bring your cloak, was he had said. It was now almost one in the morning, and Hermione had to fight to stay awake. `I should have gone with him,' she thought, `you never know what…' The sound of the portrait hole closing broke her thoughts. A moment later Harry appeared out of thin air as he removed his cloak. Hermione could tell immediately something was wrong, very wrong. He was just standing there staring at nothing, pale as a ghost.

“Harry?” she asked cautiously. When he didn't respond, she jumped up and hurried over to him. Touching his arm, she tried again, Harry?” she said softly.

“Dragons!” Harry said in a detached voice, “the third task is dragons.”

Hermione's hand flew to her mouth as she let out a horrified gasp. Eyes wide in shock, all she could say was, “Oh Harry!” Both stood in stunned silence for what seemed like hours. Finally, Hermione realized she needed to be strong for him, and forced herself to calm down. A few minutes later after leading him over to the couch by the fireplace, she had managed to calm Harry down as well.

“Harry, are you sure its dragons? I mean, could they be for something else?”

“No, they're for the third task,” Harry said, “Hagrid said so. Don't know how they're involved exactly, but one way or another, we'll… I'll have to go up against one.”

“There's more than one?”

“Yeah, they're four, one for each of us.”

Hermione joined Harry in staring into the fire. Uneasiness filled the air, like a building static charge before a thunderclap. The mere thought of being near a dragon, brought on a cold sweat. Now all the hints and clues McGonagall had given her made sense. Now she knew why McGonagall had tried to help in the first place. Dragons… it was surreal, and unbelievable at the same time.

Hermione had to fight for control, as an overwhelming feeling of anxiety threatened to take over. She couldn't help but think of Harry. How her feeling must pale in comparison to his. If she was in a near panic, he must be feeling some sort of mortal terror. She wasn't going to add to his alarm. `Not here, not now, and certainly, not in front of him,' she thought, with more courage than she felt.

After promising to help him as much as she could tomorrow, they both turned in for the night. Once finally alone in her bed with the curtain closed and a silencing spell in place, Hermione allowed her mask to drop, and she cried herself to sleep.

Settling down in his bed, Harry stared at the canopy. He couldn't help but think how foolish he'd been to think he could actually compete with the older students. `A dragon,' he had no idea where to even begin. `Thank Merlin for Hermione…' Harry's thoughts turned in a new direction. `She's going to worry herself sick.' Harry vowed to himself; to try and not let that happen. He'd put on a brave face, even if he thought it was useless. Rolling over, Harry closed his eyes, tomorrow was sure to be a long day.

oOoOo

The next day at lunch, as Hermione sat anxiously waiting for Harry to join her, she thought back to Neville's comments in the Three Broomsticks a while back. Hermione wondered what Neville would say when he found out. Dragons…never in her wildest imagination, did Hermione think Dumbledore would allow any of his students to get anywhere near a dragon. She had always held him in high regards. Now, Hermione was beginning to think maybe, she had put too much faith in him. Dumbledore didn't know it, but he was quickly losing her trust.

Spotting Harry entering the Hall, she started fixing a plate for him. The first thing she noticed as he sat down next to her, was that he didn't look as lost as he did last night. The second, was his smile.

“Well, how did your meeting with Professor Moody go?” she asked while sliding his plate in front of him, “Some good news maybe?”

Harry looked at the plate, a chicken sandwich on wheat bread with just a pinch of pepper, and some chips…just the way he liked it. Looking up at Hermione he said, “Thanks,”

before taking a bit. Then after swallowing, “You know, he's not as scary up close, once you get to know him.”

Hermione nodded, “Hmm.”

“He asked what I was good at…flying, I told him.” Harry laughed, “He said I should use my broom.”

“But you're not allowed a broom Harry.”

“That's what I said.” Then pulling out his wand and wiggling his eyebrows, Harry asked, “Think you could teach me the Summoning Charm?”

Hermione's eye lit up with the possibilities, “Oh…yes of course, and I'm sure you can learn it in time.”

Harry turned serious, “It's a long way Hermione, do you really think so?”

“Well we'll just have to start practicing to find out, won't we?”

As they continued to eat lunch, and talk about the possible limits of the charm, Cedric came in. Hermione noticed he looked a little disturbed, and as he walked past their table, he gave Harry a small nod. After he'd gone, she turned to Harry and asked, “Any idea what that was all about?”

Harry laughed, “Remember me… last night? I ran into Cedric in the court yard on my way here…I told him about the third task.” After taking another bit he went on, “Madam Maxime was there when I found out, so I figure she would have told Fleur by now, and I am willing to bet Karkaroff has also told Viktor.” Harry looked at her for a second, “You know Hagrid can't keep a secret.”

Hermione looked back at Cedric; he did look quite unsettled. Turning back to Harry, she silently watched him eat as she considered his actions, `I shouldn't be so surprised, it's his nature. He doesn't care about winning the Tournament, he just wants things to be fair.'

oOoOo

Two days later a frustrated Harry sat down to dinner with his friends. He and Hermione had been practicing spells, mainly the Summoning Charm, all day. So far, the best Harry had been able to do, was to call his broom from across the room. Hermione had been just as frustrated, not at Harry, but at herself for not being able to help Harry improve.

Ginny nudged Neville to get his attention, and then ticked her head towards the distraught couple. They both knew that Harry and Hermione had been working especially hard the last couple of days, obviously, it wasn't going very well. She really wanted to go over and help somehow, but she didn't even know half the spells they were working on, let alone why. They had told her, that they had made a promise not to say anything to anyone. Besides, what could she offer that Hermione couldn't, except maybe flying, and she was sure Harry didn't need any help there.

Neville racked his brain, trying to come up with something to cheer them up. However, before anything came to mind, the Headmaster stood to make an announcement.

“It would seem that no matter how hard we try, Hogwarts is unable to keep anything from her students. If you have recently heard a rumor that involves dragons, then there is a very good chance it is true.” Dumbledore paused to let the murmurs die down, “Alas, rumors can lead to all sorts of problems, so in an effort to avoid any such things, we have decided to tell you about the third task. This Saturday, our four champions will each face their very own dragon. Hidden within her clutch of eggs will be a fake. The champion's task will be to retrieve this fake, a golden egg, for it will contain the clues necessary to complete the fourth task. This must be done without harm to the dragon, or the real eggs.”

Hermione was furious and made no effort to keep her voice down, "He's worried about the dragon getting hurt, about the eggs? What about the champions? This has got to be the most insane, asinine thing I've ever heard of!"

Harry wasn't sure whether or not Dumbledore heard her, but it did seem to give him pause. After Hermione's scathing outburst, Dumbledore turned and seem to be talking directly to him. "It may seem an impossible task, but as the Muggles like to say, `Where there's a will, there's a way.'" Dumbledore glanced around, then continued in a knowing voice, "Magic is all about will... and intent. However, that is not always enough. You must believe... believe that your intent, can accomplish your will." As he finished his last sentence, he again looked over at Harry. "I feel that with this news, nothing of significance will be accomplished in class tomorrow. Therefore, classes are canceled. I hope you will all use the extra time to your best advantage," finally, with his trademark eye twinkle in full force he concluded, "I hope that satisfies your curiosity, because that's all I have for tonight."

Hermione was still mad when she felt Harry grab her hand.

"Come on, I think I know what I'm doing wrong," and with that he pulled her from the Hall.

After hearing the unbelievable news, Luna abandoned her house table to join Neville. She hoped to offer Harry some comfort. Unfortunately, Harry and Hermione were already leaving as she sat down next to Neville and Ginny. Luna glanced at them both, but said nothing, since she didn't have any idea, what to say.

Ginny it seemed, wasn't quite so at lose for words, “Merlin's hairy bits… a bloody dragon?”

Several feet down the table, Ron stared at his sister. For the first time since Harry's name had come out of the cup, Ron wasn't laughing at Harry's situation. Ron knew a bit about dragons from his brother Charlie, and thinking about them took the color from his face. “Bloody hell,” Ron said with a shaky voice.

oOoOo

Ignoring the rules, Hermione had made her way down to the champion's tent and to Harry. One look at him, and she was glad she came. Harry was pacing back and forth, and looked quite pale. He was on the edge, `who wouldn't be,' she thought. That's when she realized, he must have been hiding his feelings. He had been worried about her.

Throwing caution to the wind, Hermione pulled the tent flap further open and slipped in. Harry noticed her, just as she reached him and pulled him into a tight embrace.

Harry closed his eyes and hugged her back. He noticed with a smile, that it was getting easier and easier hold her. It only lasted a few seconds, before a camera flash startled them and they broke apart. It had been enough however to settle his nerves somewhat, and with just a brief look, he told her so. The look she returned, told him just as much, `You can do this.' Harry smiled and finally said, “I'll be careful,” acknowledging her unspoken request.

oOoOo

Hermione sat in the stands scared to death. She prayed, that the hug she had just shared with Harry in the champion's tent would not be the last. She had wanted to stay; damn Dumbledore for chasing her away. Nobody there could help him like she could. He needed her…only she, and she alone could help him focus, help him relax. And now as she looked down, into this barren pit, Hermione realized that she needed him too.

It sat and waited, chained to a large rock in the center of a deep enclosure. Angry, and powerful, this great beast feared nothing, daring anyone, or anything to challenge it. Somehow, upon seeing a dragon for the first time, made it all the more real. She had read about them of course, but no amount of printed words could prepare you for the real thing. The beast was huge and terrifying. It had claws three times the size of a lions and teeth to match. Its tail was a weapon in its own right, as it thrashed around flinging large rocks and scarring the ground. Large hard scales protected its body, and of course... it could spew fire. It was the most deadly thing Hermione had ever seen. She honestly had no idea how Harry was going to be able to cope with this. Hermione was sure, that if she had to face one of these horrific animals, she'd be frozen in fear. She had recently read that the only thing more dangerous, more aggressive than a dragon, was a mother dragon protecting her clutch. McGonagall had been right all along, she thought, they couldn't have made this more dangerous if they tried.

She had watched in fear as the first three champions faced their dragon. Each had been successful and that gave her hope, but none had escaped the task unharmed. They had all used a different approach, bold, simple, and one relied on trickery. So far, Viktor was the least injured, he appeared to have only a few minor bumps and bruises; although you couldn't say the same for his dragon or the eggs. Cedric was the worst off, it was quite obvious that he had sustained some very nasty burns. Although, he had managed to retrieve his egg, he had to be carried out of the pit. Fleur left bleeding, and favoring her right leg.

Naturally, Harry had drawn the most dangerous dragon of the lot, so when the cannon blast signaled for the last champion to start, Hermione felt her panic spike. Suddenly she wanted to jump up and yell, Stop! Cease this madness! But it was already too late... Harry had entered the enclosure. Hermione had never felt fear like this before. A cold and ruthless paralyzing fear, it griped her to the bone. It terrorized her senses and froze her in place, making her watch with an nauseating level of dread and anxiety, as Harry stood ready to do combat with the unimaginable.

Harry's plan was simple, yet daring. Flying, it was one of his greatest skills, Hermione hoped it would be enough. "Accio Firebolt,” she heard him yell. If he was patient, he might just pull this off. He might get through this in one piece. `No,' she corrected herself, `he will get through this.' A moment later and Harry was on his broom and the task began in earnest. The crowd cheered, and for the briefest of moments, Hermione couldn't have been prouder of Harry. Then all too soon, the fear was back. Back with a vengeance.

When the Horntail broke her chains, and took flight, Hermione's screams became frantic. This monster was a natural flyer, and it was after Harry. It wasn't just annoyed with him, it was obsessed with him. It wanted to kill the boy who dared to taunt her with his broom.

Harry had been teasing… testing the Horntail, looking for an opening, any sign of weakness he might exploit. Pulling up from another low pass, he vaguely heard a scream, `Hermione.' Looking back over his shoulder, he saw the reason for her frightful cry. The beast was lose. It was climbing, and heading right for him.

“Shite!” Harry yelled at no one, this wasn't part of the plan. Harry leaned forward, and tried to coax as much speed out of his Firebolt as possible. He'd have to come up with a new plan, now that he wasn't alone in the air anymore. And he thought, he'd better come up with it quickly.

The aerial battle between boy and beast seemed to last forever, both weary of the other. One taking more and greater chances, the other growing more angry by the second. There were several close calls, one so close, if left Harry with an injured shoulder. Blood ran down his arm, making it hard to keep a tight grip on the handle, but there was no giving up. Dragons didn't quit, they didn't accept surrender, or forfeit. It would only end when the boy was dead.

Then, suddenly, it was over. The Horntail in its haste to catch Harry, had made a mistake, and mistakes in the air usually ended badly. Harry had his golden egg. In pain and barely conscious from blood loss, Harry slowly make his way to the healer's tent. He refused to be carried out. He would not give them the satisfaction of saying he needed help. Hermione was the only one he gave that privilege to.

Hermione rushed from the stands, oblivious to the stares she received. Unaware of the small fingernail shaped cuts on her face, or the blood on her fingers. Unaware of the self inflicted injuries she had caused herself. Her face, like the rest of her body was numb. She raced to the healer's tent. The task was over. Harry had survived, but still, she needed to see him. She needed to touch him to be sure. It was the only way she would be able to finally put her fear to rest.

Entering the tent, Hermione stopped and looked around. They were all there, all four champions, but she was only seeking one. As soon as she spotted him, she called out, “Harry!” and ran to him. Once again, all was right in the world. He had danced with a dragon and survived; she held the proof in her arms.

Holding him gently, so as not to hurt him anymore, she cried into his chest, “Oh Harry… thank God…”

Still a little weak, but slowly gaining strength from the potions Madam Pomfrey had just given him, Harry wrapped his good arm around Hermione best he could. “Hey, what's with the tears? I'm okay, I made it… barely, but I'm still here.”

Pulling back she looked at him through watery eyes and smiled for the first time all day and said, "You were brilliant Harry!"

"Thanks..." reaching up, he cupped her injured face with one hand, "Hermione, what happened?"

Madam Pomfrey knew immediately what had happened, "Let me see dear... oh just a scratch, I'll have you good as new in a tic.”

Realizing what she had done, Hermione started to blush, till she noticed Harry's look had turned cold as he stared at someone over her shoulder.

Ron was standing stark still about ten feet behind Hermione with a sickly paled-green look about him.

"Harry," he said hoarsely, "you'd have to be a complete nutter to actually want to go through all this."

"You think so, do you?" said Harry seriously.

Madam Pomfrey had finished, so Hermione turned around and stood nervously between them, looking back and forth, from one to the other.

"I reckon that you, well that you've been telling the truth all along Harry," Ron said, "you're right, someone must be trying to do you in."

"You reckon hun… finally caught on?” Harry asked quickly. He was still angry, and the extra adrenaline pumping through his veins didn't help.

Ron knew he had been a royal git from the start. He also knew he needed to apologize properly if he was ever going to be able to call Harry his best mate again. He opened his mouth to try, but the words weren't there, "Harry... I... I..."

Harry realized Ron was trying. He also knew what he was trying to say. A month ago, he would have probably welcomed it; he might have even forgiven him, just for his efforts. Now he found himself thinking Ron's apology, just wasn't that important.

"Forget it," he said, letting Ron off the hook.

"Harry, it's just that..."

"I understand," Harry said knowingly, "it'll take time, let's see how it goes... okay?"

Ron nodded reluctantly, "Mates, at least?"

Harry smiled weakly, "Yeah... mates." Then with a hand on the small of her back, he coaxed Hermione forward, and they headed for the exit.

Hermione still felt the need to be physically close. They'd had a few close calls over the years, both she, and Harry, but mostly Harry. However, none had ever been this terrifyingly close. Harry had evaded death by the slimmest of margins. The only way to calm her trembling hand, was to hold on to his.

After a brief and unpleasant encounter with Rita Skeeter, they met up with Neville and a few other Gryffindors. Together with Harry in the middle still holding Hermione's hand, they set off for the Castle.

.

AN: Of all the task in JK's version, this was the one I liked the best. So with that in mind, I changed very little, mostly just points of view. I hope that also explains why the fight between Harry and his dragon was so short (I wasn't going to rewrite what JK wrote).

Let me know what you think, Thanks.

.

.

16

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

11. Feeling Like a Girl


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 11

Feeling like a Girl

.

As November came to a close, the students of Hogwarts were beginning to get excited about Christmas. Harry, Hermione, and Neville, along with Ron and Ginny, and the rest of their fellow Gryffindors had just been enjoying one of Hogwarts' fine breakfast meals when Professor McGonagall stood from the staff table and walked over to the podium to make an announcement.

“May I have your attention please,” she began, gaining everyone's attention. “As I'm sure you all have noticed, the headmaster is still away from the school on Ministry business. Since he won't be returning for a few more days, he has asked me to make an announcement.” Knowing what was likely to happen, she paused to brace herself. “It is part of the Triwizard Tournament tradition for the school that is hosting…to hold a Yule Ball.” The immediate reaction was nothing short of pandemonium.

As far as Harry could tell, all the girls in the school instantly started chattering excitedly amongst themselves; the boys on the other hand were deathly quiet, and some even had looks of terror on their faces. Harry looked over at Hermione who was talking to Ginny so fast that he was hard pressed to catch every third word. Looking around at the rest of the table, it seemed that only Ron looked as nervous as him. Neville seemed nervous as well, though it was hard to tell with him as he always looked a little nervous. The Weasley twins on the other hand did not seem bothered at all.

“Oi Harry, why the panicked look,” Fred asked with a huge smile that told Harry that he already knew, but had to ask anyway.

Harry had good reason to feel the way he did, he and surprises normally did not mix well. And here was yet another in a growing list, and the term was not even close to being over.

“Well for one thing, I've never been to a ball before, I don't even know how to dance,” Harry started. “Most likely end up stepping all over my date's feet and making a fool out of myself. Not sure who'd want to go with someone like that?” he finished, now feeling slightly down.

As the twins laughed, Ginny rolled her eyes and said, “You're Harry Potter, the Boy- Who-Lived, not to mention the Boy-Who-Slew-A-Dragon. Who wouldn't go with you?”

“Yeah Harry, and you're a Triwizard champion,” Hermione added with a small smile. “I'm sure you will find someone.” Her gaze lingered on him for a moment longer than normal before returning to her conversation with Ginny.

“But who?” Harry mumbled as he stared at nothing, confusion and frustration coursing through him.

Neville being the shy boy he was, actually had the best advice, and said in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice, “I'd ask someone I know, and like.”

Ron, between two rather large bites of bacon jumped in with, “I'm going to ask someone hot looking.” This time it was Hermione who rolled her eyes while Ginny just shook her head in amazement. Ginny loved her brother, but she was not going to allow him to keep embarrassing her like this in the future; she would have to talk to him later. The twins, who had been watching all this with a smile on their faces, could not contain their amusement any longer and burst out laughing.

“Good luck with that little Ronniekins!” Fred managed to choke out between laughs. Ron glared at the infamous pranksters while everyone else laughed at the comment.

Harry glanced back to Hermione who was talking to Ginny again and sighed, “It's always something,” not noticing the quick look she gave him, right after he turned away. Maybe she could help him work it out later.

oOoOo

Later that afternoon the trio found themselves back in the Gryffindor common room. Hermione was sitting at a table helping Ron with some class work that should have been done yesterday. Harry was all caught up with his work, so he was left alone with his thoughts in front of the fire.

He had spent most of the morning and all of lunch thinking about the ball and who he might ask. His first thought was Cho Chang, a Ravenclaw fifth-year that had caught his eye. She was quite pretty, but he really did not know her very well. How would he approach her, what would he say? That was Harry's problem: All the girls he thought about, he either disliked, did not know, or they were only interested in him because he was the Harry Potter. Maybe I'm going about this all wrong, Harry thought to himself. Who do I know, like and at least looks nice?

As Harry sat staring into the fire from his spot on the couch, an idea finally came to him, a smile slowly creeping up his face. I've known her forever, of course I like her and she is certainly pretty. As Harry sat there thinking about it, he almost laughed at how stupid he'd been. Hermione would be the perfect choice for the Ball. He had always turned to her for help, why not ask her to do something fun for a change. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. His mind made up, Harry decided that he would ask her after dinner.

Dinner came and went with Harry barely saying a word. Most of the Gryffindor students were back in the tower; some had already turned in for the night while the rest milled around the common room. Ron and Dean were playing a game of chess while Ginny and Lavender carried on a hushed conversation punctuated by an occasional giggle. Harry sat across from Hermione working on schoolwork, or at least she was working, he was too worked up to get anything meaningful done. Harry knew Hermione was usually the last one to go to bed, she always worked late; all he had to do was wait for everyone else to leave, and then he could talk to her alone. It seemed like forever, but things were finally beginning to quiet down.

“Oi Harry, you're next.”

“Sorry Ron, I think I'm going to try and finish this.”

Ron looked over and let out a long yawn, “Okay, well I am kind of knackered anyways, guess I'll head up to bed, when are ya coming up?” Things were still a little cool between the two boys and although Ron had apologized, he couldn't help continuing to feel a little angry at Harry sometimes. He didn't know why, but it was there, an irritation of sorts, fuming, waiting, just below the surface.

“Ah, in a bit Ron,” Harry said with a hint of nervousness as he looked up; after a quick glance at Hermione added, “I'm almost finished with this and then I wanted to talk to Hermione about something.” He mentally crossed his fingers and hoped that Ron would not ask about what. Even though he had known Hermione for over three years now, this was going to be hard enough without his other friend prying.

Ron gave Harry a weird look before shrugging his shoulders and turning to the stairs. “Alright mate, see you later, night Hermione.”

“Night Ron,” Hermione said while looking at Harry and wondering just what he might want to talk about. A short time later Hermione closed her book and started to put away her things. “So you wanted to talk?” She asked, looking back up at Harry. Harry, who was already nervous, started to fidget and she couldn't help but notice. “Harry, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I ah…” Harry trailed off, taking a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself. He looked around to see if they were alone in the room.

“Harry, is everything okay?” Hermione asked, her concern growing.

Realizing that he couldn't stall any longer, “Ah, yeah, sorry” Harry turned and looked at Hermione. “Has anyone asked you to the ball yet?”

Caught slightly off guard, “No, not yet” she answered with a small blush. Hermione wasn't sure why she felt this way, but hoped the dim light of the room would hide the color in her cheeks.

“Well you know I can't dance, and my hair is always out of control, and…” Harry rambled while looking down.

Hermione cut him off, “Harry”.

He looked up to see her smiling and he regained some of his confidence. “Hermione, I was hoping that you might like to go to the Yule Ball with me,” he finished uneasily, certain that she would say no. Sure they were friends, but to go the ball with him, he just couldn't think of any reason why she would; certainly someone else would be a far better choice than him. Harry was certain that as sweet and attractive as Hermione was, she'd be a sought-after date to the ball.

Hermione was dying to go to the ball and couldn't wait to be asked by someone, even though she doubted anyone would think to ask the school bookworm. She had briefly thought of Harry, but had little hope that he would ask. After all, he was a Hogwarts champion, not that it mattered to her, but he could probable ask anyone and they say yes. She still hadn't figured out if she fancied him, but she did find him handsome. Plus, we always get along so well together, we'd probably have fun, she thought.

Astounded, but happy, Hermione smiled, “Of course Harry, I'd love to go with you to the ball.” Now it was her turn to look down while blushing even more.

Harry looked surprised, “Really, that's great! Hey, maybe I can even learn to dance a little.” Both Harry and Hermione laughed at what would turn out to be no small joke, and then sat looking at each other with excited smiles; the moment seemed to last forever, until Professor McGonagall walked in.

“Ah Mr. Potter, I'm glad you're still up,” she looked both angry and sad at the same time. “I apologize for the late hour, but I've only just now been told myself and felt that you would want to know as soon as possible.”

“What's wrong, Professor?” Harry asked, his voice still gleeful from Hermione's acceptance.

She quirked an eyebrow at his enthusiasm for a moment before adopting a serious expression, “I'm afraid I have to pass on a terrible request to you, Mr. Potter,” McGonagall said. Harry glanced over to Hermione who had a worried look on her face then back to his head of house. “It would seem that during the ball there will be a considerable number of members from the various Ministries, as well as the international press,” she explained.

“I don't see how that has anything to do with me, Professor,” Harry said, slightly confused.

“Neither do I,” McGonagall said, some of her Scottish accent and anger slipping out, “But our Ministry is afraid that the foreign press will not understand your involvement, and they are worried about their image.”

“So let me guess, they don't want Harry to attend?” Hermione asked half-jokingly, but stopped laughing when she saw the serious look on her professor's face. “Do they have the right?” she asked in shock. McGonagall was not surprised that her smartest student was able to figure it out so fast.

“No, but I'm afraid the headmaster does,” she replied uneasily.

“Unbelievable!” Hermione practically yelled, now clearly upset. “What in the world is he thinking? It's not fair; Harry has more than earned the right to be there.”

After a short pause McGonagall sadly continued, “I know, and believe me, I feel the same way as you, but…”

“Professor Dumbledore thinks they may be right,” Harry interrupted dully. Professor McGonagall silently nodded in confirmation.

Hermione's face became red with anger. “Harry has done everything they've asked of him, this is just wrong!” she shouted.

“Miss Granger, I must ask that you control your temper,” McGonagall snapped before turning to Harry. “I don't believe that the headmaster would force you to stay away, but he will try to talk you out of it, so really, it is up to you.” Harry glanced at Hermione then back to his teacher.

“Well, to be honest I would like to go, especially since I know who I'd be going with,” he said as he turned and gave Hermione a small smile before continuing. “But seeing as half the school still thinks I cheated to get in the tournament in the first place, I'm not sure that I want to cause any more controversy.” Hermione and McGonagall shared a concerned look as they waited for Harry to continue. “If the headmaster thinks it's best for the school, then I guess I'll do as he requests.” Looking back at Hermione, he added, “Even though I can't dance, I'm sure I would have had a great time going with you.” He could see the disappointment on her face and it made him at the same time both angry at the injustice and sad for how this was affecting Hermione. Looking down, Harry softly said, “I'm sorry Hermione, I don't know what else to do.”

Hermione saw the conflict in his eyes, duty versus desire. Although he hid his feeling well, she knew he wanted to go, but also knew how much he respected Dumbledore. This is just another example of how life seemed to treat Harry Potter, and Hermione was growing tired of it. She moved to stand next to Harry then turned towards McGonagall, her eyes flashing with anger.

“I can't believe this, it's wrong and we all know it, Professor Dumbledore knows it, and…and it's so unfair.” Hermione's voice quivered slightly as she went on. “What's Harry supposed to do, just sit around up here while everyone else is having a good time?” Hermione was definitely worked up now as she turned back to Harry and put a hand on his arm. “Don't worry Harry, if you can't go then I'm not going either. I'll stay here with you and we can have our own dance, right here.”

“Hermione no,” Harry said, looking up suddenly, desperation in his voice. “I know you would stay, and I really can't express how much I appreciate it, but you've done so much for me already. This ball is going to be very special, and who knows if there'll be another one before we graduate. And besides, these things are practically made for girls,” he added with a smile. Taking both her hands in his, “Hermione, please don't pass it up because of me. I want you to go, I want you to have a good time, and then you can come back here and tell me all about it.” Harry stared at Hermione while she was looking down; he didn't have to see the sad look on her face to know exactly how she felt. After a moment Harry asked again, “okay?” Slowly she looked up, her teary eyes finally meeting his. She looked at Harry with concern for a few more seconds then leaned forward and wrapped him in a tight hug. Harry closed his eyes and hugged her back then whispered gently into her ear, “Hermione, please.”

Hermione didn't like the idea; she had really been looking forward to going with Harry, but she knew this wasn't easy for him either, so with her head still on his shoulder she reluctantly gave a nod of acceptance.

While looking at the two teenagers with sympathy, McGonagall placed a hand on Hermione's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.

“I'm sorry,” she said softly before slowly turning away and leaving.

After a few minutes of silence, Harry pulled back.

“Well, we better get to sleep or we'll be completely worthless tomorrow.

“Yeah we better, before they ask you to stop sleeping as well,” Hermione replied bitterly.

Harry took her hand and gave it a little squeeze to show he appreciated her support, and at the same time gave a short laugh and said “Come on, let's go.”

oOoOo

The next morning down in the Great Hall they meet up with Ron, Ginny, Neville, and the twins.

“What's wrong with you two?” Ron asked, noticing his friends' depressed looks.

“Professor McGonagall had some bad news,” Harry replied as he sat down.

“She told Harry that Professor Dumbledore didn't think it would be a good idea for him to go to the ball,” Hermione added.

“What? Why not?” Ginny asked a little louder than was necessary. Not knowing he had already asked Hermione, she was still hoping he'd ask her, and was planning on dropping a few hints later.

“He's afraid he might cause the school some kind of controversy or some such rubbish,” Hermione huffed.

“Well that's just stupid, what are you going to do Harry?” Neville said with a shake of his head.

As Harry was about to answer, Viktor Krum walked over and gave a nod of greeting as he came up to them. Harry nodded back then turned back to Neville.

“What can I do? I'll probably just stay away like he asked.”

“Well, now at least you won't have to worry about finding a date,” Ron managed to say between bites, not entirely sure if he should have felt bad for Harry or not.

Viktor who had initially came over to talk to Hermione, now turned to Harry, “Yous are not going to the ball, but vhy?”

Harry with a touch of sarcasm in his voice gave his one-word answer, “Dumbledore.”

The twins shared a look before rushing over to Harry one on each side.

“Don't worry, Harry,” Fred started.

“Yeah, we'll take you,” George continued.

“It'll be a threesome!” they finished together.

“Ah… gee thanks guys, but no,” Harry brushed them off with a nervous laugh. Viktor, not quite sure what to think of the twins, decided to ignore them.

“Harry I'm sorry zat you are not going. As a Triwizard Champion you should be there.”

Harry who was also trying to ignore the twins looked back up at Viktor, slightly surprised “Thanks,” he replied with a nod of appreciation.

Viktor gave his young colleague one final glance and a quick nod before he turned to look at Hermione and in a slightly softer voice asked.

“Her-my-owe-nee,” he said, slowly pronouncing the girl's name to get it correct, “I vas vondering if you had a date for ze ball yet?” Ron, who up to that point had been sitting quietly, listening to the conversation about this latest development while he finished his breakfast, started laughing.

“It's only the first day, are you mental?” he asked, looking between Hermione and Viktor.

Hermione glared at Ron and said, “As a matter of fact I had a date but he had to cancel.”

“Right,” Ron said as he continued laughing.

“Shut up, Ron,” Ginny and Harry snapped at the redhead in unison.

While Ginny continued to glare at her brother Ron, Hermione looked at Harry, silently thanking him with her eyes. By now Neville, and the twins had figured out who had asked Hermione to the Yule Ball, though Ron was still clueless. Ginny had her suspicions.

“Then Her-my-owe-nee, I vas vondering, since you don't have a date now vould you consider going with me?” Viktor asked, also fairly certain to whom Hermione was referring to.

Everyone was now staring at Hermione, who had obviously been put on edge by the question. Hermione looked back at the others and noticed that it seemed Ron could not believe his ears. Harry looked slightly depressed for a moment before he quickly masked his emotions. The rest just seemed to be waiting to see what would happen.

“Well, ah… I'm not sure… I…” Hermione stammered, nervously shifting her glance between Harry and Viktor. “I thought you might go with Alicia,” she added, avoiding the question.

“She already has a date to the Ball,” Viktor said, with a glance towards the twins.

“Oh, I see.”

Harry saw that she was worried about hurting his feelings. They continued to stare at each other for a moment longer until finally Harry gave a small smile and spoke.

“I'm sure Viktor will be a perfect gentleman, Hermione,” he said, looking into her eyes and giving an almost imperceptibly minute nod to tell her that it was okay. She smiled back at him, but it didn't quite reach her eyes.

Hermione and Harry both slowly stood up and turned to face Viktor. Hermione would have rather have stayed back in the common room with Harry during the ball, but she also knew that if she forced the issue she would only make Harry feel guilty. So, with a reluctant smile she accepted Viktor's invitation, who gave a quick nod before returning to his own table. Hermione briefly glanced back at Harry; he was not the type to get jealous but that didn't mean he did not wish that he was the one taking her to the dance. She saw it in his eyes, and his shoulders slumped just a little; he tried to cover it up but she could read him like a book. Harry smiled and nodded once more before he turned and left for class. Hermione knew Harry was happy for her; the problem was her own feelings.

oOoOo

The next couple of weeks seemed to fly by, between classes and preparing for end-of-term exams there was hardly any free time left, and if you happened to be going to the Yule Ball, well then you pretty much spent that time getting ready. Harry stayed busy by either studying or reading, anything to keep his mind off what everyone else was thinking about. But no matter how hard he tried, the closer the Yule Ball got, the more he found himself thinking about Hermione and the dance. Even though he couldn't dance, the thought of holding her close as they swayed to the music, grew more appealing the more he thought about it.

Harry was sitting in the common room; he had just put away his Charms book after he had found himself reading the same passage again for the third time.

“Hey Harry,” Hermione said as she plopped down next to him on the couch.

Harry looked up and smiled, “Hey yourself.”

“You looked pretty deep in thought there, am I interrupting?”

Harry motioned around the empty room with his hand as if to show her something, “Not much to interrupt… no I was just thinking.”

Hermione smiled and tilted her head just a bit for effect, her eyes alight with mirth. “Does it hurt, or do you feel well enough to talk about it?”

“Funny girl,” Harry said flatly before sporting a genuine smile. “Actually, if you must know I was thinking I might find someone to teach me how to dance.”

It was good to see him smiling again, but the look on her face quickly shifted from happy to curious when she considered his words.

“Harry, has something happened, are you going to the dance now?” she asked hopefully.

Harry's bright smile abruptly faded as he shook his head no, “Afraid not,” he sighed. “I just… well, I just figured that since everyone is all caught up in the ball and everything, why not?” Harry could still see the questions in her eyes. “Look, there'll probably be another one someday, right? And if not here, then somewhere else and I don't have a clue about dancing.”

“So… I guess you've been thinking a lot about the ball then,” Hermione said; she suspected that it had been occupying his mind a lot lately and was one of the reasons why he had been so moody lately.

“No, I just…” Harry began, but stopped when Hermione shook her head.

“Harry please, you know you can't…” but she found herself unable to finish when she noticed that he had a look that almost begged her to just drop it. “Fine,” she sighed in defeat, “so who were you thinking of asking for help then?”

“Well…” Harry started, looking rather sheepish. “My first thought was you, but then… well, I thought you would feel kind of awkward plus you're already so busy and all.” Harry had been looking down and now turned away, so he didn't notice the small smile that crept up her face. “Anyway I thought, maybe Professor McGonagall?”

Hermione still smiling, reached out and touched his arm gently.

“Harry,” her voice was soft, “Professor McGonagall is a good start, but I think you'll need a partner.” Harry's head snapped back around, catching her off guard causing her to jump slightly. She removed her hand and sat back a little. “I mean, you don't really want to dance with her, do you?” Seeing that she had thought of something that he had not, she felt a little braver and continued. “You know, I've never been to a ball either, so I'm sure I'd be rubbish at dancing if I didn't get a little practice in myself.” Now it was Hermione who looked uncomfortable.

Harry sat there staring at her; she had already helped him so much, and he'd bet his broom, she was probably already a good dancer. After a moment of awkward silence, Harry chuckled and said, “Hermione, I doubt that there's anything you're rubbish at, but if you really want to, I think you'd be a great partner.”

Hermione beamed; realizing he knew that she was only trying to help, and yet he didn't make a big deal about it. The best part was, she would get to spend a little more time with him, learning something besides trying to stay alive in that blasted tournament.

“Great! Talk to Professor McGonagall and let me know where and when, okay?”

“Kay,” Harry said as he watched Hermione practically bounce off the couch and make her way up to her dorm room. Well, back to Charms, Harry thought; he certainly wanted to have his work done before asking his professor for help.

oOoOo

The day before the Yule Ball, Viktor, Fleur, and Cedric were called into McGonagall's office.

“Good, you're all here,” she said. “The reason you've been summoned here is to discuss protocol for the Yule Ball.” Cedric looked around again. “Is there a problem Mr. Diggory?” the Transfiguration teacher asked.

“No ma'am, but where's Harry?”

“Mr. Potter will not be attending the Ball,” McGonagall said simply.

“Ah, of course, `e knows it iz for zee real champions,” Fleur said as if it were obvious.

Cedric rounded on the French witch, annoyed with her attitude. “Harry is a real champion,” he snapped. Remembering Harry's sense of fair play and the warning that he had received about the dragon in the third task, Cedric felt he should at least speak up for Harry in his absence. “He fought a dragon just like us, did he not? And as I recall he bested you.”

Fleur opened her mouth to argue, but was cut off by McGonagall. “Enough! For reasons that I cannot go into, Mr. Potter will not be there, and there will be no further discussion on this matter, is that clear?” After receiving three acknowledgments, she continued her discussion, letting them know both what to expect, and what was expected of them.

Leaving McGonagall's office an hour later, Viktor pulled Cedric aside into a small alcove. “I don't know the reason vhy, but it iz your headmaster who iz keeping your Mr. Potter from the Ball,” he told Cedric, who looked up at the Bulgarian man in surprise.

“Are you sure?”

“I am,” Viktor could see the doubt in his opponent's eyes. “I don't know how he became a champion, but he iz, just like us. He should be zhere.”

“Right, I don't know how he got into this either,” Cedric said, shaking his head in confusion. “But you're right, he should be there.” Even with the language barrier, Viktor could hear the determination clearly in his colleague's voice. He was getting his first lesson in what it meant to be a Hufflepuff. Even after only the third task, three of the champions were already beginning to form a bond of camaraderie.

oOoOo

After announcing the password to the gargoyle, Cedric was admitted up to the headmaster's office. He already had a plan in mind, having just spent the past half hour going over the situation in his head. If he was honest with himself, he knew he wanted to win the tournament, but he also wanted to win fairly, and that meant everybody got treated the same. Although this was only a dance, maybe next time Harry would be excluded from something more important. Maybe next time they would leave him or one of the others out. No matter what, Harry had worked just as hard in the first three tasks as anyone, so he should be allowed to join in the fun parts as well.

“Enter,” came the business like voice of Dumbledore from behind the office door.

Pushing the door open, Cedric approached his headmaster's desk. Dumbledore was still looking down, apparently busy with some paperwork. Cedric stood tall waiting to be acknowledged, but he could not help feeling a little intimidated.

“Ah, Mr. Diggory, what a pleasant surprise, lemon drop?” Dumbledore said while peering over his glasses.

“No thank you, sir.”

“Very well then, what can I do for you?” Dumbledore asked, his eyes taking on their trademark twinkle. “I don't believe you've been in my office in quite a while.” Cedric didn't know how, but somehow he suspected that the wizened man before him knew exactly what he wanted. It might have been the light or maybe just his imagination, but as he looked Dumbledore in the eye, he was sure the man could see right through him.

“Sir, I've come to ask that you reconsider, and let Mr. Potter attend the Yule Ball,” the Hufflepuff said, swallowing his nervousness.

Dumbledore raised a single eyebrow in interest. “I see, and what exactly did Mr. Potter tell you?”

“Ah, well you see… I didn't exactly talk to him directly sir…” Cedric said sheepishly. “I found out at the champions' meeting this afternoon.” Dumbledore continued to sit and look at him with a slightly amused smile on his face, so he added, “Professor McGonagall told us that he would not be there, later it was Viktor Krum who said it was your decision.”

“Ah, I see…yes that is unfortunately true,” he confessed. His smile faded and suddenly the headmaster looked older than before. “And I'm afraid that I must stand by that decision.”

“Sir, this doesn't have anything to do with the circumstances surrounding his entry into the tournament, because if it does I…”

Dumbledore raised a hand stopping the young man's protest mid-sentence. “No, it does not, Mr. Diggory, there are…other…factors involved, and for the record I too believe Mister Potter.” This seemed to cool Cedric's temper somewhat, but he was not pacified yet.

“That's good to know sir, but it still doesn't make it right. Harry didn't ask for this, and yet he's done all you've asked him to do, and with virtually no help whatsoever.” After taking a deep breath, Cedric stood straight and looked his headmaster in the eye. “It's not fair sir, and knowing that… bothers me. Therefore in good conscience, I don't think I can attend the Yule Ball either. I'm afraid Hogwarts will not have a representative.” Cedric knew he was pushing his luck by playing that card, but right now he really wasn't in the mood to care. “Please understand sir, I'm not threatening you I…I'm just not comfortable with the way things are.” Sensing defeat, he finished in a quieter tone, “I just felt you should know as soon as possible.”

Dumbledore had been angry with himself ever since he had backed down and let the Ministry talk him into keeping Harry away. Now here before him stood a student, standing up for the rights of another. It seemed even he, the “Great Albus Dumbledore”, was not too old to learn a lesson; maybe it was time to rectify that decision.

“I trust that he will still be able to find a date at this late hour,” he finally said. Cedric was suddenly at a loss for words and it must have shown as Dumbledore continued after a slight chuckle, “That is, if you can convince Harry to go.”

“Ah…” Cedric was trying to catch up, trying to figure out how exactly, he had won. “Yes sir, I'm sure on both counts.”

“Excellent,” Dumbledore said, then peering over his spectacles, added with hint of amusement, “is there anything else, Mr. Diggory?”

oOoOo

Two hours later, a frustrated Cedric left Harry to look for help. He had not been able to talk him into going to the ball as Harry was simply not interested anymore.

“Ron, hold up,” Cedric call out, causing the younger boy to stop and turn around, a surprised look on his face. “Hi, um you remember me from summer and all, right?” he panted, sticking his hand out to reintroduce himself.

“Yeah, of course, not to mention pretty much everyone knows who you are, being a champion and all,” Ron said with a smile, still unsure why Cedric wanted to talk to him.

“Look, I need your help with something.”

Ron smile brightened, “Really, sure” glad to be associated with the sixth year somehow.

“You're friends with Harry right?”

His smile fell. I should have known, the redhead thought bitterly, it's always about Harry. Letting his frustration get the better of him, Ron answered bitterly, “Not at the moment.”

Cedric wasn't sure exactly what that meant, and really didn't have time to worry about Ron's personal issues. “Oh, ah… I see,” although he really didn't. “Well is there someone you could recommend? I know a lot of people still aren't talking to him.”

Ron shook his head once and with a huff said coolly, “Try Hermione Granger, she's his biggest fan,” then turned and walked away without saying another word.

oOoOo

Hermione stepped out of the common room from the portrait after being summoned by a second-year, to find Cedric waiting for her. “Hello Mr. Diggory, you asked to see me?” she asked politely; unlike Ron, she had a fairly good idea this was about Harry, as there would be no other likely reason for him to want to speak to her.

“Hello Miss Granger, and please, call me Cedric. I'm not that old, am I?”

“No of course not, then it's just, Hermione.”

Cedric smiled, “Great, look I'll get right to the point,” I need your help with Harry; I've been told you are good friends with him, right?”

Hermione nodded, her face now beginning to show a little concern. “Is this about the tournament?”

Cedric noticed her look, “Oh no!” He said quickly holding up his hands to stop her from worrying, “well not exactly anyway, it's about the ball.”

“The ball, but Harry is not…”

“I know, I know, Harry wasn't supposed to attend…” Cedric interrupted her, only to be interrupted in turn.

“Wasn't?”

“Yeah I, well me and the others didn't like the idea of excluding him, so I kind of talked the Headmaster into changing his mind.” It was only a small lie. While it was true that it was only him who had gone to Harry's defense, Cedric got the feeling that Viktor felt the same way. Harry had not only faced a dragon like him, but had also told him about it before hand, something he didn't have to do. Spending a few minutes now helping Harry seemed like a small favor in return.

Hermione could not help but notice his slight reluctance to take credit.

“You talked the Headmaster into changing his mind,” part question, part statement she replied smiling, glad that someone else saw the injustice in the decision.

Cedric smiled back, he could see why Harry liked her. “Anyway, when I told Harry he could go, he wouldn't have any part of it. He all but flat out refused, `Not interested' he said.”

“So you want me to talk him into going,” Hermione said accusingly, but with a smirk.

“Well yeah, from what I understand, you're about the only one he'll listen to, besides I already did the hard part for you,” Cedric countered with a smirk of his own.

“Fine, I'll talk to him.”

As Cedric walked away he knew why Ron had called her “his biggest fan”. Ron didn't understand; she wasn't a fan, she was a friend. She acted that way because she cared for him. She was Harry's buffer against those who would wrong him; his protector and helper, and most likely he was hers as well.

oOoOo

It was only a little while later that Hermione sat at her favorite table in the common room trying to work on a Charms essay. She was having a bit of trouble concentrating; her mind kept drifting back to Harry. On the one hand she was glad Harry was finally able to go to the ball, but on the other hand, that meant that he would need a date and for some reason, that bothered her. It wasn't an intellectual thing, more like a feeling. Something sitting in the bottom of her gut, churning, like a sour meal. This made her wonder, when did I start to have these kinds of feelings? She was just about to give up on her homework and go look for Harry when she heard the portrait swing open.

As soon as Harry entered the common room he felt her eyes on him. Looking around he spotted her just starting to stand up. Harry knew almost instantly she had something to tell him, he could tell by the way she stood: A slight nervousness in her eyes, her hands held together more tightly than normal. As he approached her, he briefly wondered when he had started to notice things like that.

“Hey, you all right?” He asked, with a small smile.

Hermione relaxed a bit and thought of how typical it was of him to worry about her; he must have seen how uncomfortable she was.

“Hi Harry… ah, I wanted to talk to you, do you have a moment?” Harry raised an eyebrow as if to say, this ought to be good, and don't dodge the question. “I'm fine Harry, really. Please, let's sit,” she said.

“Okay, what's up?” he asked, taking the offered seat.

“Well um…” Not quite sure how to start. Hermione knew Harry could be very stubborn and she didn't want to anger him. Even though she had worked out what to say earlier, she now found herself stumbling over her words, and looking everywhere except at him.

Harry smiled, “Hermione…look at me.” As she met his eyes he continued, “Whatever is bothering you, you know you can tell me, right?”

Hermione sighed, “Cedric came by.”

“Oh, did he now?” Harry said, his smile growing as he now understood the cause of her nervousness.

Hermione was taken aback; she had expected him to get upset for interfering, “You're not mad?”

“Should I be? You're not conspiring against me, are you?” His voice was serious, but his smile and the mirthful twinkle in his eyes gave him away.

“Of course not Harry, don't even joke about that,” Hermione said with a scowl. Remembering how Ron had accused her of helping Viktor not to long ago, and how much it had hurt her.

“I'm sorry Hermione, you're right, it was a bad joke. You do know, that I would never think that about you.”

“Thanks… Harry, why won't you consider going to the ball now that you can?” she finally asked, causing Harry's smile to dim.

“I don't know,” he admitted. “It just feels kind of…forced… I'm sure Dumbledore didn't just change his mind to be nice.” Harry took a deep breath then let it out slowly. “It's like I'm a pawn and he's playing me. If I go…It's kind of like saying that it's okay.”

Hermione was staring straight at Harry, but it was his turn to avoid eye contact. He sat quietly, still looking down at the table.

“I can see how you would feel that way but don't forget, he didn't want you to go in the first place.” Hermione paused to let her last remark sink in. “If you don't go, then he gets what he originally wanted anyway and no one can blame him for you not showing up.”

“Yeah, that's a good point, but still I don't know, and it's tomorrow; where am I even going to find a date? There's no way…maybe I should just—”

“Oh no you don't, Mister Potter,” Hermione interrupted, “you're not getting out of this that easy.” Harry looked up, surprised at her tone. “You won't know until you ask around, but I'm sure that you'll find someone pleasant to go with, even this late,” She had him and they both knew it.

“Hermione!” Harry whined.

“Harry, you made me go, now I'm making you go.” With her hands on her hips she added, “Got it? Good!” Harry gave a sad, reluctant smile and nodded his head once. “Harry I just want you to have a good time too, please go…for me?”

“Wasn't that my line?” Harry chuckled. “And I thought I was the only one who could pout like that.”

“What, this?” Hermione smiled as she pointed to her mock-sad face. “Well, I did learn it from a pro after all.”

This time Harry laughed in earnest. “Fine, I'll go if it makes you happy, even if I have to ask Pansy.”

“Harry I said someone pleasant,” Hermione replied with a laugh of her own.

As they settled down Harry leaned forward and whispered, “There is one condition though.”

Hermione noticed the tiny smirk even though Harry tried to act serious. “And what would that be?” She asked cautiously.

Remembering the passion she had shown while sticking up for him, when McGonagall relayed Dumbledore's request, the smirk went away. Harry reached over and took hold of her hands. With a soft smile on his face he said gently, “You have to save me the last dance.”

Hermione was touched by his request, and the look of sincerity on his face almost brought her to tears. No one had ever treated her with such tenderness before. She released a nervous breath she didn't even know she was holding. “Oh Harry, of course I will,” she said as she gave his hands a soft squeeze. “Even if you hadn't asked, I still would have.” Later that night when Hermione was alone and thought back to that scene again, she would realize that it was yet another one of those moments. Harry was slowly becoming more important to her, much more. The realization not only surprised her, but confused her a little as well.

oOoOo

Harry was in a near panic. The Yule Ball was tomorrow and he still had not found a date.

“Can't you go stag Harry?” Ron asked knowing what was wrong. He was feeling a bit smug knowing he had a date, some Hufflepuff whose name he could not remember at the moment.

“No Ron, not as a champion,” Harry snapped. “I'm supposed to start the dance; kind of hard to do that by myself.” Ron tensed; he knew that Harry could not go solo, but wanted to get a jab in anyway. He was still a little unsure about how Harry had become a champion, whether or not he had indeed cheated. Ron wanted to believe Harry, but he found it hard to do so. After all who wouldn't want to be a champion, he thought. However he didn't really want to alienate him either. Seeing Ron's look, Harry sighed and said, “Sorry Ron, I didn't mean to take it out on you.”

“Yeah… well it's okay, so no worries.” Ron relaxed and looked back at Harry for a moment, then a thought occurred to him; letting some of his old feelings of friendship return, he jumped up, “Hey mate, I just remembered something.” Harry slowly stood telling Ron to go on with his hands. “Padma's date had to cancel last night, something about a family emergency of sorts.”

“Really?” Harry asked, hope in his voice.

“Yeah, Ginny told me, don't think she'd make that up.”

“No, I don't either… Look, thanks mate, I'd better go find her before some other desperate bloke does.”

Ron smirked, “Right, see you later then.”

oOoOo

It had taken a bit of talking, but Harry had finally convinced a couple of Ravenclaws that his intentions were sincere. Finally persuaded, they relayed the message to Padma to meet Harry as soon as she was finished with her study group. A short time later, Harry stood as the witch he was waiting for entered the library.

“Padma hi, thanks for meeting with me.”

“No problem Harry, what's on your mind?”

“Well I heard about Terry Boot having to cancel, I'm sorry about that.” The disappointment on her face was clear after he had said that.

“Thanks Harry that's nice of you to say.” Padma started to turn away, thinking that was all Harry had wanted to say. That all he wanted to do, was console her.

“Padma wait!” She turned back slightly confused. “Have you heard about me and the ball?” he asked hopefully.

“You mean the `can't go, can go' thing?” She asked, holding in her laughter.

“Yeah, that thing,” Harry said with a nervous laugh. And then he saw it, the moment she realized they both didn't have a date. Harry watched as the look in her eyes changed to hopeful. “So it seems like you already know what I want to ask,” he said. “How would you feel about going with me?” Then it occurred to him that he never did ask if she already had a second date. “That is if you don't already have another date!” he quickly amended. “I just thought that we could solve both of our problems by going together.” Now it was Harry who looked hopeful.

Padma smiled, “It's a great idea Harry,” then looking a little pensive, she added, “I can't believe the way Dumbledore has treated you,” not realizing the remorse the headmaster now felt. After a second, Padma looked back up with almost a giddy expression on her face. “I'll go with you Harry, and I'm sure we'll have a wonderful time.”

At first Harry was relieved, but slowly he was starting to become concerned and it must have shown on his face. “Harry, is something wrong?” He hadn't realized he'd let his feeling show so blatantly. “Having second thoughts already?”

Harry jerked his head up and saw the look of worry and disappointment on Padma's face.

“Oh, no! It's nothing like that, really! It's just….” Harry sighed and turned to take a step away, pausing to gather his thoughts. A moment later, he turned back. “Well the thing is, before they said I couldn't go, I asked…well I asked someone else to go with me. I was really looking forward to going with her.” Harry had started pacing a bit, but now stopped and faced Padma again. “But then…well it all got messed up and now she's going with someone else.”

Padma had noticed a slight frown as he said this. “This bothers you, her going with someone else?”

“No, well maybe… I don't know… it's just.”

“Harry do you fancy her?”

Harry froze for a second after hearing the blunt question, “What?” panic in his voice. “No, it's not like that.” Again Harry could see the emotions play across her face as both of her eyebrows hitched up in a mixture of confusion and amusement. “Look, the truth is I don't really know how I feel, or what to make of the feelings I do have, they've been pretty confusing lately.” Harry sighed, “I do know that she's very special, especially to me.” Padma wasn't quite sure just who this girl was, but had an idea, plus she was sure that Harry liked her, even if he didn't know it himself. Harry saw a small smile forming. “Please don't say anything,” he said. “I only told you because I thought you should know before saying yes. I really do want to go with you to the Yule Ball and all, but only as friends.” Harry looked down slightly embarrassed. “Nothing romantic, no kissing or anything like that, I don't think it would be right.” After a second of studying the ground he continued, “So if you'd rather have a real date with someone else, someone who can give you more…I'd understand, no hard feelings and such.”

The smile on Padma's face had grown bigger by the second listening to Harry. The one thing she valued most was honesty, and here was a teenage boy telling her how he didn't want to use her. It would seem Parvati had been right about Potter.

“Harry, look at me,” She touched his arm to get him to look up. “Harry, I think that's sweet, whoever she is, she's really lucky. Most guys wouldn't have said anything and just taken advantage of the situation.” She stepped closer and continued, “And I don't mind, I have a boyfriend, remember? I just want go and have a good time, dance a little, you know?”

He had been pretty sure that she, like most girls would have preferred something more than just dancing. After all isn't that of the whole experience, excitement, glamour, romance. Harry was actually a little surprised, “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Her opinion of Harry Potter was now a fair bit higher; happy that he had been open and truthful with her, and flattered that he had asked her to the ball.

“Thanks Padma.”

oOoOo

The following night, as could be predicted, several boys stood nervously near the bottom of the girls' dormitory stairs. With the Yule Ball nearly ready to start, their dates were finally starting to make their way down. Padma, even though she belonged to Ravenclaw House was given the option to get ready here, in the Gryffindor tower so as to make it easier to connect with her date. She was the second one out after Lavender; reaching the bottom she slowly walked towards Harry. She was dressed in dress robes designed to resemble a traditional sari, her hair was pulled back into a braid; while Harry wore simple black robes fashioned like a tuxedo.

“Padma, you look great,” Harry said as he stepped forward and offered his arm to her. With a big smile and a hint of blush she took his arm and slipped hers through.

“Hello Harry, you look pretty great yourself.” Then turning to the boy next to him, “Hi Neville, where's Luna?”

After turning a beautiful shade of red, Neville finally managed a response, “She, ah… that is, I… I'm going to meet her there.” Neville just wasn't used to pretty girls talking to him; maybe someone would sneak in some firewhiskey, he could sure use some to calm down.

All the couples had agreed earlier that they would wait for everyone to come down and then go together as a group. As more of the students gathered, one could almost feel the excitement. The room seemed to pulse with energy. Magic was in the air.

Hermione was the last to come out. All her life she had always thought of herself as plain looking, especially so during times like this. She just didn't see herself as one of those girls that had natural beauty; everything from her hair to her simple, almost curve less shape said plain, ordinary, and common. The fact that she hardly tried to do anything about it didn't help, she didn't even bother to wear makeup. What's the point, she thought, like it would help, and besides, who has the time? But tonight the other girls were not about to let that happen. Secretly she was glad for the help, tonight she wanted to look good; she wanted to make an impression. Tonight she wanted to feel like a girl, it was her first dance, first date, and maybe even her first kiss. That last thought saddened her a little. Firsts should be with the right person, she thought. Standing at the top of the stairs wearing a beautiful periwinkle-blue gown, Hermione looked down at all the other couples and then Viktor, who smiled up at her.

Harry had been quietly talking with Neville when a hush filled the room. Looking up Harry saw the reason: Hermione was at the top of the stairs and all eyes were on her. In an instant Harry was sure blue had just become his favorite color. He could not help but stare; it was a sight that he would never forget, nor would he ever be able to describe in words. He had always thought his best friend was pretty, but tonight that word could never hope to come close to describing how exquisite she looked. Perhaps he thought, even the most enchanting girl that he had ever seen.

Hermione snapped out of her daze and found the one person see was looking for, the one who would unknowingly judge her. Harry was looking right at her and in that moment while their gaze was locked, she knew. His eyes told her everything. It was worth it all: The hours getting ready, the dress, the hair, the makeup. In that one brief moment he spoke volumes without saying a word, and finally, she let herself feel pretty. Relaxing for the first time all day, she smiled, and it lit the room. Slowly she started down the stairs and he smiled back, neither looking away.

After reaching the bottom of the stairs, Viktor took her arm and started towards the portal.

“Her-my-owe-nee you…” he began, but stopped as he noticed her take another quick glance at Harry, who was still watching her. He stopped so that Hermione was standing in front of Harry.

Harry while staring into her eyes said almost in a whisper, “Hermione, you look… so beautiful.”

Moved by the sheer honesty in his voice and the look of awe on his face, she couldn't help but blush, and thru misty eyes she managed a choked reply, “Thank you… Harry.” She wanted to tell him how good he looked as well, but didn't trust her voice so she left it at that.

Viktor nodded in agreement with a knowing smile and added, “Yes, Harry is right, you do look vonderful, no?” Looking around to see everyone had agreed. “Vell, shall ve make our vay to the ballroom?”

oOoOo

It was fairly easy to see that everyone was having a good time, except for maybe Ron. Neville was dancing like there was no tomorrow, the twins had somehow managed to spike the punch, and even Draco had let his guard down and could be seen smiling and laughing. Ron on the other hand just could not settle down. He had totally refused to dance, which of course made for a very angry date who was now considering going solo. As usual he had waited to the last minute and now here he was with funny-looking robes, not a clue as to how to dance, and to top it off his date was a third year witch that he didn't even know!

Harry and Padma had danced most of the night together, only taking a few breaks to catch their breath. Both of them would later say what a good time they had. Harry had even danced with her sister once and then later asked Ron's date to dance as well, which did not help Ron's mood at all. The night wasn't perfect; Harry did step on a few toes and once forgot to pull her chair out for her, but he was trying, and Padma appreciated the effort.

It was getting late, and the ball would soon be over. Padma could tell Harry was getting restless; it was becoming more and more obvious: The quick glances and stolen looks. “Harry, I've had a wonderful time, and you have been a perfect gentlemen, but now I think it's time you asked Hermione to dance,” she said stepping back.

Padma had worn a genuine smile as a confused Harry asked, “How'd you know?”

“Harry it doesn't take a Ravenclaw to see the obvious, you two have been looking at each other all night.”

Worried that he may have hurt her feelings, Harry started, “Oh! Oh I'm so sorry…”

“Harry it's alright, really, I had a wonderful time, now go… go.” With a warm smile, Padma nodded once before she turned and walked away.

Harry shook his head and chuckled, then headed for the band. After a few words with the lead singer, Harry waited till the current song was almost over, then slowly walked up to Viktor and Hermione. With just a slight hint of nervousness in his voice, he softly asked, “May I please have the next dance?”

Viktor after a quick look at Hermione to ensure that she was agreeable, (even though he was quite sure that she was), gave Harry a short nod and then told Hermione that he would be waiting at their table before he walked off to sit the next dance out.

Both had been anxious about the dance, but were having a good time nonetheless. Now as they stood together, alone on the dance floor they settled down and quickly became themselves. No matter how intense the situation, they always found a calm in each other.

.

Hermione gave Harry one of her stern looks, “I was wondering if you were ever going to ask me to dance.” But the light blush and beautiful smile on her face gave her away.

Harry reached out and took hold of her hands, “I would not have missed this for all the gold in Gringotts.” As the music started, Harry gently gathered her in his arms. Any shyness he may have had slowly faded away as Hermione settled into his embrace.

She could not help but notice how much better they fit together than she and the much taller Viktor had. The next thing she noticed was the song, it was one of her favorites; she had played it once while they were practicing and casually mentioned how much she liked it.

“Harry, your dancing is even better than I remember.”

“Well, I've had a little practice tonight…” he said sheepishly as they gazed into each other's eyes, “and it could also be because of my partner.” They continued to dance, happy to just look at each other without saying another word.

Hermione loved the feel of Harry's arms around her while they swayed to the music. Maybe it was all the years they had known each other, maybe it was just Harry, whatever the reason, she found herself completely at ease for the first time tonight. Content, she leaned in and rested her head on his shoulder and Harry gently tightened his hold on her. There was no comparison; this was by far the very best dance, in fact, the very best part of the whole ball. It had been fun with Viktor, but this was different, it was so much more real, and romantic; it was truly magical. Unknown to her, Harry was thinking much the same thing. He didn't know skin could feel so soft, or that hair could smell so good. Holding a girl in his arms while dancing to a slow song was still very much a new sensation. Somehow the fact that it was Hermione made it all that much better.

It was all too soon that the song ended; they stopped dancing but didn't let go of each other, enjoying the warmth of their closeness. As the music started up again with a new song, Hermione reluctantly pulled back, and looked up into his eyes, where she saw a reflection of her own feelings: Happiness, peace, and something else that she could not describe. She couldn't help it as her eyes began to mist up.

Still holding her close, Harry softly smiled, “Hey you alright?”

“Never better Harry,” then equally as soft added, “Thank you.”

“Thank you, Hermione.”

“Well…” she said after a glance towards her table, “I best get back.”

Suddenly there was a heavy sadness in the air, and both could feel it. Certainly Harry was a little sad that his only dance with Hermione was over, and looking at her, Harry believed she felt the same way. There was something else bothering her. Harry looked over at Viktor briefly, was she not having a good time with him. For now all he could do was speculate, maybe later she would tell him what had troubled her. Turning so that he stood beside her, he then wrapped her arm in his and slowly led her back to her table.

“I think that will be my last dance for tonight,” he said.

The comment seemed to change the mood and the air lightened. “Oh?” Hermione asked with mirth in her voice. “Was I so bad, you've given up dancing?” she continued, causing Harry to laugh.

“Well…” His voice changed from teasing to quiet and serious as he turned Hermione to face him, “Actually, that was my favorite dance of the night, and I'd kind of like to remember it, so…”

Hermione gave Harry a bright smile, “Yeah… Perfect.”

Viktor stood as they approached and pulled a chair out for his date. “Welcome back Her-my-owe-nee,” The Bulgarian was still having trouble with her name.

“Well Harry, thank you again… I'll see you in the common room?” She asked.

“Sure, the common room,” Harry gave her a quick smile, then turned slightly to Viktor and nodded, “Viktor”.

oOoOo

After a brief search, Harry found Padma dancing with several other girls whose dates had already left. As Harry walked up, they stopped and he called to her. Taking Padma's hand and while bowing, he kissed the back of it. “Padma, thank you for such a fine evening,” standing and gesturing to the others he added, “But I think it's time for me to turn in, so if you don't mind I'll leave you with these lovely-looking witches.” Harry was now more glad than ever, that he had taken dance and etiquette lessons with Professor McGonagall.

Padma was fortunate her complexion hid the color of her face so well, because she was blushing so much she thought her face was on fire. A few seconds later she regained her composure and did a slight curtsy, and with a proper looking smile said, “It was a privilege, Harry.”

He turned to the other witches and while smiling gave a slight nod and bid them goodnight. “Ladies.”

After Harry had left, an astonished Padma turned back around to her very envious friends with the biggest smile she'd had all night. Even though she would have rather of been with her boyfriend Terry, she had to admit, being with Harry had been fun. When the giggles died down, one of them said, “Merlin, you are so lucky, Padma.”

oOoOo

The whole night Ron just sat at his table, eventually becoming a little tipsy from too much punch; he had been watching Neville dance with Luna. Neville had drunk a fair amount of punch himself as well and although he was a pretty good on the dance floor, he had started to get really crazy towards the end. Of course being with Luna, that made it that much more entertaining to watch. Ron could only smile at the pair, he had always considered Luna kind of strange, but tonight she seemed different, there was something more about her. Whatever it was he could not quite put his finger on it. Damn punch, can't think, he mentally grumbled. Neville sure was having a great time, unlike himself. Ron had convinced himself that if he so much as put one foot on the dance floor, he would make a fool of himself, so here he sat, alone and miserable; his date had left him long ago.

“If you're just going to sit here all night, I'll be off,” she had said to him, and that was the last he saw of her.

As the last song of the ball came to an end, Luna spotted Ron sitting alone and looking down. Dragging Neville with her, she made her way over to his table.

“Hello, Ronald.”

Ron looked up and muttered, “Hey Luna.”

“You know, I'm very disappointed in you.”

“And why is that?” Ron asked, somehow managing not to slur his words too much.

“Well, while I came with Neville, and we are having fun, I still had hoped you might have asked me to dance… at least once.” The whole time she spoke, she never took her eyes off of him; she had that typical dreamy look on her face that was so very Luna. Then, for a moment Ron saw something else. It was like she knew something only she could understand. Was he supposed to work it out? He wasn't sure, between the late hour and the punch, he was unable to focus. Whatever, he thought.

About then Neville joined in and broke his thoughts. “Yeah Ron, I think she would have really liked that.” Luna had told him, that when she was younger, she used to fancy Ron, but not anymore, not for a while now. She had said it was because he had changed, he was becoming someone else. Neville went on, “She even danced with Harry once. Besides mate, being out there,” he said as he pointed behind himself with his thumb, “has got to be more fun than sitting here alone, you know?”

Raising his eyebrows, Ron had to admit Neville had a point, and even in his sorry state of mind, he was beginning to regret wasting the night away. I should have asked Luna to dance, he thought regretfully.

oOoOo

Harry not quite ready to turn in yet, stood off to the side of the hall thinking. It had turned out to be a pretty great night, Harry had decided. As usual Hermione knew best. She always does, Harry thought, smiling at how his best friend was there for him yet again. Then with the thought of her, he seemed pulled out towards the patio. There standing in the moonlight alone by the railing was Hermione.

“Beautiful, isn't it?” Harry asked softly as he came up behind her.

She had wanted to be alone, but recognizing the voice she would know anywhere, in an instant she was glad she wasn't, “Yes, very.” She slowly turned around, grateful that the night would hide her red eyes. When Harry moved to stand next to her, she turned back and they stood side by side, looking up at the wondrous night sky. She shifted her weight and leaned into Harry who put his arm gently around her waist. A moment later she looked down and sighed, then laid her head on his shoulder. She was definitely glad she was not alone now.

Harry had known Hermione for more than three years now, and while he could not read her as well as she could him, he could tell that she was bothered. Moving his arm up he gave her shoulder a little squeeze then turned his head to look at her, “Hermione, what's wrong?” He asked barely above a whisper.

She turned to look at him for a moment before she answered, and saw his concern. This was just so like him, but she felt her problems were so insignificant compared to his. “Oh it's nothing really Harry.”

The silence only lasted a second before Harry replied, “You know, you're not very good at hiding your feelings… did Viktor do something?” The last bit coming out a little stronger than the first. “Hermione, you can tell me anything, you know that.”

“Viktor…he…well he didn't do anything,” Hermione said as she moved away to lean on the railing again. “That's the problem,” she whispered so softly Harry almost missed it.

Harry followed her to the railing and stood next to her but keep his hands at his side. He knew she would continue when she was ready, and it only took a moment.

“Viktor left about a half hour ago, said he had a good time, thanked me for going with him. He gave me a little kiss on the cheek and left.” She had started out talking softly, but as she went on her voice rose in volume and took on an edge of bitterness. “I just wanted tonight to be special, you know? It was my first ball, my first date…maybe even my first…” she stopped when she realized what she was about to say. “After McGonagall announced the Yule Ball, thing were going great, but then Dumbledore ruined my first date before it even started. Ron yelling I'm a traitor for going with Viktor wasn't exactly something I would have planned for my first ball either.”

Harry didn't know what was up with Ron tonight, but he was sure going to have words with him later. But for now his only concern was Hermione, he knew there was more.

“Hermione…” Harry said softly while touching her arm.

Hermione looked away and Harry could practically feel her ache, she was hurting so much. What had happened? Had someone said something to hurt her? They better stay clear of him if they had. Harry moved a little closer; she felt him by her side again but pretended she didn't. He was so patient, finally her shoulders slumped and she glanced up at him, tears slipping down her cheeks. Harry loved her eyes; it was one of his favorite things about her. They always told him how she was feeling, but tonight he hated what he saw: So much pain.

“Harry, I'm not completely clueless, I know what people say about me when I'm not around. And I do have a mirror in my dorm.” She could see that he wasn't following, he didn't understand. “I know I'm not much to look at, I'm plain and…. But tonight I really tried. Harry, I'm fourteen, and I've never…” her voice hitched momentarily. “He kissed me on the cheek Harry. Am I really that hideous?”

Harry was furious; how could Viktor have not seen how special and beautiful Hermione was? And judging by the looks she got by pretty much the whole school tonight, it was not just his opinion either. Without another thought Harry pulled her into his arms and held her tight. Hermione had latched on to the front of his robes and buried her head into his chest, silently sobbing. Harry kept one hand around her waist to hold her and brought the other up to cradle her head.

“Hermione you are the most brilliant witch I know, but I'm afraid as far as tonight is concerned, you must be blind, because you were far from being plain, I'm quite certain about that.” Harry knew that he had her attention as she tried to reason out his meaning. “You were without a doubt the prettiest girl at the ball, didn't you notice how everyone was looking at you?”

Still holding on, Hermione lifted her head and looked at Harry, “What do you mean?” Now she was the one who didn't understand.

“Hermione when I first saw you at the top of the stairs tonight, you…you took my breath away.” He knew it was a cliché line, but it was also quite literally true.

She had forgotten that look; slowly her eyes turned back up and locked onto his. Her heart started beating faster while her stomach began doing flips and slowly her expression changed from hurt and confused to hopeful as light returned to her eyes. “Harry do you really mean that?” But she didn't have to ask, she could see the truth for herself just by the way he was looking at her. His face always told her so much, sometime more than his words.

Harry tried to answer, but he was unable to; the words were there but they wouldn't come out. Perhaps it was because she was so close, or maybe it was the little peek of her tongue as she wet her lips. He opened his mouth to try again, but it was no use.

Hermione was standing right in front of him, watching as he struggled. When he opened and closed his mouth, she could not help but stare at his lips.

Before he could think -- before he could stop himself, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers. She gasped in surprise, but she didn't pull away, and slowly she closed her eyes. She felt wonderful in his arms with her lips against his, warm and soft and so gentle. She was perfect.

When his Gryffindor courage started to fade, Harry began to pull back. To his complete and pleasant surprise Hermione stayed with him, keeping her lips locked onto his. She had let go of his robes and moved her hands up around his neck and was now gently holding him there.

This seemed to bring out the Godric in him, so with only a slight uncertainty Harry parted his lips against hers and touched his tongue to her lips. She whimpered in surprise, but her mouth opened and her tongue found his. She tasted of strawberries and tears.

All too soon it seemed, they broke apart, both breathing heavily, eyes once again locked on one another. Harry's hands slipped down to her waist, while Hermione's stayed on his shoulders, her fingers played with the hairs at the nape of his neck.

They stayed like that standing still, and time seemed to stop for them; the world around them ceased to exist. Hermione was looking deep into his eyes. They were bright and clear, full of kindness, honesty…the essence of Harry. Hers shone back with a new-found understanding; he was there for her, he would always be there. They were drunk on each other, still high on the taste of their first kiss.

Neither said a word, there was no need. One always knew when the other needed something, and one always seemed to find a way to give it. Hermione saw the tentative look on his face and flashed him a brilliant smile which erased his uncertainty. There would be plenty of time later to talk, but for now an unspoken agreement was made to not spoil the moment.

It was fairly quiet now that the Yule Ball was long over. Most of the students had returned to their respective common rooms. Knowing that they should do the same, Harry and Hermione together turned and like a well practiced waltz began to slowly walk hand in hand back to their tower.

Hermione may not have had the most perfect “first ball”, and the night may not have gone exactly the way she would have liked, but there was no denying that it had ended absolutely brilliantly, thanks to a special boy with raven hair and green eyes.

Having returned to the common room, they let go of each other's hand. Hermione was the first who broke the silence. “Thank you, Harry,” she said softly while chewing slightly on her lower lip, a look that was so completely Hermione.

Harry just nodded as his smile grew and just as softly said, “You're welcome.” She turned, took a step, and then paused before heading up to the girl's dorm. Then it seemed the decision was made, and she turned back and gave Harry a quick kiss on the cheek. With a shy smile, she turned again and hurried up the stairs.

“Good night, Hermione,” he whispered as he watched her go. Then headed up to his own room and into his own bed. Thinking about strawberries, he drifted off to sleep.

.

AN: I know I mixed the book with the movie (periwinkle-blue gown, and coming down the stairs), it's the way I like it, (a good reason to write your own story).

.

AN: Thank you, to all of you who have taken the time to leave a review.

.

.

29

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

12. Christmas


Year 4 Chapter 12

Christmas

.

AN: I inadvertently left out a key fact that make things a little different than canon: The Ball (in my story) was on December twenty third, which was a Friday. A perfect day for a dance, and the next day was of course Saturday, a good day to travel on. So I don't see any reason to make everyone miss out on Christmas with their family, just so they could stay for the Ball. When I get time, I'll fix that and remove this note.

.

.

Hermione woke from one of the most pleasant dreams she'd had in a long time, maybe even the best. She had been dancing in the arms of her best friend... again, and then he leaned down and... oh... Merlin, Harry kissed me. The dreamy look on her face quickly changed to shock, then confusion, but as Hermione remembered the kiss, it slowly changed back to dreamy. It had been her first kiss, and even though she didn't have any experience, and nothing to compare it to, she was quite certain it was a great kiss. She had heard other girls talk about their first kiss, and she had read a little about it too of course. This kiss was nothing like those. There had been no bumping of noses or chipped teeth, no chapped lips or bad breath. It wasn't sloppy, crude, or clumsy, and it certainly wasn't boring. `How did Harry learn to kiss like that?' Hermione wondered. As far as she knew, Harry had never had a girlfriend before. `I guess he's just a natural,' she smiled at the thought.

"Well... I can't lie here all day, or I'll miss the train," Hermione said softly to herself. As she got out of bed and gathered her things for the shower, Hermione couldn't help but think, that for the first time, she might actually have preferred to stay at Hogwarts for Christmas.

Showered and packed Hermione was ready to head down to the common room and then on to breakfast. Just as she reached for the door, a jarring thought occurred to her. What about Harry? She had been so caught up remembering the kiss, and how great it was, she forgot it took two people to accomplish that feat. Suddenly, Hermione was terribly nervous. Did Harry have those kinds of feelings for her, or was he just being... Harry. Had he only kissed her, to make her feel better knowing how upset she had been at not getting kissed goodnight by Viktor? `How is he going to react when he sees me?' She wondered, did he regret it? It was really the last question that Hermione feared the most. The thought of a deeper relationship with Harry wasn't at all unpleasant. It was the thought of ruining her friendship with him that scare her. Unfortunately, she knew they wouldn't have time to talk about it today; she was leaving right after breakfast to go home. Perhaps it was best that she would be away for a while, it would give them both some time to think. Hermione only hoped that in the meantime, things wouldn't become awkward between them.

Gathering her Gryffindor courage, Hermione pulled the door open and started down the stairs. Halfway down, she spotted Harry sitting on the couch, her courage failed, and she hesitated. A moment later, almost as if he had sensed her arrival, Harry looked up. Any thoughts of awkwardness, or fear, were washed away when he gave her a brilliant smile.

Hermione continued down at a slightly faster pace than before. With a spring in her step, Hermione ventured, "Good morning Harry."

Still smiling, Harry stood and stared into her eyes for a couple of seconds before answering, "Morning Hermione." And in that short moment, she knew. They had reached an understanding; nothing was going to come between them. Their friendship was safe, and they would eventually work through what happened last night together, just like every thing else.

Harry had known from the moment he woke, that Hermione would need to analyze the events from last night, and that would take time. He also knew she'd eventually want to talk about it. Obviously, none of that would happen today, and it was a good thing, because Harry didn't have a clue as to what it all meant either. He hadn't planned it out, he had just acted on instinct. He had kissed her last night, because on some deeper level... he just knew she needed something like that. Only a split second before, Harry had remembered the kiss on the cheek she had given him at the end of third year. As far as kisses go, it really hadn't been that big a deal, but at the time, to Harry... it was huge. Funny, Harry thought, how something so simple, can mean so much. It was true for him back then, and he was fairly certain it had been true for her last night.

Harry had been as astonished by his actions, probably as much as she had been surprised by them. He was also probably as confused as she was about it. One thing for sure, he had no regrets, and it was most definitely a pleasant experience. Earlier, this morning while Harry had been getting ready, he kept going over the feelings he had felt last night. Seeing her so vulnerable, and looking so rejected. It had bothered him in no small way. Harry remembered feeling anger towards Viktor for treating her so poorly. Yet now, looking back he was kind of glad Viktor hadn't kissed her. She had been his first kiss as well. Knowing that it was something that could only happen once, and it had happened to them… It made him happier than he could explain. It was something they had shared together. Something he was sure he would never forget. And as far as Harry was concerned, he couldn't think of anyone else he would have rather have shared that with. Harry knew they would talk about what it all meant sometime soon, but not today.

Harry reached his hand out to her, "Ready for breakfast then?"

Hermione took his hand, "Famished," and together they left for the Great Hall. She was happy and grateful that for now at least, things would continue as before. Their friendship and whatever it would become, would be fine until she came back from holiday.

oOoOo

"Oy Harry, looks like it's going to be pretty much just Weasleys and a Potter in the Castle for the next couple weeks, eh?" Fred said, as he sat down across from him and Hermione.

"Yeah, looks that way. How is your mum by the way?"

"She's upset of course, not about the flu, but about us all not being together for Christmas," answered George, as he joined them.

"Poor thing," Hermione said, "the wizards flu is bad enough, but to have it over the holidays." Then turning a sharp eye on the twins, she added, "You lot had better send her something nice."

Fred involuntarily flinched back a bit. He had always liked how feisty Hermione could be, but had no doubt she could make him and his brothers regret not taking her seriously. Turning to George, he said, “Well brother, looks like we had better get on that.” Hermione smirked, message received.

"Before I forget," Harry said, as he reached into his robes and pulled out a small parcel, "this is for you." As he handed it to Hermione he added, "When you get home tonight, open it up. There are two presents; one for you, and one for your mum and dad."

Hermione took the present with a wide grin and said, "Thank you Harry, that's sweet of you to remember them." Then she too reached into her robes for a present, "This is for you Harry, but you can't open it until tomorrow... okay?" Then turning to Ron and the twins, "Sorry guys, I didn't know you'd still be here. I sent all of yours to the Burrow."

"That's all right, we don't have anything for you here either," Fred said, "it's at home, never got around to picking it up, mum being sick and all."

Hermione smiled and nodded in understanding. "Well, I'd better get going before I miss the train. I'm sorry you guys are staying here, if I had my way, I'd bring you all home with me." Pivoting on the bench so she could stand, she paused and looked at Harry, “Don't forget to work on your egg.” Then standing up, she continued, "I'll miss you guys... and do try to stay out of trouble." She gave Harry a long look and then opened her mouth to say something, then seemingly thought better of it and settled for a big smile before turning to leave.

oOoOo

There were only a handful of students staying over, but the house-elves still went all out for Christmas Eve dinner, and then put on repeat performance for breakfast the following day. Harry had woken early out of habit, and so was the first one down in the common room Christmas morning. Of the Gryffindors that stayed, it was only him, the four youngest Weasley's, another sixth-year student, a single first-year.

Harry walked over and brought the fire back to life, before settling down on the couch, content to just relax until the others were up. After sitting down, he noticed a mug of hot chocolate sitting on the side table next to a plate of Christmas biscuits. Harry smiled, and reached over to take a sip from the steaming mug. `The little guys are really working hard to make our stay as pleasant as possible,' Harry thought, and then decided now was a good time to give out his second present. "Dobby," he called.

A soft pop announced the arrival of Harry's smallest friend. "You called Dobby, Harry Potter sir," he asked while bouncing slightly with excitement.

After meeting the excitable little elf during second year, Harry had learned a bit about him. Having shared a similarly poor passed family life, he couldn't help but feel a unique kind of kinship towards him.

"Merry Christmas Dobby," Harry said with a gentle smile, while handing him a small brightly wrapped present.

Dobby slowly took the gift with trembling hands, and then a moment later looked up at Harry in awe, as tears began to slide down his face.

Knowing how emotional Dobby could be, Harry wasn't all that surprised by his reaction. "It's not much of a present Dobby, but I wanted to get you something. Go ahead... open it."

Dobby opened the present with the greatest of care, savoring the moment. Finally open, he held up two very brightly colored socks, that of course didn't match. Dobby stared at the socks with a look of wonder, as if they were the crown jewels, "They're beautiful. Dobby loves them." Holding them to his chest, he moved a little closer to Harry and looked him straight in the eye, "No one has ever given Dobby presents. You are being a great wizard Mister Harry Potter. Dobby thinks you are most special."

When Dobby started crying again, Harry asked, "What's wrong?"

"Dobby should have thought to make present for you," he whispered, while looking down.

"Dobby, look at me," and when the tiny elf finally looked up, Harry smiled, "you have. You do things for me all the time," Harry gestured to the hot chocolate and biscuits. "And you've already given me the greatest gift of all... your friendship."

Dobby managed to calm down a little. He was actually starting to believe that Harry truly considered him a real friend. He also promised himself, that next year he would make Harry a very special gift.

"Now one more thing Dobby, would you please tell all the other elves, thank you, and Merry Christmas for me?"

Dobby smiled, "Dobby will tell Sir." He turned to move away, then paused and turned back, "Merry Christmas Harry Potter," and a second later, he was gone.

Being one of only two girls in the tower, it was rather lonely in her dorm room, so as soon as Ginny woke she headed down to the common room to see if anyone else was up yet. At the top of the stairs, she heard Harry call for Dobby. Ginny couldn't help but smile as she watched the scene play out, quickly putting her in the Christmas spirit. As soon as Dobby had left, she continued down. "That was awfully sweet of you Harry."

Harry looked up, "Hey, Merry Christmas Ginny."

"Merry Christmas Harry, you're up early."

Harry shrugged his shoulders, "I'm always up early. Besides, I'm anxious to hand out presents."

Ginny's eyes grew wide, "You have presents to hand out?"

"Well, they're not much, but..."

"I'll be right back!” Ginny had been hoping to spend a little time alone with Harry, but it seemed the little girl in her won out when it came to Christmas and presents.

Harry watched amused as she turned and raced back up the stairs, but this time towards the boy's dorms. Sure enough, a moment later Harry had to laugh as Ginny did her best impression of her mother, to rouse the boys.

Ron was the first to come down, still yawning but waking quickly as he took in the room. In the corner stood a nice sized tree complete with decorations and a few of Harry's presents. The roaring fire added a warm and friendly feel to the room as well. The twins came down next, dragging along their dorm mate with them. They were closely followed by Ginny, who was pulling a very shy and reluctant first-year with her. As she neared the bottom of the stairs, Harry overheard Ginny say softly, "No one should be alone on Christmas." Harry thought he couldn't agree more.

With Molly being sick, there were no presents under the tree from her this year, only a short letter of apology and a promise to make it up later, when she was back on her feet. Harry waved it off saying she had more than made up for it over the years.

As soon as everyone was settled around the fire, Harry started to pass out his presents, "I know it's not much, but with the tournament and all... well here." Harry handed a small package to each of the Weasleys, and then a second one to Ginny. "For your birthday, remember," he answered her unasked question. He had bought them all a large box of chocolates from Honeydukes, plus one extra for itself, and now he was glad he did. Harry caught the eye of the other sixth-year boy and subtly held up the extra gift. Then while he was looking, Harry nodded slightly towards the little first-year girl who was sitting alone a bit off from the others. The boy caught on immediately, understanding Harry only had one box left, and with a smile he also nodded to the girl.

Harry got up, went over, and sat down right next to her. "Hi, I'm Harry, I don't think I know your name," Harry asked the startled girl.

"Hi...I…I'm Natalie, Natalie MacDonald," she said, barely above a whisper, while looking at her lap.

Harry didn't know if she was just really shy, or if it was because she was intimidated by him. He hoped she was just shy. "You know I just so happen to have one present left, and I'd like you to have it," Harry said, handing her the last of his gifts.

The little girl looked up with a shocked look on her face, "You're giving me, a Christmas present?" She asked, while carefully taking the present and setting it in her lap. "You don't even know me."

"Sure I do, you're Natalie," Harry said with a big smile, "besides, you don't have to know someone to give them a gift."

Natalie looked down at the gift, then back up at Harry. In her short stay at Hogwarts, she had heard many things about this boy, but she never expected him to be anything like this in real life, especially to someone like her. "Thank you Mr. Potter."

Harry laughed, "Natalie, please just call me Harry. We both know I'm not that old."

"No... but you're Harry..."

Harry held up a hand to stop her and gently said, "Just Harry... please." Hoping to keep her from thinking he was somehow different, and better than everyone else, he added, “I'm just like everyone else, nothing special.”

Natalie certainly didn't agree, but wasn't about to argue. So after a second she nodded and smiled, "Okay... Harry."

Hoping to change the subject Harry asked, "So, how'd you get stuck here? If it's not too personal."

Her smile fell, as she answered, "I don't think you'd understand."

"Maybe not, but why don't you try me," Harry encouraged.

"Well... my parents are Muggles, and well... they don't really understand me... or magic. I don't think they like it. They'd rather I stay here."

Harry felt a pang, and a sudden need to comfort her. "Actually, I think I know exactly how you feel." At her skeptical look, Harry went on, "You may not know this, but I was raised by my aunt and uncle who are also both Muggles. They not only don't like magic, they hate it... and me."

Natalie nodded, and even though see was staring right at him, her eyes looked so empty. "Sometimes I wish I was never born," she whispered.

Her voice was so sad it broke his heart. How many times had he thought the very same thing when he was younger.

"Is that why we keep our magic a secret, so people won't hate us?" She asked.

"No… no I don't think so. I think it has more to do with fear. People tend to fear what they don't understand." Harry didn't want her to get the wrong impression about Muggles and Magic. "You know, not all Muggles are like that. My best friend Hermione, her parents are both Muggles and they don't have a problem with magic."

"They still like her?"

"Yeah they do, very much so. Tell you what, when she gets back, I'll introduce you to her, then maybe the two of you could talk about it."

"You think she would?" Natalie asked, a glimpse of a smile starting to return.

"I know she would, Hermione always helps her friends, we take care of each other."

"But I'm not one of your friends."

"You are now," Harry said smiling, then gesturing to the others, "come on, I'll introduce you."

As he was making the rounds introducing Natalie, Ginny jumped up, "Thank you Harry, these are wonderful, I always wanted a pair." While showing her new Quidditch gloves to Natalie she added laughing, "You can get me a late birthday present any time."

oOoOo

After participating in the largest snowball fight of his life, involving all the students who had stayed over and even a couple of the braver professors, Harry headed up to the Gryffindor tower. He was wet and cold, and badly in need of a warm shower. A week had passed since Christmas, and although he had plenty of free time, the professors didn't. They were all very busy grading work and preparing for the coming term. He had finally managed to make an appointment with his Head of House, and he didn't want to show up looking like a snowman.

"Ah, Mr. Potter, please have a seat," McGonagall said with a smile, from behind a tall stack of papers. "So tell me, what can I do for you?"

Harry glanced at the work on her desk, he really didn't want to be a bother, but he felt this was important enough to ask. "Well ma'am, it's about my course selection. I'm trying to take my work more seriously, and I have been working harder."

"Something that hasn't gone unnoticed either Mr. Potter. I think you'll like your midterm grades."

"Thank you ma'am. Along that same line of thought, I have been thinking quite seriously about divination. I do not feel like I'm learning anything. I guess my inner eye is blind," Harry said smiling, while McGonagall chuckled. "I'd like to know if I can drop that class, and pick up runes. I know I should have asked a lot sooner, but... well I just made the decision myself. Being midyear, I was also hoping I could just do self-study until next year. After talking with Hermione, I find the subject fascinating, and with her help, I'm sure I can be up to speed by next September, so as to join her, in her fifth-year class."

McGonagall sat back eyebrows raised, and blew out a breath, "That's a lot of work Mr. Potter, all of third and fourth year in one term?"

"And, all of summer ma'am," he added hopefully.

"And you've asked Miss Granger if she's willing to spend that much time working with you?"

"Not yet ma'am, but I'm sure she will. She likes teaching almost as much as learning I think."

McGonagall seemed to study him as she sat staring at him not saying a word. She had to admit, his schoolwork so far this year was excellent. Harry had gone from being an average student, to one well above average, in some cases even excellent. If he kept it up, he would eventually graduate in the top ten percent of his class.

"You have never shown this much interest before, why the sudden change Mr. Potter?"

Harry sighed, "People always say, `Your parents would be proud Harry,' but I'm not so sure. At the end of last year, I realized there was so much I didn't know. I still know practically nothing about my family, the government, or magical traditions and customs. I wasted so much time my first three years." Harry sat up and looked directly into McGonagall's eyes, "This tournament is a good example, without Hermione's help, I'd probably be dead by now. And the reason she's able to help is because she has always worked so hard. I guess... maybe I want to be a little more like her."

There was no doubt Harry was serious about this, she could see the determination in his eyes. "I'm sure you're right about Miss Granger's willingness to help, but if not, let me know so other arrangements can be made. I will check with Professor Bathsheba, and the Headmaster, but I don't think they will object. You'll probably have to take a few tests, one now, and one a little later, to evaluate your progress. Is that acceptable to you Mr. Potter?"

It was an ecstatic Harry, who practically jumped up to thank his Head of House, "That's fine Professor, anything, and Professor... thank you."

oOoOo

Right after Christmas, Harry started back into his regular routine of working out. He also spent a fair deal of time working on his homework, and managed to get it all done by the time he had talked to McGonagall. After that, he slowed down just a little, so he could relax a bit and enjoy what was left of Christmas break, but he still spent a couple of hours a day reading. He was trying to get as far ahead in ancient runes as he could, before school started back up. Harry was only partly through the third-year text, and already he had a list of questions for Hermione. Harry also finally managed to find time to take a bath with his egg. He made a mental note to thank Cedric for telling him about the prefect's bath, and his suggestion about the egg.

The train was due in at Hogsmeade in a few minutes and Harry was anxious to see his friends again, especially one witch in particular. Harry had decided to walk down to the main gates and wait for everyone there.

After the carriages came to a stop, Hermione and the others stepped out. She, along with Neville and Luna, and the rest of the students started for the castle. Hermione was pleasantly surprised to see Harry standing by the gates, even though he was knee-deep in snow. He would occasionally smile and say hi to someone as they passed by. As she grew closer, he caught sight of her. With a large smile on his face, he started moving towards her. Hermione was smiling too without even being aware of it. When she noticed he was wearing her Christmas present; a wand holster, it grew even bigger.

Unable to resist any longer, Hermione ran the last few feet and grabbed Harry in a tight embrace. "Harry, oh it's so good to see you, I can't believe how much I missed you these last two weeks. How have you been? I hope it wasn't too unbearable," Hermione said in a rush.

Harry laughed while he enjoyed the hug, then gave her a quick squeeze before letting her go so he could escort her inside away from the cold. "It's great to see you too Hermione. And, I've been fine, but I do have loads to tell you." After seeing her concerned look, he added, "Except for being on the losing side of the great snowball fight, it's all good Hermione, no need to worry."

Later, at the welcome back feast after everyone had settled down and were catching up on the events of the holidays, Dumbledore made the only announcement of the night. The next Hogsmeade visit would be on the last Saturday of the month. As the chatter died down Hermione got Harry's attention, "Harry first of all, thank you for the wonderful presents, mum and dad really loved the photo, you may have started a tradition. As for mine- how'd you know I always wanted to try `copy parchment'?"

Harry smiled, "I didn't, but I thought it would come in dead useful, considering how many times I've seen you copy a spell or whatnot from a book."

"Oh, I'm sure it will, but I hope you didn't spend too much. I know it's expensive, plus the new quills and ink, it's..."

"Hermione stop," Harry pleaded, "it wasn't too expensive, and anyway, you're worth it,” Harry continued softly, with a sincere smile.

Hermione nodded with a small smile while looking down, trying to stop the blush rising from his words. "When did the Durmstrang and Beauxbaton students come back?" She asked, trying to change the subject.

"Oh, only a little while ago, umh, maybe an hour or two after lunch."

They were on their way back to the common room when Hermione finally asked, "Harry... are you ever going to tell me?"

Harry slowed down and turned to her, "Hun?”

"You said you had `loads to tell me.'”

"Merlin, I can't believe I forgot, guess I was a little excited about having everyone back."

"Well!"

"Right...ah, well I dropped divination," at Hermione's raised eyebrow Harry smirked, "and I... added...Runes."

Hermione grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to a stop, "Harry, how is that possible, you're a year and a half behind?"

"McGonagall is allowing me to study on my own for the rest of the year and on into summer. I need to be up to speed by September first, and then I'll join you in your class," Harry said quickly.

"Harry that's wonderful, but that's an awful lot to learn, and it's not an easy subject... what aren't you telling me?” Hermione asked with one hand on her hip.

"Well, McGonagall thought so too, sooo… I kind of said, that I thought you would help." Then quickly holding up his hands to prevent her from interrupting, he went on. "I know I should have asked you first, but it just kind of came to me during break. I'll work really hard Hermione, I promise. I'll read everything you tell me to, twice. I'll try and figure it out on my own, and only come to you when I'm totally lost." Harry paused to catch his breath, "What do you say? Think you can help me without hurting your own studies?"

Hermione gave Harry an appraising look. She liked this new Harry. He was taking his responsibilities much more seriously, and even with his involvement in the tournament, so far this year, he still found time to study harder for his classes. Personally, she thought it was a great idea, even though it would mean even more work for him. Watching Harry as he waited for an answer she could see how determined he was, and while it would mean a little extra work for her too, Hermione was certain she could handle it.

With matching determination and a stern voice Hermione asked, "You'll read everything I tell you to?"

"Yes."

“You'll try to figure out the homework on your own before coming to me?"

"Absolutely."

"You'll work hard even..."

"Yes... Hermione..."

"Well," she teased slowly, then laughed at the look he put on his face. "Oh Harry, stop with the puppy-dog eyes, of course I'll help."

Harry laughed too, "You had me worried there for a sec. Oh, you be happy to hear, I also figured out the clue, or I should say, the egg."

"Really? That's wonderful, what is it? How'd you do it?"

"Remember how Cedric told me I should take a bath with it? Well, I wasn't sure if he was having me on, even though I didn't think so. I really didn't know what I was supposed to do with it. Then, I saw Viktor swimming in the lake, and I thought, why on earth would he do that, especially considering how cold it was? Then, it hit me. Water, Viktor was jumping in the water. Cedric was telling me to take a bath... water. All three of us are champions." Harry smiled, "By the way, watch out for moaning Myrtle, she's a pervert. Harry smiled at the look on Hermione's face after his last remark. Anyway, once in the bath, Myrtle told me to listen to it under water. I had to listen to it several times to get it all, anyway, here is what it said;

.

.

Come seek us where our voices sound,

We cannot sing above the ground,

And while you're searching, ponder this:

We've taken what you'll sorely miss,

An hour-long you'll have to look,

Then make a choice about what we took,

But pass an hour-the prospects black,

Too late, it's gone, it won't come back.

.

.

After Hermione finished writing, she stood still for a moment in deep thought. Harry knew there'd be a long discussion about this in the near future. Finally, when she looked back up, Harry whispered, “And I had that dream again.”

Hermione's eye's widened. She didn't like the fact that Harry had dreamt the same dream again about Voldemort, “Did you tell Dumbledore?”

“Yeah. He said it was probably nothing, just anxiety over the tournament.”

Hermione didn't think so, but she also didn't want to worry Harry. “Well he's probably right. If it happens again, tell me, and we will see if there is anyone else we can talk to.” She thought about suggesting Sirius, but he had been almost impossible to get in touch with lately, considering his situation, it wasn't all that surprising.

As they resume their walk towards the common room, Harry went on to tell her about everything else that had happened over Christmas break, including his heartbreaking talk with a little first-year. Hermione quickly agreed to meet her.

oOoOo

Sitting alone at the Ravenclaw table, eating her lunch, Luna watched as Ron approached. Judging by the slightly nervous look on his face, she had a pretty good idea of what he wanted. Growing up near the Burrow, Luna had known Ron, for as long as she could remember. She had always liked Ron, and in recent years, she had even begun to fancy him. Often last year, and most of last summer; she had daydreamed of being his girlfriend. Call it girl's intuitions, or a witch's vision; it didn't matter which; this year, Ron was different. Ever since she had met up with him and the rest of the Weasleys at the end of summer, she could tell… something in Ron had changed. And, ever since Harry's name came out of the goblet, and their friendship went down hill, Ron's changes took a turn for the worst. Maybe it was his new friends, or maybe it was just Ron. Luna wasn't even sure if Ron knew himself. Whatever the reason, Luna didn't think she cared for what Ron was slowly becoming. Luna's daydreams were now long forgotten.

"Hi Luna, mind if I sit with you for a moment?" Ron asked with a smile, confident that she would relish the company.

Luna put down her fork and gestured to the bench across from her, "No, I don't mind Ronald."

Ron sat down quickly, and after a quick glance around, asked, "So... how have you been?"

Luna leaned forward and pinned Ron with her gaze. "I've been fine Ronald," then after a second she tilted her head slightly and continued, "I think a better question is, how have, you been?"

"Hun… oh, I'm fine," Ron answered nonchalantly. "Listen, I was wondering if you would like to go out with me sometime? I think we could have a lot of fun together, and maybe you could even be my girlfriend."

As Luna sat there staring back at Ron, she thought, `How ironic, a few months ago I would have been ecstatic, now it just makes me sad.' She knew all about the reputation of the boys that Ron had started to hang around with. They were only interested in chasing girls. Only interested, in seeing how far they could go with them. Then when they were done using them, or they got bored, they'd dump them and move on. Luna didn't really think Ron was like that at heart, but as long as he stayed friends with Dean, and Michael, he would feel the need to act like them. No matter how strong a person's identity was, peer pressure could change it. As long as Ron was acting like that, Luna wanted nothing to do with him. She would wait and see if time changed him back. There was also Neville to think about. Although she had only known him for a few mouths, she had a good feeling about him, and found herself, thinking about him more and more. He was a quite gentlemen, and always treated her with kindness and respect. Either way, she would wait for the right person. All Luna wanted, was a real relationship.

"I'm sorry Ronald, but I don't think I'm the right girl for you."

"What, why not?" Ron asked defensively.

Luna gave him a sad smile. "I'm not what you're looking for Ronald. I can't give you what you want." Then after a moment of awkward silence she patted his hand, "I have to go. Goodbye Ronald."

Ron just sat there confused, and watched her go. `How the bloody hell does she know what I want?' He thought, `ruddy girls, nutters, all of them.' Ron looked around and sighed, "I'll just have to find someone else."

Two days later, Ron had a similar conversation with a different witch, and as far as he was concerned, better luck. Lavender Brown was Ron's new girlfriend.

oOoOo

The next Hogsmeade visit was coming up soon, and Ginny thought this would be a good opportunity to finally get closer to Harry. Her plan was simple, first, she would set up Hermione was some other boy, that would help stop any romantic thoughts Harry might be starting to have for her. Then she'd get Harry to ask her out, or if necessary, she would ask him. This time, she wasn't going to wait, like she did for the Yule Ball.

It took a while, but Ginny finally noticed a shy boy from Durmstrang eyeing Hermione. After a good deal of encouragement, she had convinced him to ask Hermione to Hogsmeade.

oOoOo

It had been over two weeks since she had returned from Christmas break, and two weeks since the announcement about the upcoming Hogsmeade visit. Hermione was beginning to think, that Harry wasn't going to ask her to go. After all, he had asked her to the Yule Ball right away, she reasoned. `Maybe he doesn't want to be too forward because of the kiss. I knew we should have talked about it as soon as I got back.' Hermione had not wanted to chance, breaking the good feelings her and Harry were sharing after her return, but now she realized putting it off, might not have been the smartest thing to do, as it looked like she'd be going to Hogsmeade alone.

"Excuse me Miss Granger, may I speak with you?"

Hermione broke from her thoughts and looked up. A boy about her age from Durmstrang as evident by his robes, stood nervously waiting a reply. "Hmm, oh sure," pointing to the seat across from her, she added, "please, have a seat."

He sat down quickly and stared at the table for a few seconds seemingly to gather his courage. "Has anyone asked you to Hogsmeade this weekend?"

Now it was Hermione's turn to stare, not at the table, but the boy across from her. Of all the things she had expected, that particular question certainly had never occurred to her. Before she could respond however, he quickly added, "Oh, please excuse my manners. I am Miroslav Demetrius," he said while extending his hand in greeting.

When Hermione's brain reengaged she reached out and shook his hand, "Pleased to meet you Mr. Demetrius, I'm Hermione Granger, but apparently, you already know that," she said smiling. After a moment of inpatient silence, Hermione decided it would be up to her to move things along. "So you wanted to know about my plans for Hogsmeade, yes?”

Miroslav nodded yes, happy not to have to talk until he could rein in his nervousness.

Looking pensive, Hermione turned her gaze to her hands. This was awkward to say the least, she figured he was going to ask her to go, and she didn't want to lie, but at the same time, she was hoping to go with Harry. In fact, Hermione had even considered asking him.

Looking back up she finally answered, "Well I do plan on going, one way or another... but no, no one has asked me yet."

Miroslav nodded again, then looked up at a point somewhere over her head at nothing in particular, deep in thought for a moment. Miroslav may have been painfully shy, but he was no idiot, far from it in fact. He had sensed her reluctance to answer, `Probably was hoping someone else would ask her,' he reasoned. He quickly changed his mind on how to proceed. Setting up a little straighter he turned his eyes back to her, "Miss Granger, I would be honored, if you'd allow me to escort you to Hogsmeade this weekend." Miroslav quickly went on before she could turn him down, "I realize you may have a boyfriend, or if not, would have rather have gone with someone else, but considering how close the weekend is..." After taking a breath he finished, "I have wanted to meet you every since I watch your potions demonstration, and well, I was hoping, maybe this weekend we could talk, get to know a little bit about each other... and maybe even become friends."

Hermione sighed, `Am I that transparent,' she thought. Then as she sat looking back at Miroslav, she realized he had interrupted her response as a prequel to a rejection. "Mr. Demetrius..."

"Miroslav, please," he smiled.

Hermione nodded, "Miroslav... I don't have a boyfriend, but there is someone who I'm very... fond of." Hermione paused and smiled softly at the thought before continuing. "So, if you would be content going as friends, then I would be happy to go with you."

Miroslav had expected to be disappointed, so it was a surprised boy who answered rather excitedly, "Oh, well excellent, I... I'll meet you after breakfast then, yes?"

Hermione chuckled, "That would be splendid, I'll see you then."

oOoOo

The following day at breakfast, right after Harry sat down next to Hermione, and practically before he could even say good morning, two Hufflepuff girls hurried over. Harry and Hermione both looked up curiously as Susan Bones, and Hannah Abbott stopped and stood in front of them.

"Harry," Susan started, "we were hoping to have a quick word with you?"

Harry glanced at Hermione, who only shrugged her shoulders. Apparently, she didn't have any idea what this was about either. Looking back up at the two worried faces he replied, "Sure, what's up?"

Susan and Hannah stared at each other for a moment as if trying to decide where to start. Finally, Susan ticked her head slightly at Harry as if to say, `I asked, now it's your turn!'

Hanna deflated a bit, and then turning to Harry, she decided to just get on with it. "Harry I've been, that is, we've both been thinking about you and the tournament lately, and well... well last night we had a long talk."

At this point, Susan jumped back in, "And we decided that there's no way you put your name in the goblet."

Neville had been sitting across from Harry, so his back was to the girls, but obviously, he could hear everything. He decided now was a good time, to remind Harry about his thoughts on the matter of what others thought of Harry's involvement. "See Harry, told you others would see the truth sooner or later."

"That's right. We may not know you as well as say Hermione here, but all one has to do is watch how you act."

"You certainly haven't acted like someone looking for attention," Susan said taking over. "In fact, you looked a little disappointed after a second task, like you were hoping it would end there for you."

Speaking a little slower and more softly, Hannah finished, "Harry, we're sorry for not supporting you from the beginning, but for what it's worth, we are now."

Harry stood up without speaking and reached out his hand to each girl in turn. "Thank you, it means a lot... to know they're some people who believe me... in fact, it's worth more than you know."

"So, we'll be cheering for you Harry."

Harry raised brow, "What about Cedric? He's the real Hogwarts Champion."

"We'll cheer for both of you, because you're a real champion too. Of course, we will probably cheer a little louder for Cedric, he is in our house after all."

"And oh so cute." Realizing what she just said, Susan immediately turned red and slipped behind Hannah to hide.

Hermione couldn't help the huge grin that broke out on her face because of Susan's slip, but mainly for their kind words to Harry. While smiling brightly at the two Hufflepuffs, Hermione mouth "Thank you" to the smiling pair, before they left, to return to their table.

More and more people were finally starting to see Harry Potter for what he was. They were starting to see him the way she saw him. A young man with integrity, and an unwavering moral sense of right and wrong, but most importantly, he was a young man whom Hermione was proud to call a friend.

Harry laughed as he returned to his seat after the girls left, "Well that was nice."

Hermione nodded her concurrence, "Yes, it was." Then turning to Neville, "Did you notice Susan?"

Surprised, Neville asked, "No, why?"

"She kept looking at you."

"Really, why?"

Hermione just shrugged, "I'm just saying."

Neville looked down with a shy smile, but said nothing else.

"Oh, by the way, I keep forgetting. Do you want to go to Hogsmeade together, er, ah… with me that is?" Harry asked suddenly.

Sitting further down the table, a young French student named Brigitte watched the exchange between Harry, Hermione, and the other two Hogwarts students with interest. She had of course heard of Harry Potter before coming to Hogwarts, but after hearing the rumors surrounding his entry into the tournament, she began to pay closer attention to him. As far as she was concerned, it didn't make much sense, that a mere fourth-year student would try to cheat their way into competing, unless they were an idiot, and Brigitte really didn't think Harry was that stupid. After watching him face the first three tasks, she thought she might like to try and make his acquaintance. However, seeing how close he and Hermione Granger were; a girl she knew to be quite intelligent after watching her, and talking to her friend Nicole, she figured the best she could hope for was maybe a distant friendship. However, as she continued to watch, she began to wonder if maybe that decision was a bit premature.

Hermione shook her head in disbelief, then while pinching the bridge of her nose said, "Ahhh, Harry Potter you have got to have the worst timing possible! Honestly Harry, why did you wait so long to ask?" She asked, clearly exasperated.

Harry's smile fell, this didn't look good. "I, I don't know," he answered weakly.

"Well is too late now," Hermione huffed, "it was getting so late, I didn't think you wanted to go, or at least not with me." Hermione saw the look of regret on his face and sighed, "I'm sorry Harry, but I already said yes to someone else yesterday."

Harry looked down, he was angry at first, why hadn't she waited, but after a moment his anger faded and turned to disappointment, not in Hermione but it himself. He realized he'd taken Hermione for granted. He had just assumed she would go with him, that she would wait until he finally got around to asking her. After all she had done for him lately he suddenly felt ashamed. It wasn't a life-or-death situation or even a major event, but he couldn't help but think of the phrase, `It's the thought that counts.'

When Harry looked back up, he took her small hands in his and said with a sad smile, "No Hermione, you have nothing to be sorry about." He gave her hands a little squeeze, "it's my own fault. I shouldn't have waited."

"No Harry, you shouldn't have," she returned in a firm, but soft voice. "Oh Harry, it's not the end of the world, I'll see you there, right? And we can still meet up for lunch or something okay?"

Harry nodded his head slightly, "Right," he answered just as softly.

Hermione of course was disappointed, but she could see he was just as upset over the situation as she was. Hoping to lift his spirits, she tried to let him know, that there would be other opportunities. "And Harry," Hermione waited until she had his full attention, "Next time..."

"It'll be the first thing I do, I promise," Harry cut her off with a sheepish smile.

Hermione relaxed and smiled back, "Good!"

oOoOo

Harry and Hermione both watched curiously as Brigitte sat down next to Neville across from them, and introduced herself. "Hello, I am Brigitte de Louvres, and you are Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, no?" She said with an air of certainty.

Harry and Hermione both nodded and said yes at the same time, causing the dark-haired French girl to smile. "Ah, well then I am pleased to meet you," she said, while sticking out her hand to shake.

Hermione went first and shook her hand, then Harry did the same, "Likewise, and this is our friend Neville, Neville Longbottom," Hermione added, as she nodded towards Neville.

Turning to Neville Brigitte smiled, "Pleasure to meet you Neville."

After a quick hello, Neville suddenly became very interested in his food.

"Nice to meet you," Harry said, after the short introduction to his friend, "was there something we could do for you?"

Brigitte seemed to fidget for a moment before answering, "Well, please forgive me, as I did not mean to listen to your conversation, but I couldn't help but hear." Then her expression turned more serious, "It seems you were hoping to go with Miss Granger to the Hogsmeade this weekend, no? But now you are alone." After a short pause she continued, "Perhaps you would consider going with me?"

Ginny's jaw nearly hit the table in surprise, her plan had worked perfectly... but for the wrong girl. Now all she could do was watch it derail, and turn into the biggest train wreck of the year for her.

Harry's brow rose to the edge of his hairline, "You want to go to Hogsmeade with me this weekend, like on a... date?"

Brigitte shrugged her shoulders, "Date or no, it does not matter, but yes I would like to go with you this weekend."

"Really... why?" Harry asked a genuine curiosity. "I mean, most people think I'm a cheat."

Brigitte sighed, and gesturing with her hands as if to say, `I understand,' then she explained, "I confess that I was very suspicious at first, however, after all that I have seen... well it now seems very unlikely, to me at least anyway." After a moment of silence Brigitte added, "You are a mystery to me Mr. Potter. You have got my attention, and I would like to know more about you." Then after another short pause she tilted her head slightly and went on, "That is why we are here, no?"

Hermione sat there listening to the whole conversation with rapt attention. This girl was both confident and intelligent, plus she was also very pretty. Hermione found herself feeling slightly jealous, and it surprised her, but she'd worried about that later, for now she wanted to help her best friend, so she spoke up, "She's right Harry, you should go."

Harry hadn't expected Hermione to say something like that, he turned and looked at her, studied her for a second, then after seeing she had no ulterior motive he slowly turned back to Brigitte. "All right. Who knows, maybe I'll learn some French."

"Oui, you never know Mr. Potter."

"Oh and please, just call me Harry."

"Very well... Harry, and please call me Brigitte... and..." turning to Hermione.

"Hermione," the girl in question said smiling.

Brigitte gave a bright smile, "Wonderful. Perhaps we," she gestured to the three of them, "could indeed have that lunch together."

Hermione smile grew, “I'd like that."

.

AN; The clue from the egg is mostly straight from JKR's book, but if you read it carefully you will have noticed that I did change one line.

.

.

20

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

13. Hogsmeade


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 13

Hogsmeade

.

"Hurry up Hermione," whined Ron. Even though, he had only been down in the common room for a few minutes, as soon as Lavender had shown up, he had become anxious to go.

"Keep your shirt on Ron, it's only breakfast," replied Hermione, with a hint of annoyance in her voice.

Harry smiled, the best way to avoid a fight with Ron, was never to come between his stomach and a table full of food. "Ron, why don't you go on ahead, we'll be down in a sec."

"Thanks Harry," then, without another word he grabbed Lavender's hand and pulled her through the portrait hole.

Hermione raised a brow. "What? Now we can take our time," Harry said, then after looking pensive for a second added, “he's probably just in a hurry to eat so he can get on to Hogsmeade." As they made their way down to the Great Hall, Harry's thoughts drifted back to the article in the Prophet the other day about Hagrid. The more he thought about it, the more he realized, he shouldn't have been so surprised about learning that he was a half giant. What did bother him, was just how fast the school had turned on Hagrid. Harry could relate to that all too well.

"Harry," Hermione asked breaking into Harry's self induced introspection, "you all right?"

Harry turned to look at her as they continued their short journey. `She's always so observant,' he thought, then a quiet voice from the back of his head told him why, `because she's always worrying about you.'

"Yeah, I'm fine." Not wanting to concern her any further he went on, "Just thinking about Hagrid. I mean he got kind of a ruddy deal the way that rag of a paper was taking the piss out of him, don't you think?"

"Only because of that... horrible woman!"

Harry didn't want to get her worked up, so quickly moved on, "Hey, at least you got to see a unicorn again, right? What's it been, about a year."

Hermione smiled, she knew what Harry was trying to do.

oOoOo

As promised, Miroslav made his way over to the Gryffindor table just as breakfast was ending. "Good morning Hermione,”

"Good morning to you Miroslav.”

“I must say, I think you look quite beautiful today."

Hermione's face colored slightly, she wasn't used to such praise. “Thank you."

"You're welcome. Are you ready to go, or should I have a seat?"

Harry studied the boy as he stood waiting for Hermione. He was perhaps an inch or so taller, but he didn't seem to have a large build. In fact Harry thought he looked kind of lanky. About the only thing they had in common physically, as far as Harry could tell, was they both had dark hair, although his was considerably longer. Harry would've liked to learn a little more about this guy, but before he could ask any questions, Hermione spoke.

"No, I'm finished. We can go now, If you like." Hermione said, as she stood up.

"Very well," Miroslav said, while offering his arm to Hermione.

Now it was Harry's turn to feel a twinge of jealousy, as he watched the exchange. Once more, he mentally kicked himself for his lapse. Then, as if she suddenly sensed something was wrong, Hermione turned towards Harry.

"Oh, Harry this is Miroslav Demetrius. Miroslav, this is Harry, Harry Potter... my best friend.

Harry stood, and reached out his hand, "Nice to meet you." Though, he really didn't think he was. Harry held the other boys gaze for a second, and the message was clear, `Miroslav, had better be a gentleman.'

oOoOo

By noon, the Three Broomsticks was quite busy, as Hogwarts students made their way in for lunch.

"Look at her, what a tart. Who does she think... Draco, are you listening to me... Draco!"

Pansy had been going on about Hermione Granger for the last ten minutes or so, ever since said girl entered the Three Broomsticks, on the arm of a boy from Durmstrang.

"What you think of Potter?" Draco asked, as if he hadn't heard a single thing Pansy had previously said.

"What?"

"Potter," then turning to look at her, Draco asked again, “what do you think about Potter?"

The question caught Pansy off guard. His tone wasn't nasty or condescending, it was... curious, asked like when one seriously wanted an honest answer.

Pansy sat up a little, both brows raised in confusion. "Well, he's... I think..." Pansy wasn't sure what she thought. At the moment, she had been focused on Hermione. Falling back to her normal Slytherin opinion of Mr. Harry Potter, she finally responded, "Why do we care about him, he's a liar and a cheat. An all-around arse."

oOoOo

After holding the door for Brigitte, Harry followed her in. Looking around for a place to sit, he took note of who all was in the pub. Harry first caught sight of Draco, he was sitting with Pansy and of course the two bookends; Crabbe, Goyle. They were sitting by themselves in a far corner where they could keep an eye on things. Moving further into the room, Harry next noticed Viktor. He was sitting at a table in the middle of the room, and sitting across from him was Alicia Spinnet. Then he spotted Ron in the opposite corner from Draco, sitting with lavender. The couple seemed to be oblivious to everyone else in the room, as they sat there snogging. Harry just shook his head at the display, he'd talk to Ron about it later.

Harry was broken out of his thoughts by voice he knew well. "Harry!" Called Hermione, "over here."

Harry touched Brigitte's arm and nodded toward Hermione's table, to get her moving in that direction.

Sitting down Harry smiled, "Hey Hermione." Then he give a nod hello to Miroslav.

"Hello Harry," still smiling, she added, "hello Brigitte."

Neither Brigitte, nor Miroslav failed to notice, that Harry had taken the seat right next to Hermione.

After acknowledging Hermione and Miroslav, Brigitte settled in next to Harry. "This place does good business." She commented.

Looking around, Harry had to agree, "Yeah, the place is definitely packed." It was now fairly obvious as to why Dumbledore hadn't allowed the third-year students to come.

"So, where else have you two been?" Asked Hermione with a hint of more than just a little curiosity.

"Pretty much everywhere. This was our last stop." Harry answered, before turning around and ordering two butterbeers, one for him, and one for Brigitte.

"Yeah us too.” Hermione replied, before turning her attention to the girl on his other side, “What was your favorite shop Brigitte?"

Brigitte smiled, "Oh... that would have to be Honeydukes," then looking at Miroslav with one brow raised, "and yours?"

"Hmmm, I think perhaps Honeydukes as well, their chocolate is very good."

Everyone laughed and nodded in agreement. Honeydukes was indeed one of the most popular shops in Hogsmeade, mainly because of their famous chocolate. A moment later Hermione sat up, and with a nod towards the door said, "Well... look what the Kneazle brought in."

Everyone turned to look. Standing just inside the door stood Neville, a girl on each arm, Susan and Hannah.

Harry looked a little surprised, "Well that's unexpected," then a little louder, "Neville... over here." Turning to Hermione he asked, "I thought he and Luna were kind of..."

Hermione shrugged, "I thought so too."

Neville pulled a chair out for each of the two girls, then quickly joined them. "Hey guys, what's up?"

Harry laughed, "You're the one with two dates... you tell us."

Hermione smiled, it was so strange to see the painfully shy Neville with two girls. She couldn't help but compare him to Harry, and wonder, that if their places were reversed; would Neville be doing as well in the tournament, and would it be Harry with two girls? Hermione laughed to herself; she liked Neville, but was not the wizard Harry was and would have probably never have made it this far. And Harry, even without the pressure of the tournament, wasn't the kind of guy who would take two girls on a date at the same time. Glancing over at Ron, she briefly wondered if he was jealous, then laughed again, when she thought he was so preoccupied, he probably hadn't even noticed.

Susan and Hannah both smiled while Neville looked confused. A moment later he seemed to understand, "Oh, we're not on a date." Then as if he was worried that he might have offended one or both of them he added, "Not that I wouldn't mind of course... it's just... well I am kind of seeing...er ah… well interested in…”

"Luna?" Hermione supplied for a red-faced Neville.

"Yeah…” Neville answered uneasily as he started to squirm a little. Then looking at all the knowing faces sighed and went on, “I was going to ask her to come with me today, but then they said no third years or below could go. Something about it being too crowded."

"So I told Luna," Susan jumped in, "that Neville was so cute, he might need protecting, and that Hannah and I would keep an eye on him for her."

Hannah rolled her eyes and shook her head, "Honestly Susan, you think just about every boy at Hogwarts is cute."

Susan turned back to her friend, "And some of the girls too." She immediately turned red and slapped a hand over her mouth, mortified at what she had just said.

Harry alone with Neville and Miroslav all shared look, not quite sure what to make of her comment. While at the same time Hermione and Brigitte were sharing a knowing smile. In the discriminating world of magic, it was not all that uncommon for a pair of witches to become romantically involved. However it was almost always very discreet. Whether or not Susan and Hannah fancied each other, nobody knew for sure. It was however obvious, that the two were very good friends, and could almost always be found together.

Deciding to change the subject, at least somewhat, Hermione cleared her throat and then said, "Well…" and after regaining everyone's attention, she ticked her head towards the far corner, "what do you suppose has gotten into Ron?"

"You know he asked Luna to be his girlfriend a while back." Neville said with contempt. "Why would he do that? He hardly ever even talks to her, except to call her names."

Harry looked at Ron for a moment, then turned back, "Really?"

"Yeah, she turned him down of course, also said he was starting to act like a real blighter."

Then seemingly out of nowhere a new voice asked, "Hey guys, mind if I join you?" And, without waiting for a reply, Alicia started pushing Brigitte closer to Harry, who in turn had to scoot closer to Hermione so she could join them on the bench. "Oi, budge up Harry, Hermione won't bite... well maybe if you ask her to." Alicia laughed as she sat down on the end of the bench next to Brigitte.

It was hard to tell who was more embarrassed, Harry or Hermione, as the rest of the table laughed. Finally, Hermione regained her composure, "I'll have you know, I haven't bitten anyone since I was barely five."

"Really! Well you might want to try it sometime." The older girl said while waggling her eyebrows. Hermione started to protest, but before she could say a word, Alicia went on, "So what were you lot talking about before Hermione's eating habits came up?"

Hermione sat back with a tiny huff. She felt it better to just let this go and move on, or Alicia would end up teasing her all night. When Harry touched her hand, she looked over to find him smiling softly at her, and she couldn't help but smile back.

Harry turned back to Alicia, "Didn't I see you with Viktor when I came in?"

"Yeah, we were talking about professional Quidditch. I've been thinking about maybe going Pro after I graduate. Anyway, he had to leave, something about going for a swim... anyone jumping in the lake this time a year is a complete nutter if you ask me."

Harry and Hermione smiled, both now having a pretty good idea as to why. Then, remembering how Viktor had left her after the Yule Ball, Hermione said while looking a little put out, "Well that's no way to treat a date."

"Oh it's not like that, we weren't on a date," Alicia quickly said, "Viktor has a girlfriend back home, and he wants to stay true to her."

Harry and Hermione looked at each other, perhaps they had misjudged him. Hermione made a mental note to talk to Viktor in the near future.

His curiosity getting the better of, Harry just had to ask, “But didn't I see you and Viktor together… like back in October?

Alicia leaned forward and smirked at Harry, “What's the matter Harry… jealous?”

Harry balked, “What? No… I, I just thought maybe you and… you know… I mean, you did go to the Ball with Fred.”

Alicia laughed, “Wow, I didn't know you were so interested in my love life. Well if you must know…” Harry held up his hands and started to say no, but Alicia went on anyway. “In October… I met with Viktor to ask about Quidditch, while Fred and his brother were shopping for prank supplies. I would have come with him today, if the berk hadn't gone and gotten himself a detention,” she finished shaking her head. Then turning to Harry again with a smirk asked, “What about your love life?”

Harry suddenly knew how Hermione felt a few minutes ago, “Ah… don't really have one, so not much to talk about.”

Alicia just said, “Right…” While Hermione looked on curiously about his answer.

oOoOo

"I had a wonderful time today Hermione," Miroslav said, as he and Hermione stopped just outside the portrait of the Fat Lady.

"I did too Miroslav, it was very nice talking to you about your school, and things." Hermione kicked herself mentally `things'. She was starting to get nervous, she knew this was where they'd say goodbye and she wasn't sure what Miroslav would do. She also wasn't sure how she would respond. Even though she hardly knew him, Hermione thought he was nice enough, and quite smart too, but she really didn't feel anything... special. There was just no chemistry, no spark. Maybe, if he kissed me... Harry. A tiny feeling of guilt rippled through her subconscious at the thought. But why? They weren't a couple... strange. Her thoughts ended suddenly when Miroslav leaned in.

Even though they had only spent a short time together with Harry and his date, and even though Hermione hadn't talked about him all that much; Miroslav knew Harry was far more than just a good friend to her. Miroslav admitted to himself that he was just a little intimidated by this girl. She had good friends, important friends, and she was also very intelligent. On top of all that, she was also quite pretty. However, weren't those the very reason he had been attracted to her in the first place, `Maybe,' he thought. He just hadn't expected... so much. She wasn't just smart, she was very smart. And she wasn't just close to Harry Potter, wasn't just a good friend, she cared a great deal for the boy. Miroslav wondered if Mr. Potter knew just how lucky he was to have a good friend, like this. Yes, he was attracted to Hermione, but if he was honest with himself, he also knew a relationship with her would never work. Besides living in two different countries, and going to different schools; he knew that her heart was already taken, even if she didn't. However, since she wasn't really with Mr. Potter, there was no reason why he couldn't at least kiss her goodnight.

As he deepened the kiss, Miroslav put a hand on her waist and gently pulled her closer. Hermione responded by putting a hand on his shoulder to both study herself, and to control how close he could draw her in. The kiss only lasted about a minute, and although Hermione thought it was a good kiss, now that she had something to compare it to... she knew it wasn't a great kiss. She was glad she had gone on this… date. Hermione had wondered, that if she and Harry had actually started dating, would she think about dating others? Considering how strong her feelings were for Harry she didn't think so, even though she didn't know how she felt about him romantically. Now however, she was a little more certain about her feelings. She was quite sure, she wasn't interested in anybody else. She certainly, didn't feel the need to date other boys, even if the opportunity presented itself.

When they broke apart, both knew there would be no more. That had been the one and only kiss that they would share.

"Thank you again Hermione." Miroslav said with a sly smile as he stepped back half a step.

Hermione smiled back. She could tell he expected nothing more. "You're welcome Miroslav, and thank you, for such a nice day."

Miroslav stood straighter and nodded, "Goodnight Miss Granger."

oOoOo

Down by the Beauxbaton carriage, a very similar scene was taking place.

"Well..." Harry said awkwardly.

"Yes... well," Brigitte said smiling back. She knew Harry was feeling more and more uncomfortable by the second. "Harry, relax." Taking his hand, she led him to a spot next to the carriage that had a small bench tucked just out of sight. Setting down, she patted the spot next to her, "Please, sit with me for a while?"

Harry nodded, "Sure." They'd had a good time wandering around Hogsmeade taking in the sights, and just talking. This was all new ground for Harry, he wasn't sure what was expected of him. He had no real dating experience, none actually. The Yule Ball might have been an exception, but that really wasn't a date. He and Padma had both agreed, they were going together as friends, nothing more. This however was different. It seemed the situation had suddenly become more... personal. What was he supposed to do now? Take her hand and say something nice about her hair, or should he just kiss her. Was he supposed to ask first, no... he didn't think so. There was only one person he could think of to ask, and he was sure Brigitte wouldn't appreciate him running off to ask her.

"You don't do this much, do you?"

"No," Harry sighed, "am I that bad?"

"No, of course not Harry." Brigitte's smiling face turned serious, "You're just nervous. I didn't mean... I don't want to make you nervous."

"Oh you're not... I mean, it's not you. I-I don't," Harry stopped, then after a moment took a deep breath and continued, "I'm just not sure what's expected of me." Harry couldn't help but feel a little frustrated as he looked down at his feet.

Brigitte chuckled, then seeing his alarm, she took hold of one of his hands. "Harry, it's just a date, two people out together. It's not our wedding night... nothing is expected of you."

Harry laughed, "Yeah, I suppose you're right. I'm probably making this into a bigger deal than it is... right?"

Still holding his hand, Brigitte answered softly, "Right... although after such a great day, it would be a shame not to end it with a goodnight kiss... no?"

If Harry was nervous before, then what he was feeling now, could only be described as full-blown panic. `She did expect me to kiss her!' he thought. Mustering all his courage, Harry reached up with his free hand and cupped the side of her face and leaned forward.

Brigitte closed her eyes as Harry leaned in. A moment later she felt his lips on hers. Tentative at first, but quickly becoming more confident. She reached her hand up to the back of his head, hoping to hold him in place a little longer. Hoping to encourage him to kiss her more passionately. He suddenly pulled away, and Brigitte sighed. Partly in content, and partly in disappointment. As inexperienced as he may be, he certainly seemed to know how to kiss properly.

Her eyes were already closed, and a second after their lips met Harry closed his as well. She was soft, and smelled of lilac. Harry decided, he liked this aspect of girls. Soft, and they always seem to smell so good. Slowly he deepened the kiss and tried to imagine the girl he was kissing. Unfortunately, to his complete surprise the face didn't belong to Brigitte. Harry broke the kiss and pulled away, the image of Hermione still clearly visible in his mind's eye.

Shocked and a little confused, Harry stood up, "It's late... I-I should be getting back." Harry announced uncertainly. Standing there waiting for her to say something, he couldn't help but notice her look of disappointment, and rejection. "Brigitte look, I really did have a good time with you today. I had fun, and while I don't think I learned any French, I did learn a lot. I hope you feel the same way." He raised a hand to keep her from answering just yet. "It's just... I'm a little confused… I don't know. I don't think we can be anything more than friends. I wouldn't... I don't want to give you the wrong idea."

Brigitte stood up, "You're very sweet Harry. Hermione is a lucky witch to have your attention." Brigitte leaned in quickly and gave him a peck on the cheek before turning and starting towards the carriage door. As she walked away, she said over her shoulder with a cheeky smile, "If you need any help when you finally decide to tell her how you feel... you will ask me, yes?"

Harry laughed, "Yes, er a oui," making Brigitte laugh too. Harry wasn't sure if she had it right, `but it would sure explain a few things,' he thought.

oOoOo

Harry greeted Hermione as he sat down next to her for breakfast the next day, "Hey, missed you last night. Did you come in late?"

Hermione smirked, "Well, aren't we a bit nosey this morning."

"Oh no, it's not... I mean... I usually see you in the common room... oh you're right, it's none of my business, sorry."

Hermione smiled inwardly, `He's concerned,' she thought. Every since she had come to Hogwarts and made a few friends, real friends, she would sometimes doubt herself. Think herself unworthy. For so many years, as a young girl before Hogwarts, she never had any friends. There were a few times when she would meet someone, and it looked as though it was going to turn into something more than just a… acquaintance. More than just some other boy or girl you sat next to in class. You knew their name, but you didn't know the person. As soon as she would opened up a little, tell them something about herself, they'd pull away. She quickly learned, that they didn't really want to know her. They didn't want to know the real Hermione Granger. The girl who enjoyed school, not recess, learning new things, instead of playing with toys. She loved school, and she loved her teachers, yet those had been some of the saddest days of her life.

Loneliness is so much more than not having friends. It's like a half-life, no one to share with... neither the good things nor the bad. Hermione was a smart girl, there wasn't very much that she didn't understand. And unfortunately, she understood loneliness. She understood it all too well. Loneliness... was painful.

Knowing that Harry was concerned, that he cared about her, helped her to remember, that here at Hogwarts she did indeed have friends, real friends. That she had a best friend.

"Harry?"

"Yeah."

"Promise me something?"

Harry turned to look at her more directly, something in her voice told him this was important. "You know I will... if I can."

"Promise me, that we will always be friends," she asked, her eyes never leaving his.

Harry stared back at the girl he'd known for almost 4 years. Her eyes told him the rest of the story. He saw the need, the desire. He saw how tremendously important this simple request was to her. Harry reached out and gently took both her small hands in his, and like her, his eyes never left hers when he promised, "Forever."

A much relieved Hermione smiled, and nodded thanks.

Harry smiled back as he watched her for a moment. Satisfied that he had eased her worries, Harry asked, "Hermione, if this is about, well last night, and you want to see…” Harry voice caught and he looked down, “You know I'll always..."

Hermione squeezed his hands, happy that he felt that way. "Thank you Harry, but I don't think I'll be seeing anymore of Miroslav. I actually came back before you, but was really tired, so I went straight up to bed."

"Oh well, of course," Harry acknowledged, trying not to sound too relieved.

"And what time did you finally make it in?" Hermione asked, her own curiosity getting the better of her.

"Like you I guess, pretty early. About half past seven, I..." Harry's answer was interrupted by a loud `hey!' Apparently, Ron and Lavender were starting to get a little carried away, and someone had thrown a breakfast roll at the two's, slightly erotic display.

After watching Ron get indignant with the rest of the table for a second, Harry turned his attention back to Hermione. "What in Merlin's name is going on with Ron?" Harry asked quickly, happy for the chance to change the subject, "I mean, it's like he's on a potion, or has been hit by one of his brother's spells."

Hermione watched Ron herself for a moment before answering, "I know, and I might even suspect that something like that was actually the case, if he hadn't been acting this way for so long."

"Do you think it has anything to do with what Luna was talking about?"

Hermione's forehead scrunched in concentration for a moment, "I don't know, maybe." Hermione glanced at Ron again before turning back to Harry, "I'm not sure why he's acting this way. It's not like him, or least it wasn't."

After taking another long look at Ron, Harry asked, "You think he's acting this way because of her?"

"Or someone else." Hermione said, almost as an afterthought. "I mean, I don't even think he likes her all that much, not really."

Harry looked further down the table at Dean, "Like maybe his new friends?"

Hermione nodded slowly," Yeah, maybe."

After watching Ron kiss Lavender again for the umpteenth time, Hermione couldn't help it as her thoughts drifted back to the kiss she had shared with Harry, and how she put off thinking about it. It... had certainly happened, and yet neither of them seemed ready to deal with it. By now Hermione was fairly sure Harry had no regrets, but like her, he didn't know how to broach the subject. It, the kiss was easily the sweetest, most tender and caring thing he had ever done for her. How does one talk about something like that. How do you translate those feelings and emotions into words without cheapening the experience? Hermione didn't think she could. `Maybe that's why Harry hasn't said anything. Maybe he feels the same way.' The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became. Harry had always been more about action, and less about words. So, it would seem the kiss and what it might or might not have meant, would for now anyway, remain within their own private thoughts. Like a gift that is given without explanation, and no questions are asked. Hermione smiled, she could live with that.

However, another question still remained. `Just what do I think of Harry,' she thought. Then, remembering her brief conversation with Luna, It's not about thinking, Hermione revised her question. `No... not what do I think...but how do I feel about Harry?' Hermione smile grew, `Well that's pretty obvious.' In that instant, she knew. Her feelings for the boy sitting next to her had changed. They'd grown. Hermione turned and looked at Harry as he talked to Neville. She liked Harry, like him as more than just a friend. Some might even say she fancied him, but it was more than just that. She... cared for him, worried about him. She felt a need to protect him, especially from those who she knew meant to hurt him. Hermione nodded to herself, she was okay with all of that, in fact she rather liked the idea. Although she thought he might just feel the same, it didn't matter how he felt about her, she'd still be there for him regardless. Even if she was wrong about his feelings, she would not change her mind. What would happen in the future? Where would their friendship go? Would their relationship, develop... she didn't know for sure. But thinking about that kiss, Hermione thought she just might like to find out. For now, with the tournament about to start up again, she'd have to put any further thoughts about them, on hold. She'd wait and see what the future would bring. Hopefully, it would be a boy with messy black hair and glasses, alive and in one piece.

oOoOo

The Charms and Runes demo was quickly approaching, and Harry was currently enjoying watching Hermione get excited about it.

"Oh Harry, I can hardly wait to meet Alexei, and see what kind of charm he's going to show me."

Harry raised a brow at the way Hermione phrased her last statement. For the second demo, the students had to pair up again. This time however, with someone from the other school. In other words, since Hermione had paired up with Nicole from Beauxbaton last time, she now had to pair up with a boy from the Durmstrang. In this demo, rather than working together on one project, they would have to teach each other something new. Something that the other was completely unfamiliar with. After consulting with their professors, Hermione was paired up with Alexei; who was also a fourth-year student. Hermione's job was to teach him how to construct and use a set of runes, while he would teach her a very specialized new charm.

Hermione finally noticed Harry's half amused, have questioning look, "What?"

"Well, I like your enthusiasm, it is good to see you so... happy and passionate about this."

"But?" She asked with a smile, knowing there was more.

Harry smirked, `She knows me so well,' "I just hope you're excited about Charms, and not about… his charms."

Hermione could give as good as she took. "Well if that's how you feel, it's a good thing you'll be there with me to help."

Harry's other brow rose as his smirk disappeared. "You want my help? But I've only just started learning runes, what help could I possibly be."

Hermione leaned forward, "You didn't know anything about the potion that Nicole and I were working on, and yet you helped solve the biggest problem we were having."

"Hermione, I didn't do anything. I asked Snape to help you."

"Which he did... because of you," Leaning back she added, "Harry, there are lots of ways to help, plus you said, you liked runes."

Harry stared at Hermione for a few seconds before answering. "Hermione, I do like runes, and I'll be there whenever, and wherever you want, not because I think I can help, but to support you."

Hermione reached over and gave his hand a squeeze, "Thanks Harry, I appreciate that. But you will try and help, won't you? I just know if you keep an open mind, you'll see something we missed."

Harry nodded, "Of course," then after a short laugh, "who knows, maybe I will."

Hermione couldn't help but beam at Harry, as she nodded back.

oOoOo

As Dumbledore approached the podium, the Hall quietly down. After waiting a moment to ensure he had everyone's attention Dumbledore spoke, "Just in case there are some who are not aware of the special events planned for today... I shall enlighten you. Today, one hour from now in fact, we will begin the second series of interschool demonstrations. The students involved will demonstrate a unique charm or rune sequence. There is however an added twist. Instead of demonstrating it themselves, they will have to teach their demonstration to their partner, who will then demonstrate it to the rest of us." Dumbledore laughed, "Perhaps they will also gain some insight into what the life of a professor is like."

Harry had been helping Hermione for the last week. He didn't actually help her design or construct any of the runes, but rather, help her to refine her teaching technique. Harry of course understood the very basics, but not to the level of Alexei who had been studying them as long as Hermione, and certainly not to Hermione's level. If she could teach him the sequence, then Alexei, being more advanced in the subject, should have no problem following her instructions either. It was Hermione's passion for the subject that tended to get her into trouble. She would get excited and would begin to speak too fast, making it hard to follow her. Harry would remind her to slow down when necessary; he also mentioned that Alexei might not be quite as knowledgeable as she was. He also noted that Alexei may have trouble with the language, since English was not his native tongue. By the end of the week, Hermione had learned to control her pace, and always spoke as clearly as possible.

oOoOo

Hermione's turn came up just before dinner. Harry, as before, made sure he had a front row seat. A moment later Neville and Luna sidled up next to him. Harry was also happy to see Ron had showed up to watch, and hopefully give his support. Harry made a mental note to thank him later. However, what surprised him most was seeing Draco there, and he actually looked interested. Harry gave him a tight nod hello, and to his complete surprise, Draco nodded back; although reluctantly.

"Hey Harry," Neville said, while Luna just smiled hello.

"Hey guys, glad you're here."

"Of course, though I'm sure I won't understand a bit of it," laughed Neville.

Luna smiled, "How are your studies coming?" Referring to Ancient Runes.

Harry turned pensive, "It's going good... I think."

Luna smile grew, and Neville laughed, "You think?"

"Well yeah," Harry chuckled, "it's a lot harder than I thought it would be, but with Hermione's help I'm starting to pick it up... I think."

This time Luna laughed, "Well, it would be pretty hard to learn without thinking Harry."

Harry laughed, "Yeah I'm sure you're right." Then after a short pause, Harry tried to explain himself better. "As you know Hermione's been helping me with my Ancient Runes schoolwork, so I can hopefully be caught up by next year. Then when I've had enough, I would help her prepare for this demo." Harry could see they still didn't quite understand, "What she is doing is so far beyond me... well it makes me realize just how little I really know. It makes me realize how much more there is to learn." Harry sighed, "Kind of makes me question everything else... you know?"

Neville nodded in understanding, "Yeah."

In a more serious voice, Luna tried to set him straight. "Don't worry Harry, that's a good thing," seeing his puzzled look, she went on, "it just means you're becoming more perceptive." Then quickly turning back into `dreamy' Luna, she added, "No one will ever know all there is to know."

Inside, Harry knew she was right, although he thought with a smile, `if anyone could get close, it would be Hermione.'

"So what do you know about this rune sequence she's going to show us," asked a curious Neville.

"It's brilliant," begin Harry, his face lighting up with excitement as he spoke. "The real beauty of the sequence is how versatile it is, and some of it can be done without a wand. With just a little modification, it can do several different things, that's what makes it so dead useful." Harry really didn't want to tell them exactly what it was, because he wanted them to see it firsthand from her.

"I assume it's fairly advanced," asked Luna, "how much of it did you understand?"

Harry smiled, "Well practically none of the theory of course, but it turns out Hermione can be a very good teacher if she sets her mind to it. I'm pretty sure I can set the runes up correctly, and probably get them to work... I think." Harry and Neville laughed, Luna just shook her head at what was becoming an old joke.

oOoOo

An hour and a half later, it was an ecstatic Hermione who literally bounced down the stairs from the stage. With a bright smile she asked, "Well, what did you think?"

Harry of course thought she did brilliantly, and told her so. Luna wholeheartedly agreed, but it was Neville, who finally convinced her. "You know Hermione, I don't know a thing about runes, and I certainly didn't understand any of the theory behind what you're talking about... but you explained it so well... I think with a bit of practice, I might even be able to make it work."

Luna couldn't help but add, "Harry was right, you are a good teacher." Harry nodded, so she went on, "It showed by how simple you made a complex problem look."

Hermione's smile grew, "Thanks guys, but it was Harry who helped me get the teaching part down. He's a natural."

"Nothing natural about it. If you can teach me, you can teach anybody," laughed Harry. Luna and Neville laughed as well.

A moment later a short dark-haired boy stepped up next to Hermione. "Oh, Alexei, hi. Please allow me to introduce you to my friends." He gave her a nervous smile and a small nod. Hermione gestured to her friends in turn, as she introduced them, "This is Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom, and Harry Potter." Laughing she added, "and the tall redhead who is currently eating something... is Ron Weasley." They all waved hello. "Everyone, this is Alexei Markovic.”

"It is a pleasure to meet all of you," Alexei said in perfect English, "you must be very proud of your friend."

Harry nodded, and with a bright smile said while stepping closer to a beaming Hermione, "We are, very much so." Alexei noticed his answer was directed to Hermione.

"That was an interesting Charm you taught to Hermione," Neville commented. "I've heard of healing a cut and closing it at the same time, but to also draw out and neutralize a poison... well that was a surprise."

"In my country, there are many poisonous creatures, so..." Alexei gestured with his hands as if to say, it was something most people back home learned early on.

"Alexei your English is very good, have you ever lived here?" Asked Harry.

"No, never, but my mother went to school here, and she is the one who taught me. She is a very strict teacher. She would always say, `If it's worth learning, it's worth learning well.'"

"She did an excellent job," noted Hermione.

"Markovic, that's Russian, is it not?”

Alexei turned to Luna, "Yes, my father is Russian, have you been to Russia?"

"Once, with my father."

"Well, you are all welcome to stay at my home if you ever decide to visit." Then after glancing at his watch, Alexei finished, "I would love to talk some more, but my headmaster looks impatient, so I must take my leave. Good day everyone." As soon as the group had said their goodbyes, Alexei hurried off to join Karkaroff.

"Seems like a nice guy," Neville said, as he watched him go.

"Yeah," nodding Harry.

oOoOo

“Oh, there's Viktor,” Hermione said suddenly, as she stretched up on her tip toes to see over the crowd. Turning back to Harry, she added quickly, “I'll be right back,” knowing he'd understand what she wanted to talk to the Bulgarian about.

“What d'you think that's about?” asked Ron. He still didn't care for the fact, that Viktor had taken Hermione to the Yule Ball.

Harry glanced at Neville, who gave him a small nod, before answering Ron,” They're still friends you know. But ah… that reminds me; what up with you and Lavender?”

Ron was caught off guard for a moment with the change in topic, “What?”

“You and Lavender, snogging all over the place… What's up with that?”

Ron thought Harry might have been over-reacting, but as Neville moved to stand next to him, his arms held crossed over his chest. Ron knew Neville was not only showing support for Harry, but wanted an answer too. Ron hesitated, he knew his public snogging displays were a bit much, but he really didn't think anybody really cared. He just liked kissing Lavender, and if it gave him a certain reputation as a lady's man, so much the better. “What? A guy can't snog his girlfriend?”

Neville shook his head, “Sure he can, but Merlin, turn it down a notch,” Neville laughed, before adding, “or find a broom closet!”

“What do know,” snapped Ron, “you don't even have a girlfriend, not that anyone would have you. And don't make me laugh by bring up Loooony, not that she'd be your girlfriend, or even consider letting you snog her…”

It was only because Harry had quickly stepped in front of Neville, that Ron hadn't been punched. If the look on Neville face was any indication, he was ready to pound the red-headed git into the floor, like a tent stake. Whether or not, Neville could actually take Ron in a fight, Harry didn't know, but he was quite sure he would've found out in short order, if he hadn't of intervened. Without taking his eyes off Ron, Harry tried to reason with his other friend, “He's not worth it Neville.”

Then taking a half step closer to Ron, he asked, “What's wrong with you? Why would you say something like that?” While his voice was calm, and carried a genuine sense of curiosity, his eyes betrayed his true feelings. As he stared at Ron, waiting for an answer, there was no mistaking his look. Ron had better apologize, or things were going to get a lot uglier.

Normally, Ron wasn't afraid of Harry, neither physically, nor magically. He stood about an inch or so taller than him, and while admittedly, not as good magically; he knew Harry would never use dark magic, or anything particularly dangerous on him. However, at times like this, times when Harry was sticking up for someone, especially a friend; that's when Harry was scary. Maybe it was all the years of being bullied, or maybe it was his fierce sense of loyalty to his friends, that fired him up, Ron didn't know. Probably a little of both, Ron would later reason, but for now; he knew Harry was exceptionally angry.

“Fine. Look, all I'm saying is, I don't think it's any of your business. Okay? You don't understand what it's like.” Then, looking around Harry, to Neville, “Neither of you do.” Ron paused, and looked down for a moment to collect his thoughts before continuing. “I didn't mean to call her that…it's an old habit…I…I'm sorry,” Ron finished after looking back up at Neville.

Neville calmed a little after Ron's apology, but still couldn't bring himself to completely forgive him at the moment. Without smiling, he gave Ron a sight nod. As he turned to walk away, all he said was, “See you later Harry.”

“Sure…I'll see you later,” Harry said, before he turned his attention back to Ron. In a more relaxed tone, Harry said, “You're right Ron, we don't understand…That's why we asked.”

“She likes me Harry. She likes me, Ron Weasley; The youngest Weasley male…” There was more to it than just that, but Ron wasn't going to say anything more to Harry.

“What are you talking about Ron? We like you too. A lot of people like you.”

Do they Harry? Do they really? Or do they like me because I have a pretty sister, or maybe because they're afraid of the twins. Or maybe,,, just maybe they like me because you're my friend.”

A little confused, Harry was starting to get frustrated. Was Ron being jealous again? No, he didn't think so. This was something else…something more. Ron wasn't jealous of what he had. Ron wasn't jealous that he was in the tournament. No… it was the fact that those thing made him special, different…unique. Harry realized, that those things made him an individual. They differentiated you from everybody else. Someone you either liked or disliked, nothing more, nothing less.

`The youngest Weasley male; Ron had five older brothers; a curse breaker, a dragon handler, a brother on the fast track to the Ministry of Magic, and of course, the twins. How was he supposed to compete with that! Then there's me; and the whole Boy-Who-Lived nonsense,' Harry thought. `Maybe Luna is right, maybe Ron is, just trying to figure out who he is!'

Harry wasn't completely sure about this new theory of his; he'd run it by Hermione later, and see what she thought, but for now, it seemed to fit. Harry nodded slowly, “I suppose, no one truly knows what it's like to be someone else. I guess, I don't really know what your life was like growing up at home, at least, not any more than you know about mine.” Harry sighed, “You're right again Ron… I don't know what it's like to be you.”

Ron said nothing, but Harry wasn't finished yet, so after a moment to collect his thoughts, he went on. “Maybe there are some people who only like you because of Ginny, or me, or…or whatever, but not everyone is that shallow. I know, I like you for who you are, and I'm sure Hermione does too; even when you're being a git,” Harry said with a smile, hoping Ron would see he wasn't trying to be mean. “You were my first friend, and best mate. I'd like to at least be good friends again.”

Ron seemed lost in thought, as he let all that Harry had said sink in. With his eyes still unfocused, he took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, while at the same time nodding his head a little in understanding. Harry knew Ron would need some time to think about all that had been said. As much as Harry wanted their old friendship back to the way it was in the beginning, he knew it was impossible. Too many things had changed. He had changed. Harry wanted to make sure Ron understood, “But Ron, you're not my only friend.” When Ron looked up, he went on, “Remember first year… how you treated Hermione in the beginning?” Harry's gaze turned hard and icy. “I won't let that happen again Ron, not to anyone. Not to Neville, not to Luna… and especially not to Hermione.”

“So, I'm not supposed to say anything,” Ron temper flared, “I'm not allowed to defend myself, or my friends, but you are?”

In an effort to calm Ron, Harry smiled, and said softly, “Of course you are Ron. Talk to us, tell us what's going on, and how you feel, tell us what you think… just don't turn into an arse and get all shirty with everyone… know what I mean?”

Ron deflated a little, “Yeah, I guess so.”

Happy that the tension seemed to be lessening, Harry changed the subject, “By the way, thanks for coming to Hermione's demo, I'm sure it meant a lot to her to see you there.”

Ron smiled, “I didn't understand a thing, but I did say I'd root for her.”

Things were looking better, and all Harry could do for now, was hope they'd continue to improve. He really did want his old friend back.

When Hermione returned, she studied both boys for a second, and then raised a brow and asked in an amused voice, “You're both smiling… did Draco's hair catch fire or something?”

“Naw, we'd be laughing if that had happened,” Ron answered. “No, we were just talking about your demo; you did great by the way!”

Hermione's smile grew, “Thanks Ron.”

oOoOo

.

AN: I don't hate Ron. I don't particularly like him (especially the way JKR wrote his charater), but I don't hate him, even though I'm painting him in a bad light now. I have plans for him later, and this is all necessary for them to work out. If you love Ron…try and hang in there, you might like the end result.

Also, I've been meaning to say this for quite a while now, but I always forget to add this note. I'd like to give a very special thank you to “Dementor149” for not only his encouragement, but also his help and insight on this story. I'm sure it take a considerable amount of time to catch all the mistakes and then write then in a review for me. I get no other help for the most part, so his work is invaluable to me. Additionally, you should check out his work, I think you find the writing excellent.

And while I'm at it, thank you, to all the rest who have left reviews. They give me the motivation to continue, and to try harder to make this a better story.

.

.

20

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

14. Clarity


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

AN: Well, here's the chapter I think some of you have been waiting for, I hope it lives up to your expectations. I've rewritten it three times, and I'm still not sure I'm happy with it, but we'll see. Please leave me your thoughts.

.

.

Chapter 14

Clarity

.

It was a fairly common practice for the professors to make announcements right after Sunday night dinner concerning the upcoming week. However, tonight most of the students were waiting for one announcement in particular; the scores from the last Demonstration.

The Hall quieted down as soon as Professor McGonagall stood and started for the podium. Inwardly, McGonagall smiled, happy that the students were taking such an interest. When she had first suggested adding the demonstrations to the tournament, she feared they be viewed as little more than a sideshow. The fact, that the entire Hall was nearly silent, put that fear to rest.

McGonagall cleared her throat, and began, “First, will all those who participated in the Charms and Runes Demonstrations, please stand up.” As soon as the last of the twelve students were standing, she continued, “Hogwarts, and guests, please join me in showing our appreciation for all of their hard work, and long hours spent, in order to give us twelve very exceptional demonstrations!” As McGonagall stepped to the side and started to clap, all the professors at the head table stood and joined her. A moment later, the entire hall was on its feet, clapping, and cheering as well.

With no small amount of effort, McGonagall was able to get everyone seated again. “Thank you for your support, both tonight, and at their past demonstrations.” McGonagall paused with a rare smile on her lips, “And now, what I'm sure most of you have been waiting for…the scores!”

Someone yelled, “YEAH!” and half the hall laughed. Even Dumbledore chuckling for a moment.

“As before, all the results will be posted immediately after the last announcement…now,” McGonagall caught her breath, and then continued, “Ordinarily, I would only announce the top three students and their scores. However, as of now, we have a tie for third place, so we'll start with them.” After pulling a piece of parchment from her robes, McGonagall adjusted her glasses and began to read, “Currently tied for third place…Miss Nicole Lescuier, and Mr. Miroslav Demetrius with seventy-four points.” As soon as the cheering died down, she went on, “In second place…Miss Hermione Granger, with seventy-five points.” She gave Hermione a slight nod of acknowledgement, and waited for the noise to quiet down once more.

Harry was out of his seat cheering for her, before McGonagall had even finished her name. The rest of Gryffindor close behind. Hermione was completely overwhelmed by the show of support.

“And finally, the leader after two demonstrations, with a nearly perfect score on her Runic Demonstration…Miss Marcelle de Louvres from Beauxbaton, with seventy-seven points.” After nearly a full minute of thunderous applause, McGonagall raised her hands for quiet so she could finish. “Don't forget to check the tally sheet, and congratulate the rest of the participants. You might also remind them, that the top scores are very close, and we still have one more demonstration left, so anyone of several could still take the lead.”

Harry couldn't help but notice, that it seemed her last comment was directed at him. A quick glance at Hermione and he thought he knew why; she looked just a little…upset. Harry was sure no one else would have noticed, she schooled her features well. But not well enough to fool him. He knew she could be a little competitive when it came to academics, but he really didn't think that, was what was bothering her. `No, she probably upset with herself; wondering what she missed, how she could have done better,' Harry thought, `maybe, she feels like she let the school down or something.' Harry decided not to say anything now, he'd wait until they were alone, later tonight.

“Dumbledore then walked up and replaced McGonagall at the podium, “Allow me to add my congratulations to the twelve students, who not only demonstrated outstanding knowledge in Charms and Runes, but also showed us how, working together, anything can be accomplished.” Dumbledore tipped his head in a salute to the group, before going on, “I'm sure everyone is anxious to get back to their common rooms to carry on the celebrations, so let me just give you one more thing to get excited about.” Dumbledore paused for effect; Harry really did think that he loved being a showman. “In two days, it will be Valentine's Day…I know at least half of you are looking forward to then.” Dumbledore laughed at his own joke for a second, while the rest of the Hall remained quiet. “Well, I shall remember not to go into comedy after retirement. Thank you, and goodnight,” he finished.

oOoOo

It was a beautiful morning, the sky was just starting to lighten and was slowly changing from a fiery red to a brilliant deep blue. Up ahead, Harry noticed Luna walking down the path towards them; she too liked being out in the early morning, but preferred a more casual pace. Harry was so caught up in the majesty of it all as he ran, he failed to notice the rock sticking out of the ground at a sharp angle.

“Harry!” Hermione yelled. He had tripped and taken a tumble into a large thorny plant.

“Ow,” Harry yelped as he tried to get up. “Hermione, I'm stuck, er caught on something, can you help me up?”

Hermione chuckled, “Hold on…” Bending over to help him up, she got a better look at the plants Harry had fallen into and gasped, “Harry don't move, there is an Asphodel plant growing in here as well, if you get cut by the thorns, you'll get infected!”

Harry looked down at his bare arms, where he felt several small pricks. He could see a couple of places where the thorns had broken the skin, and a small trickle of blood was already starting to run from the wounds. “I think it too late to worry about that Hermione,” he said, just as Luna arrived.

Hermione chewed her lip for a second, “Okay, hold on while I try and pull some of the branches out of the way.” Without turning around she added, “Luna once they're free, use your wand to hold them back okay?” A few minutes later and Harry was free. “Well it doesn't look too bad, but the plant is poisonous and can cause hallucinations, so we better get you to Madam Pomfrey right away.”

Hermione then quickly cast the healing charm she had just learned from Alexei, “I don't know how much good it will do, it wasn't meant to work on plants, but it should help a little.”

“Right, well best get going,” Harry sighed, as he started back towards the castle.

Luna pulled at Hermione's arm as Harry walked ahead and whispered in her ear, “I thought I saw some Aconite in there as well.”

Hermione gave her a quick nervous glance, “I know, I saw it too.”

He hadn't been that far from the castle when he tripped, so Harry was a little surprised, that after only a couple of minutes of walking he was already starting to feel funny. First, he noticed that he was starting to sweat, even though he was only walking and the air was quite cool. As Harry marched on, he next noticed his vision would blur, then snap back after a moment.

Harry was feeling worse by the second. He knew he was in trouble, when he started losing feeling in his legs.

They were almost there when Harry stopped. “Hermione, I… I don't feel well…” he wheezed as he started to sink to his knees.

Hermione caught him, “Come on Harry, just a little bit further.” She hooked his left arm over her neck and held it tight, while wrapping her right arm around his waist to help him continue.

“Luna run ahead and alert Madam Pomfrey, tell her everything.”

“Maybe you should levitate him Hermione,” she said as she start to leave.

“No, he needs to stay conscious… Now go!”

The effects from the Asphodel's poison, were not lethal, and would not normally render someone unconscious, but the Aconite was. Its poison worked fast, and once someone slipped into unconsciousness, death was usually quick to follow. Hermione of course knew this. It amazed her, how something as simple as their regular morning run could turn deadly so fast. She had to wonder if situation like this were unique to the magical world in general, or just Harry.

Bursting through the doors to the infirmary, Harry finally collapsed unconscious as Hermione yelled, “Madam Pomfrey!” Both she and Luna were at her side a moment later. With Hermione's help, Madam Pomfrey managed to get Harry into a bed were she could start to treat him.

A few tense minutes later, after she had healed the cuts, and forced some potions into him, she turned to face the small crowd that had gathered behind her.

Looking first at a worried Hermione, she said gently, “He'll be okay… you got him here in time.”

Hermione sank into a chair sitting by the next bed as a tear rolled down her cheek. Nodding her head a little, she whispered, “Thank you.” Luna quickly pulled another chair over and sat down beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

Pomfrey nodded back once and then turn her attention to her friend, “Minerva, I think some house points are in order here. Miss Granger's quick thinking and the fast actions of both her and Miss Lovegood, almost certainly saved Mr. Potter's life.” Again looking at Hermione, “The healing charm you cast didn't remove the poison, but it did slow it down considerably, well done. I hate to think what might have happened if you hadn't been with him.

Luna spoke next, “Headmaster, why is Aconite allowed to grow on school grounds?”

Dumbledore turned to the blond-haired Ravenclaw, “Actually my dear, it is not, but alas, like any weed it has the unfortunate tendency to show up from time to time even though it is most unwelcome.” Turning to his deputy, “I'll have Hagrid see that it is removed, and then recheck the grounds for any more.”

Hermione got up and walked over to Harry's bed and took hold of one of his hands. Without looking back she asked, “Madam Pomfrey, may I stay?”

Seeing as Hermione had probably done more to save Harry's life than anyone else in the room, she answered without reservation, “Of course.”

oOoOo

He seemed to be floating in a swirl of sights and sounds. Bright colors blazed everywhere, while talking mixed with laughter and music, filled his ears. In that twilight state between barely asleep, and almost awake, Harry knew he was dreaming. Where he was or why he was there, he didn't know, but he felt happy. As his mind became more lucid, he tried to focus, tried to find a point of reference… and then out of nowhere; as was so common in dreams, she was there…

As a result of Hermione's quick actions and Madam Pomfrey's expert care, it was only a couple of hours later, that Harry starting to steer towards consciousness. Thanks to the mixed effects of the potions and the toxin from the plants, Harry had experienced some of the most vivid dreams he'd ever had. On the verge awaking, Harry try to hold onto some of the images from his subconscious.

Harry smiled as he opened his eyes, the last vision from his drug-induced dreams was of Hermione. What little he could currently remember of it wasn't anything spectacular, at least as far as dreams go. They were simply standing, facing each other by a small table… but there was more, something else, right on the edge of his memory… something else he couldn't quite remember at the moment. The only odd thing, was that Hermione had looked to be several years older. Harry sat up, wondering what that could mean.

A few minutes later, Madam Pomfrey came over and gave him a quick check up and pronounced him fit to return to class. Surprised, she was letting him go so soon, Harry smiled brightly, as he thanked her for flushing out the poisons so fast; he had never been released from the infirmary so soon after an accident. As Harry finished dressing and made ready to leave, he found himself thinking of the dream. He couldn't help but think that Hermione looked just as pretty, perhaps even prettier in his vision of the future, and he found himself smiling again. Even though it was just a dream, Harry was nevertheless glad that Hermione was still there, that they were still spending time together. Once ready to go Harry put the thoughts aside; he think more about them later, but for now he needed to get to class.

oOoOo

Early the next morning as Harry lay in bed waiting for his turn to use the boys shower, he thought back to yesterday, and his dream about Hermione. Now, more relaxed, he found himself remembering more of the dream.

She was still with him some years into the future, Harry liked that. They were standing together, facing each other in an average sized room next to a table with soft music playing in the background. There was a window… no a stained glass window behind Hermione. Harry smiled, the light coming through it, made her look almost angelic. It was soft and warm, and added golden highlights to her hair. Hair that was done up special, kind of like how she fixed it for the Ball. There were other people in the room too, but in Harry's dream, he only had eyes for her. She was so beautiful.

Harry closed his eyes and smiled, if anyone had walked by just then, they would have surly wondered just what he was thinking about. Lying there with his eyes closed, he could see the vision from his dream more clearly. Hermione was wearing white robes… no… it was a white dress, a long white dress. The table next to them was empty except for a book. Hermione looked so incredibly happy. Her eyes sparkled with the hint of a tear that seemed on the verge of sliding down her cheek. It must have been a pretty special occasion, Harry thought.

Harry played the memory of the dream forward. They were standing there staring into each other's eyes, and then slowly, they leaned in to share a kiss. But this was no ordinary kiss, it was full of passion and seemed to last an eternity. The love and emotion shared with that kiss made Harry heart pound, even now. Releasing her to arm's length, he couldn't help but admirer her.

Harry's eyes snapped open. Hermione's dress… it wasn't just any dress. It was… it was a wedding dress, the book… a bible. It was Hermione's wedding that he had dreamt about. Why would he dream about that, and why was she kissing him? Harry didn't know much about love and marriage, but he was pretty sure you didn't kiss the bride like that… Harry's heart started beating faster, `Oh Merlin, you didn't kiss the bride like that unless… unless, you were the groom!' he thought.

Harry sat up, his pulse was racing, and his breathing was fast and swallow… what did mean? Why would he dream something like that? Was it just a dream, or was it a vision? Like Hermione, Harry didn't put much stock in the art of divination, but it had seemed so real, so… natural. Was it his future? He didn't know, after all he had no way to know for sure. Maybe it was just his subconscious mind trying to tell him something. With that last thought, Harry sat up straighter. `Tell me what?' He asked himself. That he should be with Hermione, like as a boyfriend? Or that on some subconscious level, he wanted to be her boyfriend, and marry her some day? She was his best friend, how did you go from that… to being married?

Not having any experience in romance or love, Harry knew why he was confused. He would've liked to talk to somebody about it, maybe ask for advice. However the only ones he could think of to ask were Sirius, or Hermione, and maybe Hermione's parents. The Dursleys were out of the question, he didn't think they'd know anyway, and the Weasleys, well that would just be way too awkward. That left Sirius… No way, he'd never hear the end of it if he talked to Sirius. He certainly couldn't talk to Hermione, and tell her he'd been dreaming of her. And for pretty much the same reasons, he didn't think it be a good idea to talk to her parents either. No, he'd just have to work this out on his own.

Seamus walked by wrapped in a towel, “All yours Harry.”

“Thanks,” Harry said after a moment, still lost in thought. Finally he got up, He had a lot to do, `And to think about,' he thought, it was Valentine's Day. By the time Harry had finished his shower, he had a plan. He still needed a little time to work out the dream and his feelings, but he knew what he wanted to do today. He may not understand love very well, or his true feeling for Hermione, but he did know he cared for her very much, and today he was going to show her. After making a few plans with Dobby, he sat down and started a letter.

oOoOo

Considering Harry's condition, Hermione had planned only a very light workout. Coming down the stairs, the first thing Hermione noticed, was that Harry wasn't dressed for running, "Harry, what's wrong, don't you feel well?" She asked.

Harry smiled, the concern in her voice was evident. "Morning Hermione, and I'm fine," he said as he stood up to greet her. "Dumbledore, was kind enough to give everyone the day off, so I thought, why not make the most of it... let's just have some fun today, okay?"

Hermione blinked, "Well this is unexpected... but, okay."

"Great, why don't you go change, and I'll wait right here."

Hermione nodded and turn around, half way back up, she stopped. "Harry... you've got something planned, don't you?" She said, part question, part statement.

Harry laughed, "Of course... fun!" Then he started shooing her back up the stairs, "hurry up, go on..."

Hermione shook her head, but smiled. Harry loved to surprise her. Hermione smile grew as she thought, `And I like it when he does.'

oOoOo

Hermione sat down a little while later at a small table, with an amused smile on her face. "The kitchens Harry?"

Harry just looked back at her with a smirk and said, "Well, we can't go to Hogsmeade, and it's too cold outside, so... if a bloke wants a private breakfast with his best friend... this is it," he finished as he gestured around.

Hermione looked around and shook her head, but wore a brilliant smile, "Its lovely Harry." The table was covered with a white linen, and sitting in the middle was a small vase of flowers. All the elves were wearing little outfits covered with tiny hearts and cupids in celebration of Valentine's Day. "Where's Dobby?" she asked, after looking around.

"I'm glad you asked," Harry said, before wiggling his eyebrows and calling, "Dobby!"

A half second later, Dobby popped in, right next to Hermione wearing the most outlandish red and white Valentine's outfit she'd ever seen. "Happy Valentine's Day Harry Potter sir," and then quickly turning to Hermione, he added, "happy Valentine's Day, Miss Harry Potter's Grangy.”

Harry laughed, while Hermione smiled at the way he had addressed her. “You look smashing Dobby, and happy Valentine's Day to you.”

Dobby beamed at both of them, “Thank Yous Miss Grangy, are yous ready to eat?”

Hermione looked at Harry, who only nodded yes, “That would be wonderful Dobby.”

Dobby bounced on the balls of his feet with a huge smile, and a moment later, he popped away, only to return with all their favorites for breakfast, just the way they liked them.

"Thank you Dobby," said Harry kindly.

"Yes, thank you Dobby," added Hermione.

"Yous both welcome,” Dobby answered, and then with a coy smile said, "Dobby is hoping yous are both being happy today," before popping away again.

"He's so sweet," said Hermione, "we should come down here more often, just to visit."

Harry thought about it for a second, then nodded, "Yeah, we should."

About halfway through breakfast, Harry suddenly stopped. "Oh, I can't believe I almost forgot, what with Dobby and all,” Harry said, before reaching into his robes and pulling out a card, and a letter. Harry cleared his throat and said with a nervous smile, "Happy Valentine's Day Hermione," as he handed both to her.

"Oh Harry, you shouldn't have," she said in a gentle voice. Opening the card first, she read the inscription, and Hermione's voice hitched a little when she said, "Thank you Harry, its perfect." She had gotten a card for Harry, but had been unsure of how he'd react, and so hadn't given it to him yet. However, after reading his, she felt that he would receive it, in the spirit in which it was meant. She considered him to be her dearest friend, and he was special to her in so many ways. She pulled out her card and handed it to Harry. Smiling shyly, she said softly, “This is for you.” Then, looking down at the letter, she asked, "What's this?"

Now it was Harry's turn to speak softly, "It's a letter." Seeing her raise a brow, he knew she expected a better explanation. "You know how we used to write to each other, during summer?"

Hermione nodded, "Yes."

"Well, I... I kind of miss doing that."

"But we see each other every day, what..."

"It's not the same Hermione.” Harry smiled slowly and tilted his head slightly as if unsure of himself, "With the letters, it's more... personal, more private." Harry ran a hand nervously through his hair, “I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. There is still a few things I haven't quite worked out, but… well some, I… I wanted you to know now. I didn't want to wait any longer.” Harry nodded towards the letter, “Go ahead.”

Hermione slowly nodded her head as understanding took hold. Without saying anything else, she slid her thumb under the flap of the envelope opening it, and pulled out the letter.

.

.

Dear Hermione,

You must think I've gone completely mad; writing you a letter, while we are still at school. You might even be reading this, while I'm in the same room. What you need to understand is, that sometimes, (for me anyway,) it's easier to say things with words on paper, than to voice them out loud. I think it's because you have time to think about exactly what it is you're trying to say. You can find the right words to express not only your thoughts, but your feelings as well.

Thinking about this day, made me think about my friends, which led me to think about you. Here we are, more than halfway through the school year, and the blasted tournament, and I haven't thanked you properly. I know I have said it before, but I want to say it again, and I want you to know that I mean it from the bottom of my heart. And yes, I remember what you said, that I'd never have to, but I think I do. You deserve to know that you are not only needed, but that you are appreciated.

I don't think you realize just how much you do for others, especially for me, and you ask for nothing in return. But you don't have to take my word for it; go and ask Natalie, a mere first-year, ask her, if all those long talks you shared with her, helped. Go ask Neville or Ron what their grades would be like without your help.

Honestly Hermione, how you do it, I really don't know, but I for one couldn't be more grateful.

I had always considered Ron to be my best friend, my best mate. Maybe because he was my first real friend, or maybe it was just because he said it was so. How foolish I have been. You don't become someone's best friend just because you were first, or because you want it to be that way. It's your actions, and the way you treat your friends, that tell the true story.

It's been quite obvious for a while now; Ron was never my best friend, and sometimes it seemed as though he was not even a friend at all. However, since that horrible day with the troll back in first year, you Hermione, have always been a friend, my friend; even when I wasn't one to you. You stood by me, right or wrong. In my mind, there's no doubt about it; you Hermione, are my best friend. You have been for a long time; I was just too stupid to see it.

I decided to write all this in a letter, because I wanted you to have some tangible proof that you could hold in your hand, and know that I mean every word. I wanted you to know how incredibly lucky I feel having met you. How fortunate I feel having you in my life. I can only hope that never changes.

Thank you, for being you Hermione, and for sharing yourself with me.

Friends Forever,

Harry

.

.

After reading the letter twice; the second time a little more slowly than the first, Hermione carefully folded it back up and placed it back in the envelope for safekeeping. Hermione knew Harry had cared, that he was thankful for all her help. She probably knew it before he did. And of course she knew that he valued their friendship. She had known all these things through his actions. Harry rarely told you things directly, like those that he said in the letter. Instead, it seemed Harry was better at just showing you how he felt. Sometimes, it was as simple as a genuine smile or a hug. Sometimes it was a bit more, like taking a friend to a private breakfast. Small on words, yet big on actions, and now it would seem, he found yet another way to express himself.

Hermione hadn't realized that she'd been crying until she looked up, that's when she felt the tears rolling down her cheeks. Setting the envelope down, she reached across the table and took both of Harry's hands in hers. Hermione took a moment and just stared at him, marveling at how he had become so special to her. It was the first time she had ever received a Valentine's card. It was also the first time on this special day, she hadn't felt sad and alone. She was his best friend, and he was certainly hers.

"Oh Harry, that was...” she paused a second, and then with a soft smile, she nodded to herself. “No, I'm just going to say thank you. The rest... I think I'll put in a letter."

Harry smiled back, "You had me worried there for a second, what, with all those tears."

"Happy tears Harry, happy tears."

For the next couple of minutes, both sat quietly, content with just looking at each other. Neither wanted to say anything, for fear of ruining the moment. It was so rare to have time, to just sit with each other and not worry about school, or the tournament, or any of the little problems, life seem to throw their way, they both just wanted it to last as long as possible.

As Hermione stared at Harry, He seemed to drift away for a moment, lost in thought. Clearly there was more on his mind, and judging by the simple but cute smile on his face, it must not have been a bad thought. A second later he seemed to snap out of it and he refocused on her.

"You're in a good mood then," Harry finally said, "cause the day is only getting started."

"Oh?"

"That's right... play your cards right young lady, and you might just earn a sunset broom ride."

Hermione laughed, "I see." Then, doing on her best impression of Professor McGonagall she added, "Low and slow Harry?"

Harry sobered for a second, then with eyebrows raised, and an impish smile, he asked, "Don't you trust me Hermione?"

Hermione smile returned in full force, "Always."

oOoOo

After putting the finishing touches on an essay that was due in a couple of days, Hermione sat in the quiet of the library and thought back to the last couple of days. Tuesday; Valentine's Day, was by far the best day of the week. Harry had treated her like a queen all day long, and he had made good his promise on a slow and gentle broom ride right at sunset; Hogwarts had never looked so beautiful. It had been a perfect day. Going to sleep that night, Hermione had only been slightly disappointed in the day events; she had hoped somewhat remotely, that Harry just might tell her, that he liked her as more than just a friend. She knew without a doubt, that Harry cared for her very much. She knew that he loved her, not romantically, but in his own way, even though he had never said it. Deep down she knew it was unlikely he ever would, but still she had hoped.

The next couple of days, things started to return to normal with only two exceptions, Harry seemed a little out of sorts about something, sometimes she would catch him staring. The other thing was he still felt a little weak from the toxins. Tomorrow was Saturday, and they were going to start back up running. Hermione was hoping to sit him down afterwards and have a talk. It was about time and well over due, she needed to tell him a few things, and maybe… just maybe get some answers to her own concerns.

oOoOo

Stepping through the portrait hole into the common room after their morning run, Hermione said, “Well that was kind of short, but I'm sure you'll be back in top shape in no time.” Then turning to look at Harry she asked, “What do you have planned for today?”

Harry turned to Hermione, “Hun?”

“Honestly Harry, what's on your mind, you've been somewhere else all morning?”

“Oh, ah sorry, I was just thinking about… the next task… you know, the lake and all.” It was true, he had briefly thought about it, but it wasn't what had been on his mind all morning, he just didn't want to talk about that yet.

Hermione studied Harry a moment, He'd never been this out of sorts before a task. She had to wonder if he knew more about what was coming, than he had told her about, or if it was something else. “You okay, do you want to talk about it?”

Harry turned away, “No, I, ah… I'm fine.”

Hermione raised a brow, he seemed elusive, and he had never been like this with her before. She decided to give him some time; it would just be one more thing to talk about later. “Well, if you change your mind.” Then heading for the stairs she added, “I'm going to get a shower, then try and get some work done for next week after breakfast, want to join me?”

Harry's brow disappeared into his hair line.

Hermione realized how her last comment might have been misinterpreted and laughed, “In the library Harry… boys, really.”

“Oh ah, sure,” Harry said sheepishly, and then again seemed to get lost in thought.

However, after breakfast Harry begged off on the library, and told her that instead, he was going to take a long walk around the lake to clear his head. Hermione watched him walk away and felt a tiny prang of hurt, that he felt he couldn't talk to her about whatever was troubling him. She thought they were growing closer, but now she wasn't sure as her old insecurities bubbled back up.

oOoOo

Since waking up in the infirmary a few days ago, and remembering the dream, whenever his thoughts were idle, Harry mind would drift back to Hermione, to kissing her, and to sharing a future with her. For the last couple of days he'd been giving it a lot of thought.

According to the dream, she would be in his future, that much made sense, they were best friends after all. Unless something terrible happened, of course she'd be in his future. But they were getting married! What did that mean? He wasn't sure. Best friends didn't just get married, and they sure didn't kiss like that. `What about the Yule Ball?' a little voice in his head asked. True, he had kissed her then; Harry smiled remembering that night. But he hadn't set out to do it, he had acted purely on instinct. He still didn't know exactly why he had done it, somehow he had known it was just the right thing to do at the time. Then there was the fact that they had never talked about it. Surely, if Hermione wanted more, she would have brought it up… Right? `Maybe not,' his little voice answered. Maybe she understood why he had done it, even if he didn't; she was smart like that. But this kiss was different, and to get married… People who loved each other got married. That's what made the dream kiss different too… love.

Did he love her… he didn't know. When he kissed her at the Ball, did he kiss her out of love? Maybe… Again, he didn't know. How could he, he'd never experienced love, at least not that he could remember. His parents must have loved him of course, he was sure of that, but he didn't remember any of it. Sirius, and the Weasleys probably loved him, but that was somehow different, wasn't it? Maybe Hermione loved him; actually he was pretty sure she did, but did she love him like a wife would love a husband? Harry didn't know, maybe he'd never know. What if he was incapable of love? Hermione deserved to be with someone who wasn't flawed, or broken. Still, maybe he could learn. Or maybe he was just making this whole thing out to be more than it really was. Maybe in time he'd know.

Harry sat at the base of an old oak tree by the edge of the lake and stared out over the water. He'd been out here since morning, thinking, trying to imagine what a future with Hermione might be like. For a moment he tried to imagine her with someone else, where he wasn't in her life, but he couldn't. It was getting dark and he had already missed dinner, and Harry knew Hermione would worry if he stayed out any longer. Still at a loss as to what to do exactly, Harry got up and headed for the castle, at least now he thought he understood the dream.

oOoOo

Right after entering the common room, Harry spotted Hermione sitting on the floor in front of the fire doing school work, no doubt working on a paper that wasn't even due for at least a week. He stopped and watched her for a moment. She had three different books open in front of her, parchment spread out, and a quill in her hand that she would occasionally chew on. She was in her realm. It was the essences of Hermione. The scene really wasn't all that different from the vision of her from the future. The fire light painted her face in soft warm tones, and put dancing catch lights in her eyes. It even gave her hair that same golden glow. Just like the future Hermione, this one was beautiful too.

Harry liked what he saw, he couldn't help but smile, it made him feel… warm inside. Harry cherished times like this, quiet times, alone with Hermione. He certainly enjoyed being in her company; more so than anyone else's. He liked holding her hand; he never knew skin could feel so soft. And when she hugged him…he always wished she'd hold him, just a little bit longer. And remembering the one kiss they had shared, the one he'd never forget… it left him blissful. That night, holding Hermione in his arms, he had never felt so contented, he remembered thinking how nice it would be if it could last forever…

Realization struck like a Bludger to the chest… he wanted that future.

But what if it was just his teenage hormones? No, if that were true, he'd feel that way around other girls as well. He had only kissed one other girl, Brigitte, and it was nowhere near the same. No quickening of the heart, or little butterflies in his stomach. There had been no excitement, no wanting to curse the air for needing to stop and breathe. `Plus, who did you think of, what face did you see?' his nagging little voice asked. Hermione… even now, just thinking of her made him smile like the famed Cheshire cat, and he realized just being around her made him happy. Holding her hand while they walked, put a dance in his step. He realized, he liked the way his heart raced when he was holding her.

Maybe that's what love is!

Could it be that simple? Harry could hardly breathe, the thought was so enlightening. It was only a short jump to the next one, did he love Hermione… Merlin, he thought he just might.

As Harry stared at Hermione, his heart was pounding so loud he thought she might hear it. The implications of this new found wisdom were just so incredible. Harry couldn't believe how blindly stupid he'd been not to see what was right in front of him all this time.

Suddenly, it was all so clear!

Getting married like in the dream wouldn't happen for a long time, he could think more about that later, but in the meantime…

Did he want to be her boyfriend? The idea certainly appealed to him, and now with his new clarity of thought, he was sure of it. She was pretty… no, she was beautiful, he corrected himself. Anybody who thought differently had only to think back to the Yule Ball. But it wasn't just her looks, she was the most caring person he knew. She was brilliant beyond compare, and had more courage than Gryffindor himself, Harry was sure of it. As beautiful on the outside as she was, she was even more beautiful on the inside.

That was the crux of the problem; did he want to be her boyfriend? Yes, there was no doubt about that now. Could he be her boyfriend, was he good enough for her? He didn't know, he certainly didn't think so… hell, nobody was. Not to mention, he didn't know the first thing about being a boyfriend, `I'd probably muck it up badly,' he thought dejectedly. Then again, maybe he was getting himself all worked up for nothing, maybe Hermione didn't even want a boyfriend.

As he moved further into the room, Hermione noticed him, and waved him over. Motioning for him to sit down, she asked quietly, “Hey, how are you feeling?”

Harry noticed she looked tired, the usual spark was absent from her eyes. “I'm okay,” he answered evasively, he wasn't quite ready to reveal his newfound insights.

Hermione looked down and started to worry the edge of her parchment. “Oh,” was all she said.

It only took Harry a second to figure out that Hermione wasn't tired, she was upset. He quickly ran through the day, trying to find the cause. Nothing came to him, but that was understandable since he hadn't been around all day… Again realization struck, only this time it felt like the Hogwarts Express. `How stupid can you get,' he thought. This was a perfect example of why he didn't think he would be a good boyfriend.

“Hermione… please look at me.” Harry asked softly. And when she looked up, Harry said, “I'm so sorry. I've hurt your feelings again and I didn't mean to. I'm so stupid, I went off by myself without telling you why. I just needed to get away, and… It wasn't you, I…I just needed to…”

Hermione could tell Harry was panicking, and was starting to ramble, if she was going to find out what was bothering him she had to stop him from going on. Holding up her hand, she said, “Harry stop.” His mouth snapped shut, and she smiled at how fast he reacted. “Harry, I… Oh Harry, I just want to help. Are you feeling better, did you work out whatever was bothering you?”

Calming down, Harry stared at her for a long moment and then thought, `Yeah, loads, I think I love you,' but instead, he asked simply, “Hermione, do you ever think about the future, have you ever dreamt about it?”

Hermione sat back, whatever she expected, this wasn't it. Harry never seemed to worry about the future before, why now? “Yes, sometimes. Are you worried about the future Harry?”

“No, well sometimes, but this isn't about…” Harry took a deep breath and let it out slowly, while gathering his thoughts. “What I mean is… when you think of the future, do you see yourself with anyone, you know… together?”

Hermione grew quiet and turned her eyes down to the floor, she was getting an idea of where Harry was trying to go with the conversation. She knew this conversation would come someday. Harry Potter was not only a handsome and powerful wizard, he was famous as well. Hermione had known this from pretty much the first year, and so when she started to develop romantic feelings for him, she buried them deep inside, knowing he'd never see her the same way she saw him. That had worked fairly well, and she was content just to be his best friend. When he kissed her at the Yule Ball, those feelings came rushing back with a vengeance, and now she was finding them nearly impossible to ignore. However, knowing she would never be more than just his friend, she had convinced herself that she should just enjoy the time and closeness spent together while it lasted. She knew, sooner or later he'd notice another girl, a girl far prettier than her, and slowly they would drift apart, and eventually he would forget her. She would then go on alone. Like before Hogwarts, she would live a quiet life of intellectual solitude. But just because she was resigned to that fate, didn't mean she welcomed it.

Hermione had hoped this wouldn't happen for at least another year or so, but it seemed she had underestimated him, and now their time would be cut short.

She was sure, he was about to tell her about a dream he had about some beautiful girl. He didn't know it; how could he, but he was about to break her heart. She fought to hold back the tears that threatened to fall, she'd do that for Harry. Later when she was alone… then she would let them go.

Hermione had been quiet for a long time and Harry began to worry, “Hermione?” When she looked up, the eyes that Harry loved so much told him something was desperately wrong. They were full of pain and sadness. Suddenly she looked so lost, and lonely. Why? Was it something he had said? Curse him a thousand times if he had. He moved closer, so he was sitting right in front of her, “Hermione?” he asked again softly.

“Yes Harry, I've thought about the future, and no, I'm not with… anyone.” The last part coming out as barely a whisper, as her eyes again looked away.

Harry was shocked. Why? She could have her pick of most any guy around. He was so surprised, he asked without thinking, “Why not?”

Hermione sat rock still for a few seconds, then her shoulders slumped and she seemed to collapse in on herself. She let out a shaky breath, as if about to reveal a terrible secret. Apparently, this was something she had thought about before. It was something that bothered her a great deal, and she had kept it to herself, at least until now. Harry briefly thought of telling her it was alright, that it was none of his business, and that she didn't have to say anymore, but he wanted to know, he needed to know, and he thought that somehow, she needed to tell him.

“Because Harry, I know who I am. I'm the bossy little bookworm. The boring know-it-all, who would rather read a book than have any real fun. I'm plain, simple, and boring, the good friend you keep in the background. I don't think anyone would dream of a future with me.”

Harry didn't hesitate, the words were out of his mouth almost before she had finished, “I would,” Harry said softly.

Hermione turned quickly and stared at Harry with wide eyes, pinning him in place with a intensity he rarely saw. “What?”

“I would,” he said again, with a little more conviction.

Hermione closed her eyes and shook her head. She knew he was only trying to be nice, but to hear him say something like that, hurt far more than he could know, “Harry, please don't say things you don't really mean.”

Harry reach out with one hand and gently took one of hers, and with his other he reached up and cupped her face gently, forcing her to look at him, “Hermione I meant it. I would… and I have.”

Hermione stared back at him, and Harry saw the pain and sadness slowly turn to hope. The look of loneliness started to fade, as the spark in her eyes relit. Without waiting for anything else to be said, Harry leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. Her breath caught just a little, but she didn't pull away and she closed her eyes. He press them more fully to hers. Hermione moved a hand up to the back of his neck, and gently pulled him closer, encouraging him to deepen the kiss. Remembering the kiss they had shared at the Ball, he opened his mouth a little, encouraging her to do the same, and they tasted each other for the first time since Christmas.

The kiss was both tender and passionate at the same time. It showed the deep respect and love they had for each other in its tenderness, and the desire to fulfill the other's greatest dream in its passion.

A few moments later they broke apart, but only a bit, as they rested their foreheads against each other. They stared at each other, neither quite believing what had just happened. Hermione saw the truth in his eyes, but was so overwhelmed with emotion, she just had to make sure… “Harry… did you mean to do that?” She whispered.

Harry brought his other hand up and gently held her face. Using his thumbs, he softly wiped away the tears on her cheek as he nodded he head yes with a bright smile.

Hermione smiled back, and a moment later she pulled back a little more and asked with a shy smile, “Did you really dream of me?”

Harry colored a little, “Actually, I dreamt of kissing you.”

Hermione liked the sound of that, so this time she leaned in, and they shared their second kiss of the night. She was amazed at how natural it was already beginning to fell… kissing Harry. After they parted, she asked, “Harry, what does all this mean? The dreaming, the kissing…” She ducked her head a moment, before looking back up, red in the cheeks. “What you said, does it mean you want us to be… together, like a couple?”

Harry answered again without hesitating, “Yeah, I'd like that. Is that something you might want?” He asked hopefully.

Hermione sat back a bit and thought, her brow crinkled, and her lips pressed tight, but it only lasted a fraction of a second. She didn't think she had ever come to a conclusion so fast before. Never in her wildest dreams, did she think she'd have a boyfriend, and certainly not Harry Potter! Smiling, she realized that this was what had him so preoccupied lately, he'd obviously given this a lot of thought. He was serious, he wasn't just saying all this to be nice.

Hermione's smile seemed to reach from ear to ear, “I'd like that very much.”

Harry smile grew also, “Then… I have a girlfriend?”

Hermione nodded, “You do.” Then in a flurry of action, Hermione swept books, parchment, quill and all, into her book bag. Jumping up, she began pacing in front of the fireplace, a ball of excited energy. Pure Hermione. “Merlin… Harry Potter is my boyfriend,” she said as she stopped and turned to face him, “you're my boyfriend!” She said, still a little astonished by the fact.

Harry couldn't blame her for being a little disconcerted, after all it had happened pretty fast, and he'd had a few days to come to grips with it. Harry stood up chuckling and nodded, “I am.”

Hermione almost giggled she was so excited, she wanted to tell everyone the fantastic news. `Oh… Ginny,' as soon as she thought of her she stopped pacing, and Hermione's enthusiasm diminished, and of course, Harry noticed.

“Hermione?” He asked, as he stood and walked over to her.

“Harry, you know Ginny fancies you,” Hermione said, part question, part statement.

“Well, I wasn't really sure… but yeah I kind of thought… maybe, but what does that…”

“Nothing Harry, it doesn't change a thing about us, but she's my friend Harry, I need to tell her. She deserves to know.”

“Then, we'll tell her together.”

Hermione's smile returned, she was really beginning to like that word.

Now, she just stood in front of him staring up into his eyes, smiling, and Harry thought it was a beautiful sight. Her happiness and joy was so easy to see. It radiated out from her, and warmed the room. It made everything around her, brighter… and more alive.

Harry would have loved to have stayed there with her all night just holding her, but it was already past midnight. He also knew, she need a little time to process their new status. He reached out and touched her arm, “It's late… we should turn in.” Hermione nodded. “Do you think I could get a hug goodnight?” He asked sheepishly.

Hermione didn't bother to answer, she just stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. “Harry, you're my boyfriend now, you don't have to ask,” she said gently, as she rested her head against his chest.

“Oh…” Was all he said as he wondered what else came with that privilege. He smiled at the thought that he couldn't wait to find out.

oOoOo

.

AN: I would like to give credit to MissAnn Thorpic for her story “Vox Corporis”; it was very inspirational for me, in writing this chapter.

.

.

11

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

15. The Meaning of a Touch


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

AN: I hate it when work interferes with my writing. Also, thanks for reading this, and to all of you who reviewed.

.

.

Chapter 15

The Meaning of a Touch

.

Harry knew he wasn't perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. When he came to Hogwarts, he was timid and unsure, the Dursleys saw to that. But even back then without trying, Harry had stood out. He had an unwavering moral compass that just couldn't seem to let an injustice go unchallenged. Really, all he wanted was to fit in, and be normal for a change, but soon after arriving fate showed him she had other plans. Ron wasn't a bad bloke, not really, but he did have a habit of saying things without thinking, sometimes hurtful. His red hair seemed a perfect match for his fiery temper, which more often than not got him into trouble. Still, he had been his first friend, and at the time a much needed one. Hermione too, had issues. It wasn't so much as being a bookworm, or a know-it-all, but rather she just didn't know how to interact with kids her own age. She acted more like an adult, than an eleven-year-old girl. Hermione tended to use her knowledge as a weapon, and her books as a shield. She was a bossy little girl with no apparent friends.

It was those three unique individuals and their personalities that Fate had brought together that first October, three misfits as Hagrid liked to call them. At first they seemed to balance each other out; one calm and rational, the other, excited and impulsive. One insensitive, the other caring. One bossy and rule abiding, the other easy going and quick to forget the rules. That was the glue that welded their friendship. However, time has a way of changing people, including children. By the end of third year, that balance had seemed to tip. Harry had learned to open up and talk to his friends, which lead to him gaining confidence. While Hermione stopped acting so bossy, and started enjoying being a kid. She learned she could trust her friends as much or even more than adults. But Ron never found a way to curb his temper. It seemed the older he got, the nastier his remarks, and the longer he'd stay mad.

Harry had already started to see those changes in Ron, but what surprised him was, he hadn't noticed Hermione's or his. It would seem the balance point had slipped from between the three of them to a point between him and Hermione. Harry still wanted Ron as a friend and was willing to work for it, but there were limits. Hermione's friendship however, was different. He'd do more than just work for it, he'd fight for it. There were no limits, because she meant that much more to him.

oOoOo

Harry felt the foot of his bed dip just a little, and for a moment thought Hermione might have sneaked in to wake him. A second later a soft rumbling told him who was really there. “Hello Crookshanks, time to get up already?” It seemed Hermione's personal four-legged alarm clock had decided to add him to the wake-up call list. He gave the ginger cat a quick scratch behind the ears and then pulled the covers back and started to get ready for their morning run. If Crookshanks was here, that meant that Hermione was already up. Harry made every effort to hurry, he was anxious to see her. He wondered briefly about what to say. `Hello babe,' Merlin no. `Good morning honey,' nope, too… weird. Should he give her a good morning kiss, or just a hug? He didn't know. By the time Harry was ready, he still had no idea as to how to act or what to say, so in the end he decided to just try and act normal. He would ask Hermione what she thought about it later.

Hermione had been sitting down in the common room since it was barely light, composing a letter to Harry. She had drifted off to sleep last night well past midnight, but still found herself awake earlier than normal. Her regular dreams replaced by the memory of Harry kissing her in front of the fire last night. A memory so strong it woke her, refusing to stay in just her subconscious. It seemed too incredible to believe, but he had asked her to be his girlfriend. He wanted to be with her, in the same way she wanted to be with him. She could still feel his touch, and already longed to be in his arms again. The feel of his lips on hers… his kiss, it sent a tidal wave of sensation through her that curled her toes and left her wanting more.

Dressed in her exercise clothes, she sat and waited patiently for Harry with a smile on her face as she remembered last night. She could hardly wait to see Harry again. Crookshanks came running down the stairs and jumped up on the couch next to her, obviously looking for some attention, which she was more than willing to give. “Hello boy, did you manage to wake Harry?” Crookshanks just gave her a look that clearly said she should never doubt his feline abilities. Hermione laughed softly, “Well okay then, thank you.”

With the thought of Harry coming down any minute now, Hermione couldn't help feel a bit anxious all of a sudden. What would he do when he saw her…? What should she do? Now that she was his girlfriend, how was she supposed to act? A bit of da-ja-vu as she remembered meeting him the morning after the Ball. Crookshanks gave a soft mew and pawed her hand. Hermione looked down and saw the letter she had written and smiled. She'd wait and see and then play it by ear. Actions were better than words, and so for now she'd let his guide hers. Like she had said in her letter, no matter what, they'd always be friends.

Harry stopped on the last landing on his way down to the common room and looked down. Hermione was sitting on the couch with what looked like some school work on her lap. Her head was back and her eyes were closed. Crookshanks was curled up next to her enjoying a scratch. She had her hair pulled back into a pony-tail, and she was wearing her running clothes. But it was the smile on her face that stole his breath away, she looked so happy. Harry couldn't help but smile too, it was that infectious. Harry thought back to last night and remembered how shocked he had been, that she thought no one would want to be with her. And then even more surprising, that she had been harboring feeling for him! Looking at her now, he saw her in a new light. Relaxed and unguarded; a sight most would never see, and yet one he'd seen many times before only because he bothered to look. Now however, he saw just how beautiful and special she really was. He still found it hard to believe that anyone as perfect as her could have feeling for someone like him.

Hermione looked up just then and found Harry smiling at her. He noticed and came down the rest of the way into the room and stopped a couple of feet in front of her as she stood to meet him. Her plan to just play it by ear flew out the window as they just stood and stared into each other's eyes. He seemed as lost as she was, on how to proceed. She realized, he almost certainly knew less about relationships than she did, which wasn't much unfortunately. Harry was obviously searching for something to say.

Hermione chewed her bottom lip, also desperate to find something to say to ease the tension.

That simple act was so Hermione, Harry couldn't help but give her a timid smile.

That was all it took, they were back on familiar ground. This was the Harry she knew so well… her Harry… yes, she could call him that now, and she smiled at the thought. She took the last couple of steps and stood right in front of him returning his growing smile with one of her own. Standing there, she admired him; her boyfriend, `That will take some getting used to,' she thought. He had grown, both taller and broader since the start of term, it was okay for her to notice things like that now.

The brief ungainly moment of insecurity and indecision about the morning after had passed. Harry looked down and reached for her hand and laced his fingers with hers.

Hermione beamed up at him. The awkwardness had only lasted a few seconds; no words were needed, because they knew how they felt. Together they turned and left for their run.

oOoOo

On their way to breakfast later that morning Harry finally asked Hermione what he had been thinking about during their run. Taking her hand, he pulled her to the side of the hall, “Hermione…”

“Yes,” she answered, as she slowed to a stop. She could tell by the tone of his voice that something was troubling him.

“I was wondering…” Harry glanced around to make sure no one was within listening range. “I was… wondering…”

Hermione moved a little closer, hoping to encourage him.

“The other night, when I… kissed you.”

Hermione smiled involuntarily, but a moment later it faded as her insecurities made a showing, “Oh, Harry… please don't say… you don't regret that…”

“No!” Harry almost shouted, “no of course not. Just the opposite actually,” his finished a little more quietly.

Hermione's smile returned as her cheeks reddened slightly. Tilting her head, she asked, “Then what?”

“I'd like to do that again, but… I'm not sure...” Harry ran a hand though his already impossibly messy hair, “I don't know what's appropriate, I… I don't want to embarrass you, or make you mad…” Harry sighed and looked down, “I don't know when it's okay to… or even when I can just touch you,” he finished lamely.

Hermione smiled, he was so sweet. Harry had known so little of kindness growing up, and yet he showed it so easily. So courageous and yet he was afraid of upsetting her. “Harry, I think you already know.” At his confused look, she glanced down at their joined hands.

Harry looked down too and nodded, but she knew he was still uncertain. “Harry, would you be comfortable snogging in the Great Hall during dinner in front of everybody?”

Harry turned red and shook his head, “No.”

“Neither would I,” Hermione said softly. “But I certainly wouldn't mind holding your hand, or having your arm around me while we sat together.” Catching his eye she went on, “I'm not a big fan of making a big public display, but I'm not afraid or ashamed of showing some affection to someone I care deeply about. I don't want the professors to get mad at us, and I don't really want to be talked about like Ron and Lavender… but the rest is probably okay.”

Harry looked a little relieved, “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Hermione answered with a coy smile. Then after looking up and down the hall, she smirked, “Harry, do you want to kiss me now?”

Harry caught on; Hermione liked the idea of kissing as much as he did, she just wanted it to be more personal, and more private. So Harry too looked up and down the hall, and after finding it clear, answered in barely a whisper, “Yes, I do…”

The kiss wasn't as passionate as the one last night; they were out in an open hallway after all, but it still sent shivers down her spine. “Any more questions Harry?”

Harry just shook his head no. Who would have known, there was a bit of a minx in his Hermione.

After one more stolen kiss, they figured they had pushed their luck far enough for the time being. It seemed they had quickly gotten passed another awkward step in their new relationship. Content for now, they walked hand in hand the rest of the way to the Great Hall. Just before entering, Hermione turned towards Harry and gave him a nervous look.

Harry squeezed her hand, telling her it would be alright. He knew Hermione was worried Ginny might make a scene when they broke the news to her. As they pushed through the main doors, he let go of her hand, but he stayed close. He didn't want to get Ginny riled up any sooner than necessary. He also knew she was as proud to be his girlfriend as he was to be her boyfriend, she just didn't want them to be the center of a spectacle.

Walking in, they spotted Ginny sitting with a group of friends. They stopped opposite her, and Hermione got her attention. “Ginny, you got a minute, we need to tell you something.”

Ginny looked up with a smile on her face, “Sure”

Hermione ticked her head to the right, towards an empty spot further down the table.

Ginny glanced left, then back at Hermione. That's when she noticed Harry's stance, He was braced for a fight… But with who? Ginny's smile was replaced with a more serious look, “What's this about?”

“Ginny Please.”

Ginny eyed them both suspiciously for a moment, as if expecting a prank, then realizing they were serious, she stood up, “Fine.”

The first thing Ginny noticed after she sat down again, was how close Harry and Hermione were sitting to each other. The only way Hermione could get closer, was if she sat in his lap.

“Ginny, I… we wanted to…” Hermione hesitated. She looked down at the table to gather her thoughts, and a moment later looked back up. This time though, there was a look of determination in her eyes. She no longer looked hesitant, or unsure. “Ginny, do you remember that talk we had in the library a couple of months ago, about not wanting to fight?”

The tips of Ginny's ears turned red. She might have gotten over her shyness around Harry, but she sure didn't want to talk about her feelings for him while he was sitting right in front of her. Ginny nodded yes, not quite trusting her voice.

“Ginny I still don't want to fight… but things have changed.”

Ginny's embarrassment slowly turned to anger, “Is that so, changed how exactly?” She demanded.

Suddenly, Harry felt angry; he didn't like the sound of her tone.

Hermione sighed, “I told you I'd figure out my feelings, and”

“And as soon as you did, you ran straight to Harry. You knew that I…”

“Stop it!” Harry said forcefully. Ginny was working up to a full head of steam, one that he had seen far too many times with Ron. Harry hoped to douse that famous Weasley temper, before it caught fire. “I don't know anything about this fight you're both talking about,” Harry started, before calming down a little, “but I do know that Hermione didn't come to me about her feelings.”

“So you're telling me you're not together?”

Harry smiled for the first time since sitting down, “Ginny, I started thinking about the future, I…” Harry paused to rethink what he wanted to say. “I started thinking about what was important to me,” Harry turned and smiled at Hermione, “and I realized… that it was her. That she was more important to me than anything, or anyone else.”

Ginny stared back at Harry, hoping he really didn't mean what he had just said. A moment later, she looked away. She might not have been able to read him as well as Hermione, but she could see the truth clearly enough for herself… Harry had meant every word. Even though she knew Harry hadn't meant them too, they had stung nonetheless.

Harry might not have known the specifics of the conversation in the library, but he could tell it had something to do with him and their feelings about him. Maybe Hermione had promised to let Ginny talk to him first, or maybe she had said she didn't care about him that way. Whatever had been said, Ginny was acting as if Hermione had lied to her. “Ginny, it was me who asked her… I asked Hermione to be my girlfriend,” Harry finished softly.

Hermione leaned forward, “Ginny, you are my best friend, best girlfriend that is,” she reached over and took both her hands, “I can feel Ron slipping away, I don't want to lose you too. Please try to understand.” Hermione sat patiently staring back at Ginny hoping she'd understand, and more importantly, hoping she didn't feel betrayed.

Ginny sat silently as she tried to read Hermione. Like with Harry, it only took a moment and she knew that also like Harry, she was telling the truth. Besides the truth and determination, Ginny saw something else in Hermione's eyes, and it reminded her just why her friend was in the House of Lions in the first place.

Ginny looked down, “So, he asked you and you figured it out, and now you're his girlfriend?”

“Yes…”

Ginny pulled her hands free and sat back with a tiny huff. She wanted to be mad. She wanted to yell at Hermione and call her all kinds of inappropriate things… but she couldn't. She knew; had known for a long time now, that they would eventually get together. She had known that Harry and Hermione loved each other even though they themselves didn't. Ginny had only hoped, to at least have had a chance for herself before they realized it.

Ginny finally cracked a small smile, “I guess it was only a matter of time… right?” Seeing both smile back, she added with a smirk, “What I don't get is… how is it that Harry, figured it out first?”

Hey!” Harry objected.

“Thank you Gin,” Hermione said softly.

“So, when did all this happen? Oh wait… Valentine's Day?”

Hermione laughed, “No, Harry asked me last night, that's why we're telling you now, thought it only right you should know first.” After glancing at Harry, “Not sure exactly when he figured it out.”

Ginny nodded, “And you?”

Still smiling, Hermione shrugged her shoulders, “A while ago, but like before, I didn't think I had a chance.”

Harry looked at Hermione funny, wondering what she meant by that.

Ginny huffed, “Boys! They're so thick sometimes. He should have asked you on Valentine's Day, now that would have been romantic.

“Hey!” Harry said again, then mumbled, “I'm right here you know.”

Hermione looped her arm through Harry's and smiled at him before turning back to Ginny. “Maybe, but it was still a great day, and he did give me a very special card.”

Ginny sat up, “Really, do you still have it?”

Hermione looked at Harry and raised a brow in question.

Harry just smiled shyly, and shrugged.

Hermione reached into her book bag, pulled out the card, and handed it to Ginny.

.

.

Dear Hermione,

They say that Valentines' Day, is a day of romance; that it is a day about love.

Maybe, we should have more days like that.

I wouldn't know, I don't have any experience with that sort of thing.

What I do know is:

I love the way your eyes light up, when you learn something new.

I love how you are always willing to help someone, especially me.

You give so much of yourself, and ask nothing in return.

Thank you, for all you have given me.

I love how you always stand by me; right or wrong.

That you have that much faith in me…is astounding.

I love your fierce courage, and your unquestionable honesty.

But most of all Hermione,

I love that you Trust me… Always,

And call me your Friend… Forever.

I can only hope, that I will somehow manage to be,

As good a friend in return.

With Love, Always and Forever

Harry

.

.

After Ginny read the card, she just stared at it for a moment before handing it back and saying in a low soft voice, “I never stood a chance, did I?” Then she turned to Harry, “That was beautiful Harry.” She stared at him for just a second longer before adding, “I'm glad you're happy.”

Harry laced his fingers with Hermione's and squeezed as he answered, “Thank you.”

Ginny smiled, but her eyes told a different story, “Congratulations.” She stood up, but before she left, she looked at Hermione and said, “Just remember what you told me in the library, about hurting Harry.”

Hermione nodded, “Fair enough.”

Harry watched Ginny walk away, then turned to Hermione, “The library?”

Hermione nodded with a half-smile, “Later, okay? Then smirked, “Right now I'm staved.” Then after a glance back to Ginny, she knew she'd be having another talk later with her red-headed friend. Hermione had seen it in her eyes; Ginny had put on a good front, going so far as to make a joke, but Hermione knew there was more that needed to be said before they could all move on.

oOoOo

“Hey, how's breakfast?” Neville asked as he slid his legs over the bench and sat down next to Luna.

Luna turned, “I've only just sat down, so I'm afraid I don't know yet,” she answered matter-of-factly.

Neville nodded, it was a fair enough answer for Luna. “What were you thinking about?”

“Just now, or before?”

“Ah… a couple of minutes ago, I saw you smiling just as I came in.”

“Oh yes… that. I was just thinking how happy I was for them.”

Neville glanced around, “Who?”

“Harry and Hermione, it's finally started,” Luna answered without looking up, as she prepared a plate of food.

Neville looked back over at the Gryffindor table and studied the couple in question. “They do look cozy,” then raising a brow, “oh… are they together now?”

“Yes, that too,” Luna said between bites.

Neville turned back and now studied Luna, not quite sure what they were talking about all of a sudden.

Luna looked up at him and smiled. Neville shrugged and smiled back as he reached for a plate to make himself something to eat. He'd figure it out later, sometimes you just had to be patient with Luna, the answers would come eventually.

oOoOo

As they made their way up from the dungeons after potions, Harry shook his head, “That git sure likes making everyone write essays.”

Hermione laughed, “That he does,” then with a smirk she added, “I wonder how much he likes reading them?” They walked on for a moment longer before she said, “To bad it's dark out, I'm not quite ready to head back to the common room yet. I could use a break before starting that report.”

Harry chuckled, “Oi, I'm a bad influence, one day as my girlfriend, and you're already skiving off school work.”

Hermione bumped into him and forgot to move away. Wrapping her arm around his waist as they walked on slowly, she countered, “Don't be a prat, you're not a bad influence. It'll get done later, right now I'd just like to relax with my boyfriend.”

Harry liked that. “Hey, here's a thought: we could stop by the kitchens and tell Dobby, I think he saw this coming,” Harry said with a laugh.

“Great idea, it's on the way anyway.”

Entering the kitchens, Harry spotted Dobby right away, but something was off. He was sitting alone at a small table looking vary uncharacteristically sad.

Harry studied his little friend for a moment before moving forward and asking, "Dobby, is something wrong? You look a little unhappy." Their good news could wait.

Dobby wronged his hands together and started to tear up, "Harry Potter sir is a great wizard, he be worried about Dobby."

"Dobby, what is it," Harry could see he was really getting upset now.

"Please tell us Dobby, we only want to help," added Hermione.

"Just like her Harry Potter sir, Miss Grangy is a great witch..." Dobby couldn't quite finish as he broke down, and started to cry.

After a couple of minutes, Harry had managed to calm Dobby down enough, to find out what was bothering him.

"... and she is so unhappy, she is drinking all the time. Dobby not knows what to do," he choked, once more on the verge of tears.

Harry and Hermione shared a look, Ginny had told them what Mr. Crouch had done to his elf Winky at the end of the World Cup, but they hadn't known that it was this bad.

"That's terrible Dobby," Hermione said softly, but the anger in her voice was plain to hear. She hated the way house-elves were treated, and here was a perfect example to prove her point. Getting down on her knees, she took one of Dobby's hands and held it gently as she continued, "I'll talk to Dumbledore, and see what can be done, okay?" Hermione promised. "You're a good friend Dobby, and she's probably feeling all alone, so just try and continue to be there for her. Let her know, that she's not alone, that she has friends."

"And Dobby," Harry picked up, "keep an eye on her, if she is drinking, she's vulnerable. You have to keep her safe... protect her."

Dobby seemed to become more serious as he thought about that. Wiping the last of the tears from his face with the back of his hands, Dobby nodded quickly, “Dobby can do that. Yes, keep her safe.” Then remembering who he was with, he looked up, his gaze shifting between Harry and Hermione, “Yous are both good friends to Dobby, and I thinks now to Winki too.”

Hermione nodded, “We'd like that,” she said as she looked up at Harry.

Harry was already nodding yes, “Perhaps, after you have a talk with her, we can all sit down and find a way to make things better for her.”

Dobby was smiling again, “Dobby would like that.”

oOoOo

Wednesday night in the common room at this hour was fairly quiet, seeing as most everyone had gone to bed by now. Classes would start early tomorrow. Harry put the finishing touches on his potion's essay and then looked it over. At one and a half feet, it was pretty good for him. After putting it and his book away, he looked over at the only other person still up and smiled. Hermione's essay was at least twice as long. He couldn't be sure, but he thought Hermione might have gone to such lengths just to annoy Professor Snape.

Hermione stopped writing for a minute. Tapping her quill on the table, her face scrunched up, brows knit together… she was obviously deep in thought about what to write next. It was Hermione in study mode, focused, driven. Harry had seen it many times, but it didn't stop him from watching her. Harry loved to watch her. He couldn't remember when he first started doing it, but he did remember the first time he'd been caught. He had been lost in thought watching her, and Hermione looked up suddenly and caught him staring. However, instead of getting mad at him, she simple smiled and went back to her work. It seemed she didn't mind his occasional silent observations. He certainly hadn't minded the few times he had caught her staring.

It was a simple unspoken agreement they shared just between them… It was okay to look.

Deciding she was through for the night, Hermione laid her quill down and closed her book. Looking up, she found Harry staring at her. A soft smile spread across her face. Had it been Ron or Neville, or anyone else for that matter, she would have found it creepy and un-nerving, but not so with Harry. With him, she didn't mind, she actually kind of liked it… he was thinking of her. She had granted that privilege to him, just as he had to her. A small guilty little pleasure they allowed only to each other.

Her school work now completely forgotten, Hermione got up and moved to sit by him on the couch. Harry leaned back and lifted his arm, inviting her to sit close. Hermione tucked in under his arm and leaned against him, her head resting on his shoulder. Harry wrapped his arm around her and gave her a gentle squeeze, pulling her close.

Hermione brought her hand up and laid it on his chest, fingers spaded wide. As she sat there thinking, she subconsciously slowly curled her fingers, only to relax them again a second later, kneading his chest.

Harry noticed an errant strand of lose hair running across her cheek, treating to tickle her nose. With his free hand he reached over and tucked back behind her ear.

Hermione sighed, “I'm so glad we can do this now.”

Harry gave her another squeeze.

“I like holding you; I always feel better when I can touch you,” Hermione whispered.

“You're the only one who does you know,” Harry said just as softly.

Hermione's hand froze and she stiffened slightly, “Does it bother you… that I do.” Harry had such a gentle soul, she had forgotten that he hadn't grown up in a loving home like she had. Where hugs were given freely out of kindness, and a touch was meant to convey love and concern. To Harry, a touch meant something entirely different. He had been conditioned from his past for it to mean pain. When she thought about it, Hermione was actually a little surprised he allowed it at all.

“No.”

Hermione relaxed marginally.

“I don't like it when other people… but I don't mind you doing it.”

Hermione briefly pictured Harry getting hugged by Mrs. Weasley, and now it made more sense; the look on his face… it was panic. Harry tolerated it only in the smallest amounts. “Are you sure Harry, because I don't want to make you…?”

“Hermione it's okay. I don't know why it is different with you, but I do know I don't mind. I like holding your hand, and getting hugs. I like sitting close to you and holding you in my arms. I like your touch.” Harry laid his head down on top of hers, “I think I'd go spare without it.”

Hermione stretched her arm father around him and pulled him tight. She couldn't believe how incredibly sad it made her feel to think, that at the age of fourteen, he was only now learning to enjoy the comfort that the touch of another could bring.

oOoOo

By the end of the week, Harry and Hermione had settled into their new relationship as if they'd been a couple for years. Hermione knew it was because they had been friends, good friends for such a long time. Over the years, they had developed a level of thrust and understanding that was unmatched by anyone she knew. They knew each other better than they knew themselves, and yet she still marveled at the ease they felt together.

Harry looked up from his potion's book to find Hermione staring at him with a huge smile plastered on her face. “What?” he asked with a smile of his own.

Hermione just shook her head slightly, “Nothing… I'm just happy”

Harry closed his book and went over to her. He took both her hands in his and gave her a gentle kiss, “I am too,” he said softly.

“Oi, and I thought Ron and Lavender were bad,” Seamus said laughing.

“Oh please, we are nothing like Ron and Lavender,” Hermione said indignantly with a shy smile.

Seamus came closer, “Yeah, s'pose not,” he said nodding, “They're gross. You guys on the other hand are…just so nice, and err, sweet.” Harry smiled while Hermione raised a brow. Seamus laughed, “It's a good thing your father is a dentist.”

“Well, no worries then,” Harry said laughing.

“Did you want something, or are you just trying to sweeten your sour day?” Hermione said with a smirk.

“Actually, if you must know, I'm here to talk with Harry,” Seamus started, “The last recreational Quidditch game is coming up. Everyone wants to know if you are going to sign up, I said I'd ask.”

Harry stood up, and suddenly the atmosphere wasn't quite so cheerful.

Hermione rose and stood to his right and slightly behind, looping her arm around his in a show of support. She knew this was a sensitive subject for Harry, and that he'd want to decide on his own how to handle it. Either way, she'd back him.

Harry stole a quick glance at Hermione, grateful that she was there. He could tell, she knew he wanted to take care of this by himself, but he was glad she was there nevertheless, in case he needed her. Harry saw it in her eyes and her silence.

Harry stared at Seamus for a moment, who seemed uncomfortable with the scrutiny. Finally, Harry asked, “Why?”

Seamus blinked, “Huh…Why what?”

“Why do they care?” Harry asked nonchalantly, “why should I?” Harry paused a moment, “What's changed?”

It took a second, but now Seamus knew what Harry meant, and he kicked himself mentally for not seeing it before he had asked. While most no longer thought Harry had cheated and lied his way into the tournament, back then they did. They had used his love of the game and flying against him by denying him a chance to play. They had said some really terrible things not only about him, but to his face. Seamus thanked the powers to be, that he was not there that day, and that he had finally seen the truth and apologized to Harry. As far as he knew, none of the other students there that day had ever come forth and even attempted to say they were sorry.

Seamus nodded in understanding, “So, no I take it. Guess I can't really blame you…some real berks, that lot.”

Harry smiled even though he was still a tiny bit upset, “Tell them… Thanks for thinking of me, but no.” Slipping his arm around Hermione and tugging her close, Harry finished while looking down at her, “Tell them I have other… more important concerns now.”

.

.

14

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

16. A Cold Dark Feeling


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 16

A Cold Dark Feeling

.

“Checkmate,” Ron said with a smirk.

“Bloody hell Weasley, I thought I had you that time,”

Ron had taken to playing chess against a couple of fifth-year students, because nobody in his own year would play him anymore. “Don't take it so hard Andrew, you almost had me. Go again?”

The older boy laughed, “Naw, I've had enough humiliation for one day. Besides, I've some work that needs seeing to.”

“Right. Maybe later,” Ron said, as Andrew headed for the stairs.

Ron packed up his chess board and set it aside, then looked around the room. It was still fairly cold this time of the year so most of Gryffindor was inside, even though it was Saturday. Some were up in their dorm rooms, and a few were still at breakfast. The rest were scattered around the common room.

Ginny was sitting with the twins having some kind of discussion. Actually, when he looked closer, it looked more like a lecture; judging by how animated Ginny's hands were. Occasionally, one of his brothers would glance over at him only to have Ginny chastise him for not paying attention. Ron smiled, his sister was the smallest one in the family, but was also the scariest. He had no idea what they were talking about; maybe one of his brothers had said something about a boy she had eyes on or something. He really didn't care as long as she left him out of it. Ever since Harry started dating Hermione, she had been a little more open about seeing other boys. Ron didn't care for the idea, but as long as his brothers were handling the situation, he'd stay out of it… for now.

As for the rest of his class mates; Dean was having a lie-in, his girlfriend too for that matter, and since Seamus had come down so late, he was probably still at breakfast. And Neville… `Where was Neville?' Ron wondered. “Probably with Loony,” he muttered.

And finally, there they were… Gryffindor's golden couple, sitting together in their favorite spot by the fire. Last night as he was heading to bed, Ron had overheard a couple of giggling third-years girls call Harry and Hermione that. He wondered if they even knew they had a label.

Hermione Granger, what did Harry see in her? Sure, she was smart; great to have around for help with schoolwork, but you didn't have to date her for that. She was nice enough… most of the time, although she could get a bit bossy at times. Also, she was always on about something, and if you didn't agree with her, she'd get her knickers in a twist faster than you could say Merlin's hairy bits. Ron laughed to himself at that last thought. Yeah, she could be a real bint if she wanted. As Ron continued to watch the couple, he focused on Hermione a little more. He really didn't think she was all that pretty either; no, not much of a looker as far as he was concerned.

So why did Harry ask her to be his girlfriend? Ron had no idea. Harry could have asked almost anyone else, and a lot of them were prettier than Hermione. He could have asked that veela girl he went to Hogsmeade with, she was a good-looking bird.

Ron watched as they sat on the couch and worked on classwork; about as friendly as they got, was to share an occasional smile. If it had been him and Lavender, he'd be sure to make better use of his time; they'd be snogging for sure. Nope, no matter how hard he tried, he didn't think he'd ever understand Harry Potter.

oOoOo

The fourth task was just two days away, but for now, Harry's attention was focused on today; March first, Ron's birthday. Harry, along with help from Ginny and the twins, were going to throw him a party. After explaining to McGonagall, that he was only trying to improve things with Ron, She gave her consent for not only the party, but use of the common room as well. Hermione, Parvati, and Lavender also helped, as did Neville, and Seamus. Oddly, Dean never seemed to be available; Harry wasn't even sure if he was going to show up for the party.

Harry and Hermione had talked about their friendship with Ron. Both had agreed that they missed the old Ron. The Ron they had adventures with, or sometimes just hung out with. They missed the Ron who made them laugh.

Hermione had thought it was a good idea and quickly agreed to help, after Harry had decided to throw Ron a party for his fifteenth birthday. Harry had reasoned, that maybe by doing something big for Ron, and with him the center of attention if only for a little while, it might snap him out of the strange mood he's been in. She also knew that with Ron splitting his free time between them, Lavender, and his new friends, they weren't spending a lot of time together. They both felt it was a chance to reconnect with him, and to show him they still cared. It was the main reason Harry pushed so hard to make it happen. She could only hope that Ron would see as the gesture it was meant to be.

Lavender's job, was to keep Ron busy for an hour after dinner. When she mentioned that she knew of several broom closets on the sixth floor she could probably interest him in, Parvati had to remind her they only needed an hour.

oOoOo

The portrait open and Ron stepped through followed closely by Lavender. "What the hell," Ron mumbled; the common room was completely dark. A second later, Ron nearly jumped out of his skin as a dozen people all yelled, "Surprise!” At the top of their lungs. The fireplace, and all the candles around the room flared back to life at the same time.

Lavender came up from behind and looped her arm through his, and intertwined their fingers, "Happy birthday Ronnie."

Ron looked around in disbelief. Everyone was wearing a party hat, and there were balloons all around the room. On the far side, sitting on his favorite table was a cake, shaped and decorated like a chess board along with several brightly wrapped presents.

Turning to Lavender with a surprised look still on his face, Ron asked, "You did all this... for me?"

Lavender smiled, happy that Ron thought she had done it all, but she couldn't take all the credit, "No silly, your friends did. I did help of course." Pulling him further into the room she explained, "We all helped; your sister did all the organizing, but it was Harry's idea."

Ron looked around and found Harry standing by the fire with his arm around Hermione, looking right back at him, a huge smile plastered on his face. Ron started towards him, "Oy Harry," Ron started as he gestured around the room, "this was your idea?"

Hermione slipped away, she knew Ron would want to talk to Harry alone.

Looking a little sheepish, Harry answered, "Well, just the idea," then, pointing to his sister, "Ginny did most of the work."

"Hey," George hollered, "if by most of the work you mean, telling everyone else what to do... well then, yeah."

"Spend all day baking a cake," Fred started, "no respect I tell you."

"Spend half the day in the kitchen eating, while Dobby baked the cake is more like it," Ginny laughed.

"And look at what our supervision got you," retorted Fred.

"The perfect cake," added George. Both brothers turned towards each other and gave themselves a deep bow of appreciation.

When Ron reached Harry, he gave him a brief one-armed hug, "Thanks Harry, haven't had a real birthday party since I started Hogwarts."

Harry glanced at Hermione, who was standing a few feet away quietly talking to Luna. "Well, I've recently become aware of just how important birthdays can be."

Hearing what Harry had said, Hermione looked over and caught his eye and smiled, before turning back to Luna. She knew exactly what he meant, and she felt exactly the same way.

"Well still... awfully nice of you Harry, considering how I've acted lately," Ron said rather sincerely. For a moment, it felt like old times and he smiled, even though he knew way too much milk had already been spilled for things to ever be the same again.

"Won't ever be proper mates again if we can't put the past behind us," Harry said hopefully, "right?"

Ron smiled, "Right." Then turning to the crowd, he yelled, "Oy you lot, who wants cake?"

Harry laughed at Ron's antics. Then spotting Alicia, he slowly made his way over to talk to her about the twins. Harry was hoping for a repeat performance next month on their birthday.

oOoOo

Snape had been watching Harry and his friends, look for ways for him to stay underwater for an hour with little success. Finally, the Longbottom boy joined the group, and within a short time had suggested Gillyweed. The only problem was where to obtain some. Snape saw his opportunity, and as soon as Mr. Longbottom was alone, he summed him to his office.

oOoOo

McGonagall had called it a magical sleep. Deeper than regular sleep, but not as though one were in a coma, it would slow down all of my bodily functions and allow me to survive underwater without breathing for a long time. I couldn't see or hear anything, but strangely enough, I could feel. I was floating weightless in space… in a black silent void. The odd thing was, I wasn't really asleep, or maybe I was, and I was only dreaming. It was impossible to tell. My part in this task was simple, all I had to do was wait… but sometimes waiting can be hard. I honestly don't think Harry will have any problems finding me, it's what he'll do once he does, that gives me pause. In light of recent events, what will he do? Hermione decided she didn't care, she was his girlfriend now, and would stand by him either way.

oOoOo

Harry awoke with a start, something was wrong. The eastern sky was only just starting to lighten as Harry quickly showered and got dressed for the day.

They had taken her, he was sure of it.

As he left his dorm and headed down to the common room, Harry never noticed the other empty bed. At breakfast, his worst fears were all but confirmed, Hermione was indeed missing.

They had talked about the clue, and what it might have meant several different times. It was Harry who first suggested that, `What you'll sorely miss,' might refer to a person. Hermione had agreed, but knew the thought bothered him, and so tried to play it down. Eventually however, she had to admit he was probably right. Later that night as Harry laid awake going over their earlier conversation, it didn't take him long to reason, that of all the people they could take, Hermione would be the one he'd miss the most. Harry never got a chance to tell her. Hermione's earlier words, that he had dismissed so easily before, `Students have died in the tournament,' now came back to haunt him. It never occurred to him that someone other than a champion might get hurt, or even killed.

In less than two hours, the fourth task would begin, and Harry couldn't help the feelings of anger he felt towards the headmaster for involving her. She was innocent, what right did they have to endanger her life.

Neither Harry nor any of the other champions had any real idea what the fourth task was about yet. All they knew for sure, was that someone very important to them, had been taken hostage, and were now probably somewhere on the bottom of the lake.

Harry was so deep in thought, he barely noticed when Ginny sat down across from him. It was only when a second later, that Luna sat down on his right, and Neville on his left, that he realized they were all there. They were there to support him... in Hermione's absence.

They had all heard the clue, and since Hermione would never miss being here for Harry; they also knew, Harry was right about them taking her.

"Don't worry Harry, I'm sure she'll be all right. You'll do whatever it is you have to in order to get her back," Ginny tried. She wanted to help, but she really didn't know what else to say.

The look on Harry's face was grim as he looked around at his friends. He was most certainly thankful for their support, but his worries about Hermione were evident. "Thanks Gin," was all he could say.

As breakfast dragged on, Harry thought he'd go spare waiting, and was about to get up and go look for Dumbledore, and demand that he bring Hermione back.

"May I have your attention please?"

Harry looked up towards the head of the Hall, "Finally!" He said to no one.

"In just over an hour, our champions will begin their fourth task," Dumbledore began. "They have all heard the clue from their golden egg, and by now I'm sure most, if not all of you, have heard it as well. Hopefully, they have deciphered it correctly."

oOoOo

The last thing Hermione remembered when she was still awake, was sitting in McGonagall's office listing to her explain the spell she was about to put on her. After that, time seemed to have no meaning. She couldn't tell if she'd been down in the lake for an hour, or a day. At first, the sensation was peaceful, similar to that wonderful feeling you have right before you wake up in the morning; not quite awake…drifting. Now, the feeling was changing, she was becoming more restless, yet she still couldn't move. Hermione felt the first sign of panic take hold. Was the spell starting to wear off, she wondered?

oOoOo

Harry glanced at Neville, who nodded yes to his unasked question, and reached into his robes and pulled out a small jar of Gillyweed. "Remember Harry, it only lasts an hour, and you can't take a second dose," reminded Neville.

Harry quickly pocketed the jar, "Thanks Neville." He still couldn't believe Snape had done him a favor. Neville had said he'd only given it to him, because he was tired of people breaking into his stores. Harry couldn't be sure, but he thought Snape might just have another reason, besides the one he gave Neville. However, for now he'd take whatever he could get; never look a gift horse in the mouth they say, or so he thought.

"A word of advice to our champions," Dumbledore began again, "Look with your eyes... but see with your heart." Dumbledore paused to let his last statement sink in. "On the surface, the clue may seem straightforward, but below... look deeper, and you may find a different meaning."

Harry shook his head, why did Dumbledore always have to speak in riddles? It seemed the more important the information, the more obscure the riddle. `Great,' thought Harry, `I hate puzzles.'

Luna stared at Harry, she knew what he was thinking. Harry thought he knew what he had to do; search the lake, find what they took, and bring it back to the surface. Now, Dumbledore had gone and all but said, there was more to it. It wasn't that simple anymore. Normally, Harry would just take this news in stride. He was quite good at thinking on his feet. Harry would just jump in and go, and he would do what was necessary even if that meant taking chances. But now Hermione was involved; Harry wouldn't want to take any chances that might get her hurt. Harry was at a loss, as to how to proceed. Luna felt, she would have to take Hermione's place this time, if she wanted Harry to start the task with a clear head.

"Harry... Harry, look at me," said Luna, in a very serious no-nonsense voice, "you stick with the plan to start with..."

"But..."

"Listen to me Harry, move quickly, but don't rush on blindly." Luna made sure he was paying attention before going on. "Think about what the Headmaster just said... `Look with your eyes.' He wants you to see something, maybe real, maybe not."

Harry realized, that Luna was trying to help. He nodded his understanding and gestured for her to continue.

"The clue said, `what you'll sorely miss'... Hermione, but Dumbledore said, `look deeper, you may find a different meaning.'"

Harry took a deep breath and blew it out quickly, "Yeah, okay... but what?"

Luna could only give him a sad smile, "I don't know Harry, I think perhaps that is what this task is really all about."

"Harry," Neville interrupted, "remember the clue, remember what Dumbledore said, but most importantly, remember what Hermione always says. She believes in you. She knows you can do it. And we all know she's rarely wrong."

Harry looked away and stared out the window in the direction of the lake. He could almost see her face in his mind's eye, somewhere under the water. A smile on her face, waiting for him, knowing he'd come. His resolve strengthened, he wasn't going to let her down... he couldn't.

Harry turned back, and first looked at Ginny, then Luna, and finally at Neville. He slowly nodded his head, "You're right... all of you. Thank you."

"Champions, if you'll please make your way to the champion's tent down by the lake, so that you can begin preparing for the fourth task. The rest of you, may want to start down towards the viewing stands. And yes, we have a way for you to watch your favorite champion's progress."

Harry stood, and glanced at his friends and nodded once again, then turned and left without saying another word. The last thing he heard as he left the Hall was the twins yelling, "Good luck Harry," before he slipped out the door and started down to the water's edge alone.

Neville watched him go, then looked back at the twins after their encouragement. That's when he noticed; he'd been so focused on Harry; they all had been, no one noticed, "Hey, where's Ron?"

oOoOo

McGonagall took her seat in the judge's booth, high up in the stands. After settling, she surveyed the rest of the spectators. She let a small smile form when she noticed, that the majority of her lions were here and sitting together. Sitting with them was a pair of Ravenclaws, a site that was becoming more common every day. Looking out over the lake, she examined a fog like mist, created by a complex set of runes and charms. It was designed to allow the spectators to watch the events that were happening far below the surface. Projected into the mist was a dim misty three-dimensional image as seen, as if one was actually below with the champions. The face of the mist shimmered, and rippled not unlike that of the surface of the lake. The effect only added to the mysterious view from below. The runes and charms work necessary to accomplish all of this were quite extraordinary. McGonagall doubted few besides the Headmaster could have done it. As much as she hated the entirety of the tournament, she had to give Dumbledore credit for this, it was very impressive.

Harry stood at the edge of the lake on the dock with the other three champions, anxious to begin. "Come on already!" He said, while looking towards the stands where he knew the officials would be. While he waited, Harry took notice of the other champions. To Harry, Cedric looked a little nervous, probably for much of the same reasons as himself. Viktor on the other hand, was impossible to read. It was Fleur however, who really caught Harry's attention; she looked... terrified. Harry would find out later, that most veela had a natural phobia concerning water.

"Champions, at the sound of cannon, your time will start, and you may begin," came Dumbledore's voice from the viewing stands, amplified by the Sonorus Charm. "Once you enter the underwater forest, or deep forest as some like to call it, your paths will diverge. You each have a different destination.

Thankfully, Hermione had thought ahead, and had made sure that Harry knew several basic spells to help with this task. To protect him from the frigid water, Harry cast a warming spell on himself, then, to ensure he could see clearly, he cast the Impervius Charm on his goggles.

Boom… came the cannon blast, just seconds later.

Harry quickly opened the jar of Gillyweed and swallowed the contents whole before diving into the lake. After a brief period of pain and some disorientation, Harry was soon making his way towards the deep forest.

Ginny sat in the viewing stands by her longtime friend Luna, and watched as Harry dove into the water. She still couldn't believe, that she hadn't noticed, that Ron had been missing from breakfast. She knew of course that she had been worried about Harry, and therefore, Hermione by association. But Ron was her brother, she wondered what that said about her. Was she too focused on Harry? She did think about him a lot, even though Hermione was his girlfriend now. She had finally gotten over her shyness around him last summer, and now this. Ginny was sure, that if it hadn't been for the tournament, she would've been a lot closer to him by now, maybe even his girlfriend, and it would have been Hermione that was still just his friend. Without Quidditch, she had nothing special in common with him that Hermione didn't have. The tournament had turned it all around. He needed help with the tasks, and Hermione being older and more knowledgeable was far better suited for that roll. Another problem was, she just didn't know how to deal with all the trauma, it was one crisis after another. `But Hermione did,' a nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her.

Viktor immediately took the lead; he was obviously a very strong swimmer. `That helps explain why he spent so much time in the lake,' thought Harry. Bringing up the rear, was Fleur; without a doubt, her apprehension was slowing her down.

Within a few minutes, Harry had reached the underwater forest. Unlike trees that grow on land that were fairly rigid, these trees were very flexible, fluid like in the way they wavered with the current. The trees themselves were more like thick long stalks that branched out into smaller stalks the closer to the surface you got; much like regular tree branches. Trying to swim near the surface would be almost impossible because of how thickly the branches enter-twined.

On the lake bottom, growing up like a thick carpet around the tall stalks, was a long fine grass like plant. Harry tried to remember Hagrid's lesson on grindylows, which he knew lived in the tall grass. Harry ended up, swimming several feet above the top of the grass to try and stay clear of the nasty little creatures that lived there. While at the same time staying low enough to avoid getting entangled with the forest top.

As soon as he entered the deep forest, Harry lost sight of the others. Harry struggled forward, his anxiety starting to build again as the forest slowed him down. He had to twist and turn at sharp angles to get through. Finally, after what seemed an impossibly long time, the forest began to thin. That's when he heard it; the mermaid's song. Maybe, it's another clue, thought Harry, so he stopped to listen more carefully. Sure enough, it was.

.

.

Friendship taken, or friendship gone.

One is weak, and one is strong.

.

.

Even though he didn't know what it meant exactly, Harry repeated the phrase a couple of times to himself to commit it to memory. Looking around, he saw the mermaid who had been the one singing. Now she was pointing and gesturing, indicating that Harry should head in a new direction. Just as he started to resume his search, he felt a sharp sting on his right leg. "Crap," Harry said through a mouthful of bubbles, "grindylows.” One had its claw-like hand wrapped around Harry's right ankle, and was pulling him down where several others were waiting.

Luna turned away from the scene below, and looked at her friends. `Her friends,' the thought still amazed her. Except for Ginny, she never really had any friends. Now, she had several, thanks to Harry. She was much closer to Neville of course, and he was definitely her best friend, but most of her other friends; Ron and the twins, Seamus, Padma and her sister, and of course Hermione; were all because of Harry. He had not only openly called her a good friend, but he had been the first person her age to defend her as well. Nobody, had ever done that before.

Luna only vaguely heard Neville's warning about being too close to the grass; spoken aloud as if somehow Harry could hear him. When a collective gasp rose from the stands, Luna knew Harry was in trouble.

Harry pulled his wand from his holster, and fired off a stunner, “Stupefy...” but nothing happened! Apparently, casting spells underwater was harder than he had thought. Harry started to panic as a second grindylow grabbed him around the neck. The two were working together to drag him down. Harry forced himself to calm down, and a moment later he tried again. This time, he concentrated on slowly pronouncing the incantation, "Stoo-puh-fye,” A blue-white flash emulated from his wand. It was a weak stunner at best, but it had the desired effect. He had hit the grindylow who had been holding his ankle, square in the chest. It instantly released him and floated away apparently unconscious. The other grindylows, including the one wrapped around his neck, wanted no part of what Harry had just done, and hurried back to the relative safety of the tall grass. Harry quickly moved away from the tall grass and resumed swimming in the direction he was told without wasting any more time.

Harry swam hard, and strained his eyes in the dim murky water, looking for another clue. With little or nothing to navigate by, all Harry could do was hope he was heading in the right direction. Even though it was almost noon, light from above barely managed to penetrate to this depth. Filtered by the water, it bathed everything in an ominous twilight green hue. A cold dark feeling, pressed at him from all sides, as if it was trying to squeeze the life from him. As foreboding as the feeling was, Harry knew he couldn't stop. He couldn't quit, not until he knew Hermione was safe. Harry pressed on and tried to put the menacing thoughts out of his mind as he swam deeper into the darkness.

At last, Harry saw something. Up ahead... a figure started to take shape... 'Hermione?' He thought. No, it wasn't her. As Harry swam closer, the figure of two mermaids holding hands came into view. He swam closer and circled around them slowly, looking for anything out of the ordinary. They were made of stone, but aside from that, Harry found no other clues. Just as he was starting to swim away, he heard another mermaid begin to sing.

.

.

To save what you'll miss, you must choose one, not two.

But chose wisely, or it won't come to you.

.

.

Harry floated still and stared at the mermaid who had appeared out of the darkness, while she sang it twice for him. When he was sure he had it memorized, Harry nodded, and again the mermaid pointed the way.

As Harry swam, he tried to reason out the new riddle, but he just couldn't make a connection. Fifty minutes had gone by since he had started. Harry briefly wondered how the others were doing; especially Fleur.

oOoOo

With Harry starting out again and on the right course, Neville and Luna turned their attention to the other champions to see how they were doing. Cedric and Viktor both appeared to be doing well. Cedric had used some form of cutting hex to help him through the forest, while Viktor just seemed to muscle his way through.

Fleur however, was having a very hard time trying to navigate the forest. She first tried to swim over the top of the forest, but quickly lost her way. The water above the forest was thick and very murky, and limited one's ability to see more than just a couple of feet. Now she was making her way along dangerously close to the bottom, trying to make up for lost time.

oOoOo

As Harry swam, he focused on the riddles. He was so absorbed in thought, that he never noticed the large water snake until it brushed up alongside him. Fortunately it wasn't interested in him, only curious. Harry continued on, although with a little more caution.

After a short swim, Harry again saw something up ahead, another statue... no, two statues. Getting closer Harry corrected himself again, no... two people! Harry swam a little closer and stopped in front of the pair. One, was Hermione. `Thank God,' thought Harry, relieved. The other person was Ron, but what was he doing here, one hostage wasn't enough? Harry looked around, there was no sign of the other champions or their hostages, though he didn't really expect to see anyone. If they too had to decide between two people to rescue, that would mean, that there were six other hostages scattered around the bottom lake. Later, when he had the time to think about that, he'd shake his head at the careless disregard for their safety.

Both Ron and Hermione were obviously asleep, or were in some sort of trance, because neither showed any sign they were aware he had arrived. Both had a rope tied around one ankle, the other end was tied to a large stone structure on the lake bottom. They floated there as if in a weightless void. The ebb of the current caused their hair to swirl around their face as if it had a mind of its own. Their arms floated out to their sides in a very unnatural looking way. Harry immediately decided he did not like the way Hermione looked, and hope to never see her like this again, so... lifeless.

Ginny watched transfixed, as Harry looked at his two best friends, both tied with ropes to the lake bed. By now, everyone in the stands had heard all the clues as well. What a horrible position to be in. Inwardly, Ginny hoped Harry would choose Ron, not for Ron's sake, but for hers. However, if she was even only slightly honest with herself, she knew he choose Hermione. Even if you didn't count the fact that she was his girlfriend now, considering how much Hermione had been helping him, and the way her brother had been acting up until lately, she'd probably choose Hermione too, if in his place. Knowing that, she really couldn't blame him, but that didn't make it any easier to watch.

Harry started forward, intent on cutting both Ron and Hermione free. `Two for the price of one,' Harry joked to himself. No sooner had he started to move when another mermaid appeared in front of him, arms spread wide, blocking his way. As soon as he stopped, she started to sing.

.

.

No time to plan, don't try to understand.

To get what you seek, in your heart you must peek.

.

.

The mermaid gestured to Hermione and then to Ron, before moving off to the side.

Suddenly, it all made sense. `Choose one, not two.' He could only take one, either Ron or Hermione. Why though? What was the point?

Friendship... that's what they took, that's what Dumbledore meant. He wasn't choosing which person to save. He was choosing which friendship to save. But he wanted to save them both... `No, wait,' he thought, `not which friendship... just friendship in general.' Choose the right person, and he could save both their friendships, `But choose wisely,' or he could lose one or both friendships.

Choose Hermione, and save her friendship for sure, but risk Ron not understanding, and lose his.

Choose Ron, and save his friendship… but would it really. Would that finally prove to Ron how much he valued his friendship? Maybe. Would Hermione understand? Yes, Harry was sure she would. But wouldn't that also be telling her, that he thought she should make yet another sacrifice just because Ron was too immature to handle it.

That's all it took, Harry's mind was made up. Hermione deserved better from him, and not just because she was girlfriend. She had made more than enough sacrifices for him, and Ron. It was time he made one for her. Harry was willing to lose his friendship with Ron, he wasn't willing to lose Hermione's. He had put Ron's friendship and feeling before Hermione's too many times in the past when he shouldn't have. He needed to show her… show them both that wasn't going to happen anymore. `Who knows,' he thought, `maybe Ron will understand; if not right away, maybe later.'

There was also the fact that Harry really didn't know what would happen to the one left behind; although he didn't think Dumbledore would intentionally let any harm come to them, he couldn't be sure. Obviously, no one intentionally let any of the previous students die, but some did none the less. Harry sure wasn't going to risk Hermione's safety unnecessarily. Not for Ron, not for anyone. There was just no way he was going to leave Hermione behind in this forsaken sunless world.

Harry swam forward and pulled his wand. Pointing it at the knot that tied the rope to Hermione, he said, “Alohomora,” and the rope came free. Moving up, Harry couldn't resist gently touching her cheek. He slid the back of his hand down her jaw line, and was amazed at how soft it felt, even down here. Time was running out however, he had to move quickly. Wrapping his arm around her waist, he pulled her tight. Harry hesitated only a second, as he stole a glance in Ron's direction, only to find he was already gone. The mermaids had probably taken him, now that they knew Harry's decision. He could only hope that Ron would be all right, and would later understand.

Hermione had never felt this way before; she wanted to move, but was unable to, she couldn't even open her eyes. Even though she knew she'd drown if she tried to open her mouth and breathe, she still had an overpowering urge to do so. Would Harry have trouble finding her? Would the spell wear off before he could reach her? Hermione never felt so alone. Then suddenly she felt something touch her face. It was soft and gentle. She knew that touch; it was Harry, and she instantly relaxed. She would have smiled if she could have. Harry had found her, she'd be okay now.

Harry swam hard for the surface, but Hermione's water logged robes made it difficult. He hadn't realized just how far down they were. Upward, he continued, swimming with one hand, and kicking hard with both feet. He was getting close, he could tell; the light was considerably brighter. With about twenty feet to go, Harry felt it, the sharp pain in his neck. The tell-tale sign that the Gillyweed was wearing off. Harry held his breath, and fought through the pain. He couldn't stop now. Harry struggled upward, bringing Hermione with him, as he wasn't about to let go. Like in the second task, when he was climbing the cliff; His muscles burned as if liquid fire ran through his veins. His vision was starting to fade from lack of oxygen, and his lungs felt ready to burst. Harry kicked harder; he had to make it, he needed air…Hermione needed air.

With a splash, Harry broke the surface of the water, and took in a great lung full of air.

Harry immediately turned to take in Hermione's condition. The sleeping spell must have broken now that she was on the surface, because she was slowly coming to. Suddenly, her eyes flew open. Harry thought brown never looked so beautiful. Hermione's hair was soaking wet, and clung to the sides of her head; a few strands running across her face. Without letting go of her, Harry reached out with his free hand, and moved the errant strands behind her ear. Then he pulled her in close and gave her a kiss, mindful not to get too carried away and embarrass her, knowing the whole school was watching. Hermione was finally able to smile; no words were spoken, because none were needed. The kiss told her everything; Harry was relieved of course, but mainly he was happy with his decision and had no regrets. There would be time enough for that later. For now, the task was over, and more importantly for Harry, Hermione was safe.

He had been instructed to wait wherever he had surfaced, and someone would come along and pick them up. Harry knew the water must be near freezing, as even with the heating charm, he still felt quite cool, almost cold. Looking at Hermione, he knew she was getting colder by the second; her lips had turned blue, and she had started shivering. They wouldn't be able to wait long. Pulling his wand, he cast another heating charm on her; apparently, the original had stopped working at the same time the sleeping charm had broken. Fortunately the wait was short and they soon heard a familiar voice.

“Oy, Harry, Hermione," came the booming voice of Hagrid as he guided a small boat alongside. To huge hands reached over and gently lifted Hermione into the boat. Harry wasted no time and climbed in from the other side at the same time. Sitting close together, Hagrid wrapped them both in a warm blanket, and handed Harry a large flask and two mugs. "Hot cocoa with a wee bit of firewhisky. That'll warm you up in no time," he said, while tapping his umbrella on the bottom of the boat to start it back towards the viewing stands and a waiting Madam Pomfrey.

"Hagrid, do you have my wand?" Asked Hermione.

"No, fraid not. I believe Professor McGonagall still has it."

Hermione turned to Harry, "Harry, do you mind?" Harry didn't even bother to answer, or ask why she suddenly needed one, he just reached down to his thigh and pulled it from his holster. As soon as Hermione took the wand, she felt a warm sensation moved up her arm, just as if it was her own wand. A few flicks later, and both of them were dry. As Hermione handed Harry back his wand, she couldn't help but notice how easy it had been to do magic with it. She made a mental note to asked Harry, to try hers sometime for comparison.

Harry's good mood quickly soured as they approached the tiny makeshift dock attached to the viewing stands. Along with Madam Pomfrey and Professor McGonagall, stood the Headmaster.

Noticing Harry's angry look, Dumbledore asked, "Harry, is something wrong?"

Harry still didn't know whether or not Professor Dumbledore believed him or not, in regards to how his name ended up in the Goblet of Fire. Likewise, Harry still hadn't decided how he felt about him. Was Dumbledore trying to help him in any way? No, he didn't think so, or at least he saw no evidence of it. Dumbledore was acting more like a spectator, sitting back and watching the events unfold, and it made him feel like a mere pawn on his chessboard. In Harry's mind that alone was bad enough, but now he'd gone and involved two of his friends. It only took a split second for Harry to decide Dumbledore, was not on his side. He didn't know what he was up to, but Harry was pretty sure, he wouldn't like it when he found out.

"Sir, was it really necessary?"

Using his most patient voice, Dumbledore answered, "I'm sorry Harry, I don't follow."

Hermione had been watching Harry and Dumbledore with rapt attention. Hearing Dumbledore's answer, she thought he knew what Harry was talking about, that he knew exactly what Harry was talking about. What she didn't know, was why he'd lie about it.

Harry gestured to Hermione, "Was it necessary to include Hermione," then almost like an afterthought, he added, "and Ron?"

Dumbledore smiled, "They were never in danger Harry." Tilting his head down slightly to peer over his glasses, his damn eyes twinkling in full force, he went on, "The illusion of danger was mostly for your benefit. Of course we wanted you to worry about them, but they were never in any real danger."

"Tied to a stone at the bottom of the lake with nothing more than a simple spell to keep them from drowning. A lake filled with dangerous creatures, like the giant squid and the grindylows… and nothing but a single mermaid to protect them!" Harry had worked himself up to the point of almost yelling at his headmaster. “They didn't even have a wand!”

Hermione moved to his side and slipped her arm through his and whispered, "Harry, I'm okay... please, calm down."

Harry turned to Hermione and saw her concern. He gave her a half smile, and a soft pat on her arm with his free hand before turning back to Dumbledore. "I'm sorry for raising my voice Sir, but obviously, we disagree on what's dangerous, and what's not." Everyone stood still and silently waited for Harry to continue, "Perhaps, if the organizers took the possible dangers more seriously... there would've been fewer dead students."

Harry's last comment struck hard and tension rose a few notches. Dumbledore was taken back and was momentarily at a loss for words. McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey shared a nervous look. Since no one had died so far in this tournament, they all knew Harry was referring to the past. It was also clear however, that he didn't consider this one any safer than the others.

Dumbledore was saved from responding when a sudden commotion nearby drew everyone's attention. A hysterical Fleur Delacour was being pulled from the lake. "Let me go, let me go... I ave to go back!" She kept screaming.

Hermione noticed she had several nasty looking cuts and claw marks, and her whole body was covered with sore looking red rings; the same rings she had noticed on Harry's neck. "Poor dear, I wonder what happened."

"She was attacked by grindylows, same as Harry," came Neville's answer from behind as he approached, "but she panicked; couldn't manage to get a spell off."

Hermione glanced at Harry before turning back to Neville and asking, "Then why does she want to go back?"

Neville raised his hands, palms up and shook his head slowly, "I don't know, for one of the hostages' maybe."

Luna stepped forward and stared out towards the middle of the lake, "One of them was her little sister."

The rest of the group turned and followed her gaze, all wondering and worrying about the same thing. Harry briefly thought of Ron. No one had seen any sign of the other hostages yet.

.

.

AN: I hope it was clear what this task was supposed to test.

.

16

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

17. The Real Fleur


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

AN: Thank you for your patience, I know it took a while to get this posted. Also, thanks for all the kind reviews.

.

.

Chapter 17

The Real Fleur

.

Harry was grateful to be able to join his friends for breakfast the following morning. Madam Pomfrey had wanted him to spend the night, which would have meant breakfast in bed, a hospital bed. Harry had managed to talk his way out of it, with a promise to stop by around noon for a final checkup. Ron hadn't been so lucky; Harry was sure it would only add to his foul mood, and so really wasn't looking forward to seeing him right away.

As Ginny sat down across from him and Hermione, he asked, “Seen Ron yet this morning?” Ginny just nodded yes, as she started filling her plate. “How's he doing?”

Ginny stopped buttering her toast and stared at Harry with one eyebrow raised, “Really Harry, you know him about as well as me... how do you think he's doing?”

Harry leaned back and nodded slightly, conceding the point. Then with half a smile, said, “Mad, I suppose.”

Using her fork to point, first at Harry then Hermione, Ginny answered, “Right in one Harry, at the both of you.”

“Me! What I do?” Hermione asked, a little indignantly.

Ginny shrugged her shoulders, “How should I know? Because you were there? Because you didn't drown... or maybe it's just because you didn't have to spend the night in the infirmary. It's Ron, so like I said, who knows.”

“Well he better not start in on me... none of this was my doing,” huffed Hermione.

“Did you get a chance to see any of the other hostages?” Harry asked.

“Yeah, they were all there except for Cho Chang, she got released last night.” Ginny looked thoughtful for a moment, as if trying to remember something else. “Oh, Fleur was still there too… didn't look very good either, I doubt she'll get out today.”

Hermione nodded, “How was her sister?”

“A lot better than Fleur. None of the others looked that bad really, not even my brother.” Ginny answered lightly. Apparently, her sour mood from her visit with her brother was starting to fade. “Hey, when are you guys going to start running and ah… cal-lo-stin-tics again?”

Harry smiled while Hermione laughed a little.

“What?”

“Just surprised you're sticking with it, is all,” Harry offered.

Hermione nodded in agreement, “And it's pronounced; calisthenics.”

“Yeah, yeah, calisthen-tics, whatever. So do you think Viktor will be swimming again?”

“Only if he really is crazy,” said Harry.

“A girl can hope.”

Hermione laughed again, “Hope he's wearing his swimming outfit you mean.”

The conversation never went any further, as Dumbledore chose that moment to make an announcement.

“Good morning everyone, if I may have your attention for just a few minutes,” he started, “because of the commotion at the end of yesterday's task, final judging was delayed. Therefore, it is only now that I can give you the final results.

“Commotion, is that what he's calling it?” Hermione asked, disdain and anger clearly present in her voice. Dumbledore was obviously referring to Fleur's failed attempt to return to the lake.

After performing a perfect Bubble-Head Charm, and finishing the fourth challenge in the Triwizard Tournament with the fastest time, Mr. Cedric Diggory placed first with thirty-seven points for a total of one hundred and forty-two points, putting him in first place overall.”

Cheering erupted at the Hufflepuff table.

“Yes yes, well done Mr. Diggory. Our next champion tied for the second fastest time, Mr. Harry Potter scored twenty-three points for a total of one hundred and thirty-eight, placing him in second place overall.

More cheering, this time from the Gryffindor table, but by now Harry was hardly paying attention; he was slowly becoming lost in thought. `Why are they cheering? Don't they realize someone could have been hurt, that someone could have died? Do they have any idea how scared we all were?' When Dumbledore started talking about the last task, Harry began thinking about how he had felt... and about how he had imagined the others had felt, especially Fleur. However the more he thought about it, the more he focused on Hermione. She could have been hurt! Down there, in that dark abyss that was the bottom of the lake... she could have died. Harry realized now, why he'd been so scared. `No... terrified,' he corrected himself. Harry turned and looked at Hermione, really looked. What would he do, if... he couldn't finish the thought, it was just too unimaginable.

Hermione glanced over and caught Harry staring at her. She started to smile, and an instant later stopped. She knew that look; scared, confused, but mostly it was a look of guilt. Now, safely back and with time to think, it was all catching up to him, `He's blaming himself. He believes it's his fault that I was involved.' She knew he had been worried about her, and of course, she had been afraid for Harry's safety as well, probably as much as he had been for hers', even though he hadn't said anything yet.

“Harry, you did nothing wrong, and besides, they gave me a choice, and I chose to go.”

“What? Why, you could have... you...”

“So could have you Harry, but you didn't... and neither did I.” Hermione said softly as she pleaded with her eyes, begging him to understand. She needed him to see, that it was as much for her benefit as it was for his. She trusted him, believed in him; and she wanted him to know it, but with more than just words. She wanted to show him, like he had done for her so many times before.

“... and placing third was Viktor Krum. Although his time was identical to Mr. Potter's, in his attempt to rescue his hostage, he inadvertently injured him, resulting in a minor point deduction. Mr. Krum scored twenty points for the fourth challenge giving him a total of one hundred and thirty-five points, and placing him in third place overall. Unfortunately, Miss Fleur Delacour did not finish the task, however, after demonstrating a perfectly performed Bubble-Head Charm, and for sheer determination, she was awarded twenty points. As of this moment, she is in fourth place with a total of one hundred and twenty-six points.” Dumbledore finished.

There was a light smattering of applause for both Viktor and Fleur, but Harry didn't notice, he was still looking at Hermione.

She had known the clues, and she had known the risks... yet she chose to be a hostage. She knew what I'd sorely miss the most. He had never told her, but she knew anyway, and trusted him to find her in time.

Harry slowly started to smile as understanding came to him. “Fine... but I'm still mad at Dumbledore for asking you in the first place.”

Hermione smiled back, glad he'd come to terms with it. “Join the club Harry, I've been mad at him from the beginning, for involving you.”

Before Dumbledore sat back down, he had one more thing to say, “And last, but certainly not least, I'd like to thank all the students who participated in the task by being a hostage for one of the champions. If the eight of you would please stand so we can all show our appreciation.”

Harry looked around; Cedric had rescued Cho instead of a seventh-year girl named Maria something, an older friend of his. Fleur had left behind Roger Davis, her date to the Yule Ball and her sister Gabrielle. Although it was plain to see, she would have taken her sister if she'd been able. The odd one was Viktor. He had saved a younger boy named Petar and had left Alicia Spinnet behind. Harry would find out later, That Petar was the younger brother to Viktor's best friend back home. The last thing Harry noticed was that none of the hostages who were left behind, looked nearly as upset as Ron did.

oOoOo

As regular classes started back up the following Monday, things slowly returned to what passed as normal for Hogwarts. After a fun-filled two-hour lesson with Professor Snape down in the dungeon, Harry, Neville, and Hermione were in a hurry to get out of there. Rounding a corner a little too fast on their way to dinner, they ran into Fleur, and nearly knocked her down.

“Oi, I am sorry, I was not looking where I was going... excusez-moi.” Fleur said quickly as she took half a step back.

Ron was angry with them again, and so had hung back with Dean and Lavender. Rounding the same corner were Harry and the rest were standing, he saw them talking to Fleur. He paused for a second as if he was going to say something, but then quickly hurried on, obviously angrier than before.

Harry and Hermione shared a quick look before turning their attention back to Fleur.

It had been a few days since the last task. Physically, Fleur was looking much better, but anyone who bothered to look more closely, could tell she was still troubled by recent events.

She still wasn't one of Harry's favorite people; she had yet to apologize for calling him a little boy and treating him like he didn't belong. However that didn't mean he was going to be rude to her, “No problem Fleur, we weren't being very carefully ourselves.”

Fleur gave a curt nod and said thank you, and started to move on.

“Fleur wait!” Hermione called after her. In that brief encounter, she had seen something familiar in the older girl's eyes; loneliness, and a burden that threatened to crush her. Hermione walked back a few steps and gently took one of the Fleur hands. “Are you all right?” She asked with genuine concern.

At first, Fleur was taken aback, why was this girl even talking to her, yet alone being nice? She knew of Hermione, but mainly, she knew Hermione was Harry's best friend and now girlfriend; a boy she'd made fun of not that long ago. As much as she wanted to pull her hand free, and turn up her nose and say, `of course I am you silly girl'... she couldn't. She glanced at the two boys who were watching them with curious interest, then turned back to the girl still holding her hand. “No, I am not, but what is one to do?” She finally answered softly.

Hermione bit her bottom lip, trying to think of something encouraging to say, without it sounding cliché.

“Miss Granger is it not?” Fleur asked.

Hermione nodded yes.

“Zank you, for your concern, Miss Granger.”

“Hermione, please call me Hermione.”

This time, Fleur nodded, “Vairy well... Eermione.” Fleur started to leave again, when a thought occurred to her. Turning, she looked at Harry for a long moment. Then seemingly, as if he had passed some unspoken appraisal, she walked forward and stood in front of him.

“Meester Potter, I owe you an apology for my rude and disgraceful treatment of you earlier. Please forgive me,” she said before bowing her head.

Now it was Harry's turn to look shocked. He took a quick peek at Hermione to see if she was as surprised, as he was. “Miss Delacour I...ah.” Harry paused to gather his wits, “look, considering the circumstances back then, I don't think an apology is necessary, but thank you anyway.”

“Au contraire Mr. Potter, bad behavior ees bad behavior, regardless of ze situation,” Fleur stated with force, “and don't forget, since zen, you ave proven me wrong more zan once.”

Harry glanced again at a smiling Hermione. “Very well, I accept your apology on one condition.”

Fleur stood up straighter as a brow ticked upward with a little suspicion, “And zat would be?”

Harry stuck out his hand to shake, and said, “That you call me Harry.”

After a brief look of surprise, the tension in Fleur's shoulders just seemed to evaporate, and she visibly relaxed. Reaching out, she gave Harry's hand a delicate shake and said, “I'd like zat.”

Every since she'd come back from the lake, Fleur had distanced herself from everyone. Hermione had often seen her sitting alone during meals. Once a confident; to the point of arrogant, witch, she had shrunk into a mere fraction of her former self. Hermione felt drawn to her, to help her. She didn't know why. Maybe she saw a little of her old self in her, or `maybe,' she thought, `because none of her so-called friends are willing to try.' “Fleur, why don't you join us for dinner?”

Fleur looked around skeptically, “zat is vairy nice of you to offer, but I am not sure zat is so good an idea.”

Hermione looked at Harry, asking for help with her eyes.

Harry understood immediately, and not needing an explanation, jumped in, “Not a good idea? It's a great idea... oh come on Fleur, you're not going to make a fellow champion beg... are you?”

Hermione and Neville both nodded in agreement.

Less than a half-hour later, after Fleur had finally relented, the small group sat down for dinner at their usual spot at the Gryffindor table.

It seemed at least half of the Gryffindors said hi, or had welcomed her to the table; a point that made not only Hermione proud of her house, but Professor McGonagall as well. The only one not happy with the newcomer at the table was Ron. He was still miffed at Harry for choosing Hermione over him, and now seeing Harry getting friendly with Fleur, a veela no less, only seemed to upset him more. He sat at the far end of the table with Lavender and Dean, and ignored anyone who chanced to look his way.

The topic of conversation around the table ranged, from what it was like to be the only female champion, to what it was like attending Beauxbaton Academy. Fleur was slowly loosening up, and for the first time in several weeks, she was actually enjoying herself. That all came to a crashing halt when Hermione accidentally stumbled upon what was really bothering her, Hermione had asked about her family.

Fleur immediately pulled back and tensed. Hermione berated herself for asking something so personal so soon. “I'm sorry Fleur, I didn't mean to pry... it's none of my business,” Hermione said, hoping her tone would convey her sincerity.

Like a cornered cat, Fleur quickly glanced around the table as if expecting someone to accuse her of a hideous crime. Tense beyond belief, she was ready to bolt. However, after a moment that seemed to stretch forever, she calmed marginally and managed to look more carefully at those around her. She saw nothing but genuine concern from all of them. They were all younger than her, and her regular friends by at least a couple of years or more, yet in some ways they were more mature. It was slowly becoming obvious to her; that when one of them needed help, or even just a little support, the others rushed in to give it.

For a moment, she didn't quite know what to think of what she would later call her new younger friends. Instinctively, she knew she needed to tell somebody if she was ever going to feel better. Taking a leap of faith, Fleur decided to tell them what was causing her so much grief. She would trust them, and hope that her trust was not misplaced.

“Eemagine my surprise, when I learned I'd ave to swim to ze bottom of ze lake. Mon Dieu! I am part veela, we are creatures of aeer and feere. We fear ze water!” Fleur went on to explain a little more about being veela. How she hated the way the veela part of her affected both men and boys. “Eet makes eet so difficult to find someone who can be zereself around you.” Fleur leaned over and whispered to Hermione that she didn't have to worry about Harry; he was unaffected by her charms. Hermione made a mental note to ask why later, and for that matter, why she even mentioned it.

Fleur then told them briefly about her home life and her parents. About how strict they were, and how protective her father was when it came to his two daughters. She told them how Gabrielle, her much younger sister cried herself to sleep after begging to be allowed to accompany her to Hogwarts; her parents had all but refused. They had cited the lack of supervision, and the dangers associated with the tournament. She told them how much she loved her little sister and couldn't stand to see her so upset, and how she had pleaded with her parents on Gabrielle's behalf, but to no avail. Fleur recounted how she had finally convinced them to let her go. Only after promising to watch out for her and to protector her at all cost, did they finally relent.

“And ze first time she is needing me... I fail her.” Fleur finished with tears running down her face.

Harry watched as Hermione pulled Fleur into a gentle embrace and whispered something in her ear. Fleur nodded in understanding as she cried into Hermione's shoulder. Soon the pair was wrapped up in two more pairs of arms, as Ginny and Luna joined her in comforting the older witch. Harry was proud of his friends, and after a glance at Neville, Harry knew he was too.

Harry had misjudged the French witch. From his first encounter with her, she had come across as pompous and arrogant, too good to associate with others lesser than herself. He knew now that most of that was just an act, a defense mechanism. She normally only acted that way when she felt threatened. The wizarding world was already overly chauvinistic, and she was a witch competing in what had always been a wizard-dominated tournament. Harry would have to give that some thought, as well as maybe talk about it with Hermione to get her point of view.

Harry definitely had to give her credit. She was the top student at her school, and was a veela; no wonder she acted that way sometimes. The attention, both good and bad tended to get to you after a while. Harry thought he could relate to that all too well. Once you got to know her and she relaxed a little, she was actually quite nice and polite. Also, as far as Harry was concerned; the fact that she cared so deeply for her family, was a huge plus.

Things settled down again, and the conversation turned light. It would seem they had a new friend in their group, and Harry smiled at the thought.

As dinner was coming to a close, and students were getting ready to leave, Harry noticed Dumbledore stand and approached the podium, it appeared the drama for the night wasn't over yet.

“Good evening students,” Dumbledore said. Smiling, he nodded to the assembly as the majority of the students responded in kind. “I see that you are almost finished with dessert, so I thought I would leave you with something to think about before you turn it.” Having piqued their interest, Dumbledore went on, “The fifth and second to last task, our champions will have to face, is set to start on the twenty-eighth of April, and will finish a few days later when the last champion has returned to Hogwarts.

Hermione turned to Harry and mouthed, `A few days?'

Harry just shrugged shoulders.

“Each champion will be given a Muggle backpack, filled with the things we feel will help them in the upcoming task. They will also be given a portkey that, at a predetermined time will transport them to a designated spot deep inside the Forbidden Forest.”

Hermione didn't like the sound of this; Harry and the others would be far away from the safety of Hogwarts... and far away from her.

Dumbledore raised his hands to regain everyone's attention. “There is more, if you care to hear it?” … silence. “There is a rub. When the champions Portkey away, they will leave their wands behind.”

This time, the noise level rose rapidly, as students competed to be heard. How will they perform magic? How will they survive in the forest without a wand? Were two of the most commonly heard questions.

“Silence!” Dumbledore all but roared. “There have been a great many times, when a witch or wizard has found himself in a situation where they could not, or at the very least, should not use magic.” Dumbledore looked off in the distance whimsically, “It's a wonderful thing... magic. But far too often, it is taken for granted.” Turning serious again, Dumbledore stared out at the students before continuing, “Our champions can, and will survive their trek through the Forbidden Forest as they make their way back home… even without magic.” Gesturing wide with his hands, he smiled and said, “That is why we have made this announcement so early, and why we will give them their backpacks tonight. So they may learn to use the tools given.” Dumbledore paused for a moment then, before stepped back away from the podium he finished, “Champions if you'd be so kind as to join me in the annex to claim your packs as soon as Professor McGonagall is finished.”

McGonagall rose and replaced Dumbledore at the podium, “Thank you Headmaster. The third and final set of demonstrations is also coming up. It will deal with Transfiguration and Arithmancy, and will be held on Saturday the twenty-fifth. Unlike the previous two demonstrations where the participants were paired up, each demonstration will be done individually, or in other words, there will be no partners. Therefore, there will be twelve separate and unique demonstrations.” After looking around to make sure she still had everyone's attention, she continued, “They should prove to be the most exciting ones yet. I hope all of you will attend.” As McGonagall finished, she nodded to the Hall, “Thank you.”

Harry was about to get up and follow the champions to the annex, when Hagrid approached.

“Ello Erry, Ermione.”

“Hello Hagrid,” Harry answered back with a smile. He had missed talking with Hagrid, with the tournament and all he hardly ever had any free time to visit.

“Erry, with the next task and all… well I just thought that maybe if you stopped by… I could tell ya some things about the forest that aint in a book, if you knows what I mean.”

Hagrid had seemed a little nervous or maybe reluctant to offer any help. Harry didn't know if it was because he felt out of place trying to teach him something, or if he thought it might give him an unfair advantage. Either way, it was a bit disconcerting to see the half-giant fidget, so Harry wasted no time in answering him.

“Sure Hagrid, I'm sure you know lots of stuff about the forest that would be dead useful for the next task.” Harry glanced at an eager Hermione, “Do you mind if Hermione comes with me?”

Hagrid relaxed a little and stopped shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Sure ya can, ya know you are both always welcome.”

Hermione smiled, “Thanks Hagrid.”

Harry looked up, the others were already gone, “Well I best hurry before Dumbledore gets mad.”

Harry stood quickly and chased after the other champions, while Hermione watched him go with concern and worry already growing in her eyes.

Hagrid gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder, “Don't you worry none Ermione, Harry a lot tougher than he looks. And a far better wizard than that other lot too I'd wager.”

Sitting across from them, Neville and Ginny shared a glance, both thinking the same thing, `Here we go again.'

oOoOo

Hermione sat in the common room, nervously tapping a quill against a blank piece of parchment. Admitting defeat, she closed her Transfiguration textbook; work on her demonstration would have to wait a little longer.

At the sound of the portrait hole opening, Hermione looked up. “At last,” she sighed.

Harry spotted Hermione sitting at her favorite table and went straight to her. He knew, she'd want to talk, and he was happy to oblige. Sitting down across from her, Harry spotted the blank parchment. Raising one eyebrow, he asked, “Please tell me that's not my fault, you're not worried already are you?”

Hermione put the telltale parchment away. “Of course it's not your fault Harry... it's Dumbledore's,” Hermione smirked, “and don't be a prat, you know I'll worry... at least till it's all over.”

Harry reached across the table and took one of her hands in his. After a gentle squeeze, he looked her in the eye and said, “Sorry Hermione.” Harry looked down at the table and shrugged his shoulders, “I guess I'd rather... well I rather see you happy, instead of worrying about me or this stupid tournament.” A second later Harry sighed, “I hate what it's doing to you.”

Hermione leaned across the table and gave Harry a gentle kiss, “That's sweet Harry, thank you.” Hermione wrapped her other hand around their already joined ones, and with a soft smile went on, “Oh Harry, if it wasn't this tournament, I'd be worrying about you and that crazy broom you love so much, or whether you'd finished your homework or not. It's just me. It's how I am... I care about you, so I worry.” A moment later, Hermione's smile grew and she continued, “That's not all I do you know? I can be happy too… like now.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed softly.

Harry stared deep into her brown eyes, they were warm and caring, and he saw the truth. She was happy. After a second of silence, he said simply, “Yeah... I'm happy too.”

Before the heat on her face could rise any further, Hermione pulled her hands free and gestured to the pack, “Well, let's have a look then.”

Between the closeness, the handholding, and the subtle implied deeper meaning of happiness, the air had grown thick with emotion. Funny he thought, he could face a dragon, and she was as smart as they came, but despite their closeness, even in their new relationship, they both still had a little trouble talking about their feelings for each other. Now was not the time for such things anyway, it was obviously that Hermione felt the same way judging by how she quickly steered the conversation onto a new path.

Chuckling, Harry lifted the pack onto the table and began pulling items out one by one. “Right... well let's see,” Harry said, as he glanced at Hermione. He smiled when he noticed her face had already started to return to its normal color. “A map and compass, I suppose I'll need them in order to find my way back. Some rope, a sheet of plastic, a candle, and a small blanket; could be handy.” Harry paused, Hermione had opened the map and was already studying it. “Anything interesting?” He asked.

Hermione looked up, “Umm… oh, loads but will get back to it later. What else?”

Harry smiled, Hermione was in study mode, she was indeed happy. “Well...ah, a piece of flint and a steel striker,” Harry looked up, “for starting fires I suppose.” Then, after opening a small tin containing some fragile, blackish looking material, he said, “And this,” Harry tilted the tin towards Hermione, “Dumbledore called it `char cloth,' whatever that is.”

Hermione leaned forward to examine the contents of the tin more carefully. “Hum, no idea, but don't worry, we'll figure it out.” Hermione bit her lip as she thought for a moment, “Maybe Hagrid will know.”

Harry nodded, “Yeah, maybe. We'll take it with us tomorrow when we go see him. Oh, we should take the map too. I'll bet he can point out some places that aren't even on it.”

“That's a great idea,” beamed Hermione, “after all, who knows the Dark Forest better than Hagrid.”

Harry nodded before pulling out the last few items, “And one large knife, a small Muggle first-aid kit, and two canteens, oh, and just before we leave they're going to give us some food,” Harry finished.

Hermione nodded while staring at the knife and hoping he wouldn't need to use it as a weapon. Shaking the thought off, she asked, “Can you take anything else, besides your wand I mean?”

“Just some clothes and toiletries,” Harry answered. As he sat there watching Hermione, he knew there was more bothering her, “What is it Hermione?”

She looked up and saw the concern in his eyes. `He's getting good at reading me,' she thought. After a moment of quiet, she sighed and said, “It's just that you're going to be so far away. You'll probably be far from the others as well. You'll be truly... alone. What if something happens?”

Harry smiled, “Well, I'll just Portkey back.”

Hermione blinked, then smiled, “They are going to give you a two-way Portkey?”

Harry nodded, “Yeah, but we are only to use it in an emergency. Doing so disqualifies you, and you get a score of zero for the task.”

“Still.”

“Yeah, still better than nothing.”

oOoOo

Harry had just come back from his morning run with Hermione, and was rummaging through his trunk looking for some clean clothes to take with him to the showers, when he heard someone quietly ask.

“Why her Harry?”

Harry hadn't expected anyone to be up yet. Turning, he looked around the room, Neville was already gone, and Dean and Seamus were still both asleep. It was Ron who had whispered the question. He was still in bed, propped up on one elbow staring back at him.

“Why did you leave me behind Harry?”

Harry mentally sighed, he really wasn't ready for this conversation yet, especially at this hour of the morning.

Since it was still early, and Harry didn't want to wake the other two sleeping boys, he quietly walked over and knelt down on one knee besides Ron's bed to talk. Harry started softly, “Ron, I'm sorry about that, I really am, but... I couldn't leave her.” Ron stared back emotionless, and said nothing. “You know, I did try to take you too.”

This seemed to get Ron's interest, and some of the hostility in his voice faded, “Yeah?”

“Yeah, but a mermaid stopped me. Said I could only take one.” Harry paused a second, “It was a hard decision Ron, but like I said I couldn't leave her.”

In fact, it was an easy decision, but Harry knew Ron would take it badly knowing that. Someday, in time when Ron was ready to hear it, he would level with him. He would tell him the real reasons, but for now, Harry was certain he wouldn't understand. Telling Ron the truth now would serve no purpose except to anger him more. If their friendship were ever going to recover, he would have to hold his tongue for now.

Ron looked down for a moment as if considering Harry's words. “You know, I really wasn't all that surprised. When you think about all that has happened since the start of term... I can see why.” Ron stared at Harry, he seemed to be struggling with something inside, finally he said, “You made the right choice Harry. I don't know why I got mad... again, but that's my problem, and I'll figure it out.” Ron looked down again, “Sorry mate.”

Harry was surprised, he hadn't expected him to be this understanding… Perhaps he had underestimated him. Regardless of the reason, he was glad that Ron wasn't mad at him anymore. Harry smiled, “No worries,” and as he stood back up, he added, “so, you going to join us for breakfast then?”

“Yeah Ron, why don't you join Harry for breakfast, that way the two of you can carry on like an old married couple, and the rest of us can get some more sleep,” teased Seamus.

Ron ticked his head towards their grouchy dorm mate, and after Harry nodded with a smirk, they both fired a pillow at him. That of course woke Dean, who wasted no time getting into the action.

Harry quickly left for his badly needed shower as a three-way pillow fight broke out.

oOoOo

As Ron sat down to eat, Ginny and Hermione shared look, both thinking the same thing, apparently there had been some sort of reconciliation between Ron and Harry. The pattern was starting to get old. Harry would do something that Ron didn't like, and he'd get mad. Then after a while, Ron would apologize, or Harry would reason with him, and they'd start talking again. It did seem that Harry was growing less forgiving, but it was also obvious that he hadn't given up on trying to restore his old friendship with Ron.

Hermione wondered what had happened recently to cause the current change, but knew that Harry would tell her about it later. `No use in risking a confrontation now,' she thought. Deciding on a different topic, Hermione asked, “So what's up with your brother Percy?”

“You mean Weatherby?” George butted in, stealing the question from his little brother.

Fred laughed, while Harry, Ron, and Neville smiled at the now infamous nickname Mr. Crouch had inadvertently given Percy. Ginny and Hermione just rolled their eyes at the boy's antics.

“Since they put him at the head table, you can hardly talk to him,” Fred said.

“Yeah, as if his head wasn't big enough. Why that barmy old codger Crouch put him in charge, I'll never know,” said George.

Harry looked around and then said, “That's just it... where is Mr. Crouch? Why is Weatherby… I mean Percy in charge?”

George snickered at his slip, while Hermione looked around completely ignoring it, “Good question Harry,” she said.

Fred turned serious, “Ever since he lost his wife, he's been a little off.”

“You know, we did talk briefly after the last task.” Harry looked thoughtful for a moment, “Said he knew all about family and loss. At the time, I thought he was just trying to be nice… you know?”

Hermione slipped her hand into Harry's and laced their fingers together and gave a little squeeze. Any time Harry talked about his parents even indirectly, he tended to get a bit down. She hoped to ward that off this time.

Harry turned and smiled at her knowing she was thinking about his feelings. She was quick, and always the first to be there for him. Once again, he was glad she was by his side.

Hermione smiled back, happy it had worked.

oOoOo

It only took a couple of days to go over everything in Harry's pack and figure out what they were and how to use them. After that, Harry started practicing with them. He practiced making fires without magic or matches. He got familiar with the map and practice navigation using the compass. With Hermione's help, he practiced building a shelter using some of the other things in the pack. However, all that, really didn't take too long to get the hang of, so they ended up spending most of their time with the map. They studied it very carefully, taking note of unique landmarks for orientation, and marking out areas that might be hazardous.

Feeling better prepared for the fifth task than he had for any of the previous ones, Harry relaxed a little. He found he had enough time to not only keep up with his regular schoolwork, but he also had plenty of time for his additional studies with Ancient Runes.

“You know, I'm quite proud of the way you're keeping up with all the work,” Hermione said one evening as she and Harry quietly worked on finishing an assignment. There was no doubt about it, Harry had changed. It could have been the tournament, but Hermione preferred to think that he was just growing up. Whatever the reason, Harry was taking not only school, but also his life, much more seriously, and she couldn't have been more proud of him.

Harry looked up from his halfway-completed essay and found Hermione staring at him. It was a new look for her, and Harry thought he rather liked it. “Thanks Hermione, but you know I would never have been able to do it without your help.”

Hermione balked, “Oh, I don't know about that.”

“It's true,” Harry insisted.

“Still,” Hermione countered.

Harry went back to work. A few moments later, without looking up, he said, “Well I didn't want to let anyone down.”

Hermione of course already knew that, but she also knew he was probably referring to her. “You haven't,” she said after a pause with a shy smile.

When Harry glanced back up, Hermione was already busy working again.

.

15

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

18. To Know Hermione


.

Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

.

Chapter 18

To Know Hermione

.

One of the things Harry loved about his morning runs with Hermione was the quiet solitude. They already spent a great deal of time together, working, talking, and occasionally just relaxing in each other's arms... so they ran mostly in silence. It was nice to be together sometimes and not talk, but just enjoy the other person's presence. For Harry, it gave him time to think about the girl running next to him. He liked to imagine that she was probably thinking about him at the same time.

Today, he was thinking that Hermione's next demonstration was getting close. All his regular schoolwork was done, in fact he was a little ahead. He almost laughed out loud when he imagined what the look on Ron's face would be if he told him. Since it was Friday, he'd be done with classes after two o'clock, and then he'd have until Sunday night to help her. `If she needs help, that is,' Harry thought.

Later as they were sitting down to breakfast, Harry asked, "Hermione, how's your next demo coming?"

Hermione scrunched her forehead as she answered, "Well, I've got all the problems solved except for two; one dealing with Arithmancy, and the other with Transfiguration."

Harry nodded as he thought about that for a second. "Either of them involve research? You know, like just looking things up?"

Hermione looked at Harry, wondering where this was going. "Actually yes, the Arithmancy problem. I'm trying to find the original solution to a rather nasty little equation."

Harry nodded again as he thought of a plan to help Hermione. "What if you concentrate on the Transfiguration problem, and let me do the research on the equation?"

"Harry, how are you going to do that? No offense, but you don't know much about the subject."

"True, but do I really need to?" At her confused look he went on, "look, write down the equation and what you already know, I'll start going through the books looking for anything that looks like what you may need. I don't have to understand it, to find it."

Hermione chewed her bottom lip, the way she did when she was thinking especially hard about something. Finally, after a minute she said, "No, I guess you don't, but what about your work?"

"All done. Actually, I'm ahead... so no problem."

Hermione's eyebrows inched upwards, "Really?" she asked skeptically.

Harry wiggled his eyebrows, "Yep, picked up this nasty habit from a friend of mine. Does come in dead useful at times though."

Hermione shook her head and laughed, "Prat."

"Yeah, but you still love me," Harry joked.

Hermione quickly changed the subject before her face gave her away, "Yes, well all right, I'll get you a copy of my notes after lunch."

Harry noticed both the yes and a quick change of subject, but didn't say anything else except, "Great! I'll get started right away. If you need me, I'll be in the library."

oOoOo

Following Harry's technique, Hermione decided to talk with one of her professors about her problem. Fortunately, for her, and unlike Harry's dealings with Snape, she happened to like this particular teacher. After a light knock, Hermione heard the unmistakable Scottish drawl of Professor McGonagall.

“Come in,” was all she said.

Hermione pushed the door open and entered, “Good evening Professor, I hope I'm not bothering you.”

“Of course not Miss Granger, please come in and have a seat.”

“Thank you Professor,” Hermione said, as she took one of the two seats next to a small table that faced each other. She decided she most definitely preferred McGonagall's office to that of Dumbledore's, it was far more inviting.

“Now, what can I do for you,” McGonagall asked, as two cups of tea appeared on the table.

Getting right to business Hermione started, “Well Professor, as you know from my proposal, I'm trying to improve the Disillusionment Charm with Transfiguration. McGonagall nodded as she took a sip of her tea. “With a moving object, like say a person, there are only two ways to become invisible, or nearly invisible… That's the problem. With an enchanted item like say a cloak, you can still be heard or felt, even your scent can give you away. While it's true that with a Disillusionment Charm those types of things are also masked, the masking is not perfect. For example, if you move and someone is paying close attention, they will notice a slight ripple or distortion in the air, again giving you away.”

As McGonagall sat her cup of tea down, she said, “I understand the limitations of both Miss Granger, but I fail to see how Transfiguration or Arithmancy applies, as both techniques fall squarely into the Charms category.”

“By using both at the same time,” Hermione said smiling.

McGonagall raised a brow, “I assume you are aware of what happens when you try to mix those two Charms.”

“Yes Professor, both involve powerful magic and when used together… They tend to react badly,” Hermione said.

“And you think there's a way to prevent that?” Asked McGonagall.

“I do,” Hermione started, “you see, I started looking into what was causing the interaction, but ran into a wall. There doesn't appear to be a way to stop it.” Hermione noticed the impatient look on her mentor's face, so hurried on with her explanation. “However, I also noticed that the reaction appears to be inversely proportional to the strength of the differential power of the two charms.”

McGonagall thought for a moment before asking, “So, are you suggesting that if someone used a very powerful invisibility cloak, and a very weak Disillusionment Charm… The reaction would also be very weak?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“Well I'm fairly sure the effect would also be fairly weak, so I fail to see the advantage.”

Hermione's face lit up, “Exactly right Professor, but what if we could keep both at full power, and trick one or the other into believing or behaving as if it were much weaker?”

McGonagall was intrigued, “Go on.”

“As you know, a charm can be perceived as weak, for two reasons; one, it is weak, or two, it's felt from a distance.” Forgetting she was talking to a professor, Hermione went into full lecture mode. “It's the second reason that I'm interested in. The Charm feels weaker from a distance because of the `Sphere of Influence' law; the influence of the Charm decreases by the square of the distance.” McGonagall nodded as Hermione went on, “If it's an enchanted item and you shrink it, you shrink the sphere of influence as well.”

McGonagall loved having intellectual conversations about theoretical magic. Unfortunately, she rarely got the chance as most adults lacked the intellect; never mind one of her students. “True, but anything outside that sphere will not be affected,” she added.

“Agreed, but I believe with the right modifications, the properties of one Charm can be added to the other, as long as they are both in contact with each other.” Hermione said excitedly before going on, “Modifying a Reducing Transfiguration Charm, to shrink the sphere of influence to an almost nonexistent size will eliminate any interference, and if done right, it will still transfer all of its properties at full strength.”

McGonagall sat back in her chair as she thought about all Hermione had just said. After what seemed like ages, she nodded and said with a savvy smile, “unorthodox, but yes, I think you might be right,” her smile turned serious as she continued, “but just what kind of modifications are you talking about, and how do you intend to apply them?”

Hermione sat her tea down and leaned forward, handing McGonagall a piece of parchment was several complicated arithmancy problems all worked out, except for one. “I have the theory worked out except for the last equation, I have Harry working on that,” she said as an afterthought.

That got McGonagall's attention, “Harry? Harry Potter?”

Hermione simply nodded yes as she leaned back.

“Miss Granger, are you telling me that Harry is… well is capable of doing Arithmancy now?”

Hermione's face showed her surprise, “Oh no. I mean no he's not. He's just doing the research, ah, trying to find the original equation for me.” McGonagall relaxed a little. “Although maybe he'll take…”

“Miss Granger,” McGonagall said quickly, interrupting her favorite student, “let's see how he does with Ancient Ruins before starting him on Arithmancy.”

Hermione saw the mirth in her eyes, and realized she had gotten slightly carried away. Turning a little red, she smiled and said, “Yes… Of course.”

Returning to the main subject, McGonagall asked “So, after Harry finds the equation, then what?”

“Well, I'm fairly confident I can break it down and use only the parts I need.”

“Then all you'll have to do is apply the changes to the Transfiguration.”

“Yes, exactly… But I'm having trouble finding any reference to that type of modification. Hence my visit tonight.” Hermione said in a hopeful tone.

“Well it's nice to know there are still some things you don't know, and that I can teach you,” McGonagall half joked.

Hermione smiled at the indirect praise.

McGonagall got up and walked over to one of the many bookshelves around her office. After a brief search, she pulled a rather large tome from the shelf and returned to her seat. Before handing it to Hermione she asked, “Do you have any ideas as to where the answer may lie?”

Hermione sobered, “Well obviously in a more advanced course, maybe even in a mastery's course. As for the topic, I was thinking Interdimensional Transfiguration.”

McGonagall raised a brow, clearly impressed, “I should have known you'd be aware of that particular obscure branch of Transfiguration, and you may very well be spot on. However, I think you may also find the answer in Trans-dimensional Transfiguration. Additionally, it has the advantage of being far easier to learn.” McGonagall said, as she handed Hermione the book she'd been holding.

oOoOo

“Never thought I'd find you here,” Neville said as he sat down across from Harry.

True, he didn't spend much time alone in the library, but he was spending more time here nowadays. Harry looked up to an amused look on his friends face. “What? I know how to read!” Harry smirked.

Neville returned his smirk, “Yeah, and I know how to fly a broom, but you don't see me playing Quidditch.”

Harry laughed, “All right, if you must know, I'm helping Hermione.”

Neville cocked his head a little confused, “Shouldn't that be the other way around?”

“Humm, does seem backwards, doesn't it,” Harry mused while pretending to look deep in thought. “So what's got you in here then?”

Neville smiled shyly, and quickly glanced around making sure no one was listening. “I was wondering if you knew Luna's birthdate?”

Harry nodded slowly and leaned forward, “I see…”

Neville gave Harry a look that clearly said, `Don't go there.'

Harry chuckled, “Okay fine… But I'm sorry mate, I don't know,” at Neville's disappointed look he added, “tell you what though, I bet Hermione does, I'll ask her as soon as I see her.”

Neville brightened up, “Thanks mate.”

To Neville, it still felt kind of strange to call Harry `mate', but times like these only seemed to reaffirm that Harry was indeed a good friend. He could have easily taken the mickey out of him for fancying Luna, but he didn't. Harry seem to understand him better than anyone else at school, and just accept him for who he was. He never gave him a hard time about being slow with magic; although he was getting better all the time, thanks to both Harry and Hermione. Nor did he give him any grief about liking the girl that most others called, `Loony'; that alone, was enough for Neville to call Harry a good friend.

“So you need a hand?” Neville asked, “I've got about an hour free.”

Harry thought for a second, then said easily, “Okay, sure.” Pointing to an equation Hermione had written down on a piece of parchment for him, he added, “Try and see if you can find any reference to this.” Then he handed Neville the next book from a tall stack sitting next to him.

oOoOo

Monday morning at breakfast while Hermione was going over the notes that Harry had given her on his findings for the elusive arithmancy equation, Harry watched as Cedric got up and walked over to where Viktor was sitting. After what appeared to be a short conversation, both then got up and walked over to join Fleur at her table. A moment later, the three of them rose and made their way towards him.

Hermione smile grew as she read the third to the last note, she was positive it was the solution to her last problem. Not only had Harry found a reference, but he had managed to find the entire solution to the original equation. Looking up, she beamed at Harry, “Harry! You did it, you found…” Her voice faded and her smile fell as she too noticed the trio approach.

Hearing Hermione's excited voice, Harry turned to look at her. Seeing her concerned look, he gave her a slight shake of his head with a raised brow.

Hermione nodded once in understanding; he didn't know what was going on either.

Neville watched their whole silent exchange, then shook his head and muttered, “Amazing.”

Hermione's look of concern, was also noticed by the three champions as they arrived at the table. Victor looked mildly confused, not understanding what she had to be worried about, they weren't there to hurt Harry after all.

It was Cedric who spoke, “Harry, we were wondering if you had a few minutes? We like to talk about the next task… alone.”

Harry looked at Hermione for a moment, then down at the notes she was still holding. He smiled, “Do you really think I found something that'll help?”

Hermione instantly relaxed and smiled back. She reached over and touched his hand, “Yes, I'm sure of it.”

Even with all that was happening, he had been paying attention to her, and even now was putting her first. Hermione glanced over his shoulder for second before returning her gaze to him, reminding Harry of Cedric's request. “We'll talk about it later Harry, okay?”

Harry knew, the `it' was a reference to both his notes, and his upcoming conversation. He gave her hand a quick squeeze, “Sure, meet you in class.” Then Harry turned and stood, “So… What's up?”

As a group walked away, Fleur looked over her shoulder and said to Hermione with a smirk, “Ah, don't worriee Ermionee, we will bring im back in… ow do you say… one piece?”

As Hermione felt her cheeks start to redden, she quickly got busy with Harry's notes again.

From across the Hall, Draco watched with a growing curiosity as the quartet left through the main doors. Potter had surprised him. Draco had expected him to fail terribly, but not only had he managed to stand his own with students far older than him, he also managed to make friends with them as well.

When Draco had written home to his father about the tournament and the events surrounding Harry, he expressed his personal thoughts on the situation. No matter how hard he tried to see him as a cheat and a liar, he couldn't. It just didn't add up. He had even gone so far as to ask his father if maybe he thought that Potter might actually be telling the truth. His father's response had surprised him. He didn't seem to care whether or not he had cheated, or lied to get in. He didn't even care how he was doing, good or bad. His father told him not to interfere. He was to just watch and report back and nothing more. That was the funny part; his father told him to report on Potter, why, if he didn't care? Knowing his father, he'd say he had some kind of business deal going on, but what, he had no clue. His father had never been very open, in fact just the opposite. He had always been very quiet and secretive about both business and family matters. Draco figured, that if he was ever going to find out what was going on, he'd have to do it on his own. If Potter could act a little more mature, then so could he. `I'm going to have to be less antagonistic,' he thought, `or I'll never learn anything.'

As much as he hated to admit it, he had to give Potter credit. One thing for sure Draco thought, he was going to stop underestimating the boy-who-lived.

oOoOo

It was fairly late Sunday night in the common room and besides Harry and Hermione, There was only one other couple still up studying. Harry was putting the finishing touches on a Charms paper that was due Thursday, and Hermione was working on her Demonstration.

Now that she had the answers to both the Arithmancy and Transfiguration problems, all she had to do was work out the final steps, and she'd be ready to give her last demo next Saturday.

Harry closed his book and put his work away, and then sat back. Harry smiled as he watched Hermione work. It was a little game of his; trying to figure out her mannerisms as she worked. Actually, it was quite interesting. He was beginning to notice little patterns, Harry wondered briefly if she was even aware of them herself. If she bit her lower lip; it meant she was thinking about a problem, but if she chewed on it; that meant she was going over all the different possibilities. Tapping her quill, meant she was composing her thoughts before committing them to parchment. The one he was still a little vague on, was when she chewed on the end of her quill. Since she usually looked kind of distant when she did that; Harry figured maybe she was thinking of an alternate theory or solution… or something like that.

Harry had seen her work like this many times, but tonight she seemed a little more driven, more… intense. He knew she always worked hard on her studies; her grades proved that, and Harry would be the first to say how proud he was of her. Tonight however, she was more than just working hard, Hermione was on a mission. This demo was obviously more important to her that he thought.

Harry thought back to the conversation they had a few days ago about her coming in second after the last demo. She had admitted that it had bothered her, but that she would get over it. `It's really not that big a deal Harry,' she had said before changing the subject. He had let it go, not wanting to upset her, but Harry felt pretty sure there was more to it than she let on.

Harry hated to bother her, but he felt this was important. Sitting up, he called to her, “Hermione, can I ask you something?”

Hermione looked up curiously, “Sure.”

“I know we talked about this before, but…”

Hermione sat her quill down, “What?”

“Your third demo is coming up,” Harry fidgeted, “are you worried… I mean not about the demo, but rather… you know.”

“You want to know if I'm worried about finishing in first place.” Hermione finished for him, with just a hint of irritation that he thought she was so vain.

“Yeah… ah kind of.” Harry hesitated a second, “Look, I know you don't care about medals or even the recognition.” Harry looked away, “But I still think it's important to you somehow,” Looking back, he went on, “I just was wondering why?” Harry could see the thought of talking about it bothered her, “Never mind, it's none of my business.”

Hermione relaxed, Harry didn't think she was vain, just curious, and concerned; she should have known. “It's okay Harry…”

Since their talk a while back, Hermione had been doing a fair bit of thinking about that very topic. It was something she normally kept buried in the far reaches of her memory, But Harry had noticed. Hermione thought sometimes Harry knew her better than she knew herself. He was only asking out of concern for her, and he was being so patient. Maybe it would help to talk about it.

Looking down she started playing with a loose thread on her skirt. “All my life for as long as I can remember, I've loved to read. I didn't necessarily like to study, but I did because I loved to learn new things.” Hermione stood up and walked over to the fireplace. “All that reading and studying drove a wedge between me and the other kids my age. They resented me for knowing more and being smarter than they were. They pushed me away and called me names. And… in turn, I resented them for not understanding, and for the way they treated me. Each year it just got worse, pretty soon the gap between us was so wide there was no going back.”

Hermione went on telling Harry things about her early childhood she'd never told anyone else, not even her parents. Things like; being locked in a school closet so she'd miss a test, or having all her books taken and thrown in the rubbish bin. She stood facing the fire, arms crossed defensibly over her chest. She had started crying, but hadn't noticed. Old unpleasant memories from long ago painfully brought back into the present. She didn't know why she was telling Harry everything now, but she knew she could trust him, and somehow it made her feel just a bit better for doing so.

Harry stood and went to her. Standing behind her, he wrapped his arms around her middle and held her. He suddenly felt horrible for bringing it up. “Hermione, I'm sorry, I didn't…”

“I know…” Hermione stayed quiet for moment collecting her thoughts. When she finally spoke again, it was in a near whisper. “I sacrificed a lot; all the things that most little girls do… together. Sitting around talking, playing… having friends. I could have played dumb.

Harry gently turned her around and took hold of both her hands. He didn't say a thing, not yet, he knew she wasn't finished. He just gave her a sad smile, and waited patiently.

Hermione looked down at their joined hands. Using her thumbs, she started subconsciously rubbing little circle on the backs of his hands. “I guess, I just need to know… that it wasn't all for nothing.”

Harry shook his head slightly, “They were too young to understand, but now you have friends who do.” Harry pulled her close into a gentle embrace. Hermione relaxed into him and brought her arms up around him.

He held her with one arm, while with his free hand, he started running his fingers through her hair. “I don't know much about your life before Hogwarts, but I do know; you are the most amazing person I've ever met. So… as far as I'm concerned, it definitely wasn't for nothing.”

Hermione sighed, she loved it when he played with her hair, and she wondered if Harry knew just how much his touch affected her.

“I told you before; you are going to win this, and then you… and the rest of the school will finally know what I know.

Hermione squeezed Harry tight, and after a little sniffle said, “You're good at this you know.”

Harry tipped his head down to look at her, “What?”

“Making me feel better,”

Harry smiled and gently squeezed her back, “Ah… Well then good.”

oOoOo

Hermione stepped down from the platform with a huge smile on her face; her transfiguration demonstration had gone exceptionally well. After casting the final spell, her modified Disillusionment Charm, Hermione had quite literally disappeared; not even Dumbledore could detect her. There were probably only a hand full of people who even remotely understood her theories, but the final effect was still amazing.

Now for Hermione, her direct involvement in the Triwizard Tournament was over. All she had left to do, was somehow get Harry safely through the rest of his.

The first to greet her, were Ginny and Luna. “Merlin Hermione, when did you learn all that,” Ginny said excitedly, “I mean… Well I've never even heard of Trans-dimensional Transfiguration.”

Luna answered for her, “That's what happens when you read as much as Hermione does.”

Hermione rolled her eyes, “I don't read that much.” Then after the looks her friends were giving her, she laughed, “Fine, I read a lot.”

By now, the boys had gathered around her as well. “Hermione, Dumbledore reads a lot… You, on the other hand…” Ron stopped and smirked, she knew what he meant.

“Well, all I know is it's a good thing she does,” Neville said before going on, “or else some of us would be taking fourth-year over again.”

Fred dropped an arm around Hermione's shoulder as George cozied up on her other side. “You are going to teach us some of this… Trans… whatever stuff, right?” The second twin asked.

“I don't know… Professor McGonagall made me promise,” Hermione answered seriously, but with a huge smile on her face.

Fred gasped, “You didn't?”

“Well,” Hermione started, “if I were given the right… Incentives.”

Fred and George both roared with laughter. “Oh, I like this one.” George said.

“Certainly has good potential,” added Fred.

Hermione finally managed to slip away from the twins and all their commotion. She took a step towards the last person in the group who had yet to say anything. Hermione didn't consider herself vain. That's probably why it didn't matter to her, how much praise she got. Harry's opinion however, mattered. For some reason, she needed to know, good or bad, just what he thought. Hermione stopped and stood just a couple of feet in front of him and waited.

Harry had watched her come down the steps, Happy and ecstatic. He watched Hermione accept her well-deserved praise gracefully. She had worked so hard on this last demonstration, and it showed; hers was easily the best, and even though he was biased, he was sure most everyone else felt the same. Now she was standing expectantly in front to him. `Is she waiting for my approval?' He wondered.

Harry wasn't going to make her wait long, no, she deserved better than that. In fact, she deserved more than just his approval he thought. Harry closed the distance and wrapped his arms tightly around her in a hug. A moment later, he released her to arm's length, but held both her hands in his. “Hermione… That was brilliant… No, more… It was bloody brilliant,” Harry said excitedly.

Hermione smiled and said softly, “Thank you Harry, but I did have help you know. You, McGonagall, and even Neville. You all contributed.”

“Hermione, McGonagall gave you a book, and Neville and me, well… Heck, we didn't even know what we were reading half the time.” Harry shook his head, “No Hermione, this was all you. This is the Hermione I know, and I couldn't be more proud of her.”

It was Hermione's turn to pull Harry close and after an all too brief kiss, pulled him into a hug, as she whispered into his shoulder, “Thank you Harry.”

oOoOo

Settling down to dinner later that evening, Hermione couldn't help but notice Harry was fairly quiet. “Harry, is everything all right?”

Harry turned and looked at Hermione a little confused, “Huh?”

“Honestly Harry. I asked if you were all right, you looked a little lost.”

“Oh, sorry. Yeah, I'm all right… I was just thinking about the demo.”

Hermione sat her fork down and raised a brow, “Really? What about exactly?”

“The Arithmancy,” Hermione waited for him to go on, and was about to ask him what he meant exactly when he suddenly got excited. “Hermione, there's so much I don't know.”

“Harry, that's true for everyone.”

“I know… What I mean is…” Harry stopped for a moment to gather his thoughts. “It's not, that I don't know Arithmancy, but rather, it's that I don't even know what all it can be used for, what it's all about. How would I know if it's something I should learn or not? Maybe I…”

“Hold on Harry,” Hermione interrupted, “there is no way you have enough time to start learning Arithmancy.”

“But what about just a brief introduction,” Harry asked seriously.

Hermione couldn't help but feel exasperated by the irony of the situation. Last year she could barely get Harry to do his homework, and now she was trying to keep him from overloading himself. “Harry if you try to take on too much, your grades will suffer. Better to do well in the subjects you already have, then to do poorly in all of them just so you can add one more.”

Harry sat still as he considered her words. He had to admit, she was probably right, and she had never led him astray before. Harry slowly nodded his head, “Yeah, you're right of course,” then with a smirk, Harry couldn't resist adding, “but if I had a time Turner…”

Hermione had to laugh as she shook her head, “Oh yes, because that worked out so well for me.” `Well at least he understands,' she thought. “Let's see how you do with Ancient Ruins first.”

Harry smiled, “Deal.”

A short while later as everyone was finishing dessert; McGonagall rose and walked to the podium. Without needing to say a word, the Hall quickly quieted down.

McGonagall gave the Hall a curt nod and began, “Well, it would seem that the whole of you have either become clairvoyant… or you're just very anxious for the final scores.”

Dumbledore chuckled, while Professor Trelawney smiled, happy about the reference to her art.

As if reading her mind, McGonagall turned to her cohort, “Sorry Sibyll, but in this case I do believe it's the scores they are interested in.” Turning back, McGonagall just looked around the Hall, seemingly drawing out the suspense as long as possible.

`Well, it seems Dumbledore is not the only one,' Harry thought, referring to being a showman.

“The final scores were close, as all the competitors did an excellent job,” she finally began, “as I call your names, please stand up.” McGonagall pulled a scroll from her robes and began to read, “From Beauxbaton, Miss Collette Antwanet, Miss Nicole Lescuier…” McGonagall continued on, reading all the names of the original twenty-four competitors.

“Hogwarts, honored guest, and fellow colleagues, please join me in applauding their efforts,” McGonagall finished, and then joined the rest as everyone clapped and cheered. When the Hall quieted down, she continued, “Even though our four champions still have two more tasks ahead of them, your part in the Triwizard Tournament is complete. All of you, regardless of your individual outcome should be as proud of yourselves, as I am of all of you.” McGonagall made the effort to look each in the eye, if only for a moment.

As Professor McGonagall was calling out the names, Professor Sprout and Madam Hooch were handing out certificates of participation to each student.

As soon as all the participating students had their certificates, McGonagall spoke again, “Again, thank you all for making the Skills and Knowledge Demonstration's part of the Triwizard Tournament, such a success. Now I would like to ask the twelve students who participated in the last two demonstrations to remain standing for a moment, the rest of you may be seated.” McGonagall paused for a few second to allow everyone a chance to settle. “Of the twelve students standing, it was decided to honor the top six, our finalist, with a special award. In addition, we also would like to give a special award to the youngest competitor, something, which we hope will become a tradition. This year, that award goes to Miss Luna Lovegood.” McGonagall tipped her head, “Congratulations Miss Lovegood,” she said warmly as the rest of the hall clapped, and a few Gryffindors cheered.

“And now for our finalist,” Professor McGonagall started again, “if I call your name please remain standing, the rest, if you would please take your seats.

.

.

“Miss Marcelle de Louvres.”

“Miss Nicole Lescuier.”

“Mr. Miroslav Demetrius.”

“Mr. Petar Svetuslav.”

“Miss Hermione Granger.”

“Miss Cho Chang.”

.

.

“As you can see, we have ended up with two students from each school, I think that speaks well of the professors from all the schools.

Before she could go on, the Hall broke out in cheers showing their support. Sparks could be seen flying off the staffs of several Durmstrang students as they tapped them on the stone floor showing their agreement. McGonagall raised her hands for quiet, “I think I can safely speak for my fellow professors when I say, thank you.” She then gave the Hall a small bow.

“Now after I call your name again, and you have received your award, you may sit back down.” The award was a small bronze medallion hung on a blue ribbon. McGonagall cleared her throat and began, “In sixth place with a final score of one hundred and fourteen, Mr. Petar Svetuslav.” Petar's fellow Durmstrang students cheered for their classmate.

“In fifth place with one hundred eighteen points, Miss Cho Chang.” This time it was the Hogwarts students cheering.

“In fourth place with one hundred nineteen points, Mr. Miroslav Demetrius.” After the noise died down, McGonagall continued, “In third place with one hundred and twenty points, Miss Nicole Lescuier.” Finally the Beauxbaton were up on their feet and cheering.

McGonagall paused and clapped as well until the Hall again fell silent. “Well it would seem as though we are down to our last two finalists… Well done, both of you,” McGonagall said as she gave the last two girls standing a nod of appreciation.

Harry looked up at Hermione, and although he thought she deserved to win; and had no doubts that she wouldn't, he would still be proud of her either way.

McGonagall smiled, “Our runner-up… In second place with a final score of one hundred twenty-two points…”

Harry smiled to himself while thinking; that if McGonagall didn't get on with it, Hermione was likely to pass out from hyperventilating.

“From the Beauxbaton Academy, Miss Marcelle de Louvres,” she finished quickly.

Hermione bounced on the balls of her feet, and let out a little squeal of excitement as her barely contained emotions ran wild.

Marcelle was standing only a few feet away from Hermione, and after receiving her award walked over and gave her a hug, “Congratulations Hermione,” she whispered in her ear. Hermione, still shaking with raw energy, could barely manage a thank you, she was so nervous.

“Miss Granger, if you would please join me up on the stage please,” McGonagall asked sternly, as if Hermione might just decide it was all too much and try to make a run for it.

Hermione wanted to move, but her feet seemed unwilling and stayed rooted to the floor. A second later and Harry was standing by her side.

Touching the small of her back, Harry said softly, “It's your turn Hermione, your time. Show them the Hermione I know.”

Hermione gave him a quick sideways glance, and in that instant, gained the courage to move. Up on stage as she approached McGonagall, her mentor took a half step to the side to share the podium with her.

McGonagall turned back to the Hall and with her left hand, gestured to Hermione, “Ladies and gentlemen in first place with a final score of one hundred twenty-five points, from Hogwarts, our very own Miss Hermione Granger.” The pride in her voice was evident for all to hear.

Harry, who had never sat back down yelled out, “Way to go Hermione!” While clapping like a madman. A split second later, and the rest of the Hall was standing and had joined Harry in cheering for the brown-haired girl some had called a bookworm.

While students and professors alike cheered and clapped, McGonagall turned to Hermione and placed a golden medallion hung on a silver ribbon, around her neck. Holding her at arm's length by the shoulders, McGonagall smiled through misty eyes and said, “Well done Hermione… well done.”

Hermione then did something totally uncharacteristic of herself, she pulled McGonagall into a hug, “Thank you Professor.” A second later, she pulled back, and turned to the Hall and took a bow. Then with a smile that split her face from ear to ear, Hermione held the medallion up high for all to see. Still beaming, Hermione bounced down the steps, but before her feet reached the floor, she was grabbed around the waist and spun in a circle.

Setting her down gently, Harry said in a gentle `I told you so,' tone, “And now they know… Congratulations Hermione.” Harry gave her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek, then stepped aside so everyone else could reach her. Ginny, Luna, Ron, and Neville all moved in, and one by one they each gave her a hug and a compliment. The real shocker was when Draco stepped up.

Looking completely out of place, he looked around nervously, then hesitantly reached out his hand, “Congratulations, Miss… Granger.”

Amazed and slightly shocked, Hermione also hesitated a moment before shaking his hand, “Thank you Mister… Thank you Draco.”

Draco seemed momentarily taken back by the use of his first name, however, he recovered quickly and gave Hermione a short nod and then quickly left.

Hermione glanced back at Harry who was still smiling, only to see him shrug his shoulders at the unexpected gesture from Mr. Malfoy.

oOoOo

They were nearly the last to leave the Great Hall. Harry had insisted on a second helping of desert, and then took his time eating it. Now, finally on their way, and Harry was walking so slowly, you'd think he was being led to the gallows.

“Harry!” Hermione wined, “it's been a long day and I'm tired, do you think you could pick up the pace a little please?”

“Sorry,” Harry said sheepishly, “must be the afters.” Harry started walking faster, he didn't want Hermione to get suspicious, or worse… mad.

A short time later, Hermione walked through the portrait hole to the last thing she expected.

“SURPRISE!” All of Gryffindor and at half of Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were there, all crammed in the common room. Most of the professors, including Snape were there too. Stepping further into the room, she saw a banner stretched over the fire place that read;

.

.

Hermione Granger

The Brightest Witch of the Age

Congratulations

We are all Proud of YOU!

.

.

Harry led Hermione on shaky legs over to the couch so she could recover from the shock, and a few minutes later, the second party of the month was in full swing.

Dumbledore and a few of the professors left fairly quickly after congratulating Hermione. Snape stayed a while longer talking to McGonagall, but still left early. The only Slytherin student to show up was Daphne Greengrass, and she left with Snape, apparently not quite ready to mingle with Gryffindors alone.

Hermione was happy to have won of course, trilled that all the hard work and long hours had paid off. However, what really excited her, was the show of support from her fellow class mates. Hermione was so overwhelmed, she had a hard time believing it all. Ecstatic, only just began to describe how she felt.

Harry had been right, and thinking of him brought a smile to her face. `He's done it again,' Hermione thought. He had managed to surprise her. Looking around, she sought him out. He was standing with Professor McGonagall talking about something, `I hope he's not trying to convince her into letting him take Arithmancy.'

Walking over, she stood next to him and wrapped her arm around his waist. “Hello Professor, Harry not in trouble is he?” she asked with a smile full of mirth.

McGonagall eyed Harry suspiciously, then gave him a rare smile, “No… not yet anyway, but the night is still young.”

Harry turned his head back and forth between Hermione and McGonagall. “Boy, you do one or two tiny little things wrong… and you're labeled a trouble maker,” he said with an overly exaggerated tone of exasperation.

Hermione and McGonagall looked at each other for a second, and then both busted out laughing. Harry had never seen his stern Head of House laugh before, but he thought he rather liked seeing her so happy… even if it was at his expense.

Regaining her normal composer, McGonagall said kindly, “You've done a fine thing here Harry.”

Harry smiled, “Thank you Professor.”

“And now, I'm afraid I must take my leave… papers to grade. Professor Flitwick will keep an eye on things for a while.” Then McGonagall took hold of Hermione's hands, and after slowly looking around the room, said, “As you can see, Harry is not the only one who is happy for you.” Smiling said added softly, “And as for me… well I'm very proud of you.” McGonagall released Hermione's hands, and quickly returned to her old self, “Now, I have work to do. Good night you two.”

“Good night Professor,” Harry and Hermione said together.

As soon as McGonagall was gone, Hermione pulled Harry to her and gave him a long lingering kiss. There were a few cat-calls and a whistle or two, but it didn't discourage her. “Don't slip away, I'd like to finish thanking you proper like, a little later, when it quiets down,” Hermione said with a saucy smile that reached from ear to ear.

Slightly stunned, Harry nodded once and with a goofy look on his face managed, “I'm not going anywhere.”

Later that night as Hermione was climbing into bed, she thought, Harry had been right about everything; it was worth it. All the hard work, the isolation when she was young. It was who she was, and for the first time, she was not only proud of her accomplishments, but of herself as well.

And the best part was, Harry was not only proud of her too, but he liked her just the way she was.

`I'm going to let him know, what a great boyfriend he really is,' with that last thought in mind, she drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face.

oOoOo

It was near the end of the month, a few days since Hermione's victory party. It was while they were sitting down to eat breakfast that Hermione noticed that look again on Harry's face… he was up to something. However, for now it was her turn to surprise him. Her look of curiosity turned into a tiny smirk as Hermione watched Hedwig land in front of Harry with a letter.

Harry took the letter and then turned to Hermione with an eyebrow raised after he noticed her familiar handwriting on the outside of the envelope. Hedwig also gave her the eye for a moment, wondering why she was even involved, before taking off back to the Owlery.

While looking at the Hermione, Harry asked, “Now, or later?”

Hermione just shrugged with a smile, “It's your letter Harry.”

Harry's other brow rose, “Okaaay.”

Harry then turned his attention to the letter. After sliding his thumb under the flap to open it, he pulled out the letter and began to read.

.

.

Dear Harry:

I know you were worried about whether or not you would be a good boyfriend, maybe you still are.

You know, most girls describe the perfect boyfriend something like this; He should be tall and maybe dark, and he should have lots of muscles. And of course, he absolutely has to be good-looking. Idiots… the lot of them. All they are thinking about is how they would look on his arm.

No matter whose name they bring up, or even anyone I think of; I always find myself comparing them to you. Now this is the important part Harry… Next to you, they all fall short.

Don't get me wrong, I too place a certain value on good looks and a nice physique. It's just not the most important part of someone that makes them attractive to me. I do most certainly think you're handsome, and I appreciate the way you are filling out, but that's just the icing on the cake. I like the way you look on the outside, but I love who you are on the inside. That's what makes a great boyfriend, and that's just what you are.

You know, I never thought I'd have a boyfriend, certainly not one as wonderful as you.

Harry, I really think that what you and I have is very special and unique, and most importantly, I think it will stand the test of time. I know for me personally, it's what I want more than anything. Yes, I know I'm young and have never had a boyfriend before, but I know what I feel, and being with you just feels so right… so perfect. You and I… we are different, yet at the same time… the same. That's why we work so well together. Our differences complement each other, while our likeness allows us to know each other so well.

Remember your dream about the future? Well that's my dream now too, and I'd like to see it come true. But regardless of what the future brings, there are a couple of things I want you to not only know, but to believe as well. I want you to know, that I'll never forget you no matter where life takes us. I want you to believe that you are a good person Harry Potter. You are kind, compassionate, and always willing to give of yourself… Never forget that.

I think you know me better than I know myself. Well I just wanted to tell you a few things I know about you.

Don't ever change Harry. I think you are perfect just the way you are.

Always and Forever

Hermione.

.

.

After Harry had finished the letter, he discreetly wiped at the corner of his eyes. It was without a doubt, the most caring thing anyone had ever written to him, or even said out load. When he turned to look at Hermione, He found her already staring at him through moist eyes. She had a gentle smile on her face that told him even more.

Harry swallowed hard trying to find his voice, “Did… do you really mean all this,” he asked while lifting the letter a little.

Hermione drew herself up and said softly, “Every word Harry,”

Harry stared at her a moment longer, and then glanced down at the letter clutched in his hand. Like he had done for her a while back; she had given him her written word about her feelings. Something he could hold onto and reread if needed. Proof of how she felt.

Without saying a word, Harry nodded to himself. Then he turned in his seat to face Hermione, and in a soft voice barely above a whisper said, “I'd like that too,” referring to his dream of the future.

Hermione's smile grew as a single tear leaked out and rolled down her cheek. She was happy he felt the same way.

Harry brushed the tear away, then with a smile of his own, leaned forward and kissed her.

.

19

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

19. Alone Without Magic


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

AN: I just want to say thank you for all the great reviews, they really help keep me motivated.

.

.

Chapter 19

Alone Without Magic

.

Hermione slowly cracked the door open, what she saw, made the smile on her face turn into a full-blown smirk. Harry, and all the rest the boys; Ron, Neville, Seamus, and Dean, were all still sound asleep. A couple were actually snoring. She had always found it ironic that there were protections in place to keep the boys from entering the girl's dorms, but she or any other girl for that matter could just walk right into the boy's rooms.

Hermione quietly stepped into the room. Looking around, she crinkled her nose at the sight. Clothing and school supplies were scattered everywhere, “Hmph, boys!” She mumbled. It wasn't the first time she'd seen the inside of Harry's dorm room, it had been a little messy those times as well. But this… this was a whole new level of sloppiness. The room looked as though a small bomb had gone off. Apparently, after last night's party, no one had cared where they had thrown their clothes while getting ready for bed.

Last night's party that was the second thing that Hermione found ironic; the Weasley twins had been born on April fool's day, April the first. It seemed that the two biggest pranksters since the Marauders, had taken their birthdate to heart and decided to use it as a template for the way they would live their lives.

Hermione had warned Harry and the rest of his dorm mates, that staying up to the wee hours of the morning was a bad idea. She had also warned them about sneaking in firewhisky as well. It had been the third party in a month. McGonagall had only allowed it because of the unusual situation with the Triwizard Tournament this year. However after last night's shenanigans, it would probably by the last for quite some time.

Later, after McGonagall had caught them and sent them all to bed, she decided she'd wake them early the next morning to teach them a lesson. Bright and early the following day as McGonagall made her way through the common room to administer said lesson, she ran into Hermione sitting on the couch reading. After a short discussion that left both grinning from ear to ear, she decided to let Hermione wake them after she had promised she'd do the job properly.

Raising her wand to her throat, she whispered, “Sonorus,” then with her smirk firmly in place yelled, “Rise and shine you lazy bunch of layabouts! Did you think you were going to skive off all day?”

The effect was immediate, and quite hysterical to watch. Ron, seem to roll and jump at the same time, resulting in him landing face down on the floor. Neville, flinched away and fell into the space between his bed and the wall with his blankets falling on top of him covering him completely. Hermione wasn't sure, but she thought she heard Dean bang his head on his bed's canopy right before he let loose with a few colorful swearwords. By the time she turned to Seamus, all she saw was a nearly naked boy sitting on the edge of his bed, bent over with his hands covering his ears.

Hermione leaned back against the wall and slowly slid to the floor, laughing so hard she could hardly see through the tears.

“Bloody hell Hermione, have you gone barking mad,” whined Ron, in a strangled voice. “What time is it anyway?”

Catching her breath, Hermione answered matter-of-factly, “Seven o'clock.”

“What? Are you off your nut Hermione?”

Dean apparently agreed with him, “You have to ask? She's completely nutters.”

It would seem, that four hours asleep after a hard night of partying wasn't enough. “Aw… Did I wake you too soon?” Hermione asked in a singsong voice.

Dean flopped back down, and rolled over with his pillow covering his head, while Seamus just shook his head in disbelief. Neville has started snoring again, obviously quite comfortable on the floor where he was.

Ron slowly got up and crawled back to his bed. “Don't get cheeky Hermione, now bugger off and leave us be,” he said as he pulled the covers up over him, intent on joining his roommates in getting a couple more hours of sleep.

“Hey… Wait a minute,” Hermione said suddenly as she turned her gaze on Harry's four-poster bed. He hadn't said a word, not even made a noise. “How come Harry…”

“Silencing Charm,” was all Ron said, after cracking one eye open and seeing her staring at Harry's bed in disbelief.

`Silencing Charm… Why on earth?' She thought. Then, as her curiosity got the better of her, she made her way over to his bedside and pulled the hangings back a little so she could peek inside.

Harry was sleeping peacefully. There weren't any of the usual signs of worry marring his face. Hermione smiled, laying there without his glasses on, he looked so content, and… handsome. She wanted to touch him, to caress his face, but she didn't dare. He'd wake for sure. Perhaps she had been wrong, maybe the party had been a good idea after all. It certainly had been good for him; it gave him the distraction he so badly needed for a good night sleep.

Hermione gently closed his hangings and then tiptoed from the room. Thanks to Harry, the other boys had earned a reprieve. She'd let them sleep along with Harry. Hopefully, Professor McGonagall would agree with her reasoning. Little did she know, that she would soon discover just how bad a night Harry sometimes had.

oOoOo

The room was dark and musty from lack of use. Cobwebs hung in the corners; it was obvious its current inhabitants had no intention of staying. Even though there was a fire burning nearby, the room was bitter cold.

“Everything is set; you have neglected nothing?” A harsh voice hissed in the darkness.

An excited, yet somewhat nervous voice replied, “Yes Master, everything is, as you have asked.”

“Good. I hope I'll not need to remind you of the price for failure.”

A sort of tall, wiry man bowed low, “No Master.” Without looking up, he hesitantly asked, “Master, forgive me, but would it not be safer to use someone else, must it be him?”

“Do you question my judgment,” came a low treating reply, chilly and sinister. Slicing the air like a knife through flesh.

“No Master! Of course not, I was only trying…”

The now cowering servant never got to finish before the other man… thing in the room whispered, “Crucio.” He said it with a reverence, the word wrapped in adoration.

The servant fell to the floor screaming as his body contorted and twisted in pain.

Harry bolted awake as he screamed out, waking himself from the dream. He coughed as he sucked in air trying to breathe, while his head swam. Covered in sweat his gut roiled, and he thought he might get sick. Harry reached up and rubbed his forehead where his scar burned hot. Sitting in the darkness within the confines of his curtained bed, he took deep breaths and tried to slow his pounding heart. Fear still gripped him, and the night seemed to squeeze in around him, but slowly the images of the nightmare started to fade. Untangling his legs from the blankets twisted around them, he got out of bed. Harry was so cold he was shaking, yet soaked in a sticky sweat. Putting his glasses on, he made his way to the bathroom to wash up a little.

Feeling marginally better he started down to the common room, he knew he'd never be able to get back to sleep even though it was still dark out.

Hermione wasn't sure what woke her up, perhaps some innate sense that something wasn't right. Crookshanks was already awake, he stood and jumped off the bed and after only a couple of steps stopped and looked back with anticipation. He too, knew something was amiss. Even though the castle was quiet, something was out of place. The night felt wrong and Hermione needed to find out why. Slipping out of bed, Hermione pulled on her robe and followed Crookshanks out the door.

With the fire already lit, Hermione knew someone was up. She stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched as Crookshanks ran and jumped up on the couch and onto somebody's lap. Hermione smiled, it had to be Harry; Crookshanks just wasn't that friendly with anybody else. As she moved towards him, she remembered the hour.

“Harry?” she called quietly, “you alright?”

Harry looked up with an uneasy smile, “Yeah… just a bad dream.”

Even in the dull light from the fire, Hermione could see it was more than just a bad dream. The soft firelight should have made his skin look warm and healthy, yet it didn't. Harry was deadly pale. Hermione went to him and sat closely at his side. She reached out and touched his forehead with the back of her hand. Harry didn't move, he didn't try to stop her. Hermione had done it all, like it was her right, and Harry easily conceded it to her.

He was cold and clammy, but mainly cold. She gathered him to her and then reached around behind them and pulled a blanket over them. “Oh Harry, what happened?” She'd wait until he was ready, before asking anymore.

Harry laid his head on her shoulder and snuggled in, he felt safe for the first time since waking. Hermione had come to him in the middle of the night when he had needed her the most. She hadn't been asked, nor did she know why, but she had come nevertheless. Harry reached his arm around her middle and gave her a gentle squeeze, “Thank you for being here.”

Hermione's arm was around his shoulder, and she squeezed back to say you're welcome without speaking.

A short while later, Harry spoke again, “I dreamt of him again… he was… torturing someone.”

Hermione turned her head and looked down at him, worried at what he might say next.

Harry sat up a little, “I woke up screaming… just like the man he was hurting. I… I just couldn't stay in bed.”

Hermione cupped his face, “Oh Harry,” she knew he sometimes had bad dreams, but she never realized the extent. Then remembering last week, she asked, “Wait, is that why you put up a Silencing Charm around your bed before you go to sleep… so you won't wake the others?” Harry just nodded. Hermione was upset and appalled. She was mad at herself for thinking that Harry had put it up so he could sleep without being bothered by the other boys. When in fact, he was only trying to keep from bothering them! Appalled, because it meant he had to suffer alone, that no one would know when he woke from a horrible nightmare. How many times had he woke up screaming, and nobody came to see how he was. Hermione told herself, she'd look into finding a way to help him in the future, but for now, he needed her here, and she had no intention of leaving.

As much as she hated the idea, Hermione couldn't think of anybody else who might be able to help or at least shed some light on the situation, “Harry, we should go see Dumbledore.”

Harry slowly nodded, “Okay, but not yet. I just want to sit here with you for a while…”

Hermione pulled him back into her arms, “Sure, we'll go later.”

oOoOo

It had been over a week since Harry's nightmare and their visit to see Dumbledore. Hermione still thought their headmaster was keeping something from them. He hadn't seemed at all surprised or worried, and had answered far too quickly. He told Harry again very casually, that he thought it was just the stress of the tournament making itself known. Hermione tried to reason out why he'd try to play down the importance of the dream. Could it not have been some kind of… vision?

Hermione had later discussed her concerns with Harry of course, but didn't push the issue to the point of making Harry worry. Now, with the task only a few days away, she couldn't help the feeling of anxiety that was starting to build. She also noticed, that her nagging little feeling that something was off; was again sitting in the bottom of her stomach.

oOoOo

Breakfast was a rather somber affair, not just for Harry, but for the entire Hall. For Harry, it was because today he would start the fifth task. For the rest of the Hall, it was probably because nobody really knew what to expect.

“Don't worry Harry, you've got the advantage,” Ron said. With Harry's questioning look, Ron explained simply, “You were raised Muggle.” Ron had been sitting with the group for a while now, occasionally accompanied by Lavender. The tension between him and the others was slowly fading, and even though Lavender and Hermione were polar opposites, they made an effort to get along as well. Lavender would often join Ron for meals, but occasionally, she would sit with Parvati a few spaces down. While neither had anything against Harry, they preferred their own brand of conversation, mainly gossip, instead of the usually more serious topics Hermione was normally known for going on about.

Harry thought about Ron's comment, and then said, “Yeah, a little I suppose.”

“You got a dark forest in Little Whinging Harry?” Neville asked laughingly.

Harry smirked, “No... but there are some dark creatures there.”

“Really Harry?” Asked Luna.

“Yep... Dudley and his gang.”

Hermione chuckled, “Really Harry. Mean, nasty, rude, and stupid, but I don't think they're dark.”

“Right, I get that mixed up sometimes.” Harry joked.

Hermione bumped shoulders with him and smiled before turning serious. “It's almost time Harry, how are you doing?” She asked hesitantly.

Harry turned and gave her his full attention. “Seriously... nervous... and scared,” he added softly.

“You'll do fine Harry, you're well prepared,” was all she could say. She didn't dare tell him how worried and scared she was for him. He would only worry more about her, and right now, he didn't need anything else to worry about.

“Good morning everyone,” Dumbledore began, “a quick reminder, champions you must be down at the viewing stands and ready to leave no later than eleven thirty... I hope you had a good breakfast. As for anyone else, after they have departed you may remain in the stands and follow along as they begin their task, or you may return here for lunch.” Dumbledore paused and took a sip of water, “Do try to remember, this will be a long event,” he stole a glance at the Gryffindor table, then continued, “I strongly recommend you do not make a vigil out of it in the stands.”

Ginny turned and looked at Hermione and thought, `Good advice, but I'll bet she'll do it anyway.'

oOoOo

Hermione stood next Harry, inside the small tent set up by the entrance to the maze. Unlike the dragon task, this time she would not be turned away. After Dumbledore and Percy finished giving the champions some last-minute instructions, Hermione pulled Harry aside.

Almost as nervous as Harry, Hermione started, “You're well prepared Harry, you can do this. Move quickly, but keep your eyes open and watch for any sign of trouble.” Harry nodded. “And Harry, use the Portkey if you have to. I don't care if you lose points, it's not worth… oh Harry don't try and be a hero… okay?”

Harry nodded again, this time with a smile, “I won't… I promise.” Then Harry pulled Hermione close and wrapped his arms around her. “I'll be okay… really.”

“Who knows how far away you'll be, how long you'll be gone,” Hermione said quietly.

“I'll be back as soon as I can,” Harry said honestly, “after all, I've got you to come back to… right?”

“Right.”

“Champions, please follow me so we may begin,” Dumbledore announced.

Hermione stood on her tip-toes and gave Harry a kiss good-bye, “I'll be here when you return.”

oOoOo

"Champions you will be scored not only on how fast you return, but more importantly, on how well you deal with any problems you may encounter along the way." Dumbledore peered over the top of his glasses at each of the champions in turn, to make sure they understood that it was not just a race. "Very well, at the sound of the cannon blast, you may activate your Portkey."

"Boom!”

Before the sound of the cannon blast had finished reverberating through the stands, Viktor and Fleur had vanished, Cedric quickly followed. Harry turned to survey the stands, seeking out one individual in particular. He found her sitting in the front row near the center of the stands. He locked eyes with Hermione, and after a second, she gave him a small nervous nod. Harry nodded back, and then activated his Portkey and a second later, he too disappeared in a swirl of color.

Hermione's nerves had been building all morning, but the instant Harry flashed away, they exploded into overdrive. She just couldn't help but feel, that she should be there with him. That together they were stronger, smarter, they were a team, `And a good one,' she thought.

oOoOo

Harry landed flat on his back, deep in the Forbidden Forest. `Great,' he thought, `I am no better at Portkey travel, than floo travel.' Standing up, Harry took in his surroundings. Nothing looked familiar, not that he expected it too. The only part that he found familiar with the part of the forest he'd seen in the past, was how dark and eerie it was. Harry figured he had about four hours of daylight, and since he didn't have a torch or a wand for light, traveling after dark would be foolish and dangerous. He would go as far as he could, and then stop and make camp before nightfall.

Harry knew the forest lay mostly to the east and northeast of Hogwarts, so because of that he knew he had to head in a westerly direction to get back. The problem was, there were several large areas that he wanted to avoid. Not knowing his starting position, he had no choice but to proceed west until he found a reliable landmark. For now, he would move with caution; he certainly did want to stumble upon a nest of Acromantula. Harry double-checked his pack to make sure he had everything, and then after getting a bearing from his compass, he started out. Every so often, he would stop and take a close look around for anything that might tell him where he was at, then he would recheck his compass to make sure he was still on course. Harry reasoned he would continue on like this until he had about a half-hour of light left, then he'd stop and make camp for the night.

Hermione turned her gaze away from the forest to look at a billboard size viewing screen that now showed the location of all four champions. Harry had landed in a fairly flat, but otherwise dense part of the forest. Fleur was in a similar area several kilometers to his north. Viktor and Cedric were in a more hilly part, far to the south. She watched as he started west. Knowing the map as well as him, she knew he'd be okay for a while. The first thing he would run into if he continued in a straight line, would be a marsh full of quicksand. `At least he'll see that coming,' she thought.

Three hours later, Harry pushed through some thick brush and stepped out into a clearing. Ahead of him stretching out as far as he could see, lay a marsh. Harry pulled out his map and study it a moment. There were only two marshes on it, both in the middle half of the map. After a little thought, he decided to turn north to go around the marsh. This gave him a slightly better chance of figuring out just which marsh it was that he was going around. Also, if it happened to be the more northern marsh, going to the south would definitely the longest of all possible combinations.

Just as he predicted, about a half-hour later the light began to fade. Harry quickly found a place to camp and started to collect some wood for a fire. While he was at it, he kept an eye out for a long straight piece he could fashion into a weapon of sorts. Harry reasoned he'd have time for that after he ate, and before he turned in for the night.

The idea of spending the night in the Forbidden Forest was bad enough, but doing it alone was downright terrifying. `How is it bloke supposed to sleep,' he thought. Harry was sure that if Hermione were here, that she would figure out some clever way to do it safely. Harry thought more about Hermione, and wondered if she was watching. `Of course she is,' he thought, `she'll be worrying about whether I'll make a mistake, or forget something…' Harry's thoughts were interrupted by another. `Maybe I can make the detection runes work!' Later, as Harry drifted off to sleep, he couldn't help but think that even alone, way out here in the forest, Hermione had still managed to help him.

Hermione smiled as she watched Harry activate the last rune with a drop of his blood. He had made good time, and had chosen the best route possible so far. He was considerably better off than the other three. And now, it looked like he'd be able to sleep safely through the night. Hermione decided to turn in herself. If she hurried, she still might make it in time to get something to eat before dinner was over. She figured it was bound to be a long day tomorrow, so she wanted to get to bed early tonight.

oOoOo

Draco watched as Hermione came in late for dinner. She had missed lunch and he was beginning to think she would also miss dinner as well. `I wouldn't be surprised, if she had slept out there,' he thought. As soon as she sat down, several others hurried over to get the latest news, Draco noticed. Ginny, Luna, and Neville were the only other ones who had stayed through lunch, and up until dinner. Most of the others in Harry's year had left for lunch, and then returned for a little while before leaving again. Draco had also noticed, that not a single Slytherin had stayed to watch Viktor. He briefly wondered how many would have stayed to watch, if it had been him instead.

oOoOo

"So, he got the rune sequence working?" Asked Ginny.

"Yes, and on the first try," beamed Hermione, obviously very proud of him.

"Well, he had a good teacher now didn't he," said Neville, as if they'd all forgotten who had taught him.

“Still, all alone with no wand for protection,” Ginny grimaced.

“After he finished setting up the wards, he made himself some sort of spear out of… a tree branch, I think,” Hermione added.

"How'd the others do?" asked Alicia from a couple of seats down.

Hermione smirked, and answered her in a knowing tone, "Viktor's doing vell… I mean well."

Alicia had the decency to blush slightly. "Touché Hermione." `That girl has one heck of a memory,' she thought, referring to her teasing about biting Harry.

"Viktor is moving fast, but unfortunately he made a bad turn. It's going to slow him down a little." Hermione then went on about the others, "Cedric and Fleur are also doing alright for now. Cedric decided to climb down a cliff instead of going around, and Fleur decided to try and hack her away through a thorny thicket."

"And how about you Hermione, how are you doing?" Asked Luna as she joined them by sitting next to Neville.

`Leave it to Luna,' thought Hermione, before she answered, "I'm fine... for now."

oOoOo

Harry woke the next morning just before dawn as a small electric shock rippled through him. Harry sat up, and looked around. The circle of runes he had drawn the night before, was slowly fading away now that their last job was complete.

Digging into his pack, Harry pulled out a couple of ration bars, and one of his canteens. It wasn't much of a breakfast, but it would have to do for now he thought. Only a few minutes later and Harry was already on the move again. When he reached the northern edge of the marsh, he continued to follow the edge around towards the west. Even though he couldn't remember their name, Harry knew that a large dangerous lizard, similar to the Ashwinder, lived in the southern marsh. Both were known for starting small fires in the marsh and in the grasses that grew around the edges, from their flammable secretions. Therefore he knew from the map, that if he didn't run into any burnt areas; that he would be north of the northern most marsh. However, if he did, then he was north of the southern most marsh.

oOoOo

Hermione walked into the empty Hall, she was almost an hour early for breakfast. She hoped however, that she still might be able to get something to eat. No sooner had she sat down, than a bowl of cereal appeared. It was followed closely by a bowl of fruit, some toast, and a cup of coffee. `Coffee?' She thought, then it came to her, "Dobby," she called softly.

`Poop'

"Yous called Dobby Miss Grangy?" he asked in his usual excited way.

"Yes Dobby, I did. I wanted to thank you for getting me something to eat so early, and to ask a favor."

"A favor? For Mr. Potter sir's Miss Grangy?" Dobby asked, getting even more excited, "of course, anything."

Hermione smiled at the reference to belonging to Mr. Potter. Then seeing how excited he was getting, she briefly wondered if Dobby drank coffee too, as she sipped some of her own; if so, it appeared as though he'd already had too much. "Dobby, I was wondering if you could make me a lunch, so I could stay out at the viewing stands and keep an eye on Harry?"

"Dobby can most certainly do that," he said while bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet.

"Thank you Dobby, that's wonderful," Hermione said, "and Dobby, maybe if you have time, you could join me, and we could watch Harry's progress together for a little while."

Dobby stops bouncing and started to tear up, "Dobby would like that Miss Grangy.”

oOoOo

Even though it was slow going, Harry was making progress. The tall canopy of trees blocked out most of the sunlight making it hard to see, and the thick undergrowth made walking difficult. However, aside from that, everything else was going good; except for a brief encounter with an angry owl that he inadvertently disturbed. Even though it was still fairly early, Harry hadn't had any real problems. It was actually rather peaceful, quiet even. Harry stopped suddenly with that last thought in mind. Quiet... too quiet. He was in a forest, the notorious Dark Forest no less; where was all the sounds of the forest, he thought.

Harry slowly turned on the spot in a full circle, scanning the area around him. Even with his senses now on full alert, he saw nothing, heard nothing... not a thing. Nothing moved, nothing made a noise; it was as if the entire forest was holding its breath. Harry suddenly felt the urge to run as a small twinge of panic made itself felt. Resisting the urge to blindly start thrashing through the brush, Harry took a breath and slowly started walking again. He moved quietly, but as quickly as he could. His head was on a constant swivel, searching for the first sign of danger. He now moved with a different purpose; he needed to get out of the dense undergrowth, and into more open space. Harry pushed on, and he slowly managed to rein in all but one of his emotions. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't shake the feeling of being watched.

oOoOo

Even though it was late April, Hermione knew it would be quite cold at this early hour, and so had brought a blanket with her. Sitting down in the stands, she wrapped it snugly around herself looking up at the viewing board, she was a little surprised to see that Harry was already up and moving. A while later, as she watched, she noticed something odd. Looking more closely, it became obvious, someone or something was following Harry, just off his right, moving parallel with him.

oOoOo

Harry finally came to the large open area. He moved quickly towards the center to give himself a clear view in all directions. The marsh was still to the south of him, but as far as he could tell, there were no signs of any fires, or that the area had ever been burnt. “Well, I guess that means I'm north of the most northern marsh,” Harry told himself out loud. However, talking out loud only reminded him how quiet the forest was.

Out of reflex, Harry grasped his makeshift spear tighter, and again turned on the spot looking for any signs of trouble. As he turned, he thought he saw something move, just to the north of him, right at the edge of the clearing. Harry made note of the spot, but tried to act as if he hadn't seen anything. He was getting tired of being the mouse in this game. Harry decided it was time to find out what was following him. He turned and continued on, as if nothing was wrong. Reaching the edge of the clearing, he walked openly on for a short distance until he reached a large tree. Harry quickly ducked out of sight, then on hands and knees he crawled back a short ways off to the side of his original path and waited. He hoped, that if something was stalking him, it would come by close enough for him to spot it. Looking down at his spear, he also hoped that whatever it was, he'd be able to handle it without magic.

oOoOo

In the stands, Hermione watched with curiosity and a bit of growing concern. The board would not tell her anything more about what was following Harry. She assumed once he knew, the board would tell her.

“Excuse me Meess Granger, may I sit?” a small French girl asked, while gesturing to the spot next to Hermione.

Hermione recognized the young girl as Fleur's sister; they'd met briefly before the last task, but hadn't really had a chance to talk. Even though Gabrielle was a few years younger, they both had been hostages in the lake task. As scared as she had been, she could only imagine what it must've been like for her; being both younger, and then not being rescued. Only now realizing it, Hermione felt a sort of kinship with her. Like with Fleur, Hermione now felt a growing need to be friends with the young witch.

It looked as though it was going to be a long day, and the thought of some company, at least for a little while sounded nice.

Hermione smiled, “Of course Gabrielle, and please, call me Hermione.”

“Zank you… Eermione.”

Hermione turned slightly, so as to more easily talk to the shy girl. “So, how are you and your sister getting on?”

Gabrielle looked down as she answered softly, “I am doing well… And zanks to you, now so is my seester. Zat eez why I came to you… to say Zank you for talking to eer.”

“You don't have to thank me for that,” Hermione said, as she took a quick glance at the forest, “I know what it's like to worry about someone you care a great deal about.”

Gabrielle nodded, `Yes she would know,' she thought.

“You are the only one from your year, here at Hogwarts?”

Gabrielle nodded again, “Yes… Because of my seester.”

Hermione had seen her sitting alone many times, and now wondered why she had not done something about it sooner. There were times when she sat with her sister, or with other first-years from Hogwarts, but Hermione knew all too well how hard it was to make friends when you were younger, or… different. “Gabrielle, would you like to join me and my friends for meals sometime?”

Gabrielle's head snapped up, “But… I am only in ze first-year!”

“Yes, and your sister is in the seventh-year, yet she still sets with us sometimes.” At her dumbfounded look, Hermione went on, “We don't care how old you are, or what year you are in. We only care about… Who you are.” Hermione smiled and took hold of one of her hands, “And if you want to, I'd like us to be friends as well.”

A moment later, Gabrielle surprised Hermione by grabbing her in a fierce hug. “Yes, I would like zat.”

Hermione could hear the emotion in her voice, and a few seconds later after she pulled away. Said, “Good.”

oOoOo

It didn't take long for Harry to confirm his suspicions. Only a few minutes after starting his stakeout, Harry caught some movement to his left. A moment later, a large semitransparent ghostly looking dog glided into view. `Great,' Harry thought, `a Spectral Hound.' Thanks to Hagrid's classes and his love for unusual and dangerous creatures, Harry actually knew a little about the hound. They were kind of a three-way cross between a dementor, a Bogart, and a regular ghost. It could sense your fear, like a Bogart, and then amplify it. Then it would feed off your panic and anxiety, like a dementor.

Being mostly a ghost, Harry knew the real danger wasn't physical, but mental. If it got in your head and started playing with your fears, you could easily become disoriented and confused. That in turn could lead you to do something stupid or dangerous.

Harry knew the best defense against the creature was Occlumency, but he didn't know how to perform it. It was after all a very advanced subject, and certainly not taught to fourth-years. Just thinking about it, Harry was beginning to panic. `I've got to calm down. Stay focused,' Harry thought.

When Harry looked up again, the Hound was looking right at them. “Shite,” Harry said out loud, startled. He quickly turned and started to run. He had only taking a few steps and already could feel the creature trying to read his thoughts. It was looking for what he feared. Try and focus Harry reminded himself. Harry slowed, `No, it can't hurt me, think of something nice… like flying, ignore it and move on,' he thought, as he forced his breathing to return to normal.

For the next couple of hours, they continued their game of cat and mouse. The Hound would disappear for a while and then out of nowhere it would rush out and try to surprise Harry. Each time the Hound got bolder, but Harry managed to control his emotions well. He was getting so used to it after a while, that he found he wasn't worrying about it hardly at all anymore. The Hound must've noticed as well, and finally gave up the chase.

oOoOo

Harry stopped around noon for a quick bite to eat, he knew he needed to keep up his energy levels; who knew what his next surprise would be, `Probably not just another ghost,' he thought. Unfortunately, he didn't have to wait long. About an hour later, he thought he heard something behind him again. `Well I doubt it's the Hound… It's making way too much noise, maybe…' Harry's thoughts were rudely interrupted by a loud crash. Then, he saw it. “Oh, you've got to be kidding me!” Harry said unbelievably to himself, as he turned and started to run.

Chasing after him, about one hundred feet back, was the biggest boar Harry had ever seen. This one looked to weigh about four-hundred pounds and stood over three feet at the shoulders. The part that concerned him though, were the four inch long tusks growing out of its lower jaw. They weren't especially fast, but they were extremely vicious. Harry knew he was no match for the animal armed with only a spear. His only choice was to run, and maybe get to someplace the wild pig couldn't follow.

oOoOo

Up in the stands, Hermione and Gabrielle kept watch on their respective concerns. Gabrielle watched her sister fight off a rather nasty swarm of bats, while Hermione watched Harry deal with the Spectral Hound, both were proud of the outcomes.

Lunch time brought another surprise for Gabrielle. She was just about ready to get up and head for the castle to eat, when a soft pop to her right caught her attention. Standing there with a large basket stood a very excited house-elf.

“Dobby, you remembered,” beamed Hermione.

“Of course Miss Grangy, Dobby not be forgetting,” he said, as if it was the most ridiculous thing he'd heard all week. Then, after a sideways glance at Gabrielle, he added, “And Dobby be bringing enough for yous friend as well.”

Gabrielle looked at Hermione with some trepidation, she'd only just met this unique girl and didn't want to assume or take anything for granted.

Hermione laughed at Dobby's enthusiasm, “Thank you Dobby, how thoughtful.” Then turning to Gabrielle, she said politely, “Please, stay and join us.”

Gabrielle looked around, they were alone for the most part. Then, she realized who Hermione had met by `us'. Both eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Oh!” Was all she could manage to say. Finally, she nodded okay and slowly sat down to lunch with Hermione, and a… house-elf.

By the end of lunch, Gabrielle had learned that Hermione wasn't the only one concerned for Harry's safety. It was clearly obvious, that the little elf named Dobby cared a great deal about him as well. She had never given house-elves much thought before now, they were just servants after all. However, after watching Hermione treat him not only as a friend, but as an equal as well, and seeing firsthand how Dobby had responded, Gabrielle thought maybe she had underestimated their feelings, and their ability to care. She would definitely think more about it later.

Hermione saw the thoughtful look on her young friend's face, and knew she would be answering more than a few questions about Dobby later.

Glancing back up at the viewing board, Hermione's cheerful look turned to concern… Harry was being chased… again.

oOoOo

Harry was running as fast as he could, but the dense undergrowth was slowing him down. Like running through knee-deep water, every step was an effort. The boar with his thick hide, seem to glide through the brush, and was closing fast. With only a few feet separating his backside from the boar's tusks, Harry finally saw an escape. Just ahead, was a large tree that had fallen down across his path, one end stuck in the upper branches of another tree. It's sort of formed an elevated bridge, starting several feet above the ground and sloping upward. Harry thought, that if he could just jump up and grab hold he might be able to climb to safety.

`Almost there,' Harry thought. He could hear the labored snorts of the boar behind him, and knew it was almost on him, but he didn't dare look back. Finally there, he jumped up and caught hold. A split second later as he struggled to pull himself up, he felt a sharp pain lance through his right calf. The boar, seem to squeal in delight as it ran on under him.

Harry managed to pull himself up the rest of the way, and sat straddling the tree. Looking down, he saw a small gash on the back of his right leg. The wound itself wasn't all that bad, but considering what had caused it, Harry began to worry about it getting infected. Getting up on his hands and knees, Harry crawled further up the tree to a place where the trunk branched. There, he could sit more comfortably and wait the boar out, and also take a better look at his leg.

Slipping his backpack off, Harry sat it in front of him and pulled out his first-aid kit. Harry used a little water from his canteen to wash the wound the best he could before applying an antiseptic bandage to it. “That will have to do for now,” Harry said to himself, “now, if Mr. Piggy would just go away,” after a quick look around Harry added, “I'd hate to spend the night up here with no fire or shelter.” A moment later, it started to rain. “Perfect,” Harry muttered.

oOoOo

With Harry out of danger for the time being, Hermione checked the progress of the other champions. Viktor was just about out of the marsh, and was finally starting to make some time. Cedric, look to be having a rather hard time as he tried to deal was some kind of three-headed goat; at least it looked like a goat, Hermione thought.

Checking on Fleur, Hermione noticed that, like Harry, she too had stopped and was now nursing some wounds. A glance at Gabrielle told her that the young girl was also relieved. “Well, it looks like we can relax for a bit,” Hermione said, while letting out a long breath.

“Oui,” was all Gabrielle said. It was again obvious just how concerned she had been for her older sister.

Dobby, who had been sitting between them, stood and faced Hermione. “Dobby thinks that Harry Potter is safe now, so Dobby must go. Have much work to do.” Then turning to Gabrielle, he added, “Dobby is happy he is making friends with yous.” And after a soft pop, he was gone.

Staring at the spot where Dobby had stood moments before, Gabrielle said, “Ee's not… Well e's not what I expected.”

Hermione glanced sideways at her, “Dobby?”

Gabrielle looked up and nodded, “Oui.”

“Do you know many house-elves?”

This time, the young witch shook her head no.

“Well Dobby is a bit different,” Hermione smiled, “he's a free elf.”

Gabrielle knew that free elves were extremely rare, and her face showed her surprise, “Oh!” A few seconds later she asked, “Ow did zat appen?”

Hermione smile grew as she gave her one-word answer, “Harry.”

Somehow Gabriel thought, she had already known, “Ah.”

oOoOo

Apparently, the wild boar didn't like the rain any more than Harry. After about a half hour it decided that one skinny boy up a tree just wasn't worth waiting around in the rain for, and trotted off in the direction it had originally come.

Harry waited a few more minutes to be sure it was gone for good, then climbed down. After checking his map and compass, Harry resumed his trek. He figured he still had about an hour or so before he'd start looking for a place to make camp for the night, and he wanted to put as much distance between him and the boar as possible before settling in for the night.

oOoOo

Fleur was miserable, and starting to get quite irritated. Even though she considered herself rather tough for a girl, that didn't mean she liked being cold and soaking wet. It rained a little last night too, and she never did get dry. Now, her clothes were soaked through and through, and her hair was plastered to her head. Rain ran down her face and dripped from the tip of her nose and the bottom of her chin. She would try again tonight to make a fire, `Maybe ee will get lucky,' she thought miserably.

oOoOo

Harry had come to a small clearing, where several trees had fallen down, `Plenty of firewood here,' he thought. Near the edge of the clearing was a large boulder, it would help provide good shelter for the night, and the only other animal he'd seen, was a small snake that had darted across his path a ways back. Harry had taken to talking to himself and so said, “Well, it'll be dark soon, and I probably won't find a better place than this.”

Harry sat his pack down near the boulder and got to work making camp. He gathered several medium-size tree branches and leaned them up against the boulder to make a sort of frame. Then he draped his plastic tarp over it to give him shelter from the rain. Next he gathered some smaller branches he could burn and set about starting a fire. Lastly, Harry set up the detection runes Hermione had taught him. Finally able to relax, Harry sat back and started making himself some dinner.

oOoOo

Fleur decided to stop deluding herself, she wasn't going to have a fire tonight either. Everything was wet, so even if she knew how, she didn't think she could start one. Before she had started this task, she thought the process would be simple enough, and so didn't give it much thought. She now realized how wrong she had been. Fleur continued to walk, hoping she'd find someplace that might at least offer some sort of shelter.

It was almost completely dark with Fleur decided to stop. Cold and wet she reasoned the only way she would survive the night was if she wrapped herself up tight in the plastic sheet that was given to her, at the very least it would help her to conserve what little body heat she had left and keep the rain off her face. As she turns slightly to slip her pack off, she spotted it. Off in the distance, towards the south was a light. But not just any light, it was the unmistakable light of a fire. Even though she was exhausted, Fleur was drawn to the fire like a moth to a flame. She didn't know who or what had made the fire, but she was going to find out.

After stumbling through the darkness for nearly a half an hour, Fleur reached a small clearing. Next to a large rock, burned a bright warm inviting fire. Fleur cautiously started forward, but had only taken a few steps when all manner of commotion broke loose. A loud wailing sound screeched through the still night air, and on both sides of her, strange-looking marks lit up brightly, instantly giving away her position. Fleur instinctively dropped into a fighting stance and pulled her knife, ready to face her attacker.

oOoOo

Gabrielle grabbed Hermione's hand in panic, as both watched and waited with growing concern. They had watched the scene play out that led to this confrontation, and knew that neither Harry nor Fleur were aware of the other's presence. Now they could only hope that in the poor light, one of them would recognize the other before someone got hurt.

oOoOo

Harry was impressed that the rune sequence had worked so well, while at the same time he started to worry about what had set it off in the first place. Grabbing his spear, he jumped to his feet and moved into the shadows. Peering into the darkness, Harry could barely make out something on the edge of the clearing lit only by the glowing runes.

Fleur caught a glimpse of movement by the rock, but immediately lost sight of it in the dark. For several long minutes, no one moved, nothing made a sound. Fleur decided, it was up to her to make the first move, after all she was the one who had invaded the area. Since she had already set off the alarm, it only made sense that whoever was here already knew of her presence and so there was no reason to stay quiet any longer.

“Eello een ze camp,” she called. Her next surprise, was who answered.

“Fleur?” Harry yelled back.

“Arry?” Fleur asked cautiously while starting to stand.

Harry moved out of the shadows and into the firelight. “Yeah, it's me. What in Merlin's name are you doing out there in the dark?”

“Freezing,” Fleur answered honestly.

oOoOo

Two girls let out nervous sighs of relief when the board showed Harry and Fleur finally standing together by the fire.

“Can zey help each ozer?” Asked Gabrielle.

“Yes, but they will lose points,” Hermione answered.

oOoOo

“Fleur, why didn't you make camp earlier?” Harry asked, “why would you wander around after dark? It's dangerous.”

“I know,” Fleur answered sheepishly, “I was about to stop…zen I saw your fire. I just wanted to get warm, I…”

“Fleur, why didn't you just start your own…” Harry stopped when the probable reason came to him. “Fleur… Are you having trouble starting a fire?”

Fleur hated to admit it, she thought herself so superior, so much better than him. However, the reality of things told a much different story. Harry was actually doing better than her overall, and this was just one more example. He had a nice dry place to sleep next to a warm cozy fire. She on the other hand, was soaking wet.

Fleur flopped to the ground on the verge of tears, but somehow managed to hold them back.

“Fleur?” Harry asked softly as he kneeled down next to her, ignoring the muddy ground.

Fleur turned and stared at Harry for a moment before whispering, “Eet eez so simple no? Starting a fire.” Fleur looked away, “And yet… I cannot…”

“Actually, it's not so simple.” At her surprised look, Harry explained, “Back at Hogwarts, before the task, I couldn't manage one without magic. Then Hermione remembered the char cloth, and we figured out how to use it. After that, it took a little while, but I finally managed one, and after a few times practicing it got a little easier.”

“Ermione eez a smart girl,” she said through a half smile.

“Yeah, she is.” Harry could see the internal debate going on in Fleur's head and decided to make the decision for her. “Fleur, why don't you let me teach you? You can build your own fire on the other side of the clearing, and then in the morning, we will go our own way.”

“You would do zat for moi?” Fleur asked with disbelief. They were after all, competitors in this task. Then she remembered the conversation the four of them had a few weeks back. Sure they had promised to help each other if one was in danger, but this was hardly life or death.

Harry laughed, “Sure. Can't have you sneaking up on my fire every night, can I?” Even though she was wet, tired, and embarrassed, Fleur laughed too. “All right, get your things, and I'll get some more wood and I meet you over there,” Harry instructed. Harry had thought momentarily about just letting Fleur share his shelter, but then realized how that might look to anyone who would be watching.

With her own shelter built and everything collected, Harry began, “Okay, first you need to build the base.” Harry showed her how to set the different size pieces of wood up to make the base so they'd catch fire more easily. The finished product looked a little like a cross between a log cabin and a tepee. Next he showed her how to make the kindling, and what he affectionately called, `the birds nest'; a small wad of fine dry grass that caught fire very easily.

“Okay, now hold your flint in one hand with a small piece of char cloth on the bottom edge of it, so it will catch the spark.” Fleur did as she was told and then struck down on the flint with the steel striker. After the third try, she saw a small orange glow on the edge of the char cloth. “That's good, now quickly put the glowing char cloth into the bird's nest and wrap it up loosely… that's it… good, now blow on it gently.” Again, Fleur followed his directions, and soon her nest was smoking. “Now, as soon as it catches fire, put it in the middle of your wood base.”

A moment later, Fleur's little bird nest sprang to life catching fire. “Oyi,” she yelped, but did as she had been told and quickly stuffed the small burning ball of twigs and grass into the center of her base. Soon the kindling was burning hot and it in turn, started the larger pieces on fire. Just ten minutes after she had started, Fleur had her own fire burning bright and hot.

Still wet, but in a far better mood, Fleur beamed at Harry, “Arry, I did eet.”

Harry chuckled, “Yes you did.”

Fleur turned back to the fire. What an amazing thing it was, she thought, yet she had taken it for granted. Without it, tonight would've have been long, cold, and dark. But it was more, far more than just light and heat that it gave her. Sitting by the fire, she somehow felt… safer, more relaxed. It boosted her spirits. It made the forest feel a little smaller and less foreboding. She no longer felt nearly so all alone. She wondered if Harry realized, just how wonderful a gift he had given her. Fleur stared at Harry for a moment thinking; that it was not only kind of him to help her, but that he was also patient as well. He had taught her the simple act of making a fire, without any of the arrogance she would have expected from another. `He would make a good teacher.' Without a second thought, she got up and walked over to him and pulled him into a tight hug, “Zank you Arry.”

oOoOo

It would be a couple of days before Hermione and Gabrielle heard the full story; of how Fleur built her first fire, but for now both girls knew their respective champions were safe for the night.

“Well,” Hermione started, “since we don't have our own fire, and my warming charms don't seem to be cutting it anymore, I suggest we returned to the castle for something warm to eat.”

Gabrielle, who was already beginning to shiver from the cold night air, quickly agreed.

oOoOo

21

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

20. Death Comes on Four Legs


Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

AN: We are getting close to the end of Harry's fourth year, what do you think of it so far?

.

Chapter 20

Death Comes on Four Legs

.

.

Hermione had Dobby wake her well before the sun was up, this time she wanted to be in the stands before Harry broke camp. As Hermione started down the path that led to the viewing stands, a familiar voice called out.

“Bonjour Errmione!”

Hermione stopped and turned, then smiled as Gabrielle ran to catch up. “Well, you're up early.”

“Oui, and you are too I theenk,” the young girl said easily, “per'aps for ze same reason, no?”

Hermione laughed, she liked Gabrielle; she was smart and caught on quick.

They walked on together without saying anything for a ways before Gabrielle turned serious. “She eez a lot like you, my seester,” she started, “she works vairy ard.” Gabrielle looked down, “Sometimes, I theenk too ard.”

Hermione looked sideways at Gabrielle, “What do you mean?”

“Our papa, he wanted a son, but e only as us. She eez always trying to prove somezing.” Gabrielle said dejectedly, “to make im appy, and wen she fails, she feels teerible.”

As they sat down in the stands, Hermione said quietly, “You know, up until very recently I used to kind of feel the same way, but for different reasons.” Hermione smiled, “Harry got me to talk about it. I realized it's okay to work hard, but you should do it because you want to, not because you feel you have to for some reason.”

Gabrielle nodded, “And now you don't mind if you fail?”

Hermione stared straight ahead deep in thought for a moment, “No, I don't think so, not anymore. Not if I know I've done my best, that's what's important.” Hermione turned back to Gabrielle, “Harry helped me to realize something else; he said `You're not always in control of the situation, you do what you can, with what you got.' and now I understand that better.”

Gabrielle thought that sounded reasonable. If you were trying to please someone else and failed, how would they know if you actually tried your best? They might think you were just trying to fool them. However, on the other hand; if you are only trying to please yourself, you'd know. After all, like they say; you can't fool yourself. “Do you zink you could talk to her?”

“I think it would be better if it was you who talked to her,” Hermione said, “you know her better, and I don't even know your father at all.” Hermione smiled, “Also, it's kind of personal, don't you think?”

“Oui, per'aps you are right.”

They sat in silence as more and more students started to show up. Gabrielle liked talking to Hermione, but she knew the older witch preferred to be alone when watching the tasks. So, they agreed to talk more later, for now Gabrielle would sit with a new friend. After a brief hug, she said good-bye and left Hermione alone with her thoughts.

oOoOo

As Harry woke on the third day of the task, he wondered what surprises were in store for him today. `Best not to dwell on it, I suppose,' he thought. Getting up, he made a quick breakfast and then started to pack up camp. It really wasn't much of a camp, so it only took a few minutes. As he was putting the last of his stuff into his pack, he noticed Fleur across the clearing making ready to leave as well.

Fleur was putting the last of her things away also when she looked up. She noticed Harry was also up and getting ready to leave. She watched him for a moment, remembering last night. As she watched, she noticed something she hadn't noticed before, he had a slight limp. `I wonder if he is hurt,' she thought. Fleur may not have been very good at starting fires, but she was great with healing. Grabbing her kit, she stood up and started across the clearing towards Harry. About halfway there she called out, “Oi, Arry.” After getting his attention, she waved him over.

Meeting him halfway, she stopped and asked, “Arry are you hurt?” While pointing to his leg.

Harry shrugged, “A little sore, that's all.” Seeing the suspicious look on Fleur's face, Harry confessed, “Yesterday, I got bit by a wild pig. I cleaned the wound pretty good and bandaged it up… it should be okay.”

Fleur wasn't having it, “Seet down Arry.” As soon as Harry sat down, Fleur kneeled in front of him and pulled up his pant leg. Being careful not to hurt him, she slowly removed the bandage, “Arry eet eez starting to get…” she hesitated while trying to remember the right word, “infected.” Fleur didn't wait for Harry to argue. Turning, she opened her kit and pulled out two large green and purple leaves. She mashed them up in the palm of her hand, and then added a small amount of water, making a paste. “I theenk zat zis will stop ze infection,” Fleur said as she gently applied the paste to the wound before re-bandaging it. Fleur then pulled out two more leaves and gave them to Harry. “Tonight, before you sleep, clean ze wound and redo what I just did…oui?”

Harry nodded once, “Oui.”

Fleur smiled, “Francais Arry? Per'aps you will survive after all.”

Harry smiled back sheepishly, “I learned a little from a girl named Brigitte.” Fleur just smiled.

A short while later, Harry buried his fire and slung his pack over his shoulder, and then called over to his distant camp mate, “Oy Fleur, I'm heading out, take care, and I'll see you at Hogwarts.”

Fleur waved back, “Zank you Arry. Au revoir.”

After walking only a short ways, Harry stopped and looked back… nothing, nothing but the forest. Was he wishfully hoping he'd see Fleur… maybe following him, he wondered? Considering how nice it was last night knowing someone was only a short distance away, he thought maybe he did. After another long look, Harry sighed and started walking again. He was alone, once more. Somehow it seemed, that the closer he got to Hogwarts, the darker the forest became.

As Harry walked on, he couldn't help but think; that the brief encounter with Fleur now only made him feel lonelier. It had somehow reminded him, of just how alone, and far from home he was. Harry told himself, that it had only been barely three days, and that he wasn't really that far from Hogwarts. That it was just the forest playing with his emotions, but it was hard to shake the feeling.

He missed Hermione. Even though she too, really wasn't that far away, it felt like she was half-way around the world. The fact that she was waiting for him helped, but he still felt terribly alone, and isolated. Harry knew the forest could be treacherous, and that it was home to numerous animals; many of which were dangerous.

Perhaps that's why he felt the way he did; it was the forest. It stood between him and the one person he wanted to be with more than anything.

Hermione had always been there for him, especially when times were difficult. She was his rock in a raging river. His anchor that kept him from being swept away in the current of chaos that was sometimes his life. He knew too, that sometimes their roles were reversed. Sometimes, he was her shelter in the storm.

They were good for each other like that, and Harry realized now more than ever, just how much that meant. He realized that he not only needed her, but that he needed her to need him. It gave him a greater purpose in life, one that he hoped would never change.

Harry thought about how they had recently started signing their letters, `Always and Forever'; always trusting, friends forever, and smiled, it seemed so appropriate, now more than ever.

oOoOo

Sitting alone in the stands watching Harry's progress, Hermione jumped as Ron sat down heavily, right next to her.

“Sorry,” Ron said, knowing he had startled her, “how's he doing?”

Hermione looked at Ron, then the viewing board, and finally, she let her gaze drift to the forest. “He's okay for now… At least nothing's chasing him, which is a good thing because it looks like his leg is still bothering him.”

Ron stared at Hermione while she in turn continued to stare out at the forest, seemingly indifferent to his scrutiny. As Ron studied Hermione from only a couple of feet away, it was obvious even to him that she was more than just a little worried for their mutual friend. Her face was tightly drawn, and her eyes held a look that was far away. Her body was rigid and radiated tension. Ron turned and followed her gaze to the forest, it did look foreboding, evil even, and he briefly wondered if she'd be just as worried if it was him out there instead of Harry; he doubted it.

“He'll be all right Hermione,” Ron offered softly.

Hermione turned her head sharply and stared directly into Ron's eyes, “Really Ron? Are you so sure?”

The sheer intensity from the look in her eyes and the tone of her voice caused Ron to flinch, “Well yeah… It's Harry, he has to be.” Hermione just turned back to the forest to continue her vigil without saying another word. Ron also returned his gaze to the forest, and for the second time since the tournament had started, he was glad he wasn't Harry.

oOoOo

It was still early, only about ten o'clock, when Harry's good fortune took a turn for the worst. He had stopped for a moment to take a drink of water and to check his map when he heard a yelp like call off in the distance. Harry thought it sounded sort of familiar, but couldn't quite recall what kind of animal made such a sound. He stood quiet and strained his ears, trying to hear more. Harry thought the call had come from in front of him maybe a bit to the south. Rechecking the map and his compass, he decided to veer a little more north in hopes of avoiding the creature, just in case.

Fleur and Harry had decided on deliberately taking two different routes to keep from running into each other again. He knew this slight course change would take him a little closer to her route, but he still felt confident he'd stay far enough south to avoid her. The only problem was, he was now heading for some rougher terrain.

As the ground turned rugged, walking became more difficult. However, despite the challenging path, the forest was starting to open up a little. The trees and under-brush were thinning out, which also let in more light. The biggest problem with the terrain, was that the high and low spots created ledges and overhangs; perfect for an animal to jump down from, ambush style. Harry stayed clear of those areas the best he could and kept a wary eye on the high ground.

Harry walked on cautiously keeping a sharp lookout, the forest had gone quiet again. Less than an hour later and he heard the unmistakable sound of a wolf howl. It was close, very close. Harry stopped and brought his spear up, ready for a fight. Against one wolf, Harry figured he had a fair chance of fighting him off. However, wolves often ran in packs, and against several, Harry knew he'd be in trouble.

A split second after finishing his last thought, a large dark grey wolf ran out into the open and after spotting Harry, skidded to a stop. It stood gracefully about twenty feet away and stared at Harry. The wolf looked to be as surprised as he was at the encounter. A moment later, an ear ticked backwards towards the way it came, quickly followed by its head. Then just as quickly, turned back to Harry if only for a second, before bolting off. For whatever reason, it had no interest in lingering, and paid the boy with the spear no further regard.

Harry watched him go, wondering what could have spooked him so bad. His answer came just as he was about to move on. Harry heard the yelp again, this time it was much louder… and much closer. Harry froze, being able to hear more clearly, he now knew exactly what it was. Harry looked down at his spear, `How in the bloody hell am I supposed to fight that, with a pointy stick,' he thought sarcastically.

oOoOo

Hermione turned slightly and looked at Ron, he didn't understand, how could he when he couldn't see past the surface. Even though he claimed to know Harry, Hermione knew different, deep down at a subconscious level, Ron still saw Harry as the boy who lived. He saw Harry's fame, and fortune. He saw a Hogwarts champion basking in the spotlight. He didn't see what she saw; a boy who never knew the love of his parents. A shy young man who would trade all his fame and fortune to just be… normal and have a family. Yes, Harry would do that in a heartbeat, Hermione was sure of it. Where Ron saw a champion with eternal glory, Hermione saw an unwilling participant, risking his life without a choice. No, Ron most certainly didn't understand.

Hermione's thoughts were interrupted by a gasp from the students around her. Harry… Hermione quickly turned to study the board, and then jumped to her feet, “That can't be,” she whispered to herself unbelievably. Looking around quickly to find a professor, Hermione spotted McGonagall having a heated discussion with the Headmaster while pointing to the board. `Apparently, she has similar feelings,' thought Hermione. She raced down from the stands to join them, hoping to get some more information.

“… Yes I know how dangerous they are, and no, I don't know what it is doing in the forest.” Dumbledore said pleadingly, trying to calm his deputy. Dumbledore caught Hermione marching over out of the corner of his eye, turning, he held up both hands to forestall the rising storm. “Ladies please… I don't know how this happened, but I will find out. Now if you would please calm down.”

Hermione shook her head, “Calm down, what about Harry, how is he supposed to defend himself against that abomination? You must know how vicious they are.”

“They are not native to the forest Albus,” McGonagall added angrily, it's not right, you need to intercede immediately.”

Dumbledore sighed, “No, it is certainly not fair, but I'm afraid I cannot interfere.”

“What, why not?” Hermione nearly screamed.

“The rules of the tournament clearly state; that the champions have to deal with `whatever' they encounter alone.” Dumbledore slowly shook his head before going on, “I'm afraid that if I interfere… Harry's magic could be jeopardized.”

Hermione balled her fists in rage, and for a moment McGonagall thought that she might actually attack the headmaster. “This is so… Idiotic, it's beyond imagination.”

Dumbledore nodded sadly an agreement. “Let's not give up on Harry just yet. He has always proven resourceful, and don't forget he has an emergency Portkey.”

Hermione couldn't believe it, they were not going to do anything. Dumbledore was just going to wait and see. He was going to leave Harry to his own devices.

She couldn't bear standing next to the man she once greatly admired any longer, so Hermione walked away, never taking her eyes off the board. “Come on Harry, use the Portkey.” She didn't care if he ended up being disqualified from the task with no points. `At least he would still be alive and in one piece,' she thought.

oOoOo

“Come on think,” Harry said to himself, “what do I know about the Chimera…?” Harry was scared, and growing more nervous by the second. He had never actually seen a real one, but from Hagrid's class, he had learned a little about them. Hagrid had told them how vicious they were, and had played an audio recording of their howl from a crystal because it was so unusual, hoping the students would recognize it if they ever heard one in the future. Harry never thought the future would come so soon. Hagrid had also shown them pictures; the head and front legs were that of a large cat, about the size of a lion. The hindquarters were that of a large goat and it had a short, thick snake for a tail. It was the head that Harry mostly remembered; large and wide, kind of oval-shaped… And full of very sharp teeth.

It was very close, and Harry knew he could not out run it. He also knew that with its powerful front legs, it could climb exceptionally well, so he couldn't use a tree to escape this time. He'd have to face it… but how.

Harry's heart was racing and sweat formed on his forehead despite the cool morning air. `If only I could disable it, slow it down somehow… trap it,' Harry thought desperately. Suddenly, an idea came to him. Dropping down to his knees, he pulled off his pack and quickly found the length of rope he'd been carrying. After tying one end to a tree, he then fashioned a noose out of the other end. Loosely tying the noose to the end of his spear, Harry stood up. It was a dangerous plan, a long shot really, but Harry thought that if he could get close enough to the chimera, he might just be over to get the noose around its neck. Hopefully, that would hold it long enough for him to get away.

No sooner had Harry finished that thought than there was a loud crash in front of him, as the chimera jumped through the thicket and landed only a few feet in front of him. The pictures hadn't done it justice. The chimera was easily seven or eight feet long, and stood at least four feet high at the shoulders. However what Harry found most discomforting, was the size of its head; almost twice the size of a Quaffle, it was disproportionately large for its body. As Harry stared at the 4 inch long teeth, his hopes of snaring this monstrous creature vanished like a wisp of smoke in the wind.

Testing its prey, the chimera stepped cautiously forward and growled. A low rumbling guttural sound that slowly increased in pitch to a loud yowl. It was easily the most terrifying thing Harry had ever heard. Harry cautiously stepped back.

The chimera quickly stepped forward and reached out with its right front paw and swiped at him. Harry nearly fell as he stumbled back. Again it advanced, this time Harry stepped sideways and tried to force the noose over its head. The chimera reacted with lightning fast reflexes and swatted it away. The noose fell harmlessly to the ground. In that instant, Harry realized how foolish his plan had been, especially considering he had no idea what to do next.

The chimera growled again as it circled Harry, who could only stand ready and brace himself for attack. Once more, it swiped at him as Harry desperately tried to block the razor-sharp claws with his spear, only to have it batted down. Harry maneuvered himself close a large rock, and as soon as an opportunity presented itself, Harry jumped up. Hoping that the advantage of high ground would discourage the chimera, Harry yelled out, “AHHHH!” while swinging his spear wildly at it.

The brazen act only gave the chimera an idea of its own. It backed off, only to circle around to some even taller rocks. Two leaps later, and it was the chimera that commanded the high ground. Harry quickly jumped back down and ran out of reach of the jumping cat.

Harry was beginning to tire, while the chimera showed no sign of giving up; as several different versions of this routine repeated itself.

Harry needed a break, and he knew it was only coming if he made it happen. The next time the chimera lashed out, instead of trying to block, Harry moved his spear in a circular motion around the outstretched claw to avoid having it battered away. He was dangerously close, but now there was nothing between the chimera's chest and the tip of his spear.

Harry lunged forward catching the big cat off guard, and striking it in the chest, just below the neck. The chimera howled in pain and reared up on his hindquarters. Harry pushed as hard as he could, hoping to topple the huge animal. The chimera staggered backwards like a drunken sailor but didn't fall. Bending its head down, the catlike creature bit down on Harry's spear snapping it in half. Harry had been leaning into the cat with all his weight and nearly lost his balance and fell forward, but managed to catch himself at the last second. The chimera came down on all fours and started advancing on him again, growling with anger. Harry held what was left of his spear out in front of him, ready to defend himself as best he could. The chimera jumped at him and Harry swung, knocking away one paw, but the other caught him across the stomach leaving four deep gashes that immediately started oozing blood. Harry fell back losing his spear, while the chimera closed in on him. Harry reached for the only weapon he had left, his knife. Harry was certain it wouldn't be of much good against such a strong predator, but he wasn't going down without a fight. Harry was so focused on the advancing creature that his mind was blank, except for the thought of how menacing the chimera looked as it moved in for the kill.

Just before the chimera reached him, it jerked to a stop. During the earlier struggle, while the chimera was staggering backwards, it had inadvertently managed to get its left rear leg tangled in the noose. Harry blinked, and then snapped out of his fear induced haze. Taking advantage of his sudden good luck, Harry jumped to his feet and grabbed his pack, which thankfully was lying nearby. With one last look at the snarling cat, Harry turned and started to run.

oOoOo

Back at Hogwarts, Hermione watched in utter horror as the chimera approached to within a couple of feet of Harry. One final lunge and it would be over; it would clamp its massive jaws around his throat and… It stopped! The rope! Harry was getting away! Breathing rapidly while her heart pounded, Hermione collapsed to the ground in a heap where she had stood. All around her the rest of the spectators took a collective breath. Her world spun, voices were nothing more than a mixture of tones, as she fought to remain conscious. Relieved beyond belief that Harry had narrowly escaped. She was both happy and angry at him. Happy he was alive and yet angry he hadn't used the port key.

oOoOo

Harry had been running hard for about twenty minutes, but needing to catch his breath, he finally stopped. Bent over with his hands on his knees, Harry slowly managed to get his breathing under control. He was about to sit down and tend to his wounds, when he heard the yowl of the chimera again. It was loose, and probably on his trail. After a quick check of his compass, Harry started running again. He needed to find a way to lose the chimera, because he knew he'd never survive another encounter.

A few short minutes later, Harry noticed he was starting to feel strange. Like he was coming down with the flu or something. He was starting to get dizzy, and his vision would get blurry for a moment before snapping back into focus. Harry pushed on, he couldn't stop, couldn't dwell on how he felt. The muscles in his legs burned and he labored for air. His energy was leaving him, and he was losing feeling in his extremities.

Then he remembered, “Shite,” he said to himself. The claws of the chimera contained a toxin. He was feeling the effects of being slowly poisoned. Harry slowed down and try to clear his head and catch his breath. He was in trouble and he knew it. `Think! Why can't I think straight,' he wondered? His mind was slowly shutting down, dulled by the pain and the toxin. Another yowl… It was getting closer. `No time to think, got to move, got to run!' Harry was having trouble just moving now, he kept tripping and stumbling, but he pressed on. Oblivious to the cuts and scrapes from trashing through the woods, Harry tried to ignore the nausea swirling in his stomach. He had to, the chimera was almost on him again. Harry's ability to continue to run defied explanation; it seemed he moved by his sheer will alone.

Harry suddenly broke out into the open, only to find he was on the edge of a cliff. A moment later, the chimera jumped out right behind him. Harry turned to face the beast and unconsciously took a step backwards. Harry found himself falling, but his mind was too clouded over to care.

Harry hit the water hard, it knocked the wind out of him and he came up coughing, but he managed to get some air. Momentarily refreshed, his mind cleared if only for a few minutes. Harry swam to the far bank and pulled himself out. Crawling a short ways to the base of a tree he turned around and leaned his back against it. High above on the other side of the river, the chimera yowled in anger at losing its prey. It paced back and forth, looking for a way down. But the cliff was sheer and provided no footholds, even for an animal as agile as the chimera. Even if it had managed, the chimera like most cats, wasn't fond of the water. Deciding not to follow, it turned and headed back into the forest.

Harry pulled off his pack and quickly found the two healing leaves Fleur had given him, safely wrapped in plastic. Harry was starting to get dizzy again, so he hurriedly made the paste and rubbed it into the claw marks. Even being partially numb, the paste burned as if instead of his fingers, Harry was using a hot poker. Fortunately, the pain quickly started to fade as the medicine did its work. With barely enough to tend to his new wounds, his leg would have to go without. Next, he considered trying to start a fire, but with most of his other supplies wet, and his energy all but gone, he didn't think he'd be able to. Instead, he pulled out his blanket and wrapped himself in it. Leaning back against the tree while trying to get warm, Harry had only intended to rest for a short while; his last thoughts before his world went black, were of how worried Hermione must be.

oOoOo

Hermione didn't know how much longer she could go on watching this insanity. In less than an hour, Harry had been attacked twice, and then had fallen over 30 feet; luckily into a deep spot in the river. Now he lay unconscious with nothing but a thin blanket between him and the Dark Forest. She was startled from her thoughts as a gentle arm wrapped itself around her shoulder.

Hermione normally sat alone when she was watching the task. Sometimes a friend would sit with her for a short while, but they all knew she preferred to be alone. She had told them, that she'd be poor company, but most knew she just didn't want to be distracted. Ron had left right before the chimera showed up, and there had been no other friends in the stands at the time, except for Ginny. She had been watching Hermione for the last hour. Ginny had always considered Hermione to be one of the strongest women she knew, and that list included not only her mother, but witches like McGonagall and Madam Bones.

Seeing what the stress from worrying about Harry was doing to Hermione, Ginny had to wonder; did Hermione really think that Harry could die in this tournament? Ginny suddenly realized, that particular thought had never occurred to her. The thought that something as simple as the Triwizard Tournament could kill Harry, was ridiculous… `Wasn't it?' She thought. Next she had to wonder, what if she did believe that, would she have the same strength to continue on like Hermione? Ginny suddenly had a lot of questions about her feelings, but for now, she'd put them on hold, she had a friend who needed her.

“Hermione, come sit with me for a while, I have a blanket. You're going to get sick if you keep sitting here on the ground.” It went unsaid, that even she sometimes needed help and shouldn't be alone.

Hermione turned to Ginny, and after a moment nodded yes, “Thanks Gin.” Hermione didn't have to say anything more, she could see by the look on Ginny's face that she understood.

oOoOo

A short while later, McGonagall approached the pair, “Miss Granger, Miss Weasley.” Both looked up.

“Hello Professor,” Ginny acknowledged.

“You do know, that Mister Potter will be unconscious for a day or so?” McGonagall asked. “There is nothing to be gained by sitting here all that time.”

“But what if…” Hermione started.

“Miss Granger, all the champions are watched around-the-clock, including Mister Potter. And I'm quite sure he will not wake until tomorrow at the earliest.” Knowing what she would ask next, McGonagall added, “He is in a relatively safe spot, so I doubt he'll have any more visitors.”

“Still you can't be sure.”

“No, I cannot, but as I said, he will be watched.” McGonagall sat down next to Hermione. “There is nothing you can do for him now… But when he returns, I'm sure he'll need a few days in the infirmary. I would very much like to be able to tell Poppy, that you are allowed to visit any time.”

Hermione sat up straighter and gave McGonagall her full attention, “Yes, I would like that.”

“Well then, you will have to eat properly and get the appropriate amount rest, because I will not allow you to jeopardize your health as well.”

Hermione only had to think about it for a second, “I understand Professor.”

Seeing that Hermione was going to cooperate, she turned to Ginny, “Miss Weasley, can I count on you to see to it that she does.”

Ginny stood up pulling Hermione with her, “Yes Professor, of course.”

After taking only two steps, Hermione stopped and turned back, “Professor if…”

“You'll be the first to know,” McGonagall promised.

“Thank you Professor, but I was going to ask; If Harry was being watched, how come nobody helped him?”

“I can't say whether or not someone was about to help, and if so, why they waited… but I will find out.”

Hermione knew there was nothing left to say for now, “Thank you Professor.”

oOoOo

Harry woke slowly, as if his mind preferred the peaceful state of slumber it was in, rather than the harsh world of reality. Harry's mind wasn't the only part of his body protesting. His legs were cramped and his back was stiff from both yesterday's overexertion, and the way he had slept. Harry gingerly stretched and that's when he remembered the wound on his stomach as the skin pulled tight against the cuts with a sharp pain.

Harry lifted his shirt and examined the wound. It actually didn't look that bad; the cuts were tender and a little swollen, but otherwise okay. The healing leaves had apparently done a pretty good job of cleaning the wound and pulling out most of the toxins. At the moment, Harry's leg wound didn't feel too bad either, and since he was out of supplies anyway, he decided to leave it wrapped up. Harry hoped they would both be okay until he made it back.

Everything taken care of and his head finally clear, he was ready to leave. Harry looked around, being early morning, it was still fairly dark. A low-hanging fog hugged the ground, and except for the sound of the river nearby; the forest was quiet. Listing to running water reminded Harry to refill his canteens, and to take care of some personal business. Then, after checking his map and compass he started out, with a little luck he might just make it home before nightfall.

On this side of the river the forest was far more open and even though the ground was uneven, Harry was making good time. If he bent or jumped the wrong way, his stomach would remind him of the four claw marks under his shirt, but otherwise they didn't bother him too much. His leg was a different story. Without being able to treat the wound a second time, the infection had apparently returned, and the pain was slowly getting worse. As the day wore on, Harry realized that if he didn't get to Hogwarts today, he might not make it at all.

oOoOo

After getting back to the castle and having dinner with Ginny, Hermione still had trouble falling asleep, even though she had been exhausted. Finally, sometime in the early morning she drifted off.

Hermione was dreaming, it wasn't a pleasant dream, nor was it a nightmare. It was like the kind of dream you have when you're full of anxiety. The type where you are trying to run but your legs feel like lead. She had to move, had to get away. Something was after her, grabbing her… shaking her.

Hermione bolted awake, and in an instant, had her wand pointed right between the eyes of… Ginny?

Ginny jumped back and landed on her bum, “Don't! …Merlin Hermione, it's me,” she said holding up both her hands hoping not to get hexed.

Hermione quickly looked around the room and regained her bearings, then noticing the light and realizing it was late afternoon asked desperately, “Ginny, what time is it?”

“Almost three, that's why I woke you.”

Hermione jumped out of bed and started throwing clothes on, “What about Harry, is he okay, is he awake?”

“Yeah he's fine, he's almost here,” Ginny answered casually.

“What! Why didn't you wake me sooner?”

Confused, Ginny asked, “Why? Nothing's happened.”

“He woke up, that's what happened,” Hermione yelled as she ran out the door.

oOoOo

Hermione reached the viewing stands by the edge of the forest out of breath, but in record time. Looking around she scanned the area, it appeared that so far, only Fleur had made it back. Checking the board confirmed it, the other three were still in the forest. Viktor was near the edge, but far to the south, he probably wouldn't get here for at least a couple more hours. Cedric still had a long way to go, and he would probably be spending another night in the forest.

But the one Hermione really wanted to know about, was Harry. Sure enough, Ginny had been right. Harry was only a little ways from the border that separated the Dark Forest and Hogwarts. He was limping and obviously in some pain, but he was still walking. Harry would be here within the hour.

Hermione watched for a few more minutes and then decided that even though she was supposed to wait in the stands, she would meet him at the edge of the forest. `To hell with the rules,' she thought.

oOoOo

Harry grimaced as he took another step, his leg was killing him, but he was almost there. The forest was started to thin, and for the first time in four days, Harry felt the warmth of sunlight on his skin. A few minutes later and he could just start to make out Hogwarts through the trees. He had only taken a few more steps when he heard it… The sweetest sound, a voice he'd been waiting to hear for what seemed like forever.

Hermione had been pacing back and forth on the very edge of the line Dumbledore had drawn. She couldn't go past it without causing Harry to lose points. The snap of a twig caught her attention, looking up, she saw him through the trees, “Harry!” She yelled.

From out of nowhere the Headmaster was at her side. “I do believe it would be quite all right if you were to go and…” He never got a chance to finish, Hermione took off like a shot. Dumbledore just smiled.

Hermione slowed down just enough to keep from tackling Harry to the ground as she latched on to him. With her arms wrapped tightly around him, she whispered against his shoulder, “Harry.” His name, one word; it contained all the pent up emotions of the last few days.

Harry hugged her back, “You… are a sight for sore eyes Hermione. Merlin, did I miss you.”

Hermione nodded against his chest, “I missed you too.”

Hermione helped Harry to the medical tent where Madam Pomfrey gave him a quick look over. A few spells and a couple of potions later, she told Hermione to take Harry to the infirmary for a shower and a hot meal. Then he was to go straight to bed, she'd be up later to check on him.

oOoOo

Hermione couldn't help him take a shower of course; he'd have to manage that on his own. However, as soon as he was out and dressed in his pajamas, Hermione helped him into bed and stayed close while he ate some dinner.

Harry could tell that even though she was exhausted, there was something on her mind. Lying back, he padded the spot next to him for her to sit, “Hermione, what's wrong?”

Without looking at him, she bit her lip. `What's wrong…? You almost died out there… You promised,' she wanted to yell… but she didn't. Hermione could see how worn out he was, “We'll talk later Harry, for now just get some rest.”

Harry couldn't help but notice how tired she looked as well, and he knew the watching and the waiting was hard on her. “Yeah, okay… but I want you to get some rest too,” Harry said, brokering no argument from her.

She had promised him, she'd leave and get some rest as soon as he was asleep. He had drifted off several hours ago, and as promised, she had left. However, after only a few hours of sleep, Hermione couldn't keep her eyes closed any longer, so now she was back. She sat by the side of Harry's bed and watched him sleep. She marked the passage of time, by the slow rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, and thought about why she was so reluctant to be anywhere else.

The task was over, Harry was safe - but he was still alone. Pomfrey had treated his wounds and he would recover - but he could have died. Each time she found a reason to go, a little voice gave her one to stay.

Harry's consciousness slowly stirred back to life. Cracking one eye open, the first thing he saw was his beautiful brown-haired girlfriend sitting by his side, staring at their joined hands. He gave them a weak squeeze.

Hermione looked up, “Hey, you're awake. How are you feeling?” She asked softly.

Harry smiled as he gingerly scooted back so he could sit up a little. Leaning back against the headboard he answered in a hoarse voice, “Not too bad actually, I'm feeling a lot better.” Then with a scrutinizing glance he raised a brow and asked curiously, “You said you'd get some rest. Please tell me you haven't been here all this time.”

Hermione sat up straighter trying not to look as tired as she felt. “No, of course not. You were out for quite a while, and I… Well I just couldn't sleep anymore.”

“So you came back,” Harry offered

Hermione looked down, “Yeah.” After a short silence, she looked back up, “Harry you could have been killed trying to fight that chimera, what were you thinking… Why didn't you use the Portkey?” Hermione asked quietly, but it was clear from the inflection in her voice, she was upset.

Harry was surprised by the sudden change in her tone, and the look on her face. Had he upset her that much he wondered? `No, I acted like an idiot and scared her half to death,' he concluded. With a fair bit of effort, he managed to swing his legs down off the bed. Sitting on the edge, he patted the spot next to him, encouraging her to sit next to him. “Hermione… come'ere,” he pleaded softly.

Hermione had been terrified, and his reckless actions had scared her. Now, she was mostly just mad and upset. Reluctantly, she stood up, then turned halfway around and sat down next to him a bit stiffly. Without looking at him, she asked again, “Why'd you do that Harry?”

Harry didn't have to see her face to know she was crying. The fact that it was his fault, made him feel terrible. Taking one of her small hands in his, he said gently, “Hermione, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you… Please don't cry.” Harry knew she still wanted an answer. “I honestly never thought of fighting it. By the time I had figured out what it was, it was almost on top of me. I had only hoped to slow it down so that I could get away.”

Hermione had turned and was now staring straight at him, listing to his every word very carefully.

“I tried to think of something else, but I never imagined anything, like having to face a chimera, and there was just so little time.” Harry looked away, “When it jumped out at me… I… I went blank, I was almost frozen with fear.” Harry took a deep breath and let it out slowly trying to calm himself. Just thinking about it, had his heart racing again.

Hermione suddenly felt guilty, after all, she hadn't been the one out there. “It's okay Harry, you don't have to go on.”

Harry ran his free hand through his hair, “No, I need to talk about it… And you deserve to know.”

Hermione wrapped her other hand around their already joined ones and squeezed.

“I'd had a plan… sort of, but as soon as I saw it… I knew it would never work,” Harry started again. “It was huge, and… and its growl… I don't think I'll ever forget that sound.” Harry whispered, then after a long detached moment, he sighed, “Anyway, I just started acting on instinct… I completely forgot about the Portkey. I was so focused… It had my…”

“You forgot?” Hermione asked, interrupting him.

Harry hung his head and nodded yes, “Stupid I know. You must be disappointed.”

Hermione leaned into him, and laid her head on his shoulder. “Harry, when you had to face that dragon a while back, I was so scared, I was petrified; I don't think I could have even of told you my name I was so frightened, and I was up in the stands!” Hermione sniffed, “This was the second time you've had to face a… a real live monster. It's amazing you're still alive. I should have known you wouldn't have acted that recklessly, I'm sorry I doubted you Harry.”

“Don't be sorry Hermione, I should have remembered the Portkey… and used it.”

“I'm just glad you're back,” Hermione said as the last of the tension left her and she settled into Harry's side.

Harry looked down at her, “And I'm glad you're here.”

After a few minutes of quiet, Harry felt the air was too gloomy and decided a change of mood was required. “You remember that healing charm Alexi gave his demonstration on?” Harry asked.

Lifting her head to look at Harry, Hermione answered curiously, “Yes,” one brow raised, wondering where this was going.

“With nothing left in my first-aid kit, I remember thinking, I wished I had learned that one.”

“Yes, well hopefully you'll never need it again.”

Harry nodded in agreement, then both just sat there quietly, content just to be together without any immediate worries. Harry still holding her hand, laced their fingers together. Hermione just smiled and closed her eyes, as she again laid her head back on Harry's shoulder. Harry turned his head slightly and gently rested his chin on the top of her head. It was just a simple act of comfort, but Hermione thought it was the sweetest thing. She loved this side of Harry. He was so caring and compassionate, and he didn't even know it.

Standing in Pomfrey's office doorway, McGonagall had watched the whole exchange from a distance. She couldn't help but think, that she was seeing Harry and Hermione for the first time. That this, was the real Harry and Hermione. The ones you rarely saw, and that most would never see, unguarded and open. A side they could only show to each other. She had known many young couples over the years, but none had ever shown the deep connection that Harry and Hermione shared so easily. Turning away, she smiled at the thought of what she was sure would become a very special relationship in the future.

oOoOo

“Good morning everyone, I hope you've all had a good rest.” Dumbledore started.

Harry wondered if the Professor was referring to the champions in particular, now that they were all back.

“Now that the fifth task is over, we can get back doing some school work.” Dumbledore smiled at the collective moan that rose up. “Not to worry, there is still one more task left, and with it, a break in the horrible drudgery of your day to day class work,” Dumbledore laughed.

Harry laughed too, as he wondered what had put his headmaster in such a cheery mood.

“But before you scamper off to class… I thought you might like to hear the scores for your favorite champion.” Dumbledore looked up with his brows raised, as if expecting an answer. Looking at a sea of expectant faces, Dumbledore smiled, “Ah, I thought as much… Very well. But first, I must ask you to please wait until we are finished before cheering for your champion of choice.”

Dumbledore turned towards the Hufflepuff table, “Mr. Diggory, that lost compass cost you considerable time, however, aside from that, you handled yourself very well. I particularly liked the way you dealt with the snakes, well done sir. Mr. Diggory came in fourth for this task with thirty eight points, putting him in second place overall with one hundred and eighty points.” Turning to the Durmstrang students, he when on, “Mr. Krum you gave me a bit of a scare when you decided to try and cross the marsh without magic. I'm glad you were able to make it back out with only a handful of injuries. Mr. Krum came in third with forty two points, which also puts him in third place overall with one hundred and seventy seven points.”

Dumbledore paused as he looked at the Gryffindor table where both Harry and Fleur were sitting. “A difficult task or trial changes a person, usually for the better; does it not?”

Harry nodded slightly. In this particular case, he thought Dumbledore was spot on.

“Mr. Potter, you used excellent judgement, right up until you stopped thinking completely and nearly got yourself killed. However, considering what you were faced with, it is understandable. Mr. Potter, after a five point penalty for interacting with another champion, your final score for the task was forty five points for second place. This currently puts you in first place overall, with one hundred and eighty three points. Well done Mr. Potter.” Dumbledore smiled, “Miss Delacour, I must say you surprised me… in a very good way. You faced a considerable number of challenges, yet you didn't let them slow you down. Even cold and wet, you pressed on… and it paid off. You used what you had very skillfully, and yet still found time to learn something new. Miss Delacour, you not only finished the task first, but came in first place with a score of fifty points, also after a five point deduction. Well done indeed. That gives you a final score of one hundred and seventy six points placing you in fourth place overall.” Dumbledore stepped back and clapped along with the rest of the Hall. The noise rose quickly as both students and staff stood, and cheered.

Before the enthusiasm started to wane, Dumbledore approached the podium again with hands raised, calling for quiet. “Over the years, the Triwizard Tournament has gained a dark reputation. I had thought that enough had been done to change that. I was wrong. It seems there is much more that needs to change if it is to continue, but that is not what I want to talk about now.” Dumbledore looked around the Great Hall slowly, studying the different groups. “I have seen not only students from different schools come together to both work and socialize, but I have seen our own house boundaries fall as well.” Dumbledore paused a moment to let that sink in. “I cannot emphasize enough, how important that one single aspect is… if we as a society are to survive. So, if the Triwizard Tournament had taught us anything, it's that we can work together no matter who we are. A mere eight points separate all our champions; it would seem we are more alike than we care to think. Enjoy your time together, the last task and the end of the school year will be here before you it.”

oOoOo

Harry had already been out of the infirmary for a couple of days, so as he sat down to breakfast the following Friday he felt pretty good; except for his leg, which was still a little tender.

Neville watched as Harry gently eased himself onto the bench. “Still a little sore?”

“Yeah, mostly in the morning,” Harry answered, “Pomfrey said there was some muscle damage, and that takes the longest to heal.” Harry smiled, “Should be fine by next week.”

“Ginny thinks you're milking it, to get out of your morning run,” Neville said with a smirk.

Harry laughed, “She did, did she?” Then after a quick look around he asked, “Where are they anyway?”

“Hermione started back running today, that's why Ginny made that joke,” Neville answered, “Luna went with them.”

Harry looked up surprised, “Luna started running?”

Now Neville laughed, “No, she just cheers them on; although to hear Ginny tell it, she's more like a Muggle drill instructor.” Harry smiled as he pictured that in his head. “But we have talked about it… We'll see,” Neville added with a shrug.

“So, everything set for tomorrow?” Harry asked.

Neville brightened, “Yeah, everything should work out just in time.”

Harry smiled, tomorrow was going to be a great day.

.

AN: Chimera is also sometimes spelled Chimaera.

.

18

Valid HTML 4.0! Document created with wvWare/wvWare version 1.2.7

-->

21. The Maze


.

Always and Forever

.

Disclaimer: Harry Potter, and all the characters associated there with belong to JK Rowling, and Scholastic. Also, any similarities to any other work is unintentional. I make no profit from this story. I wrote it, just for fun.

.

Chapter 21

The Maze

.

.

Luna had just sat down to breakfast when a large distinctive looking owl landed right in front of her. It carried a small package and a letter. Surprised, Luna looked around as if half expecting a prank, only to find all her friends descending on her. Harry and Hermione sat down together across from her, while Neville sat next to her. Then Ginny slipped in on her other side and they all waited silently, allowing Neville a chance to speak first.

“Happy birthday Luna,” Neville finally said with just a hint of color in his cheeks.

“Happy fourteenth Luna,” Hermione added, “this is from both of us.” Harry nodded, while Hermione handed Luna a card and a small gift.

Just as the twins were joining them, Ginny went next and handed Luna a card, “Sorry, it's all we have for now, but mum says she'll have something special for you this summer.” After settling in next to their sister, the twins chorused together, “Happy birthday neighbor.”

Luna took all the cards and the gift from Harry and Hermione and placed them in front of her. “Thank you… all of you,” she whispered. It was the first time since she had started Hogwarts that anyone other than her father had acknowledged her birthday. With a trembling hand, she reached out and took the package and letter from the owl. Glad to be relieved of its burden, it simply hooted once and promptly left. Looking at the letter, Luna recognized the writing, it was from Neville. She looked up at him surprised.

“That was the Longbottom family owl,” Neville offered, “I wrote to my grandmother and asked her to pick up my gift and send it directly to you.” Seeing the puzzled look on her face, Neville explained further, “I only found out when your birthday was a while back, and after I finally found the gift I wanted to get you, I didn't think I'd have enough time to get it here before today. So when it was ready I had gram pick it up and send it along.”

Luna smiled in understanding, then slowly, and very carefully, began to open the small brightly wrapped box. Lifting the lid, she peered inside. A short moment later, her eyes grew wide, and she let out a tiny gasp as tears started to fall.

Neville had been at a loss as to what kind of gift to get Luna, so after Hermione had told him that her birthday was May sixth, she then recommended that he write her parents and ask them what they thought would be appropriate. That's when Neville had learned that her mother had died when she was only nine years old. Ginny had known, but never thought to mention it. She had just assumed Luna would have told him or anybody else, if she had wanted them to know. But Luna had never said a word. She had kept it to herself, not wanting any pity from anybody. After writing her father, he further learned that her mother had given her an old charm bracelet that had been hers when she was in school. Luna had worn it to Hogwarts in her first year, but within the first month, she had lost it. Her father said she had been devastated, and spent weeks looking for it. By Christmas, she had given up any hope of ever seeing it again.

Neville had spent most of his last Hogsmeade visit trying to find a replacement. Finally, at the last shop, after explaining what he was looking for, the shopkeeper had him wait while he went into the back room to check on something. A while later, he came back with a bracelet. It was old and dusty, but it looked like the one Luna's father had described, in fact, it looked exactly like it. Neville took it from the box and gently turned it over. There on the back was the inscription from Luna's mom, “To my little moon, love mum.” Neville could hardly believe his luck. The shopkeeper explained that a Hogwarts student had brought it in a couple of years earlier, claiming that she really didn't like her mum and wanted to sell it. Thinking she might change her mind, the shopkeeper put the bracelet in the back room for safe keeping. He had forgotten all about until Neville came in looking for it. Neville told him of his suspicions, that it had been stolen. The shopkeeper agreed and offered to give it back free of charge, but only after he had reported it to the Auror's office, Neville quickly agreed.

Looking at Neville with all the wonderment of a small child that was so naturally Luna, all she could say was, “How… I thought I'd lost…” Then, after wrapping her arms around his neck, she gave him a kiss on the cheek, “Thank you Neville… Thank you so much.”

Neville was so happy for her, he didn't even blush at her show of affection. “You're welcome Luna. I'm just glad you got it back.” Then Neville shook his head, “And for the record, you didn't lose it Luna, someone stole it from you.”

“Oh…” Was all she could say as she turned away. Luna seemed to shrink in on herself as she became quiet and turned her gaze down to the table. Her hands instinctively wrapped around the bracelet, as if someone might come along and steal it away again.

Hermione couldn't help but notice and wondered if Luna knew more than she was letting on. “Luna, do you know who it was?” Hermione asked, getting a little angry that anyone could be so mean.

Luna hesitated only a moment and then gave a small shrug and said simply, “Oh, well some of the girls in my house like to take my things and hide them. They think it's quite funny.” She didn't look up, and her eyes never left the bracelet when she answered.

“Things?” Neville all but growled, “like your shoes?” It wasn't unusual to see Luna walking around the cold castle barefoot. Neville had just assumed it was part of her sometimes odd behavior, but now he was having second thoughts.

Neville looked across to Harry and Hermione and was happy to see that they appeared to be as angry as he was. “I'm going to Flitwick, this is… It's outrageous!” Neville started to stand and so did Harry.

“Wait a minute,” Fred said quickly, holding up a hand to stop them.

“What, why?” Asked Harry.

“Luna, do you know who's been doing this?” Fred asked softly, and after she nodded yes, he asked another question, “and can you prove it?” Luna slowly shook her head no.

“Then Flitwick won't be able to do much,” George said, catching onto his brother's line of thought. Being the schools pranksters, they were well aware of what a professor could or couldn't do without proof.

Ginny was quietly building up the famous Weasley temper and after she turned to her brothers, she roared. “Then what is she supposed to do, let them get away with this?”

Unconcerned by her outburst, Fred smiled, “Not at all dear sister.”

“Leave them to us,” George finished, with a devil of a smile on his face.

“As of this moment, you are now our adopted little sister.” Fred said as he nodded to his brother.

George nodded back, “And nobody messes with our family.”

Liking the idea, Ginny calmed down immediately. She pulled Luna into a one-arm hug and smiled at her, “Hey sis.”

Neville and Harry sat back down while Hermione smirked, “Oh I think I want in on this one.”

Luna was crying again as she looked around at her friends, “Thank you, all of you… It's nice to have such good friends.”

Harry looked around too and nodded, before adding softly to himself, “Yes, it is.”

oOoOo

By the following Saturday, a week later; Harry felt that he was finally getting back in shape. He wasn't quite back in tip top condition, but almost. As he and Hermione approached the castle after their morning run, they noticed Dumbledore standing in the courtyard with Fleur sitting nearby, waiting for them. Harry shared a questioning look with Hermione, then looked over his shoulder at the two girls following them. Luna and Ginny were having a lively animated conversation, and hadn't noticed the Headmaster yet. Harry again looked at Hermione, who mouthed, “Neville.” Harry smiled back. As their cool down walk came to an end at the courtyard, Dumbledore turned and spoke.

“Good morning Harry, ladies,” Dumbledore said as he tipped his head towards them. “It looks like the start of a beautiful day. You know, I envy the fact that you get to spend so much time out of doors, enjoying the fresh air.”

“Yes Sir,” Harry said simply. He'd had quite enough of the outdoors lately.

Dumbledore was slightly surprised by Harry's short response, and it showed on his face with a slight rise of a brow. “Miss Granger, I wonder if you and your friends would mind if I spoke with Harry alone for a moment.”

Hermione recognized the statement for what it was, he wasn't asking. She glanced at Harry, who gave her a subtle nod, then answered, “No, of course not Sir.”

Dumbledore noticed the exchange and smiled, Minerva was right; they were growing closer. It also occurred to him, that he had obviously lost Miss Granger's allegiance; that now belonged to Harry. Hermione had only taken a couple of steps away when a thought occurred to him, and he changed his mind. “On second thought Miss Granger, would you be so kind as to join us? I think perhaps your keen insight may be beneficial.”

Hermione nodded a quick goodbye to Luna and Ginny, then said, “Certainly, Professor,” before returning to Harry's side.

Harry smiled, happy to have her with him. After another glance at Fleur, he turned back to Dumbledore and asked, “Sir, what's this about?”

“The last task Harry,” Dumbledore answered tensely. Then after a look out towards the lake, he smiled, “I could use some fresh air myself.” Dumbledore then looked at Harry and Hermione and chuckled, “And I'd wager, that the two of you would rather not be cooped up in a small office… at least until you have showered.”

Hermione glanced down at herself, then scrunched up her nose and nodded.

Harry just laughed, “Probably for the best Sir.”

After strolling around for a few minutes just enjoying the grounds, Harry was beginning to wonder if Dumbledore had forgotten what they were out here to discuss. One glance at Fleur and Hermione, and he knew they were thinking the same thing.

As if reading their minds Dumbledore finally started talking, “As beautiful a day it is, I am afraid we all have more important things to do, so…” Turning to Fleur he asked, “Can I assume that by now you are aware, that there was a chimera loose in the forest?”

Harry thought she might faint when she looked at him; the blood was leaving her face so fast. Yet, in that brief moment, Harry saw in her eyes a level of respect that she had until recently, only had for the other two champions.

Looking back at Dumbledore, Fleur answered, “Oui, My seester told me.”

“And can you think of anyone who might have brought it here?”

“Professor, Fleur wouldn't…” Harry started to protest. While Hermione flashed angry eyes at their Headmaster.

Fleur looked worried, but said nothing. She would wait and see where he was going with this before asking questions or saying anything.

Dumbledore smiled at their show of support for each other. “I'm happy to see that the Tournament has made you all friends and not enemies.” Looking straight at Fleur, he when on, “I did not mean to accuse you of anything Miss Delacour.”

Fleur relaxed somewhat, happy that she was not being blamed for the attack on Harry.

After a moment to let the sudden tension reside, Dumbledore continued, “As all of you know, the chimera in not native to the Dark Forest. So that begs the question… how did it get there?” Dumbledore paused to let the question sink in. “As soon as you four were safely back, the chimera was captured by Hagrid. Then, several ministry officials, including myself set out to investigate.”

Turning to Harry, he continued, “Since you encountered it first, and the fact that you were the most likely to have an enemy who might want to… well cause you harm, I assumed it was put there to hunt you, Harry.” Dumbledore sighed, “I am afraid I jumped to the wrong conclusion.”

“What are you suggesting Sir?”

Dumbledore simply tipped his head down a little and peered over his glasses at Hermione, and waited.

“He's suggesting that it was meant for someone else,” Hermione answered quietly, as she took hold of Harry's hand.

Dumbledore looked at Hermione and nodded, “Exactly right Miss Granger… care to tell us who?”

Hermione turned and stared at Fleur who was still quite pale, and had yet to say a word.

Following her gaze, Harry turned back to Hermione, “But why?”

Hermione shook her head, then looking at Dumbledore, “Professor?”

Dumbledore also shook his head, “Sadly I am not sure either, hence my earlier question to Miss Delacour.” Dumbledore stared at the three of them for a few seconds, then went on to explain more. “We found out, that the chimera was Portkeyed into the northern part of the forest. Nowhere near you Harry; that was a bit puzzling. Then we found this…” Dumbledore reached into his robes and pulled out a powder-blue piece of fabric, and showed it to Fleur. “Do you recognize this Miss Delacour?”

Fleur stepped closer, “Oui, eet ees part of my uniform.” She took it and examined it carefully. It was a piece of her uniform jacket, torn and dirty. “Where did you find eet?”

“We found this along with several other pieces of your jacket; all of which have your scent on them by the way… marking a trail. A trail, that I believe was mean to lead the chimera to you.”

Fleur looked down at the jacket in her hands, “Mon Dieu.” Fleur had never seen a chimera, but she knew of them, and the thought that one had been sent to attack her made her waver on her feet.

“Although we did not know it at the time, it was heading straight for you.” Turning his attention back to Harry, he went on, “A chance encounter with a stay wolf changed everything. The chimera would naturally prefer chasing a real live animal over following the scent of one. The wolf lead the chimera a considerable ways south, before turning back to the north in an effort to lose the predator.”

Hermione was already putting the pieces together and gave Harry's hand a squeeze before pulling it free and wrapping her arm around his waist.

“That is when; unfortunately for you Harry, that it crossed your path and the chimera again changed its mind about who to pursue.”

After a glance at Hermione, Dumbledore said gently, “Harry, I am sure by now you have been sufficiently chastised for not using the Portkey, so I will not say anymore other than; do try and remember that the safeguards only work if you remember to use them.”

Harry looked down and nodded, “Yes sir, I'll try to remember.”

“Excellent,” Dumbledore said with a smile, “I am quite sure you are unaware of how worried I was.”

“With all due respect Sir,” Hermione interrupted, “You didn't seem all that concerned about Harry at the time.”

Dumbledore chuckled, “I was not worried about Harry. As I said, I believe Harry is quite resilient… It was you I was worried about. If it had gotten any worse…”

“I theenk you might ave been joining us een ze ospital Professor,” Fleur said with a huge smile.

Hermione turned red, while Harry stood next to her with his arm around her.

Dumbledore was still smiling, “You have good friends Harry, who I might add, are very protective of you.”

Harry looked at Hermione and while staring into her eyes said, “Yes sir, that I'm sure of.” He glanced at her lips, but didn't kiss her; he was fairly sure Hermione would have been uncomfortable with that in front of their Headmaster.

Hermione's blush faded, and her smile grew. She knew what he had been thinking. She'd be sure to kiss him later and make it count for his patience.

“Well then, to summarize; A dark creature was released in the forest to hurt Miss Delacour… for reasons unknown. Also, something that you probably did not know; Professor Snape has discovered tampering with his potion supplies, and there is the question of the disappearance of Mr. Bagman.”

“What kind of tampering Professor,” asked Hermione?

“It seems several ingredients have gone missing in rather large quantities,” Dumbledore peered over his glasses at the two of them and with a knowing smile added, “ingredients that the both of you are quite familiar with I might add.” Holding up his hands to stop the inevitable protest, he went on, “He was of course convinced it was you, but later changed his mind.”

“Hum, surprised he didn't at least dock us points.”

“As I told him Harry; things are not always as they seem.” Dumbledore sighed, “Which bring us back to the Tournament. Obviously, someone is trying to influence the outcome, and is not concerned with how they do it.”

“Or who geets urt,” Fleur added.

“Quite right Miss Delacour,” Dumbledore said with a nod in her direction. “I want the three of you to be especially careful in the coming weeks. Let me know immediately if you see something unusual, or even remotely suspicious.”

“Sir, we've talked about this before,” Hermione started, “if you now think there is an unseen danger, why not stop the Tournament?”

“I did not mean to make you think I was not concerned before Miss Granger. However, like before, there is still little that can be done until more is known. If I, or anyone else for that matter, were to stop the Tournament without indisputable proof, it would put not only Harry's magic in jeopardy, but that of all the champions.”

“So again we do nothing!” Hermione was getting worked up.

Dumbledore turn to her and said in a very serious tone, “Quite the contrary Miss Granger. Much has been done and still more will be. Not everything we are doing is visible to the public, or even to your keen eye.” Dumbledore's features softened, “Miss Granger, I would never intentionally put a student's life in danger… not even Harry's.”

Harry gave her a squeeze and she backed off. “Fine…I understand Professor.”

After getting nods of understanding from the other two, Dumbledore's mood brighten. “Well, with that settled for the time being; I think it is time for breakfast… or for some, showers.”

oOoOo

“If I may have your attention please,” Dumbledore started after he approached the podium, “I am sure by now some of you have noticed the hedgerows being grown down by the Quidditch stadium.” After seeing a few nods of acknowledgment he went on, “They are indeed for the next and last upcoming task. Once fully grown they will stand about twelve feet tall and will be nearly five feet thick. Their layout, will be that of a maze, one that our champions will have to navigate to the center… where the Triwizard Cup, their final goal, will await them.”

Hermione sat up straighter as a chill ran down her back, her little feeling was back. Since this was the last task, whatever was going to happen would probably happen sometime during the task.

As Dumbledore surveyed the crowd, he seemed to pause on each champion momentarily as if to judge their readiness. “For this final task, each champion may choose a partner to accompany him. But they may only be one of the two people that were involved with him from the lake during the fourth task.” Now speaking directly to the champions, he said in a more guarded voice, “In the maze, things will not always be as they appeared to be. You will not only be required to navigate the maze, but you will also have to deal with, whatever you encounter along the way.” Dumbledore nodded gently as he went on, “The right partner could be of great help, choose wisely. If however, you choose to go alone you will be allowed to enter the maze with a slight time advantage over those who go with partners. Once in the maze, your partner may go as far with you as you want. However, you cannot force them to continue, they may leave at any time of their choosing. It will be completely up to the both of you as to how you proceed.”

Dumbledore took a sip of water and then pressed on, “Until the champions decide whether or not they will pick a partner for this task, we will not know the order in which they will enter the maze.

As of this moment, the point totals are as follows; Harry Potter is in the lead with one hundred eighty-three points, Cedric Diggory is next with one hundred eighty points, followed by Viktor Krum with one hundred seventy-seven points, lastly but certainly not least is Fleur Delacour with one hundred seventy-six points. If a champion decides to go alone, he will have five points added to his total. The champion with the highest number of points will enter the maze first. The point difference will determine how long the next champion has to wait before they may enter the maze, with one point equaling one minute. As usual, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask either myself or your Head of House.”

Dumbledore paused, and seemed to study the crowd of students gathered in the Great Hall. Then, almost as if reluctant to continue, he added, “The sixth and final task will begin at seven o'clock on Friday evening, June the twenty-third. Also, viewing stands will again be set up along with a means to see most of what is going on in the maze.”

Dumbledore sighed, “I feel, I must warn you. This task is much more than simply navigating a simple maze.” Then speaking directly to the champions again, Dumbledore's voice took on a tight serious tone, “You four will face many types of challenges in the maze… Consider all that you have faced before, as… preparation for what awaits you between the hedgerows.” Dumbledore hesitated only a moment, and then stood straighter and gave a slight nod to the assembly before returning to his seat.

Hermione turned and stared at Harry expectantly, waiting for him to ask. Harry however, sat deadly still, and stared down at the table in front of him with unfocused eyes and didn't say a word. Hermione's brow drew tight, and her lips pressed thin. She knew what he was thinking, he was planning on going alone; he didn't want to put anyone else in danger, not even Ron. He was going to try and protect her by leaving her out of the task. Harry was going to try and be the quiet noble hero.

“You know I'm going with you Harry,” Hermione said, trying to convey that there would be no argument. Although she didn't say it, she knew it was for her own benefit as much as it was for his.

Harry nodded slowly and turned to look at her. He half smiled; there was steel in her voice, and fire in her eyes. Harry knew there was no talking her out of it, but still he had to try. “Hermione, you said it yourself, `Students have died.'”

“And that's exactly why I'm going with you.”

“Hermione, if something were to happen to you… I… I don't know…”

“Harry, don't you think I feel exactly the same way?”

“But I have to go, you don't,” Harry argued.

“We, Harry. Remember? We are a team. I stood by you when your name came out of that blasted Cup, and I've stood by you since. I'll not be left behind now.” Hermione could see it in his eyes. He was desperately pleading with her to let him go alone. “Please Harry… I can't… I just can't sit on the sidelines and watch anymore.”

Harry could understand that, and if he was honest with himself, he knew he needed her. A selfish part of him also wanted her there with him. Seeing how determined, and how committed she was, he relented. All she wanted, was to help, to try and see him safely through this last task. Harry stared at his truly best friend through watery eyes and said in a thick voice, “Okay… Together then.”

Hermione's face stayed serious as she nodded with relief. Then she pulled Harry into a gentle embrace and whispered, “Together.”

oOoOo

Draco was in a rather foul mood as he sat down to breakfast. It was June fifth, just another ordinary day as far as most everyone at Hogwarts was concerned. However, today was special to Draco, today he turned fifteen, it was his birthday. Ordinarily he'd be happy about that. His parents, both of them, would send him a couple of nice gifts, and a long letter telling him how much they missed him.

Not this year. No, all he got was a card from his mother wishing him a happy birthday, his father hadn't even taken the time to sign it.

They were changing, especially his father. He was growing more distant, and… cold. He spent long periods of time away from home according to his mum, and he'd get extremely angry if she asked where he had been. After seeing her at Christmas, and by the way she had started wording her letters, he could tell; she was nervous about something… scared even. She was on edge all the time now.

Draco didn't know what it all meant, but he was smart enough to know something was up with his parents. Whether it was them growing apart, or money problems, politics, or something else, he didn't know, but something was definitely wrong. He wanted to write home and demand an explanation, but he wasn't stupid enough to expect an answer. Draco also knew there'd be a painful lesson to be learned from his father for such arrogance.

“Happy Birthday Draco,” Pansy said as she dropped down next to him, “Here, I hope you like it.”

Draco stared at the small gift she had handed him, the only gift he would most likely receive. She had remembered his birthday. Draco looked up and gave her a half smile, “Thank you,” looking back down he added, “I'm sure I will.”

Pansy smiled, then started making two plates of breakfast, one for herself and one for Draco. She knew he'd wait until later to open her gift, he'd do it in private.

A couple of seats down, Daphne watched with interest.

oOoOo

The days leading up to the final task seemed to fly by, and before Hermione knew it, June twenty-third had arrived.

Even though summer had come early to Hogwarts, Hermione shivered in the late evening air. The sixth task was about to begin. They had spent a lot of time discussing how they would proceed and what types of obstacles they might encounter along the way. Hermione however, could not help but feel that there was something more, something they didn't know about. Maybe something nobody knew about. At some point, she had expressed her fears to Professor McGonagall, and she in turn promise to double check everything. Later McGonagall had told her, that she still hadn't found anything out of the ordinary, but that she'd keep looking. In the end, she had said it was probably just last-minute nerves. Hermione wasn't convinced.

As it turned out, at the last minute, Viktor decided to go without a partner and so had moved up to second place. Harry and Hermione would enter the maze first, followed by Viktor one minute later. Then Cedric and his partner Cho, would follow two minutes after that, and finally Fleur with her little sister Gabrielle four minutes after Cedric.

At first Fleur had not wanted a partner, she didn't care for the way Roger acted around her, and she didn't want to put Gabrielle in harm's way. Gabrielle argued, that if things got too dangerous, she could always leave. She also reminded her that even though she was only a first year, just having an extra set of eyes and ears would be a great help. If Fleur was stubborn, then there weren't enough words to describe Gabrielle's unyielding determination. With her situation, not unlike Harry's, she finally gave in.

Harry hadn't said anything to Hermione, but somehow this task felt different. It might have been because Hermione was involved, but Harry really didn't think so.

It was almost seven o'clock. Harry looked at Hermione and ticked his head up a fraction of an inch silently asking one more time, `Are you sure?'

Hermione smiled and nodded once with one brow raised, `Yes, and stop asking.'

Harry smiled, `Okay.'

Hermione knew that Harry was nervous and worried about her involvement and she smiled at his concern and thoughtfulness. But she wasn't exactly a helpless little girl, she could take care of herself pretty well. Later, when this was all over, she was sure they'd sit down and have a long talk about it. She loved the fact that Harry had a thing for helping and protecting people, but he needed to learn, that it was a two way street. He needed to learn to accept help in return.

Boom! The cannon blast resonated off the viewing stands. Harry took Hermione's hand and together they set off into the maze.

Harry set the pace at a slow run, Hermione easily following along just behind, covering their backsides. It seemed like just a short moment later when they heard the second cannon blast and knew Viktor was in the maze. Distracted by that thought, Harry nearly ran right into a Blast-Ended Skrewt as he rounded a corner. The beast reacted out of fear and let loose a large fireball right at him. Harry barely managed to dodge while pulling Hermione with him as she hastily brought up a shield.

“Harry, we need to slow down, especially near the corners.” She said, slightly winded. Harry quickly agreed.

Once safely past the Skrewt, Harry stopped and turned to Hermione, “Sorry about that.”

Grateful that Harry realized the danger of being in too big a rush, Hermione gave him a quick smile, “No worries, Harry.” A few seconds later after using the point me spell, they were on their way again.

Even though it was late in the day, it should have been fairly light out, enough to easily navigate the maze. However that was not the case, and it was actually quite dark in the maze. The sky had clouded over, and the tops the hedgerows seemed to lean in towards each other, blocking out most of what was left of any sunlight. As Harry pushed on, the ground became slightly uneven and a shallow low-lying fog started to form. He had just stepped over a large root when a second later, he heard Hermione let out a muffled yelp, as she tripped and fell to the ground. Harry stopped and turned back, intent on helping her up. A moment later he heard her scream.

“Harry!”

All around her, roots were growing out of the ground at an incredible rate, wrapping themselves around Hermione's arms and legs. She was helpless to defend herself. Harry tried blasting the roots, but it made no difference. Next he tried a cutting curse, still they kept growing, and now they were slowly trying to pull her into the hedgerow. Because it was Hermione, Harry started to panic. He didn't want to make a mistake or take any chances… he didn't know what to do next.

“Harry, they're coming from the hedge, start a fire at the base… Hurry!”

Harry wasted no time, “Incendio,” he hollered. The spell quickly started a fire at the bottom of the hedge. It worked, the roots released Hermione, who quickly scrambled to her feet and ran to Harry.

Harry held her at arm's length and gave her a quick once over, “You all right?”

Hermione was a little shaken, but otherwise unhurt, she took a deep breath, and nodded once, “Yes, I'm fine.” She could see the look in his eyes that clearly said, he was worrying about her again. “Really Harry, I'm fine.”

Harry studied her a moment, then nodded back, “Okay”

Harry grabbed her hand, and reluctantly turned and started moving again, this time a fair bit more slowly.

oOoOo

For the next several minutes, things were uneventful. Then without warning, Harry lost all sense of direction as vertigo destroyed his sense of balance. For a moment, it felt like he was in a washing machine during the spin cycle, and then it just stopped. There was no left or right, and he couldn't tell up from down. There was no feeling, no sound… nothing. It was if he floating in a dark void, like underwater with no light, unable to see nether the bottom nor the surface. Then, as quickly as it had started, it was over and the maze came spinning back into focus.

Harry was down on his knees bent over slightly breathing deeply, his eyes screwed shut. Hermione was standing over him protectively, one hand on his shoulder, the other gripping her wand. “Feeling any better Harry?”

Harry took one more long shuddering breath and looked up, “Yeah… I think,” he shook his head to clear the cobwebs, “that was so… Weird.” He had walked into what appeared to be an ordinary fog, but as soon as he had entered it, his whole world literally turned upside down.

“I can only imagine what it must've felt like. It was obviously some kind of disorientation mist,” Hermione offered.

“I'm just glad you knew the counter,” Harry said as he slowly straighten up. He still felt a little wobbly, but the effect was quickly fading.

“Dumbledore said it should take us about an hour to find the cup,” Hermione said while looking around, “it's been about that long, so we should be close.”

Harry slowly started walking again, “Yeah, hopefully that's the last…” Harry never got a chance to finish his sentence as a loud scream interrupted him. He turned to Hermione, and a moment later they both heard the unmistakable sound of spell fire.

“This way!” Harry yelled, and started in the direction of the fight, with Hermione close behind. A very short time later, Harry and Hermione came upon a truly confusing scene. Viktor and Cedric were in a duel.

They didn't have much time to try to decipher what was happening, because a moment later, Viktor noticed them and started casting spells in their direction. They were hard and powerful. Dark spells, spells meant to hurt.

Harry and Hermione joined with Cedric in trying to subdue the powerful Bulgarian. Hermione noticed Cho lying on the ground not far from Cedric, and hoped she was just unconscious. Viktor fought without fear, like he had nothing to lose. Harry also noticed, he seemed to concentrate on Cedric and now Hermione, almost ignoring him. One thing for sure, this was a totally different Viktor from the one he had dueled only a few months before.

Hermione noticed the pattern also. Being Hermione, she quickly used that information to their advantage. She moved closer to Cedric, so they could keep Viktor's attention more focused on them and allow Harry the opportunity to get in behind him. Hermione let Cedric do most of the attacking while she provided defensive covering shields. It worked for a minute or two until Viktor caught on. He fired several high-powered spells at Hermione breaking her shields just like he'd done to Harry, and a second later scored a hit. Hermione was blasted backwards.

Having been on the receiving end of Viktor's powerful spell work, Harry watched horrified as Hermione flew through the air, and for the first time, he realized how Hermione must have felt seeing that exact same thing happen to him. Harry felt his rage take control, he was going to end this. He needed to, he needed to get to Hermione.

Harry's wand lit up brightly as he screamed a series of spells at Viktor. Viktor tried to defend, but Harry's attack had been just as vicious and powerful as his own, and with Cedric also on the attack, it was only a few seconds later when Viktor fell unconscious.

Cedric ran forward and quickly confiscated Viktor's wand and then tied him up, “Incarcerous,” he said, to prevent any more trouble, just in case he woke up. Meanwhile, Harry had rushed to Hermione and was cradling her head in his lap. She didn't look like she had been hurt quite as bad as he had, but until she woke Harry wasn't going anywhere. Harry looked over and noticed Cedric was now tending to Cho.

“Harry?” Hermione asked weakly.

Harry looked back down, “Hermione, you… Are you hurt badly?”

Hermione seemed to do an internal check and then answered, “I don't think anything is broken,” then with a grimace she added, “although I'm really sore, help me sit up please.”

This was what Harry had been worried about, although he never expected her to get attacked by another champion. Harry carefully moved his hands under her arms and gently helped her to sit up, “Still okay?”

Hermione rubbed her head, “Yeah, just banged up a little. I think I got lucky.” Then after a glance toward Cedric and Cho, she asked, “How are they?”

“Don't know yet.” Harry answered, still worried about her.

Hermione went to stand, “Let's check.”

Again Harry was using two hands as he helped Hermione stand up. He helped her move slowly over to the other couple and then eased her down so she could sit next to Cho. “How is she?” Hermione asked.

Cedric shook his head, “Don't really know for sure, we need Pomfrey.” Then after a glance at Viktor, he went on, “Did you see how he was acting?”

Nodding her head, Hermione answered immediately, “Yes, and his eyes. I'm sure he was under the Imperius Curse.”

Harry raised a brow, that would explain a lot. Viktor had always been very much the quiet gentleman to both him and Hermione, he hated to think Viktor was a dark wizard. “So, someone was using him?”

“Yes, but who… and why?” Hermione said.

“To attack us, why? If he was under the Imperius, what purpose would attacking Cho and I serve?” Cedric asked.

“Not just you and Cho,” answered Hermione, “all of us, all of us except for Harry.”

“Like the last task with Fleur,” Harry mused.

A soft moan from Cho caught everyone's attention. “Send up red sparks, we'll wait for help,” Harry said.

“No, you will all be disqualified. You two go on, I'll stay here with them and send for help just as soon as you've gone,” Hermione countered. She didn't like the idea of Harry going on alone, but she knew she was in no condition to help from this point on. Seeing the look on his face, she smiled at his concern, “You have to go Harry, you can't quit willingly… Remember, the rules.”

Cedric nodded, “She's right Harry.”

“As soon as we've gone,” Harry said sternly.

Hermione nodded once, “Be careful,” and then looking at both Harry and Cedric in turn she added, “and good luck.”

Harry smiled and then turned to Cedric, “Ready?”

“Yeah,” Cedric said easily. He gave both Harry and Hermione a nod, then turned and headed off into the maze.

Harry gave Hermione a gentle hug and a quick kiss, and then after one last long look, he too turned, and disappeared back into the maze.

oOoOo

The delay with Viktor had cost him time, and in his rush to make some of it up, Harry had ran straight into the biggest acromantula he'd ever seen. He could now only hope that Hagrid wouldn't be too mad at him for killing it. At the time, there just didn't seem to be any other option. Harry looked down at his left leg. The giant spider had managed to claw him just above the knee. The gash was about three inches long and Merlin, did it hurt. Harry figured it must be fairly deep as well, considering how badly it was bleeding.

Harry grimaced as he tore open his pant leg a bit to get a better look. After cleaning it with a jet of water from his wand, he closed the wound the best he could with the only healing spell he knew. Satisfied he'd stopped the bleeding, Harry took a moment to catch his breath.

Harry had only just started moving again, when just ahead of him, he heard a blood-curdling scream. “Now what?” He asked out loud, even though he was alone. `This maze is really beginning to get old,' He thought. The scream had come from up ahead, and after only running a short distance, he came to an intersection. To the right was a long row, and at the far end there was an opening. Harry could just make out the Cup sitting on a table, shining brightly as if there were spot lights on it. To the left, Harry found the source of the panicked screaming.

Fleur was on the ground being dragged into the base of the hedgerow just as Hermione had been earlier. Gabrielle was holding onto her for dear life, and trying to pull her free. She was quickly losing the battle. It was an easy decision, Harry turned left, the Cup could wait. Harry thought to use the incendiary spell again, but decided against it, Fleur was too close to the hedge, she would surely get burnt. Dropping to his knees, he grabbed hold of her and tried to help Gabrielle pull her free, but even together they were losing ground. Harry scrambled over to her legs and desperately started pulling at the roots, ripping them off as fast as he could. However, at the rate it was going, Fleur would be pulled under long before he had her free.

“Harry, get back!” Cedric yelled.

Harry looked up to find Cedric only a few feet away, wand at the ready. Jumping up, Harry moved to stand by Gabrielle. Cedric fired a spell that Harry had never heard of, but it worked. The hedgerow roots quickly retreated back into the ground, releasing Fleur.

Harry helped both Gabrielle and Fleur to stand, then they all moved back a ways to catch their breath.

The way Gabrielle was hugging her sister, it didn't look as though she was going to let go anytime soon. Fleur looked down at her while rubbing her back and smiled, “C'est correat petit un… c'est correat. (It's okay little one… It's okay.)” Then looking up, she said to Harry and Cedric, “Zank you.”

Cedric smiled, “You're welcome.” Then speaking to everyone he said, “Perhaps we should stick together.”

Harry sighed, “We do seem to keep bumping into each other. Why not?”

Fleur glanced down at her little sister again, “Qui, why not?”

Harry didn't care about getting to the Cup first, or even winning. He just wanted to get through the task and get back to Hermione. He wanted to make sure she was alright. By staying together, they would definitely be safer and they'd probably finish the task a little sooner too. Harry figured, they'd work out what to do at the Cup, once they got there.

oOoOo

Hermione had watched as Madam Pomfrey examined both Cho and Viktor before sending them off to the infirmary. While she waited for her own exam, she told Dumbledore the details of the encounter. After conferring with Professor Snape and Madam Pomfrey, he confided in her, that her suspicions were correct, V