• Chapter IX •
She left the Great Hall through the huge two-winged door that had been kept wide open all night long, then crossed the adjoining foyer at the urgent yet simultaneously restrained pace of a fugitive wishing to avoid unwanted attention. Already the coalescing sounds of music, voices high and low and some sporadic clinking of crystal glasses grew fainter behind her, assuring her of the increasing distance she so desperately sought. On her way to the dearly desired exit, a promise of respite and relief, she passed a trio of chatting attendees of the ball that regarded her with genial smiles, and she tried to return them to the best of her momentarily impaired ability. At last she reached the door she had aimed for, with some effort pushed it open and finally stepped out into the crisp cold air of a white winter's night.
As soon as the iron-bound door fell shut behind her, Hermione Granger wept.
"Let's hear it, then," said Ron as he nervously readjusted the ruffled collar of his indisputably antiquated dress robe for approximately the seventeenth time. "How do we look?"
Harry, standing right next to him in an outfit that supposedly was the fashionable best of both worlds according to the catalogue he had picked it from – being neither a classical wizard's formal attire nor quite a contemporary Muggle gentleman's suit, and really just a minimally old-fashioned tailcoat – scrutinized their reflections in the large wall-mounted mirror in front of them for a moment. Looking back at him were the impressive results of almost twenty minutes of extremely intense and decidedly frantic grooming and dressing. Harry, for the first time ever, was trying out contact lenses, and his eyes did not approve. Neither of the contact lenses nor of the reflection in the mirror, that is, and least of all of that ever-untamable hair of his...
"D'you want my honest opinion?"
Ron let go of the hand-me-down family heirloom he was doomed to be publicly shamed in and for once dropped his restless hands to his sides, his shoulders drooping. "No."
"Smashing," Harry declared, bubbling over with mock enthusiasm. "Absolutely smashing!"
"I know, right?" Ron joined on the spot, twisting himself into a proper pose with his stomach sucked in and his chest imitating an angry blowfish. "Just look at these glorious bastards."
"The very embodiment of masculinity."
"You got it."
"Even Sean Connery would shalute our indishputable shex appeal."
Harry heaved a resigning sigh and made for the bathroom's exit. "Let's just get this over with."
"Do we have to?" Ron asked, the blowfish fully deflated. "Is it too late to skive?"
Harry switched off the lights (Yes, there was indeed a switch and it controlled all the unnaturally bright candles in the room. Don't ask.) and with a groaning Ron shambling after him he went ahead to bravely face what surely was destined to be a yuletide night to remember in one way or the other, ably masking that he was on the verge of what he could only guess would be an actual panic attack. Oh, well. No time for that now.
"Voilà! Ô, ô, ô... magnifique!"
"D'you really think so? Do I not rather look like a woefully transparent prétendant to you?"
Fleur Delacour stemmed her hands into her shapely hips and regarded Hermione's reflection in the large wall-mounted mirror in front of them with an indignant frown. "You dare insult my work of many hours, mademoiselle?"
Horrified, Hermione's face blanched underneath subtly rouged cheeks. "Oh! No, no! I didn't mean it like that! It's just that your efforts seem tantamount to those of an ice sculptor condemned to take their art into the middle of the Sahara."
"That is ridiculous," an overtly unimpressed Fleur pointed out with a dismissive wave of her hand, and on some stubbornly suppressed level even Hermione had to concede that much. "You, my dear, are my masterpiece."
Hogwarts' most skeptical witch fittingly perked an eyebrow. "Measured solely by the magnitude of the challenge I suppose I must be."
"Will you stop it already, you silly thing?" Fleur admonished her with some exasperation. "You are a challenge not for a stylist but for a therapist!"
"Up until a week ago I was content to have given up on both."
"Is that why you've been using that tincture to reduce the size of your front teeth?"
Hermione sullenly scrunched up her face at that. "I shouldn't have told you about that."
"I think a soupçon of vanité is a step in the right direction for you, non? Just to get away from all this pitiful self-loathing, I mean."
"A step on a steep downhill road that suddenly ends without warning at the precipice of narcissism," Hermione countered. "Yesterday I was the nerdy bookworm happy and eager to learn and understand, tomorrow I commit suicide because I came in second at the Miss Soho beauty pageant."
Fleur laughed at that, and it sounded like a playful little rivulet trickling down a crystal fountain, if not quite literally so. "I believe they are very fond of fake teeth at those things," she teasingly told her, "so you may actually stand a better chance than you think."
Hermione glared at the giggling blonde via the mirror over the dressing table, crossing her arms. "Laugh it up, princess. You're obviously unfamiliar with the slight inconvenience of looking like a chipmunk with a perennial bad hair day."
"And just look at you now," Fleur exclaimed well-nigh rapturously as she leaned down over Hermione's bare shoulder, and jokingly she added, "We should just ditch the boys and take each other for a spin, you and I."
Hermione blushed, then felt a bit silly for it. Deciding that coming from Fleur Delacour the suggestion had to be immensely flattering regardless of one's sexual orientation, she discarded the weirdness.
"D'you think he'll like it, though?" she asked as rising anxiety at the approaching hour got the better of her. She turned her head ever so slightly to have another look at that insanely intricate chignon of Fleur's doing, which euclidean geometry would not suffice to properly describe. "Me, I mean. Visually."
"Like it?" Fleur asked in most apparent disbelief. "Chérie, when poor Harry lays his eyes on you tonight, he will have thought his last innocent thought about you."
The rush of heat returned to Hermione's face with a vengeance. "That's one way of putting it," she mumbled, hopelessly flustered. Quite unwittingly she moved her right hand along the flawless shape and curvature of the braid that went along the side of her head and met with its twin from the other side at the back to join one another in aforementioned chignon.
"It is the only way," Fleur insisted, swatting Hermione's stray hand away from her keratinous piece of art. "You already are more woman than girl, Hermione. Tonight you'll make our little big héros catch up with you."
"Honestly, Fleur," said Hermione, just a tad scandalized, "you're making this sound less like a school dance and more like a wedding night. My dress is still blue, isn't it?"
"Ô, but where le jeu de l'amour is afoot the dance is but an ouverture, where every step is a manœuvre, every touch temptation and every look an invitation."
Hermione would very much have liked to loosen her collar a bit, if she had only had one. "I'm fairly sure the dancing will remain the main course for tonight, Fleur," she impressed on her acquaintance of less than six hours. "Let's go with a little more Jane Austen and a little less teenage pregnancy, shall we?"
It was the Beauxbatons champion's turn to be taken aback. "Mon dieu, who is the one with the dirty mind here? I was merely hinting at the inévitabilité of a true love's kiss."
"Is that so?" Hermione wryly asked. "Well, that definitely takes the pressure off, thank you very much."
Fleur Delacour groaned in frustration, which also was a sound far more pleasant than it had any right to be, and already it had fluently passed into another delightful little laugh. "Come now, my petit papillon. It is time to come out of your cocon and spread your wings."
Hermione eyed the book she had turned a few pages in when at times she had been waiting for her hair to dry or while Fleur had been busy braiding it so masterfully. When acting on some instinct she finally reached out and grabbed it, she stopped short when she noticed the way Fleur looked at her. "I–I just feel saver when I have one with me," she haltingly explained herself. "And maybe it'll get boring at some point when Harry has to do some Triwizard celebrity things or whatever."
Fleur sighed a wispy little sigh, and her dark blue eyes spoke of genuine sympathy.
Hermione, however, was not yet ready to give up. "A fellow countryman of yours once wrote, 'Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.' Surely you can't object to that? Granted, I have read things before so hopelessly inane I genuinely feared I'd suffer permanent brain damage, and my mother once sprained her ankle while doing the Foxtrott, if you can believe that. But still, my point stands. I think."
"Indeed," the young Frenchwoman allowed with a smile. "But there is a time and place for everything, my dear, and tonight is not the time for reading. It is the time for dancing." She paused and quietly watched Hermione come to terms with this particularly disagreeable truth. "Now let go of that leather-bound lifebelt of yours," and with long and slender fingers Fleur helped her along a bit, "take my hand instead, stand up... like this – will you look at you in this dress! – and come with me. Your safety tonight will not be found on the cold pages of a book, but in the warm arms of your amant."
Gulping, Hermione let herself be dragged from the room and on towards what with every tottering step was beginning to feel more and more like her certain demise.
"Oi, mate, the Middle Ages owled," Seamus Finnigan jovially greeted his fellow redhead housemate with a clap on the back. "They want their fashion back!"
"Hilarious," Ron deadpanned, his eyes half-lidded. "Instant classic."
"Aw, don't be such a wet blanket now," Seamus told him with a good-natured laugh. "Just look at me in this dreadful green thing! Obviously, being Irish I just have to look like a flipping leprechaun, don't I?"
"That some family tradition, too?" Harry joined in, trying his best to appear perfectly relaxed and collected, which just so happened to be the exact opposite of how he was actually feeling.
"Kind of," Seamus replied, genuinely relaxed and collected. "My mum keeps insisting that green looks good on me. I keep telling her it's not the green on me I'm worried about, but the me in the green." Something then caught his attention in the gathering crowd around them. "Ah, there's my date. Better get over there. I'll see you slowcoaches later, eh?"
Harry and Ron nodded their heads and watched him meet up with Lavender Brown, who was wearing a ruffled, knee-long red dress. "They look like a Christmas tree," Harry impartially observed.
"And I look like an exhumed contemporary of Godric Gryffindor," said Ron.
"Thanks." Ron's eyes lazily swept the throng that was filling the foyer and waiting for the Great Hall to be opened. "Whoa, look at that one!"
"The one that's glowing!" Instead of pointing his finger he merely nodded his head. Looking the way he did, this was not one of those rare moments in his life where attention was something he actively sought. "Looks even more ridiculous than me."
Harry hesitated for a second once he found the glowing one. "I, uh... I'm pretty sure that's your date."
"What? No way."
The girl in question swirled around on her heels just then, her bright round eyes quickly finding the two boys watching her not quite as inconspicuously as they thought. "Yeah, that's definitely Luna."
"Mother of Merlin."
"Doubtful," said Harry.
"Hi, hullo," the natively offbeat Ravenclaw girl cheerily greeted them a second later. "What a night, huh? Isn't this exciting?" At befuddling odds with her words her level, faintly lulling voice made her sound like a hypnotist in session. "Oh, you look just like I pictured you in my mind, Ronald. Absolutely fabulous!"
"Yeah, uh, thanks, uh." Ron stared at that luminescent dress of hers, momentarily indeed hypnotized not as much by her voice as by the human rainbow in front of him. "You–you're very... colorful."
She looked down at her radiative self, then back up at Ron with the widest grin figuratively lighting up her face almost as much as her dress literally lit up the immediate area around her. "I know," she stated rather matter-of-factly. "It's actually bioluminescent. It's glowing because of the millions of Glitterglims living in the fabric. Can you believe that?"
Ron mutely goggled at her as his brain made its best effort to avoid an epileptic seizure, amongst other problems. "Fcourse," he croaked at last, then awkwardly cleared his throat and just babbled away, "So where's Hermione and that mysterious closet lover of hers, anyway? I bet it's one of those sleazy Durmstrang gits. They've had their eyes on our Hogwarts girls this whole time! Except for Viktor Krum, of course. He's fine. Wait, didn't he mean to ask Hermione, too? Nah, she's probably not even coming, is she? Wait, it's not McLaggen after all, is it? I haven't seen his pompous arse around. Not that I would be looking for his arse, specifically."
Luna giggled. "I've heard he's in the infirmary for some reason," she informed him with a shrug.
"Good," Ron commented. "I won't have to punch him there, then."
"But what exactly do you mean about Hermi–oh, look! The door's opening!" Luna basically interrupted herself. "Oh, wow! I saw this in a dream once, except everybody was floating there."
The excited chitchat around them, continuously interspersed with masculine chuckles and feminine giggles, immediately found itself replaced by gasps of awe and expressions of astonishment when the room was suddenly bathed in bright white light as the heavy two-winged door was swung open by some invisible hand to reveal a Great Hall as resplendent as no one in attendance had ever before seen it.
"What have they done to my dining room?" Ron asked nobody in particular. "Can you believe this, Harry? Mate?" He turned first left then right to look for his oddly absent friend and found him, much to his puzzlement, a step behind and away from the collectively captivated crowd, staring as the only person in the hall into the opposite direction and up towards the top of the stairway. There was some lone pretty thing coming down the steps Ron had never seen before. Probably one of those Beauxbatons models.
Wait a minute.
He did a double take, and then his jaw joined Harry's jaw about halfway down towards the floor.
"Wait, wait, wait!"
Fleur came to an abrupt halt just as she reached the corner to the grand staircase and turned around to face what for the moment may as well have been called her hostage. "Why, why, why?" she asked her, visibly amused. "You are not thinking still of fetching that book of yours, are you?"
"No, it's just... just my breath I need to catch," Hermione answered indeed a bit breathlessly. "You go on ahead. I'll be right with you." Fleur gave her a dubious look, which prompted Hermione to limply wave her hand at her. "I swear I'm not about to make a run for it," she assured her as she sought support at the first wall willing and able to grant it.
Fleur made a small step towards her. "Are you sure you will be all right, dear? I should not seek help?"
Hermione shook her head, just lightly so as not to challenge her questionable ability to remain firmly on both her feet. "A minute is all I need. Just a minute."
A moment of hesitancy passed before Fleur exhaled a sigh of concession. "Very well. But if you aren't down there when the minute is up, I'll be right back up here, compris?"
"Oui," Hermione affirmed with an unsteady little smile. "Merci."
Fleur turned and made a step away from her, with a last narrow-eyed glance over her shoulder added, "One minute," and finally proceeded to descend the stairs and with that disappeared from sight.
Hermione leaned back against the wall where there happened to hang a large old tapestry depicting the building of Hogwarts, which in this moment found its value not in its artistic craftsmanship but in the comfort it supplied to Hermione's back. There was a magical protective layer cast over it which the staff of the Louvre would be envious of, so no harm was inflicted on art of old. Frankly, though, and somewhat atypically so, she did not really think about that at all in this particular moment in time. She had retained barely enough situational awareness to avoid leaning her head against it as well, lest the entirely unprotected and far more ephemeral piece of art on top of it be ruined.
You can do this, her thoughts instead repeated over and over again.
"I can do this," her voice echoed them in a whisper, her eyes closed and her breathing deliberately calm and steady to fight her frantic heart.
You have to, her thoughts went on in the secret chamber of her mind. There's no turning back now. You have to go through with this. You cannot let him down. You mustn't. He needs you.
"Of all the ways I thought he'd ever need me in," she quietly spoke to herself, "this was never one."
And yet here you are. So just go with it. You said you would, therefore you will. And it's not like you don't want to. You're just afraid, and that's okay. Means you've got something to lose. Means you've got something worth keeping. If you don't go down there, you have already lost.
"Fine," she said, finding herself rather convinced by her own argument. In matters of self-motivation, a little multiple personality disorder really goes a long way sometimes.
Hermione straightened herself up and made sure her dress was in order. She was not quite as used to walking in high heels as right then she would very much have liked to be, but she knew that strangely enough she was fully capable of dancing in them, for she had indeed more experience in the latter than she had in the former.
Carefully, in nearly clandestine a fashion, she leaned around the corner to scout the area down below. Much to her subsequent trepidation there already was a throng of markedly well-attired people gathered in the antehall, all smiles and laughter. Some kind of low-key affair like, say, a funeral would have seemed like a preferable occasion right then, though judging by the way her heart was going crazy underneath her ribcage it would most likely have been her own. Which, all things considered, really would have served the same purpose.
Yet instead of literally meeting her demise, Hermione Granger took the longest, deepest breath of her life, lightly pulled up the sides of her dress with nervous fingers desperate to hold onto something less tenuous than her garment's delicate fabric, and at last her right foot gingerly touched down on the first step into the daunting domain of utter uncertainty.
As his eyes were fixed on that singular feminine figure descending the stairs with almost enough mesmerizing elegance in her measured stride to perfectly mask that equally endearing awkwardness that subtly accentuated her every fatalistic step; as he saw her take a shaky breath through parted lips whose resonance he unwittingly felt inside his own quivering chest; and as her shy eyes at last flickered up to find and meet and lock with his captivated own, her lips curling faintly into a small uncertain smile, Harry's brain had thoroughly lost all cognizance of space and time. That is until at last the time came when Hermione occupied the space right in front of him.
He swallowed then, his throat inopportunely constricted. "You're speechless," he finally managed to eject, and then his eyelids had a little seizure of their own. "I mean, I'm gorgeous!"
Hermione, for more than one reason, was absolutely unable to hide the smile that conquered the entirety of her face or to keep her cheeks from matching the color of the two strategically placed spots of rouge thereon. "Thank me," she replied in matching style with a slight bow of her head. "And right back at you." She sheepishly looked down at herself then. "This is all Fleur, though. Really."
Harry's eyes vaguely followed the trail of hers along the length of her body and then slowly back up again. "All I see is you," he mumbled in a daze, aware of little else but her very corporeal existence, and least of all the effects his words in turn were having on her.
He shook himself, visibly even, and pointedly looked at what he deemed an innocuous part of her dress. "So, uh, blue's the color, then."
"Periwinkle, yes," Hermione replied, grinning. "It's very important."
Ron leaned into their general vicinity just then. "Bloody hell, Herms! You're ruining our friendship here, you know, flaunting your goods like that!"
She rolled her eyes and looked at him with a playful scowl. "Despite my objection to that slight misrepresentation of both my outfit and my attitude," she said to him, "I'll take that as a compliment, Ron. You're looking very... commemorative yourself."
He made a face at her. "Anyhow, look who's glowing," he then smoothly introduced Luna, who seemed quite happy about it.
"Golly, Hermione!" the wide-eyed blonde addressed her with sedated amazement. "I'd have to be glowing ten times stronger than this to take any attention away from you tonight. Not that I was meaning to, or anything like that."
Hermione thanked her with a bashful smile. "You're absolutely radiant yourself, Luna. Literally, yes, but also in every other possible sense. Truly."
"That is very nice of you to say," Luna observed even as her eyes began to shimmer with the harbingers of future tears. A thereby thoroughly discomfited Ron went straight for his most trusted emergency measures and loudly cleared his throat. "Where are your dates, anyway?" he hastily asked Harry and Hermione. "It's getting a bit late, isn't it?"
The two exchanged the briefest of glances, almost going unnoticed. Harry pursed his lips and Hermione bit hers. Luna regarded Ron with a rather mystified look even as she was still busy wiping the moisture from her eyes, careful not to ruin her multicolored – albeit not luminescent – make-up.
"Actually," Harry hesitantly replied, "both our dates are, uh, present as we speak."
Ron's head jerked back, his brow furrowed. He looked to and fro, twice over, but found only dozens of couples that one by one were making their way into the Great Hall. "Present here, or..."
Hermione, eyes on the ground and hands loosely folded in front of her, inched closer towards Harry with two or three tiny sideways steps; a smile tugged at a corner of his lips as he noticed her movement from the corner of his eye. Ron silently observed the increasingly suspicious scene that unfolded in front of him and his eyes continuously became narrower as the plot thickened. He was, however, entirely unaware of the way Luna's eyes confusedly darted back and forth between him and his two friends. Not that it necessarily would have helped him much.
"Whaddaya... " Ron stammered, "Whaddaya on about now?"
Harry scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, uhm..." he began only to trail off into an awkward pause, hesitated, and finally took Hermione's right hand gingerly with his left, lacing his fingers through hers while trying his best to keep them from trembling too much. Within an instant she tensed all over, goosebumps running across every prickling inch of exposed skin at this kind of touch that had never occurred between them before. He had taken her by the hand on numerous occasions before, of course, but never like this. Never as a statement, an announcement of its own.
After a week of silence and insecurity, pretense and evasion, this simplest of gestures seemed to communicate something as much between the two of them as to the world around them that had not yet been put into a spoken word by either one of them. Then again, Hermione also feared she might be severely overrating the gravity of the moment, for naturally she neither could nor did know that Harry was quite overwhelmed by the exact same sensation.
Meanwhile, Ron's wary eyes drifted to the scene of the crime: his best friends' markedly entwined hands. A smoking gun if there ever was one.
And then, suddenly and on a sharp intake of breath that made a highly intrigued Luna wince quite violently, his eyes at once took the shape of Quidditch goal hoops and shot back up to the anxious faces of the two freshly caught criminals.
"Blimey!" he hoarsely exclaimed. "What is the meaning of this? Wha-wha–what is going on?"
"We're sorry!" Harry quickly came as much to Ron's aid as to their own defense. "We didn't mean for this to be a big secret or anything like that! It just turned out that way somehow. It got a bit confusing for everybody involved and we just didn't know how to handle it and–"
"What are you talking about?" Ron interrupted him, his disbelief as yet unmitigated. "Aren't you two not here as friends?!"
Harry gulped; Hermione whimpered. They both looked a bit confounded, the reasons for which surely were no less than twofold.
"Yes," Harry finally replied.
"No," Hermione answered in perfect simultaneity.
Harry looked at Hermione, and with mutual perplexity exchanged between the two she looked back.
"No," said Harry, turning back to Ron.
"Yes," said Hermione as she did likewise.
"What?" they both asked each other as once more their heads swiveled about and their eyes reconnected.
"Why not both?" Harry then asked after a moment of bilateral cerebral entanglement.
"Sure," Hermione approved. "I don't see why these should be two mutually exclusive states. We haven't suddenly stopped being friends, right?"
"Of course not," Harry agreed wholeheartedly.
They turned their heads to address Ron again.
"Both," said Hermione with a curt nod.
"Both," Harry echoed and mirrored her.
Ron blankly stared at them with his lower jaw hanging loosely about for a bit, until suddenly it snapped shut as he turned to face Luna with nearly accusatory a look in his eyes. "Did you know about this?"
"Didn't you?" a thoroughly baffled Luna asked him in return. "Didn't everybody?"
He just kept staring at her now while both Harry and Hermione watched the scene unfold in front of them, the two of them momentarily relegated to the roles of shamefaced spectators.
"I thought it was blatantly obvious from the way they've been behaving around each other," Luna continued to expound with a couple of helpless sidelong glances into Harry's and Hermione's direction. "Never more so than on that day we built the snowman. That's when I knew. And I thought you did, too. I just didn't say anything because the two looked so adorably embarrassed about it all."
The two in question blushed quite fiercely at that and busied themselves with a very casual gander at various spots in the surrounding area, none of which they could have reported anything substantial about, yet all the while their hands remained unalteredly intertwined.
"Much like they do right now," Luna casually added.
After vacantly staring some more, in what seemed to be a sort of conclusion to the play, Ron made a grumpy face. "You know," he said at last, "I'd say that after five kids in the family the supply of brain cells was simply depleted, but Percy came before me and Ginny a year after me and so there goes my theory. Speaking of which, where the hell is the little she-devil? Didn't want to tell me who she's going with, so that I wouldn't interfere and make a scene. Pah! As if I ever–whoa, whoa, whoa! Is that Neville? Neville asked my little sister on a date? My sister?"
Three heads turned to follow his withering gaze and found Neville and Ginny just stepping into the Great Hall arm in arm, blissfully ignorant of their purported folly.
"That sneaky bastard." Grimly shaking his head, Ron then regarded Harry and Hermione. "And you two... I don't even know what to say to the two of you. I am extremely disappointed."
"Really?" Hermione worriedly asked with the timidity of the guilty.
"Nah," said Ron. "I just wanted to feel important for a change. Honestly, though. It seems you two could've snogged each other senseless right in front of my nose and I would've been hard-pressed to figure out what's going on. Not that I think you should've, mind you. Anyway, you go on ahead and do your dancing thingy now. I've got a Neville to kick in the Longbottom. Come, Luna. You may assist me."
Giggling merrily the Ravenclaw girl let herself be dragged off towards the Great Hall by her freshly and somewhat surprisingly determined companion, waving happily at Harry and Hermione as they went their way.
That the foyer by now had cleared out considerably, with the last few regular attendees following Ron and Luna into the Great Hall to find their preassigned seats, was not the sole reason a peculiar sort of silence set around Harry and Hermione, though it certainly served to emphasize it all the more since it literally grew quieter with every passing second.
"I'd say that went pretty well," Hermione at last spoke up, if only to keep that nascent anxiety at bay that seemed to increase with every wide-eyed couple she witnessed crossing the entrance into the Great Hall, each of them like a tick on the clock of the approaching hour. In a low mumble she added, "All things considered."
An indistinct grunt came from Harry. "I've a feeling I'll have a thing or two to answer for tomorrow, though."
"We should've told him, shouldn't we?"
"Maybe. Probably," he reluctantly conceded. "But I wasn't sure... I just didn't know... I'd never spoken to him about this before. About my, uhm... my feelings for... for you, and how they–"
Hermione would very much have liked to hear the rest of that sentence and then most likely – and not exclusively out of habit – to have inquired even further, but just then they were interrupted when Professor McGonagall called out their names as she approached them at a brisk pace, herself clad in a classy if decidedly old-fashioned dress robe that was subtly accentuated with the colors of House Gryffindor.
"Well, don't just stand about there like a pair of abandoned ducklings," she told them. "It's high time we got things organized around here. Come, come." Already she motioned for them to follow her, but then paused mid-turn to readjust her spectacles. "My, my! Miss Granger! You truly keep exceeding even the greatest of expectations in all regards imaginable." The professor's appraising look then switched from the once again scarlet face of the girl to the just as exquisitely attired and visibly uncomfortable boy at her side, whom she scrutinized intently from the bottom up. The satisfied expression on her face only faltered when her twinkling eyes at last reached the very top of his head. "Mr. Potter, couldn't you have done something about the hair?"
Harry looked ashamed underneath his perpetual bed head. "But I tried, Professor! I really did!"
There was a mild note of doubt in the ensuing moment of silence. "Ah, yes. Of course you did," said McGonagall with a lingering look at the pitiful result of his efforts, then cleared her throat. "Well done, Mr. Potter."
Harry heaved a despondent sigh, and with a sullen mien set out to follow Professor McGonagall. When he felt a light squeeze and a tender caress at his hand, his eyes first wandered downward and then up to the person at his side. The smile she gave him quickly and quite magically made him forget all about his hair-related plight.
"And here we all are, finally," Professor McGonagall announced seconds later, and a hitherto somewhat preoccupied Harry and Hermione suddenly found themselves standing amidst a familiar group of couples, who collectively greeted them with affable smiles and some humorously overstated bows and curtsies.
Hermione's pleasantly dream-like state was instantly replaced with an acute case of dreadful self-consciousness at the staggering sight of the young ladies now surrounding her: fetchingly petite Cho in maize, positively ravishing Céleste in burgundy and the usual Fleur in indigo. Physical manifestations of the very idea of beauty, the lot of them. Hermione desperately tried to find solace in the thought that at least she was not wearing bubblegum.
Meanwhile, seeing ever-winsome Cedric, broad-shouldered Roger and bearded Viktor in their tailored suits and tailcoats, the lot of them taller than him to varying but altogether discouraging degrees, Harry felt like the awkward little brother at an older and much cooler sibling's birthday party. This may have been the only moment in his life in which he tried his hardest to focus on the better part of the fact that at least he had thwarted the sinister schemes of an evil dark wizard twice or thrice.
Their inner turmoil notwithstanding, Fleur Delacour regarded the two of them with a delighted sort of pride, Viktor Krum bowed deepest (and sincerest) of all and Cedric Diggory practically beamed at them as his bright eyes switched back and forth between Harry and Hermione.
"Nice to see you figured things out for yourselves after all," he addressed Harry, who merely looked at him without a hint of comprehension in response. "You and Hermione," Cedric was thereby prompted to elaborate. "That's what I meant to talk to you about before our first dancing lesson, remember? I had a casual little chat about the ball with Hermione that day. Lasted less than two minutes, I think, and yet I heard enough to figure that this right here," and he pointed at the two of them, "would be the perfect solution to your alleged problems."
"But I barely spoke ten words," Hermione complained, embarrassed all anew. Harry's face, meanwhile, was frozen in an expression of belated enlightenment with his mouth silently forming a corresponding Ooooh, something of a less sophisticated sibling of Eureka. The one you do not tell other people about.
"And about nine of them were about Harry," Cedric answered with a cheeky little grin even as Hermione currently favored the floor where things to look at were concerned.
"You caught on a lot quicker than I did, then," Viktor interposed with a chuckle. "But in my defense, these two do like to make things complicated."
"I don't like it that way," mumbled Harry.
"I don't make it that way," Hermione muttered.
A bout of laughter went through the circle of couples, and even Professor McGonagall could not quite contain a little contribution of her own at the sight of the shamefaced duo whose hands, as it did not escape the ever-observant professor's awareness, still refused to let go of one another.
"Well, then," the deputy headmistress in timely fashion steered everybody's attention back to the matter at hand. "Let us take a moment to gather our focus now, for the ceremony is about to begin. You are all well prepared and I have no doubt that each and every single one of you will represent their respective school with the utmost diligence. More importantly, however, I expect all of you to do this together, for the Yule Ball first and foremost is of course a celebration of unity."
She paused and looked at the intently listening youths gathered around her. If their performance on the dance floor would only so much as come close to matching their splendid appearances, there should be little to worry about. Alas, there were always things to worry about, no matter how nice they looked.
"The champions," she went on, "will be standing over there on the right side and their partners here on the left side of the door. You will be announced in pairs of two by that fine gentleman at the entrance, and in that fashion will enter the Great Hall one pair at a time, beginning with our guests' champions and ending with our youngest. I want to see even and measured steps and heads held high. Let not all dignity and grandeur be lost just yet. What the twentieth century has started I have no doubt the twenty-first will see finished, but that woeful day has not yet come. Off to your positions now! We'll be beginning shortly."
Collegial nods and smiles of encouragement were exchanged as the four champions and their designated companions parted ways as per Professor McGonagall's concise instructions. Somewhere amidst the hectic huddle of human bodies and for the first time since first they had found each other, the interwoven hands of Harry and Hermione reluctantly broke touch and each felt colder for the other's absence. The shy smiles they shared were solely for the two of them, and a slightly woozy Harry came dangerously close to stumbling straight into Professor McGonagall as she crossed the champions' path.
"Shoulders, Mr. Krum," she curtly reminded the gangly Durmstrang champion as she strode swiftly past them all to make her way to wherever else her presence was required next.
Viktor obediently straightened his habitually hunched shoulders while Cedric quietly chuckled away behind him as the four champions in tandem crossed the antehall towards what – arbitrarily or not – had been declared their side of the door. When finally the two groups of four were gathered at either side of the wide entrance, the only thing left to do was wait for the moment to arrive.
From inside the hall the sound of a hundred different voices blending into an oddly disembodied medley of noise wafted out into the foyer and reached the curious ears of the awaited few. No particular utterance could possibly be discerned from that one strange tongue of many, yet if there was one thing it still spoke of unmistakably, it was excitement.
"All this waiting business was a lot less stressful at the Quidditch world cup," Viktor muttered mostly to himself yet loudly enough to be overheard by the three around him, which he in turn realized only when he noticed the three pairs of eyes giving him strikingly similar looks of doubt.
"You're more nervous prior to a school dance than you were at the Quidditch world cup?" Cedric aptly voiced their collective incredulity.
Viktor stared back at them and for a second mirrored their bemusement. "I am not so bad at Quidditch," was all he said, and after a moment's contemplation a point well made was conceded with shrugs of shoulders and heads nodding.
Harry's eyes then wandered off quite of their own accord and somehow found their way over towards the other group of four, three of which they barely came to rest on at all, for only one of them stood out to him, commanded his eye and ensnared his mind, which was all the more impressive considering he could see little more of her than her backside. Though, admittedly, that had a captivating quality all of its own.
It was not that she was excluded from the group by anyone's intent, or that she was deliberately distancing herself from the others, and she stood little more than a step away from them, and yet in her very own way she remained an entity of her own. While Roger, as Cedric had just pointed out with a humorous scoff, was chatting up the two girls facing him, Hermione seemed deeply immersed in her own private thoughts, which Harry could not help but suspect revolved around every single step of their choreography, every twist and turn and change of stance.
The rehearsal the night before had gone pretty well, or so he thought, but eventually they had made that one small mistake in a lateral movement that had made them bump into Fleur and Roger. Everybody had had a good laugh about it and simply repeated the sequence one more time, and Cedric had voted to include the graceful blunder in the official routine, but Harry had no doubt that Hermione's mind was hung up on exactly that one misstep instead of the hundreds of perfect ones. Not that Hermione herself would deem them perfect, of course. There was, after all, always room for improvement.
"Quite a magnificent sight, non?"
Startled, Harry swiveled about, then awkwardly scratched the back of his head when he found Fleur standing right next to him, her eyes directed straight at that from which Harry had just torn away his own.
"I wasn't ogling!" he claimed with a twinge of panic. "I was just–just–"
"Ogling," Fleur finished for him, smiling. "I like the sound of that. Funny little word."
Harry did not know what to reply to that. He had always thought ratatouille to be a rather funny little word, but that seemed hardly relevant at the moment.
"I think you should do some more ogling," Fleur told him, her smile now tucked away in a corner of her mouth in almost mischievous a fashion. "Especially when she's aware of it."
Harry looked a tad addled at that. That really went against everything he had ever heard about proper conduct. "Are you sure that's an advisable course of action?"
"Well, I'm naturally not telling you to stare at her chest all night long," Fleur set out to clarify, "but–"
The sudden sound of trumpets filled the air, playing a short, rising flourish that Harry remembered hearing prior to the first task. It made Fleur stop short mid-sentence and, like everybody else, prick up her ears.
"Showtime," Cedric reasonably inferred when the music literally ended on a high note, clapping his hands together.
Next to him, Viktor Krum nervously straightened out the sleeves of his suit.
Next to him, Harry felt too nervous to even think about doing anything.
Next to him, Fleur looked like she was about to take a leisurely stroll through a park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Unfazed, that is.
"How many balls have you been to before?" Harry felt inclined to ask her.
She looked amused. "Why would I keep count of that?"
He gave a sort of alibi nod.
A voice then rose from inside the Great Hall, quickly hushing every last whisper passing through the eager crowd. It was the young herald Professor McGonagall had brought to their attention earlier, and Harry, stretching his neck a little, could just see him standing next to the entrance on the opposite side within the Great Hall. His stiff posture alone exuded importance as much as his vibrant garb spoke of tradition.
"Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed witches and wizards, the Triwizard champions!" he solemnly announced, the cadence and inflection of his voice imbued with pathos. "From Beauxbatons Academy of Magic, champion Fleur Isabelle Delacour and her companion Roger Davies of House Ravenclaw."
Smiling, the two met right in the center of the arched opening, and with her arm lightly laced through his stepped through it and into a hall that for a couple of seconds seemed to hold its collective breath. Although Harry did not believe there was anything going on between the two beyond the night's occasion, he could not help but observe that they made quite the couple in strictly visual terms.
Viktor, meanwhile, grumbled something in his native tongue. It did not sound very encouraging. As if to make up for it, Cedric gave him a parting pat on the shoulder and then even squeezed it a bit for some extra solidarity.
"From Durmstrang Institute," the herald continued, his steady voice effortlessly rising above the ongoing applause and the oohs and aahs mixed into it, "Viktor Krum and his companion Céleste Justine Baudelaire from Beauxbatons."
Viktor's smile did not come quite as naturally as his predecessor's had, but there was an attempt. Céleste, for her part, looked all routine, which really made Harry wonder whether Beauxbatons merely masqueraded as an academy of magic and in actuality was all about the modeling and the dancing and the consumption of ratatouille. What was ratatouille, anyway?
Cedric then stepped forth and with a wink at a soon to be forsaken Harry said, "See you in a minute."
"From Hogwarts School of Witchraft and Wizardry," the announcer's voice consequently introduced the third couple, "champion Cedric Diggory of House Hufflepuff and his companion Cho Chang of House Ravenclaw."
And it was at this point in time when Harry, standing all by himself now with no more dearly required buffer between him and the hour of doom, lost his mind. He wasn't ready! Too quickly they had gone through three couples! Why weren't there any more? He couldn't do this! He wasn't ready! He needed more time! He wasn't even supposed to be there, for crying out loud! That stupid goblet was to blame! Also, he wasn't ready! There was simply no way–
"From Hogwarts School of Witchraft and Wizardry..."
No! Just no!
"... champion Harry James Potter..."
I should have stayed in my cupboard under the stairs!
"... and his companion Hermione Jane Granger of House Gryffindor."
Well, I kind of like the sound of that, actually...
And already his body was somehow set in motion even while his brain still complained that it had issued no such order, yet something else commanded him beside the simple inescapability of it all. It was the sight of Hermione coming to meet him half-way, shy and yet assured, so deeply familiar and yet unfathomably different. So muddled were all his senses, so entirely taken by her very being, that he failed to consciously take note of the crowd's reaction when Hermione's name was called out, with several expressions of surprise and a billowing susurrus of avid speculation going around the tables.
Readily he offered her his arm with his features breaking into a smile that was utterly irrepressible, and she took it with just about the same sensation lighting a twinkling fire in her eyes.
"Is it silly that I feel like this is the greatest challenge I've ever faced?"
Hermione gave a half-suppressed chortle. "A little," she said. "But then again, I think I feel exactly the same way."
Harry inhaled deeply. "Shall we face it together then, silly or not?"
"Naturally," she answered, if possible smiling even brighter. "As always."
And so indeed they crossed the threshold and side by side stepped into the light of the Great Hall that opened up before them seemingly larger than it had ever been, a hundred curious pairs of eyes within an instant riveted to naught but them.
He had not yet had the time to properly process any of it, was, in actuality, still very much in the middle of the whole experience, but already he felt that it had not only been far less disastrous than he had originally feared it would be, but truthfully and quite to the contrary rather marvelous all around.
The ceremonial introductory dance had gone so well-nigh perfectly it had eventually moved Professor McGonagall to tears. Only once had Harry's left foot been on the verge of going in the wrong direction, but when it had collided with Hermione's counterpart she had inconspicuously guided him back onto the proper path. Even the most difficult part of the routine, the quick switching of the pairs in a sort of motion that looked a bit like the Rutherford model of the atom and was just about as confusing as the real thing, they all had executed flawlessly. When during the finale the four boys had twirled the four girls round the dance floor three times over, from up above the young women's vibrant dresses would have looked like flowers in bloom in a crystalline field of ice.
Indeed, the hall itself truly was a sight to remember, in Harry's eyes only surpassed in its mesmerizing splendor by a single figure that occupied it with him – a fact that he was too embarrassed to inform her of, naturally. Separated by an aisle where the floor seemed to be a little river flowing gently underneath a layer of translucent ice from the entrance at one end to the dance floor at the other end of the hall, there were a dozen large round tables of white marble accommodating precisely one hundred and forty-four guests. The dance floor itself had the appearance of a lake all frozen over in the middle of a clearing deep in winter's grasp, with Hagrid's six enormous and lavishly snow-coated trees framing it in the background and giving the setting as a whole the semblance of a life-sized diorama of some long forgotten Christmas dream come true.
Luckily the frostily glistening ground was not made to possess the physical properties of that which it visually represented. And despite the fact that it very much seemed to be snowing all night long throughout the hall as countless frisky flakes came falling, drifting, tumbling from a star-speckled night sky into which the stone walls of the hall seemed to reach and gradually vanish with no ceiling to be discerned atop, it was never actually cold and not a single wayward snowflake ever touched a solid surface, be it twig of tree or strand of hair. They simply ceased to be in mid-air, if ever they had truly been at all.
And the light, that pure white light seemed to be everywhere. There were tremendous, sparkling crystal chandeliers floating freely above each of the twelve round tables, and their candles burned brightly in the likeness of the glinting stars above, and yet the true source of the light could never quite be placed. The very air seemed to be imbued with it, playing around the human (and half-giant) bodies and casting soft shadows that unfolded in all directions on the shimmering surface of the make-believe lake; shadows that at times could even be caught dancing a little dance of their own before hurriedly flitting back into their proper places.
It was, in its magnificent entirety, quintessentially magical.
The same could be said for many of the dancing couples, of course, and none of them more so than one Rubeus Hagrid and the sole recipient of his besotted attention, Madame Olympe Maxime, between them fielding an average height that Muggles only know from the tallest of professional basketball players and an average weight that Madame Maxime would not at all have cared to hear about.
Headmaster Dumbledore had been his most yeasty self, first waltzing expertly with Minerva McGonagall and then taking Pomona Sprout for a surprisingly spunky spin. His inner fountain of youth only appeared to find itself depleted after his pas de deux with Madame Maxime, which also happened to be quite the tête-à-tête, and as a direct result of the latter it was the soreness in his neck rather than the exhaustion of his lower appendages that made him seek out the seating accommodations and try a few of the various offered refreshments, ranging from caviar to lemon drops.
Some of the many attendees had not been quite as enthusiastic about the whole affair as others, however, with Igor Karkaroff being the first to retire after grimly fulfilling his traditional duty of briefly dancing with representatives of both the hosting school as well as the second visiting school. Severus Snape had worn the desire to poison someone — possibly himself — rather plainly on his face throughout most of the celebratory night, but Septima Vector at least had not been deterred by any of that, and for a brief moment an especially attentive observer might even have ventured to infer that the unlikely professorial pair looked like it was having something at least distantly related to fun out there on the dance floor. Meanwhile, Argus Filch had limited himself to tenderly swaying about with Mrs. Norris, herself a cat.
Eventually, after an hour or so, and with most of the professors and ministry guests taking their leave peu à peu, the evening had progressed from the altogether formal part of the ceremony, aptly accompanied by the timeless masterpieces of extraordinarily un-magically talented Muggles such as Johann Strauss II and Dmitri Shostakovich, to the more modern and boisterous part, featuring a frenetic live performance of the Weird Sisters, obviously in no way inferior in their musical prowess to aforementioned composers. According to wizarding folk under the age of seventeen, anyway.
And now, after quite a bit of dancing and some contractually required posing for the press, one Harry James Potter was sitting in his seat at one of the tables nearest to the deceptively real lake, absently — and just a tad wearily — watching the merry young crowd flailing their limbs into all directions while uninhibitedly singing, hooting, bawling along as the markedly male Sisters played some of their most famous hits that incidentally less than 0.01% of the human world population actually were aware of.
Harry watched as Cedric, Cho, Roger, Fleur and her little sister Gabrielle danced together in a merry roundelay, with Céleste pulling unwilling Viktor towards the group to join them, the lot of them laughing and shouting happily as drums and bagpipes feverishly spurred them ever on and on. It did not fail to bring a smile to Harry's tired face, and although he could not help but notice how Fleur indeed managed to stand out in some impalpable way of her own even where others should get lost in the shuffle like a grain of sand on the beach, he may have been one of only a small number of boys that night who could look at her and still think of somebody else. And just as that thought filled his mind, Fleur and Cedric looked over to him and waved, beckoning him to come join them, and Harry made a very elaborate sort of sign with his hands that hopefully communicated something along the lines of, 'Wait a minute or ten, but I can't promise anything.'
Where indeed was Hermione? Already he had not seen her for a couple of minutes. Not since he had kissed her hand in parting when his favorite associate of all, Rita Skeeter, had asked for a quick off-the-record chat with him. And now she was simply vanished from sight. He got up from his chair and as his gaze quickly swept the whole hall, now inconveniently darkened in favor of a typical rock concert atmosphere, he briefly saw Ron making – likely for the eighth time that night – his way back from the buffet to the dance floor with yet another snack in his hands. Harry hardly had the presence of mind to properly question why he, unlike most guys who had preferred to get rid of constraining tailcoats and ties for the second half of the night, was loosely wearing half a dozen of the latter around his neck in the same number of different colors.
Thus Harry turned his back on the wild frenzy of the party and purposefully headed straight for the exit, his eyes still scouring tables left and right as he did so. Out in the antehall three conversing students, which turned out to be Fred, George and one that Harry did not recognize, noticed him looking around, paused briefly and then collectively pointed him towards the door that led out into the inner courtyard. A bit baffled by their apparent mind-reading abilities, he managed something of an appreciative smile and then went ahead and followed their directions.
Stepping outside without so much as a second thought, the cold hit him almost as hard as a full-fledged freezing spell, and he was immediately thankful that he had not yet surrendered his coat. After this initial shock his eyes needed but a moment to focus on the only thing in the courtyard that caught his attention as much as it captured the moonlight. A lonely, unmistakably female figure sat there on a stone bench underneath the Everspring tree with her back turned towards him. The smooth skin of her shoulders almost seemed to be cast in shining silver, and the night-touched blue of her dress was like an isle of color in a sea of white.
Genuinely stunned by this unexpected sight and for a moment feeling almost as if he had stepped right into the most beautiful moving painting he had ever seen, it took him a moment to shake himself back into clarity and step onward to approach the one he had been looking for. He also tripped on his first step because the defining part of his tailcoat was stuck in the door, and cussing under his breath he let the inanimate object know what he thought of its insolence before moving on.
"Hermione?" he tentatively spoke up even before the soft crunching noise of his footsteps on snow-covered ground would eventually have given him away. He saw her tense up at the unexpected sound of his voice, felt it almost, and with a quickened stride closed the remaining gap between them. "What are you doing out here? It's freezing!"
Only briefly her head swirled around before she averted it once more, facing him barely long enough for him to notice how her cheeks caught the bluish light of a starlit winter night in two thin telltale lines.
"Are you crying?" he immediately asked in worry as he sat down next to her, his mind too focused on her to consciously question why the stone bench was not just the only surface in the courtyard, along with the immediate area surrounding it, that was free of snow but also remarkably and unnaturally warm. It was downright magical.
Hastily Hermione wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. "No, I'm not," she answered, a faint yet sufficiently traitorous remnant of a sniffle in her voice. "Technically, I'm all done."
Harry failed to fully suppress a brief flicker of a smile on his lips in spite of the suspect situation. How could she be so cute when he was so concerned? He heaved a sigh, bridging a moment that was part patience and part hesitance, only for something else entirely to suddenly take precedence in his mind. He would not let some weird radiator-bench stand between him and the right thing to do, and so he stood up, slipped off his coat and gingerly put it over Hermione's shoulders before sitting back down again. Shyly and without looking him in the eye Hermione gave him a grateful smile, whispering a thank you as she drew the coat closer around herself. He waited for a moment longer, indecisive as he listened with half an ear to the muffled noise and music reaching them from the Great Hall.
"What's going on?" he finally asked her, gently. "Has something happ—wait! Was it something I did or something I said? It was, wasn't it? I messed up, didn't I? As per habit I just went right ahead and totally rui—"
"No, Harry," Hermione interrupted him with soft-spoken emphasis, putting a reassuring hand on his knee. "You can stop that nonsense right now. It's nothing like that."
She shook her head, a few loose ringlets of her hair dancing along with the motion. "Actually, one might even say it's the complete opposite."
His expression turned contemplative. "It's... something I didn't say or do?"
With a chuckle she once again answered in the negative, then, with the sound of her amusement subsiding, ended up looking at him for an inadvertent moment of vaguely meaningful silence. In little more than a whisper she pensively told him, "It's that everything you said and did was... perfect. Just perfect."
By all rights her answer should have been a great relief to him, yet nevertheless he gulped. "It was?"
She nodded, a glimmer in her eyes. She was definitely looking at him now.
"Maybe I'm missing the obvious here," he said quite slowly, "but if that's the case then where's the reason for tears in any of of it?"
"They weren't sad tears," she elucidated. "Nor angry ones, for that matter. In fact, they weren't very emotional at all, if that makes any sense."
If indeed it did make any sense, very little of it registered on Harry's face. "Just how many different kinds of tears are there, exactly?"
"Loads," she answered with the twitch of a smile at the corners of her mouth. "These ones were very physical in nature, you know? Just my body's way of depressurizing, if you will."
He furrowed his brow. "Why were you under so much pressure?" At that a cheeky smirk suddenly replaced the general puzzlement on his face. "You're aware our dancing performance will not be graded, right?"
Hermione glowered at him even as her lips had little choice but to mirror his brazenly amused counterparts. "At the risk of sounding like a broken record here," she then set out to explain more seriously, "for I vaguely remember stating something very much like this just about a week ago, but, as it has become quite clear to me over the course of the day, I must have been young and inexperienced at the time and obviously could not have had any idea what I was talking about when I claimed to be overwhelmed. In sage hindsight I can safely say that, what at the very most I may have been, is whelmed. For today... only today am I truly, thoroughly and wholly over-whelmed."
Harry quietly waited for her to go on, for he could tell that she would just by the way she briefly nibbled on her lower lip while taking a deep breath.
"I just can't believe it, you see?" his expectations were met. "No matter how hard I try. Can't wrap my head around it. All these sensations, this whole experience... that quite frankly made me feel like a flipping Disney princess... down to this lovely dress and these fancy shoes, my ridiculous hair and these sparkling earrings, and all these pretty things which nobody would ever associate with Hermione Granger, perhaps least of all herself. The wonderful music and the dancing and this entire surreal night..." She paused, hesitated. "And you." Her eyes boldly locked with his then, as an unsteady breath brushed over her trembling lips, on the exhalation of which she went on to say, "Mostly you. Ninety-nine percent you. Oh, forget all else! How can this possibly be real? Just this. Just you and me. I'm still waiting to suddenly wake up and realize that none of it ever happened, and never before have I been this giddy with excitement and this numb with fear at the same time."
He looked at her intently, and resurfacing worry joined the multitude of emotions already commingled on his features. His following question was simple, yet poignant. "Fear?"
Her whole demeanor was fraught with uncertainty as her gaze returned to her lightly folded hands in her lap. "Of waking up," she answered meekly.
Harry in thoughtful silence watched her for a little while; watched her breathing, blinking, being. "You are awake, Hermione," he spoke at last, and the sound of his voice alone, kind and deeply caring as it was, compelled her to look back at him. "We both are wide awake."
And for a second, and then another, they simply looked at each other, gazed into one another, past their fears and past all fading veils of doubt, finding within something more substantial and truer than all dreams. And it was there and then, in that moment, in those two eyes of emerald green that looked at nothing else but her and tenderly laid bare the very core of her innermost being, that she at last saw clearly her own beauteous self. And though it played but a small part in her blossoming affection for him and could never be its root or essence, it was nevertheless a gift immeasurably treasured.
And then he kissed her. The faintest gasp escaped her parting lips at the first soft touch of his, and with it dissipated whatever transient fear may yet have lingered within her, and touching, tasting truth itself, in its place there sprang into being the vertiginous certainty of the realness of it all.
When Harry at last leaned back ever so slightly he found that Hermione's eyes were still closed, and the smallest yet most pleasant kind of smile tickled a corner of his mouth as he quietly watched the flushed features of his favorite face in the world. Slowly, so far from all the desperate haste of man, her eyes opened up as well, and when they focused on Harry she smiled right back at him. They remained like that as disregarded seconds ticked on by, before Hermione suddenly narrowed her eyes.
"Seriously, though," she then said. "David Copperfield?"
He laughed. "That one's gonna stick for a while, isn't it?"
"I just can't figure out why you would come up with that particular name in a situation like that."
"Well, because he's just about the closest thing Muggles have to a wizard. Obviously."
"What?" she voiced her confusion a moment before understanding set in. "Oh, that David Copperfield! This whole time I thought you were referring to the eponymous protagonist of the Charles Dickens novel!"
Harry did a funny sort of thing with his mouth as his eyes wandered in a half-circle. "That... would've been the more sophisticated explanation."
Hermione smiled with unconcealed affection. "Yours really has the more sensible context, though."
"Anyway," he then said, "why is this bench so freakishly warm?"
She laughed at the blatant diversion. "Because I cast a heating charm on it, of course," she pointed out the obvious. "You know, one of these days you could start paying attention in class. You might even notice that we're at a school that teaches magic."
He made a face at her as she giggled. "Why do you even have your wand with you tonight?"
"I always do," she answered with a shrug. "Well, except that one time last week when I had to borrow yours. But that was kind of an off day for me. Usually I have it on me."
"Where did you keep it this whole time?" he inquired further, even looking around as if in search for some secret hiding spot out there underneath the tree.
"Had it tied to my thigh."
His eyebrows shot up. "That... that's kind of sexy."
Her mouth broke into a wide, delighted grin. "Not necessarily what I was going for, but I'll take it."
"Why d'you always carry it with you, though?"
"Harry, are you at all aware how, out of the three years we've so far completed at this place, there wasn't a single one in which we didn't in some way come uncomfortably close to dying?"
Harry stared at her blankly for a moment. "Well, I just assumed that's what school is like for everybody 'round here. Part of the Hogwarts experience, so to speak."
She shook her head even as an insistent smile undermined the severity of her disapproval. "And that is exactly why I take it upon myself to look after you, since you so flagrantly refuse to do it yourself."
"I honestly don't know what I would do without you, anyway," he told her, and the way he said it – playful, perhaps; sincere, indubitably – made her look down at her hands abashedly. "But," he was quick to continue, and as he did so he put his hands on his knees and rose from the bench, "I do know what I'd like to do with you."
He extended his right hand, palm facing up, towards her, finally asking, "So... will you do me the honor, Miss Granger?"
Her eyes first fixated his hand, then wandered up the length of his arm to meet his expectant gaze. "The honor would be all mine, Mr. Potter," she replied with the appropriate amount of gravitas, took his hand and let herself be pulled to her feet. "We have to do this properly, though," she added, "and I'd really like to feel like a Disney princess for just a little while longer."
And already she was slipping out of the coat wrapped loosely around her shoulders and handing it back to him even as a shiver went through her as soon as the cool air once more assaulted her exposed skin.
"Won't you be cold like that?" he asked her promptly.
And coyly she replied, "I'll trust you to keep me warm yourself, then."
Smiling he put on his tailcoat, quickly straightened out his white shirt underneath and his periwinkle tie and then took a deep breath as he looked at her, and down the length of her body, suddenly finding himself at a bit of a loss. Evidently he had not fully thought this through, and this had certainly not been part of Professor McGonagall's dancing lessons. Fortunately, Hermione was almost quicker to pick up on his predicament than he himself was.
"For this kind of dance I'd say your hands would go to both sides of my waist," she told him, and almost not at all awkwardly he followed her instructions. "And mine would go around your neck, like this."
And just like that, to the mellow tune that came wafting over faintly from the Great Hall, they started dancing, which truthfully consisted mostly of shifting their weight from one foot to the other while only minimally changing their positions, thus turning in a circle that would likely take them forever to complete. At variance with the slow rhythm of the music and the calm motion of their bodies, their eager young hearts were racing within their chests, incited all anew by their as yet so unfamiliar closeness.
Even though initially there had still been some space left between them, it took that little gap less than a minute to completely – and quite inexplicably so – vanish. Indeed, whether it had been Harry's hands, which had somehow found their way to the small of her back, that continuously and ever so slightly had pushed her towards him, or instead Hermione's intertwined counterparts at the back of Harry's neck which had pulled him ever closer, or if perhaps it had been both these things in equal parts or some more enigmatic force than either, that was impossible to say.
But once their bodies were flush against one another and each of them slowly wrapped their arms around the other, everything but the existence of the two of them faded into blessed irrelevance. Surrounded by winter's cold, in their embrace there was only warmth. Their dance was but a gentle swaying of two bodies unified in motion, and the music became little more than some indefinable part of the soothing susurration of the undying leaves of the Everspring tree, its sprawling branches like a roof above them, shielding them from harsher winds.
Their eyes broke contact only to drink in every little detail of the face so near before them, but never for long. Tentatively the tips of their noses touched, and while at first it was barely more than a playful little nudge accompanied by the faintest of smiles, they quickly met again to explore each other's shape more thoroughly. Hermione was the first to close her eyes, but after admiring the wondrous sight in front of him for just a moment longer, Harry followed suit.
Their foreheads met, remained there for a while, moved slightly from side to side, until slowly, leisurely she proceeded to the side of his face, temple against temple, her silken cheeks brushing his in a circling sort of motion, him leaning into it and returning her caress in kind. The intoxicating fragrance of her skin and her hair filled his nose, his head, his lungs, until every last piece of him seemed to be suffused with every facet of her being. Like the rest of their bodies had found some intangible sense of synchronicity, their featherlight hearts too had eventually fallen into the same calm cadence, assured now of the undeniable rightness of everything they were, had always been and would yet become.
Eventually she turned her head to the side as it came to lightly rest against his shoulder, and with her nose she snuggled into his neck just below his chin. When a deep long sigh escaped her chest and he heard the hint of a blissful moan in there, he smiled quietly, sleepily and in consummate contentedness.
The year was 1994. 'Twas December, 'twas the season, and Harry and Hermione were entirely taken by each other.
"You know," Harry at some point said in a musing tone, "I think I could see myself growing rather fond of all this dancing business after all."
And with a smile of perfect peace spreading on her placid features Hermione softly breathed against the warm skin of his neck, "Me too."
~ The End ~
Citations and sources and such
Let us read and let us dance: The originator of this line, which Hermione quotes in her conversation with Fleur, is French thinker Voltaire, also not really known as François-Marie Arouet.
Last but not least
To all readers, reviewers, helpful assistants and favoriters (that's a word now): thank you. It's great to see some of you coming back even after I've taken a year or two to get anything done around here, and any newfound reader is naturally no less welcome. Glad to have you all, really. Well, almost all of you. For the most part, anyway. Some of you, definitely.
Until next time!