Chapter 1: McGonagall's Edict
Hermione bit her lip and frowned at Ron and Harry when she saw them dueling with a pair of Fred and George's fake wands after they had finished transforming their guinea fowl into guinea pigs. Rolling her eyes and shaking her head, it seemed doubtful to Hermione that Ron would ever grow up, and though she continued to hold out some hope for Harry, she rather thought he should take his schoolwork more seriously and be more attentive in class.
But as she put her guinea pig into the cage next to Harry's after giving her own one last look to make sure everything was all in order, Hermione had to give Harry his due. She was rather impressed; Harry's guinea pig was almost perfect, especially compared to Ron's, which still had a beak, and Neville's, which still had feathers—and the less was said about Seamus's, which looked as if it had been through a war zone, the better.
Glancing back at Harry, who appeared to be winning the duel with a fake wand which had turned into a haddock, it occurred to Hermione that Harry was simply happy to have Ron back as his friend after being on the outs with him for a month. Hermione supposed he'd earned a moment to just cut loose, given all the stress he'd been under.
"Potter! Weasley! Will you pay attention?" McGonagall's whiplike voice snapped out severely. Gulping, Harry and Ron quickly took their seats.
"Now that Potter and Weasley have kindly acted their age, I have an announcement to make," McGonagall began when she was sure the class was listening. "The Yule Ball is approaching—a traditional part of the Triwizard Tournament..."
"So that's why we needed dress robes," Hermione heard Seamus whisper at Dean as McGonagall continued, explaining that the Ball would only be open to fourth years and above, excepting younger students who were invited by a fourth year.
Ron looked horrified at the idea, clearly thinking about the frilly vintage dress robes his mother had bought for him.
Harry shrank back in his seat, his face reddening, when Parvati and Lavender giggled and turned to look at him. Inexplicably, Hermione felt a wave of irritation. Surely they didn't think Harry was interested in inviting either of them. But then Hermione's blood ran cold, remembering how Parvati had stuck up for Neville during the Remembrall Incident in first year.
Being who he was, Harry put a lot of stock in things like that. Sure, Parvati may be a bit giggly, but she was brave and kind, and unquestionably pretty. Harry might like her. Then again, Harry had also been stealing a lot of glances at Cho Chang this year.
Feeling more irritable by the minute, and not entirely certain why, Hermione almost didn't notice when the bell rang. Uncharacteristically, she began roughly shoving her books in her bag, and stood up quickly. Ron gave her a funny look.
"What's wrong with you?"
"What?" Hermione was briefly taken aback. "Oh... er, nothing..." she lied, casting around her brain for an excuse. Then Hermione thanked her lucky stars when Ron was distracted by McGonagall calling after Harry.
"Potter—a word, if you please?"
Puzzled, Hermione hovered by the door with Ron as they waited to see what McGonagall wanted with Harry. Obviously worried that he would be called to account for the "sword-fight" he'd had with Ron, Harry meekly and guiltily proceeded to McGonagall's desk.
McGonagall narrowed her eyes at Hermione and Ron, apparently expecting them to leave with the rest of the students. Ron gulped; he glanced nervously at Hermione, then quickly shot out the door before McGonagall could give him detention too. Hermione hesitated, staring down McGonagall. When Hermione didn't budge, McGonagall sighed, apparently deciding to leave well enough alone and get on with things.
"Right then, Potter," McGonagall began crisply, "the Champions and their partners..."
"Partners? ... What partners?" asked Harry, bewildered.
McGonagall arched her eyebrows impressively, peering at Harry with great suspicion, as if he was trying to pull one over on her. Hermione suddenly realised that poor Harry had no idea what he was getting into.
"Your partners for the Yule Ball," McGonagall said acidly. "Your dance partners."
"Dance partners?" Harry gasped, his face turning scarlet. "You mean like a date? But I don't dance!"
"You do now!" McGonagall snapped. "Traditionally, the Champions and their dates open the Ball."
Hermione valiantly stifled an inappropriate giggle when Harry mutinously declared, "I'm not dancing!"
"Oh yes you are Potter!" said McGonagall, in a tone which suggested that Harry was courting danger. "It is tradition! There are certain expectations of the Champions and I will not have you besmirching this school's reputation. Now get cracking and go find yourself a partner..."
Harry looked horrified. "But—I don't..."
The terror in Harry's eyes must have made an impression on McGonagall, because a lightbulb seemed to go off in her head.
"Very well, Potter," the hard-nosed professor interjected, "you leave me little choice. If you won't find yourself a partner, I'll find one for you—"
"Wait... what?" Harry gasped. "No, I mean—"
McGonagall suddenly caught the bushy haired girl by the door off-guard with a stern look.
"Granger, seeing as you're still here, you're drafted."
"What?" Hermione squeaked, eyes widening with panic, not quite sure she'd heard correctly.
"Potter needs a dance partner, and quite frankly I can think of none better, considering that you two are practically attached at the hip anyway."
"But, I..." Hermione trailed off, speechless as her mind began to race while her stomach started doing little flips... or was that her heart? She wasn't quite sure. Numerous thoughts came up in her mind, not to mention a surge of annoyance that her freedom of choice was being taken away.
Taking advantage of Hermione's apparent inability to speak, McGonagall pressed on.
"But what, Granger? Do you already have a date? Weasley perhaps?"
"Well, no, but..." Hermione was at a loss for words. Why was this so confusing all of a sudden? She glanced at Harry for help, but he was frozen, his green eyes as wide as saucers, his mouth gaping.
"Then I don't see a problem," McGonagall snapped. "I presumed that your little display of defiance—remaining when I had only invited Potter to stay and sent clear signals that you and Weasley should depart—was an act of loyalty. Not unlike the loyalty you displayed when all others had forsaken Potter after his name came out of the Goblet of Fire. Or am I mistaken?
"Well, no, but..." Hermione said again, like a needle stuck on the same groove of a record. For some reason, Hermione couldn't articulate a thought beyond that point—something was holding her back, preventing her from voicing a thousand rational objections.
"But nothing, Granger! I don't see Weasley stepping up..." McGonagall briefly hesitated and glanced at Harry, "though if Weasley is your preference for a dance partner, Potter, I can certainly send a House-Elf to call him back."
Harry shook his head vigorously, still speechless.
"Thought not," said McGonagall, "There you go then, Granger—Potter clearly still needs you. You aren't planning on abandoning him now, are you?"
"Of course not!" Hermione asserted without hesitation. Of that, there was no question in her mind, no confusion at all; though her face grew hotter when she added fiercely, "I'd never abandon Harry! He's my best friend!"
The hint of a smile hovered at the corner of McGonagall's thinly pursed lips. Harry's open mouth suddenly clamped shut as he peered at Hermione, and he had a sort of puzzled look in his eyes, as if he'd had a sudden half-formed revelation; he swallowed nervously.
McGonagall's eyes crinkled with satisfaction.
"Then it is decided. Judging by Potter's silence, I must presume this arrangement is acceptable to him. If there are to be no further objections, Miss Granger...?"
McGonagall raised her eyebrows again, this time the look was questioning, as if daring Hermione to recant her last statement.
"N-no!" Hermione stammered, shaking her bushy head as she shot Harry a nervous smile, "No objections."
"Then I believe we are finished here," said McGonagall brusquely. "Potter, you are free to go."
Harry quickly jumped up and made a beeline for the exit without looking back once at McGonagall. Hermione's knees were a bit wobbly when Harry reached the doorway, and she thought he seemed a bit shaken as well; neither could look the other in the eye, and Harry's cheeks were bright red by the time they both reached the corridor.
In silence, they traipsed side by side through the drafty stone passages of the castle, the echoes of their footsteps the only thing either could hear. Hermione was bursting with anxiety, wondering if Harry had simply complied for the sake of convenience, and not entirely sure what this meant for their relationship.
Yes, she'd been annoyed that Parvati and Lavender were already eyeing Harry hungrily, and that Harry seemed smitten with Cho this year, but that didn't really mean anything, did it? But that little voice at the back of her mind grew louder, drowning out the sound of their footsteps, asking herself who she was really fooling.
Hadn't she been hoping that Harry would eventually see her as a girl, ever since he and Ron had saved her from the troll? She had almost told him then at the end of First Year that she had a crush on him, just before he went through those flames and faced the possibility of death once again to save the Philosopher's Stone and prevent Voldemort from returning to power. And she had kicked herself for over a year for not telling him, before finally getting on with things and trying to put it behind her.
Hermione could remember the words she had spoken as she had hugged Harry for possibly the last time ever as if it were yesterday.
"Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery and—"
She had been about to say, "and love," but then she had hesitated in a decidedly un-brave moment and concluded with, "oh Harry, be careful!" instead.
Then there had been the terrifying flight on the Hippogriff last year with Harry. Despite herself, knowing that believing in myths was silly, she had secretly hoped that meant something—Hippogriffs were a mythic symbol of romantic love after all.
But Harry had yet to display any signs of interest in girls last year, and Hermione had hoped that maybe fourth year would be the year. Hermione had had an inkling that Harry and Ron had finally discovered the wonders of puberty when they'd been ogling the Veela at the World Cup. But now that Harry was finally paying attention to girls, it seemed that it was Cho who had caught Harry's fancy.
Hermione knew it was very unlikely that Harry would have asked her to the Ball of his own accord, and she hated to admit how much that hurt. Ron probably wouldn't have asked her either (though she wasn't entirely certain that she wanted him to).
It was obvious that Harry and Ron simply didn't find her attractive in that way. Clearly they preferred pretty girls with straight hair, and Hermione knew she'd never be that. The more she thought about it, the more she reckoned that Harry had simply let McGonagall push him into this because it was easier than trying to pluck up the nerve to ask someone for a date.
But would Harry really do that? Somehow, Hermione couldn't imagine that the boy who had faced down Voldemort three times, once as a baby, and twice at Hogwarts, and gone up against a basilisk and a dragon, wouldn't eventually find the courage to ask a girl he was interested in to the Yule Ball. If Harry had proved anything, it was that he was braver than anyone she knew.
Harry had accepted McGonagall's edict without a word, and Hermione was forced to concede that she really had no idea why.
As they drew closer to Gryffindor Tower, Hermione couldn't bear it any longer—she had to know before she showed her face in the common room. She suddenly came to a dead halt, swallowing nervously, heart pounding like a jackhammer, her eyes brimming with tears.
Harry stopped and turned to look at her. He looked about as anxious as she felt.
"Er... Hermione? Are you... erm, okay?"
"H-Harry, you... you are alright with this aren't you?" Hermione peered into his green orbs, wishing she knew Legilimency. "If... if you're not, th-that's okay. Just tell me! If you're worried about McGonagall, don't. I'll even talk to Cho for you, if you'd like—right now even—let her know you're interested before someone else asks her out—then it'll be done, and McGonagall won't have a reason to be cross with you..."
Hermione's rushing words slowed to a trickle, seeing confusion in Harry's eyes.
"You... you are interested in Cho, aren't you?" she asked.
"Er... I suppose," said Harry awkwardly. "But what about you?"
"What do you want, Hermione?"
Hermione was flummoxed—and annoyed that Harry was answering her question with a question.
"I... I just want you to be happy, Harry," she finally responded after a pause.
"So, you're, erm... not really interested in me then?" he asked, looking extremely perplexed.
Hermione's jaw dropped.
"I'm sorry, Hermione," said Harry quickly, looking sadder than she had expected he would. "I'm being an idiot! Of course you just agreed because McGonagall pressured you. You don't have to go to the Ball with me if you don't want to—"
"Wait, stop!" said Hermione, finding her voice. "Yes, I want to go to the Ball with you Harry, but not if you'd rather go with Cho."
"Oh!" Harry still looked bewildered, but Hermione could almost see the gears working in his cerebral cortex as he tried to make sense of things.
"Well," he began again slowly after mulling things over for a moment, "I... er... Cho—yeah, I mean she's pretty—and yeah, I was sort of thinking about asking her at first, but she's not you, Hermione. McGonagall—what she said—it made me realise I've just been sort of, er... taking you for granted—"
"But you'd rather go with someone prettier," Hermione mumbled, casting her eyes down.
"No..." said Harry, a note of frustration creeping into his voice. "That's not what I mean. ... I'm saying it all wrong. Of course you're pretty! You're really pretty! I was just too stupid to notice before because I was used to you always being around... if that makes any sense. ... What I'm saying is that I didn't even really get that I liked you until McGonagall said that stuff about you being loyal.
"But it was when you said you'd never abandon me—the way you said it—when you said I was your 'best friend,' it felt like you were, erm... I dunno... It was like you were saying something more. That's when it really hit me... how much you really mean to me.
"I can't imagine not being around you, and... and I don't ever want to lose you as a friend, Hermione! I have to be sure, are you really saying that you like like me?"
Hermione bit her lip, her heart feeling like it might explode at hearing Harry's earnest declaration. She nodded vigorously, her face lighting up like a Christmas tree.
"Yes, Harry!" she squeaked, "I've liked you for ages, but I'd more or less given up on the idea of you liking me like that."
Harry let out a huge sigh of relief and grinned; then he turned a bit pink, looking a bit embarrassed and confused, as if he had no idea what was supposed to happen next.
"Erm... Does... does that mean you're my girlfriend now, then?"
"It does if you want it to, Harry," said Hermione hopefully, taking his hands in hers. "I've known you long enough to know I'd like to be."
"Yeah! ... Yeah I'd like that too, Hermione! I'd really like that!"
Harry's soppy grin was infectious; a wave of elation crashed over Hermione and before she could stop herself she leaned forward and kissed him. It wasn't a long kiss, but her lips pressed against his long enough to send tingles shooting through her from head to toe. Harry seemed a bit dazed when it was over.
Hermione felt more than a bit giddy herself. It was almost surreal; Hermione hadn't imagined when she'd waited for Harry after Transfiguration that she'd end up as his girlfriend. The pair of them trotted the rest of the way to Gryffindor Tower in a fog, and found themselves in front of the portrait of the Fat Lady without quite realising how they'd got there.
The Fat Lady eyed them cannily when they arrived as they both fumbled for the password.
"Balderdash," Hermione finally blurted out when her brain started working again.
"Finally! Took you two long enough," said the Fat Lady, giving Hermione and Harry a knowing little smirk as she opened to let them in. "I can't wait to tell Violet about this!"
Hermione and Harry both blushed furiously when they suddenly realised that the Fat Lady was referring to how long it had taken them to get together, rather than how long it had taken them to remember the password, and their faces were both scarlet when they emerged on the other side of the portrait hole in the Gryffindor Common Room.
"There you are," said a familiar grumbling voice. "What took you both so long? ... and what's wrong with your faces?"
Ron looked up from the couch, gawking at his two best friends. Harry and Hermione shared a brief, awkward look, for a split second thinking that he'd figured them out as well. But the second passed, and it was abundantly obvious from Ron's befuddled, clueless expression that he wasn't echoing the Fat Lady's sentiments.