"Finished!" Cho exclaimed triumphantly, as her levitating quill scribbled the last period and signed her name at the bottom of the parchment.
"If that's not one of the best articles I've ever written, I don't know what is," she continued to no one in particular, except, perhaps, Aphrodite, who was perched on the armchair beside the couch on which Cho was working. Satisfied with the results of her labor, she whistled for the owl and tied the finished work onto its leg, after making sure that she had replicated a copy of it for herself.
Whispering a few instructions to the animal and caressing its beak with the back of her finger, Cho walked over to the living room window, opened it, and sent her pet on its way.
Stretching her limbs and yawning once or twice, she set about cleaning up her work area and putting away the various quills, bits of paper, and books. Once she'd finished, she walked to the bathroom and gave herself a good look in the mirror, frowning as she did so at her disheveled appearance.
She raked her fingers through her hair absent-mindedly before lifting her brush from the counter and finishing the job more efficiently. A sense of accomplishment had wound itself loosely in her senses and, as she basked in the afterglow, she found her thoughts beginning to wander. Wander to things she, before now, had not had the time to ponder over, things that she'd willingly pushed to the back of her mind.
She wasn't sure why she was so bent on musing over the party; she'd already thought over almost every aspect of it, and Marietta had already confessed to what she had done. It had to be that she was still stuck with the unsettling idea of what would have happened if she hadn't run away. Over the last week she had willed herself not to think about it, to concentrate on her article and helping Marietta with the extremely early beginnings of wedding planning, finding that burying herself in work kept her mind busy and away from any thoughts that would leave her frustrated and always wondering.
But... what if she had stayed? Harry hadn't looked unhappy to see her, just shell-shocked, and with good reason, she decided, given their sudden meeting after so long. Everything that had happened during their years at Hogwarts was almost somehow like part of a separate life they had lived as different people. There was just no way of telling how time had changed him. Given her feelings that night, she began to wonder exactly how it had changed her.
On the reasonable side of things, they probably would have spent the majority of the time together gawking at each other with absolutely nothing to say. In those few brief minutes she'd spent with him, though, a snatch of the old Harry she knew at school resurfaced with his obvious uncertainty and gave her a small ray of hope that maybe he hadn't changed as much either. A part of her liked to think that they would've been able to become reacquainted and that they would easily have spent the rest of the time at the party chatting away about anything and everything.
Setting the brush down on the counter with a small clacking noise, she closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She needed a change of atmosphere, a different train of thought; the beaten pathway her mind was taking would only mar her happiness and satisfaction, as it always did. So she changed her clothes, shouldered her purse, and made her way towards Diagon Alley.
A mug of hot chocolate from Florean Fortescue's seemed to be an appropriate reward for her hard work.
"OY! Where do you think you're going?" demanded Ron indignantly as his friend slipped on his cloak.
"Lunch break," Harry replied nonchalantly. "I worked all through today's to give you and Hermione some privacy. I'd expected to see a ring on her finger by now."
Unable to find a proper argument to this, the redhead opened and closed his mouth several times before he finally spoke. "Just see to it that you're back within the hour. And make sure you don't get distracted."
Harry rolled his eyes and said, "I'll be back soon enough."
He nearly ran headlong into a very distracted Hermione as he walked out of the small office.
"Oh! Harry, you're going out to lunch now?" she asked, the faintest blush creeping to her cheeks.
"Yeah," he responded genially, barely lifting an eyebrow as her watched her restlessly shift from foot to foot, an indication that she was up to something. "Need anything from Diagon Alley?"
"No– yes! Come to think of it, one of the girls broke my new quill. Could you possibly go and get me another one? It's just the standard eagle-feather quill that you can find at Flourish and Blotts," Hermione requested, fishing a few coins out of her pocket and handing them to him.
"All right, I'll see to it that you get the best."
"Thanks, Harry." She smiled at him affably before entering the office. He could have sworn that he saw her, as the doors of the lift closed, shrink a large box of files and stick it in her pocket as she looked in both directions, then walked off. If anyone asked him, however, he would say that it had been a trick of the light.
Harry strolled at a leisurely pace, pausing every now and then to take a bite out of the sandwich wrapped in plastic and clutched in his gloved hand. Not particularly in the mood for a large lunch, he'd ordered something light from a nearby restaurant, and then Apparated to Diagon Alley to take his time browsing through the shops before he bought Hermione her new quill.
He paused to smile at the usual crowd of children, none of them older than ten, gathered around the display window of Quality Quidditch Supplies.
"Look! Those are the latest flying gloves issued by the Nimbus company. Every league in Europe is planning to make those standard issue for players in the next Quidditch World Cup." The youngster unconsciously puffed out his chest slightly, looking pleased with himself for knowing such an obviously important piece of information.
"I know," replied his friend flippantly, "they're made of real dragon hide, and sewn together with that new sort of string they just discovered how to make– what's it called– erm... Spider's Thread! That's it! Supposed to keep the gloves together longer and make them more aerodynamic."
"Yeah," his mate said, his spirits deflated a bit.
Harry heard no further, but saw them press their faces eagerly to the window glass in a sort of silent awe, making little patches of fog, before he walked on.
The only people at this time of day and year were the occasional stragglers still on their lunch break, and the commonly seen busy housewife running errands, usually with a child on her hip or holding her hand. While this did not mean that Diagon Alley was quiet, by any means, it was certainly different from the bustling chaos surrounding the beginning of the new school term in the fall.
He came to a stop in front of Flourish and Blotts, quickly finished off the rest of his sandwich, and threw away the plastic wrap that had come with it. Pushing open the door, he was immediately greeted in from the cold air with a rush of heat and the crisp smell of new books. An assistant, finishing off the remains of her lunch with who appeared to be her boyfriend, asked Harry in an almost annoyed voice whether he needed any assistance, to which he answered with a shake of his head to signify no. She left it at that, and turned back to her boyfriend; Harry suspected he would be ignored for the rest of his time there.
He took his time strolling up and down the aisles, stopping every now and then when a book caught his eye. Picking out two quills for Hermione from the stationery aisle, he had begun making his way to the front counter to make his purchase when a showy display placed directly underneath the hanging sign labeled "Sports & Games" gripped his attention and made him backtrack a few paces.
Quidditch Through the Ages: Eleventh Edition read the curly script on the sign above the pyramid of books, accompanied with various pictures of several popular teams neatly Spellotaped to various parts of the large box atop which the entire display sat.
A faint smile touched Harry's lips as he picked up a glossy copy and he observed that it was a tad heavier than the one he and so many others had borrowed and re-borrowed from the Hogwarts library. How long had it been since the last time he had gotten on a broomstick? He vaguely recalled going to see Wood play at a game a year or so ago, but couldn't remember the last time he himself had played.
He flipped over the book to check for a price and, at the same time, began shuffling his feet towards the front of the store. There was nothing on the back indicating how much it cost, or on the inside jacket flaps. Odd.
He began walking at his usual pace, with long strides.
Could it be that they had simply forgotten to label the books with prices?
Stopping dead in his tracks, he turned around again to replace the copy he had in his hands and to search for another that had a label on it.
He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he never bothered to look up to check for anyone he might literally run into, and he collided headlong into someone, who gave a surprised "oof!" and staggered backwards before falling flat on her back, Harry losing his balance as well and landing on top of her.
Shaking his head and blinking vigorously, he lifted a hand to push his glasses back up—only to find that they were no longer even on his face. Pushing himself up with his elbows, he squinted and could barely make out the features of the face of the woman he had plowed over.
"I'm sorry," he began, flushing in embarrassment as he spoke. "I—I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking."
"Oh, it's… it's all right," the woman assured him, her voice choked and forced, as though she was having difficulty speaking. She cleared her throat loudly, realizing how strained her voice sounded.
"Here—here are your, erm, glasses," she added quietly, gently placing them on the end of his nose and pushing them up to their rightful place.
"Thanks." He opened his eyes, took a good look at her, and found himself fighting down the urge to drop his jaw in surprise.
Cho blinked up at Harry in a state of paralyzed shock. Perhaps that was why she couldn't feel her legs… or, no, wait… it was because he was still sprawled on top of her. Any way she looked at it, it was a miracle that she could manage any coherent speech at all.
"I… I…" He seemed to have lost his own ability to speak.
They seemed to lie there on the floor for ages, gaping at each other in disbelief and struggling to find something to say.
…This wasn't quite how she had imagined their next meeting would begin. Then again, it didn't seem very likely that Harry had expected things to happen that way, either.
"Are you all right?" he asked awkwardly.
"Yeah. I—I'm fine." She felt herself color just as brightly as she felt his warm breath brush against her cheek.
Finally seeming to realize what an uncompromising position she was in, he immediately sprang to his feet and held out his hand to help her up as well, which she accepted. She regretted the gesture as soon as she had risen to her feet when her partially numb legs collapsed underneath her. Having no other support to grab hold of, she instinctively reached for Harry, who, with another look of surprise, caught her.
"Can't feel my legs," she muttered, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks.
He relaxed his tensed muscles slightly and gently held her forearms, keeping her from falling.
"I s'pose I should've gotten up sooner," he replied almost shyly with an apologetic smile.
She laughed, despite the awkward circumstances, finding the humor in the situation. Evidently, as he laughed along with her, he did as well.
"Not exactly the best way to run into someone from—from the past, is it?" Cho ventured, voicing both their thoughts.
"Actually running into someone isn't graceful, no matter how you look at it," Harry agreed, grinning.
A tingling sensation ran up and down Cho's legs as her blood flow was restored and she carefully loosened her grasp on his shoulders when she felt that she could stand on her own; he, in turn, released her arms.
"Well," she smiled, smoothing out her beige skirt before putting forth her own hand, "it's nice to see you again, even if we hadn't—didn't exactly start off as gracefully as we'd have liked."
Even as she spoke the words, she felt a rush of different, other underlying meanings flood forth, and she'd almost regretted saying them until she felt him grasp her hand in turn.
"Likewise," he said, looking her directly in the eye.
A part of her hoped against hope that he wasn't only saying that to be polite.
"So, you haven't happened to find one of these"—she held up the copy of Quidditch Through the Ages that she had picked from the pile—"with a price label, have you?"
He shook his head. "That's what I was coming back over here for. I thought I'd check every book before asking the assistant for help."
"As far as I can see, none of these books have any labels on them," she frowned, tucking her copy under her arm and beginning to examine the rest of the pyramid; Harry followed suit.
"Brings back loads of memories, doesn't it?" Cho asked, pausing in her search to run her fingertips over the cover of the book nearest to her hand.
"I don't think I've even been on a broomstick in… I dunno. Years, probably," she added conversationally, wistfully eyeing the moving photographs.
"Have you still got your Comet?" he inquired, shifting a pile of books for her to grab one they hadn't examined yet.
"Yeah, I think my mum's put it away somewhere in a dark corner of her attic. How 'bout you? Still holding onto your Firebolt?"
"Mm-hm. It's held up pretty well over the years, although I suspect it's lost a bit of its speed and edge for pulling out of sharp dives. I haven't gone flying in forever." He absently flipped through the pages of the copy he'd been checking, then slipped it back into the large arrangement.
"I wonder how long it took the shopkeepers to build this masterpiece," she laughed unexpectedly, gesturing towards the now lopsided pyramid.
"Dunno. Well, at least we're putting the books back where they belong. Sort of," he shrugged, giving a lop-sided smile.
"Sort of," she repeated with another giggle.
"They're lucky we're the ones going through the lot, though, aren't they? I'm sure any young boys doing this would go straight for the bottom books," he smirked.
"I'm sure Draco Malfoy's old goons would do the same thing," she snorted.
"—After they trampled the small children in their way, yeah."
She playfully assumed a knowledgeable and informative stance. "You know, it's highly disputed whether they, in fact, know how to read, or the professors just felt sorry for them and let them pass."
He snorted in response.
"Two words: Building. Blocks."
"Excellent material for forts, so I'm told," she smiled, breaking her educational character.
Harry relaxed his face into a simple and stupid expression as he randomly tugged and shoved several books in and out of the pyramid before dropping a few on the ground haphazardly. He dropped to a sitting position on the floor with a dull thud and, between his splayed legs, attempted to prop the books off the ground and against each other by their rounded spines. Frowning when he had no success, he examined his "building blocks" and, seeing that they were indeed intact and in good form, he started again with the same method as before. Deepening his scowl when this still failed, he pretended to give up and let one of his arms swing loosely by his side as he hunched over, lifting the other one to scratch his head in an accurate impression of a monkey, evidently with enough effort to require movement from his entire arm.
Cho clapped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing outright, succeeding only in translating her laughs into snorts; the young woman at the front of the store shot a suspicious look their way before emerging from behind the counter to storm towards them.
"May I help either of you?" she snapped irritably, placing both hands on her hips.
Shooting a meaningful glance at Harry only to find that he wasn't looking her way at the moment, Cho had opened her mouth to speak when she heard him answer first.
"We're fine, just browsing around," he, from his placement on the ground, calmly assured the clerk, who replied by scowling at the misshapen pile that had once been a pyramid of books.
With what appeared to be a great effort, the girl added through clenched teeth, "Take—your—time.'
Then, doing an abrupt about-face, she stomped back to her counter, making small, faintly visible dents in the wooden floor with the points of her high heels.
Harry let his eyes wander to Cho, who had walked over to stand beside him.
"Very misunderstood and lost art, fort-building is," he informed her sadly, shaking his head, to which she answered with a full-out peal of laughter.
He wondered to himself if the sandwich he had just consumed had something more in it than what its maker claimed it was composed of. Much to his surprise, though, he found that it was a nice change to make a fool of himself… at least there were no waterworks this time. Both of them were grateful for that.
"Such a shame. And you have such a knack for the art as well," she grinned, sitting down beside him.
"Perhaps sometime I'll show you how to master it as well," he nodded solemnly.
"Next week, maybe?" he found himself saying before he could think over the words issuing from his mouth.
Taken off guard, she paused a moment before replying, "I'm free on Sunday."
He seemed just as surprised to receive an answer as she was in giving it. "That works for me. Meet you at… ten in the morning next Sunday?"
"That sounds nice. Where, here?" she joked.
"If you'd like," he responded, raising an eyebrow slightly and smiling.
"Seriously, you want to meet here?" she asked, tilting her head to the side as she looked at him meaningfully.
"It's fine with me," he shrugged.
"All right. We'll have a contest once you've taught me the basics of fort-building. Loser buys lunch," she proposed, a mischievously challenging look crossing her face.
"Deal," he agreed with a laugh, shaking her hand.
Both decided, although it was left unsaid, that they were quickly becoming accustomed to the element of surprise, and it definitely was not an unpleasant acquaintance.
The only question that remained was the exact effects of this fresh start. Instead of naming all the what-ifs and possibilities in their minds, however, they knew that they would be sure to discover that for themselves the next Sunday.
There never seemed to be a longer week and a half in existence.
A/N: Thank you, my lovely, lovely reviewers for not deserting me. At least, I hope you haven't. It's been an extremely rough year for me, and I'd appreciate not hearing about how late I am in updating, as it only adds to my guilt and agony. For a full list of excuses as well as review responses be sure to go to my livejournal (although that might have to wait a little while as well. Just be sure to review this time around, and I'll be sure to give responses to your reviews from chapter 10). My user name is unicorn13. Sweet. Simple. Just like leaving a review. And please be sure to leave one on here, although comments on my journal are welcome as well. This chapter has been written late at night, so please inform me of any mistakes I've made. Don't flame, politely point out, mind you. Oh, and I'm thinking of taking on a Beta reader or three. Anyone interested? I'd especially like a British Beta so that he/she can Britpick for me. Anyway, go on! Go review. Give this tired authoress the happiness that only reviews can bring.
Oh, and if you get the time, check out onoM and Mujakix's fics. They're awesome. Anyone else who'd like me to recommend them just has to ask and I'd be more than happy to advertise your fic(s). Yeah.
And onoM? I will get around to r/r your fic sometime. I will. In the meantime, have cyber-cookies; I give you a boxful. And just out of curiosity, how do you get those nice section dividers on your chapters? My long period thingies keep disappearing on me.