Symmetry of Power

Chapter One – Back to Life

When you weep, you can know that it's all right

As you sleep, I'll just follow your door light

We can talk just as long as you hold on tight

Just one breath is a million in sighs.

- Hanson, "Runaway Run"

~

The stars were shining very brightly, persevering against the many streetlights of Privet Drive. Harry, lying in the grass in the backyard, wanted to scream at them. How could they be so bright, as if there was any hope for a happy future?

Harry was painfully aware of all that was wrong in the world. Sirius was dead…dead, because of him, and his stupidity. The closest thing he had to a father was gone forever, and any hopes of having a decent home to go to were lost. Even if he could have had one, he was stuck at the Dursleys' house, because of Voldemort and that blasted prophecy.

He hated prophecies, and he really hated Voldemort.

What had he ever done to deserve this fate?

Voldemort was still lurking in the shadows, waiting for his moment. Voldemort no longer had the advantage he was hoping for, but he wouldn't stop; Harry knew that. He was waiting for the best time to strike. The prophecy had never fallen into his hands. Voldemort probably had no idea that Harry wasn't just some nuisance of a boy with a 'saving-people thing.' Harry wondered when he would find out that Harry was destined to kill him…or be killed by him. At times, Harry wasn't sure which he preferred.

The summer shouldn't have been so bleak. It should have been better than the last, but, if anything, it had been worse.

The Dursleys no longer protested when he watched the news, waiting for a sign from Voldemort, though it wasn't very necessary. Ron and Hermione now told him nearly everything in their letters, and he was also in contact with Dumbledore. The Headmaster's letters were still rather guarded, however. Harry understood. The possibility that Voldemort could use the link between them was still present. He didn't have to possess Harry to gain information from him.

Had Hermione been there to see Harry lying forlornly in the grass that evening, she would have told him to stop worrying so much. Harry wouldn't have bothered mentioning that she worried plenty enough for the both of them. Ron would have ignored it and let him be.

He wasn't sure if he missed his friends or not. It was difficult to be around them now. Even sitting beside him, they had felt miles away from where he was. On some level, he longed to tell them about the prophecy. On many other levels, he didn't want them to know. He wasn't sure how they might react to it. Would they not want to be friends with a murderer? Would they not want to be friends with a corpse? Fear and foreboding blinded his mind to reality, and anything close to how they might really react was beyond his imagination.

The crickets seemed to be chirping more and more loudly. Harry wondered why they only chirped like that at night. He wondered if he would ever be able to sleep at night. For the past week, sleep could only be induced by pure exhaustion, perhaps coming to him every other night. He didn't think tonight would be one of them. He felt wide-awake.

Maybe he would tell them about the prophecy. Or maybe he would only tell Hermione. She didn't believe in Divination. She would tell him that it was silly to believe it, especially since Trelawney had made it.

"How can you say that?" Hermione demanded. "After we've just found out that there are real prophecies?"

Harry knew he was kidding himself. Even Hermione, the skeptic, could see that there was no getting out of this one.

Telling Ron would be just as bad. Ron could pretend Trelawney was an old fraud all he wanted, but deep down, he believed in these things, and as soon as Harry quoted the prophecy, he would believe that, too.

Harry started to wonder why he didn't want his friends to believe it.

Because you don't want to believe it. Who was he kidding? Certainly not himself. He was in one big pit of denial, and he didn't want to climb out of it. Why was this his destiny? He was no more powerful than Dumbledore, no smarter than Hermione. Why couldn't Dumbledore, the most powerful wizard in the world, be the one to defeat Voldemort? Harry had nothing more to fight with than he did; really, it seemed that Harry had considerably less in the way of power.

Surely, he was going to die. He wasn't very powerful at all. At one point, maybe he had fooled himself into thinking that he was exceptional at Defense Against the Dark Arts. But he wasn't, really. He couldn't do anything that the rest of Dumbledore's Army couldn't do with careful teaching. He had no special powers. He couldn't cast the Cruciatus Curse. Avada Kedavra wouldn't work either. He couldn't kill at all…not even Voldemort.

Perhaps he would become the next Dark Lord and kill Voldemort that way. Everyone had already, at one point, thought of him as crazy or evil. Maybe he was – both crazy and evil. Maybe attempting Cruciatus was just the first step. Maybe now the Dark Magic was inside him, and he would begin to torture and kill until he was worse than Voldemort. You had to fight fire with fire, right?

Maybe he really was insane. "Don't be stupid, Harry," he heard Hermione tell him. "You fight fire with water."

And what would water be? Harry's sleep-deprived brain started to churn in a drowsy, barely coherent manner. Voldemort was fire, and Voldemort was evil. If fire was evil, water would be the opposite of evil…good.

But how could good kill?

He pushed himself off the ground and headed inside quietly. It was three in the morning, but he had to get the prophecy off his chest. He would write to Hermione. She would have answers; she always did.

He pulled out ink and parchment. He pulled out his favorite quill, the one he had received as a gift from Hermione, and then…he decided against it. Hermione didn't deserve to have this on her mind just yet, and he wasn't quite ready to tell her.

Harry took out his Charms book instead and attempted to think about something other than the future.

~

Harry surprised himself by falling asleep at five that morning. When he woke up, it was one in the afternoon. The Dursleys were nowhere to be found. He discovered a note on his door – "We've gone shopping. Do not touch anything, don't blow anything up, don't leave the house, and don't do any you-know-what!" Harry merely rolled his eyes and plodded barefoot down the stairs in his pajamas, intent on having a very late breakfast. He was halfway through buttering some toast when the doorbell rang.

Who on earth would be visiting so randomly? The Dursleys couldn't have been expecting anyone, or else they wouldn't have left him alone. Would Voldemort ring the doorbell? …Could Voldemort go out in sunlight? Harry couldn't imagine it.

He went warily to the door and peeked out; he couldn't believe what he saw. Harry yanked open the door so quickly, he almost hit himself.

"Hermione?" he said, suddenly aware that he was at the door in pajamas in the afternoon with his jaw dropped to the ground. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to teach you Occlumency!" she said brightly. She walked past him into the front hall. Harry saw a car pulling away as he shut the door.

"You're going to teach me in one day?"

"Of course not," she said. "I'm going to stay here with you until you can leave."

Harry then noticed the very large bag slung over her shoulder. He was having a hard time absorbing the information. Hermione was going to stay there. At the Dursleys. For two weeks.

"Hermione…do the Dursleys know about this?"

"Well, no," she admitted, dropping her bag to the floor. "But I can convince them. I've got special permission for me to use magic so I can teach you – I think seeing a few tricks will show them that it would be extremely unwise to mess with me."

Harry could only imagine. "Hermione…isn't that technically kind of…illegal? You know…Muggle-baiting?"

"Since when do you care about what's legal?" Hermione responded. Harry didn't mention that he generally did, having been nearly expelled several times. "It's not as if I'm using magic against them. …They've got a guestroom, don't they?" She started up the stairs, looking around. He frowned, finally pausing to take in her appearance.

She looked fairly normal in a pair of jean shorts and a T-shirt with the words "got toast?" written across the front. He didn't ask what it was supposed to mean. She also looked much more relaxed than she ever looked at Hogwarts. But there was one very big change - her hair, which had gone halfway down her back the last time he saw her, now didn't even touch her shoulders.

"When did you cut your hair?"

She turned around. "Oh – a week ago. I'd forgotten by now… Is it bad?"

Harry didn't think it looked much different…just many inches shorter. Her curls were a little tighter, and they seemed to crowd around her face more, but it wasn't the most dramatic change in the world. "No, it looks…good. Great, even." And he was being entirely truthful.

"I'm glad you think so," she said, blushing slightly. It was her turn to frown. "Er, Harry, why are you still in your pajamas?"

Harry fidgeted awkwardly. "I didn't get to sleep until…well, this morning. I just woke up awhile ago."

Hermione looked at him knowingly. "Do you want to talk?"

Harry hesitated. Now wasn't the time to tell her. "Later," he said.

Hermione nodded and continued up the stairs. Harry had no choice but to pick up her bag and follow her.

"Is this your room?" she asked. There was an unmistakable note of pity in her voice. He wondered what her room looked like, compared to his. He imagined it had quite a few bookshelves. Hermione walked in, looking around. Harry followed and set her somewhat heavy bag (must have contained a few books) on the floor.

"Yes… Hermione, um, when did you learn Occlumency? And why are you teaching me? I mean, isn't it a lot of trouble to go through?"

Hermione plopped down on his bed. "Well, obviously, you couldn't learn from Snape - I think he refused to teach you again, in fact. Dumbledore's too busy to teach you – besides, that's too risky. And you have to learn. So Dumbledore thought it would be a good idea if I taught you – someone you could get along with. So Snape taught me – he wasn't too pleased about it, but he couldn't very well insult me for being anything but a know-it-all, so it wasn't too bad."

"Why didn't they wait until I could leave Privet Drive?" Harry asked. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, but I doubt the Dursleys will be."

"You need to learn as soon as possible," she explained, "and there would be too much distraction at…Grimmauld Place. So…I'm here."

Harry nodded. "They're still using Grimmauld Place, then?"

"Yes…he left it to the Order…until you're of age. And then, you inherit it."

Harry wasn't sure why, but this surprised him. He had never considered what would happen to Sirius's possessions.

"You also receive everything in his Gringott's vault…" she trailed off, probably at the look on his face. "Harry, how are you handling this?"

Harry shrugged. He had never been one to talk about his emotions, and Ron usually kept Hermione from asking him about them. "All right, I suppose. He's…gone. There's not much else to be said."

"No, but…are you okay, Harry?"

He shrugged again, staring at the carpet. "I'm…fine. He's gone and there's nothing I can do about it."

Hermione bit her lip. "I just hope you aren't blaming yourself, Harry."

Harry didn't know what to say to that. Blame himself? To be truthful, he did. Hadn't he ignored Hermione's own warnings? Hadn't he rushed headfirst into danger with only the word of an insane house-elf to back up his cause? Did he not walk into a trap, not only endangering his friends, but also causing trouble for the Order?

"But…it was my fault, Hermione."

"I was afraid of that," she sighed. Hermione stood and walked over to him. She took him by the arm. "Come on. Let's go make some tea and talk about this." She paused. "Do you want to get dressed first?"

He smiled slightly. "I probably should. Er, be careful down there. The Dursleys could walk in at any moment."

She grinned. "I can take care of myself. I am a witch, after all."

~

After throwing out Harry's half-buttered, cold and therefore ruined toast, and preparing a pot of tea the Muggle way, Harry and Hermione sat across from each other at the kitchen table.

Hermione was all business, setting her tea on the table with a hard look at him. "You must know deep down that you're not really at fault."

Harry didn't respond to that. He wasn't quite sure what he felt, deep down. It was impossible to tell in the whirling mass of conflicting emotions.

"Harry, you couldn't have done anything else," Hermione went on. "Yes, we might have known it was a trap. I was doubtful at first. But after you talked to Kreacher, I believed it, too. Don't let yourself think that you should have known. At that point, nobody did.

"Snape might have stopped it, but he went about it in entirely the wrong way. He didn't attempt to help us at all. He didn't give us any indication that he would check on Sirius. What else could we have done but go after him? Besides, you didn't understand what the Occlumency was for or what Voldemort was trying to do with those dreams. You didn't know it was a trap, Harry, and all the evidence was suggested it was real."

"But you knew what the Occlumency was for, didn't you?" Harry said quietly. "That's why you were always telling me to practice."

Hermione sighed, almost ruefully. "I knew why you were learning Occlumency, yes, and…well, I assumed you did, even though you didn't seem to take it as seriously as you should have. I…forgive me, Harry, I thought you were just being lazy or stubborn. I was sure that Snape or Dumbledore would have told you exactly what Voldemort might do. But I should have made sure. I should have talked with you more thoroughly about it."

Harry smiled weakly at the irony. "I should have listened to you."

Hermione looked downward, sipping her tea. "We can't dwell on should-have's and what-if's. The important thing is that…you would have given your life for Sirius, Harry. Do you understand how amazing that is? Very few would do that so willingly. Isn't it only fair that Sirius should be willing to do the same thing? Would you really want him to not care whether you lived or died and stay back at Grimmauld Place?"

Harry was staring intently into his tea. He had never stared at a teacup like this, not even when tealeaves were involved. Perhaps that was why he did so poorly in Divination. "At least he would be alive."

Hermione took a sip of her tea. "He loved you, Harry, and you loved him. You were tricked. A long series of circumstances and coincidences were against you. You intended to save Sirius, not kill him. What if it hadn't been a trap, but you had thought it was? What if you hadn't gone, and Sirius had been killed because of that? Could you live with yourself?"

"No," Harry said honestly.

Hermione reached across the table and placed her hand over his. Her palm felt strangely soft against his hand. "You did the right thing, Harry…it just wasn't the right time, but you had no way of knowing that. If you want to blame someone, blame Voldemort."

Harry looked up at her. "You would think I would blame him to begin with."

Hermione half-smiled. "You would think. But you're different."

"Is that good or bad?" Harry wondered aloud.

Hermione looked at him thoughtfully. "A bit of both. It's part of what makes you so wonderful…but it's bad for you, Harry. You blame everything upon yourself. You don't deserve that guilt."

He wasn't sure what to make of that, but Harry finally felt ready to tell her about the prophecy. He needed to tell her; he needed her to rationalize it for him. He needed her to make it simple for him, as if it were a complicated spell he couldn't quite grasp.

"Hermione, there's something else. It's about the –" but he was cut short by the front door opening and Uncle Vernon's voice filling the hall.

"Probably still in bed, lazy boy that he is. He'd better not have done any you-know-what while we were gone, Petunia, or I swear, he's –"

Just what he would be was lost as Uncle Vernon entered the kitchen and spotted Hermione at the table.

"Who are you?" he demanded, narrowing his already beady eyes at her. Dudley and Aunt Petunia appeared behind him.

"I'm Hermione Granger," she said calmly. "I'm a friend of Harry's. From school."

Her last two words were enough to make Uncle Vernon turn pink. Aunt Petunia appeared to have some kind of spasm, and Dudley – his fists useless against magic – took off at a speed that seemed impossible for his size.

"One of them, are you?" he said, stepping forward slowly. Perhaps it was meant to be intimidating, but it looked more like caution to Harry.

"Yes, I am. But my parents are…er, normal. They're dentists."

Uncle Vernon gave her a suspicious look. "And they don't mind your abnormalities?"

Harry was trying hard not to laugh. He didn't know how Hermione was staying so composed.

She smiled charmingly "No, they don't mind at all. Mind you, they had a hard time getting used to the postal system, but they think it's brilliant."

"Do they, now?" Uncle Vernon had obviously decided that Hermione's parents were very strange as well – certainly not the kind of people that he would associate with, dentists or not. Aunt Petunia was wearing a scowl. Harry had a feeling she was thinking of her own parents' acceptance of his mother's abilities.

Harry cleared his throat. "Hermione will, um, be staying here. For awhile."

Uncle Vernon progressed to red and turned to Harry like a hacked off mountain troll. Harry had a feeling that he would be blue by the time this was over. "How long?"

Harry glanced at Hermione. "Er, two weeks."

Uncle Vernon swelled up like a balloon. Aunt Petunia's eyebrows shot upward. She was obviously appalled at the lack of courtesy involved.

"Please, Mr. Dursley," Hermione interrupted before Uncle Vernon could explode. "Don't blame Harry for this. He had no idea I was coming."

Harry could see Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia struggling. They obviously wanted to look like a good, courteous, welcoming family, but above all, they wanted to be normal. Having another magically inclined teenager in their home was not their idea of ordinary.

"Just who do you think you are, coming into my home and presuming you can stay here for two weeks?"

"Well, I've been sent by Albus Dumbledore. I have to teach Harry something essential in keeping the worst Dark wizard in history from reading his mind. If you would like to refuse to let me stay, keep in mind that I've got permission to use…ah, what would you call it? You-know-what all summer if I ever need to."

Uncle Vernon narrowed his eyes at her. He was angry, certainly, but not stupid. He knew as well as Harry did that Hermione could turn him into a newt if she liked, and he wasn't about to take that chance.

"Fine," he said grudgingly. "You can stay. But don't expect us to let you have the guest bedroom! And you two will cook your own meals while you're here. Don't expect Petunia to do any extra work for you."

"Of course not, Mr. Dursley," Hermione said innocently. "We'll stay out of your way. You won't even know I'm here."

Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia left the kitchen, whispering frantically to each other. They were probably talking about how incredibly inconsiderate Hermione was, or how they weren't about to give her special treatment and let her stay in the guest bedroom.

Harry and Hermione cleaned up the kitchen a second time. Harry had found the whole thing laughable, but Hermione was just as appalled as the Dursleys were.

"Those people are horrible! Acting as if we've got some kind of…disease! Just because we can do magic! I'm surprised they haven't tried to burn us on a stake yet!" Hermione said as she put away their freshly washed teacups.

Harry sobered. "They've always been that way…I'm sure they were like that before I came here. Aunt Petunia's always had issues with magic…because of my mum. I guess it was only right to marry someone as insane as she is."

Hermione took his hand. "I'm so sorry you had to grow up here."

Harry smiled and squeezed her hand. He didn't know what to say to that.

"Come on," Hermione said, leading him to the door. "Let's go for a walk."

~

It was a cloudy day. Harry was sure it would rain any minute, but Hermione insisted that the temperature was still higher than the dew point. Harry didn't bother to argue; when it came to Hermione, arguing was usually fruitless.

They were on Magnolia Crescent when Harry decided to bring up the prophecy again.

"Hermione?"

"Yes?"

"There's something I need to tell you. It's about the prophecy."

Her eyes widened, and they stopped walking. She could probably tell what was coming next. "Go on," she said encouragingly.

"Dumbledore knew what it said. He heard it… Trelawney made it. It's how she got her job."

"So she really is somewhat of a Seer," Hermione murmured, looking somewhat impressed. "I guess it makes sense. It must only come when there's something important to be told…"

Harry nodded. "He showed me what it said. In his Pensieve."

Hermione looked at him expectantly. "Is it…bad?"

Harry took a deep breath. "It says I've got to kill Voldemort, or be killed by him."

"Oh. …Oh, that isn't good," Hermione breathed, frowning at the ground as they stood beside a magnolia tree, planted at the edge of a perfectly trimmed lawn. It was entirely too orderly in comparison with their world. "Is that exactly what it said?"

"No. …Why?" Harry asked. It seemed quite simple to him. He didn't see why the rest of it was important.

"Because, you might not be interpreting it correctly. Can you tell me exactly what it said? And how do they know it's about you?"

Harry struggled to bring up the memory. "Well, it said…'the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord' would be born at the end of July to…'those who have thrice defied him' – my parents had, I guess – and then it said something about being marked as his equal. I think that bit is pretty obvious," he said, gesturing to his scar. "And it said…'either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.'" Harry sighed. "It's pretty clear."

Hermione nodded. "Yes…but that bit, 'the one with the power'…does it mention anything else about that?"

Harry frowned, thinking. "Yes, I think it was something like…'he will have power the Dark Lord doesn't know about'…"

Hermione chewed pensively on her lip. She started walking again, and Harry followed. "So it has to be you, if he marked you. How do you feel about this, Harry?"

"Terrified," he said truthfully. "Hermione, how am I going to kill?" he whispered, lest any Muggles overhear. "Am I going to have to use Dark Magic? I don't think I can…not…again…"

Hermione's eyebrows shot up into her bangs. "Again? What do you mean, again?"

Harry hesitated. Now that he had let it slip out, he wished he hadn't. He didn't want her to know. What if she didn't want to be around someone awful enough to attempt an Unforgivable Curse? But he knew he couldn't deny anything to Hermione; she knew him too well. "I tried to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange after she killed Sirius."

Hermione's mouth was hanging open slightly. "Did it work?"

Did it work? What kind of question was that? "No…only for a second…she told me…I had to mean it."

Hermione nodded, seeming to expect this. "I researched that during our fourth year, Harry. You have to really want to cause pain. You have to be a lot more than angry to cast it correctly…you have to be sadistic.

"Harry, I can imagine what you're thinking. But…you're not a horrible person for trying it. You were grieving and angry, and you wanted to punish the person that did it. I can't really blame you…I might have done the same thing. You weren't…really doing Dark Magic…you don't have it in you, so it will never work."

Relief slowly drifted into him. She didn't think he was a bad person. He hadn't lost her.

"As for this prophecy," she continued, "I don't think you'll really be killing him – not like you're thinking. You would never be able to do Avada Kedavra properly, unless you worked up a lot of hate and anger, but I don't think you would ever have enough to kill Voldemort. They talk about you having the power – a power he doesn't know, and he definitely knows Dark Magic. I think they mean Light Magic."

"Light Magic?" Harry repeated.

"Yes. It's the opposite of Dark Magic, you see. Instead of hate, it requires love. It's…well, it's sort of hard to explain. People don't really think about it much because it's extremely hard to do. It takes quite a bit of power behind it. The ones that some wizards can pull off aren't even thought of as Light Magic by most anymore. The Patronus Charm, for instance, is Light Magic. I have no doubt that you could have the power to use it to vanquish Voldemort for good."

He could have kissed her, he was so relieved. Why had he spent so much time dwelling on this? Why hadn't he told her sooner? He might have spared himself a lot of despair and worry.

"You really think I could?" he said, torn between doubt and hope.

"Of course you could! You had a corporeal patronus at thirteen! I doubt there's anyone else at Hogwarts that could have done that. That's serious Light Magic, Harry."

Harry blushed, unable to hold back a smile. "Thank you. If you want the truth, I was worried I was destined to become the next Dark Lord…"

Hermione started to laugh, but quickly stifled it. "Oh, Harry, you know better than that. Only you can decide what you'll be. Besides," and now she let herself laugh, "no one would take you seriously as a Dark Lord. Lord Harry Potter? I'm sorry to tell you this, but you're never going to lose your reputation as the Boy-Who-Lived."

"I suppose there are much worse things to be. It beats the Boy-Who-Died any day. I just wish they didn't change their minds so much."

Hermione took his hand and started walking again. "Things will be better this year. Everyone believes you now, after the Quibbler article and everything they put in the Daily Prophet at the end of the year. And Umbridge is gone for good, thankfully. And we could start up Dumbledore's Army again; we wouldn't have to sneak around."

Harry hadn't thought about what would happen to the D.A. "You think we should?"

"Of course!" Hermione said. She became visibly more energetic as she spoke. "There will be more students that will want to learn defense! And the others will still want to be trained, I'm sure. There's still more to learn. We could look into teaching them more Light Magic. Even if we have a decent Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, I doubt he'll be a better teacher than you are. Even Lupin couldn't have taught us so well."

Harry blushed considerably. "Then I guess we should start it up again. I'm sure the Death Eaters are teaching their kids plenty of Dark Magic. We really shouldn't let them have an advantage over us."

"Precisely," Hermione agreed. "Now…I think we should head back and start Occlumency lessons."

"Of course, Professor."

~

Their first lesson went well. Harry was quite content to be taught by Hermione, and after a few tries, he had managed to block her out once.

"I knew you would catch on quickly with the right approach," Hermione said, beaming at him. "You fought off Imperius so well, after all. Snape is right; you do have to control your emotions, but you really ought to know the basics first. Dumbledore should have known better than to think you would have been able to block your mind and control your emotions at the same time on your first few tries, especially with Snape constantly insulting you. …Well, I think we've done enough for today. We'll do more tomorrow. Do be sure to practice emptying your mind before you go to sleep, though. That's really important."

They spent the rest of the day going over their summer assignments. Hermione was thrilled to find that he had already done all of his. Harry neglected to mention that he had done it all to get his mind off other things, rather than any actual initiative. For some reason, he was becoming extremely dependent on Hermione's praise.

Later that evening, after a rather disastrous dinner, Hermione managed to create a comfortable bed that did an excellent job of blocking the way to Harry's wardrobe with a few Transfiguration spells. "Clear your mind," she reminded him before she rolled over and went to sleep. Harry tried, but it was difficult to block out the amusement at finding that Hermione snored just a little.

~

Hermione shook Harry awake early on July 31st. He was startled to find her leaning over him when he woke, grinning. Harry frowned in confusion, not remembering the date in his grogginess. "What's going on? You look like they just moved Christmas to July."

Hermione laughed. "Not quite Christmas. Happy Birthday, Harry. Did you forget what today is?"

He had remembered on the previous night. "Well, it's a bit early. You can't expect me to think yet."

"The Weasleys and most of the Order sent gifts with me. They had to put a huge Expanding Charm on my bag to fit everything, and then they had to put a Weight-Reducing Charm on it as well, just so I could lift it." She crossed the room and picked up the bag, setting it on her bed.

"Ron sent you a mouthful of cavities," she said, handing him a large box, which contained copious amounts of candy. "And Fred and George sent you some of their products. I'd better not catch you using any Skiving Snackboxes," she said sharply. "I will tell McGonagall."

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley sent him a cake, which had gotten a bit squashed, but luckily, not stale. It reminded him of his first birthday cake, the one given to him by Hagrid, the same day he found out he was a wizard. Ginny sent a supply of Dungbombs, in case of emergency. Hermione didn't approve of that, either. Tonks sent a pocket-sized Foe Glass. Harry knew it would be quite useful in the future. Lupin sent him a rather rusty, oddly shaped piece of metal that completely confused Harry.

"It seems to be a rune translator," Hermione said, peering at it. "Yes, that's what it is. They're rather hard to get; I've heard they take ages to make – the charms are incredibly complex. You hold it over the runes, and their meanings appear between those two pieces," she explained, pointing. "It's a very old one. I can't think why he would send it," she wondered out loud. Her face broke into a grin, "Maybe he's trying to convince you to take Ancient Runes this year."

Harry chuckled and shrugged, closing his hand around it. "Knowing my luck, I'll need it for something – and that will be once I've completely forgotten about it," he said, remembering, with a pang, Sirius and his two-way mirrors. He decided not to think about that at the moment, and Hermione respectfully ignored his momentary trip down memory lane.

There was even a gift from Luna Lovegood – a year's subscription to the Quibbler and the latest edition, which seemed to deal mainly with claims that the Weird Sisters had stolen some of their songs from wood nymphs.

"Her dad had to go away on business for a few weeks," Hermione told him. "So she's been staying with the Weasleys until she and her dad go to Sweden." For some reason, she seemed a bit tense while sharing this bit of information. Harry didn't question it. He had a feeling that if she hadn't told him already, she didn't want to.

"And now, my gift," she said. Hermione held out to him a small, white box. Harry lifted the lid carefully. Inside was a small, cloudy white stone that hung on a long and thin silver chain. Harry lifted it out of the box, looking questioningly to Hermione.

"That stone has a lot of protective properties," Hermione explained. "I worked on it for a long time last year. I finally found a way to charm it so that it blocks quite a few curses and jinxes and such." She bit her lip. "I know it's kind of…well, girly, but I put it on a long chain so that you can just tuck it under your shirt, and all anybody will see is a bit of the chain."

Harry smiled. "This is fantastic, Hermione. Thank you."

Hermione blushed. "I was doing some research on my own last year, on protective magic. When I came across this stone and saw how effective it could be, I knew it would be really useful for you. The hardest part was finding one."

Harry wondered how expensive it had been. He knew her parents were dentists, and therefore probably had plenty of money, but he still wasn't comfortable with the thought of her spending too much on him.

He attempted to put it on and found that getting on a necklace was much more difficult than it looked. Hermione giggled at him. "Let me help you with that," she said, moving to stand behind him. "Now you know why I don't wear jewelry," she said, clasping it; he suppressed a shiver as her fingers brushed against the back of his neck.

"Now," she said, "I think I should go get some forks so that we can have that cake for breakfast. My parents wouldn't like this at all," she added, but she didn't seem to care as she went quietly downstairs.

They spent the rest of the day wandering around outdoors, from one street to another. They talked about everything possible, it seemed – possible OWL results, classes, teachers, Dumbledore's Army, the Order, even who might replace Fred, George, Angelina, Katie, and Alicia on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. All the while, he could feel the warm weight of Hermione's pendant on his chest.

It was almost as if he could feel the power in it. If he held it in his hand, it was like holding his wand, feeling the magic and the connection with himself…but with the pendant, it felt even more familiar, like it was a part of him.

"What was the spell like, that you used on the pendant?" Harry asked.

Hermione looked surprised at his curiosity, but that wouldn't stop her from telling him all about it. "It was very strange, actually. I had to brew up this potion, and it was kind of like a Polyjuice; it required things, like a bit of you – I used a strand of your hair – but it couldn't really be used for anything in the potion form. So then I had to do this really complex spell to transfer the basic essence…or, energy, really, of the potion into the pendant. It's probably the most difficult spell I've ever done."

Well, that explained why it felt so familiar. "Seems like a lot of trouble to go through just for me."

"Nonsense. You're probably the only person I'd go through all that trouble for. Besides, I'm even gladder that I pulled it off, now that I know about the prophecy."

"I'm glad you did, too," Harry said as he closed his hand around the stone, "I can feel how powerful it is."

Hermione half-smiled. "I just wish you didn't need it."

~

Harry was in the Department of Mysteries again, the place as bright and clear as ever in his subconscious. Sirius looked up at him through the two-way mirror he held in his hand. "How could you forget me?" he asked. Moments later, Harry approached the veil, but Hermione pulled him back. "You won't find Sirius there," she told him quietly. Neville was standing in front of him with a bloody nose. "You killed him," Neville accused. "I saw you do it." And he did. Instead of Bellatrix Lestrange throwing the final curse, it was Harry. He watched Sirius fall through the veil, and then Lupin began to shake him.

"Harry! Harry! Wake up!"

Harry opened his eyes. Hermione was standing over him in the darkness. He couldn't see very well, but he thought she looked worried.

"Were you having a nightmare, Harry? You were nearly shouting."

He felt shaky. "Yes." It was easy to guess what she was thinking. "It wasn't a vision. It was just a nightmare…. I saw Sirius…"

Hermione sat on the edge of his bed, brushing back his bangs in a motherly fashion. "Once you've learned how to block your mind better, the nightmares should stop. …Are you all right?"

Harry had to get his feelings off his chest. He was angrier with himself than he had ever remembered being, and even angrier that he hadn't felt that way in June. "Hermione, it really was my fault. I could have prevented all of it. Sirius gave me a two-way mirror over the holidays that I could have used to contact him if I ever needed to - he knew something was bound to happen. And I didn't want to use it, because I didn't want him doing anything reckless; I didn't even look at it until after…. How could I have just forgotten about it?"

"Oh, Harry…" She stood, lifted the blankets, and climbed into the bed next to Harry. He almost pushed her away as she put her arms around him. It wasn't right for her to comfort him like this, like he deserved it.

"You mustn't hold that against yourself," Hermione insisted, her breath drifting over his neck. "You can't help that you forgot. You blocked the mirror out of your mind out of concern for his welfare. Besides, you had a lot of other things on your mind…learning Occlumency, homework, OWLs - not to mention Voldemort. You're only human, Harry. None of us can help forgetting things.

"What you must accept," she continued, "is that everything you did was out of genuine concern for Sirius. Had things been as we all thought they were, you might have saved him. There were many things working against you, though…it's a wonder any of us lived through that with everything that was against us. You must stop blaming yourself before it drives you mad. Sirius wouldn't want you to deny yourself happiness."

A part of him wanted to stay angry with himself and keep believing that he was guilty; he needed to put the blame on someone's shoulders, and no one deserved it as much as he did. Harry also wanted to believe her. Guilt wasn't easily parted with, but perhaps this time, he needed to let it go. Maybe Hermione was right. It might drive him mad. Sirius died coming to his aid during his own ill-conceived rescue mission. Would he have done so if he didn't wish for Harry to live? Was it fair to Sirius to waste away the life that his death had attempted to spare?

"There's no shame in forgiving yourself," Hermione said.

He gave in. Hermione was right; she was always right. It wouldn't do anyone any good if he wallowed around in his guilt, and it made Sirius's death meaningless. Harry didn't really want to live with the burden, though a part of him felt obliged to.

"It's all right, Harry," Hermione murmured, her fingers pressing lightly into his back.

Perhaps it showed just how much power Hermione had over him that he was now able to release his pent-up guilt. He hugged her, wanting to show her that her simple support had helped him. Harry could never repay her for all she had done for him in her lifetime. "I know," he whispered quietly to her.

Harry now noted how strange it was for he and Hermione to be in a bed together, holding each other, and how it was stranger that he didn't feel awkward at all. It was also funny that he could observe so many random little things – like the way Hermione's hair smelled like vanilla, and that he had to be taller than her by several inches, because their feet touched but their foreheads didn't.

The most absurd part of it all was that it felt perfect to be this close to her, just breathing. If they were destined to spend every night together, just like this, it wouldn't surprise him.

Merlin, what was he thinking? This was Hermione! They weren't about to spend every night together - they shouldn't. He had to be going insane. She was his best friend; he didn't think about things like sharing a bed with her! And he certainly couldn't think about the things people did when they shared a bed. No, he could not let those thoughts in. If he didn't fight off these ideas, he could very well lose her, and he needed her too much to do that.

You should marry your best friend, some strange voice said in his head. Maybe it had been on television, one of those silly reality TV shows Aunt Petunia enjoyed. He pushed it out of his head. It was rubbish, anyway. Hermione was one of two of his best friends, and he didn't - couldn't - like her that way any more than he did Ron.

Or did he? Perhaps there was something to the best friend theory. He was now closer to Hermione than anyone else in the world, Ron included. Cho had seen it; even Viktor Krum had seen it. It would be impossible for anyone to get between them. …Every girl he ever dated would be jealous of his relationship with Hermione, he realized, and it was a painful shock. Even if other girls could overcome that jealousy, could they ever get as close to him as Hermione? Could it be that Hermione was the only person he could ever be with? Would he really want to be with anyone but Hermione? Could he really share his future - provided that he had one - with someone who hadn't shared with him the most important experiences of his life, who couldn't understand what he had been through?

Maybe it was destiny.

He looked down at Hermione. She was looking back up at him. Her eyes were incredibly dark in the dim room. Her irises stood out sharply against the whites of her eyes. His heart began to beat painfully in his chest. Even though it was Hermione – or perhaps because it was Hermione – he had talked himself into a hopeless obsession with her in a mere two minutes. Was it love? He had no idea. It was entirely different than what he had felt for Cho, in most ways. The butterflies in his stomach, however, were exactly the same.

"Harry? Are you all right now?" she asked. He was painfully aware of her hands on his back and her chest, pressed against his. Harry nodded dumbly. This was all so sudden; it was starting to make him a little dizzy.

Hermione seemed satisfied with his answer, but she didn't move. Why wasn't she going back to her own bed, now that she had comforted him? Wasn't that the point? Why wasn't she leaving before he did something incredibly stupid that would ruin everything?

Or perhaps she was enjoying this as much as he was. Was it so ridiculous to think that she might feel the same way?

Yes, his head answered. His heart disagreed. His gut told him to act, to take a risk. If he never took a chance on her, he might never know if she felt anything for him.

Before his courage could fail him, he dipped his head and brushed his lips against hers.

For one fleeting second her lips pressed back, but then she stiffened. Harry shattered as she pushed him away. How could he have been so mistaken?

"I'm sorry," he said quickly, refusing to meet her eyes. His face was burning; he couldn't stomach seeing her reaction – whether it was angry, repulsed, or pitying, it would be unbearable. Nothing would ever be the same between them.

"Harry, how could you?" Her voice was thick and strained. "You know about me and Ron."

Ron? What did Ron have to do with this? Harry frowned and met her eyes without meaning to. He nearly flinched, seeing that she was angry with him. "What about you and Ron?"

"He…didn't tell you?" Hermione said shakily, now frowning. "He told me he had told you in his last letter… Harry, Ron and I are dating now."

He had known before she spoke what her answer would be. Ron had beaten him to it. Ron had seen what he hadn't until now. It didn't matter that Harry now knew that his feelings for her were inescapable. Ron had been slow and steady, and he had won the race.

Harry couldn't help but feel a bitter stab of jealousy. Ron didn't deserve her. He didn't appreciate her the way that Harry did; he didn't respect her. But that didn't really matter, and for one second, Harry hated Ron for it. In the next second, he hated himself for those thoughts.

"I'm sorry, Harry," she whispered. "I'm sorry you had to find out this way."

Hermione spoke as if someone had died and he had just now found out by stumbling over that person's grave. Perhaps he had been the one to die.

Hermione moved away, and Harry let her go. What other choice did he have?

"You'll need to clear your mind again," Hermione said as she went back to her own bed. Now she was the one that would not meet his eyes.

"I don't know if I can," he said candidly.

"Try," she whispered. She got into bed, her back turned to him.

He closed his eyes and tried to empty his mind, but all he could see was her.

*

Hermione tossed and turned the entire night. Never in her life had she faced this much stress in her social life. It was strange that she should struggle so much with a simple kiss when she had seen much worse in her short life. The kiss should have been quite easy to deal with, compared to breaking into the Department of Mysteries. Life, however, was funny like that. Kisses and best friends were ten times more complicated than mortal peril.

The largest problem, perhaps, was that she couldn't ascertain just what the kiss meant to her. Of course, she was with Ron. She liked Ron, and she even loved him to an extent, in a mostly platonic manner. To be truthful, she hadn't really considered having a romantic relationship with him before that summer, but when he had proposed one, it had seemed like a good idea. After all, they were friends, and the other girls in her year insisted they would be a cute couple. Hermione had been uncomfortably aware of Ron's feelings during their fourth and fifth year, and she felt that, on some level, she might return them.

Then there was Harry. He was, inarguably, her best friend, even before Ron. From the very beginning, she had felt a closer attachment to Harry; even as an eleven-year-old, she had a soft spot for him. Of course, he had never insulted her quite like Ron had. For a confidant, she would choose Harry over Ron, though she had never really confided in either of them. A pair of teenage boys did not make the best listeners for a teenage girl. The simple fact was that Harry was a constant in her thoughts. Her plans were generally made with Harry in mind; her conscious was often occupied with worry over him, or schemes to help him in his latest plight. Whether it was out of preference or that Ron simply didn't require as much dedication, she didn't know.

Normally, her best friends would have been on equal footing, even with the change in her relationship with Ron. Harry had completely thrown off that fragile balance by kissing her. It was, in fact, her first kiss, and she had never anticipated Harry being the one to give it to her. The thought of Ron kissing her had only entered her mind earlier that summer, when the change was made, but he hadn't worked up the nerve to do so yet. Viktor had never even tried. Hermione had always assumed that he was too busy being jealous over her having two male friends, one of them a fellow Triwizard champion. Perhaps that jealousy had dealt more specifically with Harry. It wasn't so surprising. In Hermione's eyes, Harry was every bit an equal with Viktor Krum – flying, magical ability, and character combined.

Now, for the first time, Hermione was forced to look at both of her friends in ways that she hadn't fully considered before. During the Yule Ball Fiasco, Hermione had, of course, known Ron's reasons for acting the way he did, but at the time, anything beyond their tumultuous friendship was unfathomable. Indeed, she had also been faced with mild jealousy on her own part when Harry's brief affair with Cho began. In her mind, that jealousy had been out of fear of losing her best friend to another girl that he might relate to better, through Quidditch or Cedric or even the fact that they shared the same hair color. But now, she couldn't help but wonder if that jealousy had something to do with a different type of threat altogether.

It felt like betrayal to Ron, admitting it even to herself, but Harry's kiss had produced a reaction – the kind of reaction that a girl was only supposed to have to her boyfriend. It was impossible not to feel guilty about it. For that one second, she had lost her head and kissed back, completely forgetting about her boyfriend.

And yet, the logical (and more prominent) side of her brain protested that she was only human. Wasn't it a natural instinct, when kissed, to kiss back, regardless of the one kissing you? Wasn't her reaction just a common side effect of hormones? She was a teenage girl; of course, being kissed by any good-looking boy would produce a reaction, and that would only be helped along by the strong emotional attachment she had to him.

Harry hadn't done anything wrong, either. He had no idea that she and Ron were together, and he couldn't be blamed for whatever had provoked him to do what he did. It was probably a mostly emotional reaction. They had shared quite a bit in the past few days. Naturally, if combined with even a slight attraction to her, he would feel the need to be physically close as well.

So it was all some form of fluke. It was merely a series of events that they had completely human reactions to, and it was nothing at all to feel guilty or awkward about. Harry couldn't possibly have feelings for her; they were and always had been friends, and he had never shown any sign of thinking of her as anything more. Hermione hadn't cheated on Ron. She hadn't instigated the kiss, and it had only been instinct to kiss back. That didn't reflect any feelings she might have had for Harry.

It was all very innocent. Ron never needed to know. Hermione knew it wouldn't make sense to share it with him. Ron would only become jealous over something that didn't really exist. If Hermione and Harry both understood why the kiss happened and that it couldn't happen again, there was nothing at all for Ron to worry about.

It was as simple as that. In the morning, she would speak to Harry about it. Certainly, he would agree with her reasoning, and everything would go back to normal.

That settled, Hermione turned onto her back, closed her eyes, and let her mind rest.

*

"All right," Hermione said, holding out her wand. "Close your eyes."

Harry did; the imprint of her face remained on the back of his eyelids. He could clear his mind of everything but her today. It was going to be quite the nuisance, he knew.

"Legilimens!" she cried. Harry felt the sudden attack on his brain instantly. His mind was a collage of memories of Hermione – running into the girls' bathroom to see Hermione cowering from a mountain troll; seeing Hermione Petrified. He heard Hermione's unhappy mutterings as Buckbeak took flight; he saw the fingernail marks on Hermione's face after the First Task…and then, Hermione, looking up at him as he leaned forward to kiss her.

"Harry!"

He blinked. He was lying flat on his back on the floor. Hermione was kneeling beside him.

"What on earth were you doing, just letting me in like that?"

"I'm sorry…I just…I can't get you out of my head," he said as his face flushed.

Hermione blushed too. She looked very uncomfortable. He wished he could forget all about the night before. "Harry…you have to. By granting such easy access to such personal memories, you're giving Voldemort an easy shot at your weak spots. Moreover, you must stop thinking about such things in general, Occlumency aside.

"That…that kiss last night didn't…well, it can't happen again, you know that. And I think it's best if we just forget it ever happened because it needs to be put in the past, and it needs to stay there. I'm not going to tell Ron, and I don't think you should, either, because, while I'd like to think that Ron's capable of being mature, you and I both know he's only going to be jealous, even though it's nothing for him to feel threatened over."

Harry nodded, but he thought it was very much easier said than done. Perhaps the kiss had meant nothing to Hermione, but it had become something sacred to him.

Hermione was right, however. Had it been Voldemort assaulting his mind, it would have been obvious that the way to get to him was through Hermione…and Voldemort, once he learned of the prophecy, would waste no time in destroying Harry where it would hurt the most. He couldn't afford to put Hermione in danger.

"Now…let's…let's try again. Do try harder to clear your mind this time; you really must learn to control your emotions at some point."

Harry got to his feet, took a deep breath, and braced himself for another onslaught. He closed his eyes, thinking about nonsense, if nonsense was what it took to forget Hermione. Toast. Aunt Marge. No, no, that won't do, er, pumpkins…bunnies…

"Legilimens."

At first, the only things that came up were pumpkins and toast, but that quickly led to a memory of walking around the lake with Hermione, sharing a stack of toast. This time, Hermione stopped him before memory lane overpowered him.

Harry was still standing this time. He looked across the room at her. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, unsure just what he was sorry for. He trusted that she would understand anyway; Hermione could read him like an open book.

Hermione looked at the floor. Harry couldn't tell what she was thinking; she wouldn't meet his eyes. "Please, just…don't let me be your weakness, Harry."

Harry didn't reply, knowing better than to make promises he couldn't keep.

*

"How can you say that?" Hermione demanded. "After we've just found out that there are real prophecies?" – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, US hardback edition, page 849.

A/N: Whew! The first chapter is the hardest, let me tell you. I hope it wasn't especially dull. I promise to actually get to some plot soon, now that we've got some of the stage set. I also want to thank Airiviel for nitpicking this chapter for me. It was extremely helpful.

I hope, if you've read this far, you'll be willing to stick around for the rest of the ride. For updates on this fic and any other writing I do, you can join the SpellbookFics Yahoo! Group here: .

Oh, and I'm a feedback junkie. Please, leave a comment, even if you hated this – I'd like to know how I'm doing. Just don't tell me you hate the ships. That has nothing to do with the quality of my writing, and the ships are bound to change, anyway. So, now that I have snarked, I will lecture: good reviewers make for better writers! Go now, and rip this to shreds! If you've got flames, I've got marshmallows.