"So I guess I won't see you for awhile." Hermione tried to keep the sadness and longing that she felt out of her voice. It was a longing that felt like a heavy weight on her chest, threatening to cave her whole heart in.
She and Ginny were perched on the steps of Scrivenshaft's on an unseasonably warm and sunny December afternoon. Crookshanks was in Hermione's lap, and both girls were petting him as they sat and chatted. They had just loaded the last of her packed-up belongings into her new flat. Tomorrow, they would both take the Hogwarts Express back to London for the Christmas holidays. Hermione would return to Scotland early, the day after New Year's, so she could begin her apprenticeship with Madam Pomfrey, but Ginny and the rest of the current students would not return for another week after that.
"Well, I'll see you on the train, of course. Unless you'd rather sit in different compartments," Ginny said teasingly. "Wouldn't blame you - you've had to put up with me so much, and even I get sick of me sometimes…"
Hermione tried to laugh, but she was distracted by the curve of Ginny's slender neck, made visible by the messy bun she'd gathered her long hair into. Never before had she noticed what an elegant neck Ginny had…or that one particularly cute freckle, resembling a beauty mark, on the edge of the redhead's upper lip… She had begun to see Ginny in so many new lights recently. Not only since she realized that her affection for her friend was a genuine crush, but since the two of them had become closer friends at the start of the academic year.
"I'm not sick of you at all. Actually, I'm going to miss you a lot." Hermione buried her face in her cat's fluffy orange fur to hide the pained look on her face. "And I'm going to be very busy once I start my apprenticeship with Madam Pomfrey and my job at the Scrivenshafts' bookstore. It'll be an adjustment for me not to be able to hang out with you as easily, that's for sure."
Ginny only nodded her head at first, and then said, "But what about the graduation party that your parents said they wanted to host for you? Is that still on?"
"I don't think so, unfortunately," Hermione sighed. "I thought about it and I realized that my friends only have two weeks off for Christmas and New Years, and I have to start work before they'll come back to school…there just doesn't seem to be enough time."
"That's really a shame. I was hoping to see you over the holidays."
Hermione could hear the disappointment in her friend's voice. "Me too. I guess it's just one of many signs that my carefree school years are officially over. This is the beginning of my adult life."
"No offence, Hermione, but you were never carefree." The teasing tone was back in Ginny's voice again, and Hermione had to smile. "Um, speaking of the holidays," Ginny began again, "I have something for you."
"What? Ginny, you didn't need to get me a present! I haven't gotten you one!"
Ginny waved her hand. "Don't worry about it, it's not like we've ever exchanged Christmas gifts before. Besides, this is more of a 'welcome to the next stage in your life' present than anything else."
Unable to sustain her curiosity, Hermione said, "Well, that's very thoughtful of you. What is it?"
"Come with me, I'll show you." Unexpectedly, Ginny stood up and re-opened the door to Scrivenshaft's.
"Wait, it's up there? In my place? How did you leave it there without my noticing-?"
"Oh, 'Mione, what kind of surprise would this be if I explained everything to you right now? C'mon!"
Soon they were back inside that large, sunny room that comprised most of Hermione's flat. When she gave it a thorough look-around and didn't notice anything out of place, she turned towards Ginny with a perplexed look on her face.
"Well? Am I missing something?"
"This is why sometimes I can still tell that you were raised by Muggles," Ginny said, a grin spreading across her face. "You know, I think most people would never be able to guess that you weren't born into our world, seeing as you're such a talented witch and all. But when you're trying to figure out an every-day problem, the first solution you think of is almost never the one that involves magic."
"Oh! Of course!" Hermione said, smacking her forehead. "What did you use to hide it? A Transfiguration spell? A Disillusionment charm…?"
"Just a simple Invisibility spell. I did it while you were downstairs talking to Mrs. Scrivenshaft earlier. I guess I could have just wrapped it in gift paper, but where's the fun in that?" Ginny turned towards the wall, and raised her wand. "Do you remember when you told me a couple of weeks ago that you needed to go shopping for art to hang around here? That you couldn't stand how bare the walls were?"
"Well, I decided that my gift to you would be to help you out with that." Uttering an incantation under her breath, Ginny flicked her wand toward the white wall. For about half a minute, nothing changed. But then something, inch by inch, began to grow on the wall in front of them. Hermione gasped.
"That looks like...like Luna's face. And she's waving! Did you take that photo?"
What was slowly revealing itself was a photograph collage of Hermione's friends, everyone who had touched her life the most since she had arrived at Hogwarts. There was Luna smiling at her from underneath her enormous Gryffindor lion hat. There was Harry, and Neville, and the Weasley twins - even Professor McGonagall had posed for a photograph. Each of them was standing in front of a different place on the Hogwarts grounds. And under each photo was a short message in that person's own handwriting.
Hermione, wrote Harry, before our first year, I never thought I'd be able to say that fighting a mountain troll was one of the best things that ever happened to me. But because of that, we became best friends. Looking back at everything we've been through together, I couldn't ask for a better person to have around during those times. I really do mean that. And I sure hope you feel close to the same way about me, because you're stuck with me for life. Harry.
Luna wrote in her swirly script, Friends weren't anything I ever really had until I met you and Ginny Weasley. Even though I'll never convince you of the existence of Nargles, and there are some things that we'll never see eye to eye on, we seem to agree on all of the most important things - like kindness, and bravery, and inter-House unity. I do hope that we'll stay in touch.
Good luck, Hermione! Neville had written. I'll never forget when we first met on the Hogwarts Express and you helped me look for Trevor. Sorry you've had to help me so much over the years, especially with my homework. But you've always been willing, which shows that you're as nice as you are smart. I know you'll be busy once you start your apprenticeship, but maybe we can meet up in Hogsmeade every now and then? Your friend, Neville.
Even the shorter notes made Hermione smile. You'll make the best Mediwitch ever - not to mention the hottest! Show the world who's boss, Miss Fancy Pants! was the characteristically irreverent message written by either Fred or George, or both - even their penmanships were difficult to tell apart - above where they had each signed their names.
In the Transfiguration teacher's unmistakably antiquated hand, Hermione read: Miss Granger, my sincerest congratulations. No matter what journey you decide to embark on after your graduation from Hogwarts, I will continue to boast to everyone I meet that I had the honor of teaching you. Best, Minerva McGonagall.
"This is just…amazing," Hermione said breathily. "Really, this is unbelievably thoughtful." Now that the collage had nearly finished appearing, she was able to fully appreciate the immense care and detail that Ginny had put into crafting her gift. All of the photos and messages were glued onto what looked like a giant poster of the Hogwarts Crest. In the empty spaces between the photos of her friends were charming little drawings of things related to Hermione's time in school: stacks of books, quills in inkwells, wands, fluffy orange cats, a Time Turner. The whole thing was encased in glass and surrounded by an antique-looking ornate metal frame.
"Oh, Gin - you even got Ron to sign and pose for it!" Hermione cried suddenly. She moved closer toward to the collage and reached out her hand, stopping just short of touching it. Underneath a photo of Ron smiling bashfully in front of the stairs to Gryffindor Tower was the handwritten message:
Hermione - Thank you for giving me so many chances over the years, especially when I didn't deserve it. I'd wish you good luck in your new apprenticeship but I know you won't need it, you'll do great. Here's to hoping that our friendship after we've both left school will be even better than it was before. Yours, Ron.
"I can't believe you asked him to be a part of it." Hermione turned towards Ginny with wide eyes.
"Oh, yeah. Of course I did. I may be pissed off at him, but I know that he's still important to you," Ginny said quietly. "And I might not have met you if you hadn't become friends with Ron first…so there are a lot of reasons why it would be dumb of me not to include him."
"How long did it take you to make this?" Hermione asked, her voice still full of awe.
"Oh, about a week. As soon as I got the idea I borrowed a camera from Colin Creevey, and it took a couple of days to round everyone up for the photos. Then Harry picked up the Hogwarts Crest poster from a store in Hogsmeade, and Luna drew all those little pictures in between - aren't they adorable? She's so much more artistic than I am. So it's not like I didn't have help…"
Ginny continued talking, but Hermione no longer heard the words. She had just now noticed Ginny's own photograph on the collage. It must have been taken by Harry or someone else, because it was shot from a distance of about twenty feet away. Ginny was standing in front of the Great Lake, where so many of their long walks together had taken place. Her ginger hair was blowing loose in the wind, giving her a beautiful, untamed look, and she was gazing toward the viewer with a stare so piercing that Hermione thought it might tear her heart in two. Underneath the photo was written the words:
Most of the things I want to say to you, I think you already know. Still, that doesn't stop me from wishing that I could write them all. And I wish it hadn't taken me until my sixth year at school to realize that my friendship with you is the most meaningful one I've made. But at the same time, it's been totally worth waiting for.
Below that paragraph Hermione could make out an uppercase "G" that had been scribbled out, as though Ginny had begun to add her signature before changing her mind and deciding to write more. And indeed, after skipping a small space, the message continued:
Never doubt your power, Hermione, and don't ever forget how much you deserve. You've certainly made your mark on me during your time at Hogwarts. If I'm sure of anything, it's that you'll never stop changing your world for the better. And I hope I'll never lose sight of how privileged I am to witness that, because I'm lucky enough to be in your life and have you in mine. Love, Ginny.
"…and I figured you would might want other people to sign it as well," she faintly heard Ginny going on, "like maybe the rest of my family, and Professor Lupin, so I left some space at the bottom there…"
Later, when she looked back on what she did next, Hermione was unable to explain exactly what possessed her to act just then. Spontaneity wasn't something that usually came naturally to her. But then again, she was a Gryffindor, and courage certainly did.
It felt as though her soul was leaping out of her body as she spun around and collided into Ginny, her arms going around the redhead's neck and her lips pressing wildly on the other girl's.
All at once Hermione was caught in a torrent of sensations: the softness and warmth of Ginny's mouth, and how it seemed to fit so perfectly against her own - the feminine-yet-earthy scents of the redhead's skin and hair, which up-close were sweeter and more wonderful than Hermione could have ever imagined - the way her own heart was thumping so hard and fast inside her chest that it was causing her entire body to tremble - the honest-to-goodness actual shivers that coursed their way down her spine…
These fiery sensations consumed her, overshadowing everything else she could have thought, noticed, or felt. Only for half of a moment did she think about possible negative consequences of her actions before that worry was dispelled.
Because that's all the time it took before Ginny returned the kiss.
Author's Notes: Damn you, real life, for once again getting in my way of updating this story on time! (shakes fist) Thanks for your never-ending patience, guys, and leaving me nice reviews on recent chapters. I wasn't aware of a bunch of them until a couple of days ago, because for some reason my review alerts from Fanfiction Dot Net were being sent to my e-mail's spam folder. As always, I greatly appreciate and enjoy your feedback.
I know that this chapter is a bit shorter than most of the ones I've written for this story, and it doesn't answer a lot of questions that were raised in Chapter 16. But Chapter 18 will follow up on those other plot elements, and I was really ready to at last make a big move towards getting Hermione and Ginny together. I hope you all liked it. What do you think of Ginny's present for Hermione? Please let me know! xoxo