A/N: My thanks go as always to EllaMarie for being my wonderful beta! :o)

Potions

The snow came early in Harry's sixth year at Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, beginning to fall during the last week of November and blanketing the towering castle and its grounds in a thick layer of white. The snow brought with it the bitter chill of winter which seeped into the masonry; extra fires had to be lit in the classrooms and dormitories and most students took to wearing scarves and gloves as they walked along the freezing corridors, their breath clouding in front of them.

That morning Harry was sitting by the window, fully dressed and gazing out at the frosty landscape of the grounds. It was not unusual for him to be the first up and around; ever since the Department of Mysteries he had begun having even more difficulty sleeping. That particular morning he had been awake, showered and changed into his school robes by 5 o'clock - so early that he had surprised one of the school House Elves that had entered the room to light the fire, normally unseen by its sleeping occupants - it had squeaked an apology and rushed back out before Harry even had a chance to open his mouth. With the fire crackling softly in the hearth the room was beginning to warm up a bit now; the snores of the other boys carried on, oblivious. Harry leant his head against the window, which was sharply cold compared to the growing warmth inside the dorm. The snow had stopped falling so he had a clear view of the grounds in front of the castle, which had taken on the appearance of a large iced cake. It looked incredibly peaceful at this time of the morning, untouched and undisturbed by the trampling feet and snowball fights which were bound to come later that day. Harry longed for that peace, for something he could find comfort in, something that could show him that this life wasn't all about pain and loss . . .

It didn't help that Christmas would be upon them soon. Last year had been Harry's best Christmas yet, despite the concern about Mr Weasley's injury - Sirius had been a part of it. He wouldn't be this year. He wouldn't be any year, from now on.

Harry let out a sigh, which clouded in front of him. In the distance he saw Hagrid emerge from his hut with Fang at his side, slamming the door and sending a shower of snow to the floor. Harry didn't need to see what the heavy object slung over Hagrid's shoulder was, he already knew - a large wooden mallet, so that Hagrid could smash a hole in the frozen-over lake to allow the Giant Squid up for some air. Although he could only be a speck against the far-away window it seemed Hagrid knew he was watching, for he raised an arm to him. Harry waved back.

"What nutter's out there at this time in the morning?" came Ron's bleary voice from Harry's right.

"Hagrid."

"Lake's frozen over again?"

"Looks like it. He's got the mallet."

Ron yawned and stretched. His hair, grown rather long over the summer, was sticking up wildly.

"Your hair looks like mine," Harry said, the faint beginnings of a smile on his lips.

Ron ran one hand through his red hair sleepily and then focused back on Harry.

"How long have you been up?" he asked him.

"A while," Harry said, turning back to the window.

Behind him Ron frowned. This wasn't good. Both he and Hermione had noticed the change in their best friend since Sirius's death; the anger that had been so obviously bubbling under the surface during their final week of school and the ride back home on the Hogwarts Express had seemed to have dissipated during his stay at Privet Drive that summer. Whether Harry had taken out that anger on the Dursleys or found another way to purge it from his system Ron didn't know - all Harry had said of his stay with his relatives was that it had been "fine", which was a worry in itself - but since his arrival at the Burrow at the end of August and the beginning of the school term Harry had been a lot quieter. Not distant, but just quieter. He laughed very rarely and even smiles were hard to come by (although it seemed his comical appearance did the trick, Ron thought grumpily) and, quite scarily for Ron, Harry had begun to work diligently at his studies. Essays and assignments were being done on time and getting top marks.

Ron was very worried that Harry was turning into Hermione.

Hermione herself had been greatly pleased at Harry's new attention to his work, but she shared Ron's concern. They had discussed it one lunchtime at the start of November when Harry had been called to Dumbledore's office.

"He's dealing with a loss, Ron," Hermione had said. "We can't expect him to be the same old Harry after everything that's happened."

"I know," Ron had said to her. "But it's been ages now, Hermione, and if you ask me he's getting worse."

"If you call actually doing his homework worse . . ."

"You know what I mean. He hardly sleeps any more - he's nearly always awake before the rest of us. And he's quiet. Quieter than normal. Have you noticed?"

Hermione had sighed at this point and run one hand through her long, curly hair thoughtfully.

"Yes, you're right of course. I don't know what to suggest, though . . . if this is his way of dealing with his loss then we really ought to respect it and just try and be supportive, but if it's really making him worse . . . Ron, have you looked into his eyes lately? I mean, really looked into them?"

"Uh, no," Ron had answered with a frown. "Not something guys generally do to other guys, unless you're Colin Creevy."

He had been treated to one of Hermione's patented glares at that point.

"Sorry. What about his eyes, then?"

"I saw something in them I've never seen before - defeat."

Ron hadn't known what to say.

"Or something close to it," Hermione had went on. "You know Harry, he's not one to give up on anything. Ever. But that look in his eyes . . . it's almost as if nothing matters anymore. And I don't think it's just Sirius, I think it's something else. Something he's not telling us."

Watching his best friend continue to gaze out of the window, Ron shook his head slowly. He still didn't know what was going on or what to do, almost a month after that conversation with Hermione. Attempts from both of them to get him to talk about what was troubling him had been rebuked, but politely. They had got nowhere, and it left them both feeling horribly powerless to do anything about it.

Feeling rather more unpleasantly awake, Ron got out of bed and fished around for a clean towel from his trunk.

"What's first lesson today?"

"Potions," Harry replied.

The beginnings of another rare smile rose on Harry's face as Ron swore all the way to the shower.

Taking NEWT's had both advantages and disadvantages in Harry's opinion. Advantages in that he didn't have to study as many subjects any more, and only the ones he'd chosen, but disadvantages in that those lessons lasted much longer - as such their Potions lesson was going to last all the way to lunchtime. Snape and a freezing cold dungeon - the perfect combination.

Harry, Ron and Hermione were all wearing their thick winter cloaks as they entered Snape's dungeon in an effort to stave off the chill; normally rather cold all year round, the room now felt somewhat like a meat locker despite the large fire burning beneath Snape's cauldron at the front of the room. Ron's teeth were chattering together loudly.

"It's not right, this," he announced as the trio took their seats in the middle of the classroom - the smaller number of students taking NEWT Potions meant they could no longer sit at the back as they had always done.

"You didn't have to take Potions, Ron," said Hermione, sitting down between the two boys.

"I did, actually, me and Harry need it to be Aurors, ain't that right mate?"

It took a moment for Harry to answer.

"Huh? Oh yeah, Aurors. Right."

Ron and Hermione both exchanged concerned looks, which Harry didn't notice. He'd begun setting up his cauldron.

"Well, anyway, you can't expect it to be like the common room down here," Hermione said to Ron. "Are you really that cold?"

"I'm bloody freezing," Ron whined, shivering. "I don't know how Snape puts up with it, he's down here all the time . . ."

"What's the matter, Weasley?" said a sneering voice. "I thought your family would be used to the cold, I mean, it's not like you can afford a proper fire is it?"

Draco Malfoy had entered the dungeon, along with Pansy Parkinson and Blaise Zabini. All three were wearing what looked like very expensive - but very warm - fur-lined cloaks over their robes.

"Shove off, Malfoy," Ron said as angrily he could, but his clattering teeth lessened the impact. The three Slytherins roared with laughter and took seats in the front row.

"I almost wish Crabbe and Goyle were with him rather than those two," Hermione said crossly. "They only egg him on even more."

"Nah, Crabbe and Goyle were too thick for NEWT Potions," said Ron, heaving his cauldron up onto the worktop.

"Makes you wonder how we got in, doesn't it?" Harry said with an unexpected grin, leaning across to him. Ron grinned back.

"Don't say that Harry," said Hermione. "You did really well, the both of you. You wouldn't be here otherwise."

She couldn't help but smile at his grin though, it was something she really didn't see enough of these days. Ron was still grinning to himself - Harry had shown something close to being happy twice today so far, which had to be a new record.

The class was soon all assembled. There were only twelve students who had elected to take Potions on to NEWT level, and the trio were the only Gryffindors. Aside from the Slytherins they were joined by Hannah Abbot, Ernie MacMillan and Susan Bones from Hufflepuff, and from Ravenclaw there was Padma Patil, Anthony Goldstein and Terry Boot. It was still a little strange to be attending classes with students from all four houses, although he had to admit it was far better than simply being grouped together with the Slytherins as usual.

The door to Snape's office opened and Snape himself entered the classroom, dressed head-to-toe in his usual black, and wearing what looked awfully similar to the fur-lined cloaks that Draco and the other Slytherins were wearing. His hair looked longer and greasier than normal, and he eyed the students with great distaste. Again, as usual. The classroom instantly became silent.

"I want everyone's full attention," Snape began, placing a heavy book down on his desk and then striding over to the large blackboard above his personal cauldron. "The potions we will be discussing this lesson are extremely dangerous and I will not be held responsible for any . . . accidents, through lack of concentration."

Everyone was silent, watching him attentively. Even Harry, who still loathed the very sight of Snape, had his interest peaked. They had already done poisons during fifth year, so what could be more dangerous than that?

"The topic we will be covering today and over the next two weeks will be . . ." Snape began, and then he finished with what was obviously great distaste: "Love."

A few of the students emitted sounds of surprise.

"Love?" Draco said aloud, scoffing. "What's so dangerous about love, Professor?"

"Quiet, Mr Malfoy," Snape told him, but as usual there was no reprimand for speaking out of turn to anyone from Snape's own house, Slytherin.

"Love," Snape said, directing his cold stare from one group of students to the next, "is the most complex and powerful of all human emotions. Because of this, it is also the most dangerous. A person under the influence of a love potion loses all sense of rationality. They will do anything to be with the person they are enamoured with, regardless of consequence. The number of documented cases where witches and wizards under the influence of a love potion have injured or killed others they perceive to be a threat to their being with the object of their desire is too great to count."

There were a few sounds of shock from the students, but apart from that the only sound in the room was the scratching of quill on parchment as they took notes.

"Therefore," Snape went on, "the creation and use of all forms of love potion is strictly regulated and controlled by the Ministry of Magic. Illegal use of these potions can, in some cases, warrant a term in Azkaban."

He paused to allow this to sink in before flourishing his wand at the blackboard, which filled up with the names and descriptions of various different potions.

"At NEWT level, it is a necessary requirement that you are able to create each of these potions and recognise their effects, so that the correct antidote can be brewed. There are many varying types of potion, some which are not as dangerous as others. The potion we will be creating today, for example, carries a very low hazard level."

"What will we be making today, Professor?" Pansy asked aloud, her hand in the air. "Will we be making an actual love potion?"

She sounded very excited about it.

"Patience, Miss Parkinson. May I continue?"

Pansy lowered her arm again, giving a quick but significant look at Draco. Hermione rolled her eyes.

"Honestly she's so obvious," she whispered.

"The traditional Potion of Love is the most commonly created and as such is also the most dangerous," continued Snape, gesturing to the first paragraph on the board with his wand. "It is normally created with a small amount of biological matter from the intended recipient of the drinker's affections - typically a strand of hair or a measure of saliva, but blood is used to create the most powerful and binding effect."

Several of the students wrinkled their noses in disgust.

"If no biological matter is added then the drinker becomes enamoured with the first person they see once drinking the mixture, regardless of age or gender, which is why the use of these potions is vigilantly controlled."

Snape paused for a moment and directed his gaze around the classroom.

"If I receive any reports of this potion being made over the next few weeks - particularly if it is used as some kind of practical joke - I will be very . . . displeased."

There was a deathly silence in the room. The students had no doubt of Snape's seriousness.

"Moving on," Snape said briskly, gesturing to the next paragraph, "the standard Potion of Love can be altered in many ways to create the different variations used in the Wizarding World today. The Potion of Affection, for example, is frequently used by Medi-Wizards when dealing with infants and children that display severe emotional and violent disorders. The potion can be administered in order to help the children control their anger, but again its use is carefully monitored."

Snape indicated the third paragraph.

"You can see some of the other forms of potion that can be achieved by modifying the base Potion of Love: the Calming Draught is a heavily modified and diluted relation to the Potion of Love . . . there are mixtures which create a euphoric sensation of bliss, sometimes used as a painkiller in extreme cases . . . potions that increase and create sexual desire . . ."

The snorts of laughter that followed this were instantly silenced by a sharp look from Snape.

"And of course," he went on coldly, "simple modifications that alter the length of time a drinker will feel the effects of the potion."

He wiped the board clean with a flick of his wand.

"We will be creating these potions over the next two weeks. In today's lesson, however, we will be mixing up a much more obscure variant that bears little relation to the base potion. Can anybody tell me what the Cupids Draught is?"

Hermione's hand shot into the air, but no-one else's did. Snape made a point of looking around.

"Is there no-one else?" he asked with displeasure.

Hermione's hand continued to waggle in the air.

"Very well. Miss Granger?"

"The Cupids Draught is used to discover your true love," said Hermione promptly.

Snape nodded and waved his wand at the board once more, where the ingredients and method of mixing the potion appeared. Harry felt his stomach sink - it looked absurdly complicated.

"Correct. The Cupids Draught enables the drinker to determine who their heart truly desires; when brewed correctly, the drinker finds a blue glow emanating from their body whenever they are in the presence of their true love. It was discovered by accident in the late 1800s and enjoyed a great deal of popularity, but this popularity quickly waned until the potion became largely obscure to this day. Can anyone tell me why?"

Once again only Hermione's hand went into the air. Snape narrowed his eyes but nodded at her to answer.

"It fell out of popularity due to the length of time of it's effects," Hermione answered. "People thought that the potion wasn't working properly."

"Indeed," said Snape, offering Hermione no praise for her correct answer. "The potion's effects last only for three days, and there is no guarantee that the drinker will meet their . . . 'true love' during the time when the potion is active. As the potion has no effect on the drinker's emotion it is not classed as dangerous, and we will be mixing and testing this potion this morning."

Draco's hand rose into the air, and Snape nodded at him.

"If that's the case sir," Draco said, "how will we be able to test the potion properly? I certainly don't think that my 'true love' is in this room!"

He spoke the last words sneeringly. Pansy went very red.

"An intelligent point raised, Mr Malfoy. Five points to Slytherin. Fortunately we will know if the potion has been brewed incorrectly - as you will all see on the board, one of it's key ingredients is reindeer skin. In all reported cases of incorrect mixing, the drinker has sprouted antlers."

Only the three Slytherins laughed.

"So I suggest you all give your full concentration to your work, as I will be choosing students at random to test their mixture."

He said this with a smirk on his face whilst looking at Harry, Ron and Hermione. Harry had no doubt he was going to pick them.

"You have two and a half hours - start."

"So what d'you reckon then?" Ron asked with a grin as the class filled with the noise of cauldrons igniting and the relatively low level of chatter that Snape permitted. "Think we'll find our true loves in the room with us?"

Hermione had gone very red whilst Harry just remained very quiet as he normally did these days.

"I think Pansy might," Harry offered after a few moments.

"C'mon Harry you can admit it, you've been keeping a secret longing for Susan Bones from us . . . no escaping it now mate, we're all going to see soon enough . . ."

Ron was doing his best to tease his friend into a proper smile and whilst one seemed to swim around it never actually broke the surface. Harry settled on rolling his eyes at him.

"What's wrong with Susan?" Ron asked, trying to keep it going whilst Harry and Hermione had both begun chopping up their pomegranates. "That plait she wears is very fetching . . ."

Hermione scowled beside him, so with a grin he turned to her.

"What about you, Hermione? Are we going to find out which Hogwarts boy tickles your fancy?"

"Be quiet and start on your potion, Ronald," Hermione said firmly. She was still very red in the face.

"You could do worse than Terry or Anthony I suppose," Ron said, glancing over at the Ravenclaw students. "Nothing wrong with a bit of brains, after all-"

"Ron, leave Hermione alone," Harry said to him, "or I'll put some of this potion in your pumpkin juice next time Luna's around."

Ron turned bright red and silenced himself, suddenly becoming very interested in chopping up his own pomegranate. Hermione gave Harry a look of thanks.

"Your potions should now be a pale yellow in colour," Snape said two and a half hours later, walking amongst them all and inspecting each student's cauldron. "Extinguish the flames and place a sample inside your flasks. Leave the remainder inside your cauldrons as I will be using them with my seventh year class this afternoon."

He seemed annoyed to find that Harry, Hermione and Ron's mixtures were all the required pale yellow colour, but swept past without saying a word.

"Three guesses who he's going to pick to test them," Ron muttered as the three of them ladled their potions into their sample flasks.

"If he doesn't pick me it'll be a miracle," said Harry, frowning at the back of Snape.

"You've been awfully quiet, Hermione," Ron said to her with a frown of his own. "What's the matter? I was only joking earlier-"

"Nothing's the matter, Ron," she said in a strangled kind of voice.

Ron caught Harry's eye, and the look Harry sent him told him they both knew she was lying. Harry shrugged his shoulders though - he didn't know what to do.

"Now that your samples have cooled sufficiently it is time for the moment of truth," said Snape, a horrible smirk on his face. Between Harry and Ron, Hermione gave a small kind of squeak. Snape glanced at the three of them momentarily, still smirking, before directing his gaze to the Hufflepuff table.

"Mr MacMillan, step up here please."

Ernie rose, visibly swallowing and clutching his sample flask which, Harry could see, was a rather brighter shade of yellow than everyone else's. Harry hoped for Ernie's sake that the mixture was all right - Ernie could still be somewhat pompous at times but he didn't deserve the humiliation of having antlers sprouting from his head.

After a few moments in which Ernie stood stock still Snape looked at him expectantly.

"Well, what are you waiting for, idiot boy? Drink it!"

With a fearful glance at the rest of them Ernie quickly drained his flask and wiped his mouth, closing his eyes and shuddering as it went down.

"Are you all right, Ernie?" Hannah asked aloud.

"It's cold," said Ernie. "Like ice."

Snape waited a few moments, narrowing his gaze at the top of Ernie's head. Ernie still had his eyes closed, but after another few moments he opened one hopefully. There was no sign of antlers.

"It would seem you have got off quite luckily this time, MacMillan. Return to your seat."

Harry felt pleased until Snape looked over at them and a horrible grin spread underneath his hooked nose.

"Miss Granger, seeing as you know so much about the potion you will go next."

Hermione gave another little squeak but rose from her stool and made her way to the front of the class, pointedly avoiding the eyes of Harry and Ron. She didn't wait for Snape to say anything though, quickly drinking her potion and shuddering just like Ernie had done as the icy fluid worked its way through her. Then she held Snape's gaze. Harry and Ron watched on from their table.

Snape observed her for a few moments more and then narrowed his eyes once more.

"Fine. You may return to your table."

Hermione plonked herself down between Harry and Ron once again, looking quite relieved as Snape called up Draco to test his potion.

"Don't know what you were worried about-" Ron began, but then his eyes widened. Harry turned to see what had cut Ron off and his mouth opened in surprise. From the front of the Room Draco began to laugh gleefully, pointing at Hermione.

"Who's it for, Granger? Potter or Weasley?" he shouted, roaring in laughter.

Hermione's entire body was giving off a soft blue glow, bathing Harry, Ron and everything in a three foot radius in it's light. Hermione looked terrified, holding her hands up and gazing in shock at the blue light coming off her.

"Well well," came Snape's sneering voice. "It would seem we have a result after all . . . Miss Granger, step up to the front of the classroom."

Hermione shot quick, fearful glances at Harry and Ron, both of whom were staring at her slack-jawed in surprise, and then quickly walked up to where Snape and Draco were standing. As she passed the Hufflepuff table the glow surrounding her faded and then vanished. Draco was smirking at her.

"Now return to your seat."

That seemed to be the last thing she wanted to do, but even in her fearful state Hermione would not disobey a teacher. She timidly retraced her steps and as she began to walk around Harry the glow sprang up around her again and she stopped dead, clutching both hands to her mouth. All three of them kept looking back and forth to each other, unable to say anything.

"Well, who is it for Granger?" shrieked Pansy, gleefully. "Potter or Weasley?"

"Yes, come now, don't disappoint your classmates," said Snape, clearly enjoying every moment of Hermione's embarrassment. Harry shot him a look of purest loathing.

". . ."

Hermione couldn't say anything. Without even bothering to pick up her schoolbag she fled from the room, the sound of the Slytherin's laughter ringing in her ears. The glow surrounding her faded once more as she dashed past the Hufflepuffs.

"Hermione!" Harry and Ron both yelled after her.

Snape was still smirking but his expression turned cold as he saw both boys beginning to rise.

"If you even think of leaving my classroom to follow her you will receive detention."

Snape sneered at them, clearly enjoying their internal tussle before they both sat back down defeated. Then, as if nothing had happened, he turned back to Draco to test his potion.

"Bloody hell," Ron whispered to Harry, his face pale with shock.

Harry nodded. Looking at him, Ron thought he had the most peculiar look on his face. The look of surprise he'd been wearing moments ago had been replaced with something else . . . something he couldn't quite describe.

"You all right?" Ron asked.

"Yeah," was Harry's distant reply. "Yeah, I'm fine . . ."

Ron finally identified the look on Harry's face - one of utmost concentration, as if he was puzzling out a particularly difficult exam question. Every now or then he would mutter something like "must be a mistake" or "there's no way she would want to" and periodically his puzzling expression kept being interrupted by those not-quite-smiles. Ron thought it best not to say anything. He was still rather flabbergasted by the whole thing. He had no doubt when they found Hermione it would be awkward - a year or two ago he would have wanted that glow to have been for him, but ever since their 'adventure' in the Department of Mysteries he'd started to see a certain blonde-haired Ravenclaw in a new light - not that he'd told anyone, not even Harry. Luna had been so brave that night, it had completely changed the way he looked at her. Okay so she was a little bit, well, weird sometimes . . . all right, a lot of the time - but she was a lovely person. Not to mention gorgeous.

"Harry, class is over mate."

Harry looked at him as if his voice had come from some far-away land. Ron decided to try what Hermione had spoken to him about before and, with as much masculinity as possible, looked into his best mate's eyes. What he saw there surprised him, but he grinned. This was actually pretty easy.

"What?" Harry asked him, looking at him strangely.

"Go and find her," was all Ron said.

Harry opened his mouth to say something but then stopped. A genuine smile appeared on his face for the first time in many months.

"I'll see you later," he said, hoping Ron could tell how grateful he was. Shouldering his bag, he grabbed Hermione's own and did a quick shrinking spell on it, stashing it inside his own bag. Then he set off to search for Hermione. She was not in the Great Hall, packed full of students eating their lunch, and no-one at the Gryffindor table had seen her. He tried everywhere he could think of that she might have gone to be alone - the library, Moaning Myrtles's toilet, maybe one of the empty Charms or Arithmancy classrooms, but to no avail. In the end he went up to his dormitory and got out the Marauder's Map; after much scanning - and rising panic - he finally found the little dot labelled 'Hermione Granger' outside, sitting in a spot almost halfway around the lake. A quick glance out of the window showed that it was snowing quite heavily - she was probably freezing . . .

Hermione was sitting on a wide, flat rock facing the castle, sniffling quietly and occasionally shivering, despite having the foresight to snatch her winter cloak as she'd dashed out of the dungeon. She'd never been so embarrassed in all her life . . . he wasn't supposed to find out, not ever! And to find out like that . . .

Around her the snow fell. The frozen lake glistened. It was very quiet out here; it would have been quite peaceful were she not in such a turmoil. She sniffled again. She was all out of tears for now, but more would come. They always did.

The sharp crunching of footsteps in the snow broke the serenity of the spot. Hermione did not look around, instead she continued to look down at her hands where she was fiddling with the seam of her cloak. She didn't need to look to see who it was - as the footsteps grew nearer the blue glow sprung up around her body once more, bathing the snow around her in a pool of soft blue.

"Hello Harry," she said weakly.

From the corner of her vision she saw his legs come around the side of the rock and then he sat down next to her, putting his schoolbag down on the snow. The black of his robes took on a blue tinge from the light coming off her.

"Hey."

She sniffled again, still too embarrassed to look up at him. A warm hand cupped her cheek and lifted her eyes up to meet his; they were red and puffy and the tracks of her tears running down her cheeks were all too obvious. Harry saw the sadness in her eyes, felt the cool of her cheek in his hand.

"You're cold," he told her, and then reached into his schoolbag and brought out an empty glass jar. With a quick incantation he conjured a small blue flame into the jar, much as Hermione had used to do all those years ago. With a 'clink' of glass on stone he set the jar down just in front of them; it's warmth soon began to radiate out towards them.

"I can't believe you remember how to do that," Hermione said, smiling weakly.

"I had a good teacher," Harry replied.

He just sat there and watched her. Hermione went from meeting his gaze to looking back down at her lap and back again.

"You weren't supposed to find out," she said finally, looking at him. "It was supposed to be my big secret."

"Why?" Harry asked her. "Did you think that I would be . . . I don't know, angry? Upset?"

"I don't know," she answered truthfully. "I just know that if you knew, things would be different. I'm supposed to be your best friend, the person who always watches out for you! I'm not supposed to . . ."

"Love me?"

His face was so open, so honest.

"Yes," she said in a quiet voice. "I love you, Harry. Sometimes I wish I didn't, it would make things so much easier, but I can't help it."

She looked up at him and smiled rather sheepishly.

"You're rather wonderful," she said, her cheeks burning red.

The broad smile that broke out across his face surprised her then - she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him smile like that. Before the Department of Mysteries, at any rate.

"No I'm not," he told her, "but thank you for thinking it."

She looked down at her hands again, watching the blue glow flowing softly around her fingers.

"What am I going to do about this?"

"I wish you'd told me," Harry said, ignoring her question.

"It would have been the last thing you needed, Harry, you've got so much to deal with as it is let alone having something like this thrust on you!"

"I'm sorry Hermione but you're wrong, this is exactly what I need."

He looked away from her a moment, gazing across the lake.

"I never thought you would ever feel . . ." he began, and then turned back to her. "Did you ever consider that I might feel the same as you?"

Hermione was genuinely shocked by this statement, and her eyes widened.

"Don't be silly, Harry," she said slowly. "There's no way that you'd . . . that you'd . . ."

"You want to bet?"

He was smiling again, and Hermione's own mouth began to curve into a smile of her own. He couldn't mean what he was implying, could he? But why would he say it if he didn't mean it? Harry wasn't cruel enough to joke about something like this . . .

He had reached down into his schoolbag and Hermione's eyes widened again as he produced the flask containing the sample of the Cupid's Draught he had brewed that morning. Without saying anything else he uncorked it and quickly drained the contents, wincing slightly as it went down.

"Blimey that is cold," he said, shivering.

Hermione watched transfixed as after a few moments the same blue glow emanating from her own body sprang up from Harry's, mixing in with her own and turning everything around them blue. It was a remarkable thing to watch. Hermione's heart was a-flutter, and she found it very hard to make any kind of coherent speech. Harry moved closer to her so that their legs and shoulders were touching, and looked right into her eyes.

"I've known ever since the Department of Mysteries," he said quietly. "When you got hit by that curse . . . I thought my world had ended. I knew then that I loved you."

Hermione's eyes were shiny with tears again, but joyful ones rather than sadness.

"I've got so much I need to tell you . . . stuff I need to share with you and Ron, but so much more that I want to share with just you."

She felt his hand close around hers then, warm and comforting and fitting so snugly around her own. The feeling it gave her was indescribable . . . her worries and fears about losing her best friend were banished by it. There was only happiness now.

"As long as I have you, I think everything is going to be OK," Harry said to her.

They sat there together for a very long time.

- - -