Chapter Three – Everyone Knows
"Ron?" Harry asked the next morning as they were getting ready to head down to breakfast. The door was still partially-opened from when he had gone to the loo in the middle of the night. "What did you make of Hermione yesterday?"
Ron suddenly froze in the process of putting on his sock, his foot half-clad and his balance kept awkwardly with one foot. "I, uh...what do you mean?" He shoved his sock on fully and turned to grab a Canon's shirt from his chest of drawers.
"Don't tell me you didn't notice," Harry replied. "She was fairly bursting out of her clothes, she had make-up on, and she kept looking at us."
While he'd been talking, Ron had slowly put on his shirt. He was still turned away from Harry, but the distinct Weasley blush had wrapped around his neck. "Yeah," he said softly. "I reckon I did notice that bit."
Harry bent to tie his trainer and smirked. "Well, I think she's trying to have us on."
"Why would she do something like that?" Ron asked, finally conquering his blush and turning around. "It's not like her."
"Yeah," Harry confirmed and stood up. "I told her that much last night and she agreed. That means there's a reason for her...for what she's doing." Harry was tempted to tell his best friend what Hermione had confessed about the Yule Ball, but something held him back.
"She's not having us on, Harry. Maybe she's just going through a phase. Mum said that's what happened with Bill and his ponytail."
Harry thought about that. Maybe Hermione was just going through a phase. But then...why would she have acted so strangely in the library. The more Harry thought about it, the more suspicious he became. His best friend would never do something without a reason. There was a method to her madness that he was determined to discover and he hoped his first impression was wrong. At least he thought he did.
"I'm headed to breakfast," Ron said, interrupting his thoughts. "You coming?"
Scratching his head in thought, Harry decided that the mystery of Hermione could wait until his belly was full. "Yeah, all right."
A slim figure stood back in the shadows of the drapery that hung in the hallway and watched as the two boys descended the stairs to the kitchen. She knew they would be occupied for a while and that this would be the perfect opportunity to report what she had heard. With a cat-like gait, Ginny slunk back to the room she shared with Hermione, a playful smile on her face.
Later that morning, Hermione appeared in the sitting room off the kitchen with a book and a grin. Harry and Ron were halfway through a third game of wizard's chess, and Harry's prospects of winning at least one of the three was evaporating before his eyes. Ron gave a half-hearted wave at Hermione, which she returned, and he resumed his plot to annihilate Harry's chessmen.
Hermione sat next to Harry on the bench that lined the south wall and cracked open her book. Her fingernails were red, and he had to do a double-take to make sure – Hermione never painted her nails. He also noticed that she was modestly dressed and gave an inward sigh of relief. She was reading the same book that she had last night and it appeared that she hadn't done any more reading since then. Her leg grazed his, as it had a hundred times in the past, but this time, he began to feel inexplicably warm from the contact. Contemplating moving away from Hermione, but deciding against it. He used a shaky hand to move his rook in a bid to protect his king from an attack by both of Ron's knights.
Ron didn't seem to notice Hermione at all. He furrowed his brow and surveyed the board once more. Harry looked at Hermione again. Not taking her eyes of the page, she slowly moved her book down to her lap and one arm casually rested on both of their legs where they were still touching. One hand disengaged from the book and was pressed, palm-down into his thigh. The heat in his face intensified and there was a rushing noise somewhere in Harry's head that was in time with his heartbeat. It took a second before he realised it was his heartbeat that was causing the rushing noise, but that he couldn't fathom the reason why it was being so particularly loud.
"Check," Ron pronounced smugly.
Harry's eyes jerked back to the board. Sure enough, Ron had dispatched his rook and was a good two or three moves from pinning his king completely.
Ginny appeared in the room and glided into the seat next to Ron. She looked at the pieces for a moment before shaking her head. "Too bad, Harry. You may be the Boy-Who-Lived, but you're miserable at chess."
"Shut up!" Harry yelled good-naturedly, and Ginny poked her tongue out as a reply.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Hermione look up at Ginny and...wink. Suddenly unsure about which game was the more important, Harry pushed his king deliberately into the path of Ron's bishop. Ron instantly directed it to murder his sole remaining pawn and the game was over.
"Check mate," Ron announced unnecessarily. "You lose, Harry."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, looking suspiciously between Hermione and Ginny. The latter pounced on her brother immediately.
"How about I play you next, brother of mine. It's been a while since I pounded you into the ground."
Ron's eyes flashed as he setup the board once more. "As if. You haven't beaten me since before I left for Hogwarts."
Ginny jutted her chin out. "I haven't played you since then, either, Ron."
"Yeah, yeah," Ron agreed. "Let's see if you can put your knuts where your mouth is."
Ginny slapped a coin down on the table and Ron did likewise. It was shaping up to be a real family feud.
"Harry?" Hermione said softly from beside him. She closed the book with a snap and sat up. Her legs shifted as she moved, sending chills up his side where they made contact, but her hand stayed exactly where it had been. Harry found his leg somehow pinned by its light pressure. "I was wondering...you never really said why you broke things off with Susan last year. I have my own ideas, but I was wondering what your reasons were."
Harry looked back to Ron and Ginny, who were now so engrossed in their game, that he thought a dungbomb might explode over them and they wouldn't notice. "I, uh...well, that is to say...w-we just weren't compatible is all." He inwardly cursed himself for being so jittery around Hermione. It was just Hermione after all – Hermione with her hand on his leg.
"How so?" she asked. She rotated on the bench to face him fully and placed her other hand on Harry's shoulder. Her gaze was oddly unnerving.
"W-Well," Harry started, feeling the heat rise in his neck again. "She and I had different ideas on what it meant to date. The snogging was fine – she's a wonderful girl – but groping in the broom closet in the dark got a little old after the tenth time."
"I see," Hermione replied, and looked every bit like she would love to be taking notes just then. "And what is it that you look for in a girl? Her body? Her hair? Dizzying intellect?"
Harry budged down the bench a little as she spoke, hopefully being surreptitious about it, but knowing that he had failed when her hands withdrew. "I, uh...honestly?" he asked.
She didn't seem fazed by the removal of her hands and nodded. "Honestly."
"Why, uh...why the sudden interest?"
She leaned over, reached out a hand and placed it back on his thigh. "It's purely intellectual curiosity," she said seriously.
Something told Harry that wasn't the entire truth, but he felt confident enough to volunteer some information. "Looks are a part of it, I'll admit – I wouldn't ever go out with Millicent Bullstrode. Daphne Greengrass is gorgeous, but her allegiances are all wrong; so I would say being an evil witch turns me off to a girl no matter how she looks." A flash of something appeared on Hermione's face when he mentioned Daphne's appearance, but it went away just as fast. "I admire Susan's loyalty, so that's important, too." A sudden thought hit Harry and he ducked his head.
"What?" Hermione asked, poking him in the side. "You were about to say something, what was it?"
Harry slowly raised his head. "It's stupid."
"What is it?" she asked in a near whisper. "I promise I won't laugh."
Her sincerity caused his lips to curve upwards slightly. "All right," he conceded," I'll tell you, but no laughing."
She crossed her heart, as if they were sitting in a Muggle primary school.
He pinched his lips together to stifle the fit of humour that had attacked him. "Smell."
Hermione's eyes furrowed. "Smell?" she asked.
"Yes, smell," he confirmed. When she didn't seem to understand, he continued. "How a girl smells is really important to me. With Cho, she always wore this really spicy perfume that made me want to gag when I was around her." He gave Ginny a glance to make sure she was suitably engrossed with Ron, leaned close to her, and whispered, "Ginny was the best of the lot, some kind of flowery shampoo and mint. It's too bad that didn't work out... With Susan..." he trailed off."
"Yes? What about Susan?"
Harry leaned in even further so that their heads were nearly touching. "I don't think she showered very often," he explained. "B. O."
Hermione's lips formed a round 'o' in understanding and they straightened back on the bench. Then, she smiled.
"I said, no laughing," Harry accused, shaking a finger at her.
She held up her hands between them, palms out, and made a show of forcing her face to look impassive. "I'm not laughing, Harry. I think it's sweet, actually. Not many boys list attributes like loyalty and smell when there's things like cup-size to consider."
Harry snorted. "Yeah, well, I've got my own ideas on what size breasts should be." He held up his hands in a mirror of hers. "If they're too big for me to hold all of them..." Suddenly, Harry realised exactly what he was saying – a conversation he'd had with Ron, Seamus, Neville and Dean the year before – and to whom he was saying it to, and felt his face flame in embarrassment.
Of all the reactions to Harry's pronouncement, a smirk was not what he had expected. Her eyes were dancing with amusement and it took a full minute for Harry to jam him mind out of neutral. "Gotta go," he said, and shot from the bench, not catching the look of triumph on Ginny's face as he sped past.
Harry avoided Hermione the rest of the day, preferring to spend time in the attic feeding dead rats to Buckbeak, and to think about Hermione. Something was definitely not right about her, and he was determined to find out what it was. Why the sudden interest in makeup, boys, and Harry's dating habits? The touching was a bit off, too, but a small part of Harry didn't mind that so much, just as long as she didn't become too forward.
The next morning, Harry woke-up before Ron and trudged downstairs to the kitchen. Mrs. Weasley had made pancakes, bacon, and eggs, and had heaped them upon large platters that dominated the centre of the table. Harry dug in eagerly, glad to be alone for the moment.
"This is great, Mrs. Weasley," Harry declared as he filled his plate once more.
She smiled at him and flipped another large cake in her skillet. "I'm just glad of the chance to put some weight on you, Harry. You looked so peckish when you arrived..."
"Morning, Mrs. Weasley," said a cheerful voice from the doorway and Hermione breezed into the room. Harry caught her eye for a moment and quickly looked away at the smirk on her face. "Good morning, Harry," she said more quietly and slid onto the bench beside him. Unlike yesterday, however, she did not sit close enough to touch him.
Through the smells of bacon, pancakes, and eggs, a faint scent of some flower reached his nostrils. The smell itself was quite pleasing, but it was the fact that it was coming from Hermione, who usually smelled pleasantly like old books and apples, that caused him to take a second glance at her. It was a familiar smell, like something from a dream, but also quite real, but amongst the other kitchen scents, he couldn't quite put his finger on where he'd smelled it before.
As Hermione loaded up her plate, Ron appeared in the kitchen, followed by Ginny. The siblings took seats opposite Harry and Hermione and also began to load up their plates. Ron was halfway through his first plate when he started to sniff at the air. "What's that smell?" he asked.
"It's my new perfume," Hermione announced, dabbing at her lips with a paper towel. "Do you like it?"
Harry knew he had smelled it before – it was definitely a flower. Maybe another girl had worn it?
Ron looked thoughtful for a moment, and then pointing his fork at her, said, "What's the deal with you this summer, anyway?"
"What do you mean?" she asked in return, placing her napkin down on her empty plate. Ginny was looking between her brother and friend as if watching a tennis match.
He waved his fork vaguely in her direction. "I mean with your clothes, and your hair, and stuff."
"I'm glad you noticed, Ron," she said smugly. "Don't you like it when I dress like a girl?"
Ron swallowed his eggs and spluttered, "Well of course not."
"What do you mean, 'of course not'?" she replied indignantly. "I am a girl, after all."
Ron spluttered some more. "I know that, Hermione, it's just that..."
She crossed her arms furiously across her chest. "Why, Ron? Why do you care what I wear or how I smell?"
"Because I'm your friend. I don't want you to be taken advantage of."
"By who, Ron? Who's going to take advantage of me here?"
Ron's face froze, and his fork dangled limply in his hand, as if he hadn't considered that before.
"Is it because you like me? Is that it?"
A faint blush appeared on his cheeks. "Of course I like you," he muttered. "I'm your friend, how could I not."
"That's not what I mean, and you know it, Ron." Hermione stood furiously and continued. "If you've been harbouring feelings for me that are more than friendly," she said, pointing a finger at both of them. "Either of you...then you need to talk to me about it; we're not fourteen any more and it's time we got these feelings out in the open."
An awkward silence lingered around them, and even Mrs. Weasley wasn't pretending to wash the pan she was holding any more. Finally, Hermione stormed out of the kitchen and Ron let out a breath. "I'm glad that's over," he said, and resumed shovelling food into his mouth.
"You git," Ginny said, and slapped Ron in the shoulder.
"What?" Ron replied.
"She's probably crying and all you can say is, 'I'm glad that's over'?"
"Well..." Ron offered lamely. "Fine," he said, and tossed his fork down, still chewing on his pancake. "She's right about one thing. It's high time we worked this out anyway."
Ron stood, gave Harry a nod and walked after Hermione. Harry sat back against the kitchen wall and silently wondered who had kidnapped his friends and who these people were that looked and sounded like them, but definitely weren't.
Whatever Ron had discussed with Hermione after leaving the breakfast table earlier that day, seemed to have done the trick. She was just as cheerful and cordial as before and even offered to correct their summer homework assignments. This made Harry feel much better, but the smirk Ron had been wearing since then not only matched the one Ginny had on since he'd arrived at Grimmauld Place, it told Harry that he was rapidly becoming the last one to be included on a very private joke.
Holing up in the attic with Buckbeak again, Harry tried to work out what it was that his friends all knew and he didn't. Buckbeack clicked his beak expectantly at Harry as his distracted thoughts had forced him to stop petting the friendly Hippogriff. He resumed absently rubbing the feathers on his chin and his thoughts were drug forcefully back to Hermione.
Her behaviour in particular had been very odd. Not only had she been... well, flirting with him, but she'd also had that row with Ron earlier. Even their reconciliation had been too odd for Harry's liking. There was definitely something amiss and Harry was determined to figure it out.
Just then, the door clicked open and a figure entered the room, casting a shadow across Harry's lap.
"Am I intruding?" asked Hermione shyly.
Harry shook his head and motioned for her to sit, feeling a sudden jumble of foreboding relief. "Just keeping Buckbeak company," he explained.
Hermione sat next to him, opposite Buckbeak and began to fiddle with the hem of her skirt. There was a few seconds of awkward silence in which Harry was certain that she was going to announce her engagement with the Giant Squid, or that she was going to drop out of Hogwarts.
She looked up at him and the seriousness of her expression cast those thoughts out immediately. "Harry?" she asked tentatively. "How...? How do you feel about me?"
Had some deeply buried part of Harry not expected this, he imagined that he'd simply have run off again, but he knew he couldn't keep running off forever. He swallowed and took a deep breath. "How I... feel about you?"
She nodded. "I need to know."
The palms of his hands were sweating and he suddenly realised that he was in a room, alone with Hermione (Buckbeak didn't count, as he was a very poor chaperone).
"I, uh..." Harry started and faltered. Hermione hadn't stopped staring at him, but he didn't know how in the world he was going to express feelings that he didn't even understand himself. Did he like her? Sure. Was she a great friend? The best. Did he love her? The thought made Harry visibly wince. Part of him answered that he, of course, did love her but that he'd felt that way since their encounter with the Troll. Another, more recently acquired voice told him that it wasn't just friendly affection that made him blush when she had her hand on his leg or motivated him to give her an impromptu foot massage.
"Harry?" Hermione asked, interrupting his thoughts.
It dawned on him that he had been staring at her. "I'm sorry," he said, flustered. "I guess I don't know for sure. It was so clear just last week and then..."
Hermione let out a breath of exasperation and stood. "I can see I'm going to have to take the direct approach. Come on," she said, holding out her hand. "Stand up."
Harry stood warily, but obediently, taking her hand for the extra lift and then tried to let it go. She wouldn't let him.
"Now," she said with an uncharacteristic smirk on her face. "Let me show you how I feel about you." She leaned in suddenly, not giving Harry a chance to react and her lips met his. It was very unlike any of the kisses on the cheek he'd received from her in the past. This kiss was firmly on the side of non-platonic feelings and it was some time before he was able to think of anything but how incredibly soft her lips were. He could feel her love for him in the way she moved her lips and held him close. The shock of this realisation caused him to pull back.
A damn burst somewhere in his chest, releasing a flood of emotion he'd not realised was there. "Hermione," he whispered fiercely, staring open-mouthed at her smiling face. "I...I..." But words failed him then. In his arms was someone that he'd known almost all his life, had faced Voldemort with and lived to tell about it. In front of him all this time was the one person that understood him above all others and it was this thought drove him to kiss her back.
Their kiss was much different this time. Instead of reacting to the kiss, he poured out how he felt about Hermione back into it, trying to tell her that yes, he felt the same way about her. She groaned and her hands melted into his hair.
Not even the incessant clicking and nudges from Buckbeak distracted them. Yes, he was a very poor chaperone.