Chapter Three – Tripping Over the Light Fantastic
Harry awoke to the sound of a series of small explosions from the room next door. It took him a full minute to process the odd sounds that rattled the walls and sent dust floating down from the bookshelves across the room and into the morning sunlight. The small explosions weren't explosions at all, but were, in fact, Ron's snores. Harry had almost forgotten about his friend's sleeping disorder since they'd been in different bivouacs at Auror training. Apparently, the rumours were true; Ron's snores had gotten worse since Hogwarts and could almost wake the dead.
Harry rubbed his eyes with the points of his fists and turned over to reach for his wand. He muttered a Silencing Spell at the wall separating him from his best friend and breathed a sigh of relief when the sound abated. He'd have to remember to do that every night Ron was there, or he'd have to enlist the help of the only person he knew who could cast a permanent ward – Hermione.
Thinking about Hermione made him think about the previous night and their lesson. As thick as he was with girls, he couldn't help but wonder if there was more to her offer than simply to cure him of his baneful kissing ability. Every time he asked himself if she might fancy him, however, his brain seemed to recall all sorts of reasons why that wouldn't be true. She'd been chasing Ron until their seventh year at Hogwarts, had loads of boyfriends since, and hadn't made a single romantic gesture toward him in all that time. That's not technically true, said a different part of his brain that sounded very much like Hermione's voice. There was that time she kissed you at King's Cross – and all the times she hugged you, and that time when Nagini almost killed her...
Pushing both voices out of his mind, Harry grabbed a fresh change of clothes and headed for the shower. He just needed to get his day started and all thoughts of Hermione would disappear by themselves.
Breakfast consisted of bitter coffee from the automatic maker that came with the flat and a piece of dry toast. The Prophet had several pictures on the front page of him at the party. Pictures of him looking at Ginny, pictures of him talking with Daphne Greengrass, pictures of him carrying a tray of snacks and drinks, smiling at Hermione... He wadded the paper into a tight ball and chucked into the bin beneath the sink.
Ron drug himself out of his room and stifled a yawn with his hand, looking half-asleep and not at all like the deadly Auror he knew he was.
"Ready for your first day?" Harry asked as he pushed a piece of toast in his direction.
Ron nodded and blindly pointed his wand at his hair, muttering a Combing Charm that mostly worked. Harry helped his friend adjust his uniform. Ron thought that Kingsley would go easy on them their first day, but Harry had no such illusions. They stood and prepared to Apparate to the Atrium of the Ministry when Harry's eyes caught the only picture they'd had in their flat. Hermione waved to him from near the Hogwarts Lake as Ron and Harry laughed beside her. "Let's get to work," he said with a frustrated groan and turned in a near circle, disappearing with a pop.
Unfortunately for Harry, his mind did not work itself free of Hermione. In fact, he found himself thinking more and more about her as the day wore on. Despite having her face, her voice, and her scent ever-present in his mind, it wasn't until he was in an orientation meeting with all the senior Aurors and several Ministry officials present that it became a problem.
Weary of having such an all-consuming distraction, Harry decided that his mind needed help to shake the silly notion of Hermione fancying him. So he did exactly what she would do: he made a list. Well, it was actually two lists, side by side on a piece of parchment, but that was what the problem required. He gave each list equal time, as the warring sides of his mind demanded it. On one side, he had written a heading, entitled: Why Hermione fancies me, and on the other: Why Hermione doesn't fancy me.
Both lists were rather long, when his distracted brain began to hear snips of the very boring meeting going on around him. Kingsley was rambling about sharp decreases in Death Eater activity, escaped convicts from Bulgaria, constant vigilance, and other things that didn't concern Harry as much as getting Hermione out of his head.
He bent lower over his list and scratched out another line in the 'does not fancy' column when he felt Ron's sharp elbow in his ribs. Looking up, the looming presence of Kingsley Shacklebolt dominated his vision, and he did not look happy.
"Attention Potter!" he barked and Harry jumped to his feet, his hands fisted respectfully at his side, one holding the self-inking quill, the other his half-completed and partially-crumpled list. "I'm flattered that you enjoy my presentation so much that you feel the need to take notes, Potter. Had you been paying more close attention, you'd remember that I've already said an outline will be made available to all new Aurors at the end of the meeting." Without moving his eyes a millimetre, Harry saw the older man's face and he knew from experience that he wasn't going to get away with his inattentiveness with just a warning.
"Your undivided attention should be on the speaker," Kingsley continued. "Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir!" Harry barked back in the customary response to a superior officer.
"Good. You won't need your notes, then," he said, holding out a hand.
For a split second, Harry considered refusing, but knew that with every eye in the auditorium on them, it would be better for him to give in and get the worst over with. He handed the list to Kingsley.
"Have a seat and pay attention," Kinsley said with a fierce whisper, and stepped away. For a brief, elated moment, Harry thought he would just crumple the parchment and throw it away, but as the man walked back to the front of the hall, he smoothed it out and bent his head to read it. When Kingsley halted in mid-stride and shot a half-amused, half-livid face at Harry, Harry let out a groan and buried his face in his hands. It was going to be a long day.
"This is exactly the kind of thing that kept you from being top of your class, Potter!" roared Kingsley an hour later. Harry was in his superior's office, with the door open to the main hall that fed the Auror Headquarters from the rest of the Ministry. "Hermione Granger's a pretty enough witch, dead useful in a fight..." He trailed off, apparently thinking about the final battle, where Hermione had made it possible for Harry to get his shot at Voldemort. Then, his steely gaze returned and his voice returned to its former volume. "But if you can't get your head and your heart to work together, you're either going to end up dead, or getting someone else killed. An Auror has to be focused, Potter!"
There was a few seconds of silence while Kingsley rifled through some papers on his desk and Harry stared a hole through the back wall of his office.
"I'm assigning you to the Hopkirk case," he said at length and produced a sheaf of papers shoved haphazardly into a manila folder. "Tonks is your senior. Report to her immediately after you leave here, understood?"
"Yes, sir!" Harry bellowed and took the papers. He knew he was being dismissed, but his eyes lingered on a familiar-looking, crumpled parchment on Kingsley's desk.
"Is there something else I can do for you, Potter?" Kingsley asked, obviously keen to what Harry wanted.
"Yes, sir. May I have my list back, please?" Harry risked a glance at Kingsley and saw the briefest flicker of something pass across his face before it disappeared. He tossed the parchment at Harry, who caught it with one hand.
"Get out of my office and keep your head on the job, Potter."
"Yes, sir," Harry said and slid into the hall. He turned the corner, avoiding a smirking Neville, and ran smack into a phalanx of grinning wizards and witches from his finishing class.
"Hermione Granger?" taunted Kevin Bundy, a former Ravenclaw from Fred and George's year who had obviously been listening in on Harry's dressing down. "What were you doing, writing her a love note?"
The others tittered at the joke and Harry felt his face turn red. "No, it wasn't a love note, Bundy." He tried to push through the crowd, shoving the list deeper into his pocket so they wouldn't be tempted by its presence.
"So what was it, then?" asked Sally-Ann Perks, whose dark eyes were watching him with curiosity.
Harry muttered something about nosey prats before finally breaking through to the cubicle-strewn main floor of the Auror headquarters. Spotting Ron chatting with Tonks near the back of the office, he quickly left the still-laughing gaggle of people by the hall and made a bee-line for his friends.
... that's why Harry was so..." Tonks was saying but must have heard Harry's arrival because she turned and pointed at the folder in his hand. "Hi, Harry? Is that our assignment?"
Harry hesitated, momentarily confused by the question. "Er, yeah," he said and handed over the files. Ron wore a small frown and did not meet Harry's eyes as Tonks reviewed the papers.
"Oh bugger," she said and slammed the file closed. "They always give me an easy job when I'm coddling a youngster along."
Feeling a little guilty that Tonks had to be stuck with him and that they had a simple assignment, Harry thought briefly that he should do something to make it up to her. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, Tonks said, "Still, I suppose it's for the best, seeing as how my partner won't be able to think properly if I so much as mention Hermione's name."
"Cheeky," Harry muttered and saw that the frown on Ron's face had been replaced with a slight grin.
Tonks morphed her hair so that it was bushy-brown and her face into an exact match of his best friend. "Let's get going then," she said in a very Hermione-ish voice. "So much to do."
Harry decided then that Tonks wasn't going to get any sort of sympathy from him.
Following her to the Atrium, she spotted a flash of red and saw Neville dip low to plant a kiss on Ginny's cheek. Something hot bubbled in his belly and he pressed his lips together, ignoring both of them as he passed.
Demelza was leaving as Harry approached Hermione's flat that evening. She gave him a bright smile and winked at him as she left, her broom in hand, dressed in her practice uniform. There was a muffled series of shouts from the stadium across the street and Harry could pick out several of the players zooming in and out of the magical lights that fought against the setting sun.
He knocked on the door and Hermione answered an instant later. "Good," she said, snapping her purse closed and stepping onto the landing of her flat. He thought he saw the edge of the notebook she'd used from their last lesson disappear into one of the pockets. "Let's get going, then."
"Er," Harry began as she walked briskly away and he had to double-time to catch up to her. She was wearing a fitted dress that covered her from neck to knee and was decorated in blue and red sequins that coursed around her body in artistic patterns. "Where..."
She pulled and twisted her hair as they walked, clipping it into place even as she pinched her purse with her left elbow. "Dancing," she said without looking at him. "There's a great little place just up the street."
Harry stopped dead and it took her a second before she noticed he wasn't beside her and turned around. "Dancing?" he asked dubiously. "I don't dance, Hermione."
She rolled her eyes and grabbed his hand, pulling him along. "Of course you do."
He pulled his hand free of hers. "No, really, Hermione. I don't."
Whirling on him, she placed her hands on her hips and let her eyes bore into him. "You do tonight, Harry. So stop acting like a child and take me dancing."
It was difficult to refuse her, seeing as how he'd been thinking about her all day and now she was standing in front of him angry and pretty and altogether irresistible. All he had to do was dance for a bit, try not to act like a complete fool and if his lips didn't get in the way, maybe he'd actually have a good time. "Fine," he finally managed to say. "But I can't guarantee I won't step on your toes."
A smile curved her lips and she nodded. "It's a risk I'm willing to take." She took his hand again and led him down the street.
They turned a corner and were faced with a throng of people his age queuing outside a dilapidated building that might have once been a warehouse. Harry was instantly intimidated by the scene and slowed his pace, forcing Hermione to slow as well.
"What is it?" she asked sincerely, squeezing his hand in a show of support.
"Do we have to?" he whinged. "What's dancing got to do with kissing, anyway?"
Hermione smiled again and held his hand with both of hers. "Trust me, Harry. I know what I'm doing." Her voice had dropped a pitch as she regarded him and something unknown flashed in her eyes. Reluctantly, he let her lead him into the queue and before he realised it, they were inside the club.
Loud Latin music pulsed around them as they wound through the crowd toward the dance floor. It was so loud that even yelling proved fruitless. As soon as they were on the edge of the dance floor, Hermione began to gyrate her body in time with the music. He watched her with detached fascination as her hair bobbed on top of her head as she swung her arms, bent her knees, and looked thoroughly pleased that she was in the middle of a few hundred strangers. Harry was mortified.
Sensing his fear, she reached out and grabbed his hands, making a motion that he should do what she was doing. Feeling intensely foolish, he tried to copy her movements. After a few tense minutes and a song change, he began to relax and let the fear of acting stupid melt away.
Half an hour later, Harry was shocked to realise that he was enjoying himself and that Hermione's smile had grown wider and wider as they danced. The song changed again and Hermione indicated that he should follow her.
They walked through the throngs of people to the back of the club and Harry noticed that in the chairs and against the walls there were pairs of people attached to each other at the lips. Before he could say anything to her, she sat in a squashy chair and pulled him onto her lap. In the moment before she pulled his face down to hers, he knew what was going to happen. Fifteen minutes later, as she was leading him through the streets back to her flat, he understood why she'd been so insistent that they dance together that night.
"Thanks," he said. Their footsteps echoed off the closed businesses lining both sides of the street as they walked.
"For what?" she asked with a quizzical glance. They held hands, contradicting the idea that they were only having kissing lessons together, and that there wasn't anything else between them.
Harry hesitated as they arrived at Hermione's front door. "For... for everything."
She smiled and gave his hand a squeeze before dropping it in favour of looking through her purse for her keys. "I had a nice time, Harry. See you tomorrow?"
Having known Hermione for almost ten years, Harry understood that she had enjoyed their 'date'. Despite the warring thoughts and feelings inside him, he realised that he'd enjoyed it, too. "Yeah," he replied. "See you then."
"Night," she said and slipped into her flat.
As he prepared to Apparate back to his own flat, he knew that the moment Hermione was in her room, the notebook would be out and Harry's performance would be evaluated against a dozen criteria. Removing his wand, he wondered just how well he'd done.
His flat was dark, which wasn't unusual for a weekday night and as Harry appeared in the entryway, the air turned a light blue. There was an almost noiseless click and the disappeared – he had been approved entry. He walked into the front room and made a mental note to minimize the light and noise that the security wards made as a clever intruder with good reflexes could disarm them before they were done scanning. There was a murmur from one of the sofas and his head snapped up to see Luna sitting in Ron's lap; they were kissing, but Luna's eyes were wide open. She noticed Harry immediately and disengaged from Ron.
"Hello, Harry," she said even more dreamily than usual. "Did you enjoy Hermione's cinnamon lip gloss?"
Ron shot off the sofa and began to reflexively smooth out his robes. "Harry? You're home early." He was eyeing Harry's collar warily.
Harry waved at them both and ignored Luna's question. "It's almost eleven. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to give Kingsley any chance to tear me a new one. Night." Ron nodded and Harry made a hasty retreat to his room. Just before he closed his door, Luna's voice drifted down the hall.
"I think he liked it. Should I wear cinnamon lip gloss?"
Smirking to himself, Harry closed the door and collapsed on his bed.