A/N: Lupin's description is quoted from page 74 of POA.

Chapter Twenty Three

Summer 1992

The early-morning chill of the Highlands whispered across my cheeks and brushed the tip of my nose, but the rest of me was warm due to the pair of jeans and the turtleneck I was wearing. I was leaning against the railing of the second floor balcony on the east side of Potter Manor, watching as the sun crept above the horizon. It was just after five in the morning and I had already been up for about an hour, even though I hadn't gone to bed until almost twelve the night before.

I hoped Harry didn't mind this slight imposition on his home, since he was still sleeping in the master suite on the first floor, but I needed some quality thinking time and this beautiful, if chilly, location was the perfect spot. Besides, he had told everyone for whom he'd made a Portkey that we could come and go as we pleased. This may have been a looser interpretation than was strictly acceptable, but Harry was my best friend. I wasn't too concerned about what he'd say.

We had finished planning the party with Ron and Sally around dinner the previous day. Harry had invited them to stay as well, so they had briefly returned to their parents to ask permission. Mum and dad Portkeyed up to the Manor around the same time as Ron and Sally returned from being granted that permission, so it was the six of us who had a casual, light meal on the rear patio. We sat around the same table as we had with Dumbledore earlier in the day.

We finally told my parents about the party the next day. Everyone we had wanted to invite had already received invitations to the Manor for the next day—today—but they were not told for what specifically. We assumed that most of those we had invited would be here even if they did not know what it was all about, mostly because it was Potter Manor and the Lord Potter had invited them to some kind of special occasion. The invitations Harry had sent out had been timed Portkeys, which he'd learned he could create from his research into the Potters and Ancient Houses. If they chose to come, they would all arrive by Portkey between 10:00 and 10:15 in the morning. The invitations indicated that they should bring whatever they needed for a fun day outside—brooms, balls, swimsuits, and things like that.

My parents thought it was a lovely idea and commended us for our thorough planning and for thinking of Neville in such a way. It was going to be a double birthday party for Harry and Neville, but also a surprise party for Neville. Obviously, since Harry was the host and his Manor the location, he would not be too surprised.

Harry and I then told Ron, Sally, and my parents about what Dumbledore had told us earlier in the day. They were all understandably appalled at what Dumbledore had called Horcruxes, but his other revelations about the improvements to the school eased their minds somewhat. They were glad that Harry now had someone to connect him to his family in Remus Lupin.

Ron and Sally left soon after we had finished the discussion, saying they would see us all the next day and that they were very excited. I thought my parents and I would part ways for the night as well, but Harry had a surprise request. He wondered if he might return with us and if at least my dad would accompany him on a shopping trip. There were a few things he wanted to pick up for the next day, not the least of which were four or five large grills for barbequing. There would potentially be a large number of guests at the Manor the next day, and he wanted to be prepared.

When I'd asked how he planned to get the barbies back to the Manor, he tested a theory he'd had that he could transport objects as Portkeys by themselves. He made an empty dish one, activated it with his wand, and we watched as it disappeared. We had all then Portkeyed to my house and found the dish sitting in the middle of our dining table. With the theory proven correct, we had all gone shopping together.

Several rather boisterous hours (and numerous unattended Portkeys back to the Manor) later, we had all returned to my house. Mum and dad had both hugged Harry affectionately before heading to bed and leaving the two of us alone, which I could tell affected him deeply. We chatted on the sofa in the living room for a little while, our dialogue amounting to very little, but the presence of the other comfortable in many ways. I had sensed that it was with some reluctance he said he needed to see to his purchases and get some sleep, so I'd drawn him into an embrace and we'd stayed like that for nearly twenty minutes. I had been practically dozing when he reiterated his need to go and, with the faintest touch of his lips to my cheek, had Portkeyed home.

It was that soft, almost friendly kiss and our extended hug that had me awake until midnight and up again at four, and now standing here as the rising sun's first warm rays caressed my face. My life had changed so completely in a year's time that I could not even rely on my books to provide me with some classic examples of what to do or think in similar scenarios because, really, fiction paled in comparison to my real life.

I had found out I was a witch and could harness some mysterious primal force called magic, and that there existed an entire world of magic separate from the one into which I'd been born and raised. I knew as I stood there on the balcony that I'd accepted it so easily at the time because, even though I had loving parents and a good lifestyle, I was a friendless bookworm. I did well in school, but from my perspective on 31 July 1992, the Muggle version of myself—as I'd started to think of the days before Hogwarts—had a lot to learn about life; namely, the crushing weight of solitude and its highly adverse effects on my psychology.

Not that my thoughts on that balcony were quite so explicit or well-worded, though. It was more of a deep-seated anxiety about the ephemeral nature of the things we want and enjoy in life, and a slightly unconscious resistance to dependence upon them should the worst happen, whatever that may mean.

Harry was my first true friend and had proven his great, immutable worth several times over in the year that I'd known him. His bravery and his selflessness were unreal, made all the more so by the fact that he had no idea just how courageous he was. It wasn't an act with him—it was the real thing. He would always put himself between his friends and danger, and he would always face oncoming threats with his head held high and with any fear or doubts left far behind. That is not to say that Harry didn't second guess himself or analyze things both before and after, because he most certainly did, but when the chips were down, he used his fearless instincts to prevail. This had been true during our first year at Hogwarts, and I was sure that it would continue to be true.

The prophecy and the Horcrux magic Dumbledore had revealed to us hinted at a possible future confrontation with a powerful, corporeal Voldemort, one that only Harry or Voldemort could decisively end, but Harry would never be alone in that type of situation. Dumbledore had said as much, and I knew in my heart that I would be there next to Harry should something like that come to pass. At that time—on that balcony in the glimmering early morning during that summer between first and second year—I had basically no concept of what mortal combat was, other than the few times I'd found myself in real danger during our first year, but I was aware that even being Harry's friend put me in a perpetual state of jeopardy until Voldemort and any followers were put down for good.

Funnily enough, that didn't bother me at all. It was something with which I could cope, especially if it meant that I'd be there to protect Harry and he'd be there to protect me. Our seemingly new and improved Hogwarts education would go a long way toward making magic an intrinsic, unconscious extension of our bodies, and we had some time, so I was not too worried about my own safety. But, perhaps hypocritically, I was wondering what I would do if something happened to Harry? Even considering something like that made my heart ache like it had never before in my life, and I was beginning to really wonder that meant.

His kiss and our long hug the night before was the most recent in a long line of such affections, but it had put me to thinking about what Harry meant to me. True, I was only twelve, but I was and had always been an avid reader, so I was no stranger to romance or relationships—at least of the fictive variety. This was real life, as it were, which explained my inability to sleep through the night.

As I stood there for awhile longer, basking in the rising warmth of daylight, I resolved to try to explore these feelings a little more, hopefully without scaring my best friend away. Harry had not shied away from affection in quite some time now, at least overtly, so I didn't think he would run screaming if I did anything. But I also did not want to make things awkward between us when we were so comfortable with each other. Our friendship was nearly perfect as it was; would a stolen kiss or a verbal hint of the direction of my feelings toward him ruin it all? Or would he feel the same way and reciprocate? I just had to find the right time to make my move—and I knew I would, because I wasn't put in Gryffindor for nothing. I may have done fine in all the houses, but Gryffindors charge ahead, and that's exactly what I was going to do.

My musings were eventually interrupted around seven o'clock by the door behind me sliding open. I turned, knowing who it would be, with a smile on my face and a greeting on my lips. What surprised me, though, was the fact that Harry was carrying two cups of steaming coffee in his hands. He had known I was here.

"Morning, Hermione," he said, yawning briefly, as he handed me one of the cups. The liquid was a light tan color; he knew I took my coffee with some cream and sugar. He always took his black, no sugar.

"Hi, Harry. Thanks for the coffee!" I replied, sipping the delicious beverage. He walked up to the railing and stared out across his property, across the Loch, and toward the wild Highlands beyond.

"How did you know I was here?" I asked, after sipping a few more times. He turned to me with a twinkle in his eyes, which I saw over his cup as he raised it to his lips.

"The same way you always know I'm at your house before you see me," he responded.

"You feel it too?"

He nodded. "A warm tingle," he said. "Something in my magic, I think."

"How long have you known I was here?"

"Just since I woke up," he said. His gaze then turned penetrating. "How long have you been here?"

"Hm, two hours or so," I told him. A black eyebrow quirked upward at that answer.

"Why were you up so bloody early? And why come here, other than the wonderful scenery?" He made a motion toward the scene that was now at his back as he faced me.

"Just thinking."

"Well, that is what you do best," he smirked.

"Gee, thanks Harry."

"Anytime!" he said, laughing. "I sent Hedwig last night with a letter that's also a timed Portkey to, er, Albus," he continued. "It should be waiting for him this morning. I invited him and any teachers that want to come to the party."

"Oh? How come?"

He took another sip of the coffee, appearing to think about his answer. "He told us a lot of things yesterday… I think he's trying to show us that we can trust him. I figure we might as well get more involved, especially if we're going to be seeing a lot more of him this year."

I nodded. It was reasonable. "What about the other teachers?"

"Why not? We live there almost ten months of the year. And as Albus said, I'm going to need all the help I can get if it really does come down to me and Voldemort."

I was amazed that Harry was able to talk about this so casually. It could have been that it was still more of a concept than a real thing, something so distant as to be purely intellectual, but it was still a rather big deal.

"True," I said. "But you'll also have all your friends, you know. And really, it doesn't seem like something we're going to need to worry about for a while yet. I think for today we should concentrate on the birthdays," I told him, smiling. "You know…swimming, enjoying the nice weather, gorging on some delicious food!"

"Yup! Speaking of food, I still need to set everything up out back. Want to help me?" he asked, showing me some puppy dog eyes. I cracked up laughing, but honestly, how could anyone resist that look coming from Harry? Or maybe it was a personal weakness… especially considering the direction of my thoughts before Harry had shown up.

As we turned to leave the balcony, mugs still in our hands, I suddenly stopped and sucked in my breath. I had realized something Harry might not have thought about. He turned to me with curious eyes.

"Harry! What if Snape comes?"

He looked like a fish out of water for a moment, obviously having not thought about the implications of inviting the staff of Hogwarts to the party—there was Filch too—but eventually he shrugged.

"Do you think he would actually come? If Albus passed the invitation along to him, he'd probably say something about me being a spoiled brat and an impudent whelp," he said, doing a passable imitation of our inimitable Potions professor at the end.

"Too right," I agreed, laughing again. We continued on our way back into the Manor.

Harry and I spent the next two hours putting out the tables, chairs, and grills we'd picked up the previous day. The grills were already assembled and functional, so we just wheeled them off the patio a bit; the tables took some effort, but we managed.

After that, I returned home to put my swimsuit on under what I would wear that day. Mum had insisted that she buy me some new bathing suits, since she thought I'd completely outgrown last summer's, so I had relented. She had picked out two one-pieces and two bikinis. My first inclination was to throw on a one-piece, but I paused as I reached for the sleek suit in my dresser.

Why not a bikini? I wasn't afraid to show a little skin around my friends. I knew I wasn't much to look at, but undoubtedly the other girls there would be wearing something similar. And, as my thoughts from the early morning came back to me, if I wanted to catch the attention of a certain black-haired wizard—more than his "friendly" attention at least… Suffice it to say that it wasn't much of a decision. I put on a new pink bikini and slipped short khaki shorts and a tank top over it. Flip flops completed the ensemble, though I did bring a light sweater just in case it grew chilly later in the day.

My parents had taken the day off from their practice, since it was a Friday, so I rounded them up around 9:45 and we all Portkeyed back over the Manor. Harry was waiting for us we appeared in the loft. He was wearing brightly colored board shorts, flip flops, and white tee with a palm tree on the front.

He smiled. "First here," he said. "I guess we'll wait for everyone else to start showing up?"

I nodded. My parents greeted Harry affectionately, as they were wont to do, and wandered off toward one of the balconies. They were walking close together, hand in hand, keeping to the patches of sunlight as much as they could. I hadn't seen them quite so relaxed in some time. Yet another thing for which I had Harry to thank, I supposed. We both watched them go with smiles on our faces.

"You look right spiffing," he said, turning to me. There was a devilish glint in his eyes and a light smirk at the corners of his lips.

"Thanks," I told him, dryly, rolling my eyes. "Not too bad yourself, you know? Once you rid yourself of your cousin's old things…"

Harry nodded emphatically. "I really don't miss all that."

"I don't either," I said, waggling my eyebrows a little. He laughed

"It's too bad we can't dress like this at Hogwarts," he commented. "Would certainly be lighter…"

"I don't know about you, but I don't have plans to go swimming at Hogwarts in February," I responded.

"I can't argue there," he said.

We continued to chat lightly as we waited for more to arrive. Just before ten, the entire Weasley clan showed up. Ron was first, followed by Ginny, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Fred, George, and Percy. I had only met Ginny and their parents once before, at an earlier gathering of Harry's friends and their families. Ginny was a slip of a girl, all flaming red hair and freckles, and she was a bit shy around me and Harry at first. Mr. Weasley was thin and balding, though what hair he did still have was also red. Mrs. Weasley was short, plump, and had light red hair, perhaps even with the barest hints of gray showing at some of the roots. Harry greeted them and directed them to explore the loft if they wanted; he was going to wait for all the arrivals. After many happy birthdays were passed around, Mr. Weasley, Mrs. Weasley, and Percy wandered off. Ron, Ginny, Fred, and George stuck around.

Then everyone started to cascade into the Manor. The Perks, the Thomases, the Finnegans, the Moons, the Browns, and finally the Patils Portkeyed in, one after another. It was quite an eclectic bunch.

Sally and her parents had been to the Manor before, so they were acclimated the most quickly to their surroundings. Her parents had been much more pleasant people since learning of Harry's wealth and lordship, which irked me to no end, but Harry had shrugged his shoulders about it and commented that it kept Sally where she should be—at Hogwarts with us. Hard to argue with that sentiment.

Dean was a Muggleborn, so his parents were understandably a little bewildered at the Portkey travel. There were three much younger children with them, too, but they stayed near Mr. and Mrs. Thomas most of the day, so I never really got a chance to speak with any of them. An interesting fact about Dean that didn't reveal itself until our seventh year (when I will say more about this) is that he is not actually a Muggleborn. He's a half-blood. His wizard father walked out on his Muggle mother just after his birth; she did not know he was a wizard. The man we were introduced to as Mr. Thomas was actually his stepfather, and his younger brothers and sister were his stepsiblings.

Seamus was an only child and a half-blood. His dad was a Muggle and his mother a witch, which he had told us the first night we were all together at Hogwarts the year before. Mrs. Finnegan wore casual, summer witch's robes, whereas Mr. Finnegan and Seamus were dressed in standard Muggle clothing.

Lily was a half-blood like Seamus. As she told us when we had all played football in the spring, her dad was a Muggle and her mum was a witch. She had a toddler-age younger brother who had just begun to show signs of accidental magic. Lily arrived with a football in hand, winking and nodding at Harry when he asked if we were all going to play again this afternoon. I was actually looking forward to that because I remembered having a great time during the first game.

The Browns and the Patils seemed to have Portkeyed together. Lavender, Parvati, and Padma were purebloods, so their parents were all dressed in light, airy robes. They greeted Harry rather formally, with "My Lord" and all that nonsense, but he tolerated it and they were soon mingling with the other parents.

We ten first years, plus Ginny, Fred, and George, were now more or less in a group by ourselves. We were all standing near the middle of the loft, where the Portkeys arrived.

"If the Headmaster or any Professors decide to come, they'll arrive in about two minutes," Harry said.

"You invited the Professors? And Dumbledore?" Seamus asked, incredulously. "Why would you ruddy do that?" The looks on most of the other faces around us seemed to be asking the same question.

"Why not?" Harry asked. "My home, my party… not like they can start taking points from anyone."

"But…but…what about Snape?" Dean asked, looking around with a horrified face.

I laughed at that, focusing everyone on me. "Sorry," I said, through my guffaws. "I actually asked Harry the same thing."

Harry was smiling at my amusement. "I don't think he'll come," he said, shrugging.

A sudden tingle of magic signaled the impending Portkey arrival. I looked at Harry and he nodded at me. It seemed as if at least one of the professors was coming.

They all appeared before us. Headmaster Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, Professor Flitwick, Professor Sprout, Professor Sinistra, Hagrid, and two women I knew to be Professors Babbling and Vector, who taught Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, respectively. Snape was nowhere to be seen.

There was a ninth person with them I did not recognize. He was wearing an extremely shabby set of wizard's robes that had been darned in several places. He looked ill and exhausted. Though appearing quite young, his thick light brown hair was flecked with gray.

"It is good to see everyone once again!" Dumbledore greeted us, gregariously. "I do not think too many introductions need go around, but since you are all just starting your second year, these two fine women are Professor Babbling and Professor Vector, who teach Ancient Runes and Arithmancy."

Bathsheba Babbling, as she introduced herself, had curly red hair that reached nearly to her waist. Her complexion was light and freckled, like much of the Weasley clan, and she appeared to be slightly younger than Professor McGonagall. Septima Vector had inky black hair, kept very short, and was approximately the same age as Babbling. Both women appeared to be in good shape, though it was a bit hard to tell with the robes.

Dumbledore continued. "Hagrid, of course," he said, glancing at the Keeper of the Keys. Hagrid was at least twelve feet tall, but even he did not come close to the high ceiling of the loft. "And this is Professor Remus Lupin, who will be taking up the Defense Against the Dark Arts position this year. Happy birthday, Mr. Potter!"

Everyone greeted everyone else. My attention was focused on Remus Lupin, though, whom we had discussed just the day previous. The man in question was staring at Harry as if he'd seen a ghost. Harry noticed this too because he was looking at Lupin; they stared at each momentarily and Harry nodded at him. He mouthed "later" to our newest professor. Introductions were dwindling at that point.

"Ok everyone," Harry said, raising his voice, so even those who had wandered off could hear him, "Neville should be arriving with his grandmother in just a few minutes. It's his and my twelfth birthdays. I think we should all do the Surprise! thing when he arrives, since he has no clue what's going on. He just thinks this is some kind of gathering."

Everyone present, after trickling back toward the center of the loft, agreed with Harry's suggestion, and we all moved into a semicircle. The adults were lined up behind all of us, some parents resting their hands on the shoulders of their children. Harry was on my right and Sally was on my left. Ron was on Sally's other side.

"Any second now…" Harry muttered.

Neville and his grandmother materialized.

"SURPRISE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY NEVILLE!" everyone shouted, along with some happy birthdays to Harry, too.

To say that Neville was flabbergasted would be a monumental understatement. His severe grandmother (looking rather odd with a stuffed bird perched on her hat) raised her eyebrows at the greeting.

"Uh…th-thanks?" he said.

There were chuckles all around at his shock. The laughter seemed to loosen him up, because he relaxed and rubbed the back of his head in slight embarrassment.

"Thanks, everyone. Really," he told us. His eyes zeroed in on Harry. "You did all this, didn't you, Harry?"

Harry merely grinned a Cheshire smile at our friend.

"Happy birthday, Nev," he said.

"Happy birthday, Harry," Neville returned. Harry walked forward and pulled him into a brief, one-armed man hug. And with that, the party really started.

The first order of business was a brief tour of the Manor, which Harry gave easily. It amazed me how collected and confident he was with all of these people, some who were complete strangers, but I guess I shouldn't really have been surprised. If anyone exuded the Gryffindor quality of courage, it was Harry.

Eventually, after countless exclamations over the Manor's beauty, the entire party made it to the backyard, where everyone saw our hard work from earlier that morning. The tour had taken a bit, with everyone trailing along, so it was nearly time for lunch. Harry had planned on kabobs for lunch and steak or chicken later for dinner. There were various assorted sides too that did not require much preparation.

"Alright you lot, I'm going to start on lunch, feel free to do whatever you want until it's ready!" he said, making his way toward the five gigantic barbies lined up just off the edge of the patio. The partygoers gradually split into smaller groups and mingled from there.

It was with a smile that I noticed the Muggle fathers gravitating toward Harry and the grills. My father, Mr. Moon, Mr. Finnegan, Mr. Thomas, and Mr. Perks all sidled up to Harry and asked if they could help. How stereotypically masculine.

"Sure, sure, just doing kabobs for lunch. All the veggies and meats are already cut up. I just need to bring the dishes out here," he said. "You all want to start these things up?"

All the fathers nodded, a little eagerly I might add. I followed Harry back into the kitchen.

"Going well so far, right?" he questioned, as he stopped in front of the refrigerator. Though it was from the early 1980s, it was still functional. One of these days we would have to figure out how all the appliances were powered, but for now we didn't question it.

As I helped him unload the trays with the food for the kabobs from the fridge, I replied:

"Smashing, Harry. You're a star." He smiled and blushed, ducking his head a bit, which he turned into a motion to get at the lower shelves of the fridge.

"This is all for Neville, you know. They know that."

"It's your birthday too!" I exclaimed. He retrieved the sixth and final tray from the fridge; it was a good thing he'd purchased so much food, because there were definitely many mouths to feed.

"But we planned all of this," he argued, motioning around ambiguously with his hand. "I'm not surprised by it all."

"You don't have to be," I replied, taking three trays in both of my arms while he took the other three. "It's still your birthday. You're both twelve now. We're celebrating for both of you."

"You're right," he conceded. He looked at me. "Thanks, Hermione. I guess I wasn't thinking about it like that."

"Don't worry," I smirked, as we crossed the threshold onto the back patio. "Although you're now a year older than when we met, I'm still here to put you to rights."

He chuckled. "Of that I have no doubt."

We arrived at the grills and placed all the trays on a nearby table. It was amusing watching Harry scold the dads, especially my dad, for attempting to begin the grilling without washing their hands. So he directed all of us back into the kitchen where that was accomplished. Dad rested his hand briefly on my shoulder as he passed back out of the Manor, discussing Manchester United with Mr. Finnegan.

Harry and I did a bit of the grilling, but the Muggle fathers pretty much took over after a while.

"I think we have it from here, Harry," my father said, shooing us away lightly. "It's your birthday, after all. You shouldn't have to be doing this." Harry shrugged and did as he was told.

We turned away from the grills and saw that several distinct groups had formed. There were two groups of adults, more or less split along gender lines—though not perfectly—and two groups of kids. Dean, Seamus, Parvati, Padma, Lavender, and Lily were about one hundred feet away at the edge of the wilder portion of the heath, talking animatedly with each other. Ron, Neville, Ginny, Fred, George, and Sally had meandered the other way, toward Loch Shin. Dean's siblings were still hanging around their parents.

"There's Lord Potter!" Fred exclaimed, as Harry and I approached that group. They all turned to us. "And I see that the fine Lady Granger accompanies him."

"Oh please, Fred. I'm not a Lady," I said.

"For now," he sing-songed, smiling hugely at me. I tweaked an eyebrow toward him and tapped the wand in my pocket. His smile slowly vanished.

"So how's everyone doing?" Harry asked, as we moved to sit by the shore. The smooth pebbles were warm from the bright sun.

Harry was asked about his summer so far, so he told the tale of Dobby the house-elf. As expected, most present looked mystified, though oddly enough Fred and George had the strongest reaction.

"Very fishy," Fred said.

"Definitely dodgy," George added. "So Dobby wouldn't tell you who's supposed to be plotting all this stuff?"

"I don't think he could if he'd wanted to," Harry replied. "As I said, every time he almost let something slip, he started punishing himself."

"Hmmm…" Fred intoned.

"Hmm indeed…" George said.

"What?" I asked, looking at them. "Do you think he was lying?"

"Look at it like this," Fred explained. "House-elves have very powerful magic all their own, but they can't typically use it without their master's or their family's permission."

"So…" Ron pushed.

"So you think it was some kind of prank?" I questioned, looking at the twins.

George spoke next: "I reckon Dobby was sent to stop you from returning to Hogwarts. Wouldn't that be a huge prank?"

"But…that doesn't make any sense," Harry said, slowly. I was nodding along with him.

"It seemed like he was really trying to warn us off, like he was actually interested in our well-being. If Dobby wasn't being sincere, then he's a marvelously good actor," I explained.

"Can you think of anyone with a grudge against you?" Fred asked.

Ron, Sally, Neville, Harry and I all looked at each other.

"Malfoy," we said, as one.

"Ah, the slimy Slytherin spawn of one Lucius Malfoy," George said.

"We've heard dad mention him a few times," Fred continued. "He was a big supporter of You-Know-Who."

"Voldemort," Harry said. "Call him Voldemort." Fred, George, and Ginny all flinched, looked around as if expecting the named would suddenly show up, and eventually nodded.

"Ok…Voldemort," George tested it. "When Voldemort disappeared, Lucius Malfoy came back saying he'd never meant any of it, that he'd been cursed…"

"Load of dung," Fred said. "Dad thinks he was right in Voldemort's inner circle."

Harry and I glanced at each other, a hundred words passing between us in the space of two seconds.

"Well, that makes a kind of sense," Harry said. "We told Dumbledore about it and he mentioned that Dobby is a Malfoy house-elf."

"There you have it," Ron said. "A bloody prank, from ruddy Malfoy."

"But Dobby was so sincere…" I said, trailing off. Fred and George shrugged.

"Dumbledore said they'd be taking precautions anyway," Harry told everyone. "So best to forget it for now."

Conversation passed idly after that. Fred and George teased Harry about the size of his house, the size of his property, the size of his wealth, and the assumed size of his… well, let's not go there. There were many embarrassed laughs all around at that little bit of humor, especially when the quiet-so-far Ginny threatened to Bat Bogey hex her older brothers for their rudeness. Sally and I were impressed when Fred and George actually looked cowed.

"Don't let those nutters fool you," Ginny told us, conspiratorially. "Strong-arm them and they quit bugging you. I don't think Ron has figured that one out yet," she continued. She then regaled us with a few hilarious tales of pranks gone awry, most of which Ron took the brunt of before he went to Hogwarts.

"So you'll be joining us this year, right?" Sally eventually asked. The boys were all involved in a conversation about Quidditch this year. I could tell that Harry was valiantly withholding the information Dumbledore had told us the previous day, about the House Quidditch teams going away. The Headmaster hadn't implied Quidditch was stopping altogether, though, so I was curious how it would work.

Ginny nodded. "Yes, finally," she answered, tossing her mid-length fiery red hair over a shoulder. "If I had to spend another year at home with mum alone, I'd go spare."

Sally and I nodded, commiserating. Ron had told us a few stories about how overbearing their mother could be from time to time. But I shouldn't have been so quick to judge; I barely knew Mrs. Weasley at the time. Looking back, I do feel badly about disrespecting her like that, even tacitly.

"Lunch is ready!" a voice called, one I recognized to be my father's. All eight of us looked at each other for a split second, grinned, and jumped to our feet. Before I knew it, we were all racing back toward the Manor.

Fred and George tied for the win, due to their longer legs, but the rest of us weren't too far behind. The other group of kids had started their own impromptu race after seeing ours, and we all converged on the back patio huffing slightly, with rosy cheeks and energized smiles on our faces.

Lunch was delicious. The kabobs were grilled to perfection. There was an assortment of magical and Muggle drinks and sides to augment the main course, and no one went away hungry. I ended up at a table with Harry, Sally, Neville, Ron, my mum, and Remus Lupin.

"Mr. Potter," Remus said, after we'd settled in. His voice was soft, mellifluous, and articulate. "Thank you for inviting me to the Manor."

Harry finished chewing his food. "Please, Professor, I think you of all people can call me Harry. It's what my parents would want…"

Lupin's eyes widened slightly before understanding dawned in them. The rest of us at the table couldn't help but watch this exchange.

"Yes, I'm sure you're right. When not at school, feel free to call me Remus then."

"I think I will," Harry nodded. "You were one of their friends, right?"

Remus smiled, and it made the exhaustion and the false age melt away from his face. "I do believe I was one of their best friends," he said. "At least I was your father's for many years. After he finally won Lily's heart, we were great friends as well."

Harry was looking down at his food. I could sense that his mood had shifted somewhat, so I reached over and laid my hand on top of his. He looked over at me and there was a thank you in his eyes. Remus watched this little exchange closely.

Harry raised his eyes. "Finally?" he asked. "What do you mean?"

"Ah, well, hmm, how to say this… James was a bit of a hellion for his first four or five years at Hogwarts. Lily thought he was an immature ponce for a few of those years," Remus said, smiling, because it had all worked out in the end. Harry was hanging on this information about his parents like a man in the desert would an oasis.

"What changed?" I asked, quietly. Harry didn't seem to be bothered by my intrusion.


"Granger," I said. "Hermione Granger."

"I thought so," Remus affirmed. "The Headmaster told me about you. Smartest witch since Lily Potter, were his words."

My eyebrows were nearly touching my hair at his statement and Harry was looking at me, a little smile crinkling the corners of his mouth and eyes.

"But to answer your question…the war, unfortunately. Hogwarts was pretty nearly split down the middle by the time we were all in fifth year, so we all had to do a bit of maturing. Granted, it wasn't an overnight process, but it happened. James was made Head Boy in his seventh year after not being a Prefect, so you can imagine the changes in him.

"And I think Lily was waiting for it, really. As soon as James was someone worthy of her fierce loyalty and affection, she finally acquiesced to a date with him. It didn't take them long to become the golden couple after that."

Harry was staring at me now. He glanced down at my hand on top of his and turned his own so that we were gripping each other. My stomach fluttered, though I was unsure why at the time.

Harry nodded at Remus, and silence spread across the table as we returned to our food for a few minutes. Reluctantly, I had to let go of Harry's hand to properly eat.

"Did you know that my parents named you as a possible guardian for me in their will?" Harry suddenly asked.

Remus nodded, but looked pained. "I thought they might," he told us, "though I was never sure because the will wasn't read.

"How come…" Harry trailed off, struggling with what he wanted to say. "How come you didn't, well, didn't try to find me?" My hand automatically went back to his at this loaded question. I looked at mum on my other side and she was frowning with compassion toward Harry.

"You two know of my condition?" he asked, delicately. Harry and I nodded; Neville was the only one confused, because we had told Ron, Sally, and mum the night before. "The Ministry of Magic has certain regulations regarding conditions of that nature, one of which precludes me from becoming a guardian."

"So it was moot for Harry's parents to name you anyway?" Sally asked. Her lips were pursed in consternation, most likely at the injustice.

"Yes, unfortunately. I would have been honored, but even they knew it was more of a gesture than anything else."

Everyone digested this for a few moments, along with more food. Conversation moved on to less emotional subjects; we talked about what the new Hogwarts would be like this year, and Neville was quite frankly astonished at all the changes, since he had not been present when we explained it all to Ron and Sally the night before. Harry was a little reticent through the rest of the meal, no doubt absorbing the information about his parents. As the Mirror of Erised had suggested, family was his greatest and deepest desire, and this was a taste of that.

After lunch, as the afternoon wore on and warmed up, we first years decided to play some football. The teams were the same as they were when we had played at Easter, and, once again, Dean, Seamus, and Lily ran circles around the rest of us, but it was loads of fun nonetheless.

Lily's mum transfigured two goals for us, since she knew what they looked like and approximately how big they should be. Some of the adults spectated, cheering us on here and there, but many were content to mingle and chat on the back patio or down by the loch. Dumbledore actually watched the game attentively, delighting in the Muggle sport apparently. It was probably because it was something fairly new and different to him, though how he could be ignorant of football after living in Britain for so long was a mystery to me.

We were all hot and sweaty after the game, so we decided to go swimming in the dark blue waters of Loch Shin. Lavender suggested it first, and we all agreed quickly, so we headed for the pebbled shore.

Once there, an awkward moment passed as we all considered the reality of stripping to our swimsuits; but, ever the Gryffindor, Harry shrugged eventually and pulled off his shirt. He kicked off his sandals and put his glasses with his things. The rest of us took that at as our cue to stop being such ninnies about it and soon enough we were all standing there in our suits.

The boys all had variations of board shorts and all of the girls were in bikinis. I liked to think I wasn't a particularly vain or shallow person, but I couldn't help the brief inspection of my year mates that passed through my head.

All five boys were healthy, though they fell on a spectrum from very athletic with Dean to just slightly pudgy with Neville. I blushed as I caught myself staring at Harry's bare chest, which was caught between the softer lines of childhood and the harder edges of adolescence.

I was more critical of the girls, including myself, and I suppose that was natural. As far as athleticism was concerned, Lily was obviously tops there—I thought I could even see some of her taut abdominals—but I didn't think I was too far behind her. Lavender was the softest of all of us, but by no means was she more than barely pudgy. With all of us in bikinis, it was easy to see that we were developing into young women, and my mind automatically compared assets.

Lavender had the biggest bust, so far at least; whereas the Patil twins had barely begun to develop in that regard. I was firmly in the middle of that category. I had undergone some visible changes of late, but nothing too astounding yet.

I couldn't help the smirk that spread across my face as I considered our bums, however. From my cursory inspection, I appeared to be winning in that category. The other girls were still mostly bony and flat in that regard, except Sally, whereas I definitely had some developing firmness and roundness. It was a real boost to my self-esteem, however silly it might have been.

After staring uncomfortably at each other for about ten seconds, someone laughed and then we were all laughing.

"Think we should all run in together?" Ron suggested, looking at the loch.

"Absolutely!" I said.

"On the count of three…" Harry added.

"One," Lily said.

"Two," Seamus continued.

"…THREE!" we all shouted, and tore off across the smooth pebble beach toward the water. Fifteen feet…ten feet…five feet…I could smell the clean water now…one foot…

"AHHH!" everyone screamed, as our feet hit the water. As one, we all about-faced and hightailed it back to the beach.

It was so cold!

Apparently, even in high summer, this area's far northern location prevented the water from warming up very much. We were lucky if it was even 15 degrees Celsius.

The problem was solved soon enough, however. The adults, witnessing our distress, cast a warming charm on each of us. They explained the water would still be cool, but we would be able to tolerate the cold liquid.

Much more tentatively we all returned to the water. After dipping our toes in and finding that it was indeed much better with the charm, most of us ran all the way into the loch.

The bottom was sandy and pebbly, so it wasn't too gross to stand in the water. I was glad it wasn't muddy or weedy because I always hated the feeling of things brushing against my legs.

We passed the time leisurely enough. The water was very clear, very cold, and very refreshing. I paddled over to Harry at one point, who was floating on his back and looking up at the clear blue sky. The sounds of splashing and laughing faded into the background.

"You look quite dunkable right now, Lord Potter," I said.

He raised his head, directing a challenge at me with the upward twitch of his eyebrow.

"I'd like to see you try, Lady Granger," he said, repeating the twins' earlier name for me.

A shit-eating grin slowly spread across my face. Suddenly, I pounced on him, pushing him briefly under the water. His body was hard and warm and slippery in the water, and my stomach fluttered again. I had never been quite so familiar with him.

He came up spluttering, brushing water out of his face; he was looking at me like I was a new person. I only had time to think that far though, because his hands were on my shoulders and he was pushing me under, retaliating. Lithely, I partially slipped from his grasp, but he adjusted his grip so he was now touching my back, and pushed me under. His hands moved to my waist as he held me under for just a moment. Then he gripped my hips and hauled me to the surface.

I was laughing as I cleared my face of my hair. He was slow to let go of me…

"I suppose I deserved that," I said, finally able to look at him with water no longer in my eyes.

"Yes, I believe you did," he retorted, laughing as well.

"DUNK WAR!" Seamus screamed from behind me, and we were all immediately involved in the dunk contest to end all dunk contests. Harry and I mostly found ourselves trying to dunk each other. I wasn't complaining, really.

Tired and happy, we all stumbled out of the loch as the time for dinner approached. Dumbledore cast a powerful drying charm, canceling the warming charm as well. We dressed rapidly as the chilling Highland early evening suddenly blossomed on our skin. I even put on the light sweater I had thought to bring.

As I shimmied into my clothes, the ghost of Harry's hands still trailed over my body. My goose bumps were not only the result of the air temperature.

Around ten o'clock, about twenty minutes after sunset as twilight still filled the majority of the sky, Harry's Portkeys returned almost everyone to their departure points. There were many happy birthdays all around for both Harry and Neville as everyone left.

The Hogwarts group was the first to go. Remus promised Harry they would chat more about his parents. McGonagall congratulated Harry on an excellent party, thanking him for his hospitality.

"Your parents would be proud of you, Mr. Potter," she said, causing Harry to swallow thickly and nod his head once. The Professors were all swept away by the Portkey magic shortly thereafter.

The Thomases, the Finnegans, the Moons, the Browns, and the Patils were all soon to follow. The rest of us all had personal Portkeys Harry had provided earlier in the summer, so we were not on a timer.

After much wrangling with the adults, Neville, Sally, Ron, and I were allowed to stay with Harry for just a little while longer. My parents told me in no uncertain terms they expected me home by midnight; similar sentiments were expressed by the others, though Mrs. Weasley and the formidable Lady Longbottom wanted Neville and Ron home by eleven. They surrendered, knowing even that much leeway was a boon.

Finally, it was just the five of us. We were on the back patio again, everyone in much warmer clothing now. The area was softly lit from within the Manor, casting long shadows into the heath, which disappeared into the twilight Highlands beyond.

"That was pretty brilliant," Ron commented, sighing, and sagging against his chair.

"I had loads of fun," Neville said. "Thanks for putting this all together."

"Not a problem, Nev," Sally said, reaching over and patting his hand. "Happy birthday to you and Harry."

"What do you all think about the changes coming to Hogwarts this year?" I asked.

"More bloody work!" Ron said. I half-heartedly reprimanded him for his language, because I could tell his wasn't completely serious.

"Yes, there is that," Harry agreed. "But…I don't know, I guess I'm excited?"

"I am too," Sally said.

"I think it's going to a lot harder," Neville added. "But that doesn't mean I'm not excited."

"I'm really looking forward to it too," I told them. "We all learned so much last year, but sometimes magic feels like a tool."

"What do you mean?" Harry asked.

How could I articulate this exactly? It was something that had been at the back of my mind for a while.

"Well…like when we graduate from Hogwarts, I've wondered how many Muggleborns just go back into the Muggle world? We'll always have our magic and it's dead useful, but there's not a lot magical people can do that Muggles can't."

"But what about Quidditch?" Ron asked.

"Of course there are some things that are entirely of the magical world. That's not what I meant…" I trailed off, frustrated momentarily.

"You want it to mean more than an easy way to wash the dishes, or repairing a torn shirt," Harry said, quietly. Yes! That was it! I could see by Sally's smile that she now understood.

"Right," I said. "Thanks Harry. I mean that I want it to feel like a natural extension of me, rather than just something I use from time to time."

"And you think the changes this year will help it to feel like that?" Neville wondered.

I shrugged. "Maybe. It seems like we'll be doing and learning so much more than before, at least."

We all passed into idle speculation about what the Dueling class with Flitwick and the Advanced Spellcasting class with Dumbledore would be like. Even Ron got excited about the practical possibilities inherent in those two classes, especially when Neville wondered if there would be some kind of dueling competition this year.

Soon enough, Ron and Neville had to leave, as it was eleven o'clock. With their final goodbyes still hanging in the air, they Portkeyed away.

It was down to Sally, me, and Harry now. We continued to chat about the upcoming year and what we thought we would be doing for the rest of the summer. All of us still had some summer work to complete, so we made plans to meet up the following week to finish it.

Sally yawned hugely around 11:20. She then gave me a rather pointed look and grinned saucily at my raised eyebrows.

"I think I'm going to head back and get some sleep," she said, standing and moving toward Harry. She leaned down and lightly embraced him, looking at me the whole time.

"Thanks, Harry. It really was a lovely day."

"Of course, Sally," he said, looking at her with slight twinkle.

She came over and hugged me as well. "Now don't stay too late," she whispered in my ear, giggling.

"Night, Sally," I said, loudly, smiling at her.

"Night," she replied, smirking. She activated her Portkey and was gone.

The night had fully closed in around us. There might have still been the barest whisper of twilight on the western horizon, but otherwise darkness had descended. I was growing chilled, so I moved my chair closer to Harry, hoping to steal some of his body heat.

He reached out for my hand as I settled in next to him. Our fingers twined together.

"Happy birthday," I said.

"Thanks," he smiled. "I don't know how many times I've heard that today."

I said nothing, content to merely enjoy his company.

"You know, this is the first birthday I've actually celebrated."

Somehow, I wasn't surprised. Based on everything he'd either said or hinted about his life with the Dursleys, it wasn't too shocking. I couldn't help the growl that escaped my lips, though.

"Those…people," I said.

He squeezed my hand. "I don't ever have to see them again. No worries."

I wasn't convinced, but I let it go for now. Harry was the sweetest, bravest, sometimes the most stubborn boy I knew. How could his relatives have treated him so awfully? I swore then and there that I would have my revenge on them, when I could.

We sat in companionable silence for some time, only occasionally and briefly talking about the day that was now almost over. The wind over the land was the only other noise.

Eventually, I stood and pulled Harry to his feet. My heart was suddenly pounding with what I knew I wanted to do. How would Harry react? Would I bollocks everything up?

"I should be going," I said, pulling him into a hug. He returned the embrace, wrapping his arms around my back tightly. I buried my face into his shoulder for a moment.

We pulled apart slightly, looking at each other. My breath almost caught in my throat at the look in his eyes. They were smoldering.

It was now or never. Heart pounding, palms sweating, doubts swirling through my head, I leaned forward slowly, giving him plenty of time to back away.

He didn't move.

I closed my eyes at the last millisecond and lightly pressed my lips to his. He smelled spicy and woody and wonderful. His lips were warm and soft.

He froze completely for a fraction of a second. Then he responded gently to the kiss, pressing back ever so slightly.

Merlin, I thought I might die! My heart zinged off ahead of itself and my face flushed so much I was sure Harry could feel the heat from it.

It lasted all of ten seconds. I pulled back and opened my eyes. We stared at each other, blushing profusely and breathing in short, loud gasps.

But we didn't look away. Our eyes stayed lock on each other. Countless emotions were swirling in his eyes, and I'm sure mine matched. Wonder, joy, elation, comfort, acceptance, friendship, love—all those and more I was feeling, and they were all wrapped into a wonderful ache somewhere in the middle of my heart.

"Good night, Harry," I finally said. My voice was throaty and breathy, in a way I'd never heard before. "Sleep well."

"You too, Hermione," he breathed. Oh, Merlin! His voice was the same way! And it did things to me I didn't even know how to properly describe.

With the intense flush fading from both of our faces, I Portkeyed away.

The house was dark and silent when I arrived in the living room. I rushed up the stairs to my bedroom, closed the door behind me, and fell on my back with a gasping sigh onto my bed.

I'd just kissed Harry Potter! Of all the brazen things I'd ever done, surely this topped the list. And he kissed me back! I thought my heart might jump right out of my chest. My lips still buzzed and I touched them with the tips of my fingers.

It had been a day for the ages.