Disclaimer

The Harry Potter universe and all the characters in it belong to J. K. Rowling. I get nothing out of this except enjoyment.

Introduction – Does the fanfiction world really need another Yule Ball story? Probably not, but I'm going to post it anyway. We'll see if you readers think it was worth it. This idea of this last dance came to me while I was writing When Harry Met Hermione, but it didn't fit in that story, so I wrote it up separately. Call it another 'What If?' story. After all, JKR has publicly stated that the relationships could have turned out differently (i.e. – Harry/Hermione rather than Ron/Hermione) so it seems reasonable to speculate on what might have caused things to change, right?

So, this fic is completely canon compatible right up to the point at which it begins, inserts a perfectly plausible change, and then proceeds logically from there.

-xox-XOX-XOX-xox-

The Last Dance

Hermione Granger looked around the Great Hall, trying to locate her best friend, Harry Potter. Overall, she'd had a good time at the Yule Ball that night, although she suspected he hadn't enjoyed it very much. The only flaw in the evening, as far as she was concerned, was her confrontation with her other friend, Ron Weasley, who'd accused her of betraying Harry by coming to the ball with his Triwizard competitor, Viktor Krum.

To her relief, Harry had stuck up for her, saying he didn't have a problem with her coming with Krum, but Ron had ignored him and continued his diatribe. She had stalked off and tried to put the redheaded prat out of her mind for the rest of the evening.

She did appreciate Harry's defense, though, and wanted to thank him for it. More than that, she had hoped that she could dance with him tonight, and it was getting late. If she were going to get him out on the dance floor, it had better be soon.

Finally spotting him sitting in a corner with Ron, she excused herself from Viktor. Making her way up to them, and acting as if Ron weren't even there, she grabbed Harry's hand and pulled him to his feet.

"Dance with me?" she asked, an imploring look in her eyes. Startled, Harry looked at her for a moment, then shrugged. She smiled, having been pretty sure he wouldn't be able to say no to her, and pulled him out to the dance floor. The annoyed look on Ron's face brightened her mood even more.

Before the next song began, however, the lead singer announced that this would be the last dance of the night, and that everyone should grab that special someone and come to the dance floor. Harry and Hermione stood there staring uncomfortably at each other for several long seconds, trying to decide what to do. It would be even more awkward if they turned and walked away from each other, now that they were out here. And neither of them had any special someone that they'd want to dance with instead. Hermione briefly considered what her relationship with Viktor was, and decided that if she were to dance with the person who was most special to her, it would be Harry, not him. And she had wanted to dance with Harry, and this would be her final chance.

She raised her arms, signaling that she wanted to go through with it anyway. After a slight hesitation, he accepted.

Of course, it was a slow dance. All around them the other couples were abandoning the formal dance steps for the 'clutch and sway' technique. Accordingly, Hermione put her arms around Harry and laid her head against his shoulder. Not knowing what else to do, he dropped both his hands to her waist as they revolved on the spot.

After a few seconds he relaxed. This was essentially going to be a three minute hug. With any other girl it would be awkward, but he'd been hugged by Hermione plenty of times. In fact, Hermione was the only one who ever hugged him, at least that he could remember. He could even categorize her hugs. There was the nervous/terrified hug, for when he was about to do something dangerous. There was the relieved hug, for when he'd just finished doing something dangerous. There were also enthusiastic hugs of greeting, when they hadn't seen each other for a while, and sad hugs of farewell, when they wouldn't be seeing each other for a while.

But this was a different sort of hug, the first one of its kind. This was a comfortable, affectionate, I'm-glad-you're-my-friend hug. And it gave him a more peaceful, relaxed, contented feeling. It felt nice. And given that his mind wasn't occupied with anything pressing this time, and given the way Hermione was dressed, it was also much more evident that he was hugging a girl. No, he was hugging a young woman.

"Thanks for sticking up for me earlier," she murmured, interrupting his thoughts. He immediately knew what she was referring to.

"No problem," he responded automatically. Unseen by her, he rolled his eyes briefly. How could he not stick up for her? For one thing, she was right and Ron was wrong. But more than that, how could he not stick up for his best friend who had stuck with him through everything? Who had never given up on him? He owed her so much!

Impulsively, he raised his hands to her back and gave her a tight squeeze. She pulled away to look at him, a question in her dark brown eyes.

"Thank you," he whispered firmly. "For always being there when I need you."

She beamed at him, then lowered her head to his shoulder again. Instead of moving his hands back to her waist he left them where they were, wrapping his arms around her more snugly. He also wondered why he hadn't thought of dancing with Hermione earlier. This was much more pleasant than his other dance, with Parvati, had been. Suddenly he felt a trace of dampness on his shirt. Hermione was crying!

"I'm sorry," he whispered, beginning to panic. "What did I …" But Hermione cut him off with a vigorous shake of her head.

"These are happy tears," she sniffed. Then she moved her arms higher, wrapping them around his neck, and pulling her body closer to his.

"I love you, Harry," she whispered.

A feeling of shock rippled through Harry. But an instant later he wondered why he should be shocked. Of course she loved him. She was his dearest and truest friend. Why else would she have done all the things that she'd done for him over the past three years? You don't act that way for an ordinary friend. And he felt the same way about her. He'd do anything for her, up to and including risking his life. She was the most important person in his life.

The preceding line of thought had taken less than three seconds. "I love you too, Hermione," he whispered back. Her grip tightened even more, and the dampness returned to his shoulder. This time he smiled. They both knew what they meant. They understood each other better than anyone else. They weren't talking about romance. It was friendship, of the deepest, most abiding kind.

Across the hall, at the head table, the Headmaster prepared to announce the conclusion of the ball. As he often did, he was watching Harry Potter, the boy on whose shoulders rested their entire future. And while, fortunately for the pair of young Gryffindors, no one around them heard their declarations, he could see the feelings they were conveying to each other. There would need to be a slight change in plans for the second task. For it was abundantly clear right now that there was nothing in the world more precious to Harry Potter than Hermione Granger.

In that instant the story of Harry Potter's life changed. With this last dance, his path jumped to a different track. And while the new track would roughly parallel the original for a time, eventually it would go off in another direction entirely.

A seed had been planted. The seed was a feeling that both of the students out there dancing together shared, the feeling that being in each other's arms was a very pleasant place to be. Eventually it would grow, but not just yet. Romance could wait until later to fully blossom.

The song ended and everyone applauded, then began to move gradually into the entrance hall. Harry and Hermione politely thanked each other for the dance, and smiled at the formality that was so out of place between the closest of friends. Hermione took his hand and began to pick her way through the crowd, searching out Viktor Krum.

When she found him, Harry released his grip in order to move away and give them some privacy to say goodnight, but to his surprise Hermione didn't let go. Even so, he took a step back and looked away as Krum took her other hand and raised it to his lips. The Bulgarian thanked her for the evening, shot a disgruntled look at his competitor, and turned to head back to his ship.

The two friends shared a look. Without needing to say anything aloud, they silently communicated that they were feeling particularly close to each other right now, and neither wanted it to end yet. Hands still linked, they headed for the stairs.

"Hey Harry!"

It was Cedric Diggory, beckoning him over, while Cho Chang waited a short distance away. Harry and Hermione shared a quick glance, shrugged, and jointly changed direction to see what the Hufflepuff champion wanted.

Cedric looked back and forth between the two Gryffindors, and came to realize that the two of them were in this together, with Hermione as involved in the tournament as Harry was, all except for the actual performance of the tasks.

"Listen," he began, lowering his voice. "You know that golden egg? Does yours wail when you open it?"

"Yeah," said Harry as Hermione squeezed his hand, both of them cottoning on to the fact that Cedric was about to give him a hint, likely in repayment for the tip about the dragons.

"Take a bath with it, OK?" the older boy revealed. Harry was about to ask for clarification when Hermione nodded. Seeing that his message had been received, Cedric advised him to use the prefects' bathroom and gave him the password, then hurried back to Cho.

Harry was surprised to discover that even though he'd been hating the handsome Hufflepuff all evening, he wasn't that annoyed to see him walk away with his arm around the pretty Ravenclaw. Before he had time to examine that thought further, Hermione was tugging him back to the stairs.

At the top Ron was waiting for him, falling into step on his other side. Hermione shot him a cold look, then blatantly ignored him. She also maintained her grip on Harry's hand. From the way it tightened, almost painfully so, he could sense the strain she was under.

Unfortunately, Ron couldn't keep his mouth shut. "So, what was that all about, then?" he demanded.

Before Harry could figure out how to word his response, Hermione snapped back. "I decided I wanted to have a dance with my best friend. Do you have a problem with that?"

Ron's face was screwed up with uncertainty. He really couldn't continue his accusation of Hermione betraying Harry, not with her walking right next to him holding his hand. And he really couldn't complain about her dancing with Harry, not with the way she'd just worded it. He couldn't even object to her calling him her best friend, given how he'd gone off on her earlier. But he was still angry!

"Well, I know I feel like a right idiot," Harry blurted out, trying to diffuse the tension with some self-deprecating humor. That got the attention of both of them.

"I wish I would have thought to ask Hermione to the ball earlier, before she already had a date," he admitted, turning to shoot her a smile. "Then the whole thing would have been a lot more enjoyable." Hermione's face softened, and she beamed at him. She gave his hand a quick squeeze of appreciation, then relaxed her grip.

Ron wasn't mollified in the slightest by this admission. "Huh!" he muttered dismissively, as though that was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.

Although Hermione had calmed down, she still wasn't willing to let Ron get away with that without being challenged.

"Thank you, that's sweet of you to say," she responded to Harry gently. Then, raising her voice, she addressed the third member of the somewhat shaky trio. "Perhaps you could learn something from this too, Ronald," she admonished. "The next time there's a ball, you should ask the girl you want to go with right away, before someone else does, and not as a last resort."

Her timing was perfect, and she disappeared through the portrait hole before he could reply. Harry followed her, leaving Ron to stew for a few seconds before he came through. When he emerged into the common room, Harry was standing there blocking him from Hermione, who had moved over toward the girls' staircase.

"That's … that's just so …" Ron began to sputter, his face bright red. But Harry had heard enough, and held up his hand, cutting him off.

"Just let it go," he hissed. "Or better yet, apologize." Ron stood there looking thunderstruck for a few seconds, before turning to storm off up to his room.

Harry quickly caught up with Hermione, who'd lingered on her way to her own stairs, hoping he'd do just that. They stopped at the foot of the staircase and clasped hands, looking into each other's eyes.

"Thanks for asking me to dance," Harry said softly. "I really enjoyed it. Almost made the whole ball worthwhile," he added with a grin.

"I enjoyed it too," she smiled. "Good night." Then she did something she had never done before, and kissed him on the cheek. Blushing lightly, she turned and took a few quick steps up the staircase, before looking back.

"We'll start working on that egg tomorrow," she announced. Then she hurried the rest of the way up the stairs and disappeared.

Harry stood staring for several seconds after, a grin slowly forming on his face. That was so like Hermione.

His Hermione.

-xox-XOX-XOX-xox-

A/N So, Harry got the kiss on the cheek six months earlier than in the book. And Hermione was his hostage instead of Krum. And eventually, Harry and Hermione became more than friends. Beyond that, who knows? This is just a one-shot to initiate the possibilities.