If I owned Harry Potter, I would have written Hermione falling for Harry the first time, instead of realizing I'd made a mistake years later.

(To tell the truth, I literally jumped up and down with glee when I heard. Teenage me has finally been vindicated!)

Chapter Ten
The Invitation

Snow was beginning to blanket the grounds a week later when Harry and his friends found their study session turning into a chat about holiday plans.

"…going to Romania to visit my brother Charlie, so Mum asked us to stay here over Christmas," Ron said. "I figure I'll have the run of the common room, at least. How about you guys? And what is the Horklump juice for?"

"It makes the lionfish poison affect plants," Neville mumbled. "I'll be back at Longbottom Lodge with Gran and my great-aunts and -uncles. At least they won't be trying to get any accidental magic out of me this time."

"I'll be heading home too," Hermione said. "Mum and Dad are anxious to see me again. I don't think they slept a single night under a different roof from me since I was born, and it's been nearly four months now. Harry?"

He shrugged. "I guess I'll go back to Privet Drive."

"You could stay here," Ron said.

"No," Harry said. "I'm getting a bit stir-crazy. Need to visit someplace that isn't made of stone."

Hermione gave him a look. "Well," she said suddenly, closing her books, "I think I'm going to pop down to the library to look up a reference on the properties of flobberworm mucus."

Ron looked at her like she was mad. "Why? This essay is just supposed to be about the Horklumps and lionfish spines, isn't it?"

"Well, I thought I'd add some additional background," she said.

Ron shook his head.

"I'll come with you," Harry said. "I wanted to look some stuff up for Transfiguration. Just let me finish this sentence…"

A few minutes later, they stepped through the portrait hole.

"So, what is it you wanted to talk about?" Harry asked.

"A few things," Hermione said. "First, you asked whether they could change the rule to ban heirloom weapons. It seems that due to a political power struggle, it's impossible to change the Hogwarts rules."

"What?" Harry asked.

"In 1706, the Board of Governors signed an agreement with the Ministry of Magic to make Hogwarts tuition free to all wizards and witches in the British Isles. In exchange, the agreement required that the government ratify all changes to the school rules, and be able to create new rules by decree."

"Okay…"

"Well, for most of the time since that agreement, that's been interpreted to mean that the Wizengamot and the Minister both have to approve the changes. But in 1979, at the height of the war, Minister Bagnold wanted to decree that all students should be checked for the Dark Mark and turned over to the Ministry if they were found to have it."

"Sounds sensible," Harry said.

"The Wizengamot didn't agree. They refused to approve it, whereupon Bagnold claimed that 'the government' really meant 'the Minister', and ordered Hogwarts to implement the rule. Dumbledore refused to do it."

"He was the head of the Wizengamot already then, wasn't he?"

"Yes," Hermione said. "Ever since, there's been a standoff—the Minister refuses to consent to any 'illegitimate' rules passed by the Wizengamot, and the Headmaster refuses to implement any 'illegitimate' rules passed by the Minister."

"And while they bicker over who's in charge of what, none of them can close that loophole," Harry said. "Excellent."

"As for the other thing…" Hermione took his hand, pulling him into a side corridor. "Harry, are you looking forward to seeing your relatives again?"

He sighed and shook his head. "You heard what I said on Halloween. There's no love lost between us. But if I stay here, I can't get to Knockturn Alley."

"What if you could go somewhere else?" Hermione asked. "Not your relatives' house, and not Hogwarts, but somewhere else you could get to Knockturn."

Harry's eyes widened. "That...that would be brilliant," he said. "What do you have in mind?"

"I asked my parents if I could invite you to join us for Christmas break," she said. "So…would you like to join us for Christmas break?"

"I would, but…would your parents let us go to the Alley alone?"

"I have a plan for that," she said. "Mum and Dad always spend the last day of the month on cleaning, inventory, and restocking. For December, they do it on the 23rd. They never miss it. They've even sent me on errands alone because of it."

"So if I made an appointment for that day, they wouldn't be able to come?"

"Right," Hermione said.

"Then I guess I'll be spending Christmas with you and your parents." He paused for a moment. "What were their names again?"

Hermione giggled.

And so it was that, when Malfoy mockingly lamented the fate of those who had to stay at Hogwarts over Christmas, Harry answered, "Me too. But even worse are the ones who, after all these years, still haven't received an ounce of subtlety for Christmas."

The points Snape took were well worth it to get Malfoy to sputter like that.

"I told you to do it last night, Harry," Hermione said from her perch on his bed.

Harry grunted, collecting a stack of books from his nightstand. "I'm just about done," he said, "and breakfast hasn't even started yet. We'll be fine. I'm not Seamus, you know."

"Oi!" Seamus said as he hurriedly stuffed dirty laundry into his trunk. "I resent that."

"Why?" Dean said from his bed, where he was deflating a football to make it small enough to fit. "He has a point. You didn't start packing until this morning."

"I resent it because it's true," Seamus said, and everyone laughed.

Ron groaned. "S'too early f'r noise. Go back t' bed."

"Some of us have a train to catch, Ronald," Hermione said.

"An' some don'," Ron mumbled, turning over and putting a pillow over his head.

Hermione shook her head, and Harry opened his trunk's library compartment, shelving the books within it.

"Oh," Hermione said, "I've been meaning to look at that one." She was pointing to one of Harry's books, a green volume with the title Secrets and Lies in white on the spine. "Mind if I borrow it for the train?"

"Sure," Harry said, and he handed it to her before closing his trunk and standing. "I think that'll do it…" He frowned, looking around the room. "Am I forgetting something?"

Hermione shrugged. "I don't see anything. There's a drawerful of toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss at home, and if you forgot anything else, you'll be back in a couple weeks."

"True," he said. "Oh well. Ready, Neville?" He looked around. "Neville?"

Harry heard a groan from the direction of Neville's bed, and he looked down to see a pair of legs sticking out from underneath it. "Trevor's lost again," Neville said, his voice muffled. "You two go on without me."

"Okay."

On the way down, Harry asked Hermione to get in some practice. "Okay, show me confident," he said, and she was suddenly all smiles and good posture—smiles that widened when they were returned, when she saw that this was really working.

"Looks good," he said. "Now do aggressive for me."

She tensed up and started stepping more heavily, but it wasn't quite right.

"Bring your eyebrows in a bit," Harry said. "Convince me you're bloody hacked off."

"Language, Harry," she spat, and he almost took a step back.

"That-that's great!" he said, and she giggled before forcing herself back into anger, delighting every time a student gave them a wide berth.

"So can I come with you on Monday?" Hermione asked as they entered the Great Hall.

"I think you'll be ready," Harry said, and she beamed as they sat down.

A plate of eggs, bacon, beans, and toast later, McGonagall stood up at the head table. "Those of you taking the Hogwarts Express today, it is time to proceed to the entrance hall. Mr. Hagrid will be taking the first years; the rest of you, please form a queue for the coaches. Your luggage will be taken to the platform—claim it there."

Harry dropped his napkin on his plate, but Hermione started picking up slices of toast and putting them in a napkin. "Still hungry?" Harry asked.

"Neville didn't make it for breakfast," Hermione said. "Go on ahead, I'll catch up."

Harry headed out to the hall and gathered with the other first years. Hagrid was doing a head count.

"Thirty-two, thirty-three...where's 'Ermione an' Neville?"

"She's in the Great Hall—she'll just be a moment," Harry said. "Neville was still packing when I left, but I'm sure he'll be—"

"Here!" Neville shouted from the grand staircase.

"A'righ', we'll give her a mo'…so, Lav'nd'r, wha're you doin' fer Christmas?"

Harry was distracted from her response when a voice nearby said, "Psst! Harry!"

Harry turned. Behind one of the columns was a Weasley twin.

One Weasley twin.

His hair was wet; his uniform shirt, which had a couple small stains near the bottom, was plastered to the left half of his chest by water; one of his shoes was untied. He was carrying a bag marked Zonko's. "Come here!" he whispered.

Harry spared a glance at Hagrid, then walked over to him. "You're looking spiffy this morning."

The older boy grinned. "Stylish, 'ent it? Heard the birds go wild for the 'just hopped out of the shower' look."

"Where'd you hear that?"

"Fred. He might've been taking the mickey, though."

"You can never trust that one," Harry said sympathetically. "So, what's so important you couldn't towel off before you got dressed?"

"Well, Fred and I were talking in the showers, and we have a stupendously brilliant idea," George said with a grin. "We'll need a pair of trainers, though."

"Trainers?"

"Yeah," George said. "New ones, if you can manage. Don't want to have to stick my wand in someone else's stinky shoe."

"So make Fred do it," Harry suggested.

"That might work," George mused.

"You're not going to prank them or something, are you?" Harry asked.

"And lose access to that lovely Cloak of yours?" George asked. "No, fun as it would be to make lightning crackle from your scar or something, we'd best tread lightly."

"Thanks," Harry said. He hadn't expected immunity from pranks when he offered the Cloak, but it was a nice perk. "Actually, lightning from my scar would be kind of cool."

"I'll see what we can arrange, then. Oh—as long as I was coming down, I figured I'd give you this now instead of owling it." He held out the bag. "From the various Weasleys. Ron put in something for your friend Hermione too."

"Thanks," Harry said genuinely. Since Ellie left, he hadn't gotten any Christmas presents he hadn't extorted out of Vernon. "I wouldn't have thought Ron would think to arrange this."

"He didn't," George said. "Fred and I nicked a couple Sickles from his trunk and picked up a few things in Hogsmeade on his behalf. Been doing it since he was seven."

Harry chuckled and turned. "Well, I'd better get back to—" He stopped. Hagrid and the first years were gone.

"Oops," George said. "Not to worry, I'll catch you up. Follow me."

That turned out to be easier said than done. George ducked behind a tapestry, slipping into a passage Harry hadn't even known was there. He then jogged through a maze of twisty passages, taking turns seemingly at random. Twice they cut through dusty old storerooms; once they even slid down a tarnished fire pole.

"So why didn't Fred come with you, anyway?" Harry asked.

"Well, no use having both of us jump out of the shower in a rush," George said. "So I tossed a bar of soap, and Fred called 'logo'. Okay, should be right here…"

"…gettin' big, they are," Hagrid was saying fondly. "Now 'en, four to a boat, an' be careful, tha' lake is colder'n a yeti's backside this time o' year…"

Harry waved to George and hurried up to Hermione, who was looking around in alarm. "Harry!" she whispered. "Where were you?"

"Got sidetracked," he said. "Did I miss anything?"

"Just Lavender emitting the loudest squeal on record," Hermione said as she, Harry, and Neville clambered onto a boat together.

"Why?"

"Something Hagrid said," Neville said. "I wasn't paying very close attention—Trevor was trying to do a runner." One of his pockets was squirming.

Hagrid waved his umbrella, and the little flotilla sailed through the curtain of ivy. Harry looked back at the castle, its towers and crenellations lit by the weak winter sun, and thought of the teachers who were holding him back.

When I return, he told himself, things will be different.

"You guys go find a compartment," he told Hermione and Neville. "I have a little errand to run—I'll catch up to you in a bit."

Neville looked curious, but Hermione simply nodded and started dragging her trunk down the corridor, and Neville followed her. They had boarded near the back of the train, so Harry ducked into the luggage car. A few moments later, he emerged and started walking down the train, glancing in doors as he went.

Finally, he found the compartment he was looking for and leaned in the door.

"Snap!" Seamus yelled, and the card on top of his deck exploded in a cloud of soot.

"You've got to stop doing that, mate," Dean said, shaking his head. He looked to the door. "Harry! What brings you to the Hogwarts Express Burn Ward?"

"Actually, I was wondering if I could have a word with you," Harry said.

"Sure," Dean replied, and he followed Harry a short distance down the hall.

"A couple months ago, you mentioned something that caught my attention," Harry said.

"What was that?" Dean asked.

"You said you live in a bad neighborhood. I thought I might be of assistance," Harry said. Then he reached into his pocket and, with a theatrical spin, flipped open a knife with a click-clack.

"W-what?"

"This is a balisong, or butterfly knife," Harry explained. "It has one blunt edge and one sharp edge. The handle is split in two, and folds around the blade when it's stored. That means"—Harry flipped the knife shut again—"that you can open and close it with one hand. It also means you can do all sorts of tricks with it"—with a long series of click-clack-click-click-clack-click-clacks, Harry put the knife through a series of twirls, spins and even tosses that left Dean gaping—"which make you look like a street tough's worst nightmare."

Harry flipped it shut and handed it to Dean.

"This is—this is for me?" Dean said.

"Yeah," Harry said. "I'm sorry I didn't wrap it, but I didn't want to take it out in Hogwarts."

"Thanks," Dean said, staring at the black-and-silver knife in his hand.

"One more thing," Harry said, and he took a similar-looking object out of his pocket. "This is a trainer. It's basically the same thing, but the edge is blunt. You don't do anything with the real knife that you haven't mastered with the trainer, right? Wand movements are hard enough with all ten fingers."

"Right," Dean said.

"The knife is illegal to carry in the Muggle world, so don't let police catch you with it—and you've seen what McGonagall will do to you at Hogwarts. But bring the trainer back with you next term and I'll teach you a few tricks."

"I, um, I don't have anything to give you…" Dean said.

But you'll want to pay me back later, Harry thought. "No need," Harry said.

"Thanks," Dean said. "I won't forget this, Harry."

No, you won't, Harry thought. "Happy Christmas," Harry said.

Harry had long ago learned the true meaning of Christmas: recruiting and reinforcing.

"Daddy!"

A brunette bullet shot past Harry and wrapped itself around a vaguely familiar man. Looking behind him, Harry saw that Hermione had dropped her trunk, so he grabbed it and dragged it with him.

"—missed you too, pumpkin," Lance Granger was saying as Harry approached. Hermione detached from him and hugged Jane, who hugged her back just as fiercely.

A few re-introductions, pleasantries, and exclamations over the supernatural lightness of Harry's trunk later, the luggage was in the boot of the Grangers' car and Hermione and Harry were in the back seat.

"So, we have a bit of a surprise for you, Hermione…" Jane Granger said.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Well, we rearranged our schedule and got the inventory done early, and we should be able to spend the entire Christmas break with you!"

They didn't have a chance to talk until Hermione showed Harry to the Grangers' guest room. When Hermione turned to Harry, she was almost in tears.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I just wanted to give you a nice Christmas, and instead I ruined all your plans!"

"Don't worry," Harry said, turning the key in his trunk's lock and opening the main compartment. "I wouldn't have accepted if I hadn't thought of backup plans."

"B-backup plans?" Hermione asked. "What kind of backup plans?"

"Well, in extremis"—Harry set aside the clothes he was pulling out and held up his potions kit—"we can always arrange for your parents to have a lie-in one morning."

Hermione's eyes widened.

"But if you're willing to abandon the idea of going with me, I think we can avoid that. I'll just need to—"

Suddenly there was a rapping on the window. Harry set down the potions kit and opened it for Hedwig.

"Hello, girl," he said fondly as she settled on his arm. "You knew you were needed, didn't you?"

Hedwig barked.

"What a smart owl," Harry said with a smile, and she preened.

"Needed?" Hermione asked.

"Yes," Harry said. "I need to write to Inkeye."

A/N: Like the dispute between the Minister and Wizengamot that keeps Hogwarts rules from being changed, real-world governments beef over turf all the time. In fact, the US Congress has been in one since 1789. The Constitution states that "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives"; the House thinks that includes bills to spend money, but the Senate disagrees. The House has won this argument for 225 years through sheer stubbornness: if the Senate passes a spending bill, the House immediately rejects it without further consideration.