Chapter 44 : I Think I'm Ready Now
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I Think I’m Ready Now
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit, Harry?” Professor McGonagall asked with a smile upon the young wizard entering her office. Though they had not spoken often since Harry’s emergence from the coma, he noted that she now referred to him most often as “Harry,” rather than the formal “Mr. Potter” of the past. She smiled more often too.
Over two weeks elapsed since the new term began, but Harry avoided the headmistress’ office intentionally, though he had been given the password and invited to stop by any time. As each day passed, however, he felt an almost magnetic pull towards it, due to a painting on the wall. He dreaded his first encounter with Dumbledore’s portrait, but also sensed that he needed to speak with it. When he walked into the office, he resolutely focused his eyes forward, only catching a glimpse of the portrait above him with his peripheral vision. He saw enough to know that the painted figure stood abruptly, watching Harry pass by.
“Thank you, Professor,” Harry began, then pausing uncomfortably, trying to determine how best to ask the favor. “I know it may seem a bit rude, but I was hoping you might leave your office for a short time. I would like to speak with Professor Dumbledore if I could.” McGonagall’s smile faded into an expression of surprise and perhaps, Harry sensed, a hint of irritation. “Of course, I could come back some other time, if it’s not convenient right now.”
As her lips gradually formed a frown, she instinctively shifted her eyes upwards towards the huge portrait on the wall to her left. Harry did not follow her lead, focusing straight ahead. He could perfectly hear, however, the deep, friendly, familiar voice.
“I’m sure Harry does not mean to inconvenience you, Minerva. If you could clear half an hour from your busy schedule, Harry and I would be most appreciative.” Her expression softened.
“Of course, Harry, I understand,” she replied, gathering several sheets of parchment from her desk, “I have several matters which need my attention anyway. Take all the time you need.” Her lips once again reformed into a smile as she placed her black witch’s hat on her head.
“Thank you, Professor, I appreciate it.” He stood nervously while McGonagall took a few moments to leave. When she reached the door, she stopped for a second, glancing for a moment at the back of the young wizard and then at the portrait of the ancient headmaster. Harry did not move even after he heard the door click behind the headmistress.
“I wondered if you would come see me, Harry,” the deep voice began, “Come over here so that I can take a look at you.”
The voice surprised Harry at first. He had become accustomed to the voice of the old man at the London flat, the voice of a weak, dying man. This voice belonged to the Dumbledore of the past, a strong, steady, powerful voice. Harry finally turned and stepped to the portrait. When he looked up, he realized that he needed to take a few steps back to obtain a better view, as the large portrait hung high on the wall.
Above him Dumbledore’s impressive figure towered over him. The image of the headmaster showed an old man, but clearly several decades younger than the Dumbledore Harry knew during his years at Hogwarts. The long hair and beard appeared as white as always, but his face and body indicated a younger, more virile old man. Dressed in a fine midnight blue robe, half glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, the enchanted mixture of oil and pigments gazed down benevolently on the famous young wizard.
“I thought about coming earlier, sir, but I didn’t. You know what happened, right?”
“Yes, Harry. Minerva informed me, and I have overheard a number of conversations as well. Moreover, my portrait hangs in a number of important buildings. I know quite a lot of the happenings of the wizarding world. But that is not of concern at the moment. I understand that you have had a difficult time since the unfortunate events of Spring.”
“You could say that. In fact that would be quite an understatement.” Harry found it difficult to converse with the giant figure so high above his head, and he took two more steps backwards. “I’m doing a little better, but I feel like I’m walking along the edge of a cliff, just one good gust of wind from falling off.” The painted figure gazed down sympathetically.
“We all have our limits, Harry. The tragic events of these past months would be enough to conquer the equilibrium of the strongest man. In reality, however, your appearance seems much better than I imagined. Am I correct in my belief that you have put on some weight?”
“A little. I’ve been eating well enough. Physically I feel better than I have for years, especially with Voldemort gone. It’s taken some time for me to learn to feel what it’s like not to have a piece of him inside of me. I never knew the real Harry Potter. The problem is on the inside,” he concluded, pointing at his chest.
“True enough, Harry, true enough, but I have learned over the years that one’s outward appearance often reflects one’s inner well-being. Your physical recovery leads me to feel optimistic as to your internal recovery.”
Harry’s neck felt tired from looking up such a long time, so he lowered his eyes for a few moments of rest.
“I hope you are right, sir. Everything just seems so mixed up. Ginny is dead, and I’ll always feel the guilt. Ron left for California, largely to get away from me. And with Voldemort dead, I suddenly feel I have no reason to live any longer, no purpose. Without Hermione, I don’t know what I’d do. She pretty much saved me this summer.” Harry leaned his head back again looking up at the headmaster.
Dumbledore contracted his eyes in thought before asking, “How have you been faring in your classes so far?”
“Quite well, actually. I think Professor McGonagall instructed the professors not to call on me because she knows I still get nervous in front of groups. I had a panic attack at the opening feast, but in class there are not so many students, and I just have to sit. Don’t have to say anything. That agrees with me, but not with Hermione. She’s been bugging me to take part in classes.”
“And why is that?”
Harry thought for a moment before explaining in a pained voice, “She thinks I have a lot to offer, that I could demonstrate spells and things like that.” He shook his head despairingly. “I know that I am a powerful wizard, sir. These past couple of weeks, I go to class and realize that I can perform these spells and charms better than my professors. In fact Professor Flitwick mentioned wide-scale magic the other day as a type of magic only few wizards can perform, and that even he could not do it very well. Hermione looked at me, wanted me to show the class how to do it, but I just couldn’t move.” Harry lowered his eyes to his feet. “She says I can’t live in a hole the rest of my life.”
The painted Dumbledore nodded his head, agreeing with the assertion of the talented witch.
“I don’t think you need me to inform you that Miss Granger is correct in her assessment.” Harry’s head still tilted downwards, but he nodded an inch in agreement. “Remember this, Harry. You have a choice to make. For better or worse, one of these choices is not to be a normal, run-of-the-mill wizard. You are and always will be special. History books will record your life story in painstaking detail, whether you make a success of the rest of your life or a failure. Thus your choices are to accept your place in history and to use your skills and status to better the world, or to hide and, as Miss Granger so aptly stated, ‘live in a hole’ the rest of your life.”
Dumbledore paced around the canvas, which though extremely large, did not allow a lot of space for him to walk given the size of his image. After a moment he stopped and bent down to come closer to his protege.
“The decision is yours to make, but I feel confident in your strength of character, Harry Potter. Yes, as we have often stated, patience is a virtue, but do not allow patience to equate to inaction. A new magical world is forming, Harry, a world which can either seek to repeat the mistakes of the past and recreate the old world, or which can shape itself into a better society for all magical creatures, human and nonhuman alike. One way or the other, by your action or inaction, you will play an important role in this process.”
Professor McGonagall returned to her office shortly thereafter, offering to leave again if the wizard and portrait had not completed their conversation. Harry assured her that they had finished and bade her good night. Just as he stepped through the door, however, a thought occurred to him.
“Could I ask you another favor, Professor McGonagall?”
That same evening, Hermione returned to her dormitory, preparing for bed. Since Harry had been allowed the concession of private rooms, Professor McGonagall felt that Hermione deserved the same consideration, but the young witch refused, preferring to enjoy the company of other Gryffindors. She did request, however, that she not be placed in a dormitory with Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil, who returned to Hogwarts for their seventh years. Though they belonged to Hermione’s year, they hardly qualified as her favorites.
For that reason, she roomed with five seventh-year girls, all of whom had been friends to some degree with Ginny. At first, the younger Gryffindors acted nervously around their famous and older roommate, but gradually the ice melted, and little by little, they conversed (and giggled) more freely in her presence. Naturally the former Head Girl’s relationship with a boy named Harry Potter, aka The Boy Who Lived, aka The Chosen One, aka the most famous teenager in all of the magical world, occupied much of their conversation outside of her presence. Until this evening, however, none of them dared broach the subject with Hermione.
On this night, however, one of the Gryffindor seventh-years, Michele Rose, a petite dark-haired beauty, gushed on and on about the snogging abilities of her current boyfriend, a Ravenclaw seventh year by the name of Neil (his surname escaped Hermione’s divided attention). Though her roommates initially showed interest in her monologue, eventually they tired, and as much out of desperation to change the subject as interest in Hermione’s love life, one brave roommate posed the question.
“So tell us, Hermione, how good of a kisser is Harry?”
Hermione’s insides jumped at the inquiry. At first she felt this to be none of their business, but on the other hand, by now she well understood the dynamics of the girls’ dormitories. If she did not deal with this now, her roommates would hound her for the rest of the year.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she responded coyly to the questioner, Melissa, a red-head who bore a slight resemblance to Ginny. “If I tell you, you might send an owl to the Daily Prophet tonight. I’ll be reading all about Harry’s snogging abilities in the morning edition.”
Her five roommates protested vigorously that they would do no such thing, though they knew Hermione did not truly suspect that any of them would reveal the secret to such a wide audience. The secret would lose all of its value. Soon they returned to their nervous giggling, and now that Melissa had opened the door, the five happily pressured the older witch for an answer.
“Harry’s so handsome now,” Michele opined, “especially when he hasn’t shaved for a few days.” Hermione certainly agreed with that assessment.
“OK, OK,” she finally conceded, “I’ll tell you.” She paused for several seconds, both to increase her roommates’ sense of anticipation, and from a touch of embarrassment. “I don’t know.”
Of all the answers she could have given, the five girls in the dormitory would never have guessed that one. They stared at Hermione in disbelief.
“We’ve never kissed. Well, that’s not exactly true. I did kiss Harry one time, but that doesn’t really count.”
“Why wouldn’t it count?” asked three of the girls simultaneously.
Hermione did not understand why she mentioned that moment, a moment she often relived as she lay in bed at night. She had no opportunity to talk about her feelings for Harry with anyone, and even if her five roommates could not be classified as close friends, they would have to do.
“It doesn’t count because I kissed him just a few seconds before he left to duel Lord Voldemort on New Years Eve. I didn’t know if I would ever see him again.” Her voice trailed off to a whisper.
The girls flinched slightly at mention of the dark lord’s name, which despite his death still caused that reaction among most in the magical world, but all noise in the room ceased.
Finally Melissa commented quietly, “That must have been so hard.”
Hermione nodded, her eyes glazed as she thought back to that moment, and to the events of the year.
“It was hard. It’s been the hardest year of my life. I’ve lost so much. Harry has lost even more.” A tear escaped from each of her eyes. The five girls for once in their lives could think of nothing to say.
After a long silence, Hermione continued, “You have no idea what Harry has been through. Nobody does. You’ve never had to live with the weight of the world on your shoulders every minute of every day, knowing that the most powerful dark lord in centuries wanted to kill you, and that the only way out of it was to kill him first. You’ve never lost so many people who were important to you. You’ve never had to live with the soul of the dark lord inside of you for months, having to use every ounce of energy to keep from being controlled by him. You’ve never felt the guilt of being saved by the sacrifice of the life of someone you love. Then to lose his best friend. It’s all just been too much for him. He isn’t ready yet. He hasn’t adjusted.”
During the course of the conversation, the five girls unknowingly moved closer to Hermione, two at the foot of her bed, the other three stretched out on the nearest bed to hers. The conversation had not proceeded in the direction they anticipated, but they listened captivated nonetheless.
“Do you think he’ll get better?” asked Melissa.
“I’m not sure. He’s the strongest person I know, but I don’t like what is happening here. He’s holed up in his rooms, the teachers have been told not to ask him to do anything, students are afraid to talk to him. This is NOT what he needs!” The frustration burst through her otherwise calm voice.
“What can you do?” asked the most timid of the group, a pudgy girl by the name of Sarah. She reminded Hermione of a younger Amelda Barlow, the type of person you hardly notice but has more between her ears than most of the others. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
Hermione turned her head sharply, surprised by the offer. Suddenly an idea formed in her brain.
“You know what? I think you can.”
All of Hermione’s roommates took Advanced Charms with Harry and Hermione. The morning after their late night conversation, a Friday, they all marched into Professor Flitwick’s class. The diminutive professor as usual nodded his greeting to Harry, but as in the half dozen Charms classes so far, Flitwick otherwise completely ignored him. All of the other professors acted similarly, and Harry soon determined that Professor McGonagall had given the order. He had no complaints and thought that he should thank the headmistress. Sitting comfortably next to Hermione, he enjoyed each class without the worry of speaking before a large group.
The class progressed like the others, Professor Flitwick explaining certain confusing sections of their assigned readings when unexpectedly a hand shot into the air.
“Yes Miss Rose.”
“Excuse me, Professor, but you mentioned wide-scale magic in our last class, and the book also referred to it. But all I can gather is that it is extremely difficult. Why is that?”
“Yes,” added her desk-mate Melissa, “and why isn’t it taught at Hogwarts?”
Harry fidgeted nervously in his seat.
“Well,” responded the small man happily, “that is a very good question. The fact of the matter is that few if any students of your age have the magical power and development needed for such magic. In fact few adult wizards can perform wide-scale magic to any significant degree. I confess that I myself am incapable of providing a reasonable demonstration. If you are interested, perhaps I can find a witch or wizard who . . .”
“Harry can do it,” Hermione interrupted loudly, failing to raise her hand, “I’ve seen him do it several times. He can rearrange an entire room with just a clap of his hands.”
Flitwick froze, unsure how to deal with this turn of events. The headmistress left all of the faculty specific instructions with regard to Mr. Potter.
“Yes, well, I don’t think Mr. Potter desires . . .”
“Can you really, Harry?” cried the voice of Michele.
“Can you show us?” added the quieter voice of Sarah.
Harry stared at Hermione, understanding exactly what had occurred. She wanted him to stand up in front of the class and demonstrate. Hermione stared back with a guilty smile on her face.
“Go on, Harry,” she whispered, “You can do it. It’s easy for you, and the class would get a lot out of it.”
Harry looked at Flitwick and tried to decline, “I don’t think Professor Flitwick has time for that right now. Maybe some other time.” Cries from the entire class responded to his feeble attempt.
“C’mon Harry, show us.” “Please, Harry, I’ve never seen it up close.” “How is it done, Harry?” Flitwick merely looked at Harry and shrugged his shoulders.
A wave of panic surged in Harry’s stomach but stopped before it reached his head.
I can do this, he thought, It’s nothing really. Finally he issued a brief instruction, “Everybody go to the front of the classroom.”
Harry remained seated next to Hermione for a few moments while the rest of the class trouped to the front of the large, tiered room. Their eyes met for a few seconds, and Hermione briefly squeezed his hand. She knew that she irritated Harry with her little ruse, but she hoped that it would have the effect she desired. Anxiously she left their ancient two-person desk on one side, after which Harry slowly slid out the other. He moved deliberately to the front of the class, the rest of the students and Professor Flitwick standing behind him.
His classmates looked expectantly at him, and Harry could not help but notice the admiration in their eyes. And the anticipation. They had heard of his power and abilities, but most of them had never seen a demonstration up close. Wide-scale magic! Even their parents could not perform such magic well, if at all, and most witches and wizards did not even attempt it. Only great wizards such as Albus Dumbledore possessed the power and confidence to perform wide-scale magic on a routine basis.
“It’s really not that hard,” Harry began tentatively, “if you have enough power. I’m not really sure how much power you need, but you just need to focus on the end result that you want, and then channel your magic through a clap instead of a wand. The magic then spreads out over a wide area instead of being directed at a narrow target.” The more he explained, the more comfortable he felt. “It’s useful for moving things around, but not for much else. Let’s see what I can do.”
Though Harry had only performed such magic in the small sitting rooms of Dumbledore’s flat and the Granger residence, he harbored no doubts that he could rearrange the much larger Charms classroom as well. He decided that he would rearrange the large room from front to back, moving the front desks to the back and vice versa. Capturing that image in his mind, he spread his arms out wide, paused, and then violently slapped his hands together.
The mass of students behind him gasped happily as the two dozen large desks flew around the room, amazingly avoiding each other and somehow not dripping a drop of ink or shedding a sheet of parchment. The front desks moved to the back of the room, and now faced away from the young witches and wizards. Finally, Professor Flitwick’s desk flew high above the others, turning around in midair and coming to rest at the back of the room. A few moments before, the crowd had been standing at the front of the classroom; now it stood at the rear.
Spontaneous applause broke out, and Harry’s classmates shook their heads in appreciation. By this point, seventh-years knew the difference between easy, moderate and difficult magic, and what they had just witnessed pointed well towards the most difficult end of the spectrum. Despite Harry’s assertion that “It’s really not that hard,” they knew instinctively that they had no hope of performing the same act, just as a person automatically knows whether or not he can jump across a chasm. You either can or you cannot.
Professor Flitwick literally jumped for joy at the demonstration, and a moment later had his wand out yelling, “Pillows, pillows, pillows.” He magically threw some two dozen cushions, which he often used for various exercises, all around the huge classroom. “If you don’t mind, Harry, let’s see if you can use your wide-scale magic to return the pillows to their normal resting place.”
Harry never thought to use this style of magic for this purpose. In fact, he recalled practicing with Ron the use of his wand to move a few pillows at a time, but certainly not two dozen. Nevertheless, it could not be nearly as difficult as moving solid wooden desks. He again surveyed the room, visualized the cushions stacked neatly in the corner, and briskly clapped his hands together. Instantly, the pillows whooshed through the air, nearly side-swiping a few students before orderly stacking themselves. Again, the onlookers voiced their appreciation.
Hermione clapped along with them, her heart pumping faster than it had in months. For the first time since New Year’s Eve, she glimpsed the REAL Harry Potter. Not the Voldemort-ravaged shell of the first months of the year nor the guilt-ridden basket case since his reawakening at St. Mungo’s. Finally she had hard evidence that the REAL Harry still existed, and just needed a helping hand. She could not prevent a single tear from escaping her right eye, which she immediately wiped away.
Later that Friday, in the early evening, Harry and Hermione walked hand in hand, as they commonly did, towards his rooms.
“Why don’t you just tell me?” laughed Hermione. Since Charms in the morning, she had experienced a wonderful day. Even though Harry returned to his normal quiet demeanor for the rest of the day, a corner had been turned. Harry informed her several times during the day that he had a surprise planned for her, but he resolutely refused to divulge any further information.
“You’ll know soon enough,” he replied, and true to his word, a few seconds later he recited the password, allowing the two to pass through the door. One look inside and they both gasped.
“I told her to make a small cake, just for the two of us. It’s your birthday tomorrow, and I just wanted a little celebration tonight,” Harry explained incredulously.
“Looks like Winky went a little overboard,” commented Hermione, whose chuckle turned into side-splitting laughter.
Before them sat a three-tiered cake a meter in diameter covered with thick chocolate frosting. On the middle tier shone the words “Happy Birthday Miss Hermione.” The use of the word “Miss” by the elf only caused them to laugh even harder.
“Thank you for the thought, Harry,” Hermione exclaimed after recovering from her bout of laughter. She hugged her friend happily, then asked, “But my birthday is tomorrow. Why did you want to give this to me today?”
“That’s because of your present,” the handsome young wizard replied, pulling an envelope out of the pocket of his robe. Hermione opened the envelope to find two passes to Hogsmeade, dated for Saturday, her birthday.
“Oh, Harry!” she gushed, “That’s a wonderful idea. I can’t think of a better present.”
“Well, actually, I wanted to be able to buy you a present while we’re there. This is just a part of your present.” The two embraced happily again. Hermione glanced back to the cake while her head rested on Harry’s chest.
“What are we going to do with that?” she asked, “It’s way too big for us.”
“We’ll take it to the common room,” Harry decided, “It'll be gone in five minutes. Let’s cut a piece for ourselves first.”
Fifteen minutes later, Harry levitated the cake down the hall while Hermione recited the password to open the portrait door to the Gryffindor common room. Harry had to take care maneuvering the cake through the opening, and he entered his old stomping grounds for the first time since he left it the previous November, the night that Voldemort attacked the Ministry and the students abandoned Hogwarts Castle. The hairs on his arms stood up, but he tried to control his emotions. He would simply place the cake on a table, tell everyone to dig in, and leave.
Immediately he heard the voices: “What’s that!” “Look at the size of that cake.” “Hey, Harry Potter is here. Look what he brought.” Within moments, all the occupants of the common room gathered around Harry and Hermione, the latter clearing a path for the cake and Harry. He gently placed it on the closest table, then stood nervously before the fifty or so Gryffindors surrounding him.
Meekly he explained, “It’s Hermione’s birthday. The house elf went a little overboard on the cake I asked for. We thought we’d let everyone enjoy it, so help yourself.” He did not have to offer twice, for in a blink of an eye paper plates appeared and a few of the older girls took charge of cutting the cake and serving it in some semblance of order. Noise increasingly filled the room and calls of “Happy Birthday” to Hermione could be heard, but she noticed that Harry had turned quickly, headed back to his rooms. She ran the few steps to him, slipped her arm through his, and asked him to stay awhile. He acceded to her wishes, grudgingly.
Excitement filled the room due to the unexpected arrival of the cake and the first appearance of Harry Potter in the common room. Soon many of his house mates thanked him for the cake, to which Harry responded numerous times that he did not make the cake, that they should be thanking Winky. As more students continued to thank him, the more he thought that Winky deserved the praise. He had done nothing.
They SHOULD be thanking Winky, he thought more vigorously, and when the next student thanked him for the cake, a circuit in Harry’s brain blew.
“Wait a minute,” he sharply ordered the shocked fourth-year, who did not expect anything more than a nod from Harry Potter. “Winky, come here please,” Harry called.
The house elf arrived a moment later, probably thinking that she would appear in Harry’s rooms as usual. Shock can only describe the look on her face when she first realized where she had arrived. Her expression mirrored that of dozens of Gryffindors in the expansive room, surprised at the presence of a house elf. Within seconds, the chattering and laughing of the crowd died down to silence. All eyes stared at Harry and Winky.
“This is Winky. I asked her to make a small birthday cake for Hermione, and, well she produced this wonderful cake,” Harry explained loudly for all to hear, “You should thank her for the cake, not me. I didn’t do anything but float it over here.”
Silence greeted Harry’s words, confused eyes darting left and right. His narrowing eyes indicated his increasing irritation. Hermione sensed a crisis approaching and decided to set an example.
“Thank you for the beautiful cake, Winky,” she gushed as naturally as she could, and she knelt down on a knee to give the stunned elf a loose hug. Hermione stood up again and moved to the side. Nobody moved nor spoke a word for several seconds.
“Winky has much work in the kitchen, Harry Potter. Winky will go back to . . . “
”Stay right here, Winky,” Harry ordered while glaring at the gathered crowd.
Finally Sarah, Hermione’s timid and plain roommate, stepped forward, her nearly empty plate in her hand.
“Thank you, Winky. The cake was delicious.”
Soon Hermione’s other roommates also expressed their thanks to the tiny elf, and “Thank you, Winky,” and “The cake tasted great” could be heard for the next couple of minutes as most of the students in the common room made some effort to express their thanks for the cake. Harry knew that most of them did this solely because he hovered nearby, watching them like an offended Hippogriff. A few, however, tried their best to sneak away unnoticed. To their misfortune, Harry noticed.
“Are you too special to say ‘Thank you’ to Winky, Owen?” Harry asked a fifth-year, loudly enough to be easily heard by all. “And you, Richardson?” More than one Gryffindor backed away from Harry when they saw the barely controlled anger in his eyes. The manner of speaking the words conveyed more meaning than the words themselves.
Jeffrey Owen, Harry knew, came from one of the richest and most elite pure-blood families in all Britain. In fact, Harry recalled that Dumbledore mentioned them in one of their conversations. Undoubtedly his family possessed a dozen house elves or more, and equally undoubtedly, Jeffrey Owen had never thanked one of them in his fifteen years of life. An unremarkable boy, except for his pedigree, Owen stood several inches shorter than Harry, with thin, lanky blond hair hanging to his neck. Slender as an eel, he appeared never to have exercised a day in his life. Though his family never allied itself with Voldemort or other muggle-haters, it nevertheless harbored the snobbishness of the elite class. The idea of thanking a house elf struck him as ludicrous, for which reason he attempted his stealthy escape. Now he had to face the music.
“I couldn’t get close enough,” he lied, “I just, . . . didn’t want to fight my way through the crowd.”
“Step aside everyone,” Harry instructed, “Let Owen and Richardson come through.” He waited a few seconds during which time the two boys approached him. “Now’s your chance.”
Richardson, a pudgy fourth-year with short sandy hair and sad brown eyes, probably had just not wanted to bother coming forward before, and he quickly murmured a meek, “Thank you for the cake, Winky.”
Owen paused, everyone staring at him, hoping he would simply express his thanks and avoid further embarrassment. Yet he could not open his mouth. The idea of demeaning himself to such a level struck him in the same way as a request to eat live cockroaches. Nevertheless, with so much pressure on him, his tongue moved between his teeth, preparing to pronounce the “th” of “thank you.” No sound emerged.
“She’s a house elf, Harry,” he suddenly blurted out, “It’s just not done.”
Everyone in the common room thought some variation of the same thought, How could he be so stupid! Of course, Gryffindors are known for their bravery, not necessarily their intelligence.
Harry’s insides boiled, and his hand twitched in desire to grasp his wand and try out some advanced magic on the snob. Hermione feared that Harry would lose control and quickly moved to his side, sliding her right arm around his left. Harry stared at the scrawny teen for what seemed like minutes, absolute silence filling the large room.
“Dobby, come here please,” Harry spoke slowly and carefully, working hard to master his anger. The elf appeared a moment later, opening his mouth to greet Harry, but leaving it open when he first viewed the multitude of Gryffindors staring at him.
“Without Dobby, I would be dead,” Harry explained in a low, threatening growl, “and Lord Voldemort would be your master. Dobby helped me so many times, I can’t count them all. By himself he stunned three death eaters when I dueled Voldemort on New Year’s Eve. Without Dobby and Winky, more death eaters would have killed Hermione and me after I killed Voldemort, but they and several other house elves, most of them right here from Hogwarts, arrived at Godric’s Hollow and stunned them all. Wizards did not do that. House elves did! House elves that your family, Owen, and many families like yours, have treated like dirt for centuries.”
The two elves stood uncomfortably next to Harry and Hermione, but not nearly as uncomfortably as Jeffrey Owen, subject to the brunt of Harry’s angry words and piercing green eyes. When he mentioned “many families like yours,” the green eyes left their target and scanned the dozens of paralyzed Gryffindors. The accusation hit many of them whose families owned one or more house elves. Even the muggle-born felt guilt at their failure to appreciate house elves appropriately.
Owen felt the eyes of Gryffindor House upon him, and he finally caved.
“Thank you,” he softly but clearly pronounced to Winky and Dobby. Harry continued to stare daggers at him, so the boy reluctantly added, “The cake tasted great.”
As his blood pressure began to return to normal levels, Harry realized what a scene he had created. He never intended to cause any commotion, and now that everyone stared at him, he wanted to leave as quickly as possible.
“Enjoy your cake,” he muttered tersely to the silent room, turning towards the door to leave. Hermione still held on to his arm, so she turned with him and in a moment the two walked slowly down the passage towards Harry’s rooms. For a minute they remained silent, absorbing the unexpected events of the past half hour, until Harry heard a brief chuckle from his female friend. She shook again from inner laughter, and Harry glanced at her, seeing a growing smile on her face.
“What’s so funny?” he asked bluntly, “I don’t see anything funny about it.”
Hermione only smiled more broadly, explaining, “It WAS funny, in a way. You should have seen the faces of the first and second years. They looked at you as if you were Merlin himself. But that’s not why I’m smiling. I’m just happy.” Harry scrunched his eyes in confusion.
“What’s there to be happy about. I just made a fool of myself, my house thinks I’m a complete nutter, and worst of all, they’re right.”
Hermione abruptly stopped and with her elbow detained her walking partner too, turning him towards her. Just as unexpectedly, she wrapped her arms around Harry and embraced him with all of her might.
Harry gladly hugged her back but asked, “What’s this for? Are you trying to squeeze the craziness out of me? Don’t think it will work.”
“No, Harry,” responded Hermione, her eyes welling with tears of happiness, “Don’t you realize what happened tonight?” Based on Harry’s blank expression, she gathered that he did not. “You became angry. You cared about something so much that you became angry. THAT is the Harry Potter that I know. Not this imposter that’s been hanging around with me these past couple of weeks, sitting quiet as a mouse in his classes and avoiding everyone but me. No! The Harry Potter I know is the one who acts first and thinks about it later. And for the first time since New Year’s Eve, I have seen the real Harry Potter, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Harry closed the door behind him and sat on his sofa, staring at the wall for twenty minutes. Tomorrow Hermione and he would celebrate her birthday in Hogsmeade. Finally, the young wizard made a decision.
Harry and Hermione strolled hand in hand out the front gate of Hogwarts down to the village of Hogsmeade. Harry could not remember the last time he set foot in the town, and flashes of his past visits passed by his eyes: In Madame Puddifoot’s with Cho, Draco Malfoy by the Shrieking Shack, in Zonko’s with Ron. Hermione also seemed to be lost in her thoughts, and the two strode down the gentle slope in a comfortable silence.
Prior to reaching the edge of town, Harry pointed to his right and suggested, “Let’s walk down by the lake for a bit. The stores are just opening now.” Hermione expressed no objection, having no plans for her birthday other than spending the day with Harry. They crossed over an uneven area of rocks and sparse grass until they met a narrow path carved into the land by thousands of footsteps over the centuries. Soon the trail met the lake and stretched out ahead, mimicking the contours of the shore. The pace of the two friends slowed, as the whole day lay before them. Finally they found a large boulder, perhaps half a mile up the trail, against which they leaned while gazing across the expanse of water. They removed their robes in the pleasant weather, and Harry tensed slightly as Hermione snuggled into his side.
“Is something wrong, Harry?” she asked, only slightly concerned, “You seem awfully quiet today. Are you thinking about last night?”
“No, it’s not that,” Harry responded truthfully, for he had not thought at all about the scene in the Gryffindor common room. Hermione looked up at him, waiting for more. Harry gazed at her face, but avoided her eyes. “It’s just . . ., I’ve been thinking about everything you’ve done for me since . . . it happened. I haven’t ever really thanked you. Without you, I never would have made it through the summer.”
“You’ve thanked me lots of times, Harry,” Hermione insisted, “You don’t have to say . . .”
”No, I haven’t,” Harry interrupted, “Not really. At least not with the same understanding that I have now. I was really a mess. I’m still a mess, but I think I’m less messy than before.” He smiled at his statement. “Does that make any sense at all?” His friend smiled broadly, wrapping her right arm around Harry’s left, nodding her head.
“Of course, I understand, Harry. I was a mess too, you know. It hasn’t been an easy time for any of us. I finally feel almost normal again.”
Harry nodded and added, “I know you had a hard time too, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there for you, the way you were for me. I just couldn’t. I’m too weak.”
Hermione released Harry’s arm and abruptly stood up and stepped in front of Harry, a stern expression on her face.
“I’ll have none of that, Harry Potter. You are the strongest person I have ever known. Don’t get me started!” Her expression softened. “And you were there for me. Literally. You came back. You decided to live. That was all I needed.”
“I came back because of you, Hermione. You know that, don’t you?” Harry asked softly, and he reached out an arm. Hermione leaned into him as the arm wrapped around her back.
“I know,” she whispered, “I asked you to come back. I was being selfish, but I couldn’t lose you too. It was so . . . .” Hermione’s voice choked.
Harry moved his arm up her back and softly caressed her hair. Neither spoke a word for a minute.
Without changing his movements, Harry whispered into her ear, “I think I’m ready now, Hermione.” The young witch did not immediately understand.
“You’re ready for what, Harry?” she asked, but when she looked into his green eyes, she knew. This time Harry did not avert his eyes but stared intensely into hers. “Are you sure?”
Harry did not answer. Instead he slowly moved his head towards Hermione’s, his heart pounding. This would be his third first kiss (he did not count what happened on New Year's Eve). He could barely remember Cho’s, not really understanding what had happened until afterwards. Ginny’s had been wonderful and spontaneous.
But Harry had pondered this first kiss for two weeks, ever since he declined it after the opening feast. He wanted to do it; he knew Hermione wanted it too. But whenever he thought about it, images of Ginny invaded his mind. She had sacrificed herself for him, and now, just a few short months later, Hermione and he would kiss for the first time, the first of many no doubt, as if nothing had happened. Part of him felt that he should shun women for the rest of his life, become a confirmed bachelor in the pattern of Albus Dumbledore so as not to sully the sacrifice and memory of Ginny Weasley.
Yet Dumbledore himself regretted the lonely life he led, Harry recalled, reliving the many conversations of the two men. I doubt that you would choose a life like mine, Harry.
Do I really want to be alone the rest of my life? he asked himself in self-examination while sitting silently in his rooms at night, I’ve been alone my entire life. Did Ginny throw herself in front of me so that I can live one hundred years as a sad and lonely man? Though the answer had been obvious from the beginning, as each day passed, he began to believe it. The images that his mind created of the red-headed witch gradually changed, becoming less stern and more accepting.
He wished that Ginny would give him a sign, come to him in a dream or vision, let him know that she did not object. But no ghostly image of his girlfriend appeared, no magical writing on the wall, no unmistakable omen. Nevertheless, Harry possessed his knowledge of her, and he asked himself whether he would have wanted Ginny to remain alone for the rest of her life had he succeeded in sacrificing himself for her. Of course not! I would want her to live a full and happy life. So why would she want anything different for me? Yet the thought that he, Harry James Potter, could ever lead a truly happy life astonished him, even scared him.
I have to do this, he convinced himself the previous evening, after the cake incident. Tomorrow!
Tomorrow become today, and Harry’s lips continued on their short journey to Hermione’s, who had tilted her head upwards and to the side. Her heart pounded as hard as Harry’s, realizing the importance of this event. This kiss would formalize their union, make official what up to this moment had been implicit. When their lips made contact, there would be no turning back. No other woman could understand what Harry had suffered, and no other man could understand what she experienced. This first kiss contained an agreement, implied though it may be, that they would never part.
Though nervous, Hermione did not waver, and flashes of their kiss on New Year's Eve passed before her. She had contemplated the importance of this moment since before Harry reawakened. Her decision had been made the moment in St. Mungo’s when she told Harry that she loved him. If Harry would have her, she would have him. Forever.
Finally the lips of the two friends touched, ever so lightly, where they lingered for a few seconds. They had done it. Hermione lifted her left hand, placing it behind Harry’s head, gently applying pressure downwards. At the same time, Harry’s left arm wrapped around Hermione’s back, gently pulling her upwards. As a result, their lips pressed more tightly, and the kiss intensified. Harry wrapped both arms around his new girlfriend, while Hermione closed her eyes, the emotion of months of patience escaping. The kiss may have appeared slightly awkward to an onlooker, but the two participants did not care. They would have plenty of opportunity to practice.
The two broke apart and stared into each other’s eyes for a few moments. The kiss had not been especially passionate. Instead it fulfilled a necessary ritual. The boundaries of their seven-year friendship had been broken, and now they granted each other permission to step beyond. Their faces relaxed from the relief of having taken that step. Like magnets, their lips met again, in a far more romantic moment, and as the passion mounted, the two teens soon forgot all about their earlier nerves.
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