Chapter 1 : Better Than Reality
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The bang on the door woke Harry with a start. He’d jumped so violently that he ended up slipping off of his mattress and onto the floor, much to Hedwig’s dislike for she was thrashing about her cage. Harry figured she’d been asleep: It was still a bit dark out.
“Calm down, Hedwig,” he told his snowy owl groggily, “It’s alright.” Harry lied on the ground for a bit, in too much pain to get up. He’d landed on his right shoulder for the third time that week because of Dudley. His beefy cousin thought it fun to wake Harry up during his late night peruses to the refrigerator. He, Harry, heard the stifle of Dudley’s laughs and the creak of the stairs as Dudley made his way to the kitchen.
Late at night, it would be quite easy to catch him creeping downstairs to sneak an extra slice of pie or gobbling down half a bottle of Squirt. Not to Harry’s surprise, he was often blamed for the mysterious disappearance of the Dursley’s sustenance. No one stopped to think, though, why Harry wasn’t gaining weight and Dudley was. It wasn’t all bad though: Sometimes, if Dudley was feeling generous, he’d pry open Harry’s door and throw in a little something.
The creaking of the floorboards outside his bedroom door told Harry that Dudley was returning to his own room, arms clad with treats. He held his breath, hoping maybe Dudley would be kind enough to toss something at him, but only disappointment came. Not feeling too upset (because honestly, what could he have expected?), Harry painfully got up from the ground and walked to Hedwig’s cage, slipping his finger between the bars so she could nip at them. It seemed to be her way of letting Harry know she loved him. He smiled affectionately and after a few seconds, returned to his bed, turned on the lamp on the nightstand, and looked at the clock; it was six o’clock in the morning. He sighed and plopped down backwards.
The lamp light seemed to be directly illuminating the moderate-sized stack of letters he’d gotten throughout the summer. Harry picked them up and sifted through them: there were a few letters from Luna, including the one she’d sent him on his birthday in which she enclosed a painting of Lupin and Sirius she made, one letter from Dumbledore telling him to stay put and to keep a good head on his shoulders, one from Neville, also for his birthday, and quite a few from Ron, Mrs. Weasley, Fred, and George, but lately they’d ceased coming. Most of the stack was made up of letters from Hermione and Ginny. He picked out one of Hermione’s more recent letters and began reading it.
I hope you know just how selfish and unfair you’re being! We’re all worried sick about you, and you can’t even have the courtesy to write back just to let us know you’re alive! For all we know, you’re lying in a ditch somewhere! I know you’re angry and upset, but so are we and you really aren’t helping by not answering our letters! If you can’t show the decency to at least send Hedwig with something to ease our minds, then consider this my last letter to you! And don’t expect a warm welcome from me when you show up here!
Harry took out the next letter she wrote.
Please ignore my last letter. It was very rude and I wasn’t taking your feelings into consideration. I’m sorry and I hope you can forgive me. I’m just frustrated.
Why won’t you write back? Is it because you don’t want to talk about any of this? Because if so, all you have to do is say so! We can always talk about whatever you want to. I mean, even if you don’t want to talk about it, and I understand if you don’t, you could at least send back the word “Okay” or something, just to give all of us some peace of mind.
I know you’re hurting, but you absolutely cannot go through this alone. You have people who care about you and who are willing to do whatever it takes to help you, but you need to be willing to accept it. You can’t be talking to the Dursleys about it, I know you wouldn’t. So the only logical explanation is that you’re keeping everything bottled up, and that’s not good, Harry. Even if you don’t want to, you need someone to talk to. If I’m not that person, then tell me who and I’ll convince them to get a letter to you. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you’re okay. Please remember that.
Consider writing back, Harry. I’m extremely scared and worried. And you returning neither Ginny’s nor my letters isn’t helping.
Lots of Love and Care,
Harry stuffed the letters back into their proper envelopes and shoved the lot of them back onto his nightstand. He then exhaled heavily and shut off the lamp. Why couldn’t any of them understand that he simply wanted to be left alone? He wasn’t sad, angry, upset, devastated, or any other negative emotion. He’d long since dealt with the events of his fifth year and all the letters from everyone was just a reminder of what he was trying to forget. He completely appreciated the time everyone took to carefully word their letters (with the exception of that rather nasty one of Hermione’s), but it was overwhelming. Harry didn’t reply to any of their letters simply because he didn’t want to. He knew he was terrible for it, but what did they honestly expect? A happy-go-lucky Harry that joyfully replied to their hoards of letters? While he (or so he thought) was healed, he still needed time to just be alone, and no one seemed to grasp that concept. Sighing once more, Harry rolled over and fell back asleep.
He looked around at all the people, dancing and having fun and meeting new friends, while he sat at a table, drinking some oddly flavored punch. Of course, everyone was staring at him, probably wondering why the famous Harry Potter wasn’t up, strutting his dance moves or flirting with some girls. Or perhaps they were happy to see that he wasn’t enjoying himself. Either way, Harry didn’t like being stared at.
He hadn’t seen Ron or Hermione all night; Harry figured Ron hid himself from sight, while Hermione was probably in the middle of the crowd, having the best time of her life with her mystery date. The thought boiled his blood. Harry thought about how he should be doing something productive instead of sitting around, watching everyone else have a good time. He drained the last bit of his goblet, stood up, and made his way towards the Entrance Hall. It was eerie just how empty, how quiet the rest of Hogwarts was. It almost seemed as if the whole castle should be alive with students roaming the corridors and trampling up and down the Grand Staircase, getting forgotten accessories, or bringing things to show their new friends. However, it was just the opposite; there was barely anyone in the Entrance Hall, let alone on the staircase. Harry could’ve screamed and no one would’ve known.
As Harry turned the corner after the first set of steps, he noticed someone sitting at the top of the next case. It appeared to be a girl, fifth or sixth year, crying with her face in her hands. He didn’t want to be rude and just step over her – she was clearly distraught– but he also didn’t want to return to the Yule Ball. Harry stood conflicted for a few moments. Create a potentially awkward situation and possibly traumatize a girl, or return to a dance where he was sitting by himself and stared at as if he were something in a cage?
Just as he was about to go back and return to the dance, the girl whispered shakily, “Harry?” Harry wondered how the girl knew his name, but he whipped back around to her. She now had her head raised, looking cautiously at him. “Harry?” she repeated.
“Hermione?” Shaking his head, he trotted up the steps and sat next to her. “What are you doing up here? Why aren’t you down at the ball?” Though Harry’s mouth was saying this, all he could think about was how beautiful she looked, even with her hair disheveled and her makeup running down her face. This is NOT the moment to be thinking about this, he cursed himself.
“I’ve been up here for a while,” was all she said.
“Well, why’re you upset? What’s going on?” Hermione didn’t speak. Instead, she pursed her lips, and her face contorted into one that was obviously fighting back more tears. “Hermione,” Harry said, placing his hand on hers, which lay on her knee. Harry felt strangely helpless. Hermione was never one to just cry, and Harry didn’t have much practice comforting girls, let alone Hermione.
“It’s just...” Staring at Harry’s hand, she took a deep breath to steady herself. “I got stood up. I know it’s stupid for me to be sitting here crying over it, but I spent such a long time getting ready, and he was so nice and he seemed genuinely interested in me, and I just thought this night was going to be perfect because I’ve been so stressed out about absolutely everything and this was going to take my mind off of all of it for just one night and it was going to be my night, but I just ended up disappointed and alone as always and I’m done, I’m just sick of it!” Her voice finally broke and she began sobbing into her hands again. As if instinctively, Harry wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, letting Hermione cry into the chest of his dress robes.
“It’s alright, it’s going to be alright,” Harry repeated, stroking her hair, rubbing her back. He gave a few people dirty looks as the attempted to walk around them, up the stairs. This made them rethink their decision and return to the Yule Ball.
Harry wasn’t too sure, but about ten minutes had passed. Hermione sat up, wiped her blotchy, red face with the backs of her hands. She seemed determined not to look at Harry, but swallowed and said, “I think I’m just going to go to bed. It’s only been an hour into the ball and I already want this night to be over.”
Harry stood quickly to make sure he was already up so he could help Hermione stand; he felt the need to be chivalrous. Hermione sensed this and suppressed a smile. She gratefully took the hand he outstretched and rose from the cold steps, muttering a feeble thank you and beginning to walk away from him. Harry thought fast. He didn’t want Hermione to go to bed just yet, especially not feeling like this. “Wait,” he blurted out. Hermione pivoted around.
“You don’t want to waste all of your hard work, do you?” he asked.
“I think it’s already been wasted, Harry, and I honestly just want to take off this dress and go to sleep.”
“I don’t think so.” He reached out his hand to her. Hermione looked at it, then back up to Harry, confusion on her face.
“What are you doing?” she breathed.
Harry smiled. “Asking you to dance. That’s what you came for, right?”
Hermione’s eyes filled with moisture and she looked down to hide it. “You’re too nice to me, Harry.” She took Harry’s hand once more.
“Possibly,” he said as he wove his fingers with her’s and led her to the middle of the dance floor. He could feel everyone’s eyes on them as they made their way through the crowd. “Don’t worry about it,” he whispered to her, though wanting nothing more than to leave. This was precisely why he wanted to go back to his dormitory in the first place, and here he was, walking into the dance for Hermione. They reached a rather empty spot on the dance floor and Hermione and Harry turned toward each other. Harry pushed some stray hair behind Hermione’s ear; Hermione wrapped her arms around Harry’s neck and buried her face in his shoulder.
As they revolved to the slow song playing, Harry was beginning to realize that Hermione wasn’t exactly upset that she got stood up; she was much too strong for that. No, she was feeling insecure because she felt ugly, and not just because her hair was messy and her makeup was running. She felt she was stood up because she wasn’t pretty enough in the first place, and that hurt Harry’s heart.
They swayed to the beat for what felt like forever, not speaking. Nothing about it was awkward, though, and Harry was sure that both he and Hermione felt the same way. “Hermione...” Harry said slowly. He wanted to say something, but what? Harry had a general idea of what he was feeling, of what he wanted to say, but how did he convey it into words? He took a deep breath. “‘Mione,” he started again with more conviction in his voice, “Whoever stood you up tonight was a right foul git and he doesn’t deserve you.” Hermione raised her face to look directly into his sharp, green eyes. “You look great whether you’re wearing pajamas or a gown, or some shabby old Hogwarts robes, whether your hair is slicked back or big and bushy, and to be honest, you look a lot better without all that makeup on your face, running or not.” Hermione was in tears. Her bottom lip was trembling so severely, Harry was sure she was going to burst into sobs again. “Hermione Granger,” he removed her hands from his neck and held them, “you are beautiful, and don’t ever let someone convince you otherwise. Okay?” he demanded, wiping her face with his sleeve as she nodded, then hugged Harry extremely tight around the middle; Harry returned the gesture.
BANG BANG BANG. “Get up!” Aunt Petunia called from the other side of Harry’s door.
“Okay, coming,” he muttered. Harry stretched and thought about his dream. The Yule Ball had been an extraordinary night. For one thing, he and Hermione became very close, rather inseparable, after that. They were always together, rarely got mad at each other, and were able to confide in each other anything. The strange thing was, though, that they had never talked about that night in the almost two years since it's occurrence. Perhaps it was the thing that happened later on, but Harry didn't want to brood over it; it was clear he should let that thought die.
Harry slipped out his bed, through the door, down the stairs, and into the kitchen.