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A Party for Hermione

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Ginny Weasley woke up murmuring, or possibly muttering, into her pillow. She'd left her teddy in her trunk, of course, as she didn't want to be taken for a baby, but she found the Hogwarts elves were always willing to give people more pillows, so she'd taken to sleeping with one in her arms, because if felt comforting to hug something even if it was only a cushion. Usually she pretended the pillow was Harry Potter, but there were times lately when she'd found herself pretending she was holding a certain brown-haired girl who in reality was sleeping in the Second Year dorms.

It took her a moment to realise all was well and she was in her own four-poster bed, that her dreams of a few minutes earlier were only dreams. This time it hadn't been one of the nightmares about the creepy older boy from the diary, which was good because she was sick and tired of those and very glad they finally seemed to be going away. At the same time, there was a way in which the dream she'd had was even more disturbing, because there was surely no reason for her to have a nightmare such as this, a vision of a world where they were all grown up but her friends were dead-eyed and sad, her nearest brother was a prat and a bully who'd used magic to cheat on his Muggle driving test, and there were children with horrible names like Hugo and Albus Severus.

Ginny disentangled herself from her nest of bedding and cracked open her bed-curtains so she could look at the window. It was raining outside, day was only on the edge of breaking, and every other girl in the room was still asleep. She crawled back under her duvet and closed her eyes, but after a minute or two she knew that right now sleep was as far away from her as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was from her family's home by the River Otter. She felt desperately lonely and lost. Oh, how I wish Luna had been sorted into Gryffindor! Her oldest and dearest friend was often an early riser and in any case she never minded being awakened to talk about dreams. It would have been a comfort to lie next to her friend, whispering together, and to have Luna's calm reassurance that everything would be all right. At last, Ginny got dressed and made her way down to the Common Room.

Nobody was there, so she sat in one of the armchairs and tried to concentrate on the fifth chapter of Miranda Goshawk's Standard Book of Spells until, much to her surprise, Professor Minerva McGonagall came out into the room through the door between the dormitory staircases, the one with the little brass Gryffindor lion on it. Ginny didn't know if the door led to McGonagall's office, to her private rooms, or to either one depending on where her Head of House happened to be, but in the twelve days since she'd started school she'd not seen the Professor use it. She imagined that if a situation were desperate enough—perhaps if a dragon and a hippogriff were fighting in the Common Room, and a lion and a unicorn burst in through the window with every indication that they were joining the fracas—somebody, hopefully one of the Prefects, could knock on the door and bring it to McGonagall's attention, but she hoped she'd never see such a desperate situation.

She sat quietly, hoping McGonagall wouldn't notice her. “Good morning, Miss Weasley. You're certainly up early today. I hope you slept all right?”

“Oh. Err, yes, Professor. I hope you did as well.”

“I did, thank you.” McGonagall was smiling rather fondly, almost the way Dad smiled when he was working on a Muggle motor or Mum did when she was cooking or knitting. Ginny was surprised, and then she was surprised at her own surprise. Did the head of Gryffindor truly not smile very often? Or had Ginny herself simply never noticed, after all the stories her brothers had told her of how strict McGonagall was? “Well, it's too early for breakfast, and I don't feel like going for a run or a ride or a fly in the rain, so is it all right if I join you?”

“Oh. Yes. Please, Professor. As you wish.”

McGonagall had a book of her own. It looked like a novel, with a title in a language Ginny didn't know and a gaudy cover illustration of men and women in leather battle robes gathered in front of a woman in armour who sat on a massive winged horse and made grand gestures, as if were a captain speaking to her warband before a fight. They were armed with swords, guns, wands, and mysterious Muggle devices she'd never seen in her father's collection, including something that might have been a mirror joined to a sort of keyboard; it didn't have long keys laid next to each other like a piano, but instead there were rows of little buttons, maybe even more of them than her Uncle Plutarch's accordion had. Ginny couldn't imagine what such a thing might do, but it looked strangely impressive.

She never would have imagined that she'd see an important, serious person like McGonagall reading a novel, especially one that looked as if it might be a grown up version of the adventure stories Ginny herself enjoyed, the same books that made her brother Percy shake his head and say she'd do better to spend her time reading about the real world. I wish I could tell him that the Deputy Headmistress doesn't read Proceedings of the Wizengamot for fun, either, but it's rude to gossip and he probably wouldn't believe me. The Professor read in silence for a few minutes before looking up from her book, as if she'd noticed that Ginny wasn't really concentrating on her textbook. “Miss Weasley? If you have any issues or concerns, you are very welcome to bring them to my attention. I'll not judge you, nor will I tell a soul unless either you permit me or it's absolutely necessary to protect and care for you or my other students.”

“Oh. Thank you, Professor.”

“If, for instance, you're having trouble sleeping in your dormitory, there are things I can do to help you. Without drawing the attention of your roommates, if that should be important. If all the unfamiliar sounds are keeping you awake, there are Silencing Charms which I would be happy to teach you. For that matter, if you find them difficult to master, as many First Years do, I could apply them to your curtains myself. I've had to do so for any number of boys, as it happens.” McGonagall smiled a funny little half-smile, and Ginny grinned, realising that she surely was referring to Ron's snoring, which sometimes got loud enough to reach Ginny's room in the Burrow, despite Ron's room being on the floor below and the opposite side of the house. For the first time, she was able to imagine what the head of Gryffindor might have been like in her own First Year.

“Oh, no, Professor, that's fine. Nobody in my dorm snores the way my brother does. But... do you know when Hermione... that is, Miss Granger's birthday is? I, well, I'm sorry if it sounds silly, but I woke up feeling it was important, somehow.”

“Five points to Gryffindor for taking care of a friend, Miss Weasley. As it happens, Miss Granger's birthday is on the nineteenth of this month. I have been hoping someone would take it upon herself to organise something for her. I can't do it myself, lest I be accused of playing favourites, but I don't think her own room-mates are well able to arrange a celebration that would please her and I regret to say that her closest friends are, well, not very thoughtful about these things.”

“I hate to disagree, Professor, but I think it's only my brother who's not thoughtful. I don't believe Harry has any notion of what to do about a birthday. My mum put together a little party for him this summer, just the way she always does for us, and it was like he'd never had a birthday in his life before. He was so very thankful, but... it was as if he couldn't understand why she'd done it.” Ginny couldn't believe she'd just been so bold as to say such a thing. “Err, sorry, Professor.”

“There's no need for you to apologise, Miss Weasley, believe me. Thank you for, well, for confirming something I've suspected since last year. And... if you'd like my help in arranging something small and pleasant for your friend, I'd be very happy to do what I can.”

“Thank you, Professor. I owe Hermione so much. The least I can do is see to it that she has a nice birthday party.” Ginny shivered, remembering the Express, and Tom Riddle, and what the Professors and Madam Pomfrey had told her he... no, it might have done to her. If it hadn't been for Hermione, who, having studied up on cursed books over the summer, noticed there was something off about the diary her friend's younger sister was writing in, for Luna, who saw the diary's evil aura flaring up in response to Hermione's question as no mere object made of paper and leather and glue should ever have done, and for Harry Potter's quick reactions when the little black book somehow flung itself across the room, Ginny might have been possessed by the hateful lingering spirit that had done its best to make itself her friend and confidant. Tom wanted me to snatch it up and run away, crying that it was my private diary and my brother and his friends should stop bullying me. He said it was a way I could show him I was mature enough and trustworthy enough to be his girlfriend. But Harry pinned it to the floor with a Potions knife, Luna dropped a silk handkerchief over it, and Ron slammed his cauldron down on top. It was as if Tom had suddenly dropped off the face of the earth, and I realised at once that I didn't even like him very much.

The most frightening thing about it all was how close Harry and Ron had come to being left behind in King's Cross Station. Ginny didn't think she would ever have had the courage to even attempt to sit with Hermione had her brother not been in the compartment as well. If Madam Amelia Bones and her niece Susan hadn't been delayed because some idiot had released an entire crate of Cornish pixies in Piccadilly Circus, which meant they ended up stuck on the Muggle side of the station with the boys, and if Madam Bones hadn't used her authority as Chief Auror to hold the Express whilst she investigated the blocked portal... well, only God and Merlin knew if anyone would have noticed the diary before it was too late.

As it was, Professors Flitwick and McGonagall had called for Aurors to investigate the accursed diary as soon as the Express reached the station, and the little book with the dark presence had been traced back to Draco Malfoy's father. Mr. Malfoy had escaped prosecution, but he'd lost his place on the Board of Governors. Draco, his fiancée, Pansy Parkinson, and his pair of troll-like bodyguards had been withdrawn from Hogwarts and sent off to Durmstrang before the end of the week.

On the third evening of term, Ginny was told, Gilderoy Lockhart had invited McGonagall and Flitwick round to his office for a drink. After an unusually specific conversation about the diary, he'd drawn his wand on them, only to find out that attempted Obliviation of a Goblin-trained professional duellist and a feline Animagus who'd seen combat against both Grindelwald's Knights of Walpurgisnacht and the Dark Lord's Death Eaters was a mistake on the same level as tickling a sleeping dragon. As a result, Lockhart was in Azkaban for stealing thousands of memories and the two professors, along with the Headmaster himself, were taking it in turns to teach Defence Against the Dark Arts until a new instructor could be found.

“Thank you, Miss Weasley. It's improper for a teacher to admit to having favourites, of course, but Miss Granger reminds me of an old student of mine. As do you, actually. I look forward to seeing the pair of you flourish here at Hogwarts, both as witches and in your friendships.”

Ginny felt her face get warm. “Thank you, Professor.”

In her free time that day, Ginny talked with everyone she could think of who was friendly with Hermione, with only two notable exceptions: her own brother Ron, and Harry Potter. She felt certain that Harry should be included, somehow, but she still had trouble looking him in the eye, and she had a feeling that birthdays were at least foreign to him and possibly even painful. As for Ron, she didn't have much faith in him coming up with anything to do for Hermione beyond chipping in a Sickle or two to help buy her a box of Chocolate Frogs, reckoning that he'd get to eat at least one himself and knowing in any case he'd most likely get the cards, since Hermione had no interest in them.

Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown thought a party was a wonderful idea and that Ginny was very sweet for putting it together. They said they'd be delighted to help with decorations, but they were little or no use when it came to working out what Hermione might actually like, beyond Lavender's observation that the brunette Muggleborn probably didn't want make-up, since their attempt to help her with a bit of foundation and some blush had gone nowhere.

Fortunately, Ginny thought to mention her quandary to Luna at lunch. “Oh, Ginevra, that's an absolutely brilliant idea! It happens I've noticed that the beautiful and talented Miss Hermione Granger has a study group, and I'm very very sure they'd be willing to help. They're not all Gryffindors, which I know makes some people in your House uncomfortable and is probably part of why she's not more open about how much she enjoys their company, but I'm sure a quiet and private party with them and her handsome green-eyed best friend and of course your own lovely self would please her to no end. If you'll come to the Library this afternoon after the last lesson, I'll introduce you and we can all get to work. I happen to know that our dear Hermione will be watching her Harry at Quidditch practise today, so we'll be able to discuss matters without fear of embarrassing her.”

“Oh. Thanks, Luna. Thank you so much.” Ginny felt almost as if something moving very fast had just zoomed right past her head, and wondered if this might be how other people normally felt when Luna talked.

Later that afternoon, after a Charms lesson that she heartily wished had been History of Magic instead so she could have taken a nap, Ginny met Luna in the corridor. The little blonde hugged her, kissed her cheek, grabbed her hand, and towed her along into the Library. She might have been slightly embarrassed at the public display of affection, but it felt so nice to be hugged. Besides, it was too early in term for so very many people to be staying inside and spending their afternoon with books, especially since it was such a pleasant day out, so there wasn't anybody to see them as far as Ginny could tell, other than the dogs in the nearest painting, and they were too intent on their game of All Fours to pay any heed. Well, the Jack Russell Terrier with the paisley tie might be more interested in the Springer Spaniel barmaid than he is in his cards, but he's certainly not looking at us.

At first Ginny thought the only human beings in the Library, other than Madam Pince, were a scatter of older pupils, probably Sixth or Seventh Years, a few sitting alone and the rest working quietly together in pairs or trios. Most of them looked to be either Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs. But Luna led her over to a corner table, screened off by bookshelves from the rest of the room, and she found herself face to face with Hermione's friends.

She thought they were all in Harry and Hermione's year, which made sense, of course. There were four of them: an Asian girl who looked much like Parvati would have looked if she had borrowed a Ravenclaw's clothes, her black hair spilling loose down her back and past her bottom; another Ravenclaw girl, this one with a pointy nose, soft hazel eyes, straight dark brown hair, and a cheerful smile; Susan Bones from Hufflepuff, with her red hair in its usual plait; and a sturdy black haired girl with a strong jaw and a nose like an eagle's beak who wore a Slytherin tie. Merlin, she's six feet tall if she's an inch, and she's only twelve? She might be the same height as Bill by the time she's full grown. And I've never talked with a Slytherin outside of lessons. I suppose if she's a friend of Hermione's she can't dislike Gryffindors that much, but still...

Luna, of course, wasn't intimidated in the slightest. “Hello, everyone! This is my darling dear friend Ginevra. We grew up together in Ottery St. Catchpole, and I'm absolutely delighted to introduce her to you.”

“Err, hi. I'm Ginny Weasley. You've probably met my brothers. I hope you won't hold that against me.” Oh, Merlin's smelly socks, why did I say that?

The Slytherin laughed, but it was a very friendly sort of laugh. “Pleased to meet you, Ginny. I'm Millicent Bulstrode. And of course I'll not hold them against you! Did I hold people's relatives against them, I reckon I'd have nobody to talk with. Not even myself, considering some of the miserable lumps I'm forced to count amongst my cousins. Present company very much excepted, of course.” She had a Northern accent and a gentle voice that didn't seem as if it should be coming from someone who looked well able to knock down a charging bull with her fist.

Susan giggled and gave the tall girl a little one-armed hug. “Why, thank you so very much, my dear favourite seventh cousin once removed. And it's good to see you again, Ginny. I hope you're settling in well?”

“Oh. Yes, I am, thank you, Susan. I hope you're having a good year?”

Things are grand! Professor Sprout and Madam Hooch have finally let me start working on some of the school brooms. For now it's only the really clapped-out ones, I'm afraid, but I don't mind, cos there's so much I can learn from them. Do you know they've a genuine 1928 Cleansweep One in the back of the shed? Poor beast is just knackered and barely gets off the ground at all, but she's still got all the original Charms on her, and more than half the twigs are pre-War Cleansweep parts.

“Wow! A 1928? My mum says she used to sneak rides on her dad's 1930 Cleansweep One Professional, and it handled better than a Nimbus 1000. She tried to get permission to use it for Quidditch in her Seventh Year, but the staff wouldn't hear of it.”

Oh, how very cool! I'd just love a chance to try a Thirties broom that's in good working order. My Aunt May thinks modern Braking Charms are bad for the overall agility, even if they are slightly safer...Oops, sorry, I'm being a twighead, aren't I?”

Millicent patted her shoulder. “Only a little bit. And it sounds as if you might not be the only cute ginger twighead in the room.”

The brown-haired Ravenclaw giggled. “I'm Mòrag MacDougal. I'm not much of a twighead, but don't get me started on citterns, Sneakoscopes, Middle Bronze Age artefacts, or Pictish philology, because I have it on reliable authority that I'm very hard to stop. It's a pleasure to meet you, Ginny.”

“And I am Padma, Padma Patil. I expect you will have met my twin? It is so lovely to meet you, Ginny.”

T hey sat down together and began to discuss birthday plans. Before long, Ginny forgot that she was talking to girls from other Houses, girls who'd spent a whole year at Hogwarts already. She almost forgot that she and Luna hadn't grown up with Padma and Susan and Millicent and Mòrag. When it came time for dinner, she was amazed to realise that she had four new friends.

Before they left, Millicent took Ginny's hand. “Thank you so much, Ginny. We've talked about doing something for Hermione's birthday, but none of us were even certain when it was, and we knew that if we asked she'd only say we needn't trouble ourselves for her sake.”

“Oh, well, Professor McGonagall was the one who told me about it.”

Millicent giggled and gave her hand a little squeeze. “Now, now, my dear, you're being almost as bad as our Hermione. You were the one who decided to talk to Luna, and to us, and to Padma's sister and her friend.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

“You know... you're very welcome to join our group. To revise with us, that is. You and Luna both. We'd love to have you.”

“But... I'm a First Year. Won't I be in your way?”

Padma laid a hand on her shoulder. “Not at all. It's always good to have a fresh perspective on things.”

“Won't you please, Ginevra?” Luna whispered. “We'll have ever so much fun together, all of us.”

“Okay. Thank you. I'd be delighted.”

Luna hugged her. That wasn't surprising, of course, since hugging people was one of Luna's favourite things. What was surprising was that all the other girls hugged her as well. But it was definitely a pleasant sort of surprising.

At dinner that night another amazing thing happened. She sat down at the Gryffindor table, hoping only that Colin Creevey wouldn't corner her and bombard her with questions about her brother's adventures with Harry Potter that she couldn't begin to answer. Someone settled on the bench next to her, and she felt certain her hopes were in vain. But when she turned to greet Colin, stifling a sigh, she found that instead that, wonder of wonders, Hermione had chosen to sit with her.

“Hello, Ginny. How was your day?”

“Oh. H-hello, Hermione. It was nice, thanks. And how was yours?” Ginny hoped she wasn't too pink, or that at least Hermione hadn't noticed her brief stutter.

“It was lovely, thank you. Well, mostly lovely, anyhow. Your brother somehow made a Goat-foot Potion today, instead of the Dispelling Draught we were supposed to be brewing, but it didn't get on anyone else and I'm sure Madam Pomfrey will have his hooves changed back to toes by morning.”

Ginny couldn't help laughing. “Really? My other brothers will be ever so disappointed. Percy because he'll think it a shame Ron was messing about in Potions, and Fred and George because the closest they've ever come was a potion that made people's toenails grow six inches long if they drank a full glass of it.”

“Hello, Hermione and Ginny.” The bench across from them squeaked as Harry sat down. “For what it's worth, I reckon the Twins are trying to give themselves a fever or a stomach ache just so they can spend the night in the Hospital Wing grilling him before he forgets what he put in the cauldron.”

Hermione pretended to frown. “I should hope that their interest is purely academic.” She's trying to look like Professor McGonagall does when she's about to take points off someone, but it's not working very well. Does she always smile when Harry's about? They both almost glow when they're together. I like it. I wonder if maybe next summer both of them could stay at the Burrow with us?

Ginny was so caught up in watching Harry with Hermione that it took her a moment to realise she'd not greeted him. “Oh. Um, hi, Harry. How was your, your day?”

“It was good, thanks, Ginny. How was yours?”

“It was really, really nice. Thank you.”

When she woke the next morning, she found she'd somehow got between two of her extra pillows. For just an instant, she imagined she had Harry in her arms and Hermione cuddled up against her back. It was even better than pretending only one of them was there.

She lingered after Transfiguration to talk with Professor McGonagall. “You did well today, Miss Weasley. Might I ask how your preparations are going?”

“Thank you, Professor. They're going very well, I think. My friend Luna and I have got to know the girls from Hermione's study group, and we've asked some of the Elves to help us. Luna's daddy suggested we should give them chocolate for a thank you present, if that's all right?”

“That's very good. It's always appropriate to maintain courteous relations with the House Elves. Have you picked out a place to hold the party in?”

“We were thinking about using one of the empty classrooms, but none of us were sure if we needed permission or not.”

“It shouldn't be a problem, but I'll write you a note just in case. Have you thought of anything besides a party for her? I do think Miss Granger needs some sort of a stress release, sometimes. I'd hoped Mr. Potter might encourage her to take up flying, at least recreationally, but unfortunately her interest in broomsticks seems to be limited to watching him playing Quidditch.”

“Well, Luna suggested we should take her for a bathe in the lake, but the water's awfully cold, and I'm not sure I like the idea of going bathing so close to the school. Some of the boys have got kind of a nasty sense of humour.”

“There are Charms that might help with both of those issues, but I do see your point. As it happens, there are baths here in the school that allow space for swimming. Although I can't let you into the Prefects' Bath or the Staff Bath, there is a disused bath here in the Tower that should do nicely.”

“Goodness, that would be lovely, Professor. Luna and I have always had such fun bathing in the Otter every summer, ever since we were old enough, and I miss it when it's too cold. Are you sure it's not too much trouble?”

“Not at all, Miss Weasley, not at all. Both of the old Gryffindor Household Suites are just sitting there, as it's two generations or more since any member of a noble house has maintained an actual Household as a Hogwarts student, and there's no reason why the baths shouldn't be used. The Elves don't like having such a big space all sealed up and them never getting to clean it, so it should make them very happy.”

“Oh, wow. I just hope it's okay that, err... we're not all, well, Gryffindors.”

The professor smiled fondly. “There is nothing whatsoever wrong with having friends outside the House, Miss Weasley. I'm glad that you and Miss Granger are fair-minded girls. I myself had dear friends in Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and, yes, Slytherin when I was your age. Your friends are very welcome to join you.”

“Thank you so much, Professor.”

“That said, I should warn you that Muggle customs are different to ours, in some respects. It might take some time before Miss Granger will be comfortable bathing in company when she's wearing the attire you're accustomed to.”

Ginny wasn't sure what McGonagall meant. Attire? What did clothes have to do with bathing? She and Luna and everyone else she knew always stripped off completely and left their clothes on the bank of the river or the pond. “I'm not sure I understand, Professor. Or... do you mean that Muggles don't undress when they go bathing?”

“At least in Britain, Miss Weasley, most of them prefer to remain clothed. In fact, they have garments made just for that purpose.”

Ginny was trying to imagine jumping in the River Otter wearing trousers and a shirt, or perhaps a dress. It didn't make sense. “How do they swim? Don't their clothes get soaked and pull them down?”

“It doesn't make all that much sense to me, either, but swimming costumes, as they're called, are made of special fabrics that don't hold much water, and they fit tightly so they don't get in the way. They're something like underwear, as best I understand it. I know it sounds odd, but unless Miss Granger's background is very different to what I think it is, she'll feel ashamed at the thought of being unclothed in front of all her friends, no matter how fondly she feels of you. Perhaps you might feel somewhat the same if you and Miss Lovegood were to go bathing and when you got to the waterside you were to discover that Mister Potter and your brother Ronald were joining your party?”

Ginny shuddered. “I see your point, Professor.” Actually, the fantasy of Harry Potter going for a bathe with herself and her friends made her feel very pleasantly tingly, even though she'd be mortified if it were to happen in real life, but her brother, now, that was a horrible idea. Ron would say all sorts of mean things, he'd insist he was about to be sick just from seeing us, and that's leaving aside how little I want to see him starkers. “Do you think Hermione has a... swimming costume, is that it?”

“Yes, that's the term, Miss Weasley. And I doubt that she has one at Hogwarts. In any case, she'd probably be at least a little bit uncomfortable if the rest of you did without. I'll talk to Professor Burbage, and I'm sure that with her advice and the help of the House Elves we'll be able to have appropriate costumes made. Just let me know who will be joining you, so we can get the sizes correct.”

“Thank you so much, Professor. If you're sure it's not too much trouble, that would be wonderful.”

“It's no trouble at all, Miss Weasley.” There was a pause. “Is there something else you were wondering?”

“Err, Professor, does that mean that... Oh, I'm sorry, it's silly and it's none of my business.”

“Don't worry, Miss Weasley. There's nobody here but us, and you're welcome to ask whatever question might be on your mind. I know it might seem hard to believe, but I was a young girl once, myself.”

“Does H... I mean, do Muggles wear clothes when they take their baths, also?”

“Not to my knowledge, Miss Weasley. They undress to cleanse themselves, just as we do. And there's nothing wrong with being curious. Perhaps when you and Miss Granger have known each other for longer you'll feel comfortable asking her more questions about the Muggle world, but in any case, I'm always willing to give you advice and guidance. I am your Head of House, after all.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

“You're welcome. And now I should think you'll want to run along and meet your friends.”

It was a lovely sunny afternoon, and surprisingly warm for the middle of September in the Highlands. The girls went for a walk; Hermione was watching Harry's Quidditch practise again, although she had said she'd meet them in the Library to revise for a bit before supper.

Once they'd walked a little distance from the castle, Luna said “You've interesting news for us, haven't you, Ginevra?”

“Err, well, yes. We... what do you think about going for a bathe with Hermione? I believe we'll all have the afternoon free before the party, and I remember hearing her tell Harry about her seaside holiday, so I suppose she must like the water, right?” Ginny's face went hot. That hadn't been at all well-phrased.

“That's a magnificent idea,” Millicent said. “My nan taught me a lovely old-fashioned water-warming charm, so I reckon we could make a little bit of the lake comfortable enough. I don't know anything good for keeping the boys away, unfortunately, but maybe one of you might?”

“Actually, Professor McGonagall said there's an old swimming bath in Gryffindor Tower that we could use. That might be easier. And warmer as well.”

Susan smiled. “Yes. As much as I'd like to get a final dose of sun before the winter comes, I'd rather not give every single pervert in the castle such an attractive target. I've got a few security charms, of course, but Auntie says I can't learn any of the Auror level ones until I've passed my OWLS.”

Mòrag laughed. “Aye, no reason to give that git of a Corner the chance to try and see how big my baps have got. He knows I'll hex his ears off if he tries looking down my blouse again, but it'd be just like him to think he could get away with playing at Peeping Tom out by the Lake. If it's all right for us to use the bath in your Tower, I'm game.”

Padma got a pensive look. “I think it sounds a lovely idea, but my twin says Hermione is a bit shy about undressing. I'm afraid she might be embarrassed.”

“Professor McGonagall told me Muggles wear clothes when they go bathing. They call them swimming costumes. She said she and Professor Burbage will have the Elves make us some, if we'd like. I hope it doesn't sound too strange...”

Luna hugged Ginny round the shoulders. “I'm not sure if I see the point in wearing clothes when one doesn't have to wear them, but if it's necessary to make our Hermione happy, I'm very willing.”

Millicent grinned and patted Ginny on the back. “Wonderful! I'm not sure what I think about the idea of clothes for bathing, either, but it's a small price to pay for a lovely afternoon with our Hermione.”

Susan giggled. “When it comes to clothing, I very much agree with Luna, but if that's what it takes to go for a bathe with Hermione, I'm game.”

“And I'm all in favour of us going for a bathe, clothes or no clothes,” Mòrag said.

“I'm in favour,” Padma said. “I just hope it is more comfortable than wearing a sari into the river. We have to do that when we visit my aunties in India, and I never have liked how long it takes to dry out. Not to mention that you can forget about swimming so much as a stroke, which always seems to me like missing the point of going for a bathe altogether.”

“McGonagall says swimming costumes are made out of some kind of stretchy cloth that doesn't soak up water, and they fit close to your body. It sounds as if they're kind of like underwear.”

Mòrag sighed. “Oh, that's a pity. I was just thinking that if people wore clothes when they went bathing, girls and boys could bathe together. Which sounds like it could be fun, but I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable in my underwear in front of any of the boys. Not even our Hermione's Harry, right now, although I reckon he'd be more polite than the rest of the lot. Actually, I'd be more worried about embarrassing him.”

Ginny blushed. “Err, yeah. I take your point.”

Luna patted her on the shoulder. “I think half of why Ginevra and I became so very fond of bathing in the summers is because it has always made such an excellent way of keeping Ronald—and, more importantly, his collection of Wrackspurts—very far away from us for an entire afternoon or morning. Harry Potter, on the other hand, seems to keep himself remarkably Wrackspurt-free. I'm planning to make a project over the next few years of finding out how he does it. I have a suspicion that his excellent taste in female best friends might play a role, but it doesn't do to speculate too much before one has all one's data collected.”

“That's a good point, Luna,” Millicent said. “For now, shouldn't we talk about presents for our Hermione, so nobody gets her the same thing? And isn't it about time that we should read Harry—and Ginny's brother as well, of course—in on our plans?”

 

#

 

Hermione Granger had never expected to have an actual birthday party at Hogwarts. To tell the truth, she'd never really expected to have an actual birthday party anywhere, at least not one that went beyond dinner with her parents and maybe her grandmother and an uncle or aunt.

Simply having Harry and her friends wish her a happy birthday at breakfast was as good as anything she'd dared to hope for. When they told her they'd planned a party for her after dinner, she had to pinch herself for fear she was dreaming. She wasn't.

Even more wonderfully, Susan had taken her aside before their Herbology lesson and told her they had a private thing to talk about. “We—that is, Ginny and Luna and Millicent and Mòrag and Padma and I—were hoping maybe you'd like to go for a bathe before dinner? Ginny asked your Head of House, and apparently there's a swimming bath in Gryffindor Tower we could use. You've talked about beach holidays and going bathing in the ocean, so we thought you might enjoy it. I know a pool isn't the same, but the Black Lake's a little too cold at this time of year and some of the boys might try to bother us.... Sorry, I'm babbling.” Much to Hermione's surprise, the Hufflepuff's face was a lovely shade of pink.

“It's fine. And I'd really like that, but I'm afraid I haven't got a swimming costume here at Hogwarts.” Even as the words left her lips, Hermione remembered that she'd never read a single reference to swimming costumes in the Wizarding World. I've never seen them in the Diagon Alley shops, either. Does that mean witches are meant to go bathing in the nude, just as Mariane and Phèdre like to do? Her cousins in France thought nothing of stripping off and jumping into the pond during the long lazy summer days on their parents' farm, and Hermione still joined them when was visiting, but they'd been bathing like that together since they were so small that they also were given their baths all three at once in the same tub.

She wasn't sure she could face the idea of going naked in front of her friends, despite how fond she was of them. Or maybe because of how much I like them? She blushed, remembering a vivid fantasy she'd had one night last week when she was curled up in her bed and just on the edge of sleep: she and the girls and Harry had been sent to visit a stone circle for a History of Magic project, only to find when they got there that an old Druidic charm made every stitch of their clothes disappear. “Err, I'm sorry... it's a silly Muggle thing, and I'll try...”

Susan smiled. “It's all right, Hermione. Professor McGonagall told us about swimming costumes, and she and Professor Burbage have had some made for the seven of us. We'll be fine.”

“Oh, my goodness. I hope it wasn't too much trouble for them, but I'm simply... well, that's lovely. Thank you so much, Susan. I'd love to come bathing with you.”

On the other side of the greenhouse, Harry and Ron were talking about something—by the gestures, Hermione thought it was Quidditch. Well, maybe I should say that Ron's talking about Quidditch, probably the Cannons again, and Harry's listening to him. With a start, she realised that Harry kept glancing in her direction. Their eyes met for an instant, and they shared a brief awkward smile.

Susan winked, as if she'd noticed. “Thank you, Hermione. And... well, this time I reckon it'll just be us girls, but I was curious... do boys and girls go bathing together in the Muggle world? I mean, since you wear clothes and all of that? Ginny says they're kind of like underwear, so maybe not, but I have to admit that was my first thought...”

“Yes, they—that is, we do. It's not like it sounds. Well, what I mean is that not all swimming costumes are exactly like underwear.”

“Oh?”

“The kind I usually wear is in one piece and it covers my middle, although girls on the Continent often wear costumes that are more like a bra and knickers. Boys on the Continent like to wear something that's like briefs, but British boys and men usually wear sort of loose shorts. They don't wear shirts, of course, but I suppose that doesn't bother them.”

Susan smiled. “That's interesting. I just hope McGonagall and Burbage knew there were different kinds. I'm very sorry if it turns out we've got the wrong sort.”

“I'm sure it will be fine. In any case, it's only us girls, isn't it?”

“Yeah. We thought about inviting Harry, but we were thinking of swimming costumes as being like underwear, and we didn't think either of you would be very comfortable being together in your underwear right now.”

Hermione felt as if she should ask why Susan had only mentioned Harry and not Ron, but Professor Sprout came in before she had the chance. She went and sat with Harry and Ron. As they pulled on their earmuffs and gloves, Ron was still blustering about non-regulation Quaffles, blind referees, and how Caerphilly with their unsporting approach to the game had stolen the last forty matches they'd played with the Cannons. “You have to understand, Hermione, the Catapults' coach is an old Slytherin, and used to be the Snakes' Keeper when he was at Hogwarts back in the Fifties. It's no wonder at all that they cheat, really. As everybody knows, you can't trust a Snake.”

Hermione winced, thinking of gentle, patient Millicent who loved her little brother and sister and doted on Sgàthach, the black polydactyl kitten that her cousin who lived on the Isle of Skye had given her. She wrote letters to her grandparents twice a week, and could talk happily for hours about magical archaeology, the Cleveland Bay horses that her family bred and trained, or almost anything her friends were interested in. Ron never noticed Hermione's expression. Harry, on the other hand, gave her a quick soft smile. I wonder if they'd like each other? I'd love to invite the boys to join our group, but Ron would probably find some way of being rude to Mòrag and Padma and Susan without even meaning to, and I'd hate to hear what he'd say when he found out about our Slytherin. He's a good friend, and he truly does mean well, but he doesn't think about what he says very much at all.

They'd agreed to meet in the public corridor at the base of Gryffindor Tower shortly after the last lesson of the day. Hermione had just enough time to drop off her books. Should I change clothes? Wait, that's silly. I'll be putting on a costume down there, I suppose, since I've not got mine here. I wonder if I should bring a towel? Well, I expect that since the Professors have got us swimming costumes there will be towels for us as well. It occurred to her that she'd never thought about where the towels came from, or how laundry was actually done at Hogwarts. That was something she should research. I've always thought of that sort of thing as being boring, but really, the spells or charms that bring towels and sheets and clothes out of all the dormitories, wash them, and send them back to the right places have got to be simply fascinating.

She was surprised to find Professor McGonagall waiting along with her friends outside the Fat Lady's portrait. “Oh, goodness. I'm sorry if I'm running late, Professor.”

“Not at all, Miss Granger, not at all. You're right on time. I just thought I'd introduce myself to your friends. And now I'll introduce all of you to the portrait who guards the outside access to the Gryffindor Household Suite you'll be using today. Follow me, please.”

They went a short distance down the corridor and turned the corner. Hermione didn't think she'd ever gone in this direction, except maybe once or twice in First Year when she'd got lost. The Professor stopped in front of a painting that might have been done by Thomas Gainsborough or one of his contemporaries. It showed a quiet garden where two women were chatting over coffee. One wore an eighteenth century lady's gown, whilst the other was dressed in an Auror's armoured combat robes in the style of the Napoleonic era. “Good afternoon, Madam Quinn,” McGonagall said. “I'm sorry to disturb you and your friend, but I've some young ladies here who'd like to spend a little while in the swimming bath.”

“Oh, by all means, Professor,” the woman in the gown said. “Griselda and I were just chatting a bit. It's a great pleasure to let such lovely girls into the Suite. I have so little work to do, these days, since young Lords seem to be waiting so long to establish their Households. I was so very pleased when the young Potter showed up last year, and I was hoping he'd follow his great-great-great grandparents' example—dear Charlus and Aldora were affianced before their Sorting and happily sharing this very suite with sweet Liliana and Edith before their First Year was over—but I suppose this generation are simply late bloomers.”

“Ah, well, it's different times today.” Was Professor McGonagall embarrassed, or was it only a trick of the light?

I never imagined I'd see her bat an eye, let alone blush, Hermione though. It was better thinking about that, rather than wondering about Harry's ancestors and what had to have been the arranged match between them. I expect the other two names must be grown women who shared the suite as chaperones. It's wrong for families to take away their children's right to choose their own spouses, even if it did work out all right in an individual case that has to have been more than a hundred years ago. I should be glad that Mummy and Daddy would surely never make a marriage contract between me and Harry. Not that I'm picking out Harry's name as anything other than a random example, of course. She shook her head and drew her attention back to the present.

“So it is, my dear girl, so it is,” Madam Quinn said.

“Aye. So, these are Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Luna Lovegood, Millicent Bulstrode, Mòrag MacDougal, Padma Patil, and Susan Bones. Girls, this is Madam Althea Quinn.”

“I'm absolutely delighted to meet you, my dear pupils. You've a lovely glow about you. My goodness, but it's a very long time since we've had a coven here at Hogwarts.”

Hermione wasn't sure why Millicent and Susan and Mòrag were blushing. She'd always thought covens were only a minor detail from history, associations of witches who had worked together at spell development, potions research, or in other fields of inquiry. It did seem that covens had often lived together in one household, but she knew from her reading that people had seldom lived alone in either the Muggle or the magical world at that time. She imagined the coven as the mediaeval and renaissance magical equivalent of a think tank or an artists' co-operative, or perhaps a local networking group for women in business, something like the ones her mother and her aunts were active in.

“They're simply good friends who'd like to go bathing together,” McGonagall said.

“Oh, of course. Please pardon an old woman's wandering thoughts.” Madam Quinn's friend the Auror was grinning, as if she found the whole thing simply hilarious.

McGonagall shook her head. “Of course. In any event, Madam Quinn, the girls will be spending their afternoon here. I trust you can keep track of the time and get yourselves to dinner and all of that?”

“Yes, Professor,” Hermione said. The others nodded. “And thank you so much for all of this.”

“You're very welcome, Miss Granger. You'll find the baths on the right. Your swimming costumes and towels are in the changing room. Feel free to look round the rest of the suite, if you like, but do remember you've only three hours left before dinner, please.”

The portrait swung aside. “Thank you, Madam Quinn,” Hermione said, and was pleased that her friends did likewise.The door closed behind them, and they were alone together.

Millicent's colour was back to normal. “Would you like to bathe right away, Hermione, or would you like to see the rest of the Suite?”

“Err, well, I wouldn't want to stop anyone else...”

“The Birthday Girl should choose,” Luna said. “It's a tradition, or possibly an old charter. Or both, most likely, as I think about it.”

Susan squeezed the little blonde about the shoulders. “Very well said, Luna.”

“Well, then, let's have a look, I suppose. I've never been in a Household Suite before. Have any of you?”

The other girls shook their heads. “As I understand it, they usually are kept sealed up,” Padma said.

Mòrag nodded. “Aye. My grandparents were married in their Fourth Year—my mother's mam and dad, that is—but they decided against flitting into a Household Suite two years later when Granda's father went hunting dragon without enough gun and made him the Laird Bothwell, because they found it too big and empty. They stayed on in the Married Students' Housing where they were, as they liked having friends next door and they didn't feel they needed anything more than the bedroom with ensuite bath that they already had. I'm told the Household Suites were designed back in the day when there might have been bodyguards and retainers and con—that is, companions.”

The Suite was rather plain, all things considered, and not nearly as impressive as she'd thought it might be, but it was certainly big. Directly behind the portrait was a plain foyer with a tall clock in it, and from there doors led to: the bath; a sitting room; a dining room with a long table and plenty of chairs; a couple of small rooms that she thought might have been spare bedrooms; and a room that must have been the master bedroom, which had no furnishings other than a couple of armoires and a canopied bed that seemed big enough to sleep a whole squad of soldiers and possibly a wolfhound or two as well. “Isn't that bed kind of overkill?”

“Hmm?” Luna said. “I'm not sure I take your meaning, Hermione. I don't see anything here that looks like a weapon. Although I do suppose one could design a bed like this to conceal a ballista or perhaps a small cannon under the mattress, and obviously you could have several rifles or crossbows or swords in racks up just below the canopy, and plenty more hidden in the armoires. I don't remember reading that security within Hogwarts has ever been such a grave issue, but it's true that some people prefer not to take any chances.”

“Sorry, that's a Muggle expression. It means 'too much, too big,' maybe that's the best way of putting it. That bed looks far bigger than it needs to be. Unless maybe it's meant for a couple who aren't used to sleeping together? That might make sense, sort of. If they were uncomfortable at being so close and they were keeping each other awake, they could sleep further apart and not disturb each other as much.”

Luna frowned. “Well, that doesn't sound very nice. It's so lovely to cuddle, and I can't imagine why anybody who was lucky enough to have somebody whom they could cuddle all night with wouldn't take full advantage. But I suppose it's possible that you're right, much as I feel would feel terribly sorry for them.”

“Well, that makes more sense than ten people sharing it, doesn't it? I mean, these rooms are meant for married people, right?”

“Ten does seem a bit many for a marriage, I will admit. I personally find it difficult to imagine being part of anything larger than an eight-partner family. That said, one never does know, and I'm sure I could be persuaded, if they were such very nice girls that my husband and wives to be couldn't imagine life without them.”

Hermione didn't know what to say to that, so she changed the subject. “Well, does anyone else feel like going and getting changed and having a bathe?”

Padma smiled, and Hermione felt as if the room had got brighter. “I would like that very much.”

“I think that's a wonderful idea,” Ginny said.

Millicent reached out and patted Hermione's shoulder. “The Birthday Girl is always right. Let's do it.”

Hermione was glad to see that there were individual changing cubicles. She knew that many girls were very casual about taking off their clothes in an all-female setting, and she sometimes envied the camaraderie that Parvati and Lavender shared, in spite of how awkward she felt, even after a year of living together, when she came in the bathroom to brush her teeth and found them chatting, one completely nude and not bothering to close the curtains round the bath as she waited for it to fill and the other brushing her hair before the mirror, clad in nothing but a pair of knickers. In a sense, she did wish she could feel at ease stripping off in front of her friends and putting on her swimming costume whilst they did likewise. Of course, if we truly didn't feel the need to be modest in front of each other we might as well just go in the water naked bare, since we have the pool to ourselves. Do I wish I were that comfortable? Maybe. But that would be just too much. If I were so comfortable with the girls, the next step might be becoming equally comfortable with... someone else.

She shoved aside the tangle of thoughts and the accompanying vague images of messy black hair, green eyes, and a lopsided smile, undressed, and put on the swimming costume that someone, presumably McGonagall, had left for her. She was happy to see that it was a one piece, a conservative black maillot that wouldn't have looked at all out of place in the Muggle shops of Blackpool or at home in Oxford. Not that she would have minded if it were a bikini, since it was only her and her closest female friends together. She'd worn one at the beach in France this summer, as she'd needed to buy a new costume and her cousins' gentle teasing had made her feel silly for not having something more like what they and all the other continental girls were wearing. She never would have dreamt of showing her navel in public if she were closer to home, but it had been all right in a place where it didn't make her stand out and there weren't any boys she knew.

In any event, this is a costume I'd feel perfectly comfortable and appropriate wearing in front of Harry, isn't it? That is, I'd feel perfectly comfortable wearing this in front of Harry and Ron. Don't forget that you have two male best friends, Hermione. A little voice in the back of her head reminded her that Ron had very possibly never seen any girl who wasn't one of his close relatives in anything less than robes, or at least the sort of almost-but-not-quite Muggle-style outfits—such as the jeans and shirts that Ginny wore on Saturdays or casual dresses with skirts to mid-calf like the one Luna had been wearing when they met on the Hogwarts Express—that she'd seen sold in Diagon Alley and worn by witches in day-to-day casual situations. I feel safe in saying that Ron isn't really mature enough to think I was inviting him to do something I'd never want to do with him... No. We're too young for saying things like that, because the next step would be saying I did want to do it with... never mind. Something none of us are ready for, that's what it is. But it would be just like him to run away, screaming at the top of his lungs that I should go and put clothes on because I was practically naked and he didn't want to see me in my underwear. That would be hideously embarrassing.

She left the cubicle. Her friends looked slightly ill at ease in their swimming costumes, something like how she'd felt wearing robes last September, but they were smiling brightly. For an instant, she wanted to gather them all into a gigantic hug, even though her arms would never be long enough. Instead, she said “Thank you so much for this, all of you. Ready to go check out the pool?”

Luna hugged her. “Yes, please, my dear Hermione.”

Hermione was still getting used to how much Luna liked to hug people, most definitely including herself, but she had to admit it was starting to feel natural. She hugged the little blonde as tightly as she was hugged. Right. There's another reason to be glad we've got costumes. I really don't think I could handle hugging her like this if we were nude. Not right now, at least.

Hugging Luna, of course, meant hugging everyone else as well. That was awfully pleasant.

The water was perfect, just warm enough to be comfortable without making her feel as if she ought to have a bar of soap and a flannel. The pool was long enough to swim a lap in, but she didn't feel much like swimming laps when she had friends here.

All of the girls swam with quiet competence. It was nice to watch them. They stroked back and forth, and came popping in and out of the water like seals. She wondered how it had been for them, learning to swim. Were there classes in the Wizarding World, something like the ones her mother had put her in starting when she was two years of age or thereabouts? Or had they been taken bathing and taught by their sisters or cousins, like the characters she'd read about in old books? For that matter, this was the first swimming pool she'd ever seen in a magical place. Did that mean that witches usually swam in ponds or rivers or at the seaside?

She didn't want to think too much about that, because it led to thoughts of the pond on her relatives' farm outside Avignon, except instead of Mariane and Phèdre she would be bathing with her friends. And then Harry would fly into view, not trying to spy, of course, but because he'd got lost travelling over the unfamiliar terrain, and when he tried to apologise for having seen us in the nude we'd tell him it was fine as long as he'd even things out by stripping off and joining us in the water. Stop with the fantasies, Hermione. You're here with the girls, and that's all any of you need. You can wait until you're older before you think about being naked with Harry—or with any other boy, of course.

They played a game of underwater tag. Nobody was sure who had actually won, but it didn't matter, because the game ended with them all standing together in the shallow end, laughing and chatting. Off in the foyer, the clock chimed. “Well, I suppose it's getting towards dinner time,” Susan said.

Luna patted her shoulder. “And despite how lovely and wonderful it is to be in the water, it's also rather nice to eat.”

Millicent gave Hermione a little half-hug. “And don't forget we've a party afterwards. The Elves would be disappointed if we were late. Are you about ready to dry off and change?”

“Yes. Thank you so much, all of you, for all of this.”

“Thank you, Hermione,” Ginny said. “Err... would you like a back rub?”

“Well... sure. If you don't mind.”

“I think that would be wonderful,” Luna said. “The only thing more fun than getting a back rub is giving one.”

“Yes,” Padma said. “I have not had one in quite some time, and neither have I given one.” She stroked Hermione's shoulder. “And you could very much use one, my dear. We must make a habit of this, I think.”

They ended up in a happy clump of swimming costume-clad girls on the soft carpet of the changing area, giving each other back rubs and combing each others' hair. Parvati and Lavender had been doing that sort of thing since practically the first night after their Sorting, but Hermione had never been quite able to imagine that she and her own friends would ever be so physical in terms of how they expressed their friendship. I suppose I'm finally beginning to understand why other girls do. It feels terribly pleasant.

“Would you all like to do this again, some time?” Padma said after they were all changed back to their regular clothes.

“I'd be delighted,” Millicent said. “It's such fun, even better than bathing in the sea with my cousins in July. I find I don't even mind the costume. It's much more comfortable than I'd thought.”

Susan giggled. “You're right. Much as I like not wearing clothes, this is brilliant.”

“Aye. It's great sport. If Professor McGonagall will let us, I'd be very happy to do this again before much time goes by.”

Luna laced her fingers with Hermione's. “I should greatly much enjoy bathing together again, as soon as possible. And would you like to take our friends to the Otter in the summer, Ginevra?”

Ginny nodded. “Um, yes. I'd love that. And I do think we should keep coming here. At least if McGonagall will let us in.”

Luna caught Ginny's hand as well, and gave it a little squeeze. “Oh, of course! I very much expect she will, since she's such a thoughtful person. And... since we have clothes to wear in the water, perhaps we could invite Harry Potter to join us some time? I'd suggest inviting Ronald also, but I imagine he'd think it was a terrible plot to infect him with the dreaded Lurgy.”

Ginny grinned, looking much bolder than she had a few moments earlier. “I suspect you're right about my brother. But... would you mind if we asked Harry to come along some time, Hermione?”

Oh my goodness, yes! Hermione was so busy convincing herself not to shout that she realised several seconds of silence had gone by and her friends were looking slightly concerned. “Oh. Yes. That would be nice. If he's willing. And if the Professors don't mind making him a costume.”

I'm sure and very very sure that they will,” Luna said. “Professor McGonagall isn't much for playing favourites amongst her students, but she likes you, and your Harry.”

Yes. I hope you don't mind, Hermione, but... I'd like to get to know Harry better. Not because of the whole Boy Who Lived thing, but because he's your friend. Would that... well, I hope it's not an imposition.” Millicent, strong, brave, Millicent, looked as nervous as a girl who'd gone out to pick flowers one afternoon and had somehow ended up facing her Sorting two years early.

Hermione reached out and took her friend's hand. “Of course it's not an imposition, Millicent. I... I'd like for him to get to know you as well. I'd like for him to get to know all of you, if that's okay.”

The clock chimed again. “Well, I suppose it's dinner time,” Susan said. “But first: all in favour of Harry Potter joining our group, that is if he'd like to, say aye. Aye!”

The decision was unanimous.

At dinner, Luna and Susan joined Hermione and Ginny at the Gryffindor table. Millicent had whispered “See you after dinner, my dear favourite Birthday Lioness,” in Hermione's ear before they got to the Great Hall, and Padma and Mòrag had gone to the Ravenclaw table, saying they were expected to contribute something to the mealtime discussion of Astromantic theory, but it was nice to have two more of her friends sitting with her as well as Harry and Ginny. And Ron, of course.

“Oi, Looney, aren't you worried about the Nargleywhatsis or something? Shouldn't you be over with the other boffins and swots and head cases?” the youngest Weasley brother said as he and Harry sat down at the table.

“Pardon me, Ronald? Nargles are only a potential source of food contamination during mistletoe's sprouting season. It's not that time of year, and in any case there's no mistletoe within the Hall as it's not Christmas, so I can't imagine why you'd be concerned about them. Have you been reading Morgan and Halfcock? Their work in Herbology is really not very well researched, and even where there's a spot of truth they tend to grossly exaggerate. It's not my field, but if you're looking to supplement Professor Sprout's reading list I'm sure friend Neville could recommend you some far more reliable books.”

Neville looked over, having apparently overheard mention of his name, but Parvati whispered something in his ear that made him giggle. The Indian girl smiled and squeezed his hand. Lavender brushed fingertips with both of them, as if by accident.

“I don't give a flip about mistletoe, but I'm wondering why a Ravenclaw is here at the Gryffindor table. Isn't it against the rules?”

“It isn't in the slightest, Ronald,” Percy said. “We're only required to sit with our Houses at formal occasions, such as the Welcoming and Leaving Feasts. You might notice that there are other Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs here amongst us. Please be polite to our guests. I know Mum raised you better than that.” Hermione realised that he was sitting between his fellow Sixth Year Prefect Penelope Clearwater from Ravenclaw and a girl she recognised as a Hufflepuff Sixth Year who played Quidditch. Audrey Formain the Beater, isn't it? I feel as if I ought to dislike somebody who hits Bludgers at Harry, but she's always very friendly and sporting about how she does it. I've never seen her aim for the head on anybody, not even Higgs or Flint.

“I was just asking, that's all,” Ron muttered.

“Tell me, Luna,” Harry said, “do you know if the Nargles affect broomstick wood? I was reading over my Firebolt's manual this summer, and I noticed there was something about how they only use oak from mistletoe-free plantations.”

Luna looked up from the apple that she was peeling with a little knife that certainly wasn't a piece of Hogwarts cutlery—the blade was gently curved, and the handle was made of bone and rosewood. “Conventional herbologists and foresters will tell you that it's because a tree with mistletoe growing on it is five times as likely to have small magical anomalies in the grain, which can interfere with the charms and runes needed for consistent flight, but my Daddy's research suggests that those anomalies might actually be correlated with Nargle infestation, rather than with the presence of mistletoe alone. He's not sure if the Nargles cause them or if they find trees with magical anomalies more attractive, but the first task is to establish a clear connection.”

“Oh, how interesting!” My goodness. She's talking about something that sounds very close to science, isn't she?

The little blonde's eyes were dancing with pleasure. “Unfortunately, the only Nargle-free mistletoe-harbouring oak grove in England is in Sherwood Forest, and it's only permitted to take timber from it once every twenty-five years. Daddy simply hasn't got enough of a sample to say anything definitive yet. He's hoping he might be able to write a proper article in 2017, assuming he can authenticate some of his earlier specimens. If he can't, the work might have to wait for 2042 or 2067.”

I take that back. It's not just very close to science, it sounds as if it is science. “That's wonderful. I never knew that anyone in the Wizarding world took such a scientific approach to things. Err... I hope that's not a rude thing to say.”

“Oh, of course it isn't rude at all, my dear Hermione. Scienta is equally the heritage of both communities. You might be interested in the correspondence between William of Ockham and Theophilus Hufflepuff.” Having finished peeling her apple, Luna set it on her plate and began to weave narrow lengths of peel into a complex knot with a peach pit in the middle. Hermione's maternal grandfather and his brothers had grown up on their father's fishing boats and later served in the Royal Navy, and she'd seen them doing some very elaborate knotwork, but this was complicated beyond anything in her experience, and amazingly fast. She must be somehow using magic to tie that, mustn't she? It looks like a monkey's fist made of Möbius strips.

Susan beamed. “My grandmother edited the Cambridge Magical Press edition of their letters, and I've got a copy, but I'll admit it's been hard for me to make much progress reading it. I've never got much practice with Latin beyond spells and such. Maybe we could make a project of reading it together, Hermione? I promise I'll try my best not to make you carry all the weight.”

“Err... I'm actually not very good at Latin. When I was ten I tried to make a go of learning it from my grandfather's old schoolbooks, but I didn't get much beyond the First Declension. Sorry.” Hermione knew she was blushing. Damn my pale complexion!

“Goodness, my dear, there's no need to apologise. Did no one get you a set of Language Lozenges?” Susan reached out and took Hermione's hand. “We'll have to do something about that. I would have hoped Gryffindor would do more to prepare their students.”

Ron guffawed. “Mum made me take a Latin lozenge the day before I got on the Express for the first time, and it tasted like chalk with charcoal and parchment in ink sauce. I would've spit it up if she hadn't been watching. Who needs Latin, anyhow? I could have learnt to say Wingardium Leviosa and Arresto Momentum without it, and that's all anybody ever actually uses, right?”

Hermione would have felt hurt, but Harry patted her on the shoulder. “You're brilliant, Hermione, and I'm sure you only had trouble with Latin because you were learning trigonometry and particle physics at the same time, am I right?”

“Well... yes. Thank you, Harry.” How did he know?

Ron's eyes narrowed, but at just that moment a paper crane came stalking across the table and started pecking at his potatoes. He tried to brush the crane away from his plate, but it hopped onto his wrist and climbed his arm. Fred, or possibly George, winked. Hermione noticed Harry giving the Twin in question a quick thumbs-up. The crane was clinging to Ron's nose, and proved remarkably agile in dodging his attempts to remove it.

“Hermione? Would you like a bite of apple?” Luna had apparently finished knotting. The silvery blade flashed in the candlelight as she cut the apple into wedges. That done, she wiped her knife with a napkin and tucked it back into her sleeve.

“Oh. Yes, please.” Luna also handed pieces to Ginny, Harry, and Susan. It might have been simply Hermione's imagination, but it seemed a particularly crisp and succulent fruit.

Ron, having failed to catch the crane, resorted to striking blows at his own face, which got him nowhere. If this goes on, he might bloody his nose, which does seem a bit of an excessive punishment. She glanced at the Twins, and much to her surprise she caught an almost imperceptible nod passing between the three eldest Weasleys present and their sister. Thirty seconds later, the crane went still and fell from Ron's fringe. It was nothing now but a random bit of origami. Hermione expected him to bluster and protest, but he seemed to accept that he'd been in the wrong.

The party was wonderful. Hermione had expected it would be, of course, but it was even better than she could have imagined. The girls had borrowed an unused classroom, and Lavender and Parvati had put up a red and gold banner with the words “Happy Birthday, Hermione!” Luna, she would later discover, had designed and animated the golden lion that perched on the rim of the punchbowl and roared out the birthday song. There were trays of cakes, biscuits, and pastries, including a few of her favourites from France.

She was surprised to see that her entire year from Gryffindor had turned out, as well as all the House's Quidditch players. Susan, who played the concertina, had invited some of her friends from Hufflepuff to join her in providing musical entertainment on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and cello. After a couple of sets, they spelled their instruments to play soft background music and mingled with the other guests.

“This is brilliant, Susan,” she said. “Thank you so very much.”

The red-haired Hufflepuff hugged her. “Thank you, Hermione. It's a pleasure and an honour, and the others have done as much or more. In fact, Ginny was the one who started it all. Without her, we'd not have even known for sure when your birthday was.”

Ginny's face was almost as red as her hair. “Oh, Susan, you're too kind. I... I wouldn't have known without Professor McGonagall telling me.”

Hermione couldn't resist. “Well, I don't think Professor McGonagall would really appreciate being hugged by a student, so I'll just have to hug you instead, won't I?” She folded the blushing little redhead into her arms. Moments later, Luna hugged them both.

Across the room, Harry smiled. She might have thought he was reacting to whatever Ron or Neville had just said, but he caught her eye and his smile got a little brighter. For an instant, Hermione wondered what it would feel like if Harry came over and threw his arms about all three of them.

Her friends had got her gifts. She wasn't expecting that at all. “Thank you so much! But you... you didn't have to. This... this party is so wonderful already.”

“I know we didn't have to,” Millicent said, “but we wanted to.”

Mòrag had knitted her a scarf of soft brown wool, so very fine that it wasn't at all scratchy. Millicent had found her the latest edition of Hawkins' Field Guide to the Magical Archaeology of Britain and Ireland. Padma had got her a book titled Indian Magic for the British Witch—“One of my cousins wrote it, and I think you will find some of it useful. There are a number of spells for preserving manuscripts and collating notes which have no equivalents in the Hogwarts syllabus.” Susan had got her a tin whistle with charms to help her learn to play—“And once you've gone as far as you can with that, I'll teach you tunes, and you can session with us whenever you'd like to.”

Ginny had painted a watercolour portrait of Hermione, Harry, and Ron in the Great Hall at the Welcoming Feast, based on one of Colin Creevey's photographs, and put it in a frame she'd made herself of well seasoned holly wood contributed by Professor Sprout. Ron, of all people, had made her a brass bookmark with her name and the Gryffindor lion on it, done in unexpectedly precise punch-work—“Gin-gin said I should give you something you could use, and she seems to like the one I made for her last year. I grew up playing in Dad's shop, you know—seems I might as well get some use out of it. The Twins had some sheet brass lying about, and it turns out the Hufflepuffs are more than willing to share the use of their shop. Megan, Susan's friend, taught me how to make their House lacquer recipe so it won't verdigris.”

Luna had got her a box of Peterssen's Patent Language Lozenges—“The ideal educational tool for the magical scholar, trader, or traveller! Allow a fortnight between doses to avoid the troublesome Babel Effect. Set of twenty-five includes all the major languages of Wizarding Western Europe, plus Latin, Classical Greek, Old Norse, and Gothic.” Hermione had always accepted that predicting the future was an exercise in futility, and everything she'd read since receiving her Hogwarts letter had only confirmed that opinion, but for an instant there was something in her younger friend's soft little smile that made her wonder if Luna might have actually known about their dinner conversation in advance. But then all thoughts of divination and prophecy went out of her mind, because Harry had given her a small statue of a wolfhound, carved from dark wood with bone inlays—“I know you've talked about your auntie's dogs and how you've always wished you could have one of your own. I couldn't get you a puppy, but I thought this would be... well, as close as I could get. I hope it's not...”

She couldn't resist. She put the figurine down on the table and hugged him. He was stiff for an instant which worried her that she might be embarrassing him, but then he relaxed into the hug and squeezed her to him. “Oh, Harry, it's brilliant! Thank you so much! I just, well, I hope you didn't spend too much money on me.”

“Oh. I... I made it myself, actually. I learnt to carve a bit when I was maybe eight or nine. I found an old pocket knife when I was cleaning in the garden shed, and I suppose I started out thinking I'd make myself some toy soldiers. Dudley had taken to shooting the ones he'd got tired of with an air rifle and burning what was left on little piles of sticks, instead of saying they were rubbish and I could have them. After I'd carved three or four, making them got to be more interesting than playing with them. Anyhow, Susan and her friends gave me a few tips about finishing and detail work, and Hagrid taught me how to do inlay and gave me some wood from his pile and a ham bone from his soup pot. It was a fun project.”

He was smiling his trademark lopsided grin, one of her favourite expressions in all the world. Before she knew what she was doing, she kissed him on the cheek. He kissed hers. They looked each other in the eyes for a long moment, and then they shared a swift little peck on the lips. It felt far nicer than Hermione had ever dared to imagine a kiss might feel.

She hoped she'd not gone too far. She hoped Harry wasn't offended. She scarce could bear to open her eyes. But when she did, he was smiling even more brightly than he had been a few minutes earlier. And her friends... well, they weren't cheering, but they all looked terribly satisfied.

Even Ron. “Nice glow, you two. Congratulations. And thank you, Harry, cos this should be enough romance to keep the rest of us blokes in our year safe for a while.” Hermione almost missed the little wink, and the fact that Megan Jones' elbow to Ron's ribs was more of a love tap than an actual blow. Glow? What glow? Well, it's probably just Ron teasing us. Wizarding love stories have fated partners glowing when they kiss, but that's got to benothing more than a trope, something like the hero riding off into the sunset in Muggle Westerns. This was just a little peck between friends. I've seen some of the girls kiss each other the same way, for Merlin's sake.

She and Harry stayed close together for the rest of the party, but they often did. She didn't feel the urge to kiss him, exactly, but she did find herself very aware of his presence. I do think that when we're older we'll have to try kissing again. To be honest, I can't imagine ever kissing any other boy, not even Ron. I think I'd sooner kiss a girl, really. But in any case, Harry and I are the best of friends, and that's the most important thing, now and always.

She was glad to see Harry so friendly with her friends. He chatted with Millicent about the history of hand tools and the tree plantation her grandfather had established on part of their farm, he talked broomsticks with Susan, he exchanged recipes with Padma, and he had an involved conversation with Mòrag about boats, which were apparently much more like brooms than Hermione would have thought. Ginny didn't seem to be at all shy with Harry any more, and she and Luna drew them both into a long discussion about the use of magical creatures in Muggle heraldry.

“Harry,” she said towards the end of the night, “would you like to start, well, revising with us, sometimes? You don't have to, of course, but it would be lovely if you'd like to join us. And Ron's welcome as well, naturally.”

He was holding her hand. When had that happened? It felt natural, almost as if they'd held hands every day since they first met. “I'd love to, Hermione. And I'm sure Ron might like to join us, once in a while, but I've got the feeling Megan's going to be dragging him off to the Hufflepuff shop a fair bit. They seem to have discovered a mutual love of metal work. I've never seen him so interested in anything that wasn't chess or Quidditch before.”

“Well, they can both come along whenever they'd like to.”

Harry smiled. “The Badgers all seem to have other interests, but they do keep up with their school work as well. I reckon Megan's going to be good for Ron's marks, don't you?”

Hermione couldn't think of anything useful to say to that, but she squeezed Harry's hand, which didn't seem to hurt, at least judging by the way he smiled at her.

After she'd walked them back to the Tower, Professor McGonagall asked Hermione to linger in the corridor with her for a moment. “Nothing's wrong, Miss Granger, but I did happen to notice the increased closeness, let us say, between yourself and Mr. Potter.”

Hermione felt her face heat up. How did she see us? Or did she put some sort of a monitoring Charm on the room? “I'm sorry, Professor. We both know we're too young for kissing. It was just a little friendly peck, but we'll not do it again until we're older.”

“Oh, dear. That wasn't my intention at all, Miss Granger. Actually, I'm very happy to see two of my students growing into their powers and strengthening their connection.”

“Err...”

Much to Hermione's surprise, McGonagall laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “The pair of you are more than mature enough to be trusted, and I'm certain that in the end you'll always do right by each other. As an Animagus, I'm sensitive to mat... that is to say, I'm sensitive to auras and the relationships they indicate between people.”

“Oh. That's very interesting, Professor. I read Blackmore's Brief History of the Animagus Transformation over the summer, but I don't remember... Err, sorry.”

“It's quite all right, Miss Granger. In any event, I'm not saying that you should kiss more than you'd choose to kiss of your own accord, and I'm certainly not saying that you should increase the level of physical intimacy in your relationship any more quickly than you feel comfortable doing, but you shouldn't hesitate to take comfort in whatever expressions of affection you both find desirable and appropriate, at least when you have a suitable level of privacy. Kissing in the Great Hall or even the Common Room might be a bit much, but I certainly didn't get the impression that any of your friends objected to your kissing in front of them.”

“Oh. Err, well, thank you, Professor.”

“That being said, you'd be wise not to... neglect your relationship with your girl friends. It seems clear that all of you will be important to each other for the rest of your lives.”

“Yes, Professor. We... we get on so very well. It's as if I've finally found all the best friends I never had at primary school. Thank you.”

“Indeed. Well, I'm very glad that yourself and Mister Potter are both Gryffindors.” McGonagall's wink made Hermione wonder exactly why that was, but she had a sneaking feeling it was something that she'd rather not find out about until she was older.

When she went into the Common Room, she found that most of her fellow Gryffindors were already up in their dorms. Harry, on the other hand, was sitting on a couch by the fireside, reading Bertrand Mackintosh's Forty Forms of Flying Fish: a catalogue of the mundane and the magical varieties of the Exocoetidae. “Oh. Hello, Harry. I would have thought you'd already gone up.”

“I thought I'd wish you a good night first. I hope you don't mind...”

“Oh, Harry, of course I don't!” She sat down next to him, and before she even knew what she was doing they were hugging. It felt awfully nice. “Thank you so much. For everything.”

“Thank you, Hermione. I'm glad you had a nice birthday.”

“Oh, Harry.” She couldn't resist. She kissed him.

He kissed her back. It felt very natural already. “Thank you,” he whispered when they were done.

“I was talking with Professor McGonagall. She knew we'd kissed, somehow. I'll have to read more and find out how she did that. But the important thing is that she said it was just fine for us to kiss each other. I... I do hope that's all right with you.”

“Of course it is, Hermione.” And now he kissed her.

On some level she wished she could bring Harry up to bed with her, or that she could go up to bed with him. They'd not do more than sleep, but it would be so nice to cuddle all night, and she felt certain they'd both have wonderful dreams. But that was too much, of course. Too much for right now, at least. They said good night at the foot of the stairs, with another hug and a soft little kiss.

When she got to her dorm room, everyone else was already in bed. She cleaned her teeth and washed her face, brushed her hair and changed into her pyjamas.

Much to her surprise, she opened the bed-curtains to find a red-headed girl slumbering on top of her covers. Ginny was barefoot and in her dressing gown. She looks very cute like that, doesn't she? If only Harry were here as well. I don't think he's seen nearly enough cute things in his life, and I'd love to share Ginny... that is, this sight of Ginny with him. For a moment Hermione considered simply curling up next to her young friend and letting herself fall asleep. If Ginny was so very tired, it would be cruel to wake her, and they could talk about whatever it was in the morning.

The redhead stretched, yawned, and opened her eyes. “Oh. Hermione. I'm sorry. I thought I'd come across the staircase and tell you good night, but I must have fallen asleep. That was silly of me. I hope you don't mind.”

“Not at all, Ginny. You're always welcome here.” Hermione climbed up on the bed and closed the curtains. They were spelled to keep noises down. Not that any of the girls snored, but sometimes Lavender and Parvati did like to sit up late in one of their beds, talking, and they'd all agreed to learn silencing charms and put them in place just to stop the giggling disturbing the others. This was the first time Hermione had ever actually needed the charms on her own bed in order not to wake her roommates, and it pleased her. “Thank you for visiting my humble abode. Sorry I was late in coming up—I had to say good night to Harry, and to Professor McGonagall.”

“Thank you for your hospitality, Hermione. And there's no need to apologise.” They sat together, cross-legged, facing each other, their knees almost touching.

“Thank you, Ginny. For everything.”

“It's a pleasure and an honour, Hermione. Really. You're... you're almost like the wonderful big sister I always wished I could have. Not that I don't love my brothers, but... oh, I don't know, I always wished Luna and I could have somebody like you as well. I hope you don't mind.”

“No, of course not. I... you girls are like the wonderful best friends and sisters I've always wished I could have. It's so nice.”

They gave each other a quick hug. “Well, good night, Hermione,” Ginny whispered. “I suppose I'll go back to my dorm now.”

“Err... if you'd like to stay, you're welcome to.”

“Um... would you mind? I do feel kind of lonely, sometimes. It's not that the girls in my dorm aren't nice, but I just don't feel close to them in the way that I feel close to, to Luna, and you, and everybody from the study group.”

“I feel much the same about Parvati and Lavender, to be honest. If it weren't for Harry, and you, and for your brother as well, of course, I might wonder if the Sorting Hat had made a mistake.”

Ginny giggled. “Luna said she was having fun as an Eagle, but she was looking forward to being a Griffin. Have you ever heard of anybody switching Houses? I haven't, but maybe there's something I don't know.”

“I don't think there was anything about it in Hogwarts, a History, but I'm starting to realise there are any number of things that were left out of that book. Do you think that's what she meant?”

Ginny got a pensive look on her face. “Maybe. A griffin is half-lion and half-eagle, after all. Sometimes I get the feeling that Luna's telling jokes that won't make sense until we're much older. I love her dearly, but I do know she seems kind of strange to a lot of people. I hope it doesn't bother you.”

“Oh, of course not! I like her a lot, actually. Maybe at one time I would have been disturbed by how she looks at everything in the world sort of sideways, but then again there was a time when I would have been disturbed by people flying on broomsticks without any consideration of aerodynamic lift. Thank you for helping us to get to know each other.”

“You're welcome. But I don't think I really did anything...” Ginny dropped her gaze towards the mattress. She looked confused and very cute, and for a moment Hermione was tempted to give her a little kiss on the lips.

Not right now. You've only just kissed Harry for the first time today, and it might confuse Ginny. For that matter, it might confuse you, since you've never tried the friendly kissing on the lips thing before with any other girl. Instead, she patted the younger girl's shoulder. “Oh, Ginny. Just being you was all it took.”

“Thank y—” Ginny's words vanished into a yawn, which she only barely managed to cover with her hand. “Sorry, Hermione.”

“Not at all. I suppose we should both go to sleep.”

“Yeah.” Ginny slipped out of her dressing gown. Beneath it she was wearing loose pyjamas with wooden buttons, very much like Hermione's, except Ginny's were striped red and yellow instead of green and blue.

They hugged once more, kissed each others' cheeks, and got under the duvet. The bed was just wide enough for two girls to lie comfortably side by side. Are there more pillows than there were this morning? I wonder if there's anything about that in Hogwarts, a History? I should look it up tomorrow. For an instant, she had a vision of small, bat-eared people giggling somewhere in the Castle. Which didn't make any sense at all, so it was probably a good thing that the thought vanished from her mind as soon as her head hit the pillow.

 

#

 

Three months later, travelling home on the Express for the Christmas holidays, sitting between Harry and Susan, Hermione opened up the book McGonagall had given her earlier that morning, a copy of Sara Barrand-Stewart's Friendship, Fertility, and Family: a history of covens in all the nations of Britain and Ireland. Halfway through the second chapter, she discovered that the members of a coven formed at Hogwarts had always joined the House of their husband and his Alpha when they formalised their relationship and moved in together.

Oh, goodness. Is that what the Professor was hinting at after my birthday party? She couldn't help making a little squeak when it hit her. “Is something wrong, Hermione?” Harry said softly, so as not to disturb Ginny, Luna, and Millicent, who were slumbering on the bench opposite them. On the third bench in the oversized compartment they'd found, Mòrag and Padma were chatting in a mixture of Scots Gaelic and Marathi—the half of the conversation that Hermione, thanks to Luna's present, could follow seemed to be about Rowena Ravenclaw's contributions in arithmancy—and mostly ignoring the chessmen on the board between them. The knights were showing off their dressage skills and the pawns were dancing the quadrille.

“Oh. No, Harry, it's fine. I was just... I read something I wasn't expecting to read, that's all.”

“All right, then.” He gave her a little pat on her shoulder. It was amazing how much more open and warm and tactile Harry had become in just a few months. Well, knowing he'll never have to go back to that house of horrors in Little Whinging will have taken a great weight off his shoulders, she thought to herself.

One October afternoon in the swimming bath when Harry had been at Quidditch practise, the girls had talked about the little things they'd all been noticing, starting First Year when Hermione first realised that Harry didn't like to be approached from behind and always sat with his back to a wall if he could help it. Susan had written up their observations and sent them to her aunt, and Millicent had sent a copy to her grandmother, a solicitor with offices in Gretna and Berwick-upon-Tweed who had over fifty years of experience in both English and Scottish magical law. By the middle of November, they'd got Harry free of the Dursleys for good. Which was why he was coming home with Hermione for the Christmas holidays.

Not that they'd be spending the holiday without seeing their friends, of course. Susan's family seat, Wyrmsbones House, the oldest part of which had been built, centuries before Hogwarts, by her ancestor Giles Bronze-beard, a farmer turned king who'd so impressed the dragon Chrysophylax Dives that the great wyrm's last will and testament had included the request that his skeletal remains be placed in Giles' hall, was in Thame, less than ten miles from Hermione's parents' comfortable house in the Northmoor Road, Oxford. Edgar and Anna Bones had offered the use of their home, and Floo connection, for a gathering on Boxing Day, commenting that it was time for the parents to get to know each other as well. And now maybe I have a better idea of why. Oh well, that's a bridge we can cross when we come to it. For now... She closed the book, and gave Harry's and Susan's hands a quick squeeze.

Susan patted Hermione's knee with her free hand. “Mm, something makes me think it was a good surprise. I hope so, anyhow.”

“It was. Or at least it will be.”

Susan smiled and snuggled a little closer. “Don't the three of them look comfortable? Sometimes I really wonder why our sweet Millie didn't sort Badger. We'd be delighted to take her in.”

“Wait a minute,” Harry said, “what if we want her in Gryffindor?”

Susan reached out and took his hand. “Well, that's easy. You and Hermione and Ginny can be Hufflepuffs as well. We'd absolutely love to have all of you.”

Hermione felt as if her heart was almost on the point of bursting with love for Susan, for Harry, for everyone in the compartment. “That might be nice, but what if we Gryffindors want to have you and Millie instead?”

“Hmm... If you'll get Luna and Padma and Mòrag as well, I suppose I might be persuaded. Especially if you throw in some backrubs.” Susan yawned, and didn't quite manage to cover her mouth in time. Her blush was adorable. “Sorry. Err... mind if I use your shoulder for a pillow, Hermione?”

“Of course not. Sleep well.”

Susan was already asleep, or at least mostly so, but she murmured “Thanks, love.”

“You're welcome, love.”

Hermione hadn't intended to say that last word, but before she could get concerned that she'd gone too far in being affectionate to her friend and hurt her boyfriend's feelings, Harry gave her hand a tender squeeze. “If you want to sleep as well, love, my shoulder's yours.”

She turned her head, and they shared a soft kiss. “Thank you, my love,” she whispered. As she drifted off to sleep, she wondered what sleeping cuddled between Susan and Harry might feel like, someday in the future when they would all share a bed built to hold a coven. This is enough for now, but I do look forward to finding out. In fact, didn't I read about something called a Bundling Charm that parents used to cast on bedrooms so young courting couples could sleep together without being tempted to do anything more than sleep? I doubt Mum and Dad will be comfortable with the idea before the end of Christmas hols, but maybe by summer they'll be used enough to magic that they'll let us have a sleep over...

 

#

 

Ginny opened her eyes, being careful not to move and wake Millicent. The Slytherin was warm, and drowsing against her shoulder was every bit as nice as sleeping next to Hermione or Luna.

Susan and Hermione and Harry were asleep on the opposite bench, leaning together just as Ginny and Millicent and Luna were. It was a lovely sight and she was delighted to watch them cuddling, even though she would have liked it even better if there had been room for the eight of them to snuggle together.

She'd had another dream of being a grown woman on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and watching as her children boarded the Express. But in this dream, Harry and Hermione were bright-eyed and happy. So were Luna, Millicent, Padma, Susan, and Mòrag. That said, Ginny'd had a few tears in her own eyes as she hugged a black-haired, green-eyed girl who was already taller than Harry and most of her mothers, even though she was only a First Year.

 

Ginny-mum, what if I sort Slytherin?”

Then we'll all be very proud of you. Your Millie-mama was a Slytherin up till her Third Year, and Miss Daphne—Professor Greengrass as you'll call her at school—is a good friend of ours as well as being the Head of Salazar's House. You know that, don't you?”

I do. But... I heard Uncle Ron telling Bilius he'd disown him if he went into Slytherin. Could... if he does, could we take him in?”

Ginny stifled a giggle, suspecting that her daughter was almost hoping it would happen. Drusilla and Bilius had been practically inseparable since their seventh summer, when Ron and Megan moved back from New Zealand to take over the management of Megan's grandfather's foundry, bringing their three children with them, and to most of their relatives the only question was whether they'd marry before they finished Hogwarts or swear the oath of siblings by choice. Ginny was all but certain which option the twosome would take, and she thought it a good thing that neither Harry nor Millicent was very closely related to Ron or Megan. “You know, Drusilla, your Uncle Ron is my brother, and I love him. But there are times when I'm very tempted to turn him into a spider monkey and leave him that way for the next fortnight. He doesn't mean most of the things he says, but there are still too many times when he hasn't got the wit not to say them.”

Oh.”

And if I weren't certain that your Aunt Megan will put the fear of God into him as soon as they're alone, I might do it, at least for an hour or two.”

Okay. Thanks, Ginny-mum.”

Thank you, Drusilla. Now hug the rest of your parents, and go get on the Express before Bilius gets worried, right?”

As Drusilla hugged Padma, a hand tugged at Ginny's sleeve. “Oh, Ginny-mum, can't Rupert and I go, please? We'd only be a year early, and Dru will need somebody to watch her back. And don't tell me Bill will do it for her—they'll be too busy gazing in each others' eyes to watch each others' backs, or their own, either.”

No, Miranda. Your sister will be fine. She's got three older siblings, she's got Bilius and his big sister, and she's got the Longbottoms.” Although Neville, Parvati, Lavender, and the former Miss Hannah Abbot had waited until their Sixth Year to move into the second Gryffindor Household Suite, they'd started having children as soon as they left Hogwarts, and at times Ginny wondered if her old friends hoped to see a Gryffindor-Hufflepuff Quidditch match where the majority of players on both sides were their own offspring.

Are you sure, Ginny-mum?” Miranda had the ability to make her eyes appear to grow to twice their natural size. I wonder how the child of my loins managed to inherit a hereditary gift from our Susan? Sweet Susie tried to teach all of us girls, but none of us could ever quite do it.

Please, Ginny-mum?” Rupert said, his green eyes as big as his sister's brown ones. Eleven years ago, Ginny and Susan had fallen pregnant simultaneously. It was clear Rupert and Miranda had decided at birth, if not in the womb, that having been carried by different mothers was no obstacle to their being twins. “Can't we go? We'll be eleven in December.”

The engine driver blew his final blast on the whistle, and the Potter family paused to wave as the Express left the station.

It's not too late—” Miranda said.

You could send us by broom—” Rupert said.

Or by Hippogriff. In the Thirteenth Century Hogwarts pupils often arrived by Hippogriff or winged horse, and many were Sorted at ten years of age. There was a public paddock and a communal tack shed on the land that Hogsmeade Station occupies today. I read about it in Mione-Mama's most recent book, The Hogsmeade Valley: a landscape history.” Miranda sounded very like a young Hermione. Perhaps the children had inherited characteristics from all of their mothers.

What's this, my loves?” Harry said, laying a gentle hand on each child's shoulder.

Your daughter and son think they should go to Hogwarts a year early,” Ginny said.

Funny, they almost remind me of another cute young ginger I met here some years gone back...”

Prat,” Ginny said, and she kissed him.

And you love me that way.”

Of course I do. And so do our wives.”

My turn?” Hermione said, hugging her husband and wife.

Of course, my love,” Ginny said, and they gave each other a toe-curling kiss. “Now you kiss our Harry and I'll kiss our Millie, how's that?”

It's smashing, that's what it is, my heart,” said Millicent as she picked Ginny up off her feet and kissed her. She'd lost her embarrassment at being picked up long before they left Hogwarts—it felt nice, and Millicent regularly did it to all of the others, Harry included.

Millicent handed her off to Luna, who tasted as if she'd just kissed Padma, although maybe she'd decided to chew on cardamom seeds as well this morning. But before Ginny could spend any more time contemplating her blonde wife's eccentric eating habits, she found herself sandwiched between Padma and Mòrag.

Rupert, Miranda, their eight year old sisters Lakshmibai and Hippolyta, and their nine year old brother Somhairle, being used to this sort of thing, didn't even bother to express ritual disgust as their parents exchanged kisses. Instead, they sat down in a circle, took out a deck of cards, and began a game of Spoil Five. Down the platform, Ron called out “Get a—” but before he could say “room” Megan had him pinned to one of the pillars, his lips stopped up with her own.

All was well.

 

“Good things come to those who wait,” Ginny murmured as she fell back to sleep.