“Happy birthday, Harry!”
“Best wishes, Harry! And here’s to many more!”
“Open your presents, already, mate. Don’t keep us in suspense.”
There’s a good-sized crowd from the Order of the Phoenix at Number 12 Grimmauld Place tonight. They’ve come to wish me happy birthday. It’s rather ironic that someone is finally throwing me a birthday party when I’d really rather not have one. Apparently they haven’t received the news flash: I’ve got exactly nothing to be happy about as I turn sixteen.
I just spent an excruciatingly long month with Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon and Dudley, but that was really the least of my worries. All I thought about during that month was how my stupidity and my inability to ask for help cost Sirius his life and almost got Hermione killed. I was damned lucky Ron came out of the incident relatively unscathed. Then Dumbledore told me that the fate of the Wizarding World apparently rests on my shoulders. So excuse me if I don’t jump up and down with joy about turning sixteen. This year my birthday just seems to bring me another day closer to having to kill or be killed. And it doesn’t bring me a moment closer to getting Sirius back, or my Mum and Dad, or Cedric, or anyone else who’s died because of me. Being involved with me just endangers everybody I care about, especially everybody at this party. I hate endangering them. They’re the only people I have left to love, and the way some of them are acting tonight makes me wonder about that.
Hermione, for one. She doesn’t hug me when I arrive at the party, just looks at me with those big brown eyes like she isn’t sure what to say or how to act around me any more. She looks rather pretty tonight in a yellow girlie t-shirt and jeans that show off a bit of her tanned stomach. I should tell her that but I can’t. My mouth kind of flaps open for a few seconds then I turn away before she can see that I’m blushing. It feels incredibly strange to blush around her. It confuses me and adds to my feeling of claustrophobia. She moves away and starts talking to Remus, but she’s still gazing in my direction. As her gaze makes me blush again, people start singing:
“For he’s a jolly good feh-eh-low… which nobody can deny.”
Bloody hell, I’m tired of pretending I’m enjoying myself. I have to get away. I need to go where I can sort things out or maybe just wallow in self-pity for awhile. I know where I need to go – the same place I went to wallow last Christmas. Sirius’ mother’s room.
Creeping up the stairs toward my target, I encounter Ron heading down from the loo.
“Where you off to, mate?” Ron asks.
“Just wanted to get away for awhile,” I mutter. “If you get tired of the party, you know where to find me.”
“Right,” Ron nods as understanding dawns on his face. “I’m going back down for a bit. Should I bring you anything if I do come up?”
“Just a couple of glasses and the strongest alcoholic beverage you can find. But I’m hoping to find something like that where I’m going.”
“Okay,” Ron says warily. Ever since the fiasco at the Ministry of Magic, Ron and Hermione have both treated me with kid gloves. Neither of them mentioned the MoM or Sirius when they owled me while I was in Little Whinging. When I came here earlier today, even Hermione seemed restrained around me. Last year she practically suffocated me with a hug when I arrived at number twelve. I guess this year she doesn’t have much reason to hug me. I did almost get her killed and she’s probably still achy from her injuries. I remember how gingerly she moved after she was released from the hospital wing. She didn’t even hug me when we said good-bye at King’s Cross last month. I guess I really screwed up with her. I’ll probably be lucky if she ever hugs me again.
Hermione wouldn’t say so in her owls, of course, but she probably thinks I’m a complete idiot now. I certainly feel like one. I’m sure her opinion of me has really nose-dived since all that happened. Sometime in the past year, I started hearing her voice in my head. I hear it when I’m weighing whether to do something important, when I think I’ve done something really well or, worst of all, when I’m worried that I’ve done something badly. When I think about the way she must think about me now, my throat gets dry and my chest gets tight. So I stop thinking about that and head toward Sirius’ mother’s room, the place that’s been my retreat for the past year. I’m going to go in there and pet Buckbeak for awhile. Then I’m going to see if I can find anything to get rid of the jagged feeling that’s cutting through my chest where my heart used to be.
I approach the room cautiously. As I open the door slowly, I see Buckbeak kneeling quietly in the far corner of the room, gnawing on a dead ferret. I enter the room quietly, move carefully to the center then make a slow, deep bow toward Buckbeak, who regards me carefully then bows in return. I exhale sharply, suddenly realizing I’d been holding my breath.
“Hey there, Beaky,” I whisper while I pet his head gently and smooth his feathers with my other hand. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, boy?” A lump grows in my throat as I remember the time I rode Buckbeak with Hermione to rescue Sirius. “I bet you miss him too, don’t you? It’s okay, boy; it’s okay. I don’t guess you know if Sirius might’ve stashed anything…interesting…in this room, eh?” I laugh cynically as Buckbeak stares at me. “Yeah, you’re smart, Beaky, but I guess I’ll have to look for that stuff myself.”
As Buckbeak crunches on ferret bones, I move around the room slowly, searching for something – I don’t know what – just anything that might help. Lately my mind’s been full of nameless fears and longings and if I can’t put a name to them, I want them out of my brain. I remember that I’m still a minor in the Wizarding World and doing casual magic at Grimmauld Place might land me in trouble with the Ministry again. So I resist the temptation to say “Accio, booze!” especially since I don’t know if there’s any liquor in the room. Instead I search high and low the Muggle way, pillaging dresser drawers, slinking my hand under the bed and rummaging through the closet.
Finally I find something worth having – three very different bottles of alcohol. One is an over-grown beer bottle half-full of something called AbrakAle. Another is a tall clear bottle that holds a few ounces of a clear, sticky-looking liquid called Viscous Vodka. The last bottle, almost full, contains an intensely green liquid. The label says it’s something called absinthe.
I place the bottles on the small bedside table and notice that the laces of my trainers are coming loose. As I bend over to tie them, a shiny paper something catches my eye. My hand wanders only a few inches under the bed before capturing its prey. It’s a slick magazine called “Sexual Sorcery.” I twist around on the floor and lean back against the bed so I can examine the magazine more closely. My eyes widen as I flip through page after page of full-color pornographic photos. Anonymous witches and wizards, most of them with little or no clothes on, are doing things to each other that I can barely name and have never done with anyone yet. As I stare at them shagging each other with great gusto, I wonder whether I’ll ever do any of that with anyone. The animated photos have a rapid and predictable effect on me, and I suddenly feel light-headed while my blood rushes below my belt.
As my fascination with the magazine grows, so does my shame. Of course the Dursleys never taught me anything about sex, and my entire formal instruction was a one-week class at the end of primary school. Sure, there’ve been some bull sessions with my dorm mates at Hogwarts, but that doesn’t make up for my lack of practical knowledge. Now I’m sixteen and I’ve had only two dates and exactly one kiss. A lot of girls at Hogwarts have made eyes at me but as far as I could tell they were interested in Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, rather than me, just Harry, the boy who has no idea what girls want. I decide that my single, very wet kiss with Cho wasn’t particularly good. If she hadn’t been bawling over Cedric, maybe she would have given me a proper kiss. Instead I got her tears dripping down my cheeks. So here I am, sweet sixteen and I’ve never been kissed properly. My love life stinks like a wheelie bin full of rubbish. I just want to be wanted for myself, not for someone else’s idea of who I am.
I continue to paw through the magazine and discover that it’s really difficult not to touch myself while looking at such graphic pictures. A few of the pages are sticky, like someone spunked on them. Some of the pictures show men having sex with other men, and women doing it with other women. All of it turns me on, but I know Ron could pop through the door at any moment and I really don’t want him to see me wanking or dry-humping the side of the bed or anything like that. I’m already disgusted with myself about everything that happened last month; I don’t need anything else to make me feel worse. I just need something to make me feel less like a piece of shite. Maybe I’ll find that somewhere inside those three bottles of liquor.
Better go easy on the booze, at least at first, I think as I open the bottle of AbrakAle. It smells a lot stronger than butterbeer or mulled mead but not as strong as Old Ogden’s Firewhisky or the single malt whisky the Beauxbatons horses drank. As I take a sip, the stuff reminds me of the flask Hagrid sometimes pulls from the pocket of his moleskin coat. I put the bottle to my lips again and tip it higher in the air, sucking down more of the ale. The amber liquid burns my throat going down but leaves me with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
I decide I don’t want more ale; I’d rather move on to the vodka. I open the bottle and notice that the smell isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Tipping the bottle to my lips, I discover that this vodka lives up to its name. It’s incredibly thick and viscous, and it rolls languidly down the neck of the bottle. I open my lips, suck in some of the vodka and let it roll around my mouth a few seconds. There’s very little taste, just a thick, syrupy texture that’s very sensual and calming. I swallow the vodka, enjoying the way it slides down my throat, burning just enough to remind me that it’s highly alcoholic. Yes, I like this vodka much better than the ale. I’d love to drink more of it but sucking it straight out of the bottle seems like a good way to get rat-arsed really quickly. I look around the room and realize there aren’t any shot glasses. Bugger. Don’t want to risk getting caught doing magic outside of school, or I’d transfigure –
Almost as if on cue, the door opens and Ron sticks his ginger head through it. “How’re you doing, mate?” he says, shutting the door behind him. I can see two small glasses in his left hand.
“I’m trying to get pissed,” I say candidly, remembering but not caring that the porn magazine is lying on the floor near my knee. “And now you’ve come to help me. Thanks for bringing up those glasses. I was just thinking I needed one so I could pour myself a shot of vodka. You want some too?”
Ron looks at me with a more thoughtful expression than I’ve seen on him in a long time. “Why d’you want to get drunk, Harry? You’ve never been much into drinking before.”
“Maybe I haven’t had much to get drunk about before,” I mumble.
He raises an eyebrow at me, his mouth set in a quizzical smirk.
“Just sit down and drink with me,” I prod. He looks at me as though he doesn’t really know me anymore. He sent me at least ten owls while I was in Little Whinging and I didn’t reply to any of them. His owls were friendly and informative and never once went anywhere near what I needed but couldn’t bring myself to talk about – what happened at the Department of Mysteries. He won’t make the first move about any of that, and neither will I. But that’s okay; that’s not what I expect from him. I know he’ll just let me be.
Ron slinks down to my left, stretching his long legs out on the threadbare rug. His hand lands on the porn magazine, and as he picks it up and looks through it, his eyes widen and his mouth starts flapping like a fish out of water.
“What’s this? They’re – they’re –“ he stammers.
“They’re having sex, Ron. Haven’t you seen a porn magazine before?” I try to keep my voice level as I grab the glasses from him and fill them halfway. “Have some vodka, Ron. You look like you need it.”
Ron accepts one glass from me warily, then he takes a swig from it and scrunches his face up in surprise. “Feels kind of slimy. And it doesn’t taste like much at all.”
“That’s the point, Ron. It doesn’t taste like much, which makes it easy for you to drink too much of it. And when you do – pow! It really hits you. Or so I’ve heard. I think I’ll need to drink more to find out.” I swallow my entire glass and wait to see what happens. Ron does the same, then his eyes narrow.
“Well?” I ask.
“Gimme some more. I’m not feeling anything yet.”
We sit there for another half hour, not talking much, listening to the sounds of the party drifting upstairs. Finally we’ve each had three shots of vodka and the bottle is about empty. I’m feeling warm and tingly all over and my trousers are still feeling tight. Ron has a goofy grin on his face as he continues to look through the porn magazine. It’s obvious that the vodka and the moving pictures are having a predictable effect on him too.
“Bloody hell! I can’t believe some of the stuff they’re doing in here,” he pants.
“Neither can I. But obviously they’re doing it. This magazine is like a porn movie on paper.” I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and look over Ron’s shoulder. He’s found one of the spunked-on pages.
‘Harry… is this what I think –“
“Probably.” He and I both know exactly what it looks like. After all, we’re sixteen-year-old boys, and we’ve both probably lost count of how many times we’ve wanked until that happened.
“Harry, have you ever done –“
“Any of the stuff in this magazine? No, Ron, of course not. I’ve had two dates and one kiss. That’s all.” I don’t say You might as well write Loser across my forehead. “Have you?”
Ron’s face turns bright red and his eyes bug out. “Me! How – who – when – no, Harry. Not like I don’t wish I had, but no.” Then he drops his eyes, looks away and mutters softly, “Not even a kiss.”
Somehow this revelation surprises me. Last term Ron seemed to be a lot more popular with the girls, probably because of his success at Quidditch. He certainly had Luna Lovegood wrapped around his little finger, although he seemed not to want to pay attention to her. Anyone could tell he had eyes only for Hermione. He’s never talked to me about her, of course. We never talk about Hermione, other than to complain about how she badgers us to get our homework done, or admit how lost we’d both be without her doing that or a thousand other things she does for us. But we never talk about her being a girl, with all the things that go with being a girl. Obviously we’ve noticed she’s a girl. Ron noticed first, right before the Yule Ball. I began to notice when Hermione looked so pretty in that blue dress at the Yule Ball. Then when she kissed me on the cheek at the end of fourth year, I didn’t know what to think. Last year she suggested she was ugly, but I corrected her. I’ve never thought she was ugly or anything close. I think she’s lovely in her own special way. I think everything about her is special.
I realize I’m thinking way too much about Hermione right now. Maybe I should respond to Ron’s revelation.
“You’ve never kissed anyone?”
“No,” he blushes again.
“Not even Hermione?” There. I’ve said it. Last year I wondered if something was going on between them. Now I’ll find out.
Ron’s eyes go really wide. “Where’d you get that idea?”
His reply surprises me and I suddenly feel light-headed. It’s probably just the vodka talking, but I need to know more.
“I dunno…I could tell you fancied her. I’ve known that for a long time. Just thought maybe she’d started to fancy you too last year.” I look down at my trainers, which suddenly seem more interesting than Ron’s face. “You and Hermione did spend a lot of time together, doing all that prefect stuff.”
Ron moves around until I can see him craning his neck toward my face. “Are you taking the mickey on me?”
“No! I’m not. I just thought… you spent a lot of time together. Without me. I thought maybe you’d gotten…even closer then.”
“No. Not really,” he says quietly, draining the last mouthful of vodka from his glass.
“Would you kiss her if you got the chance?” I blurt out inexplicably.
Ron coughs hysterically and a glob of the sticky vodka shoots out of his mouth. Then he leans back against the side of the bed and a huge sigh escapes him.
“’Course I would. Not that she’d ever let me.”
“Or me,” I mutter under my breath, wondering where all these thoughts are coming from. I turn my head and look at him out the corner of my eye. “How will you know unless you try?”
He scowls, then laughs. “Good point. But first I’d need a lot more booze. In case the opportunity comes up.”
“Well, we’re about out of vodka. Think we should try the green stuff?” I ask, leaning over and plucking the last bottle off the bedside table. Ron raises an eyebrow and nods, handing me both glasses. I open the bottle of absinthe and my head is almost knocked off.
“BLOODY HELL! What’s in this stuff?” I shriek as a mixture of bitter scents assaults my sense of smell. I sniff the green liquid again, scrunching my nose, unsure whether I want to try this godawful-smelling concoction. Still, Sirius was willing to drink it and that gives me hope that a shot of it won’t kill me.
“Bloody hell is right! I can smell that shite over here!” Ron grimaces. “You really think we should drink it?”
The buzz from the vodka hasn’t ground down the jagged edge in my chest; maybe the absinthe will. “Well, Sirius drank it” – Ron fliches as I say the name – “so it can’t be too bad. Might as well find out.”
I pour a finger’s depth of absinthe into each glass and hand Ron’s to him. “Cheers, mate,” I say, clinking my glass against his. Then I take a sip and swallow. The stuff is really strong and unbelievably bitter, leaving me shaking on the floor. Bugger, that’s the nastiest stuff I’ve ever tasted. I’m tempted to spit it out but as the green liquor slides down my throat, I discover nerves my body hasn’t felt in over a month – nerves I haven’t let myself feel, because feeling anything has been too painful.
“Does yours taste as bad as mine?” Ron asks through screwed-shut eyes, his legs twitching.
“Oh yeah. It’s like really strong, green licorice. Almost spat it out.”
“How’d you swallow it?”
“Really fast. Seems like the only way to go with this stuff. Just drink it fast and let it work.” With that I raise my glass again and take a long gulp. Ron goggles at me, then a steely look overtakes him and he takes a long gulp too. A few minutes later, as the absinthe goes to work on our nervous systems, a goofy, happy look comes over his face and he squirms next to me.
“Not so bad after all, is it?” Ron smiles.
“Nope, not at all. Gives you a nice buzz. Makes your whole body feel good, if you know what I mean.” I’m sure he knows what I mean, and we turn away from each other, each of us fighting the urge to hump the nearest concave object. With no outlet for my surging hormones I’m desperate to get the wood out of my willy. Picture something disgusting in your mind, I tell myself, and the thought of Professor Snape in a dress diminishes the urge. Just as my hormones start to settle down, there’s a knock on the door, followed by a familiar female voice.
“Harry? Ron? May I come in?”
I knew she’d come up to look for us. That’s how she is. Part of me is pissed off at her for meddling, but another part of me realizes I haven’t seen her in close to an hour, which suddenly feels like a long time to me.
“Go away, Hermione. There’s nobody here,” Ron blubbers.
“Good going, Einstein,” I snarl at him under my breath.
“Oh shut it,” I snap as Hermione enters the room and looks around slowly. “Not you, Hermione. I meant Ron. Sorry.”
She arches an eyebrow, first at Ron then at me, and moves carefully into the room, trying not to spook Buckbeak. As she approaches him she stops and bows slowly, waiting for him to acknowledge her. Once she knows he won’t charge her (not that he ever has), Hermione scans the room. Her eyes fall first on the empty booze bottles and then on the porn magazine that lies half-open on the floor. She purses her lips then narrows her eyes as she sits down, cross-legged, facing us on the floor.
“So what have you two been up to?” she asks, though she already knows the answer.
“Getting pissed,” I reply honestly.
Her eyes narrow even more. “What a shock. You both smell like the bottom of a dustbin.”
“And looking at dirty pictures in a wizard porn magazine,” Ron offers, his cheeks almost as red as his hair. Hermione says nothing for a moment, then picks up the magazine and thumbs through it. Her eyes widen occasionally; at one point a tiny “Oh!” escapes her and she unconsciously licks her lips. I wonder how her tongue would feel against my lips, then I wonder where that came from. My trousers start to get tight again and I look away from her, my face burning.
She puts the magazine down and grabs the amber bottle. “AbrakAle? Is this what Hagrid has in his flask?”
“Probably,” I say, amazed at how she’s picked up on the same thing I’d suspected. Then I remember how often she and I have been on the same wavelength, so why should this surprise me? She smiles back, a tiny tenuous smile, her eyes slightly averted from mine as though she doesn’t want me to see everything that’s in them. My mouth starts to feel dry; I wish I had something to drink.
Hermione examines another bottle. “Vodka too? How much?”
“Three shots each,” Ron says, licking his lips then leaning toward her a bit. She says nothing but shifts away from him slightly. “It doesn’t taste like much,” he continues, “but it gives you a good kick in the gut.” He’s starting to wobble now and leans closer to her, trying to make up the lost ground. Hermione frowns and waves an arm as though to keep him away. Then she notices the last bottle and her brown eyes become as round as saucers and full of concern.
“Absinthe? Harry, Ron – please tell me you didn’t drink this straight.”
“What?” Now I’m worried about her reaction. “What’s wrong, Hermione?”
“Harry, the bottle says it’s over 180 proof. That means it’s more than 90 percent alcohol!”
Ron’s jaw drops; all I can do is shake my head. Tonight is my night to be really stupid.
“I’ve never had absinthe, of course,” she goes on, “but I’ve read that you’re always supposed to mix it with some other liquid that’s not alcoholic. Couldn’t you tell how wicked it is just from the smell?” Ron and I both nod as the realization finally dawns on us. “I just hope you haven’t destroyed your livers.” She scoots forward and puts her right hand on Ron’s shoulder and her left hand on mine. Rather than calming me, as it usually does, her touch sends a shiver through me and I feel every muscle in my body tensing, waiting for – something.
Ron apparently sees Hermione’s gesture of concern as an opening. He picks her hand off his shoulder then lifts it up to his face and kisses the back of it. Now I can feel every muscle in Hermione’s body go tense.
“Ron – what are you doing?” Her voice is soft but shaky.
He looks her full in the face, his blue eyes full of longing. “I – I’m kissing your hand – and I’d like to do more if you’ll let me.”
Hermione looks wildly at me as though she wants me to rescue her, but I’m rooted to the spot, unable to move until I see how this plays out. Then a familiar expression crosses her face, like she’s figured something out. She frowns and says, “I’m sorry, Ron, but no.”
“No?” Ron seems flabbergasted. “But – I just want to kiss you.”
“But you see, Ron, I don’t want to kiss you.”
Now Ron’s blushing to the roots of his hair. I’m embarrassed by his embarrassment, so I duck my head and try not to watch what happens next.
“You don’t?” he squeaks. “But I thought – “
“That I fancied you?” She doesn’t taunt him; in fact her voice is full of kindness. “No, Ron, I don’t. I never have. Kissing you would be like kissing my brother.”
“But you don’t have any brothers.” He sounds totally confused.
Hermione takes his hand in both of hers and rubs it gently. “You’re right, I don’t. But you have five brothers. Do you want to kiss any of them?”
“Bloody hell, no!” he sputters. “But that’s not the point!”
“Yes, it is,” Hermione insists, undaunted. “Would you want to kiss Ginny?”
“No! I wanna kiss you…”
“And I want to kiss you about as much as you want to kiss Ginny!”
That stops Ron in his tracks. His face softens and a familiar look comes into his eyes. Now he’s the one who’s figured things out. He pulls his hand away from Hermione and leans back against the bed. “I’m sorry, Hermione. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve just – I’ve fancied you for a long time –“ my stomach twists with guilt as the words finally spill from him –“and I thought I’d take a chance.” He lowers his head, unable to look her in the eyes and says softly, “Maybe that was the alcohol talking.”
“Well…I’ve read that alcohol just gives you permission to do what you really want to do anyway…” She waits for him to look at her, then gives him a half-smile.
He replies with a frown, “Maybe you should’ve told me sooner.”
“Really? And why should I have done that?”
“So I wouldn’t have made a fool of myself just now,” he huffs. I can sense that Ron is gearing up for one of his sparring contests with Hermione, but her response surprises me. Her shoulders slump, then she lowers her eyes to the floor and doesn’t say a thing. She seems to be full of surprises tonight.
“I’m feeling kinda sick now,” Ron growls. “Shouldn’a had all that stuff to drink Shouldn’a said what I said. Gonna go to bed,” he finishes, stepping around Hermione and out the bedroom door. She looks over her shoulder at Ron’s retreating figure and sighs heavily.
“I knew he wouldn’t understand.”
A wave of protectiveness washes over me and I take her hand lightly in mine. “He’ll be okay, Hermione. He’s just got to get used to the idea.”
Hermione rubs her thumb tentatively along mine, sending another shiver through me. Then she gives me a quizzical look.
“He’s fancied you for a long time,” I explain. “As long as he didn’t say anything to you, he could keep hoping you fancied him too. Now he knows you don’t and he has to get used to that. But you know Ron; he bounces back pretty quickly. Just give him some space for a few days.”
“Okay, I will. Now do you want to tell me why you and Ron were sitting up here trying to get pissed?”
The question doesn’t surprise me, but her blunt language does. How can I explain to her that the way I feel stems from something even deeper than my grief about Sirius? The prophecy weighs on my heart like a millstone. I’m not ready to tell anyone about it yet, not even her or Ron.
“No,” I reply carefully. “I think you already know a lot of it. But there are some other things too and I – I just can’t talk about them right now. Maybe later. When I do, you’ll be the first to know.”
Still looking sad, she nods and shifts around so that she’s sitting next to me. Then she surprises me again by leaning her head on my shoulder. Her head doesn’t feel heavy at all; instead, it feels like it was made to rest there. As she leans up against me, I can feel that her body curves in all the right places – places that, until recently, I only cared about on Cho Chang. Though the evening is cool, I suddenly feel a new wave of tingly warmth spread through my body. It feels like what I used to feel toward Cho and for a moment I almost panic. I’m sitting with my best friend, who happens to be a girl and who is leaning up against me, and I realize that I’m getting excited by the fact that it’s Hermione’s body next to mine. Not just any girl’s, but Hermione’s – Hermione, who has already been special to me for almost five years. Before the alcohol takes me over completely, I need to find out something that’s been at the back of my mind for over a year.
“Hermione,” I begin slowly, “did you really mean everything you said to Ron just now?”
She pulls her head off my shoulder and cocks an eyebrow at me. “Of course I did. Besides,” her voice lowers to a whisper so that I almost don’t catch the next part, “I’ve always wanted my first kiss to be really special, and it wouldn’t have been with Ron.”
A thought strikes me like a bludger. “Hermione…you’ve never been kissed?”
She blushes and shakes her head.
“Not even Viktor?”
“No,” she whispers. “I never kissed Viktor. He wanted to kiss me but –“
“But you didn’t want to kiss him? Why not?”
She smiled. “Because kissing Viktor would’ve been almost like kissing Ron.”
I raise an eyebrow and smile back at her. Now, at last, I understand, at least a little. I’ve wondered for a whole year about all those letters she wrote to Viktor Krum. Now I know that, as she’s insisted all along, Victor is just a friend, really more of a pen pal because he’s so far away. That realization jogs something else in my memory.
“Hermione, what did you mean, ‘Of course you’re not’?”
“’Of course you’re not.’ Last Christmas when I told you and Ron about kissing Cho, I mentioned that she was crying while we kissed, and I asked if I was that bad a kisser. And you said ‘of course you’re not’.”
She looks up at me. “Oh…did I?”
Apparently I’m not totally pissed, because these “Aha!” moments seem to be making gears turn in my brain.
“Yes, you did,” I reply. “I didn’t think about it at first but now I’m wondering why you said—“
“Of course you’re not,” Hermione repeats, her eyes wide as she seems to be realizing something herself.
“Yep, that’s what you said.” I look at her carefully. “So…how do you know I’m not a bad kisser?”
“Well, I – umm – see –“ While she stammers like she’s trying to change the subject, I continue to stare at her. For the first time in the five years I’ve known her, she seems to be at a total loss for words. As she sputters and blushes, apparently trying to avoid my question, another synapse fires in my brain.
“You’ve thought about kissing me?” I ask, dumbfounded. Hermione’s blush goes from cherry pink to beet red.
"Well... I guess I had a dream about it... once."
The warmth I’ve felt off and on during the evening returns, feeling more like a brush fire this time, and I inch closer to her. “You dreamed you were kissing me?”
“So what was it like? Kissing me, I mean?” The need to know burns in my brain as another kind of need starts to burn further south.
Her face is just inches from mine now and she’s trembling like a leaf. “It was very nice. It felt…right.”
It felt right. The words ring in my ears until I think my head will fly off my shoulders. I open my mouth, planning to say something noncommittal like “Oh,” but what comes out instead is, “Too bad it was just a dream.” I am such an idiot. Just kill me now, I think, hoping she can’t tell how much I want to run away.
“What?” she asks. Now I’ve surprised both of us.
“I – I mean, I don’t think I would mind at all if you kissed me. Or I kissed you. Or… you know.”
“Right.” Hermione looks a bit stunned and bites her lower lip the way she always does when she’s figuring something out.
I lean even closer to her and rub the palm of her hand with my thumb. The alcohol seems to be giving me the courage to say and do things I wouldn’t have done otherwise. “You know, Hermione, I've only been kissed once. And it was…not a good kiss... so,” I look into her eyes hopefully, “I don't think it was really a proper kiss."
Hermione returns my gaze as though she’s found something she’s never seen before. Maybe she sees that I’ve finally recognized that she’s a girl and I’m a bloke. Like a dam breaking, a host of possibilities occur to me, things that she and I could do – together – that had never occurred to me before. She smiles and traces my lower lip with her index finger and the next thing I know, the tip of my tongue has touched the tip of her finger where it grazes the center of my lips. As she pulls her finger away from my mouth, I catch her hand and hold it almost as hard as I hold her gaze.
“So, Harry, now you’re sweet sixteen, and never been kissed properly,” she says as my face hovers near hers.
“And never been kissed properly,” I repeat, and the look in her eyes gives me a glimmer of hope.
“And I’m almost sixteen and I’ve never been kissed at all,” she breathes, the warmth of her breath tickling my nose.
“Maybe we can fix that for each other,” I whisper. Our lips are so close I can almost taste her lip-gloss.
“Should we try to fix that right n-,” she’s saying as I throw caution to the wind and my lips descend on hers. As I continue to hold her right hand in a vise grip, my left hand moves to cup her cheek. Her lips are soft, warm and moist, and I kiss them gently, softly, not wishing to scare her off or make her reconsider doing this. Hermione leans into me, kissing me back more firmly than I’d hoped for, the fingers of her free hand twining in the hair at the nape of my neck. Neither of us tries to deepen the kiss, but we keep on kissing each other firmly for at least a minute, until we both have to come up for air. When we finally break the kiss, Hermione surprises me again. She laughs out loud.
“What?” I choke out. This was not what I wanted to hear. “Am I that bad a kisser?”
Hermione leans her forehead up against mine and, to my surprise, pecks me on the lips. “No, silly, you’re very definitely not a bad kisser. In fact you’re a very good kisser. And I’m one hundred percent certain you’re not my brother.”
For the first time in over a month, I laugh out loud. “And you are definitely not my sister.” I put my hands on her waist and pull her around until she’s sitting on my lap. I’m sure she can feel how happy I am that she’s sitting there but I don’t care. For the first time since the whole mess at the Ministry, I don’t feel like everything in my life is completely wrong. As I wrap one arm around her shoulders, she slips one arm around my waist and turns my face toward her with her other hand. She tilts her head toward my shoulder and parts her lips ever so slightly, inviting mine to meet them. I kiss her more forcefully this time, my tongue sweeping over her lips and nudging between them until she lets it enter. As my tongue explores her sweet mouth, I can feel her smiling against my lips until she suddenly starts to giggle and I break the kiss.
“Hermione! What is it now?”
She looks at me coyly, her index finger tracing my jawline. “Well, you’re just very lucky that I love the taste of licorice.”
Bugger, my mouth must taste like absinthe. I suddenly feel like I should apologize to her – then I realize, apologize for what? The booze just helped me do something I wasn’t aware I’d wanted to do. I wouldn’t have kissed her if I hadn’t really wanted to, and she wouldn’t have let me if she hadn’t wanted me to. Neither of us has anything to apologize for. If anything we should be thankful. Thanks, Sirius, for leaving that booze where I could find it, I think as I look up toward the ceiling.
“Something interesting up there?” Hermione asks, turning my face toward hers.
“Nothing more interesting than what’s right in front of me,” I reply – what’s been right in front of me all along. I have no idea why it took me so long to figure out; I’m just glad I finally did. Then my stomach clenches as I remember what happened before Hermione and I kissed – she told Ron that she didn’t fancy him. Some best friend I am – snogging the girl he’s fancied for two years not ten minutes after she breaks his heart. The past few minutes have been exhilarating, but now I feel like a traitor.
“Hermione,” I’m almost afraid to continue, “what are we going to tell Ron?”
She sighs and shifts out of my arms, sliding off my lap until she’s sitting next to me on the floor. Then she takes my hand in hers and rubs the back of it with her thumb. We sit there in silence for a few moments while she gathers her thoughts.
“I don’t think we need to tell him anything just yet,” she says finally.
“No?” I think about what that “No” might mean. Is she embarrassed to be with me? Does she not want to let anyone know we're maybe, possibly together? Is she as afraid of Ron’s reaction as I am? Why would I think that a couple of drunken kisses mean that Hermione and I are together? Except that she wasn’t drunk when I kissed her, she knew what she was doing, and she didn’t seem to mind at all… My throat starts to tighten and my head slumps toward my chest.
Hermione seems to pick up on my confusion. “Harry, I meant that what just happened between us is very exciting and completely new to me. I – I just want us to be able to enjoy this by ourselves for a little while, without anybody looking at us differently or tutting or whatever,” she explains, blushing furiously.
“Or blowing up at us,” I add, my treachery still stinging like a cut.
“You mean Ron,” she frowns. “I am a bit concerned about how he’ll react. And honestly, this place is crawling with people. Between Order meetings and everyone who’s living here, you and I aren’t going to have any…privacy… anyway,” she smiles at me with a hint of mischief in her eyes. “Plus we have our holiday homework to do – now don’t look at me that way! It’s important – and, well, we’re not really in any hurry about any of…this… are we?”
I lean my forehead up against hers and sigh. “No, Hermione. We’re not in any hurry. It bloody well took me forever to figure this out, but no, I’m not in any hurry to snog you senseless or… well… I’m sure we’ll think of something else,” I smile, wishing to heaven that a certain condition would go away so I can stand up.
“Oh Harry, I’m so glad you agree,” she exclaims, her relief practically glowing on her face. “What do you say we go back to the party? You left over an hour ago and I’m sure some folks would like to tell you goodbye before they leave.” Once again, she seems to read my mind; she stands up and extends her hand to me but looks away while I get up.
“Thanks, Hermione.” Now I’m blushing again. “For everything. Not just for what happened tonight – just, for everything. In case I haven’t told you.”
She blushes again, then her face lights up with a smile as bright as the full moon on a clear night. “You’re welcome, Harry. For everything.” She grabs my arm for the ten-thousandth time in the past five years, but this time her grasp feels different, more confident, like she believes her hand belongs there. I take her hand lightly in mine and lead her out of the room, closing the door slowly behind us. We walk slowly along the upstairs hallway, our hands barely touching, until we reach the stairs.
“I’ll go down first if you want me to,” she says with a conspiratorial grin.
“Okay.” I find myself grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. She moves lightly down the stairs, turning back to look at me every few steps. When she reaches the bottom of the stairs, Lupin and Molly are waiting for her, their faces full of concern.
“Ron wasn’t feeling well, so he decided to go to bed,” I hear her telling them.
“And Harry?” Lupin asks cautiously.
“Harry will be down in just a minute. He and Ron were hanging out with Buckbeak upstairs. Harry seemed kind of depressed. But after Ron left, I…spoke with Harry and that seemed to cheer him up.”
Lupin and Molly nod at Hermione; they know without being told that she’s talking about Sirius. I start down the stairs, relieved that Hermione was able to tell them so much without giving away anything important. It strikes me again, for the thousandth time, how bloody brilliant she is and how lucky I am, how lucky I’ve been for the past five years, to have her in my life. She smiles up the stairs toward me and I remember what Hagrid told me in fourth year – whatever happens will happen, and we’ll take it as it comes.
And Hermione and I will do it like we always have, together.