The Next Dance

Aerie22

Story Summary:
Harry Potter and Parvati Patil have beaten back an attack by Voldemort early in their fifth year and are now a couple. Lucius Malfoy is on the run and Draco is penniless. But will an injured Voldemort lash back? Or will an angry and embittered Draco strike first? And will Harry's romance survive Parvati's legendary temper, especially with Hermione there for him? And what of the brooding character that makes this fic decidedly A/U? Sequel to Dance With Me Harry.

Chapter 24

Chapter Summary:
Fifth Year A/U: Harry Potter and Parvati Patil have beaten back an attack by Voldemort early in their fifth year and are now a couple. But can their realtionship, and their lives, survive a fugitive Lucius Malfoy, a penniless, embittered Draco, an injured and angry Voldemort, and Parvati’s legendary temper, especially with Hermione there for Harry? And what of the brooding character that makes this fic decidedly A/U? Sequel to Dance With Me Harry. This chapter: True love never runs smooth; new relationships on many different fronts.
Posted:
02/22/2005
Hits:
11,291
Author's Note:
This is a sequel to my earlier novel, Dance With Me Harry. Reading the first part of this series is highly recommended. Also, this is an A/U fic, taking place in Harry’s fifth year. However, there will be elements from OotP that may surface from time to time, so be aware of the potential spoiler effect for all five books. Thank you for all your wonderful reviews. Please continue to read and review.


THE NEXT DANCE

BY AERIE22

CHAPTER 24

NEW RELATIONSHIPS

* * *

Harry had just come out of the shower. His shoulders were still a little sore from the stress of the practice. Maybe he could get Parvati to knead his shoulders a little tonight. He knew she would make him promise to brush her hair next time she needed a replaiting, which should be shortly. He would never do it in the common room, of course. But, as much as he would never admit it to Ron or Seamus, he actually didn't mind such a girly task. He was surprised that her otherwise straight hair came out in loose waves when she loosened her braid, but it would straighten out thick and full within a day if she left it loose. Parvati had beautiful hair and he loved touching it when it was loose. Maybe this time he could convince her to wear it in a series of ribbons or bands like she did during the holidays, rather than staying with the braid.

He looked up as he turned the corner toward the lockers. Ron was still sitting there wrapped in a towel, a dripping mass of freckles, red hair and pale skin. He had a spectacularly uneven practice, showing flashes of brilliance that made the girls of the regular chaser line look silly, followed by lackadaisical play that would guarantee his spot as a reserve chaser for the foreseeable future.

Ron kept his head down as Harry began to change. At first Harry didn't notice, as he and Ron were always the last ones out after Quidditch practice. Harry enjoyed the hot shower and Ron usually waited around for Harry to finish. But Ron was making no move to change. Harry was buttoning up his shirt when he noticed Ron still hadn't moved.

"You all right?" he asked mildly.

Ron tilted his head a little in acknowledgement. Then he turned slowly to face Harry.

"I'm thinking of breaking up with Hermione," he said quietly.

Harry stopped dressing and stared. "Really?" he said in genuine surprise. "What's wrong ... what happened?"

Ron slowly reached into his locker and picked up his underwear to put on. "I don't know ... I'm not having any fun ... and I don't think she is."

Harry gave his best friend a concerned look. "Tell me about it."

Ron slipped on his boxers and pulled his T-shirt over his head. "I just don't know," he said with a sigh. "It's like we are just going through the motions of being a couple."

Harry hung his head. He had been afraid of this. Hermione was trying to be a girlfriend, but over the past few weeks, Ron would come into the boys dorm frowning and thoughtful, much out of character for him. Hermione, for her part, seemed by turns earnest or skittish around Ron. The two would suddenly get into halting arguments in the common, then apologize to each other in an equally awkward, halting manner.

Harry shook his head. Ron should have been a good person for Hermione. He was spontaneous, often argumentative, and a lot of fun to be with. Just the sort of person Hermione needed to shake her out of her doldrums. But it just hadn't happened. Whenever there appeared signs of a flash point of one of the couple's characteristic bouts of bickering, one or the other, or both simply shut up and let it pass. And their dating seemed to consist mostly of wandering around together with no real spark. They were like an old married couple who had no heat left in their relationship, no surprises left for each other.

Harry looked up at Ron. "What happened? I thought you two would be fun together."

Ron shook his head. "I guess I finally found out that we have nothing in common. She likes school and studying and reading. I like Quidditch and pranks and having a good time. So, as a compromise, we don't do either. Even snogging seems like an ordeal. I don't know if she likes it and if she isn't enjoying it, how can I?"

Harry blew a deep breath out. "You want me to talk to her?"

Ron raised his head to look at Harry. "No. It wouldn't do any good. There's no ... I don't know."

"Spark?" Harry offered.

Ron nodded. "I guess that's a way to put it. I guess we just know each other too well. We've been friends all this time and can't seem to figure out how to be a couple. It's like ... well, when you and Parvati ... well, we just sort of fell in together."

Harry closed his eyes in sorrow. He worried that Hermione still loved him. Or at least thought she did. But that was not an option, Harry thought to himself. He loved Parvati. Or at least he thought he did. Things would be perfect but for Hermione's constant presence as some sort of ghost over their relationship. Parvati was one of the most self-confident people he knew, but she was vulnerable when it came to Hermione. Parvati would stiffen whenever Hermione's name would come up in conversation. And no amount of reassurance seemed to be enough. Harry shook his head again. Why couldn't things be simple.

He looked up at Ron, who now was fully dressed. "Are you going to tell her?"

Ron gave a vague nod. "You know how upset I was at you this past summer when you wrote that you liked her?"

Harry nodded. "I was kicking myself almost from the moment I owled you and went through all sorts of worry when you didn't respond for so long," he replied with a crooked smile.

Ron nodded. "I felt bad about that afterward ... especially when I found out what else you were going through at the time."

Harry shrugged. "I told you not to worry about it. I understood."

Ron nodded. "Well, I did all this thinking over the summer about Hermione and you and me and what I really wanted. And all I really wanted was a girlfriend. Someone I could hold hands with, to do some snogging, to be with and have fun with. And Hermione seemed to be the easiest choice. I knew her well. She was a friend. And she was pretty. So why not her as a girlfriend? Now I know why not."

Harry nodded. Ron had explained all this to him before. Ron thought Hermione would be the easy way out of having to find a girlfriend. But it never seemed to work out that way.

"So what now?"

Ron shrugged. "I don't know. It's getting late in the year and most of the pretty girls are taken," he said with a chuckle.

Harry's eyes lit up. "Oh, it's still with the pretty ones, is it. Not the nice ones?"

Ron laughed. "The nice ones were taken first, especially the nice ones who are pretty. Take Parvati, for instance. She's pretty nice. And pretty ... ummm ... pretty. And some git managed to luck into going out with her," he said with a laugh.

Harry threw one of his Quidditch gloves at Ron. "Now hold on, there ... " Suddenly he paused, his mind going into overdrive. Maybe he'd ask Parvati.

* * *

Parvati and Lavender had disappeared up to Madame Trelawney's quarters that evening, leaving Harry to his own devices. He sat quietly at a table in the corner, working on a knotty potions problem when Hermione slipped into the seat next to him.

"Harry ... could we talk?"

Harry looked up to see Hermione was wearing a stolid expression. She was upset but not overwrought. Ron must have talked to her. He slowly nodded. "Sure, Hermione. What's up?"

She took a deep breath. "Not here. Could we take a walk?"

Harry gave a tentative nod and slowly got up. "Sure. Where to?"

Hermione rose as well. "I just thought we'd take a walk and talk. It won't be curfew for another couple hours," she said quietly.

The two slowly and unobtrusively made their way out of the common room and walked side by side down the corridor toward the stairs. "Any place in particular?" Harry asked.

Hermione sighed. "Well, it's nice and warm out. I thought maybe out on the steps in front of the castle entrance."

Harry nodded and the two made their way down the staircases and finally out the front entrance. The area was deserted and the torches were already lit, so Harry led Hermione to one of the stone benches next to the entrance. The two sat side by side.

Harry looked at Hermione closely. She had an expression of fierce concentration. But there were no tears. And seemingly no threat of tears. "Are you all right?" he asked gently.

She turned to him. "Ron broke up with me," she said flatly.

Harry nodded.

"You knew?" she said mildly.

Harry tilted his head in assent. "He told me after practice this afternoon. I offered to help, to talk to you, but he had decided. And you know how he gets once he makes up his mind," he said quietly with a small smile that didn't reach his eyes.

Hermione nodded. "I just ... well, I don't know what went wrong. I tried to be a good girlfriend."

Harry sighed and looked into the dusk out toward the lake. "You don't seem to be all that broken up about it."

Hermione took a deep breath. "Well, we're still friends ... I guess it just didn't work out."

"But ... "

Hermione pursed her lips in thought. "I don't know why ... or what went wrong."

Harry gave her comment a lot of thought. "Did you really like him ... I mean romantically?"

Hermione shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know. I liked it when he held me. Like I really meant something to him. Like he needed me. I needed him."

Harry leaned back on the bench. "Being comforted is part of a relationship, I guess. But it's not the whole relationship. You can usually count on getting hugs when you need it from a boyfriend. But you also can count on that from a big brother or sister, or a good friend. Look how many hugs I've given my firsties, Sam and Cassie. It's what a friend is for. To listen and to give you a hug when you need it."

Hermione gave a soft chuckle. "You better watch Cassie. She's really crushing on you ... and has for months."

Harry smiled. "I know. Parvati keeps telling me that it's a good thing we'll be out of here in a couple years before she really blossoms and sweeps me off my feet."

Hermione nodded with a sad smile. "It's just that I don't know how to be a girlfriend."

Harry looked carefully at Hermione. "Hermione, being a girlfriend is not part of the curriculum here. There are no O.W.L.s in being a girlfriend. And a relationship is not about acting like a girlfriend. It's about caring for someone you like ... romantically. If that feeling isn't there, then there's no point in being a couple. Just being a friend is enough. Trying to make something out of relationship if the feeling isn't there is like ... oh, I don't know ... committing a fraud, like lying to your partner."

Hermione looked up at Harry, for the first time showing tears. "But ... I ... I don't know. I just don't know who ... I'd like to be someone's girlfriend but ... I don't know."

Harry put his arm around Hermione's shoulder and she leaned against him. She took out a tissue and blew her nose.

"Hermione. Your problem is that you don't try to get to know other people. Do you know how many nice people I've met in the past few months? Dozens. I'm sure there are plenty of nice guys out there who would love to get to know you if you gave them half a chance."

Hermione was quivering. "There's only one boy ... "

Harry gave her a sharp look as she looked up at him with pleading eyes. "No, Hermione. I love Parvati."

She lowered her head. "I'm sorry Harry," she said in a tiny voice.

Harry sighed. "Look. Parvati and I will see if we can't get you out to meet some new people. Your problem is that you've limited your world to Ron and I and that's not healthy. Like I said, there are plenty of nice guys out there. If you want a boyfriend, that is."

Hermione nodded against Harry's shoulder. "I'd just like someone I could be with who would understand me, who would like me. Nobody likes me."

Harry gave her shoulder a squeeze. "I like you. Ron likes you. Once you give others a chance, they'll like you, too," he said soothingly.

She took a deep breath. "Thanks, Harry," she said in a small voice. "And don't tell Parvati we talked. She'll start yelling at me again, and we're just starting to be friends."

Harry chuckled. "Don't worry about Parvati. I'll just tell her that we snuck off for a quick shag."

Hermione gasped, then started to giggle. "Don't you dare. I don't want to take the O.W.L.s in the hospital wing."

Harry smiled. It was odd that by talking to Hermione, he suddenly felt better about his feelings about Parvati than he had in the weeks since their little scare.

* * *

Hermione was busy with her own potions assignment on the opposite end of the table from Harry and his potions homework when Parvati and Lavender walked through the entrance to the common room. Harry looked up and made a slight motion with his head to Parvati, who detached herself from her roommate and walked over to an empty couch. Harry rose and followed her.

Parvati gave Harry an inquisitive look as he sat down next to her. "Ron and Hermione broke up," he said quietly.

A quick cloud crossed Parvati's face. She looked at him anxiously. "And ... "

Harry frowned and put his arm around her shoulders. "And ... she's upset ... and lonely. I always thought your matchmaking was kind of silly," he said, casting her a furtive, anxious look. "But maybe we could do something to help her. If you let Lavender help, she'll probably try to match Hermione up with a mountain troll."

Parvati chuckled softly against Harry.

Seamus walked by the two. "Get a room, you two," he said.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Get a new line, Finnegan," and he turned and kissed Parvati with Seamus watching. Seamus shook his head and wandered off in search of Dean or Lavender.

Parvati now was chuckling uncontrollably, her face buried in Harry's shoulder. When she finally came up for air, she smiled at him. "It's about time someone said that to him," she said, collapsing into giggles again.

Harry sighed. "I don't know. It's tough trying to kiss a giggling girl. So I guess I'll just have to talk to myself ... "

Parvati gave Harry a pinch and leaned against him. "So talk."

Harry smiled absently and gave her a squeeze. "Well, as I was saying, Hermione has not been happy this year. I know you want to jump in and match up Ron, but we should really try to help Hermione."

Parvati suddenly sat up straight. "Ron and Padma!" she said with excitement.

Harry frowned. "But we have to help Hermione. If Ron and Padma get together, she'll feel even more isolated and alone."

Parvati made a face. Then her eyes opened wide. " ... and Hermione and Terry?"

Harry gave her a worried look. "He's kind of boring, isn't he?"

Parvati chuckled. "Look, Hermione is very smart and Terry fancies himself as very smart. And they both like nothing better than arguing about studies. Hermione won't put up with his silliness. But she'd love arguing with him. The two would probably be so enthralled with themselves and each other that they won't even realize they would sound to the rest of the world like two residents of the planet Neptune."

Harry pursed his lips. "I'm not really good at all this. What do I do?"

Parvati burst out laughing. "First, we get Ron and Padma together. Then you talk to Mandy Brocklehurst to get a sense of where Terry is. He might not even notice he a Padma are no longer a couple until he gets an invitation to the Patil-Weasley wedding. Better yet, we'll both talk to Mandy. Maybe, between you, me and Mandy, we can get those two together at your next prefects meeting."

Harry stared off into space and fidgeted. "But how about Padma. She seems awfully passive around Terry. I wouldn't put up with him if I were her. And she's going to need to be a little more assertive around Ron."

Parvati turned to give Harry a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"

Harry chuckled. "Well, he isn't completely housebroken yet. Look how long it took you to break me in."

Parvati crossed her eyes at Harry. "You were just about perfect from the start, you silly. I wouldn't settle for anything less. All I had to do is knock a few sharp edges off."

Harry was bouncing in quiet laughter. "I seem to recall a couple bumps and bruises along the way."

She put her head on his shoulder. "Ah ... Cleopatra's revenge," she said, giggling softly. "But what about Ron?"

Harry smiled and took a deep breath. "Well, Ron and Hermione broke up because they were bored with each other. Ron was looking to enjoy himself, to have a little fun, while Hermione was looking for a study buddy accompanied by generous amount of hugs. Neither of them got what they wanted and they knew it. So it ended up a passive relationship."

Parvati looked up at Harry, waiting.

"Well, Ron was bored. I just hope that Padma doesn't end up a carbon copy of Hermione. He'd kill me for suggesting it," he said with a half smile.

Parvati nodded. "Believe me, Padma is not usually passive. But she's lonely. Just about everyone in Ravenclaw had paired off, and Terry isn't bad looking."

Parvati frowned in concentration and snuggled closer to Harry, who put his arm around her shoulder.

"Get a room!" came a voice from the rear.

Harry, without turning, smiled. "Get a life, George."

"I'm not George, I'm Fred," the voice complained.

Harry continued to smile evilly. "No, you're George. Fred is much older and more mature. He wouldn't keep using that tired old line all the time."

Parvati collapsed helplessly in laughter against Harry's chest.

* * *

"Ron, how are you doing?" Harry said quietly as he leaned back against his pillows.

Ron was quiet for a few moments. "Okay, I guess."

"So you told Hermione."

"Yeah. You know already?"

Harry took a deep breath. "Yeah. Hermione had a long talk."

Ron closed his eyes. "Don't tell me. You two are getting together," he said in resignation.

Harry looked up with a start. "No! What ever gave you that idea?"

Ron turned on his side and propped his head on his hand. "I don't know. I had a lousy date with Parvati and next thing you know, you two are together. I thought it was a trend or something."

Harry shook his head. "Oh don't start with the self-pity routine, Ron. You're better than that."

Ron blushed. "Sorry."

Harry lay back in his bed. "I don't know why I bother with you. After all the trouble Parvati and I went through to arrange something between you and your future ex-wife," he said with a sigh.

"Whaaaa ... What!" Ron said in confusion.

Harry began chuckling. "Well, now that you're single again, she and I thought you might be looking for a nice girl."

Ron lay back on his bed, his eyes rolling. "Parvati's matchmaking again. I should have known. I'm just surprised it took her two hours to start."

Harry frowned slightly. "Okay, don't listen," he said, slightly annoyed. Then he noticed Ron, laying there on his back, tossing his pillow in the air with one hand and catching it with the other and had to restrain a chuckled. "Okay," he said with a smirk. "The poor girl will have to go through life without ever having experienced you. She'll have nothing to talk about, no war stories to tell her friends." Harry sighed deeply and theatrically. "Even though some very discerning people believe she is the second prettiest girl at Hogwarts."

Ron suddenly sat up turned to Harry with interest. "Blimey, Harry! You got me a date with Hannah Abbott?"

Harry rolled his eyes. He didn't have the heart to tell his best friend that there were many people in Hufflepuff who thought Ron was loud and obnoxious, a sort of Gryffindor Draco Malfoy. Harry shook his head and frowned at his friend.

Ron then flopped back on his bed again and stared at the ceiling. "Look, I'm sorry Harry. I'm just not in a good mood tonight. I haven't been in much of a good mood for a while. So who is this girl?"

Harry turned to Ron. "Well, I lied. She has experienced you. And she's already got a couple war stories to tell."

Ron turned and gave Harry a puzzled look. "So who is it?"

"Padma."

Ron's eyes went wide. "Padma? Parvati's sister?"

Harry gave Ron an exasperated look. "No. One of the other Padmas," he said with a roll of his eyes. "Of course Parvati's sister."

Ron rolled on his back, looking up at the ceiling. "But isn't she going out with that tall skinny git? The one who never shuts up?"

Harry nodded. "Terry Boot. Yeah. She spent about three months deciding whether to go out with him, decided he was a bore after their first date, and has spent the last three months deciding whether to dump him. That Padma."

Ron heaved a huge sigh. "She sure is pretty ... " he mused. "But would she want to go out with me?"

"Look. Padma has not been happy with Terry for a while now. But she's been hanging on for now, because there's no good alternative. Now that you're available. I'd be willing to bet she'd jump at the chance to go out with you. Parvati's going to talk to her tomorrow to see what she thinks."

Ron made a face. "I don't know why Parvati would do such a thing. I was a real prat with her when we went out. The same with the Padma and last year's Yule Ball."

Harry looked at his friend with sympathy. "Look. That date with Parvati was six months ago. And the Yule Ball with Padma was more than a year ago. You've grown up a lot since then. You've been a great friend to me, but an even greater friend to Hermione. None of us realized how patient and understanding you could be. And what a great listener you could be. Now, all you have to do is take all that you've learned in the past six months and use it with Padma. I think she needs someone who is willing to listen every once in a while. If you can manage that, I bet the two of you will have a lot of fun together."

Ron was now sitting up on his bed, facing Harry and pondering deeply. Then he blinked in surprise. 'Divination?' he thought. Finally, he looked up at Harry. "I'd like to go out with Padma. She's pretty, but she does seem to be nice." He chuckled. "I remember when you tried to match up Parvati and me. I was in a panic. I don't feel so panicked with Padma. I'd like to give her a try, if she's willing."

Harry nodded.

Suddenly, Ron's face clouded. "What about Hermione?"

Harry looked down and shook his head. "Ron. You broke up with Hermione. But she says you're still friends. So she'd probably be happy if you're happy. And maybe we can set her up with Terry."

Ron's eyes widened. "That git?"

Harry's eyes danced merrily. "Who else could out-talk him about studies. She'd probably love the challenge, putting him in his place."

Ron chuckled. "I guess she'd like someone she could argue with, for a change. I even miss arguing with her since we started dating. I haven't had a good fight in a while."

* * *

Ron took a deep breath and looked at his reflection in the mirror. He was washed and scrubbed to within an inch of his life. And he was wearing his new dressy robes, which were a birthday gift from Fred and George to match the formal robes they had bought him over the summer.

But now he was worried about what sort of impression he would make on Padma. He vowed he would be on his best behavior and wouldn't argue about the Chudley Cannons, as he had with Parvati. He chuckled. Well, even if the Chudley Cannons didn't win another game all season, at least they had contributed to his best friend's happiness when Parvati got mad at him and ended up with Harry.

He took one last look in the mirror, which suddenly told him to get going, and he turned and headed out of Gryffindor Tower to head down to the Ravenclaw Tower stairs near the Library.

He arrived ten minutes early only to find Padma waiting for him.

"I'm sorry," he said in a near panic. "Did I get the time wrong? Am I late?"

Padma smiled. "Oh, you're actually early. But I thought I'd wait out here since Terry was in our common room sulking."

Ron pursed his lips. "He's not very happy, is he?"

Padma shook her head and shrugged.

Ron sighed. "I know I wouldn't be very happy."

Padma's eyes widened. She wasn't sure, but she thought he'd just paid her a compliment. Suddenly, her smile broadened and she linked her arm in his. "Well, let's be off."

Ron smiled back at her, almost surprised at how tall she was. He had been with Hermione, who was only about five foot three, so he wasn't used to have someone nearly five inches taller on his arm. He gave her arm a squeeze and the couple began to head for the entrance to the castle and the road to Hogsmeade.

* * *

Ron was laughing so hard, tears were dripping from his eyes.

"No, it's true," Padma said with her own laugh. "My brother has filed an official petition with the High Wizarding Court of India to force the Indian Quidditch Association to give him a try-out for the national team."

Ron was still chuckling. "Has Gana ... Ganapathi ever been to India before this lawsuit?"

Padma looked at Ron with sparkling eyes. "Of course. Once when he was an infant, and once when we--Parvati and I--were nine. That would make him fifteen. I guess he believes that makes him an honorary citizen of India."

Ron's shoulders were shaking in mirth. "But the Patils haven't lived in India for how long?"

"About ten generations, since the time of Robert Clive. We've been in England for nearly 230 years. But that hasn't stopped Gani."

Ron laughed some more, but then gave Padma a quizzical look. "But after all this time, you're still very Indian."

Padma tilted her head. "You mean we're still wogs," she said with a crooked smile.

Ron leaned back, horrified. "That's not what I meant," he said pleadingly.

Padma chuckled. "I know, silly. But there still are people who have that prejudice." She took a deep breath. "There's always been a thriving Indian community in Britain, and that includes in the Wizarding world. So we've been marrying within the Indian community and preserving many of the traditions for generations. That doesn't mean we always marry within the Indian community. My grandmother is a Brown."

Ron blinked. "The Brown clan?"

Padma nodded. "Did you know that Parvati and I share a common great grandmother with Lavender? So we're third cousins. We'd actually met Lavender a couple times at Brown clan gatherings. Parvati remembered her when we came here to Hogwarts. All I remembered were all these little blonde girls and boys running around," she said with a chuckle.

Ron shook his head with a chuckle. "Well you should come to a Weasley clan gathering. There are a few blondes or dark-haired ones, but they are overwhelmed in a sea of red hair."

The couple went on talking about families, interests, school, even Quidditch, for long into the night.

Finally, Ron felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up. Harry and Parvati were smiling down at Ron and Padma. "If it wasn't for the fact that Parvati and I aren't supposed to be here after hours, I would have to you both for violating curfew," Harry said with a smile, showing out his prefect badge.

Ron and Padma suddenly looked at each other wide-eyed. "What time is it?" Padma said in a panic, looking around to see no students left in the Three Broomsticks.

"Eleven o'clock," Parvati said with a smile.

"Oh, no. How will we get back in to the castle? They lock the doors at ten," Padma said, her panic increasing.

Ron looked up at Harry. "The tunnels."

Harry nodded. "Of course, once we get in, we'll have to try to avoid Filch and Mrs. Norris. But maybe I can get Peeves to help us. He's been pretty cooperative since Moody taught me the poltergeist version of the Imperious curse," Harry said with a chuckle.

Parvati's eyes were glittering. She had learned about the tunnels from Harry but had never been in them.

Harry turned and nodded at Madame Rosmerta, who was tending to the last of her adult patrons. She nodded to her daughter Helga, who herded the students toward the back to the trap door that lead to the storage room. Helga then forced then to turn around as she performed a quiet charm that opened up a door to Honeyduke's basement and the entrance to the tunnels. The four quickly disappeared.

Ron stared at Harry. Harry shrugged. "Rosmerta knows everything that goes on at Hogwarts," he whispered.

The twins were not pleased at the dust and dirt they experienced before they got to the main portion of the tunnel. But once in this main area, Harry and Parvati took the lead, their arms around each other's waists and chatting quietly about the marvel of sneaking underground into Hogwarts. They were also acutely aware that Ron and Padma were following, lost in their own thoughts.

Ron was a little anxious over what to do with Padma at his side, but she answered his unspoken concerns by leaning up against his side and wrapping her arm around his waist. He turned and smiled at her and she smiled back. And suddenly, for the first time in his life, Ron realized he was with a girl who he really liked who liked him in return.

* * *

The quartet made it to the opening in the statue of the hump-backed witch with little trouble. Harry ushered the group downstairs, then he dashed farther down to the dungeons and charmed the suits of armor down there to start singing at distract Filch and Mrs. Norris.

Reasonably safe, the four made it their way to the library level and Parvati and Harry pushed Ron and Padma toward the Ravenclaw Tower stairwell entrance. "Don't worry, you two. We'll stand lookout for trouble," Harry said with a wink.

Ron and Padma walked slowly, arms around each others' waists, to the house entrance. Ron turned to Padma. "Ahhh ... I ... had a great time, Padma. Hmmm ... being with you was the most fun I've had in a long time. Ummmm ... maybe ... we could go out again? Hmmm ... ."

But he was cut off when Padma reached her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Suddenly, Ron felt light-headed as he responded to her kiss. He'd never kissed a girl like this before. Even kissing Hermione had never affected him like this. There was no hesitancy. No reserve. No thinking. Just responding to the beautiful girl in his arms. He just melted into the moment.

When they finally broke their embrace, Ron just stared at Padma. "I ... I ... I ... "

Padma, her face flushed, nodded. "I ... I know. Me, too," she said, her voice husky.

Ron smiled. He took a deep breath. "I'll see you at breakfast."

Padma nodded, smiling, her eyes glittering. "Maybe ... after breakfast ... the two of us ... maybe take a walk ... "

Ron nodded. They stared at each other for a few more moments. Finally, Padma spoke. "Goodnight," she said tentatively, but made no move.

Ron nodded. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight," she responded.

"Goodnight," he replied and began to giggle.

She began to giggle as well. Finally, she turned and entered the Ravenclaw stairwell, but gave Ron one last look. "Goodnight," she said with a smile and disappeared.

* * *

"Deer caught in an illuminatus charm," Parvati whispered as Ron approached.

Harry nodded. "Do you think he can make it on his own, or should we guide him?"

Parvati looked at Harry with a broad smile. "You take one arm, I'll take the other."

Harry smiled at Ron. "So, Ron. Have a nice time?"

Ron's eyes were barely focused. "Wow," was all he could manage.

Parvati and Harry smiled at each other and linked their arms through Ron's and led him up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower.

* * *

Ron and Harry had talked long into the night. Ron was clearly smitten with Padma. He simply couldn't stop talking about her, describing all the things that they had talked about at the Three Broomsticks. Much of what Ron talked about was what Harry had already heard from Parvati--about their family, their childhoods, gossip about some of the Ravenclaws. But Harry let Ron talk. He was clearly so excited, so overwhelmed by his emotions, that Harry thought any interruption would be mean.

So Harry was dragging a little when he got up. And Ron was his normal surly self when he woke up until Harry nudged him to remind him that Padma would be waiting for him after breakfast. Suddenly Ron's mood changed and he took on an unaccustomed life for so early in the morning.

Ron was still fussing with his appearance when Harry walked down to the common room. There he met Hermione, who had an annoyed expression. "Harry. What happened to Ron last night? I couldn't find him anywhere. I waited until eleven and he never showed up. What's going on?"

Harry started, blinking a couple times. "Hermione. It's a Hogsmeade weekend. Ron was out on a date."

It was Hermione's turn to blink in surprise. "A date? With who?"

"Padma," Harry said.

Hermione pouted. "Is that why he broke up with me? So he could go out with Padma? And I thought she was going out with Terry Boot."

Harry closed his eyes and shook his head sadly. "Look, you two were barely a couple when you were going out. And you weren't exactly broken hearted when you broke up. So don't go playing the woman scorned now."

Hermione gave Harry a nasty look. "Well, Parvati asked me last month about whether Ron and I were going out. She wanted to set him up with Padma then. I don't think it was nice of her to do it now behind my back," she said angrily.

Harry gave her a level gaze. "Parvati had nothing to do with it. You and Ron were just going through the motions of being a couple and Ron was upset and depressed about it. So he broke it off. And Parvati didn't set Ron up with Padma. I did, after you two broke up."

Hermione pursed her lips and glared at Harry. "Well thanks a lot."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Oh, come off it, Hermione. He's still your friend. And as a friend, you should be happy for him. He's found someone he really likes. He's always been there for you. Be there for him."

Hermione made a face. "Whatever. But I still thought that Padma and Terry were an item."

Harry shrugged. "Well, Padma's a smart girl and a great student, but she wanted to be able to relax between classes. But Terry is one of those types who is always studying or arguing points about studies. And she got a little tired of all that."

Hermione snorted. "I don't know what's so terrible about that. I find a good academic argument stimulating. Maybe Padma isn't as smart as everyone seems to think."

Harry chuckled inwardly. Hermione was still smarting over Padma being ranked number one in the class and their friendly rivalry had now taken on a more competitive note from Hermione's standpoint.

He shook his head. "I don't know. I think Padma's a pretty special girl. Terry must be devastated."

Hermione shook her head. "The poor guy. Maybe I'll have a talk with him after the next prefects meeting."

Harry tried not to laugh. Instead, me lowered his head to hide any hint of a smile. "Maybe you should," he muttered through clenched teeth.

He noticed out of the corner of his eye Ron had finally made his appearance. Hermione nodded to Ron and marched out of the common room to go to breakfast.

Ron gave Harry a quizzical look.

Harry smiled. "I think Hermione has decided to console Terry Boot, whose one true love was stolen away by some red-haired troll," he said before finally bursting out laughing.

Ron, who looked confused at first, suddenly got the joke and joined in the laughter. "Come on, let's go," he said chuckling.

Harry gave Ron a funny look. "I hope Hermione saves us a seat. Otherwise, one of us may be forced to eat at another house table ... like Ravenclaw's."

Ron grabbed Harry in a headlock and ran his knuckles across Harry's scalp before letting him go and heading off to breakfast.

* * *

The owl was one of many that came flooding in at breakfast on Saturday. Parvati managed to snatch the letter as it fell toward the eggs. She opened the letter and read it with a surprised expression. She glanced over to Harry and handed it to Harry.

Dear Pee-Vee,

Sirius and I will be in Hogsmeade tonight. Meet us at Madame Puddifoot's at 6:00. Bring Harry. Can't wait to see you.

Love,

Shi-Shi

Harry smiled. He hadn't seen Sirius in a month. Of course, he would have liked the chance to talk to Sirius alone. There were things that he wanted to ask Sirius's advice on. But, after his talk with Hagrid last week, the whole matter of love and his relationship with Parvati seemed a little less pressing.

Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder and glanced up. Padma was looking nervously between Parvati and Ron, who she was touching lightly on the shoulder as well.

Parvati looked up at her twin. "Shi-shi wrote you, too?"

Padma nodded and glanced down at a now-confused Ron. She took a deep breath. "Uh, Ron? I have to go to Madame Puddifoot's tonight. Is that okay?"

Ron's face fell and he lowered his head. "I guess," he muttered in disappointment.

Padma's face fell. "You mean ... you don't mind?" she asked in a small voice.

Ron glanced up briefly, then lowered his eyes again. "I guess," he whispered. "But ... I kind of thought I'd like to ask you out ..." he said in a barely audible voice.

Parvati burst out laughing. "So, she beat you to it," she said in a voice that drew the attention of several other Gryffindors."

Ron's head jerked up in confusion.

Padma also looked at her sister in confusion, then a small smile crept across her face.

Parvati gave Ron an exasperated stare. "You really are thick, aren't you?"

Ron was still confused and shook his head.

Parvati was giggling now. "Ron, Padma wanted to know if you would come to Madame Puddifoot's with her. She just asked you out!"

Ron looked up at Padma. She gave a brief, blushing nod.

Ron continued to stare. Finally, he blinked and gave her a quick, relieved nod.

Padma gave a sigh and smiled in relief, squeezing Ron's shoulder.

Parvati gave Harry a wide-eyed look. "Are we always going to act as interpreters between these two?"

* * *

Ron felt uncomfortable. This was only his second date with Padma and already he was meeting another member of her family. He pursed his lips as they entered the restaurant/coffee house. He rolled his eyes at the frilliness of the place. Then he felt Padma squeeze his hand. 'Oh, well. I guess it will be all right,' he thought as he glanced at Padma, who was now smiling broadly.

Ron glanced over to Harry, who was eyeing the d├ęcor. Harry then glanced over to Ron. The two simply rolled their eyes.

The twins suddenly squealed and raced over to the table where Lakshmi and Sirius already were seated. They embraced their sister and immediately began to chat.

Ron glanced over to Harry. "Looks like we're not the only ones who feel this isn't the place for us."

Harry looked over at Sirius, who had an anxious, pleading look on his face. Harry chuckled. "That's for sure."

* * *

After Lakshmi and Sirius got over their surprise at seeing Ron Weasley, rather than Terry Boot, with Padma and getting a quick explanation of the twins, the six settled in. Harry noticed, however, Sirius continued to have an almost haunted look about him. He frowned. He wondered if his Godfather was having a new series of Azkaban flashbacks that Sirius had insisted had long since ended.

His pondering was interrupted by Lakshmi, who cleared her throat. "I guess you are wondering why we asked you here," she said with a mischievous smile.

Ron and Harry looked up blankly, while Sirius seemed to shrink a little in his chair.

Lakshmi, her eyes sparkling, looked at her younger sisters with a broad smile. Then she glanced over to Sirius and poked him, making him sit up straighter.

Padma and Parvati suddenly leaned forward in anxious anticipation.

Lakshmi turned back to them. "We're getting married!!!" she exclaimed.

Parvati and Padma looked at each other in surprise, and then shrieked, jumping up and embracing their older sister.

Ron looked surprised and gave Sirius an uncertain smile. But Harry looked at Sirius, who gave an embarrassed grin. Harry smiled. "Congratulations. Old man."

Lakshmi turned. "He's not that old," she said with a giggle.

"When, Shi-Shi?" Parvati exclaimed.

Lakshmi rolled her eyes. "Well, it took long enough," she said, giving Sirius an exasperated look. "First we talked about talking about marriage. Then we talked about marriage. Finally, when his estate got settled and he took me down to his vault, he found his grandmother's engagement and wedding ring."

Sirius scowled, his face reddening. "It's one thing to fight a woman. But to fight a woman when the fates are against you ..."

Lakshmi passed her wand over her left hand and the ring appeared. Everyone at the table stared. It was a two-carat emerald cut diamond.

Harry rolled his eyes again as the twins were bouncing with excitement. He leaned over to Ron. "Better watch out. Looks like this family can call upon the fates to get their women married."

Ron looked at the pretty, flushed face of the excited Padma and tilted his head in thought. 'So what if it is fate? A man could do worse.'

* * *

The girls had hustled off to the little witches room, leaving Ron, Harry, and Sirius alone.

Harry gave simply stared at his Godfather, giving him a crooked smile. "So you found the perfect girl, after all."

Sirius snorted. "No such thing as the perfect girl," he said with a chuckle.

Harry blinked and Ron just looked quizzical.

Sirius caught their looks and burst out laughing. Finally, after taking a couple breaths, he smiled at the two young men, then looked at Harry. "You know something, sprout? When I was your age, I was looking for the perfect girl. In every girl I went out with, I could find a little something that wasn't perfect. Maybe she had a silly laugh, or her chest wasn't big enough, or she was too smart or too dumb, or something. You know what happened?"

Harry and Ron, who were both leaning in, fascinated, shrugged.

"I never found her. Never found that perfect girl. And you know what else?"

Harry shook his head.

"Other guys ended up marrying those less-than-perfect girls and ended up living happily ever after with them." Sirius frowned. "Harry, your mum was as near to the perfect girl as I ever met, and she always seemed to drive your dad crazy." His voice suddenly got a little husky. "And they ended up married and were as happy as any couple I ever met, even through all the troubles. Even at the end."

Harry suddenly looked down, biting his lip.

Sirius then chuckled, breaking the mood. "And anyway, what perfect girl would ever put up with the likes of us? No, Shi-Shi's not perfect. But I figure she's perfect for me."

Ron began chuckling, but Harry simply looked up at his Godfather and gave a faraway smile.

* * *

The party for Voldemort's lowlife recruits in an abandoned castle was in high gear as the Dark Lord slowly made to the secluded balcony above the revelry. He quietly released a series of crystal bubbles which floated high above the partiers. Then he turned to Lucius. "It is time to begin bringing them in."

Lucius nodded, then nodded down to Caleb Cameron, one of his pureblood Death Eaters. Caleb approached one of the older of the Knockturn Alley thugs and grabbed him, escorting him up the stairs.

Lucius greeted the thug at the door. "Quance, is it?" He said to the thug.

Sherman Quance nodded through bloodshot eyes.

Lucius nodded again. "Quance, you are privileged to be one of the first to be promoted. You will have to undergo a small test, and there will be some pain, but the rewards will be beyond your imagination."

Quance scowled at the senior Malfoy. "I can take a little pain."

Malfoy nodded. "Our Lord himself will administer the test. It is best that you lower your head and act respectfully. Your life may depend on it."

Quance nodded. He had spent a lifetime bowing down to purebloods and the gentry of the Wizarding World. He knew he could tug a forelock with the best of them, while keeping a wand or a dirk hidden in case opportunity presented itself.

As Quance entered the chamber, he gasped at the huge serpent guarding its Master. He looked up under lowered brows to see the burning red eyes of Voldemort from under the Dark Lord's hood. He shuddered and lowered his eyes again.

"Approach for the test, Quance," a high-pitched voice commanded.

Quance shuffled forward until he was directly in front of the Dark Lord's throne.

"Roll up your left sleeve."

Quance again complied.

Voldemort touched his wand to the inside of Quance's elbow. Then he muttered a series of incantations. Quance recognized only a few words, like 'Fidelus' and 'Mordesmere.' Suddenly, the tingling in his left arm turned into excruciating pain, driving Quance to his knees. Voldemort simply nodded. "Sherman Quance, you now are a Death Eater. You now belong to me," he intoned.

Quance was hauled to his feet by Caleb Cameron and Lucius Malfoy, his arm no longer in pain, but feeling like a shadow had passed over his grave.

Quance was merely the first of 72 drunken revelers from the lower segments of Wizarding society to be inducted into Voldemort's service that night.

Voldemort collected the crystal spheres that had floated over the debris of the now forgotten party.

He then appeared in a hooded robe on the balcony above. The now bedraggled and sobered group looked up at the Dark Lord.

"You are now my servants. You have been collecting a stipend from my treasury for months now. It is time for you to begin to earn your keep," Voldemort said.

"What about our pay," came a voice from the group.

"Crucio!" Voldemort called out and the offending new Death Eater screamed in agony as the rest of the group scrambled away from the line of fire, toppling chairs and tables. Voldemort casually released the curse. "Those are the wages for impertinence. Your pay will be the satisfaction of serving me."

Sherman Quance, the undisputed leader among the new recruits, suddenly stood up, wand in hand. "Here now," he exclaimed. "None of us signed on for any of this." There were a couple anxious nods and some grumbling among the bolder members of the group.

"Avada Kedavra!" Voldemort exclaimed, and Quance dropped backward dead from the killing curse. Voldemort lowered his hood and heard the gasps of the group as his reptilian face and blood red eyes was viewed for the first time by the members of the group. "You are my servants. You will obey. You will not fail me. The price for disobedience is death. The price for disrespect is death. The price for failure is death. Let this be a warning," the Dark Lord intoned. Slowly, he lowered his wand to the crook of his arm, touching the spot where his own dark mark was. Instantly, the 71 surviving members among the newly minted Death Eaters screamed and, clutching their left arms, writhed in agony at Voldemort's final burn-in of the Dark Mark.

As he released the curse, Voldemort slowly turned and nodded to Lucius Malfoy and Caleb Cameron. The two veteran Death Eaters, despite having long ago experienced such a final burn-in of the mark, squirmed uncomfortably at the pains in their own marks during the experience. They accompanied their master to an interior room where they apparated to Voldemort's main lair in Little Hangleton.

Twelve crystal bubbles that had been floating above the group of new Death Eaters disappeared as well.

* * *

Harry, uncharacteristically late for supper, was in a rush to get out of the deserted common room door. He had promised Parvati to go to Hogsmeade directly from supper. And she would give him hell for being late. But it had been a peacefully boring two weeks as he pondered about what to write in his weekly letter to the Strowbridges, a task he lovingly undertook each Friday afternoon after his last class and before going to supper. And since the Strowbridges were just about the only people he felt comfortable pouring his heart out to, he always went up to his dorm and wrote the letter in his bed, instead of the common room.

But now he was late for supper. In his haste to leave, he nearly ran into Hermione as he made his way out. He was startled by the way she looked. As she entered the common room, her face was ashen and tear-streaked. And when she bumped into Harry, she gave a small shriek.

Harry's eyes were wide with concern. "My God, Hermione. What's the matter? Are you all right?"

Hermione looked up at Harry with grief-stricken eyes and threw herself into his arms. "Oh, Harry! What am I going to do?"

Harry was now near panic. "What's wrong? What's happened? Is everything all right?"

"Oh, Harry ... I ... I'm ... banned!" she sobbed.

Harry led her to a nearby couch, his arm around her shoulder. As they sat down, Hermione buried her face in Harry's chest and wept inconsolably. Harry stroked her hair soothingly. "Calm down and tell me what happened. What did you mean, banned?" he said softly.

She continued to sniffle against his chest. "I feel so stupid. I didn't mean to do it. I ... I just wanted to ... I ... I ... " and she began sobbing again.

Harry continued to embrace her, rocking her gently to try to help her regain his composure. "Don't worry, Hermione. No matter what it is, we can work it out," he whispered.

He waited for Hermione to cry herself out. It was several minutes before she could get a hold of herself. Finally, she pulled away and reached into her bag for some tissues. "I'm so stupid. How could I be so stupid?" she said.

Harry leaned forward, pressing his forehead against her. "Tell me, Hermione. What happened?"

Hermione took a deep breath. "Well, Terry and I were in the library together ... " She closed her eyes, squeezing old tears out in case new ones needed room.

Harry nodded, patiently.

Hermione sighed again. "We were in the library together. And we were both back in the stacks, looking for source material for our History of Magic paper." She took another deep breath, pausing.

Harry knew she and Terry Boot had become regular companions in the library over the past two weeks. He had laughed to himself that the library now had two ghosts, with Terry there too. But now something had gone wrong, and Harry felt his anger rise. "What did he do?" he whispered urgently.

Hermione lowered her head. "Well ... we ran into each other looking for the same book in the back stacks. And our hands met reaching for it. And he looked so cute and so sweet ... I couldn't help myself."

Harry blinked several times as Hermione leaned up against him. "And ... "

Hermione took still another deep breath. " ... and I kissed him."

Harry took his own deep breath. 'No good comes from kissing in the library,' he thought.

"So you kissed him ... " he said softly, rubbing her back tenderly.

Hermione now had her head buried against Harry's shoulder. She nodded her head.

"Then what happened?" he whispered into her hair.

She turned her head to the side to speak. "He kissed me back."

"Ummm-hmmm?" he murmured.

"And we really kissed ... We'd never really kissed before ... it was so nice ... we ended up snogging in the stacks ... it was wonderful."

Harry blinked. "Okay," he said mildly. "Then what happened?"

Hermione gave an uneven moan. "Then Madame Pince caught us."

Now Harry blinked several times in confusion. "You got caught snogging in the library?" he continued in as soft and understanding a tone as he could muster.

Hermione nodded her head. "And she ... and she banned us from the library."

Harry started. "What?!?"

Hermione nodded miserably. "We can only go to the library during the day. We have to be out by supper time and can't go back for the rest of the evening."

Harry was confused. "She kicked you out after six?"

"Yes," Hermione sobbed. "For a whole week. And only one of us is allowed in the restricted section at a time. So we have to decide which of us can use the restricted section each day and only one of us will be given a pass to use it. All week."

Harry squeezed his eyes shut and screwed up his face to keep from laughing. He continued to stroke her hair soothingly, thankful for the movement as he was afraid he would collapse in laughter otherwise. "For a whole week?" he choked out.

Hermione sniffled. "It's not just that. I think I've lost Madame Pince's respect."

Harry took a deep breath, realizing the depth of Hermione's feelings. She loved the library and was one of the few students actually to admire Madame Pince. And she felt, somehow, that she had been caught committing a sacrilege on such sacred ground. Harry regained his composure and pushed Hermione out to arms length.

"Hermione. You are one of Madame Pince's favorite students. And maybe Terry is another of her favorites. I think she probably overreacted to seeing you two doing something other than concentrating on your studies. It was like you were cheating on her ... on her library. But maybe if you talk to her ... Or I'll try talking to her if you want. I'll explain that you meant no disrespect. I'll let her know that, under her careful guidance, two of her favorite students found more than scholarship. They found love. Maybe she'll reconsider."

Hermione looked up into Harry's eyes. Harry put all his concentration into maintaining a sympathetic face. "Harry? You'd do that for me?"

Harry nodded solemnly, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from giggling.

Hermione flung herself at him, hugging him for all she was worth. "Oh, Harry. You don't mind ... Terry and me?"

"No," he managed to choke out.

She relaxed against his chest. "Thank you, Harry. I do love you so. You are the best friend I've ever had," she said quietly.

Harry relaxed a little.

He looked up with a smile and his eyes fell upon Parvati, staring in fury at him from the entrance to the common room.

'Oh shit,' he said to himself

"I have to go, Hermione," he said, gently disengaging himself from her.

She looked up at him with a small smile, not knowing of Parvati's presence. "Thank you, Harry. Thank you."

* * *

Harry was out of the common room before Hermione realized he was going. He sprinted after Parvati, who had a full head of steam.

When he finally caught up with her, she wheeled and leveled an open palm that Harry managed to block before it hit his face. "Stop! Stop it right now!" he commanded.

"How long has that little scene been going on!" Parvati shouted. "How long have you been disappearing for a quick snog ... with her!"

Harry grabbed her by the shoulders, but she twisted away. So he grabbed her in a bear hug and, twisting her around, pressed her against the wall. She looked up at him with furious eyes.

"I know what I saw!" she seethed.

Harry glared at her. "I was not snogging her," he said through clenched teeth. "She just got kicked out of the library and restricted to using it during daylight hours for being caught snogging with Terry Boot, if it matters at all to you. And she was hysterical. So she needed someone to talk to. And I was there. And that was it," he said angrily.

"Oh, I'll bet," she said, still angry.

He suddenly let go of her. "You don't believe me!" he said now with a furious glare. "You don't trust me after all this time!"

Parvati's eyes flashed, then softened slightly. "I don't trust her. And I don't trust boys who ... who ... well, who get chased like you do."

Harry was still angry, but his anger was unfocused. He could understand of Parvati's anger and confusion. But he had done his best to earn her trust. He knew he would never cheat on her. But he also knew that Parvati, for all her self confidence, was vulnerable over Hermione. She knew Harry's history with Hermione and how upset Hermione had been over his relationship with Parvati. So she was always on guard.

Harry looked intently into Parvati's eyes. "You know I would never cheat on you. You know I won't lie to you. You know I would never start a romance with Hermione while I was with you. I'm not going to lie to you. I would break it off between us before I would ever go behind your back. But I have no intention of breaking up with you now, or ever."

Parvati was staring back into his eyes, a desperate look on her face. "What was I supposed to think?"

Harry closed his eyes. "Think what you want. But know that I love you and would never betray you. If ... if you don't believe that ... if you don't believe me ... walk away," he said in a choking voice, his chest heaving. "But know that it will be your choice ... not mine."

She suddenly leaned forward against him, in tears. He gently wrapped his arms around her. "Parvati. Parvati. What can I do to convince you you're the only girl for me?"

"Take me to Hogsmeade," she said unevenly.

* * *

The weather was mild, so the two walked to Hogsmeade side-by-side in silence, lost in thought. Harry made his pilgrimage to Honeydukes, buying a large sack of various types of candies to share with Ron and the first years. Then they made their way to the Three Broomsticks.

Madame Rosmerta's place was rapidly filling up, but there were still booths in the back. Harry and Parvati headed for one small table farthest in the back, with only room for two. Harry returned to Parvati with butterbeers and a plate of chips to make up for his missed supper. He nibbled listlessly at the chips.

"Are we all right, sweetheart?" he finally asked, glancing up at her.

She reached for a chip. "Yes, we're all right. It's just that I don't trust Hermione. I saw her throw herself at you a few months ago. And I've seen the way she looks at you. I think she'd do anything to get you back."

Harry sighed and shook his head slowly. "I don't think that's going to be a problem any more."

Parvati looked at him in mild curiosity.

Harry nodded. "The reason why she was so upset was that she got Terry Boot in the back of the stacks in the library and started kissing him. Practically attacked him, to hear her tell it. And Pince caught them going at it and threw them out for despoiling the scholarly atmosphere."

Parvati snorted. "That's probably what it would take to get the message across to that blockhead Terry."

Harry sighed. "I don't know. She seemed to think he was well into the match when Pince pinched them. Now she's banned from the library after six at night for the next week. They're going to have to find a new place to snog. Any suggestions?" he said with a smile.

Parvati continued to play with the chips. "He's too thick for that relationship to last. She'll catch on to what a bore he is soon enough," she said listlessly.

Harry gave her a half smile. "I don't think so. He's just the right kind of boy for her. A bright guy who also presents a challenge. He'll be her favorite project for the foreseeable future. And she might even make something of him. And she might learn a little something about life and love in the process."

Parvati looked up at Harry. "Still, I would feel a whole lot better if you kept your distance from her from now on. I don't trust her and I don't know if you might suddenly lose your immunity to whatever charms she possesses."

Harry gave Parvati a stern look. "I don't love her. I don't need her. I've got you. I love you. Only you. Okay?"

Parvati became annoyed. "If you really loved me, you would do this for me."

Harry gave her a level gaze. "If you really loved me, if you really trusted me, you wouldn't ask."

Suddenly, Parvati got angry. "Is that it, them?"

Harry looked at her intently. "I've been friends with Hermione for nearly five years. And in five years, I've run the gamut of emotions with her. But I know her and she now knows me. And there are going to be times, like tonight, when I may be the only one she can talk to. The only one she trusts to understand. The only one who she knows will listen. I'm not going to tell her to go to hell when she's hurting. You should know that about me. I thought that was one of the reasons why you loved me."

Parvati threw her chip on the table. "I don't feel well. I'm going back."

Harry rose, annoyed.

"Don't bother. I can find my way on my own. I don't need you, Harry Potter!"

Harry grabbed her arm in alarm. "Parvati, stop!"

She yanked her arm out of his grasp. "We'll talk about this tomorrow. But I don't particularly feel like talking to you any more tonight!"

"Parvati ... ?"

But she had grabbed her cloak and turned on her heel and left. Harry's first impulse was to chase her down again. But he just sank down in his seat and put his elbows on the table and lowered his face into his hands.

* * *

Hannah Abbott was upset. She had always been thought of as pretty and tried to be one of the nicest girls at Hogwarts. She had always gone out of her way to help her friends and classmates and be pleasant to everyone around her.

But she had found adolescence a mixed blessing. As she matured, her figure had blossomed more quickly than the other girls her age. She was now just considered among the boys as one of the prettiest girls in the school. She was the hottest.

She had done her best to ignore the attention, the comments and the innuendoes that came her way. After all, she had been dating Ernie MacMillan for three years. He was sweet and funny and nice. But this year, he had become more aggressive in fooling around and their snogging sessions had become uncomfortable for her. She wasn't ready for the kind of requests and demands her was making on her. So when he tried to sneak his hand under the waistband of her skirt once too often, she drew the line and they had a terrible row. And shortly thereafter, she found he had gone snogging--and more--with Betty Lewis, a fourth year who was known to be a little more accommodating to boys' than she was. So Hannah told him off in the Hufflepuff common room and broke up with him.

She had been upset about the breakup. But she had been even more upset about the heavy handed competition among some of the Hufflepuff boys, and even some of the Ravenclaw boys, for her attention. Now, without Ernie to run interference, the suggestions and comments had become even more discomfiting. So she vowed she would stay away from boys until she found a decent boy who would respect her and care for her. After all, she confessed to her best friend, Susan Bones, Hannah's mother had told her that she too had a startling figure in school but, after a couple kids, she had become somewhat plump. But Hannah's mother was wise enough to marry someone who loved her for herself, not her figure, so when her figure became distinctly Rubenesque, Hannah's father was not disappointed but loved her as much as ever.

But until she found a boy she could trust to love her for herself, Hannah felt uncomfortable coming out on Hogsmeade weekends to face the comments, the leers and the occasional roaming hands of boys not completely in command of their hormones.

Susan Bones was Hannah's best friend and dorm mate. Hannah, who generally was the most even-tempered girl in Hufflepuff, enjoyed and was a little shocked by Susan's mercurial temperament. But she knew the thin, pleasant looking girl with the medium-length red-brown hair, would always be there for her.

Susan knew her best friend desperately needed cheering up. So she decided to take matters in her own hands. So she told Wayne Hopkins, her boyfriend, that they would go out on Saturday; that Friday was girls' night out. That was why Susan, and the other fifth year Hufflepuff girls, Megan Jones, a plump black girl with a bubbly sense of humor, Pamela 'Don't Call Me Pam' Hutchinson, a tall shapely girl with long black hair and a lazy smile who was forever breaking up and making up with her boyfriend Mike Corner, and Karen Holmes, a plain, sad-eyed girl who was forever lamenting over her crush on Justin Finch-Fletchley, were in the Three Broomsticks not far away from the flare-up between Harry and Parvati.

* * *

Susan poked Hannah when Parvati began raising her voice. Hannah, who was absently sipping her butterbeer, nearly spilled it.

"What?" she whispered.

Susan motioned with her head toward the back table. "She's finally doing it to him," she whispered.

Hannah blinked in confusion. "Doing what?"

Susan looked at Hannah. "Parvati. Like she did to Kevin Entwhistle last year."

Hannah was still confused. "What? Arguing?"

Susan shook her head. "No. The big blowup. She's breaking up with Harry."

Hannah looked over at Harry and Parvati's table.

"Don't bother. I can find my way on my own. I don't need you, Harry Potter!" she yelled at him.

Harry grabbed her, but after a few more choice words, Parvati spun and stormed out of the Three Broomsticks. Hannah and Susan watched Harry bury his head in his hands. Hannah slowly closed her eyes, her heart going out to the devastated boy.

Susan suddenly grabbed Hannah's arm. "Hannah! This is it! This is your chance!" she whispered urgently. Megan and Karen turned around to look in Harry's direction, but Susan hissed at them. "Don't draw any attention. And don't let him know we heard." Susan turned back to Hannah. "We've talked about this endlessly. You know he's a nice boy. And you've heard all the stories about how he stuck by Parvati, no matter what. And that's what he gets for his trouble. And you said you liked him. Go to him," she whispered urgently.

Megan leaned in. "You keep telling us about the prefects meetings. How nice and sweet he is. And how he always sticks up for people when that...that Malfoy starts getting nasty to people. He's just the guy for you. Go for it, girl!"

Karen merely sighed. Hannah turned to look at her. Karen just looked at her dreamily. "Hannah, if I was pretty like you, I'd jump him before he had a chance to move."

Pamela leaned back in her chair. "I don't know, Hannah. Maybe I should give him a try," she drawled.

Megan gave Pamela a look. "I thought you and Mike were getting on this week."

"There's always next week," Pamela said with a sigh. "Go on, Hannah. Grab him," she said with throaty chuckle.

A look of panic crossed Hannah's face. "But I can't ... I can't just walk up to a boy I barely know and ... I don't know."

Susan gave her an exasperated look. "Hannah, he's hurting. He needs someone like you to make him feel better. If anyone can ease his pain, it's you."

Hannah's look turned to desperation. "But ... but he's been sleeping with her. I can't do that ... I ... well, that's why Ernie and I broke up ... "

Megan grabbed Hannah's arm. "Go to him now. Figure that out later. Look. There's Pansy Parkinson. Her radar is up already. If you don't go to him now, she'll probably have him in bed in an hour."

Suddenly, Susan tipped Hannah's chair, forcing her to jump up to her feet. "Go get him."

Hannah made an anxious face at her best friend. She made to grab her chair, but Susan pulled it away and gave her a nod in Harry's direction. Hannah rolled her eyes nervously and took a tentative step toward Harry's table. Then another. Then she was standing above him.

"Harry?" she said in a small, concerned voice. "Are you all right?"

Harry lifted his face out of his hands. "Hannah?"

Hannah gave a small, sweet smile.

Harry blinked a couple times. He had not been crying over his blow-up with Parvati, but it had been a close-run thing. He had just saw the prettiest girl in Gryffindor walk out on him. Now he was staring into the warm and comforting eyes of possibly the prettiest girl in all of Hogwarts. He gave her a sad smile.

"Can I sit down?" she said cautiously.

Harry tilted his head in assent. "I guess. Although I don't think I'll be pleasant company right now."

"I saw Parvati run out of here. And I thought you might need someone to talk to."

Harry looked at Hannah. There was perhaps one person who he would tolerate right now. And that was Ron. But as he looked at Hannah, with her mass of yellow blond curls, her fair skin with rosy cheeks, and the soft gray-blue eyes, he couldn't help but think she would be someone he could talk to, or at least be near, right now.

Hannah slowly and tentatively lowered herself into the chair Parvati had occupied, watching Harry closely. He gave her a sad, half-smile and lowered his head to look at his hands.

"I ... I saw what happened a few minutes ago and ... well ... you looked so sad that I thought ... well, I thought you could use some cheering up," she said quietly. "Maybe you would like to talk to someone who, well, who went through something like that, too."

Harry looked up at her, clearly upset. "But, I don't want to break up with Parvati. I love her. I don't want to lose her."

Harry heard a sharp intake of breath from Hannah. He reached out to comfort her even as she did the same for him.

"I'm sorry ... " Harry started to say.

"Maybe I can help ... " Hannah started to say.

Suddenly they found each other holding hands.

Hannah smiled shyly and Harry chuckled. "If Parvati saw this, She kill me and do a revival charm so she could kill me again."

Hannah suddenly jerked her hand away in alarm.

Harry looked up with a smile but sad eyes. "I'm sorry, Hannah. I guess I am kind of a jerk. Maybe she's right to be mad at me."

Hannah gave Harry a sympathetic look. "What brought all this on?"

Harry leaned back and closed his eyes. Slowly and methodically, he recounted the events leading up to Parvati's outburst. Hannah listened intently. When Harry finished, Hannah reached out and grabbed his wrist in a firm grip. "You don't understand, do you?"

Harry gave her a puzzled look.

"I didn't think so," she said, looking down at Harry's uneaten and now cold chips. "You have to understand her and be gentle."

Harry looked at her earnestly. "What did I do? What should I have done?"

"You loved Hermione for a long time," she said matter-of-factly.

Harry gave a half shrug.

Hannah nodded. "I know. We all knew."

Harry blinked, startled. "What do you mean?" he asked anxiously.

Hannah smiled. "We all saw it last year. The way you we mooning around her. We thought it was cute. And we saw how she always was by your side, supporting and comforting you, even when you and Ron seemed to be arguing and keeping your distance."

Harry was staring at her now. "You knew all this?"

Hannah smiled and shook her head. "It got really silly and sad at the beginning of this year, with you following her around everywhere, being so sweet and loyal. I had started having problems with ... well, with Ernie at the time, and I started to think how sweet you were and ... I just sort of wished Ernie would take his cue from you."

Harry leaned toward her. "But what about Ron. He was crushing on her, too."

Hannah smiled sadly. "We laughed about Ron trying to get her attention. But we could see that Hermione liked you as much as you liked her. We all figured you two would be together sooner or later, unless something bizarre happened."

Harry nodded. "I guess something did," he said wistfully.

"Parvati?"

Harry looked up. "Oh, no," he stated firmly. "She came later. She made it better. She healed the wounds," he said with a sad smile.

It was Hannah's turn to blink in surprise. "Oh ... I never heard the full story. We heard you and Hermione had a fight and sort of assumed that Parvati was behind it. So when she and you suddenly were together against Voldemort and came out as a couple, we figured that you were together all along."

Harry looked at Hannah intently. "Who is 'we,' anyway?"

Hannah blushed a little. "Well, we ... I mean ... well we girls kind of pay attention to what is going on. I guess you could call it gossip. We're pretty terrible, I guess. But we talk. And take notice of what's going on with people we like, or people we really don't like. And we probably are more friendly with girls in other houses than you boys are. So we talk."

"You gossip," he said flatly.

Hannah smiled, still blushing a little. "You can call it that. You boys discuss. We gossip. Same difference."

Harry blushed. "I never discuss. It's none of my business. But ... " he said with a small smile.

Hannah threw her head back and laughed merrily, her mass of blond curls bouncing on top of her head and jiggling across her shoulders. She was so much more beautiful now that she had abandoned her pigtails and let her hair grow out.

Harry chuckled. Suddenly, he realized that he was feeling better. He remembered how Parvati had eased his pain over Hermione and Hannah was doing the same over his fight with Parvati. But there was a difference here. He thought he loved Hermione. But he knew he loved Parvati.

Harry now felt more at ease with Hannah. He smiled at her fondly. "So what can I do? I mean with Parvati."

Hannah gazed over at him in speculation. "You really love her?"

Harry sighed and nodded with an unfocused gaze and a distant smile.

Hannah nodded. "Well ... you should go after her. You're first mistake was to take her here. Too many distractions. You should have locked yourselves in a closet and talked everything out. Let her know how you feel. Reassure her. Maybe snog with her. But focus entirely on her. Let her know she's the most important person in your life."

Harry's head sunk down to his chest. "I told her that. I thought things were okay. Then she told me to end my friendship with Hermione. I'm not going to abandon my friends because she might be jealous."

Hannah grabbed both of his hands. "Harry, you said you loved her. Isn't that love worth a second try? Or are you just going to sit an sulk."

Harry colored at Hannah's mild reproof. "You're right. It's just that she's been so moody for the past month or so. Ever since ... well ... " he let his voice trail off.

Hannah gave him a serious look. "Ever since what?"

Harry squirmed uncomfortably. "uhhh ... nothing ..."

Hannah continued to gaze at him intently. "Come on, Harry. What happened to make Parvati so moody? Was it another girl?"

Harry looked up startled and shook his head.

Hannah stared as Harry squirmed. Suddenly, it dawned on her. "You ... she had a false alarm?" she said in a wide-eyed whisper.

Harry gaped at her, his expression giving him away.

Hannah gasped. "Oh, sweet Merlin!"

Harry winced in shame. "She was late. But it was a false alarm."

Hannah grabbed Harry's forearm again. "Harry. How could you two be so stupid? Don't you know there are precautions?"

Harry looked up with anxious eyes. "We were taking precautions. Parvati had used a potion Madame Pomfrey gave us. And we were both using charms that Professor McGonagall showed us. Professor Moody showed me the same charm."

Hannah gabbled momentarily. "But ... but you still thought you were ... I mean she was pregnant?" she whispered in confusion.

Harry shrugged. "We talked to Madame Pomfrey afterwards. She said it must have been nerves or something. That her potion was virtually 100% effective. And when we told her about McGonagall's charm, she said that it was very effective and wouldn't hurt even with using the potion."

Hannah had her eyes closed and was breathing heavily. "That's why ... one of the reasons why ... I don't want to take the chance. It's too uncertain, too scary. My mum has been making me take that potion every July and every December for two years. 'Better nine months safe than nine months of shame,' she says. Even though I've never ... you know."

Harry blinked. "Nine months?"

Hannah nodded. "It's effective for nine months, even though most witches take it every six months."

Harry nodded. "But still, it's so nice when you're with someone you love ... someone you trust. So warm and intimate and ... I don't know," he said dreamily.

Hannah sighed. She had given sex a great deal of thought this past year. She had felt the urges of adolescence, but was frightened. She had thought about it with Ernie. But his manner was so clumsy, so demanding, and often sneaky during their snogging sessions that she had pulled back. He didn't want to talk to her about it, to understand her fears and needs. He just wanted what he wanted and it drove them apart. And all the comments and leers from some of the other boys made her fear it even more. All she wanted was a nice boy who she could trust and love so they could discover love together. Maybe someone would love her like Harry loved Parvati. Maybe then she would be ready.

Her thoughts turned back to Harry. "So she hasn't been the same person since then? Since the false alarm?"

Harry nodded. "We've been more careful since then. I told her that I loved her and that I would marry her. And after we found out there's was no baby, I told her that ... well, I wanted that for us eventually. But we're being, like I said, more careful."

Suddenly, Madame Rosmerta appeared. "Harry, are you going to sit her just taking up space, or are you going to order?" she said with a fond smile.

Harry blushed and shrank down in his seat. "I'm sorry," he said guiltily and made to rise.

Madame Rosmerta laughed. "Don't worry, if you want something, let me know. I'll have Helga bring it back to you. You look too busy to get up," she said with a laugh.

Harry smiled at Madame Rosmerta. She was one of Harry's biggest fans after his fight with Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest in the Fall and offered him free butterbeer for the rest of his life, but Harry declined, insisting on paying his way as he did with every other merchant who had offered him things. But he and Rosmerta had developed and bantering friendship whenever he was in the Three Broomsticks. He looked enquiringly at Hannah, who nodded. "Two butterbeers and a fresh plate of chips, I guess," he said with a shy smile.

Rosmerta nodded with a broad smile. "Coming up in a sec," Rosmerta said with a broad smile. She disappeared into the back room and came back levitating a couple cases of butterbeer for the bar. "Helga will be back here with your order in a moment. Enjoy, Harry."

Hannah stared at Rosmerta as she passed. "Wow. We never get table service," she said, turning back to Harry."

He shrugged. "She's really nice. I guess she was just being nice to us."

Hannah gazed back at Harry. He was so nice. And so sweet. And people seemed to recognize it. She knew she had. Too bad he was already in love. For a moment, Hannah was tempted to say something to him. To tell him to forget Parvati. That she would take care of him. But that wouldn't be right, Hannah thought to herself. If it didn't work out between Harry and Parvati, fine. But she wouldn't try to come between the couple.

As soon as Helga dropped off their order and Harry gave her a five-sickle piece for her trouble, Hannah turned back to him. "So Parvati's been moody since the false alarm?" she prompted.

Harry nodded slowly, chewing on a chip. "Well, we've been more careful. And sometimes she's a little cranky."

Hannah's brows knitted. "What do you mean?"

Harry took a deep breath. "Well, we haven't slept together since then."

Hannah blinked, not so much at the intimacy of Harry's disclosure as what it implied. "You mean she doesn't want to ... "

Harry shook his head. "We ... I don't want to risk her future ... our future. I don't know. I guess I got a little scared."

Hannah let out her breath. She couldn't believe this. She had battled Ernie's advances and heard similar stories from Susan and several other of her friends. And yet here was a teenaged boy who was holding off not because his girlfriend was resistant to his advances, but despite her interest in sex.

She closed her eyes and said something she never thought she'd say ... that she never thought she'd be in the position to say with a boy her age. "Harry. Go to her. Make love to her to within an inch of her life if she ants it. She needs you. She needs all of you."

Harry blushed furiously. "But ... "

Hannah took another deep breath. "Harry, you dolt. She thinks you've lost interest in her. That you don't want her any more. She thinks that, now that you've slept with her, you want to leave her and try someone else. No wonder she was so crazy about you and Hermione hugging in your common room with no one else there. She thought you were in the process of moving on."

Harry looked up in surprise. "I ... uhhhh ... "

Hannah shook her head sadly. "Harry. I've never ... you know. And the one of the big things I've been worried about was that if I did, the guy would rollover and leave to find the next girl to do it with. I don't want to be a notch on some guy's broomstick ... and yes, I've heard about that."

Harry blinked. "But I love her. She knows that."

"But even though Madame Pomfrey has assured you that there's no risk, you're not taking any chances with her. Not taking the chance that you'll get stuck with her. That's what she thinks. No wonder she's been moody. She's waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Harry stared at Hannah. "What other shoe?"

Hannah rolled her eyes. "She's waiting for you to break up with her."

Harry's eyes widened. "What! I'd never do that!"

Hannah tilted her head. "You told her that. So now show her."

Harry's face reflected his confusion.

Hannah leaned forward. "What did you say you told her just before you came here?"

"I told her I loved her. That I didn't love Hermione."

Hannah shook her head. "No. You told her that if she didn't believe you, to break up with you, to walk away. And you just admitted she found you with your arms around Hermione. What's she supposed to think? You won't sleep with her despite assurances that it's safe. She finds you alone with your arms around the one girl she's jealous of. You tell her to trust you or break up, despite her finding you in a compromising position. And now you won't follow her when she's upset. You won't reassure her. Of course she's angry. More than angry. She's in a panic. So go to her. Reassure her. I don't care if you've tried and failed once tonight, or a dozen times. Go to her now!" she whispered urgently

Harry's eyes were wide now. "Oh, God. I'm such a git," he said in a panic. He made to rise and then looked at Hannah. "Will you be all right?"

Hannah rolled her eyes. "Oh, Harry. Get the hell out of here before she throws herself off the Astronomy Tower ... or finds someone new up there."

Harry left the Three Broomsticks on a dead run.

* * *

Parvati was in near hysterics as she walked back to the Castle. She had walked very slowly and then stopped and waited for about ten minutes, hoping ... expecting that Harry would come chasing after her. But when it became clear he wasn't going to come after her contritely, her fury rose to a peak, then dissolved into panic.

She stayed well on the side of the road and put the hood of her cloak up to keep as anonymous as possible. But she couldn't help the flow of tears. She knew she was losing Harry, if he wasn't lost already. She didn't know what to do or to say.

She was walking blindly. She would like to talk to Lavender, or to Padma, but they were both in Hogsmeade with Seamus and Ron, and she wasn't going back to the Three Broomsticks where Harry was. So she would just go back to Gryffindor Tower and wait and cry.

Then Parvati saw her. Hermione. The source of her anguish.

Hermione was strolling toward Hogsmeade, looking glum, with her arm around Terry Boot's waist. They looked lost in thought.

Parvati stopped and threw her hood back, glaring angrily at the couple as they approached.

"Well, you're getting around quite a bit tonight, you bitch!" Parvati screamed as Hermione looked up at her.

Hermione jumped a little, startled. "What?!?"

"You heard me, you little slut. I saw you snogging with Harry. Now you're with Terry. Who's next? Ron again? Seamus?"

Suddenly, Hermione bristled. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about Patil, but wasn't snogging Harry or Ron or anyone. Except Terry. And I got into all kinds of trouble for that. But I don't care. I like him and I won't let you talk to us like that!"

Parvati narrowed her eyes. "I saw you with your arms around him when the rest of us were at supper. I know you two are sneaking around behind my back!"

Hermione stepped forward and slapped the taller girl across the face. "How dare you! How dare you! I've had enough of you! I've had it with your yelling and your tantrums!"

Parvati raised her hand to slap Hermione, but the smaller girl beat her to it and slapped Parvati again. "Stop it! Just stop it! Do you hear me! Stop it!" Hermione screamed.

Terry was watching all this goggle-eyed. "What? What? What's going on?" he sputtered.

But Parvati suddenly faltered and sank to her knees. "I saw you ... I saw ... " she whimpered.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Hermione said angrily, but in a lower tone.

"You had your arms around him. Around my Harry. You're trying to take him away from me. You've always hated me because of Harry ... " she sobbed.

Hermione looked down at the hysterical girl at her feet. She had a sudden impulse to give Parvati a kick, but it faded quickly. Looking down at Parvati, Hermione finally spoke. "Parvati! What they hell are you talking about?"

Parvati continued to kneel in the dirt. "I saw you ... in the common room tonight. He had his arms around you and was rubbing your back. And he was smiling," she said through her sobs.

"In the common room? Tonight? Yes, you saw us. Terry and I had just been banned from the library, you stupid twit. And Harry promised to talk to Madame Pince about us. About getting her to reconsider. Of course I was hugging him--I was grateful. He's the best friend I've ever had. And probably the best friend you'll ever have, you stupid bitch. Now where is he? What did you do to him? Broke his heart, no doubt. He deserves better than that," she said harshly.

Parvati's shoulders were heaving in grief. "He's back there ... " she said between sobs. "He didn't ... he didn't come and get me ... he didn't follow me ... "

Terry shuffled uncomfortably. "I can go get him ... " he said uncertainly.

Parvati, shook her head as she faced the ground. "It's too late ... if he won't come on his own ... I ... I hurt him ... one too many times ... "

Hermione shook her head. "Oh, for Merlin's sake. Get up," she commanded, grabbing Parvati's left arm and motioning Terry to grab Parvati's right arm. "Come on, you stupid girl. You'll ruin your robe, rolling around in the dirt," she said with exasperation.

Parvati let herself be coaxed up. "You weren't snogging?" she said in a tiny voice.

Hermione shook her head in annoyance. "No, Parvati. Terry and I are a couple, aren't we, Terry," she said looking up at the confused boy.

He looked blankly, then smiled. "Yeah ... yes," he said with sudden enthusiasm.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "So, Parvati. You want to go back to the castle?"

Parvati nodded miserably. "He ... he tried to explain ... but I didn't believe ... he never lied to me before ... but I didn't believe him," she whimpered.

Hermione sighed. "Harry wouldn't lie to you, you ditz. Don't you know that by now? He's got this exaggerated sense of honor that managed to crowd out any sense of tact. He'll think nothing of pinching some Potions' ingredients or sneaking around the castle after hours, but God help him if he should ever tell a fib. Like he thinks that if he told a lie, lightning would strike him down or something."

Parvati simply nodded. "I ... know. But I didn't think. I was so scared."

Hermione, who was struggling to find the proper grip on Parvati's arm to guide her back to the castle, looked up into the taller girl's face. "Scared of what?" she asked quietly.

Parvati rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Of you."

It was Hermione's turn to blink. "Of me?"

Parvati nodded miserably.

Hermione shook her head. "He doesn't love me. I know that. Don't worry. And I don't love him. Not like that," she said, glancing over to Terry, who was listening intently with a confused expression. She gave a slight shake of her head. "Terry and I are together, now," she said firmly and saw Terry's expression suddenly light up again. He opened his mouth to say something, but Hermione gave a sharp shake of her head and Terry's mouth snapped shut.

Parvati continued to walk, head down, flanked by the couple. "Now I've lost him for good. And he said he'd like to marry me someday," she said absently and the tears began to flow again.

Hermione started. "He told you that?"

Parvati nodded jerkily as she sobbed.

Hermione sighed. "If he felt that strongly about you, maybe he'll come back. What did you do to him?"

"I yelled at him."

"And ... ?" Hermione asked.

"Well, he came running after me, and tried to explain and make up," Parvati said through her tears. "Then we went to the Three Broomsticks and I yelled at him again. I told him to ... well to stay away from you. But he said he wouldn't stop being your friend for me," she said, hanging her head in shame.

Hermione closed her eyes in sorrow. Harry was a true friend. 'To bad ... ' she thought, but decided not to think about it.

"Looks like you have a lot of fences to mend," Hermione said.

Parvati shook her head. "It's too late ... too late ... "

Suddenly they heard someone call Parvati's name being called in the distance. Hermione turned to see Harry sprinting toward them from the direction of Hogsmeade.

"Parvatiiii!" came the breathless cry.

Parvati suddenly turned and felt her knees go weak again. Hermione gripped Parvati's arm and Terry, on the other side, nearly toppled before regaining support of Parvati. Suddenly, Harry was there, grabbing Parvati in his arms and hugging her tightly. "Oh, Parvati. I'm such a troll. I don't know what I was thinking. I'm so sorry."

Parvati wrapped her arms around him. "No!! It's my fault! I'm such a bitch! I don't deserve you, Harry!" she cried through her tears.

Hermione stepped back and walked next to Terry, who watched in amazement as Harry swung Parvati around and around.

Terry, confused as to what to do, began to back away, but Hermione pulled him back. Parvati, who had closed her eyes tightly in joy and relief, slowly opened them to see Hermione there. "Thank you," she whispered in Hermione's direction.

Hermione nodded, as Harry turned to face the other couple as well.

Hermione took a deep breath. "If you two need the dorm tonight, that's okay. I'll tell Lavender and talk to Angelina, There's a couple spare beds up with the seventh years. I'm sure they'll understand."

Parvati looked anxiously up at Harry, who smiled. She turned back to her dorm mate. "Thanks, Hermione. You're a real friend."

Terry was now looking goggle-eyed at Hermione. "Oh shut up and take me to Hogsmeade," she said, grabbing Terry by the arm and leading him away.

Parvati looked at Harry. "Oh, Harry, I'm so sorry."

Harry shook his head. "No. I've been a jerk. Hannah explained ... "

"Hannah?" Parvati squeaked in an anxious voice.

Harry smiled at Parvati. "She sat down with me after you left. I told her about us and she practically kicked me out of the Three Broomsticks to chase you down."

"She did that ... for me ... for us?"

Harry nodded. "I remember you telling me she was pretty and sweet and loyal. But you left out one thing: Wise. She's real friend, Parvati. To both of us."

Parvati closed her eyes and took a deep breath and leaned against Harry. He wrapped his arms around her warmly, rocking her gently. "I love you, you know," he said softly.

Parvati nodded against his chest. "Want to come to my place?" she asked softly.

"Mmmm hmmm," he murmured in assent.

It was several minutes before they broke their embrace and slowly walked back to the castle, their arms around each others' waists as if they'd never let each other go.

* * *

Lucius peered over he high weeds in the early morning gloom, a surprisingly gentle North Sea breeze blowing his long, silver blond hair across his face. He turned expectantly toward his master and nodded. Voldemort tilted his head in assent. Lucius then gave a hand signal, and a dozen new Death Eaters rose and fired stunning and cutting curses at the four Aurors in the guardhouse. The Aurors never had a chance. Lucius then walked past his people and casually administered the killing curse to the four disabled Aurors.

Voldemort then conjured up three of the crystal bubbles from his Death Eater party, brought them to his nearly nonexistent lips, and whispered a lengthy incantation. He then released them into the air and watched them drift slowly across the water to their ultimate destination: Azkaban.

* * *

The dementor nearest the entrance to Azkaban Prison sensed it first. But soon, more dementors noticed the powerful magic that approached over the water. It had a strange attraction to the foul creatures. Slowly, they drifted toward the entrance.

Soon, the crystals that had attracted all the dementors of Azkaban crossed over the rocky shoreline and drifted in front of the assembled group. Then the first crystal popped. A wave of emotions washed over the dementors, emotions generated by 72 drunken revelers from the party preceding the marking of the new Death Eaters.

The dementors seemed transfixed as wave after wave of emotions flowed over them. Then another crystal popped, and a new series of emotions fed the hungry dementors. After nearly 20 minutes, the third crystal popped and a message accompanied the fresh set of emotions and a message. The message was simple: "Join me and more will come."

The dementors wavered but, intoxicated from feeding on fresh emotion, they slowly drifted down to the shoreline and passed over the water to their new master: Voldemort.

* * *

Even in their shielded muster room, the Aurors guarding Azkaban sensed the disappearance of the dementors. Two, then four Aurors ventured out into the halls of Azkaban. They immediately realized there was a problem as there was no oppressive sense that dementors brought to all who came near.

Emergency owls were immediately dispatched to a small Auror station hidden away in a corner of one of the Orkneys, and to Glasgow, and to the Ministry. But the first curses that struck down the Azkaban Aurors showed that reinforcements would be too late. Nearly 50 Death Eaters--mostly newly marked--invaded the Prison, blasting every Auror in sight. The Aurors were overwhelmed and killed to a man within minutes.

Lucius led the group of Death Eaters down four levels to the highest security section of Azkaban, where he proceeded to locate and free the ten most notorious Death Eaters from Voldemort's first reign, including Antonin Dolohov, Algernon Rookwood, and Rodolphus, Rastaban and Bellatrix LeStrange. In addition, Lucius found three of his compatriots from the Battle of the Forbidden Forest: Walden Macnair; Hugh Nott; and Esau Avery, and nearly 20 Death Eaters who were rounded up in the wake of Peter Pettigrew's confessions and his naming of names after his capture in the wake of the Battle of the Forbidden Forest.

Lucius stared in consternation. Where was Pettigrew? And where were the senior Crabbe and Goyle? Then he sensed his master behind him.

"Where is Wormtail!!!" Voldemort screamed. "I want Wormtail!!!"

Lucius could feel a wave of pain strike him from the undirected fury of his master. "I will continue to search, Master," he managed to gasp out.

Lucius traveled up to the third subterranean level. As he heard the screaming pleas of prisoners begging for release, he would occasionally throw a Crucio or Avada Kedavra curse just out of exasperation and anger at the miserable wretches waving their arms out of the barred doors in supplication.

Not having found Pettigrew, he traveled up to the second level, then the first. He was about to cast another random killing curse at a prisoner when he heard a desperate voice call out: "I want to join him! I'm a Potions Master!"

Lucius paused and turned around. He saw a desperate face of what was doubtless a stocky man before he arrived here. Now, the man's skin looked sallow and sagged, and there were deep bags under the man's eyes. "I will do anything to get out of here! I will follow him! I can help!"

Lucius sneered. "What are you doing here, Potions Master?" Lucius asked sarcastically.

The man closed his eyes with a pained expression. "I was accused of theft," he said with resignation. His eyes suddenly opened. "I'm innocent!"

Lucius snorted. "Aren't we all."

The man blinked in desperation. "I know everyone who purchases potions ingredients in England! I know who dabbles in the Dark! I can lead you to new recruits."

"Who are you, Potions Master?" Lucius asked, now intrigued.

The man grasped the bars on his cell door. "I am Sebastian Sweet. I was general manager of Patil Imports."

Lucius gave the man a small smile. "Alohamora!" Lucius called out. "Welcome, Potions Master."

Sebastian Sweet stepped out of his cell for the first time in two months, a free man. Or as free as any man can be while serving the Dark Lord.


Author notes: Well, this chapter came out a little quicker than the past few. And this despite the fact that I am now also in the process of writing another, unrelated novel on Schnoogle called The Spoils of War. That one is completely different from my Dance series. I never thought I'd ever write a Harry/Bellatrix/Narcissa/Hermione fic. If you get a chance, give it a try.

A brief word of warning: The next chapter has not been written yet, althougha few scenes are in place. I've got it all mapped out in my head, but it may take a few weeks. I'm sorry that I'm not the fastest writer. And I promise that my other fics are not cutting into my writing for this one very much at all. It's just nice to go back and forth between two stories--when one starts to falter, I can go to the other.

I really do appreciate your reviews. One thing I noticed from the last chapter were some of the comments on Fudge's machinations. Let me say this about my take on Fudge: He's no fool. You don't get to where he is by being a dope, especially in the political world, which seems to draw sharks like blood in the water. And many of the seemingly foolish moves he's made in canon begin to make sense when you see them as part of a larger plot on his part. I believe there's more under that silly bowler hat of his than just his hair.

Thanks for your reviews and I hope you like this chapter.