The End of the Beginning

Chapter 43

Harry found it supremely ironic that for all those years people thought there was something between him and Hermione, now that there actually was something going on between them nobody seemed to notice or care.

Granted, their friends weren't exactly going around telling everyone and Harry and Hermione both were keeping any displays of affection private. He knew Hermione wasn't ready yet for everything that came with being a couple, so the only differences between their friendship from before and now were the good night kisses.

Two weeks went by with the most exciting thing happening being Peeves letting loose a horde of snakes during a Herbology lesson, creating a brief stampede of first years. Harry was sitting next to Hermione during lunch hour when Neville took a seat opposite him.

"Afternoon, Harry."

"'lo Neville." The man sitting opposite Harry was barely recognizable from the shy and nervous boy he had shared a dorm with for six years. "Sorry I haven't made it up to Gryffindor tower much."

"It's alright Harry, I know you have a lot on your plate." Neville looked at Hermione and then back to Harry. "Though I was actually wanting to ask you a favor, if you could spare the time?"

"Sure, what's up?"

"Can you help me with my dancing? The Winter Ball is next week and I'd rather not be stepping on Hannah's feet."

Harry choked on his drink. "Me? Help you with dancing?"

"Oh come on Harry. You were dancing just fine at your Head Boy party." Hermione didn't even look up from the Daily Prophet.

Harry felt himself blush. "Still, I'm not exactly someone who could teach it…"

"Well since Harry insists on being insufferably unsure of himself, then I'll help you Neville." Hermione put her paper down and smiled.

"Thanks Hermione and she's right you know." Neville turned to Harry who kept his gaze focused on pushing his food around his plate. "Well, I'll see you guys around. Just send your patronus later to let me know what you need me to do Hermione."

"Will do Neville. See you."

Harry looked up and watched Neville rejoin Hannah. He could feel Hermione's eyes on him and turned to see a look he'd seen a thousand times before. "I'm guessing this is where you tell me something about how I shouldn't be so hard on myself or the like?"

"It would be nice if you at least could see how talented you are." Hermione sighed.

"At what? Dancing?"

"You're just talented Harry. Think about it, how often is it you try something and you're rubbish at it?"

"I'm pretty rubbish at potions…."

"That's only because you don't apply yourself."

"I'm terrible with girls."

"Well, there is that, though I suppose you won't need to worry about that anymore."

Hermione was so matter of fact and so very Hermione-ish about it that Harry had to smile.

"What?" she gave him a perplexed look.

"Don't ever change." Harry laughed. He took a look around the Great Hall. Hagrid caught his eye, leaning down to have a conversation with Professor Sprout, holding his beard to keep it from tangling in her wild hair. Slughorn was seated between a couple of Ravenclaws, blathering on about some former student. Harry's gaze landed on Malfoy, seated alone at the end of the Slytherin table.

"It's kinda sad, even with him playing so well in quidditch he still sits all alone."

Harry turned to stare at Hermione. He wasn't sure what was stranger: her noticing Malfoy's quidditch play or her feeling sorry for him. Feeling Harry's eyes, she turned back towards him. "What? It is sad. Malfoy has been a rotten apple most of his life, but nobody deserves that."

"Since when have you cared about Malfoy?"

"Harry, the war is over. Old grudges are precisely the kinds of things that make wars inevitable in the first place. Yes, Malfoy was a terrible person, but this a chance for people to start over."

"Hermione you can't expect…."

"I'm not asking you to be his best mate, but we could at least reach out to him. How would you feel if you were in his shoes? And before you say that you have been, remember that you always had Ron and I. He has nobody."

Harry looked again at Malfoy. While the burning hatred he once felt had subsided, it wasn't replaced by anything resembling good feelings either.

"Just think about it Harry." Hermione reached down and grabbed her bag. "I'll catch up with you in Herbology, I'm going to go put some finishing touches on my Potions essay for tomorrow."

Harry's mind flashed back to the Ball and something he had thought about when Neville had brought it up. "Hey, before you go, will you go to the Winter Ball with me?"

Hermione blushed, "I…of course Harry. I'd love to go with you."

"Terrific. I'll see you at Herbology then."

"Yeah, see you." Hermione turned and walked away, passing Ron and Aubrey on her way out. Ron took a seat next to Harry.

"Just where have you been?" Harry asked Ron, then, noticing his disheveled hair and Aubrey adjusting her robes, "Nevermind."

Ron laughed, "So what's got 'Mione all flustered? She looked as red as my hair."

"I'll bet a certain someone asked her to the Winter Ball." Aubrey reached across Ron for some treacle tart.

"What would he need to do that for? She's his girl now, isn't that kinda obvious?"

"It's a lovely romantic gesture Ron." Aubrey rolled her eyes in Harry's direction. "So, am I right?"

"Yes."

"Smashing." Aubrey turned back to her treacle tart.

"We're still throwing the after party right?" Ron asked, his mouth fit to explode. Aubrey rolled her eyes again. "Room of Requirement at midnight?"

"Yeah, Hermione and I checked and it still works."

"Great. I'll have to get with George and see if we can't sneak in some of his stuff."

"You're a Prefect Ron!" Aubrey elbowed him.

"And? You're a Prefect too and you didn't seem to mind…."

"Shhhh not so loud Ronald." Aubrey turned scarlet.

"Well I'll catch you guys later." Harry grinned and picked up his bag. He was a couple of steps from the front door when he looked again at Malfoy. Taking a deep breath, he walked passed the door to where Malfoy was seated.

"Potter." Malfoy didn't look up.

"Hey…" Harry took another deep breath, "Listen we're having an after party after the Winter Ball. It's in the Room of Requirement at midnight."

Malfoy froze for a moment before pouring some more water into his cup. "And you're telling me this why? To rub it in my face?"

"I'm telling you because you're invited." Harry forced himself not to grit his teeth. Malfoy looked up and couldn't hide the surprise on his face. "You know…if you wanted to come."

Harry and Malfoy looked at each other for a long time. Malfoy seemed to be trying to find the catch.

"Alright." Malfoy looked back down at his plate and Harry recognized his dismissal. Turning back towards the door, Harry noticed that Ron was staring Malfoy down and even Neville was trying to be surreptitious about watching out of the corner of his eye. They had both slipped their hands to their wands.

"Wait." Malfoy's voice made Harry stop and turn around. "Thanks, Potter."

Malfoy hadn't looked up and hastily leaned below the table to reach into his bag for something, but he had said it. Harry stood stunned for a full second before finally making his way out of the Great Hall.

It had grated against everything inside of him, but maybe Hermione was right. The more Harry thought about it, the more he thought of Sirius and Snape. How two grown men had still hated each other mostly because of an old grudge from their Hogwarts days. It seemed frivolous now.

Maybe there was a second chance for him and Malfoy after all.

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