The Sugar Quill
Author: Wotan (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Awakenings  Chapter: default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Hermione lay looking up at the canopy above her bed. It was three o'clock in the morning and she couldn't sleep. No point fighting it, do something useful she decided. She hauled herself out of bed and slipped into a dressing gown and her favourite, warm, fluffy slippers. She was alone in the room. It was January and nearly the end of the Christmas holidays. As she often did, she had stayed at Hogwarts with Harry, Ron and Ginny. Soon there would again be five girls in here, but for now she relished the peace of having the room to herself.

She paddled over to a desk and sat down in front of her carefully arranged books. She had, of course, long since completed the assigned holiday work - why do they call it a holiday she wondered - and was now working on extra essays and research. She would present Muggles and the Occult to McGonagall at the start of term and see what she thought of it. Hermione felt it was a good piece of work, but she needed the reassurance of another to convince her.

After half-an-hour poring over Medieval Muggle Occult Practices, her eyes started to tire and her attention wandered - to a magazine lying on the floor, near the wall. BeWitch - one of Lavender's, had to be. Idle curiosity made her pick it up and scan the cover, incredulously. 'Wizard Wants - what Wizards really want from a Witch!' 'Transfiguration - the New You!' 'Charming! How to spot a slob!' Long on exclamation marks she noted. And lurid lip gloss. Why would any girl want to put herself out like that for a boy? She flushed slightly - it wasn't as if she didn't like boys, well the two she knew anyway, but she had no intention of pandering to them. Except on special occasions, maybe. If they don't like me the way I am, tough. And anyway they were her friends, not her boyfriends.

Yawning and sleepy now, she went back to her bed, carrying the magazine - just for background reading, she told herself. Then she stopped. And stared. How did the magazine get there? After Lavender and the rest had left for the holidays, she had tidied the room up. And she'd put all the stuff they'd left behind onto their desks. The magazine hadn't been on the floor earlier. Had it? It must have been. She sighed. It was late. A flick of her wand put the light out. She clambered into bed and slid down under the duvet. She kicked it up, wriggled her toes and let the duvet settle gently on her. It was a nice, warm, secure feeling. Stupid magazine. It must have been there. Her eyes closed and sleep crept up.

A tapping sound woke her. It was still dark, still not four o'clock. The tapping was coming from the door. It was slow, rhythmical and getting softer. She put the light on and listened, heart thumping, as the sound gradually died away. A scratching started, loud at first, then quieter. And then the iron ring that served as a door handle started to move, slowly, slowly. Somebody was trying to open the door. Her heart went into overdrive and she aimed her wand. The ring moved slowly forward and then … it inched equally slowly backwards. Then - nothing. She wanted to run to the door and fling it open and look down the corridor, but didn't dare. She sat there with the light on, shivering, her wand pointed at the door. Every little noise terrified her. It was five o'clock before exhaustion overcame her and she fell asleep.

She awoke to a sun-filled room. Memories of the night returned, but somehow they seemed trivial. It must have been a dream, a silly dream. She turned to her new alarm clock. Heavens, ten o'clock! Breakfast was over. She grinned at the sight of the clock. It had been a Christmas present from Harry. And it really was an alarm clock. If you didn't wake up as soon as the alarm sounded, it clambered over onto the pillow and started screaming 'Wake up, wake up, alarm, alarm', right into your ear. As she'd found out on Boxing Day!

Alongside the clock stood a small model dragon. If you pressed its nose, it glowed for a while. Ron's present. Utterly pointless! And next to the dragon, a giant Chocolate Frog in a Santa Claus foil wrapper - to keep the dragon company, Ron had said. I promise not to eat it, she'd told him. And she hadn't. She reached out and picked the dragon up, sat it on her chest and pressed its nose. She lay there smiling at it, as it glowed a sickly green. Silly old Ron. Bet Lavender didn't get a dragon for Christmas!

Finally she got up. The light in the room was unusually brilliant and as she peered out of the window she saw why. It had snowed overnight - the grounds were blanketed in snow, and with the sun in a clear blue sky, the effect was literally dazzling. She washed, dressed in a favourite blouse and skirt and hurried downstairs.

In the common room she could see two pairs of legs stretching out from two chairs parked in front of the fire. One set sported a hideous pair of green and yellow woolly socks. One of Mrs Weasley's presents to Ron - jumpers seemed to be out of fashion at the moment. She flopped into the chair next to him.

"Morning sleepy-head" said the owner of the socks. It was Harry.

"Why are you wearing Ron's socks?" asked Hermione.

"They're mine now. We had a game of cards."

"And you won and took Ron's socks off him? That's horrid. Wait until I tell Mrs Weasley."

"I didn't win" said Harry, pulling a face. "I lost."

"Ron!" said Hermione. "How could you? Now I am going to tell your Mum." She sighed as they both grinned at her. "I don't suppose anybody saved me any brekkie?"

Ron smiled and, with a ta-dah, produced a toast and bacon sandwich.

"Ooh lovely, thanks" said Hermione, holding out her hand.

"There are conditions."

"Ron, I'm hungry."

"Number one - you come outside and throw snowballs with us."

"Please, I'm starving."

"Number two" said Harry, "you don't do any work today."

"And number three" said Ron … "what was three, Harry?"

"We couldn't agree. But either way it was painful."

"Gimme!"

Ron handed the sandwich over. "Thanks" said Hermione, smiling at him. She was touched he'd bothered to bring her something.

The portrait hole opened and Ginny came in, her cheeks glowing. She was carrying a bunch of snowdrops.

"I rescued these" she announced. Ron and Harry pulled faces.

"I hope you're not going to make the common room all girly" said Harry, winking at Ron.

"I am" said Ginny, taking a vase off a table. She arranged the flowers in it, brought it over to where they were sitting and stood it on the mantelpiece. "That's better" said Ginny, sticking her tongue out at Harry.

"What's it like outside?" asked Harry, picking up a Quidditch magazine.

"It's wonderful. The snow is ever so deep" replied Ginny.

"Great" said Harry. "I love snow."

Ginny stepped towards him. "I thought so. That's why I brought you this ..."

Harry looked up, puzzled. Ginny reached inside her cloak, whipped out a snowball and plonked it down on his head. Harry shot up, brushing snow everywhere. Ginny squealed with laughter and then raced across the room and out through the portrait hole, as Harry roared and dashed after her.

Ron fell about laughing. Hermione tutted, produced her wand and, with the aid of a Gathering charm, collected all the snow back into a snowball. Then a smile came across her face. She bounced the snowball up and down in her hand and looked at Ron.

"Don't even think about it" said Ron, lazily.

"What?" giggled Hermione.

"You know."

"Me?" said Hermione, innocently. "Now would I do something like that?" She put her head on one side and looked at him. Ron stared back, grinning. Hermione tried to hold his eyes, but for some reason she suddenly felt embarrassed. She looked away, threw the snowball onto the fire and watched as it hissed and turned slowly to steam.

"Smart move" said Ron. He stepped forward and punched her gently on the arm.

Hermione turned and smiled, hesitantly.

"Come on" said Ron, "let's go and find them."

"Promise you won't all pick on me. I always seem to end up covered in snow at Christmas."

"Of course you won't. If they gang up on you, I'll be on your side. We can ambush them. I haven't turned Gin into a snowman for a while!"

"All right" said Hermione. "But I'm not going out there in a skirt. I'll have to change. Catch you up."

"Okay, don't be long." He grinned and hurried off.

Hermione walked slowly up the stairs, into her room and sat on the bed. Crookshanks climbed onto her lap and started purring. She stroked him as she stared into space. Why hadn't she been able to hold Ron's eyes? If was not as if ... she felt a tingling in her legs. Don't be silly, she told herself.

She pushed Crookshanks off, jumped up and changed into a pair of jeans. Then she pulled on her boots and found a short, but warm woollen coat. Winding a scarf around her neck, she started towards the door … then she stopped. Lying on the floor, near the wall again, was Lavender's magazine. 'I moved that', she said out loud to the room. It was on my bedside table - she turned, but it wasn't there now. The events of the night resurfaced in her mind.

Feeling silly and a little uneasy, she edged towards the magazine. The same cover headlines, the same pictures, it was the same magazine. She stared at it. Then she picked it up, walked over to her desk and put it in a drawer. Crookie - it must have been, he must have been worrying it. He was lying on a chair, giving her his annoyed look, his why-aren't-you-making-a-fuss-of-me look. She smiled and went over and petted him for a minute or two. Then she hurried off.

It was a winter wonderland outside. The air was so clear, she felt she could see for a hundred miles. Every sense seemed magnified and she felt exhilarated by the beauty and sharpness of it all. Tracks in the snow told her which way to go and she soon found everybody. Ron and Harry were pelting Ginny with snowballs and Ginny was turning quite white. Hermione shouted to them. They turned and grinned at her - and then all three began to throw snowballs at her. Hermione ducked and dodged and tried to return fire but with three of them attacking it was hopeless and soon she began to resemble a snowman too.

"This isn't fair" spluttered Hermione.

"That's the point" shouted Harry, hurling another snowball, accurately.

Hermione started to back away and was about to flee, when Ron ran over and started knocking snowballs down. Harry and Ginny joined forces and began to aim at Ron, so Hermione started throwing at Ginny. The battle raged, but a lot more evenly. Now that somebody was on her side, Hermione began to enjoy herself. It was fun, when you weren't on your own! She scored three direct hits on Ginny and a couple on Harry. Ron managed to punch down most of the ones thrown at her, but took a lot of hits himself as a result.

"I'm whacked" shouted Ron suddenly, and he flopped back into the snow, too wet to care any more.

"Me too" said Hermione. She sank down beside Ron.

"We win! We win!" shouted Ginny gleefully, jumping up and down. She threw a final snowball at Ron, giggling as it hit him on the side of the head.

"Now what?" said Harry, trying to brush himself down.

"Sledding" declared Ginny. She whipped out her wand, closed her eyes, and waved the wand about. A genuine Hogwarts' chipped tea-tray materialised. Perfect for sliding down snowy hillsides! Ginny caught it and looked inquiringly at Harry.

"Okay" he said, laughing.

"Are you coming?" shouted Ginny to Ron and Hermione.

"Not me" said Ron and Hermione simultaneously. They turned and grinned at one another, and then watched as Harry and Ginny marched up the hill.

"What's Ginny doing?" asked Ron, squinting against the sun.

"Trying to push a snowball down the back of Harry's neck."

"Odd."

"Not really" said Hermione.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing" said Hermione, trying hard not to laugh.

Ron looked puzzled and started to speak, but Hermione interrupted.

"Sitting in the snow getting wetter is not a good idea" she declared, in a voice that laid to rest alternate schools-of-thought on the matter. "There's a bench over that way, let's find it."

Ron followed obediently and they kicked their way through the snow, trying to remember where the path was. They found the bench in a couple of minutes. Ron wiped the snow away and they collapsed onto it.

"I'm soaked - and freezing" said Hermione. "How on earth are we going to get warmed up?"

"This from the girl whose speciality is portable fires" said Ron, rolling his eyes heavenwards.

"Oh, yes, I forgot" giggled Hermione. She conjured up several fires and arranged them around the bench.

"That's better" said Ron, warming his hands over a floating fire Hermione had set between them.

"Isn't it" said Hermione, holding her hands near, but not too near, to Ron's.

"It was fun though" said Ron, "but I suppose Gin will go on all day about how she and Harry beat us. Still we didn't do too bad ... considering."

"Considering what?" asked Hermione.

"Considering you can't throw for toffee" said Ron, putting his hands up to his face in mock surrender.

"Well thank-you."

"You weren't a total loss" continued Ron, oblivious to Hermione's carefully assumed hurt-face. "I mean not like Lavender or Parvati would have been. They'd have been moaning about their hair or their nails or their lip polish or something."

"Lip gloss."

"That too" said Ron, chuckling. "At least you're not all girly like that. You've too much sense to worry about what your hair looks like. Lavender was moaning at me and Harry on the last day of term, just because we didn't notice she'd put her hair into a pony-tail."

"I think she put it from a pony-tail into braids" said Hermione, smiling. She patted unconsciously at her own hair.

"Whatever. Why do girls worry about such stuff? Mad. I'm keeping well clear of that sort."

"What's your sort?" asked Hermione, wondering how he'd react.

"I don't know. Just normal" said Ron breezily. There wasn't a hint of the embarrassment she'd expected.

"Normal?"

"Right, but I don't think there are any normal girls in Gryffindor. Apart from you and Gin of course. And you don't count."

"I suppose not" said Hermione, wondering why she cared so much about this last declaration. She bit her lip and looked down at the ground. They sat in silence for a while, warming up.

"What do you want to do?" asked Ron, finally. "Sledding or back to the castle?"

"The castle for me."

"Okay. But let's take the long way back - I want to see if the lake is frozen."

"All right, it'll be a lovely walk, it should be beautiful under the trees." She put out the fires. Ron stood, and then held out his hand. Hermione took it and let him pull her up.

"Your hand's freezing" said Ron.

"I know, I'm a wimp when it comes to the Great Outdoors."

"Here" said Ron. He pushed her hands together and then took them in his and rubbed vigorously. Hermione felt her hands getting warmer. And, unaccountably, her cheeks were getting warmer too. She looked up at Ron, realising for the first time how much he'd grown. He towered over her and was no longer the gangling youth of last year. He grinned lop-sidedly at her.

"Okay?"

"Yes, thanks" said Hermione. "I can put my gloves on now we've stopped throwing snowballs."

"Have we?" asked Ron, a twinkle in his eyes.

"Yes" said Hermione, emphatically.

"All right, let's get going."

They walked along slowly, side-by-side, fighting their way through the snow, skirting around the deeper drifts. Ron fell headlong into one as he tried, and failed, to jump over a fallen tree. Hermione laughed and offered him her hand. Ron took it - and tried to pull her into the drift with him. He nearly succeeded but, just as Hermione was anticipating another soaking, he caught her eye, then let go and fell back into the snow. Hermione held her hand out again. Ron smiled, took it, and let her pull him up.

"Thanks" he said, bashfully. Then he grinned. "A quick look at the lake and then we'll go back. Race you."

He shot off. Hermione dashed after him and soon they arrived at the edge of the lake. It was frozen solid.

"Wow" said Ron. "Look at it. I could walk all the way across. I bet not many people have done that."

"No!" said Hermione. "Don't. It could break anywhere. It'd be stupid. You might drown."

"I don't suppose anybody would care" said Ron, shrugging. They stood in silence. And then, though she didn't know what made her say it, Hermione spoke.

"I'd care."

"Oh" said Ron. He turned away and stared out at the frozen lake. Hermione stood and fiddled with her gloves.

"Best get back, it's lunch time" said Ron, after a while. They walked towards the castle, not speaking, avoiding each other's eyes. Curious feelings were awakening in Hermione. She didn't understand them - and that worried her.

 

* * *

 

Lunch was a quiet affair. They were much too hungry to do other than feed ravenously. After eating their fill, they wandered back to the common room. Ron and Harry flopped down in the best chairs in front of the fire once more. Harry kicked off his shoes and plonked his feet on the edge of the hearth.

"Those really are horrid socks" said Ginny.

"Oh, I don't know" said Harry. "I think they're quite distinguished. I'm starting to like them. They're very warm." He wiggled his toes about.

"Well I know how I'm going to get warm" said Ginny. "A hot bath beckons."

"Good idea" said Hermione. "I think I may have a long hot shower. Come on, let's go up."

"See you later, presumably about tea-time, if Gin's normal baths are anything to go by" said Ron.

"Just because you don't appreciate the finer things in life" said Ginny, pulling a face. She and Hermione walked slowly up the stairs.

"How was the sledding?" asked Hermione.

"It was wonderful - once we'd got organised" said Ginny, stopping on the stairs.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, when we got to the top of the hill, Harry realised we only had one tea-tray, so he wanted me to conjure up another so we could slide down side-by-side. After a bit of thinking, and a little prompting, he worked out that he could get on behind me and we could whizz down together."

"So he had to put his arms round you?" said Hermione, smiling.

"Round my waist, he held onto me all the way down. He's very strong." She sighed longingly. "We went down six times - and I never did pluck up the courage to go by myself. In fact I was so nervous I had to keep wriggling up closer to him!"

Hermione shook her head. "Ginny, honestly, you're incorrigible, taking advantage of a poor defenceless boy like that! Especially Harry, I mean he's so ..."

"Hopeless with girls" giggled Ginny. "But very nice - I really like him." She bit her lip and blushed a little.

"I know" said Hermione. "It's not exactly been hard to tell. He needs somebody to look after him. I'm glad it's you." She reached out and hugged Ginny.

"How did you get on with my boring brother? I suppose he tried to snowball you to death or something?"

"No" said Hermione, "we had a lovely walk around the lake. He was quite the gentleman."

"Well, there's a first" said Ginny, linking arms with Hermione, as they continued up the stairs once more.

"What's he like? Away from school I mean. Is he nice? He doesn't seem to tease you as much as Fred and George."

"Not getting interested in him are we?" asked Ginny mischievously.

"No, certainly not, well, not like you and Harry, well not that I know, I mean I don't suppose Ron - and I don't really know if - no definitely not" said Hermione, very quickly. Then she turned pink.

"You do like him!" squealed Ginny.

"I didn't say that. I ... I don't know, to tell the truth. I've only known him as a friend ... but after this morning something feels different, I just don't know what it is."

"That's love" said Ginny, with the confident air of one who knew. "You never know what it is when it first hits you. I think it got me the first time I ever saw Harry - the day you three started school."

"You were too young then, surely?"

"Maybe, but the feeling has never gone away - and it's getting stronger. Sometimes I just start tingling if I see him. And some nights I can't sleep for thinking about him. It all seems very silly, but Mum tells me it's all very normal."

"Oh" said Hermione. She remembered the tingling she'd experienced. And she felt both embarrassed and unsure of herself, a situation unfamiliar to her. She and Ginny had reached the top of the long stairs. They separated and went towards their rooms.

"Hermione" called out Ginny.

"Yes?"

"Don't fight it."

In the common room, the objects of their affections talked Quidditch, munched sweets and flicked the wrappers at Ginny's flowers, oblivious to the events unfolding around them.

 

* * *

 

Hermione wandered back to her room after her shower, wrapped in just a towel. She pushed the door open and walked in. A cold chill shot through her and she froze, knowing instantly that something was wrong. She scanned the room - and saw it. The drawer to her desk was lying on the floor, her things scattered everywhere ... and the magazine was back in the same spot on the floor. She clutched nervously at the towel, pulling it tighter, wondering whether to run back to the bathroom, where Ginny was still ensconced in the bath. Was somebody in the room?

A movement caught her eye and she swivelled, heart hammering. Crookshanks stood on top of a wardrobe, his fur raised, his tail erect. He gave a plaintive miaow. That decided her - if there was still someone here, Crookie would have kept quiet. And she hated running away. She walked over to the wardrobe and, despite her shaking legs, stood on a chair and got Crookshanks down. She sat in a chair by the fire stroking him as he plucked at the towel. Both of them looked uneasily around the room.

"Who was it?" whispered Hermione to Crookshanks. "Who frightened you?"

Her mind was racing. Was somebody playing a stupid joke on her? It couldn't be Ginny. There were two first-year Gryffindors also stopping over Christmas, and she had spoken sharply to them a couple of days ago as they tried to turn each other into tortoises, but they wouldn't dare do anything like this. That left only Ron and Harry. Harry wouldn't. Which left Ron. But why? She hadn't done anything to offend him. And ... and Crookshanks wouldn't be frightened of him. Ron might not much like cats, but Crookshanks, lately, seemed to like Ron. She took a deep breath. So what was it? She sat for twenty minutes letting her legs and heart return to normal, whilst she tried to work out what was going on. Only one thing to do she decided.

She shooed Crookshanks off her lap, picked up her things and put the magazine back in the drawer. Then, with a practised flick of her wand, she triple-locked the drawer.

"Let's see you get it now" she announced to the room, turning slowly around, machine-gunning the walls and furniture with her eyes. She dressed and scurried downstairs, locking the room door behind her, something she wouldn't normally have dreamt of doing.

A single pair of legs sprawled in front of the fire. It was Ron. He looked around as she came in.

"Hi, where's Gin?"

"She's in the bath. Where's Harry?"

"Still? She'll shrink. He's gone to the broomsheds."

"He's not flying off somewhere is he?"

"No, it’s his turn to de-ice the cores" said Ron.

"De-what the what?"

"The core of the broom's tail, inside the twigs, the bits that make it fly" said Ron, grinning at her puzzled look. "If you get ice in the core, it pushes the tail out of alignment and you get tramp on tight turns. Firebolts are particularly susceptible. We've been taking turns to check and de-ice."

"Oh" said Hermione, realising she hadn't the faintest idea what he was on about. "Perhaps I need to look at mine."

"Already done, I've been checking yours, though Comets don't suffer that much from it."

"Thanks Ron, that was kind" said Hermione, smiling at him.

"Sit yourself down."

"I can't, I've got to go to the library."

"Not much point" said Ron.

"Why?"

"It's closed."

"What do you mean?" asked Hermione.

"It's shut, locked-up, not open."

"I don't understand."

"I'm not sure how I can put it any more clearly" said Ron, helplessly. "Madam Pince closed it about an hour ago - I went to get a Quidditch book and she said she'd decided to stock-take before the rest of the school gets back. She shut up shop after I got my book."

"She'll let me in" said Hermione, a determined look on her face.

"I wouldn’t bet on it."

Hermione looked at him, then hurried off. Ron sighed and flopped back in his chair. What was she doing? He shut his eyes and lay back in his chair, wondering if she was all right. He'd had an uneasy feeling about her last night and now he couldn't get her out of his mind. He'd known her all this time and finally he'd realised how little he truly knew her. Nice eyes, he told himself, really nice brown eyes. And a gentle face, with a smile to die for. A tingle ran through him and he felt embarrassed.

Harry came back in, stomping the snow from his boots. Ginny bounced down the stairs, looking very pink. They sat and talked about this and that, argued about whose turn it was to get the tea, plotted how to steal Hermione's homework for copying and ate far too many sweets. The afternoon drifted by.

"Tea-time" announced Harry.

"Hermione can't still be in the library" said Ginny.

"Think what you're saying" chuckled Harry.

"She'll miss tea."

"I'll wait for her" said Ron. "If she doesn't show soon, I'll drag her out."

Harry and Ginny left, trying to trip each other up. Ron glanced at the clock. The big-hand was on Tea-Time. I'll wait until the small-hand gets to Hurry-Up he thought, watching it, trying to see it move. He was about to head for the library when the portrait hole opened, and Hermione staggered in, a huge pile of books in her arms. Ron jumped up and ran over to her.

"Give me those" he said, taking the stack from her. "Blimey these weigh a ton, point me at a table quickly. How did you carry them?"

"I used a Levitation Charm, but I think it's wearing off."

"Do you need so many?"

"Madam Pince let me stay there while she began the stock-taking, but now the Library is definitely shut, so I had to bring everything I thought I might need."

"What do you need them for?"

"Nothing much" said Hermione, steering Ron to a table. He plonked the books down with a thud.

"That's an awful lot of nothing much."

"Well, you know" said Hermione, evasively.

"No, I don't know, but I do know something."

"What?" asked Hermione, hesitantly.

"I know that I woke up suddenly last night, feeling that something was wrong and that it involved you. Maybe I was dreaming, but ..."

They looked at one another. Hermione pursed her lips and wondered if she should say something.

"Tell me what's worrying you" said Ron.

"Nothing." She shrugged.

He put his hands on her shoulders. "You don't have to fight every battle by yourself, you do know that?"

Hermione nodded, and then looked down. Ron ran his hands slowly up and down her arms. Hermione looked up at him - and then they both turned pink.

"Let's eat" said Ron, awkwardly, hurriedly removing his hands.

Hermione followed him through the portrait hole, in a turmoil again. The tingling was back ...

 

* * *

 

The evening passed quickly. Hermione wanted to peruse her books, but she eventually agreed to play exploding snap with the others. For Chocolate Frogs. Ron won all hers. And then he gave her them back.

"You've bought me enough in the past" he said, shrugging.

"Thanks" said Hermione. She bit the head off one and then offered it to him.

"Ta" said Ron. They smiled happily at one another.

Harry and Ginny played on for a while and then they all sat about talking, planning what to do tomorrow. Hermione's mind was not on the discussion. The fire burnt low.

"I'm tired" said Ginny, finally. "I'm off to bed."

"Me too" said Harry.

"And me" said Hermione.

"If you can't beat them, join them" said Ron, glancing at Hermione. They trooped up their respective staircases. Hermione edged into her room and looked quickly at the floor. The magazine wasn't there and an inspection of her desk told her it had not been disturbed. She sighed with relief, undressed quickly, turned out the light and climbed into bed. Her wand was reassuringly close to hand on the bedside table.

Despite spending most of the evening pondering the matter, she was no closer to working out what was going on and so she didn't want to dwell on it. A good night's sleep, up early in the morning and do some research before breakfast, she told herself. She jumped as something landed on her feet and reached instantly for her wand, before realising it was Crookshanks.

"Silly boy" she said, sticking her toes up for him to pounce on. She played with him until both tired of it. Soon they were sound asleep.

It was dark and cold when Hermione woke. She realised it was still the middle of the night and she wondered why she'd woken. Then she heard it. A faint noise from the door. It was here again, trying to get into the room. She grabbed her wand and slid out of bed. Crookshanks looked up at her and then jumped off the bed and into his basket. He curled himself around and went back to sleep. She pulled her dressing gown on and tip-toed to the door. Her heart was hammering, but she had decided the 'known' was less frightening than the 'unknown'. Nonetheless she stood there for several minutes, her every sense straining as the sounds gradually died away. Her breathing was shallow and uneven.

Then, in a sudden flurry of action, she unlocked the door, flung it open and leapt into the corridor, wand at the ready. She froze. Slumped against the wall, wrapped in a cloak, sat Ron. He was asleep, making a very faint wheezing noise.

Anger flared in Hermione. A stupid bloody joke she thought. His, and no doubt Harry's, idea of fun. Before she could stop herself, she had kicked him.

Ron sat bolt upright. He looked around, saw Hermione and jumped up.

"What?" he said, "what's happening?"

"You know" said Hermione. "How dare you? How could you? And I thought ..." Her words tailed off. She glared at him, feeling angrier than she'd ever thought possible.

"What's happening?" repeated Ron, trying to rub sleep from his eyes.

"'Tell me what's worrying you Hermione'. 'You don't have to fight every battle by yourself Hermione'. You must have been laughing yourself silly. Did Harry put you up to this? I'm never going to speak to either of you, ever again."

"I don't know what you're on about" said Ron, now fully awake. He pulled out his wand and looked anxiously up and down the corridor.

"At least have the guts to admit it. Where's Harry hiding? Around the corner?" demanded Hermione, turning away from him. I thought you were on my side, she told herself, but I'm ... I'm alone, as I always am. She swallowed hard and then, before she could stop herself, she started to cry. She rubbed furiously at her eyes, but it was no use. He'd been so nice today and she'd thought ... she dropped her wand and buried her head in her hands.

"Is something the matter?" asked Ron.

Hermione looked up, then ran into her room, slamming the door behind her. She raced to the bed, threw herself face down and let the tears flow. A stupid joke, that's all it was, a stupid pathetic joke. But she knew that wasn't why she was crying. For a few brief hours she thought she'd found somebody special, somebody who would be on her side unconditionally, somebody who cared for her. She clutched at her pillow and sobbed uncontrollably.

There was a tapping on the door. "Hermione, can I come in?"

"No!" She rolled over to get her wand so she could lock the door - and then realised she didn't have it. "Go away" she shouted.

The door opened and Ron strode into the room. He was holding her wand. He shut the door softly and muttered something under his breath.

Hermione heard the lock click shut. She rubbed at her eyes, determined not to cry in front of him, determined not to give him that pleasure. He walked over and stood by the bed.

"I've no idea what I've done, but I'm sorry. I hate it when you cry, please don't."

"What makes you think I've been crying?"

"You look just like Gin does when she's not crying either."

"Why did you do it?" said Hermione, glaring at him.

"Sleep by your door? In case something went wrong. I know something happened last night and you were so evasive about it. I wanted to be here to ... to protect you. Was that so wrong?" He reddened.

"Protect me? I thought you were trying to ... do you mean it wasn't you making the noises last night ... you didn't move the magazine?"

"What magazine?" said Ron.

She realised she'd made a mistake. He'd camped outside her door because he was worried about her. She looked at him, biting her lip, wondering how she was going to apologise, but wondering most of all if what had happened today was still what she hoped it was. And then she remembered she wasn't wearing much, just a dressing gown that was falling open. She blushed, grabbed hurriedly at the collar and pulled it more tightly across. Ron tactfully looked away.

"Keep your back turned" said Hermione. She quickly pulled on a tee-shirt and a pair of jeans, embarrassment threatening to overwhelm her. Crookshanks was still sleeping peacefully - and now she knew why. He'd known it was Ron all along. She pulled her dressing gown on again, for warmth. "You can look now."

"It's freezing in that corridor" said Ron turning around, handing over her wand.

"Incendia" said Hermione, pointing her wand at the fireplace. The fire blazed into life and they sat down in front of it. Ron rubbed at his arms and then held his hands out to the heat.

"Do you want a cup of tea to warm you up?" asked Hermione.

"Please."

Hermione scurried about, using her wand to shortcut the tea-making process.

"Thanks" said Ron, taking a steaming mug from her. She sat down beside him, watching as he drank deeply. He finished the tea. Hermione refilled the mug with a flick of her wand.

"Now" said Ron, taking another mouthful of tea, "tell me what's going on."

Suddenly glad to have someone to confide in, Hermione blurted out all that had happened ... "And then I saw you there and I thought you were playing a silly joke on me. So I kicked you. And you know the rest."

"Ah" said Ron, rubbing at his leg, "I wondered why that was hurting."

"Oh Ron, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you, I just lost my temper, I - "

"Doesn't matter" said Ron, interrupting her. "As long as you're in one piece, that's all that's important."

Hermione blushed at these words. He did care, he was on her side.

"So what is this thing?" asked Ron.

"I don't know" said Hermione. "I need to check through the books I got."

"I'll help you. What have we got to go on?"

"Well, the most obvious thing is that - " She stopped dead and they both span around. The table was starting to shake. Pens and pencils rolled off it, a vase started to bounce towards the edge. A furious rattling began. They leapt to their feet.

"The drawer, it's after the magazine" said Hermione. "I locked it. It can't get in."

"Get behind me" said Ron, moving in front of her.

Hermione pulled him back. "If I'm behind you, Ron, I won’t be able to see what's going on. I need to know what it is if I'm going to ... to deal with it."

"I don't want you hurt."

"And I don’t want you hurt" said Hermione quickly. They looked stupidly at one another for a moment, then turned their attention back to the desk.

"I've got to unlock the drawer" said Hermione, stepping forward.

"No" said Ron, grabbing her wrist. "You don't know what it'll do."

"I don't need to get too close" said Hermione, trying to pull free from his grasp. "I can unlock it from ten feet away. Can you do a Muralis charm to block it?"

"No" said Ron, shaking his head. "I can blast it though, as soon as I see it."

"Don't blast it, unless it comes for us."

He nodded and let go of her wrist. They moved slowly forward. Hermione felt a chill run through her and had a momentary feeling of dread. The temperature in the room had dropped several degrees. She raised her wand and muttered the counter-charm. The lock clicked open and the next second the drawer shot out and fell to the floor. They watched open-mouthed as the magazine rose into the air and started to float towards the wall.

And then, faintly, just at the edge of visibility, Hermione saw a figure carrying the magazine. It drifted towards the wall and dropped the magazine. Hermione sprang forward.

"What do you want?" she asked tremulously.

The spectre mouthed something and then disappeared through the wall.

Ron and Hermione stood, silent. They felt the temperature rise. Ron was the first to speak. He was shaking.

"I know this is a stupid question, but what was it?"

"It's a very good question. It - she - was a girl. Younger than me."

"How do you know it was a girl?"

"Didn't you see her Ron? You must have."

"I didn't see anything."

"She was a girl - a Victorian girl."

"Victorian, how do you know?" asked Ron, wondering if the wobbling in his legs was going to stop.

"Her dress, her hair, she was Victorian. Are you sure you didn't see her?"

"Positive. But I could feel evil. Pure unvarnished evil. We need to do something, tell Dumbledore or somebody. You can't stay here."

"Ron, she wasn't evil. She was ... unhappy. I asked her what she wanted." Hermione let her words hang in the air.

"And?" said Ron.

"She said ... she said, she wanted to die."

"She's a ghost, she's already dead."

"Does it work that way?" asked Hermione.

"I don't know."

"Precisely. Ron, she wasn't evil, she was frightened, she was worried ... oh, I wish you'd seen her."

"I wish I'd blasted her. Hermione, I know evil when I smell it. We've got to tell Dumbledore."

"No" said Hermione. "I want to find out what's going on. Who is she? Why does she keep moving the magazine? And anyway we can't tell Dumbledore. He and McGonagall are away in London, so we'd have to tell Snape."

"Oh" said Ron, grimacing. The idea was not appealing - he'd probably be expelled for being in the girls' dormitories. "So what do we do?"

"Get some sleep. And in the morning I'll start reading. We've got enough clues."

"Okay" said Ron, "which bed am I having?" He looked around the room and pointed. "That one looks fine."

"Ron! You can’t sleep in Lavender's bed ... or Parvati's ... or anybody's."

"All right, I'll use your chair."

"You can’t sleep in here!"

"We'll go down to the common room then."

"No, don't be silly. You've got to go back to your room."

"You don't think I'm leaving you here alone, do you?" He pulled a pillow off Hermione's bed and tossed it onto the chair. "Got a spare blanket?"

Hermione didn't know what to do, but she realised Ron wasn't going away. And as she stood looking at him, she decided she didn't want him to. She found two blankets and put them on the chair.

"Thanks" said Ron, sinking into it. He wrapped himself in the blankets and then grinned at her.

Hermione smiled back hesitantly, still embarrassed at the thought of sharing a room with him.

"You'd better wake me up early in the morning and I'll sneak back to my room" said Ron.

"All right" said Hermione. Then she giggled to herself. "You can have my alarm clock." She set it for seven and put it alongside him.

After putting out the light she climbed, still fully dressed, into bed. Pulling the covers right up to her chin, she lay there staring at the ceiling. She knew she should be thinking about the girl, but all she could think about was Ron, who was now asleep not five feet from her. She reached out and pressed the nose of her dragon. The glow lit up Ron's face a little and she turned onto her side and gazed at him.

 

* * *

 

They woke as the alarm clock went off. Hermione pushed off the covers and sat on her bed, her arms around her knees. Ron kicked aside the blankets and sat on the arm of the chair.

"So" said Ron.

"So" echoed Hermione.

"Are you okay?"

"Fine. You?" said Hermione.

"Fine."

"You'd better get back to your room."

"I guess."

"Did you tell Harry what you were doing?"

"No. I was going to tell him this morning."

There was a short silence.

"It might be better if you didn't" said Hermione, hesitantly. "I mean, we don't know who she is, she might need help and Harry might be a bit, er, gung-ho and want to start zapping her."

"Like me" said Ron, quietly.

Hermione bit her lip. She'd hoped he'd forgotten about that. She swivelled round and sat on the edge of the bed. "It was a pretty natural reaction at the time. But, well, maybe we could just keep it between ourselves for now?" She had been thinking about this all night and she knew what she was asking of him. Uncertain, she looked down at her feet.

"All right ... just you and me" said Ron, slowly. Deep down he realised something had just changed, a line had been crossed. He and Harry normally shared everything - now he was sharing something only with Hermione. Harry was still a friend, but Hermione seemed to have become more than that.

"I'll look through my books to see if I can find anything. You keep Harry and Ginny out of the way" said Hermione, looking up. Ron nodded and then stood.

"I'd better sneak back then." He managed a half-smile.

"Right."

"See you at breakfast?"

"Yes" said Hermione. They looked awkwardly at one another.

"I'll be off then."

"Okay."

Still they looked at one another. Hermione's heart was pounding. She tried to hold his eyes. And then Ron reached down and took her hands in his. His touch was electrifying and her arms stiffened.

"Be careful" he said, squeezing her hands gently. "If she reappears, just get the heck out."

"I'll be careful" promised Hermione. The room looked tiny and far-away, the only thing in focus was Ron. He squeezed her hands again and then let go and walked to the door. He turned and smiled and then he was gone. Hermione threw herself back on the bed and lay looking at the ceiling, emotions she'd never experienced before washing through her. The tingling was intense.

Eventually she dragged herself up, took a quick shower and went down to the common room, where she began sorting through the books and parchments piled-up on her table.

It was nine o'clock before Ron and Harry surfaced. Ginny appeared ten minutes later and they headed down to breakfast. Much to Hermione's relief, nothing was said about the night before - she had been worried that Ginny might have heard something or Harry might have noticed that Ron was missing. After sausage and bacon they headed back for the common room - and the fire. It was snowing outside and a strong wind was blowing. An indoors-day, Ginny declared.

"How about two-a-side Quidditch, in here, on foot?" said Harry.

"Don't be silly" said Ginny. "It doesn't work unless you can fly."

"I'll get the brooms then, if we're careful we won't smash into too much."

"I have to do some ... research" said Hermione carefully.

"You're on holiday" said Harry, staring at her.

"It wouldn't work Harry" said Ron, quickly.

"No?"

"No, the room isn't long enough, we’d spend all our time turning and the Snitch would run rings around us. It can turn on a sixpence."

"You could be right, oh, well just a thought" said Harry shrugging.

"I'll take you and Ginny on at chess for Ginny's secret stash of Chocolate Frogs."

"What secret stash?" asked Ginny going red.

"Aha" said Ron, "knew you had one!" He grinned at her as she went redder. Harry put his arm around Ginny's shoulder and whispered something in her ear. Ginny giggled and nodded.

"I'll get to my books then" said Hermione, hurrying away.

She spent the morning poring over her books. Ron sat with Harry and Ginny by the fire. He played chess and laughed and joked with them, but his thoughts were of Hermione. The touch of her hand remained still solid in his mind. He went over every detail of their walk and the events of last night and wondered if she was thinking about him. She couldn't be, he decided, but he hoped otherwise. His conversation was monosyllabic.

Lunch came and went and still the wind blew, still they lazed in front of the fire. Hermione joined them at intervals for cups of tea. Ron's heart hammered as she sat next to him giving him shy smiles, and he wondered if he was going mad. Normally they'd have been bickering about something stupid and often enough he'd been glad to see the back of her. Now he began to count the minutes to the next cup of tea and he kept looking at her, not caring if anyone noticed.

Tea-time arrived and they trooped off to the Great Hall. Having done little energetic, they picked at their food. Conversation was spasmodic, as they had said all that was to be said during the day and Hermione was deep in thought. After an hour, they returned to the common room.

Hermione headed for her table. Harry and Ginny made for the fire. Ron stood, caught between fire and table. After a glance at Harry and Ginny, he went to the table and sat down next to Hermione, who was scribbling on a parchment. She looked up and he was rewarded with a flashing smile.

"Have you found out anything?" asked Ron.

"Not sure. I keep thinking I've found something, but, oh, I just don't know." Hermione flopped back in her chair and threw her quill down, feeling helpless. Her world of certainty and exactitude had been turned upside down by feelings she had no control over. She couldn't concentrate, much as she knew she needed to.

"I'll help. Give me something to do."

"Start looking through this" said Hermione, handing him a copy of Catchpole's Apparitions. "It's the third edition, so it's in alphabetical order."

"Right" said Ron, opening the huge calfskin-bound volume. A spider scuttled out of the book's spine. Ron swallowed hard, but ignored it. He started turning pages, wondering what he was looking for. Evil Girl? Evil Victorian Girl? Luckily there were pictures, so he concentrated on them, skipping quickly over the 'impossibles'.

They worked on in silence as Harry and Ginny played a noisy game of Battle Chess. Ron grinned to himself - they way they played, they'd probably both lose! He was sure they'd be over any moment to see what was going on. It was not usual for him to be cloistered with Hermione. Suddenly he decided he had to know how she felt. He took a deep breath and then took Hermione's hand and pulled it below the table, where he laced his fingers through hers. He kept his eyes on Catchpole - he couldn't look at her. To his delight, her fingers pressed gently at his, so he turned and smiled hesitantly at her.

Hermione beamed back. They sat and held hands, saying nothing, pretending to look at their books. Hermione finally decided she couldn't do any more research, concentration was impossible. She wondered if she should tell him her theory, but decided against it - she was so unsure of her deductions now and she didn't want to look stupid in front of him. Better just to test it.

"I'm popping upstairs for something. See you in a little while" she said, untangling her hand from his.

Ron watched as she hurried across the common room. She paused at the foot of the stairs and smiled at him. As she turned around and started up the stairs, he didn't see the uncertain look that replaced the smile.

Laughter from the fireplace drew his attention back to Harry and Ginny, who sat together on the sofa. They didn't seem to be missing either him or Hermione. Ginny was giggling and pushing a magazine and pencil at Harry, who was trying to push them away. Not one of her stupid quizzes thought Ron, she was always filling them in. He wondered why she'd want Harry to help her. His brow creased as he remembered how he'd seen Ginny trying to push snowballs down Harry's neck. And the snowball she'd brought into the common room. And she'd spent a good hour or more sledding with him. His mouth twitched into a smile. It couldn't be, could it? His smile broadened. He'd have to let Hermione in on this. At last he knew something she didn't!

Chuckling to himself, he turned back to the books. He glanced at Hermione's. It was open at a chapter about poltergeists. Returning to Catchpole he began to leaf through it again, letting his eye wander slowly over the pages. He had reached page 67 and was about to turn over, when something caught his eye -

Neonate : A particularly malevolent form of apparition. Neonates are ghosts that have not been allowed fully into the world of spirits. They are doomed to remain forever as 'new-borns', neither really ghost nor human, hovering between two worlds. They are often being punished for wrongdoing committed whilst human. The prime motivation of these evil spirits is to escape their limbo and either 'die' (in whatever sense that may apply to a ghost) or 'exchange' places with a human-being, thus transferring their miserable confinement to some luckless soul. If they sense a sympathetic human, they may attempt to attract pity and compassion, with a view to 'exchanging'. They form strong, irrational, attachments to particular objects and their determination to move these to specific locations often leads to neonates being confused with poltergeists (q.v.) Destruction of these objects may destroy a neonate, particularly if fire is used. The general Wizarding population sho uld not tackle these creatures, unless Muggles are in immediate jeopardy. Report suspected occurrences to the Ministry of Magic by express-owl as soon as possible, quoting reference CpAiii/67/NN.

Ron read and reread the section and stared blankly. And then a feeling of dread ran through him and though he didn't know how he knew it, he was sure Hermione was in danger. He jumped onto the table and ran along it, knocking books and cups flying. At the end he took a flying leap and ran madly towards the girls' staircase. Harry and Ginny stared, open-mouthed.

He took the stairs three at a time, threw himself down the corridor and crashed through the door into Hermione's room. Hermione was sitting on the edge of a bed, reading a magazine.

"Are you okay?" blurted out Ron.

"Yes, thank-you."

"That thing, it's a neonate, it's evil."

"I am aware of that, do you think I am completely unschooled?" said Hermione, looking slightly annoyed.

"Well ... I ... how did you know? And where is it?"

"I have disposed of ... it."

"How?" asked Ron.

"Oh goodness, questions, questions, questions. Isn't there something else you'd rather do?" She advanced slowly towards him, a faint smile playing about her lips. Ron swallowed hard.

"Aren't you going to embrace me?" She made a small curtsey and stood there, hands clasped demurely in front of her.

"Er ..." said Ron, blushing furiously.

"Do not be shy, come, embrace me Ronald."

Ron stepped towards her ... and then stopped. "What did you call me?"

"Ronald, my own dear Ronald, what else would I call you?"

Ron stared at Hermione and then began to back away. "Ronald? You've never called me Ronald before. Never. That's so ... old-fashioned." He stared at Hermione again and then began to shout. "You're it aren't you? What have you done with Hermione? You've exchanged with her. Where is she?"

"Oh Ronald, Ron, a moment please. I must beg you to abandon these ridiculous ideas."

Ron span around, looking round the room. They were alone - almost. Crookshanks stood on top of the wardrobe, fur raised.

"Call Crookshanks to you" said Ron, staring at Hermione.

"Crookshanks, come here at once" snapped Hermione, turning towards the wardrobe. Crookshanks didn't move. Hermione moved towards the wardrobe, cooing to him, but he just arched his back and hissed at her.

"You can't do it, can you" said Ron quietly. "Where is she?"

Hermione turned back to him, smirking now, and pointed to his right. "She's beside you, can't you see her? No, I don't suppose you can. She is pleading for you. But now you have me instead."

Ron turned to his right. If he squinted, he could see a very faint shimmering. "I don't want you. I want the real Hermione. Bring her back." His voice was trembling, he was starting to lose control.

The false-Hermione laughed - and then her face began to twist and change, flowing and bubbling like hot candle wax. Ron backed away in terror. The body was Hermione's, the clothes were Hermione's, but the face was now that of a younger girl.

"What are you?" croaked Ron.

"Who am I! I am Hermione, who else?"

"How did you get here?"

"I awoke! There is an energy in this room, a longing, a passion, and that awakened me and brought me here. I grew stronger as it grew stronger. I am whole again. And now I have you - and I feel we shall be very happy together."

Ron stared angrily at her. On an instinct, he groped through the air with his right hand - and felt a faint tingling. He moved his hand and felt resistance. Hermione's hand he decided, as he glared at the girl. She glared back at him.

"Do not anger me Ronald. Or I will be forced to settle with you, just as I did with Thomas."

"Thomas?" said Ron, squeezing his fingers hard against Hermione's ghostly hand.

"My younger brother. Oh, he was so annoying, so infuriating, such a perfect little boy. My parents adored him. So I killed him." She twirled around and then gave Ron a simpering smile.

"What?" said Ron weakly. Her smile sent shudders through him.

"I put arsenic in his food. He died slowly, it was such fun to watch. Of course I was so upset when he died. I cried for quite two days. Mama was most concerned about me." Her smile hardened. "And then I died - I went skating at Christmas on the Thames and the ice gave way. And I drowned. I don't know why. Everybody else was saved."

"Because you're evil" said Ron, slowly. "You deserved it. I'm surprised they didn't catch you for killing your brother."

"Oh, they never suspected me. I put a few crystals of arsenic in the housemaid's room and told the police detective that I had seen her fussing with his food. They arrested her. And hanged her. But she was common and poor, so that didn't matter."

Ron's blood boiled. He let go of Hermione's hand and reached for his wand. Common and poor - charges so often levelled at him by Malfoy. Suddenly his mind was made up and he stepped towards the girl.

"Hermione has not gone yet - bring her back, it's your last chance."

"My last chance? Why? Whatever do you mean Ronald?"

Ron levelled his wand and, picking his words carefully, said slowly and clearly. "Bring her back. Swap back and you will have a chance to swap with somebody else - if you're careful you may get away with it next time. If you don't bring Hermione back, I'll destroy you, I'll shred you."

"That will not bring Hermione back."

"That won't stop me seeing her again, I'll find a way. But you'll be dead and gone - forever. Her life, to give you another chance to exchange. Ten seconds to decide."

The girl tittered and put her hands in front of her mouth.

"Nine ..."

"Ronald, you know you can't do it."

"Eight ... seven ... six ..."

"Don't! I can't go through that again. Just because I killed my horrid brother."

"Five ... four ... three ..." said Ron, pointing his wand straight at the girl.

"Stop! Stop ... I'll do it." She was crying now and looking helplessly at him.

Crocodile tears, thought Ron, she's killed at least twice. He kept his wand aimed at her heart. The girl suddenly grinned at him.

"Now" shouted Ron. He stared at her - and then, to his amazement, she began to fade away. To his side something faint and Hermione-shaped started to materialise. He stared from one to the other, watching the girl disappear as Hermione reappeared. The process took nearly a minute. And then the girl was gone and Hermione was back. He swallowed hard and goggled at Hermione.

"Ron?" said Hermione, in a very small voice.

He nodded. Hermione threw her arms around his neck and they hugged.

"It is you, isn't it?" said Ron hoarsely.

"I think so" faltered Hermione.

Ron felt something brush against him. He looked down. Crookshanks was rubbing himself against Hermione's leg, purring madly.

"It is you" said Ron, beaming. He let go of Hermione and stood back, holding her at arm's length. "What happened? What did she do to you?"

"Oh Ron, I thought I knew what she was, I thought she was a poltergeist. I took the magazine and told her to come and get it. And after a bit she did. She seemed so unhappy and I thought I could help her. But I was wrong, completely wrong."

"Doesn't matter, we all make mistakes."

"I don't" said Hermione. She hung her head.

"First time for every thing" assured Ron, gently rubbing at her shoulders.

"I tried to talk to her, but she just laughed at me and ... I don't know how to explain it. She just drained the me out of me. I couldn't stop her. She got brighter and I got fainter. And when she was me, she taunted me, said she was going to take you from me and ..."

"Take me away from you?" said Ron weakly, wondering if he'd heard right.

Hermione looked up and nodded, her cheeks pink. "I called and called to you, but no sound came out."

"I felt you calling" said Ron.

"What?"

"I felt something, I don't know what, but I knew it was you, knew you were in trouble. That's why I came up."

They stood looking at one another.

"Ron I'm so sorry. I should have told you what I was going to do, should have asked you to help. You said I didn't need to do everything by myself, and I hoped you meant it, but I didn't know if you really ..."

A hiss made them jump. Crookshanks was backing away, spitting at something. Tables started to shake, books began to fall off shelves, a vase fell to the floor smashing into a thousand pieces. Windows flew open and then slammed shut with almighty bangs. A bed lifted a clear three inches off the floor and then crashed back down. Hermione screamed.

"The girl" said Ron, letting go of Hermione. He span around, looking for her.

"She's coming for me!" shrieked Hermione, pulling her wand out. Ron moved close to Hermione, reaching for his own wand. And then his face hardened and he ran to the bed and grabbed the magazine.

"We've got to stop her, permanently. Maybe this is how!" he yelled, waving the magazine. He held it up and then ripped it in half. A scream came from nearby. He tore again. Another scream. He ripped the magazine again and again, each tear accompanied by ever-louder cries. The crashings and bangings died away. He smiled in grim satisfaction.

"You're killing her" whispered Hermione.

"Good" said Ron. The words from Catchpole were clear in his mind and he knew what he had to do. He dashed to the fireplace and slowly, deliberately, began to throw the torn pieces onto the fire. The screaming intensified, rising and falling as each piece burnt.

"Ron, don't" said Hermione, her voice trembling, "don't torture her. Just ... just burn it quickly."

"You care about her? After what she tried to do to you? Do to us?"

"Ron, please."

Ron saw tears in Hermione's eyes. He swallowed hard and threw the rest of the magazine onto the fire. It blackened and curled and then suddenly blazed up. An ear-piercing scream rang out, louder than anything he had ever heard before. It went on for long seconds and then faded away. Ron looked at the fire - the magazine was gone. He turned to Hermione and saw she was crying, so he ran to her and wrapped his arms tightly around her. Her head fell against his shoulder and he held her, stroking her hair as she sobbed. He plucked up his courage.

"I'm not sure if this is the right moment to say this Hermione, but I think I'm falling in - "

His words were cut short as the door crashed open and slammed against the wall. Harry burst into the room and dropped into a crouch, wand out, his eyes alert and searching. Ron let go of Hermione and moved away from her, faster than he would have ever believed possible. Harry scanned the room rapidly - and then straightened up. Ginny stood in the doorway, her wand arm limp and shaking.

"We heard the screams. Are you okay?" asked Harry.

Ron and Hermione nodded.

"We saw the book" wavered Ginny. "A neonate? In here?"

Ron and Hermione nodded again.

"Where is it?" said Harry, wand still level.

"Ron killed it" said Hermione, rubbing at her eyes.

Harry lowered his arm. "Nice one Ron. What did you do to it?"

Ron explained what had just happened, missing out the awkward fact that he'd known about the ghost before.

Harry nodded thoughtfully. "You should have told us, Hermione - you were lucky Ron was quick on the uptake. If he hadn't been, that, that thing, could have fooled us for ever more."

"Not much chance of that" said Ginny. Ron looked at her. She was smiling at him and her eyes were twinkling. Ron felt himself going pink. Ginny couldn't possibly know how he felt about Hermione, could she?

"Well" said Harry, tucking his wand away, the crisis clearly no longer figuring as such in his mind. "Time for a cup of tea I think. Coming?" He looked expectantly at Ron and Hermione.

"I don't think they are" said Ginny. She grabbed Harry's arm and pulled him towards the door.

"Stop pulling Gin. Of course they are" said Harry.

Ron glanced at Hermione and saw her blush and look down. "We'll catch you up Harry" he said.

Ginny dragged Harry through the door. As she closed it, she saw Ron take Hermione in his arms. She beamed.

"What?" said Harry, looking puzzled.

"Try and work it out" said Ginny, giggling. She slipped her arm through his and propelled him towards the top of the stairs.

"Is something going on?" asked Harry, his brow furrowed in concentration.

"I'll tell you later" sighed Ginny, shaking her head in disbelief. She stopped by a window and looked out. The wind had dropped and it was no longer snowing. A half-moon lit up the countryside. Ginny brightened.

"Harry - how do you feel about sledding by moonlight?"

//
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