The Sugar Quill
Author: Crescent (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Healer  Chapter: Prologue and Part 1
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Prologue

Well, it would have been nice to think that Ron and Hermione fell in love and lived Happily Ever After, now wouldnít it? It certainly seemed to be ending that way where we left off! But, every so often, life will take a good swing at you when your guard is down; these are the punches that hit you the hardest, as well as the ones that leave to deepest scars. Unfortunately for our happy protagonists, (i.e. Ron and Hermione) life smacked them extra hard, and was wearing a spiked glove.

As we know, Lord Voldemort (a.k.a. You-know-who, a.k.a. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, a.k.a. the Dark Lord) was returned to power near the end of Ron and Hermioneís fourth year. This caused mild panic, to say the least, but still, nothing out of the ordinary happened, so after a while people began to think that either a) maybe it was all a sham, b) maybe the Dark Lord wasnít as all-powerful as he was made out to be, or c) maybe the Dark Lord had come to his senses and wasnít evil any more. (Though it was precious few who believed that.) They began to let their guard down, to not pay utmost attention to security, until everyone had all but forgotten that Voldemort was back.

It was right before Christmas in Ron and Hermioneís fifth year when he struck again. He had waited patiently for an appropriate opening, and, at 7:42 PM on the evening of Sunday, December 16th, he spotted it. It was smack in the middle of the Hogwarts Christmas dance, when everyone was happy and laughing. It was the perfect scenario for two reasons: no one was expecting an attack, and it would ruin a good mood.

He had managed to sneak in, disguised as a student, using a Polyjuice potion. Hiding in one of the massive Christmas trees that adorned the Great Hall, he waited for the perfect moment for the attack. He was planning on creating a huge cloud of poisonous gas and centralize it over the dancers, not letting any of the deadly vapors escape until just when he wanted them to. Since all the students and staff were at the dance, it would be the perfect opportunity to kill as many people as he could. He would have succeeded, too, except that one student had sensed the tainted evil of his presence and tipped everyone off before he had a chance to complete the spell. With all his victims running out the doors for dear life, spreading to fill the castle and its grounds, his plan no longer worked. To envelop the entire Hogwarts property with the poisonous gas was to kill himself, as well, something which he did not want. It was all he could do to send jets of fire and Avada Kedravas in every which direction, and pretend that he had planned the massacre.

The school was evacuated almost immediately; all the students sent home to their families. Many of the Ministry of Magic employees were place on assignment in Muggle communities, to keep an ear open for any clues to Lord Voldemortís whereabouts. A good many friendships and blossoming loves were torn apart that week, and Christmas was virtually nonexistent. Who wanted to party when there was a mad killer to be had? The festivities would attract too much attention, they said. Better to be on the safe side, spend the holiday mending cuts and patching tears, and wait until next year to celebrate.

All over Europe, the magical community went into hiding. Communication between friends, extended family and comrades was limited to letters, and face to face meetings were banned. Hogwarts School was empty but for its many ghosts and elves, and even Hagrid, the faithful old gamekeeper had moved out. Some of the more dedicated students kept up their studies through correspondence and books, others not. Fear and paranoia ran rampant.

Nearly two years after the initial attack, Hermione Granger sat straight up in bed, pressing her hand to her mouth.

 

'

Part One

It was that dream. She could feel the back of her hand pressed hard against her lips, holding in the scream, the other against her chest, where she could feel her heart pounding. Her breath came short and ragged in her lungs. If there were anything in this world that scared Hermione Granger, it was that dream.

What was so special about that dream? It was more than just a nightmare. It was a memory, a horrible memory. The kind that repeated itself over and over in your head before you went to sleep, then again, with alarming clarity, in your dreams. That was the worst part. Knowing that it wasnít just a nightmare, that it had really happened, and that she couldnít forget about it.

She was at the Christmas Ball with Ron. She had been so happy when he asked her, when she knew that he liked her, and that she didnít have to worry. Back when that was her biggest fear. Everyone was happy, laughing, talking, eating the good food, and dancing. She and Ron were laughing at Ginny, as she tried to get up the courage to talk to Harry. She was leaning slightly against Ron, and he against her, both too nervous to do anything more. She smiled as he half put his arm around her and pulled her onto the dance floor. They danced song after song, dance after dance, laughing and talking and having a good time. It was in the middle of a slow song when it happened. Ron had been inches- inches- away from kissing her again, only her second or third real kiss. And then she screamed.

It wasnít Ron who made her scream. No, she much enjoyed being that close to him. But half a second before his lips touched hers, Hermione had felt a surge of evil; cold, dark and rancid. She didnít know what it was or where it came from, but she knew something horrible was going to happen. The minute the scream escaped her lips, everyone panicked. It was utter chaos. Students were running everywhere, knocking into each other and screaming. In the midst of all the confusion, she could hear a cold voice hissing dark incantations and screaming spells. Jets of green light from the Avada Kedrava curse shot out in all directions. Streams of acid-green fire bounced off walls to hit students, burning and killing.

She hadnít moved. She just stood there, somehow avoiding all the flames and curses, but completely still. It wasnít until Ron finally scooped her up and began running with her in his arms that she came back to reality. She slid out of his grasp and ran beside him, feeling his arm still around her waist, pulling her along. Then one of the jets of fire grazed the side of his head, and he stumbled and fell. Hermione was screaming and crying and calling his name all at once, and she barely noticed the hands that pried her away from him, carried her away.

The dream always changed right then. The memory was over, and she was living a new nightmare, watching as Ron, dressed all in white, was led away from her by Ministry of Magic officials, a tortured expression on his pale face. Though he looked the same as he always had, but she somehow knew that he was supposed to be older. She screamed and yelled at the officials to bring him back to her, but her cries went unheard. It was always right when they closed the door behind them that she woke up.

The dance had been the last place Hermione had seen him face to face. The last memory she had of Ron was him crumpling in her arms, his face contorted in pain, yelling at her to keep running. They had taken everyone to various Muggle hospitals, and she had received no word from anyone if Ron was alive. Four weeks, four long, torturous weeks, passed before she received an owl from him, asking if she was all right.

Since then, she, Ron and Harry had exchanged letters, long chatty and generally informative. But over the months, they had gotten vaguer, until she barely noticed when one of them forgot to write her. She hadnít heard from Ron for three weeks, and she had had no word from Harry in over a month.

Hermione sighed and looked at the alarm clock. 5:30 AM. Damn. I may as well get up, she though miserably. She rolled out of bed, gasping as her feet hit cold floor. She pulled a pair of pants and a sweater on and jammed her feet into slippers. Glancing at the calendar, she realized that it was July 31st. Harryís birthday. The day she would usually be getting a letter from Hogwarts containing her supply list and a reminder to be at platform 9ĺ on September 1st. She sighed heavily and plodded down the stairs to the kitchen.

One of these days, we need to get a different cereal than Shreddies, Hermione thought. Iím very sick of Shreddies. She dismally poured herself a bowl and spread the paper out in front of her. News, boring. Entertainment, boring. Living, boring. Aha! Comics! But even the comics were dull and silly today. Disgusted, She tossed the paper away and stared gloomily out the window at the rain pounding down. Everything about the day promised to be dark and miserable.

Hermione finally pushed the bowl away from her and stood up. It was days like this that she missed her friends the most. How as she supposed to keep up her magic studies if anything magical reminded her of her friends? She wasnít allowed to see them, only write letters. She swallowed her tears before they could fall and plodded silently back up the stairs to her room and flopped on her bed.

There was that horrible picture of Ron. Well, technically, it wasnít a horrible picture. It was a very good picture, really. But looking at it was hard. Hermione picked it up and stared at it, thinking that it was lucky she had taken it with a Muggle camera. She didnít think she could take it if the picture smiled and waved at her the way magical ones did. The photographic Ron was frozen in the air, caught in mid-leap. She had taken it outside on the Hogwarts grounds, as Ron jumped out of a tree. She smiled at his giddy expression and replaced it on her bedside table.

Of course, he would look different, now. It had been a year and a half since she had seen him, and a person can change a lot in that time. She knew she had. She stood up and stared at her reflection in the mirror above her bookshelf.

About a month after her sixteenth birthday, Hermioneís hair had suddenly lost its bushiness, so now it hung luxuriously long and thick over her shoulders. Her front teeth had shrunk, or the rest of her had grown to fit them, and her eyes were slanted and a deep cinnamon. Her mother had once described her as having an "elfish" appearance, and Hermione had to agree. The boys that had once teased her about her hair and teeth now stared bewilderedly after her, transfixed. What she wouldnít give to be plain again. The only person she wanted looking at her like that was Ron, and he was on the other side of the country and banned from contact with her.

Hermione felt a tear slide down her cheek as she thought of her friends. When would she ever see them again?

Tap, tap. Tap, tap. Her head flew up. There was an owl sitting outside the window, tapping its beak on the glass. Hermione raced to open the window, surprised. It wasnít Hedwig or Pigwidgeon, Harryís and Ronís owls, but a large grey one she didnít recognize. It flew in importantly and dropped a thick envelope on her desk, then hooted and flew back out, leaving a trail of feathers on his wake.

Is it owl molting season? Hermione thought absently as she tore open the envelope and pulled out a sheet of heavy parchment. She nearly dropped it. There, at the top of the page, was the Hogwarts crest. She quickly scanned the letter. Sure enough, it was the same summoning letter that she always got on this day, with her supply list and reminder to be on the train to the school. Hardly daring to believe it, she read it again, turned it over and finally placed it on her desk, breathing hard. If she was being asked to return to school, surely everyone else was, too. In a month she could see her friends again. She could see Ron again.

Tap, tap. Another one? Hermione thought, pulling away the curtains. Two letters in one day? She almost fell over when she saw who it was. Pig, Ronís pint-sized owl, somersaulted into her room, fluttering and flipping and running into things. On a normal day, Hermione would have chased him around the room, in a vain effort to retrieve her letter and save her belongings. But today she was so happy to see him there, with a letter from Ron, that she just fell, laughing onto her bed. Pig finally got his bearings straight and landed with a soft plop on chest, dropping the letter in her face. She snatched it and tore it open. Finally!

She didnít know what she was expecting, but what was in the small envelope certainly wasnít it. Ronís letter was barely even a letter, just a note. A memo, even:

Hermione,

We need to talk, face to face. Apparently, weíre allowed to see each other again. So, meet me at the Leaky Cauldron on August 15th at 5:00 PM. I donít care how you get there, but make sure you get there.

-Ron

Very abrupt indeed. But it was still from Ron, and he wanted to see her. Hermioneís heart sang as she replaced the letter into the envelope and scanned her appointment book. August 15thÖ August 15thÖ she was free that day. Thank God! To see Ron againÖ

Maybe the day wouldnít be so bad, after all.

 

'

When August 15th finally rolled around, Hermione was ready. She had been counting the days until then, and had made she made all the necessary arrangements. She would get a ride to London from her father, and she could wander around Diagon Alley until five oíclock, at which point she could go to the Leaky Cauldron and meet Ron.

Hermione and her father left for London around three oíclock in the afternoon. She had all her money for school supplies, and she was bouncing with excitement. When she mentioned Ron, her father cast her a suspicious glance and told her to be careful, but said nothing more. She kissed his cheek and danced along the sidewalk to the Leaky Cauldron. It was just as she remembered it, warm, friendly, and hopping with witches and wizards. She was greeted by Tom the bartender, whom she had met before, and she sat down to get the news.

"Seems the Ministry decided we were stronger when we were together, so they allowed us to meet, though under top security, mind," Tom told her as he prepared someoneís drink. "Headmaster Dumbledore said he wanted his students at the school, where he could keep an eye on them. Security was down when You-Know-Who managed to get in." He shuddered and made a cross on his chest. "May God rest the souls that paid that night."

Hermione swallowed hard. Of course, people had died that night. She remembered gasping when she read in the Daily Prophet that over thirty students had been killed in the attack. It was awful. With a death toll like that, how could Ron have lived?

He had, of course, but Hermione had had a hard few weeks waiting for word from him. Finally, she bid Tom goodbye and stepped out into Diagon Alley for the first time in two years.

It was just the same as she remembered it. Everything from the book selection at Flourish and Blottsí to the robes at Madam Malkinís was familiar. Just being there, back with people she knew and places she recalled, was enough to fill her with optimism. If there was any place where she could find her friends, it was here. When she looked down at her watch again, it was four-thirty. Hermioneís breath caught. Just half an hour. In half an hour, she would see Ron again. She gathered up her purchases and began on the way back to the pub. She walked painstakingly slowly, trying to use up the minutes until five oíclock. Entering the Leaky Cauldron again, she found an empty table for two, and sat down.

Ron must have been running late, because it was over fifteen minutes before anyone new walked through the door. When he did come in, Hermione almost didnít recognize him. It wasnít until some called out, "Hey, Weasley, long time, no see!" that she turned and saw him. And she almost dropped the book she was reading.

He had changed, all right. Once long and lanky, Ron had grown to suit his frame, so now he appeared tall and fit. His hair, once bright orange, had darkened to a beautiful auburn, and his eyes had picked up a green tint that she could see even from her seat across the room. He would have appeared roguishly handsome, in his jeans, tee shirt and light jacket, if you ignored the tormented look that was deep in his eyes.

He was hunched over; his collar pulled up around his face. His eyes had dark circles under them, and they carried the weight of lost sleep. He was paler than usual. Fatigue and disorientation hung over him like a heavy cloak. But it was still Ron, and that was what mattered. Hermione finally found her voice and jumped to her feet. "Ron!"

Ron looked up sharply, as if he expected an attack. He searched the room for whoever had called him. When his eyes fell on Hermione, who was walking quickly towards him, avoiding tables and dancing around chairs, they widened in recognition and then wonder. It was a look she had gotten to know well from the local boys, and it made her heart sing to see it from Ron. She was about two feet away from him when he choked out, "Hermione!" and pulled her into a fierce hug so tight she thought her ribs would crack.

She could have stayed that way forever, with her arms around Ronís neck, her face pressed against the cotton of his tee shirt, feeling one of his hands around her waist, the other on the back of her head, pulling her closer, his face against her hair. She knew he was crying, and she was, too. All the same, she could feel that something was still bothering Ron. Worried, Hermione let him go.

He gripped her shoulders and held her away from him. She hurriedly wiped away her tears and stared at him, so happy to be near him again that it hurt. A slow smile started across his face, spreading until it became the full-blown Ron grin that she loved. She grinned back up at him, and realized that he was still about fourteen inches taller that her.

"You wouldnít believe how much I missed you," Ron whispered hoarsely, hugging her again. "When I didnít hear from youÖ I was so worriedÖ" He ran his fingers through her hair, holding her tightly.

"You were worried?" Hermione laughed. "How about me? The last I saw of you, was you crumpling with a horrible burn on your headÖ" She pulled away and ran a finger along the burn scar above his left ear. "And then you didnít write me for four weeks!"

Ron squeezed her and let her go. "Iím sorry. Really, I am. They didnít let me out of the hospital until a week before I wrote you, and Mum nearly strapped me into my bed to keep me from straining myself." He ran a thumb under her eye, making her shiver pleasantly.

"Ron, guess what?" Hermione cried, suddenly remembering. "We can go back to school! Hogwarts is opening again! Isnít it marvelous? Everything will be just like it used to be!" She thrilled at her worlds.

For some reason, Ronís face fell. He let go of her completely, stepped away and fell heavily into a chair. "Thatís what I wanted to talk to you about," he said. "HermioneÖ" He looked pleadingly up at her. "Itís not going to be the same as always." Hermione frowned and sat down across from him.

"Whatís wrong?" she asked. "I know the security will be tighter, so itíll be harder for you and Harry to break the rules." She grinned. "But the discipline will do you good!" Ronís frown just deepened. "It doesnít upset you that much, does it?"

Ron closed his eyes and massaged his temples, as if trying to rid himself of a headache. He opened his eyes and stared at Hermione. "Harry- Harryís gone missing, Hermione," he whispered. "Even his aunt and uncle reported it. Scared the Hell out of them, they came home to find him gone and the Dark Mark burned on their front door." His lips curled into a tiny smile. "Mind you, the only reported it because they thought Harry had trashed their house-" Ron choked, and whispered so quietly that Hermione had to lean in to hear him. "The Dark Mark, Hermione. You know what that means. Oh my God, what are the chances of him being aliveÖ?"

Harry? Missing? Hermioneís mind was reeling. Ron said something else, but she didnít hear him. The Dark Mark. That meant that Voldemort had either taken Harry or killed him. And if he had taken Harry, he would either try to turn him to darkness, or kill him later. And she knew he would rather die than serve his parentsí killer.

"When?" she finally gasped. "When did it happen?"

Ron closed his eyes. "Three weeks ago, exactly." He reached over and took her hand. "Ginny," he whispered. "They took Ginny, too, two days before." He screwed his eyes shut. "What are they going to do to them, Hermione?" He let go of her hand and put his head in his arms. "Why did they have to take Ginny? What did she ever do?"

Hermione realized he was crying again. But what could she do? She was in total and complete shock. She gripped the side of her chair, trying to break out of the shell around her. She closed her eyes as random thoughts ran around inside her head, slamming into each other and creating general confusion. Quiet! She ordered herself, but it had no effect.

A hand on her shoulder finally jolted her back to reality. Ron had gotten up and was standing behind her, her bags in his hands. Silently, Hermione let him put an arm around her and lead her out of the pub. They walked silently, and came to a halt on a bench behind a few buildings. Hermione shook her head and bring herself to concentrate on the matter at hand.

"I guess itís dumb that I still get like this about it," Ron said quietly. He still had his arm around her. "Iíve had three weeks to stew about it, after all." He turned and looked off into the distance. "You wouldnít believe how weird things are at my place, Hermione. We never do everything by ourselves. We canít even eat supper together anymore, cause looking at Ginnyís empty chair is too hard." Ron tightened his arm around her shoulders, but said no more. She leaned against him, still silent.

It was funny. When she was younger, she cried at the tiniest things, like when Ron and Harry were quarreling in their fourth year, stuff like that. But it seemed that anything big like this would cause her to freeze up, make the blood drain from her face, make the words catch in her throat. It numbed her.

Ron finally looked down at her again. "Are you OK?" he asked gently. "Youíre awful quiet." Hermione just shook her head and said nothing. Ron frowned. He turned so he was facing her and brushed a few stray hairs away from her face. "Iím sure theyíre fine, Herms."

She finally broke the shell, and jumped to her feet, furious. "Like hell, they are!" she shouted at him. "Not five minutes ago you were draped over a table telling me they were as good as dead! Now you go preaching the exact opposite!" She collapsed to her knees, sobbing. "Donít lie to me, RonÖ"

He pulled her to her feet and held her as she cried into his shoulder. The anger was ebbing out of her body, leaving a distinctly empty feeling. She leant gratefully against him, and waited for the tears to stop coming.

"Iím sorry," Hermione whispered finally, pulling away. "I didnít mean it." She wiped her eyes with a sleeve and fell heavily onto the bench. "I donít know whatís wrong with me."

Ron sat down beside her again. "Nothingís wrong with you," he told her gently. "I told you something bad. Itís expected of someone to lose it when they get told something like that." He put a hand on her shoulder and smiled wryly. "God knows I did, more than once. Frankly, I was wondering what was taking you so long."

Hermione would have loved to have laughed, but she couldnít. Instead she asked tentatively, "Do you think theyíre really OK?"

Ron chewed his lip and ran a hand through his rumpled hair. "I donít know what I think," he told her truthfully. "I donít see how Harry could have evaded You-Know-Who four times without so much as a scratch, and then just get hauled off when security was tightest. It seems to have been too easy for You-Know-Who to take him. You know Harry, and you know he was always careful with stuff like that. You-Know-Who had to have had help finding him." He lifted her chin and made her look at him. "Still, if there is one person who could get out of there alive, it has to be Harry," he whispered. "Heís got a better chance than anyone. To tell the truth, itís more Ginny Iím worried about. If theyíre together she should be fine, but if they got separatedÖ" He let go of her and stood up, leaning against the back of the bench. "I donít think heís out to kill them, Herms. He didnít kill them when he took them, because there w ere no bodies, and if he had tried to turn them we would have heard something by now. If he were going to kill them, he would have done it already. I think heís using them for something. As bait. I just wish I knew why."

Hermione stared at her friend. Either heíd spent an awful lot of time thinking about it, or he had gotten smarter since sheíd seen him last.

"We should probably get going," Ron said quietly. "I have to catch a Portkey out of here in five minutes. He offered Hermione a hand and pulled her gently out of her seat. "Iím real sorry I didnít write you. Iíll try and do better until school starts, OK?"

Hermione swallowed and looked up at him. "Iíll see you on the first," she whispered.

He smiled and hugged her. "Better believe you will. Iíll look for you at Kingís Cross, alright? And youíd better be there!" He squeezed her and let her go, then tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

She grabbed Ronís hand. "Hey," she said. "Stay out of trouble, will you?"

Something of a shadow crossed Ronís face, as if he resented her comment. But it was gone as suddenly as it had come, and he grinned at her. "You donít see me for almost two years and now youíre worried about two weeks?" He squeezed her hand and kissed her cheek. "Iíll see you." He walked back down the alley. After a quick glance at her watch, Hermione decided to start back to the pub.

 

'

The next two weeks were dull, but bearable. True to his word, Ron wrote Hermione nearly every day. His letters never mentioned Harry or Ginny, and she knew that he left them out on purpose, knowing that their disappearance upset her. She was grateful, and tried to return the favour, writing not about old memories, but of her plans for the future, or just conversation. Her parents were happy to see her cheerful again, so they didnít press on the matter of her relationship with Ron.

Actually, Hermione herself wasnít exactly sure about where she and Ron were going. They had been open with each other for a mere two days before the attack before they were separated. During that time period he had kissed her on one occasion, and almost kissed her on a second. Though he had been warm, compassionate even, in Diagon Alley, he hadnít really given her any reason to believe they would amount to anything. The recent events had changed them so much, and there was no telling if she might hate him when she got to know him again.

Still, she thought, one afternoon, if youíre going to go on looks aloneÖ She grinned to herself, looking back at the photograph Ron had sent with his last letter. Pig was lying winded on the bed, (having hit the wall a moment before) recuperating, and waiting for her to write her reply. Her grin was partly accounted for by Pig, partly by the Ronís picture. It showed him wrestling with one of the twins, (it was impossible to tell which one) outside the Burrow. Apparently, Charlie had taken it on a trip home. There were scads of girls who went for looks first, then worried about personality. She grinned to herself at the prospect. If worst came to worst, she could always try to come to like the person he had become.

The thought of looks- and girls- brought another odd thought into her head. Ron must have dated a bit during the time they were apart. Judging by his current appearance, she didnít think he would have been left alone. There were plenty of sharks out there in the world, and she would have to be careful. Iíll have to ask him about that on the train, she thought, then winced. But that could be horribly embarrassingÖ

Hermione looked up at the calendar above her desk. It was August 31st. Tomorrow she would board the train that would take her to Hogwarts. She could see all her old friends again, and teachers. She grinned. And Ron. Quickly, she scribbled a short note to him and gave it to Pig, who snatched eagerly, it and somersaulted out the window. She watched him go, laughing. Crazy bird. Ten oíclock. She had better go to bed. Tomorrow would be a big day. She yawned and fell onto her bed, and was asleep before she hit the pillow.

 

'

Kingís Cross Station was hopping. There were Muggles everywhere, staring at the peculiar children with their massive trunks and odd pets. Looking over at the barrier between platforms nine and ten, Hermione could occasionally see a child or a family disappear into it, all cautious that no one was looking. She kissed her parents goodbye, grabbed her trunk and shoulder bag, and headed for the barrier herself. She carefully leaned against it, then fell through to platform nine-and-three-quarters.

If the station was busy, this platform was packed. The crowd was so tight that it made the rest of Kingís Cross appear deserted. Hermione tried to maneuver through the mob, her eyes scanning for the bright red heads that would tell her where the Weasleys were. She wondered who of the family would be there, since Ginny was missing and the twins had graduated. She let out a string of bad language, and hoped no first-years had heard. How on Earth was she supposed to find them in this mosh pit?

"Hermione! Hermione, over here!"

She looked up. Ron and his mother were waving to her from near a car at the end of the platform. She gathered her bags and began to weave her way through the crowd towards them. Ron met her halfway and relieved her of one of her bags. She hugged him with her free arm, happy to see him again. He put an arm around her shoulders and steered her through the mob to the car where they were supposed to sit.

Mrs. Weasley threw her arms around Hermioneís neck, saying, "Oh, itís so nice to se you again, dear!" Hermione laughed and hugged her back. "Itís nice to be back," she replied.

"We were so worried about you," Ronís mother said tearfully. "Ron said you were hurt when You-Know-Who attacked!"

"Ron was hurt worse than me," Hermione retorted. "And then he didnít write me for a month!" Ron looked up from where he was loading the luggage onto the train and pulled a face at her. She grinned back and continued. "I was fine, really. My hair was singed, thatís all." Mrs. Weasley hugged her again and pushed her onto the train. Ron offered a hand and pulled her in. They walked down the corridor to find an empty compartment, and sat down.

"This is the sixth-year car," Hermione said to Ron. "Weíre seventeen, shouldnít we be seventh-years?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "We missed our sixth year, so weíre a year behind. We have to do it now."

She sighed and stared out the window. She massaged her forehead, feeling the beginnings of a headache at the question broiling within her. She was almost afraid to ask; worried that she wouldnít like the answer. It wasnít even that loaded a question, but the potential was there for explosion. She decided she might as well know the truth. Going over it in her mind, Hermione altered the question to sound more innocent than it was intended. She took a deep breath and asked, "So, what did you do over the last year?"

Ron looked up sharply, a suspicious look on his face. Hermione winced and bit her lip, but persisted.

"Sat around the house, mostly," he said. "We also did a lot of stuff in Ottery St. Catchpole, the Muggle town near our house. You donít know how boring life is until you have nothing to do. For a while, I was de-gnomeing the garden twice a day, just for something to do. Dad taught me a few little charms. All in all, not much."

Hermione swallowed. How was she to word this? "Did you date at all?"

Ron raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, one girl called Ashley. Followed me around the village like a puppy for weeks. That was a year ago, though. How about you?"

She blinked. "Me? Oh, I did some schoolwork and-"

"I meant did you date at all, silly," Ron cut her off. "I know you did schoolwork."

She laughed, then chewed her lip. "Er, yeah. Two guys, Mark and Evan. But- that was a while ago, too." She noticed that Ron was looking at her very intensely, and felt a blush creep into her cheeks, embarrassing her even more. She looked away.

Ron was inching closer. By now, he was close enough to be horribly nervous around anyone else, but somehow, with Ron, it was very pleasant. She blushed even pinker and backed into her chair, trying to calm herself.

"Did you kiss any of them?" Ron asked lightly. "I mean, if you go out with them, youíre probably going to kiss them, right?"

Hermione glanced up, frowning. Ronís tone was far too casual to be natural. "ErÖ yeah. Sort of."

He grinned at her. "Who was better?"

She blushed again, and looked away. "I- I donít really knowÖ Evan, I guessÖ" She trailed off.

Suddenly, Ron leaned over and kissed her firmly on the mouth. Unfortunately, before Hermione could get over the shock and enjoy it a little, he pulled away. "You dated me for a couple of days," he reminded her. "Where would I fit in?"

She shook her head violently to clear it of the giddy disorientation, then glared at him. "You could have warned me!" she scolded.

Ron grinned, inching closer to her again. "I said the same thing, once, and you told me not to bother. So, where do I stand?"

He was getting very close. I will not lose my head, Hermione told herself firmly. "ErÖ I donít know. You- you kind of pulled away before I could really tellÖ" A piece of hair fell into her face and Ron gently pushed it back behind her ear.

"Is that so?" he asked quietly. He leaned in and kissed her again, but this time he didnít pull back right away. Hermioneís stomach fluttered as she felt Ronís hand creep up to cup her face. Definitely better than Evan, she thought giddily.

"Why is it every time I see you two, youíre getting close?" Draco Malfoy was standing in the door of the compartment, watching them. For some reason, though, his usual smugness was absent, replaced by an expression that just said he was irritable. Hermione and Ron broke apart quickly and Hermione felt her cheeks burn with humiliation as Ron got up and stood in front of Malfoy.

"Maybe if you waited until you were invited, you wouldnít have that problem," Ron told Malfoy. "Now why donít you take a hike?"

Malfoy scowled. "I actually came here with a purpose, for your information. I need to talk to Hermione."

She stared at him. Ron wasnít the only one who had changed. Malfoy had acquired a kind of angry sensuality, like he ought to be playing the moody hero of some soap opera. Plus, he wasnít making any smart remarks. One would simply have thought he was in a bad mood. This was not the Draco Malfoy she had last seen two Christmases ago. "What?" she asked, bewildered.

Ron cast her a suspicious look, but Malfoy just said, "You heard me. I need to talk to you. Come out into the hall or something."

She frowned, but got up and followed him into the hallway. Ron raised an eyebrow, but made no move to stop her. She closed the door behind them, and looked at Malfoy expectantly.

He just glared at her for a moment. "I just wanted to tell you- yíknow on that last Hogsmeade trip- when I was an asshole to you- Iím sorry about what I said. I didnít mean it." He seemed to glower at his words for a moment, then turned and stalked down the train, looking snappish. Shaking her head, Hermione walked back into the compartment and flopped back into her seat.

"What did he want?" Ron asked.

"I have no idea," Hermione replied. "But Iím willing to bet that by the time we get to the castle, everyone will know what we were doing."

Ron made a face. "Heaven forbid," he muttered.

 

'

After so many months of having to imagine teachers and demonstrations in front of her while reading a book, it was wonderful for Hermione to be back in classes again. Ron laughed at her, of course, as she danced happily from class to class, savoring the feeling of books weighing down her shoulders once more. There were a lot of things she understood about Ron, but his lack of enthusiasm towards schoolwork wasnít one of them.

Professor Dumbledore, it seemed, was taking no chances with his studentsí safety. He had taken up the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts personally, and was teaching some very interesting classes.

It seemed that a year and a half of having to mingle with Muggles had taken their toll on wizarding culture. Hermione noticed a lot of Muggle clothing being worn under the uniform robes, Muggle novels being read, even Muggle electrical equipment being tampered with in spare time. Several fourth-year students were trying to develop a Discman that would run on magic instead of electricity. While they hadnít been very successful, it was interesting to watch them fiddle with it in the Gryffindor common room.

Much to Hermioneís disappointment, Ron remained simply friendly to her. Forward as he might have been on the train, he pretty much left her alone at school, almost avoiding her. He spent his time with Dean Thomas and Seamus Finnigan, and Hermione was left to find company in Lavender Brown and the Patil twins, all of whom annoyed her. She finally gave up and just spent her time doing homework and extra credit.

She was coming back from a late night in the library, working on a paper for Arithmancy. Glaring at the irrepressible Mrs. Norris as she stared up at her from her lamp-like eyes. Dancing out of the way as Peeves streaked down the hallway throwing things. She walked up to the portrait hole and muttered the password ("sowís ear") and climbed through into the common room.

Since it was late (around eleven oíclock), Hermione didnít really expect anyone to still be up and around. But, as she made her way to her favourite chair by the fire, she noticed someone sitting in the bay window, the moonlight glinting off his red hair. "Ron?"

He turned slowly, not surprised to see her coming back so late, and watched her for a moment. She fidgeted under his gaze, uncomfortable, and pulled the hem of her shirt, which had wedged itself up under her books, back down past her navel. "What are you still doing up?" she asked.

"Iím allowed to be awake," he said dully. "Itís Saturday." His eyes were flat and emotionless, the usual spark of green gone from their depths, and they followed Hermione as she sat down in her chair.

She shifter her books onto her lap as she sat, looking at Ron with concern. He was watching her the way Professor Moody used to watch Harry; a creepy way. "Are you OK?" she asked cautiously.

Ronís face instantly lost the emotionless look, and he turned away. But not before Hermione could see the pained look that had crossed it. Without speaking, he pulled a crumpled envelope out of his bookbag and tossed it to her. Frowning, she unfolded the letter and read.

Mr. Weasley,

We understand your concern for your friend, but we fear that sending out a search party at this time would not be safe. Even while our community is allowed to fraternize, to go wandering about looking for trouble would not be wise. Please be assured that the instant we feel it is safe, we will go looking for Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley.

Yours in fellowship,

 

Wolfgang Boozier

Head of Magical Law Enforcement

"What do they mean?" Hermione asked, flabbergasted. "Theyíre not going after them?"

Ron stared moodily at the table for a moment before answering. "No," he snapped finally. "They say itís not safe. And as if leaving Harry and Ginny in the clutches of You-Know-Who is?" He pounded the table with a fist. "Assholes! If it werenít for Harry, we wouldnít have been safe all those thirteen years before, either! And they wonít even take one f***ing risk to save him!"

"Ron!" Hermione had never liked swearing, and tonight was no exception. "Iím sure they have a good reason!"

Ronís head shot up and he glared at her, his eyes snapping with fury. "There is no good reason! Donít you care?" he demanded. "Donít you care at all if something happens to Harry? Or Ginny? My God, heís your best f***ing friend! The least you can do is hope someone helps him!"

"Ron, calm down!" she cried desperately. He had been yelling. "Youíll wake everybody up!"

"Calm down? Calm down?! You expect me to be calm?"

"Ron, theyíll look, OK? Itís just too dangerous right now!"

He stopped very suddenly and shook her by the shoulders, causing her to see stars. "Whatís the matter with you, Hermione? Good Lord, first it was Harryís broom, then it was Scabbers and Crookshanks, and now this!" He stared intensely at her and she could feel his anger. And, at the same time, his desperation. "You really donít care, do you?" he whispered. "You really donít give damn. You have changed." He shook his head and walked up the stairs to the boysí dorm, leaving behind a very stunned Hermione.

 

'

 

Black, everywhere. Look left- black. Look right- black. Up, down- black. There were no sounds, no smells, no tastes, nothing. She knew she was dreaming, for some reason, though not what about. Aside from the general knowledge that she was asleep, was one pressing thought. Find Harry. Find Ginny. Find them! Find them! The blackness was closing in, like a thick, velvet blanket. She couldnít breathÖ

"Yah!" Hermione opened her eyes and flipped over, feeling the covers twist around her body. Her face had been pressed into her pillow, thus cutting off her air. She stared at the ceiling for a moment, chest heaving, trying to catch her breath, then attempted to wriggle out of the cocoon of bedclothes she had created. Something about the dream jumped out at her. It was the same feeling she got from the dream about the dance. Such dreams lacked the unreal feeling of a normal nightmare, as if she were really there. And something told her it had something to do with Harry.

"Iím going crazy," she muttered to herself. "Iím going absolutely, positively out of my skull." She walked to the bathroom and splashed some water on her face, then stared at her reflection in the mirror. Was Ron right? Had she changed that much?

But Iím worried about Harry! she told herself. And I donít want anything to happen to him! But I understand the Ministryís point of view, too. She gripped the edge of the sink as tears began to well up in her eyes, and she squeezed them shut. Oh, why did he have to say what he did? With a sigh, she wiped her face off with a towel and walked back to her room and fell into her bed. Let it be better in the morning.

 

'

 

The next morning was not any better than the night before, rested as Hermione might have been after a night of sleep. When she sat down next to Ron at breakfast, hoping to make peace, he simply got up and walked in the opposite direction. They were increasingly sour to each other all day, to the point where she was actually glad to see him turn up toward the Divination tower in the last period of the day. At least she wouldnít have to feel his eyes on the back of her head all through class.

Hermione usually scorned Divination, thinking inaccurate and a waste of time. Arithmancy, though a form of divination, was much more logical. The equation she was working on that day was the first one she would ever use for divinatory purpose, instead of just practice. She could feel the power in the numbers even as she wrote them down and worked them out.

What is bothering Ron? She asked the numbers. Professor Vector had told them to ask a simple question, and she supposed that was simple enough. But the number sentences she wrote out were long and complicated. Six. A number of treachery. Five. Confusion. Seven and three together. Love and worry, rolled into one. Ten. Happiness. Four. Anger. The numbers contradicted themselves.

Professor Vector leaned over Hermioneís shoulder and scanned her completed sheet. "What question did you ask?" she inquired.

"Ronís being a jerk," Hermione replied quietly. "I asked what was bothering him."

The professor ran her finger over the sheet, frowning. "Heís got something very good in his life, and heís worried about what might happen to it. Heís willing to take risks to protect it. A background of suspicion. He doesnít know whatís causing all of this, but it looks like heís linked to it." She picked up the sheet. "You did all your equations correctly. Full marks." Professor Vector smiled quietly at her student. "Next time ask a simpler question."

Coming out of class, Hermione overheard two Ravenclaw girls talking. "Did you hear?" "Yeah, they did the test this afternoon." Curious, she walked up to them. "Whatís going on?"

"The Weasley boy," one of the girls informed her. "He lied to Professor Snape about his homework today. Snape lost his temper and put a truth spell on him after class. But he could still lie."

Hermione blinked. She hadnít thought that to be possible. "Really? How?"

The other girl shrugged. "They donít know. They just know he can lie like a rug."

She stared. "But- thatís impossible! Snape canít have used a very powerful charm."

The first Ravenclaw shook her head. "He didnít. But in the test, they used the most powerful one they could think of. And he broke it." The two girls turned and walked away.

Hermione walked slowly down the stairs, thinking hard. She had never heard of anything like this, in all her studies.

When she reached the common room, the first thing she saw was Ron, surrounded by a multitude of people- mostly girls. She stood beside the portrait hole for a moment, and just watched him. His stance reminded her of when she had met up with him at the Leaky Cauldron: intimidated.

Ron turned, seeing her for the first time. The pleading look he shot her almost made her melt on the spot. Her mind flashed back to the Arithmancy lesson. Worry. Suspicion. The urge to go over and rescue him was almost overwhelming. She shook her head violently, and walked up the tall staircase to the girlsí dorm. Something- an emotion she had never experienced- was keeping her from helping Ron. And from forgiving him. Something deep inside her wouldnít allow her to be compassionate, and she thought she knew what it was: bitterness. She couldnít forgive him for what he had said the night before.

Hermioneís mind suddenly flashed back to that fateful afternoon in a Hogsmeade alley. She remembered how he had kissed her.

She didnít hear or say anything, but was fiercely aware of any place she and Ron touched, from his hand, still on her face, to his hand on her back to her own arms braced against his chest, so she could feel his heart beating against her hand. He was holding her like she was made of a fairyís wing, barely touching her, as if she would tear if he was at all forceful with her. Without knowing what she was doing, she slipped her arms up around his neck and tremblingly returned his gentle kiss. She felt a tiny loose lock of his red hair between her fingers, and vaguely noticed that a few people had stuck their heads into the alley, drawn by the commotion, only to stop and quiet themselves, and take in the scene before them. She thought she could feel a tiny sensation of emotion emanating from Ron, in a way she couldnít quite place. He loves you, a voice in her head told her. And you love him, too, admit it!

But, if I love him, why canít I forgive him? Hermioneís mind cried. And that was nearly two years ago! So much has changed since then!

Her motherís words ran in her ears, reminding her of an old conversation, during the long afternoons of the past year. "If it makes you mad, itís not love" she had told her. "Love, real love will make you happy enough to forgive anyone of anything." Hermione squeezed her eyes shut. She wanted so much to love Ron. Why couldnít she?

 

'

 

Hermioneís week after that day was one of the worst weeks she had lived in her life (not counting the anguished weeks she had spent waiting for Ronís letter after the dance). She couldnít remember the last time she had been so angry at him, or, at the same time, so worried. When they fought, usually, it was for a good reason, and she could keep him out of her mind. But this time, it was like she was waging an internal war; half of her wanted to throw her arms around his neck and apologize and make everything all right. The other half simply wanted to kill him. And she was so worried about him.

By Friday, she felt almost consumed. She hadnít really talked to anyone for a week. Sitting down for breakfast on Saturday morning, though, she noticed a group of fifth years clustered around a copy of the Daily Prophet, and was reminded unpleasantly of Rita Skeeterís escapades in her fourth year. She picked up her copy of the paper and scanned the front page. It was the usual: "Fudge loses game for International Quidditch Cup," "No word on the location of Harry Potter; Ministry refuses to disclose details" (her throat caught on this one, but she had seen itís like many times before), but nothing out of the ordinary. Then her eyes were drawn to a small feature in the bottom corner of the page: "Suspicion grows around Weasley". Curious, she read it.

Ronald Weasley, aged seventeen, found earlier this week to be capable of breaking any truth spell or potion, has been rumored to have helped the Dark Lord to find and capture Harry Potter. Ironically, Mr. Potter is Mr. Weasleyís alleged best friend, though the two have not seen each other since the incident two Christmases ago.

Hermione gaped. And it wasnít even Rita Skeeter who had written the article. She looked around the table for Ron, and saw him staring at his breakfast with a grimace painted across his features. Several people were looking at him very strangely, others flat out glaring. Once again, the old feeling of wanting to help Ron bubbled up inside her, and she strained to keep it down. If he hadnít lied about his homework in the first place, none of this would have happened, said that horrible, reasonable voice. Shut up! The other shot back. Look at him. He looks as though he hasnít seen sunlight for days! She watched him push his oatmeal around in the bowl, looking sick.

Ron must have sensed her gaze, because, at that moment, he glanced up and looked straight at her, his brown eyes green-tinted with desperation. He searched Hermioneís face, as if trying to see how she would take this, but she looked away, got up and left the table.

Hermione hurried out of the Great Hall to the common room, desperate not to see Ron for the rest of the day. Iím going mad, she told herself. She had been having the dream about the blackness every night, too, just to add to everything. She thought that if she got six hours of sleep in one night, it would be a miracle. She reached the portrait hole and climbed through, desperately wracking her brain for something to do that day. Something- anything- to keep her mind off Ron.

She finally gave up and went to the library, intent on reading something. It was her usual solution for situations like this. When in doubt, read.

It had to have been ten hours before Hermione heard anyone come into the library. She had skipped lunch, and had read six books since breakfast. At around seven oíclock that evening, though, she heard someone walking in her direction. She looked up and, to her horror, saw Ron picking his way through the tables, chairs and shelves towards her.

Hermione was just about to get up and leave when Ron reached her, and he put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her gently back into her seat. "Not yet," he told her firmly. "I have to talk to you."

"What do you want?" Hermione snapped, more angrily than she had meant to. She bit her lip as Ron winced. Why on Earth couldnít she find a reason to be nice to him?

Ronís hand was still on her shoulder, holding her in her seat, as though he knew how she ached to get up and run away. "Iím assuming you saw the little article in the Prophet this morning, judging by how youíre avoiding me," he said quietly, a hint of sourness in his otherwise flat voice. "Not that your absence is anything unusual, these days." She narrowed her eyes and listened, impatient, as he continued. She could feel something weird, coming from the point where his hand touched her shoulder. "I just wanted to say-"

But Hermione was done listening. If she didnít get out of here, she would lose her mind. She jumped up and felt the chair fall to the floor at her feet. "I donít want to know!" she cried. "You are an ass, Ron Weasley! I donít want to talk to you! Leave me alone!"

"Hermione!" Ron scampered after her, through the chairs to the door. "Hey! I have to tell you!"

"I donít care!" she cried desperately. "I donít want to know!" She dodged a cart full of books and almost ran down the librarian.

"Hermione!" Ron took the opportunity and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Iím sorry, OK? I didnít mean what I said that night. You have to hear me out, Hermione!" She looked up and saw that his eyes were greener than ever, and seemed to be glowing. They look like kiwi slices, she realized. Brown around the edges, bright green in the middle, then flecks of black right in the center. She shook her head and pulled away from him.

"Let me go," she whispered. "If you can lie through any truth charm, how am I supposed to tell whether or not youíre lying to me?"

Hermione knew she shouldnít have said that the instant the last word escaped her lips. Ronís face fell and let go of her. She turned just slowly enough to hear him say fiercely, "Get out," and walked- almost ran- back to the common room and collapsed, drained, into bed. She was still wearing all her clothes.

 

'

 

Hermione yelped and sat up straight. She had dreamt about the black again. God, how she hated that dream. She glanced at the clock. It was one in the morning. She groaned.

Something papery collided with Hermioneís fingers as she tried to straighten her pillow. She dislodged it from between the mattress and headboard and unfolded it. A note. Quickly, she turned on the lamp beside her bed and instantly recognized Ronís messy scrawl:

Hey

More than angry words

I hate this silence.

Itís getting so loud.

Well I want to scream,

But bitterness has silenced these emotions.

Itís getting hard to breathe.

So tell me, isnít happiness

Worth more than a golden diamond ring?

Iím willing to do anything

To calm this storm in my heart.

Iíve never been the praying kind,

But lately Iíve been down upon my knees.

Not looking for a miracle,

Just a reason to believe.

He hadnít signed it, but she knew it was from Ron. She bit her lip, recognizing the song. It was by one of her favourite Muggle band, Savage Garden.

God, how am I supposed to get back to sleep now? Hermione wondered. Her stomach emitted a low growl, and she realized that she had forgotten about dinner as well as lunch. With a sigh, she rolled out of bed and pulled a pair of flannel pants on under her short nightdress. She was glad it was Saturday. She didnít know what she would have done if she had had to go to classes that morning. She plodded silently down the stairs to the common room, and was surprised to see a small fire burning in the hearth.

Ron was sitting on a couch by the fireplace, drawing in a small notebook. He looked pale and tired. She froze when she saw him, and was just about to turn and run in the opposite direction when he looked up and saw her.

"What are you doing up?" Hermione asked quietly. She winced, expecting a sharp reply, but none came.

"Couldnít sleep," Ron answered, equally quiet. "I must be getting sick or something." He put down his sketch pad, careful that the side with the picture was down, and looked expectantly at her. "Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to come and sit down?"

Hermione bit her lip and shuffled uncomfortably over to the chair, and sat down across from him. She felt so defeated she couldnít even come up with a smart remark. "What do you want?" she asked quietly.

"I wanted to finish telling you what I started earlier," he said, almost whispering. "Iím really, really sorry about what I said to you, OK? I lost my temper and said some stuff I didnít mean. I understand why the Ministryís not looking for Harry and Ginny, I just donít like it." He swallowed and looked her straight in the eye, and she flinched. "Iím sorry, Hermione. God, I am so sorry."

Something in his voice just told her that Ron wasnít lying. His eyes were very bright as he looked at her. "Itís as much my fault as yours," she told him. "Donít - donít feel so bad about it."

"It was my fault," Ron said firmly. "I lost my temper and bit your head off. You were perfectly rational and fair." Hermione opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand and silenced her. "And I refused to let myself forgive you."

"I wouldnít let myself forgive you," Hermione retorted. "Every time I thought about saying sorry, I yelled at myself. At least you made the first move."

"You had nothing to apologize for," he disagreed. "You did nothing wrong."

"But I saw you," she said. "You wanted to make peace and I wouldnít listen. Itís my fault, too."

She stopped when she noticed Ron looking at her again. "The things we argue about," he said quietly, amused. "Fine. Weíre both to blame. Truce?"

What little anger Hermione had felt until then evaporated. She allowed a small smile as she shook Ronís hand. "Truce. What were you drawing, by the way?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "You donít want to know," he told her.

"Now youíve got me curious," she retorted. "Come on, Ron."

With a shake of his head, Ron picked up the book and held it out to her. She gasped when she saw it: a dagger, in perfect proportion and scale, so detailed she could see its sharpness and the drops of blood running down its blade. "I didnít know you were an artist," she whispered. The picture was so good it scared her.

"Neither did I until last June," Ron replied with a slight grin. "I doodled a garden gnome one afternoon, and realized it was good." He closed the sketchbook and put it back on the table. "HermioneÖ"

She looked back at him to see that his eyes were brighter than ever. "Thatís not the only reason I needed to talk to you," he whispered.

"What else do you need to say?" she whispered. Something in his voice made her think that he was going to say something important. She leaned closer to hear him.

"I- On the train coming here- I hope I didnít offend you," he whispered. "I was kind of- er- forward, shall we say. More than I usually would have been if I had been thinking."

He paused, and she waited expectantly for him to continue. He took a deep breath and began talking again, so quietly she could barely hear him. "But that doesnít mean that- that I didnít mean it, Hermione."

Hermioneís heart fluttered in anticipation of what Ron was going to say next. God, let him say it, she prayed. Ron took a deep breath, swallowed hard and finally blurted out. "I- I think- I think Iím in love with you, Hermione."

That had not been what she was expecting. "What?" she asked, shocked.

Ron blushed, more with shame than embarrassment. "You heard me," he whispered.

"No, no, no, thatís not what I meant," she cried. "I just- you have no idea how long Iíve- how long Iíve been waiting to hear that, Ron."

He looked at her intensely. "You mean that?" he asked quietly, inching closer to her on the couch. "Youíre not going to slap me?"

Hermione almost laughed. "Slap you? Ron, Iíve been waiting to hear you say that since, oh, I donít know, the Yule Ball!"

Ron was so close to her now that she could feel his breath on her face, warm and soft. "If I kissed you now," he asked. "What would you do to me?" He gently reached over and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, making her shiver pleasantly.

"Nothing," she whispered, her heart fluttering like a golden snitch in her chest. Ron looked her straight in the eye for half a second, the leaned in all the way and kissed her softly.

Oh, she could have stayed like that forever. Ronís hand left her face and slid down to circle her waist, and she ran her hands up his chest and around his neck, letting him hold her tightly. Everything- from the feel of his lips on hers, the faint taste of mint from his toothpaste, to the way his arms tightened around her protectively- felt perfect in a way she hadnít thought possible. She broke away for a moment to draw a breath before Ron pulled her back, kissing her with an almost desperate manner.

He finally pulled away, and let out a long sigh into her hair before pulling back to get a good look at her. "I love you Hermione," he whispered, pulling her closer as he leaned back on the couch.

Hermione smiled at him quietly, happily, snuggling against him. Maybe she could survive this mess, so long as she had Ron to look after her. "I know," she whispered. And once again, something deep inside her told her that he wasnít lying.

//
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