The Sugar Quill
Author: Crescent (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: The Healer  Chapter: Part 2
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The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

'

Part Two

 

Hermioneís eyes snapped open. She had dreamed about the black again. Plus, she had dreamed about Ron being dragged away again, and she hadnít had that dream since July. She looked around wildly for a moment, not knowing where she was. Then she felt Ronís arms tighten around her, and heard him calling her name.

"Hermione! Hey, wake up!"

"What?" She tried to sit up, but Ron held her back. "I- sorry. Was I talking in my sleep?" She realized that her forehead was sweaty and hastily wiped it off.

Ron looked down at her with concern. "You were pretty quiet, but you were squirming an awful lot, like you were trying to see something." He wiped away a tear (where did that come from? Hermione thought) off her cheek and turned her to face him. "You were whispering something by the end. I donít know what it was you said, but it sounded pretty much like Ďnoí and Ďpleaseí."

Hermione shuddered. That sounded familiar all right. Why did she have to have that damned dream all the time?

"What did you dream about?" Ron asked.

Hermione winced. "I donít know," she replied. "I mean- I know what I saw and everything, but I canít figure out exactly what it was." She shuddered. "Everything was black, Ron. I couldnít see anything, or hear anything or anything."

Ron stroked her hair comfortingly. "Itís OK," he whispered. "Itís just a dream. Hey, youíre shaking."

"Itís not just a dream," Hermione whispered. "I donít know, Ron, it was real, I know it was." She shivered involuntarily. "It has something to do with Harry."

He pulled away from her. "Harry? Youíre sure?"

She squeezed her eyes shut. "No, Iím not sure," she said, almost snappishly. Ron looked hurt and she felt tears welling up in her eyes. "Oh my God, Ron. I donít know whatís going on with me. Iíve been having weird dreams for so long. Iím going insane."

Ron took her face in his hands and made her look at him. "What do you mean?" he asked. "How long has this been going on?"

Hermione let out a ragged breath. "I donít know. I was dreaming about the dance every night for most of last spring and summer. It was so horrible, Ron. I couldnít get it out of my head. I was afraid to fall asleep." She longed to tell him the part about watching him be dragged away, but couldnít bring herself to do so. "Whatís happening to me?" she whispered.

Ronís eyes were very bright as he looked at her. "Hermione," he whispered in a tortured voice. His eyes searched her face, as if looking for the cause of her pain, and finding nothing. He finally looked her in the eye again, then drew her close and kissed her softly.

Hermione trembled in Ronís arms as he held her, his mouth against hers. He was so gentle, and she could feel his love for her, tingling and unfolding through her body in a comforting manner. He pulled away and looked at her, then stood up and helped her to her feet.

"We should get back up to our rooms before people start coming down," he said quietly. "Itíll be time for breakfast soon. We have to just pretend nothing happenedÖ"

She smiled then, slightly, in anticipation of what the next few days would bring. She had been waiting to hear Ron say that he loved her for so long. But she knew that now was not the time to go walking around holding hands and the like. He led her to the foot of her stairs and hugged her.

"Iíll see you at breakfast," he whispered to her, then let her go and walked up his own stairs to the boysí dorm. Hermione hugged her chest, cold all of a sudden. She longed to tell Ron she loved him. "Ron," she called after him.

He turned at the top stair. "Yes?"

She took a deep breath. "I-" But her voice caught in her throat. "Good night, Ron," she finally whispered, then turned and ran up the remaining stairs to her dorm and fell into bed.

 

'

 

"Hermione!"

She thought she could hear someone calling her, but she didnít care. She had had the nicest dream. Ron had finally said he loved herÖ

"Hermione, wake up! Youíll miss breakfast!"

Oh my God. She sat up straight and almost knocked Parvati over. Last nightÖ It hadnít been a dream. "Sorry," she called to Parvati, as she danced out of bed and towards the bathroom to brush her teeth.

When she saw Ron later at the breakfast table, Hermioneís heart leaped. He looked up and smiled at her, but shook his head. Remember, she told herself. Now is not the time. Keep it private for now. She smiled back and continued eating. Today, though, the food tasted so much sweeter.

She met up again with Ron that evening, after dinner. She had spent the day with the Patils and Lavender, actually tolerating their presence for the first time in years. She bumped into Ron (literally!) coming around the greenhouses.

"I need to talk to you," he said the instant he saw her, without stopping for formalities. Lavender shot a more-than-friendly glance in his direction, but he ignored it. He took Hermioneís arm and led her over to a bench that sat by the side of the lake, and they sat down.

"Yes?" Hermione asked. "Is everything OK?"

Ron hesitated, then sighed and put an arm around her shoulders. "You read the article about the Ďsuspicioní around me, didnít you?" he asked quietly. She nodded. "I- Iím not so sure itís rumors," he said, turning to look at her. "I think I must have caught your insanity or something, but the Ďrumorsí sound like they could be true."

"What?" Hermione stared at him. "What do you mean? You have been helping You-Know-Who?"

Ron winced, then answered. "I canít remember much about the days around when Harry and Ginny went missing," he whispered. "Iím all muddled up, Hermione. If I try and think about it, my thoughts stray." He looked up and smiled wryly. "Somehow, I get the idea thatís not normal."

"But- how could you be?" she asked, bewildered. "Youíre not exactly the type to go off betraying your best friend. Besides, thereís nothing that says it was you."

Ron sighed and stared at the ground. "But thatís just the thing. If I didnít help him, who did? My family are the only people who know where Harry lives. How else could You-Know-Who have found him?"

Hermione scoffed. "Youíre not the only ones that know where he lives," she said confidently. "I know where he lives."

Ron looked up, eyebrow raised. "Yeah? Where, then?"

"He lives in Surrey," Hermione answered matter-of-factly. "See?"

Ron opened his mouth to say something snide, then closed it. "He lives at number four Privet Drive in Little Whinging, in Surrey," he said. "And only Fred, George and I know how to get there." He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "See what I mean? And Iím so damned confused about the days around when they went missing. Mom says I was in shock, but what if I wasnít? Oh, God, Hermione, what if it was a memory charm? What if I did?"

Hermione chewed on her lip. What Ron was saying made sense- almost. But she knew Ron would never sell Harry to Voldemort. He was too- too good for that. Wasnít he?

Iím going nuts, Hermione said to herself for about the tenth time that week. Of course Ron would never do that! What am I thinking? She shook her head, desperate to clear it of the treacherous thoughts flooding through it, and told herself again and again that it couldnít be true. It couldnít possibly be true. Oh, yeah? that voice said again. Remember in Arithmancy, when you did that weird equation with all the guilt and suspicion? Professor Vector said that Ron was linked to the conflict!

"Shut up!" Hermione cried suddenly, before she could stop herself.

"What?" Ron looked up again, a frown sharpening his features.

"Nothing," she whispered. "Sorry."

Ron massaged his forehead. "I donít know," he said finally. "Maybe I am nuts. Itís just too weird. And ever since we met Harry, weird stuff seems to follow us around."

Hermione smiled at him. "Well," she said quietly. "Iím already nuts. You wonít be short on company."

He grinned at her and put an arm around her waist, pulling her closer. "I donít know what I would do without you to keep me sane," he teased her. On a more serious note, he added, "Thanks for listening to me. I needed to let that out."

She frowned and ran her thumb along his burn scar. "How long has it been bothering you?" she asked.

Ron sighed. "About a week, give or take a few days." He put a hand gently on her cheek and pulled her so close that their noses were almost touching. Hermione put her arms around his neck and hugged him, sensing his need for comfort. His arms tightened around her waist, and she could feel one of his hands run up her back, returning to her face. He pulled away from her, then leaned in and kissed her deeply.

For the first time, Hermione actually found herself kissing Ron back. She shivered as his mouth moved over hers, filling her with happiness. His hand slid around to the back of her neck and entangled itself in her hair; he pulled her even closer.

Hermione started, suddenly realizing that her mouth was open, and that Ron was taking advantage of that. She almost pulled away, then decided that she liked the feeling she got from his kisses. Ron shifted so he was pressing her into the back of the bench, and she tightened her arms around his neck. God, how she loved himÖ

Something- she wasnít sure what- was giving her a feeling of uneasiness. She realized she could feel some kind of emotion radiating from Ron. She could feel his anxiety and worry, the deep-seated terror at all that was happening around him. She couldnít read his thoughts, no, but she could sense what was going on in his head. She jumped.

Ron pulled away, his breath ragged. "Iím sorry," he whispered hoarsely.

Hermione blinked. "For what?" she asked, still stunned by what she had just encountered.

He frowned. "I- I went too far," he said quietly. "I shouldnít have come on so
strong, I-" He stopped as Hermione put a hand over his mouth to shush him.

"You didnít do anything wrong," she said quietly. "Iím not mad at you." She shivered as Ron ran a finger under her eye and around her ear, through her hair. She could still feel it, though fainter, now, and tinted with shame and resentment. But as he smiled, and pulled her to him again, and kissed her, she felt these emotions all but evaporate, leaving behind one simple- and yet, complex- thought: love.

 

'

 

Hermione looked around her frantically. Why was it always so black here? Her hands reached in front of her, looking for something- anything! She was about to give up when her fingers brushed something. She gasped and took a step towards it. Sure enough, she collided squarely with a wall. It was disgusting- damp, slimy and cold- but it was a wall, and it was more than she usually got.

Stopping for a deep breath, Hermione strained to hear or see something. It was no use; still black. Wait! She thought she could hear something, far away. She turned and shuffled in the direction of the noise, following the wall.

Was that singing? Hermione moved a little bit closer. She gasped. It was Ginnyís voice, a smooth, clear soprano. And she was singing.

"Awaken, breathe

Hear the calling in the wind.

A voice, itís saying

A journey must begin.

Weíll fly, like a bird

In a scattered cloudy sky

Leave aside the city worries,

Itís just a minute awayÖ"

There! Around the corner, she could just see a tiny light. She hurried towards it, still following the sound of Ginnyís singing.

"In my heart, Iíll paint a picture

And I swear, itís where Iíll beÖ

I shall be there

Will you be there?

I shall be there

Will you be there, too?"

Hermioneís outstretched hands touched something wooden. The light she had seen wasnít as far away as she had thought it had been. Her fingers crept down until they touched a handle. A door. She tried the latch, but it was locked. Standing on tiptoe, she looked into the tiny window where the light was coming from. And she almost screamed.

There, sitting in a tiny, cramped cell, were Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. Harry was asleep, or looked like he was, and Ginny was sitting next to him, stroking his hair and singing. The moonlight from the small, barred window near the ceiling cast a beam of silvery light across Harryís pale and Ginnyís equally pale hand. They both looked overly thin, and their clothes were stained and torn.

"Come on and look, in silence

Believe in what you see

(In a place, like this)

The starry skies can move the mountains

The sun will warm the seaÖ"

Hermione tried to call "Ginny!" but no sound came out. She knocked hard on the door, but it was silent. No, she thought desperately. They have to hear me! She tried to scream. Nothing happened.

"In my heart, Iíll paint a picture

And I swear, itís where Iíll be, ooh

I shall be there

Will you be there?

I shall be there

Will you be there, too?

She thought she could hear someone calling her, from deep at the other and of the hallway. It sounded like Lavender. Go away, Lavender, she thought. Please! They need to hear me! The scene around her faded, and she felt as though she was falling.

"Hermione!"

Her eyes snapped open and she stared up at Lavenderís concerned face. Lavender stopped shaking her and said, "Thank God! I thought youíd never wake up!"

"What?" Hermione tried to sit up, but found that she couldnít move very well. "Lavender, I canít move!"

Lavender smiled then, almost knowingly. "Lie still, honey," she said. "Youíll be fine in a moment. What did you dream about?"

She closed her eyes. "Harry and Ginny. I dreamed they were in a little cell." She stared up at Lavender, almost pleadingly. "Why?"

Lavender chewed her lip and sat down on the edge of the bed. "You know Iím very interested in Divination," she said, and Hermione tried not to snort. "And donít scoff," Lavender reprimanded. "I studied it a lot over the past year, the older methods. Tarot cards, scrying, runes. And astral projection."

"Astral- what?" Hermione was bewildered.

"Projection," Lavender said. "The practice of separating oneís soul from their body to see something in either the past, present or future."

Hermione frowned. "I was dead?" she cried.

Lavender laughed gently. "No, love," she said soothingly. "Your body still worked. But you were not in it. Harry and Ginny, did you say? In a cell? Did you see anything else?"

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut. "I walked down a really long hallway first," she said. "And when I tried to call them, they couldnít hear me."

Her friend looked at her. "I donít think you saw the future," she said. "I think it was the present. You know, Professor Trelawney said you didnít have much of a psychic aura, but I think she might have been wrong. It was all over you when you were asleep."

Hermioneís mind flashed back to when Ron had kissed her, how she had felt his thoughts. "Psychic?" she asked. "Me? But I was a washout in Divination."

Lavender smiled and appeared to be deep in thought. "We did a lot of work with divinatory tools that year," she said quietly, distractedly. "Some people donít need the tools, and using them muddles up their ability. Say, in your dream, did you know it was a dream?"

"I usually do," Hermione answered. "I think I forgot, this time, though."

Lavender frowned. "And usually when you know youíre dreaming, you can fiddle with whatís happening, right?" Hermione nodded. "But you couldnít this time?" Hermione nodded again. "That settles it, then," Lavender said firmly. "Definitely an astral projection dream. Have you had any other dreams like it before?"

Hermione winced. The dance. Dammit! "Yes," she whispered. "I dreamed about the dance every night for months. And I had a weird dream about Ron, too."

Lavender sighed. "The dance- thatís a memory, but if it still bothers you it might be a message. As for Ron- you two are a couple, right?" Hermione blushed and nodded. Lavender smiled. "I thought so. What did you dream about with him?"

Hermione chewed her lip. "He was dressed all in white, and he was getting dragged away by a bunch of guys in uniforms, like he was a criminal. He looked the same as he always did- that was last summer when I dreamed these- but I knew he was supposed to be older."

Lavender stood up. "I think thereís more to you than there seems to be," she told her. "Iíll see you at breakfast."

Hermione stared after the girl that usually irked her no end. It was amazing what eighteen months could do to a personís maturity. "Thereís more to you than there seems to be," Lavender had said. Hermione smiled. Right back at ya, Lav.

 

'

 

Three weeks later

"You look really good," Parvati said encouragingly.

"Itís a really cute costume," Lavender added.

Hermione gazed at her reflection in the mirror with dismay. It was Halloween, and Hermione was already committed to writing an extra paper for Transfiguration. She had no time to organize a costume for the dance, let alone make one. Therefore, she had let the cheerful volunteers, Parvati and Lavender take care of it.

Big mistake.

She was now clad in a skimpy, wispy fairy costume, complete with wings and a halo of flowers. Her hair was down except for two tiny braids, wrapped around her head with flowers woven into them. Lavender had enchanted the whole ensemble to shimmer and sparkle. She tugged self-consciously at the flimsy material of the skirt, trying to bring the hem down to a decent level.

"Careful!" Parvati reprimanded. "Youíll tear the wisps!"

Damned wisps, Hermione thought feverishly. "I canít wear this!" she protested. "The rules specifically stated that you couldnít wear anything revealing, and if this isnít revealing, I donít know what is!"

Parvati laughed. "But itís so cute!" she said. "Besides, what teacher in his right mind is going to ask you to change out of that?"

Hermione sighed and looked in the mirror again. It was a nice costume. And she did look terrific in it. But stillÖ

"Hold still," Lavender ordered, purposefully whipping out a compact of gold eyeshadow and brushing it over Hermioneís eyelids and cheekbones. "There! Now youíre ready. Now wait here while Parvati and I change."

Hermione sighed and fell onto the bed, feeling the "wispy" edges of the dress float down gently beside her legs. Next Halloween, she vowed. I am taking care of my own costume or not going to the dance at all!

"Ta-da!"

Hermione looked up, and her jaw dropped. Here, standing in front of her, were two strangely clad girls who looked as though they had jumped right out of the sixties-club sets of Austin Powers. Tiny, brightly-coloured dresses, very odd hair, massive shoes, and large round sunglasses. She laughed.

"What- what planet are you supposed to be from?" Hermione gasped between giggles.

Lavender laughed and fluffed her hair. "Phsycadellic, no? This ought to strike a familiar chord with a few of the teachers!"

Parvati giggled. "I can just picture McGonagall, thirty-five years ago, partying away, martini in hand." She peered at her face in a flower-shaped mirror and applied a layer of Barbie-pink lipstick to her mouth. It looked atrocious, but it went with the costume.

"Who are you going with?" Hermione asked breathlessly, her sides sore from laughing.

"Dean and Seamus," Lavender answered. "Theyíre dressed as Austin Powers and Dr, Evil. I shudder to think of what Seamus is wearing- heís Powers."

"Or not wearing," Parvati chipped in. She shuddered.

Hermione giggled along with them, and shook her head. She stood up, and sighed dismally as she tugged again on the hem of her skirt. "Donít you have something I could wear over this thing?" she demanded. "A cloak or something?"

Lavender sighed dramatically, and produced a long, floor length bronze cloak, made of the same type of fabric as the dress. Hermione snatched it and pulled it on. "Thank you," she said, then grinned at the disappointed expressions on her friendsí faces. "Oh, smile, will you?" she chided. "I might take it off later. Letís go see how the boys are doing."

The trio went down the stair slowly, for Parvati and Lavenderís sake, as they were wearing platform shoes. Dean and Seamus were both at the bottom already, sitting on one of the couches, absorbing compliments for their interesting costumes. Hermione scanned the room for Ron. Where was he?

"Look, Hermi," Parvati giggled, pointing. "Thereís Ron. Whatís wrong with him?"

Hermione followed her friendís gaze, and saw Ron sitting on the stairs to the boysí dormitory. He was wearing a long, dark red cloak with the hood pulled up, and a sour expression on his face. She raised an eyebrow, and walked over to see what was the matter.

Ron looked up, and grinned when he saw her. "Whereís your costume?" he asked teasingly. "Someone has no spirit."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "I made the mistake of letting Lavender and Parvati take care of my costume." She jerked her head over to where the pair were flirting with a group of seventh year boys. "And Iím not taking this off." She tightened the cloak protectively around her shoulders and sat down next to him. "And whereís yours?"

Ron sighed animatedly. "I, like you, let my friends organize my costume. Something that has taught me a valuable lesson. And Iím not taking mine off, either."

Hermione grinned. "Oh, surely it canít be that bad," she protested.

Ron looked up at her and rolled his eyes. "Oh, yes it can." He scanned her cloak, and then his own. "Tell you what," he said finally. "You take yours off, and Iíll take mine off."

They were interrupted by a loud half-disgusted giggle from a sugar-high second year who was coming up the stairs. Frowned. "Let me rephrase that," he said, kicking the kid back down the stair absently. "You first."

Hermione sighed and stood up. This is so Titanic, she thought as she fiddled with the ties of her cloak. She finally let it slip over her shoulders, feeling the wings unfurl between her shoulder blades. With a defiant expression on her face, she turned and faced Ron.

He gaped at her. Hermione winced and reefed again at the hem of the dress. Why is it so damned short? She fidgeted uncomfortably, grinding the ball of her foot into the carpet of the stair. "Going to say anything?" she asked finally.

Ron shook his head violently. "Sorry," he said. "My God- you look amazing." He looked her up and down. "Pixie, are you?"

She shifted. "Er- fairy, apparently. Are you going to show me yours or what?"

Ron rolled his eyes. He pulled back the hood of his cloak, revealing that his hair had been spiked and shaped into two horns on either side of his head. Hermione raised an eyebrow and he smiled wryly at her. "It gets worse," he said, and pulled off the cloak.

It was Hermioneís turn to gape. Ron was wearing red leather pants and an orange tank top with a black mesh shirt over top. The whole effect made him look like a glowing ember, and gave him an image that Lavender would have described as "naughty". "The devil?" she squeaked.

Ron rolled his eyes and blew air out of the side of his mouth. "Like I said, this is the last time I let Dean organize my costume. I feel like a transvestite."

Hermione blinked a couple of times to clear her head. "Well, at least our costumes go together. Sort of." It was true, the colours of Hermioneís costume complimented Ronís perfectly, whether pixies usually associated with demons or not. She offered a hand to Ron and pulled him out of his seat. They walked down the stairs and joined the group of students leaving for the Great Hall.

The decorations for the dance were fantastic. Pumpkins, scarecrows and other harvest décor lined the walls, and there was food everywhere. Pumpkin juice in massive punch bowls, pumpkin pie, deep-fried bat wings (a.k.a. blue corn tortilla chips) and cookies of all shapes and sizes, stacked high on tables around the edges of the dance floor. People in all sorts of costumes- from angels to zebras- stood around, waiting for the dancing to start.

Hermione smiled as she felt Ron take her hand and guide her over onto the dance floor. "Look," he said to her over the music. "They hired a deejay." A man dressed in a vampire outfit was standing on a raised platform at one end of the room, surrounded by artistically flashing lights. Hermione didnít recognize the song they were playing- it was a wizard one, and she didnít listen to WWN. She liked it, though.

"Are you going to dance with me or what?" she asked, giving Ronís hand a tug.

He grinned back at her. "I donít dance," he said firmly.

"Oh, donít be a spoilsport," Hermione said, laughing. "You danced at the last ball. You canít have gotten any worse!" She gave his arm another good wrench, and pulled him onto the dance floor.

Maybe Ron was lying. Or maybe he didnít know how good he was. But it was clear to Hermione that Ron was quite capable of dancing. The music pounded in her ears as he spun her, and she shrieked and hauled at her skirt again, as the turn pulled it up again. Iím going to kill Lavender, she thought passionately.

She laughed again as Ron swung her around, putting her down again in one of the little door recesses that led to the kitchens. "Ron!" she chided. "You told me you couldnít dance!"

He grinned evilly at her, leaning in and tracing the flowers in her hair with his fingers. "I lied," he said matter-of-factly. "Mum taught me how."

"To dance or to lie-" Hermione started, but Ron cut her off by putting a hand over her mouth.

"Pixie," he whispered, leaning even closer. "Shut up." And he took his hand away and kissed her vehemently.

Hermione smiled inwardly as she snaked her arms around Ronís neck, letting him hold her tightly. She shivered as his mouth moved over hers, his hands running up and down her back. The now-familiar sensation of knowing what he was thinking washed over her, and she surrendered and let Ron pull her even closer.

He pulled away for a moment, his breath ragged, before returning to her. He left her lips and kissed her eyelid, her cheek, her ear, then trailed down to her neck. Hermione quaked in his grip, relying on his arms to hold her up. She thought she would fall over if he let go. He came back to her mouth and kissed her until she was out of breath.

"Hey, get a room, guys," came a voice from beside them. "Youíre starting to melt the decorations." Dean Thomas, a.k.a. Dr. Evil, with Parvati Patil hanging around his neck like a bow tie, was leaning against the wall, grinning evilly.

Ron let go of Hermione quickly and jumped away from her. She felt a slight blush creep into her cheeks as Parvati winked at her.

"Donít say you werenít doing anything," Parvati warned them. "íCause weíll never believe a word of it. Say, is that Celtic music playing?"

And it was. Hermione wondered if there was always such an extensive selection played at wizarding balls.

"We were just about to go and try to find an empty room or something," Dean said. "Lavender has this new game she found, and she wants to try it. Care to join us?"

Hermione raised an eyebrow, but Ron just grinned and took her hand as they followed their friends through the crowds of people in the Great Hall, stopping momentarily to collect Lavender.

"What about Seamus?" Lavender protested as they tried to steer her away. "We canít forget him!"

"Where is he?" Dean asked. Lavender pointed to a clearing were Seamus, in full Austin Powers regalia, was dancing in a fashion that almost put Michael Flatley to shame.

"Thatís Seamus?" Parvati squeaked. "I didnít know he could ĎRiverdanceí."

Lavender grinned. "His dad taught him how. After all, his whole family is Irish."

Dean waded in and grabbed his friend by the arm. "Break it up, Lord of the Dance," he mocked. "Come on, weíre going to go play with that book of Lavís"

The five of them managed to get Seamus away from his audience and into the hallway. They all flopped against the wall and slid to the floor, while Lavender rummaged trough her purse, looking for the book they were going to play with.

"So, Satan," Parvati called to Ron. "Got a little devilish this evening, did we?" Ron glared at her, then inspected his fingernails like they were the most interesting things in the world. Parvati laughed and turned her attention to Lavender, who had finally managed to find her book.

"If," she read. "Questions for the Game of Life. By Evelyn McFarlane and James Saywell. Who wantís to go first?"

Confused, everybody stared at her. She giggled. "Fine then. Iíll go first. Seamus-" She closed her eyes, opened the book, and pointed, then opened her eyes and read, "If you could steal one thing in the world, other than money, without getting caught, what would you take?"

Seamus looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he said, "A pair of top-box tickets to the next Quidditch world cup. Now what?"

Lavender passed him the book. "Ask someone else, silly."

"All right," said Seamus. He flipped through the book. "Parvati: If you could have a dinner party inviting any four people from history, who would you invite, and where would the party take place?"

And so, on they went, learning interesting and trivial facts about each other that they would probably forget by the end of the week, until Ronís turn came for about the ninth time.

"Dean," he began. "If you could- wait," he stopped short. "Where did you say you found this book, Lavender?"

She shrugged. "In the Muggle section of the school library. Why?"

Ron looked back at the book with raised eyebrows. "Iím not sure this ought to be in contact with younger kids. Look at this."

She took the book and started to read the question. "If you could have- oh, dear. I see your point." She put the book back in her bag and stood up. "Letís go back to the dance."

When they got back through the doors, they were immediately pounced upon by Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore. They both sported extremely grim expressions.

"Damn," said Seamus. "Busted." Dean elbowed him in the ribs to shut him up, but neither of the teachers seemed to notice their antics. They were both focused on Ron. He removed his arm from around Hermioneís shoulders quickly, taking a step away from her.

"Weasley," said McGonagall sternly, taking Ronís arm. "We need to speak with you. Without the other students." And with that, Ron was led away, a puzzled expression on his face.

 

'

 

Hermione sat in the hallway outside the entrance to Professor Dumbledoreís office with her friends, waiting for Ron to come out. The rumors about Ronís involvement with Voldemort had spread, and she wouldnít have been surprised if it had gotten al the way up to the teachers. McGonagall hadnít looked pleased when she came asking for him. Hermione fiddled with the edge of her dress, impatient. What was taking so long?

"Whatís taking so long?" Parvati asked suddenly, voicing exactly Hermioneís thoughts. "Whatíre they doing in there, anyway?"

Hermione shook her head. "I donít know," she said quietly. "I mean- thereís that whole rumors thing, but it canít be that, can it?"

"Could well be," Dean said darkly. "Especially if Snapeís heard of it."

Hermione chewed on her lip and tugged worriedly on her hair. "You donít have to stay here," she said quietly to her friends. "You can go back to the dance. You donít have to stay with me."

Seamus looked up, trying not to disturb Lavender, who was asleep against his shoulder. "You donít have to stay here, either," he pointed out. "But you are, for Ron. And we will for you." He twirled one of Lavenderís curls around his finger, and she made a soft noise and snuggled against him. "Not like Iím bored," Seamus added with a bit of a grin. "Iíve got entertainment."

Hermione sighed. She wished she could lean on Ronís shoulder right then. But Ron was up in the office, so she couldnít.

Dean frowned at her expression. "Hey," he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Itíll be OK. Roníll be fine."

She sighed again and slumped against the wall. She wanted to believe Dean, but- She had been dreaming again. Some about Harry and Ginny, with a bit of professional advice from Lavender- and about Ron. More and more she was dreaming about him being led away. She hated it. She loathed it. But it wouldnít stop. Somehow, she knew: something was very wrong.

"Miss Granger."

Hermione was jolted out of her half-trance as the gargoyle jumped aside and Professor McGonagall stepped out of the wall behind it. "Get up, Miss Granger," she said to Hermione, in a far gentler voice than she usually used. "I think youíre needed upstairs." She glanced sternly at the rest of them, saying, "The rest of you can go."

Seamus woke up Lavender, and the four of them got up slowly and walked in the opposite direction. Hermione meekly followed McGonagall back through the wall and up the spiral staircase to Dumbledoreís office. When they reached the top, the Professor opened the door and drew Hermione inside.

The second thing Hermione noticed when she got inside Dumbledoreís main office was the exquisite decorating in the room. The walls were lined with portraits, and there were odd little trinkets everywhere. Fawkes, the Phoenix, sat on a desk in one corner, preening his feathers. She took all this in through a bit of a screen, though, because the first thing she noticed in the room was Ron.

And he was crying.

Ron was sprawled on a large chair in the corner of the room, his hands over his face, tears streaming from his eyes. He was making no noise, but Hermione could see him shaking uncontrollably, even from across the room.

She started to take a step towards him, but McGonagall tightened her grip on Hermioneís shoulder and held her back. Hermione flexed her fingers, itching to go over and see what was the matter. Dumbledore walked into the office from an adjoining room, and led Ron into it; closed the door gently behind him. Then he strode over to where Hermione and McGonagall were standing.

"I think Mr. Weasley would rather be left alone, right now," he told Hermione gently. "When we have finished, I will allow you to see him."

"Whatís the matter?" Hermione asked, panicked. "Is he OK?"

Dumbledore tugged thoughtfully at his beard. "He is not in any physical danger, if thatís what you mean. But he may be rather unpleasant for a few days. You may leave, Minerva," he added to Professor McGonagall. "This does not concern you."

McGonagall squeezed Hermioneís shoulder in an almost motherly fashion, then walked out the door and down the stairs. Hermione watched her go, feeling as though everything she had was leaving with the professor. She sighed and turned her attention to Dumbledore. "Whatís going on?" she asked finally.

He looked her over, almost as if he were sizing her up. Hermione shifted under his gaze, nervous. Dumbledore finally sighed and began.

"You are aware of the rumors circulating around Mr. Weasley, Iím sure," he said, and Hermione nodded. "Hm. Well, he says he told you- he told us as well- that he is beginning to feel that the rumors may carry some truth. He gave some excellent reasons for thinking such things, and Minerva and I decided it was time to see what it all meant."

"You did a truth spell on him?" Hermione asked. "But he can break those, right? Whatís the point?"

He shook his head. "No. There are a few spells that deal strictly with memory. I selected a particularly strong one that helps to bring back distant and forgotten thoughts." Mr. Weasley was placed under a memory charm, Miss Granger, and what the rumors are saying is partially true."

She almost fell out of her seat. "What? True? How? Ron wouldnít sell Harry to Voldemort! He wouldnít!"

Dumbledore cut her off with a raised hand. "He did not sell them to Voldemort, Miss Granger," he said firmly. "If you stop interrupting, I will tell you what happened as it was told to me." Hermione took the hint and sat back into her chair.

"You know that Mr. Potter and Miss Weasley disappeared approximately five weeks before school began." Hermione nodded again. "Well, the struggle actually began about a week before that. Ron was grocery-shopping in Ottery St. Catchpole when he stumbled across a Death Eater, disguised as a beggar. The Death Eater took him to Voldemortís Headquarters, recognizing him as Harryís friend. Ron was questioned on Harryís whereabouts, but he refused to tell, even under Cruciatus Curse."

Hermione smiled grimly. Good for you, Ron, she thought.

"Ron was sent back to his home with the promise that the Death Eaters would return. They did, and used a powerful truth spell on him, which he resisted quite well, until they took his sister. It was then that he lost control and let it slip where Harry was staying. But this is what is bothering me, Miss Granger." He beckoned to her, and she leaned forward to hear what he was saying, numb from shock.

"The memory charm was extremely easy to break," Dumbledore said quietly. "Too easy. More easy than I find normal. That is why Mr. Weasley was able to pick up on a few details and bring it to our attention. But Iím suspicious, Miss Granger. I believe that it may have been weak on purpose. As if there might have been a reason for it."

Hermione sat very still for a moment, letting this all sink in. "So- is Ron in trouble?" she asked quietly. "Is he blamed for this?"

Dumbledore smiled gently. "No, of course not. It was not his fault. But-" He stopped and looked intently at her. "You must tell no one what happened. It does not leave this room. You may discuss it with Mr. Weasley if you wish, but you must be sure that no one will hear you. Do you understand?"

Hermione nodded. "Yes, sir," she whispered. "May I see Ron, now?"

The old professor sighed and stood up. Hermione followed him to the room where Ron was. Dumbledore opened the door and let her in, but did not follow. He closed the door behind her, and left them alone.

Ron was sitting in the corner of the room. His hair, which had sported devilish spikes at the start of the evening, was rumpled, and around his eyes was red from crying. When he looked up at her, his eyes were again flat and wrung out, with no trace of green in them. Hermione almost started crying when she saw him.

"Hey," Ron said brokenly. "I guess Dumbledore told you everything, huh?"

She licked her lips nervously. "I guess so," she answered. "He probably left out a few details, for your sake, I mean-"

Ron cut her off with a raised hand. "I donít want to think about it right now," he said firmly. "It disgusts me."

"Itís not your fault," Hermione protested. "You couldnít do anything about it."

Ron jumped to his feet and glared at her. She winced, in remembrance of the fights they had had not so long ago. I wonít let us hate each other again, she thought firmly. Not now!

"You werenít there," Ron said slowly, silkily. "You donít know what happened. I resisted the truth spell, OK? Because I could. I could, get it? And then, when they took Ginny, I lost it. I could have broken it, see, but I didnít. I lost it. So now Harry and Ginny are with You-Know-Who, and Iím the only one I can blame. So donít tell me itís not my fault, Hermione Granger, because as far as Iím concerned, it is!"

He was very close to slapping her, she could tell. She took a step back into the door. "Ron, Iím sorry," she whispered.

He sighed, and fell back against the wall. "Donít be," he said quietly. "Itís not your fault." He screwed his eyes shut and put his head in his hands again. "Dear God, why is it that every time I get something good in my life, someone comes along and screws it up?"

Was he crying again? Hermione sat down beside him, worried. "Thereís nothing you could have done," she whispered. "And there isnít anything you can do, and there probably never will be." She stroked his hair comfortingly, feeling her own tears threatening to well up behind her own eyes. Ron reached up behind his head and took her hand.

"I didnít mean to yell at you," he told her quietly. "Iím sorry. If you havenít noticed, I tend to blow up at things rather easily, these days."

She smiled wryly. "Oh, Iíve noticed, all right," she said, then changed her tone of voice. "Youíll be OK, wonít you?"

Ron brought his hand down, still holding hers. He looked at her hand, running his finger over her palm, thinking. "It really hurt when they broke the memory charm," he admitted. "I donít think it was supposed to. McGonagall and Dumbledore didnít notice. It felt like a full-body Cruciatus Curse." He shuddered. "Ugh. I donít know, Pixie. I got the impression that something bad was going to happen."

Pixie. He had been calling her that all evening. If it had been any other day, she would have loved it. But right now, she was too worried. Ron stood up with a sigh and pulled her to her feet.

"You wonít tell anyone, will you?" he asked quietly. "About what they told you? About what I told you?"

Hermione bit her lip and touched his cheek. "Of course not," she said. "Not unless you want me to."

He smiled a tiny smile, then leaned down and kissed her softly. "Thanks," he whispered. "I appreciate it."

She hugged him tightly, feeling his need for comfort. Ron was still shaking. "Itíll be OK," she whispered in his ear. But something deep, deep down inside of her told her that that was a lie.

 

'

 

Things were rather uneventful for the next three weeks, considering the circumstances. Ron had a cold for a couple of days, and Hermione caught it (Parvati suggested that perhaps she gad gotten it from kissing. Hermione smacked her.), but it was flu season and nearly everyone did at some point or another.

It seemed that quite a few students had witness Hermione and Ronís "intrigue" (as Lavender called it), including Draco Malfoy. Dean said heíd actually heard Pansy Parkinson telling Malfoy what had gone on- in a very exaggerated manner. Malfoy, however, made no snide remarks, no rude comments. Actually, he didnít say much of anything to anyone. In class, he was quiet and did what he had to, no more, no less. After five years of watching Malfoy cause trouble, it was a shock to see him so good.

Snape, however, more than made up for him.

Well known for pulling new rules out of thin air, Snape decided the day after the dance that "suggestive behavior" in public was a suspendable offence. Luckily, Professor McGonagall was able to get them out of it.

Ron still loved complaining about Snape, even after having had him as a teacher for six years. They were sitting in History of Magic one day, three weeks after Halloweíen, when Hermione felt a note poked between her shoulder blades.

Pixie,

Is it just me, or is Snape watching me? Every time I look up in Potions, heís staring at me. Or so I think. I could be wrong. Have you noticed anything?

-Ron

Hermione bit her lip for a moment. Come to think of it, she had noticed Professor Snape watching Ron a few times over the past few weeks. She hadnít thought anything of it; after all, Snape did hate her and Ron. He was still bitter for failing to expel them.

Ron,

If Professor Snapeís watching you, itís likely because heís looking for an excuse to have you thrown out of the school. Therefore, I suggest you stay out of trouble while heís around.

-Hermione

She passed the note to Ron, who opened it, read it and grinned. She watched him scribble a reply and pass it back to her.

Pixie,

Snapeís excuse for trying to get us suspended was, as he put it, our "suggestive behavior". The thing is, he didnít actually see us at the dance (probably locked himself in his office, disgusted at the thought of children having fun). He heard it from one of the younger Slytherin students. According to thins young man, I had you on the ground, with your dress halfway off your shoulders. I donít know where that came from!

-Ron

Hermione rolled her eyes. Rumors, she thought. Honestly. Just to be ornery, though, she wrote back:

Ron,

Sorry, I wasnít paying much attention. How am I supposed to know that itís just rumors? Did you do that?

-Hermione

She grinned as she tossed it to him and watched as he raised an eyebrow, then scrawled his reply on the back of the paper.

I wish.

Hermione let out a smothered giggle, trying not to disturb the class. She crumpled up the note and looked over at Ron. He was grinning evilly at her. She crumpled the paper into a tighter ball, and took careful aim. Glancing for a moment at Professor Binns, she whipped the paper over Lavenderís head at Ron.

He raised a hand to block the tiny missile, his grin still on his face. But then he frowned, his hand convulsed, and he missed the paper. It hit him in the shoulder. That wasnít so bad, it was only paper, after all. But Ron was still frowning- grimacing, now- and massaging his hand between his other finger and thumb. He finally flexed his fingers a few times, and focused again (however glumly) on the ghost professor.

Hermione caught up with Ron on the way out of class. "What happened to your hand?" she asked as she came up beside him.

"Donít know," Ron admitted. "It just wouldnít work. It froze up." He was quiet for a moment as Hermione took his hand and looked over it, bending his fingers and wrist back and forth. "Hurt like hell, too. Like the Cruciatus Curse, just on the hand." He drew his hand back and rolled his eyes. "I say that a lot these days, donít I?" he asked. "About the Cruciatus Curse?"

Hermione smiled uncertainly, and took Ronís other hand, giving it a squeeze. "Letís go," she said to him. "Itís time for lunch."

"We have Potions after lunch," Ron complained as they walked down the hall. "Double with the Slytherins." He shuddered. "Why do we always have to have it with the Slytherins? Why?" He threw up his hands in despair. "Aarrgh!"

Hermione laughed. "Get over it," she chided. "At least itís only twice a week. Most people have Potions every day."

He rolled his eyes. "One day I will just give up in Potions. I will just lose it and go completely mad, and drop on the floor, twitching." He laughed. "That shouldnít be too far away, at the rate this is going." He put his arm around her shoulders, and they walked laughing, to the Great Hall.

 

'

 

Make sure you donít add your Unicorn horn too soon," Snape growled irritably at his class. "Or it will be too thick, and useless." He leaned over a very nervous Neville Longbottom, sneering at his blue-green potion.

Hermione leaned against the counter, grinding the Unicorn horn with all her strength. Snape had been yelling at her and Ron all class. Ron was stirring the potion cautiously, muttering to himself. "Donít flirt, Weasley. Pay attention, Weasley. Quit staring at your girlfriend, Weasley." He lifted the stirring rod out of the cauldron and gave it a sniff. "Ugh."

Hermione felt the powdered horn between her fingers, testing its texture. "Itís ready," she told Ron. "Can it go in yet?"

"Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley stop talking!"

Ron looked up at Snapeís desk and let out a low growl. Hermione put a hand on his shoulder to keep him from saying anything dumb, and he sighed and sank back into his chair. "Ignore him," she hissed in his ear. Ron sat in his chair, scowling.

"Heís only trying to get you to say something thatíll get you in trouble," she whispered to Ron as she tipped the powdered horn into the potion. It fizzed and turned purple. "Donít give him the chance."

Ronís scowl softened slightly. "I know, Pixie," he said wearily. "Iím just in a bad mood. Damned old grouch has been trying my patience all afternoon." He searched through a rack of phials, looking for frog slime. "Bleagh." He made a face, pulling out a translucent green goo. Measuring a spoonful into the cauldron, he asked, "What do we put in next?"

Hermione scanned the instructions. "Veela blood," she said, handing him a phial of the silvery-red liquid. "Careful," she chided, fixing his grip on the bottle. "Itís acidic."

Ron unscrewed the lid of the phial with cautious fingers, holding it away from his nose. A faint pink smoke creeped up the edge of the bottle and spilled over the side. Hermione wrinkled her nose.

"Add the whole bottle gradually," she instructed, reading from the book. "And donít spill any."

He began to pour the contents carefully into the potion. Hermione turned back to her book, and poked the fire back up under the faintly boiling potion. She took a large spoon and gave the brew a stir.

Suddenly, Ron swore and dropped the bottle of Veela blood. It smashed on the floor, burning smoking holes in the legs of the chairs and the floor. Snape jumped out from behind his desk, eyes alight with anger.

"Stupid boy," he hissed at Ron. But Ron didnít hear. He was crouched on the floor, his head in his hands, his breathing short and ragged. He was rocking back and forth on his haunches, face twisted in a pained grimace.

Hermione scrambled out from behind the fire and skidded to kneel beside Ron. Some of the blood had hit his hands and face, and it was red and blistering wherever it touched him. She put her hands on his shoulders and shook him. "Ron!"

He looked up at her and met her gaze. His eyes were very green. The instant he looked at her, she screamed. A wave of fiery pain rolled through her hands, up her arms, until it had consumed her entire body. She let go of him and fell back into the legs of a chair, trembling.

A crowd of students had gathered around the two of them, panicked but unable to do anything. Hermione was lying on the floor beside a desk, and Ron was still rocking, his hands clawing at the back of his head, gasping.

Snape pushed his way through the students, finally standing over Ron. He produced a phial containing a deep red secretion, and squatted in front of Ron, prying his hands away from his face.

He was pale- alarmingly so- and his pupils were dilated to pinpricks. He was still panting heavily, and his breaths were ragged and deliberate, as though he had to work to get the air in and out. Snape tipped the potion down Ronís throat and he coughed a few times. Finally, Ron fell back into the legs of a chair and lay there, staring at the ceiling and breathing hard.

"Thomas," barked Snape. "Finnigan. Take Granger and Weasley to the hospital wing and tell Madam Pomfrey what happened." He handed Dean the empty phial. "Bring this, and show it to her."

She felt Seamus pick her up carefully, and she slumped against his shoulder, too weak to do anything else. Dean helped Ron to his feet, slinging an arm around his shoulders to support him. The four of them made their way up to the infirmary. Hermione felt she ought to get down and walk, she felt ridiculous being carried the whole way. But Seamus said he wouldnít risk her falling and breaking something, and him getting blamed for it.

Madam Pomfrey, upon seeing them, shoved Ron into a bed and Hermione into a chair. Hermione drank a glass of apple-tasting potion that was supposed to make her feel better, then sat back, waiting for it to kick in. She could hear the nurse conversing in hushed tones with Dean, discussing what had happened.

Hermione curled up in the large armchair and covered her ears. She didnít want to hear what Dean was saying. She didnít want to have to see the whole scene all over again.

She finally felt a hand on her shoulder, and looked up into the matronís kindly eyes. "Mr. Weasley is asking to see you," she told her gently. "Can you walk to go see him?"

Hermione frowned. She felt fine. "Of course I can," she said, getting up. The instant she put weight on her feet, though, her knees buckled and she almost sat back down before the matron caught her arm and held her up. Hermione stood swaying for a moment, getting her balance, then walked carefully over to the bed where Ron was a drew back the curtains.

He was half sitting up, leaning against the pillows, the covers rolled up near his feet. His sketchbook was against his knees, and he was drawing. He smiled at Hermione when he saw her, and put the book down.

"Are you OK?" he asked finally. "Pomfrey said you were pretty weak, and I saw Seamus carrying you. Are you going to be all right?"

How do our conversations always end up starting like this? Hermione thought with exasperation. "Youíre the one who wasÖ" she cried, then trailed off, trying to find an adjective to describe what had happened. "ÖSick," she finished. "I wasnít. Why do you keep asking if Iím OK?"

He grinned then, however weakly, and it relieved her to see it. "Because Iím not that kind of person," he said cheerfully. "Incidentally, I feel fine. I donít think I could walk very well, though."

She sat down on the edge of the bed. "What happened?"

Ron smiled wryly. "Guess."

She raised an eyebrow. "Cruciatus Curse?" she asked.

He rolled his eyes. "You got it," he said, leaning back and picking up his sketchbook again. "Iím getting really predictable, arenít I?"

She tried to get a look at what he was drawing, but she couldnít see. It wasnít unusual to see him drawing, not these days, but now seemed like kind of an unorthodox time for it. "Let me see," she protested when he yanked the book out of her sight. He finally sighed, and passed it to her.

It was a gruesome sight. More a study than a scene, really. He had drawn a skull in one corner of the page, a dead crow in the other, a weird green and gold chess set at the top, and a dented, bloodstained crown in the bottom. At the center of the page was a scene depicting a boy dressed in black, standing in the center of what appeared to be an old battlefield. Some of the bodies had been reduced to skeletons, while others were rotting and only halfway there. Still others were as fresh and bloody as if they had just been killed. Black and acid-green fire played over everything, leaving frost on everything it touched, as opposed to soot. Hermione recognized among the fresher bodies Harry, Ginny, the twins, and herself. She dropped the book.

"What the hell is that?" she finally gasped.

Ron made an exasperated noise and picked up the sketchbook. "Madam Pomfrey asked me to describe what I saw while I was out. Iím no good with words, so I drew it instead." He traced the outline of the skull with his finger. "Thatís all I can remember. Iím pretty sure there was more."

She sat on the edge of the bed. "But- you were awake in class, werenít you?"

"Half," he replied. "Semi conscious. Half my brain was in Potions, feeling all the pain and shit, and the other half was in the weird place, seeing all the weird stuff."

She reached over and took his hand. "It must have been terrible," she whispered.

He squeezed her hand. "Worse than you can possibly imagine," he said quietly. "Enough to make anyone sick." He sighed and lay down, and patted the space beside him. Hermione lay down beside him, feeling his arm slide around her waist. She rested her head on his chest, and she could feel him trembling.

"Are you sure youíre OK?" she asked him quietly. This was very, very bad.

He stoked her hair absently, with a small laugh. "No, Iím sure Iím not OK. Honestly, Pixie, when a guy starts dreaming about blood, gore, dead bodies, et cetera, and collapses in anguish in the middle of Potions class, itís to be concluded that heís not all right."

Hermione bit her lip, and tried to return his light tone. "Collapsing in anguish in Potions? Is that unusual?"

He let out a whole laugh, this time. "Technically, no. Iím serious, though," he added. "Somethingís screwed."

She felt his arm tighten around her, and she reached up and smoothed his hair away from his face. "Will you be OK?" she whispered.

He was silent for a moment. "I donít know," he admitted finally. "I hope so."

Ron didnít say anything after that, and she kept quiet. It was almost half an hour later when she looked at her watch and sat up, realizing Ron was asleep. She smiled at the sight of him, and pulled the covers up over him. He was still wearing his school robes. It felt odd, she thought as she tucked the covers around him. Odd to see Ron so- not helpless, exactly- but needing her. She was so used to being on the receiving end of his comfort, when he held her at the Leaky Cauldron, told her it would be all right, comforting her on the occasions he found her crying. She watched him for a moment as he stirred in his sleep, half-turning over.

"I love you, Ron," she whispered, kissing his forehead, then turned and walked out of the infirmary.

But he couldnít hear her. He was asleep.

 

'

 

Hermione sat in Transfigurations, chewing hard on the end of her quill, worried. Ron had been allowed back into class that morning, with a warning not to strain himself. He was fine- albeit a little pale- for most of the day. But in the middle of the last period, Transfigurations, he had jumped to his feet, pale and clammy, and said that he needed to, get to the hospital wing right away. McGonagall had sent Justin Finch-Fletchy with him, to make sure he got there all right. But Hermione didnít know what was happening.

The bell rang, and she shoved her books into her bag hastily, then scrambled over her desk and bolted out the door. She danced around desks and students, trying to avoid the surge of people that usually managed to block the door.

Hermione zipped through the hallways at an amazing speed, grabbing walls and sliding around corners when she had to, and almost ran down Mrs. Norris on her way past. But even the old grump of a cat wasnít fast enough to catch her that day.

She finally skidded to a halt at the door to the infirmary, catching the doorframe as she passed to avoid missing it entirely. She scrambled inside, and ran headlong into Madam Pomfrey.

"Let me guess," the matron said dryly. "Youíre here to see Mr. Weasley."

Hermione brushed off her skirt, blushing. "If it wouldnít be any trouble," she said to her shoes. "I just want to know if heís all right."

Madam Pomfrey shook her head. "Iím afraid you cannot see him right now," she said. "He had another attack and is not fit for visitors."

Hermione screwed her eyes shut. "Is he all right?" she repeated. "Please, I need to know."

The nurse opened her mouth to reply, but they were cut off but a muffled "Shit!" from around the corner. Madam Pomfrey, apparently forgetting about Hermione, scampered around the corner to where the sound had come from, and Hermione followed. Ron was stiff as a board, lying in his back, atop the covers on the bed, still in his school clothes. He was staring at the ceiling, terrified by something only he could see.

The matron let out a string of elegant bad language, and hurried over to the bed, feeling her patientís forehead. "Cold," Hermione heard her mutter. "Cold as ice. That potion was supposed to block the visions." She kept muttering to herself as she mixed up a blue-grey potion. Hermione, seeing the opportunity while Pomfrey was distracted, ran over to the bed and grabbed Ronís hand.

He was cold. So cold that she dropped his hand. Touching him was like sticking your hand in a bucket of ice water. She took a deep breath and took his hand again, feeling the jolt of pain go through her again at his contact. But she bit her lip and held on. "Ron!" she hissed. "Ron!"

His gaze flicked away from the ceiling and met Hermioneís, and she gasped as he looked at her. She could feel himself regaining control of his consciousness.

He finally shook his head, and his grip on her hand tightened sharply. "Go," he whispered fiercely at her. "Go, get out of here."

"Ron," Hermione choked. "Whatís wrong?"

"Get out," he whispered. "I mean it Hermione, get the hell out of here." She let go of his hand and turned on her heel, and ran out of the room as if pursued by Hippogriffs.

And so it went, for the next nine days. Ron was confined to the hospital wing, and Hermione brought him his homework every night. She was careful to come late in the evening, so as not to catch him in another attack. This was not hard to do. They always caught him around two oíclock in the afternoon, and never lasted longer than twenty minutes. But they were getting longer, Ron said. Although, luckily, the pain was duller the longer they got, and he hardly ever hallucinated anymore.

On the tenth day, a Thursday, Hermioneís classes had received a good whomp of homework, especially from Professor Snape. She muttered angrily to herself as she gathered up her books and the papers she had collected for Ron. She had to go back to the Gryffindor tower before she could go to the hospital wing, though, as she had left his morningís homework there.

She reached the common room some time later, slowed by the weight of the books and from stopping to talk to Professor McGonagall about her Prefect duties. She dumped her books on a couch, and began up the stairs to her room-

-And ran smack into Ron, who was coming down the stairs from the girlsí dorm. Before she could say anything, he grabbed her by the shoulders, pulled her to him and kissed her feverantly, turning her around as he did. Then he let go, and walked up the stairs to the boysí rooms, without saying a word more.

Hermione just stood there for a moment, a hand pressed to her lips, too shocked to do anything else, and watched him go. She had felt something- worry?- when he kissed her, but she had been too off guard to do anything. She finally shook her head to clear it, and followed him, taking the steps two at a time. She walked quickly down the hall, scaring a few of the younger boys who were not used to girls in their rooms, and finally turned a corner to the room where Ron was.

He spun around when he heard her, holding a pair of jeans in his hand. He swore when he saw her, and threw the pants into an open bag in his bed. He stared at her a moment, shifting uncomfortably in the doorway, then sighed and flopped on his bed. "What do you want?" he demanded.

"I was going to get your homework. And you were supposed to be in the hospital wing." She frowned and walked over to the bed where he was lying.

He opened his eyes and looked at her, not bothering to try and hide his emotions. Hermione could see easily his bitterness, and his diminishing faith. She almost sat down on the floor at the sight of it.

"Why are you packing?" she asked harshly. "Where are you going?"

He sighed and sat up. "Theyíre sending me to St. Mungoís," he said flatly. "I passed out today, and Pomfrey doesnít know what to do with it." He packed while he talked, grabbing clothes and shoving them into the bag without bothering to fold them. He didnít look at her.

Hermione stared at him. "The hospital?" she squeaked. "They donít know what to do?" Ron just nodded, still looking away. "Oh, for the love of-" she ran off a long list of swears, most of which she hadnít known she knew.

He looked up and finally grinned at her, and Hermione felt her heart melt. How could anything bad ever happen to Ron? He must have had enough good Karma to keep him free for decades. "Thatís my Pixie," he teased her, getting up and standing across from her. "Always ready to say her mind." He was standing so close to her that they were almost touching, and she had to tilt her head back to look at him. "Are you all right?" he asked her quietly.

She closed her eyes and looked down. "Ron, I-" But What could she say? Donít cry, she willed herself. Not now. Donít cry. But it was no use. The tears came anyway, trickling down her cheeks.

"Hey," Ron whispered, putting a hand under her chin and lifting her face. "Iíll come back, Pixie. You know I will." He stroked her cheek with his thumb, and she bit her lip, feeling more tears threatening to come. Ron put his arms around her and drew close, resting his head on the top of her head. She put her arm around his neck, and finally let the tears come.

"I said Iíd come back," he whispered in her ear. "Donít you believe me?" He stroked her hair, and she sniffled and wiped her eyes.

"What if you donít?" she finally demanded. "What if they donít let you? What if something happens and you canít come back?"

"Hermione." He looked her straight in the eye, and she trembled under his gaze. "I said Iíd come back, and Iím going to come back." She started to say something, but he put a hand over her mouth to silence her. "And Iím not lying. God knows why, I can break through those damned potions and charms, but lying to you makes me want to be sick." He smoothed her hair out of her eyes. "Iíll come back, Pixie. I promise.

Hermione choked back a sob, feeling her control begin crumble. Why Ron? Of all the people on this Earth to take away from her, why did it have to be Ron?

Ron put his hands on her face, and pulled her to him; kissed her passionately. She felt her knees buckle slightly, and she locked her arms around his neck to keep from falling down. His hands drew ragged lines up and down her back, and Hermione could feel the desperation growing in him; eating him alive. He pulled her closer, kissing her hungrily, and she was happy for a moment, forgetting even that he was leaving.

Ron pulled away, gasping, and for a moment they just stood there, holding each other tightly and eyes half closed. Then Ron pulled himself away- an action so sudden that Hermione didnít have time to react- grabbed his bag, turned, and walked quickly out of the room. She stared at his retreating back, but made no move to follow him.

Dean Thomas entered the room some time later, and she hadnít moved. "Didnít I see Ron in here a moment ago?" he inquired, frowning. "I heard he was going to the hospital."

Hermione closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them, they were bright and free of tears.

"Heíll be back," she whispered fiercely. "Heíll be back."

 

'

 

One week later

Hermione eyed the potion that Lavender was mixing with apprehension. She was getting ready to- well, to fall asleep, and do some professional dreaming. She lay back on her bed, and Lavender sat down beside her.

"Now, remember, Hermione," Lavender was saying as she put the finishing touches on the bluish-purple goo. "Iíll be with you the whole time, you just canít see me. Iíll be able to pull you back quite easily if need be." She handed the potion to Hermione, who held it to her nose and gave it a cautious sniff. It smelled vaguely like blueberries. She finally held it to her mouth and swallowed.

"Hmmm," Hermione said, putting the glass down. "That was nice." She yawned sleepily. This potion worked fast, it seemed. Lavender took her hands as she fell back and closed her eyes. She was asleep within seconds.

A few moments later, Hermioneís consciousness came around, inside a dark hallway, as usual. She could feel a presence at her side- Lavender, she assumed- but could see no one. She glanced around her, looking for the hallway she would have to go down to find her friends. There it was. She turned and began to walk towards it.

And stopped. She thought she could hear voices, coming from a chamber on one side of the tunnel. She walked towards it, listening hard.

"ÖHe is weak, Lucius." The voice was high and cold.

"But I have trained him all I can." The second voice was one she recognized- Lucius Malfoy. Hermione fought the urge to spit on the floor. "There is no more that I can teach him, my Lord. I leave him in your capable hands." There was only one person that Malfoy called "my Lord". The other voice was Lord Voldemort.

"Are you trying to dispose of him on me, Lucius?" The Dark Lordís voice was silky and dangerous. "Because if you want to dispose of him, we can simply kill him."

"No, my Lord, no!" Malfoy cried. "I would not do such a thing! My son has great potential as a Death Eater. I would not deprive you of such a servant."

That was a mistake. "Do you mean to tell me that you are going soft for your son, Lucius?" If Voldemortís voice had been dangerous, it was now deadly. "If I wanted to kill him now, would your protests be out of loyalty to your master or love-" At this point he gave a slight sneer. "-For your son?"

"Loyalty, my Lord, loyalty!" Malfoy gasped. "I wanted to kill him as a baby, it was you, my Lord, who told me to keep him. You said he would be-"

He was cut short, and Hermione could hear gagging noises. Stifilus Charm, she thought, nauseous. Dear God.

Malfoyís body fell out into the hallway, unconscious. She took a step backwards, and jumped aside as she noticed someone else walking down the hallway.

It was Draco Malfoy. He was wearing battered black robes, and e was paler than usual- unless you counted the bruises that spattered his face and exposed arms. His hair was dirty and unkept, containing what looked like old blood. She danced out of his way, but he didnít seem to see her.

Draco stopped when he saw his fatherís body on the floor, then walked over to where he lay. He stared at the man for a moment, then swore quietly and kept walking. Hermione watched him go, curious.

Again, she felt Lavenderís presence at her back, pushing her forward. She shook her head and continued following her original course, until she reached the door to Harry and Ginnyís cell. She knew what was in there, but couldnít bring herself to look. She knew Lavender had gone past her and was looking in the door. Hermione turned back to where Malfoy was lying, curious as to what had happened. But Lavender was beside her again, pulling her back into sleep.

Hermione opened her eyes again, staring at the ceiling. Lavender was jotting something down in a small notebook. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. "What did you do?" she asked her friend.

Lavender put down her book and pushed hair out of her eyes. "I followed your astral body in my own, and was able to see the general place where they are being held." She began to clear up the ingredients of the potion, humming the melody of a song Hermione didnít know.

"Lavender," Hermione began quietly, and she looked up. "Last week- before he left- I saw Ron coming out of the girlsí dorm-"

"I saw him," her friend replied absently.

"What was he doing?" Hermione finished. "Is he even allowed in there?"

"No more than you are in his room," Lavender retorted. "And Dean caught you in there." She put a rack of phials in a box and closed the top.

"But what was he doing?"

Lavender stopped for a moment and considered. "He asked me what kind of shampoo you used," she said. "And then he asked where you kept it. He had a little bottle with him, like the kind you get from the hotel, and he put some of your strawberry stuff in it, then took off."

Hermione frowned. "Oh." She stood up and stretched, then straightened her jeans. "OK. Letís go, itís time for dinner."

 

'

 

Hermione pushed her scrambled eggs around on her plate, half-listening as Lavender mooned over Seamus. He was mooning right back, and it was enough to make anyone sick. She scanned the other tables. People were talking and eating, oblivious to the conflicts around them.

Her eyes stopped momentarily on the Slytherin table, for some reason, and she found herself looking right at Draco Malfoy, who looked about as happy as she was feeling. She frowned, remembering seeing him in Voldemortís castle. She couldnít see any of the bruises that had been so evident just yesterday, but there was a cut across his eyebrow. Then he looked up and was looking straight at her.

She jumped, and flicked her gaze away. The last thing she needed was for Malfoy to spread a bunch of rumors that she was cheating on Ron and now had the hots for him.

"So, I owled the Ministry about Harry and Ginny," Lavender was saying.

"What?" Hermione snapped out of her stupor and dropped a forkful of eggs. "I said I owled the Ministry," she repeated. "They need all the extra information they can get. You didnít expect me to go off looking for them all on my own, did you?"

"Huh? Oh- no." Hermione frowned and tried to gather her thoughts. "What was their reply?"

"Oh, the usual." Lavender rolled her eyes. "Theyíd looooove to go looking for them, but noooooooo, just tooooooo dangerous." She sighed and turned to talk to Parvati.

Hermione sat up and pushed her plate away. God, she couldnít take it anymore. She walked quickly out of the great hall and out into the snow. It must have stormed the night before, because the snow was waist-deep in places. The sky was dark and overcast, perfectly reflecting her mood. She walked over to a bench by the lake and flopped on it.

She felt as if her life were falling apart. First it had been the dance in fifth year, that had split them all into different directions and held them there for long months. Then it had been learning that Harry and Ginny were missing, and finding out that no one cared enough to look for them. And now Ron was ill and no end in sight. She hadnít heard anything about his condition since he had left.

Dear God, this was the very bench she and Ron had been sitting on when he first told her about his worry about the rumors. Until right before that moment, she had been happy. She had actually believed that everything might just turn out all right. But she didnít know about that anymore. It seemed like so long ago. But how long had it been? Two, three months, at most? How long would it be until everything did feel right?

Hermione felt tears burning in the corners of her eyes and she quickly closed them, willing herself to stop. It was no use. They came anyway, and she put her face in her hands and cried. Why not? No one would hear her, anywayÖ

"Whoís there?"

She sat straight up, her gaze darting here and there to find the speaker. She hurriedly wiped her eyes, praying desperately that she wasnít blotchy. "What do you want?" she cried.

The person walked around from behind a tree, and she could finally see who it was. She might have rathered they had stayed hidden, though. It was Draco Malfoy.

"Hey, Granger," he muttered. "What the hell are you doing out here?"

Hermione glared at him. "Why do you care?"

Draco rolled his eyes, and, to her surprise and shock, sat down beside her on the bench. "I donít for the most part," he replied evenly. "Are you going to answer or what?"

She scowled. "Anything wrong with wanting a little solitude?"

He simply raised an eyebrow. "Did I say you were doing anything wrong?" he asked irritably. "I was just curious." He looked away from her and stared at the lake, his hands jammed into his pockets and face emotionless. She watched him for a moment, and he turned and looked at her again. "What?" he demanded.

She looked away. "Nothing." He raised an eyebrow again, but didnít say anything more.

There was an uncomfortable, awkward silence, and they both looked away and back at each other on intervals. Finally, Hermione lost her patience and demanded, "What were you doing?"

He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it quickly. "None of your business," he answered shortly. He got to his feet and glared at her for a moment, apparently arguing to himself about something, then reached into his back pocket, pulled something out and tossed it to her. It was a small book. "Read the section on curses," Draco instructed, then walked away.

Hermione looked the book over. It was bound in black leather, and the pages were old, crumbling yellow parchment, the writing black and loopy. The silver embossed title proclaimed it to be The Complete Grimoire of Curses and Hexes. Hermione frowned. Why on Earth would Draco want her to read that? But she put the book in her pocket, resolving to read it later.

It was after dinner when Hermione actually sat down on her bed and opened the book to the section of curses. She cringed. There were some extremely unpleasant spells in this volume. The Flame Body curse, that burned you alive from the inside out, a curse to make you dismember yourself, several possessionsÖ he list went on and on. She scanned the descriptions, skimmed them, just to be dine and say sheíd read it- then stopped.

She was near the end of the chapter, and the curses here were fabulously complex. It was getting to the point where it was almost interesting- but no, she didnít want interest in these things. But then a particular spell caught her eye.

The Malady curse. It was more than a few mumbled words and a wave of a wand. The completion of it required a blood of the victim, blood of the Dark Artist, blood of a Dementor, and dust from an old battlefield. Boil until formed into thick paste, she read. Anoint subjectís eyes, ears and forehead with mixture. Point wand at back of subjectís head and say "Malleus". The spell would result in intense pain, illness and gradual possession.

Hermione put the book down. There was at least another paragraph still on the topic, but she couldnít read it. It sounded too familiar.

Oh, God, she thought desperately. Ron!

 

'

 

Another day passed. A week. I was almost a month since Ron had left, and still they had heard nothing from him. No word from the hospital, except that he wasnít allowed visitors. She had asked Professor McGonagall if his parents had been notified, and the teacher had promptly changed the subject. She, Parvati and Lavender had been harrying the Ministry about looking for Harry and Ginny, but had received no productive responses.

Is this what a black hole feels like? Hermione wondered one night as she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. You just keep going down and you canít come back out or even stop? Is there nothing you can do? She turned over and looked at the clock. One thirty in the morning. She closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep. Canít you fight it at all? Does it make a difference, or does it just make things worse?

Classes during the past few weeks had been torture. She couldnít concentrate at all, and it seemed like all her teachers were overly tense. Hermione thought that if she passed her mid-term exam, it would be a miracle.

It was after dinner one night in December, and Hermione was wandering around outside on the grounds, looking at the lights that adorned the trees and the decorations that had been put up. She was almost cheerful- unusual for her, these days- when she heard a voice behind her hiss, "Mudblood!"

She spun around and saw Pansy Parkinson standing behind her, flanked by Millicent Bluesdoe and Blaise Zabini. Hermione raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

"Mudblood," Pansy repeated. Paused. Then spoke again. "Did you hear the latest news about your boyfriend?"

Hermione blinked. "News?"

Blaise stepped forward, rolling her eyes. "News, Muggle. More rumors." Her eyes glittered evilly, and Hermione narrowed her own and took a step back.

"What news?" she asked harshly. "What are you saying?"

Pansy looked interested. "You donít know?" She raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips. "Well, if you donít know, Iím not going to tell you."

Hermione snorted. "Iím not sure I want to know," she retorted. "Now, if youíll excuse me, I have to get to my dorm." And she pushed past them and walked the long walk back to the Gryffindor tower.

She sat on her bed, not doing anything, just staring at the wall, legs crossed and hands on her knees. She tried not to think about what Pansy had said. The last thing she needed was more news that Ron was a criminal or something. She closed her eys ad tried to shove thoughts of Pansy out of her head.

Oh, Angel

I feel itís not you.

Angel

I wish it were not true.

And as I walk to the beat of my heart inside, I feel like letting go.

Oh darling now, in my dreams youíll be tonightÖ

What on Earth more could possibly happen to her. Hadnít fate struck at Hermione and her friends enough? Pansy must be trying to work me up, she thought desperately. She doesnít mean it. Sheís just trying to make me believe things that arenít true.

Oh, Mr. Postman

Give me a sign.

Tell me youíve a letter

To make me feel fine.

Oh, donít you know, I am waiting here for you.

Tell me it will be here tonight.

I should get dressed for bed, Hermione thought. It was well past nine oíclock, and she had school in the morning. Anything to keep her from thinking about this.

Baby

Itís the way that I feel.

Baby

My heart it wonít conceal.

And as I walk to the beat of my heart inside, I feel like letting go.

Oh darling now, in my dreams youíll be tonight.

She reached for her tee shirt, to pull it off and put on her jammies, but stopped as Parvati came around the corner, looking grim.

"Hermione?" Parvati called, not seeing her.

"Iím right here," Hermione said quietly. "What is it?"

Parvati walked over to the edge of the bed and sat down. "Professor McGonagall wants to see you," she informed her. "Sheís waiting in the common room."

Hermione sighed and stood up. Now what?

Oh, Mr. Postman

Give me a sign.

Tell me youíve a letter

To make me feel fine.

Oh, donít you know, I am waiting here for you.

Tell me it will be here tonight.

The professor was standing at the foot of the stairs, tapping her foot impatiently. She smiled gently when she saw her student, though. "Ah, Hermione," she said. "Please follow me, there is something I need to discuss with you."

Hermione frowned, but followed the professor to a secluded corner of the room where no one would overhear them and sat down. "Yes?" she asked.

Professor McGonagall opened her mouth, then shut it quickly. She watched Hermione for a moment, without saying anything. She seemed to be arguing with herself. She finally stood up and offered a hand to Hermione. "Come with me, my dear," she said quietly. "There is someone here to see you."

She took the offered hand, and McGonagall pulled her out of her seat. She followed the teacher through the many hallways, taking in the newly added Christmas decorations. They were so cheerful, and it almost made her sick. How could people possibly be happy in a situation like this? She and Professor McGonagall turned corners, climbed countless stairways, until Hermione was sure they would walk right out the top of the school at any moment, when the professor stopped walking.

They were in a small hallway, containing about ten doors. A plaque above the door read "Guest Wing". Hermione frowned. Who on Earth would be meeting with her in a guestroom?

Professor McGonagall opened the first door and ushered Hermione inside. She looked around. It was much like a Muggle hotel room in many ways. A double bed in the center, a chest of drawers, a writing desk- no television, of course- and an adjoining bathroom. She glanced around the room for the visitor, but found no one. She turned to McGonagall. "Professor, who-"

But McGonagall held up a hand and back out of the room, closing the door behind her. Hermione was alone.

"Hello?" she called. "Whoís there?"

He stepped out from behind the bed, where he had been sitting, drawing in his sketchbook, making her jump.

"I told you Iíd come back," he said, amused.

Dear God.

It was Ron.

//
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