The Sugar Quill
Author: Lone Astronomer (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: We Stand Together  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Disclaimer: Everything is property of J. K. Rowling. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.

Summary: Though Voldemort hasn't been defeated, not everything at Hogwarts has changed: Christmas is still a time for family.

Note: The main characters have gone through changes- big changes, in some cases- that make them very different. The story takes place in seventh year; there is lots of time for them to develop canonically. And Ron has been spending too much time with his brother Bill, the ultra-smooth-talking Weasley. With that in mind… read on.

***

Unsurprisingly, the Potions lab was cold, grimy, and overall unbearable. But that was okay, because they were leaving.

Hermione Granger gathered her quills, parchment, and other supplies as quickly as she could, not wanting to be late for Arithmancy. She looked very much annoyed. In fact, if one got close enough, one could even hear her muttering under her breath. "… Don't know how he expects us to… illegal! And do you know," she added crossly to the boys on either side of her, "that that's-"

"Very advanced magic," finished the tall, red-headed one. "We know. You've mentioned it about thirty times."

"Twenty-eight," Harry corrected. "And counting."

Hermione gave him a cross look. "Well, it is."

Ron shrugged. "And Snape's an evil, two-faced git with a nose like a troll. Some things go without saying, 'Mione."

She huffed at the name (if there was one thing Hermione hated, it was nicknames; unfortunately due to the length of her given name she had quite a few), but had to admit that Ron had a point. "Conceded."

Both of her friends stopped dead. Harry spoke first. "Hermione, you've just admitted that Ron was right about something."

Ron nodded vigorously. "I didn't even have to twist your arm! What's up with you lately?"

"Stress," Hermione answered automatically. "You do realize that the N.E.W.T.s are-"

"In June," Ron finished. "We know. And just for the record, 'only' does not belong anywhere near 'six months away.'"

Hermione glowered. It was unsettling to know that she was so stressed out, she hadn't even noticed that Ron had been listening. Pathetic, really. "I'm going to Arithmancy," she said finally. "I'll see you two at lunch."

Harry stared at her retreating back. "Something tells me funny things are going on."

Ron wrinkled his nose. "Or will be."

***

Lunch was generally a very relaxing experience, if you had time to eat it properly. Hermione didn't; not only was she preoccupied about the N.E.W.T.s already, but Voldemort was still on the loose and Snape had given a five-foot-long essay to be handed in on Friday. Well, there was that and the fact that Ron adamantly refused to stop calling her "Mione," which was getting old. Fast.

She scooped up the last few bites of her shepherd's pie somewhat disinterestedly. Ron (whom she'd tuned out) was trying to wheedle her out of her Transfiguration essay. Across the table, Ginny was discussing tap-dancing charms with one of her friends. On her other side, Harry just looked lost. "Got to go," she said, standing up and slinging her backpack over one shoulder. "I want to get some studying in before Care of Magical Creatures."

Harry met Ron's gaze, and both shrugged. Hermione was like that sometimes. When she was gone, he commented, "She needs Christmas break even more than we do."

"Yeah," Ron agreed. "If we could only convince her to go home for vacation."

"And then make sure she doesn't study…" Harry stopped himself. "Impossible." He shook his head. "It can't be done."

Ron, however, was already madly scribbling away on a scrap piece of parchment. "Yes," he said, smiling brightly as he examined his work, "it can."

Harry read the outline of Ron's letter and grinned. "You are so lucky that Hermione's parents like you so much."

"That's not luck," Ron retorted. "It's called 'charm,' Harry, you ought to try it sometime."

Harry snorted. "They only like you because you have perfect teeth."

Ron faked a hurt look. "You don't think I'm charming?"

"Maybe we should ask Hermione." Not even a full second later, Harry could not believe he had said that.

Ron looked, if anything, even more stunned than Harry. "Okay," he said finally, "maybe it is the teeth." He wrote a bit more, then handed it to Harry. "What do you think so far?"

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Granger,

Hello, how are you? Mione is getting-I hope things are going well in the Muggle world.

Everyone's favorite hardworking Head Girl is already driving herself (and us) crazy studying. Harry and I (we're naturally very concerned) think it would be a good idea if she went home for vacation so that she doesn't burn herself out. The two of us alone won't be able to keep her away from the books.

Send a reply back with Pigwidgeon!

Regards,

Ron Weasley

Harry read and re-read the letter, eyebrows raised. "Have you been taking lessons from Percy?" he finally asked, a slight grin on his face.

Ron looked deeply offended. "I told you, Harry, it's called charm!"

"You think Percy is charming?"

"Point taken." Ron sighed. "Guess we'd better get to Hagrid's."

***

The next morning, Ron, Harry and Hermione walked down to breakfast early. They had a Potions test first period and all (especially Hermione) thought that some last-minute studying was in order. Imagine Hermione's surprise when Pigwidgeon dropped off not only a letter for Ron, but one for her as well.

"What's this?" Hermione unrolled her parchment and, by force of habit, checked the signature first. "Ron… why would my parents send me mail with Pig?"

Ron, looking like a two-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar, quickly stuffed his own letter into his knapsack. "Er…" He looked to Harry for help, but Harry couldn't say anything: he'd started laughing at Ron's expression and was choking on his pancake. Ron thumped him on the back, resolutely not looking at his other best friend.

"Why were you sending owls to my parents?"

Ron thumped Harry a little too hard and the Boy Who Lived (and Grew Up, too) fell off of his chair onto the floor. "Sorry, Harry," Ron apologized, grinning sheepishly.

"Ron…" Hermione was using her warning voice now.

"Crikey!" Ron exclaimed, "Look at the time. We're late for Potions. Let's go, 'Mione." He grabbed her hand and practically dragged her off to class, which was humorous in itself, Harry thought. Never would have guessed there would come a day when Ron wanted to go to Potions.

***

Hermione realized fully that she had no chance against Ron. Aside from the fact that she was about two-thirds of his weight, he was also a lot stronger than she was and a head and a half taller. If he ever took it upon himself to kiss her, Hermione thought, he would either have to bend double or else pick her clean off of the ground. Now, where did that interesting thought come from?

Inevitably, due to Ron's unnecessary haste (he had exaggerated the urgency to get to the dungeons), they were five minutes early for class, and Hermione took the time out to read her letter.

Dear 'Mione,

Oh no, thought Hermione morosely, Mum's been talking to Ron again.

We've just made reservations via Ron's owl (energetic little thing, isn't he?) for you to come home for Christmas on the Hogwarts Express, as we are having a big family gathering. Ron and Harry are coming, too, of course; we can't have Harry staying with the Dursleys, can we? I've already okayed it with Mrs. Weasley- delightful woman. Really smashing. Beautiful teeth.

Anyway, darling, we'll see you at King's Cross Station on the twenty-second.

Love from,

Mom and Dad

Hermione sighed. Ron and Harry? At her house? She thought of the state their dorm room was in and shuddered, although Ron insisted that 'it's not our fault Seamus and Dean let Parvati and Lavender toss their stuff all over.' Actually, she wondered more about how long it would take them to lock her books up and hide them somewhere. Hermione also wondered if Ron would finally make good on his promise to burn her copy of Hogwarts; A History next time he got his hands on it.

She didn't have much time to wonder, however, because Snape chose that moment to enter the Potions lab. (It took him all of two seconds to take five points off Gryffindor because Harry and Ron were talking and examining something under the table.)

Potions passed otherwise uneventfully, however, unless you counted Neville failing to blow anything up as an event (most did). "Because Veritaserum needs to brew for so long," Snape was saying, "you'll need to leave your potions here over the break. Carry them into my office, and make sure you remember which one is yours. And, for Merlin's sake, don't spill them."

Hermione scowled. We're students; that doesn't make us completely stupid. Still, he had a point- half-brewed Veritaserum was one of the deadliest poisons known to man. She picked up her cauldron and carried it carefully into his office, setting it on a shelf labeled 'seventh years.' When everyone else had done the same, the bell rang.

Harry and Ron fairly skipped out of the dungeon. Lavender, Parvati and Seamus, behind them, linked arms and actually did skip, all the while singing the graduation song: "No more cauldrons, no more newts; no more dungeons, Snape's a Skrewt!" Hermione caught Ron's eye and grinned. The Dream Team hooked their arms together, and the six Gryffindors did the entire song in a round.

***

"Oy! Hermione!" Harry called up the stairs. "If you don't hurry up we'll miss the train!"

She peeked over the railing of the stairwell and called down to him, "Harry, I can't leave without my books- and I can't find- RON!"

Ron, who'd been descending the stairs whistling cheerily, stopped. "Yes?" He drew out the word, putting on the 'dare-you-to-prove-it-was-me' look borrowed from the twins.

"Did you hide my books, Ronald Weasley?"

"No," Ron answered, drawing out the word again. "I packed them for you." He tossed a tiny box up to her. "Travel size for your convenience."

Hermione looked as if she didn't know whether to be indignant or grateful. She bit the inside of her cheek. Ever since Ron had discovered his uncanny ability for wandless magic (this had appeared after one particularly nasty detention spent mucking out Hagrid's stalls; Harry joked that he'd inhaled a unicorn tail hair),

he'd been surprising everyone left and right. If Hermione hadn't still been besting him in every class, she would've been slightly worried. She was already jealous as it was. "Erm… thanks." She floated her trunk down the stairs ahead of her.

"Good luck getting it open," Ron muttered under his breath. Harry snorted. He knew that Hermione would take a while before swallowing her pride and admitting that she couldn't.

They made it to the train station without further incident, considering they'd never gone home for the holidays before. Ron, who was getting so tall that it almost appeared that it was in fact he, and not Hagrid, who was the half-giant, had to put his feet up on the seat opposite him in order to sit comfortably. Harry and Hermione took the other two seats, Harry across from him and Hermione beside him.

"Are Mark and Louise picking us up in a car, 'Mione?"

Ron's voice startled Hermione out of her reverie; she'd been staring past his legs out the window at the station, wondering what the future would bring. She looked at him with a strange expression on her face. Since when did Ron call her parents by their first names? "Yes," she answered somewhat reluctantly, "but don't you even think of pulling a Sirius and enchanting it to fly while they're driving. Regardless of how much fun my father allegedly said that would be."

"Flying cars?" Ron said airily. "How utterly unoriginal. No, I was thinking more along the lines of interesting exhaust fumes… psychedelic paint jobs… or maybe transfiguring it into a giant ferret."

"I highly doubt that Malfoy would be flattered by being immortalized in a Muggle invention, Ron."

"I had no intention of flattering the little bugger." Ron cracked his knuckles.

Hermione snorted. "I gathered that much." There was one last all-aboard call and the train lurched into motion. On later reflection, she supposed that moment was doomed to be interrupted; the door swung open and who, of all people, stepped inside but Draco Malfoy. It was still unfair, though.

"Speak of the devil," Ron commented dryly, his expression not changing a bit. Hermione was proud of him for that. He had matured so much those past few years that it sometimes scared her. "Off to a JDE convention, I see."

Malfoy scowled. It was a nice change, because smirks had most definitely been very prominent of late. "Keep out of it, Weasley. Your family really can't afford another blemish on their record."

"The only blemish I see around here is you," Ron responded coolly.

Draco glowered.

Harry looked up and spoke for the first time. "Cat got your tongue, Malfoy?"

He sneered. "No, Potter, just a weasel."

Hermione put on her most innocent expression. "Looks like a ferret to me."

"I wouldn't be so damned cocky if I were you, Miss Mudblood Granger. My father-"

"Has a lot of nerve, not teaching his son any manners," Ron finished for him, unable to hold back his temper any longer. Draco seemed to notice that Harry and Hermione both had their wands drawn and pointed towards him. In another split second he remembered Ron's sudden aptitude for wandless magic. He cleared off, dual shadows trailing him all the way.

"Well," Harry said into the sudden, stiff silence. "That was unpleasant."

"Agreed," Ron muttered in a decidedly darker tone than he'd been using minutes before. "He'll get what's coming to him, though."

"Ron," Hermione warned in her Mrs. Weasley voice, "I don't want you going after him. I mean it. He's- he's dangerous, Ron; he has connections, he'll-"

Ron silenced her with a shake of his head. "I didn't mean me, 'Mione. Contrary to popular belief, I am not stupid."

"I never said you were stupid."

Harry tuned them out. It was good to know that they had grown out of their childish bickering- while they could still go at it like a professional debate team, their arguments were far less frequent and had much more meaning. Although, there was that one time when Hermione had been rumored to be dating Terry Boot of Ravenclaw…

Harry smiled to himself. He could recall that particular argument with astounding clarity. Some things never changed.

***

Mark and Louise Granger were waiting outside the barrier at King's Cross Station, looking something between apprehensive and in very good spirits. It was an odd combination; comforting and saddening all at once. Comforting, because even in times like these people could be happy; and saddening because parents were worried about their daughter, and she was just coming home from school.

Hermione was soon engulfed in a warm embrace from her mother and subsequently from her father. It looked as if she were turning a bit blue under the pressure.

Ron sighed inwardly, fighting to maintain his calm, aloof exterior. It saved him from having to share his thoughts. He wondered if anyone would be shocked if they knew what he thought about. Hermione, it seemed, knew or at least suspected. It was difficult to keep secrets when you sometimes ended up the only person in your dorm not sleeping in the common room because of your best friend's nightmares. Other best friends got curious.

"Hullo, Louise," Ron said with a grin, taking her gloved hand and kissing it.

Hermione let out a choked gasp and nearly dropped Crookshanks. Harry just barely managed to hide his smile behind his hand. Since when was Ron suave and debonair?

Mark Granger shook a warning finger at the young Weasley. "Keep your hands off my wife, you scoundrel!"

Ron grinned even wider and shook hands with Mr. Granger. "Can I help it if I have a weakness for Granger women?"

This sent Hermione into a huge coughing fit. Harry, unable to restrain himself any longer at the absurdity of Ron's comment, laughed loudly. Hermione's parents turned to him.

"Harry," Mrs. Granger said fondly. "It's been a long time! Last time we saw you, you were…"

"Several inches shorter and about fifty pounds lighter," her husband finished.

"That's just the winter cloak," Ron muttered, dodging a swipe from Harry.

"And look how handsome he's become, Mark! He must be beating off women with a stick!"

"Not only Ginny anymore," Hermione agreed under her breath. Ron, however, caught it and sent her a Look. She shrugged non-apologetically.

Harry, when he was finished turning red, followed the four of them to the car.

***

The Granger residence was a medium-sized ranch-style house a fair way out of town. It was decorated with snow and Christmas lights (which Ron found fascinating, even though he already knew all about electric lights from two summers ago), and a fat Muggle lawn gnome with a Santa hat stood by the birdbath in the front yard. Ron grinned, remembering Hermione's first experience with a real gnome.

Inside, a Christmas tree was decorated with more of the Christmas lights, a smaller variety, and this time in white instead of red and green. Presents, wrapped in silver, red, green and gold paper littered the floor beneath it. Ron thought the house looked very merry with all the decorations.

After Harry and Ron dropped their stuff off upstairs, everyone gathered in the kitchen for some cocoa. Louise Granger was not the greatest chef in the family- that title was secured by her husband- but she made a mean cup of hot chocolate. That was good, because the heater in the van was on the fritz again and everyone needed their eyebrows thawed out. "The three of you will have to share a room," she apologized as she stirred in some more chocolate powder. "We've got more relatives than we'd originally counted on, but the second guest bedroom will be big enough. The children can have 'Mione's room."

Hermione looked a little worried- she probably had some highly sensitive Muggle stuff in there, Ron thought. After all, it would be useless at Hogwarts. Or maybe she just didn't want a couple of toddlers going through her underwear drawer.

Ron noted with amusement how Hermione's father's eyebrows shot up at this statement. He shot a look at Ron and Harry but said nothing. Obviously he knew his place in the Granger household. As if one of us would try something funny with the other in the room. And it's not like Hermione can't take care of herself…He recalled, once again, the time she'd slapped Malfoy, and grinned into his chocolate.

Hermione saw this, and kicked him under the table. Ron glanced up in time to see the Mrs. Weasley look again. This one said, quite clearly, 'Don't get any ideas.'

Ron grinned even wider and raised his eyebrows. Who, me?

He got another Mrs. Weasley expression. 'Don't act innocent.' (Ron didn't catch the part of her face that said, 'It's too cute, and it's driving me crazy.')

Ron grimaced. Too many rules.

'That's better.'

Harry watched the whole silent expression with a knowing look on his face. He wondered if they even noticed they were staring at each other, but decided not to break the silence. Instead, he turned his thoughts to more serious matters.

It had been two weeks since he'd last heard of Dark activity anywhere, and he didn't guess that was a good sign. He supposed there was going to be a strike around Christmas time, as there had the year before; it wasn't good for the light side's morale and the Death Eaters loved that. He hadn't heard from Sirius in almost a year, which was either very good because he was hiding himself so well, or very bad because he'd been killed and no one had bothered to tell Harry. At the very least it was worrisome; Sirius could have at least sent him an owl every once in a while. It gave Harry something else to be preoccupied about.

He was so preoccupied, in fact, that he didn't notice when the chatter around him ceased. He was sitting with his chin cupped in his right hand while his left fingers drummed on the tabletop, looking somewhat forlorn.

"Harry," Hermione finally said gently.

Harry's head snapped up. "Er- sorry," he apologized. "I was just, er… thinking."

"Well, stop."

Everyone, including Hermione, was stunned. Harry finally cracked a grin. "I get the point. I'll stop brooding, but you have to help. I declare a snowball war- teens versus adults."

Mrs. Granger shook her head. "Not today. I'm exhausted."

"Count me out," Mr. Granger agreed. "You three go ahead."

***

"So how're we going to divvy up the teams?" Ron asked, testing the wetness of the snow. It would have soaked through his gloves, but of course they were charmed. "Boys against girl would, admittedly, not be fair."

"Agreed," Harry said. "So what about Prefects versus Head Girl?"

Hermione hit him in the leg with a fat, wet snowball.

"Well," and here Harry sighed dramatically, "the only other option I can think of is Weasleys versus Potter, and even that's-" Ron's snowball caught him mid-chest, causing him to stumble. He stepped back to regroup, but his foot hit a snowdrift and he fell, laughing, back into it.

Then came a deluge of other snowballs; Harry couldn't tell for sure which of his friends threw which. "I surrender," he called once his arms were pinned down by the wet snow.

Ron reached down and pulled him back up again. His ears were still red from Harry's well-meant jab, or perhaps from the cold; Harry had trouble telling anymore. "What did I say?" he asked innocently.

"'Mione's not dating Fred anymore," Ron said with a grin.

Hermione hit him in the leg with a snowball. "How many times do I have to tell you? I did not date Fred!"

Uh oh, thought Harry, is that my cue to leave? Hey, wait a minute. Something got misinterpreted here-

"No, you only went around Hogsmeade with him, arms linked, without Harry and I-"

Hermione's temper flared. "You had detention," she said impatiently. "Get it together, Ron-" A snowball hit her from behind. She whirled around, scooping up a handful of snow as she did so, but there was nobody there.

Another snowball hit her from behind; this time Ron was behind her.

"You magicked that first snowball!" she accused. "Cheater."

Harry felt a smile tugging at his lips. "Yeah, and you know what they say about cheaters."

Ron caught the near-identical gleams in his friends' eyes and didn't like it. "Er- they're all devastatingly handsome?" he asked, taking small steps backwards and judging the distance to the back door.

"I'll tell Malfoy you said so," Hermione said, trying not to grin as she packed her snowball harder. "Actually, what I was going to say was-"

"Cheaters never prosper," Harry finished, and they proceeded to bombard Ron with snowballs.

***

It was dark that night, and cold. It was snowing, a perfect time for sleeping; it should have been too quiet.

It wasn't.

Ron heard the fist hit the wall again, softer this time, but knew that no one would wake up. Hermione's parents had slept though all of her nightmares the last time he'd visited, and she had had some pretty nasty ones.

"No," Harry groaned, facing away from him. "No… Run, Lupin… hold him off…" He quieted down a bit after that, only to become vocal again seconds later. "Hermione! Stay back!" Harry rolled over and stuffed his face into his pillow, muffling his next few words.

In the half-silence, Ron heard something else: a quiet sniffle from the bed on his other side. He could barely make out one pale arm against the bedcovers.

Hermione jumped a bit when he reached up and took her hand in his, then let out all of her breath at once. "Is it always this bad?" she asked him, leaning over the side of the bed to see him better.

Ron looked away at his other friend, who had half-turned again and was murmuring something about Neville in his sleep. "It can get worse," he confessed, not wanting to lie to her.

"My God," Hermione breathed, closing her eyes. "It's no wonder Seamus and the others sleep in the common room."

"They can't usually hear him through the curtains," Ron responded. There was a question written in the next pause, and he answered it darkly: "They only do that when he starts screaming."

Hermione put her other hand over her mouth to stifle the sob. "How do you stand that? Hearing him experience the pain in his dreams? He can't get away, not even when he's sleeping."

Ron didn't answer, just shook his head mutely.

"Hermione! Don’t! Stay away! NO!" Harry nearly shouted the last bit, and Ron heard Hermione cover another sob.

"Never mind, just keep talking. Ron? Don't fall asleep."

"No… Ron, leave her… can't help her now… You bastard!"

Ron squeezed her hand tighter. "Best not to think about it," he advised.

"Can you reach the stereo?" Hermione suddenly asked. She'd shown him how to use it years ago; he'd been hooked on Muggle music ever since.

Ron stretched out a limber arm and shoved the plug into the socket, then touched the power button. Nothing happened.

Hermione swore worse than Ron had ever suspected she could, half-sitting up in bed to examine his work in the darkness. "Are you sure it's plugged in properly? Please tell me it just isn't plugged in properly."

Harry interrupted her again, this time with more soft pounding on the wall. "Avada," he muttered. "Avada… Ava- no, no… auris. Not Crucio! No!" He had curled up into a ball in his sleep and was rocking back and forth.

Ron shook his head and Hermione flopped back onto the pillows. "The power's out," she growled. "I don't believe it. The one time you need a distraction and-"

"Do you want me to distract you?" Ron broke in. "I mean, ah… that came out wrong."

Under other circumstances, Hermione would have laughed. "If you think you can do it without waking Harry," she answered. "He needs all the sleep he can get, nightmares or no."

"My singing voice isn't that bad. Harry can sleep through anything these days." Ron took a deep breath, still absently stroking the back of Hermione's hand. He searched his mind for something soothing, then began; a low note which already sounded somewhat mournful. "When the night has come… and the land is dark," he sang, not really warmed up and a tad roughly. "And the moon is the only light we'll see,"

Harry took this moment to interrupt with, "Never take me… he's innocent! Ron, tell them!"

Ron tried resolutely not to be distracted. "Oh I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand by me. Stand by me," he continued, now having to ignore both Hermione's inarticulate sniffling and Harry's cries for help. He lost himself in the chorus for a while, not knowing how many times he actually sang it; he might've skipped a line or he might've sung it a hundred times; it didn't matter. It wasn't working. "If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall,"

"Sirius, thassa trap… get away, Ginny-"

"All the mountains should crumble to the sea." Ginny? Not Ginny. I don't want Harry to have dreams about my sister, let alone nightmares.

"It's cursed- cursed- make it stop… stop!"

Hermione's hand was shaking in his grip. "I won't cry; no I won't shed a tear," although he wasn't really sure of that if Hermione kept on the way she was going, "Just as long as you stand by me…" He finished the song and the room was quiet again; 'Mione's hand was limp and he hoped she was deeply asleep, because he didn't want to wake up to her crying again. Harry, too, was silent, or mostly so; he kept repeating, "No, no, take me," in a very soft voice, still rocking back and forth in his sleeping bag. Ron closed his eyes. It was going to be a very long night. He kissed Hermione's hand, then gently disentangled his from hers and drifted into an uneasy sleep.

***

Breakfast that morning was a silent affair- Mr. and Mrs. Granger had gone off to fetch relatives from the train station, and Ron was off somewhere doing who-knew-what. Hermione was tired and felt slightly awkward at having experienced her friend's nightmare; Harry was looking even more subdued than usual. He was blotting a sheet of parchment with one hand and eating a piece of toast with the other when Ron came in through the back door, sticking his wand into his pocket.

"Someone got up early," Hermione commented, spreading jam on her toast.

"You know me," Ron answered distractedly, grabbing the other piece of warm bread off of her plate. Hermione thought it rather odd that there was a trickle of sweat running down his forehead and wondered if he'd just been out on his morning run again. (She didn't admit to herself that she had noticed the other rivulets of sweat that were dripping down the back of his neck, presumably down his back and- she stopped. That's enough! He's Ron! You got over him in fifth year!) "Always busy, never a moment to lose."

Hermione snorted, trying to cover her conspicuous stare, and slapped at his hand as he made off with her breakfast. "You make it sound like you aren't the guy who leaves his homework until the morning it's due."

"I'm busy the rest of the time," Ron proclaimed, mouth half-full. He swallowed and pulled out a chair. "I never said I was Plan Ahead Man."

Crookshanks meowed in agreement and jumped into Ron's lap. Hermione glared at him. Traitor. "Procrastination Guy is more like it," she muttered, taking a big bite of her (now cold) toast.

Ron feigned indignancy. "Thank you for insulting me in front of my cat."

"Crookshanks is not your property! He hardly belongs to anyone; he does what he wants."

"That makes him as much mine as yours then, doesn't it?" Ron perfected this little quip with a knowing half-smile.

"Ooh," Hermione made a frustrated sound and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like curse words under her breath. She pointed the rest of her breakfast at him, punctuating her words with shakes of toast. "You had better behave for Christmas." With that, she stacked their dishes in the dishwasher, grabbed her coat, and ran outside for a breath of fresh air.

Harry had never met Hermione's relatives before, and all of a sudden he had a lot of names to memorize at once. There were Kevin and Katie, three-year-old twins who had a Gred-and-Forge-ish air about them; there was Aunt Grace, a slender woman in her mid-thirties; and there was Uncle Hector, with a shiny patch atop his head (Harry had watched him peel off the twins' boots and witnessed Katie's comment about this- "Daddy, you've got a big bare-naked spot up there!"). Hermione's other aunt, Erin, had appeared with her cousins Elena, twelve; and Danny, fifteen. This left something to be desired for sleeping arrangements in the house.

Aunt Erin gladly agreed to sleep on the couch in the lounge, and Elena didn’t mind sharing Hermione's room with the twins. Grace and Hector had the first guest bedroom to themselves, which left Danny.

He was a slightly moody teenager, Harry thought, and probably a bit spoiled; he refused to sleep on the sofa in the living room or on the floor in Hermione's ("I'm not sleepin' in a girl's room!"). They finally settled the matter by having Ron and Hermione venture into the basement to 'find' an old army cot (which Danny thought was the ultimate cool) and set it up in the guest bedroom.

Harry's attention was drawn away from the twins' antics (they were doing their best to dress Crookshanks up like a doll; Crookshanks wasn't having any of it) and focused on the door to the room the three of them were staying in. Ron and Hermione had been in there, unsupervised, for twenty minutes. He wondered if that were safe and somehow doubted it.

***

Ron followed Hermione down the stairs, careful to duck his head about halfway down to compensate for the low ceiling. "What exactly are we looking for, 'Mione?" He stood up too soon at the bottom and smacked his head on a beam, cursing.

Hermione didn't bother to tell him to watch his language. "We are not looking for anything- we're going to transfigure something into a cot…"

Ron snorted. "We? Have you forgotten how abysmally bad I am at Transfiguration?" He watched doubtfully as Hermione pulled a rug out from hiding in a corner.

She pointed her wand at it. "Give me a break, you could've done this in first year if you'd studied a little harder- we just have to do it really fast so that the Muggles don't see…"

"Who's going to see us in your basement?" Ron asked, slightly flustered. "Anyway, my wand's upstairs-"

Hermione made her frustrated noise and Transfigured the cot. Ron didn't really see what she was on about- she obviously had no problems in the Transfiguration department and there was no reason he could see for him to actually go to the basement. "Speaking of," Hermione said, looking up from lifting an end of the cot, motioning for Ron to do the same, "what were you doing this morning?"

Ron's jaw tightened. So that's what she dragged me down here for. "I'll tell you later. Ready?" She nodded, and together they carried the cot upstairs.

"So what was it?" Hermione asked as Ron shut the door softly behind him.

He leaned back against it and closed his eyes, sighing heavily. "Promise you won't tell Harry," he said, his tone flat and uncompromising.

Hermione's brow furrowed. "Okay," she said, somewhat unsure of what to expect.

"I was ward-casting," Ron said quietly, looking at the floor.

Hermione's mouth fell open as the full impact of what Ron had said hit her. "You… that's… How?" she finally asked. They both knew how much practice, skill and energy it took to cast warding spells.

He rubbed his eyes with one hand. "A gift," he said finally. "Dumbledore-" And here he stopped, for they both knew how much the man meant to him, and how much it hurt him that his mentor and role model was missing in action, "He wanted someone to be able to watch over Harry, someone close, that could report to him. Of course you were his first choice, especially because of my admittedly volatile personality-" Hermione didn't laugh- "but you were already plenty busy with being a Prefect." Ron paused here for a moment, then continued, "And then there's the fact that, well, you don't witness his nightmares like some of us do…" He shrugged. "Dumbledore fed me some potion… must've been Veritaserum, making sure I wasn't working for the enemy. That's how I learned the whole wandless thing, anyway."

"That would explain the drastic change in your DADA marks, at least," Hermione murmured, still somewhat shocked. "Ron, that's really dangerous, are you sure-"

"If I had any doubts, 'Mione, I settled them a long time ago. It's the only thing I can do, in school at least, to help the light side. For Harry's sake."

Hermione felt her eyes tearing up. "Oh- oh Ron, I'm so proud of you."

Oh no, Ron thought, she's getting all girly again. "Hermione- don't cry, please don't cry."

It was too little too late, however, and probably only sent her further over the edge. A fat tear rolled down one cheek and Ron reached over to brush it away. Feeling awkward as ever, he pulled her close to him and let her cry it out, wondering why on Earth he'd had to tell her that, then.

None too soon, the door pushed open behind him and Harry gave a startled exclamation. "Sorry, Ron… I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

Hermione had the presence of mind to wipe the tearstains from her face before looking up. "Oh, you!" Without thinking, she Summoned something from the bed and threw it at him.

Harry stepped back, laughing at the object he'd caught in one hand. It was fluffy and missing an eye. "What's this when it's at home?" he asked, grinning.

Hermione tried to glare, but she took one look at the stuffed animal Harry was holding and burst out laughing. "I've been wondering where that had got to," she said. "I haven't seen this in years!"

"Glad I could be of help. So what is it?"

"Well," Hermione said, "it was a rat once. I think Crookshanks got hold of it, though, and you know what he's like with rats."

Harry allowed himself a moment of reflection. The year before, Wormtail had been on the Hogwarts grounds again. Once he'd transformed, Crookshanks lost no time whatsoever in taking a large piece of the tail that had given him the nickname. "Filthy creatures," he said, unconsciously twisting what he presumed used to be the neck of the stuffed animal. The remaining eye popped off. Harry looked at it somewhat non-apologetically and sighed. "They just don't make them like they used to."

***

The next evening, all twelve of them gathered round an incredibly crowded dining-room table. The last twenty-four hours had been somewhat uneventful, if you counted Elena's continued squealing about how cute Ron was as uneventful, or indeed if 'uneventful' was possible with Katie and Kevin running amok. Harry was quite certain that they had some magical abilities; how they'd managed to get Crookshanks into a bassinet without getting their eyes clawed out was a mystery to him.

At this particular moment, Katie and Kevin were squabbling over who had eaten more mashed potatoes; Ron, who had volunteered to sit on Katie's right, had some in his hair but was pretending not to notice. Hermione was looking slightly exhausted and Harry cringed, knowing he must've been yelling in his sleep the night before.

It was, much to Danny's chagrin, his and Elena's turn to help clear the table. Grace and Hector went upstairs to put the twins to bed, and the Dream Team retired to the study to relax.

"I can't believe the three-year-olds have more energy than I do," Hermione yawned, flopping down onto one end of the couch.

Harry, being extraordinarily perceptive as he was, sat at the other end. Ron raised an eyebrow at him, but flopped down between the two. "Now what?" he asked.

Hermione shrugged. "We could watch a video, if you want. Mum rented one for us…" The rest of her words were swallowed by a yawn.

Ron shrugged. "Works for me."

Hermione got up just long enough to pop the tape in the VCR. She then fast-forwarded through about fifteen minutes of useless video- "What is she wearing? Honestly." Finally, the title materialized on the screen.

"'My Best Friend's Wedding?'" Ron asked dubiously. "That sounds very girly. Should I be running from the room screaming, 'Mione?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. I've never seen it before."

Harry told them both to hush up. "I'm trying to watch the movie!"

A half hour later, they were thoroughly involved in the plot and betting on the outcome of the movie. "I'm telling you guys, she's going to end up losing her best friend for this. She's being totally cruel; not only that, but this blonde chick's going to end up hating her guts," Harry punctuated this sentiment with a shake of a piece of popcorn in the air.

Ron shook his head. "I don't think so. He's far too nice to hate her forever just because she tried to break up his wedding. I don't know about the girl, though. He turned his head to look at Hermione, who was half-asleep on his shoulder, just barely holding on to consciousness. He wondered how much caffeine she'd had to drink to even stay that awake. "What do you think, Herm?"

"That's me in five years," Hermione yawned morosely.

Harry and Ron exchanged looks: Harry's was knowing and open and grinning; Ron's, somewhat confused and almost wistful. "Right," he said, and they watched the rest of the movie in silence.

***

By the end, no one was awake enough to shut off the television. Harry was leaning back over the arm of the sofa, curled around just enough so that his head didn't droop over the side. Ron, beside him, had his feet up on the table and Hermione pretty much in his lap. Her head rested on Harry's knee, but her feet were on Ron's other side. Ron had his arm curled around her waist in a somewhat sleepy attempt to keep her from falling and jarring herself awake.

Blissfully, Christmas Eve was free of nightmares and the only dreams experienced were of sugarplums. (Except in Ron's case, but we won't get in to that; suffice it to say that he was rather surprised to find Hermione in his lap when he awoke.)

***

None of the adults had the heart to wake the three teens Christmas morning, but it was not so with Elena and Danny (who might've actually muttered, "Threesome," under his breath). Luckily for him, the twins ran screaming through the room and saved him from the wrath of a particularly vengeful Ron, who would have gone after Kevin for tearing into his presents with such vigor but was somewhat pinned down by Hermione, who was being uncharacteristically slow in getting up. Harry, however, rolled over and fell off of the couch flat-out, which woke Hermione.

"Morning, sunshine," Ron yawned affectionately, stretching full-out on the couch now that Harry was gone.

"Merry Christmas, Ron," Hermione muttered back, sitting up.

"Sure, ignore the guy laying on a heap on the floor." Harry sat up and eyed the two of them suspiciously. "How long have I been on the floor, by the way?"

Ron ignored him. "Come on, you two- presents!"

Ignoring Hermione's "Ron, you're such a first-year!" - he made his way over to the mound of presents wrapped in brown paper (wrapped brown both so as not to stand out to Muggle eyes, and because owl claws were likely to scratch up fancy ribbons anyway). Doling them out between Harry, Hermione and himself, Ron noted that there seemed to be more than usual- Bill, Charlie, Percy, Fred and George, along with his parents, had all sent gifts. He grinned at the dragonhide jacket Charlie claimed he'd spelled from a dragon's shed skin. It was most definitely the coolest thing in his wardrobe.

Hermione had wondered at first about opening wizard presents in front of Muggles, but realized she needn't worry: they already had Unremarkable charms on them to keep nonfamiliars from noticing them while they were being delivered. She opened the package from Fred and George cautiously and laughed when she saw the Canary Creams in their new stylish wrappers.

Harry's own presents included a subscription to a Quidditch magazine, a large square of fudge, and some dragonhide trousers. (Hermione was trying very hard not to be horrified at the length of the dragonhide skirt Charlie had sent her, or lack thereof.) All in all, it was a very rewarding Christmas, but Harry had never even imagined that his gift from Hermione and her parents would be anything so welcome.

At around eleven, the doorbell rang. Hermione stood up, grinning, and ran to answer it. Harry dismissed it as nothing important at first, but when she came back a minute later he was totally dumbstruck.

"Sirius!" he exclaimed, and rushed forward to embrace his godfather. Behind him was Professor Lupin; luckily for everyone involved the Muggles had moved to the living room. "What are you two doing here?"

"Dropping by for a well-needed rest," Sirius answered. "Have you any idea what we've been going through trying to contact you? But Alastor Moody won't let us- says it's too risky. Still-" here he ruffled Harry's hair affectionately, "it's good to be here."

Harry thought at that moment that he really ought to thank Hermione- but she and Ron had gone, and he was grateful. This was a time for his family, he felt, although they would be welcome later.

My family, he thought, then grinned. I do have a family after all; I have Sirius and Remus and Hermione and Ron and the rest of the Weasleys.

At that moment, Harry thought he must be the luckiest boy in the world.

***

Going back to school was not an entirely unpleasant prospect after the vacation. Harry and Ron had successfully given Hermione her vacation, whether for better or for worse. Three days with twins had been trying, but probably not as trying as keeping Hermione out of the library would have been.

Ron was almost ready to go back to Potions (this was good, as he was about three minutes late for it) after the final day with the terrors; he'd decided that they were more than a match for Fred and George any day. Scowling at his professor as Snape confiscated house points, he sank down into his chair between Hermione and Harry. "I suppose we'll have to be testing the Veritaserum," he muttered darkly.

"My Veritaserum is nothing to worry about," Hermione said matter-of-factly. "It's me who should be doing the worrying; I've got to drink yours as Snape's just paired Harry with Neville."

Ron wrinkled his nose. "Poor Harry. Maybe we should be trying this in the hospital wing."

Hermione slapped his arm playfully. "Don't be cruel."

They stared down at their goblets (which were, from appearances at least, perfectly equal in quality) for a few moments. "Well, this is it," Ron said, raising his, "I suppose we'd best get this over with." And he took a sip.

Willpower alone kept Ron from spitting it all over his best friend. He swallowed quickly. "That stuff tastes like-" (and here he said something which made Hermione say, "Ron!") He shrugged. "Well, at least we know it's working."

Hermione laughed. "Okay- right, to the questions. Umm… when's your birthday?"

"April twelfth," Ron answered without hesitation.

"What, in your opinion, is the stupidest thing you've ever done?"

"I said, 'Neville's right, Hermione, you are a girl…' To your face."

Hermione grinned a little at this… it was getting interesting. "What's your favorite color?"

"Blue," answered Ron immediately. "Come on, 'Mione, ask me something interesting."

She was not long in asking. "Why must you always call me that?"

Ron's eyes grew wide. "Uh, Hermione, don't ask me that. You don't want to hear the answer- ask me something else, quick-"

"Answer my question, Ron," she said sternly, now quite interested in what he had to say.

Ron sulked another second before answering dutifully, "If you take out the 'o', it spells, 'mine.'" He turned a brilliant shade of red for about three seconds, and then the effects of the potion wore off. "I told you that you didn't want to know," he said, shrugging. "Now it's your turn. Bottoms up, Hermione."

She was about to resist and say something else, but figured it was probably futile. She coughed a bit into her hand after she'd taken a swig- Veritaserum was nasty stuff indeed. "Oh, disgusting, it really does taste like-"

"Hermione!" Ron looked totally shocked that she'd just said that. "Oh, wait, this could be fun…"

I have a very bad feeling about this, Hermione thought.

"What's your middle name?"

"Louise," she answered sourly. She's always hated that name.

"Do you really think Lavender and Seamus make a good couple?"

"Yes. They deserve each other." Hermione was even beginning to smile a little. Veritaserum made everything just that much less complicated.

Ron grinned, getting into the swing of things. "What color are Viktor Krum's knickers?"

"No idea, although I suspect they've got the Bulgarian Quidditch team's logo on them."

"Is he really a gentleman?"

"No. He's a total prat. I only went to the Yule Ball with him because he asked me before you did." Oh no, she thought miserably. I meant to say, 'because he asked me first.' But I wouldn't have gone with Neville, and he asked next- oh, this is confusing-

"Do you love me?"

It took Hermione's brain about fifteen seconds to process that fully- she couldn't tell if he was serious or if he was joking, if he was just teasing her or if he really wanted to know- if he wanted her to answer in the affirmative or not- but it didn't matter what he wanted to hear- "Yes," she said, not making eye contact. Damn.

She felt hands on her shoulders and was forced to look up at Ron's face. Hermione tried and failed to read the expression brewing there. His eyes twinkled merrily at her. "Good."

And he kissed her, there, in the middle of the Potions lab.

Hermione took a minute to be totally aware that yes, Ron was kissing her and yes, it was in Snape's classroom and yes, they were probably going to get detention. She also registered that she'd been correct: Ron really did have to bend quite far down to kiss her.

She also noticed that he tasted like Veritaserum and decided thus that no, it was definitely not a dream.

Ron pulled away then, and whatever part of the class had been paying attention burst into applause. Hermione turned scarlet, especially so when Ron muttered something about Veritaserum-breath, and she cuffed him on the shoulder.

Across the room, Harry grinned to himself. He was looking a bit green around the gills but none the worse for wear. And he could have sworn that, if even for just a minute, Professor Snape had smiled.

THE END

 

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