The Sugar Quill
Author: Arabella (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Not as a Last Resort  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 - It's all JKR's.

Disclaimer Two - It was entirely B. Bennett's idea. She sent me two paragraphs of "Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful if..." I said, "Yes! Let me write it!" Being a sweetheart, she said, "Be my guest." Now, if B. Bennett had written it, you would have a nice, concise, tight story that would leave you happily tearful at the end. But mwahahaha. You're stuck with me. Get comfy for the long haul.

Summary - R/H, fifth year, lots of snow.

A/N - Thanks to Jedi Boadicea, for helping me with the Mudblood insult, for making up Python Blossoms with me, and for letting me borrow your happy idea that perhaps Pansy was dropped on her face as a child. Thanks also to Hallie, for helping me to mind my English.

***

Harry hadn't looked at all well, at lunch time, and thoughts of what might be bothering him were greatly bothering Hermione now. She stared out of the window at the briskly falling snow, hardly able to concentrate on class at all.

"...which makes the answer to number four what, Miss Granger?"

She blinked, and scanned her notes. "Erm, that would be the Patronus, Professor - because a manifestation of joy, though Arithmantically incalculable, can still be organised and harnessed for use in other spellwork."

Professor Vector chuckled. "Excellent. And for a moment, I actually thought you weren't paying attention. Five points to Gryffindor."

Hermione creased her brows in thought, hardly hearing either the praise from her teacher, or the chorus of annoyed half-groans from her classmates that followed it. What on earth is the matter with Harry? she puzzled. Sirius was still quite safe, Dumbledore hadn't entirely lost his influence over Hogwarts, and the Aurors had made it to Kent in time to protect the McDonalds from attack by the Death Eaters. All things considered, it had been a rather happy December, and it was very nearly time for the holiday break. Yet Harry was definitely in a state about something; she knew his face well enough now to know that he had been in one of his dark, nervous moods over lunch, and there were usually terribly good reasons for those. Or terribly bad ones, she corrected herself, hoping very much that whatever was troubling Harry, it wasn't his scar.

"Granger, not paying attention in class? But how could it be?" came a cutting hiss from behind her. "Preoccupied? Thinking about your boyfriend Potter again?"

Shut up and die, Pansy, Hermione thought coldly. But she didn't answer. She wouldn't answer. She hadn't looked at or spoken to Pansy Parkinson since they had begun Arithmancy together. To fight in Snape's class was one thing, but Hermione respected Professor Vector with her whole heart, and she wasn't about to sink to Slytherin lows in the Arithmancy classroom. Besides which, it was ridiculous that rumours still floated around Hogwarts about herself and Harry, and Hermione often wondered if everyone was entirely blind. Although, she reminded herself quickly, it was all right if they were. After all, it didn't do to have everyone noticing... everything.

"Class dismissed."

Hermione forced her books into her overloaded school bag, taking care not to crush her diary, then slung the massive thing onto her back and allowed her thoughts to return to Harry's troubled state, as she walked along the corridors. Unthinkingly, she performed the complicated series of twists and turns that led her to the lowest stairways. She descended into the dungeons, chewing on her lip, forgetting that she shared this class with Pansy, too.

"Potter and Granger, sitting in a tree," sang a high-pitched voice, not far above her on the stairs. "K-I-S-S-"

Ignore her.... ignore her...

"I-N-G. You know, you two could share a name, just combine them together. Har-Mione." The Slytherin girls who followed Pansy everywhere erupted into malicious giggles.

She's obviously an idiot. She's been poorly raised. She likes Malfoy for heaven's sake...

"If you're lucky, your kids will have your hair and his forehead. That way, they can join the circus as the freak act."

Don't give her the satisfaction.

"Of course, Mudbloods are freaks in the first place, so no matter what happens with Potter, you'll still end up with -"

"Is that your real nose, Parkinson, or did someone drop you on your face as a baby?"

Hermione jumped, startled. She'd been thinking the words, but she certainly hadn't said them. Her head snapped toward the door of the Potions classroom and she saw Ron, his face contorted in fury, his fists clenched. Her stomach twisted funnily. She turned to look at Pansy, who had miraculously gone quiet; the Slytherin tapped her wand against her thigh and said nothing. A wide smile crept across Pansy's face a moment later, however. She crossed her arms and positively simpered at something just over Hermione's shoulder.

"Paid bodyguard, are you, Weasley?"

Hermione whirled around at once. The cold drawl was instantly recognizable, and she wasn't about to stand by and watch as Malfoy taunted Ron into a fight, right here outside of Potions. This sort of thing never came out in Gryffindor's favour. She shot a warning look at Ron, but he wasn't looking at her. He'd already taken a step forward toward Malfoy.

"Of course," Malfoy continued, "it's not surprising. You'll need to work for your tuition now that your father's been demoted. But then it's like I always said. He wasn't cut out for the Ministry, was he -"

"YOU STINKING -"

"Ron, don't!" Hermione cried, as a flash of red hair lunged past her and a pair of freckled arms stretched toward Malfoy's neck.

"Everyone stop."

The corridor went silent.

Harry stood there, his wand only halfway raised, his green eyes narrowed and deadly. Hermione hadn't even seen him approach. He looked at Malfoy for a long, quiet moment, as if daring him to proceed. Malfoy clenched his jaw, but lowered his wand and stalked into the Potions classroom without looking back. Whatever his father had told him about the events that had taken place at the end of their fourth year, it had been enough to slow his temper around Harry. Apparently, Malfoy wasn't keen on fighting with anyone that
had survived a duel with the Dark Lord.

"Ruddy coward," Ron muttered after him, shoving his wand back into his belt with one
hand and raking his hair back with the other. He exchanged a dark look with Harry, then
caught Hermione's eye. She hadn't realised that she'd been staring at him until he glanced at her. "Well, don't look at me like that," he shot angrily. "I was only - " But he wasn't allowed to finish. Pansy and her Slytherin girlfriends swept between them and into the classroom. Hermione sighed and followed them inside, trying to ignore Ron's glare. Snape had been beyond unbearable lately, and it would only hurt Gryffindor if they walked in late to Potions.

Half an hour later, though, Ron still hadn't forgiven her.

"Harry, tell Hermione to hand me those beetle wings."

"Harry, tell Ron I can hear him quite well."

"Both of you get over it." Harry knocked the beetle wings in Ron's direction and looked moodily toward Snape.

Hermione eyed him edgily. He really wasn't acting like himself, and he hadn't been all day
long. "Harry," she ventured quietly after a moment, "is there something..."

But the black look he turned on her made her voice die out. She glanced across at Ron,
but he was refusing to meet her eyes. She sighed, and began carefully crumpling her
beetle wings into her cauldron. She knew she'd have to do it just right, or else the
Sharpening Elixir would disintegrate a sword instead of enhancing it, and Snape was
certain to test her results. He always did. He was just waiting to catch her on a bad day.

"... no, just wait until later," Harry was mumbling now, in a very low voice. Hermione
had to strain to hear Ron's answer.

"But did you, or what?"

"I told you later," Harry hissed.

"Did you what?" Hermione thumped down her mixing bowl and crossed her arms. If the conversation had something to do with Harry's mood, then she wanted to know about it. "What's going on?"

Harry jumped. "N-nothing." He swallowed, and began to stab at his potion ingredients with the butt of his wand.

Hermione's eyes narrowed. "Harry, you've been acting funny all day," she whispered. "If it's something to do with.... well, with You Know Who, then you'd better just..." She stopped, noticing for the first time that Harry's hair was very wet. "Why were you out in the snow?" she asked curiously. "What went on in Divination?"

"Look, it's nothing," Harry retorted, his face an unnatural shade of red. He flashed Ron a dirty look, as if to let him know that he wasn't pleased to be having the conversation in the first place.

Ron merely glared across at Hermione. "Mind your own business," he said shortly.

Hermione's mouth fell open. "Mind my own..." she repeated, suddenly feeling very wounded. This year she felt she'd been left out of more than she'd been let into, where Ron and Harry were concerned. Clearly, whatever was going on, Ron knew about it and she didn't. She looked at him reproachfully. "I thought what happened with Harry was my business," she said, her voice more highly pitched than she'd intended.

"Look, don't talk about me like I'm not here, all right?" Harry interrupted, stabbing even more vengefully into his cauldron.

"But Harry, if it's something to do with your scar..." she attempted. She noticed that he seemed to grow more agitated by the second, but she continued nonetheless. In her experience, that sort of reaction from Harry only meant that she was right. "Remember what Dumbledore said about feelings of-"

"Hermione, he told you to shut up!" Ron interjected, much more loudly than was normal, for a classroom. Several students turned their heads.

Hermione gasped in indignation and turned to face Ron entirely, forgetting, for a moment, that she was in Potions class. "Why don't you shut up, Ron?" she retorted, too stung to care that people were still looking at them. "Harry never told me to -"

"Silence."

Hermione, Ron and Harry sucked in a simultaneous breath. Snape was standing to the side of their table, leaning over Ron with a gleam of satisfaction in his black eyes. There were bags underneath them, Hermione noticed briefly. As if he hadn't slept in a long time.

"Is the famous Trio spatting?" Snape asked softly, his lips spreading in a thin smile. "How novel."

Malfoy's snigger was audible from across the dungeon, and Pansy's grating giggle burnt in Hermione's ears. "No, Professor, we were -" she began.

"Detention, Granger," Snape interrupted, looking as delighted as he ever had to award a punishment. "I do not tolerate excuses."

Harry and Ron released identical, involuntary sounds of disgust.

Snape arched an eyebrow at them. "And...." he paused. His eyes rested on Harry, but though he opened his mouth, he said nothing. His pupils seemed to dilate for a moment, before his batlike gaze travelled to Ron. "And Weasley," he concluded. "Come to my desk after class." Snape turned so swiftly that his robes flew out behind him for a moment, then stalked away to the front of the dungeon.

None of the three said another word for the remainder of the class. Hermione finished her Potion ahead of time and perfectly, much to Snape's obvious displeasure. He finally dismissed the class with a snarled, "Until you can tell the difference between a beetle and a praying mantis, Longbottom, I forbid you to return to this class. Out."

"Guess you won't be coming back then," said Malfoy nastily as he passed behind Neville's desk. "You might as well go back home to your Gran." He paused, flicked his ice blue eyes in Harry's direction, and then checked either side of himself for Crabbe and Goyle before continuing softly - "I hear she's very ill." Malfoy made a fake sniffling noise, Crabbe and Goyle grunted with laughter, and the three of them headed for the door of the dungeon.

"Right. That's it." Ron was on his feet along with Harry, heading for the door, and for once Hermione wasn't about to stop them. Neville's fist had clenched around his wand so tightly that the knuckles had gone white, and his whole body seemed to be shuddering. She moved quickly around her cauldron, towards his chair.

"Oh, Neville," she said quietly. "Don't listen. Your Gran will be all right." Neville wouldn't look at her, but even by his profile, she could see that his eyes were wet. She put out a hand to comfort him.

"Granger. Weasley. My desk. Now."

Hermione's head snapped up and she met Snape's compassionless gaze. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ron freeze in the doorway, his wand out. He said something very quiet that might have been a swear word, as Harry continued out into the corridor without him. There was a muffled shout from Malfoy, and the sound of large, boatlike feet pounding away down the hall. Then silence.

Realising that she wouldn't be allowed to help Neville for the time being, Hermione sighed and touched his arm briefly, then headed for Snape's desk, seething inwardly that Malfoy could get away with such cruelty in front of a teacher. It astounded her that Snape could be so loyal to Dumbledore, and, at the same time, act so unfairly towards many of the students with whom Dumbledore worked. She often wondered, though, how much of Snape's excessive cruelty toward Gryffindor was merely for show, this year. Perhaps he was only making sure to keep Slytherin suspicions at bay.

"How will the noble Potter fare without his chaperones, for an evening?" Snape began silkily, his smile entirely unkind as he looked from Hermione to Ron, and back again. "I understand it isn't safe to let him out of your sight. Ah well."

Or maybe it isn't for show after all.

Ron made an irritated noise. "Can we just have our detentions?" he asked, from between clenched teeth. Hermione kicked his shoe. He was making it worse.

"So eager to serve your punishment?" Snape laughed lightly. "My, my. I never thought I'd encounter a deferential Weasley."

"Ow!"

Ron had kicked Hermione back, and she hadn't been expecting it. She struggled to maintain her composure, wanting nothing so much as to turn on him and holler something awful. He'd been acting like a child since the beginning of class and she was sick of it.

Snape paused. He looked from their faces to their feet, and suddenly his unpleasant leer became a look of disgust. "How appropriate," he muttered, more to himself than to them. Hermione frowned, unsure of his meaning.

"Perhaps," Snape said finally, "considering your... violent tendencies... the two of you would be best put to work in the far greenhouse. I understand that Professor Sprout has been having difficulty with the Python Blossoms." He pronounced the last two words with especial malice.

Ron groaned outright, and Hermione knew why. He and Harry had already made a mess of themselves, wrestling with the Python Blossoms, and Snape probably knew all about it. Having no desire to be stuck in a greenhouse in the snow with a very unpleasant plant and an even more unpleasant Ron, Hermione spoke up. "Professor..." she ventured, "...you do know it's snowing rather hard outside?"

"Yes." Snape smiled, his usual joyless grin back in its place. "The detention will begin now, before too much snow prevents it. You are dismissed to the greenhouses."

"You can't make us skip dinner!" Ron protested at once. Hermione sighed. Snape could, and would.

"I believe I said now, Weasley," Snape replied, alighting at his desk with a turn of his robes and beginning to measure powdered vampire fangs into a vial. "Ten points from Gryffindor for exhibiting poor listening skills, and I suggest you obey, before the punishment is doubled."

Hermione gathered her cloak and bag, and followed a very red-eared, tight-lipped Ron from the dungeon. He didn't say a word to her until they had climbed the stairs and come to the great oak doors of the entrance hall.

"You had to nag Harry about his business, didn't you? You just couldn't let it alone." Ron jerked the door open and leapt back - a wild wind, full of snow, threatened to blast the heavy door flat into him.

Hermione stalked past him into the snow, lifting her nose into the air. Let him deal with the door, she thought angrily, walking as quickly as she could toward the greenhouses under the heavy weight of her bag, not caring whether or not Ron could catch up with her.

He did, though, just moments later. Hang his long legs.

"Thanks a whole bloody lot for the help!" Ron shouted rudely over the wind. "We wouldn't be in this mess if you'd just minded your business, so the least you can do is stop acting like a Little Miss -"

The rest of his insult was lost in a sudden gust of wind, and Hermione was glad. Her ire was up, and her temper was strong, but that didn't mean she could stand to be called names by Ron. Rather than risk a show of hurt, she hustled forward, kept her face turned away, and made for the greenhouses as quickly as she could.

Professor Sprout let out a shout of surprise when the greenhouse door banged open and Hermione stormed in. "Close it!" cried the Professor, raising her earth-covered hands in the air. "Quickly! The temperature! The plants!" She pointed her wand and brought the door slamming shut, just as Ron stomped inside. The door smacked him hard in the rear and sent him sprawling to the greenhouse floor.

Hermione laughed aloud. Ron glowered up at her with a face as red as his hair. He got to his feet and advanced on her, opening his mouth to say something that Hermione anticipated was not very nice. She stared insolently up at him, waiting.

"What on earth?" Professor Sprout cut in, before Ron could make a sound. She eyed them beadily. "My last class was an hour ago. With Ravenclaw sixth years. Or else I'm dotty."

Hermione shook her head quickly, stepped away from Ron, and explained what they were there to do.

Professor Sprout folded her arms across her robes. "And he sent you out here without supper, did he?" she said dryly. "Well. Let's make quick work of it, then, and get you back to the castle before the snow keeps us here all night."

Hermione glanced briefly at Ron, who caught her eyes and gave her a look that plainly said he'd blame her for it, if they were stuck in the greenhouses until morning. She smirked back at him, and pulled on a pair of gloves that had cleats studding the palms and fingers.

I'll show him how to wrestle a Python Blossom.

*

Two hours passed, during which Ron swore loudly twice, Professor Sprout pretended not to hear him, and three cups of sticky violet pollen were collected. The wind now howled and whistled around the greenhouse, and Hermione could only barely make out the castle's turrets through the blizzard. It was almost impossible to tell that the sky was dark; it was so very white with snow.

"That'll be it, then," Professor Sprout panted, grasping the throat-like plant that Ron had been working on and holding it away from her face. It swung back and forth, sneezing a blast of purple directly at Ron, who threw up his hands against it, looking highly rankled. His collar was entirely purple. Hermione stepped away from her blossom, which had coiled in sleep as she had stripped its pollen, and checked her clothes. They were pristine.

"Go on up back to the school before the snow gets any worse," Professor Sprout commanded, stroking down the side of the thick, scaly stem of the Python Blossom. It grew slightly more docile at her touch, but was not yet entirely calm. "I'll fix this one up, don't wait for me. Get back to your tower and for goodness' sake, stop by the hospital wing if you get too wet, or Madam Pomfrey will hunt me down when you get ill."

Hermione promised that they would. She deposited her cleated gloves into the bin, pulled on her snow ones, secured her cloak around her shoulders, and slung her bag onto her back. With Ron behind her, she opened the door, squinting against the certain onrush of snow.

Sure enough, the door blasted open, knocking her back. Ron didn't stop to help her; perhaps in retaliation for her earlier refusal to help him, he went quickly through the door and trudged into the snow without looking back. Hermione hurried through the door herself and gave it a ferocious yank, then turned to find that Ron had disappeared almost entirely. She could only see the slightest glimmer of red, several meters off. The snow otherwise concealed him.

"Ron!" she yelled, a slight panic beginning to flutter in her stomach. She went toward the landmark of his hair as quickly as she could. "Ron, stop!" But she knew he couldn't hear her. The wind tore her voice away each time she attempted to speak, and Ron was getting farther off by the second. Hermione shielded her eyes against the stinging snow and squinted toward the castle as she stumbled forward.

The castle.

She couldn't see it.

Hermione had never been in a blizzard in her life, but she had read about whiteouts like this. Hastily, she turned back to see if she could make it to the greenhouse; it was important to get inside, no matter where. Barely, she could see the glint of glass that made up the Herbology buildings, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She could get back and stay the night in the greenhouse; it was better than getting horribly lost in the snow. She took one step in that direction, and stopped, as a dreadful thought struck her.

What if Ron can't see anything, either?

Without a second thought she turned back toward the castle and ran as fast as she could through the snow. "RON!" she shouted, with all the voice she could muster. "I CAN'T SEE YOU, YOU HAVE TO STOP!" She glanced over her shoulder and felt as though a brick had been dropped into her gut. The greenhouse was no longer visible.

I can always turn around when I find him. I know which way the greenhouses are. They're right behind me. Don't panic. Don't panic.

Panicked, she plunged ahead, wishing she were in her seventh year of Charms with knowledge of powerful weather localisation spells. Her eyes searched the white nothing in front of her, blinking rapidly against what felt like whole drifts of snow. The sky was invisible, the castle was invisible, and as irritated as she had been with Ron earlier, she would have given anything for a glimpse of red -

"Oof! BLOODY - "

Hermione had banged against something tall and warm and possessing a colourful vocabulary.

"RON!" she yelled, and threw her arms around him. "I couldn't see you!"

"WHAT?" he hollered back. His arms were on either side of her body, dangling as if they didn't know what to do. One big hand patted her back clumsily after a moment and Hermione wondered how, in the middle of a blizzard, she could feel her temperature rise.

She let him go. "WE HAVE TO GET INSIDE!" she hollered at the top of her lungs.

Ron brought his face very close to hers, which was necessary, she reminded herself, in order for them to see each other. "I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" he bellowed. "WE HAVE TO GET INSIDE! THIS IS A BLIZZARD!"

"YOU DON'T SAY," Hermione yelled sarcastically.

Ron shook his head to indicate he still hadn't heard her. "WHAT?" he shouted. "NEVER MIND! WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT SPELL YOU GAVE HARRY? THE COMPASS ONE?"

Hermione shivered and wracked her brain. The compass one, the compass one, the - "THE FOUR POINT SPELL?" she shouted back.

Ron grimaced in frustration and Hermione wondered if he had a hearing problem. She could make his words out, after all. He withdrew his wand and slapped it onto his palm, as if to demonstrate what he was talking about.

"I KNOW!" Hermione hollered, annoyed. "I JUST SAID THE FOUR POINT - Oh, bother, never mind," she muttered to herself, pulling her own wand and laying it flat on her hand. But before she lifted her fingers from it, she paused. It wasn't going to work. The moment she picked up her hand, the wand was going to go flying off in the wind, and then she wouldn't even have that much to protect her. She shook her head at Ron. "IT'S NO GOOD! I'LL LOSE MY WAND!"

Ron began to shake his head at her again in a deaf manner, and Hermione gave an impatient scream. She took up her wand and made a flying gesture in front of his face with it, trying to show that it would get lost if she let it go. Ron watched her attempts for a moment, then broke out laughing.

"WHAT THE HELL IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE?" he hollered, when he had regained some semblance of composure. "IS THAT SOME KIND OF SECRET LOCKHART MOVE?"

Hermione clapped her hands over her face. He was insufferable, he couldn't hear her, they didn't know what direction they were walking in, and it was, all in all, a terrible situation.

Well, but at least I found him, she couldn't help reflecting. And before she'd really thought about it, she had reached out, grabbed Ron's gloved hand in her own, and begun tugging him in what she hoped was a helpful direction.

"YOU DON'T KNOW WHERE WE'RE GOING, DO YOU?" Ron shouted over the wind, gripping her hand tightly.

"Maybe I don't," she replied in a normal voice, knowing he'd never hear her even if she shouted. "But it's better to walk than to just stand there freezing, and we have to find shelter or we'll die on our own school grounds, and that's not a comforting thought, and eventually we're bound to run into something or other, I mean, honestly, the castle's enormous, we have to see it sooner or later, and besides, I don't see you having any better ideas!"

The rushing out of words somehow made Hermione feel better - more powerful - she marched forward with new strength, pulling Ron along with her and continuing to rant.

"You always question everything I do like it's not quite trustworthy and I don't understand it, because you know that I'm smart, and how many times have I got us out of scrapes! When are you ever going to listen to me? You and Harry ignore me, and then you always wish you hadn't!"

Hermione tossed her head. She'd wanted to say that to Ron for a long time and it felt good to get it out, even if he couldn't hear her at all. She wiped snow out of her eyes and trudged on, feeling lighter with every step and every word, though her feet were beginning to feel like blocks of ice.

"And then I just try to find out if Harry's all right and all you do is hand me trouble for it! Trying to blame that detention on me, how dare you! You two hide things from me all the time lately and I hate it so much, and I know you only do it because I'm the girl, and I can't help being a girl and I want to know what is happening! Haven't I been there for everything? Have I ever broken a promise or told a secret?"

She sucked in a breath.

"And it hurts when you call me names, Ron Weasley. It really hurts. Because I - "

Hermione stopped. She didn't trust even a wind this strong to carry her next words away before they were heard. Ron's hand was still tight around her own and she sighed.

"HEY!" Ron let go of her hand and hurried in front of her, to nudge a pile of snow with his shoe. "IT'S THE LAKE!" The pile of snow he'd nudged was sinking into a wet and slushy mass, and Hermione realised that Ron was right. "IF WE GO UP THIS HILL -" Ron turned in the direction he meant, " - THEN WE'LL RUN RIGHT INTO THE CASTLE!" He turned and grabbed Hermione's hand again. "COME ON! MY FEET ARE FROZEN!"

"REALLY, BECAUSE MINE ARE LOVELY, TOASTY WARM," Hermione hollered at his back, as she struggled to keep up with him. He threw her a maddening grin over his shoulder, and she felt her heart seize up slightly. Had he heard her say that? No, she promised herself quickly. No, he can't hear you. He didn't hear you.

They managed through the snow for what seemed like another hour, when Hermione finally had to stop. She tugged her hand out of Ron's and let her book bag slide off of her back. It was too much to carry, for so long a time, and she imagined that wearing it on the front for awhile would help to alleviate her sore muscles. She began to lace one arm through a strap, when the bag was seized from her hands.

"GOT IT," Ron yelled, throwing it over his arm and staggering to the side. He straightened up after a second and grinned again. "JUST KIDDING!"

It was on the tip of Hermione's tongue to yell that she could carry it herself - but she held back. There was something about his gesture that she didn't want to ruin. Besides, her back really did hurt, and she was terribly cold. "Thank you," she mouthed instead, her eyes meeting his.

Ron must have read her lips, because he shrugged awkwardly and his ears went pinker than the cold had already made them. Hermione smiled at him and took his hand once more - marvelling at how comfortable it was to hold hands now that there was a good excuse for it - then kept on walking, thinking how oddly nice it was to see her book bag on Ron's shoulder. Her stomach did its funny twist, again.

It wasn't much longer before Ron stumbled on something and fell forward. He let out a holler of pain and jumped back. "SOMETHING STABBED ME!" he yelled, pointing ahead.

Hermione stepped in front of him quickly and felt around in front of them with her hands. She hollered out happily when her hands closed around something solid; she brushed snow off of it quickly and, though she was entirely exhausted, jumped up and down in delight. "IT'S HAGRID'S PUMPKIN PATCH!" she cried out. "YOU GOT STABBED BY ONE OF THE GATE STAKES!" She grabbed for Ron's hand and put it on the gate so he could follow, then felt along the stakes until she came to a corner. She rounded it, keeping contact with her hands until the toes of her boots hit up against a wall.

Hagrid's cabin. She put her hands up against it and laughed with relief. "Oh, Hagrid," she sighed, into the wind and snow. "We miss you." With Ron at her heels, she edged along the wall and came around front, to the door.

"ALOHOMORA!" she shouted. The door to Hagrid's hut flew open. Hermione, Ron, and a good amount of snow tumbled through it together.

For the first several minutes, they didn't speak. They were far too cold. Ron shut the door tightly, then tore off his cloak, gloves and scarf, his teeth chattering wildly. He dropped his own and Hermione's book bags into a chair, pulled his wand and started a fire in the grate, then began to remove his shoes. Hermione threw down her soaking cloak and gloves as well and joined him on the rug before the fire, taking off her shoes and socks as quickly as she could and holding her feet near the flames. The fire soaked through her wet clothes and made even her bones warm again as the storm continued to howl outside.

"Oh... wow...." Ron had fallen onto his back and lay with his heels on the hearthstone, his toes sticking up in the air, his arms splayed out, his eyes shut.

Hermione watched him, taking advantage of his closed eyes to look at the whole length of him, from his bare feet to his wet hair. She had the most powerful urge to lie back next to him and put her head on his outstretched arm. She stayed sitting up, and looked around the cabin, instead. It was just one room, but it seemed very big and empty, without Hagrid to fill it.

"It's so weird," Ron yawned, "to come in here and not hear Fang barking his crazy head off."

Hermione smiled. "Not to have Hagrid try to feed us rocks with our tea."

"Or see some evil, bloodsucking creature growing in a box in the corner."

"I know," Hermione agreed. "I'm so glad no one else wanted to live here, while he's gone. That would be... just wrong, somehow. I wonder how things are coming along with the giants?" She looked up at Hagrid's crude mantle and saw a little pot that looked awfully like the one that the Weasleys used for their Floo powder. She sighed heavily. "I'd think at least Hagrid would know you can't use Floo powder on Hogwarts grounds," she said, feeling a little disappointed.

Ron opened his eyes. "What?" He squinted at the little pot. "Oh, that isn't Floo powder. It's the other kind, for sticking your head in the fire." He shut his eyes again and sighed contentedly, running his fingers through his hair and making it stick up. "That was incredible, out there. We easily could have died. Frozen solid. We're really lucky I pointed us in the right direction."

Hermione smirked. "You thought you were taking us to the castle."

"Castle, cabin, whatever. We're inside." Ron began to scratch at the skin beneath the purpled collar of his robes.

Hermione rolled her eyes, and got to her feet. "Yes, and we need to get to the castle. Do you know how to work that sort of powder? I've never used it."

Ron opened one eye and stared at her incredulously. "Get to the castle? Hermione, I'm not sure if you noticed the BLIZZARD outside."

"I'm not going to go out walking in the whiteout, Ron." She let out an impatient breath. "I just need to get my head to the castle. We need to let a teacher know where we are so that they don't all worry. So that Harry doesn't worry. How do I make my head end up in the Teacher's Lounge fire?"

"Hack off Snape again and I'm sure he'll throw it in there for you," Ron muttered, his hands now tearing at his collar. "This thing is killing me," he growled.

"You're probably allergic to the pollen that you got all over yourself." She reached for the little jar.

"I noticed you got the nice, sleepy flower to work with," he grumbled, unfastening the top of his robes.

Hermione stared at what his fingers were doing, then looked quickly away. "We had exactly the same type of flower, Ron. Only, I read the chapter on techniques for soothing aggressive plants, and you skipped it because it wasn't going to be on the test."

"Nice of you to give me a lecture when my skin's practically coming off -"

"Well then take your robes off and stop complaining!" Hermione retorted. She gasped slightly, and froze.

I did not just say that.

She turned away entirely toward the fireplace, avoiding the look of shock on Ron's face. Her own face burned. It was even worse when, a moment later, she heard Ron get up behind her and walk across the creaky floor to the other side of the room.

"Don't turn around," he said shortly.

Hermione heard the sounds of bureau drawers being opened and shut, and the further sound of something like wet fabric hitting the floor. She tried to breathe.

I've lost it. I've really lost it, she repeated over and over to herself, picking up the little powder jar in an effort to focus her mind on something other than the fact that Ron was standing behind her without any clothes on. She lifted the ceramic lid on the jar and peered inside, feeling her heart, which had just been pounding horribly, sink in disappointment. There was nothing in the jar but a tiny little spoon that Hermione couldn't even imagine Hagrid using. It would get lost between his giant fingertips.

"Oh, no," she sighed aloud, hoping that none of the teachers would go stumbling out into the snow to find them, but knowing that they would.

"What's wrong?" asked Ron, behind her. Hermione jumped.

"It's just there isn't any powder," she stammered, feeling herself blush, "so we won't be able to tell anyone where we are. Can I.... erm... can I turn around yet?"

Ron coughed. "Okay," he said, his voice cracking.

Hermione drew breath and turned, hoping that she didn't look as red and nervous as she felt. Her eyes fell on Ron. Her mouth fell open.

"Ron!" she gasped, pressing all her all her fingers to her mouth in order to stem the tide of giggles that threatened to break loose. "What - what are you - wearing?!" She couldn't help it. The giggles got past her fingers and she shrieked with laughter.

Ron had taken off his robes, after all. He was now wearing an enormous blue shirt of Hagrid's, which fitted him like a tent. He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms, making the picture even funnier.

"What's so funny?" he accused. "I was wet and you said I was allergic. And it's no different from pyjamas." He paused. "It's definitely no worse than my ruddy dress robes," he muttered darkly.

Hermione calmed down, after several minutes, but had caught a mild case of the hiccups, from laughing so hard.

"Your dress robes - hic - aren't that - hic - bad, Ron," she assured, gesturing to the blue tent.

"Admit it's not a great improvement," he challenged. "Lace cuffs, they had."

Hermione didn't answer. She had been trying not to think about dress robes. She had been trying - very hard - not to think about dances. It was hard for her to accept that after all the signs she'd thought she'd seen last year, Ron still didn't want to invite her to a Ball. But she wasn't about to bring it up. She remembered, all too well, the last talk they'd had about invitations and dances.

"Actually - hic - I think I'll put on a - hic - dry shirt, too," she said, by way of avoiding the question. She went across the room to Hagrid's strangely small dresser, and Ron spun immediately to face the wall, covering his eyes with his hands. Hermione looked at the back of his neck for a moment, felt a shiver of something almost wicked run through her, then went about her business.

There were small personal effects scattered across Hagrid's bureau: elastics that Hermione guessed he must have used for his bunches last year, a bottle of that horrid eau de cologne he'd practically bathed in - Hermione snorted softly. She wondered if he and Madame Maxime.... but she put that thought out of her head. There was a framed picture of Hagrid with his dad sitting on his shoulder. There was also a crude, wood-handled mirror lying face-up, and Hermione couldn't help peeking down into it. She caught sight of herself, sighed, and looked away.

She opened Hagrid's middle drawer, found an enormous, chequered shirt that would doubtless conceal everything, and pulled it out.

"I'm not looking," Ron called out abruptly, his voice cracking again.

Hermione suppressed a laugh. Ron's voice had been doing that a lot, lately, but she knew, somehow, that he wouldn't be able to stand it if she laughed. There were some things a person could get teased about, and some that... Well. She just wouldn't laugh.

"I know you're not looking," she answered loftily, "because I'm going to change in the loo."

"Huh?" Ron turned around, looking impatient. "Well, why didn't you just tell me that? Here all this time I thought you were na-"

He stopped before finishing the word, and flushed to the roots of his hair. The two stood frozen and stared at each other for a long second, and Hermione felt quite rooted to the spot. He'd thought she... had he been standing there thinking about...?

Ron looked quite definitely as though he wouldn't be able to move or speak first.

Marshalling every scrap of dignity she possessed, Hermione closed Hagrid's bureau drawer, picked up her school bag, and disappeared with the chequered shirt into the tiny little loo at the back of Hagrid's hut.

The moment she was safely alone, she dropped her bag with a clunk! and buried her face in Hagrid's shirt. The wind whistled on the other side of the rough wooden wall, and she shivered, working not to cry. Breathe, Hermione. It's nothing. It's fine. Pretend it didn't happen. She steadied herself, tore off her uncomfortably wet school robes as quickly as she could, and dove into the makeshift night-dress. She then dug into her school bag, grabbed her diary and one of the self-inking quills she'd purchased during the last trip to Hogsmeade, and hastily sat on the toilet seat to write.

******

HQoW

December 18

Gwen, don't say anything, I only have a second. I'm trapped in Hagrid's cabin with Ron and there's a blizzard out, and we're going to have to stay the night here by ourselves.

And I'm not supposed to say any -

I just wanted to tell you that I'm all right; we made it safely out of the snow and didn't freeze to death, and now it's all just fine.

And that's all you want to tell me.

Yes.

While you're trapped in the snow with Ron.

Oh, Gwen. Help.

Tell me.

It's this whole stupid situation. We were wet - you know, from the blizzard - so we had to change clothes, and Ron changed while I was facing the wall, and then he faced the wall so I could change, but I wasn't about to change out there in front of him, even if his back was turned! So I told him I was coming into the loo and then he said I should have just told him that because he was standing there facing the wall the whole time I was finding a shirt, thinking I was... naked. He said that. Well, very nearly said it. And then we just looked at each other. And now I cannot go back out there.

You're going to stay in the loo?

I don't know. I can't DO THIS. We held hands in the snow. I even hugged him out there. Oh, I'm such an idiot. He knows, he knows, I know he knows -

He doesn't know. They never know.

Promise me that that's true. PROMISE.

I promise, cross my heart. He may wonder, Hermione, but I'd even doubt that much. He doesn't know. Now listen to me. Have you let a teacher know where you are?

We can't. There's no way to do it. I tried.

Are you ill? Are you warm? Have you had anything to drink?

No, I haven't. We've been too cold to do much of anything but light a fire and get dry. We haven't had supper either, because Snape wouldn't let us before he sent us out into a blizzard for detention. Oh, if we'd died out there, wouldn't he be sorry. Actually, never mind. He wouldn't be sorry at all.

What I want you to do is go and get something to eat, and drink a bit of water, and go to sleep. You need rest. And do talk to me in the morning, please, or I'll worry.

Sleep. I don't know where we're going to sleep. Oh, Gwen. I just realised that now. I don't know where we're going to sleep!

What do you mean? Isn't there a bed?

Well, I mean, YES, but there's only ONE!

Then you take it. If Ron is any kind of gentleman -

Gwen, honestly -

- and I somehow imagine that he is, then he won't even think twice about letting you have it.

But... well, what about him?

He'll survive.

 

Hermione?

 

Hermio -

 

*******

But Hermione slammed her diary shut. Ron had rapped on the door.

"What are you doing in there?"

"Go away, Ron!" she answered shrilly, stuffing Gwen quickly in among her books and straightening the enormous chequered shirt. She made sure that the huge neck-hole was pushed well back and showed nothing but neck.

Ron made a noise of disgust. "Just like Ginny, hogging the bathroom."

Hermione gathered her things and opened the door. "I am not hogging anything. I was changing." She stalked to the chair, set down her bag, and lay her wet robes over the arms. She set them to dry with a spell, noticing that Ron's school robes were still lying in a wet lump on the floor. She left them there.

"Hey, drink that upside-down," Ron said suddenly, pointing to an open bottle of butterbeer on the table. "Mum makes us do that for hiccups." He headed into the bathroom himself, and shut the door.

"My hiccups are gone," Hermione answered vaguely, picking up the butterbeer and looking from its label to the door of the loo. Ron was so... unexpected. She sat at the table and held the bottle by its neck, twirling it around on the base and musing. He was so insulting. And thoughtful. She felt a warmth in her stomach, as if she'd already drunk the butterbeer in one gulp.

There was a sound of running water, the creak of hinges, and then Ron reappeared.

"How," he asked, standing in the door frame with his arms crossed and shaking his head gravely, "does Hagrid do it?"

Hermione frowned. "Do what?"

"Fit in the loo." Ron appeared to be thinking hard about the answer.

"Well... perhaps it's an Enlargement Charm, like the ones on the tents we used last year," Hermione offered helpfully.

Ron nodded. "Or maybe he, you know, just stands outside the door and aims for -"

"Ron!"

But he didn't hear her; he had seized up with laughter. Hermione took a dainty sip of butterbeer and sniffed in distaste. Ron ignored this entirely and, after he'd got hold of himself, padded over to the shelves of tankards and teacups that were built against the wall. He picked out an enormous tankard and clapped it onto the table along with his wand, then went on rummaging around.

"Oh," said Hermione, lifting her butterbeer slightly. "Are you having one, too?"

"That was the only one," Ron answered, pulling out several lumpy looking packages from a cupboard and piling them on the table, before going toward a large, wooden bucket with a lid, which stood beneath the shelves.

Hermione watched him, holding her butterbeer tightly, feeling very much the way she felt whenever Ron stood up to Malfoy for her. As if, no matter what happened, she would be quite taken care of. Her heart thumped.

"We can share this one, then," she said, moving to pour half of it into Ron's tankard.

"No, honestly," he replied, lifting the lid on the bucket and grinning into it. "You have it. I found something else." He grabbed his tankard, dipped it into the bucket, replaced the lid and sat down across from Hermione. "Hungry?" he asked, and began to tear open one of the lumpy packages.

Hermione pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at his tankard. "What's that you're drinking?" she asked, wondering if she wanted to know the answer.

"Mulled mead," Ron replied, unveiling two charred-looking bits of heavy pastry. He grimaced. "Hagrid, you're killing me."

"But, Ron," pressed Hermione doubtfully, "Hagrid's been away for nearly six months! That mead can't be good - it'll've grown some sort of fungus!"

"Nah." Ron opened another package and sighed heavily at the pile of rock cakes he found. "It's mulled, in the first place, so it keeps for longer than normal stuff. And secondly, last summer, I watched Dad show Bill how to keep it drinkable for months. You can charm it. I'm sure Hagrid does."

Hermione was not quite satisfied. "Well, even if it isn't poisoned," she said, in a tone of voice that suggested it probably was, "isn't it very strong alcohol?"

Ron bit apart the string on a third package and tore open the paper. "I dunno," he replied, spitting the string onto the table, "but I'll tell you once I've drunk it. Yes!" He held up a brick of Hagrid's treacle fudge. "This, I can eat." He picked up his wand. "Wingardium Leviosa!"

The treacle fudge rose into the air and Hermione watched it, feeling a twang in her middle. It was silly, she knew, but she couldn't help flashing back in time as he said that spell. It put her in mind of a very heavy club, which had dropped onto the head of a very ugly troll.

"Mobilicuppedus!" Ron pointed his wand and sent the fudge to hover above the hearthstone, just outside the open fire.

Hermione smiled at him and took a drink of butterbeer. "Your Latin's very good," she commended.

Ron shrugged casually. Only the very tips of his ears were telltale pink. "I only know that one from going to Honeydukes so much." He paused. "And from lifting candy from Fred and George." He sniggered, then sighed, jerking a thumb toward the treacle fudge. "We can't eat that thing till it softens, but I'm starving. Of course, I wouldn't eat it if I wasn't starving. Harry and I made a pact we wouldn't touch Hagrid's cooking unless we were literally dying of malnutrition."

Hermione laughed, but quickly grew quiet. She hadn't thought much about Harry since she and Ron had been given detention - that seemed days ago now. Her mind turned back to the classroom earlier, and she remembered the dark look on his face and the whispered conversation that he'd had with Ron.

"Ron, what's the matter with Harry?"

Ron looked at her, then shifted his eyes away. He raised his tankard and took a deep swig. "Weird," he muttered, peering into the cup before he clanked it on the table again. "I thought it'd taste different. It's not that bad, though. Want to try it?" He held out the tankard toward her.

"Please don't ignore my question." Hermione tapped her fingertips against her bottle. "I know that you and Harry have some secret and he's so unsafe with the Dark Lord back... I just want to be sure it isn't to do with anything dangerous."

"It isn't," Ron answered briefly. "I should put a plate under that." He got up, grabbed a plate from the shelves, and set it beneath the fudge, which had barely begun to soften around the edges.

Irritated with his cryptic answer, Hermione crossed her arms. "And that's really all you're going to tell me."

Ron sat back down and shrugged. "Yeah. It is." He picked up the tankard and took another long drink, obviously not intending to explain himself further.

"Fine. If that's the way you're going to be about it." Hermione stood stiffly and went to her school bag. She withdrew her diary and quill, put her butterbeer and wand on the bedside table, and threw herself onto Hagrid's massive bed.

"Oh, come on," Ron attempted.

Hermione ignored him completely and opened her diary. She stuck out her tongue and licked the nib of her quill.

"So you're just going to lie there and write in your diary now?" Ron stomped across the room with his tankard. He stood next to the bed and stared down at her back, and suddenly Hermione felt very warm and annoyed and excited all at once.

"Yes I am," she said obstinately. "She doesn't keep things from me like some people do."

Ron sucked in a breath.

Hermione realised her mistake. She slammed her face into Hagrid's pillows. "Oh NO," she breathed, wishing with all her might that she could somehow erase that last sentence. Never before in her life had she thought of performing a Memory Charm, but she seriously considered trying one now.

"I KNEW it!" Ron hollered, and Hermione knew that he had jumped into the air because she felt the bed shake when he landed. "I knew that diary was enchanted! HA! She doesn't keep things from you, does she? HA! I was RIGHT!" He was hollering at the top of his lungs, and he must have been doing some sort of victory dance because his feet made pounding noises on the floor.

Hermione rolled over and sat up on her knees in a fury. "YOU SHUT UP!" she hollered. "It is NONE of your business what my diary is or is not!"

Ron grinned from ear to ear. He took several long gulps from his tankard, clapped it on the table next to Hermione's butterbeer, and flopped down to sit on the bed. He leaned in close and, quite against her will, Hermione caught the scent of wet hair and mulled mead and highly-gratified Ron. They were eye to eye.

"Terribly sorry, Miss Granger," he said, in a voice very low and sad, like Nearly-Headless Nick's, "but I'm afraid the cat's out of the bag." He snickered, and returned to being Ron. "C'n I see it?" He reached for the diary.

Hermione gripped it immediately with both hands and clutched it to her chest. "Don't you dare!" she seethed. "How could you, Ron?" She sat back on her heels and glared at him, feeling reproachful and angry -- and horribly irritated with herself for feeling her knees so acutely, where they touched the side of his leg.

Ron's self-satisfied expression faltered, somewhat. "How could I what? I didn't do anything," he said defensively.

"You tried to take my diary just now. And you tricked me out of a secret." Hermione knew she'd slipped up all on her own, but she didn't care. Somehow it truly seemed to be Ron's fault. "On top of which, you won't even tell me what's going on with Harry, and he's not just your friend, he's mine, too, and it's not... You're just..." She sniffled. "Leave me alone."

Ron's smile was gone. In its place was a pleading sort of expression. "I can't tell you what I was talking about with Harry because I promised I wouldn't," he stated simply. "Honestly, I'm not trying to make you mad."

Hermione searched his eyes for a moment. He was telling the truth.

She sighed quietly, as a weight settled onto her heart. "I can't believe Harry doesn't want me to know things," she said softly, not even realising that she'd said it aloud. "After all we've..." She tailed off, suddenly very tired. She got to her feet and replaced Gwen in her bag, finished off her butterbeer and set it on the table. Upon returning to bed, she ignored Ron, climbed past him, and got beneath the patchwork quilt, facing the wall. She shut her eyes.

"It's just not that kind of thing," Ron pleaded. "It really isn't. It's not about his scar or You Know... Voldemort...." His voice went up a notch.

Hermione turned over on her back at once, and looked up at Ron. He'd only ever said the Dark Lord's name in Harry's presence, because Harry wouldn't tolerate anything else this year. But Ron had never said 'Voldemort' before, when it was just the two of them together. He looked down at her quite seriously now, and she felt a thrill run around in her ribs.

"It's all right," she whispered. "You don't have to tell me."

"Hermione..." Ron exhaled sharply and raked a hand through his hair, making it stick up again. "Think hard. What was Professor Sprout's last class, before we got there tonight?"

She blinked up at him. What an odd question. "She said she had the sixth year Ravenclaws, didn't she?"

"Yeah. And at what time?"

Hermione frowned. Ron was being really weird. She scooted back in bed and sat up a little on her elbows to think. "I think she said.... her class had ended an hour before we got there. What does this have to do with -"

Ron waved her off. "And in Potions, d'you remember what you asked Harry?"

"I don't.... I can't remember."

"I don't believe that," Ron said dryly. "Miss Granger of the four hundred and twenty eight million Gryffindor brainpower points? Think a bit harder."

Hermione felt herself flush with pleasure and annoyance. "I just asked him what was going on," she retorted.

"And also?"

"And also..." Hermione wracked her brain. "I don't know, Ron! I don't even know why you're asking me all this!"

Ron gave her a withering look. "What class did we have just before Potions," he asked slowly, through gritted teeth.

"I had Arithmancy. You had Divination." A light flashed on in Hermione's brain. 'Divination! I asked Harry what was going on in Divination to make his hair all wet!"

Ron nodded. "Right. And maybe his hair was wet because..."

Hermione stared up at Ron, comprehension finally dawning on her. He was giving her clues. He couldn't tell her what was wrong with Harry, so he was going to lead her to the answer. She sat straight up and faced him, her heart fluttering with excitement. This was a puzzle. This was fun.

"Well, his hair was wet because... was he out in the snow? No, never mind, don't tell, I know you're not allowed. Okay, he was out in the snow. During Divination? But why on earth would you have been out in the snow during Divination? Oh - can't I ask any questions at all?" The words tumbled out in a mad rush.

A smile was tugging at the corner of Ron's mouth. "You can have one question," he granted, looking very pleased with himself in his big blue shirt. He reached out for his tankard and took a gulp. "But it has to be a yes or no."

Hermione thought hard, searching for her best possible question. It was difficult, coming out of nowhere, but at least she could get rid of one possibility.

"Did any part of the Divination class take place outside today?" she asked breathlessly.

Ron grinned. "Nope," he answered.

Hermione gasped. "But if he was outside getting his hair wet, that means he wasn't in class - no! Harry couldn't skive off the lesson!" she protested, knowing full well that he probably had. "He DID! It's a wonder the two of you pass your classes, honestly, the way you go about things - though it's only Divination, after all." She sniffed disdainfully.

"If you're done lecturing?" Ron prodded.

"Oh, right." Hermione pushed her hair out of her eyes and clasped her hands together in her lap. "So I've got... Harry skipping Divination to go outside in the snow and..." Hermione paused. Greenhouses, something about the greenhouses. "And if Professor Sprout finished with the Ravenclaw sixth years an hour before we got there," she mused aloud, "then their Herbology class and your Divination class were at the same time..."

Hermione's eyes flew wide open. She put a hand to her mouth and looked at Ron. "Harry was trying to ask Cho to the Ball," she whispered through her fingers. "Wasn't he. Trying to catch her on her way into the castle, or something."

Ron didn't meet her eyes, or answer. He took a long drink and got to his feet, making the mattress shift. He replaced the tankard on the bigger table and picked up his wand.

"Finite Incantatem," he said. The treacle fudge fell with a squish! onto the plate below it.

But now that she had the answer to her question, Hermione hardly knew what to say. She lay back on her pillow, watching Ron settle on the floor by the bed as he began to eat the fudge.

"D'you want some?" he asked thickly.

She shook her head. She wasn't hungry in the slightest; on the contrary, her stomach felt as though someone had tied it into a very tight, painful knot. Harry and Ron were talking together about inviting girls to the Ball - girls Hermione hardly even knew. Her heart sank in sympathy as she thought of Ginny Weasley. She wouldn't be able to breathe even a word to Ginny about this -- though it would, perhaps, be kinder to tell her. Hermione glanced at Ron, who was concentrating on his makeshift dinner, and wondered which random seventh year girl he was planning to ask this year.

I don't want to know.

"Goodnight, Ron," she said quietly, and turned over.

The room went very still. Hermione couldn't hear Ron chew, or breathe - there was only the continuing howl of wind and snow, outside the hut. A moment later, she heard him get to his feet, stumbling slightly. There were footsteps, and the chink of a plate on wood, and then the light died almost completely.

"Don't put out the fire," she called out, on reflex. "We'll freeze."

"It's still lit, I just calmed it down."

There were more footsteps, then the sound of breathing above her, very close to the bed. Hermione's heart leapt into her throat. He was about to lie down next to her. But he wouldn't - Gwen had said that if he was a gentleman... but then Gwen didn't really know Ron, and Ron had been drinking from an awfully big tankard...

"'Night, Hermione."

She felt him lift the second pillow from beside her head. A moment later, she heard him stretching out on the floor. She felt a surge of panic.

"But what are you going to sleep under?" she blurted.

There was a pause.

"Nothing," Ron answered. His voice was strangely loud in the dark, quiet room.

Hermione drew breath. "Well, I just don't know if that's a good idea, what with the snow and everything. If the temperature drops you could really get sick, and we've already been exposed to the elements for such a long time today that I think you need a blanket." The words came out without a second thought, and she congratulated her brain for coming up with something believable on such short notice.

Ron didn't answer for a moment. "I think you have the only blanket," he finally said.

"Oh." Hermione steeled her nerves. "Well that's fine. It's very big, and I'm sure you can fit."

There was a silence in which the only sounds were those of two people breathing unevenly

The floor creaked. Hermione jumped. Ron was getting to his feet and walking toward the bed; there was the sound of something soft dropping on the foot of the quilt and then there was the sensation of air moving beneath the covers. Ron had lifted them up and was now getting under them. The mattress seemed to sink and shift and move, then settle. There were a few more squeaks as he apparently got comfortable, and then the room sank back into breathing silence and the sounds of the storm.

"Do you have enough room?" Hermione asked faintly.

"Yeah."

Her brow furrowed in bewilderment. Ron's voice had come, not from beside her, but from somewhere near the foot of the bed. She rolled over abruptly and was faced with two large, bare, freckled feet, which were inches from her nose. She made a loud, exasperated sound before she could stop herself.

"What?" Ron asked at once.

"Your feet are in my face," she snapped, suddenly angry with him for reasons she didn't want to admit to herself.

Ron's extremities retracted beneath the covers at once. "Yours are no treat, either!" he shot.

"You take that back!" she pulled in her legs, and sat up to glare at him. She could just make out his scowl from the other end of the bed, as he rolled over onto his stomach

Hermione flopped back onto her pillow and shut her eyes, too frustrated with the situation to reply. Top and tailing wasn't at all what she'd had in mind. Not that she'd had anything in mind exactly. She felt her cheeks flush, and tried to pretend to herself that she hadn't been hoping that something might happen. Gwen was right. He would have survived on the floor.

He was shifting around a lot now, and making quite a racket. There was a noise of mattress springs. Something heavy thudded to the ground. It sounded as if Ron was rifling through paper and metal and cloth.

"What are you doing?" she demanded, wondering just how much the mead had affected him, after all.

"Nothing." But it very clearly wasn't nothing - Hermione opened her eyes and blinked up at a reflection of light on the ceiling. She strained her eyes forward toward Ron, who was halfway hanging off the end of the bed, doing something by the light of his wand.

"What's down there?"

"A trunk -" Ron managed, his voice strained, as though he were moving something heavy. The mattress shifted violently.

"Hagrid's trunk?" Hermione asked disapprovingly, resolving not to take part in whatever Ron was doing.

"No, Aidan Lynch's," Ron muttered, and then, "Oh, cool! I can't believe he kept this."

Hermione struggled with herself. On the one hand, it wasn't right to go through other people's things. On the other, she couldn't help that her nature was inquisitive. Obeying her curiosity, therefore, she crawled down to Ron's end of the bed and hung over it with him. She peeked into the trunk. There, nestled in the folds of something massive and black and bearing a faded Gryffindor crest, lay two jagged halves of a large, spotted eggshell.

"Ohhhh..." breathed Hermione, reaching out a careful finger to touch the shell. "Norbert..." She stroked the shell softly, remembering the day the dragon had been born, followed by the incident on top of the Astronomy tower - the detention, the loss of points, the devastation - she smiled. It hadn't mattered a bit, in the end.

"Baby Norbert," Ron snorted. "Ickle baby Norbert - Hagrid still thinks he was that beast's mummy, I'll bet. 'Course, he never bit Hagrid." Ron opened his hand on the sheets and shone the light of his wand on it. "I should show him this scar when he gets back from the giants. It'll probably make him all nostalgic."

Hermione stared at the pad of Ron's wrist. "I never knew you had a scar," she said, inching closer to look. She felt their upper arms touch, and a shiver ran across her back.

Ron made a funny strangled sound and cleared his throat. "Yeah, well," he said gruffly, "it's not a big deal. It doesn't, you know, tell me when the Dark Lord's around the corner, or make me pass out in the middle of class."

"Let me see it -" Hermione slid her left hand beneath Ron's and touched her right index finger to a very faint pair of white marks. Ron's breathing was very near her ear, and she thought she could hear him swallow. She remembered how simple it had been to hold his hand in the snow, and wondered if she would always have to find an excuse for it. "Is this where he bit you?"

Ron cleared his throat again. "Yes -" he managed, but his voice cracked on the word.

Hermione bit her tongue hard, and went on as if she hadn't heard it. "You never showed me." She drew a circle around each of the tooth marks with her fingertip, and Ron sucked in a soft breath. Suddenly Hermione felt inexplicably powerful. "You should be glad it doesn't make you pass out in class," she told him quietly. "You don't want that, Ron."

They were silent for a moment.

"I know," he answered. His voice was low, now, and warm, and Hermione could feel the vibration of it behind her ear, on her neck. There was a nearly unbearable fist of heat in her belly, and blood pounded in her ears. She stopped tracing her finger on Ron's wrist, but left her hand resting lightly on his skin, unable to relinquish the contact. Through her mind flooded images of all the things she wanted to do, and couldn't do. It was almost nightmarish, to be this close, in the dark, in a bed, with his breath hot on her neck, and not to be -

"I only opened Hagrid's trunk to see if I could find an extra blanket." Ron's voice was so abrupt that Hermione started. "I guess I can use his old school robes - they're big enough."

"What..." Hermione couldn't gather her thoughts. "I don't..."

"So my feet won't be in your face."

She gulped. "Oh. Right." Her heart raced. He couldn't mean that he wanted to sleep on the floor. He couldn't. He adjusted his body slightly, next to hers, and she felt the skin of his ankle against her own. She steadied her voice and searched her brain for what she needed. "There's nothing wrong with your feet, Ron," she heard herself say briskly, "but I really don't think either of us should sleep at this end. This bed is on a slope, or something - look." She lifted her hand from his wrist and pushed on the end of the mattress, as if to demonstrate that it was slanting downward. "All the blood will rush to our heads."

"And that's not good?" Ron asked immediately.

"It's very unhealthy."

"Oh." He got to his knees and pulled Hagrid's trunk shut, then twisted around and hurled his pillow at the headboard. "Good to know."

Hermione's disappointment in having lost contact with Ron's hands was made up for by the fact that, within a minute, they were both buried comfortably under the quilt on the same end of the bed. She lay facing straight up as he settled in, not wanting to turn away from him and not trusting herself to turn toward him. His leg brushed hers.

"Sorry," he muttered, and instantly pulled it away. The room went quiet. They weren't touching at all. "'Night," Ron finally said. He rolled over and faced in the other direction.

A sinking, hollow feeling crashed into Hermione. It wasn't good enough. This just wasn't good enough. There was an ache in her chest, so big that it threatened to overwhelm her, and she felt a sense of sudden fear. What if this is all there ever is? she asked herself, staring unseeingly at the ceiling. It seemed a valid question. After all, she had initiated everything that had happened so far. She had taken his hand. Both times. She had made it all right for him to sleep beside her. Perhaps, all the time, he'd just wanted to sleep on the floor. Maybe there was someone else he liked. She didn't know. It wasn't as if he, or Harry, told her anything like that. Ever.

"Why didn't Harry want me to know?" she asked suddenly, feeling her words disappear into the dark room. "What's the big deal if he's inviting Cho? What does he think I'm going to do? Tease him about it? Doesn't he know I'd never?"

Ron shifted beside her. "Dunno," he mumbled.

"I suppose you're not telling me the same sort of thing," she forced out, feeling her face burn, "and it's just silly. It's not as if I care who the two of you go with. That is, it's entirely your business, of course, but you could tell me, you know." She attempted to breathe, and found that her lungs were suddenly shallow. "You can tell me anything you want."

Ron rolled over on his back, beside her. In her peripheral vision she could see him staring up at the ceiling, too.

"We... just decided to keep it to ourselves, and then do it," he admitted slowly, as if deciding to take Hermione up on her word. "It sort of helped get it out of the way, last year. We were s'posed to meet back at Gryffindor tonight, finished."

Hermione flinched. Then he did know whom he wanted to take. He'd probably invited whoever it was, already. Her insides suddenly felt very cold. "Oh," she said mildly.

"Yeah."

"So did Harry manage, or...?"

Ron shrugged; Hermione felt it in the movement of the mattress. "Tried to ask him in Potions but he didn't tell me. That's when you..."

"Nagged him about his business." It flew out of her before she could stop it.

"I didn't mean to say it like that -" he began.

Hermione tossed her head on the pillow. "Well, I certainly won't nag you about yours," she managed, her throat tight. "You must've been glad to get it out of the way today. Anyhow, I don't mean to keep you up." She moved to turn away from him.

"I never got it out of the way." Ron's voice was oddly strained. "Meant to do it before Potions. Got side-tracked."

Just as I thought. "Well, I'm sorry you ended up in detention, or you could have done it afterwards instead." Hermione wasn't sorry at all; in fact, she wished she'd never asked Ron any questions about anything. The answers were painful to listen to. Still, she strove to sound genuine. "Better luck tomorrow."

Ron cleared his throat. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible. "I don't have to wait till tomorrow."

Hermione froze. She lay there motionless, listening to the snow beat against the windows. Her heart drummed violently in her ribs. Her fingers trembled. He can't mean....

"What are you talking about?" she breathed, turning her head a fraction on the pillow in order to see his face

"Look, it's just - " Ron continued to stare at the ceiling. His entire body tensed under the quilt and his voice seemed incapable of choosing an octave. "Do you - d'you want to go together?"

The sounds of wind and snow seemed to vanish all at once. A hush wrapped the one room cabin, muffling the outside world. Hermione stared wonderingly at Ron's profile, not even searching for words. She couldn't answer. Her heart had stopped.

Ron fidgeted and caught a short, necessary-sounding breath, as if he hadn't breathed in several minutes. "I figured you were prob'ly already going with someone," he said, his voice a dull, embarrassed rush. Even in the dark, he managed to go red. "So that's fine - "

"Oh no - " Hermione gasped, finally finding air enough to support her voice " - no, Ron, I want to go with you."

She blushed. Hard. That had been rather obvious. But it didn't matter - nothing mattered - Hermione's entire education was presently reduced to one, essential fact. Ron had asked her to the Ball. She would be going with him.

He turned his head and looked at her. "You do?" he demanded.

Her heart was either about to leap up out of her chest, or else splinter into pieces. She rolled up on her elbow to face him. "Yes."

Ron's relief was evident in his grin, which appeared in blinding force, making his eyes crinkle. "Good," he exhaled, laughing a bit breathlessly. "That's ruddy over with."

"Then why didn't you just ask me before?" Hermione exclaimed, unable to contain herself. Ron had asked her to the Ball. Ron had asked her to the Ball. "If it's so horrible, why not just do it early on?"

"Why don't you do it next time, and see how you like it," he retorted. "It's evil, I'm telling you. You whine about being a girl, but you're lucky for it."

"Thanks a lot." But though Hermione tried, she couldn't even get angry.

"Oh, don't get missish. You know what I meant."

"Well, I don't see what there was to be worried about," she reprimanded, looking down at his upturned face. "It's only me."

Ron didn't answer. He looked up at her simply and then, to Hermione's great shock, he picked up one overlarge hand and awkwardly reached behind her shoulder. He tugged backwards on the collar of the enormous chequered shirt, making the whole thing shift upwards on her chest until the top button touched her throat.

Hermione stared at him, startled, then realised all at once why he must be doing this. She clutched at the shirt with both hands, pressing it close to her body. The very large neck hole must have been hanging off of her - revealing... she didn't even want to think what. Her face burned.

"It's okay," Ron said quietly, and took his hand down from her shoulder. His arm remained stretched flat out across her pillow. "I didn't see anything."

"Oh, Ron!" Without thinking straight, Hermione collapsed off of her elbow and buried her face in his shoulder. Partly, she wanted to hide from the enormous confusion of everything - her embarrassment, her unbelievable excitement, the unashamedly protective expression on Ron's face.

But mostly, she simply couldn't hold back for one more second. She curled up beside him, feeling the warmth of him, sighing with a shudder when his arm wrapped ungracefully around her shoulders and his fingers touched her hair. She knew she couldn't look at him, and she didn't have any idea what to do, or how to move, but she couldn't stop her heart from shouting happily. This was real. And right.

"You don't mind," she sniffled timidly into his shoulder a moment later, "if we just sleep like this?"

Ron made a noise deep in his chest that served as a "No", and moved a little, making them fit closer.

"Goodnight, then," she whispered, tentatively putting her arm across him.

Ron sighed inaudibly, and Hermione felt it beneath her outstretched elbow. He placed his hand on her forearm and lightly moved his fingers back and forth.

Hermione lay very still, knowing that she'd never actually sleep. Not like this. Not near him, like this, with her arm completely lost in shivers. It would be impossible. She snuggled deeper into him and shut her eyes, never having been so content. This made sense. This was good, and safe, and she couldn't imagine how she'd ever gone without it, though it was still impossible to believe. When Ron's head moved, she tensed slightly, fearing he might break apart from her and end it.

The next thing she felt was the startlingly soft pressure of his mouth on the top of her forehead. It lingered, then disappeared, leaving a circle of heat where his lips had fallen. His breath stirred the little wisps at her hairline and Hermione's own mouth fell open against his shirt, in shock. Goose flesh had broken out on every inch of her.

"'Night, Hermione," he said hoarsely.

He kissed me. He kissed me. He kissed me.

She couldn't bear it. Where there had been contentment just moments before, Ron had now created a powerful new emptiness. Hermione felt she might whimper out loud -- there was only one way to quell it and, perhaps because Ron had gone first, she was mostly unafraid to try. She lifted her head from his shoulder and reached up her mouth towards his cheek, to reciprocate.

Her lips touched the hollow just above his jaw and she felt his body stiffen; his fingers dug into her arm and hair. She left her mouth on his cheek for a long moment, feeling how warm his skin was, and how soft, breathing in the strangely sweet tang of him.

"Goodnight," she whispered, inches from his ear, wondering how many times they had said goodnight already. She moved her arm until her palm rested on his chest, which rose and fell rapidly, then lay down her head and breathed against his neck. Again, she felt the strange sense of holding some great power that had nothing to do with magic.

Ron's hand remained in her hair. He turned his face until his breath fell on her forehead again, and Hermione swallowed hard, unable to breathe, her mind in a fever of hope. She lifted her chin and felt it knock against his. Fear and want flooded her. Her heart hammered unmercifully and she could feel Ron's heart, too, pounding beneath her hand. They lay there together, eyes half-shut, their breath mingling on the pillow until Hermione could no longer stand it. She stretched toward him and, in the same instant, he made a move towards her.

Hermione felt their noses crush together and heard Ron panting; she pressed her ear further into the pillow so that her nose could shift past his. At the same time, Ron raised up slightly and tilted his head.

Everything clicked into place.

His mouth touched hers.

Thunder clapped in Hermione's head.

She sank into the pillow, rolling slowly onto her back as Ron kissed her, feeling the wonder of being connected like this to another person. To Ron. There was no other person. Ron, who infuriated and provoked her, was the only person in the world allowed to do this. His kiss sang into her. Daringly she parted her mouth just slightly beneath his, and felt his breath come in. His fingers clenched convulsively in her hair and, quite unexpectedly, Hermione felt the tip of his tongue touch her lower lip.

She made a soft, trusting sound, and slipped her arms around his back.

As if he'd barely been able to wait for permission, Ron opened her mouth with his own and let the weight of his chest rest on hers. He didn't seem to know quite what to do, but it wasn't important. Hermione didn't know either. The main thing was that they were doing it. He touched her shoulder and neck with clumsy fingers as he kissed her. She held him close and kissed him back with all the fumbling inexperience she possessed, revelling in the pressure of being flattened beneath him and the sensation of his mouth matching hers at every angle. He was sweet. She hadn't expected it. Treacle fudge and mulled mead. She felt a giggle bubbling up in her chest. I'll never turn down Hagrid's cooking again as long as I live. She laughed breathlessly at the thought.

"What?" Ron mumbled at once, drawing back to look at her, his brows coming together. "What's funny?"

Hermione realised that he thought she was laughing because of him, and hastened to correct his thinking. "I just had a funny thought," she confessed, "It wasn't - you know - it was just..." She trailed off. Her lips were wet and she pressed them together uncertainly. How it was possible to have had Ron's tongue in her mouth and yet still be embarrassed in front of him, she didn't know. It seemed very unfair.

"What was the thought?" he demanded, as if seeking proof that the giggling wasn't aimed at him.

"Well, it was just..." Hermione blushed. How was she going to tell him she'd been thinking about the way he tasted? But there was no way around an answer; Ron was hovering over her looking a bit nervous, and she knew she had to say something fast.

"Yeah?"

"I was just thinking that, you know - " an idea flashed mercifully into her brain "- when Hagrid gets back, if he ever wears these shirts, I'm going to be distracted all through Care of Magical Creatures."

Ron blinked at her. Clearly that wasn't the answer he'd been expecting. He glanced down at her shirt, and Hermione withdrew her hands from behind his back in a hurry, adjusting her collar quickly to be sure it wasn't showing anything.

"You know what I just thought?" Ron replied after a moment, looking very serious.

"No," Hermione answered timidly. "What?"

"I reckon the last time two people slept in this bed, it collapsed under the weight." He snorted with laughter.

Hermione's eyes flew wide. "Ron!" she admonished, as though she herself hadn't thought about Hagrid and Madame Maxime just two hours earlier. She reached up to push her wild hair out of her eyes. "How can you even think about that! They're... they're teachers!"

Ron grinned, then picked up his hand from her shoulder and lifted another stray curl out of her face. He became sidetracked with it, for a moment, looking at it gravely as he replaced it above her face with the rest of her hair, frowning with concentration as if he was going to find the perfect spot for it.

"Good luck," Hermione muttered.

"Huh?"

"Nothing."

Ron's attention shifted back to her face, and he studied her, for a moment, with the same sort of concentration. Hermione lay still and let herself be looked at, wondering why it was so acutely unsettling and so terribly thrilling. This was really Ron, looking at her this way. She looked back at him with the same intent, following the patterns of freckles she knew so well, and reaching up hesitantly to touch the very red hair that had fascinated her since she was ten. It was soft and a little bit spiky. Like Ron.

Hermione sighed happily and dropped her hand. Ron bent his head. She shut her eyes and felt his kiss drive all the way into her toes.

It was a long time before they broke away to breathe a little, and though it wrenched her awfully, Hermione knew her cue. "Ron -" she panted "- I think we should - go to sleep now."

Ron groaned very faintly, and Hermione knew how he felt. She didn't want to say it. She didn't want to stop. And she didn't stop him when he kissed her mouth and her cheek in quick succession, as if to get what he could, before it ended. But though painful disappointment twisted her when Ron finally pulled away, she let him go, knowing that it was the right thing. He rolled over onto his back and sighed, and she sighed with him. They looked at each other for a long, quiet moment across the pillows; then Ron stretched out his arm toward her and shut his eyes.

Hermione crawled into the circle of his arm without a word and nestled her head on his shoulder, replacing her hand on his chest. He covered her fingers with his own, and inhaled deeply.

"Goodnight," they said, at almost the same time.

Hermione closed her eyes and felt Ron breathe out. She felt fully safe. Comforted. She wondered how she was going to go back to sleeping in her own bed, after this. It was nicer than she'd ever imagined it could be, to be curled up, warm and sleepy, next to Ron, and to feel his heart beneath her hand. She exhaled quietly, feeling her mind edge away toward sleep.

"Ron...?" she asked vaguely, only half-aware of what she was saying.

"Mmm?"

"Thank you... for being mean to Pansy..."

Ron didn't answer. Or, if he did, Hermione didn't know it. She had fallen asleep.

*

First thing upon waking, Hermione's heart clenched. She kept her eyes tightly shut. She remembered right away where she was, and who was beside her, and though she was still warm and comfortable, she felt inexplicably afraid. What if it had been a dream? Or what if it had been real, and now she couldn't think of anything to say to him? Or what if Ron had changed his mind? Her stomach balled into a fist at the very idea.

And then she heard a noise. It came from the other side of the cabin, and sounded like -

"Ron?" Hermione opened her eyes. Ron's place beside her was empty, and the noise continued. It was coming from the direction of the loo - the unmistakable sound of someone being very ill.

"Ron, are you sick?" Hermione jumped out of bed and bolted to the bathroom door. Ron was retching, behind it. "Do you want water? I'm sure you're sick from the mulled mead, and I told you it had to be bad, by now - are you all right?"

Ron coughed wetly. "Nice time for an I-told-you-so," he croaked. He sounded extremely miserable, and Hermione was instantly sorry.

"Oh... let me help you, just open the door."

"No!"

"Come on, it's just vomit, Ron, honestly. I've seen you hurl slugs, and it can't be worse than that."

There was no answer but the sound of violent throwing-up. Hermione ran to her wand, and opened the door herself. "Alohomora!"

Ron was doubled over. He reached up with a grimace and tried to pull the door shut, but Hermione stuck her foot in it. She Summoned a towel from the kitchen and handed it to him. He took it, and mopped off his face for a moment, before making a horrible noise, and bending over the toilet again.

He finished puking and moaned, keeping his hands on his knees and letting his head hang.

"Is that it?" Hermione asked, putting a hand on his back and smoothing it gently. "Are you done?"

Ron made a gurgling sound and spat into the bowl. He then straightened up halfway, wiped his face and mouth with the towel, and nodded.

Hermione helped him back to the bed and got him a wet cloth, and water. He cleaned up completely, then drank the water and made a terrible face.

"I have to get the taste out of my mouth," he complained.

"Just lie down."

Ron did so, while Hermione rifled through Hagrid's cabinets and jars until she found what she was looking for. She returned to the bed with a Peppermint Humbug, and Ron took it gratefully. "Thanks," he said, and scooted toward the wall, leaving half of the bed open.

Hermione perched on the edge of the mattress, looking from Ron to the windows. It was day - late morning, by the light - and the snow had stopped. It was very deep, to be sure, but she couldn't help thinking that they ought to be starting back to Hogwarts as soon as possible.

"Everyone's going to be worried," she said anxiously, looking back at Ron. He lay unmoving on his back with one hand on his stomach, calves and feet sticking out from below the hem of Hagrid's shirt, looking up at her.

"I can't walk yet," he said, through a mouthful of peppermint. "Let's just wait."

Hermione frowned, and picked at the edge of the free pillow. " Well, do you need anything?" she asked hesitantly. "Or do you feel better?"

Ron didn't answer. He just moved ever so slightly closer to the wall, opening up more space next to him.

It was different in the daytime, Hermione reflected, pushing hair behind her ear self-consciously. She knew it was silly - they'd kissed and fallen asleep together, for heaven's sake - but she couldn't help feeling nervous and awkward, looking at him now. He was the same Ron who had kissed her, and touched her neck. Hermione felt her face growing hot and she tugged unnecessarily at her shirt, making sure it was all in place. She wanted to be next to Ron - that wasn't the problem. She just didn't know how to get all the way over there.

Carefully, she began. "Well, I suppose it couldn't hurt to wait a little..." She pulled her legs up and tucked her feet under the quilt. "That is, until it gets warmer outside. We weren't really dressed for that storm, you know."

"You're right," Ron said helpfully. "We could really get sick." He began to work his way under the quilt, from his side.

"And you're already sick," Hermione pointed out, snuggling down all the way, and turning on her side.

"I am." Ron moved a bit closer to the middle.

"So we can stay for just a minute," Hermione said breathlessly, shifting to the centre until she felt her leg brush Ron's.

"And get warm," Ron returned, his voice equally unmanageable. He moved his leg, a little, against hers, then found her toes with his.

Hermione hid her face in the top of his arm as tingles shot up her leg. She responded with her own toes, sliding her foot first on top of his, then underneath it. He gasped a little, and she breathed heavily into his shirt. Mingled with the peppermint and the scent of his warm skin, there was a slightly sour smell, from when he'd been sick. But she didn't care. She still hoped he would kiss her. She wondered if that was weird. She crept her arm across his chest and shifted her face from his shoulder to his neck. He rolled toward her, but kept his mouth pressed shut, as if unsure that he should even risk breathing on her, given the circumstances.

Knowing that it was entirely her decision, Hermione gathered her courage. She raised up on her elbow, tilted her head toward his - and then remembered something. Something Ron had said to her, last night. She pulled back several inches and frowned at him studiously.

"What?" he demanded, barely opening his mouth to get the word out.

"When have I ever whined about being a girl?" she asked curiously.

"Huh?" Ron looked confused.

"You said last night that I whine about being a girl, but that I'm lucky for it. When have I ever?"

"Oh, that." Ron grinned, forgetting to keep his mouth shut. "You know - outside in the storm, when you were going on and on . Something about how we don't ever listen, and blah blah, and it's all because you're a girl, and blah blah blah -"

Hermione's mouth fell open. She didn't want to believe it. "YOU." She pushed up from his shoulder and stared at him. "You could hear me. That whole time - and you could hear me?" Her mind raced, trying to piece together everything she'd said. It didn't matter. She was going to kill him.

"I was down wind." Ron sniggered. "You were hilarious, with the Four Point Spell. Can't believe how gullible -"

"You.... you...." Hermione was speechless. "You..."

"Had you going."

"You..."

"Are a genius, Ron."

"You insufferable idiot, we were in a blizzard and you were making it even harder on us!"

Ron blinked. "It was funny."

"Funny? When we were freezing? Didn't it ever occur to you that we might easily have died out there, while you were making jokes?" Hermione was propped up above him now, in a towering rage. She didn't even care about the dying. It was the overhearing that bothered her. More and more of what she'd said was coming back to her now, and she cringed, thanking her lucky stars that at least she'd stopped before saying anything really stupid.

"Oh, come on, Hermione. We're not going to die in a blizzard. We've got more important things to do." Ron shut his eyes. "Er - your shirt."

Hermione glanced at the gaping hole between her shirt and chest, gasped, dropped down at once, and found herself flattened against Ron, whose eyes had flown open. Their faces weren't even an inch apart, and she could feel his chest, rising and falling rapidly beneath her own. His breath mostly smelled like peppermint, and was coming rather hard.

"Hermione," he managed. His eyes were on her mouth.

She couldn't move. She had to move. But instead, she took a deep breath, and -

"Get back here, Mr. Potter. I told both of you to stay with me - none of your running into the Forbidden Forest. If those two are here, then we'll find them."

Hermione shrieked.

Ron grabbed her by the back of the head and muffled her mouth in his chest. "Shut up!" he hissed. "That's McGonagall!"

"I know who it is - " Hermione shot back, struggling free of his grip. "Stop smothering me!"

"What was that noise?" came an all-too-familiar voice from outside. "I heard something in Hagrid's cabin."

"Oh no," Ron moaned. "Harry. We have to get dressed!" His eyes were wild.

"No we don't! Just get off me and get on the floor!"

"Off you? You're the one on me!"

"Get on the floor, Ron!"

Ron rolled Hermione onto her back, climbed over her, and threw himself onto the braided rug, still panting. Hermione hurled a pillow at him and burrowed beneath the covers, trying not to breathe heavily.

"Pretend you're asleep!" she whispered. "Hurry!"

"Alohomora!"

Harry was in the door. Hermione slammed shut her eyes and held her breath, praying he wouldn't notice anything amiss. She waited, tense in every muscle, for Harry to say something that would wake them up. When he didn't move, or speak, she decided to take her chances.

Slowly, she opened her eyes and stretched, pretending to notice Harry there for the first time. She pushed herself into a sitting position. "Oh, Harry!" she said, letting her voice creak a little as if she'd just woken up. She also blinked several times, unnecessarily, to show that the light was too much for her. "You found us!"

Harry smirked, crossed his arms, and gave Hermione a look that suggested she wasn't a very good actress. He looked from her attire, to the crumpled bedclothes, to Ron, whose eyes were squeezed shut in an unnatural manner. He laughed.

"You can both get up," he said. "And put some clothes on. People are looking for you."

"Are they in there?" came a worried, girlish voice. "Did you find them, Harry?"

There was a flash of sunlight on red hair, and Ginny Weasley appeared over Harry's shoulder. She looked into the room, made a sound of relief, and pushed under his arm at once.

"Where have you been?" she demanded sharply, standing at the foot of the bed with her hands on her hips.

Ron sat up, at this. "Where do you think?" he shot. "Got eyes, haven't you?"

"How did you get here? Why didn't you come back to the castle?"

"Are they in Hagrid's cabin?" Professor McGonagall's voice was very loud, and very close to the door.

"Don't let her in here!" Ron pleaded, grabbing up his crumpled robes and dashing to the loo.

Hermione jumped out of bed and ran to the chair. "Get out, Harry, I'm changing!" she gasped. "Ginny, guard the bathroom so Ron doesn't come out!"

Within minutes, both Hermione and Ron were restored to their school-robed selves, with no interference excepting one loud exclamation from Professor McGonagall, outside - "What do you mean, they're putting clothes on?"

It was with very red faces that they emerged from Hagrid's hut and explained their misadventure to Professor McGonagall. She listened to the story with an arched eyebrow and pursed lips, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

"Well," she said, when they were finished. She looked as though she would have liked to say something else, but instead she pinched her lips together so tightly that they went white, wheeled around on her heel, and began to march through the very deep snow, back up toward Hogwarts Castle.

Ron gave Hermione a fleeting glance, then paired off with Harry and followed the professor.

Hermione stayed well back, her eyes on the back of his head, watching the sun on his hair. She was torn between wondering what Harry thought of them, hoping that they weren't going to get any kind of second detention, and trying to remember exactly what kissing Ron had felt like. She had just shut her eyes for a second, to recall the sensation with more detail, when Ginny fell into step with her, and tapped her arm.

"So," Ginny said, very quietly, "did anything... happen?"

Hermione's eyes widened in alarm, and her throat went dry. She swallowed. "What do you mean?" she asked quickly. "No! Of course it didn't."

"Oh." Ginny looked a little nervous and disappointed. "I thought maybe he... but never mind."

"Maybe he what?"

But Ginny shook her head and pointed at Harry. "I can't," she said. "He swore me to secrecy."

"Who, Harry?"

"Shhh!" Ginny blushed. "He'll hear you."

Hermione peered at her friend, wondering what it could mean. And then she remembered what had been the secret between Harry and Ron. "Ohhh..." she breathed. "You mean, did he ask me to the Ball?"

Ginny looked relieved. "Yes," she whispered, then stopped in her tracks and grabbed Hermione's arm, smiling broadly. "Then he did!" she whispered excitedly. "Oh, I knew he would, I just knew it, after Harry told me Ron's been planning on it ever since it was announced."

"Oh," said Hermione, faintly. Ever since it was announced... She smiled shyly at the back of Ron's neck. "But Ginny - " she continued, beginning to walk again, and tugging Ginny's sleeve to make her follow "- what got you and Harry into a conversation about that in the first place?"

Ginny grinned. "Well, after Harry asked me to the Ball, it sort of got to be a topic."

It was Hermione's turn to stop dead. "What?" she whispered fiercely. "Did you... did you tell him that you've said yes already to Colin?"

"Of course." Ginny shrugged. "Poor Harry. That's two years in a row I was already taken."

Hermione was baffled by this response, and chose not to reply. The two girls kept walking in silence, until Ginny cleared her throat.

"Erm... Hermione," she began, "did anything else.... happen?"

"I don't know what you mean," said Hermione, much too quickly.

"Oh, you know... did you... do anything?"

Hermione bit her lip and looked sideways at Ginny, who was already looking at her a bit impishly. She felt her face getting warm again, and looked swiftly toward Ron, who was glancing over his shoulder, at her. Their eyes locked, briefly, and both of them barely shook their heads, coming to an unspoken agreement.

"No," said Hermione firmly, to Ginny.

"No," she heard Ron say quite loudly, to Harry.

"Oh," said Ginny, after a moment. "All right." But she took Hermione's gloved hand in her mittened one and squeezed it meaningfully. "That's what I reckoned."

Glad for the comfort of Ginny's hand, but wishing it was Ron's, Hermione followed him all the way to Gryffindor Tower, straining to hear what Harry was saying to him, and flushing with pleasure every time his ears turned pink.

 

 

FIN

A/N II: Didn't want to give it away at the beginning, but I just had to say that I feel very weird about using Gwen in anything that isn't related directly to the books themselves. She was always meant to be a Canon Commentary Only character. But she was SO BORED, waiting for book five, and she's a bit of a diva, and oh, you should have heard her whining and complaining to be let out. I had to give her a scene in here, just to shut her up.

Continued in Getting the Point

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