The Sugar Quill
Author: Arabella (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Getting the Point  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.

***

Sequel to Not as a Last Resort, by Arabella

Based on the works of JK Rowling

Inspired by B Bennett, who told us to do it. Thanks, B, for EVERYTHING.

Written (mostly) at the end of a long summit when we were both brain-fried and full of pi.

 

Harry had never imagined that he would regret giving Fred and George the Triwizard winnings.

"Not bad," Ron was muttering, looking at himself in the fifth year boys’ mirror from yet another angle, and smoothing down the front of his brand-new navy blue dress robes. He raked a hand through his red hair, then got extremely close to the mirror and worked with the part for a very long time. It was the third time he’d fixed his hair. Or the fourth. Harry was losing track.

"Come on, move," Seamus complained, trying to move Ron out of the way. "Got to fix this collar."

Ron glanced at himself one last time, half-smiled, and walked over to Harry. "Nice Christmas present, right?" he asked, gesturing to his new robes, not quite able to keep the grin off his face. "Wouldn’t’ve expected it from Gred and Forge."

Harry shrugged. He was wearing the same robes he’d worn at last year’s ball; Mrs. Weasley had tried to get him new ones in Diagon Alley, but he hadn’t allowed it, and she’d let out his green ones instead. "Yeah," he said noncommittally. "Can we go downstairs now?"

"Got to meet your date?" Ron joked. "Good thing somebody asked you. You know, Harry…"

Harry did know. He knew exactly what Ron was about to say. He’d been saying it for a week.

"…getting dates to these things, it’s not as bad as you think."

"Uh-huh." Harry fought back the urge to tell Ron that he’d practically had to rope Padma Patil into being Ron’s date, the year before.

"You’ve just got to do it. Get it over with." Ron’s tone was helpfully superior, and it made Harry more than a little bit annoyed.

"You had a couple advantages," he muttered.

Ron looked up from dusting invisible lint from the side of his robes. "Like what?"

"Six feet of snow and a giant bed."

"I slept on the floor!" Ron hissed. His ears were red and his eyes dodged from Seamus, to Neville, to Dean. "And shut up!"

Harry smirked. If Ron had slept on the floor, as he continued to insist, then it must have been quite comfortable. He’d looked awfully warm on the morning he’d been discovered with Hermione, in Hagrid’s cabin.

"Hope Hagrid knows to change his sheets," came a voice from the door.

Ron whirled. Harry looked over his shoulder, and met Fred’s exceptionally wide grin with one of his own. He smothered his snickering as best he could, and checked his own hair in the mirror, while Ron swore loudly and slammed the door unmercifully in Fred’s face.

"Try to set a better example!" George yelled cheerfully from beyond the door. "Prefect, and all that."

Harry couldn’t stop himself from laughing aloud, though he tried very hard. Ron glared at him in the mirror, and he hurriedly went back to subduing the unruly lick of black hair that had no intention of ever lying flat on his head. He gave up within seconds. Not only was it useless, but he wasn’t trying to impress anyone. Susan Bones was a very nice girl, with a very nice face. It was very nice that she had bothered to ask him. And that was about it.

"I’m ready," Ron very nearly growled from the door, his arms crossed.

"So’m I." Harry pushed up his glasses and followed Ron down the spiral stairway, toward the common room.

Several stairs from the bottom, Ron stopped short.

"You go ahead," he said unsteadily, his earlier confident tone diminished.

Harry glanced at Ron’s profile. His friend had gone suddenly pale. Deciding not to comment on the obvious situation, Harry edged around him and continued toward the bottom of the stairs, turning when he reached the very bottom to discover that Ron hadn’t taken another step. "You coming?" he asked.

"Yeah," Ron croaked. His voice squeaked at the end of the word, and he cleared his throat loudly, pounding on his chest with one hand. He looked terrified.

"I’ll just go and get Susan in the entrance hall then?"

"We can walk down with you," Ron said quickly, coming two steps closer.

Harry shook his head, having no desire to hang out with Ron and Hermione on their first actual date. "I’m late already," he said. And, after shooting Ron a look that was meant to be supportive, Harry turned on his heel and made for the portrait hole. He braced himself for an evening of dancing with a girl he hardly knew, and hoped that when he got back to the common room tonight, he wouldn’t find what he’d found last year.

*

It wasn’t very often that Hermione worried about things like hair, but Ginny had been listening to her go on about it now for nearly two hours.

"I hate this!" Hermione wailed, pulling a pin out of the twist at the back of her head, and flinging it on the dresser. "I’m not doing this!"

"I’ll do it, I told you," Parvati said hotly, from within the robes that she was now pulling on. "Quit yelling, and sit still, and it’ll take me three minutes."

Hermione glared at her, but when she glanced back into the mirror, Ginny saw her face grow a little desperate.

"You look really wonderful," Ginny said, as soothingly as she could. "Just let Parvati do your hair and then you won’t have to be late." It was weird, helping someone get ready to go on a date with one of her brothers, but Hermione seemed to need help. She really did look like she was going to lose her mind at any minute. Though why anyone would get so worked up over dancing with Ron, Ginny really didn’t know.

"You always have to keep them waiting a little bit," Lavender counselled, coming up to the mirror to daub colour on her lips, and giving Hermione a conspiratorial look. "That way when you get down there, they’re all nervous, and you’re not."

Hermione made a noise of disgust. Lavender shrugged and applied her makeup very carefully, making no move to rush or to go downstairs, though Ginny knew very well that she and Seamus had been sort-of-dating since last year. She wondered if there was anything sound to the advice that Lavender had just given, then decided not to worry about it. After all, she was hardly going to torture Colin Creevey. He was just a friend. No point at all in making him wait.

Parvati swept up to the mirror a moment later in vibrant dress robes and began, without further permission, to sweep Hermione’s hair into an expert French twist, leaving curls loose at the top.

"No, they’ll turn horrid -" Hermione protested, reaching up to flatten the loose bits.

Parvati swatted her hand away. "Don’t touch it," she ordered, as if Hermione’s own head was none of her business. Holding Hermione’s hair in place with one hand, Parvati drew her wand with the other, pointed it at the twist, and muttered a few words that Ginny didn’t know. When she was finished, she stepped back and gave a sigh of relief. "I’ve been wanting you to let me do that for five years."

Hermione rolled her eyes, but Ginny noticed that she did look rather pleased with the results. She looked shyly at her reflection, then shook her head as if she didn’t want to think about it. "Never mind," she said quickly. "Thanks, Parvati, it’s fine."

"Come on," Ginny said, "It’s five till eight and you said you’d be downstairs at quarter ‘til."

"Perfect," said Lavender, knowingly.

Hermione stood and quickly shook out the skirt of her dress robes. They were new - Mrs. Weasley had made a point of taking both girls to Madam Malkin’s last summer, because both of them had filled out a little. Ginny appraised Hermione quickly, and noted that more of the filling-out had been done by her friend, whose robes were made of the same floaty stuff as her last robes had been, though this year they were a dark sky blue, and the neck was cut slightly lower.

"Those fit you really well," Ginny said, feeling a bit jealous.

Hermione looked down self-consciously and tugged up the neck a little.

"No, leave it," Ginny said, meaning to be helpful, "Ron will like them."

Hermione’s head snapped up. "What?" she whispered, looking rapidly from Parvati to Lavender, then back to Ginny, her face unnaturally flushed.

"No! I meant the robes - the colour -" Ginny attempted, but gave up. The damage was done; Hermione looked to be beyond shock. "Never mind, let’s go. Are you ready?"

Hermione cast a last glance at her image, looking very doubtful, then nodded and followed Ginny to the door of the room, talking very quickly about nothing at all. "Do you really think the Weird Sisters are going to be here again, or is that just a rumour? I hope Fred wasn’t serious when he said he was going to spike the punch, because I’d hate to have to take points from Gryffindor, but I’m really not supposed to let him do things like that. Your hair always looks so nice, it isn’t fair. I like that colour on you."

Ginny threw a smile over her shoulder. "Thanks." In truth, she didn’t really like the way her freckles looked in any shade, but at least in white she didn’t look as pale as a ghost. Not that it really mattered.

They were nearly to the girls’ stairway when Hermione went suddenly silent. She walked bravely past Ginny, giving her a weak smile, and then began to descend first, her shoulders straight and her head high. Ginny got the feeling that she was watching someone go to be executed in the noblest possible manner.

"Have fun," she offered, not sure what else to say to a person who was off to snog her brother. "Somewhere that we won’t see you," she added, under her breath.

Hermione obviously didn’t hear the second part. She touched her hair quickly, nodded without turning around, and disappeared down the stairs.

Ginny followed, hoping for the sake of her shoes that Colin would be a better dance partner than Neville had been, and hoping, for Hermione’s sake, that Ron wasn’t going to do anything stupid.

*

Ron stared at the foot of the girls’ staircase, willing himself not to look nervous. Or to touch his hair. Or his robes. Or anything at all. He thought about sitting down, decided against it, went to lean against the wall, then stood straight up again, not sure what that would do to his appearance. He checked his watch. Ten till. She was late.

"Maybe she changed her mind," Fred said seriously, coming up behind him with Angelina on his arm.

"Get out," Ron said flatly, looking quickly toward the girls’ staircase and wishing he hadn’t looked so obviously at his watch.

"That’s a nice thank you. How about you go upstairs and change back into your other dress robes -"

"Oh, let him alone," Angelina said, dragging Fred bodily toward the portrait hole. Even over the chatter, Ron could hear the rest of her comment. "If she doesn’t come down, he doesn’t need you rubbing it in."

He groaned to himself. If she didn’t come down, he was going to throw up. If she did, he was probably going to do the same thing. It wasn’t a good situation. He got a sudden image in his head of the way she’d appeared in the Great Hall last year, looking nothing like herself. He wondered what she was going to look like tonight. Maybe she was already in the room and he just didn’t recognise her. He looked around wildly, making sure he hadn’t missed her.

"Get used to it," said Seamus, joining him and looking rueful. "They do this. It’s on purpose." He checked his watch and shook his head, and Ron felt marginally better, but then immediately worse. Hermione was never late, on purpose. Maybe Fred was right and she’d really changed her mind.

The bottom of someone’s dress robes appeared on the girls’ stairs and Ron gulped, hoping his voice wouldn’t fail him if it turned out to be Hermione. He watched the swish of blue descend until he could make out a waistline, then a neckline - then a face.

He drew a breath of relief.

Hermione’s expression wavered for a split second, and then she smiled at him and lifted her hand in a wave.

Ron tried to wave back but suddenly his hands were very difficult to control. They felt like they didn’t even belong to his body. He stood still and waited for her to join him, racking his brain for something to say to her, when she got there. Was he supposed to tell her she looked good? She did, but he had a feeling he wasn’t going to get himself to say it.

"Hi, Ron."

Her voice sounded different. There was something in it he wasn’t used to.

"Hi."

There was a pause. Ron wondered why it was that usually, he could think of about thirty things to yell at Hermione, and that right now, none of them were coming to mind. She was looking over at the windows and biting her lip, not being any help, and Ron felt a little bit abandoned.

"So," he said. "Should we go down?"

Hermione looked up at him quickly, then looked away again and nodded. She seemed to be waiting for something. Ron wasn’t quite sure what.

"Great," he ventured. "Let’s go. I’m hungry."

Hermione looked at him, and this time she looked a bit more like herself. Annoyed.

"Fine," she said, and led the way to the portrait hole.

Irritated that he’d already managed to do some secret thing wrong, Ron followed, not sure if he should challenge her and ask her what it was, or just keep quiet. He opted for the latter, staying silent until they made it into the throng of brightly-robed students that were filing into the Great Hall.

Among them he saw Harry, standing with Susan Bones. Her arm was linked with his.

"Oh yeah," Ron said aloud, and stuck out his arm toward Hermione.

She took it at once and glanced up at him briefly. He was relieved to see that she no longer looked to be mad at him.

"Hi, Harry!" Hermione was waving brightly. "Hi, Susan!"

She always knew everybody. Ron didn’t know how she did it. He was tempted to ask Susan if she had been one of Hermione’s spew victims, but he wasn’t that stupid. "Hi," he echoed to Harry and his date.

Harry shot him an arch sort of look, and glanced at Hermione. Ron just shrugged. He gave Harry the same sort of meaningful look, and Harry shrugged, too. They knew each other well enough that the wordless exchange was enough. It was still hell, but at least it was better than last year.

*

Hermione wished she could calm down. It had been a really nice meal, and everything had felt much more normal and comfortable once she’d been settled between Ginny and Susan, and they’d all been talking with Ron and Harry and Colin together.

But the music was starting. Slow music. Hermione felt her vocabulary dry up as her heart quickened.

"Want to dance?" Colin had spoken first. He was looking, apparently without any nervousness, at Ginny.

She grinned a yes, and Hermione thought she looked very pretty as she got up and joined Colin on the dance floor. She’d put her hair up this year, and it really did make her look older. Hermione glanced at Ron, who was watching Ginny walk away with an odd expression on his face.

"Ready?" Harry was on his feet. Susan nodded and joined him, looking a bit self-conscious, but mostly happy. Hermione watched them join the other dancers.

Ron was watching them, too. He seemed to be watching everything except for her.

Hermione sipped her pumpkin juice, though she wasn’t thirsty, then set it down and dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. She folded the napkin with excessive neatness. There was nothing to do. Or say. Rather, there was something to say, but it was Ron’s job to say it. She fussed with the napkin for as long as she could, avoiding his eyes.

He cleared his throat. Hermione looked up.

Ron was standing up on the other side of the table, his hand out. He mumbled a couple of words that she couldn’t quite make out, but it didn’t matter. The point was clear.

Hermione walked around to meet him and put her hand in his. She felt a shock to be holding his hand again for the first time in a week. The first time since… everything. She and Ron had spent the week nervously avoiding each other’s eyes, pretending nothing big had happened – they certainly hadn’t touched. But now her palm was pressed to Ron’s, right in front of everyone. Her eyes darted to Harry, who thankfully wasn’t watching. She felt herself blushing, and thought for the five thousandth time that it just wasn’t fair - that since she and Ron had done so much, things shouldn’t be so horribly uncomfortable. But they were uncomfortable, and there was no spell to make it any different.

Ron led her to dance in among the other couples, who were moving slowly, many of them standing well apart from each other as they swayed. Hermione saw one girl standing so far away from her partner that her fingers were barely on his shoulders at all. She hoped Ron wouldn’t stand that far back.

He turned to face her. He took a short breath. Hermione wondered if he had any idea what he was doing, or if she ought to move first and show him – after all, he hadn’t danced to even one song, at last year’s ball.

She was stunned, therefore, when one of his hands found the back of her waist, and the other grasped her right hand. Instinctively, she put her left hand on his shoulder. And then they were dancing.

It was all she could do, to make herself look up at him. And even then, it was only for fleeting seconds before she had to look away again. She felt bright red. He was bright red. It was awful. And wonderful. Off to the right, Hermione could see Ginny, dancing with Colin. He looked to be a much less painful partner than Neville had been.

"I didn’t know you knew Susan Bones."

Hermione looked up, startled. She hadn’t expected Ron to be able to talk and dance at the same time.

"Erm, yes. She was actually giving me a little help with S.P.E.W., earlier this year," she told him, waiting warily for Ron to say something sarcastic about the elf protection organisation.

But though Ron’s mouth looked oddly strained, he only nodded. "Oh," he said.

She looked up at him suspiciously. It was very unlike him not to make any sort of joke about spew.

"Am I still treasurer of that, by the way?"

Hermione snorted. "Yes you are."

"I’ll need another button then. Lost mine." He steered her around a few couples, looking as if he was concentrating very hard.

"Oh, I’m not making more buttons until I decide on the definite name," Hermione said, both surprised that he was talking to her about it, and glad that there was something to talk about. She had to talk about something.

"Name? It’s not just sp – S.P.E.W.?" Ron corrected hastily.

Hermione pursed her lips. She wasn’t sure how much she wanted to tell him about this. But maybe it couldn’t hurt. "I was actually thinking of altering it a bit, to the Elfish Liberation Front. E.L.F."

Ron frowned. "I think I’ve heard that before, though," he said, steering her around in a circle again. "You sure there’s not already something called that?"

Deciding not to tell Ron that the name was familiar because it had been his own idea, she shrugged. "That name isn’t taken, and I like the acronym," she answered. "It fits better, on the buttons."

Ron made a very soft sound that might have been a snicker, but said nothing else. He adjusted his hand slightly, on her lower back, and Hermione dared to take a half-step closer to him. He smelled nice - different from usual. He might have put something on - she had a hard time thinking he would have bothered, but there really wasn’t any other explanation. The idea of it made her a little bit nervous. And flattered.

She couldn’t see over his shoulders, but she peeked around him at Harry, who was dancing without any conversation whatsoever. He looked deeply withdrawn. Hermione wondered if he was thinking about the last Yule Ball, and the events surrounding it. She hoped not.

Sighing, she looked back up at Ron, wanting to ask him if he had talked to Harry about anything of that nature, lately. But she never got to ask Ron anything. She couldn’t even catch his eyes. Although he was looking at her, he certainly wasn’t looking at her face. Hermione’s mouth opened in indignation and she backed up a step, not sure what to say.

Ron blinked and seemed to realise where he’d been staring. He flushed even redder, raised his eyes without meeting hers for an instant, and concentrated straight over her head.

"Nice robes," he managed, his voice cracking.

Too embarrassed even to make a scene, Hermione waited until the music ended and the applause began, then turned without a word and walked toward the ladies’ room.

*

"Oh, no." Ron made his way back to the table, muttering, unable to believe what he’d just done. Not that it was his fault - if she was going to wear robes like that, then where was he supposed to look? If she was so smart, then maybe she ought to have thought of that. Still, that he’d been caught was just out of the question. He was mortified. "Oh no. No, no. No, no, no, no –"

"What’s up?" It was Ginny, smiling, looking as if she was having a wonderful time. "Colin’s getting punch, where’s Hermione?"

"Shut up."

Ginny’s mouth dropped open in protest. "I never said anything!"

"Where’s Harry?" Ron looked across the Great Hall, panicked.

"How should I know where he is?" Ginny folded her arms. "What’s the matter with you?"

"None of your business."

Ginny gave him a horrible look. "I really don’t know how you get dates," she shot. "If Colin comes back tell him I’ve gone to the loo."

Ron sat down heavily, and wasn’t even relieved when Harry came over and sat down next to him. He opened his mouth to unburden his trouble, then shut it again immediately, realising that this wasn’t exactly the sort of thing he could confide in Harry about. There was just nothing to do but sit and be humiliated and hope Hermione wasn’t already up in the girls’ dormitory, asleep.

"Where’s yours?" Ron asked Harry, gloomily.

Harry looked around. "Susan’s talking to Colin about photography or something." He peered at Ron. "What happened? Where’s Hermione?"

Ron shook his head. "If you see her, just tell her I went outside, all right? I’m hot." He grabbed a cup of punch and walked out into the wintry air of the rose garden, not even noticing the fairy lights. He sat down, thinking that it was very likely the end of the evening. He couldn’t imagine going back inside. And he doubted very much that Hermione was going to go out of her way to find him.

*

"Oh, here you are." Ginny had slammed her way into the restroom, looking peeved. "I asked Ron where you went, and he wouldn’t tell me."

Hermione turned to her friend immediately. "He doesn’t know where I am. I couldn’t talk to him. Ginny, he…" She stopped. Ginny was looking at her curiously, but Hermione had no idea how much she could say. It was a very touchy situation - doubly so, considering that she was talking to Ron’s sister. "He was very rude," she finished lamely. She tugged her robes upward, wondering how on earth she’d ever agreed to get these ones. "Do you know any charms for making this neckline higher up?" she demanded.

Ginny gave her a funny look. "No, why?" she asked. But after another glance at Hermione’s robes, she seemed to put two and two together. "Ohh…" She winced sympathetically. "Hermione…"

Hermione shook her head. "No, don’t say anything," she said quickly, realising that talking about it was only making it more real, and more horrible. "It’s fine."

"You look really pretty," Ginny said hesitantly, "it was probably just a compliment?"

"No."

"I could go up to Gryffindor and get you a sweater?"

"No!" Hermione felt herself flush. "Is it really that bad?’

Ginny came to stand right next to her until their faces were reflected, side by side, in the mirror. She shook her head. "There’s nothing bad," she said, and she looked like she meant it. "You look like a picture. And think about it - do you think my mum would’ve picked those robes out for you if she thought anything looked indecent?"

Hermione weighed this question in her mind, and was somewhat comforted by its answer. It was true that Mrs. Weasley was unlikely to let her buy anything really scandalous. Still, she looked pleadingly at Ginny, not sure what her friend could say to make it better, but willing her to say something.

Ginny sighed. "Okay, I’m not supposed to tell you this."

"But?" Hermione asked hopefully.

"But you should go back out there. Because Ron really likes you."

Hermione hadn’t been expecting such a direct comment. She looked down at her hands, experiencing a hot and shivery rush at hearing her suspicions confirmed by someone who knew. She couldn’t look Ginny in the face. The words sounded right - deep down she knew that what Ginny was saying was the truth - but it was very hard to believe. She shook her head in protest.

"No, it’s true," Ginny assured. "One time, last summer, he told Pig off when one of your letters had a beak-hole in it and a few of the words were missing."

Hermione giggled softly, in spite of herself. "He did not."

"Yes, he did. And he was more worried about you, being Muggle-born, than he was about Harry," Ginny continued. "Used to stomp around the house like this - " She lowered her tone and did a remarkable impression of Ron. "Harry’s at those Dursleys’ and he’s got some sort of ancient protection, but Hermione’s with her parents, and what has she got?"

Hermione raised her head, feeling her heart skip at the repeated words. "He said that?" she asked quietly, as her stomach knotted comfortably into place. Her nerves had returned in full force, but they were lovely now. They seemed to hum in her belly.

Ginny nodded. "I know he’s stupid, but go dance with him anyway. Please? Then I won’t have to talk to him." She grinned.

Hermione smiled back, newly light-hearted and wanting very much to give Ginny the same confidence that Ginny had just given her. "I hope you dance with Harry," she said earnestly, wishing that there were more than that to say.

"I’m having fun with Colin, actually." Ginny shrugged. "He’s not a bad dancer. See you out there." She disappeared into a bathroom stall.

Hermione looked down at her neckline once more, and decided that she wasn’t going to think about it again, no matter where Ron looked. She downed her punch, squared her shoulders, and went out of the loo to find him.

*

"So she went back early, did she?" Fred appeared in the Rose Garden with a wicked look on his face. "Not top of her class for nothing."

Ron picked morosely at a twig he’d snapped from one of the enchanted bushes. He had already shredded three roses, and was now working on peeling the bark and thorns away with his cold fingers. He wasn’t in the mood to answer Fred.

"Seriously, Ron," Fred continued, not looking serious at all. "What’d you do to her?"

"Look, just lay off, all right?" Ron snarled. It was bad enough already, without Fred mocking him. He gestured around them at the rose bushes, which were rustling, both with fairy life and with coupled students who had taken refuge in them. "Why don’t you and your girlfriend get a bush and get out of my face?"

Fred looked as if he was about to retort, then stopped and raised an eyebrow at something over Ron’s shoulder.

"Erm… Ron?"

He was on his feet before he’d thought about it. That had been Hermione’s voice. He whirled around to find that she’d approached the bench from behind, and was standing there, looking at him, twisting her fingers. Her hair was still piled on her head and she was still in her robes, dressed for their date and the Ball. She hadn’t left. It wasn’t hopeless. Ron dropped his shorn twig to the ground.

She gave him a nervous glance, then looked behind him. "Hi, Fred," she said, waving a little, before returning her eyes to Ron. "Do you still," she began, then glanced uncomfortably at Fred and lowered her voice. "Do you still… want to stay and dance?"

Ron tried not to gape. It was hard enough to believe that she’d bothered finding him. It wasn’t possible that she’d asked him to keep dancing with her. And that she had asked him in front of Fred… well, it was the best possible thing she could’ve done.

Feeling some of his confidence return, Ron looked over his shoulder. "’Scuse us," he said importantly, to Fred, who looked a little set down by the turn of events. But Ron didn’t concentrate on Fred for long. Quickly he turned back to Hermione and nodded, not wanting her to revoke the offer. "Yeah," he said, putting out his hand. "Let’s go in."

Hermione nodded and gave him her hand, but didn’t move toward the door. "Actually," she said, looking around, "do you mind if we stay out here for just a quick minute? It’s nice out and I’m a little overheated."

Ron could hear Fred clearing his throat deliberately behind him, and he knew that if he remained in the Rose Garden with Hermione now, then he’d be taunted unmercifully, later on. But he didn’t care.

"Sure, we can stay," he said, trying to sound casual, and was relieved to hear Fred’s footsteps, finally crunching off toward the Great Hall. "Need to sit down?"

Hermione smiled a little. "Thank you, but I’m fine."

Her hand was still in his, and Ron held onto it tightly, remembering the way it had all begun, a week ago. He’d had her by the hand for an hour, in the snow, before they’d ever got into anything else. Not that anything like what had happened in Hagrid’s cabin could happen, tonight – there was nowhere private to go. Still… Ron chewed the inside of his lip, watching her.

The music struck up again, inside. Several fast songs had played while Ron had been sitting in the garden, but now the band was starting another slow one. He looked at Hermione quickly. She seemed to be studying the fairies in the trees.

Ron screwed up his courage. He put a little pressure on her fingers, with his own. "Dance?" he managed.

Hermione looked at their hands, apparently surprised to see that they were still joined together. "Okay," she answered slowly, looking around. "Should we go in?"

Ron shrugged. He sort of liked being out here, with her. It was somehow less pressure than being inside, with all of those people. Inside, he felt watched by his brothers, and Ginny, and Harry. Out here it was dark, and cool, and quiet. "Dunno," he replied, scuffing one foot on the pebbled path. "I can hear the music all right out here, can you?"

Hermione shifted her weight, as if she, too, was a little nervous. "I can hear the music," she said, and stepped closer.

Ron put his hand on her waist again, and brought her close to him - not so close that they closed the space entirely, but much closer than he’d dared to bring her during their first dance. He could feel her brush against his robes, and he tried not to look down at what part of her was touching him. He knew what kind of trouble that would get him into. Instead, he concentrated on the top of her head, which looked different than usual. It was sleek, and all the curls were gathered at the top of a very difficult looking knot. It was even prettier than it had been at the Yule Ball, last year, and Ron felt a rush of irrational triumph.

Hermione looked up suddenly and met his eyes. "I like your robes," she said abruptly. "They suit you." Then she looked away.

Ron felt his heart thump oddly. His ears got very hot. "Thanks," he mumbled, and pulled her one step closer as they circled around again. "Twins gave them to me this morning, for Christmas."

Hermione looked up at him again, astonishment on her face. "Fred and George gave you these?" She looked at the shoulders of the robes, then back up. "They’re awfully nice, Ron. How did they manage that?"

Ron shrugged. "Selling those Wizard Wheezes, I reckon. I was surprised they bothered, but I guess they’re doing better than they let on."

Hermione looked a little doubtful, but only said, "It was very nice of them."

"Improvement over the old ones, then?" Ron asked jokingly, though he was very glad that he could be dancing with Hermione in these robes, and not in faded maroon velvet with rent lace cuffs, which he had been dreading wearing until this morning.

"Well, yes," Hermione admitted. "And when did you learn how to dance?" she demanded, as he manoeuvred her toward the door, and closer to the music. She looked a bit flustered, once she’d asked the question, as if she hadn’t really meant to say the words aloud.

Ron didn’t mind. "Mum made all of us learn," he told her. "It wasn’t an option, in my house. All of us got lessons."

"Who from?"

"Mum." Ron groaned in remembrance. "At least I got to practice with Ginny. Everybody else had to dance with each other and take turns pretending to be the girl. Bill and Charlie - but that was before I ever learned, that was years ago - then Fred and George."

"Who did Percy learn with?" Hermione asked curiously.

Ron laughed. "Mum was his partner. He asked her to be. Such a suck up."

Hermione giggled, but grew serious almost at once, looking up as if she’d remembered something important. "Have you heard from Percy yet?" she asked gravely.

Ron’s stomach felt suddenly heavy. He shook his head. "He still isn’t talking to Dad. I guess Mum tried to get him to come home, you know, just for Christmas – "

"Was he at the Burrow today, then?" Hermione sounded hopeful.

"I hope so," Ron sighed. "But I doubt it. He wrote some sort of letter home about how he’s very busy with work, and..." He trailed off, not even wanting to continue. His brother had always been hard to understand, but lately Ron had felt as though they were hardly even related.

Hermione sniffled. Suddenly, Ron felt the light, unexpected pressure of her head against the front of his shoulder. Unthinkingly he pulled her closer and, to his surprise, she fitted herself right against him. She let go of his hand and reached up to circle his neck with her arms.

Ron lay his cheek on the top of her head, hardly remembering to keep swaying back and forth. Why she was doing this with him, he didn’t know. He’d been hoping... but until last week, he’d never really thought... and even after that, he’d spent the whole week wondering if it had all been some tremendous fluke. He held onto her lower back with both hands, spreading his fingers out and feeling the wispy material of her robes. He felt the rise and fall of her chest, and the heat of her breath through his robes as she sighed.

Slowly, he revolved with her, more embracing than dancing. Ron breathed in and caught the scent of Hermione’s hair. It was nice. He wasn’t usually close enough to notice. He had an urge to kiss her, but he wasn’t sure what she’d do – and he definitely didn’t want to try anything like that in public. Even though they were the only visible people in the garden, they were certainly not alone. The bushes around them were still rustling. The sounds of whispers and awkward movements filled the darkness, and although Ron wanted very much to be whispering and moving with Hermione in the same way, this wasn’t where he wanted to do it.

The music ended. There was a smattering of applause from inside, and then a fast song started up. But though they had stopped dancing, Hermione hadn’t yet let go of his neck, and Ron didn’t want to let go of her waist, either. They stood there for a long moment, leaning into each other, until an exploding noise and a high-pitched shriek from a nearby bush made them break hastily apart. Just down the path, a snarling voice was doling out detentions. It sounded remarkably like Snape’s.

Hermione looked up at Ron, pink-cheeked. "Want to go in?" she asked breathlessly.

Ron didn’t. But there was no point staying out here and waiting for Snape to find them, either. "Sure," he finally said, and followed her inside, wishing that there was a way to get just one minute alone with her – really alone with her – before the night was over.

*

Hermione wracked her brain as she led Ron past the dancers and over to the punch table. She could always come up with the solutions to Arithmancy equations and logic problems, but she had no idea how she would ever get to be alone with Ron, tonight, and she would have traded all her top marks, at the moment, for the answer to that question. Though if they did end up alone, she wasn’t sure what she’d do. At least she could hug him, for a little longer.

It was ridiculous, but she practically felt feverish. Standing outside in the cold, right up against Ron, had made her brain giddy. He was so warm, and solid, and she could still hear the way his heartbeat had thudded in her ear. He handed her a cup of punch and their eyes met as their fingers brushed.

"Thanks," Hermione managed, her voice entirely untrustworthy.

"Welcome," said Ron. His voice was so low, now that it was changing. And he looked very tall and broad, in his new robes. And his hands were very big; she could feel where they’d been, on her back. And he had so much to think about – she felt sorry for bringing up the subject of Percy, and wished she could do something to wipe it out. Like kiss him.

Hermione tried to shake it out of her head. She drank half her punch in one gulp, and found that she only felt warmer and dizzier. She drank the rest, hoping that it would cool her down, and looked at Ron, who smelled his punch and frowned.

"What?" Hermione asked.

"Huh?" Ron lowered the cup. "Oh, nothing." He grinned, and drank his. "It’s good, isn’t it? Want another one?"

"Okay." Hermione smiled, and leaned on the table with one hand. He was so nice, sometimes. He handed her another punch, and drank another one himself.

"Come on," he said, when they were both finished. The band had struck up another fast song. "I like this one."

Feeling very warm and slightly off-balance, Hermione joined Ron on the dance floor. On her right was Ginny, now dancing with a fourth year Ravenclaw boy.

"Where’s Colin?" Hermione asked her, over the music. Ginny pointed across the floor, to where Colin and Susan Bones were dancing. Hermione lifted her eyebrows, and Ginny did the same. They both burst into giggles, then returned their attention to their partners.

Ron actually was a good dancer, Hermione reflected, watching him move. He didn’t seem self-conscious about it, either. Off on the other side of the floor, Fred and Angelina were doing their annual routine of frightening other dancers into retreat, and Hermione silently thanked Ron for not being that kind of person.

"Did your mum teach him that one?" Hermione laughed, over the noise. She pointed at Fred.

Ron made a face. "No, he’s got it all wrong, it’s like this – "

Before Hermione could think to protest, Ron had grabbed her hand and spun her under his arm. She shrieked, stumbled forward, and gripped both Ron’s wrists. "I’m dizzy!" she exclaimed. She really was dizzy. She also had no idea how to dance like that; she’d never learned.

"Want to sit down?" Ron asked loudly.

Hermione was about to say yes, when the music changed once more. Another slow song filled the Great Hall. She fanned herself with her hand, for a moment, and glanced up at Ron.

"I’m going to have another punch," Ginny said in her ear, with a snicker. "Have fun, see you later." She made her way toward the refreshments table.

Ron didn’t ask her to dance, this time. He studied her for a moment, then stepped up without permission and took her waist in his hands. Feeling little shockwaves in her sides, Hermione reached up and put her arms round his neck. She only felt self-conscious about it when she saw Fred leaning over Angelina’s shoulder, making a kissy face toward them.

Blushing, Hermione looked away to Ron’s other side, but that was no better. Parvati was watching them dance, her eyebrows lifted meaningfully.

There seemed to be nowhere safe to look, except up. Hermione raised her chin and bravely met Ron’s eyes. They were surprisingly serious, and their expression made Hermione feel unaccountably safe. And lost. She looked into them for as long as she could stand it, then dropped her gaze to his neck. Ron caught a sharp breath and looked over the top of her head.

"Blimey," he barely said.

"What?" Hermione backed up, wondering if his exclamation had something to do with her appearance. She took one hand away from his neck, and nervously touched her hair.

"No, no, over there. Punch bowl," Ron whispered, steering her around so that they could both watch.

Hermione looked. Her eyes widened in disbelief, at what she saw. "Did he just...?" she asked, faintly.

"He must’ve," Ron replied, sounding equally stumped.

Harry had Ginny by the hand, and was leading her to the edge of the dance floor. A moment later, he had one hand on her back, and one clasping her fingers, and they were dancing. He opened his mouth and said something inaudible. Ginny laughed, and replied, causing Harry to start laughing, too.

Hermione looked up at Ron, her mouth hanging open, expecting him to be as amazed by this turn of events as she was. But before a word could be said about Harry, Ron’s eyes fell on Hermione’s open lips, where he stared for just a second too long, before jerking his gaze away.

"Guess Ginny’s happy," he mumbled, reddening.

But Hermione wasn’t listening. She had forgotten about Ginny. Her blood thumped, from the way Ron had just been looking at her.

And suddenly, she had an idea.

*

"Ron?"

He looked back at Hermione’s face. Though she was radiating heat and breathing a bit unevenly, her tone and expression were suddenly very businesslike. "Yeah?" he said warily.

"I need to go check on Gryffindor."

Ron shifted his hands on her back, unsure of what she was talking about. "Why?" he asked, frowning.

"Because..." She paused, and seemed to be searching for words. "Both of us shouldn’t be gone for this long, should we? One of us should be on duty, just in case something happens."

"Huh?" Ron steered her in a circle. "McGonagall said that Prefects’ duties are suspended for the – " He stopped. Hermione was glaring at him. And suddenly, he caught on to what she was trying to do. "You know, you’re right," he agreed, too quickly. "You never know – couldn’t hurt to make sure no one’s up there wrecking the place, or anything."

"I think I’ll go." Hermione took her arms down from his neck, and turned to leave the floor. "Be right back."

"Er – want help?" Ron asked hastily, praying she’d say yes.

Hermione nodded and kept walking. "If you want," she said.

Ron followed her off the dance floor, unable to believe his luck. There were no students in Gryffindor Tower, and Hermione knew that as well as he did. The younger ones were all home for the holidays, and the older ones were all downstairs – no one would’ve left the dance by ten. She was being stupid on purpose. And since she was never stupid, Ron could only assume that she was actually being pretty bloody smart.

The two of them went past Harry and Ginny, who were still dancing. Ron glanced at them briefly. Normally, he would have wanted to wait and give Harry a couple of meaningful looks, but this wasn’t the time. He practically ran out of the Great Hall, after Hermione. They walked rather quickly down the corridor, passing George, who seemed to be making his way back from the loo.

"And where are you two going?" he asked sweetly.

"Prefect’s duties," Ron said swiftly, giving Hermione his arm and marching past his brother as pompously as Percy ever had. He heard Hermione stifle a laugh as she linked her arm with his and half-ran to match his stride.

"If I’d known that was one of the duties," George yelled after them, "I wouldn’t have passed on the job!"

Hermione went scarlet. Ron held her arm a little tighter.

They rounded the corner and ascended the stairs to Gryffindor, both of them bursting into laughter at intervals, for no apparent reason. Ron glanced over at Hermione several times. She was breathing rather hard. This was especially visible at the neckline of her robes, which heaved slightly with every step she took. He knew he wasn’t supposed to look, but the more he told his eyes not to go there, the more often they dodged sidelong in that direction. And luckily, this time, Hermione didn’t notice.

They reached the tower in record time.

"Mistletoe!" Hermione said clearly, to the Fat Lady.

The Fat Lady looked down at Hermione, and practically cooed. "Oh, Vi," she said maternally, clinking a tiny chocolate liquor bottle with her friend from the other painting, and gesturing toward Ron and Hermione’s linked arms. "Look at this. Far cry from last year, isn’t it?"

Ron and Hermione both blushed, and Hermione let go of his arm at once.

"Oh, just let them in," Vi tutted in a whisper. "You’re just wicked, making mistletoe the password."

The Fat Lady giggled like a young girl, gave Vi a knowing look, then swung open and revealed the common room.

Ron moved to clamber over the divide, but remembered himself and stepped back quickly. He offered Hermione his hand.

"Oh!" She gave him a brief smile, then took his hand for support and did her best to climb through the hole, in her dress robes. She had to pull them up a little bit, to get over, and Ron couldn’t help staring at her slippers and the revealed skin of her legs. His pulse sped up a mile. They’re just legs, he told himself, exasperated. He had legs himself, and he’d certainly seen Hermione’s before, during the summers. But for some reason, when they appeared all smooth like that, from underneath a dress, it was very, very different.

She got through, and kept her back to him, adjusting her robes again as he came in behind her. The portrait swung shut, leaving Ron and Hermione alone together, in the firelight of the common room. Gryffindor Tower was entirely silent and absolutely empty.

Ron swallowed, hard. This was it.

*

Hermione didn’t care if it was stupid. She had to at least pretend that she had come up here for a reason other than to be alone with Ron. Swiftly she surveyed the common room, her heart pumping far faster than it normally did after climbing the stairs to Gryffindor.

"Well," she said brightly. "I guess we didn’t need to come back after all. Everything’s just fine." She couldn’t look at him.

"Yeah, it looks good in here," he agreed, after a moment. "Guess everybody’s still downstairs."

She heard him cross to the couch near the fire. The springs sagged audibly when he sat down. Hermione tried to think of a good reason to go and sit down next to him, but couldn’t. She cursed herself for being so stupid, and so scared - why should she have to come up with a reason, when they’d just been slow dancing downstairs? Why couldn’t she sit next to him when she’d just been holding his arm? He was Ron. Her friend. She should have been perfectly at ease, just sitting next to him. Instead, she almost wanted to cry with pent up frustration.

The silence dragged awkwardly on. Hermione crossed to the window, just to have somewhere to go, and looked down across the snowy Hogwarts grounds. She felt very uncomfortable, and every breath she took seemed far too loud.

"Those robes look good on you."

She gasped and turned. Ron was watching the fire, not looking at her at all. But his ears were pink at the tips.

"Thank you," Hermione barely managed. She couldn’t believe he had said that. She was so surprised that she just stood there, staring at him.

"They’re sort of - well - thin..." he continued, sounding a little strange.

"Thin?" Hermione repeated, horror-struck, suddenly imagining that the material of her dress robes had been transparent, all along.

"I only mean – you know," Ron stumbled, "you were outside for a long time without a cloak on."

Hermione looked at him blankly, her nerves on edge. What was he trying to say?

Ron seemed to be struggling for words. "You’re not – not cold, or anything?" he finally asked. He glanced quickly from her robes, to the fireplace, to the floor. He cleared his throat.

"Oh..." Hermione said softly. He’d given her a perfect excuse to go and sit next to him. She wondered if he’d done it on purpose, or if she was just reading into it. "Actually, I am a bit cold," she lied, crossing tentatively to the couch. She perched on the edge, one cushion away from him, then smoothed out her skirt over her knees and stared into the fire.

"Better?" Ron asked, still sounding a bit strangled.

"Yes," she said faintly. But it wasn’t. Her stomach churned and she couldn’t think of a word to say.

Moreover, she was going to implode at any second.

*

Ron sat staring at the fire, trying to think of a strategy, and failing. She was right there – right there – but there was no way to touch her without looking like a total prat. At least she’d come closer, though, so telling her that he liked her dress robes must have been the right thing to say. He would have to remember that.

They sat in silence. Ron wondered if Hermione could hear his heart beating; it was so loud. It had been so much easier to get things started in the dark of Hagrid’s cabin, with a tankard of mead in his system. Sure, Fred had probably spiked the punch, downstairs, and sure, it was dark and fire lit, in the common room – but this time, the atmosphere wasn’t helping at all. Ron gulped, and tried to look at Hermione without turning his head too obviously. She wasn’t sitting all that close to him and her hands were clasped in her lap. She obviously didn’t like him, or she wouldn’t have sat so ruddy far away.

He thought about moving over, and decided against it. He thought about trying to grab one of her hands, but what if she threw him off? He tried to convince himself that, if she’d let him hold onto her so closely downstairs, then she probably wouldn’t mind it if he tried again right now – but his nerve failed him. He cursed inwardly, and wondered if any of his brothers had ever felt this scared of a girl. He knew they probably hadn’t – even Percy had managed a girlfriend. And he couldn’t see why he ought to be scared of Hermione, when he’d already kissed her – it was stupid.

Hermione shifted back, on the couch, and settled more fully onto her cushion. Ron wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, or if she’d slid a bit closer to him at the same time. Her cheeks were flushed – though of course, that might have been because of the fire – and out of the corner of his eye, Ron watched her bite down softly on her lower lip.

He had to kiss her.

Now.

"I had fun," she said suddenly, sounding nothing like herself. Her voice was breathy and weird. "Did you?"

"Yeah." Ron used talking as an excuse to turn toward her, and he got a couple of inches closer, that way. He also managed to casually drape his left arm down the back of the couch, behind her. "This year was way better." He hardly even knew what he was saying.

"Yes." Hermione looked at him quickly. "It was." She returned her eyes to the fire, and her hands fussed, on her knees, with the material of her robes. Her breath was speeding up again, making it hard for Ron not to look at the neck of her robes.

Until it hit him, what she’d just said.

"You... had a better time this year?" His voice cracked slightly, and he blushed. He felt like an idiot for asking that out loud, in the first place, but he had to know. Her date with Viktor Krum had been grating on him for twelve solid months.

Hermione licked her lips quickly, as if they had suddenly gone very dry, then turned her head a little and barely met Ron’s eyes. "Yes, I did," she said, very quietly.

Ron’s heart leapt. But he only nodded, as coolly as he could. "Well, good," he said, hoping his voice was even. He dared to move slightly toward her, and felt his leg touch hers – her mouth was a little wet, and he knew he was looking at it, but he couldn’t stop himself. "What should we do now?" he mumbled.

"Oh," Hermione said, her voice still light and high-pitched, "I don’t know. We... could always... play chess, or something?"

"Huh?" Ron met her eyes, confused. "Chess?" It wasn’t the answer he’d been hoping for. It definitely wasn’t the activity of choice. "What’s the point of us playing chess?" he snorted, forgetting his nervousness for a moment. "Don’t you know the outcome by now?"

Hermione’s eyes widened in surprise – she obviously hadn’t been expecting him to respond in his usual way. "If you haven’t noticed," she retorted, "I’ve come quite close to beating you several times now, and I’ve been practising, but if you’re scared I’ll win, then never mind!"

"Scared you’ll win?" Ron taunted, leaning close and grinning right into her face. "Oh yeah, terrified - about as terrified as I am that all the house-elves are going to rise up tomorrow and demand sick pay."

"Honestly!" Hermione huffed and stuck her chin out toward him, looking livid. Their faces were quite close. "You’d be surprised, Ron, they’re getting very independent – and if you paid any attention to what I’ve been trying to tell you for two years, then you’d know it’s not house-elves, it’s just elves, because using house to describe them as if it’s their natural state of being is just a horrible insult, and so is telling me I can’t play chess!" She was very nearly panting with overexcitement. Ron couldn’t take his eyes off her. "I can, too! And maybe you just shouldn’t be the treasurer anymore, if you can’t manage one simple piece of informa – "

Hermione’s speech ended abruptly in a muffled squeal.

Ron had grabbed her face in his hands and kissed her.

Partly, it was to shut her up – she’d yammer on about those elves for the rest of the night if he didn’t distract her. But mostly, it was because he just couldn’t control himself any longer. Maybe she’d push him away – maybe she’d stop him – Ron didn’t care. He was kissing her. He needed to be kissing her. She was insane, and full of ideas, and out of her mind, and too smart for her own good, and totally mad, and irresistibly pretty, just sitting there, hollering at him.

She wasn’t hollering now. Her mouth was all soft, and so were the sounds she was making – little whimpering noises that made Ron’s blood thump. Her arms went round his back, and her hands came to hold his shoulder blades, sending gooseflesh out across his skin. "Ron," she managed, pulling back, "if someone comes up here – "

He made a noise of protest and kissed her harder. Hermione stopped talking. Together they half-fell into a prone position on the sofa, though Hermione’s feet remained on the floor. Ron tried not to crush her, but he couldn’t really help it – he stretched his legs down the couch and attempted to hold himself up a little on his elbows, studying her face quickly to see if she was getting upset. She just looked up at him, her breath coming in short catches, her expression unreadable.

"You okay?" Ron figured he should ask, but he was instantly sorry he’d spoken aloud – his voice was useless; he sounded like a girl. He still had her face in his hands. He moved his thumbs quickly back and forth on her cheeks, trying to distract himself from his own embarrassment by concentrating on how soft her skin was. Hermione lay still for a moment, then withdrew her arms from behind his back. For a second, Ron was terrified that she was about to sit up and call it off – he felt a lurch, in his stomach. He’d known it was too good to last.

But Hermione didn’t shift away. Instead, she brought her hands up between them, cupped his face, and mirrored his actions with gentle fingers.

Ron caught his breath, shocked, his hair standing on end. It was beyond incredible to be touched so deliberately, by her. It felt amazing. He hadn’t realised there were so many nerves in his face, and he wondered if he was making Hermione feel the same shivering feelings in her skin. He thought he might have been. Firelight partly illuminated her brown eyes, which looked as warm and dazed as he felt. Hermione – this was Hermione – he could hardly believe it was happening. She was looking at him like he was something more than he believed himself to be, and suddenly Ron felt a surge of something fierce and protective – something just for her. He needed to tell her something important, and opened his mouth to try. But it was beyond him. He couldn’t think of the words. He didn’t trust his voice.

"What?" Hermione whispered.

Ron didn’t answer. Instead, he bent his head and brushed her lips with his. He heard her give a little sigh, and felt her fingers glide into his hair.

And when she did open her mouth again, seconds later, it wasn’t to give him a speech.

*

Hermione wasn’t exactly sure how she’d ended up on her back, on the couch, being kissed in the middle of her own common room. She knew that if she were in her right mind, she wouldn’t be doing it, and she knew that she needed to get up. Soon. It was probably drawing near to the end of the ball, and people would be spilling through the portrait hole within the hour. But she wasn’t in her right mind. She had no desire to get up. She couldn’t bring herself to move out from underneath the wonderful pressure of Ron.

He was still moving his mouth on hers, and one of his hands travelled up and down her arm as they kissed. Hermione had never felt anything so incredible as those two sensations at once. She wondered how he knew what he was doing. She hoped she was doing everything all right, and imagined that she was – every so often he went at her a bit more intensely, and made sounds that gave her a strange feeling of triumph. She wished that the ball would last until next week, and that no one would come back to Gryffindor for a long, long time.

"What time is it?" She had to ask. It just wouldn’t do, to be found like this.

Ron took his mouth away for a split second, and checked his watch. "We have like, an hour," he mumbled, before kissing her again.

"What if someone comes back early?" Hermione turned her face to the side and looked at the fire, trying to wean herself away from him, a little bit. It wasn’t easy. Ron kissed her cheek, instead.

"Nobody’s coming back early."

"We did," she insisted.

She felt Ron sigh, against her skin. He didn’t try to kiss her again, but a moment later, Hermione felt something in her hair.

"How’d you do this, anyway?" Ron asked. "Is there something in it?"

"No, don’t!" Realising that his fingers were poking at her French twist, Hermione faced up again, pulled one arm from behind Ron’s back, and smacked his hand away. "It’s fragile."

Ron yanked his hand out of the line of fire – his fingers very barely brushing the side of her bodice as he did so. Hermione’s eyes flew open. Though she was almost certain that the fleeting touch had been an accident, it still got her attention. She stared up at him.

"Yeah, you’re fragile all right," Ron muttered, shaking out his offended hand, and replacing it on her arm. He apparently hadn’t noticed where he’d touched her. "Fragile like a Bludger."

"Oh, very nice," Hermione returned icily. "What a lovely thing to call me."

Ron ignored this. "Seriously, how’d you get it to stay?" He turned her face to the side again, with his hand, and poked at her hair once more.

"I told you not to touch it!" Hermione snapped, trying to fidget out from underneath him, insulted at having been likened to a brutal Quidditch ball.

"I’m just asking!" he shot back, looking a bit wounded. "It’s sort of..."

"Sort of what?"

Ron shrugged, and turned a bit pink. "Sort of cool."

Hermione felt herself go pink, as well. "Oh." She reached up and patted the curls at the top of her head, forgetting his previous insult in light of the compliment. "Erm. Parvati did it," was all she could think of to say.

Ron looked at her in surprise. "Patil?"

"No, the other Parvati." Hermione shot back, then glanced away, fairly sure she shouldn’t admit the whole truth. She decided to risk it anyway. "I... I only let her do it because I didn’t know how."

Ron’s eyebrows shot up. He made a wheezing noise, rolled his eyes back in his head, and faked a heart attack. "What?" he said, when he had finished seizing up. "Sorry? Must’ve heard you wrong there, I thought you said you didn’t know how to do something – can I get a repeat?" He cupped his hand to his ear.

"Oh, go away." Hermione tried to sit up.

"So Parvati knows something you don’t?" Snickering, Ron raised himself off of her a bit, pulled his wand, and pointed it at her head. "Can’t believe it. Looks like you might fail the O.W.L.s after all."

"I don’t have time for those sorts of charms," Hermione sniffed haughtily, not realising what Ron was on about.

"Finite Incantatem!" he said clearly.

Hermione stared up at him. Her mouth dropped open in disbelief. She lifted her head from the cushion and felt her pretty knot of hair come entirely undone around her neck and shoulders. "RON!" she yelled, furious. "Why did you DO that?"

Ron’s mouth was hanging open, too – he scrambled to sit up, and scooted to the far end of the couch. He looked torn between grinning and running for his life. "No, wait – you can’t get mad, I didn’t really think it was magic – that was an accident – "

"You’re AWFUL!" Hermione sat bolt upright and put both hands up to fix the damage, but it was too late. She had no idea what Parvati had done before, and her hair was now the size of Hogwarts. There was no fixing it. She took her hands down, deciding to use them to throttle Ron, instead.

"I was kidding," he insisted, pocketing his wand and attempting to look contrite, though he shook with laughter. "Honestly, I didn’t know."

"Well honestly, that’s just stupid! If it wasn’t held up with magic, then how in the world otherwise would it have stayed up after we..." She blushed, and couldn’t continue. "You’re not funny," she finally concluded.

Ron rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, since when do you care about your hair?"

Hermione glared at him, taking in all the implications of his remark at once, and deciding that all of them were horrible. "You," she said frostily, "don’t understand anything. I’m going to bed. Goodnight." She got up with as much dignity as she could muster, knowing that her hair must look ridiculous together with her formal robes, and went for the stairs.

Ron had got around her and blocked her way in seconds. "You’re not serious!"

"Pardon me." She tried to push past him, but he caught her by the arm and held her there, in the centre of the common room.

"What’s wrong with you?" he exploded. "It’s just hair, and it looks better normal, so I don’t see the problem!"

Hermione blinked. She didn’t know whether to stay angry or not. She’d put a lot of effort into her hair – well, Parvati had, anyway – and if Ron preferred it in a mess, then all the work had been a waste. On the other hand... if he liked it normal... then he’d always liked it.

"Don’t... go upstairs, just yet." Ron was looking at his feet, and there was a pleading note in his voice. He was still holding her arm, and his hand slipped down from her elbow to grasp at her fingers. He stepped a bit closer.

She didn’t move away.

"We have..." Ron checked his watch, his ears going pink. "Twenty minutes until the ball’s over."

Hermione looked away, flushing at the obvious suggestion in his remark. They couldn’t very well just start kissing again, out of nowhere. Or could they? Was that the way it worked? She didn’t know. It seemed as though there had to be some sort of... good excuse. She looked back at Ron, but he was still looking at his feet. "So..." she said, neutrally. "Everyone’ll be back soon, then."

"Yeah..." he replied, taking yet another step toward her.

The air between them tensed and Hermione felt it, amazed at how quickly and completely the mood had shifted. She watched Ron’s face. His eyes were still downcast, as he closed the space between them with another step, and she felt his hands touch her waist tentatively. In answer, she reached her arms up around his neck, and they stood there together, just as they had during the slow dancing. Hermione looked straight ahead at his robes, not sure what to think. She wanted to tilt up her face and close her eyes, but a pang in her stomach stopped her. They had twenty minutes until the ball was over... but then what? She didn’t want to ask.

But she had to know.

"Ron?" she asked very quietly, not taking her eyes from his shoulders. "What... what are we now?" She felt her cheeks go crimson, as the words left her. Never had she felt so stupid in her entire life.

Ron made a noise that sounded like he’d swallowed a turkey, and didn’t answer.

She couldn’t look up at him. Quickly she let her forehead fall against him so that her face was hidden completely from view. She realised that she was hiding in the very same person who was making her feel scared, but she couldn’t help it. She heard his heart thudding, and she made herself continue, barely audible even to herself, "Should we tell Harry?"

Ron shifted uncomfortably, but didn’t take his hands away from her waist. Hermione thought that was a good sign. "Er...d’you want to?" he mumbled.

"Yes – well, no. I mean..." Hermione simply wasn’t sure. "What do we tell him?" she hedged.

"You mean about what we just..." This time it was Ron who could not complete his sentence. The two of them stood there, radiating heat, until Hermione gathered her voice again.

"Well, you should tell him, really."

Ron pulled back a little, and she felt him staring at her. "Why the hell?" he demanded. "You’re his friend, too."

"Yes, but you’re both boys." Hermione looked up tentatively, to find Ron scowling.

"Oh, that’s nice. And who will you tell?" he nearly yelled.

"Well... I’ll tell Ginny," Hermione offered.

"Oh NO you WON’T!" Ron returned, looking panicked. He was suddenly so red that Hermione thought his head might explode and, against her better judgment, she found herself giggling,.

"Yes I will," she said solemnly. "And I’ll tell the twins." She pressed her mouth shut and fought very hard against the grin that was struggling to get out.

Ron gaped down at her as if she’d just announced she was going to grow another head. "You – better not –" he spluttered, gripping her waist harder. "Or I’ll tell... Parvati and Lavender!"

"Like I care!" Hermione shot up at him, smirking.

"Oh no? Well how about I tell McGonagall?"

Hermione gasped, and Ron’s eyes gleamed victoriously.

"Ruin your teacher’s pet status, wouldn’t that?"

Hermione tossed her head. He was being irrational. "Yes, Ron, do that. Tell the head of our house we spent half an hour snogging on the common room sofa."

Ron’s ears went red and his eyes dodged away from hers. Hermione winced. She’d just said that. Right out loud. Quickly she dropped her eyes, wondering if she should take her arms down from his neck. After all, that had been a very embarrassing thing to say. And she still didn’t know what they were, to each other. They were friends, of course – they had always been friends, and no matter what, they always would be. But now she wanted to ask him other things, like whether it was all right to hold his hand, when other people were around – or if it was all right to hug him, in the hallways. Or was that not allowed? She wanted to know, but she didn’t want to ask.

She quietly studied the blue of his robes for a moment, then asked the only question she could think of. It was repetitive, but she’d never got the answer, the first time.

*

"What are we?"

Ron was having trouble drawing breath. She wasn’t going to let him skirt the issue. Of course, if she ever let me get away with anything, the sky would probably fall, he thought sarcastically, but sarcasm wasn’t going to help him out, just now. She was asking a question and, knowing Hermione, she was going to want a long, detailed answer.

"Well," he began, and stopped. "We’re..." He thought. What were they? Friends, definitely. But more than that, now – he wasn’t going to go doing with his other friends what he’d just done with Hermione. He thought about saying ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ but knew he’d rather eat bubotuber pus than use those stupid words out loud. He also knew what would happen to him at home if he said something like, ‘my girlfriend, Hermione’. He recalled the teasing they’d all given Percy, and swallowed hard. No. Not a chance.

She was still looking at him.

"That is..." he continued lamely, stalling for time. Girlfriend didn’t seem like a big enough word, anyway. It was what Lavender was, to Seamus. Not what Hermione was. Hermione had saved him from Devil’s Snare, and Hermione had been Petrified by a Basilisk. She’d come to get him out of the Shrieking Shack, when he’d thought he was going to die. She had rescued Sirius Black. She’d put Rita Skeeter in a jar. She’d run the length of Hogwarts with him last year, when Harry had disappeared into that sick Triwizard maze, and she had sat with him in the common room until late into the night, as they’d tried to help each other understand. She’d written him letters and kept his chin up, all summer. She wasn’t a normal girl.

She moved her arms, a little, taking her hands from behind his neck so that they rested on his shoulders, and stepped back just a bit.

Ron squared his shoulders and looked at her. "We’re... us," he managed. He couldn’t think of any other way to put it.

Hermione blinked. "Us?" she whispered.

He shrugged, knowing he was probably red in the face. "Yeah. We’re us. If you want." He looked at his shoes.

Unexpectedly, a small pair of arms flew around him, and a warm face hid in the front of his robes.

"Oh, yes!" Hermione blurted, holding onto him tightly.

His arms were around her before he could stop himself, and he hugged her back for a long time, scared and disbelieving – yet warm and whole. Over the top of her head, he saw snow falling outside of Gryffindor tower, icing the grounds and the forest, making everything white, as far as his eye could see. The world was very big. And Hermione was with him, in it.

Hermione, whose hands were in his hair.

At first, Ron thought it was a good thing. He bent his head and searched for her mouth with his, thinking that she was right, for once. This really was a nice sort of moment for a kiss. She tilted up her face to him, all the while continuing to work her fingers further up into his hair, until they were perched practically right on top of his head.

Suddenly, she moved her hands around wildly, and laughed right against his mouth. "Oh, sorry!" she exclaimed, looking up at his hair and giggling. "Didn’t realise that would muss it up!"

"HEY!" Ron cried, taking his hands off of Hermione and putting them up to his hair, which he’d worked on really hard. He tried to make it go back, but it was no use – he could feel it sticking up all over the place – and he glowered at Hermione, who was slowly backing away from him, unable to hide the grin on her face.

"No, I really didn’t mean it –" she began.

"Oh really." Ron advanced on her.

"Honestly, it was an accident –" Hermione darted around the couch, laughing.

"Not as accidental as this," Ron swore. He planted both hands on the back of the couch and leapt over it. Hermione shrieked and ran away from him, trying to make it to the girls’ staircase, but he grabbed her by one hand and pulled her back.

"Accio!" she yelled, pulling her wand and pointing it at a chair. The chair scooted up behind Ron, knocking him from his feet. He fell backwards into it, and Hermione escaped, running for the stairs again.

"Mobiliaccubus!" Ron bellowed, moving a table into the opening of the girls’ stairway, blocking her path.

Hermione raised her wand, probably to Banish it, but Ron had already lunged, putting himself bodily between Hermione and the table. He backed her into the common room, wand out. Hermione’s hair was all over her shoulders and he knew that his own was a total loss – they stood ten feet apart, laughing their heads off, bright red from exertion, their wands pointed at each other.

"Oh no."

Both of them spun toward the very familiar voice.

Harry stood outside the portrait hole, looking very much as though he didn’t want to come in. "Not again," he muttered, shaking his head. "I can’t believe it."

"What did you do to the table?"

Ron raised an eyebrow. That was Ginny’s voice. He looked at Hermione, whose eyes widened meaningfully, then turned and smirked at his sister, whom Harry was helping through the portrait hole. Ron remembered his thoughts, when he’d helped Hermione through that hole earlier, and he groaned inwardly. He couldn’t stand to imagine that Harry would think things like that about Ginny. That was just way too weird. And anyway, that was a long shot.

"Where’s Colin?" Ron returned.

Ginny shrugged easily. "We said goodnight in the entrance hall, and he walked Susan back. She had some wizarding camera equipment that he wanted to see."

Harry snorted.

"What happened to you two?" Ginny looked from one to the other of them, then back to the misplaced table and chair.

"Oh, we just..." Ron looked at Hermione, praying she’d think of something.

"We were just having a discussion about whether a larger object would move farther, faster," she said loftily, not missing a beat, "and I was right. The table is heavier, but that doesn’t change the magical velocity, and I told Ron –"

"I moved the table," Ron hissed, on instinct.

"It doesn’t matter who moved it," Hermione retorted. "The point is, they go at the same rate, and if you would only take Arithmancy like I keep telling you–"

"Oh, here we go again," Ron groaned. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Harry and Ginny, moving quietly toward their respective staircases.

"’Night," Ginny called out softly.

"’Night," Harry returned.

"Well I’m so sorry, Ron," Hermione continued loudly, "but I want you to sign up for a class that’s worth something, rather than that ridiculous waste of time you keep setting yourself up for!" She sniffed and crossed her arms.

Ginny quietly floated the table out of her way, and went out of the room. Harry slipped up the boys’ staircase.

"What, Potions?" Ron shot back, for good measure.

"Divination –" Hermione returned hotly, but Ron waved her off and grinned. They didn’t need to keep at it.

"Hey, that worked pretty well," he whispered, jabbing a thumb at the place where Harry and Ginny had been standing. "Don’t think they cottoned on."

Hermione cracked a smile, and shook her head. "No, they didn’t." She pointed her wand and returned the table to its original position, and Ron did the same for the chair. Then she looked up, and Ron met her eyes, though his heart sank with a thud. There was unmistakable laughter and the sound of chattering, right outside the portrait hole. It was over.

"People are back," Ron said, regretfully, looking down at Hermione and thinking that the only hard thing about being allowed to kiss her was that he would have to hold back from it, so often, every day.

"Yes." Hermione looked at the portrait hole quickly, checked both staircases, then bobbed quickly onto her tiptoes and pressed her mouth to his. Ron shut his eyes and kissed her back until she pulled away. "Goodnight," she said breathlessly. Holding her skirt up slightly in her hands, she ran up the girls’ staircase and disappeared.

Ron stood rooted to the spot, feeling a bit dizzy, and permitted himself a very small sigh. She was insane, that much was definite. She was right out of her mind.

And they were an us.

Knowing what he’d be dreaming about later, Ron bounded up the stairs to get ready for bed. No matter what Harry and Ginny thought they’d seen, the Yule Ball had been a smashing success.

*

"I had the best time!" Ginny flew into the fifth years’ room, the moment Hermione arrived upstairs. "Come and talk to me, I need help with my robes."

Hermione followed her into the fourth years’ dormitory, where Ginny whirled in a little circle before kicking off her shoes. "My feet are killing me! I can’t believe how much better it was than last year!" She sang a bit of a song that Hermione didn’t recognise, and went up to the mirror to start taking down her hair.

"Well?" Hermione asked, edging up next to Ginny and crossing her arms. She usually scoffed at Parvati and Lavender, when they went back step by step over dances and Hogsmeade visits – but doing it with Ginny was different. "Aren’t you going to tell me?"

Ginny nodded, her eyes very bright. "I danced to every single song except the one when I was in the loo!" she announced.

"With?" Hermione demanded.

"First Colin. Then I danced with Colin again, after I talked to you, but by then, Harry wasn’t dancing with Susan. He was just sitting there ignoring her. So I told Colin to go get Susan off the bench, and he disappeared for about an hour – of course, now we know she’s got a thing about cameras. Ha."

Hermione giggled.

"Then," Ginny continued, "Neville. But my feet are fine, he’s got better. And he’s so sweet it doesn’t matter, anyway – oh, and he told me his Gran’s not quite as sick now and she told him he had to stay for the holidays and attend the ball like a proper wizard, and that he wasn’t allowed to go home on her account." Ginny rolled up her eyes, thinking. "Oh, right. Then you came back in and I was dancing with Kyle Heath."

"From Ravenclaw?"

"Yes – he’s in my Muggle Studies class and he’s as smart as Percy about all of it, too. He wants to work for the Ministry, he told me, and I said I’d give him Dad’s address if he wanted to ask any questions. I’d’ve given him Percy’s, too, but Percy hasn’t even been writing back to me and I don’t know what his problem is." Ginny glared into the mirror. "Can’t believe him. He’s killing Mum, the way he’s behaving. Anyway, then Harry asked me."

Hermione noticed that when Ginny said this, she kept her voice remarkably quick and even, and her eyes stayed in the mirror as she worked to get her hair down.

"And after that, I danced with Justin – he’s very smiley, isn’t he? – and then Colin finally remembered I was there, and then a bunch of girls from my class danced together, you know, just in a group – then Kyle again, then Harry, and then it was over."

Hermione’s eyes flew wide at the mention of a second dance with Harry, but if Ginny wasn’t offering information, then she knew better than to pry. "You certainly had fun," she said brightly, trying to look nonchalant. "I guess I missed half your partners!"

"Well you weren’t down there for very long," Ginny said slyly, "were you?"

Hermione flushed. "Well we would have stayed down there longer if –" she floundered for a good explanation " – if people hadn’t been teasing us!" she finished triumphantly.

"Who teased you?" Ginny asked, immediately turning serious. "Malfoy?"

"No, no," Hermione said quickly. "Just Fred and George. And Parvati gave us looks." Hermione sighed. "And the Fat Lady. She told us we were – and don’t laugh, Ginny – a far cry from last year. So embarrassing."

Ginny pressed her lips together, but she did not laugh. Instead, she turned around so that Hermione could undo her robes. "Actually," she replied, after a moment, "the Fat Lady said something to us, too. Nothing like that, of course," she added hastily.

"Oh?" Hermione said curiously, helping Ginny with the zipper. "What?"

"We walked up to the portrait hole," Ginny said, changing into her night-dress as she spoke, "and we must’ve scared them or something, because Vi dropped her chocolates and gasped at us. Then the Fat Lady clapped her hand on her heart said she thought she was seeing ghosts. Harry sort of ignored them and did the password, but before she opened up I told her, ‘I’m pale, I know, but I’m hardly transparent!’ Though I guess all in white I could’ve looked a bit like the Grey Lady – but no, honestly, I think she just had too many liqueurs."

Ginny threw herself into bed, grinning, and Hermione frowned for a moment, before it dawned on her which ghosts the Fat Lady must truly have been referring to. She looked at Ginny closely. Her friend seemed oblivious to the meaning of what had been said, and Hermione decided that it was probably better that way.

"Yes," she said slowly. "Too many liqueurs. Speaking of which, it’s a good thing Fred didn’t spike the punch after all. I hate getting people into trouble."

Ginny burrowed deep beneath her covers, until Hermione couldn’t see her face. "Uh-huh," she said vaguely. "Well, goodnight, Hermione."

"Goodnight."

Hermione dimmed the fourth year dormitory lights, and went back to her room, hearing shouts of laughter and murmurs of conversation floating up from the common room. She knew it was her assignment, to break the news to Ginny about Ron, but she couldn’t do it just yet. She took out her diary instead, wanting to confess it all to Gwen ten times – but put the little book down, almost immediately. She didn’t want to explain, or answer questions. She wanted to lie in bed and dream it over and over. And anyway, telling Gwen everything in the morning would be like extending the ball for a whole extra day.

She managed to get out of her robes on her own, checking herself in the mirror one last time before she did so. She looked at her face, which was still very pink, and at the way the blue robes fit her. She listened to make sure that Lavender and Parvati were nowhere nearby, then quickly bent over toward the mirror to see if the neckline had really been that horribly revealing. She decided, after experimenting with a few movements, that it wasn’t too bad. She straightened up, touched her hair, and sighed. No matter how nice she’d looked earlier, her hair was now a wreck. But then... Hermione fingered a curl absently ...maybe he really does like it this way...

Smiling, she changed into her night-dress and got into bed, letting out an "Oof" when Crookshanks pounced heavily onto her chest. She wrapped her arms round the fat orange cat and Crookshanks actually allowed it for a minute, sitting still enough to be hugged and staring Hermione straight in the face.

"Good boy," she crooned, stroking his fur and noticing something for the first time. She dug her fingers deep into Crookshanks’s coat and grinned at him. "You’re sort of close to Ron’s colour, aren’t you?" she asked innocently.

Crookshanks arched his back and made a very offended, spitting sound. He then shoved painfully away from Hermione and stalked away across the floor, his tail high and mighty in the air.

Hermione laughed. "Jealous?" she called after her cat, as he left the room. A moment later she heard a muffled cry of surprise followed by a giggle and a coo, from Ginny’s end of the hall. "Boys, honestly, so fickle," Hermione muttered to herself, putting out her light. But she shut her eyes and pressed her lips together, thinking very highly of one boy in particular, and wondering how very difficult it would be to conjure up another snowstorm sometime soon. They were convenient things, snowstorms. So were empty common rooms.

"Oh, Ron," she barely whispered. "Us. We’re us." She couldn’t believe it. She really couldn’t believe that after such a long time of hoping, everything she’d wanted was really happening. She definitely wasn’t sure she’d last until the next time they were alone together. She knew, however, that it might be a very long time. There were the rest of the holidays to look forward to, and snowball fights to have, O.W.L.’s to study for, and homework to finish.

And of course there was Harry to look after.

Hermione sighed quietly and buried her face in her pillow, remembering Voldemort for the first time since six o’clock that evening. The Ball had all but driven reality out of her head, and suddenly it came crashing back in full force – there was a Dark Lord, and there was a war, and it wasn’t going to be normal between her and Ron. There was so much danger for Harry. For all of them. They wouldn’t be able to sneak away like Lavender and Seamus – they’d have to stay near Harry. It had to be all three of them. Hermione knew she wouldn’t even have to talk about it with Ron – he’d know what was necessary, the same way that she did, and that made it much easier. But it was still very hard.

She turned on her side, and put the light back on, picking up the book Ron had given her for Christmas. She already owned a copy of Add it Up! An Enthusiast’s Guide to Recreational Arithmancy, but she’d never tell Ron that. It was a really sweet present, and she did love the book – it could never hurt to have a second copy.

But her favourite part was what he’d written in the cover.

Dear Hermione,

There’s six hundred pages of gibberish in here, so I figured it was perfect for you.

When you’re done reading it, in an hour or so, let me know how it is.

Merry Christmas,

Ron

Aching all over, but in a strangely pleasant way, Hermione put the light back out, put her hand on Ron’s messy inscription, and fell asleep as best she could.

*

Harry was already in his pyjamas, by the time Ron got into their room. He was sitting in the middle of his bed, rubbing his glasses clean with the corner of his night-shirt, and Ron watched him for just a second. Harry always looked like a different person without his glasses.

"’D’you have fun?" he asked, going for his own pyjamas, and catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He straightened his shoulders and felt rather proud of his appearance. He’d actually looked okay, tonight. His hair was a massive wreck, though, he reflected, smiling to himself as he remembered how it had got that way, and almost feeling Hermione’s fingers climbing back up through his hair.

"Yeah, I guess," Harry answered vaguely. "How about you?" The words were just pointed enough that they held extra meaning, and Ron found he had to turn his back, in order to compose himself before speaking.

"Oh, you know. It was fine."

Harry lay his glasses on the bedside table, where they clicked against the wood. He lay back on his pillows. "Fine?" he repeated. "How come you left so early then?"

Ron remained facing away as he changed out of his robes, sure that his face was burning. He wasn’t sure what to say. Was this the time to tell Harry what had happened? Did Hermione want him to tell Harry tonight? He couldn’t remember exactly what they’d decided, and he didn’t know if he trusted himself to explain it, anyway.

"We decided to come up and check on Gryffindor for a minute," he said. At least that was partly honest. "Make sure things were okay."

"Good thing you did," Harry returned, shutting his eyes and looking ready to sleep. "Bet it was about to burn down or something, right?" He couldn’t quite hold back a snicker.

Ron stared over at him. If Harry was going to start in, then he was going to get it back in spades. "Look, it’s just what prefects do," he said shortly.

"Yeah? And, er – what else do they do?" Harry rolled away onto his side in a stitch of silent laughter, obviously entertaining himself very much.

"I don’t know, you tell me," Ron replied, as evenly as he could. Harry was treading on dangerous ground. "Didn’t you have fun with Susan?"

Harry waved a dismissive hand in the air. "Whatever. She’s prob’ly showing her camera equipment to Colin, right now."

Ron guffawed at that, but continued to press. "Right. So you and Creevey just switched dates then," he observed lightly. "That’s convenient."

Harry was sitting straight up with his glasses on, in a matter of seconds. "Look," he said seriously. "I just walked her up, it isn’t– "

"I know! I know – " Ron rushed to stop the conversation before it could begin. He hadn’t really thought about what he was getting himself into, and his sister dancing with Harry definitely wasn’t anything he wanted to talk about. It was one thing for Ginny to have had a crush on his best friend. It was another for anything to actually... happen. "Never mind, just joking," he insisted.

Harry gave him a very long, quiet stare, then removed his glasses again, put out the candle by his bed, and shut his curtains. "’Night," came his voice, from behind the hangings.

Ron didn’t answer. He stretched out in his own bed, looking up at the canopy, thinking immediately of Hermione. And of how weird it was going to be, if the two of them were a separate thing, keeping secrets from Harry. It couldn’t be like that. It was the three of them.

"I kissed her."

Ron hadn’t realised he was going to say it, until it was out. The words hung, still audible, in the dormitory air, and his face grew very hot. He blew out his candle quickly, wanting the room to be as dark as he could make it.

Harry’s hangings came open with a jerk, and again he fumbled for his glasses and stuck them on his nose, to stare across at Ron.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Both of them went quiet for awhile. Ron felt like he could almost hear the enormity of his confession, sinking in, in the darkness.

"Okay," Harry finally said. But he didn’t shut the hangings, or remove his glasses. Instead, he cleared his throat. "Hey, c’n I ask you something?"

Ron shrugged into his pillows, not meeting Harry’s eyes. Maybe he had a question about... well... kissing. That would be extremely strange. "Yeah, sure," he answered, his voice going unreliable again.

"Swear to tell the truth?"

Ron swallowed hard, and prayed he wouldn’t be asked to compromise any information that Hermione wouldn’t want disclosed. He didn’t think that Harry would get too specific. He hoped not. "’Course I will."

"Did you sleep on the floor, in Hagrid’s cabin?"

Startled, Ron looked over. Harry was watching him, grinning, and Ron knew that he was trapped. He’d sworn to tell the truth. At least the truth was just one syllable, and then it would be over with. Except for the fact that he was never going to live it down.

"No," he managed, his voice very dry, looking back up at his canopy.

"Uh-huh." Harry sounded unsurprised. "’Night."

"’Night."

Ron heard the hangings pulled shut, and heard the sound of voices, in the hall. Seamus, Dean, and Neville would be back in at any moment, and he didn’t want any other interrogations. Sharing the truth with Harry was necessary. Everybody else could stuff it.

Quickly, he grabbed a book off his nightstand and shut his own curtains, severing himself from a world of noise just in time. As the other fifth years got ready for bed, Ron quietly lit his wand and opened his copy of Amicus Pennatus: What Every Owl Owner Should Know. Hermione had given it to him this morning, for Christmas, and he’d hardly had a chance to look at it. He’d been far too worried about the ball to bother reading anything, but examining it now, he saw that she’d marked a page near the back with a folded bit of parchment. Ron opened to it, and there, staring up at him, was a picture of an owl that looked exactly like Pig, blinking its eyes innocently at him. He half-smiled. Pig was such a bloody pain.

Hopefully, he unfolded the square of parchment, and was rewarded with a short note.

Dear Ron,

There are excellent methods in here for calming

owls that are predisposed to hyperactivity. I

thought you might try some of them on Pig. One

method it mentions is that the owner ought to

sing to the pet, and I think you should try that

one first, the next time Pig makes a delivery in

the Great Hall. I know that Pig would like it, and

I imagine everybody else would, too.

Merry Christmas.

Love from,

Hermione

Ron read the note several times – especially lingering on the last three words – then shut his book and, looking around to make sure no one could peek at what he was doing, stuck the note under his pillow. He lay down his head and went to sleep slowly, his mind in a haze of happiness. It had been fun, chasing Hermione around the common room. It had even been great, fighting with her. She was always just asking to be fought with, he decided, pulling his second pillow to him, and putting his arm around it.

Wishing she was right there, instead of far away across a tower, Ron fell into a sleep that was, mercifully, full of vivid dreams that brought her closer.

~*~

FIN

 

//
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