A/N: I know that it has been awhile since I updated, but I've been really busy. Sorry for the wait, but here you go. Hope you enjoy it.
A week later, Harry found himself staying in a little room at The Leaky Cauldron. Mr. Weasley had taken him and Ron to London for their Apparation exams and had decided that they shouldn't travel so much one in day. So they took out rooms at The Leaky Cauldron and visited with the twins for awhile.
The morning of the exam, though, Harry found himself sitting at the breakfast table with Ron across from him looking much paler than normal. He was clearly nervous, his lip twitching every so often and his eyes unfocused. Most importantly, though, he hadn't touched his breakfast.
He looked exactly the way he did before each and every Quidditch practice.
"What's up with you?" Harry asked, hoping to draw Ron's attention away from the nervousness, as he knew Ron would be forced to make up some excuse as to why his face was so pale and his appetite so absent.
"What?" Ron looked up quickly. "I'm fine."
Harry nodded, noticing the jumpiness of Ron's demeanor. He thought again and figured that it was probably best just to pretend like he believed him. "Don't you want any breakfast?"
"I've got breakfast," Ron said absently, motioning to the full plate in front of him. Harry didn't point out that he hadn't eaten a single bite.
"Well, we'd better get going, hadn't we? It's almost nine o'clock."
Ron's face went impossibly paler, but he nodded nonetheless. "Dad, we've got to go."
Mr. Weasley looked up from the conversation that he was currently having at the bar with Tom. He turned his head toward the boys and nodded. "Alright then. You boys be careful, though. Right there and back, okay?" Harry and Ron nodded as they got up from the table. Mr. Weasley walked over to join them and lowered his voice slightly. "Now I'm being serious. If your mother knew I was letting you go on your own, she'd have my head. Be careful. And stay together."
"Dad, we're not six," Ron mumbled, though he didn't sound strong enough to protest too much.
"I know you're not six, but that doesn't mean you're not in danger."
"We know what-" Ron started to protest a bit further, but Harry cut him off.
"We'll be careful."
Mr. Weasley seemed to accept this answer and nodded. Glancing from one to the other, he said, "Well, good luck then. The next time I see you, you'll both be licensed Apparitionists."
"Hopefully," Ron muttered, his face wrinkled slightly as though he were in physical pain.
"You'll be fine," Mr. Weasley said confidently, clapping his son on the shoulder. He did the same thing to Harry. "You both will."
They bid Mr. Weasley goodbye and set off for the examination site. Harry was still surprised that they were allowed to go anywhere in Diagon Alley alone, but he didn't question it. He was glad to be out on their own for a bit. They attempted a conversation, but Harry felt that it was very one-sided, as Ron contributed little more than mumbled replies. Harry finally gave up and decided that Ron would just have to stew in his own nervousness because trying to talk to him was just too tiring. He was very glad when they finally reached the examination building.
Harry was surprised to see so many people milling around the small registration area because it seemed that he was one of the very few in his year who was left behind during the first test. He assumed, though, that quite a few people must have failed the test the first time around. He looked around for any of his friends and spotted Neville Longbottom waving to him as he obviously attempted to squeeze through the crowd.
"Hey!" Neville said brightly when he finally managed to make it over to them. "I was hoping to see someone I knew, but I didn't know who was coming."
"How's your summer been, Neville?" Ron looked slightly less nervous now that they were actually there, which Harry thought was a bit odd. He didn't complain, though.
"Oh, it's been okay," Neville said, shrugging. "My arm's all better."
Neville's arm had been hurt during the battle with the Death Eaters at Hogwarts. Harry hadn't witnessed the fight for more than a few minutes, but he would have given anything now to have been there instead of watching Dumbledore being murdered in the Astronomy Tower. He didn't like to think about that night at all, though, so he just forced a half-smile and told Neville that he was glad his arm had healed.
"Is Hermione here?" Neville glanced around. "I mean, I know she already got her license, but I didn't know if she might come anyway."
"No, she stayed home with my mum and my sister," Ron answered, looking at Neville with slight suspicion, as though he thought Neville was showing too much interest in Hermione.
"Oh," Neville seemed surprised. "So she's at your house then?"
"She's always at my house."
Harry wanted to laugh, but he controlled himself.
"I didn't know that," Neville said thoughtfully. "I just assumed she stayed with her parents on holiday."
"No, she lives with me."
This wasn't exactly true, but Harry assumed it was close enough. He and Hermione had both spent more time at the Burrow over the last several years than they had with their own families. Hermione even more than him, and she liked her family.
Harry noticed the area close to the registration table was clearing up somewhat, and he figured that they should get checked in before Ron started making any other claims on Hermione that weren't exactly accurate.
"We need to sign in," he said to Ron. "Did you already, Neville?"
Neville nodded. "Yeah, my gran made me get here early because she said it would get crowded fast."
"She was right," Harry said, acknowledging the throes of people surrounding them. They weren't all teenagers, either; some of them were much older.
"Well, I'll catch up with you later then." Neville waved at them as they made their way toward the registration line. On their way, though, they bumped into another familiar face. More familiar to Ron than to Harry.
Harry wasn't sure what else to say when they were shoved into the line right behind her. He'd spotted her too late and had accidentally stepped on her heels, causing her to turn around and see who the offender was. She looked at them for a long moment until Ron finally muttered, "Hi, Lavender," to his shoes.
"Hello, Harry," she said pointedly. "How are you?"
"Oh, very well." She said this as though it had some hidden meaning. Harry wasn't sure what it was supposed to be. "Excited to get your license?"
"Yeah. Well, hopefully I'll pass."
Lavender laughed, an evil, shrill kind of laugh. More of an evil, shrill kind of giggle actually. "Oh, of course you'll pass. Only a complete idiot could fail!"
She knew perfectly well that Ron had failed the first time, as she'd tried to console him over it at the time. If Harry remembered correctly, she'd spent an hour and a half telling him that the examiner was probably just a bitter old man who failed people for laughs. She'd also said that Apparating was "really hard" and that anyone could have messed up. Of course, right after that, Ron had escaped her and spent the rest of the evening planning Harry's foray into getting Slughorn to reveal his knowledge of the Horcruxes. And later that night, Lavender had dumped him for good.
Harry thought her comment now was a bit mean, but he also thought Ron kind of deserved it. Not that he would ever tell Ron that.
"Yeah, well. Hopefully," he said, trying to ease the tension.
"Oh, Harry," Lavender said brightly, still completely ignoring Ron. "My little cousin, Olivia, has spent all summer talking about. She does it all the time. 'Harry Potter this and Harry Potter that. And Lavender, you're so lucky to know him!' She's so excited to start at Hogwarts this year. She's a bit obsessed with you!"
Harry didn't know what to say or how excited he was supposed to be at the prospect of an eleven year old's obsession with him. He was also more than a bit suspicious of Lavender's motive for telling him. "Er, really?"
Lavender nodding, smiling that perfect smile she had. "She's so cute, has quite the crush on you. I told her that you were probably the cutest boy in the school, definitely heads above the other ones in our year."
Harry was starting to figure out the motive.
"Of course," Lavender went right on without skipping a beat, "I told her it didn't matter because loads of girls liked you already, and out of those, only two of them had any kind of a chance."
"Two?" He was terrified of the answer.
"Yes, of course. Ginny," she paused for what could only be dramatic effect, "and Hermione."
Now Harry was positive of her motive.
"Yeah," he said, completely unconvinced. "I don't think Hermione's quite on board with that one..."
"Oh, don't be silly!" Lavender laughed and playfully shoved at his shoulder. "All she ever does is talk about you! Well, besides do homework and read anyway. She goes on and on about you all the time. She has ever since I've known her."
Harry was sure of two things. One, Hermione did not, in any for or fashion, fancy him. And two, Ron could kick his arse if he really wanted to. He was also sure that if there was one girl who could destroy his friendship with Ron, it would be, not Ginny, as he'd once feared, but ironically, his other best friend.
"Hermione and I are friends," he said firmly. He didn't dare look at Ron, though he could feel Ron's eyes boring into him.
Lavender shrugged, a smug kind of look on her face. Thankfully, she was at the front of the line now and was forced to stop her torment. Harry still didn't look at Ron the whole time she was registering, from the time she gave her name, "Brown, B-R-O-W-N, comma, Lavender, L-A-V-E-N-D-E-R," until she finished by instructing the registration worker, "You can go ahead and get the 'P' file out for Potter and Prat."
She turned around and shoved right between Harry and Ron as she walked away, purposely swinging her long blonde hair and smacking Ron right in the face with it. Ron went to the table without a word to Harry and forcefully gave his name to the worker. Harry didn't try to talk to him until after he, too, had registered. He was actually surprised that Ron waited for him at all, though he could tell that he only waited because he begrudgingly felt he had to.
Harry didn't know what to say, so he settled with, "Lavender's full of shit, you know that, right?"
Ron just shrugged as they made their way to a less crowded part of the room. His lips were very thin.
"She's just mad at you."
Ron rolled his eyes and finally spoke. "Really? You got that, too? I'm surprised I figured it out correctly, seeing as how I'm a complete idiot."
Harry resisted the urge to throttle his best friend and ignored the sarcasm. "If you know that, then why are you acting like that?"
Ron just raised his eyebrows. "I wasn't aware that I was acting any way."
Harry rolled his own eyes. "Fine."
"I mean, why does she think I care about that anyway?" Ron obviously didn't care that Harry had just tried to end the conversation. "Like I care who Hermione likes. She can bloody well like whoever she fucking wants to."
Harry didn't even attempt to get into how very wrong Lavender was and how very well Ron knew it. "She's just mad at you, and she blames Hermione."
"What the hell does she blame Hermione for?"
Harry wanted to smack some sense into him, but he remembered his earlier thought that Ron could potentially cause him a great deal of pain if provoked. "Lavender blames Hermione for everything. She blames her for the Common Room always being a mess on Sundays because the house elves have the day off. She blames her for killing the grading curve."
"Well, those things are Hermione's fault."
Harry nodded. "Exactly. And Lavender blames Hermione for you ignoring her the majority of the time you were supposed to be her boyfriend."
"That's bullshit. I ignored her because she's annoying."
"She blames Hermione."
"No one ever said Lavender was smart."
Ron frowned, but then he settled for a determined sort of look. "Well, that's really dumb. Hermione didn't have anything to do with that."
"Well, like I said, no one ever said Lavender was smart. But don't tell me, I'm not the one who dated her for five and a half months..."
Ron just gave him a little glare. "Shut it. Have you seen Lavender?"
He wasn't going to argue with him on that one. Lavender was very pretty; she'd always been very pretty, even when they were children. But what had once been a cute little girl with blonde pigtails and a sprinkle of freckles had turned into one of the most beautiful girls in their year, complete with blonde hair that fell to her waist, nearly purple eyes, and all the other, um, parts that a bloke would find attractive.
In fact, Harry knew that a lot of the other boys had been jealous of Ron, and he wondered if perhaps that was part of the reason Ron couldn't ever force himself to call it quits with Lavender. For once in his life, he knew that people envied him over something. Of course, Harry was also sure that the snogging part didn't hurt.
But he knew that Ron never really liked Lavender. He might have liked the idea of Lavender, the look of Lavender, but he didn't like Lavender. Mostly he liked the fact that Hermione didn't like Lavender. And that was what it really came down to.
Hermione couldn't remember the Burrow ever being so quiet.
Not that she'd grown up there or anything, but she'd spent plenty of time there over the past few years and couldn't remember ever just hearing... nothing. She knew, of course, that the majority of the noise usually came from the twins, and seeing as how they lived on their own now, she wasn't surprised to find the Weasley home in a somewhat more peaceful state. But still. There was usually something going on, with or without the twins.
But now there was nothing.
Ron and Harry had left the day before for London. They were going to take their Apparating tests, and Mr. Weasley had offered to take them up a day early. Hermione had tried to go, too, but she hadn't won that battle. Not when Mrs. Weasley scoffed and said she should stay home, since there was absolutely no reason to rent two rooms when Ron, Harry, and Mr. Weasley could all stay in one.
Hermione hadn't tried to argue, as she knew it would be pretty pointless. She knew not to test Molly Weasley once she'd made up her mind on a decision, even on a good day. So she'd just wished the boys good luck and had spent the entire day before weeding the garden with Ginny.
Mrs. Weasley had spent most of yesterday and all of today in the kitchen preparing a congratulatory dinner for Ron and Harry. Hermione wasn't sure they should be so presumptuous, as she didn't want to jinx them. She knew how minor Ron's mistake had been in April, and he had failed then. She didn't think it was right to just go and assume that they were both going to pass this time, but she didn't say anything.
Earlier that day, Mrs. Weasley had demanded that she and Ginny help in the kitchen. She'd set them to tasks and ended up kicking them out within an hour, proclaiming that they were both useless. She'd actually used the word "useless," and Hermione found herself a tad bit offended. She'd asked Mrs. Weasley if she honestly thought that all females were useless if they didn't enjoy things like cooking and cleaning.
Ginny decided quite suddenly that she really needed Hermione's help on her Transfiguration homework.
When they were safely in the bedroom, Ginny let out a breath and shook her head. "Do not get Mum started on what the duties of proper young women are. Please. She'll never shut up."
Hermione frowned and tried to hold her tongue. It didn't work. "Well, sorry," she said quickly, "but that's a really backwards way of thinking, don't you think?"
Ginny shrugged. "I just ignore it. She already thinks I'm a failure of a daughter just because I can't bake a satisfactory apple crisp."
"Doesn't she know how good you are at school? Isn't that more important?"
"First of all," Ginny sat down at her vanity and started braiding her hair into two plaits, "I'm not that great at school. And second of all, she doesn't think that matters if I can't even cook a decent meal. 'What man is going to want to marry you if you can't even mend his clothes properly?' That's the sort of thing I get, so I just try not to get her started."
Hermione's mouth literally fell open. "But Ginny!" she protested quickly. "That's so stupid! If a man wants his clothes mended, he should figure out how to do it himself."
Ginny sort of smiled and continued to twist her hair. "Well, Mum doesn't exactly agree on those sort of sentiments. She thinks it's important to learn, but she also thinks women should have other talents besides book smarts."
"Well, does she know how great you are at Quidditch?"
Ginny snorted. "Please! She doesn't even want me playing, so she certainly doesn't give a rat's arse if I'm any good or not."
"Well," Hermione said slowly, "maybe you'll find a boy who thinks Quidditch is more important than mended clothes and apple crisp..."
Ginny just looked at her through the reflection of the mirror, brows raised.
"Harry, I mean," Hermione finished. "He cares more about Quidditch than he does about any sort of dessert, holes in his clothes, or school marks."
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Harry. Right. Only problem, see, though, is that Harry ditched me like last week's trash."
"Ginny, he only ditched you because he thought it was the right thing to do. He still likes you." Hermione knew it was the truth and figured that Ginny had to know it, too.
Ginny, though, just shrugged her shoulders disinterestedly. "Whatever. I don't care. I am over Harry Potter."
Hermione was skeptical, though, and she let Ginny know it. "Oh, right. I remember two years ago when you told me that you were over Harry Potter."
"And I was..."
"So what was this year then?" Hermione crossed her arms and started at Ginny's reflection. Ginny, though, didn't seem phased.
"This year was Harry liking me," she said plainly. "I guess he just likes what he can't have or something, I don't know. But yes, I was flattered that he liked me, and yes, I did start to like him back. But I'm not eleven years old. He obviously doesn't want to be with me now, so I'm not going to waste my time mooning over him like some silly little girl. That's not who I am anymore."
"So that's it then? You're just giving up?"
"I didn't have to give up. There's nothing to give up. It's over."
Hermione wanted to shake Ginny. Or something. She thought it was a bit anti-climactic, what with Ginny having spent all these years lusting after Harry, and now she was just letting it go like it was no big deal. Like she hadn't just had all her childhood wishes fulfilled and ripped away from her.
Just like it was nothing...
"I don't understand you," she said honestly.
Ginny turned around and sighed a little. "Look, he's just a boy, right? It's not like it's the end of the world or something."
"But it's Harry."
Ginny nodded. "Exactly. It's Harry. And you know Harry. Especially when he gets all noble and heroic and martyr-like."
Hermione wanted to say more, but she didn't even bother wasting her breath. "I thought you needed help with Transfiguration."
Ginny wrinkled her nose and fell to her bed, grabbing the latest issue of Teen Witch as she did. "Ugh, no. Homework is not my idea of fun, Hermione."
"Well, maybe it should be," Hermione muttered.
Ginny looked at her with raised eyebrows for a moment before shaking her head and laying down with the magazine. Hermione watched her read for awhile and finally decided that at least one of them needed to be doing something productive, so she got out her own Transfiguration homework. It was the hardest summer assignment she'd ever had; well, maybe not the hardest, but it was certainly the most involved. She'd been working on it for weeks now. Of course, Harry and Ron hadn't even started theirs. But what else was new?
After a few minutes, Ginny sat up a little and moved the magazine to her lap. "Listen to my horoscope."
Hermione groaned. "Don't tell me you actually believe that stuff. It's a bunch of rubbish, you know?"
"It's astrology," Ginny said primly. "And it's not rubbish. These things are really accurate most of the time."
"It's just some cheap form of Divination. They're only accurate because you go out of your way to make them seem accurate."
"Whatever," Ginny said dismissively, "Just listen." She sat up even straighter and cleared her throat. "The boy of your dreams is seeing you while he sleeps, but his friends are holding him back. This month holds hardships for your family, but the 7th will hold a pleasant surprise for all involved. Be on the lookout for insincere promises."
Hermione just looked at her and waited for her to finish. After Ginny stopped reading, she continued her plight against horoscopes. "See, Ginny? The 7th has already passed, and I don't remember any pleasant surprise."
"Well, there could have been," Ginny defended. "And we just didn't realize what it was at the time. That's been too long ago for me to remember anyway." She paused for a second, a thoughtful look on her face. "I wonder what his friends have against me."
"The boy of my dreams. It says they're holding him back from me."
"Ginny, that is ridiculous. I can't believe you buy into that stuff."
"Here's yours." Hermione groaned, but Ginny went right on anyway. "The object of your lust is finally ready to take the plunge. Look for him to make his move around the 24th when the stars align in your favor. Be patient, it's worth the wait." Ginny put the magazine down with a huge grin. "Finally!"
"Finally Ron's going to get his arse into gear, I guess."
"Ginny!" Hermione was horrified, and she felt her face heat up instantly.
"Oh, come on," Ginny rolled her eyes. "Don't even try to pull that with me, okay? I know you too well."
"That is ridiculous," she said firmly. "You have no idea what you're talking about."
"Hermione, why are you lying?" Ginny got up, and within one swift movement, she'd fallen down next to Hermione on her bed. "You just sat there and gave me a three hour lecture on Harry, and now you want to pretend as if there's a different standard for yourself?"
"It was hardly three hours," Hermione said sharply. "Dramatic much?"
Again with the rolling of the eyes. Ginny just shrugged. "Whatever. All I know is I'm right. And you know it." She fixed her eyes on Hermione and wouldn't let her break eye-contact. "You like him. Just admit it already."
Hermione felt as though her face were on fire. And she sort of hated Ginny in that moment. Finally, though, she just rolled her own eyes. "Well, who cares? It's not like it matters anyway, does it? In case you haven't noticed, your brother's an idiot."
"Trust me. I've noticed. But it does matter, Hermione. Or at least it'll matter around the 24th."
"Oh, shut up," Hermione snapped. "I don't listen to Divination. Especially the type that comes in Teen Witch."
Ginny just smirked, though. "I'm right, and you know it. You just wait and see..."
"Sometimes," Hermione said, "you and Ron are like twins. Sarcastic, hot-tempered, irrational. But other times, you're just so different, it's hard to believe you're even related. Even Ron wouldn't buy into horoscopes."
"Well, perhaps that's because he doesn't know the stars are working in his favor on the 24th, which," she went on, "just happens to be next week."
"Can't even believe you're related..."
"Look," Ginny said, tilting her head. "Just because we're siblings doesn't mean we're exactly alike. In fact, Ron and I are more alike than just about anyone else. Except for the twins obviously. But other than that, nobody is really alike. I don't think a lot of siblings are."
"The twins are exactly alike."
"Not all twins," Ginny interjected. "Look at Parvati and Padma. They look identical, but-"
"Padma's smart," Hermione supplied. Then she felt bad for insinuating that Parvati was stupid, so she tried to fix it. "I mean, Parvati's not dumb. But she pretends to be sometimes."
"Well, I suppose she has to come down to the level that her friends are on, doesn't she?"
Hermione smiled despite herself. She knew what Ginny was talking about, but she didn't comment on it.
"And sometimes," Ginny kept going, "siblings are totally night and day. I mean, look at Sirius, and wasn't his brother a Death Eater?"
Hermione nodded, but she was suddenly struck with a revelation so big that she stopped in mid-nod. Her eyes went big, and she heard Ginny talking to her.
"Uh, Hermione? You okay?"
Hermione focused her eyes on the other girl, barely believing her own idea. "Ginny," she said slowly, "do you know when Ron and Harry are getting back?"
The moment the boys arrived home from London, Hermione ran to the door and met them.
"I've got to tell you something very important!" She'd said it so quickly that Ron had, at first, thought something was terribly wrong. But once she'd grabbed them both by the hands and dragged up three flights of stairs to Ron's room, he realized that it was actually the opposite of terribly wrong.
She'd apparently figured out who the mysterious R.A.B. was and had been dying to tell them for hours. It was hard to get excited about the fact that they were all going to risk their lives trying to find these damn Horcruxes, but he figured that the fact that Hermione was starting to at least somewhat track them down was encouraging. Sort of.
But it still didn't make a whole lot of sense.
"Regulus Black?" Harry's eyebrows were raised in question, and Ron understood his skepticism. It did sound pretty outlandish.
"Yes," Hermione said firmly. She was sitting on the bed, and she'd pulled them down to either side of her. Her face was very serious, and she didn't seem to doubt herself at all.
"But Sirius said that his brother was a Death Eater," Ron said, pointing out what he thought was obvious. "Why would he want to steal the Horcrux and destroy it?"
"Because," Hermione answered properly, "he didn't like what the Death Eaters were doing once he got involved, remember?"
"Yeah," Harry said slowly, as though he were starting to believe it. "He wanted out, but Sirius said you don't just leave the Death Eaters."
"Of course you don't," Hermione said, shrugging her shoulders at the obviousness of her statement. "I'm quite sure it's one of those in there for life sort of things."
"And," Harry went on, obviously more convinced than ever, "he said that Voldemort killed Sirius. Or probably had him killed anyway."
"Exactly!" Hermione drew in a quick breath. "Plus, R.A.B. referred to Voldemort as the Dark Lord. Who calls him the Dark Lord besides the Death Eaters?"
"A ton of Slytherins," Ron said pointedly.
"Yeah, probably Death Eaters-in-training." Harry's tone was bitter, and the room fell into an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds. They never discussed the fact that Ron and Hermione hadn't believed Harry's suspicions the year before about Malfoy being a Death Eater. It was just a subject that they generally avoided as much as possible.
"Regardless," Hermione pressed on a few moments later, "I really, really think Regulus Black is R.A.B."
"It does all make sense..." Harry shook his head, almost as though he were in disbelief. "Hermione, you're-"
"A genius?" Ron cut in. "No one but you could put all this together."
Hermione was clearly trying not to appear too pleased with herself. It was one of her more common faces. "Well, it was right there in front of us the whole time. We were just looking too hard. It's all so simple!"
Ron wasn't too sure about that. But then again, there were several things that Hermione seemed to think were simple that he found himself disagreeing with. Like Summoning Charms. And Potions. And Apparating.
Just to name a few.
"And Harry," she went on quickly, "you do know that if Regulus Black did take the locket, there's a good chance he took it home with him. And if he took it home with him, then it belongs to you..."
Harry seemed to be taking all of this in; he was doing a better job at it than Ron was. He'd become slightly distracted by a loose strand of Hermione's hair that had fallen into her eye that she didn't even seem to notice. He wanted to reach up and move it.
"So instead of going to Godric's Hollow..."
"We need to go to Grimmauld Place. Right." Hermione nodded and finally shoved the stray hair out of her face.
With nothing else distracting him, Ron glanced at Harry and saw the slightly disappointed face that Harry was trying hard to hide. Hermione obviously noticed it, too, because she smiled encouragingly and went right on talking.
"But we can still go to Grodic's Hollow some time. I mean, we've got Christmas break. And then all next summer..." Her voice trailed off when she noticed that neither of her friends seemed quite as encouraged. There was no need to voice it, but they were all thinking the same thing.
There might not be a Christmas break. They might not even make it to summer holiday.
Ron decided to do his duty and break the uneasy and nervous silence. "Well, guess what, Hermione. We both passed."
Hermione smiled more brightly. "That's great! Sorry I didn't ask, I was just... distracted."
He shrugged. "It's okay. And look," he shoved his own hair out of his eyes. "Both eyebrows."
Hermione laughed and shook her head as though she were at a loss for words. "And you Harry? Still completely intact?"
Harry nodded, obviously trying to get his mind off the looming task in front of them. "Every hair."
"Neville failed," Ron broke in. "He was really upset, said his gran's going to murder him."
"Oh, no," Hermione looked truly concerned. "He was probably just nervous."
"Yeah. His arm's better, though."
She looked relieved and slightly tense at the same time, as though she were glad that Neville was recovering just fine but wasn't too keen on being reminded of that night in June. "Well, that's good. Hopefully he can take it again in November and do alright." Ron and Harry both nodded, having just relayed the very same message to Neville hours before. "And who else? Did Ernie pass?" They nodded, and Hermione concentrated for a moment, moving her lips silently as she went through all the people she could think of, trying to find one who hadn't taken or passed the test already. She arrived at a very random name. "Malfoy? Malfoy wasn't there, was he?"
Ron hadn't even realized Malfoy's absence, but she was right. He was in the younger half of the class and should have been at the day's examination. He wasn't, though.
"No," Harry answered. "I wondered if he would be there, but he wasn't."
"He's probably in hiding, don't you think?" Hermione said seriously.
"Yeah," Harry sounded severely depressed. "Either that, or he's dead somewhere."
Ron couldn't comprehend even a remote possibility as to why that news would be depressing in any way.
Hermione went on, though, clearly not wanting to stay on the subject of Draco Malfoy too long. "What about Alexis McMillan?" Ron shrugged; he didn't know who Alexis McMillan was. Apparently Harry didn't, either. Hermione went back to her concentration, silently naming off members of their class until finally, "Lavender? Was Laven..." her voice trailed slightly, as though she had suddenly just remembered that she didn't like her roommate. "Was Lavender there?" she finished flatly, attempting to sound casual.
Ron stared at her profile, but she refused to look at him. Instead, she looked directly at Harry, her eyes intent on staying focused there. Harry did them all a favor and answered.
"Yeah, she was there. I don't know if she passed or not; I didn't see her after the test."
"Did you talk to her?" Hermione asked pointedly. Ron had a feeling that this was a test and that Harry was caught in the middle of one of Hermione's experiments, but he wasn't sure enough to figure out what to do about it.
"Yeah, we talked for a bit." Harry shrugged.
"Did you talk to her?" Ron watched as her head turned slowly in his direction and her eyes met his own.
He didn't have a clue what the right answer was.
Wishing he could glance at Harry for help but knowing that he would fail the test if he did so, he just shook his head. "No. She's mad at me, I think."
Hermione snorted. Actually snorted. "Oh, now there's a shock."
"Well, she's crazy!" he said hotly, growing a bit angry.
"Yes, says the one who dated her for six months."
He wondered when Hermione had gotten so sarcastic. "First of all," he said sharply, "I did not date her for six months. And second of all, have you seen-"
Harry's loud coughing fit cut him off.
Hermione turned her head quickly to glare at Harry.
"Sorry," he said sheepishly, coughing a bit more. "I got choked on something..."
Hermione rolled her eyes and whipped sharply back around to Ron. "Have I seen what?"
Ron was positive that Harry was absolutely the best mate any guy could ever have, and he made a mental note to thank him later for his intervention into Ron's own stupidity.
"My blue jacket?" he asked, attempting a smooth tone. "I can't find it anywhere."
Hermione's eyes narrowed into such thin slits that Ron was positive they were going to disappear all together. She looked at him furiously for another few moments before standing up. "I'm not your maid," she said hatefully, and then she disappeared with a loud crack.
"She could have went out the door and slammed it behind her," Harry observed a second later. "Would have had more effect."
Ron let out a breath that he wasn't aware he'd been holding. "Thanks, mate," he said honestly, dropping onto his back and staring up at the ceiling.
"Yeah, well," Harry shrugged, "I didn't really want to hear her screaming, either."
"I don't know what her deal is," Ron said, shaking his head slowly as he continued to stare at the ceiling, as though the chipped paint and cracked wall were going to provide him with any answers.
"What do you mean what her deal is?"
Ron shrugged, or at least moved his shoulder and head in some attempt at a shrug. "She's just... I don't know. She doesn't get it."
Ron kept his eyes focused on the ceiling. "I try and try, you know? But it's like it doesn't even matter because it's not good enough."
"Ron," Harry sounded a little wary, and Ron understood why; this wasn't the type of conversation they normally had. "What exactly have you tried?"
Ron was quiet for a minute, trying to think of a way to put it. It was embarrassing, but he was sort of sick of denying it. Finally, he just closed his eyes and said, "I never liked Lavender."
"Well, that was only slightly obvious."
"Well, if it was so damn obvious, then why does Hermione-" he cut himself off, no longer in the mood for this conversation. "I don't care. Anyway," he opened his eyes and fixed them on Harry, "you and Ginny. On or off?"
Ron nodded. "That's probably best. She'd just get in the way, you know?"
Harry nodded slowly. "I know," he said quietly, but his eyes were dark, and he stayed quiet after that, staring at a place on the wall opposite them.
Ron closed his own eyes and decided he'd rather girls just not exist at all.
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