"Well, that's certainly a surprise," Ron scoffed, turning to face Harry and Hermione. They had all been listening to Dumbledore speak before they dug into their feast. "Who would have ever thought our OWL exams would be rescheduled? Eh? A massive attack on the school and we just go on as if it never happened?"
Harry chuckled. "It's not like the ministry is unfamiliar in pretending things don't happen right under their nose," he piled eggs onto his plate in vigor, feeling strangely famished. "They did a pretty bang up job of it for several months." He clenched his right hand and the light red, now scarring inscription of his punishment shone in the candlelight illuminating the great hall.
"Oh but this just makes me all the more anxious," Hermione said, staring almost disgustedly at Harry's massive pile of food, then similarily at Ron attempting to shove an entire piece of toast in his mouth. "I've been ready for ages and now I have to wait another month!"
"Nmpf ebyvne is uhz gohd as oo," Ron said through a mouthful of toast. Hermione gave him a repulsed look and he swallowed his food, painfully. "Not everyone is as good as you, Hermione. We don't all recover that quickly from a life altering tragedy."
Hermione looked pained by his statement. "Ron, you know that's not what I meant," she said, her voice dripping with hurt, "all I meant was that I wish I could get the exams over with!"
Ron looked sheepish, and a fleeting glance was enough of an apology for Hermione, who smiled back sympathetically. Ron's emotional roller coaster over the last two weeks had unhinged and he'd taken a general air of trepidation and any change in schedule that did not make his life easier was devastation upon itself. He had, at least, come to determine when he was acting such and that had proven to be good enough for Ron and Harry.
"Although I do not fancy taking exams a month into my summer holiday," said Harry, "I do think it is the wisest move the school can make at this point." He felt the color drain from his face as he suddenly thought of Dean, the only fifth year Gryffindor not to be taking his exam, not to be continuing on. Only Hermione seemed to notice the drain of color, and put a hand on his knee, patting it gently.
In the aftermath of the battle at Hogwarts, dealing with the deaths of their fellow students had been equivalent to that of Mrs. Weasley's. Throughout the first week, Ron had been nearly unmanageable because in his, Ginny's, and the twins' deep-rooted agony, they were not permitted to go home with their father and eldest brothers, who had insisted they finish out the year. Almost everyone had expected school to close for the year in the days after the battle, but upon Dumbledore reassuming the role as headmaster, a new hope burgeoned in everyone's heart and parents, though anxious for their children to come home, knew Hogwarts was much safer. Umbridge, on the contrary, was charged with conspiracy in association with the Ministry and, to everyone's delight, sentenced to five years in Azkaban.
The wizard prison had changed tenfold, meanwhile, and instead of Dementors guarding its watery gates, was turned into isolation chambers. Mad-Eye explained it as a much slower process of despair, in which prisoners lost their sanity within themselves, instead of having it sucked out of them. The closest comparison Harry could imagine was that of top security prisons the Muggle world used to hold terrorists and the elite criminals. He did, however, envision it much differently since one wall of the isolation chamber looked out upon the vastness of a constant hurricanical storm. A small, evil happiness would always swell inside Harry when he thought about Kristopher inside one of these cells, feelings which he unfortunately felt guilty and somewhat ashamed about.
The imminent fear of Lord Voldemort still loomed above them. Not knowing where he was or what he was doing seriously bothered Harry, a subconscious fear that let itself out at strange times, such as waking in a cold sweat after having no dreams whatsoever, or shivering violently when the sun beat so ferociously students tried to fry eggs on the courtyard. It was something he had only recently recognized and did not feel comfortable talking about, yet. He wanted to tell Hermione, but it seemed childish and immature, not to mention insensitive. While Ron mourned the loss of his mother, he, Harry, was worried about himself. It seemed to him very selfish, even if Ron and Hermione would say it was obvious that Harry should be troubled such.
At the moment, Voldemort's regime was severely disabled. Over half of his death eaters were in Azkaban while another ten or so were killed in the heat of the battle. The numbers were unclear in the first place because during the battle at Hogwarts, no one could really tell if there was a difference between the death eaters and the Ministry, or if the Ministry had just simply been overtaken by death eaters. Roger Stebbins, the newly appointed head of the Department of Magical Transportation, was imprisoned for assisting death eaters and Ministry officials, such as Fabian Brookgard, travel to Hogwarts by means of the Floo Network, conveniently unsupervised at the appropriate time. Brookgard himself was killed by Sirius, meaning that a the wizarding community once again needed a new Minister of Magic.
Rumors flew around for two or three days that Kingsley's name had been thrown into the pot, as he was a major asset to the team of aurors at the Ministry, and had always proven loyal. But in the end, Kingsley's boss, Rufus Scrimgeour, was made Minister, to a general welcome. The fact that he'd headed the auror office gave the wizarding community an air of safety and direction, knowing that something would be done in the effort of opposing and fighting Voldemort.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione agreed that the amount of changes made over the past two weeks gave them a headache. Thinking about the reality of what happened, attempting to comprehend the loss of their classmates and Ron's mother, was a surreal reality that they seemed to revolve around without really interacting. Harry had a feeling that once Ron returned to the Burrow, his grief would overcome him in a more realistic way. While at Hogwarts he wasn't able to understand life without his mother because classes resumed as they had before her death, and they ate meals in the great hall as they had before, and the slept in their warm, clean four poster beds as they had before. The Burrow's distinctive smell of freshly baked goods, chicken and ham pie, or stew would be different now, because Molly Weasley was always able to add more than food to her recipes.
Harry did not ever mention this out loud to Ron, he found no reason to make his anxiety worse. The days Ron was able to suppress his grief were the days Harry tried to make him appreciate the beauty of the Hogwarts grounds, not remind him of changes he needed to prepare for when school was finished for the year. It wasn't difficult to keep his mouth shut, but Harry felt guilty at times. He had things he wanted to say to Ron, the timing was just never right. It wasn't always timing, either, it was the fear that Ron didn't want to hear the things he had to say, especially out of him. Harry had begun to dwell in the fear that if he rambled on too long about preparing for a Molly-less Burrow, Ron would spin the tale on him and point out that it was Harry that had sent his mother to her death bed.
Deep down he knew that it wasn't true, that the battle had not been his fault. It had been inevitable, designed months ago by Voldemort. Harry had prepared his fellow classmates for the circumstance, he had warned them of the possibility of death and shown them how to defend themselves. Molly had been a very skilled witch and it was not by her lack of experience that took her life, but her passion for her children. The whole conversation was, however, one Harry was keen to avoid.
Every six degrees of thought brought Harry back to Voldemort. The lightning scar on his forehead hadn't burst with pain in the last two weeks, which he found quite odd considering Voldemort should be extremely angry. Neither did he have any night terrors, visions of long, dark corridors where he finally knew ended at the door to the Hall of Prophecies, the room in the Ministry Voldemort had broken into. Hermione had noticed this lack of dreams, too, as she had snuck into his bed at least ten of the last fourteen days.
"At least every other night," she had whispered one evening, very late into the night, "you would twitch and moan, muttering something or other about people I didn't know or things that you needed. It was frightening. But you haven't had one all week!"
Harry tried to make this thought comfort him, but it made him extremely uneasy. Had Voldemort recognized the connection somehow and was now using it against Harry, or was it preparing him for something even more dreadfully painful than the cleaving of shear agony coursing through every fiber of his body? If Voldemort didn't already know, Harry experiencing the dark lord at his most vicious moments was not unlike being under the cruciatus curse. This was also something he had not shared with his girlfriend.
A small twittering bird flew in front of Harry's eyes and shook him from his rambling train of thought. Hermione had opened up an Ancient Rune book, clearly oblivious to his sudden disappearance into the back of his mind, and Ron accepted the letter his annoying and desperately hopeless little owl Pigwideon carried.
"It's from Charlie," said Ron with great surprise. He ripped it open and read hastily to himself, his eyebrows rising further up his forehead as the seconds ticked by. "Oh my god! Listen to this: Dear Ron, How are you? Bill, dad, and I are getting along just fine, though things here at home are quite different and dad spends most of his free time reading all of the cooking books our mother used to use. Bill and I suffered through a very strange stew last night, but I must say he is getting better. I am writing because it just so happens that this summer we are receiving a new breed of dragons in Romania and need an extra hand for a month. I suggested you to my boss and he said that he would be willing to overlook the age rule if you would agree to come. They will pay you fifty galleons and you would start a week after you get home from Hogwarts, which means, of course, you would have to figure out how to take your rescheduled OWLs, until the second week in July. You can stay with me, if you wish, otherwise they have a housing plan for the extra hands we are bringing in. I think, if I am not mistaken, that Hagrid also volunteered for the job and would be coming a couple days after school ends. Please send me your answer as soon as possible, and if you are not interested do not worry, but I thought you may be interested in earning a little extra money over the summer. Your Brother, Charlie."
Harry's mouth dropped open. "Charlie wants you to help import a new breed of dragons?" he repeated, dumbfounded. "With Hagrid? That's brilliant!" Ron's mouth twitched, trying to decide whether he was excited or nervous, or even a touch apprehension. "You don't think so?" asked Harry, watching Ron closely from across the table. Hermione had looked up from her book while Ron read his letter out loud, and was now looking from Harry to Ron.
Ron shrugged. "I just…I guess I thought Charlie was going to be home…for a while, you know," he said, taking a deep breath and puffing out his chest, "I thought we'd all be at home for a while, together, as a…family." He didn't look at Harry or Hermione, he stared at the letter, pretending to read it over again. As Ron had read the first part of the letter, about Mr. Weasley learning how to cook, it had given him an odd feeling in his heart, but he thought that Ron would be excited about an opportunity to avoid dealing with the absence of his mother.
"Charlie is your family," said Hermione, softly.
Ron looked up at her, a sparkle of a tear in his eye, but it did not drop. "I know," he said, a little sorrowfully, but his face brightened. "However, Hagrid is going and I could make fifty galleons. That would be nice, eh?"
Harry grinned back at him. "It would be," he said, though a small twinge of pain turned over in his stomach, knowing he wouldn't be able to see Ron for a month. But his concern was for Ron, not himself, and he knew that a month with his elder brother would do him good, give him a chance to grow up without his mother, and delay, perhaps even throw off, the moment when Ron would painfully realize what life was truly like without his mother.
Hermione clicked her tongue. "Dragons, though," she said, her cheeks turning slightly pink. "It sounds so dangerous."
Ron laughed. "Charlie's been doing it for years, look how well he's turned out!" Hermione grimaced and her cheeks flushed even deeper, which made Ron laugh harder.
Harry, noticing Hermione's flush, felt a jolt of strange jealousy course through his chest, and decided to change the subject. "You might have more time to study for OWLs, too," he said, after a moment of thought.
"Or less time," said Hermione, "depending on how they look at your case." She opened her mouth to say something else, but shut it quickly, evidently deciding against saying whatever it was she was thinking. Harry had an inkling about what it might be. The Ministry might look at Ron's case differently, as he was the only student to lose a parent in the battle. After considering it, Harry had absolutely no idea how the ministry would look at his case.
"What do you say, mate?" Harry asked, shoveling his last piece of bacon into his mouth.
Ron took another deep breath and seemed to hold it all in his head. "I say it would be bloody brilliant to spend that much time with Charlie and with dragons, and Hagrid," he smiled, broadly. "Blimey, I'm going to spend a month in Romania!" Harry let out a whoop, which caused a couple people around them to stir, including Fred and George, who cast them a funny look. "I'm going to go send my answer back to Charlie right now," Ron added, getting him from his seat. "I'll meet you back in the common room."
Harry and Hermione waved as he left. But Ron had barely reached the doors leading out of the great hall when Emma Gold intercepted him. A grin spread across Harry's face as he watched Emma shamelessly flirt with him, and Ron's stature change from a slightly hunched, and insecure, to tall and confident. As Emma had asked during the battle, Harry had introduced her to Ron, who was admittedly at first wary of associating with a Slytherin, but after they had spent some time with the girl found her to be quite good company. Where Harry was an inch or two shorter than Emma, Ron was a good head taller, and the difference between the streaked blonde versus red hair was invigorating.
"It is so strange," Hermione mumbled, watching Ron and Emma too, "how she seems to have liked him for a while, but it took the battle to make her act on it." She looked at Harry, watching his oddly twitching mouth contort into a variety of smiles while watching the two flirt. "Have you heard the rumors about Emma, though?"
Harry looked down at her, confused and uneasy. "No, what are you talking about?"
"They are only rumors, of course," said Hermione quickly, "but apparently she's pretty explorative, physically, that is, and her ex-boyfriends hint that she's rather…easy."
Harry, who had been taking a drink of pumpkin juice, spit out a good portion of what was in his mouth and it sputtered down his chin onto his shirt. Embarrassed, he grabbed a napkin and started wiping his face and shirt. This was certainly a topic that he and Hermione did not talk about much, and with the prospect of his best friend becoming interested in a girl that was, rumored, easy, was not something he was sure he could talk about with his girlfriend, regardless of her friendship with Ron.
"That also could just be boys being boys," Hermione went on, pressing her lips together and eyeing Harry with increasing interest. "I don't know what circulates through the boys about you and I, but I certainly hope—"
Harry held up his hands. "First off, my best mate is also yours, I am not about to discuss our relationship with him. Second, that's just plain mean. I would never say anything like that about an ex-girlfriend, regardless of what happened between us." He looked back at Emma and Ron, wondering if the rumor was true. If it was, would Ron care? If it wasn't, that was sure a cheap blow to lay on a girl with so much promise.
"Aside from the rumors," Hermione said, closing her textbook, "she's really intelligent. I think Eddie said she got ten OWLs—"
Once again, Harry cut her off, "Eddie?"
Hermione raised an eyebrow. "Eddie Carmichael. Ravenclaw? The boy I confiscated that ridiculous Baruffio's Brain elixir from? He's an ex-boyfriend of hers." Harry chuckled, remembering the boisterous older student who tried to sell them a potion that would help them to pass all their OWLs with outstanding marks.
They stood up from the table together, nearly simultaneously, without even realizing they had done so. "Wait a moment," said Harry, a sudden memory coming to him, "is this the second year girl that Cadwallader bloke was seeing during his fifth year?"
"I believe so," said Hermione with a nod. "I also heard that."
"Not to slight Ron, or anything," said Harry, watching Emma return to the Slytherin table and sit next to her sister and another girl whom Harry did not know, then Ron practically skip out of the hall, "but what does a girl like her see in him? He's a great guy, but you've really got to get to know him to understand him." Hermione giggled. "What?" Harry asked defensively.
"It's just," said Hermione, taking his hand as they left the great hall, "you might be famous and everyone might think they know you so well, but you are the same way."
Harry's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
She smiled up at him, her brown eyes wide with love. "It's the getting to know someone part that makes people fall for each other. You see qualities in other people that you can predict will turn out to your liking, qualities that you value in a relationship and in a person of the opposite sex. It's not like we hooked up on the Hogwarts Express the first time I barged into yours and Ron's compartment, is it? Five years later and…here we are."
Harry felt his face grow hot, and looked away from her down the corridor they were heading. "You think way too much," he said, a soft tease that was nonetheless true, "I can't possibly compete with you. Pretty soon, The Boy Who Lived will be underminded by The Girl Who's Brains Are So Big."
Hermione gave him a small dig in the ribs and he contracted slightly, taking the blow. "Oh, ha ha," she said, dripping with sarcasm, though there was a touch of amusement in her voice. There was a long pause between them as they walked, both, without saying it aloud, taking the long way back to the common room.
They passed an overlarge marble statue of a raven, watching it as though watching the past, both remembering the first week they'd begun their relationship and sneaking behind statues and in crooks in the wall to steal kisses. It was like watching a different lifetime.
"I've been meaning to ask you something," said Hermione, finally breaking the silence, "and since Ron has plans for the summer, it might be more likely you'd say yes."
"What is it?" Harry asked, letting go of her hand and slipping his arm around her waist.
"Well, I wrote to my parents a couple days after the battle to ask their permission first, and they said it is alright if you get permission from the Dursley's, or Dumbledore, I guess I don't really know—"
"Oh get to the point," he said, his heart beating faster.
"Would you like to come stay at my house for a couple weeks?" she asked quickly. "I don't think I could stand an entire summer away from you, and I know you're moving in with Sirius. Plus, my parents are dying to meet you."
Harry felt taken aback, not exactly expecting her to say that, but thoroughly pleased. "You want me to come stay at your house?" he asked, astonished.
"Yes," she said, catching her breath.
"I think that would be brilliant," said Harry, beaming down at her.