CHAPTER TWENTY: NASTILY EXHAUSTING WIZARDING TESTS
By the time they returned to Hogwarts, Harry and the others resolved to think about the clues they received from Rasputin overnight and discuss it the following afternoon. They did in fact return in time for supper thanks to their hosts lack of interest in small talk. It had been a quiet night in Hogwarts with almost none of the professors present for supper. Hermione noticed it first when she wanted to go right up to her Ancient Runes professor, Bathsheba Babbling, and ask her about a translation that was due next week that had been giving both Draco and herself for a few days now. She was not the only member of the staff table absent that evening and the following day, in fact.
McGonagall, after welcoming them back in her office, stayed for most of the dinner. Bill showed up long enough to fill up a pair of plates and take a few measured looks around the room before heading back out. Slughorn, Vector, Sprout, Flitwick and most of the others were not present at all and though Hagrid was there for the entire meal, it seemed he was more interested in keeping an eye on the students than the roast in front of him. The only two teachers that seemed unaffected by the hurried atmosphere were Firenze and Professor Trelawney. The non-teaching members of the staff were present and you wouldn't know anything was amiss by their relaxed expressions.
The following afternoon, the four of them decided to meet in the Head's common room. Ron arrived with Draco and Hermione, while Harry followed shortly after with Ginny in tow. To answer their questioning eyes, Harry explained, "I talked to her last night. I figured we should bring Ginny up to speed first. I wanted her to take over the DA if all this continues to the next school year."
Ginny's blush of pride only grew deeper when Hermione agreed, "She's an excellent choice. And it's really a good idea to plan a bit ahead."
Ron looked a bit disgruntled to have his sister present, but after an elbow to the shoulder from Draco nodded his consent as well.
"We'll tell people in steps," Harry explained. "I'll let Luna and Neville know in a couple of months. Remus and Moody right after that and the rest of the Order at our first meeting after graduation, assuming we haven't found the last of them by then."
"Well, we won't," Hermione remarked calmly.
Taking a seat on the couch next to Harry, Ron joked, "No reason to start with a bad attitude."
"Ron, I meant we won't because the clue to find one of the last two, the biggest one won't be revealed to us until midsummer, assuming that evil bugger was right."
"Not us Granger, me, and you aren't going," Draco said definitively. "Let's go over it again. The facts of it, who goes where and when?"
"There were three total and we know you go," Harry added. "The other two were…"
"Red and brown, marked by the same demon," Hermione quoted. "I think the demon he meant was Greyback, so the others would be Remus and Bill."
"The where and when, we have general ideas of, but nothing specific," Draco added.
"And I just love how it's still all about the Ferret, the last one to the party," Ron grumbled. "You'd think some evil wizard would put me in a prediction or plan one of these days."
"Well, someone has to help Harry get ready to fight a war."
"He's right, mate," Harry agreed. "Draco and Hermione will be so involved in research, they'll train in DA with us, but the fight still needs to be planned."
"Moody will help us keep the search and the information from my spies as quiet as we can, but once we kill Nagini, Voldemort will know what we're doing."
"So we should save him for last… if we can that is," Hermione reminded them. "But if a good chance comes up, we may not be able to pass it up. And then we would need a plan of attack. How are we going to handle fighting them when they attack more Muggles or wizards and witches they think would support Harry. I mean we can't just pop around and charge them wherever we see them."
"That's where Draco's boys are going to come in handy," Harry remarked. They probably won't get us as much information as… as Snape would've, but they're the type of people who will be carrying out any attack."
Ron rubbed the top of his head briefly and asked, "And you want me to help with that?"
"No, Ron, I want you to be in charge of that," Harry replied, utterly serious despite Ron's uncertain expression.
"Expect we'd let you sit around and do nothing but beat Harry at chess all summer?" Draco teased. Ron's glare did nothing to dissuade the auburn-haired boy from adding, "Can you imagine if we left it in Harry's hands? No, we'll need the one full brain between you two for this one."
Harry tried to cut off the argument, "Draco—"
"Better than you, Ferret!" Ron shouted.
"Mate, you'd only be so lucky. Remember, your partner there's only involved because I wasn't sleepy one night."
"Potter—" Hermione tried to break in.
"Like that took any sense. You were probably the evilest baby ever, acting superior and such. Never mind, Harry's stronger at Defense than you. He inspires people. You couldn't lead a nest of ferrets around the bend."
"Speaking of inspired comments… let's just leave the writing of our victory speech to Granger."
Standing from his spot in the middle of the couch, Harry blocked the view from Ron's flaming red face to Draco leaning back smugly in his emerald chair and shouted, "Enough, come off it you buggers!"
"We were talking," Ron answered quickly in a tone that indicated he didn't think anything wrong had taken place.
"Quietly," Draco added meekly.
Hermione fought off a giggle that Ginny couldn't and Harry sat down roughly. He was only slightly more infuriated when Draco and Ron shared a knowing nod as if angering him was the goal from the start.
"Let's get back on task," Hermione offered. "We can talk quietly about overall strategy later. I think we should go over the information from Rasputin while it's fresh in our heads."
"Well your middle name is Patrick and he talked about being on the emerald of your second name," Harry said to his brother. "So, somewhere in Ireland and some place called the Deathly Hallows."
"Don't assume things, Harry," the brown-haired witch chastised lightly. "The Hallows were something to be survived so it could be some type of creature or a place or a challenge or some rite of passage. We checked our old notes and looked through the library for about ten hours, but I've never heard of it before."
"We can keep looking, but did Dumbledore ever mention it to you?" Draco asked.
Harry shook his head slowly and rubbed his eyes, "I can't believe this. We're stuck waiting to come across it in a book. It's still like the Philosopher's Stone back in first year."
"Well, we did just fine then if you recall!" Hermione retorted, a bit put-off on behalf of books and research in general being so scorned.
"Well, you could asked about it," Ginny suggested quietly. With all the others turned abruptly to face her, she swallowed a lump at how intimidating the four of them could be when they got on a role and explained, "I mean… you don't have to say anything about why you want to know about them. If Bill or Dad or anyone like that knew anything, they'd tell you."
Harry nodded and agreed, "I'll ask around."
Draco mentioned quietly, "It has to have something to do with getting secrets that aren't available for more common sources. He mentioned seers and Djinn as being futile, but…"
While Draco faded off softly, Hermione leaned forward and asked, "Potter?"
"Something Dumbledore once… he mentioned trying to find certain answers about the location of Horcruxes. He mentioned Djinn and seers and… damn it was something about bogs."
"Bogs?" Ron asked with a smirk. "Then you're definitely the one to send after it. Practically your area of expertise."
"What about the when?" Hermione asked to redirect them to the point of the meeting and avoid another spat. "He said midsummer, so… did he mean June 23rd?"
"Can't afford to chance it," Draco replied. He could have been talking about the solstice or anytime throughout July. We should let Bill and Remus know when we need them. We'll leave on the 12th after N.E.W.T.s and O.W.L.s sit and stay until we find something or the first few days of August."
"You can't miss graduation," Hermione nearly shouted. "It's the culmination of the last seven years of our lives. We're expected to make speeches and—"
"You'll do fine on your own, Granger. This is more important than school."
"More important than school?! Potter, just because you're afraid—"
"—It's no reason to run out on me."
"Can we get back to the part where you think I'm afraid."
"I could stand to talk about it a bit," Ron mentioned.
"Come off it you three" Harry broke in. "Look, unless either of you want to put the Order up to a vote, than I'm in charge. Understood?"
Receiving forced nods from each of them, Harry continued, "Now I want Draco at the first meeting of the new Order. We'll have it the afternoon the day after we graduated and you can leave from there."
Grumbling and put off, Draco remained silent and decided it wasn't worth fighting both of them about. Hermione looked a bit pleased at the decision, but managed to keep most of her enjoyment over winning off of her face.
Deciding the silence was a bit heavy, Ron summarized, "So the answer to his clue is the three of you finding the location out somewhere in Ireland sometime over the summer. Great. I can see no flaws or holes in this idea. Nothing against your mate, Draco, but his clue is pretty bloody annoying."
Draco only nodded a bit and moved along, "But then there's the truth. That the Horcrux isn't a person."
"But we already know what they all are," Harry argued. "Not much of a truth."
Hermione had apparently been waiting for this moment. Grabbing a scroll from beside her chair, she knelt and spread it on the table. Pointing at the first of seven columns and moving along as she excitedly rambled, "We can't assume that Harry. This is too important. I agree with Dumbledore that Voldemort would have made seven. The number comes up too often with him and in dark magic in general. The first is obviously the bit that's left in his body. It has to be the last one if we want to stop him for once and all. According the prophesy, you'll destroy that in some final confrontation."
"Or die," Draco added to the substantial discomfort of everyone in the room. Ginny in particular pushed back her fear and waved her hand, motioning for Hermione to continue.
"W—We absolutely know from the fact that it nearly killed Dumbledore that the ring was one of them. We know the same about the cup because of what it… because of Draco being hurt. Given what you saw in Dumbledore's pensieve last year, if the cup was one, than the locket more than likely was as well. The book falls under the same category of 'probably' since he nearly came back to life from it."
"He was in there all right," Ginny stated in as definitive tone as she could. Rubbing her arms as if a chill had snuck into the room, she repeated, "That thing had his soul."
"The next two are possibilities," Hermione remarked. "There was never really any evidence of Nagini being a Horcrux besides Dumbledore's suspicions, but Rasputin mentioned the one 'moving' and we know they travel together. The design book we know he stole and it fits in the timeline. It was missing when he would have had it and it fits the theme of tying to a Founder of the school."
"But we have no clue where it could be," Draco added with a grimace.
"Regular bowl of sunshine you are," Ron shot back.
"You aren't sure about the design book, are you?" Ginny asked.
Hermione nodded and explained, "It's the only one Dumbledore didn't piece together before I picked up his research. I don't… I just can't be certain. I always… I used to worry over the summer about… I worried he created a Horcrux the night he died the first time."
"You thought Harry…" Draco guessed, but faded off for a minute. He watched her swipe a tear away at the very memory of Harry being so tied to Voldemort. "But he didn't. That was Rasputin's truth. And I know we can't be certain, but we can only go with the best information we have."
The awkward silence stretched throughout the room and each felt on far less sure footing than they had been the night beforehand. Even Ginny, who had been only guessing at things was overwhelmed by everything Harry had told her and how much they still weren't certain about. It was, predictably enough, Ron to break the tension by joking, "So, the only real worry for now is not failing all our N.E.W.T.s."
Most of the group chuckled lightly at the joke. Hermione however shot up until her back was straight as a razor with a terrified glint in her eye until Draco leaned forward to gently rub her hand. Turning to him, she smiled softly and the two shared a brief moment staring at the other. As soon as Draco remembered the others in the room, he took his hand away and looked deeply into the unlit fireplace earning a bit of light-hearted laughter from Ron and Harry.
"Come on," Harry joked. "We all know the only person crazy enough for one of you is the other."
The group stayed in the room until dinner working on various assignments for Monday classes until they broke up. The following day, the teachers' absence and strange moods the night before came into focus. March 2nd marked the first day of what was not-so-jokingly referred to by seventh year students as Fifteen Weeks In Hell. It was the push for N.E.W.T.s exams and every professor was determined to cram as much information as possible into their students. It was generally acknowledged in gossip that the entire teaching staff threw 25 galleons into a pool for whichever class garnered Hogwarts the most N.E.W.T.s and on top of that there was a grand 200 galleon pool split evenly from the four Heads of House.
Ron affectionately referred to these few months, "Hermione's Heaven."
The average week consisted of more than a dozen practical spells, several feet of parchment and potions so delicate they sent more than a few trips to the infirmary for class-related mishaps. Seventh year students tended to almost completely disappear into the library or the relative privacy of their bedrooms for study during almost all hours after classes were released. Ron was actually the only seventh year in Gryffindor that insisted on maintaining their normal dinner habits.
The heaviest load obviously fell on the two Head students and Ron more than occasionally insisted that he and Lavender take their rounds for them at least one night each week. Each was buried under the workload for seven classes, prefect meetings, patrols and several other duties Hermione didn't have the heart to delegate. The two often went into the forest with Hagrid hunting for potions ingredients. The grueling fast pace of Slughorn's classes were diminishing the school's stores to some of their lowest levels in more than a dozen years. Of course, they still toiled away on their secret projects with every "free" moment. Never mind their tutoring sessions with students from every other year at the school and even a few seventh years that weren't too shy about asking for help. Of course, Draco was rather picky, only helping Gabrielle and the Slytherins.
"The charm really is important to master," Hermione explained to Regan Malone, a first year Hufflepuff, one evening. "It's the most common unlocking charm you'll ever use and depending of the power of the caster can even counter some O.W.L. level locking charms."
"It's Alohomora, Granger," Draco joked from his spot next to the main fireplace. At a small makeshift table off towards the kitchen, Hermione case an unforgiving glare at the Head Boy. He smirked and returned to glancing over Sarah's potions paper.
The small blonde girl smiled fondly and fiddled with her wand until Draco looked up and said, "A very decent bit of research into the Swelling Solution, Miss Witchett. Our wonderful Professor Slughorn picked a fine extra credit topic. I fully expect you stay a year ahead of the rest of the class or you'll be no better than a Huffl—"
"Hey!" Sarah, Hermione and Regan all exclaimed at the same time.
"This is not the Hogwarts of my youth," he replied with a grin.
A bit of the mystery of how Draco and Hermione were spending their "free" time was shown to Harry and Ron one Saturday afternoon in early May. After Moody's latest DA advanced lesson, which had started off as going over protective charms and nonverbal deflecting fields, but always ended with him and Bill blasting away with every jinx and hex they could think of at the students. The older man had even taking to showing off the type of attack and defensive spells that weren't normally taught until the second year of Auror training.
"Just don't go bragging," Moody chastised loudly. "A Death Eater underestimating what you know might save a weaker wizard's life. So, not something you should be telling every Tom, Dick and Harry, 'bout."
"At least every Tom," Ron whispered to Harry. The two barely had a moment to smile over the jest before Moody yelled a hex neither recognized. As soon as it hit the ground, moss and grass grew around it and vines whipped out at them.
Harry still was bit flustered from the Frendos jinx that he had deflected and nearly sent crashing right through the walls of the Room of Requirement. After the meeting, while most of the members trudged back to their respective dorms, four students started off in another direction.
But Hermione insisted on picking up one of Dumbledore's books on repelling curses, so for the first time the four of them came to an unassuming and plain door on the fifth floor. Hermione simply swept her hand back and forth in front of the door and whispered something under her breath before the door swung open on its own.
"Learning some new locking charms?" Harry asked with a grin.
Hermione blushed a bit and replied, "Actually we did a bit more."
"The door will open for anyone, but only the right person with the correct password will let the room exist behind it," Draco added with a smirk of pure superiority.
Harry and Ron rolled their eyes, but froze in place when the walked into the room. The room was beyond enormous and redefined the idea of the storage closet. The ceiling was higher than a cathedral with light flickering down through the clear windows at the top. It was still a dark and musty room however. The shelves of book reached up towards the sky like young redwoods. Even Hagrid would need ladders to reach most of the collection. Not that he could fit between the narrow rows. The shelves were so tightly packed that no two people could walk side-by-side through them. It diffused the light so much that the room was mostly lost in shadows. Hermione led the way through the stacks, heading pretty much straight forward. A candle floated just over her head to light the way.
"It would take a lifetime to read all these," Harry remarked. "How did he find the time to read them all?"
Hermione's voice was a bit muffled as it carried back to him through the heavy air the room seemed to exude, "We all knew Dumbledore learned a great deal outside of a standard Hogwarts education. It seemed his family had amassed quite the private library over the centuries. And there's a good bit of Muggle, I think, in his lineage. This isn't just wizarding texts, but centuries of priceless muggle texts and writings. This room, which I think he must have moved from some abandoned ancestral home, fueled an independent study that made Dumbledore… well, it made him Dumbledore."
Harry tried to make out several titles, but many of the books were in languages he didn't even recognize, let alone understand. When the stacks finally ended, it was to a circular clearing that held a fireplace surrounded by a pair of large, comfortable-looking chairs.
"There was an amateur potions lab down that way," Draco mentioned while gesturing off to his right. "Although it seemed to be an area he had less interest in them."
Hermione was kneeling next to one of the chairs, looking through piles of books stacked on the floor. From what Harry could see they mostly looked like old Transfiguration and Charms textbooks from dozens of years ago.
"Found it!" she called out with a triumphant grin. Standing the others glanced at the book title, Intuitive Defensive Magic. "This will teach us how to defend against minor attacks to the back or by surprise. I looked through it the other day and I think we could master it in a few weeks. Certainly before the end of the year."
And while they worked on this and other things, the time moved quickly. Harry spent many afternoon and evenings in Bill's office trying to cram every bit of defensive magic the older wizard knew of until they were both straining to think of more things to cover. With three weeks remaining until N.E.W.T.s began, Ron was finally caught up in Charms. It was a fact that no one in the school appreciated more than Lavender, who was able to spend the extra few hours a week working on her Herbology paper and whispering sweet nothings to Neville in the corner of the common room. She often remarked how easily her fifth and final dream diary was coming along. Ron teased her more than once about her charming it pink and the flowers she had blooming around the edges of it. She then remarked that Neville had done that part for her.
But aside from a small incident in potions where Ron splattered most of the room with a Draught of Extended Hunger that left the seven remaining students in that class clamoring around the kitchens for almost the entirety of the next weekend, things weren't too eventful. Luckily, Madam Pomprey was stocked up on Weight Restorative that covered 52-hour periods. The only other mishap was Hermione falling asleep in the library the following Tuesday. By the time Draco went searching for her only a few hours before sunrise, she was broken down in the corner by the Arithmancy section crying.
Kneeling in front of the shaking mass, Draco pushed the hair from her face and asked, "What's the matter, Granger?"
"I… I…It-t-t.. I fell asleep," she forced out between sobs.
Sitting beside her, he pushed the rest of her disheveled hair behind her right ear and remarked calmly, "Aye, that tends to happen every 50 or so hours even to the best of us."
Leaning her head on his shoulder, Hermione smiled a bit and explained, "I know… it's just… I had one of my older nightmares. I failed my Latin class at primary school… in third year."
"You know you aren't six, right Otter?"
"Otter?" she questioned, her wet face popping up and looking at him quizzically.
"It's a cute nickname. It's your patronus." With a shrug of his shoulder, he added, "Who doesn't like the otter? They go well with ferrets."
"No they don't," Hermione laughed while wiping her face dry. "I'm not an otter."
"Well, you aren't a primary student anymore either. Or someone in danger of failing at anything, let alone classwork."
Hermione huffed and leaned back, "It's just an old nightmare that usually hits towards the end of the school year. And then… I woke up and thought I'd be caught out after hours and be the first head girl to get stripped of my badge and surely at least a detention. I… I can't believe I forgot about the hallway to our common room."
Draco stood and took both her hands gently and lifted her to her feet. Rubbing the calluses on her right hand from months of nearly constant writing, he tried to reassure her, "You don't have to be perfect for us to love you."
"Huh… wh-what are you talk…"
"Me, Harry and Ron and the Weaslette and all the others will love you if you're the best in your class or the last. I've never met them, but your parents probably feel the same way. Just so you know."
"I… I know that. I just… fret."
"Well… maybe more than fret, or fret a lot. But I actually meant… you said love."
Hermione's incredibly bright smile shot back the part of Draco that wanted to scoff. Instead it died in his throat and came out a gurgle. Her smile faltered for an instant, so he replied in a whimsical tone, "Well, I'm no Bulgarian Quidditch star."
"No, you aren't Bulgarian," Hermione replied with a grin. Drying her eyes again, Hermione went back to her desk and was about to sit back in front of her book, Advanced Cryptic Numerology. She didn't get halfway down before Draco grabbed her under the armpits and yanked her back up and began shoving her books into her well-worn bag.
Grimacing at him, she explained, "And we'll love you even if you are a nasty, over-bearing, rude, reckless, a—"
"Let's not get so far from love, Granger," Draco interrupted.
She wasn't kicking and screaming, but dragging her feet behind him the entire way back to their room. When Draco threw the bags down and took her hand, she remarked, "We could get a couple more hours in if we used the spell—"
"No. It's a new sleep deprivation spell and it's still got side-effects we haven't documented. Only one night a week until we're sure and given how out of sorts we've both been lately it may be less than that. Aren't you supposed to be the cautious one, Bookworm?"
"What can I say," she whispered, standing on her tiptoes to reach his ear, "you're rubbing off on me. And what did I say about nicknames?"
Crookshanks by now had woken and barely made it into the common room before rubbing around their legs until Hermione picked him up and stroked the back of his neck. Draco simply shook his head and grabbed the cat, setting him on the couch. Pulling her into his room, Draco grinned before continuing into the bathroom to change and called out, "You said that you didn't like 'Otter.' But this seems… more appropriate for you. It fits and…"
"And…" Hermione teased while throwing her crimson pajama top over her head.
Draco popped out wearing yellow and Hermione nearly fell over laughing at the site of the bright splash of yellow sauntering through the dark green and silver colorings of the room.
"Oh what, we always have to stick to House colors? That's it. You're my Bookworm from now on, Granger."
"Good," she remarked simply.
Across the castle that night, Ron and Harry were passed out on the common room couch with their transfiguration notes arranged a bit haphazardly before them. Lavender and Parvati were both asleep soundly in their bedroom. Their dream diaries were, as always, kept close to the bedsides to be filled out before breakfast while the memories were freshest. Neville had actually gone to bed at a decent hour that night. His final Herbology project was a brand new crossbreed of Fanged Geranium and the Cambik vines and that evening he had seen it bloom in greenhouse five where it promptly bit through his dragon-hide gloves and almost took his hand with it, but he hoped the pus from its outer tissue would extend the life of Forgetfulness Potion from hours to weeks. Professor Sprout had called it the best student project she had seen in more than 45 years.
That weekend was the final Hogsmeade weekend of the year and remarked widely as the first time many of the students considered staying back. Of course, Hermione insisted she and Draco go as usual to keep an eye on the younger students.
It was Ron and surprisingly not Ginny who convinced Harry to come when he argued, "We might visit Hogsmeade after graduation, but we have to go as students one last time. It's like a rite of passage."
"It's not a rite of passage," Harry remarked and pulled his best mate to a stop. "Meeting Hagrid and getting my Hogwarts letter was a rite of passage. The Sorting was a rite of passage. Facing Voldemort and surviving, well at least the first of the four times, was a rite of passage. Sitting for the exams—"
"Knock on wood," Ron interrupted. He had heard Dean use the muggle expression a few weeks ago and had taken to using it whenever anyone in his vicinity mentioned anything relating to N.E.W.T. exams.
Harry muttered a bit about how less funny that was every single time Ron said it (127 by Ginny's count) and continued, "Is a rite of passage. But one of more than two dozen trips to Hogsmeade is really not."
"You're right, Harry," Ron said in a drawl that was one of his more frequent attempts to imitate/mock Draco. "We'll stay here."
"Finish our Transfiguration project and the report."
"Maybe go over potions notes with Ferret and get Hermione to look over our notes on household charms when they get back."
"I suppose," Harry noted and though a little off-put by Ron's smile turned around and started back towards the tower.
Ron smiled even wider and shouted, "And you know you can help me with those defensive wards."
Harry paused and turned back. Shaking his head he hopped up a couple steps and didn't stop until he heard, "You know who is going?"
Harry didn't say a word but turned to Ron, who said, "Ginny."
"Umm… good. She can go wherever she wants."
"Good for you, mate. No jealous boyfriend here, aye?"
"You know who told me?" Ron asked rhetorically and a moment later continued, "Michael Corner."
"Didn't you used to call him, Michael?"
Harry shook his head, but held his ground, "This isn't going to work, mate. You're trying to be manipulative. Tell Draco you need more lessons."
Ron held as straight a face as possible and answered, "I suggested that. But then he mentioned something… that I know you better than anyone here. Dean asked me if she was going, too. Neville didn't mention anything about Ginny, but he was on the last carriage and Lavender is going later in the day with Parvati. Colin's going to and man… he's had a thing for my sister since the night of their sorting."
Harry's face looked less annoyed and more angry by the moment. It only got worse when Ron started smiling and he grounded out, "Where's Ginny?"
"She's in a carriage on her way to town. Her… and Luna and… Dean and Colin and… I'm not sure if Michael is in that carriage or if he jumped in the next one. So… we're going to Hogsmeade?"
Harry began walking towards Ron and repeated, "We're going to Hogsmeade."
"Stop hanging out with my brother," Harry shot out when he walked past Ron.
The brief respite from the grinding of the school year was appreciated, but of course seemed all to brief in the end. Poor Ron was almost sniffling looking back at Honeydukes one final time as the carriage pulled away. Next to him Luna was leaning against him and rubbing his back to comfort him while Harry and Ginny sat across the way holding down their giggles.
"You can come back in a couple weeks mate," Harry mentioned.
Ron glared at the two of them a bit, but softened his gaze when Luna mentioned, "It isn't the same if he's all grown up."
"Ron, you've been 18 for a bit now, you haven't been a little child in a while… even if you do act it on occasion," Ginny explained.
Ron simply huffed and leaned back into his own girlfriend and content in the knowledge that at least one person understood how he was feeling. Growing up was about how he felt about himself and had nothing if not less to do with age or a law saying you were old enough. For him being a Hogwarts student had given him a bit of extra time to be as excited in childish and simple wonderful things than adults could. Now the simple things were slipping away.
Reflection is easier with time and the seventh year students at Hogwarts had none of that. One more sleepless week and the week of final projects and papers before N.E.W.T.s had arrived. Monday started off with Transfiguration, which went well enough. The third group called on things went well-enough for Ron and Harry when the former turned the later into a large vase for five minutes and they received a bit of applause when Harry transfigured his partner into a bookshelf for the remainder of class. But the biggest surprise was Hermione and Draco missing the period. When Harry raced up to their dorm immediately afterwards (Ron was slightly delayed, digging books out from under his robes and shirt), Draco remarked, "Our project and N.E.W.T.s sitting took place yesterday."
"We're bearing a lot Harry, just some alterations to our schedule McGonagall was good enough to help with."
The fact that Hermione wouldn't look up from her desk while Draco was giving the explanation with a perfectly straight face convinced Harry there was something more to it. Obviously, the gifted liar was telling him something while the open-faced and hearted girl he knew for seven years couldn't bear to look him in the face. For now he let it slide and the fact was almost forgotten by the time Wednesday rolled around.
It was the day the Herbology projects were turned in and not a one of them came close to Neville's. Draco seemed especially disgruntled that his Vampiric Venus Fly plant hardly had fangs at all. His mood didn't rebound until Friday afternoon when his paper on dragon-breeding bested both Hermione and Neville's final efforts in Care of Magical Creatures. The praise Hagrid had offered on such good work on a very, very important topic had the auburn-haired lad smiling with a familiar superior attitude around Hermione the rest of the weekend. Even what was coming Monday didn't dampen his spirits. And though the castle seemed in an uproar, all the magic from every student in Harry's class couldn't prevent the sun from rising on Monday and the assembly that morning in the Great Hall with McGonagall and Griselda Marchbanks standing right up front.
Speaking loudly enough for all to hear without any magical amplification, Marchbanks explained the schedule that would effectively be a repeat of their O.W.L. exams two years previous.
"Grading however, runs a bit differently," Marchbanks called out, grabbing the attention of every student present. "Since these grades are so very crucial in whatever career applications you may be filling for in the next few months, grades will magically appear next to the class name on your schedule within three hours of completion. The same grades are sent to Ministry records and that House count your professors think they're getting away with being smart having up in the teacher's lounge."
McGonagall actually colored a bit at the notice. Acting-Headmistress or not, she had still been the Head of Gryffindor for half the school year and held hope they would again do her proud this year.
Harry glanced at his own schedule with one exam on each day of the week. Today was Defense Against the Dark Arts followed in order by Transfiguration, Charms, Herbology and Potions. Quickly looking to either side he saw Ron bore the same schedule, while Hermione would be in all the same exams except Transfiguration while also sitting in the Ancient Runes exam later in the day and Arithmancy the next day. The busy-haired girl was smiling widely and glancing towards the Slytherin table at Draco and Harry saw the gold, glowing O next to Transfigurations and while he couldn't say he was surprised, Harry was certainly curious.
By the end of the first day, it was evident this would be a class remembered for stellar work in Defense. Despite the fact only 13 students remained to sit for the exam, every single one passed. Less than three hours after Harry repelled a slicing jinx that amplified and nearly took Professor Tofty's head off, the results appeared in the middle of supper; eight Acceptables, three Exceeds Expectations and two Outstandings. Harry pulled his schedule out to see the expected O. It seemed Gryffindor carried all three of the E's and a glance to a smug face across the Hall confirmed where the other O was.
As hard as the exams had been two years previous, these were far more difficult, but now Harry seemed to move through them with a practiced ease. Even if he worried a bit about Potions hurting his chances to become an Auror, there were bigger things on his horizon. Talk of war may have quieted, but there wasn't some delusion calm settling over people like before. The inevitable was coming, Draco's spies and Moody's contact at the Aurors… well the new Army, confirmed what everyone knew. Europe was just about abandoned by the wizarding community, England was well and truly an island. There wouldn't be any Auror training for Harry and Ron… at least until this was over.
Not that he wasn't pleased when his first two potions on Friday, the Draught of Living Death and the Laus Potion were declared, "textbook, well enough I suppose" and his final Renommee Elixir was "spot on." But regardless of the final scores, there was still graduation and the meeting ahead of him, weighing just as heavily on his mind and he paid less and less attention as the week went on to the count of everyone's N.E.W.T. totals… no he had Hermione for that.
Of course, she managed to, despite her own constant misgivings and certainty she was a step away from expulsion, perform outstanding. She even broke out of her mad book-reading funk once or twice thanks to Draco, who along with Harry and Ron managed to keep her relatively calm. At the end of the week, she had wrapped up six Outstandings and a single Exceeds Expectation. Draco, alone, earned his House four Outstandings, Exceed Expectation in both Care of Magical Creatures and Ancient Runes and an Acceptable in Herbology. Harry ended up passing his final four classes with a pair of Exceeds Expectations and a pair of Acceptables, while Ron passed as well, though with a pair of Exceeds Expectation in Defense and Transfiguration and three Acceptables.
The night after the final exam Draco dragged Hermione away from reading in Dumbledore's library and practically tossed her into Gryffindor Tower for an impromptu celebration party organized by Ginny and a few of the other D.A. members.
"Granger, you could have practically won House honors on your own," Draco argued as he pulled her smaller frame down the stairs. "Besides I know how much you want one last night in your silly tower."
"It isn't silly, Potter! And as if a dungeon is any better, some grimy, icky, probably infested with disease—"
"Nothing wrong with being on the bottom," Draco teased with a smirk, smacking her rump. "Besides, we both can have a night with our mates before graduation. Of course, you do have some that are older than thirteen…"
Hermione froze in her tracks at the mention of graduation and threw the hand Draco wasn't holding over her mouth, muttering, "Oh, bugger."
After Draco came to a stop and offered a questioning look, she explained, "With all the… the… I forgot…"
"I forgot to do a third draft of our speech!"
Draco managed to hold a steady face for about three seconds before spurts of laughter forced their way out. A swift punch to his stomach hurt like hell, but didn't stop him.
"Put a sock in it, Potter. You want to look a fool tomorrow in front of the staff, the Minister and the other seventh years—"
"All eighteen of them," Draco mentioned, pulling a sullen expression onto her face.
It only grew worse when she stumbled over the name of the final group, "the fam-lies."
Draco held a tight smile and took her arm again, rubbing it slowly. The Minister had long considered the Hogwarts graduation a prime target for Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Various steps had been taken to discourage sparking a new attack. A platoon of soldiers, all decorated Aurors would be on hand for security. In addition to the protective wards that had surrounded Hogwarts for as long as most people could remember, Ministry-approved anti-apparation wards were extended over the surrounding area, including Hogsmeade. And finally the parents of muggleborns students would not be allowed to attend. It was considered too much of a risk and made too good of a target considering the Death Eaters feelings on the matter.
Draco thought about reminding her about the optional ceremony at the Ministry later in the summer. He swallowed his own objection. Hermione had been one of the first to refuse. She wouldn't accept being handed some special treatment when she had worked for and earned the same ceremony and the same memories as every other student.
"You'll be okay?"
Hermione dried her eyes and moved to continue down the stairs, "Of course. I see them right after; that night."
"I thought you wanted to take me on some outing."
"We commoners call them dates, Potter. And I do. I want them to meet you before you go away."
As Hermione continued towards Gryffindor Tower, Draco froze in his tracks. Shaking his head, he muttered, "Bloody hell."