A big thank you to everyone who's ever written a review for this story and helped it hit the magic 1,000 mark. I've been writing this story for nearly two years now (to think that when I started it was going to be 10 short chapters long and finished in a month!), before that I was working on Faultlines for 18 months and Six Foot of Ginger Idiot for another 18 months before that. Sometimes it feels as though I have practically no life outside of this virtual one, and certainly with this story there have been several times that I've been heartily sick of it. I can honestly say that if it weren't for your reviews and encouragement I would have given up a long time ago, so thank you.
Anyway, Chapter 19: It's been fun reading all your ideas about this chapter, and I'm especially happy to say that no-one guessed what it was about. I've wanted to write this scene for four years, ever since Ron makes an offhand reference to it in Chapter 4 of SFOGI. So, if you were expecting the whole Lavender debacle to kick off, sorry, but you'll have to wait just a little longer. This one's for me.
So here it is; my new favourite chapter. I loved writing this one, and I hope you enjoy reading it just as much.
Pinky Brown, 3rd October 2010
Chapter Nineteen: Leaves
"Ron. Ron. RON!"
His eyes flew open and he blinked at the sight of Harry and Hermione sitting peering at him as though he was sickening for something.
Harry started to laugh, but Hermione just looked reproachful. "You fell asleep again."
"Your eyes were closed."
"I wasn't asleep! I was just... resting my eyes…" he finished, lamely.
"You were asleep," she told him, crisply. "I said your name about ten times before you heard me. And besides, you were snoring."
Ron flushed crimson. "Well, I'm sorry my snoring disturbed you!" he retorted defensively.
"Maybe you should go back to bed," suggested Harry, helpfully.
"I can't go to bed, I've got to write this essay, it's due in on Monday!"
"And how are you getting on with that?" asked Hermione.
He glanced down at the mostly blank page in front of him. "Um… yeah, alright."
"Really? Because from here it looks as though all you've done is write your name at the top of the page."
Ron glared at her, but before he could even open his mouth to reply, she went on, "You know what you need?"
"Ten hours sleep?"
"No... well, yes, but -"
"The ability to save goals?"
Hermione ignored him. "Fresh air. A change of scene will work wonders."
"I really don't…" he started to protest, but she eased the book from his hands, closed it firmly, and put it down on the desk behind her out of reach.
"But... what about your essay?" he protested weakly.
"Well, that's what Sunday's for!" she said briskly. "It won't hurt me to take a few hours off, will it?" She got to her feet and started gathering up her things. "Meet me in the front entrance in five minutes."
"On second thoughts, better make it fifteen; there's something I need to do first."
She hauled her bag onto her shoulder and turned to go. "Oh, and make sure you wrap up warm, it looks cold out there."
And with that she was gone, and Ron and Harry gaped at each other in utter amazement.
"What just happened?" asked Ron, weakly.
"I've absolutely no idea."
"Do you think she's cracked?"
Harry started to laugh. "Maybe you've finally worn her down, mate."
Ron shook his head in silent wonder. "I'm still asleep, aren't I? This is all a dream."
"I can pinch you if you like."
"No, you're alright."
They both laughed, but Ron's smile soon faded. He felt a stirring of excitement that he quickly pushed down. The thought of spending a couple of hours alone with just Hermione, out in the grounds with no-one else around... He dismissed it at once; they were just going for a walk, and anyway, it was lunchtime soon, so it wouldn't be a very long one. Still… opportunities to spend time with her were few and far between. Even if he was practically dead on his feet and hardly in any condition to take advantage of any opportunities that might arise.
Half an hour later he was kicking his heels impatiently in the entrance hall when Hermione arrived.
"Sorry I'm late," she said breathlessly, smiling at him. "Took a bit longer than I expected."
Ron just shrugged. If he had been more awake he might have made a joke about there being a long queue to return books at the library, but just managing to put one foot in front of the other was about his level at the moment.
She pushed open the front door and Ron winced and recoiled as bright sunlight flooded into the hallway.
"What a beautiful day!" she exclaimed happily, stepping out into the light and breathing in a deep lungful of the chilly October air. "Now wasn't this a good idea?"
"Mm," said Ron, following her and closing the door behind them. "So where are we going?"
"I thought just around the grounds. It doesn't really matter where we go, does it?"
He shrugged. "No, I suppose not."
They started walking slowly down the path that led to the grounds. They didn't have much to say to one another at first, both feeling rather nervous about the day ahead and being completely alone with the other. Away from Harry, away from the castle, away from everyone. Anything might happen. There was hope and excitement, and fear too, although for Ron most of this was masked by a fug of exhaustion. It was several minutes before he was awake enough to even notice what she was wearing.
"So what's with the wellies?"
"Well, I thought with all the rain we've been having lately, it's bound to be really muddy."
"Oh yeah," he mumbled, glancing down at his distinctly not mudproof and very battered old trainers. "I hadn't really thought about that."
She stopped and frowned, following his gaze. "Don't you have any wellies?"
"Well, could you borrow some?"
"In my size?" he joked weakly, then shook his head. "There's an old pair of Bill's I usually use."
"And where are they?"
She laughed. "It's a shame we haven't passed our Apparition tests yet or you could have nipped back to get them."
Ron affected shock. "But nobody can Apparate in the grounds, Hermione!" He shook his head in mock-disbelief. "Honestly, woman, haven't you read 'Hogwarts: A History'?"
She shoved him in the arm and they both laughed.
"Look," she teased slyly, gesturing at their clothes, "We're colour-coordinated!"
Ron made a face. "Sort of."
"Well, we've both got brown coats on, your trousers are brown, so's my skirt..."
"My scarf's orange, my jumper's maroon, your boots are red…"
"Exactly! All the colours of Autumn! We're camouflaged against the leaves! Nobody will be able to see us from the castle!" she added, gleefully.
"I think they'll be able to see your wellies. And my hair."
"My wellies, maybe, but your hair's the exact colour of the leaves. If you stood against that tree, you'd be invisible!"
"If I stood against that tree, I'd be dead," said Ron dryly. "It's the Whomping Willow."
Hermione gave a loud shriek and pulled him away out of range of the tree's lethal branches. They hurried down the hillside, laughing. Following behind, Hermione watched his shoes slipping and sliding about on the wet leaves and wondered if she dared suggest he might be steadier on his feet if they linked arms. But the path was narrow and uneven and if they did that, they'd probably both go flying. Not that would necessarily be a bad thing, of course… She imagined them arriving back at the castle at dusk, their clothes caked with mud and leaves in their hair. What would people think? Well she knew exactly what they would think, and she was quite happy to have them think it. Especially if it were true.
Away from the protection of the castle, the wind whipped up and blew their hair into their faces and nearly knocked them off their feet. Hermione's hair was blowing about so much she had to hold it back off her face with both hands, which made Ron laugh.
"Enjoying all the lovely fresh air, are you?" he shouted over the wind.
"Very much!" she shouted back. Ever-practical, she untied her scarf from around her neck and attempted to fashion a makeshift headscarf out of it, which only made him laugh even more.
"You look like somebody's gran!"
"At least my ears are warm!" she shot back, although after a few minutes she surreptitiously removed the scarf and tied it around her neck again.
Ron watched her out of the corner of his eye, struggling to control her hair in the wind. She was all windswept and ruddy-faced and breathless, and the sight of her did all sorts of things to his insides. Even the wellies were surprisingly sexy. She was in her element out here and he wished he felt more awake so he could match her enthusiasm. She kept stopping and swooping down to pick up ever more vibrantly coloured leaves. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold and the exertion of walking, and her eyes were shining with joy. The impulse to take her face in his hands and kiss her was so strong he took an involuntary step backwards, narrowly avoiding stepping into a large patch of thistles.
"Look at this one, Ron!" she exclaimed excitedly, "Look at the colours! Aren't they amazing?"
You're amazing, he thought to himself.
"All the oranges and yellows and reds... they're so beautiful..."
She straightened up again and smiled at him happily. "Oh, it's such a perfect day! Aren't you glad you came?"
His breath seemed to catch in his throat. "Yes," he said huskily.
She glanced up at him with a frown. "I hope you're not getting a cold."
"You sound as though you might be coming down with something. You have been very run-down lately. Maybe this was a bad idea -"
"No!" he interrupted hastily, "It's a great idea! It's just what I needed! Lovely fresh aaargh!"
His foot slipped on the wet leaves, and he skidded a few feet, his arms windmilling madly, and sat down hard in a pile of leaf mulch.
It was such a perfectly executed fall that she couldn't help laughing.
Ron jumped quickly to his feet and dusted himself down. "It's these bloody shoes," he muttered, his face crimson with embarrassment. "No grip."
Hermione was now laughing so much she could barely speak.
"Yes, very funny," said Ron, dryly. "Go ahead and laugh, don't mind me."
"I'm sorry," she spluttered, valiantly attempting to regain her composure. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," said Ron, watching her with a half-resigned, half-amused expression. "Just a bit embarrassed."
She was laughing so much she started to cough, and Ron gave her a helpful couple of whacks between the shoulder blades.
"Ooh, I don't like the sound of that cough," he said with feigned concern. "I do hope you're not coming down with something."
Hermione gave him one of her finest glares. "Very funny."
Ron laughed. "That would be ironic, wouldn't it? All this lovely healthy fresh air, and you come down with a cold."
"Oh, shut up," she retorted. "I am not coming down with a cold."
"Maybe you should have remembered to bring a hat."
"Don't remind me," she groaned, "It's going to take me hours to get all these knots out of my hair!"
Ron had a sudden flashback to that week he'd spent at Hermione's house two years earlier. Sitting on her bed and watching her brush her hair, and wondering why it made him feel so odd. Now, of course, he knew exactly why. The urge to reach up and touch her hair, her face, her lips came back stronger than ever.
"Come on," he said, rather gruffly, "Are we going for this walk or what?"
They walked over the hills for an hour or so, talking and laughing, then Ron stopped and glanced at his watch.
"I suppose we should probably be getting back soon."
Hermione did not even attempt to conceal her disappointment. "Already?"
He gave an apologetic shrug. "Well, it's nearly lunchtime. If we don't go back soon we'll miss lunch."
"Oh, I don't mind," she said, waving a dismissive hand. "I'm not really hungry, to be honest. Shall we go down to the lake?"
She started walking on again, and Ron stared after her, torn between wanting to follow her and the needs of his stomach.
After a few yards she turned around, looking puzzled. "Aren't you coming?"
Ron let out a soft moan. It looked as though she was going to win this one. "Okay," he said, weakly.
She glanced up at him as though considering him for the first time. "Why, are you hungry?"
"I could eat something," said Ron, dryly.
"Well, don't you have any biscuits in your pockets or something?"
"No," said Ron, through gritted teeth, "The only things in my pockets are holes."
"Well -" began Hermione and then stopped, leaving him hanging for her decision for almost a minute until she could stand it no longer. "Well, it's a good thing I brought a packed lunch then, isn't it?"
Ron's eyes widened. "Oh, that's evil!" he exclaimed, over her laughter. "Jesus, that's like some special kind of torture. Making me think I'd have to miss lunch."
"Did you really think I would expect you to spend the whole day out here without any food? How long have we known each other?"
He shook his head in disbelief. "You know, this has made me see you in a whole new light."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I thought you were a nice girl..."
She laughed delightedly. "I am a nice girl!"
He shook his head solemnly. "No. You're pure evil. This whole top-of-the-class, wannabe Head Girl thing's just a front, isn't it? Underneath it all there's a very bad girl waiting to get out."
"Yes," she said sternly, "Absolutely right. So you'd better be nice to me today, or who knows what I might do?"
"Prefects can't put other prefects in detention," he reminded her.
"Who's talking about detention? I can legally hex you now, remember?"
"You can't. I'm still underage. It's illegal to hex someone who's underage."
She gestured around the empty hillside. "Who would know?"
Ron laughed and held up his hands in mock-defence. "Okay, okay, I'm officially scared now!"
"You should be."
They grinned at each other for slightly too long, then Hermione turned away from him, her cheeks feeling flushed and warm.
"Let's find a rock to sit on," she suggested. "The ground looks a bit damp."
"Okay." He glanced around quickly. "What about that one?"
She shook her head. "It looks a bit small."
"I could sit on your lap."
Hermione was so surprised she burst out laughing. "Shouldn't it be the other way around?"
He shrugged, and grinned. "My legs are too bony to sit on. You look like you'd be more comfortable."
"For you, maybe."
"Well, yeah. That's what I meant."
She shoved him and they both laughed.
They made their way down to the edge of the lake, where there was a large flattish rock popular in the summer for student picnics.
"I can't believe you bought a packed lunch," said Ron, sitting down and watching her shrug the rucksack off her shoulders.
"Why do you think it took me half an hour to get ready? What did you think I was doing?"
He shrugged. "Taking a book back to the library?"
She smacked his arm and they both laughed, and then grinned at each other.
"So what did you bring?"
"Wait and see."
Hermione flushed. She knew he hadn't meant it like that, but still…
"Oh, wow!" exclaimed Ron, as she unloaded the rucksack. "I thought when you said you'd brought food you just meant sandwiches, but there's a whole picnic in here! Ham sandwiches, pork pies, fruit cake…"
She laughed. "Well, I thought we might be out here all day, so…"
Hoped, more like it.
"This is brilliant," said Ron happily, biting into a pork pie. "You're brilliant. Where did you get all this stuff from anyway?"
"Hmm? Oh, the kitchens."
"The kitchens?" he repeated, rather stunned. "You never go to the kitchens. You always say it's the secret shame of the school."
"Yes, well," she said, stiffly, "I did offer to make our own sandwiches, but you know what the House Elves are like; they wouldn't let me. They didn't want me there at all, actually. Said they were far too busy preparing lunch to make special exceptions. Made it quite clear I was just in the way." She shook her head sadly. "I don't think they've forgiven me for my SPEW campaign yet."
"I'm sure that's not true," said Ron, uneasily. "They were probably just busy, like they said."
"No," she insisted. "It's more than that. Dobby's the only one who can even look me in the eye. And even then, he's obviously really embarrassed and ashamed to even be seen talking to me. As soon as I told them it was for you, though, they couldn't have been more helpful. They love you. They all call you Mister Wheezy, like Dobby does. Kept bringing over things you'd like. Mister Wheezy likes fruit cake. Mister Wheezy likes ham sandwiches."
Ron laughed, then stopped at her reproachful look. "Sorry."
"It's not your fault if they don't like me. I was only trying to help them. I don't understand why they can't see that."
"It's just how they are. They exist to serve. If they're not helping people, they don't know what to do with themselves. It's their whole reason for living. You saw what happened to Winky when she lost her job -"
"It's not a job, Ron, its slave labour!"
He gave a helpless shrug. "Look, you meant well, that's the main thing. At least you can say you tried."
"Oh, I'm not giving up, she said, briskly, "I'm going to help free them whether they like it or not!"
Ron said nothing. What was the point? They were never going to agree on this one. "Do you want a pork pie?" he asked.
She shook her head, and they fell into silence. Ron watched her rifle through the bag and bring out something made of brightly coloured plastic that he didn't recognise as food.
"What's that?" he asked, curiously.
"It's a flask."
He gave her a blank stare.
"It's a Muggle invention to keep drinks hot. Look, if you take the lid off, it's a cup!"
Ron looked awestruck. "That's the most brilliant thing I've ever seen."
She laughed. "I suppose they are quite good. They've been around for years so I've always taken them for granted."
"Where did you find it?"
"In the kitchens, of course."
"The school kitchens?"
"What was it doing there?"
"I've absolutely no idea!" she laughed. "But don't complain, because thanks to the wonders of Muggle technology, we can have tea."
He laughed too. "Believe me, I'm not. I'm just wondering if they'd notice if we didn't bring it back."
She set out the plastic cup-that-was-also-a-lid on the uneven surface of the rock and put the flask down beside it, fishing in her bag for something.
Ron watched this little ceremony with interest. "What are you looking for, the tea strainer?"
She laughed, and pulled out a second non-matching china cup she had borrowed from the kitchens. "We don't need one, it's got a built-in strainer in the neck, see?"
"It's a work of genius," said Ron, shaking his head in wonder. "My Dad's right; Muggles are amazing."
She smiled at him, and then carefully poured out the tea.
"Which cup do you want?"
Ron pointed at the little plastic one, and she laughed, and even more so when he started drinking from it, as it looked rather odd in his large hand.
"You put sugar in it," he observed after a few moments, with a frown.
"Yes, I know. Six sugars, actually, because it's a big flask."
"But you don't take sugar."
She shrugged. "Yes, but you do. Anyway, I don't mind. It's rather nice to have sweet tea on a cold day like today. Gives me a bit of energy for climbing all these hills!"
Ron shook his head with a wry smile. "What would your mum and dad say?"
"They'd disown me. No, they're not that bad. We do sometimes eat things with sugar in, you know."
"Yeah…" said Ron, dryly, "Fruit doesn't count."
"We have cake sometimes, on special occasions. And yogurt."
"Yogurt!" exclaimed Ron, laughing. "Wow, you do like to live dangerously."
"Oh shut up," she laughed, reddening. "They're really not that bad. If you must know, Mum drinks a lot of white wine, and that's full of sugar."
"I like your mum," chuckled Ron.
"She likes you, too."
Ron was rather taken aback. "She does?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't she?"
"She said that?"
"Yes, of course. I asked them what they thought, after you left. Dad likes you too."
"Oh," said Ron. Hermione's parents liked him. That was rather a weird feeling. Of course, it didn't really matter whether they liked him or not, unless... well, it didn't matter, that was all. He wondered if they would still like him if they knew some of the things he thought about their daughter. Or some of the things he did while thinking about her.
"You make a nice cup of tea," he said aloud.
"It's only tea!"
"Yeah, but not everyone can make a good cup."
"You mean, not everyone makes it the way you like it," she pointed out.
He chuckled. "Very strong and very sweet, you mean. Yeah, that's true. But some people are still rubbish at it. Fleur can't make a decent cup of tea to save her life," he added with relish.
It was ridiculous to feel pleased that she was better at something as trivial as making tea than Fleur Delacour, but Hermione couldn't help feeling just a little bit smug regardless. She sipped her very strong, very sweet tea and bit back a smile.
"Do you know what would make this perfect?" Ron suddenly asked.
A small jolt went through her. She knew what would make this moment perfect for her. "What?" she asked, tentatively.
She shoved him and he laughed, and she did too.
"Well, actually…" she teased.
"You've brought biscuits?" exclaimed Ron, impressed.
She shook her head solemnly. "Well, I was going to, but they only had chocolate ones, and I remembered you said that custard creams were your favourites…"
"Oh," said Ron, disappointed. He cursed himself silently. "Oh, okay."
And then he caught sight of the mischievous smile on her face.
"Oh, you -"
Hermione burst out laughing. "I can't believe you fell for that!"
"Very funny," said Ron, but he couldn't help laughing too. "I suppose I deserved that."
"Yes, you did," she smiled, "And as it happens..." She reached into the bag and produced half a packet of chocolate biscuits with a flourish.
"You're brilliant," said Ron, shaking his head in awe.
She felt her face heat up. "It's only biscuits."
"Yeah, and the tea, and the sandwiches, and the cake... you really thought of everything," he added, admiringly.
They beamed at each other for a moment, then she looked away quickly. "You know what else I can't believe?"
"I can't believe you didn't ask me what was in the bag."
He chuckled. "Well, in case you hadn't noticed, I wasn't exactly with it earlier. It's pretty much a miracle I'm wearing matching shoes, to be honest..."
They both glanced down at his feet to make sure and laughed. Ron's trainers were so encrusted with mud it was hard to tell whether they were matching or not.
"I mean, didn't you even wonder what was in that massive rucksack?"
He shrugged. "Didn't even occur to me. I suppose if I'd thought about it I'd probably just have assumed it was books."
"Books?" she exclaimed, laughing. "Why would I bring books on a country walk?"
He laughed too. "I dunno, do I? Same reason you take them everywhere else."
"What, in case I get bored listening to you talk about Quidditch?" she said teasingly.
Ron feigned outrage. "Surely that's impossible!"
They both laughed.
"I don't really mean that by the way," she added quickly. "You know you can talk to me about anything, don't you?"
"Oh, yeah," said Ron, privately thinking that hell would freeze over before he ever discussed certain matters with Hermione. "'Course!"
They grinned at each other and returned to their tea, enjoying the view and the company and the peace of it all.
"This is nice," said Ron. "You were right, the fresh air really helps. Thanks."
"You're welcome," she smiled back.
Ron sipped his tea and gazed out at the dark lake and suddenly remembered sitting here last year - almost exactly a year ago in fact - miserable in the snow after that first disastrous match against Slytherin, staring into the water and considering drowning himself in the icy depths. The first match of the season was only a few weeks away. He really hoped that history wasn't going to repeat itself.
Hermione glanced sideways and frowned. Ron was looking rather pensive.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked, hopefully.
He made a face. "Quidditch, what else?"
Of course, thought Hermione, resignedly, then mentally scolded herself.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she offered.
Ron continued to stare out at the lake for quite some time. Finally, he turned to her and shook his head. "Do you know what? I really don't. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to think about it. I'd actually quite like to pretend, just for today, that it doesn't exist. Is that alright with you?"
"I think I can manage that," she smiled.
Ron looked rather sheepish. "Sorry."
"Well, you must be sick of hearing about it by now."
She shook her head. "Don't be silly," she told him, beaming. "That's what friends are for, isn't it?"
Ron nodded, but inwardly felt as though he had been punched. Friends, yeah. People didn't think about kissing their friends, did they? They certainly didn't act on it. And it was a nice afternoon, and it was good to get away from the castle and especially to get to spend so much time with just Hermione… If he said anything now, or made some kind of move… she'd probably freak out or burst into tears or slap him or run off screaming. Things would be horribly awkward between them for ages. It wasn't something you could easily explain away, after all. You couldn't accidentally kiss someone. You had to want to do it. You had to have been thinking about it beforehand. She'd know he'd been having those kinds of thoughts about her, and that would be utterly mortifying. She might find it impossible to be friends with him knowing how he felt about her. She might stop hanging around with him and start looking for some new friends to hang around with instead. It would ruin everything.
"How cold do you reckon that lake is?" he asked aloud.
"Why, are you thinking of going swimming?" joked Hermione.
"I will if you will," he flashed back.
"Oh, what a shame. You know I'd love to, but I haven't got my swimming costume with me. Damn!"
The corners of Ron's mouth twitched slightly. "Who said anything about wearing a costume?"
She affected outrage and slapped his arm.
"What?" said Ron, innocently. "I only meant go in with our clothes on. What did you think I meant?" He shook his head. "Honestly, woman, your mind!"
Hermione smacked his arm again, her face crimson with heat, and they both laughed. She wondered what he would do if she called his bluff and took him up on his implied offer to go skinny-dipping. Of course, she was never going to find out. She wasn't that kind of girl. She highly doubted she would ever be that kind of girl. But she could pretend to be…
"Fine!" she exclaimed, and she jumped to her feet and started to unbelt her coat. "Remember I said I was going to surprise you sometime?"
Ron's eyes widened and he made an odd kind of noise which might have been protest or encouragement.
She closed her coat again hurriedly. "Honestly, your face! You didn't really think I was actually going to do it, did you?"
"Course not!" said Ron, hastily. He heard himself give a strangled sort of laugh. "What, with all those Grindylows swimming about? You'd have to be barking mad to go in there!"
Hermione put her hands on hips in pretend outrage. "Are you saying I'm too sensible and boring to do something like that?"
"Yes, said Ron promptly, "But if you are, then so am I. I wouldn't even go in there in fur robes, let alone starkers. Once was quite enough, thanks very much. I mean, can you believe they let us go in there in February?"
She laughed, and was very grateful he had moved the subject on from skinny dipping.
"I can't believe they let us go in there at all. I mean, when you think about it, there were so many things that could have gone wrong. What if we'd woken up underwater before anyone could get to us? We would have drowned!"
Ron shrugged. "But we didn't."
"But we could have! There wasn't anyone there with us to supervise, was there? The Champions were all of age - apart from Harry - but we weren't. Three fifteen year olds and a little girl left there on their own for over an hour. Actually, you were still fourteen, weren't you?"
"Yeah, but only for another couple of weeks."
"Still… I can't imagine that happening at my old school. There'd be an outcry. They'd shut it down!"
"Well, yeah," said Ron, who rather felt this was stating the obvious, "But they probably wouldn't have held a tournament involving fire-breathing dragons at your old school, either."
Hermione laughed. "Fair point. I suppose it's not really a fair comparison. But I still say it could have been handled better. And imagine telling Harry and the others that if they didn't return within the hour, they'd lose us for good! What an awful thing to tell someone! Harry was well outside of the hour too, wasn't he? God knows what he must have thought. That we'd all drown, I suppose."
"Yeah, but that's ridiculous. As if they'd let something like that happen!"
"I suppose it's just because he was brought up by Muggles. You'd take it for granted that there was a magical way to keep everyone safe, Harry took them at their word." She shook her head. "I can't believe that was all nearly two years ago."
"Feels like longer," he said.
"It does," she agreed. "So much has happened since, I suppose. Cedric, Sirius… the Ministry..."
They fell into silence, remembering. Hermione hugged her arms around her body and gazed out at the lake, not feeling quite comfortable enough to sit down beside him again just yet.
"I will though," she said softly.
She flushed. She hadn't meant to say that out loud. "Surprise you sometime."
You already have, he thought to himself. Several times today already.
"Fine," he said aloud. He pretended to be stricken with an awful thought. "You're not going to push me in the lake, are you?"
She laughed. "No! It's not that kind of a surprise!"
"You sound like you already know what it is," observed Ron, with unusual shrewdness.
"Don't be silly," said Hermione, lightly. "If I knew what it was, how would it be a surprise?"
She sat down beside him again and shot him a quick sideways glance. His hands were shoved deep in his pockets for warmth and he was gazing out at the lake with a slight frown. She was suddenly seized with an almost overwhelming desire to lean across and kiss him. Just on the cheek, but in her head she imagined him turning his face toward her in surprise and them both just knowing what was going to happen, leaning in and… Could she do it? Did she dare? When was she ever going to get another opportunity like this again, with both of them in a good mood and with no Harry or anyone else around? Or she could just reach out and take his hand in hers. There was no way he could misinterpret that, was there?
Her heart beating wildly in her chest, she lay back on the rock and lifted her gaze to the clouds scudding across the bright sky above. Turning her head slightly she could see his profile silhouetted against the sky, and willed him to turn and look at her.
"Look at the clouds, Ron!" she exclaimed, brightly.
Ron shot the swiftest of glances skywards and then returned his gaze to the lake. He was acutely aware of her lying down beside him and his whole body tensed in response. He didn't dare lie down next to her, and he didn't dare look around. It was hard enough resisting kissing her when they were standing up. He certainly didn't trust himself not to do something stupid if they were both lying down. Oh, God, this was torture. He jumped quickly to his feet and went and stood a few feet away by the lake, well away from temptation.
Feeling annoyed and more than a little foolish, Hermione sat up again and started to pack away the picnic things with rather more aggression than necessary.
Ron let out a long breath. He could see movement out of the corner of his eye and knew she was sitting up again, but he couldn't go back immediately; it would look really obvious. The image of her unbelting her coat and laughing came unbidden into his head. He closed his eyes and imagined her opening it to reveal that, underneath, she was completely naked but for a pair of bright red wellington boots. And then beckoning him to her with a smile and wrapping her coat around both of them, pressing her naked body against his, tilting her chin upwards, looking into his eyes, and -
Seeking distraction, he leant down and grabbed a fistful of pebbles from the lake shore, hurling them one by one into the water until some of the tension he felt eased. He shot a quick glance back at Hermione, who was busy emptying the dregs of the tea out onto the grass.
Come on, he scolded himself. When are you going to get an opportunity like this again? Do something! Something nice, something impressive, something that might make her start to think of you as more than just a friend.
He glanced around wildly for some flowers or something he could give her - in October, in Scotland! - and then realised he was still clutching one of the stones from the lake. A smooth, flat pebble of grey Scottish granite. A slow smile spread across his face. Perfect! He leant down and washed it carefully in the black water and dried it on his jacket, then, feeling rather pleased with himself, he walked back and held it out to Hermione on the palm of his hand.
Hermione looked back at him blankly, and Ron's hand - and confidence - wavered.
"For your stone collection," he mumbled, feeling his face heat up. "'Cos you said you collected… that's okay, though, if you don't want it... I'll put it back."
"No, I want it! I mean… it's a nice one. Thank you. Thank you!"
She took it from him and put it safely in the pocket of her coat before he could change his mind.
"Anyway," said Ron hurriedly, "Shall we, er…"
"Yes," said Hermione, rather flustered. "Let's!"
"Shall we take the short cut back?" he suggested. "Around the lake and the edge of the forest?"
In reality he just wanted to get back to the castle as quickly as possible before he said or did something else he might regret. His attempt at a big romantic gesture seemed to have gone down like a lead balloon.
"Good idea," she agreed. "I really don't fancy climbing any more hills today. My feet are starting to protest a bit."
"Yeah, it was your poor feet I was thinking of when I suggested it."
"I'm sure it was," she said dryly.
"Listen, you're the one who came out with sensible shoes on. If anyone's feet should be protesting, its mine."
"Rubber wellies are made for splashing through puddles, not climbing hills," she told him. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if I get a blister."
After a few hundred yards they came to an old wooden stile, at the point where the path diverged and veered right, away from the lake and towards the woods. Ron sped up, hoping to get there first and offer her a helping hand to climb down on the other side, but she reached the stile before him and climbed over with ease. Shaking his head at yet another missed opportunity, he followed, only realising when he jumped down on the other side that in front of them lay a field of thick, deep mud so strewn with enormous puddles that it would probably be easier to swim across.
"I could give you a piggy-back if you like," he offered hopefully, but it was too late, she was already striding out purposefully into the mud. He wasn't even sure if she had heard him. He shrugged, gave a resigned little sigh, and ploughed after her, his trainers instantly filling up with freezing, muddy water.
Hermione picked her way through the mud as fast as she dared. Her heart was racing and her cheeks were burning at his words. A piggy-back! What a thing to say! Oh, of course she was being ridiculous, it was just a piggy-back, the sort of thing a father did for his child or a brother for his little sister. It didn't mean anything. He didn't mean anything by it. But still…
She stopped when she reached the far side of the field where the path picked up again and waited for him. She could hear him swearing from thirty metres away.
"Well," announced Ron wryly, as he approached, "I think I've finally killed these shoes."
He pulled out his wand and attempted to dry his sodden shoes, socks and mud-splattered trousers as best he could, but soon gave it up as a bad job. It seemed pointless when they were only going to get muddy again.
They set off along the path to the forest. It was gone three o'clock now and the warmth had gone out of the sun. Hermione shivered, and not just because of the bitter wind. Being so close to the forest always made her feel uneasy and on edge, reminded her of things she would rather forget. But darkness would be falling soon and it was a much quicker and easier route back to the castle.
"I wonder what happened to my dad's car," Ron mused aloud as they approached the trees. "Do you think it's still there?"
Hermione raised a quizzical eyebrow. "What, living wild?"
Ron laughed. "Yeah! Running with the unicorns!"
"I've no idea. Try calling it."
He put his fingers to his lips and gave a piercing whistle and Hermione winced and clamped her hands over her ears. They waited a few moments, but nothing happened.
"Ah, well," shrugged Ron, turning away from the forest and starting to walk on again, "Probably a good thing anyway. Don't want anything attracting the attention of those spiders."
"I suppose not," she agreed. "Shame, though. I'd like to have met the famous car. We could even have gone for a ride in it!"
Ron looked uncertain. "Would you have let me drive you, though?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't I?"
"Well, I dunno, don't Muggles need to pass some sort of test to drive a car? Maybe you'd think it wasn't safe or something."
"What, being driven about a forest in a flying car by someone who only ever drove it once before, aged twelve, and crashed it into a tree? No, that sounds perfectly safe to me."
They both laughed.
"Actually, that's not quite true," Ron pointed out, "I drove it twice. The second time was the following June, so I was thirteen -"
"Oh, well that makes all the difference!"
"- And I drove it into a nest of giant killer spiders. Hmm. On second thoughts, never get in a car with me, Hermione."
"Well… I will… but next time I'll make sure I drive."
"Can you drive?"
She shook her head. "No, and I can't see the point in learning really. In a few months we'll be able to Apparate. Why would I need a car?"
He shrugged. "I dunno, I suppose it's useful if you have kids. We had to go everywhere by Floo Network and it's pretty easy to lose one that way. Fred and George went through a stage of deliberately getting out at the wrong places. Dad had to get the Ministry involved to track them down once. Anyway, I quite like the idea of having a car. You can't see out of the window when you travel by Floo. When I was staying at your house that was the best bit, being driven around the countryside by your Mum and Dad."
"That was the best bit?" she teased, "Charming! So you come to my house for a whole week, I show you the delights of Cambridge, we go to an Italian restaurant and a supermarket, and the thing you liked best was sitting in the car?"
They both laughed.
"Well, I'd never been in one before, had I? Not a proper car being properly driven on roads, anyway."
"A proper car wouldn't have saved you from killer spiders though, would it?"
"No-oo. Ah, it's a shame you can't meet the car. Me and Harry had a real laugh in it..."
She raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"… apart from the time we were being pursued by killer spiders," he conceded, with a grin. "Driving it to Scotland was fantastic, though. The countryside looks amazing from a hundred feet above the ground."
Hermione shuddered at the thought. "I'll take your word for it." She shot him a quick sideways glance then looked down at her feet. "You know, I always thought it was really brave of you to go into the forest after those spiders."
"Not really," he sighed. "Just reckless and stupid."
"Well, I thought it was brave."
He shook his head, although inside he felt very warm all of a sudden. "Nah, it wasn't. Not really. I wouldn't have done it if I'd know what was hiding in there."
"I think you would."
"You do know I threw up afterwards?" he told her, but he was smiling when he said it.
There was a short silence. They beamed at each other then both looked away quickly, rather pink in the face.
"Well, you went into the forest with Harry and Umbridge!" said Ron. "That was pretty bloody brave too. You had no idea what would happen in there or what you might meet."
She laughed. "Yes, exactly! I had no idea what I was doing! What were the words you used again? Oh yes, reckless and stupid!"
They both laughed.
"But a sort of brilliant reckless and stupid," said Ron fervently, and she blushed. "Whereas me with the spiders… that was just 'cos Harry was going in there whatever happened and I couldn't let him go on his own."
"You're a good friend."
He smiled slightly. There was that word again.
"But a terrible team-mate, apparently…"
"Ron," she warned.
"Sorry. Sorry! I know, I promised not to talk about Quidditch."
"Yes, you did," she said severely, "That's the whole point of today."
"So it's your job to distract me?" he teased.
"Yes," she said firmly, blushing a little. "Exactly. It's my job to distract you from Quidditch."
You have no idea how much of a good job you do, thought Ron ironically. That's half the bloody problem.
Hermione started laughing all of a sudden, and he shot her a quizzical look.
"I was just thinking… my Dad driving us about the countryside… 'I expect this is the first time you've ever been in a car, Ron'!"
Ron chuckled. "Yeah, that was sort of hard to explain. 'Actually, Mr. Granger, it's funny you should say that…'"
They both laughed, but Hermione's smile soon faded. She had just realised something important. That week he'd stayed at her house, the first time she'd thought about kissing him; that had been only a couple of weeks after the events at the Shrieking Shack. At the time she'd put it down to teenage hormones, but maybe the shock of nearly losing him that night had made her realise just how much he meant to her, forced those latent feelings to the surface. It made perfect sense.
"You know," she said, in a tremulous voice, "I don't think I've ever been more terrified in my whole life than that moment."
Ron tried to work out where her thought processes might have taken her, then gave up.
"At the Ministry, you mean?"
She shook her head. "I didn't have time to be scared then. And besides, all my friends were with me. No, I meant, the night we first met Sirius. Watching you get dragged off to almost certain death and not being able to do anything about it…" She shivered at the memory. "Harry will tell you; I froze up totally. I couldn't think, couldn't move..."
They looked at each other.
"When Harry and I went down that tunnel after you... it can't have been more than half an hour but it felt like days… not knowing what we would find at the end of it, imagining the worst… I thought… it sounds silly now, but I thought Sirius… the dog, I mean… was going to eat you."
Ron gave a mirthless laugh. "So did I."
"You must have been terrified."
He shrugged. "I suppose. Mostly I was just operating on sheer adrenalin. You know, trying to stay alive long enough for help to arrive. And if you remember, I had a badly broken leg and what felt like a dislocated shoulder from being dragged down that tunnel. It's hard to find time to worry about anything else when you can see your own shin bone sticking out of your leg." He grimaced. "To be honest, I was a lot more scared when my dad was attacked by that snake and we thought he was going to die. That was fucking terrifying. It's a million times worse when it's happening to someone else."
"Exactly," she agreed. "That's how I felt."
"I mean, six hours we sat in that kitchen waiting for news. I don't know how Fred and George could stand it. If I'd been of age and knew how to Apparate you couldn't have stopped me from going up that hospital, I promise you."
"Except that by doing so you could have put Harry in danger," she pointed out gently.
"Yeah, well… I'm not sure that would have stopped me either. When it's your dad…" He tailed off, remembering.
"I wish I'd been there."
"You don't," he said vehemently. "It was the worst night of my life."
That's why I should have been there, she thought.
"Wow, this is depressing," said Ron wryly. "Let's talk about something else, for God's sake."
"Okay. What shall we talk about?"
There was a short silence, then they burst out laughing.
"So now you're of age," grinned Ron, "You'll be able to use magic when you go home for Christmas and freak your parents out."
She laughed. "So I will! I hadn't thought about that! I can levitate the Christmas decorations!"
They both laughed.
"I can't wait 'til I'm of age," enthused Ron, "It's going to be brilliant. I'll go around and Apparate in Fred's bathroom, just to pay him back for all the times he did it to me."
Hermione allowed herself a brief fantasy where she Apparated in the bathroom at the Burrow to find Ron stepping out of the shower, dripping wet and clad only in a very small, very loosely-tied towel. To cover her embarrassment, she joked,
"That's the first thing you're going to do when you get your Apparition licence? You could go anywhere in the country, and you'd Apparate in Fred's bathroom?"
He laughed. "Well, now that you put it like that, it does seem a bit of a waste. So where would you go, then?"
Hermione thought fast, and hoped he wouldn't wonder why her cheeks were so red.
"Well, I don't suppose we'll actually get an opportunity until school's finished in June, so I'd probably Apparate home from King's Cross."
"Why don't you just Apparate home from Hogsmeade?"
"Oh. I don't know. I suppose I just like getting the train home with everyone else. It feels like the proper end of term, you know, saying goodbye to everyone at the station."
"Hey, that's a point; we'll be able to Apparate to each other's houses in the holidays! You can come to Devon for breakfast and I can come to Cambridge for afternoon tea!"
She laughed. "And we can pick Harry up from Surrey on the way!"
"Yeah, we could have a three-county pub crawl! Oh, except Charlie says you should never Apparate while drunk, 'cos you could end up in the middle of the Irish sea."
"We could get the Knight bus."
"We could. Then we could get really drunk and we wouldn't have to worry about getting home!"
"Or if we went out in Cambridge, you could stay at my parents' house."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot you've got a spare room. Me and Harry could toss a coin for who gets the sofa."
"Mm," said Hermione. "Yes, you could."
Or Harry could have the spare room and you could sleep in my bed. With me.
"Oh, this is going to be great," he exclaimed, excitedly. "Why can't we Apparate now? Why do we have to wait 'til June?"
"Where would you go, if we could Apparate now?"
He considered for a moment. "I'd probably nip home and get that pair of wellies."
She burst out laughing and pushed him in the shoulder. "Fine! Well, if you're going to do that, I'll come with you and use your loo."
They both laughed.
"Well, we're practical…"
"And what's wrong with that?"
"Exactly. I mean, we could have decided to go somewhere really exotic…"
"Alright, perhaps exotic's not the right word. Somewhere a bit more interesting for our first Apparition than to your mum's house to use the loo."
"At least we could get a cup of tea."
"More tea? You must have drunk about five cups today already!"
"Yeah, but four of those were in really, really tiny cups..."
"Oh, well, that makes all the difference!"
They both laughed. Ron shot her a quick sideways glance. He liked watching her laughing. It was at times like this that he allowed himself to believe that maybe there was a chance after all, maybe she actually did like him just a little bit. Maybe she wouldn't freak out and run away if he just leant in and -
"Actually…" she smiled, "If I could Apparate anywhere in the world right now, do you know where I'd really like to go?"
"Here?" he repeated, blankly.
"Well, what could be better than a nice walk in the fresh air with my best friend?"
Ron flushed slightly. He certainly couldn't think of anywhere else he'd rather be than wherever Hermione was, and her words made him feel all warm inside and very much as though he would like to tell her so. But then there was that "friend" again… every time he thought that maybe he could actually do something she kept reminding him exactly why he shouldn't. He should stop daydreaming and take the bloody hint.
"Well, it's certainly better than Fred's bathroom," he joked, weakly.
"Oh, thank you!" she exclaimed, "That's damning with faint praise if ever I heard it! So spending the afternoon with me is only marginally more fun than watching Fred have a bath?"
Ron gave a mock-shudder. "Spending the afternoon with Malfoy would be more fun than watching Fred have a bath. Can we change the subject please? I really don't want to think about either of those things, especially since I've just eaten."
She laughed out loud, and Ron felt a wave of warmth course through him.
"You've got a nice laugh," he said, before he could stop himself.
Hermione looked up, startled. "I have?"
Ron flushed. Oh, hell.
"Yeah," he mumbled. "It's, er, nice."
She didn't know what to say. "Oh. Well… thank you."
They walked on in silence for a few paces, Ron cursing himself for having spoken the thought aloud, and racking his brains for a change of subject.
Beside him, Hermione's heart and mind were racing. It felt like an opportunity, a moment where she could say something heartfelt and maybe he might reciprocate.
The thing is, Ron -
The thing is -
The thing is, I -
The thing is; I'm in love with you.
She cleared her throat loudly. "Er, I -"
"Harry seems a lot better, don't you think?"
Hermione did not answer straight away, and Ron took her silence for disagreement.
"You don't think so?"
"Ye-es… sort of. You can never really tell with Harry, though. He bottles a lot of stuff up."
"That's true. You'll think everything's fine, and then three months later he'll blow up at you over something you didn't even realise was a problem."
They exchanged small, understanding smiles.
"He seems a bit happier, though. Although if I have to hear him go on about Malfoy for much longer, I'll start to suspect there's something going on between them."
She laughed. "I can categorically assure that you that Harry is not having some sort of secret affair with Malfoy."
"Good," grinned Ron. "'Cos I can just about cope with Ginny and Dean snogging all over the place, but I really don't want to have to watch Harry mooning over Malfoy."
"Well, I don't think you need to worry about that. I think he's still rather bruised from the Cho Chang business anyway."
"Oh, yeah. I'd almost forgotten about that. God, that seems like years ago, doesn't it?"
"He's well out of it. I mean, she was quite pretty and everything, but God, she was miserable. Who wants a girlfriend who just cries all the time?"
Hermione was reminded of his sister's similar lack of sympathy on the issue.
"Well, to be fair, her last boyfriend had just been murdered..."
"Yeah, but still… Harry's got problems of his own, hasn't he? He needs someone with a bit of oomph to them."
"Oomph?" laughed Hermione.
"Oh, you know what I mean. Someone with a bit of get up and go."
She bit back a smile. "I do know what you mean. Have you got anyone in mind? Maybe you could do a bit of matchmaking?"
"Christ, no! Can you imagine anyone taking my advice about girls? I don't think so!"
"Hmm, good point…"
They both laughed.
"So you're okay about Ginny and Dean now, then?"
He gave an exaggerated sigh. "Yeah, I suppose so. She could do worse. Anyway, what difference would it make if I did have a problem with it? Like she's going to take my advice about anything!"
"Would you take hers if the situation were reversed?"
"No," he admitted, "But in case you haven't noticed, there isn't a long queue of girls waiting to go out with me."
"You don't need a long queue, you just need one."
He pretended to glance around the hillside for imaginary girls. "Nope, can't see any."
You're not looking hard enough, she thought to herself, but aloud she joked, "Maybe they're hiding behind that rock?"
Ron affected outrage. "So you're saying that only a troll would be interested in me, is that what you're saying?"
She laughed out loud and shoved him in the arm. "Well, I'm sure there are some very pretty trolls out there…"
"Yeah, to other trolls, maybe. Although ask me again in a couple of years, maybe the trolls will have started to look quite attractive by then."
They walked on for a few yards, and then she asked, carefully, "So, do you want a girlfriend, then?"
Ron was silent for a moment, then he just shrugged. "Maybe. I dunno. Quidditch keeps me pretty busy, so… Anyway, who would have me? Ha ha ha!"
Hermione bit her lip and said nothing.
Ron noted wryly that she didn't seem able to come up with any suggestions. "So, um, what about you?"
"What about me?"
He tried to sound hearty. "Got your eye on anyone in particular?"
She smiled sadly to herself. She knew that if she said yes without elaborating any further he would jump to the automatic conclusion she meant Krum or McLaggen.
And sure enough...
"Heard from Krum lately?"
She almost laughed at the predictability of it all. "No."
He nodded. He was pretty sure she was holding something back, but he wasn't sure he wanted to pursue it. Keep the hope alive for just a little bit longer. Sooner or later that hope would be dashed for good, but for now he would really rather not know which unsuitable idiot she had her eye on. Especially out here, where there was nothing to kick.
Ahead of them the castle loomed into view and Hermione's heart sank. Five more minutes and her time alone with him would be over. Already there was less chance of him making any sort of move because someone might be looking out of a window and see them. Unconsciously, she slowed her pace and Ron automatically slowed his own pace to match hers.
Her fingers closed around the smooth cold pebble in her pocket and it seemed to give her renewed strength.
If she was going to say something, it had to be now.
You do know, don't you, that Viktor and I… I never really liked him in that way, Ron. He kissed me once, after the ball, but… it didn't feel like a proper kiss… I didn't feel anything… There is someone else I do like in that way, actually… someone you know very well indeed, someone very close to me. And no, I don't mean Harry. Have you… have you ever kissed anyone, Ron? Have you ever wondered what it's like? Maybe we should... just to see…
Neither of them spoke for several minutes, both lost in their thoughts and rising anxiety that their time alone together was nearly over. Before they knew it, they were walking up the path to the front door of the castle.
They lingered in the doorway, neither of them wanting to go in just yet.
"I suppose we should go inside, then."
"I suppose we should."
Neither of them moved.
"It'll be dark soon," said Ron, apropos nothing.
"Yes," said Hermione.
"Is it tonight the clocks go back?"
"Yes, I think it is."
"So Winter starts tomorrow."
They were both very much aware that if this were a date, this was the point where a kiss would be expected. But it wasn't a date, no matter how much today had sometimes felt like one, and the cold reality where they were still "just friends" lay on just the other side of that door.
Ron cleared his throat in a pointed fashion. "Listen, um…"
He took such a long time to finish the sentence that Hermione allowed herself to get her hopes up, only to have them - inevitably - dashed again.
"… thanks for today. It's been nice."
She smiled at him. "It has, hasn't it?"
"We should do it again sometime."
Her heart starting beating a little faster. "We should."
"Only if you want to, of course," he added, hastily.
"I do. I do want to."
"Good. Me too."
They smiled shyly at each other, then looked quickly away, down at their shoes.
"Yeah, next time I've got a big essay to write, I'll let you know, and we can go for a walk instead."
Hermione laughed. "Maybe not every time!"
"Shame," grinned Ron. "Well… thanks for distracting me, anyway. You did a good job."
She flushed slightly. "My pleasure," she mumbled.
"I suppose we should go in, then," he said again, but still did not move.
This time she did not reply, but left him to fill the silence any way he chose. Preferably not verbally...
"I mean, you've probably got that essay you want be to be getting on with..."
Still Hermione did not speak.
"Not to mention my essay, of course, ha ha…"
She waited patiently for him to run out of small talk.
"You probably want to wash your hair as well, don't you? Get some of those knots out."
"... thanks for the tea, and... everything..."
"... that wind's getting up again..."
"... It's supposed to rain tomorrow..."
"... I probably need to burn these shoes..."
She could hear the desperation in his voice now, and knew he must be wondering if he'd said something to upset her. It was no good; she couldn't go on letting him think he'd done something wrong.
"Thanks for the pebble," she told him, gratefully. "It was a lovely thought."
"No problem," said Ron, with equal gratitude.
They beamed at each other.
Ron glanced down at his shoes for a moment as though steeling himself for something, and then lifted his gaze to hers again.
"Once more around the greenhouses?"
She smiled. "Why not?"
From Pinky Brown, 4th October 2011 (a year after publishing this chapter):
It's been a whole year now, and I think I have to admit that I'm not going to finish this story. I just can't get up the inspiration or inclination to continue, especially considering that a) there's another 20 chapters and 2 years of writing to go if I stick to my original chapter plan and take it up to when they move in together, b) that's 20 solid chapters of unrelenting angst and misery, and c) I've already covered Year 6 in great depth in SFOGI and the thought of going over the same ground yet again makes me want to poke my eyes out with sticks. That combined with all the other distractions I've had this year, most notably my dad dying in June and everything that has followed, means that I've barely thought about this story at all in months. I can only apologise to any readers who have been waiting on tenterhooks for the next chapter and recommend you read Six Foot of Ginger Idiot if you haven't already, as it will explain what happens through the rest of sixth year. I really am truly sorry, and believe me, I've put off making this decision for a long time, hoping inspiration would strike. But it hasn't, and the only positive thing I can offer is that at least the story finishes on a hopeful note. Once more around the greenhouses, for ever...