It was the way she looked at him when she said it. Or rather, the way she didn't look at him. Couldn't. She was fumbling with a pulsating pod, going on about how she'd been debating inviting him to Slughorn's party and all Ron could think when she looked up and smirked was that Hermione Granger was beautiful.
It was nutty, of course. He'd never really thought of her as anything more than the other third of his living, working brain. Okay, maybe he had once, after he'd walked in on her and Vicky snogging in the library. He'd never told anyone about that. It had become apparent he was the only one at the time who found it shocking that Hermione could be intimate with any boy. But around Krum she'd been so…soft and giggly in a way Ron had never known she could be. It was strange. Almost as strange as the way she was smirking at him now, a bright blush flooding her cheeks.
Just as quickly, she looked down again and began wrestling with the vines snaring out of the Snargaluff stump again. But Ron could tell from the way she scrunched her nose as she worked that she was waiting for some type of response from him.
"No, I don't think you should ask him," Ron said before his eyes shot back down to the twisting plant. Of all people, not McLaggen. Cormac would do nothing but spend half the night trying to grope under her robes and take pleasure in telling every boy in their year how far he had (or hadn't) gotten as long as the story had legs. Ron couldn't stand to think of Hermione in that position. The subject of those kinds of rumors or…actually submitting to what Cormac would want. He could admit that much. She was his friend and if she was about to do something stupid, he was obligated to stop her before she went way further than she was ready to go.
Unless she was ready. Or had already.
He wouldn't think about that.
For his part, Harry was ignoring both of them—or doing a good job pretending—much to Ron's relief. Especially since he was considering taking her invitation—if that's what it was. He would ask her later, much later, when no one was around. When it was safe to ask exactly what Hermione expected of him, if anything. Probably nothing. As always. Which was fine. It was safe. It was exactly how things needed to stay.
Ron sighed. It wasn't something he could easily control, but the snickers from his roommates let him know just how difficult it was going to be suppressing his reactions around Hermione once they'd finally managed to talk. It was bad enough that she'd barely been able to get out two words to him after Herbology, now he had to deal with his roommates teasing him about it until the party. Thanks for spreading the news, Harry, he thought. He rubbed at one of his reddening ears, knowing he was doing nothing more than drawing attention to his growing embarrassment.
"I'm telling you guys, it's nothing. We're just going to a party."
"Together," Seamus said. "She's going to put on her prettiest robes and fuss with her make up and spend all night trying to wrangle you under the mistletoe."
Ron felt his face warm and frowned when Seamus and Dean burst into laughter again.
"Actually, I'm putting my money on Hermione carrying her own mistletoe and storing it somewhere convenient so she can pull it out later." Dean grinned as Ron shoved his hands into his pockets. "Girls can be resourceful when it comes to someone they want."
Girls? He better not be talking about Ginny.
"Hermione's not like that," Ron said. He looked down at his shoes. "Even if she is," he said over their continued laughter, "I'm just going with her so she won't be stuck going alone. I'd feel bad letting her go by herself like that. Wouldn't you? It's not like she has a ton of blokes chasing her down the halls."
He looked up again. Both boys were nodding, but from their smiles, Ron suspected neither of them were fooled by his casual tone and the lie that rolled so easily off his tongue. It was more than that. Not much more, but he wasn't about to admit that to them. He certainly wasn't going to admit that to Hermione unless she gave him a reason. Other than throwing McLaggen in his face.
"Right, well whatever you say, Ron." Dean grinned at him as he stood from his bed. "I'm going to dinner. Entertain us some more after, yeah?"
"What?" Ron stumbled to his feet as Seamus and Dean moved towards the door. "You say that like you don't believe me."
"Why should we?" Seamus asked over his shoulder. He moved into the hall and abruptly stopped to let a couple of third years move past him. "We've seen the way you act around each other."
"What way? There is no way." Ron was glad they couldn't see his face in the dimness of the hallway as they walked. He had a feeling he was blushing fit to match his Quidditch uniform.
"Right," Dean chimed in. "Are you ignoring that you nearly had a heart attack at the Yule Ball when she walked in with Krum—"
"I did not!" Ron protested.
"Right," the two friends said at the same time. "That look on your face was because you were happy to see she wasn't stuck going alone," Dean said with a soft chuckle. "You spent the whole night ignoring Padma Patil." Ron could see the other boy shaking his head in the dim light. "If that wasn't a sign you had it bad back then, I don't know what is."
Seamus turned as they approached the corner leading to the stairs. "Let's not forget Hermione practically falling all over herself at Quidditch tryouts."
"I'm sure she was there to Obliviate anyone in case I embarrassed myself again."
"You weren't close enough to see the look on her face every time you did something," Seamus said. "I wonder, if we look at her class notes, will we see Hermione Weasley written all over them with little hearts and things?"
Ron swung a loose fist in the dark but missed as his roommate ducked and stomped down the stairs, temporarily out of reach.
"I don't care what either of you thinks," Ron said, raising his voice as he followed Dean down the stairs. "We're going as friends and I'm bloody well sure it's not going to be more than that." Ron jumped down the last few steps and turned—nearly running over Hermione.
"Hi," she whispered. She blushed faintly and looked down at her feet.
Ron ignored the laughter trailing behind Seamus and Dean as they made their way across the common room. He'd straighten them out later.
"Hi," he responded.
She motioned towards the stairs. "Is Harry coming down?"
Ron shook his head. "No, I think he's still in the library. He'll probably meet us in the Great Hall."
"Good," Hermione said. "That gives us some time to…talk. Would you mind?" She nodded her head in the direction of the portrait hole and, without waiting for a response from Ron, started to walk out.
Ron followed obediently. The faster they did this, the faster they could both go back to acting like normal. The past few days had been strange. Ron knew he could put it down to little more than that they were going to a social event together without Harry being the catalyst. The same as the few times they'd ventured into Hogsmeade together third year because Harry hadn't been allowed. He was doing her a favor so she wouldn't seem like the only girl at the party who couldn't get a date and she…she was letting him see that Slughorn's parties weren't that big a deal—in spite of how she and Ginny sometimes went on about them.
Hermione jumped onto a set of stairs near the end of the hall and turned, motioning for Ron to join her just before the stairs moved out of place. He made it just in time.
"So," she began. "I heard what you told Dean and Seamus." There was no censure in her voice. No disappointment either.
"Yeah, they were bugging me about the party and I had to set them straight."
Hermione turned. "Did you?" She began fussing with a strand of her hair. "Is that how you really feel about the whole thing?" She turned then to walk to the next set of stairs and missed the way Ron's jaw dropped at her casual question.
Of course that's how he felt about it. How else did she expect him to feel?
"Did you—was there another way I'm supposed to think of this?" Ron asked. His voice had taken on a slight wheezing tone, but he was sure Hermione hadn't picked up on that.
Not bothering to turn, she shrugged one shoulder and jumped nimbly to the next set of stairs. "I don't know that you're supposed to do anything, Ronald," she said, her voice low.
"Hermione, is something wrong?" Ron jumped to land next to her at the top of the next set of stairs.
"No." She looked down and then turned away from him completely, making a show of waiting for the set of stairs that would take them in the right direction. She began tapping her foot. "What could possibly be wrong?"
"I don't know, but you seem—"
Ron rubbed at his ear. Hermione had no idea how bloody loud she could be when she really put effort into it.
She waved at their friend as he came down a set of stairs, several dusty volumes under one arm. "I didn't think you'd catch us," Hermione said. "Do you want us to wait for you while you take those upstairs?" she asked.
Just like that, their 'talk' was over. It was probably over before she'd spotted Harry, but Ron couldn't shake the feeling there was more Hermione wanted to say and hadn't. That in itself was unusual. He never thought he'd see the day Hermione was shy about saying anything. Maybe it was just his imagination, then. At least they finally had things about the party settled. Or so he thought.
There was something wrong. Maybe he had food stuck in his teeth or Seamus had charmed his hair green again or…something was off. There was no other reason for Lavender to stare at him across the common room like that. Ron glanced across the table at Harry and Hermione. They were both poring over books. Harry was writing a paper for Charms and Hermione was researching something for Arithmancy. Hermione looked up and smiled at him briefly before returning to her studying.
That solved it then. If there was something wrong with his appearance, Hermione wouldn't hesitate to point it out to him. That was the most memorable part of meeting her, Ron recalled. After fussing about their uniforms and showing off her easy mastery of a spell, she'd pointed out his nose was dirty as casually as she blurted out answers in class—as if directing people's attention to her vast knowledge was a matter of course. Yet, she wouldn't tell him what was wrong unless he pulled it out of her.
Ron knew there was something. He'd suspected it the night before, but she'd deflected his questions well after dinner, smiling and changing the subject to the upcoming Quidditch match when he'd brought up the party. If there was anything he wanted to discuss less than a potential date with Hermione, it was how he was going to ruin the team's chances of winning. Harry didn't even have the decency to let him quit. Ron had let his best friend and everyone else convince him he was going to do fine, but that delusion had been temporary. Especially when he'd nearly gotten Harry killed at practice earlier that afternoon. The Slytherin match was going to be a disaster of epic proportions.
On top of that, he now had to wonder if Lavender was seeing an arm grow out of his head that no one else could see. Scratch that. Parvati must be able to see it as well because she had joined Lavender in her staring and was now whispering with the other girl. Ron frowned. What is it with girls? If they're not making a bloke feel bad about making a harmless joke here or there, they were gossiping. He wouldn't be surprised if that was the reason Lavender was staring at him. Probably wondering about the rumor that he and Hermione were supposed to be dating now. Spreading it, even. His stomach churned at the thought.
"I need some air," Ron said. He stood abruptly and squeezed past the corner of the table to get past Harry. As he circled the table, Hermione closed her book and looked up, a small smile curving her lips.
"I'll come with you," she said. "I've got something to do anyway."
"I…okay." Ron waited for her to pack her books into her bag and then walked behind her across the room to the portrait hole. He pushed the portrait open and waited for Hermione to step through before following her out and swinging it closed behind him. Ron began walking down the hall, only slowing his abrupt take-off when he realized Hermione was having trouble keeping up with his long strides.
"Hermione…" Damn. Nothing. He couldn't think of what he wanted to say to her, though he'd had the question in his mind minutes before.
Ron stopped walking. She was smiling again and was fussing with a strand of hair, stretching and relaxing the curl between two fingers.
"Nothing," Ron said, finally. He began walking again. Gryffindor courage, my ass.
"Can we…would you mind coming in here with me?" Hermione asked. She motioned to the door of an empty classroom. "To talk?"
"No, that—I can…sure," he finally got out.
He followed Hermione into the classroom and swallowed hard when she closed the door behind them. She turned to him and began wringing her hands together at her waist.
"I didn't want to bring this up before, in front of Harry," she said. "But, I'm getting so worried about him."
Harry? That's what she wants to talk about?
"I know you said he'd be fine after what happened to Sirius, but I think—I don't know. I feel like he's obsessing over Draco to avoid dealing with his own grief. He's trying to ignore that it happened. That can't be healthy." Hermione frowned. "I've read a few books on the subject and they all say denial is a perfectly reasonable thing for someone to—Ron? Ron? Are you listening to me?"
He'd been watching her lips move. But yes, he had been listening. "Hermione, Harry isn't in denial about anything. He's perfectly aware that his godfather has died."
"Yes, but he's got it in his head that it's all his fault as well. I think," she looked down at her hands again, "I think he's convinced himself the only way to make up for it is to prove that Draco has joined the Death Eaters and there's some sort of plot and he has to stop it. That's the only explanation for—"
"Not the only one," Ron interrupted. "He could be right. Malfoy has been acting strange for months."
"Well, of course he could be right, but the likelihood of that is—"
"Hermione, we need to let Harry deal with this his own way," Ron said. "If he's dealing with his grief by wanting to catch the newest Death Eater before he can really hurt someone, I don't think there's anything unhealthy about that. Besides, even if the ferret hasn't joined the ranks, there's nothing wrong with keeping an eye on whatever he's doing. He's not exactly known for his good behavior."
"I suppose you're right," she said slowly. "I'll try not to worry about it." She relaxed her hands at her sides. A faint blush tinted her cheeks and Hermione smiled softly. "Have you figured out what you're wearing to the party yet? I know it's not a big thing for you like it is for girls, but I remember how much you hated wearing your dress robes fourth year and—"
"I have new ones," Ron said, cutting off her rambling.
"Oh, good," Hermione said. "I don't mean good in that you won't be stuck wearing the same ones again. Not that there was a-anything really bad about those," she stammered. "I just meant you'll look nice in something new."
But not like Krum did in his?
"You never really said," Hermione began, "why did you feel the need to tell Dean and Seamus it's not a date?"
"Because it's not," Ron responded slowly.
"Well, yes, but I don't understand why you felt you had to explain that."
"Because they were being stupid about it." He shrugged and looked away from her. Something about the way she was staring at him was unnerving and he felt a knot of tension form in his stomach. He hadn't been expecting to resume this little talk, but he should've known Hermione couldn't let a subject drop until she'd truly exhausted it.
"How were they being stupid?"
Ron nearly jumped. He looked up. Hermione was now standing several feet closer than she had been before. The corner of her mouth was lifted in a small smile, and there was an unreadable expression in her eyes.
"They were teasing me—it doesn't matter," he said quickly.
"Of course it does. You felt the need to correct them."
"Yeah. Of course. You don't want anyone to think we're dating."
Hermione laughed softly. The sound tickled low on Ron's spine. "What would be so bad about that? You make it sound like the idea's horrifying."
Horrifying? No. Terrifying? Intimidating? Downright impossible? A definite yes.
"No, I…what do you mean by that?"
She stepped closer to him. Close enough that he could see the small glints of gold in her light brown eyes. "I didn't mean anything by it, Ron. I just find it curious that you never thought we could be more than just two friends going to a party," she whispered. "I don't think the idea is stupid, even if you do." She bit her bottom lip and let her eyes drop, first to his lips and then to the thin space of floor between them.
"I…but you never said—"
"Don't worry about it," Hermione said, taking a step back. Ron wanted to fill that suddenly empty space with his body, but felt that was the wrong move. At least, just then. "'Just friends' means there's no pressure for anything else." She laughed softly and looked up at him. The laughter didn't reach her eyes. "The last thing we need in our lives now is more pressure, right?"
"Right," Ron echoed. He wanted to add something, but what more was there to say, really? He was right. And so was she. This was much simpler and frankly, it made more sense for them to only go as friends. Anything else would be wrong. No, not wrong. Just not right for now. Ron brushed the thought away.
"I have some things to look up in the library," Hermione said, backing away another step. "I'll see you at breakfast. Good night, Ron." She hitched her bag up on her shoulder, turned and walked out of the room quickly, her hair bouncing out behind her.
He'd barely gotten sleep in two days. Ron knew why, of course. It was Hermione's fault. Every time he let himself relax, he heard her voice in his head, wondering why he'd never considered their going to the party together as more than what it was, more than what he thought either of them could handle. And why should he have? The thought of the two of them acting like a couple in any sense of the word was stupid. He wasn't going to bring her flowers or buy her candy or hold her hand and any of the other stuff blokes did when they took a girl out because that wasn't the kind of relationship they had. Treating the party like anything more than a favor was just asking for trouble.
Apparently, so was thinking about it too much. He'd spent so much time trying to figure out why Hermione had brought it up, again, and why she was acting so strangely around him he'd hardly been able to focus on anything else. Classes passed in a blur, homework had become a joke and Quidditch practice had been getting steadily worse. That last had been happening for weeks, but Ron had been setting himself a record level of embarrassments in the past few days. Practice had ended with every member of the team either depressed at their thoughts of losing the upcoming match, angry at Ron for his playing, angry at Harry for not getting rid of him, injured by one of Ron's increasingly frequent mistakes or a twisted combination thereof.
Sometimes he wondered what he'd done to deserve the hell he was currently living in. Nothing was going right, not even that stupid invitation that had started out simply enough. Hermione had become the subject of nearly nightly teasing from his roommates, a distraction when he needed one in his life the least and—most astonishing to Ron—the subject of quite a few confusing dreams. He had no business thinking of Hermione as anything other than his friend and occasional sparring partner. It was easy to put the idea of anything else happening down to his stressed brain desperately searching for any kind of distraction to relieve his current misery. Unfortunately, this distraction was only serving to make it worse.
"Ron, have you been listening to a word I've been saying?"
He turned to Harry briefly, a frown pulling his mouth down. "I've heard every word of it," he said as he continued down the hall. He'd barely caught half of it. That didn't matter. It was always the same lately anyway. You're not a loser. You just need to get over your nerves. I won't let you quit the team. Support was one thing. Blindly leading the team to a loss because you're too nice to hurt your friend's feelings was just plain ridiculous. He didn't have the heart to tell Harry that, though. He was the only person on the team still willing to defend him. Even if doing it had turned most of Gryffindor against him.
"We'll see," Ron said. He lifted a tapestry and held it up for Harry to duck into the passage ahead of him. "I know you think I'll do fine as Keeper—"
"You will," Harry called back over his shoulder.
Ron frowned into the semi-darkness ahead of him. "If practice tomorrow and Friday goes like I think it will, I'm going to have to leave the team. You can get someone to replace me before it's too late."
"Don't start on that again," Harry said. A shaft of light opened ahead of them as Harry pushed his way out of the passage and back out into the hall. "I'm not going to accept your resignation and you—" There was a brief choking sound and then Harry turned to face Ron, red-faced and coughing.
"What's wrong?" Ron asked. And then he saw. Ginny, her face plastered to Dean's. Dean's hands—the same ones Ron was going to hex off—exploring places he was going to regret they'd ever been. Ron charged down the hall, pulling out his wand as he approached the pair. "What are you doing to my sister?"
Before he could get in his first hex, Harry stepped in front of him and brushed his arm down. "Ron, no," he said, but the other boy barely heard him. He raised his wand arm again, arching his arm over Harry's head.
Dean jumped away from Ginny and stared at Ron with wide eyes. His hand slipped towards his pocket. "We were just—it wasn't—"
"What is your problem?" Ginny pushed away from her boyfriend and approached her brother, arms crossed over her chest. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Harry withdraw to his side and step back.
"What's my—?" He stared at her, incredulous. "My problem is I don't want to walk up on my sister in a public place—"
"This hall was private until you walked into it!"
"—letting any random bloke feel her up." As Ginny's eyes narrowed, Ron felt his anger build. He knew she was going to argue with him about this, the same as she'd done when he'd caught her with Michael Corner before Christmas the previous year. At least then, it had only been kissing. What he'd seen today would've had their mother delivering one of her world-class fits if she'd been the one to find them instead.
"Dean is not any random bloke and I resent you treating me like I'm a—"
"A child? Is this your way of proving you're not?" He asked, gesturing to his roommate. "You obviously don't know how to act like anything more than a—a—"
"A what?" Before Ron could think of a response, Ginny had whipped out her wand and thrust it beneath her brother's chin. Normally he wouldn't have been afraid of anyone whose head barely reached to his shoulder, but his mother had already scolded him about getting into it with Ginny—even if she threw the first hex. She'd blame him if he defended himself.
Dean finally got up the nerve to approach them. "Look, you two don't have to fight about this. We can just go someplace else."
"Stay out of this. I'm going to deal with you later," Ron said.
"He won't do anything to you," Ginny said, turning to Dean. "Wait for me in the common room?"
Dean nodded and walked away quickly, casting glances over his shoulder every few steps until he was out of sight.
Ron started to reach for Ginny's wrist. She pulled her arm back and shoved her wand into the column of his throat.
"Let's get one thing straight, Ron." Her eyes narrowed. Ron got an eerie flash of what his mother must've looked like in younger years when she was angry with someone. "You will never attempt to embarrass me like that again—"
"I don't need to do anything to embarrass you," he interrupted. "You're doing a fine job of that yourself."
"Argh!" She lowered her wand and backed away a step. "You are the most pig-headed, self-righteous—"
"I'm trying to look out for you!"
"You're trying to control me!" she shouted back. "I've finally figured it out. You can't stand that I'm not like you. You're jealous because I actually have a social life. Just about everyone has you beat in that department," she said, pointing her wand at him. "Harry's had Cho, Hermione's had Krum and the best kiss you've ever had was from Aunt Muriel!" Ginny let out a high laugh as she looked at her brother from head to toe.
"Maybe if you had more experience than the average twelve-year-old, you wouldn't find it so strange that other people can spend time with the opposite sex and not act like a bumbling idiot." She lowered her wand to her side and took a long breath. "If you ever do anything like that to me again, sister or not, I'll make you regret it." Then she turned on her heel and stalked down the hall; her long hair whipped out behind her.
There was a cough from behind him and Ron spun. Harry looked like he felt—like Ginny had no idea what she was doing and was too foolish to admit it. As flushed and bothered as Harry was, Ron felt a hundred times worse—and was going to waste no time letting Dean know how he felt the first chance he got.
"Can you believe her?" Ron asked.
"I don't want to talk about it," Harry said. He walked past Ron and headed down the hall, in the direction of Gryffindor Tower.
Harry had gone a few feet before Ron started to follow him. They walked in silence as Ron attempted to calm himself. If Ginny wasn't going to slow down on her own, he might actually have to get their mother involved. He couldn't believe she was actually trying to justify letting Dean put his hands anywhere on her by saying that other people were doing it! Harry and Cho had never gone that far and he was quite sure Hermione— He stopped walking in the middle of the hall.
Harry stood before the portrait guarding Gryffindor Tower and turned to him. "What's wrong?" He nodded in understanding. "Oh. You know, I doubt they're doing anything in the common room."
"It's not that," Ron said. "Do you think—you don't think Hermione ever did anything like that with Krum, do you?"
At Harry's expression—first surprised, then the way his eyes dropped to the floor—Ron had his answer. They more than likely had done exactly what he'd witnessed his sister doing with her boyfriend earlier. After he'd warned Hermione what an older, experienced Quidditch player might want from her. Unless…that's what she'd been looking for all along. Someone with experience who wouldn't treat her the way boys at Hogwarts did—like she was good for nothing more than help with homework. Ron quickly shook the thought from his head and followed Harry into the common room.
His gaze scanned the crowded room as they entered. Ginny and Dean weren't even there. Probably went to find a private room to snog in instead. When Ron finally got his hands on his roommate—
"Ron." Hermione touched a hand to his wrist and smiled briefly. "Look, I heard about your fight with Ginny and—"
"Don't start with me too," Ron said. He shook her hand off. Briefly, he pictured Hermione as he'd seen her in the library that day with Krum. Only this time, she was sitting on his lap, giggling as he put his hands all over her.
Hermione's eyes widened. "Ron, I'm just trying to help. I know how you must feel, but—"
"I don't need your help, Hermione. Stay out of it." Ignoring the way her face fell, Ron pushed past Hermione and thundered up the stairs to his dorm to wait for Dean. The last thing he wanted to hear from Hermione was that he should go easy on Ginny because she'd done things with Vicky and it was perfectly okay for his sister to do the same. He didn't know what was worse—the idea that Hermione had let Krum take advantage of her when she was too young to know what she was doing or the thought that she'd known exactly what she was doing and he was the only one of the three of them who couldn't say the same.