~~ Points of No Return ~~
Disclaimer: All of Harry's wonderful, magical world belongs to J.K. Rowling, with her truly incredible imagination, and her amazing writing skills, which present it perfectly. Story beta- read by my wonderful SugarQuill beta-reader, Christina Teresa. Original characters and stories © L.J. Snow, 2002.
A/N: The story takes place during fifth year, when the wizarding world is far more unsettled than it was when Ron, Harry, and Hermione first arrived at Hogwarts. Rated PG-13 for bits of language, violence, and, well, the characters' celebration of the fact that there are two genders. (R/Hr)(It's just destiny)
This story is dedicated to all those Ron Weasley's who have passed through my classroom over the years. While poor in financial terms, they are rich in spirit and personality, always caring and loyal, and more than willing to share whatever little they have. Each one brings his own special gift-just that some get their gift open' later rather than sooner. May all their gifts one day take them past the Point of No Return' where they never have to face the anguish of being uncertain about their place in the world again.
~ Chapter 1 ~
Oh, Wallabindle, Baby!
It was a luscious sort of October day where the sun was bright, the air was crisp, and the sky was sapphire blue. Hogwarts had settled into the new school year by now, and Filch was less likely to find first-years lost and teary in the dungeons somewhere, or trapped in a corner while Peeves cackled and tormented them.
It was just the perfect sort of day to have class outdoors, and since Hagrid had become a little bolder with his Care of Magical Creatures studies (making things ever so much more interesting than feeding flobberworms forever), the fifth-year Gryffindors were actually rather content to head down the hill and toward the Forbidden Forest to Hagrid's hut.
Harry, Ron, and Hermione were strolling down the hill, laughing and talking about how hard it would be to ruin a perfect day like this. Until they realized that the Slytherins were walking beside them to class, which reminded them that nothing could be as perfect as it seemed.
Draco Malfoy and his henchmen, Crabbe and Goyle, had just about caught up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The day seemed to have put even Malfoy in a good mood, which for him, meant he would spend it being particularly annoying.
"Hey, Weasley, your parents have to sell your house to pay for that crystal ball you broke?" taunted Malfoy. Ron's little mishap in Divination class several weeks ago had become a favorite topic of Draco's.
Ron clenched his fists as he glared at Draco and started angrily toward him, but Harry pulled him back by his robe.
"Shut up, Malfoy," said Harry, or we'll have Hagrid bring around another hippogriff so you can try your luck at being polite again.
Malfoy sneered at Harry, but shot back at Ron again: "Speaking of luck, Weasley, you know how you get seven years bad luck if you break a mirror? I hear it's nineteen years for a crystal ball."
"First of all, Malfoy, the crystal ball thing's old news- been out of the gossip loop lately or what?" Except for the sarcasm, Ron was showing exceptional patience with Malfoy now. He wasn't even sure why himself- must have been the weather. "And besides, if I did have nineteen years of bad luck, there are only fourteen left."
Malfoy laughed. "What? You broke something else five years ago?"
Ron looked smug. "No. The bad luck count started when I met you."
Harry, Dean, Seamus, and several other Gryffindors nearby began laughing loudly. Hermione smiled almost proudly at Ron for a long moment, then turned a sneer nearly as mean as Malfoy's right back on Draco himself.
Currently outnumbered and taking this all in, Malfoy turned pink and then signaled for Crabbe and Goyle to walk faster.
As the Gryffindors approached Hagrid, Ron noticed the half-giant taking mental note of those students present and assembled for class as his eyes traveled from one student to another. When he got to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, he beamed at them. Hagrid then motioned for the class to follow him to a nearby animal pen that more closely resembled a small meadow.
"Yeh'r attention please, class. T'day, I have a special treat fer all of yeh. I'd like yeh all to look carefully at what yeh think yeh see in this field here," began Hagrid.
Those students closest to the fence began to peer between the railings, while those in the back stretched on tiptoe and leaned back and forth to see.
A hand went up.
"Miss Brown?" called Hagrid.
"Those are kangaroos," stated Lavender.
Inside the confines of the fence, most of the class had observed what did seem to be kangaroos. There were two that could be seen on their feet; one animal was leaning over a mound on the ground and watching it intently, the other had its back turned, but as it wheeled to face the class, a chorus of "ooooh, how cute!" came from the girls at the fence. There, inside a rather roomy pouch at the front of the second animal's belly, was a furry, cinnamon-colored baby, curious enough to come out and stare back at the class, but afraid enough to keep all except its eyes and the top of its head hidden.
"Oooh, they're just so sweet!" cooed Parvati, as several of the Slytherin boys pretended to gag.
"Well, yeah," Hagrid agreed, chuckling, "they can be sweet little things. But yeh haven't guessed exactly right as to what they are. These are rare animals; much more rare than common kangaroos, for these are some of..." (he paused for effect) "...the famous wallabindles! And if yeh look more closely in the pen, yeh'll see there are lots more than just two, plus the little tyke, o' course." Hagrid chuckled, seemingly pleased that he had fooled them all a bit. Does anyone know anythin' abou' wallabindles?"
This was Hermione's call to arms. She, Harry, and Ron had been at the back of the group, but at this she plucked her stuffed and heavy book bag from the ground and shoved it at Ron. "Here! Hold this!" she ordered, all but ripping open the top and leaning over it to rummage for her textbook.
"Oh, can I, Hermione, please? You don't know how long I've been waiting for this!" Ron begged sarcastically, rolling his eyes, but holding the bag anyway. Ron attempted to look down and watch what she was doing, but as Hermione reached and pushed, her bushy, honey-colored hair fluffed back and forth under his nose. He wrinkled it and tried not to sneeze, but he did notice her hair smelled really nice. And the warmth of her body so near made him feel strange- but good strange- he found himself hoping she wouldn't find her book right away.
Moments later, with a mighty yank, Hermione pulled her book from the bag, nicking Ron's chin with the corner. Not even noticing, she flipped open to the index of their textbook, Temperamental Magical Creatures: Do You Dare to Care?
"Hermione?" Hagrid called smiling, as her hand shot up.
"Wallabindles are a relative of the wallaby, a kind of kangaroo. So it says they do have powerful legs and can jump very well, in addition to the females having a pouch for the babies, Hermione summarized as she scanned the book. But they're also like anteaters in a way because they have pointy noses and long, long sticky tongues allowing them to extract ants out of their burrows. They have really strong tails that help them balance, but their tails can also grasp like a monkey's when they're fighting or trying to grab their young."
Most of the students were half listening as Hermione read aloud, but a few near the fence were whispering to themselves and pointing into the pen. Apparently, they had finally discovered something else inside. Pushed into the tufts of tall grass could be seen what appeared to be a number of light reddish-brown, furry, Quaffle-sized balls, lying motionless.
The wallabindle that had been peering down the ant burrow made a high-pitched squeal, plunged its tongue far into the mound and pulled it back, chewing the crunchy ants happily as it rolled its sticky tongue up into its mouth. This must have been some sort of a signal, because as the students watched, one after the other of the furry balls began rolling around, sticking out first one large foot and leg, then another. Next they rolled out their body, chest, two short front legs and, finally, a head from their belly pouch. It was amazing that such a large body could fit into such a small space.
As they emerged, the waking wallabindles hopped over quickly and gathered around the one chewing, beginning to push and shove each other as they neared it. Several, discouraged that they were being pushed away, began to sniff the ground for a mound of their own.
"Can we touch 'em?" asked Seamus, as the animals seemed to settle down.
"I don' see why not. Try not to startle any o' the ones sleepin', but once they're standin' and calm, they're usually sort of nice." Hagrid opened a gate, and the class filed in cautiously, beginning to break into smaller groups.
Ron exchanged a look with Harry that showed they were thinking the same thing; Hagrid's idea of 'nice' animals was always a little suspect.
Most of the students were approaching the wallabindles with fascination. Pansy Parkinson, a Slytherin girl, was not so impressed. "So that's all they do? Lick ants out of the ground and roll themselves into a ball to sleep? Big deal! That big, ugly orange cat that hangs around with Granger could do that."
Malfoy sniggered, and poked Crabbe and Goyle to do the same (even though they didn't have a clue as to why). Pansy smiled with satisfaction when she noticed Draco's approval. She then shot a smile-turned-sneer directly at Harry and Ron.
Ron and Harry were looking daggers first at Pansy, then at Draco. But it was Ron who muttered in his friend's ear (perhaps since he had mixed feelings about Crookshanks anyway). "We won't do it now, Harry. Not here. Even Hagrid couldn't ignore all of us hexing one another in class. We'll get even-later." Harry kept looking, but said nothing. Ron looked to see if Hermione had heard, but she was still outside the fence, reading her book.
"Well, Miss Parkinson," Hagrid said quickly, "yeh may not ha' seen what makes these animals so diff'rent . Yeh see-"
A ruckus near the end of the pen interrupted Hagrid's explanation. One of the smaller wallabindles had tried to push in front of a larger, dominant one to get his share of ants from a mound. The larger wallabindle gave the smaller a shove to indicate that was not such a good idea. What resulted was a great deal of loud, high-pitched squealing, ending in a low growl and a stare-down of some thirty seconds. Whatever the larger wallabindle said with his noises or his eyes, the smaller one seemed to realize his serious error and in a millisecond he had rolled into his pouch and was bumping rapidly across the grass, with the larger one, also now a furry ball, in hot pursuit.
Students were leaping out of the path as the two fur balls rolled all around the pen, the smaller trying in vain to get away. Periodically, the animals would roll out from their pouches to stand up and fight, kicking out with their powerful legs, only to curl back inside and continue the chase. Even though it was somewhat comical, the blows themselves were quite vicious and if they connected, could easily throw the opponent to the ground.
"They're very strong-minded creatures," Hagrid continued, "and intend to get their own way, one way or another. But the problem these two ha' started - well, yeh don't want to get em all stirred up, b'cause...uh-oh." Hagrid looked around him to see that the chase of the first two wallabindles was getting the others agitated. All of them, except the mother, had begun to jump around excitedly, taunting and kicking out at one another, almost daring one another into a row.
"Okay, class," Hagrid said rather urgently, "looks like we need to get em into their cages before they get out o' hand. Grab em when they're rolled up, stand back when they're kickin'. The other cages are by the fence. Might work better to do it in pairs. " Hagrid himself rushed to grab a cage as well.
Harry and Ron looked at each other, and in silent agreement, headed toward the fence to gather one of the wrought iron ball cages. On their way, they glanced at Hermione and shook their heads. She was still outside the fence, only now beginning to look up and take notice something else was going on.
Harry circled on one of the bouncing wallabindles, which eyed him suspiciously. Ron was sneaking up behind with the cage, when suddenly, one of Ron's large sneakers snapped a twig, and the wallabindle was off. He jumped high, turning around in mid-air, and kicked out at Harry's shoulder firmly enough to knock him to the ground. As the animal spun, he struck out high enough in the other direction to hit the large round cage in Ron's hands and jam it into his middle. Ron found himself seated on the ground as well, with a speeding fur ball passing him by.
"That went well, didn't it?" Ron said sarcastically to Harry, standing and dusting himself off.
The two friends looked around the pen, realizing the wallabindles were way past getting out of hand. Students were running everywhere, trying to close in on the animals, grab them, or jump out of the way of their powerful kicks. But the wallabindles were everywhere, too- only they were moving twice as fast.
Harry and Ron looked over at Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle, who were trying to work together for a capture. Draco was dancing a jig trying to outfox a fur ball rolling back and forth on the ground. He was acting frustrated as he shouted instructions to Crabbe and Goyle, who held either side of a cage. Draco's problem seemed to be that the delayed-reaction thinking of his companions just caused them to gawk at one another until they understood the direction Malfoy gave them two minutes ago-far too slow to deal with a wallabindle.
As Draco screamed another command at the two, the wallabindle unrolled to its full height, kicked Draco square in the chest, and seated him soundly in a large warm pile of wallabindle dung.
Halfway to escape, the animal kicked out again, this time at Goyle. The swift strike hit the hulking student from the side and caused a sickening thunk as he and Crabbe smacked heads and fell stunned to the grass. At this, the wallabindle changed into a ball, and rolled right over the large mass of body that was Crabbe and Goyle in dreamland.
Ron and Harry burst out laughing. This was just too choice to miss, even if they should have been trapping more wallabindles.
"Well, at least we know it won't do them much damage," Ron laughed, looking at the thick skulls of Malfoy's two assistants'. Then he looked directly at Draco. "And we already know how much Malfoy stinks. Now everyone else'll know, too!"
Hermione had seen what happened and smiled to herself, but was acting concerned about something else. She had finally let herself in the gate (when there were no hurtling fur balls nearby) and was walking purposefully across the pen, dodging a rolling object here and there in passing. "Harry! Ron! Look-over there!"
"Hermione! Come here! You've got to see this!" called Ron, ignoring her command and still laughing at his least favorite Slytherins, who were trying to regroup.
Hermione reached her two friends and grabbed Ron's arm, forcing him to turn and look where she pointed. "Look-over there! Come on! You two need to help! I'd go, but there are no more cages." She looked, exasperated, from Harry to Ron, neither of which moved, both confused as to the problem. "Okay, if you won't do it -well-just-give me the cage, then!" Hermione grabbed the heavy cage from Ron's grasp and stomped off with it before either Ron or Harry could reply.
Harry looked at Ron and shrugged, turning to see where Hermione was off to.
Ron studied her closely as she strode across the pen, impressed with her determination. Some days with Hermione, she just won't take no for an answer, he thought. She's so different from girly girls like Lavender. Hermione's so strong within herself- she stands up for what she believes, and has the brains to back it up. She never just squeals and lets the boys fight it out. Sometimes that makes me completely mental, and other days, it's sorta- sex- Surprised at the word that almost came to mind about someone who was just a friend, he blushed and decided someone must have snuck in and bewitched him about girls this year.
Turning quickly to Harry to change his train of thought, he began, "Have a go again, shall w-"
Just then, the two heard a shriek from Hermione, who was standing near the mother wallabindle. Another large wallabindle had been harassing the female with the baby still in her pouch, trying to get her into a chase. Ron realized that must have been Hermione's concern-what would happen to the baby?
The mother wallabindle was becoming increasingly irritated, and the baby in the pouch was bouncing up and down, clinging desperately as the mother jumped; Hermione kept her gaze fixed on the animal who was trying to pick a fight.
The offending wallabindle had kicked out at the mother. Hermione had batted at his leg with the cage while he was in the air, knocking him to the ground. Undaunted, the animal struggled to his feet quickly and made the same horrible squeal-to-growl that seemed a declaration of war with the earlier pair of wallabindles. Now his focus was Hermione.
Hermione held the cage in front of her like a shield, leaning forward so as not to be thrown off balance as the angry wallabindle kicked out at her again and again. But he was trying to circle round and kick at her from another side, and she had no other defense.
Harry and Ron ran to help their friend, but at the same time, the mother used the momentary distraction to reach into her pouch, turn around, and set the baby in a tall clump of grass several feet away and out of harm's way. Now she was ready to fight her own battle. The mother came back alone, crazed and kicking. Even as Harry and Ron were poised to distract the growling wallabindle from Hermione, the mother delivered a fierce kick to the animal-then another, then...the growling wallabindle curled into a fur ball and rolled away, with the mother following close behind.
"AAARRGGHHH!" Ron screamed suddenly, clutching behind his shoulder and turning swiftly as if he could catch up with his back and relieve the problem. But as he turned, Hermione and Harry gasped.
Firmly attached to Ron's back, and hanging by sixteen razor sharp claws, was the baby wallabindle. Anyone watching would have seen the poor little wallabindle watching in terror, trying to stay hidden in the grass as his mother had signaled. But seeing her roll away was too much for him. He sprinted over and jumped to cling desperately at the first thing he saw with wallabindle coloring. And it happened to be... Weasley hair.
The baby's eyes were like saucers and the panicked breathing made his cat-sized body fairly heave. He was making a soft, pitiful whimpering cry and wheezing.
"Get it off! Geroff! Take it off!" Ron cried out, still flailing wildly.
"Ron, stop it! Stop!" scolded Hermione. "You're scaring him!"
"Scaring him? He's bloody ripping the skin off my back!"
"Well... " she knitted her eyebrows and bit her lip, trying to think what to do.
"Harry! Harry!" yelled a deep, familiar voice nearby. "Harry, can yeh lend a hand?"
Harry and Hermione glanced over at Hagrid, who was on the ground attempting to stuff a partially rolled wallabindle into one of the round cages. At odd intervals, a back foot or front paw would pop out, and Hagrid, unable to force the animal for fear he would hurt it, needed several more hands.
Harry had looked somewhat dumbfounded at Ron's situation. He glanced questioningly at Hermione.
"Go on, Harry," she started. "Hagrid's is bigger than this one. We'll think of something." She turned back to Ron, who was a bit calmer, but still wincing with pain. "Okay, Ron. Turn and face away from me, but try not to jump or move fast. I think I can get him loose if you calm down."
Ron looked down at her, his eyes watering in pain. "Calm down? You calm down when you have this thing on you," he muttered. But he had no better suggestion, so he did as he was told.
Hermione began by stroking the baby wallabindle softly and talking to it in a low, even voice. The baby's breathing started to slow and he eventually began to look trustingly into her eyes. Soon, Hermione could wrap one arm around the baby's furry middle, as she often did with Crookshanks, and gently pull one claw after the other from Ron's shredded robe and shirt, and his semi-shredded back.
As Ron looked away trying to deal with the pain, he realized he had never heard Hermione speak with such a soft, nurturing tone. He found it soothed him as well. Finally, Ron felt the weight of the baby completely leave his back. "Oww..." he moaned, turning slowly to face his little attacker, who was still held belly out from Hermione in her arms. "How bad is it, anyway? It feels pretty bad."
"Well, I hope you don't need wizard immunizations for wallabindle scratches, because he did draw quite a bit of blood, but- I'm sure Madam Pomfrey can take care of it. It's pretty minor compared to what she's used to," assured Hermione.
"Minor to you, maybe!" he growled. Ron's weak sense of calm began to leave as the pain became more edgy. He felt the urge to lash out, strike the little animal from Hermione's arms and chase it away. But then he looked into its face. Ron half-wished he could spend his anger, but knew he could never try and hurt anything that looked at him like that.
The two friends had less than a moment to consider what to do next when two fur balls unrolled almost directly beneath Hermione and immediately began kicking at one another. Hermione started, causing the baby to lunge again at Ron and cling to the front of him this time. Though she was thrown off-balance by the baby's spring, Hermione managed to support enough of the little wallabindle's weight that he did not have to sink his claws in skin-deep, much to Ron's relief. For his part, all Ron really could do was catch and help support the baby with his one free arm-the other arm was keeping all three of them held together, balanced precariously, but upright.
The two fur balls soon rolled away to fight somewhere else, and Hermione regained her footing. She tried to slowly shift the baby's weight to Ron so she could step away from leaning her entire body against his side. But to her surprise, she found her upper arm to be wrapped in a tight grip by a long, strong, winding wallabindle tail. The baby was still hanging onto Ron desperately, but apparently wanted the comfort of having both him and Hermione at once. Hermione would not be leaving Ron's side any time soon.
Trying to think through the pain from his back, and unable to see past the top of the furry little wheezing head buried in his chest (the wallabindle's, of course), Ron didn't realize what the problem was. He could feel he was no longer keeping Hermione from falling, and he was becoming a little curious as to why he could still feel her breathing hard against his rib cage. Not that he exactly minded (Hmm, he thought, I think the pain's easing a bit now-I am feeling better) but he did feel a little conspicuous out here in the middle of the pen like this.
"Er,... Hermione?" he questioned.
"I know," she said. "The wallabindle's got my arm gripped with his tail. I'll try to move."
As Hermione tried to swing herself out from under Ron's upheld right arm, she found the grip on her own arm tighter and the baby sounding more panicked. Ron cradled the little wallabindle in the crook of his long left arm, but for each inch Hermione managed to move, the sharp claws of the baby moved that much deeper through the clothing on Ron's chest.
"Ouch! Okay, Hermione, just stand still!" Ron said, beginning to look very pained once more. "He's digging in again-he's afraid you'll leave. Just -lean back where you were. I'd like to leave class with a little skin left today."
Hermione eased back against Ron, still trying to help by holding the baby up as much as she could at this angle. "Sorry. I mean, I didn't know he'd do that," she said.
Unable to move much due to the pain from his back, Ron could feel Hermione leaning in every direction she could to see if there was any other help for them available. Most of the students and Hagrid were near the far end of the pen, still struggling with the last few liberated wallabindles.
Hermione then moved back against Ron's side and looked behind them to a large rounded pile of rock. If we move together, I think we-you, could lean back against that rock until they're done. Maybe it wouldn't hurt as much if you could relax a little bit. But we'll have to move at the same time.
"Er...okay," Ron agreed. "It's gotta be better than this."
Ron appreciated Hermione's attempts to help him, but he could tell she was feeling rather awkward and embarrassed, as was he. He wondered what she was thinking and angled his view down to the right. Though he couldn't fully see her face, he could see enough to realize she was blushing furiously, even redder than he imagined he had even been.
She began, very business-like: "I think if I put my arms around your waist and still keep my shoulder by his back, I can help get you to the rock without worrying him. Does it hurt if I do this?" She carefully circled his waist and put gentle pressure on his opposite side with her hands.
There was certainly nothing about her touch that hurt him-in fact, it was quite the opposite. She's just your friend, Weasley, Ron kept telling himself, trying to shake off the mental image of he and his other 'friend' Harry in exactly the same predicament. You can do this. It's no different than hugging Ginny, and that's no big deal. But the problem jumped out at him immediately - with Hermione, right here, right now, it felt like a big deal.
Ron suddenly felt he had to do something, anything, to get away from facing this pretty wonderful, but terribly scary feeling. Amazing himself that he could summon the energy at this moment, he smiled down at her with his lopsided, cocky grin. "Why, Hermione! I didn't know you cared!" he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Ron could almost physically feel her defenses going up. Hermione tensed against his side, and immediately her uncertainty was gone. Though the wonderful feeling had also left, for the most part, the awful tension had gone with it, and he now felt like he was on familiar ground. Irritating Hermione, fighting with her, teasing her-that felt normal; thinking about why her touch shot butterflies through his stomach-that was a whole other issue.
"Look," she began tersely, beginning to loosen her arms," if you don't want my help, it's perfectly all right with me. I'll just leave you and your little friend here to your own devices and go on with my work."
Ron's eyes widened as he realized she just might do that, and the baby wallabindle was tensing on his arm as her voice rose. "No! I mean, no, it doesn't hurt if you do that. Not at all," he said quickly. Just to make sure she didn't go, (and because his arm was killing him) he wrapped his suspended arm around her back, not noticing until afterward what he had actually done. The wonderful feeling was trying to fight its way back.
Hermione's eyes snapped up to look into his, questioningly.
Ron could feel himself turning red as she stared up at him with an odd expression on her face. But he was already into it this far, he was hurting, and he didn't want to fight. "Is this... okay?" he asked tentatively, having to look away after a moment from the intensity of her eyes.
Hermione quickly looked down at her feet. "Um...yeah." She was rarely at this much of a loss for words, and it took her a moment before she could bring herself back to the problem at hand.
# # #
The sight that greeted first Harry, then Hagrid, then the rest of the class as they tiredly straggled back across the pen, was nearly as amazing as anything else they had seen that day. For there, leaning against the rocks, was Ron, one arm cradling a sleeping baby wallabindle, and the other wrapped securely around Hermione, as she leaned against his side, her own arm encircling his waist.
It looked for all the world as if they were just out together enjoying a beautiful fall day. Staying calm seemed to help Ron with the pain,so after only a few minutes, the two (well, three) had been lulled into a quiet, peaceful mood and were completely unaware they were being watched.
The remainder of the class had finished caging the wallabindles and the pen had gone quiet except for some exhausted panting and sighs of relief from a few of the students. Most sat at the far end of the pen for a moment resting as Hagrid sorted through the cages, looking for the mother wallabindle to release only her.
Harry came to a dead stop, staring, as he arrived near the rocks. He had left Ron screaming in pain and Hermione screaming at Ron-how in the world had it come to this? He wanted to alert his friends before anyone else arrived, but Hagrid was already right behind him, and Harry couldn't think of anything sensible to say.
"Well, wouldja look at that," Hagrid said quietly, not sure which part of the scene surprised him the most.
Harry became aware of others wandering up around him, stopping to gawk at the trio themselves. He knew he had to say something - it was probably already too late to keep Ron and Hermione from some merciless teasing and gossip, whatever the cause.
"Hey, Ron, we finally caught that one that kicked us," Harry said lamely. But it was enough.
Ron and Hermione, startled out of their quiet mood, both jumped at Harry's voice, coming to full awareness and pulling as far apart from one another as possible under the circumstances. They turned to look at the number of faces staring their way, turned back to each other in realization, and groaned.
"Oh, great! I hope you didn't get us a detention, Ron," Hermione whispered irritably under her breath.
"A detention? From Hagrid?" was Ron's immediate reply. Then he thought a moment. "Hey! What do you mean me, get us a detention'? I didn't plan this, you know! If I had, I would have made it a lot less painful - for me, anyway!"
Hermione glared at him. "Really? And what do you mean by that, exactly?" She looked as if she thought of something, then looked over at Hagrid. "Hagrid, can you help us, please? Ron frightened the baby wallabindle and he won't let us go."
Ron glared back at Hermione this time, opening his mouth to respond, but Malfoy had just arrived.
Malfoy stared a moment, then began laughing so hard it was difficult for him to stand. "Hey, Weasley, you and Mudbl—"Forgetting himself, Draco looked quickly at Hagrid to see if he heard "- uh- Granger, starting a family so soon? He's really cute, looks just like his parents! Don't you think so, Uncle Harry?"
An amount of snickering and some outright laughter was heard from the class, especially from the Slytherins. Harry thought it was tough to tell which Ron and Hermione were doing more of: blushing or fuming.
This was just the kind of thing Harry had been afraid of. He was sure there was a perfectly logical explanation, but he was certainly anxious to hear it and even so, Ron and Hermione were likely to be the talk of the school for awhile.
"Shut it, Malfoy!" was all Harry could muster. He started over to his two friends, but was gently pushed aside by the mother wallabindle when Hagrid released her.
The mother wallabindle hopped calmly up to the two students holding her baby and looked up at Hermione gratefully. She flicked out her long, black, sticky tongue and licked Ron several times in the face, leaving some of the gelatinous orange saliva stuck to his cheeks.
Ron grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut. As soon as he realized she was finally done, he opened his eyes just in time for the baby to offer his thanks in the same way.
"Could this day get any worse?" Ron muttered, feeling the slime start to slide down his chin. The baby wallabindle then released his grip on Hermione's arm (she had been trying to hold her arm toward the crowd so as many students as possible could see this situation with Ron was NOT what it seemed).
As soon as the little wallabindle loosened his tail, Ron gently picked the baby from his chest and held him out toward the mother's belly, where he scrambled to get inside the safe, warm pouch. Looking out at the still-staring crowd, Ron said quietly toward the baby inside, "Any room in there for me?"
Ron struggled to get fully upright from the rock without moving and hurting his back, then at Harry's request, turned to show Hagrid the injury. The scratch marks had stopped bleeding for the most part, but had swollen considerably and were oozing some purple and orange goo.
Hagrid winced at the sight. "Yeah, he got yeh, all right. Yeh go ahead on up to the hospital wing, Ron. Harry and Hermione can help yeh along." With that, the three friends started slowly up the hill toward the castle.
# # #
"Now, Mr. Weasley, it will take only a few minutes for me to prepare the salve. I could, of course, heal the wounds over right away, but wallabindle scratches have powerful bacterial properties, and they're likely to get infected without using the salve first overnight. You may speak with your friends, but they must leave immediately upon my return. Understood?"
Ron was sitting up in bed, listening intently to Madam Pomfrey. He briefly wondered if anyone but Dumbledore ever got away with not listening to her (and even Dumbledore used the privilege only in extreme circumstances). Ron shivered as a draft blew on his back through the open hospital gown. Usually students were allowed to wear their own pajamas, but Madam Pomfrey allowed him only the pants and then gave him this other garment to allow the skin to breathe . Breathe, it did. He nodded in agreement to her command.
Madam Pomfrey threw back the curtain from around Ron's bed and whisked herself away, revealing a whole group of waiting well-wishers.
Harry and Ginny were the first to walk up to the edge of the bed.
"You know, Ron, between Crookshanks and this, this—" Ginny paused.
"Wallabindle?" Harry guessed.
"Yeah, the wallabindle," Ginny continued."I'm wondering. You're tall, you're lean, perhaps all these clawed creatures mistake you for a scratching post."
"Very funny, little sister,"Ron said sullenly. "Been taking Fred and George lessons?"
"She most certainly has not!" protested George. "She's a Weasley through and through. Comes by the harassment genes naturally."
Ron looked over at George, who had both arms wrapped completely around Fred, half dragging him over to the bedside. The twins looked at their brother expectantly. Ron sighed and shook his head. "Okay, I'll bite. What's your problem?"
"Well, I sort of got hurt," Fred said, his eyes twinkling. "And I needed some help to get around, so without any willing females to fill the need, George is trying to help comfort me and make me feel better. What do you think, Hermione? Do you think it'll work? I hear you and Ron are experts in this kind of healing. Well, actually, I hear the version you two practice is a little more intense."
Hermione, who had been hanging back sulkily near the wall, sneered at Fred and turned to look out the window. She'd been putting up with whispers and snickers behind her back all day since the incident, even after the cause was known.
Ron started scanning the room and patting around the bed urgently as if searching for something. "Okay... Okay. You two stand right there. I know there must be something here I can throw at you, but it's got to be big and heavy and painful. Wait right there. I'll find something in a minute," said Ron, only half-joking.
The sound of quick footsteps coming from the other room interrupted Ron's search. Madam Pomfrey, carrying a small steaming black pot with a cloth holder, came to tell them all they would have to leave.
Just then, the hospital wing doors burst open, and two Hufflepuff students charged through the door helping a third student who was howling in pain. Ron recognized the now-moaning student as Ernie Macmillan, a fifth-year Hufflepuff that he knew from Herbology class several semesters ago. Even though it was difficult to figure out right away what the problem was, it seemed that Ernie had been doing his transfiguration homework while eating, had said the word shocks instead of socks in his spell, and had ended up with non-removable socks that sent his feet intermittent electric currents.
The Hufflepuffs helped the boy onto an empty bed, while Madam Pomfrey hurried over to Ron's bedside.
"Alright now, it's important to get this on those scratches right away before this cools, but I have other business to attend to," Madam Pomfrey said tersely. "One of you needs to stay to apply this salve to Mr. Weasley's wounds before it thickens and hardens. The rest of you will need to leave immediately." She looked around the group for any volunteers. Another yelp came from the shocking sock boy. Madam Pomfrey shoved the salve into the hands of the nearest person and fled to help the Hufflepuff.
The receiver of the salve was Fred, who quickly passed it off to Ginny. "Sorry, little brother, but I'm not touching you!"
Ginny thrust the salve pot at George. "And I'm not touching those!" she said, pointing at the oozing scratches.
George looked at the clock and quickly passed the salve pot to Harry. "You know I would, Ronnie, but we have Quidditch practice- five minutes ago!"
Harry, who had been looking a bit frantic for lack of an excuse, suddenly looked relieved. "Oh, yeah, I forgot! We do! Sorry, Ginny, but will you be okay walking back alone?"
"Yes, sure. I have to stop by the library anyway," Ginny replied.
"But, what do I do with-?" Harry was looking around for someone to pass the pot to when he spied Hermione, still by the window. He walked over and pushed it into her hands. "Here, Hermione, you've done a really good job taking care of him so far today." Hermione's face showed immediately that it had been the wrong thing to say, but Harry didn't have time to clear it up now.
Everyone leaving began to back away, wishing Ron a speedy recovery.
"Yeah, thank you all for your concern and for CHEERING ME UP!" Ron yelled sarcastically out the door after them. Then they were gone.
All of a sudden it was silent in Ron's end of the hospital room. The only noise was the commotion down the way around Ernie and his socks. Hermione just stood staring into the steaming salve pot in her hands.
Ron looked down at the bed for a moment, but then glanced over at Hermione, who had moved to his bedside. The steam was turning her hair into little curls all around her face-they shone in the amber light from the window, glittering as if enchanted by tiny fairy lights. After a minute, Hermione felt Ron's staring fascination with her and looked up to let her eyes meet his. The two stood this way for a moment, searching, wondering if the other felt something, too, or if it was just their own imagination.
Hermione spoke first. Ron didn't know what to expect, but was half disappointed and half relieved when her words brought them back to reality.
"You know, I'm not a nurse or anything," she said quietly. "Maybe I should just let Madam Pomfrey do this later." She set the pot on the bedside table and started to move away.
Ron didn't think, but reacted. He grabbed her hand and held on a moment, then realized what he was doing and let go, his ears turning red. But he tried to think of something witty to say to keep her there. "I heard a Muggle saying once about bad friends need enemies-or something like that."
Hermione smiled a tiny smile for the first time since she came. "You mean: With friends like that, who needs enemies'? Yeah, that seems about right for all of them tonight."
Ron smiled, too. He was glad to have someone there who wasn't determined to give him a bad time. "Yeah, for once I think I'm glad they all had other plans. But, of course, they couldn't miss stopping by to say their piece about today."
"Yes, well," Hermione said quietly, "I feel like the whole school's talking about that."
"No one else is here to bother you now," Ron said encouragingly. "And as for Fred and George, I've told you before- just ignore them. I know it's hard, I've been trying my whole life, but it does get easier. I figure by the time I'm sixty, they won't bother me at all."
Suddenly, Ron's face tensed in pain.
"Ron? Are you okay?" she asked gently.
"Yeah, it just hurts," he answered. "It'll get better in a minute."
Hermione thought carefully if she could handle doing it before asking him. "Do you... want me to put on the salve for you?"
Ron was somewhat surprised that she would offer. He could only imagine how ugly the mess on his back looked. "You mean you don't mind?"
"Well, I mind," she teased.
"You don't have to, you know. But who knows when that will get taken care of?" Ron said, jerking a thumb at more whining sounds from the other end of the room. "Just think, the longer it takes me to get back to normal, the longer you'll have to go without a good argument."
Hermione's eyes sparkled as she considered this. "Okay, then let's. I'll go wash my hands and you lie on your stomach so I can see what I'm doing better. Let's hope I can put it on right," Hermione said with a doubtful note to her voice.
She returned to find Ron lying on his stomach with the ties to the gown undone so that the long, purplish-orange scratches reaching from just below his neck almost down the top of his pajama pants were now easily visible. She winced as she looked at the wounds, seeming to almost feel them as well as he did.
Hermione swallowed hard and reached two fingers into the salve pot, scooping out some mushy, gray ointment that looked like wet cement. She muttered under her breath, telling herself she could do this as she touched the first scratch on Ron's back and gently dragged the salve across it. The salve started to bubble up and fizz into a light purple froth on the wound.
Ron's reaction was immediate. "Oooh, you don't know how much better that feels. It felt like it was on fire, and that stuff puts it out. More! More!" he demanded teasingly. Relieving the pain that had been with him most of the day had another effect as well: it started to make him very relaxed. He wasn't exactly asleep, just letting go of everything except the feeling of Hermione's fingers and the salve. His mind began to wander.
*Why does he keep following me? I just wish he'd go away. He makes me feel so creepy. I've got to find that book fast and get out of here.*
Book? What book?I don't need a book now.
* Isn't it a coincidence, Miss Weasley-*
(Miss Weasley?Ron thought)
*-that we're both here working on the same subject? *
Malfoy! That was Malfoy's voice!
* Maybe we should work together, you and I. Somewhere else. Don't you know how many other girls would love to have me- I mean, my help? *
*Oh, he is so...so full of himself!*
You are such a slimy git, Malfoy!
* I thought you had a problem with 'poor girls', as you call me, Malfoy. *
Tell him, Gin! Wait -how can I be with Ginny?
* Not any more. Maybe they don't have to care as much about their reputations. *
*Okay, he's breathing on my neck now.*
*This is starting to make me nervous! There's no one to help me this time, either. Oh, why did I leave my wand on the table? *
Where is Madam Pince? Or anybody? She's-I'm- afraid!
*He's pushing me up against the bookshelf. Don't panic, Ginny, just get away. But he's just a kid- how can he feel so evil?*
* Come on, Ginny. I promise I'll help you with yours if you help me with mine. And I'll even help you with your paper, too. *
You bloody filthy-minded slime, Malfoy! ...What's that? Something- else- is in here.
*Oh, no! His hand's up above me on the shelf-he'll have me pinned here in a minute. It's now or never. Elbow straight back to the ribs-NOW!*
"Elbow straight back to the ribs -NOW!" Ron yelled, jumping up onto his knees on the bed and batting the salve pot completely out of Hermione's hands in the process. It landed upside down on the floor, the salve oozing out.
Hermione jumped back from the bedside in shock and surprise. She glared at Ron angrily, acting as if he had planned this to scare her. "You great stupid prat, Ron Weasley! See if I ever try to help you again!" she shouted, then promptly stormed out the door of the hospital wing.
"Mr. Weasley! You calm down this instant!" scolded Madam Pomfrey, rushing over. "You should be thankful to people for helping you instead of yelling at them! And look what you've done!" The floor was bubbling and hissing with light green froth now.
Ron, dumbfounded at what had just happened, sat there on his knees with a ridiculous expression on his face. He was certain that Malfoy was just here, bothering him. Bothering him? And he never remembered feeling afraid of what Malfoy would do before. Plus he had to get that book for the assignment. What assignment? And why was he sitting up on his knees like this? It HURT!
Ron thought back a moment to before Ginny left. She said she was going to the library from here. What if he was there with her? He felt like he was with her. In fact, he felt like he was her (too WEIRD!). And what was that he sensed in his dream besides Ginny and Draco? A presence floated just at the edge of his mind's reach, but Ginny's fear had distracted him from being able to focus on it. Ginny (or he?) had sensed it-the evil in Draco-but was it him, or was it something else there with him? As horrible as Malfoy could be to people, Ron had never known Draco to make them feel cold and helpless and hopeless at the same time just by his presence. Only one thing he knew of could make people feel like that. The thought brought a mental image that he pushed away determinedly-and then came the anger.
This whole thing is stupid! Why does this keep happening? he thought. It had to be just a dream or something. But if it wasn't a dream, if I could somehow sense what was going on in the library, Ginny could be in real danger, not from just Malfoy, but from that, that other...thing! Thinking this, Ron's strong sense of logic told him he hadn't been in the library- he couldn't have been. He was lying here just a moment ago with Hermione salving his wounds. And-oh, NO! Hermione! Where was she? Even though he vaguely remembered hearing an angry voice somewhere in the distance, Ron had no idea what had just happened here in this room, except that it reminded him too much of the crystal ball crash in Professor Trelawney's class.
Ron finally calmed down enough to slowly ease back down on his side. He tried desperately to sort things out in his mind, but his wounds were starting to hurt horribly again from all the moving about. And even though he didn't exactly know where Hermione had gone, he had a sinking feeling in his stomach that he was in trouble with her-again.