~ Chapter 31 ~

Just Ron

Damn! Nobody warned me it was going to be so hard to be sixteen! Ron walked along the castle corridor and thought back on everything had happened since that birthday that seemed so long ago.

The hearing had gone better than expected. In spite of the fact that Lucius Malfoy was the major force behind prosecuting Ron Weasley once he returned from Ireland, word had gotten around that it was simply to get back at all of the Weasleys for some minor altercation between his mother and Draco Malfoy.

But since Ron had truly broken wizarding laws that were on the books, with a situation that couldhave technically jeopardized the safety of all students at Hogwarts (though Ron could hardly see what threat Valeria could pose), Cornelius Fudge was manipulated into setting a hearing. In fact, Mr. Malfoy had seen to it that it was a closed hearing, despite the public interest; and it had been set for the Ides of March, which was enough to unnerve Ron all by itself.

Little could anyone know that Bill and Charlie Weasley would muscle their way through the back doors of the Ministry chambers during the hearing, allowing in all of Ron's friends and family, along with a number of other 'interested' parties, including numerous Prophetreporters and cameramen. Everyone knew that these days, Cornelius Fudge needed no further bad press, especially since Voldemort had re-surfaced and been seen, the very same Dark Lord that Fudge had claimed all this year was defeated, if not dead.

Lucius Malfoy had been strutting like a peacock about the back of the chambers as Fudge held court in the beginning of the hearing, before the Weasley boys arrived. But he seemed incensed by the very presence of the reporters and the cameras once they burst in, for he knew very well the sorts of pressures being faced by the Minister of Magic.

Ron had made his statement, as had his parents, and they were waiting uncomfortably for a decision from Fudge. But one by one, Harry, George, and the still-bandaged Fred had gained permission to come to the fore, defending Ron for his actions and implicating themselves such that if Ron was expelled and sent to work camp, then the punishment would have to be doled out to all of them equally. Even Hermione, in spite of Ron's ordering her to stop, had stated that Valeria saw her do magic first in order to start a fire in the hearth and that if Ron was expelled from Hogwarts (taking a very deep breath to say so), she would need to be expelled right along with him.

There were murmurs among the now substantial crowd lining every edge and covering every square foot at the rear of the chamber. Nearly everyone was waiting with bated breath to see what Cornelius Fudge would do with the five students lined up side by side in front of him.

The press was ecstatic at having their first real chance at pictures and a story from the five students who had fought off dementors, hobbled Voldemort, saved a poor victimized Muggle girl, returned to Hogwarts on a disabled Portkey, and managed to come away with their lives in spite of it all.

A very bold young Prophet cameraman pushed his way to the front of the crowd, calling out, "Fred! George! All of you turn around!"

The twins, never ones to shun attention, not only wheeled to face the cameraman who turned out to be an old school chum of theirs, but the two boys reached over to swing Ron, Harry, and Hermione around to face the crowd as well. Protesting after three or four flashes went off in their faces, the three younger students started to turn again to face Fudge, but not before someone in the crowd began to clap.

At first it was just a single student in the back, clapping loud and strong. Ron squinted into the crowd and saw Seamus Finnegan pounding his hands together.

"Drove the snakes from Ireland again, Harry and Ron did -" Seamus said loud enough for most of the court to hear, "-when they booted out old You-Know-Who. Even St. Patrick would be proud! Long live the defenders of the Eire!"

"You are out of order, sir!" Fudge shouted. "As are the rest of you for even being here!"

But Fudge's comment was only heard by the first few rows of spectators, for the most amazing thing had happened. Seamus continued to clap -next, the rest of the Gryffindor Quidditch team started in-then Dean and Neville. Soon there was applause from every Hogwarts student in attendance except for Malfoy and his henchmen, who simply scowled and tried to send 'death looks' to any students applauding around them.

Before long, even those adults from the wizarding community who knew the Weasleys and who would ordinarily neverdisrupt an official hearing such as this, threw caution to the wind and began to applaud the five students as well. The twins, Ron, Harry, and Hermione could not help but smile humbly at the crowd and at the unbelievably embarrassing, but wonderful feeling of acceptance and gratitude the clapping, cheering, yelling, and whistling crowd was now offering.

It was then that Fudge turned to Lucius with a look of resignation upon his face. Apparently, his current political situation couldn't allow him to expel and send a group of student heroes to work camp, especially not when they had reportedly dealt the Dark Lord a serious blow (as had been leaked throughout the countryside since the return of the five students and Valeria from Ireland). Besides, Fudge obviously did not want to become known as the man to send Harry Potter away at a time when a great number of the public felt The Boy Who Lived should be at Hogwarts learning the skills to help him save the wizarding world.

So the charges against Ron had been dismissed, much to Lucius Malfoy's dismay. Cornelius Fudge had slinked away, hounded by an angry, embarrassed and verbally abusive Mr. Malfoy.

But the Ides was not yet over, and though false promise was given when the charges were dismissed, conviction wasn't to be the act of doom that Trelawney had predicted. As everyone was leaving the Ministry chambers, trying to avoid the persistent press, everyone had managed to do a better job of escaping than Harry had, as usual. Ron and Hermione, followed by Arthur and Molly Weasley, were headed down the numerous steps of the chamber entrance, leaving Bill and Charlie with Harry to fend off the press as best they could. Suddenly, a marble headpiece was knocked from the upper stair rail by Harry in his own effort to get free of the cameras and microphones. The huge stone was falling, plummeting straight for Ron's head, and was surely on its way to giving Ron a bigger headache than any that Fred had survived.

Lo and behold, just at the right moment, an enormous black dog had bounded up the stairs, jumping onto Ron and Hermione and knocking them to the ground; the headpiece smashed to the pavement where the two of them had been standing just milliseconds before.

Amazingly enough, although the entire incident took place in the presence of a large group of wizards and witches, even magical spells couldn't manage to ensnare the enormous black dog. Ron's last image of the dog was when the animal stopped; the dog turned momentarily and almost seemed to be smiling (if dogs could smile) as he led the Ministry watchwizards on what turned out to be an extensive wild goose chase. What many in attendance found interesting, but perplexing, was that although retired and seasoned Auror Alistair Moody had been present in the crowd, he refused to give chase and only shouted behind the dog that the animal "did a fine job for a pig-headed mongrel!"

That had been over a week ago, but it was these thoughts that were replaying themselves now in Ron's mind as he walked along the corridor on his way to meet Harry and Hermione. Never thought I'd say I was glad to be back to normal working at school,Ron thought.

"Have you seen that the press is here again?" Hermione asked Ron as he approached her and Harry. Ron's two best friends had been standing and staring over the balcony railing at the ruckus by the lake far below.

"Again? Why?" Ron asked. "What's going on?" Ron sidled close to Hermione and leaned against her warmly as the three of them looked over the balcony together. He tried to focus on a white-blond figure on the lake's edge. "Is that Malfoydown there?"

Sure enough, standing at the water's edge, surrounded by reporters and squinting against the repeated flash of the cameras, stood Draco Malfoy. Ordinarily, this sort of attention would have been his cup of tea-but apparently, not today.

Draco Malfoy was hardly dressed for the occasion. In fact, he was hardly dressed at all. He was totally drenched, his school robes were completely missing, his shirt was open and halfway off, and his trousers lay on the mud, clinging desperately to one ankle. The only piece of clothing that seemed to be fully intact was Draco's pants; though wet and clingy, the green and silver-colored undergarments at least covered that part of Draco that most of the student population of Hogwarts never, ever wanted to see.

Ron laughed. "What'd he do? Insult one of the Merpeople-Great idea, Malfoy!" he shouted as he spotted something rising out of the water. "Hey, look!"

Hermione gasped and Harry chuckled as a large tentacle reached up from the surface of the water and waved. The crowd surrounding Malfoy must have noticed as well, because they all suddenly stepped back, staring in awe at the enormous, dripping appendage that extended high above their heads.

All of the crowd moved-except Malfoy. Since his back was turned toward the water, he had no way of knowing that he was being very rude indeed to a squid in love. The tentacle continued to wave at him a moment, but when it got no response, it reached onshore and soundly slapped Draco across his backside with a resounding "smack!" The blow threw Malfoy forward onto the slimy mud face-first, giving the cameramen another exciting shot of a Malfoy in distress (which was alwaysfront-page news).

The tentacle withdrew, as did the squid, not to be seen again until a sympathetic Hagrid visited the lake several days later to console the lovesick beast.

Harry and Ron could barely contain themselves from rolling on the stone floor with laughter. They would finally calm somewhat on their walk toward the Great Hall for supper, when Hermione would speak up and very sincerely ask, "But what about the poor squid?"-to which she never got any response except for another round of gleeful guffaws.

The Great Hall was abuzz that night with talk of Draco and the squid, though Malfoy himself never appeared to give his own version of how it had all come to pass. But a nasty rumor had been floating around the school since that afternoon regarding Malfoy's misfortune.

Apparently, Malfoy claimed that an enormous silver-white eagle had abducted him on his walk back from Quidditch practice. The regal bird had then carried Draco far out over the lake and promptly dropped him into the surprised, but waiting arms of the squid. Malfoy would never admit to sweet-talking the squid into taking him back to the Hogwarts shore. But during those several hours in the lake, somewhere between the depths and the bank, promises must have been made that Draco never intended to keep-hence the frustration of a jilted squid.

In spite of Crabbe's and Goyle's corroborations of Draco's story, Lucius Malfoy thought the whole thing sounded completely preposterous. He felt it made his son sound so addle-brained that he had paid the Prophet management a small fortune to keep the story- and especially the pictures-out of print.

"Are you ready?" Harry asked Ron and Hermione after everyone had finished eating. "He's expecting us at seven." Harry turned to Ginny, sitting next to him, and said quietly, "Still need help with that homework?"

Ginny frowned a moment, looking puzzled. Then she looked into Harry's eyes and a look of realization came over her; she nodded excitedly. "Oh-oh, yes, please. Thank you for reminding me-" she continued, glancing at Ron, "-I almost forgot."

Harry smiled warmly at her. "I'll meet you in the common room. I shouldn't be long."

In spite of Ron's deliberate, but silent observation of the Harry and Ginny arrangements, Ron, Harry, and Hermione headed into the corridor. Hermione appeared to be getting annoyed at the constant laughter and joking between Ron and Harry regarding Draco -it had really gone on for some time now. Suddenly her eyes narrowed.

"Wait a minute," Hermione said suspiciously, stopping them both with her hands on their arms. "I know this is Malfoy, but that whole story with the eagle is really odd and- you two are finding this waytoo funny."

Ron and Harry looked at one another with brows raised. They almost burst out laughing again, then turned away from each other with hands over their mouths, knowing they had better try and regain some control over themselves before turning back.

"Come on, Hermione," Ron urged, still smiling and fighting the tears of laughter in his eyes. "We've got to get to Dumbledore's office-he's surely got a lot more to do than wait for us-and we're late."

Hermione frowned, thinking and stepping off again to continue her trek when a strange expression came over her. "Harry," she started suspiciously, "I know your Patronus is a stag. But I don't think Ron ever told me what hiswas. Just what form does your Patronus take, Ron?"

Ron looked very uncomfortable. "I'm telling you, we'd better get up there-"

"It's an eagle, isn't it?" Hermione accused loudly, stopping cold in the hallway. "A big, silver-white eagle! Ron, how couldyou? You've just gotten out of trouble with the Ministry, and now you're asking for it again-"

"Yes, but did you hear what Malfoy said to my mum while we were gone?" Ron fired back. "To my mum!"

"I know how hateful he can be-better than anyone!" Hermione said very loudly, her voice echoing from the tall corridor ceiling. "But I can't believe that you sent your own Patronus to get him, something that could tie you to the whole thing-does anyone else know that it's an ea-"

Though the corridor had been empty until this moment, Ron heard footsteps and saw three third-year Slytherin boys turn the corner into the hallway some thirty feet in front of them.

Ron's eyes widened. He quickly slipped one arm around Hermione's waist and flipped her to face him at the same time he pushed his lips against hers. With two steps he backed her into the wall and continued his quite effective silencing procedure.

Hermione, at first muffled and taken by surprise with her eyes wide open, finally gave in to the kiss.

Harry was unable to see Ron's strategy coming, but at least he seemed to understand what his role was then. He turned his back to the two of them and leaned against the wall, kicking at the floor with the toe of his shoe.

The three Slytherin boys sniggered at Ron and Hermione as they passed, but said nothing more to them. Then they looked at Harry.

"Where's your girlfriend, Potter?" the tallest boy asked sarcastically.

Harry must have been pleased to finally have a response for gits like this. "Sitting in the common room so she doesn't have to watch yourugly face walk by."

The boy narrowed his eyes at Harry. But since the Slytherins were only third-years, and had heard tales of Harry's amazing near-defeat of the Dark Lord, the boy and his friends didn't seem to think it was worth pushing their luck.

Ron pulled away from Hermione a bit. "And so who'sgoing to get me into trouble again?" Ron asked. "You and Harry are the only ones at Hogwarts who know-okay?"

Hermione just stared into his eyes as he still held her tight against him with one arm. She nodded her head slowly, trying to let her mind and her senses catch up with all that had just happened.

"They're gone now," Harry said dryly, stepping up to his best friends. "All right, I understand why you did that, Ron-and it was probably a really good idea, since I'm sure they didn't hear anything. But, please," Harry begged, wincing, "you two have gotto let me know when you're going to do that stuff. It's better than your fighting, but-not by much."

Ron and Hermione just looked at one another, blushing, and reluctantly pulled apart to continue their walk with Harry toward Dumbledore's office.

Hermione remained uncharacteristically quiet until they climbed to the next floor. "So, do you have any idea why it's-that?" Hermione asked Ron, sounding a bit too fascinated by the subject.

Ron decided he'd better tell her the little he knew. "I'm not sure. I know my grandfather had one-my grandfather who gave me the chess set. Eagles are magical creatures, too, you know."

"I know," Hermione replied. "They used to be kept by a few people as magical pets, if they could tame them. But then the Ministry had to outlaw them once they became endangered."

"Exactly- in fact, my grandfather had one of the very last ones that was legal," Ron continued. "My grandfather was supposed to be an outrageous flyer and he and the eagle used to fly together. I have some old pictures-but it's hard to tell if my Patronus is exactly the same."

"Well, at least it's an eagle and not some other thing-like an insect," Hermione said. "If I can ever conjure one, I hope it's not something-ugly."

"Even if it turns out to be a potato bug, I'm quite sure it will be a nice-looking one," Ron said with a glint in his eye.

Hermione shot him a look, but continued. "Eagles are very civilized sorts of creatures, you know. They can fly higher than any other bird, they're excellent hunters, so they must be good strategists, they're very good at catching their prey-" Hermione was being her usual encyclopedic self. "They mate for life, you know-" she continued excitedly, then looked strangely at him and seemed to consider what she'd just said. She blushed furiously and looked down, suddenly silent.

Ron tried not to laugh at her realization. "They do? Hmmm-what do you know..." he said matter-of-factly. But he kept smiling at her.

"So sorry to cut this fascinating conversation short, but -we're here," Harry said in apparent relief, moving to prepare for the gargoyle to leap aside. "Watermelon marmalade."

The door swung open and the three friends entered Dumbledore's office as the headmaster turned from the fireplace, apparently having just finished speaking with someone's head in the flames. He glanced at the two chairs in front of him, then quickly brought up his wand and changed them into a divan large enough for three, motioning for the three friends to sit down. Dumbledore himself settled into the large overstuffed chair closest to the hearth.

"I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that you've just missed a lively conversation with Lucius Malfoy," the headmaster said, "not that it would have been appropriate for me to let you be here. On the other hand, perhaps it would have been very appropriate for some of you to be present-but indeed the situation with young Mr. Malfoy was simply- unfortunate. Don't you agree, Mr. Weasley?"

Ron hesitantly peeked up from where his gaze had fallen to the floor, finding the headmaster looking directly throughhim with a very amused twinkle in his deep blue eyes. "Yes, sir-" Ron squeaked, having to push the words out of his throat, "quite unfortunate."

But there was no doubt as to the meaning behind Dumbledore's look and his question. Okay, okay, I got the message, Ron thought to himself, you're letting me slide this time, but once was enough. Ron frowned a little, continuing to stare at the headmaster even after the older man had looked away. How does he know these things?

"So how are you feeling, gentlemen?" Dumbledore asked. "Phantom pains left over from the Cruciatus giving you any trouble?"

"Not any more," Harry said.

Ron just shook his head in agreement.

"You've already given me the details of what happened in Ireland," the headmaster said. "But I trust that you've had time to consider the importance of what the three of you managed to accomplish there, even if the major problem was a bit-shall we say-unforeseen?"

Harry looked rather disgusted by the whole issue. "I don't think we accomplished much of anything, except to get away."

"Ah," Dumbledore responded. "And to get away with all of your lives, on top of saving another, is not an accomplishment?"

"Well, yes, sort of," Harry admitted grudgingly. "But I couldn't defeat Voldemort-not completely."

"Not thistime," Dumbledore replied quietly. "So are you finished now, Harry? You're done trying? You've done your absolute best and it's still not good enough, so you're-giving up?"

Harry just stared at the floor sullenly.

"No!" Ron chimed in.

All of them turned in surprise to look at Ron after he answered so emphatically for Harry.

"He's not-he'd better not," Ron continued, talking excitedly. "He almost had him. Harry, you almost had him! You're fifteen and he's-" Ron looked around frantically, scrambling for an age, "-old, and powerful and he knows all of that Dark, evil magic and he's done it for so long-and still-you damned near had him!"

"A lot of good that did," Harry said. "This isn't a contest where it's all right to come in second."

Ron moved to the edge of his seat so he could look more squarely at Harry where his friend sat on the other side of Hermione. "You turned his own snakes against him with your Parseltongue- you used your sheer power to fight him off with your wand against his-you got your will back from him after he used a spell you'd never even heard of before-and you even managed to try and help Valeria and me in the middle of it all!"

Harry still looked miserable remembering it. "You forgot the wandless fireball," he said dully.

"The what?" Ron said in amazement. "I must have been over the cliff then-but you'll be showing me thatlater. Harry-you were awesome! But he tricked you-you had no way to see that coming. He used your feelings about your parents against you because he was desperate-it was all he had left."

"It doesn't matter what he did-he still got away, and he'll be back."

"Ron's right, Harry," Dumbledore said quietly. "You had no way of knowing that he would use everything against you that you have-and everything that he lacks. He used your humanity against you, Harry-your sense of compassion, of honor. Voldemort owns none of those qualities, but he knew they were in you. You very nearly defeated him even when he stooped so low as to use your love of your parents to hurt you."

"Yeah-and I fell for it," Harry mused.

"But you know that now," Dumbledore continued. "You know he'll stop at nothing-that he'll use whatever he possibly can to distract you and demoralize you. Learn from that, Harry. Voldemort has a purpose for using those qualities against you. He knows that you'll try and look past those feelings now and make yourself more hardened to defeat him. But if you do, you move closer to his side than you've ever been before. If you give up on your honor, your compassion, your love-your humanity-just to overcome him...then it's too late-because he's already won."

Harry just looked up at Dumbledore and nodded numbly.

The headmaster continued. "It's why he wanted your will, Harry. He's always envied it, I'm sure of it. Now that you're aware of his tricks, I don't suppose you'll ever be 'falling for them' again, as you say. The stronger those good qualities are in you-the less chance he has of ever getting the better of you. Use that knowledge, Harry, to make yourself stronger."

Harry sighed, but appeared to be more optimistic. He sat up straighter and seemed more able to face what was likely to come his way again very soon.

As Dumbledore had talked to Harry, Ron had settled back on the divan and let his fingers edge their way over to Hermione's hand as it lay between them. His hand crawled over the top of hers and he pushed to intertwine their fingers together; a shot of tingles fired their way up his arm when she returned his gentle squeeze.

They sat for a few moments like that until Dumbledore swung his attention to them. He seemed to notice their clasped hands right away.

Ron and Hermione yanked their hands apart, both blushing furiously under his sincere little smile.

"Oh, no, no. Please-carry on," Dumbledore told the two of them. "You've already discovered that's a very powerful weapon against the Darkness. In fact, I don't think there's enough love in the world-why do you think Voldemort has been able to rise to power so easily?"

Still feeling his face on fire, Ron felt he couldn't deny what was almost a direct order from the headmaster. He reached again for Hermione's hand and pulled it over onto his leg, intertwining their fingers once more.

Bloody hell-why do I always have to turn red like this? Bugger, I'll still be blushing at forty when I touch her. His thought shocked even himself. At forty, Weasley? You're only sixteen! What in blazes are you thinking?

He tried to resist, but he couldn't keep from stealing a look to the side to see if Hermione was blushing, too; she was. But she was also smiling hissmile at him and he couldn't resist glancing up to meet her eyes.

That's where those thoughts came from. He grinned back at her, entranced. Yep-forty it'll be-maybe even eighty. Oh, what the hell, Weasley, what would be the point of trying with anyone else ever when everything you could want is right there smiling at you?

Dumbledore was still talking. "Obviously you've found it's something you may need to use in the future to help Harry against the Darkness. And it's equally obvious that between the two of you-well, you'll find out..."

Harry had been watching the intensity of the look between his two best friends and he sniggered at Dumbledore's words.

But Ron hadn't heard a bit of the headmaster's last two sentences. Harry's snigger snapped him out of his Hermione reverie for the moment. Ron looked quickly up at Harry, then back at Dumbledore. "Erm...what?''

Harry and the headmaster smiled knowingly at each other and changed the subject as Ron, clueless, continued looking back and forth between them. Hermione just sat smiling in embarrassment.

"I do hope that one thing you've discovered is that you can rely on yourselves and each other," Dumbledore said. "Each of you possesses strengths that will help all three of you get out of bad situations more easily if you work together. I see signs that this is becoming a habit with you, and I have to tell you that I could not be more pleased."

Dumbledore shifted in his chair. "But there is something you must know. From now on, you'll be less and less able to rely on the adults in this world to help you; there will be fewer people you can trust as time goes by. So you will need to learn to depend on and trust implicitly in each other for everything."

"Hopefully we'll get a bit more warning than we did when the Portkey wouldn't bring us home," Ron said. "That was a little-tense."

"Especially tense for you, I believe, Ron- in stretching to use that newfound ability of yours," Dumbledore said. "But as for usually getting more time to consider what's to be done, I wouldn't depend on that. In fact, the Portkey magic disintegration was probably one of the best learning situations I could have possibly asked for."

Set above three dropped jaws, three sets of teenage eyes riveted themselves on the headmaster in complete and utter shock.

"A 'learning situation'?" Hermione choked out, the only one of the three who seemed able to speak at all.

"Yes, yes, it was indeed," Dumbledore said calmly, nonplussed by their attitudes. "...As is everything in the world once you've gone beyond what books can teach you. Of course, it didn't start out to be so, but I will say that in the end the three of you performed admirably. And I daresay that Ron has a better feel for the full extent of his ability now-and what it can do to help in the future."

"Well, erm-yes," Ron stammered. "But you could have helped us with the transport? And-you didn't?"

"Yes, and no," the headmaster admitted. "But then, it came to pass that you really didn't need my help now, did you?"

The three friends exchanged looks that seemed to express identical feelings: Dumbledore was right again-and they hadmanaged after all- all on their own.

The conversation had stalled somewhat after that last point and Harry and Hermione were beginning to look eager to be dismissed, but Ron had one more question he'd been anxious to ask.

"Professor, what about Valeria? Is there anything that can be done for her? We've been to visit her almost every day, but-is she ever going to be all right?"

"As you know, Ms. Cruz has been staying in the hospital wing to receive some rather intensive debriefing," Dumbledore began. "Damage that's been inflicted on one's mind over fifteen years cannot be erased and rebuilt in a few days or even a few weeks. The dementors are gone now, but they've left confusion in their wake. It will take some time-but the fact that she's learned to start fighting the demons on her own by thinking good thoughts and having confidence in herself and others-will only speed the process. She has you to thank for that, Ron."

Ron's ears turned a bit red at the tips as Dumbledore continued.

"Valeria will be staying on here at Hogwarts for some time, but she is very strong and I believe that with the love and support of her friends, that over time, she will prevail. She will have the same privileges in the castle as any of the students. By the way, she will be moving out of the hospital wing tomorrow."

"Is she moving to one of the dorm rooms?" Hermione asked. "Because I know she's older than we are, but I'm sure Parvati and Lavendar wouldn't mind..."

Ron turned to Hermione with a look of pride and gratitude in his eyes.

"That's a very kind and generous offer, Hermione, and I'm sure she would be pleased to know you made it," Dumbledore said, smiling gently at her. "But I believe Ms. Cruz is already very pleased with her roommate."

Ron, Harry, and Hermione looked at one another questioningly. She doesn't know anyone else at Hogwarts except Fred and George, Ron thought, and though I know George would be more than willing, I'm sure Dumbledore would never go for that...

The headmaster looked almost happy that he'd managed to confuse them, but he continued. "As you know, the guest quarters at Hogwarts can be transfigured so that they are identical to anyone's home surroundings. It's much easier to feel at home when it looks like home and you have all the amenities you're accustomed to. We have a small apartment in the guest wing that's been transfigured to look like a certain little Spanish bungalow. Valeria's grandmother will be arriving here tomorrow to stay with her until Valeria feels more adequately prepared to face the world. Her grandmother is being briefed in Spain about the magical situation as we speak."

Hermione gasped in delight, and all three friends found themselves grinning from ear to ear.

"I hate to bring it up and spoil the moment, but what about Voldemort?" Harry asked. "Can he get into Valeria's mind any more?"

Dumbledore looked uncertain what to say. "You know, Harry, we're simply not sure. That's one reason she'll be staying here at Hogwarts for a time, so that we can get a better idea of just how much power he had over her. It could be that the Orb controlled it since that was the way he first entered her mind. Now that it's destroyed, he may be powerless to contact her. Although she may certainly regain all of her mental capabilities to their fullest in time, there is a chance that Valeria may never be able to return to Muggle society. But Ms. Cruz is aware of that and at least at this point, she's very relieved and pleased with our arrangements. In fact, we've even had some offers from the townspeople that have allowed us to make some long-term plans for Valeria. I believe that in Muggle society, Harry and Hermione, it would be similar to what you've known as a witness-protection program."

Ron sighed. "All right, everyone ante up for the poor little wizard kid. What's a witness-that...?"

Hermione turned to face him. "It's meant to protect people who were closely involved in crimes and such so that the guiltier parties can't get to them to hurt them. Those who want revenge usually don't even know what name the protected ones are using or where they are."

"It's not exactly the same in that we think Voldemort has a fairly good idea where Valeria is in general," Dumbledore explained. "But if we keep Valeria and her grandmother in the wizarding community, we have people who either already have Security Spells around their homes and places of work, or those who are familiar enough with the workings of Voldemort that they will be able to sense if he's contacting her."

"So after she's allowed to leave Hogwarts, then she'll move nearby?" Ron asked.

"Most likely Hogsmeade for a while," Dumbledore replied. "We've had to file papers with Special Services of the Muggle government in Spain, but there should be no problem there. Ms. Cruz, by the way, has been in on planning for her own recovery and for the rest of her and her grandmother's future as well. I must let you know that she is very happy to be able to stay near the three of you and some of the others she's met along her rather strange path to Hogwarts. As a matter of fact, Madam Rosmerta has been thinking she may need another cook in the coming year since she's expanding her business, and I hear tell that Valeria's a fine one. There's a small house in the back of the Three Broomsticks, where it would be perfect for Valeria and her grandmother to take up residence."

"Won't it be strange for her grandmother to live in a magical town?" Hermione asked.

"She won't be the only Muggle in Hogsmeade-there are already a few," the headmaster said. "What's important is that Valeria and her grandmother will have each other. Besides, the way Valeria speaks of her grandmother-it sounds to me as if the woman might have a good amount of magic about her anyway. There are many kinds, you know."

Dumbledore smiled as he stood. "I believe that's all that I needed to cover with the three of you -unless, of course, you have any further questions."

Ron, Harry, and Hermione stood to go.

"I have just one more," Ron said, turning back. "It's about where I want to go for my birthday next year."

Dumbledore looked at Ron over the top of his half-moon glasses, his eyebrows raised; Hermione and Harry turned to glare at Ron at the same time; not one of them had even a hint of amusement in any of their expressions.

All right-maybe it wasn't the best time to bring that up, Ron thought to himself-erm, I was kidding-sort of? Ron squirmed under the intensity of their glares. "Maybe I'll re-think that."

The headmaster sighed. "That's a fine idea-you do that." He watched as the three students headed for his office door. "And as wonderful as it is that you can produce it-you keep that eagle where it belongs, Mr. Weasley."

Ron, the last to pass through the door, looked back at the headmaster briefly and nodded. "Yes, sir."

# # #

"You're getting me all hot and steamed up here. Stepaway from the mirror."

The mirror was beginning to develop an attitude in Ron and Harry's dorm room several days later.

Fred had been staring into the mirror for at least fifteen minutes now, while Ron and Harry collected their Quidditch gear. He kept leaning his head from one side to the other, standing mere inches from the glass to consider his new scar.

"I don't know," Fred said, still engrossed in the mirror. "What do you think, George?"

"It looks fine. It's cool and all," George offered without sounding very interested.

"Oh-what do you know?" Fred said irritably, responding to George's lack of enthusiasm. "Now if I was some tall, good-looking, raven-haired woman, like you've been thinking about all the timelately, I might get an answer that means something."

"Valeria's coming to the game next week, you know-" George said excitedly, "-to watch me play brilliantly."

"How's she going to know that it's you playing brilliantly and not me, from that far away?" Fred asked.

George was silent for a moment, thinking, but didn't seem to have a real answer to that. "She'll know, that's all-we've been very, erm, close, lately-and-and-you're just jealous."

"Oh, right," Fred replied. "So you're saying, then, that you don't think Angelina is woman enough for me, eh? She'd beat the snot out of you if anyone ever told her you said that."

George considered what Fred was saying. "Hmmm-you know, you're probably right. Let's have a look at that scar then."

Ron and Harry rolled their eyes at each other as they collected items and threw them on their beds.

"At least now we know which one of you is which- for a while," Ron put in. He knew that in several months, once the wound was completely healed, that there was a spell that would erase Fred's scar completely-unlike a spell scar such as Harry's.

"I still don't know," George said to his twin. "It looks like a dead cow to me."

"It does not!" Fred protested. "If there's any cow to it at all, it's a dead cow reclining on a grassy knoll-look, see here? If I'm going to have a face with character and lots of scars, they have to be wicked ones, like Harry's."

Ron had to dig around in his trunk in search of his other knee pad, leaving a telltale orange tuft sticking out when he closed the trunk lid.

George stared at it with interest. "Hey Ron, that's not what I think it is, is it?"

"What?" Ron visually scanned the area where George was looking.

"In the trunk," George answered, standing up to flip the lid of Ron's trunk a little and yank out what appeared to be a battered piece of orange cloth. "This, you prat!"

George shook the tattered old cloth out, revealing the one partial block letter "C" that hadn't been singed like most of the right side of Ron's well-worn Cannons shirt.

"You're not really going to keep that, are you?" Fred asked, acting as if to do so would be quite ridiculous.

Ron looked around as the others waited for his answer. He realized he must have looked a bit uncertain, so he just gave in. Well, I was going to, but since they all think I'm mental to do it..."Nah, why would I keep that old thing?" Ron grabbed the Cannons shirt, or what was left of it, from George and threw it in the rubbish bin by the door.

"So are you two finally ready?" Fred questioned in exasperation. "We planned to get down there early to practice, remember?"

"That's only because you don't have full clearance from Madam Pomfrey to fly yet, and you know she'll be checking on you at practice time," George pointed out.

"Precisely!" Fred agreed. "Which is why we have to go now! So I can get in some practice before there's practice, because then I'm benched. But Madam Pomfrey just doesn't understand. This body is an athletic machine-" he went on, thumping himself in the chest with his fist, "-it will heal itself better withQuidditch than without it. I just can't seem to get her to come around to my way of thinking."

Whether or not Harry was ready to go, he seemed ready for Fred and George to be gone. "All collected there, Ron?"

"I can't find that bloody knee pad anywhere!" Ron said in irritation, looking around the floor near Dean's bed now. "All of you go on ahead, though. I'll be down in a bit."

Harry, Fred, and George gathered up all their gear and headed for the door, telling Ron they'd be toward the back of the pitch so that Fred would have fair warning in case someone came to see who was in the air that day. Not that Fred sounded the slightest bit worried about being grounded for an even longer period of time.

Ron listened to their footsteps and their voices as they clomped their way down the boys' dorm staircase. Though he was absently looking for his knee pad at the same time, that wasn't the real reason he was listening until he was sure they were gone.

As soon as Ron was certain that Harry and his brothers would be in the corridor past the library by now, he walked purposefully across the room to retrieve his battered Cannons shirt from the rubbish bin. We went through a lot together, we did. I didn't look much better than you when I came back from Ireland. Good thing they don't throw people away when they look like that. He rolled his eyes at himself....I can't believe I'm talking to a shirt, Ron thought, but after everything they went through while he and Harry wore it in Ireland, the garment really did seem more like an old friend. Well, in any case, you won't be going in the rubbish bin, no matter what they say.

Ron knew his Quidditch practice partners wouldn't be expecting him right away, since a lost knee pad for Ron usually meant an hour or so of search and rescue-at least it had in the past. So he walked over to his four-poster and smoothed the spread, stretching the shirt out carefully so as not to damage it any more than it already was. He stared down at the shirt for what seemed like a very long time.

Sixteen may be hard-but I think it will get easier, with practice. It's strange-like I've passed some point of no return, because even if I went back, things would never be the same as they were before, anyway. In fact, I'm not sure I'd want them to be. Just staring at the shirt reminded Ron of some of the scary, amazing and life-changing events that had occurred since the morning he put it on and headed out the door for an innocent birthday Quidditch game in Ireland.

Ron reached down to a dark spot on the side of the shirt, smiling a little when his finger stuck as he pulled it away. It was sap from the forest, probably from the day he'd made an important, but impulsive decision to run after Valeria, trying to find out what her connection was to Harry. He knew he was making a decision that was likely to get him into trouble, and it did-more than he ever thought possible-but on the other hand, it was his decision to help his friend, and he'd do it again in a heartbeat. He knew he could be self-reliant now-he was past the point of needing others to make his decisions for him, unless he wanted and asked for their help.

Snickering at the fact that the shirt looked quite odd with its uneven leftover bits of sleeves, he was reminded how both of the sleeves were lost in the heat of battle. The left sleeve was lost to make his bandage when the firewood was hurled by who he now knew was Peter Pettigrew. The right sleeve mostly burned off when Harry was wearing the Cannons shirt and Voldemort set his arm on fire. But soon after that, Ron had been able to use the connection to convince Harry that he never had to fight Voldemort alone-never again, Ron pledged, if there was breath in his body. Ron had come to understand the depth of evil his best friend had had to face during the first four years of their friendship; but he'd never underestimate the power of that evil again. He was past the point of simply having to be told about it - now he knewthat evil firsthand, and knew the damage it could do to his family, his friends, and his world.

Running his finger along the frayed bottom edge of his shirt front, Ron thought about how he had torn off a section to make a bandage for Hermione's hand the first time the barrier had returned the first Portkey group to the cottage. There was no doubt now that he was past the point of being just friends with her. But the missing section of the shirt reminded him that he would always need to take care of her and her feelings, and that he should never take for granted anything about her or their relationship. He knew that they would always find things to bicker about, but that they could work their problems out if they did it together and simply trusted one another.

Ron turned the shirt over and poked his finger through a few of the Knut-sized holes in the cloth there. Those holes had been torn when Harry had still been wearing the shirt as he slid across the flagstones upon returning to Hogwarts with Ron and Valeria. Those reminded Ron of something perhaps more important than anything else.

It was Ron's telempathy that had helped Harry fight Voldemort and then ultimately help him, Harry, and Valeria get home. He, Ron Weasley, Harry Potter's best and most trusted friend, had been given this very special ability for a reason, and he needed to make sure that he never took that gift for granted, either. He had always wondered, growing up in the midst of his talented brothers, what his purpose was meant to be in the world-but his fate was now inextricably tied to the one person who would shape the future of wizarding history. He would be there at Harry's side as Harry fulfilled his own heroic destiny. Now Ron was past the point of ever having to wonder what his place in the world should be; he would never need to doubt his own self-worth again.

Bugger! There must be a lot of dust on this thing, Ron thought, rubbing his eye. For some reason, his eyes had started tingling while he was thinking and looking at the shirt and there was certainly no other possible reason. I'd better get this put away before Dean and Seamus show up-blokes don't think about this kind of thing. You are going mental on me here, Weasley! But Ron had a sneaking suspicion that some blokes did indeed think about such things, especially when no one else was around-and he was also pretty sure that he would always be one of them.

Treating the shirt with much more reverence after he'd considered all it meant to him and his new life at sixteen, Ron smoothed out what wrinkles he could and very carefully folded it. He rummaged around in his trunk until he found several pieces of tissue left over from a long-ago-squashed Christmas box, then wrapped the shirt very gently. Once it was covered completely, Ron tucked it carefully into the very bottom of his trunk, placing a spell on it so that anyone happening to turn their eyes that way would never even see it to wonder what it was. But heknew it was there-and that was all that mattered.

Standing to glance at the clock on the wall, Ron realized that he ought to be getting down to the field if he was going to get in any extra practice at all today. He quickly scooped up his gear (minus one knee pad, of course) and made his way down the stairs, briefly scanning the common room for any sign of Hermione.

In the library again, I suppose, he thought,researching that foolish paper for Advanced Charms. We have two whole days until it's due and it's only three feet of parchment. Well, I guess I'll see her later...

# # #

Ron strode down the corridor, reviewing Quidditch plays in his head. The team was woefully unpracticed since the majority of the team had gone missing in Ireland for several days, then there was hospital time for a few of them. But we'll come around...

Then if their Second Chaser passes to their Third Chaser, and the First Chaser comes at the goal from behind so that the Third Chaser can pass off to him...he drilled in his mind. That was until he heard the giggling.

Ron had just rounded the corner into the very long corridor that passed in front of the library and finally led out to the Quidditch field. The giggles were coming from a group of second-year girls standing together on the right side of the hallway. Interrupted from his concentration on his plays, he suddenly got the distinct impression the girls were all looking at him.

Oh, bloody hell, don't tell me my zipper's down! He looked down quickly, blushing already. Hmmm, no-no problem there. Shoes tied so I'm not going to fall on my face? That would be so-suave -right now. He checked. Nope, not that...I know, there must be someone behind me... Ron glanced over his shoulder, then briefly on all sides, finding no one else in sight.

His mind was flying a mile a minute trying to think of why the girls seemed so amused, but as he came closer to them, he could see that most of them were blushing and shoving one of the girls toward the front. Since I haven't a clue, I reckon I'll just walk on by and act like I haven't noticed their giggling-maybe they'll just carry on with what they were doing.

The girl that the others had pushed toward the front was one that Ron had seen at the Gryffindor table several times, but he didn't know her name. She had been looking down at the books in her arms and as she timidly peeked up, Ron could see that her face had turned a vivid shade of pink. One of the other girls nudged her from behind.

"Erm, h-hi, Ron," she stammered meekly, looking as if she wanted to bolt for the door, but was willing herself to watch his reaction.

Huh? Oh my god, this is about me?! Ron was so shocked that he wasn't sure what to do, so he just lifted his hand a little and nodded his head at them all, trying to smile pleasantly through his shock.

The pink girl blushed even more and turned to hide among the others, who immediately began giggling and twittering among themselves as they continued to watch him walk by.

Grinning to himself more as he swaggered farther down the corridor, he was deep in thought-which made it easy for his abductor to jump from behind and yank him backwards, drag him into a dark closet, and close the door behind them. But as soon as Ron realized what was happening, he dropped his equipment and easily reached behind him with his long arms, grabbing his kidnapper and pushing their body against the side of the closet with his own. One of his hands held their arm behind their back, his other held his wand under their chin, ready to hex them if necessary.

"Oooh," said a very pleased female voice, "you don't know how long I've waited to do that."

Ron made an irritated growling noise, then said in an angry voice, "Oh, it's you-playing with fire..." His eyes were beginning to get accustomed to the darkness and he could vaguely see her face now; he dropped his wand hand from its ready position and relaxed his arm behind her.

"Wasn't it you who always said how really goodI am with fire?" she asked impishly.

"How'd you know how to get in here, anyway?" Ron demanded, still angry, though her playfulness was taking its toll. Why does she look so good when she's acting like that?

"Two little twin birds owed me-and I think it went quite well. You seem to be reacting much like I did-being scared half to death..."

"Of course, at the time I was trying to save you from getting detention as a prefect. I wasn't just-playing around..."

"Hmm, a little irritated, are we? Let's see, you're breathing quite hard, rather grumpy..." Hermione put her hand over his heart and held it there. "Your heart's beating very fast..."

Ron reached for her hand and yanked it from his chest. "Hey, I didn't do that to you!"

"...Which was a very good choice, I might add," Hermione said haughtily. "Where in the world have you been? Harry and your brothers went by almost an hour ago."

Ron's body was beginning to calm after the panicked adrenaline rush of being dragged away; the semi-darkness of Charmless Carrel Number Seven was helping. "I was-taking care of something-and I can't find my knee pad." Ron flopped down on the bench behind him, grabbing Hermione's hand and pulling her down to sit beside him. She leaned back against his shoulder as he wrapped his arm around her. "All right," he admitted, sighing, "-so you got me back. Was there some point to this kidnapping, or you just wanted to- do what the big kids do in here? Because now that we're big kids-"

She easily caught the suggestive tone of his voice. "Mostly, I wanted to see you once today, since I know you'll be at practice from now till-who knows. Plus I wanted to tell you something."

Ron's demeanor changed a bit. "Like what?"

Hermione took a breath before beginning. "Well, my parents were a little bit...um... taken by surprise by the whole Ireland situation..."

"You don't mean they were angry about what we-" Ron said tensely.

"No-they don't even know," she said, amused at his tone. "It's not about us-exactly. It's just that they didn't ever consider that my being at Hogwarts could possibly be so-dangerous. I think they're just feeling a little strange because we-well, we almost didn't come back-and that frightened them. They'll be all right-I know they will-but they're just a little clingier than usual right now."

Ron thought he was following her all right, but all of a sudden he was lost. "Clingier?"

"They want to come and see me here more often, stay in closer touch. I reckon I can't really blame them. They don't understand much about my life as a witch. So they want to come for the weekend and see the Quidditch game next week. Dumbledore told them they were always welcome."

"Oh, that'll be great!"Ron said in relief. "We should be in pretty good form by then after we've had a little more practice, and Ravenclaw's team has-"

"I'm sure they'll like the game, too, but-" Hermione interrupted, still sounding as if she was trying to get something out. "But they want to take us to dinner in Hogsmeade with them-just-the four of us." She quickly turned to watch the reaction on his face.

Ron suddenly looked terrified and a little green even in the half-light, his eyes wide. "You and me? And them?" From the frying pan into the fire, Weasley...

"Yes." Hermione looked as if she was trying to think of something to say that would help. "Ron, you helped face down You-Know-Who, you fought off dementors, you out-witted Pettigrew-how bad can parents be? They won't bite, you know."

"With parents it's worse," Ron said nervously.

"Worse?" Hermione repeated.

"Sure. They're parents, they ask questions-lotsof questions-"

"Questions? What areyou on about?" Hermione asked in exasperation.

"In class if they ask you a question and you get it wrong-so what? You're wrong," Ron explained. "Besides, they usually tell you right away when you are, like Snape does. But parents, they ask you questions and you answer and you don't know if it was the right answer or not because they just sit and look at you politely either way -and if the answer's wrong it can mess up your whole life!"

"Ron-calm down!" Hermione said in disbelief. "Where in the world are you getting all these ideas?"

"I have big brothers, you know-they've warned me," Ron said.

"Hmm-scare tactics is more like it. But you know my parents already..."


"And you've gotten along fine before..."

"Yeah. But that was before..."

"Before what?" Hermione asked. "Before they knew you snogged their daughter?"

Ron was silent for a bit, but his knee was bouncing. "Yeah."

Hermione seemed to be trying not to laugh, but her voice was full of amusement. "Well, first of all, they don't know how muchyou've snogged their daughter, if that helps. Second, they knew I'd be snogging someone someday and third-if I'm going to snog anyone, I'm sure they'd be very pleased to know it was you." Hermione turned to circle his waist with her arms and give him a reassuring hug. "It'll be fine."

Ron was relaxing a bit with the idea after her hug and he began to return the hug. Well, I guess if Hermione's on my side, how much can they say? "You think so? It'll be all right?"

"I know so. You won't 'answer wrong' and they'll love you as much as I do."

Ron looked down into her face. "Well, yeah-but you can't help yourself."

Hermione lifted her head from his shoulder and peered up at him. "What?"

Ron started to laugh. "It's the animal magnetism. I always try to tell the girls, but they just won't listen..."

Hermione tried to sit up and push him away in mock irritation, but he caught her off-balance and pulled her closer instead, capturing her mouth with his own. For a while, the two of them put Charmless Carrel Number Seven to the use it had gained its reputation for, and they managed it no less expertly than had any of its previous occupants.

Finally, Ron sat up, breathing a bit heavily. "You know, maybe I'd better-we'd better-"

"Perhaps a good idea-" Hermione mumbled, sounding as if it was an effort to get it out.

"Wonder what time it is? I'm thinking that I've not only missed Fred's practice, but I may be missing real practice now."

"Uh-oh," Hermione said, sitting up more herself and straightening things. She smiled. "And was it worth it?"

His cocky grin shone back at her. "Absolutely."

"So, before you have to go," Hermione started, "tell me that again."

Ron looked at her blankly. "Tell you what?" Hermione's expression said he should have known what it was, but he didn't. More about dinner?

"You know."

Everyone's always thinking I know something I don't! Unless-oh, no, look at those eyes-not that again...Something about her eyes made it become crystal clear to him. He decided to play utterly clueless, though-just for fun. After all, she did just get revenge for her own 'kidnapping'-we can't leave things all even now, can we? "No, I don't think I do know."

"Those words- three of them? Starting with 'I' and ending with 'you'?"

Ron looked at her blankly again. "Starting with you and ending with me?"

Balling her hand into a fist, Hermione lightly punched him in the arm.

Uh-oh, I'm pushing my luck here... "Oh, thosewords-hmm, let me see...Starting with I and ending with you...You mean love? That? That's what goes in the middle?"

She nodded slowly.

Ron knew it was he who was playing with fire at this point, but he continued. "I said that? I did?"

"Yes," she said dryly.

But Ron was still teasing. "Hmm, I don't remember that. Must have been the pain-or maybe I was delirious..."

"Maybe you were," she agreed sarcastically, "or maybe you will beafter I hex you into oblivion..." Hermione stood and picked up a book bag Ron hadn't even seen under the bench. She started to step across his legs, her only path to the door, but he stood in time to block her.

"Hermione," he tried.

There was no response. She kept looking out the window, but Ron reached out and turned her face to his.

Ron turned on the cocky grin, the charm, everything he knew worked on her when she was piqued. "You know I do." The kiss he gave her then was meant to convince her completely.

After, she was still trying to look angry at him-and was doing a fairly good job of it. But he kept on grinning and pretty soon she smiled back at him, but appeared to be irritated with herself for giving in.

Ron thought it might be safe to ask now. "So are we going to-you know-tonight?"

Hermione looked at him, seeming a bit confused. "I thought we were going to start cutting down, so we don't get too 'used' to it."

"Yeah, but-I don't feel used to it at all. What if I can't go to sleep if we don't?"

"You'll have to someday," Hermione said. "We can't do that every night until-I don't know-until whatever happens with us, happens."

"But it feels so right, and it's-it's legal," Ron tried to reason. "I'm not really there in bed with you, I'm just sleeping next to you in my mind, and no one else knows."

Sleeping next to Hermione every night in his mind since Ireland had been the most amazing feeling that he'd ever had in his life-well, almost-if he couldn't have the real thing. His dorm mates minus Harry (who seemed to have some idea what was going on) thought he was losing it- because for some reason, these days, he just couldn't wait to get to bed early. (He'd told them all he just needed the extra sleep to 'recover from his ordeal'.)

Hermione smiled at his terminology. "It's 'legal'? There just aren't enough telempaths in the world for there to be special laws on the books for you, that's all."

Ron began to think he might be getting his toe in the door. "And we don't ever do anything besides sleep-that's part of 'our' rules for now, right?"


"Have I ever broken the rules?"

Hermione sighed-she appeared to know where he was heading with this. "No, I suppose not."

Ron went on, but he suddenly sounded a bit eager. "Besides, if I was going to break the rules, you can bet it wouldn't be in the connection. That's one thing I intend to do first in the realworld."

"Honestly, Ron! " Hermione furrowed her brow at him. "All right, we're done with this discussion. Look, I've got to get to the library-and they're going to kick you off the team if you don't get to practice." She stepped past him enough to open the door this time and head out into the corridor.

By the time Ron had collected his gear and stepped into the hallway behind her, she had gotten ahead of him by a dozen steps or so.

Ron walked slowly behind her, trying to juggle all his gear, and had to speak loudly. "So what do you think-one more night?"

Several older students passing in the hallway looked at them oddly-Ron blushed.

Hermione called back to him without turning around. "No."

"Just one?" Turn around, Hermione-turn around and tell me to my face-bet you can't do it, Hermione...I know I couldn't say it to you...

She was still facing away from him as she walked. "No!" she called out, tossing her head. But then she did turn, just a little, just enough to peek over her shoulder and catch his eyes with her own before she spoke more quietly. "Well, maybe..." She kept walking.

You're on, Weasley! Go for it, but it better be good!

Connecting with anyone through their emotions was getting easier every day-and he could connect with Hermione in a heartbeat now. He knew the connection would go so fast and easy that she wouldn't even know he was there in her mind. Someday I'll find the guts to tell her out loud...someday...but for now... He knew just what would work, just how it would make her feel; he could find just the right voice in his mind and just the right timbre...think soft, smooth, warm...

*I love you.*

Hermione stopped dead in her tracks. She slowly turned and he could almost feel the heat coming his way, her eyes already enough to fall into, her smile dazzling him into mush as always. Ron was trying to hold strong, but his senses and everything about him were under siege. His eyes connected with hers and he could feel her look heating up everything inside of him. She held up one delicious finger in the air and looked up at him through those eyelashes.

*One-more-night.* She continued the smile just long enough that he feared he would be reduced to a puddle right there in the hallway. Then she swung around and silently walked into the library.

As she disappeared, he found he had been holding his breath-he blew it out slowly through pursed lips. Good thing he was going to the Quidditch field now. After an especially grueling workout and an ice-cold shower, he might trust himself to get within ten feet of her later.

Whether it seemed odd to anyone else or not, Ron didn't care. The huge smile on his face was fairly bursting out of him-there was just no fighting it or any reason to do so. He strode quickly down the hallway toward practice, grinning like a madman, thinking of how right sixteen was starting to feel.

No longer was he 'just Ron', Harry Potter's sidekick. Nor was he Ronniekins, youngest of all his well-accomplished brothers-certainly not the Ron who was poor and completely insignificant in the world.

Now he was Ron, the excellent player on a superb Quidditch team. Ron, who was entrusted with a special way to stand alongside and defend his best friend through all the trials they would face in the years to come defeating the Dark Lord. And most importantly to him, he was Ron, to whom Hermione had given her heart.

He used to think that all he'd ever be was just Ron.

The only difference was that now...

that was enough.

### FIN ###

For the final time here I would like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, Christina Teresa, my wonderful beta reader, someone who became a friend as well along the way. She kept me honest and did everything necessary to make me become the best writer I could be, sometimes forcing me to find something in myself that I didn't even know existed. Trust me, Christina, 'Points' would not have been close to the same without you.

I would also like to thank

sunshyndaisies, my friend, R/Hr consultant and writer extraordinaire in her own right. If you've ever read her work, you know that her Ron and Hermione are so real and true to canon that they could walk off the page and into your world right now. I felt her approval was necessary for any Ron/Hermione interaction you saw in 'Points' before it ever went for posting-thank you for everything, Jen!

And for all of my wonderful readers...

Thank you for joining me on the long journey that became

Points of No Return and a special thanks to every single one of you who has ever reviewed an author's story-any author's story-in a responsible way at some time. I've often said that I've been very lucky to have attracted the bestreaders and reviewers to 'Points' and I stand by that statement to the end.

If you didn't really 'know' Ron before, I hope you've learned to understand him better by seeing life in the Potterverse from his perspective . If you did like him before, I hope 'my Ron' fulfilled all of your expectations, and let you love him just a bit more.

You have all helped mold what this story came to be with your feedback, sharing, encouragement, critiquing, suggestions, compliments, and yes, friendship. You cheered me on to continue, you supported and kept me going through the difficult times, and you helped me go with the flow through the easy ones. It was you who convinced me I could do this-all of you- without your encouragement, I never would have made it. So please congratulate yourselves for a job well done.

And if I've managed to entertain you for an hour that would have otherwise bored you to tears, or helped you forget what you were upset about on some bad day, or let you remember through the characters for a moment what life used to feel like at sixteen-then I've done my job.

Thank you for the opportunity to write 'Points' for you.

You remain the best!

~~Night Zephyr~~