Ron Weasley was not an early riser. Engaged in a lifelong love affair with his mattress, he was loathe to leave her tender embrace for anything less than the siren call of breakfast. If sleep was a sport, he could play for England. He could nod off most anywhere, and it took a lot to wake him; only his mum's voice and the screams of his best mate could rouse him without (much of) a struggle on his part.

Which made it all the more amazing that here he was, gone five in the morning, sitting on the edge of his bed fully dressed. The gear was a bit snug in the chest area, heightening the feeling he had of not being able to get enough air. He hadn't really taken a shower, just stood numbly under the spray of water, eyes fixed on the red tiles. Shaving had been totally skipped; his hands were shaking too badly to trust with a razor. By turns he was hot and sweating, and cold and clammy. His heart and his stomach were both fighting their way up his throat, and he wished he hadn't hit the bangers so hard last night, or gone for thirds of the apple crumble cake.

Dear Merlin, it was a wonder he had been able to crawl onto a broom, much less act as Keeper! This feeling was horrible; the closest comparison she had was how she felt right before a big test, but that wasn't quite right. Because even as nervous as she got at the thought that she might fail, there was a part of her that knew she would be fine. Ron, on the other hand, was already certain he would fail. In fact, the lack of faith in himself was almost scary; he fully expected that one or another of his teammates would save the day, and hopefully overshadow any screwups he might make.

Not for the first time since this began, she wished she could tell him that things would turn out so much better than he believed they would. The insecure boy hunched on the four-poster bed was a far cry from the Auror in training that she knew today. Just this past Christmas, she had spoken to several of his instructors at a party while he had gone to get their drinks, and they had been highly pleased with him. Ron was one of those rare types of leaders that they seldom saw. He had no need to lead, for one thing; no desire to assert authority over anyone else, no need to dominate. He was perfectly fine with taking orders from someone else, and performed them to the best of his ability. But when he saw a need, he stepped up, and was able to take over so seamlessly that there was no animosity. Add that to his natural ability to strategize, quickly and under pressure, and he was marked to go far.

This Ron still had a long way to get there; he had so much potential, but he needed to see it in himself first, or he would never make a go of it.

He sat there until the others began to stir, watching as Harry blindly staggered off to the toilet, bouncing off the wall once before he made it through the door. His glasses might have been of better use on his face instead of dangling from his left hand, but Ron was used to the routine by now, and said nothing. Upon returning, glasses now where they belonged, Harry glanced over and stopped dead in his tracks.

"Ron? How long've you been up? Usually I have to nearly drown you with a glass of water."

"Um, wasn't sleeping well, so I just went ahead and got up around four."

Harry squinted at him. "You can't be Ron Weasley. Umbridge must have replaced him with a Polyjuiced Slytherin. That, or it's a sign that the world is ending."

Ron's shoulders slumped. "If it was, do you think they'd call the game?" he asked mournfully.

"I take it back; you're Ron. You might need a trip to St. Mungo's, but you're definitely Ron."

"Tosser."

"Not before a game; you know better than that."

He flipped Harry the finger, and reached down for his boots. They were tight (of course) and had to be laced up just right. Harry bumped and thudded around the room getting ready, but Ron couldn't work himself up to any sort of conversation. No, he was preparing himself for his debut as Complete Arse in front of the entire school. Quidditch had a rich history rife with unique and tremendous failures, and Ron's mind seemed quite determined to run through the entire list of just how badly he could muck this up. Maybe he would even come up with something to top the most bizarre. It would be just his luck to get his name in the history books as a failure.

Harry yanked him by the arm, and Ron got to his feet with a grunt, following him downstairs on their way to breakfast, the prospect of which failed to excite him. They nearly ran right into Fred and George at the portrait hole, the two bursting in loudly, arguing over where Fred's left glove was. Upon seeing Ron, they stopped short, and grins that started to form curdled into something more sickly, as a thought seemed to hit them both at the same time.

Hey, Ron. Good luck out there, okay?" Fred said in an oddly stiff, cheerful voice.

"Yeah, get out there and break a broom." George added.

Ron stared at them as they moved off, giving a small groan as he turned to join Harry in the hall. If those two were being nice, then he was doomed. Where was that cave that Sirius hid out in during fourth year? And how long, exactly, would he need to stay gone long enough for people to forget his stupidity in joining Quidditch?

Logically he knew he should eat something, but the smell of breakfast nearly turned his already spinning stomach. Hermione and Ginny were already there, and he plopped into a seat in front of them, eyes closing momentarily as the bright, runny egg yolks gazed up at him. He slid them around his plate, until the buttery trail they left brought to mind the slugs he had belched up in second year. A conversation was being carried on around him, but he couldn't seem to focus long enough to connect. The only thing that sparked any kind of interest was that daft hat of Luna's. At least he had the comfort that he wasn't the only one going to be getting odd looks today. Harry seemed like he was ready to go, and after a small nudge, Ron stood up gratefully, thankful he wouldn't have to sit there any longer, the mush that had once been his eggs staring up at him accusingly, as if to say he had murdered a chicken's child in vain. His mind was still in the process of directing his limbs so they didn't get in each other's way, and he was nearly knocked off his feet when arms wrapped around his neck, the weight of a body pulling him down slightly as a pair of lips that did not belong to his mum were pressed against his cheek! His already stressed out brain barely had time to comprehend what was going on before she backed off, and he knew he had the look of a mentally deficient troll, but he couldn't help it. All he could do was stagger after Harry, his hand coming up to touch the spot on his face that was as warming as Butterbeer on a cold day.

Hermione had kissed him. He kept waiting to wake up, or for the twins to come up and tell him it was a joke, that they had slipped him something to make him hallucinate. But nothing happened, and slowly, he began to believe it had actually happened. Hermione had kissed him! He struggled to remember it clearly, wishing she had chosen a time when he hadn't been concentrating on walking without tangling himself up, or that it had happened slower, to give him more time to process and enjoy it.

Because he had enjoyed it; he remembered that much, at least. But why had she done it? Hopefully, he thought it might be possible that she was making a move on him. Then the more pessimistic side of his brain pointed out that she had kissed Harry like that before, at the station. So either she was just being friendly (really friendly) to both of them, or else she fancied Harry, and just didn't want him to feel like he was being left out. He snorted under his breath. of course it had to be something like that. The idea of Hermione launching himself at him for a passionate snog was something that would only happen in his dreams.

Hermione giggled. It was actually a more common occurrence than he might think. While not one for large displays of public affection, in private (or with a select few close people, as Harry had learned to his disgust and horror), all bets were off.

Harry started talking about Quidditch, and Ron shook his head to clear it. He needed to get his head in the game; now wasn't the time to be day dreaming about Hermione. That was for at night before he went to bed. Or during his shower. Or lessons. Or the library. Or...well, whenever she popped up in his head and...pants. Still, he couldn't help the tiny spark of hope that the kiss had inspired; maybe, if this game went well, he might be able to ask her...

The laugh at his randiness died in her throat. The game had gone far from well. In some ways, it marked the beginning of the end of things for that year; the twins became even more rebellious, and Harry, denied even the outlet of his favorite sport, became sucked down in a fog of hostile moroseness. There had been that huge fight immediately following the game, but Ron had slipped off, and she had never known where he had gone.

Snow fell gently, white standing out in stark contrast against his hair. The air was stinging and bitterly cold, but Ron hardly registered it at all as he sat hunched on a stone bench tucked away in one of the gardens' alcoves. He had no memory of coming here, or how much time had passed. All he knew was that he was miserable and ashamed, and he didn't want anyone to see him. Tears threatened to fall, but every time they were in danger of leaking out, he would hold his breath and wait for the moment to pass. Foolishly, he had thought he had been prepared. He hadn't gone in thinking a scout would swoop in and offer him a contract, but he had thought that once he got up there, he might be alright. He had endured the insults for weeks, and while they bothered him, he had hoped he would be able to forget them once he was in the air.

But they had to come up with that fucking song! He had to hand it to Malfoy; he knew just where to hit you the hardest. It was a two-for-one special, insulting his family and his competence at the same time. The twins' songs, while annoying, were never hurtful. They never set out to tear your heart out; all they wanted was for you to laugh. But this...this magnified every negative thing he thought of himself, and he wasn't stupid enough not to realize that the song would be stuck to him from now on. It didn't help that he hadn't proven them wrong. Sure, they won the game, but it was in spite of him. He hadn't contributed to it at all; they would've had the same results if they had strapped Trevor to a broom. He hated this; out of any group he was in, he was always the fuckup. It wasn't fair to the rest of the team to stay on. He had tried, and he had failed. Now it was time to cut out before he did any more damage.

And to make matters worse, she had been watching. Watching, and listening. Just the thought of it made his stomach heave, and he barked out a dark laugh. Had he actually thought he had a chance with her? The dreams he had of pulling some wicked move in the game, and then asking her out afterwards looked spectacularly ridiculous now. What witch would go out with a loser like him? Not Hermione; she was meant for better, even he could see that. He had wanted to be that for her, but you couldn't go against nature. Out of seven children, there had to be a dud, and he was it.

The need to cry had died down enough that he thought he could make it to bed, so he stood and started moving slowly in the direction of the door; he didn't know what the look on her face would be, or if disgust or pity would be worse. In the end, he supposed it was all the same. That was what he got for being stupid enough to try for something so far out of his reach.

Furious tears poured down Hermione's cheeks, and she was too upset to know how much was from Ron's despair, how much was from her heart breaking for him, and how much was from anger. She hated this; hated how Ron could never see the good in himself unless it was tied to something else. And she hated that she had been a part of it, even when she hadn't done anything herself. Ron had never needed to do anything to make her love him. She loved him for his personality, for his actions. Not his talents or popularity. She had loved the boy that stood by his friends, that would fight for them, no matter who the enemy was. She loved the boy that had held her while she cried, that had shed his own tears with her in shared grief. Those things were Ron, not Quidditch scores or high enough marks. She needed him to see that, needed him to believe it. And he had to see it for the truth that it was, and not just accept it because she said so. She loved him so much, and it tore her up to watch him beat himself down.

The snow continued to fall, but instead of entering Hogwarts, she found herself once again at Grimmauld Place. Ron was pulling on his coat, glancing worriedly at the stairs, wishing he knew what to say to Harry to get him to come out. But he was afraid of making things worse, so he decided he would let his friend sleep, while he went into Diagon Alley with his family to pick up some supplies.

Although it was mere days until Christmas, there was an unusually sombre air about the Weasleys as they arrived at the Leaky. He couldn't remember the last time the twins had cracked a joke, and his mum had a nervous, distracted look, as if her mind was somewhere other than here. Which it probably was. The only one who looked halfway normal was Ginny, but Ron knew that she always put on a stoic front when she was most bothered. Although they knew he was going to be alright, seeing their dad in a hospital bed had thrown them all for a loop. Hearing about what happened had been bad enough, but seeing it really brought home how close they had been to losing him.

Ron hadn't been able to process everything quite yet, and he wished he had someone to talk to. But his siblings were just as in shock as he was, and Harry, for some reason, was closing himself off. If Ron didn't know any better, he'd think Harry was blaming himself, which was stupid. How could it possibly be his fault? He hadn't told Dad to do whatever he was doing, and he hadn't set the snake on him. Hell, he had saved his life! But the way he was acting, you'd think he was the one doing the biting. And he was in one of those touchy moods that Ron wasn't quite sure how to bring him out of without setting him off more. Hermione might have an idea, but he hadn't even had a chance to owl her yet.

Hermione. He wished she was here now; for once, he felt like talking about something poofy as feelings, and she wasn't around. Instead, the girl who refused to get on a broom was whizzing down a mountain on two thin strips of wood strapped to her feet, with no magical support whatsoever. Mental.

His mum handed them each a short list of things they needed, doling out the small amount of coins carefully. Ron jammed the money in his pocket, first making sure that there wasn't a hole. They were being allowed to split up, so they could also shop for Christmas presents. The thought of presents was a happy distraction from thinking about his father, at least until he realized that he still needed to get something for Hermione. Instant panic welled up in his chest; he had planned on finding something special, but the chance had never seemed to come up. She was always around during Hogsmeade visits, and he had enjoyed spending that time with her too much to go off on his own. And he had no ideas of what to get her at all; sweets were something he gave to pretty much everyone, and he wanted to be a bit more original than a book.

What did you get a girl that showed her that you did, in fact, notice she was a girl? Well, something that wasn't offensive. He suspected sexy knickers shouldn't be given until at least the third date. He could be a gentleman when he needed to be.

A grin spread across Hermione's face. Sexy knicker actually had come into play around their third official date; He had proudly presented her with a lovely pair, claiming it was to make up for the ones he had ripped in his...haste. They had been together for about a year, but with their schedules, actual dates with date-like activities were few and far between.

What did girls like? What did they want? Wait! He was just struck with something brilliant! His sister was a girl! Ginny would know; all he had to do was find where she went...but that was one of the perks of being in a family of gingers, as her head was easily spotted bobbing along ahead of him on the street.

"Ginny! Gin! Excuse me, sorry about that...Hey, Gin!" He yelled as he jogged after her, pulling her to one side once she had stopped for him.

"What is it, Ron? I have several stops to make."

"Sorry, it's just that...well, you're a girl-"

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Really? I thought we had sorted you out about that type of thing last year."

"Yeah, yeah, just listen, will you? I wanted to ask if you knew what would be a good idea to get Hermione."

He didn't want to go into much detail, or else Ginny might get ideas. As it was, the smile she wore already had an aura of smugness about it.

"Ah, the light comes on...sure, I'll help. What have you considered?"

"Um, you know, it's Hermione, so...a book?"

The halfhearted question received a heavy sigh and shake of the head. "Let's make this simple; Hermione loves books, but she might like to get something a bit more feminine. She isn't JUST a brain, you know. Maybe something small, and pretty, like a nice scarf. Or one of those little stone boxes with the shapes cut out to hold jewelry. Look around, and I'm sure something will strike your eye."

Ron took her literally, and began glancing into the windows up and down the street; some things clearly wouldn't work, and some were just as clearly out of his budget. He must have looked forlorn, because Ginny took pity on him.

"Look, give me the list and money Mum gave you, and I'll do your part of the shopping," she said, holding her hand out.

Gratefully, Ron handed everything over. "Thanks Gin. I'm sure I'll find something if I wander around long enough."

"Just come into this shop with me first; everything in here always seems to be on the highest shelf."

Realizing that he didn't have much choice, he followed her inside the small shop, which was packed full of odds and ends. There was no real rhyme or reason to the stock, but the witch who owned the place mixed all of her own seasonings, and Mum always used them in Christmas dinner. He trailed after Ginny, reaching up to pull small bottles and tins off the higher shelves when she pointed. While she was debating whether or not to buy a tin that had been damaged, he let his eyes roam around the shop, his mind still puzzling over what to get for Hermione. A flash of color caught his attention, and he turned to his left to see a display table covered in glass bottles of various shapes, sizes, and colors. Bored, he went for a closer look, nearly turning away when he realized it was perfume. Too girly to hold his interest.

He did a doubl take. Girly? This might be it!

Carefully, he picked up a bright yellow bottle, and took out the stopper to have a sniff. Hastily, he put it back down; it had smelled almost exactly like his dress robes from last year, and he was astounded that people would pay to stink like that. He picked up a square bottle with red and orange swirls, and nearly gagged before he had even taken the stopper out. So far, he wasn't any closer to a gift than he had been to begin with. A slim, dark green bottle caught his eye, and he decided to risk it one more time. This one was alright; A bit like the woods after a rain. Not really Hermione, though, so he set it back down. He tried several more bottles, and while some came close, none were exactly what he wanted. It was hard to describe, since he didn't even know what that was, but he was looking for one that would remind him of her.

"Perfume? That's actually a really good idea." Ginny said from where she had come up beside him. She picked up the yellow bottle he had earlier. "Gah! Or not; what is this stuff?"

"Definitely not on my top favorite to consider list, that's for sure. I think I've smelled nearly all of them, and they're sort of running together." He spotted a small, round purple bottle hiding in the back. "Wait, I think I missed one."

He opened it slowly, knowing now from experience that some would practically crawl out of the bottle and slap you. When it seemed safe, he brought it closer to his nose, and his eyes widened. This was it! It couldn't have been more perfect if he had ordered it himself; All of the others had been too flowery or fruity, or a weird musky smell. The good ones were either too strong, or you could barely smell them at all. This one was all of the scents and none of them at the same time. In a way, that was just like Hermione. He couldn't describe why he fancied her if he tried; if he did, it would come out as wrong as all of these bottles he had tried. He could sort of pick out some of the more obvious elements, like that she was pretty or smart, but it wasn't any one thing. It was just...how they all sort of came together in whatever combination and amounts that resulted in Hermione. It was like how, out of all the other girls, he would pick her, even though she shared different aspects with the others. Somehow, all of the common things were mixed together with something just a little bit different, and that was what he was drawn to.

Hermione was at a loss for words. Ron might not always be able to articulate his feelings very well, but that didn't mean that those feelings were any less beautiful than someone who could put everything down in moving verses of poetry. It was simple and raw and honest, with no overblown, false praise. He simply liked her because he liked her, and that was more powerful and important than being attracted to any one single thing. There may be a few traits he didn't particularly like, but they were a part of her, and he accepted everything as a whole, no picking and choosing. She wondered if it was indecent to want to push him down on the table and snog him senseless; she found she didn't really care if it was or not. If she could touch him right now, bottles would be flying.

"What do you think of this one?" He asked his sister, wanting a second opinion, just to be safe. He held out the bottle for her to take a whiff, hoping he had hit on something.

Ginny cocked her head, closing her eyes in concentration. "I can't really tell what it's supposed to be. Can you?"

Ron shook his head. "No clue. Do you think she'd like it, though? Or should I try somewhere else? Maybe something else would be better. Perfume is weird, isn't it? Yeah, it's weird. Bad idea."

She stopped him from putting the bottle down. "Wait! I think she would. It's pretty, even if you can't tell what it is. You should get it."

"If you think so...better check the price first."

In his excitement, he had forgotten all about the cost. He flipped over the tiny tag around the neck, and let out a 'hurk'. Bloody hell! Quickly, he did the maths; he might not be a genius at Arithmancy like Hermione, but he was aces when it came to money. He had learned quickly that figuring things out in your head saved embarrassment at the counter if you didn't have enough. Subtracting the bare amount he would need to get everyone else at least a token gift, he was still short. Morosely, he began to put the bottle down. Figured; he had found the perfect gift, but it was out of his reach.

Ginny put her hand on his wrist. "How much?" She asked quietly.

"I'm a Sickle short. Guess I'll look somewhere else after all."

"Why? I can lend you a Sickle. I've done all my shopping in Hogsmeade, and I was only going to waste it on something that probably wouldn't be appreciated anyway."

"Really? Are you sure?"

She waved a hand airily. "Of course. What are sisters for?"

The cynical voice inside his head made him hesitate. "What's the catch?"

In her best impression of the twins, she gave him a wide-eyed, wounded look. "Are you saying that I can't do something nice for my older brother without there having to be something in it for me?"

He narrowed his eyes. "No, I'm not saying you can't, just asking why you are."

"Look, I really am offering, but if you can't just take it, then let me take your Cleansweep for a ride in exchange. A short one."

His Cleansweep? His precious Cleansweep, that had nestled between no other legs than his? His first reaction was to say no. But then...Hermione. He had this one chance to do something really nice to get her attention. He had to take it, whatever the cost.

'Hermione knew how much that broom had meant to him; one of the few possessions that belonged only to him, it was almost like a pet. The fact that he would do this just for her showed how much he had cared.'

"Fine. Three laps around the pitch. Deal?"

Ginny pulled a coin from her pocket, and dropped it in Ron's hand. "Deal!"

Ron went up front to pay, nervous excitement nearly causing him to trip. He couldn't wait to see her reaction! Maybe, if she liked it enough...

She had loved it. Unfortunately, instead of gushing, she had overanalyzed and played it safe. Why hadn't she realized that fifteen year old boys didn't just suddenly start buying you perfume for no reason? It seemed so obvious now; he had never given anyone else such a nice gift. But the curse of wanting to be absolutely sure about things was that you often missed your opportunity while you were taking precautions. With a moan, she recalled what she had given him that year. What a bold declaration of love on her part! At least he had been willing to take some sort of risk. But she had been afraid of offending him, knowing he would be upset by the differences between their gifts. Instead, she had been the one supremely embarrassed when she had had to give him a gift that even she knew was inadequate.

The lights in the shop went out for a second, and when they flickered on again, she saw that she was in the room Ron and Harry had shared at Grimmauld Place. Harry was still snoring into his pillow, but Ron was rooting through his pile of presents like a happy little squirrel surrounded by acorns.

Christmas was one of Ron's favorite times of the year. The food, the presents; The break from school, the food. The snow, the presents and food. And when it was all done, the leftovers. The first package he opened was the familiar squashy rectangle, and sure enough, a puddle of maroon spilled out when he ripped into it. Hideous, but it was tradition. That, and this house was cold enough to freeze his bloody nips off. He pulled it over his head and went back to ripping paper. He always meant to savor it, but as soon as his hands touched the first gift, his resolve was completely forgotten.

Hermione smirked. He was still the same way, even with his 'adult' presents. But she had gotten him to take his time on occasion. Not that she didn't enjoy a little tearing herself.

.Ron had waited to open her gift last; both excited and afraid. What if Hermione got him something too subtle, and he was too thick to figure it out? Had she opened her gift yet? What would she say? What would he say? And why hadn't he thought of that until now? If this were a game of chess, he would have lost five moves ago. Picking up the blue and silver package, he smirked. You could tell it was from Hermione just by the way each crease was folded perfectly into sharp, straight lines, each piece of tape spaced evenly. Holding his breath, he dug his thumb into an edge and tore. The paper fell away, and he stared into his lap. A book. Alright, not too surprising, but maybe there was a clue in what kind of book it was. He flipped it open, and instantly, it began to nag him about revising. He slammed it shut quickly. Christmas was sacred and shouldn't be profaned with any mention of school. Well, unless she was telling him that she'd like him to study her up close and personal, he didn't think there was any secret meaning to be had.

Momentarily, he was distracted when Harry woke up and they continued the carnage. Even though he knew there wasn't, he kept hoping that another gift from Hermione would pop up, and he had just missed it. But soon, he was left with nothing but paper, and he knew the planner was the only thing he would be getting.

Deflated, and feeling less Christmassy than he had, he looked over to Harry, who was recoiling from his own planner. He brightened a bit. At least Harry had gotten the same lousy gift! And maybe hope wasn't completely dead; there was still the perfume, after all. Surely that would get the message across? He had to be careful when he tried to find out; if she didn't care at all, then he didn't want her to get suspicious of why he was so interested. He would just be casual, unless she did that squeally thing that he'd seen other girls at Hogwarts do when other blokes did things for them. And if she didn't, well, he would keep his mouth shut, and at least he wouldn't be embarrassed. He glanced back at the planner. He had thought girls liked to do a bit extra for boys they fancied. He reckoned it would be nice to be made over like that.

And he would get that next year. The poor boy still couldn't see gaudy costume jewelry without wincing a little. Merlin, being a teenager had been rough! People assumed girls had it harder, but she could feel firsthand that boys got just as nervous and fluttery; they just showed and dealt with it differently.

The twins popped into the room, and Ron fiddled with his new compass while they talked to Harry. He scowled at the mention of Percy, but quickly pushed his least favorite sibling out of his mind. If Percy wasn't sparing a thought for them, then he could do the same in return. Harry seemed to be in better spirits, at least. He wasn't stomping around with that angry, guilty look. Which in his mind, had been stupid; He hadn't done anything wrong, and no one was blaming him. He figured it was thanks to Harry that his dad hadn't...well. He wouldn't think of that; it was even worse than Percy.

He brushed the paper from his lap, joining the others on their way down for breakfast. In the hall, they met Hermione, and Ron surreptitiously bumped George out of the way so he could get closer. Yes, yes, merry Christmas, peace on earth, yadda yadda yadda...say something!

...Except, maybe, for that. What the hell did 'interesting' mean? His heart sank. 'Interesting' was a polite word for hating something. Damn, why hadn't he gotten something else? At least she didn't seem to realize his feelings. Nothing 'interesting' about those, and he didn't think he could take the pity. He was able to answer normally, but he was quiet all the way through breakfast. He didn't know what else to do, and he was running out of ideas...

No! Interesting was GOOD! Interesting was wonderful! It was books and libraries and lessons, new knowledge! It was wonderful and exciting, that's what 'interesting' was to her. She had never wasted her time on things that couldn't hold her attention, and both Ron and the perfume had been able to hold that firmly. It was painful to watch, both of them dancing around, sending signals that they thought were clear, not thinking how the other person would read them. She should have been more clear. Ron was by no means stupid, but his insecurity held him back from accepting things unless they were concrete. As much as she wanted to be sure about his feelings, it was unfair to have put all of the pressure on him. She had enough confidence that, while it would hurt horribly, could take a blow. If she had, it could have prevented them both a lot of heartache.

The seasonal joy dropped swiftly to nervousness, and she broke out in a cold sweat from the second hand apprehension. Ron was under pressure, and he wished there was some way out.

Ron stared at himself in the mirror above the sink, wishing he didn't look like a man that had just been condemned to a life sentence in Azkaban. Already, he could hear that damn song, and he knew the Slytherins would be out in full force, like some sort of unholy choir. Harry was out, the twins were gone, and the whole team was feeling less than confident. Ginny would be fine, he knew; the girl had guts, and if anyone could pull them out of this, it was her. He just hoped he didn't screw up too badly for her to go for the Snitch. Even then, the chances of playing for the Cup was slim.

Oddly, the thought caused him to brighten. No matter how badly he did, it couldn't really get worse, could it? Not likely. Scrubbing the cold water from his face with a handtowel, he tossed it down and made his way to join Harry at breakfast. He found himself able to eat, and he slathered several pieces of toast with jam, wolfing them down quickly. Harry didn't seem very encouraging when he shared his opinion, and that stung a little. Still, he probably wouldn't be feeling too keen either, if he had been chucked off the team. Hermione was looking frazzled, but that was on account of their upcoming exams, which Ron was sweating about himself.

He thought he had been sneaky during career counselling, but the penetrating look that McGonagall had shot him told him she was fully aware of what he was doing. He had gone in with several flyers, as if he couldn't make up his mind. Once he thought he had lulled her with a stream of questions about fungus cultivating (who actually went into that willingly?), he had slipped in questions about becoming an Auror. He couldn't seem to help himself. Whenever he thought about his future, he just seemed drawn to that. Admittedly, he was attracted to the adventure and glamor, but there was more to it than that. This past year, what with spending so much time with the Order, he had started to feel like that may be something he could actually do. For all her clumsiness, Tonks was a wicked Auror, and she had let it drop that her marks hadn't been the best. So maybe, if the O.W.L.s didn't kill him, he might have half a chance.

Not that he was going to mention it to anyone. Most likely, they would think he'd be rubbish at it; he could just hear Hermione going on and on about what marks he would need.

'Well, of course I would! I said I would help you, didn't I? Revising is what I do, it's my strong point! What else could I do?" She knew Ron was perfectly capable when he applied himself; it was just keeping him going when he got discouraged that was the problem.'

After breakfast, the three of them separated outside, and Ron watched the two of them walking off in the direction of the stands, and he felt a pang as they crossed the grounds side by side, leaving him behind. The articles from the Prophet last year surfaced in his mind, but he pushed them back down. If the Skeeter woman wrote it, it was guaranteed to be a lie. Wasn't it? He suddenly wished that Harry was still seeing Cho; he couldn't see the attraction, himself, but once he had realized that Harry dating another girl meant he wasn't interested in Hermione, he could almost forgive her for being a Tornadoes fan.

Of course, he thought, shoulders slumping, that didn't mean he had a chance. She was still writing to that trained gorilla, Vicky. Every time he saw her with one, he wanted to gag. Why couldn't he have just one good game to show her that even if he wasn't on Krum's level, he wasn't completely hopeless...

'Those blasted letters! "Brilliant, Hermione! Just brilliant! using jealousy tactics on a boy you knew had self esteem issues! Now, how could that have possibly failed?" Hermione was sick with herself over that. It had been a foolish, juvenile move, one that only worked on the pages of impossible romances. She had hoped to spur him into action, and hadn't given any thought to how cruel it was. She knew, from painful, personal experience that knowing the person you loved was with someone else was one of the most heart wrenching feelings in the world. It was an ugly thing to have done, and inexcusable; she had been young and stupid, simple as that. She was only thankful that she had grown since then, and knew better than to do something like that ever again.'

Ron hovered in front of the Rings, trying to block the crowd from his mind. It was a good thing he was wearing gloves, or else his sweaty hands would have slipped right off the broom. He had already let Ravenclaw score, and his eyes darted from the scoreboard to the players. Shit, they were headed his way again! The Quaffle shot towards his left, and he lunged, eyes closed. There was a thwak! as something hit his hand, and he opened his eyes to find that he had miraculously caught the Quaffle. Cheers erupted from the spectators, and a grin spread slowly over his face. He did it! That seemed to spark a turning point; time after time, he blocked the Rings, one save after another; pretty spectacular if he said so himself. He resisted the temptation to look for Hermione; he was on a lucky streak now, and he couldn't afford to break it.

Hermione savored his exaltation, somehow hovering next to him as if she was on her own broom. Missing this game had been something she had always regretted, and her smile rivaled his in size. He had done magnificently! Oh, he had played it up a bit in the retelling, but not by much. And after the wretched season he had up until now, who could blame him? She came down alongside him as the game came to a close, and felt her pride surge along with his as his teammates rushed up to congratulate him. As they pounded him on the back, he looked around for her and Harry, but couldn't find them; even as they lifted and carried him all the way to the Tower, he still kept an eye out for them. Hermione felt guilty, knowing she had missed an important moment.

The rest of the day and part of the next passed in a blur of celebration, until there was finally a chance for quiet by the lake. He glanced back wistfully at the castle; he knew his moment in the sun would fade, but it was nice to be the one who got made over, for once. At least now, he had Hermione's undivided attention, and he took advantage of that to recap his part of the game move by move. He couldn't resist embellishing a bit; this was his one chance to make himself look good. He didn't understand why she had such a pained look on her face, or why Harry wouldn't meet his eyes, the two of them sharing a look he didn't understand. With dread, he asked if they had even seen what he had done. They hadn't.

What. What the legitimate FUCK. Where the hell had they gone off to? Did they think he was so pathetic and unimportant that they couldn't stand to watch him? Had they been laughing behind his back as well? Perfect, just bloody perfect! She saw him every time he had made an arse of himself, but the one time he was the star, she couldn't be bothered to be there. Suspiciously, he wondered what she had been doing with Harry. He felt his face go red, and he didn't know whether the tears that threatened to spill over were from hurt or anger.

For Hermione, they were both. Hurt for Ron ever having to think those things, and anger at herself for going along with Hagrid. She hadn't wanted to! And she wouldn't have, if he hadn't looked like he had gone through a sausage grinder, leaving her to think that it had something to do with Voldemort, or possibly Order business. But now here was Ron, thinking that she didn't care a lick about him, and the thought was painful as it was fresh; So many moments like these over the years, piling up higher and higher on top of him; How could he stand it? Even as they explained to him, and he became distracted by their story, she could feel him push the hurt to the back of his mind. He hadn't pursued it, or gotten petty about it, but it was there, lurking, waiting to attack him when he was feeling vulnerable.

Sometimes, Ron just couldn't believe Hagrid. Someday, his softheartedness was going to get him killed, and Ron worried that the three of them would end up going along for the ride. Cooling down, he could see why Harry and Hermione had left. Still hurt, but he could see why. No wonder she hadn't made a big fuss over him; hearing about something like that wasn't nearly the same as seeing it yourself. Well, he managed one good game, hadn't he? Maybe if he did it consistently, he'd get some of her attention. He didn't want much. Just for her to look at him the way other girls looked at boys they fancied. For once, he wanted to put that expression on her face that she usually only got for new books or high marks on a tough test. Until then, He'd see if Ginny was willing to drill with him on the pitch; one good game did not a Quidditch champion make.

There is was again, that belief that he had to do something to get her attention. How could he get something he already had? Yes, she was proud of him when he played a good game, but her affections didn't hang on that. They were built on who he was as a person, and his successes and failures couldn't change that in the least. Curiously, she wondered if that was one of the reasons he was pushing himself so hard over his Auror exams. If so, she needed to get him to stop. It was one thing if he was doing it for himself, but if he thought he had to please her by making top marks, or that she would be disappointed if he didn't do well, then that was wrong. He was making himself sick over this, when she was already proud of him.

She felt herself falling abruptly, and darkness surrounded her, a thick, choking blackness that left her shaking. Strange, yet familiar thoughts coiled and twisted around in her mind, and she realized that Ron was having a nightmare.

He ran as fast as he could, his breath coming in short gasps, interspersed with whimpering. He was filled with terror for something he couldn't quite understand; in fact, he couldn't even understand himself. It was like his mind was wearing a mask that he couldn't see behind, and the thought only served to heighten his fear. Abruptly, he felt someone grab him, and he tried to fight them off, but they were too strong; a voice could be heard, one he could almost swear he recognized...

He came to screaming, and a hand clamped down over his mouth to muffle the noise. The owner of the hand leaned in to hiss in his ear. "Ron! It's me, Hermione! You need to be quiet, and let go of me."

Sure enough, his arms were looped awkwardly around her as she stood crouched over his bed, and he quickly released her, his mind fighting the foggy feeling that had overtaken it. Piece by piece, recent events fell into place. The D.A. being ambushed by Umbridge. The thestrals. The Ministry. Getting separated, desperate to rejoin the others and protect his sister at the same time. A sharp pain as a spell made it past his defences. He had had flashes of things since then, but he hadn't been this lucid since before he was attacked. He grabbed the hand that was still on his upper arm.

"Ginny? Harry? The others? What happened, is everyone alright?" In the dim light of the candle beside his bed, he searched her face for clues, and saw at once that there was bad news.

"They're all fine, Ron. They didn't even have to stay in here more than a few hours, and that was mostly just a precaution. You and I got the worst of it. Well...out of the six of us."

Ron pushed himself into a sitting position, and indicated that she should sit next to him. He tried not to be distracted as she squeezed in next to him, but he couldn't deny that he liked how she felt pressed against him; he was only human. But the look in her eyes killed any thought in that direction, and he asked the question without wanting to know the answer.

"What happened?"

Hermione gulped, her eyes filling with tears. "Sirius. He...oh Ron! Sirius is dead!"

Her head fell onto his shoulder as she sobbed, and he patted her back, his eyes still staring into space.

"What...but how could he...he wasn't even there!"

Getting ahold of herself, she sat back up, wiping her face with the sleeves of her nightdress. "The Order came, and Sirius wouldn't be left behind this time. He was dueling with Bellatrix, and he fell through this...this sort of doorway that was standing in the middle of the room, or so I've been told. He didn't come out on either side. He's just...gone."

He struggled to make sense of what she was telling him, but it seemed impossible to believe. Sirius...he couldn't die like that! He had survived twelve years in Azkaban, nearly two on the run, dealt with his share of Death Eaters, and now she was telling him that the same man that had done all of that had just been shot through some doorway and was gone? It was bad enough that Bellatrix had got him, but to not even have a body to leave behind...

"Shit. Harry must have completely lost it," he said, his voice barely a whisper.

Beside him, Hermione nodded. "It's the worst I've ever seen him, and I can't blame him. Sirius was like a father to him in a lot of ways, and he was one of the few connections he had to his parents. And he had always hoped that he would be able to live with Sirius instead of going back to his aunt's. And you know Harry; he's blaming himself, and he won't listen to anyone else. He hates himself for falling for a trap that brought Sirius there to begin with."

That didn't surprise Ron; sometimes he thought Harry would take the blame for the fall of Camelot. But he couldn't say much, because he knew he'd have taken it the same way. "Guess you were right, after all. If Sirius had just listened to Dumbledore..." The thought made Ron feel a bit hypocritical. If he had thought someone he cared about was in danger, he wouldn't sit around and wait anymore than Sirius had, no matter who told him otherwise.

There was a sharp intake of air beside him, and he looked up to find Hermione, hurt filled eyes regarding him as if he had slapped her.

"I didn't want to be right about that! I know you think I'm an insufferable know-it-all all the time, but I never wanted anything like this to happen!"

Instantly, he knew she had taken that wrong, and he hastened to correct his mistake. "I didn't mean it like that! Just that you were right when you said they should've been more careful. We all should have been."

He paused a moment, recalling what he could from the Ministry, and shuddered. That had been a bloody stupid move. Six teenagers going up against Death Eaters; Death Eaters that had far more experience, and who wouldn't hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way, regardless of age. The sheets rasped against his pajama bottoms as he bent his knees, balancing his elbows on top, his head tilting to rest in his hands, careful not to rub against his bandages.

"We didn't even go in with a plan, Hermione. We had no fucking clue what we were getting into. No idea where we were going, what we would do when we got there...How is it that Sirius is the one that ends up dead?"

Hermione shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. I can't think of anything we could have done differently. We couldn't have let Harry go alone; he needed us."

Ron's shoulders jerked when he snorted. "Fat lot of good I was. I don't even remember the spell that hit me."

"Neither do I. It was almost like being Petrified all over again."

That reminder made him shudder. "At least you didn't make things worse. I have flashes of what happened; I'm the only one thick enough to mess with those brains like that. I guess I finally saw a chance to trade my brain in for something better. So damn stupid!" He slammed his fist down at his side, choking at the pain that shot up his arm.

"Don't say that! You fought as well as anyone there, Ginny tells me, and the brain doesn't count! You were acting under the influence of whatever Curse had hit you; and if being affected by that makes you stupid, that what does it makes the person who was knocked out completely?"

He peeked over to find her eyes flashing with anger, and the sight was somehow comforting.

"Hermione, it's only because of you that we even made it out alive."

It was hard to tell, but her cheeks seemed to flush at his words. "Not really. Harry was the one who did all of the-"

"And who's idea was it? Who finally talked him into it?"

"Yes, but you helped with that too. You know if you hadn't sided with me, he never would have listened. Stop beating yourself up for something none of us were prepared for."

He heard her, but he couldn't help thinking about it. He had become separated from her when she needed help, and he couldn't even keep his own sister from getting hurt. Not that she couldn't hold her own, but he couldn't fight that protective older brother instinct. He and Ginny might get on one another's nerves, but she was still his little sister, and he had never quite forgotten how he felt on hearing she had been taken to the Chamber in second year. And he didn't like that he couldn't remember everything; it was like a part of him had been hidden from himself. And...he had tried not to think about it since he woke up, but the memories of his dreams came rushing back. The sound he made at the back of his throat must have alarmed Hermione, because she started fluttering around worriedly.

"Ron! Are you alright? Is it time for a pain potion? Should I go get Madam Pomfrey?"

Now that she mentioned it, his arms did feel like they were on fire, burning while something with broken glass teeth gnawed away at his flesh. "I could use a potion right about now," he managed to say through a clenched jaw.

There were rattling and rustling sounds as Hermione shuffled things around on the side table, before handing him a glass. He took it with shaky fingers, tipping it back and swallowing it all down in one go. "Thanks."

"Are you alright? Madam Pomfrey says your arms are starting to heal, but that it would hurt."

He puckered his face at the bitter taste, and handed her the glass, waiting for her to sit back down. "Yeah, I can feel it starting to work. My arms aren't too bad, really. not when you compare it to-" he broke off abruptly.

Hermione seemed to have an idea what he was referring to. "Ron, is something else wrong? You were thrashing around in your sleep earlier, and it got so bad I had to wake you. This isn't the first time you've done it, either."

He tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, sighing as a soothing type of numbness spread through his arms. "It was just a bad dream. Don't worry about it."

But telling Hermione not to worry was like telling her not to think; you would do better to tell a fish not to swim.

"Don't lie. Those weren't just any bad dreams; You looked like Harry, and you were clawing at yourself. I had to wake you to get you to stop."

Mentally, he considered if there was any way to get out of talking about it. But he was too tired to argue, while Hermione looked like she could go five good rounds.

"I'm not really sure what they are." He received a disbelieving look. "No, it's true! I haven't even had a chance to think about it, with all of the potions I've been on. Things have been too blurry. But it's...when I sleep, I don't feel like me anymore. Or at least, not just me. There's all of these weird thoughts, memories and things I don't really understand. And I don't think I want to."

Hermione looked at him curiously, causing his ears to burn under her gaze, and he cursed the fact that he had sounded like a two year old.

"What do you mean?"

"Whatever they are, they aren't, they aren't very nice. Even Malfoy would be sick at some of it. And when it's happening, I can't tell which ones actually belong to me, and I'm afraid I'm going to wake up sometime and stay mixed up."

He couldn't stem the wave of panic welling up inside, and his breathing became labored as his body shook. He knew he must look like a complete tit, but he couldn't get himself under control. Hermione had grasped his shoulders, trying to get his attention. With effort, he focused his eyes on her, and struggled to make out what she was saying, her voice sounding like she was speaking under water.

"It's because of the brain, Ron! Madam Pomfrey said that thoughts could leave horrible scars, but she meant more than your arms. One of the potions you're taking is flushing them out, and you should feel like yourself once you've finished with it. I don't know whose thoughts those are, but they aren't yours! You're not like that, Ron."

Some of the tension leaked out of him. Some of the awful things he had running through his head scared him more than he thought would be possible. The worst part was the sort of sick enjoyment that came with it, and he wanted to cut those parts out of him with a knife. It went against everything he had been raised to believe, and he felt ashamed for having it in his head, even if it was unwillingly. He might not be as loud or pushy about it as Hermione, but he had a strong moral code of his own, and it felt like it was tearing him apart. But her words gave him hope. The potion would sort him out, and he would be fine. And the fact that she didn't think him capable of whatever was going on in his mind helped loads as well. Still, he knew that in a way, this was something that was going to stay with him as much as whatever scars he had on his arms. The thoughts were burnt into his mind just as much, and it would take a long time for him to bury them deep enough not to bother him.

Hermione slumped against a wall, her own mind feeling tainted as well. Then, a thought struck her, and so much made sense. During their time with the locket, it had always seemed to affect Ron more, and she had never been quite able to figure out why. He was tight-lipped on the subject, so all she had were speculations. She knew that a large part of it had been his own fears and self doubts, but she had forgotten about the brains, combined with the Curse that had been used on him. Harry had been used to having horrible things inside his head for years, so while it made him short and irritable, he had managed alright. And it had affected her as well, fraying her temper to nearly the snapping point. But she had been able to distract herself with the puzzle of the book she had been given, and that helped keep things from getting out of hand. What she had forgotten was that the mind, once blasted open by magic, was more susceptible to it's influence afterwards. In fact, one of the parts of his training that he had the most difficulty had been on resisting and throwing off curses. Along with the potions, he should have been given some strengthening mental exercises as well; as it was, the door of his mind was left with a faulty lock.'

Her hands felt nice on his shoulders, and he was sorry when she moved them away. At first, he was afraid she was leaving, but then she settled more comfortably next to him, and he shifted a little to give her more room.

"Thanks. I reckon I just need some time to...process it all. But Hermione? Don't tell Harry, alright? He's got enough to deal with right now, and if he knew, it'd just make him feel worse. It's going to be hard enough as it is to get him to stop feeling guilty about Sirius."

She looked as if she would say something, but changed her mind. "If that's what you want. But you can talk about it to me, if it's bothering you."

Ron appreciated the offer, but he didn't even want to think about it, much less talk about it. A change of subject was needed, and the way she suddenly grasped at her chest and went pale made it easy to pick out a topic.

"Hermione? What is it?" His hands hovered over her, and he wasn't quite sure where to put them. It wasn't like he had never touched her before; knowing each other as long as they had, it would've been stranger if he hadn't. But the area in question was decidedly new and off-limits territory, and he had no idea what was going on or how to help.

She sucked in a large breath, then slowly hissed it back out. "It's nothing; just the little bit left over from the Curse I was hit with."

Racking his brains, he tried to recall what she had been hit with, but couldn't remember her saying. "What Curse was it? I wasn't there, remember?"

Her body gave a convulsive shiver, and he grabbed the sheets and blanket from where he had kicked them to the foot of the bed, and pulled them over her. As if that would do any good, but it was all he could think of.

"Thanks, that helps. Anyway, no one is sure. He wasn't able to invoke it verbally, and that may have changed what it was intended to the scar is practically invisible, and Madam Pomfrey has me on about a dozen potions, so I should be fine."

Even as she spoke, color returned to her cheeks, and Ron found himself able to breathe again. Of course, if she had something really wrong going on, she'd be in St. Mungo's right now. Unknown Curses could be a serious problem, but maybe it had just grazed her, and she hadn't gotten the full effect. But here she was, sitting in his bed, so everything must be fine. She was fine. So why did he feel like it wasn't so simple?

"You should probably get some sleep. Sorry I woke you."

She shook her head, static causing it to stick to the pillow. "It's alright. But...I don't think I can walk to my bed without falling, since I'm a bit dizzy now."

Both of them blushed.

"Oh. Um. Well then. You shouldn't try to move, should you? I could go to your bed, if you'd like."

He tried to stand, but was pulled back down by a hand tugging his shirt.

"No! I mean, I would have to go back before anyone saw me, and I might not be able to wake you up. It would be easier just to stay here. If you don't mind."

Mind? Did he mind? "You're right, it would be easier. I'll just-"

Ron grunted as he contorted his body around, trying to give her enough room without banging his arms. Finally, they settled for laying half on their sides, partially propped up on the pillows. They were facing each other, and he knew his face was at least a dark pink.

Maihlapinatapai: A look between two people in love that expresses unspoken but mutual desire. That was the best way she had of describing how they had looked at each other as their respective potions kicked in and pulled them into sleep. They had been looking at each other like that most of the year, really, and it would only intensify in the next two years. It should have felt odd sharing a bed like that, but somehow, it didn't. There was an unspoken need for closeness that both seemed to understand without words. One of the things she had always loved about Ron was his comforting presence, and it warmed her heart to see he felt the same way about her. It wasn't something they ever had to speak about, or question. For all their bickering, there was just something that drew them together, to fill in the bits that the other lacked. As Ron fell asleep, his hand inched closer to hers, until their skin was just brushing. She felt him struggle to stay awake, to get as much out of the moment as he possibly could, but the potion was too strong. Slowly, his eyes slid closed, fluttering open for shorter and shorter periods, until they stayed closed for good.

Time moved rapidly, after images of moving figures blurring in and out, hurting her head. It was the next day, and Ron had just finished his dinner tray and was tottering on shaky legs to the toilet.

A soft belch escaped his lips as he left the room, his stomach full from the dinner tray he had just finished, and he noticed absently that Madam Pomfrey was out. Not thinking anything of it, he rounded into the corner and into the nearest boys' room, and quickly took care of business. He hoped he would get his energy back soon, because it was pathetic that even this much walking was enough to take the wind out of him. But it wasn't all bad; friends were visiting and sending snacks, His mum hadn't set a Howler on him, and to top it all off, he had fallen asleep next to Hermione. Different than he had always imagined (far too many clothes involved, for one thing), but there had been something comforting about having her face as the last thing he saw before he fell asleep. He had still had nightmares. but they weren't nearly as bad. It was sort of like when he had been little and had slept with Ginny sometimes, except it was nothing like it at all. He had wondered if Hermione had slept better, but had felt too much of a fool to ask. She had already been back in her bed when he woke up, and he smothered the feeling of disappointment at not seeing her on the pillow next to him.

Hermione waited for him to finish, then joined him as he exited the stall.

While he wasn't a fan of being cooped up in one room, he was enjoying having her to himself for large chunks of time. Smiling, he wondered if she felt up to losing a game of chess, before whispered voices stopped him in his tracks. The combination of dealing with siblings and the events of the past few years made him very wary when people spoke in low voices, so he stayed out of sight, straining to hear.

"...en you're sure she's going to be alright? I know it was touch and go there for awhile."

"I'm quite sure, Minerva. There are such things as delayed Curses, of course, but they would hardly be used in that situation. If anything was going to happen, it would have by now. I have her on a strict regimen of potions, so any lasting effects should be minimal."

"I'm relieved to hear it. When I think of how close we were to losing her...best not to dwell on it. And best to not let the others know, if it can be helped. Potter is in no state to hear that he nearly lost more than he has already, and Weasley needs to recover himself."

"Potter's visits are short, and I think he's lost in his own troubles, poor lamb. And Weasley doesn't seem to question it; but since he didn't see her when she was brought in, he has no reason to. It shouldn't be hard to keep it from them."

"I wouldn't be so sure about Weasley; I've yet to have a stupid Weasley pass through my classroom, and he can be quite persistent where his friends are concerned."

Not waiting to hear more, Ron staggered back the way he had come, leaning against the wall to hold him up. He locked the stall door behind him, and slid to the floor, taking large, gulping breaths of air. Professor McGonagall and Madam Pomfrey hadn't noticed him, and he wanted to give them plenty of time before he went back. Right now, all he could think of was their conversation, and the dark implications it had. Hermione had nearly...she could have...he couldn't even think the word. It couldn't be true; it was absurd! Nothing like that could happen. She wasn't the type of person that-but then, couldn't the same be said for Sirius?

Hermione sat next to Ron, watching him as he shook. Looking down at her hands, she could see she was trembling as well. The thought of her dying was too much for him to take, and he was still too weakened from his own injuries for his mind to process things normally. In desperation, it latched onto something familiar.

Hot on the heels of that thought came another, and suddenly, he was angry as well. He could see the sense of not telling Harry; hadn't he decided the same thing? But why was she keeping him in the dark? Visions of his performance at the Ministry passed through his mind, and he felt shame. Maybe she just thought he was too incompetent to deal with it. He had to know why. It was going to eat at him until he found out. Heaving himself to his feet, he tugged the legs of his pajama bottoms to where they were at least nearly where they were supposed to hit, and walked out into the hallway. He wasn't going to think about what could have happened. A world without Hermione in it was impossible to imagine, and he didn't want to even if he could. It was easier to focus on the fact that she didn't tell him. It was easier, because although it hurt, it didn't leave a gaping hole in his heart.

Some people might wonder why, when he realized how close he might have been to losing her, he didn't just go ahead and confess to her. But Hermione could tell that it was because of the same reason why she had stayed silent also. Opening up would be admitting out loud the possibility that they weren't going to make it. In a strange way, it was like if they put it off, they could stretch time out somehow. Because the other person would still be there tomorrow to be told. And then the tomorrow after that. It was impossible for them to die before you told them, wasn't it? And so tomorrow stretched into weeks, then months. It wasn't something either of them did consciously, and even now, Hermione had a hard time understanding it. Then again, you didn't always understand what you felt, or the odd little quirks in your thinking, and this seemed to be one of those cases. Thinking the memory was over, she crossed the threshold into the hospital wing, only to find herself walking out of the Great Hall, right behind herself being pulled along by Ron.

She trotted a little faster until she came alongside them, and was startled by their expressions. There was a light blush across her cheeks, and a small smile as she looked down at her hand in Ron's. Ron's blush was much darker; not the dark of anger or humiliation, but the shade he turned when he was secretly pleased and nervous about something. Had they been so obvious? Apparently so, judging by the knowing smirks of some of the people who watched them pass. If only they had ever caught the other looking the way they were now!

Ron used his height to scout out the best path through the students milling around, making his way to a bend in the lake that the three of them went to rest when the weather was nice, slowing down as the noise from the students and professors faded behind them. He didn't want to let go of her hand, but couldn't think of any believable reason to keep holding on. So he let it slide from his fingers, not looking at her face as he plopped down on the soft grass facing the lake. She lowered herself more decorously, and they both watched the outline of the Giant Squid rippling below the surface.

After about ten minutes, Hermione broke the silence. "Thank you for letting me go see Harry this morning. I know the both of you think I'm being too pushy, but it's not good for him to bottle it up so much."

Ron shrugged. He had seen right through her at breakfast, but he couldn't tell her that she was cute when she was being sneaky. Besides, she was right about Harry. It was one thing to not talk about your feelings much, but this was bigger than anything that could be dealt with alone. And her methods might be bossy, but she usually spoke good sense when you needed to hear it; it was just getting Harry to the point where he'd listen that was the problem.

"'S'alright. He needed a last chance to spill before we go. And I think he's doing better. He snapped out of it more than he did last week, and more than the week before that."

"That's true. I just wish I knew of a better way we could help him."

"We just have to keep doing what we're doing, I guess, and hope he comes around. He usually does. We could always sic Ginny on him if we have to."

They lapsed back into silence, and Ron looked down at his watch. "We should go back in soon, and get started helping with the midgets. I know at least five of them will forget their trunks or where they've put something, and a few need to be reminded not to use magic once they get off the train."

At the sound of her gasp, he looked up to find her regarding him with a look of shocked amazement, as if he was spitting up slugs. He wiped his lips, just to be sure. Nope, no slimy trail.

"What? What is it?"

"Did you just hear yourself?" A self-satisfied smile spread across her face. "My responsible nature is finally rubbing off on you!"

Ron froze in horror as he mentally replayed his own words. Merlin's balls, what was happening to him?

"No! I didn't mean it! I'm still youthful and wild and carefree! I'll probably end up forgetting my own trunk, so get away from me with your infectious responsibility!"

Laughing, she poked him in the ribs, and he released a strangled giggle. "No, I think you need some more. Just think, soon you'll be making revision schedules, and color coded timetables, and-"

The pokes she had been making at his ribs quickly turned into tickling, and soon they were both rolling on the grass, shrieking with laughter as he tried to fight her off. They didn't notice the sound of approaching footsteps, or the shadow that fell over them, until Harry spoke, in a voice filled with dry amusement.

"I knew you were going to kill him for earlier, but I'm disappointed, Hermione. I expected you to use a less traceable method."

"I'm not killing him! I'm forcing him to absorb some of my maturity!" she explained, still breathless from laughing.

Harry raised his eyebrow with a snort. "Well, he could use a good dose of it."

"Oi!" Ron snapped.

His friend just grinned down at him. "Well? Who do you know that could use it more?"

Ron and Hermione barely had to trade a look; as one, they lunged up at Harry, each grabbing an arm and pulling him down with a high, satisfyingly girlish scream. Harry's voice hadn't so much as dropped as it had taken a few careful steps down. While it was definitely masculine when he spoke, his screams were a wonderful contrast. They set about torturing him mercilessly, but Harry was a tough little git, and was soon giving as good as he got. Hermione rolled away from him into Ron's arms, curling into his chest.

"Ron! Make him stop! Make him stop!"

Everything seemed to freeze around him, and wanted nothing more than for this moment to stretch out all day. He knew she was having a laugh, but this was what he wanted; for her to turn to him, for his arms to fit around her in a way that felt like the rightest thing in the world, and for Harry to decide that now was a good time to go take a leak. The temptation to cross the inches that felt like miles between their lips was almost too much for him to resist, and he knew he was holding her tighter than he really should be. He twisted to pin her, his large hands easily holding both of her wrists over her head. With a wicked smirk, he glanced at Harry.

"What do you say, mate? You think maybe some of our charming, relaxed nature will rub off on her if we try hard enough?"

Harry pretended to consider it, absently plucking blades of grass from his hair. "As much as I'd like to try, I think it would be a losing battle. This is Hermione, after all. Besides, we'll have to let her go eventually, and I hate to think what she'd do once she got her wand."

Hurriedly, Ron released her, and the three of them laughed. Ron enjoyed it. He knew that soon, Harry would sink back down into the dark mood that seemed to be becoming more common, but for now, it was good to see his friend acting more like himself. He looked at Hermione, who had thrown a handful of grass at Harry. Next year, he vowed, he would really hold her, and it would have nothing to do with Harry. She would come to him because she wanted him, and he wouldn't have to let her go. He had come close this year, but he could do better. This time next year, she'd be in his arms again.

There were so many swirling emotions, that Hermione didn't quite know what to think. There was Ron's worry and sympathy for Harry, along with the happiness at seeing his friend having a moment of normality. There was the longing he felt for her, and the frustration that he didn't know how to make his desires a reality. There was the irritation with himself, and all the things he considered to be his imperfections. As she watched the three of them sitting there, so happy for a moment of peace, she felt her heart ache and her stomach twist. They had no idea of the dark times ahead, or the nights of crying behind the bed curtains, sick with the pain they didn't know how to deal with. If there was one year she could cut from her life, it would have to be sixth year. So much pointless hurt, such thoughtless acts on both sides...and a war raging ever closer. It wasn't a time she willingly looked back on, and she had to steel herself to the idea of what she would see from Ron's perspective.

She didn't want to do this. She wanted to turn away, and pretend it had never happened. She didn't think that she could live with the ugliness that she knew she was about to see in herself, and for a moment, she was afraid. The only thing keeping her in place was knowing that Ron was on the other side of all of this; for him, she could do anything, and she would.

Because if there was one thing in the world that meant enough to her to live through all the pain she had felt and inflicted as a teenager, it was Ron Weasley.