Hermione Granger Ron Weasley
Romance Action
Multiple Eras
Philosopher's Stone Chamber of Secrets Prizoner of Azkaban Goblet of Fire Order of the Phoenix Quidditch Through the Ages Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Published: 06/06/2004
Updated: 01/06/2005
Words: 243,073
Chapters: 26
Hits: 84,040

Hermione Granger and the Beginning of the End

Ann Margaret

Story Summary:
This is the story of the beginning of the trio's last months at Hogwarts, the beginning of the end of their childhood and the end of the war. But will good prevail? Will they survive? And why the hell did Ron Weasley throw away his relationship with Hermione? Once again, a lot more action, darker, but perhaps this time we shall have a happy ending...or not...

Chapter 11

Chapter Summary:
So they all escaped the Malfoy Manor...but now what? Will Hermione learn the truth or even more importantly, will she forgive Ron?

Hermione flinched when a sharp ringing sound penetrated through her haze and disrupted the blissful oblivion of a deep, dreamless sleep. She was usually the type of girl who jumped out of bed the moment the alarm clock went off, so that she wouldn't risk slipping back to sleep and potentially missing class. However today, for the first time, Hermione swiped an irritated hand at the clock, knocking it to the floor and effectively silencing it. She burrowed her face deeper into her pillow and tried to lose herself in comforting darkness once again.

However, her ever-vigilant cat would have none of that. Crookshanks typically restrained himself to the foot of her bed, so as not to disturb her slumber. But today, with a loud meow, the large ginger cat pounced roughly onto one of Hermione's pillows. She flinched slightly at the impact, but kept her eyes squeezed shut. Crookshanks was just as stubborn and persistent as his owner, though, and he continued to meow and nuzzle her face. Her facial expression twisted into a disgusted grimace as she inhaled a mouthful of cat hair, and Crookshanks scooted down to rub against her shoulder and side. His tail swished excitedly in the air as he swatted at Hermione playfully.

Fine, Hermione thought groggily as she rolled over on her back and opened her eyes. Crookshanks immediately rested his head on her stomach and purred, his big yellow eyes pleading for her to please scratch his ears. With a half-smile, Hermione complied, but she wasn't really paying attention as the cat pressed lovingly against her fingers and purred loudly. She was too busy thinking about the events of last night: Riddle's murder, finding the kidnapped Muggle girls, realizing that Ron had lied when he said he didn't love her--Hermione's cheeks turned bright pink, as she remembered this--and Harry, arriving in the nick of time to let them know that Voldemort was aware of their presence in the Malfoy Manor, so that they could successfully escape.

It was a good thing that Harry had come when he did, even though Hermione had initially been a bit hacked off at him for interrupting her private moment with Ron, because if he hadn't, there was no telling what could have happened. They would have had no idea that there were Death Eaters in the Manor who were aware of their presence. She might never have gotten out of the Malfoy Manor alive, it was such a slow and agonizing process just trying to avoid being spotted.

But thank Merlin that Albus Dumbledore had arrived. He had marched up the front walk, rapped on the door, and inquired to see the lady of the house. Narcissa Malfoy had begrudgingly admitted the headmaster, who had apologetically remarked that a few of his students may have snuck into her home for a lark. He requested that he be allowed to search for them and bring them back to Hogwarts, where, he assured her, they would be properly punished, so that there'd be no need to press charges.

Dumbledore had played his cards well. Lucius Malfoy had married Narcissa for her beauty, not her brains. She knew that she shouldn't allow Dumbledore to whisk the Boy-Who-Lived and his friends out of her home. But on the other hand, she couldn't very well protest, because she would be admitting to her own Death Eater allegiances. Casually, and with a sharp twinkle to his eyes, Dumbledore had then inquired about her husband, who was still very much wanted by authorities. That was checkmate--Narcissa was trapped, and had no idea how to maneuver the situation to her husband's advantage, so she had reluctantly agreed to Dumbledore's request.

Harry had managed to slip inside and was able to overhear the entire conversation without any trouble, and when Dumbledore serenely walked out of the room, he had calmly grabbed Harry from the curtain he was hiding behind, and simply walked out of the manor without any trouble whatsoever. Together, they had found the rest of the students, and Dumbledore conjured a Portkey to transport them back to Hogwarts.

Hermione had been rather surprised that Dumbledore hadn't appeared to be very angry with them for sneaking off. But maybe he had been saving his rage for later--Harry had immediately been whisked up with Dumbledore to his office, while the rest of them had been ordered to bed. Ron had tried to coerce both her and Ginny to head up to the hospital wing to get checked out, but by then it had been almost three o'clock in the morning, and all Hermione had wanted to do was go to sleep. After promising Ron she would see Madame Pomfrey in the morning, she had trudged up the stairs to fall into bed without even bothering to change her clothes.

And now...and now, here she was--and what the blazes was she going to do? The events of last night now seemed to be utterly surreal in the light of the early morning, and Hermione couldn't help wondering if perhaps it had been an unusually vivid dream. She abruptly sat up, knocking Crookshanks off of her stomach with a disgruntled yowl, and fingered the wrinkled, dirty blouse she was still wearing. It was missing a button--it must have popped off when Riddle had flung her across the room. She then kicked her comforter off of the bed, and Crookshanks was sent flying. He streaked from the room in irritation at her abruptness, but Hermione paid no attention. She simply stared down at the khakis she had on. There were dirt and snow stains on the knees from kneeling outside of the Shrieking Shack and the Malfoy estate. Her hand went up to her hair and absently felt the completely disheveled bun, and the bobby pins that were hanging on to only one or two strands of bushy hair. She lowered her arms to run them across her lower back, wincing when her fingers passed over the raised bump that resided there.

Finally, her hand rested against her cheek. This memory was rather vague, since she had been so utterly exhausted upon returning to the common room. Ginny had gone straight up to her dormitory, but Ron had called out to her before she could follow. Hermione let the memory fall over her like a warm blanket.

She had to lean against the doorframe as she fought to keep her eyelids from drooping shut. She knew that Ron wanted to discuss what had happened, and so did she; the problem was, she didn't have the energy to it right away. Ron started to say something, but he halted when she tried to stifle a yawn. His lip turned upward, and he asked if she was all right.

Hermione blinked rapidly and tried to stand up straighter, folding her arms over her chest; she was still quite chilled from running around without a cloak or jumper. "I'm okay," she said while fighting down another yawn. "What did you want to say?"

Ron hesitated then, before letting his smile break through. "Just wanted to say good night." Before she realized what was happening, Ron stooped down, gave her a brief peck on the cheek, and retreated over to the door to his dormitory. He glanced back over at her to find that she was staring after him with a sleepy, wondering smile. "We'll talk tomorrow," he promised her earnestly, but Hermione saw the trepidation in his eyes, even in her half-awake state. "And go up to the infirmary," he added as he opened the door. "You'll get sick if you don't." He disappeared up the stairs before she could even whisper a good-night after him.

Even hours later, Hermione could still feel the pressure of his lips against her cheek, and she wondered briefly if that was normal. What she felt for Ron certainly wasn't normal--it was the kind of feeling you only had for one person, and as much as it scared her, she most certainly didn't want that feeling to go away. However, there was still so much to talk about and discuss before she could even think about starting things up again with Ron. It was the thing she wanted more than anything in the world, but it couldn't happen until everything was finally sorted out.

With that reminder, a now wide-awake Hermione determinedly swung her legs over the side of the bed. Finally, the time had come to sort things out with Ron.


Come on, Hermione, you can do this, she told herself encouragingly. It's just a door, for goodness sake. All you have to do is knock. It's not that difficult.

A huge attack of nerves, however, quite prevented her arm from raising up to knock on the door. She had hoped to find Ron at breakfast, but Neville had told her that he was having a bit of a lie-in after their late night, and he didn't have any early morning classes today. She hadn't wanted to disturb him, so she had eaten, and had then gone up to the hospital wing as promised. Much to her chagrin, she had woken up with a bit of a headache and a scratchy throat, so she had to choke down a gobletful of Pepper-Up Potion. Harry had ended up staying overnight in the infirmary for observation, so Hermione had lingered, hoping that he'd wake up and distract her, but he was in a deep, potion-induced sleep. Speaking of potions, she was due in class at the moment, but couldn't bring herself to go. She couldn't sit through a two-hour class, hovering over a boiling hot cauldron--she wouldn't be able to give the careful task of potion making her undivided attention. It was actually better for everyone if she skived off. Hermione felt slightly sick at the thought of intentionally skipping class, but Ron was much more important than potion making. He sure was going to have a field day when he found out she had actually skived off, but goodness, she had written an essay for him once--he shouldn't be all that surprised that she would skip class for him. That wouldn't stop him from teasing her about it, though. Hermione sighed at the thought, but in all honesty, she didn't care; they had to talk--now.

If she could only knock on the door.

She was dreadfully anxious. This one talk with Ron could alter her entire future, even more than her N.E.W.T.s. Hermione's brow creased slightly--she really needed to start studying for those; she was dreadfully behind...

Not now!

Hermione bit her lip. She couldn't let herself get sidetracked, even by something as important as her N.E.W.T.s. As much as the idea of this conversation terrified her, it had to be done. Closing her eyes and summoning her Gryffindor courage, she knocked lightly on the door to the seventh-year boys' dormitory. Seamus was in Potions, Neville was in the library, and Harry was in the hospital wing, so there could only be one person in there right now.


And there he was. Hermione squared her shoulders, opened the door, and slipped into the dormitory. Ron was still in bed, but thankfully he wasn't asleep. Still clad in the maroon paisley pajamas that he despised and Hermione loved, he lay on his stomach in the opposite direction on his bed, with his long bare feet resting on the pillow. He was scratching away on a piece of parchment with a book propped up underneath it, his quill absently brushing against his chin. His hair was rumpled and sticking up on end from an uneasy slumber, and Hermione wanted nothing more than to run her fingers through it to arrange the fiery stands the way she liked them. He blinked in surprise as he saw her, and quickly sat up, nearly upsetting his bottle of ink. He caught it before the blue liquid could spill out, while Hermione shut the door behind her. She managed a small, nervous smile as she crossed the room. Ron watched her silently as she sat down on Harry's bed, and he turned to his left, facing her. Her hands rested in her lap, and she played with her fingers anxiously. Ron stared at her twisting fingers with uneasy fascination as both tried desperately to think of something to say.

"You have class," Ron said in abrupt realization.

"I know." Hermione shrugged one shoulder. "I'm not going."

Ron couldn't stop a bark of laughter from escaping from his throat. "You're skiving off?"

Hermione bravely raised her chin. "There are some things more important than class, Ron." You are one of them, she added silently, but Ron appeared to hear it nevertheless. His ears were a telltale shade of red, and the awkward silence returned. Finally, Hermione couldn't take it any longer. "Ron, I'm not missing class to watch you write a letter."

"I know." Ron tossed the letter face-down into his trunk, slammed the lid shut, and swung his long legs over the side of his bed. He leaned toward her, arms resting on his lap. "Okay," he said slowly, his face clearly giving away that his stomach was currently writhing as much as Hermione's. "Just let me get all of this out before you say anything." Hermione nodded her assent, and Ron took a deep breath.

"I told you that they were really mad when they found out I was talking to you, but I didn't mention how furious they were when they found out about us..." Ron shook his head from side to side while Hermione stared at him in slight confusion. She knew that he was talking about when he'd been kidnapped, but she wasn't exactly sure how it pertained to the situation at hand. "They thought something might be going on--probably because Malfoy had squealed on us--but they really didn't believe it until they pretended to be me in your head."

Ron glanced up at her and looked away quickly. "You know how sometimes you can just sense some things about me without trying? Well, one of the things they got from you is that you and I were--you know." Hermione nodded again to indicate that she understood. "That Lestrange woman and Dolohov were the ones who told me about what they'd done--and that's when they told me what they were going to do to you."

Hermione's eyes went wide as she clamped down on her lip to keep from demanding that he tell her straight away. She had agreed to patiently wait and not say anything, and she could sense that this was extremely difficult for Ron to talk about.

"They said that they never knew Mudbloods could be so useful, but that it wasn't going to stop them from killing all of the Muggle-borns, because they'd been working so hard to find the proper way to kill you all with the perfect curse."

Ron paused slightly, and when he spoke again, it was almost as though Hermione had been there. She could actually hear Dolohov's cold, unfeeling voice in her ear, because Ron would never say those horrible things--it just wasn't conceivable to hear these awful words coming from that wonderful voice. She could see Ron in her mind, slumped over in the small room at the Ministry that he had been kept in, his head propped up against the wall and his body splayed out on the floor, too exhausted and hurt to sit up straight. The Lestrange woman was standing there, laughing in that irritating, high-pitched laugh of hers, while Dolohov crouched at his side, finger tapping on Ron's chest.

I've been working for ages on this, Dolohov confided in that low, gravely tone that never failed to make Hermione's blood run cold. It's taken a great deal of time to perfect it, of course, but you know what they say, practice makes perfect. I'm sorry you missed the unveiling of our spell, but perhaps she told you about it. His finger started to trace up and down Ron's breastbone. It hurt her quite a bit, I'm afraid, but just be glad that I didn't have my voice at that moment.

His lips twisted up in a smirk, revealing a row of rotting, pointed teeth. Do you know what that spell is supposed to do--what it would have done if that Mudblood hadn't silenced me? The finger centered right over Ron's heart. The point of entry was here, so that's where the explosion would have centered. The aortic walls would have collapsed, and her ventricles would have flooded with that filth she calls blood, and she would have died. Not straight away, though, and it would have been quite painful. Lestrange's cackling grew louder. Ron struggled to move, but he was much too weak, and Dolohov instantly quieted him by poking him sharply in the chest.

It's not over yet, young man, he informed him. Now, as her heart began to fail, the flame would start to peel her flesh away in giant, curling, blackening chunks. It would start in the chest region and travel across her entire body. Every bit of her, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes would crackle right off of her bones. Her muscles would then start to disintegrate, followed by the internal organs. Those brown eyes would pop right out of her eye sockets, all of that bushy hair would be burned clean away, and her brain would shut down and fail. The veins and arteries would be exposed and opened, spilling all of that filthy blood, which of course is the entire point of this--we want the world to be clean. We need that blood to be spilled for it to be clean. All that would be left of the Mudblood would be a skeleton and a pool of dirty blood. We could, of course, condition the spell to occur almost instantaneously, but it hurts loads more this way.

This is how we will kill her, he hissed. She's at the top of our list now, and do you know why? Ron just stared at him defiantly, and Dolohov cocked his head to the side. Because she loves you. Dolohov's face contorted into the smirk he had plastered on his thin face when he had practiced the curse on Hermione in fifth-year. She dares to love you. He shook his head disgustedly. You may be a pathetic excuse for a wizard, Weasley, but you're still a pureblood, and Mudbloods who love purebloods cannot live. There are so few of us left, Weasley, that we need all that we can get--even if it means keeping the likes of you safe from her.

Ron wanted to kill him; he really did. He never had a greater urge to hurt someone more in his entire life, but he was so bloody weak that he could only lie there, helpless to prevent the awful truth from pouring over him. Now that the curse is complete, Dolohov informed Ron, we're ready to start to the purification of our world, and the first of the Mudbloods to go are the insolent, the arrogant ones who have the audacity to believe that they belong with us. Dolohov paused. And now your little girlfriend is at the top of the list.

Hermione's hand pressed against her chest, remembering all too well the blazing pain that had centered there, and then spread to cover her entire her body, engulfing her with a burning, horrendous sensation that seemed to eat away at her very flesh, turning her bones into jelly, frying her nerves, and rapidly shutting down her brain. That little purple flame would have caused all of that damage. Hermione knew it was possible. She had simply experienced a ghost of the spell that day, and even that had nearly killed her. She couldn't even imagine how grisly and agonizing the full brunt of the spell would be. She had researched that curse for ages, and had been unable to find even one footnote on it, and now she knew why--these Death Eaters were sick enough to actually concoct a new spell to kill Muggles and Muggle-borns, to kill her.

Ron had witnessed first-hand what a remnant of that spell had done to her--he had been so worried about her in the hospital after that night at the Ministry. Hermione had never seen him so worried about anyone or anything, as he had been when he'd held her in the department of Mysteries. And they actually had the cruelty and sadism to tell Ron that it was because of him that they were going to murder her. Hermione swallowed hard to dispel the lump of rage in her throat. She knew that they wanted to kill her simply because she was a Muggle-born who was Head Girl and top of her year, and because Lucius Malfoy had some twisted plan that required Muggles or Muggle-borns, of course she would be a target. Ron had nothing to do with their contempt. They were just that sick, and the fact that were blaming Ron for their own personal vendetta against her...Hermione glanced over at Ron. He was staring down at the floor, fingers gripping his mattress, and his jaw was set in that stubborn manner she had seen many times before.

"Ron," she said quietly. But he shook his head at her, and Hermione, remembering her promise, closed her mouth and waited patiently.

"I reckon I shouldn't have believed them, but I did," Ron picked up in a hoarse voice. "When I woke up after they were done with me, it was all I could think about--that I was why they wanted to hurt you. I couldn't live with myself if I knew that people out there wanted to hurt you because of what you mean to me. So the only thing I could think of to do was to end it and go back to the way things were before, because then I could keep an eye on you without endangering your life."

He paused for a moment before bravely lifting his eyes to her. "Hermione, you have to know that telling you...what I told you...was the hardest thing I'm ever going to have to do, but it was the only thing I could do. And I'm sorry that I hurt you--I know what I've put you through this past year, and I wish I could take it all back, but I'm not sorry that I did it. I really thought that I was saving you, and I'm not going to apologize for it." Ron let out a sigh and unclenched his fingers from his bed. His gaze shifted back down to the floor, indicating that he'd said all he wanted to say.

Hermione was so overwhelmed, that for a moment she was unsure of where to begin. She decided to begin with the minor realization she had just had. "So--so that's why you said that you didn't care who kissed me. It was for Malfoy's benefit, wasn't it? You knew he would tell...them."

Ron nodded miserably. Hermione bit her lip before making the decision to jump ahead to the million-Galleon statement. "You should have told me."

"Yeah," Ron said flatly, although Hermione could sense that he really didn't believe it. Hermione glanced at him sharply to convey that he wasn't fooling her, and Ron let out a sigh. "Look, Hermione, if I had told you, you would have said that it was silly and talked me out of it, right?"

"Of course I would have," Hermione agreed.

"And then what would have happened?" Ron pressed. "They would have retaliated. It would have been a risk to tell you, Hermione, and I'd never do anything that might risk your life." He let out a short, bitter laugh. "You do that far too much on your own."

"Because it's mine to risk," Hermione argued. "Ron, you know I love it when you stand up for me, but this..." she trailed off as she gathered her thoughts, "...this is my life, Ron, and if I want to risk it by being with you, then so be it! It wasn't your decision to make, Ron, it should have been mine!"

"Oh yeah, because it's easy to just walk up to the girl you love and say 'Hey, how are you? Did you know that because you love me loads of people want to kill you?'" Ron shoved himself off of the bed and started pacing. Hermione quickly got off of Harry's bed, and put her hands on her hips, glaring at him. Awkward, serious conversations were rather difficult to have, especially with Ron, but this she could do. Arguing with him was second-nature to her.

"But it's easier to say that you don't love me?!" Hermione countered.

"It was for your own good!" Ron shouted. "Doesn't that mean anything to you?!"

"Of course, it does; it means everything to me!" Hermione felt her cheeks start to turn bright red. "But it was all for nothing, Ron! They don't want me because of you, do they?! So we just wasted a whole year, and who knows how much longer we have left with everything...!" Hermione choked, and much to her irritation, she felt a sob threatening to break through. She didn't want to start crying now.

Ron blanched when he saw her face, and he let out a sigh to calm his temper. "You seemed to be doing fine," Ron muttered. "I mean, I knew you were sad, sometimes, but you seemed to be okay most of the time."

Hermione gaped at him. How was it possible that he could be such a great empath and yet such a great prat at the same time? "Ron, I missed you so much," she admitted. "How could you not know that?" Her stomach writhed nervously as he stared at her, and she folded her arms over her chest. "I missed you more than you missed me," she added defensively.

"That," Ron hissed instantly, "is not possible."

The honest, intense look on his face should have made Hermione melt on the spot, but she was too riled up. "I didn't have a girlfriend!" Hermione reminded him forcefully.

"I would hope not!" Ron retorted. Hermione shot him an irritated look, but before she could respond, Ron was already speaking again. He had caught the confusing array of emotions that always raced through Hermione's mind at the thought of Daphne and Ron as a couple. "Hermione, Daphne and I weren't--" Ron let out an impatient breath. "Look, it was Fred's idea, okay? I moped around the house the entire summer thinking about you, and he finally got fed up and told me that if I couldn't be with the one I love, I ought to find someone else."

Hermione gaped at him, but before she could yell a response, Ron voiced her thoughts out loud. "And I know it was stupid and I shouldn't be listening to a git like Fred, but--I-I needed something, Hermione!" Ron burst out. "I missed you so much, and I needed something--anything to make it go away even for a second so I could forget about you. So when Daphne asked me out one day, I said yes, but when I was with her there wasn't a fraction of a bloody second where you were out of my mind! In case you didn't notice, she's nothing like you, because I wouldn't be able to stand being with someone who reminded me of you, because it would hurt too bloody much. She said that she didn't want anything serious at this point in her life, and I knew I definitely couldn't do that, so it seemed like a way to fill the huge hole you left!"

Hermione continued to gape at him, barely breathing. She couldn't understand Ron's reasoning for being with Daphne, because it never would have worked with her, but she accepted that he thought it could work. It actually did seem like something Ron would do, and the fact that he had done it to try to get over her--a bit like when she had sort of dated Viktor to try to forget Ron in fourth-year--she suddenly felt a bit better about Daphne Greengrass.

But before she could catch her breath, Ron was shouting at her again. "And I didn't have a date every bloody week!"

Temper flaring back up into battle mode, Hermione's hands went back to her hips. "It wasn't every week!"

"It was damn close!"

"Well, I couldn't sleep!"

"I couldn't eat!"

Hermione snorted. "Oh, please, you not being able to eat is like me not being able to read Hogwarts: A History."

"Fine--don't believe me--I couldn't breathe sometimes, Hermione!"

"I couldn't either!"

"I want to get back together!"

"Well, I--what?!" Hermione's jaw dropped. Had he really just said that? "Ron!"

"What?" Ron demanded, panting slightly as he glared at her. "Why not?!"

"Because we--you--I'm--I'm still mad at you, Ron!" Hermione finally shouted at him.

"That's never stopped us before!" Ron argued. Hermione rolled her eyes and attempted to make a hasty exit. She didn't want to have this conversation if he was going to act like a complete idiot. Ron seized her arm and whirled her back around to face him. "Listen to me," he told her intently. "I don't tell you this enough, but--I love you, okay? You're mental and all, but you're everything to me, and I think I've always loved you, and I know I'm always going to love you. I'm so sorry I did this to you, but can't we--can't we work it out?" He swallowed hard and risked moving his fingers up and down her arms. "Please?" he begged as his voice cracked.

Hermione just stared up at the face that she knew and loved so well. He had finally said it--he had never said he loved her out loud, except once when he was a bit intoxicated, so that didn't count. But now he had just said it to her. It felt glorious to be loved by Ron Weasley, and now he was begging her to let him back into her life. Someone as wonderful as Ron Weasley wanted her back. It had finally happened; it was the moment she had been waiting for, for what seemed like forever, and now that it was finally here...she knew what she had to do.

"I love you too, Ron," she whispered. "You know I do." Ron's hands jumped joyfully down to her fingers, and Hermione had to swallow hard before continuing to speak. "I understand why you did what you did, and I love you for trying to take care of me, but I can't forgive you for it." She knew she should step out of Ron's grasp, but she couldn't bear to lose his touch just yet. Ron's face had fallen with these words, and Hermione hastily continued. "At least, not yet," she added truthfully. "You really hurt me, Ron," she said almost inaudibly. "And I can't forget about that, even if your heart was in the right place."

Ron stepped away, turning his back on her to pace as his hand raked through his hair. Hermione suddenly found herself quite without any knees, and she dropped limply down onto Ron's bed. She pressed her hand over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut. This is the right thing to do, her mind congratulated her. Leave him begging after what he did to you.

Shut up, her heart snapped viciously, much to Hermione's relief.

"Not yet," Ron said with his back to her, a flicker of hope in his voice.

"Not yet," Hermione repeated.

Ron's head dropped and he nodded slightly. Both of them remained still for a long moment, running over in their minds all that had happened, and what to do next. Ron finally broke the silence by clearing his throat to attract her attention. "So what are you doing tonight?"

Hermione opened her eyes and lowered her hand from her face, brow furrowed in confusion. "What?"

"What are you doing tonight?" Ron repeated, glancing over his shoulder at her.

"Well--I-I have an Ancient Runes exam tomorrow," Hermione replied with a perplexed expression. Where on earth was Ron going with this?

"Tomorrow then?" Ron asked, turning around to face her. His face was impassive.

"Nothing--I suppose." Hermione got back to her feet. "Why?"

Ron's expressionless face had faltered, and Hermione caught sight of the stuttering boy she had snogged one April night two years ago. "I figure that if you could go out with those blokes you study with, you'd give someone like me another chance."

Hermione's eyes widened. "Are you asking me on a date?" They had never been like that--they hadn't been a normal couple with pre-arranged dates and flowers and candy and all that went along with a normal romance. They just were; that was part of the reason why their relationship had been so extraordinary. It was effortless and wonderful, and they hadn't had to deal with the angst that ordinary teenagers suffered through. It was like they were on a completely different level, but knew that she couldn't dive back into that sort of intense relationship straight away. If she and Ron did go on a few casual dates, that could help to rebuild a foundation, and be the first step in getting back to the place that Hermione longed to be.

"Yeah," Ron admitted with glowing ears. "I was hoping we could take things slow--start over almost, you know, and maybe after a while you could--you know--forgive me." He looked at her with those intense blue eyes, and that settled it for her.

"I'd like that," Hermione agreed with a wisp of shyness in her voice.

"Yeah?" Ron raised his crimson eyebrows hopefully.

"Yeah," Hermione returned with a smile.

"Well, all right then," Ron smiled widely.

There didn't appear to be anything else to say at the moment, so Hermione tucked some hair behind her ear and indicated that she better be going. Ron nodded and stepped back so she could pass him. She paused when she reached the door, eyes down on the doorknob she was grasping. "Ron?" she asked. "Since we aren't serious or anything, are you--you and Daphne--still...?"

Her question wasn't very coherent, but Ron understood her, nevertheless. He countered her question with one of his own. "Why would I want to keep seeing her when I could see you?" His voice was so earnest and sincere that Hermione blushed furiously and had to fight the urge to run back to him right then and there. She nodded slightly and pushed the door open. "Hermione?" Ron called after her. She turned back to him expectantly. "Do you--do you kiss on the first date?"

She was about to gasp in outrage when she saw the twinkle in his eyes. She fought back a giggle. He was teasing her, and it was nice to be teased by him again, especially when she could challenge it so easily. She raised her chin slightly. "No," she replied honestly.

If Ron was disappointed, he hid it well. "Oh, okay," he shrugged with a cheeky smirk. "Just checking."

Hermione sailed through the door and quietly shut it behind her. She shook her head. Prat.


"So what did Dumbledore say?" Hermione inquired as she dropped down onto the foot of Harry's bed in the hospital wing.

Harry sat up straighter, poking his glasses further up his nose. He appeared to be more than slightly irritated that he was being kept in the hospital wing for so long when he felt perfectly fine, but Hermione secretly thought it was for the best. Harry had endured a duel with Tom Riddle, and sometimes the worst injuries were the ones that couldn't be seen or felt. After all, she had no outward scars from Dolohov's curse, but there had been a great deal of internal damage. Who knew what sort of damage he might have suffered? Besides, he did look more than a bit tired.

"They're going to send a team out to collect Remus and check out those girls," Harry reported. His fist clenched slightly, and Hermione clenched her own in commiseration. She knew how hard it had been for Harry to leave Professor Lupin in the hands of the Malfoys. "They suspected that Lucius Malfoy had been up to something, but his house is unplottable, so they hadn't known where it was until now." Harry smirked slightly. "They also didn't think that Malfoy would be stupid enough to stay in his own house."

Hermione smiled along with her friend. Arrogance could be a lovely thing sometimes. That smile faded as Hermione remembered something. "You aren't in trouble for leaving, are you? You haven't been suspended again?"

"No," Harry relayed. "Reckon getting rid of Riddle doesn't call for punishment."

"Good." Hermione let out a relieved breath. "So I don't have to anticipate a meeting with Professor McGonagall?"

"Ah, come on, Hermione," Ron's booming voice cut in as he strode over to Harry's bed and plopped down in a nearby chair. He swung his feet up onto Harry's mattress, inches away from Hermione's lap. She wrinkled her nose slightly at the flecks of mud that had splashed off of the soles of his shoes onto the blanket. "Admit it--you love visiting old McGonagall."

"I certainly enjoy meeting with her--she's my favorite teacher," Hermione replied somewhat haughtily, but with a small smile at him, nevertheless. He just seemed so happy. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off of his shoulders, and he was reveling in his new freedom. She had to admit it felt rather nice that she was the cause of such euphoria. That would not, however, dissuade her from bickering with him if the occasion called for it. "But I wouldn't enjoy a meeting with her if the discussion involved the revoking of my Head Girl duties."

Ron let out a snort. "Oh, please, like they would ever sack you. You're the best Head Girl since McGonagall herself." Hermione bit back her pleased smile as Ron turned toward Harry. "How're you feeling, mate?"

"Bored," Harry replied. He glanced over at Madame Pomfrey's office to make sure that the overbearing nurse was still inside. "I don't know why they won't let me leave--I'm fine."

"Well, we have to trust Dumbledore, don't we?" Hermione reminded Harry. "Besides, it won't hurt you to get some rest, Harry," she added as she took in his slumped posture, the weary way his head was leaning back against the pillows, and the exhausted look in his eyes.

Harry rolled his eyes, but before he could retort, Ron had swiftly changed the subject. He moved his foot to the left so it tapped against Hermione's thigh. "Hey, did you get her to look at you yet?" He nodded his head back to the nurse.

"Are you okay?" Harry asked quickly as he frowned at Hermione. She didn't appear to be injured.

"I'm fine." Hermione unintentionally mimicked the tone Harry had used ten seconds ago. "She gave me some Pepper-Up potion and that was that. She wanted to keep me for observation, too, but I decided that I would like to go one year at Hogwarts without having to stay in the infirmary."

"Good luck with that," Ron said casually. He leaned back in the chair and balanced on the back two legs like he did in prefect meetings. "But now what I want to know is when the hell did you learn wandless magic?"

Harry started slightly at the abrupt change of subject. Hermione turned expectantly toward her friend; she was rather curious about this matter herself. "Been training for a bit," Harry revealed a little awkwardly. "With my Occlumency lessons. Dumbledore reckoned it would come in handy, since I can't use my wand against Voldemort, after Priori Incantatem."

"You must have been training for ages," Hermione commented. "That's incredibly advanced magic, Harry. I've never known anyone to use it so well."

Harry was starting to look quite embarrassed. "Well, Dumbledore's a good teacher."

"I can't believe you didn't tell us," Ron said a tad testily. Hermione looked down at her lap--she was a bit hurt herself, but she hadn't wanted to bring it up, for once. Somehow, it didn't seem that important since the skill had ended up saving their necks.

"I wanted to," Harry argued, pushing himself somewhat weakly off of the pillows. "Really I did, mate, but Dumbledore made me swear--"

"Do you realize how useful this could have been?" Ron swung his legs off of the bed and leaned forward conspiratorially. "You could knock Malfoy right into a cauldron, or you could keep making the snitch fly away from him--you know, wait until he's just about to snatch it--as if he ever could--and then yank it a little away, and away, and away..." Ron closed his eyes in rapturous delight as he imagined Malfoy becoming more and more frustrated as he strained to reach the snitch that kept magically darting out of his reach. "Hey, can you snap your fingers and turn Malfoy into a ferret again? Cause that would be brilliant--one of the best moments of my life, that was--"

"Ron!" Hermione protested. "Harry's not going to abuse his powers--no wonder Dumbledore didn't want him to tell us!" Ron opened his eyes and tried his best to stop laughing, but Harry's lips were twitching, and his cheeks were pink with repressed laughter. Both men exploded with guffaws as they began imagining and listing various things they could do to Malfoy and other Slytherins. Hermione fought the urge to cover her ears; she really shouldn't be listening to this as Head Girl. After a particularly disgusting and vulgar suggestion about where Harry could magically stick Malfoy's head, Hermione'd had enough. Harry had almost fallen out of his bed from laughing so hard, so he didn't notice when Hermione stood up to leave. Ron, however, caught her arm, still laughing.

"Okay, okay, okay, we'll stop," Ron choked out. He winked at Harry and Hermione sighed. She knew that this conversation would be continued later in the sanctity of their dormitory. But she did sit back down on Harry's bed, and Ron swung his legs up again to act as a barrier just in case she tried to bolt again. His ankles were lightly brushing against her thigh, and Hermione's irritation faded at the gentle contact. She couldn't wait until tomorrow night.

"So what spells can you do without your wand?" Hermione inquired once Harry had settled down.

"Stunners, conjuring, couple curses," Harry listed with a shrug.

"Summoning?" Hermione added, remembering how Harry had magically acquired the Invisibility Cloak and Gryffindor's sword with a flick of his hand. Harry nodded.

Ron cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair with an unusual worried frown creasing his features. "Maybe I just don't get it, Harry, but just how will this help you kill You-Kn--Vol.De.Mort," he amended under his breath. Harry and Hermione both smiled proudly at Ron, but he continued to speak in a worried tone. "I mean, you can do all those sorts of things with a wand, and I know that Expelliarmus saved your life the one time you went up against him, but how is that going to kill him?" He blanched slightly at the stares he was receiving from his two best friends. "I mean, it worked for Riddle, but he didn't have all of the invincibility stuff Vol--De--Mort has, right?" He rocked in his chair anxiously. "I mean, I don't want to bring you down or anything, mate, but how will this help?"

Hermione continued to smile somewhat proudly at Ron, although she was very worried herself. Ron had just made the perceptive observation before she had. She loved whenever he showed his full potential or acted his age--it didn't happen too often. Harry leaned back onto the pillows with a weary sigh. He didn't appear to be surprised by Ron's question, which indicated that he was already aware of this problem. "I don't know," Harry admitted. "We don't really know just what will beat him, but Dumbledore thinks we need to build up all of the strength we can get so that we can be ready for anything."

Hermione exchanged a glance with Ron. "You don't know anything right now?" she asked. "Have you done some research? There have been Dark wizards before. Maybe what 's been used to defeat them could be useful. I have a few books if you'd like to borrow them."

Harry and Ron exchanged glances at Hermione's earnest face, and fought down smiles--good old Hermione. "Why don't you do that for me?" Harry suggested. "You're best at it, after all." His face became blank as he lost himself in thought for a moment. "I think I may have an idea of what'll work, but I dunno if it will just yet--"

"What is it?" Ron asked eagerly.

Harry sighed as he absently tried to flatten his mussed hair. "I'm not sure just yet what it is exactly--it's just an idea--"

"Well maybe if you talked the concepts out to us, it would help," Hermione suggested brightly. "That always helped with homework, didn't it?"

"Yeah, come on, mate," Ron prodded. "You know we'll do anything to help."

"Yeah," Harry admitted with a grateful smile, but he didn't reveal any more. He watched his two best friends for a moment. "You two have actually helped a lot already," he revealed cryptically. Hermione frowned quizzically and opened her mouth to comment, but Harry was already making an abrupt change of subject. He became quite fascinated with the few strings popping out of his blanket. "Seen Ginny?"

"Just at breakfast," Hermione shot him a knowing look. Ron remained silent. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason," Harry said much too quickly.

"Or maybe you want to snog my sister again," Ron commented in his big-brother voice, but with a teasing glint to his eyes.

"No, no," Harry protested wildly, actually looking a bit frightened of Ron at the moment. Ron had grown to be very tall.

Ron dropped the act and smirked. "Relax, mate, it's okay with me." Harry sank back deeper into his pillows with relief, but Ron wasn't through. "I'm not the one you should worry about." He shook his head. "You should see Bill and Charlie when it comes to Ginny." He let out a low whistle. "And you think Fred and George are rough on me, but when they gang up on you...watch out," he advised solemnly. The fear had returned to Harry's eyes, and the smirk grew even wider on Ron's face. He leaned back further in the chair, hands resting against the back of his head. His job was done.

Harry decided not to pursue the topic of just what exactly Ginny's older brothers would do to him if he tried to date their little sister, and turned to Hermione. "So what do you think?"

"I think stranger things have happened," Hermione replied with a reassuring smile.

"You're telling me," Ron agreed heartily as he dropped his hands from his head and grinned at Harry. "Did y'know, Harry, that this one here..." He cocked his head towards Hermione, "...skipped Potions."

"Ron!" Hermione protested as Harry stared at her with shocked but amused eyes.

"You just watch, Harry," Ron continued as if Hermione hadn't spoken. "She's going to turn out just like us."

"Oh, I certainly wouldn't want that," Hermione snapped.

Ron kept ignoring her, although the smirk on his face betrayed that he could hear every word. He knew very well that he was riling her up, and he was loving every moment of it. "She could even start failing exams." He shot Hermione a sideways, challenging glance. "Not that she's ever failed a test before, or anything."

Hermione pressed her lips in a disapproving line; he better keep his mouth shut about that History of Magic exam if he knew what was good for him. She swatted her hand against his shin. "Get your feet off the bed," she scolded him. Ron chuckled as he obediently swung his legs off. "Honestly, Ron, you can be so disrespectful sometimes!"

"Well, at least I make it to class everyday," Ron retorted cheekily.

"At least I don't track mud all over my friend's hospital bed," Hermione shot back.

"Are you two back together?!" Harry interrupted with pleased surprise. Hermione and Ron tore their eyes away from each other to gape at Harry; how did he know? "You two haven't rowed like this in ages," he explained. He sat up eagerly. "So, are you?"

Hermione and Ron exchanged a quick glance and shared a warm smile. "Not yet," they both replied at the same time. Hermione looked bashfully at Ron for a moment before getting to her feet. This was definitely her cue to exit.

"I'll see you two later." Hermione smoothed her skirt and steadily walked to the exit. Harry and Ron lowered their voices, but she could still hear them as she went.

"What does that mean?" Harry asked after a puzzled moment of silence.

"I'll tell you the day after tomorrow," Ron answered. She could hear the pensive smile in his voice.

"Sure you will," Harry laughed. Hermione shook her head as she opened the door to leave. "Hey!" Harry said abruptly. "I think I won! It's February 10th!"

"What?" Ron asked in confusion.

Hermione just laughed and breezed out of the door.

Author notes: Thanks for reading!

Next up: the date and a talk with McGonagall about Harry...