Zonko’s. They were talking about Zonko’s. Hermione’s nerves were so frazzled, she could barely contain her irritation. It had taken what little reserve of energy she had left to not hex Fred and George the moment they arrived in the hospital wing for selling love potions to minors.
It wasn’t just the twins. While they’d waited to be let in to see Ron, Harry and Ginny were wildly speculating about who could have poisoned him, almost as if it were a game to them. Gryffindors are known for jumping from danger into action, but staring down at Ron’s pale face, it didn’t feel like a game. According to both Harry and Madam Pomfrey, he looked much improved from earlier that day. Even still, seeing him like this filled Hermione with so much guilt she almost couldn’t bear it.
Tears pricked at her eyes as she watched his chest calmly rise and fall. She wondered how many times she had seen him in the hospital wing over the years. How much less scary those times seemed compared to now. Reading the news and watching students leave to be with their families, she knew the gravity of the situation. Bonds were important, now more than ever. Yet, still somehow, she had let the rift in her friendship with Ron expand, for something as trivial as hurt feelings.
Sniffing, she swiped at her nose with her sleeve. The twins were now puzzling with Harry and Ginny as to who could be behind the attack. Laughably, their current prevailing theory was that it might be Slughorn’s doing.
“You said Slughorn had been planning to give that bottle to Dumbledore for Christmas,” Ginny reminded Harry. “So the poisoner could just as easily have been after him.”
“Then the poisoner didn’t know Slughorn very well,” Hermione said, her voice coming out croaky from disuse. It had been hours since she had last spoken to any of them, too wrapped up in her own guilt at being a poor friend to be of much company. “Anyone who knew Slughorn would have known there was a good chance he’d keep something that tasty for himself.”
Before she could continue sharing her thoughts on the likelihood of Katie and Ron’s attacks being connected, Ron spoke. “Er-my-nee.”
It came out in a raspy whisper that they could have almost missed. Hermione’s eyes widened, realizing what he was trying to say. They waited with baited breath for him to say something else. After a moment of muttering, he snored lightly, falling back to sleep. She could feel the group glancing at her, but resolutely she continued to gaze at Ron, refusing to let her expression give way to her confused emotions.
Thankfully, at that moment Hagrid walked in, distracting everyone and pulling Madam Pomfrey from her office. Ron’s face appeared more tranquil now that he had fallen into a more comfortable sleep. He had even regained a bit more color in his cheeks. Gingerly, she touched her own face, expecting to find it burning with the embarrassment she would generally feel, but was now strangely absent. Her skin was cool to the touch, not flushed at all. Taking a deep breath out of habit, she was also surprised to find that there were no nerves to calm. It hadn’t been like that the last time.
It had been late in the evening, their first Friday back from summer break when she had found herself squinting at her Ancient Runes homework, trying to work out the advanced text Professor Blathers had assigned. The first week of classes had been harder than any of the other years previous. Hermione wasn’t surprised. This was to be expected, given that it was their first year in N.E.W.T. level courses.
Ron had spent the majority of the night moaning to Hermione about how unfair it was that Harry had weaseled his way out of studying to instead meet with Dumbledore. Periodically, she’d shake her head or roll her eyes from her spot on the floor, but for the most part she sat with her back against the couch, paying him no mind.
He had laid out, sprawled dramatically on the couch in despair, his open Transfiguration book covering his face as he groaned.
“Why do we ever come back from summer holidays? I’ve tried to talk Mum into homeschooling us all.”
“And with what time would she do that?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at him skeptically.
He pulled the book off his face, sighing. Hermione’s eyes had widened, finding herself eye level with the blue-eyed freckle-faced boy, their faces inches apart. The detail of every freckle that sprinkled the bridge of his nose filled her vision. Her eyes had moved to meet his, to find him blinking at her, confused by her sudden demeanor. She whipped around with a squeak. If he noticed, he hadn’t said anything.
“Yeah, I s’pose you’re right. It’s better when it’s just us three. No school work.”
Trying to regain her composure, she scoffed, and without turning around said, “Speak for yourself.”
By the time she had finally translated all of the runes and checked them all for grammar, her back had formed a tight knot from hunching over to look so closely at the pages. She sat up and stretched, yawning as she did so. Looking around, she was surprised to find the common room completely emptied. The clock on the mantelpiece read ten past midnight.
“How strange. Harry still hasn’t come back yet. Do you think we should wait—“ her voice had gotten caught in her throat.
Behind her, she had found Ron, fast asleep, mouth half open, head lolling to the side, towards her, just inches away. Why hadn’t she moved earlier when she had realized how close they were to one another? Instinct told her to turn away, this was too close, but she couldn’t help but look just a little longer.
His red hair fell messily into his eyes, perfectly tousled and perfectly accidental. She felt the impulse to reach out and sweep the hair from his brow, but she resisted. Her breath hitched as he mumbled, shifting slightly away. She imagined what he could be dreaming of—who he could be dreaming of.
She slammed her Ancient Runes textbook shut, heart hammering in her chest. This is creepy, Hermione. Stop, she thought, chastising herself. Turning back around, she shut her eyes tightly, willing the thoughts away, far away. They were friends, nothing more.
“W-wot happen’?” Ron asked groggily, slowly moving to get up, having been woken by the noise.
“I’m headed to bed. It’s past midnight,” she said briskly, gathering up the rest of her things. “You should be off to bed, too.”
He grunted in response, now sitting up, gathering the strength to head to the dormitories.
“Goodnight,” she said lightly, as she headed up the steps.
That night it would be an hour before her thundering heart and racing mind would calm enough to let her fall asleep.
Tearing her eyes from Ron, she turned her attention back to the group, ridding herself of her ruminations. Hagrid stood disheveled next to the bed in a puddle of his own making, dripping wet from the rain outside. They were discussing the possibility of the attacks being brought about by a sports rivalry. Both Quidditch Through the Ages and Hogwarts: A History discussed intense Quidditch rivalries throughout Hogwarts’ history, none of which had ever been deadly. Hermione wondered if she truly was the only one who ever read.
The thing the attacks did have in common, however, was that the method would have given someone from outside of Hogwarts access to Professor Dumbledore—first, the attack initiated in Hogsmeade, and now a gift to Professor Slughorn from an unknown source. It could have come from someone who wasn’t a student. This meant it could be any number of Death Eaters.
“It’s not Quidditch. But there is a connection between the attacks,” she said finally, after letting them go on about it for another moment.
“How d’you work that out?” Fred asked.
“For one thing, they both ought to have been fatal and they weren’t, although that was pure luck. And for another, neither item seems to have reached the person who was supposed to be killed.” An internal shiver gripped her as she finished, “Of course, that makes the person behind this even more dangerous, because they don’t seem to care how many people get hurt before they reach their actual victim.”
The group exchanged dark looks as they pondered Hermione’s words. Before anyone could respond, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley returned. Mrs. Weasley made a beeline for Harry, cutting through the tension, enveloping him in a bone-crushing hug. Hermione looked away, uncomfortable for her friend, who she knew found praises for his bravery distressing. Mrs. Weasley was lavishing him with gratitude for saving Ron. Hermione, of course, was grateful to Harry and his having miraculously remembered the bezoar. But she knew better than to tell him that.
Madam Pomfrey came to his rescue, bustling in and tsking as she went. “I think I made it perfectly clear you lot, no more than six guests per patient!”
Harry, Hermione, and Hagrid took the opportunity to bid their leave, allowing the Weasleys more time with Ron.
It ended up being quite late once Harry and Hermione finally approached the corridor leading to the Fat Lady’s portrait. They had a near run-in with Mr. Filch on their way back after stopping to speak with Hagrid, who had he confided that he had seen Dumbledore and Snape arguing.
“I know it’s odd Harry, but Professor Dumbledore is a very capable wizard. Whatever is going on between him and Snape is none of our business,” Hermione insisted as they rounded the corner.
“Fine. Even if Snape isn’t up to something, why would Dumbledore want him to investigate someone in his own House? It has to be Mal—“
“Do you know how often I take points away from Slytherins who think they’re being clever and are going to get away with breaking the rules?” she asked, throwing her hands into the air, exasperatedly. “They’re too cunning for their own good. He could be asking Snape to investigate his House for a myriad of reasons!”
Harry looked at her skeptically but couldn’t argue because, as they turned into Gryffindor Tower, they came across Peeves the Poltergeist. To their displeasure, Peeves was wailing a loud lament:
Prithee Potter, tell me please
What rotten rascal wrecked our King
Won-Won Weasley wanted not
The potente potion he had got
His voice reverberated off the walls, loud and drawn, ringing in their ears. They ran down the final corridor, trying to escape, with Peeves chasing behind.
“Mimbulus mimbletonia!” Hermione shouted at the Fat Lady.
She swung open and they dashed in, panting as the portrait slammed behind them, Peeves’ muffled dirge still sounding from behind.
“Peeves,” Harry said with a growl of frustration. “Reckon it was too much to hope that we could keep the news to ourselves for one evening.”
They walked further into the common room to find it mostly quiet. A murmur of laughter and whispers filled the room as people huddled around their study materials together. One group was playing exploding snap by the fireplace—a normal Saturday night.
“Hmm, it looks like Peeves’ new tune hasn’t spread quite this far. I suppose he must have just heard the news seeing Mr. and Mrs. Weasley leave Professor Dumbledore’s office,” Hermione said intuitively.
Harry acknowledged this to likely be true, exhaling in relief, his shoulders slouched, closing his dark-circled eyes. The exhaustion she saw in him made her feel her own more keenly. With a yawn and a stretch, she bid him goodnight. He nodded wordlessly, patting her on the back as he made his way over to his own dormitory.
The clock in the girl’s dormitory chimed. It was 11 o’clock already. The clouds outside obscured the moon, dousing the room in darkness. Lumos, she thought. Gingerly, she made her way over to her bed, not wanting to disturb anyone. Quickly, she shed her clothes, feeling the weight of the day’s worries come off with them. She slipped into her nightgown and pulled back her hangings.
Pausing, she turned her unseeing eyes to Lavender’s bed. Someone should tell her about Ron. She was Ron’s girlfriend, after all. In the chaos of the day, it hadn’t occurred to any of them to look for her. Hermione grimaced. Lavender really cared for Ron, and everyone seemed to think of her as some sort of joke. The irony wasn’t lost on Hermione that their relationship, as messy as it was, was more legitimate than her own contractual one.
She moved her wand to Lavender’s bed, tiptoeing across the room and wake her. The glow of her wand fell onto the bed and she was surprised to find it empty. Turning around, she found that Parvati’s bed was also empty. Sighing, she flicked her wand, extinguishing the tip and lighting the torches on the wall. She would have to wait for them.
With a flop, she fell on her bed, leaving the hangings open. To her surprise, Crookshanks sprung up to join her. Generally, at this time of night, he’d be strolling about the castle. Noiselessly, he padded over straight to the spot next to her head, and making no significant acknowledgement to her presence, he curled up beside her. She chuckled to herself. He generally preferred his own space.
“What a clever cat you are,” she whispered as she reached up to scratch his back. He must have been able to sense her stress.
Staring up at the canopy of her bed, she felt something Hagrid had mentioned in their conversation on the way back from the hospital wing nag at her.
“Wha’ worries me is how long Hogwarts can stay open if kids are bein’ attacked…next thing yeh know the board o’ governors…”
Surely they couldn’t close the school now. Where else could be safer for Muggle-borns than Hogwarts right now? This was different than the Chamber of Secrets. These attacks were coming from outside, or at the very least were being directed from the outside. Nowhere in Hogwarts: A History did it mention a board of governors, and certainly no entity besides the Headmaster, with such jurisdiction over the running of Hogwarts. Not even the Ministry could easily meddle in the running the school, though it was subsidized. Even then, the Ministry wasn’t made up of people who had bought power and influence to exert over the school.
Lucius Malfoy, while ousted from the board, had more than likely made sure to seat as many like-minded individuals on it as he could in his time. He and his subordinates would love to expel the Muggle-borns and blood traitors from the school. It would make it easier to get to them outside of the castle walls. She shuddered at the thought. If there was anything she hated, it was feeling powerless.
Crookshanks began to purr in his sleep, a comforting sound. She wasn’t powerless, she tried to remind herself. She had a rough idea of a plan if she were to leave. Being of age, she could join the Order. Maybe she could help Dean get his family into hiding if there was time. If anything, leaving now might buy them time, which felt invaluable with so much uncertainty hanging around them.
I wonder if they’d let us take our exams before closing the school, she thought, her mind growing listless. She closed her eyes and smiled, I suppose they could just send them home with us.
Thoughts of practice problems and essay prompts then began to fill her mind, and her exhaustion finally claimed her, lulling her into a dreamless sleep.
Things overall were much improved the next day. Sunlight was shining through the castle windows and Ron had woken up. He still felt “a bit peaky” as he put it, but his color had mostly returned and Madam Pomfrey thought he was largely out of the woods. She insisted he stay for a few more days to monitor for any lasting effects while he rested and regained his strength.
Hermione and Harry spent their entire Sunday with Ron, happy to see him returned to his usual self. At first, it felt a little awkward. She and Ron instinctually moved cautiously around each other, not wanting to trigger any past arguments or upsets. Their worry was unnecessary though. As the days passed, they found themselves falling back into their old selves. If anything, they both just seemed relieved to not be fighting anymore.
Dean visited that Sunday, late in the morning. The whole school now knew about Ron’s poisoning. He was waiting for her outside of the hospital wing, his face was grim, taut with concern. Despite his expression, she felt a warmth tickling her stomach, a wide grin spreading across her face. After so much stress, she almost felt relieved to see his friendly face.
“I heard what happened. Are you alright?” he asked, pulling her into a hug.
She froze in surprise at the sincere gesture. The pleasant scent of bergamot filled her nose. Embarrassed, she pushed him away, laughing at his earnestness. “Yes. I’m fine!” She didn’t dare say the truth, which was that she felt great. It was freeing to no longer have to tread lightly around Ron and to have her friend back. And now Dean was here, and that somehow made everything even better.
“Are you sure?” he asked, holding her out at arm’s length, examining her.
She huffed, exasperated. “I’m fine.” The memory of Ron’s “Er-my-nee” entered her mind, but she shook that from her head. “It’s a lot to process. But I’m happy he’s alright.”
Dean looked her over for another moment before deciding for himself that she did in fact look mostly fine.
“Here,” he said, digging in the pockets of his robes. He pulled out two muffins wrapped in a napkin. “I didn’t see you or Harry at breakfast so I nicked these. You need to make sure you come down for lunch and eat.”
She took the muffins, smiling appreciatively, the warm feeling in her stomach filling her whole chest. “Right. I will.”
“So everything going alright with him then?” He indicated at the door.
“Ron? Yes, I think so. I think we’re mostly back to normal, all things considered.”
Strangely, Dean pursed his lips at this. “Are you really going to let him off the hook for how he’s treated you this year?”
She looked at him, shocked. “He was poisoned!”
“Yes,” he said, brushing a stray curl off her shoulder, “but does that excuse his behavior from before?”
Tilting her head, she looked at him for a moment. He wasn’t judging her. By his raised eyebrows, she could tell he was truly asking her. She bit her lip, unsure of how to respond.
“I should go,” he finally said, glancing back at the door.
“Oh! Do you want to come in? I don’t think they’d mind.” It hadn’t occurred to her to invite him in. Would that be weird for Ron? It hadn’t been something she had to navigate since the inception of their scheme, since they hadn’t been on speaking terms.
He shook his head with a slight smile. “Nah, I’m fine. Finish catching up,” he nudged her lightly towards the door. “I’ve got a Charms essay to finish.”
His words stayed with her for the rest of the week. Was she letting Ron off too easy? Their argument didn’t seem that important to her in light of the situation.
They didn’t have time to discuss it any further the rest of the week. Cormac was joining the Quidditch team as an alternate. In preparation for Saturday’s match against Hufflepuff, Harry had booked the Quidditch pitch the entire week whenever there was availability. This meant Dean spent much of his free time with the team at practice. Hermione used this time to catch up on her homework, do her hair, and play with Crookshanks, the two latter of which she had been neglecting. When the team wasn’t at practice, she and Harry were in the hospital wing with Ron.
Their misaligned schedules, for some inexplicable reason, made Hermione sad. Dean didn’t seem upset. To the contrary, they still walked hand-in-hand to classes together and he sketched her more pictures of Crookshanks to cheer her up. He asked about Ron and seemed concerned on her behalf for his well-being. Even though he didn’t seem to be bothered by the time apart, she still couldn’t help but think about him.
Without him or Harry around in her free time, she found friends were light on the ground. The mood in her dormitory had been quite frosty. After falling asleep the night of Ron’s poisoning, she had forgotten all about telling Lavender what had happened. After finding out through the general rumor mill about Ron’s incident, she was rightfully upset. What Hermione felt wasn’t fair was how cold she’d been towards her since then, despite having long since forgiven Harry.
The silver lining about having such a busy week was that the weekend was upon them more quickly than usual. During her free period that Friday, she lugged her book bag up the stairs to the hospital wing. All week, she had taken diligent notes and collected Ron’s assignments, determined that he shouldn’t fall behind in class.
The hospital wing was still mostly empty when she arrived. Ron looked over to her as she entered, his face lighting up at the sight of her. Then his eyes fell on her book bag, bulging at the seams even more than usual, and his face fell.
Without greeting, she set the bag at the foot of his bed and began to pull out folders and stacks of parchment.
“Most people just bring chocolate or some flowers, ya know?”
She pointedly ignored him. “I’ve organized your assignments in these folders. They’re organized by color. And these,” she handed him a large stack of parchment, “are my notes for you to study. I did my best to underline and note important bits. Muggle highlighters don’t work on parchment or else I would—“
He groaned dramatically and threw himself back on the bed, discarding the notes to the side. “Was the poison not punishment enough?”
“Oh stop being dramatic,” she chastised as she sat down.
They sat in silence for a moment, Ron still laying back with his eyes closed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better. I reckon I could fly tomorrow, but Pomfrey wants me through the weekend,” he said dejectedly without opening his eyes.
“Cormac would be crushed,” she said sarcastically. His eyes flew open, surprised at the joke. They laughed, poking fun at Cormac.
Once they lapsed back into silence, it dawned on Hermione that this was the first time that they’d been alone together in a long time—the first time since the note. She could feel heat threatening to rise to her cheeks.
As if he were practiced in Legilimency, he spoke. “Are we ever going to talk about that note you sent me, Hermione?”
She closed her eyes, hoping that maybe when she opened them she wouldn’t be here. Of course, she knew they wouldn’t be able to avoid the topic forever, but still she had faintly hoped. The familiar feeling of mortification seeped into her skin. Dean wasn’t here to get her out of this one now.
Sighing she opened her eyes, carefully choosing her words. “There isn’t much to talk about. You were never supposed to read it. But it’s fine because it doesn’t matter. I wrote that so long ago, really. Nothing to worry about,” she said in a rush. “Besides, I’m dating Dean now and you’re dating Lavender…” She trailed off, unsure of what else to say, praying he’d drop it.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” The emotion in his voice and his searching eyes made her want to disappear. She wondered if a Summoning Charm would work on the Invisibility Cloak. “Maybe I didn’t want to date Lavender.”
He sighed, months of frustration etched on his features. He rubbed his hands over his face, looking conflicted.
Stunned into silence, it took her a moment to collect herself. Surely he couldn’t be suggesting what she thought he was. Instead of the joy or excitement that she would have expected to feel at such a statement, panic filled her. This couldn’t be happening, not now. He wanted to know why she had never told him, but why hadn’t he told her? Why now, when it was too late?
She exhaled, surprised by her own thoughts but finding there was truth in them. It was too late and it had been for weeks now, maybe even months. When had it changed? When had she stopped hoping for this exact outcome? He opened his eyes, looking at her expectantly, in a way that once might have sent butterflies through her stomach.
“You’re one of my best friends. I wrote that note as a silly way to work through my feelings a long time ago. If they were something you needed to be concerned with, I’d tell you,” she said honestly.
His expression clouded over, unreadable. He nodded solemnly, understanding what she meant. At that moment, the hospital wing doors swung open. Turning around, Hermione’s eyes landed on Lavender. Her face screwed into a scowl at the sight of Hermione sitting at Ron’s bedside.
“How long have you been up and what is she doing here?” Lavender asked in an accusatory tone as she strode up to the bed.
Seeing her opportunity to escape, Hermione gathered her things and stood up to leave.
“Wait, Hermione, you can stay,” Ron said, looking at her insistently.
“No, I really ought to be going. I have prefect duty tonight,” she said through a fake smile.
Walking as quickly as she could without breaking out into a full-out run, she left, letting the door shut on the now arguing couple. She clutched her chest, her heart racing, too stunned to move. Blinking, she looked around, her reality feeling changed somehow. She no longer had feelings for Ron. The opposite had been true for so long, the idea of not having feelings for him felt funny in her brain.
But there was no denying it. Her lack of quickened pulse, her lack of warm cheeks, it all pointed to one thing. Her plan had worked, in part anyway. She had distracted herself right out of her heartbreak.
Her hand dropped from her chest, her heart slowing back to a normal pace. If she was over Ron, and Ron understood that the note now meant nothing, that meant the whole scheme with Dean would soon be coming to an end.