“Where’s Ron?” Hermione asked, as they entered the courtyard of Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor.
“I don’t know,” Harry replied absently. He glanced around him, feeling as if he’d suddenly walked out of a fogbank into the brilliant sunlight, blinking at his surroundings and wondering, irrelevantly, if this was what “Unfogging the Future” meant. “He was right behind us a minute ago …”
A sudden dread swept through him … Ron was just behind them when he’d placed his arm around Hermione … did he see what I almost did? And even if he didn’t … the way they were walking along, arms around each other …
He looked at his best friend … and saw the same look of dismay in her eyes as they met his. It had been so natural, so spontaneous an act for both of them that they’d never even thought of their other best friend … hadn’t thought that he’d feel left out, boxed out … thrown out of their tight circle of friendship because …
Because of what?
Because … Harry pushed that train of thought away. He didn’t want to focus on it, did not want to think about it now …
He quickly put down the bags he was carrying on an empty chair and turned to Ginny, who had walked up behind them, “I’ll go look for Ron … he must have wanted to look at the new brooms …”
“I’ll go with you,” Hermione said, as she laid down the bag she was carrying. He was about to protest, but he knew that it was useless. She’d feel just as responsible for what happened as he did … and would be doing whatever was needed to help heal this rift … if it were a rift …
He merely nodded and walked out, Hermione beside him … neither one noticing Ginny’s wistful expression as she watched them leave, or the Twins’ bemused looks from where they stood at the door of the ice cream parlor …
* * * *
“And the Dynamic Duo rides again,” Ginny thought to herself as she watched them melt into the crowds, feeling a brief twinge of envy towards Hermione … and realizing that, while she may be envious of the older girl’s closeness to Harry, she herself was still a long way from establishing the kind of trust, friendship and … and teamwork that they (including her brother Ron) had built over the years …
And there, she thought, lay the crux of her problem. The three formed a cohesive whole … each of them contributing something to the group. But if one were missing … and she realized, with a stab of surprise, that if Ron were missing, Harry and Hermione would still prevail over whatever was thrown their way. The two would be able to continue … be able to function … maybe not as efficiently, maybe not as effectively, but they would easily regain their balance and spirit and carry on … able to continue because they had each other …
She shivered at the thought … and wondered if her brother understood the implications … and if that was the real reason why he seemed so obsessed with Hermione: not because of any feelings of love, hormonal urgings, or romance, but because he knew, or could sense, that his place in the Trio was slipping away …
In a way, she reflected, she was luckier than Ron. Much as she wanted to be part of the group (or rather, she admitted to herself, much as she wanted to be part of Harry), the fact that she was on the fringe — and never part of the Trio — meant that she could go her own way … never suffer any heartache, never go through any feelings of hurt or loss … except for the constant thought of what might have been …
All such thoughts and worries disappeared, however, as she felt two strong arms suddenly grabbing her about the shoulders …
* * * *
“No interference, brother?”
“No interference,” Fred (or was it George?) affirmed. He sighed, “Ronnie better grow up … he’s got no chance with little Miss Granger, not after what we just saw.”
“You think he’ll grow up?”
“I hope so … remember what Mum always says about girls as friends? You either grow up … or move on.”
“How come she never told me that?”
“She was talking to Charlie, you dumb prat! You think she’ll ever be telling me that?”
“Well, she hasn’t seen you with Angelina … Oww!”
“Neither has she seen you with Katie, you git! Or are you still wanking off on McGonagall?”
“Hey! No talking about my love life …”
“Yeah,” Fred (or George) replied. He sighed again, “I better not make any more bets on those two … I could have sworn that he was going to kiss her … “
“Leave it, George,” his twin replied. “Besides, what I got from you goes back into the Fund. And … Uh-oh …”
“What?” George glanced at his brother, followed his gaze, and muttered darkly, “I’ll put a stop to that!”
A stocky wizard with blonde hair and a camera slung around his neck had grabbed their sister, and they could hear his formerly thin and whiny, now deep and husky voice saying, “Ginny! Are you all right?”
“That’s not …”
“It is …”
“It can’t be …”
“It is …”
“He’s not …”
“He might …”
The Twins watched in mingled amusement, sibling pride and brotherly protectiveness as Ginny came eyeball-to-eyeball with Colin Creevey, somehow taller and more filled out than either remembered from last year, dark blue eyes flashing with concern, the ever-present camera slung around his neck totally forgotten — his seeming obsession with cataloguing the Life and Times of Harry Potter completely set aside as he scanned her face and body anxiously for any injury or bruise.
Or so they hoped.
“People were talking when we got here … did you really have a wizard’s duel with Malfoy and the Slytherins? Are you all right? You’re not hurt, are you? C’mon, let’s have an ice cream… I’d like to hear about what happened,” Colin continued talking as he pulled Ginny towards a group of younger witches and wizards from her year and below …
“He’s taller …”
“Quite good-looking, too.”
“Think he’ll make a good Beater?”
“Beater?” A sly grin broke out on the other’s face. “Oh, you mean as a target for Bludgers?”
“Too bad Lockhart’s no longer around …”
An evil grin broke out on the other’s face. “Right … he could make all his bones disappear …”
“I would rather that he disappear …”
Before they could make a move, a heavy arm clapped Fred’s and George’s shoulder — and they turned into the smiling eyes of their big brother, who’d grabbed them by their upper arms, and started pulling them towards the shop. “Leave her, boys … it’s what she needs right now.”
“Yeah, Bill …”
Their eldest brother gave them a look which had shut them up without a squeak in their younger years, and they fell silent, accepting but not committed to the idea.
Bill smiled: “If he goes too far, you have my permission to shove his camera all the way where the sun doesn’t shine.”
The Twins looked at each other and nodded, evil schemes popping into their minds … both agreeing that they’d found their next laboratory animal (test pilot? George thought with a wicked gleam in his eye), and allowed themselves to be pulled into the ice cream parlor …
* * * *
Head bowed … hands in pockets … letting the crowds that thronged the marketplace push him this way and that. Eyes blank, vision blurred but not from unshed tears … for there were no tears to shed, as his mind played and replayed scenes from that day: the two of them falling into The Burrow, muddy and laughing that morning … discussing the relative merits of Arithmancy and Ancient Runes at breakfast … Hermione on top of Harry as she arrived at the Leaky Cauldron … Harry and Hermione standing back to back, Disarmed and stunned enemies around them …
Why did he torture himself? He should have known … they’d been friends for years … how come he’d never really seen it before?
It had always been Harry and Hermione … Hermione and Harry, ever since their first year … Hermione looking as if she wanted to climb into Harry’s bed and hug him in the Hospital Wing after the incident with the Sorcerer’s Stone … Hermione running towards Harry screaming, “You’ve solved it! You’ve solved it!” in their second year (and slamming into Harry for a fierce and joyful hug in front of Dumbledore and the whole school) … Hermione telling Harry to cheer up as he watched Hogwarts disappear behind the mountains on the way home after their third year … Hermione kissing Harry at Platform 9 and ¾ last year … and the sight that he was witness to earlier after their confrontation with Malfoy and his cronies …
And the score now stood … in the Hugs Department, Harry Potter, 4; Ron Weasley, 3. In the Kisses Department, Harry Potter, two; Ron Weasley, none.
Harry Potter leaves the Weasley behind.
It was enough to drive a boy to drink.
Unbidden, a gloomy confession made in the comfort of a compartment shared by two frightened, insecure boys came to mind: “I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to … Bill was head boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first …”
It seemed that even in the department ruled over by Cupid with his stupid arrows full of love potion, someone else was going to come in first …
It was enough to drive a man to drink.
The question was … what ever made him think that he even stood a chance with Hermione?
And the thought struck him with all the force of a rogue Bludger … whatever made him think that he could think of Hermione in that way?
With Hermione, he wasn’t just another Weasley, as that stupid git Malfoy had sneered at, so many moons ago. He was Ron: friend, classmate, sometime companion … someone she could boss around to do his homework, pester about his assignments … embarrass every once in a while, as she had done with the first ever Charm they’d learned, the never to be forgotten Wingardium Leviosa — with the ‘gar’ nice and long.
And … with a profound shock, he realized that that was the same way Harry felt about her: comfort, assurance … contentment.
With Hermione Granger, Harry was just Harry Potter — not the famous Boy-Who-Lived, not the youngest Seeker in a century, not the Triwizard Champion …
Just plain Harry: wizard, fellow student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and more importantly … friend. Most especially … the person who’d saved her life in first year.
Or one of them, depending on how you looked at it.
But in a curious way … he saw Harry the same way now. Oh sure, the first time, he was all agog about the famous Boy-Who-Lived. Everyone was, even Hermione … and he smiled as he remembered the rambling introduction that had caused both of them to stare at her, stunned, stupefied, and … shocked.
But, as the days passed, he’d come to think of Harry as just that … plain Harry Potter, friend.
He mentally cringed as he remembered last year when the Goblet of Fire announced Harry as the other champion … and he pushed that thought out of his mind, mentally hitting it as if it were a Bludger out to kill him … only for the memory of the Firebolt and Scabbers incidents of their third year to come crashing in …
Again, he forced his mind to stop wincing, and focused on that most profound thought …
Which, he realized, was where it all started.
He was comfortable with Hermione … there was no need to put on any pretensions … any airs … any facades that he was anything more than what he truly was … a nice guy to have around.
Or was he?
Cringing in embarrassment was getting to be a habit; he must have done more of it during this one day than he’d ever done in his whole life. But … he sighed to himself, that’s what you get for facing up to reality … the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Ginny’s cutting words to him that morning were sooo true … he was a dense, insensitive, idiotic, immature prat.
His mind brought back the image of minutes before … his two friends walking together so easily … Harry carrying her books, Hermione carrying his robes. They looked so cute together, arms around each other … an aura of profound comfort emanating from them.
There was that word again. But honestly, what other word was there to describe it? He knew that if he walked up and joined them, there would be no awkwardness, no discomfort or unease between them … not unless he brought it in to their tight little group.
Which, he admitted to himself, he had brought in … too many times to count.
Was that why Hermione always seemed so comfortable with Harry … and not with him? Harry was just natural whenever he was with Hermione … unaffected, spontaneous, completely relaxed. He took her bossiness in stride … accepted her intelligence without lifting an eyebrow … and returned her affection in even measure. All it took was a smile and a question … and all of Hermione’s objections dissolved, that time when Harry sneaked out to join them in Hogsmeade.
He wasn’t even trying to be charming, Ron realized … he was just being Harry: secure in their friendship, confident in their protection, unquestioning in their understanding. It had been Harry’s confidence in her friendship and support that led Hermione to break the rules too many times to count …
And she returned his confidence in full measure, and more.
Was that the key to their relationship? That they trusted each other to do what had to be done … knowing the other enough to do the right thing without thought, without question?
But what about him?
Go with the flow.
Shrug your shoulders.
He’d flinched again … he was getting better at it. The way he was going, he’d have done enough cringing, flinching and wincing at his past actions to last him a lifetime. Although, as Ginny told him, he’d better get used to this … he’d be doing it again in the future … well into the future, unless he changed his ways.
That brought him back to the thought which started all this: what had made him think that he could think of Hermione in that way?
Back to comfort, assurance and security.
Especially the last.
At the end of it all … Hermione was a known entity to him. It may have taken him a little longer to twig to the fact that she was a girl … but she had shown them all, and how! Showing up at the Yule Ball with Viktor Krum, looking so absolutely beautiful that she’d bowled them all over — including Draco bloody Malfoy with the banshee he called a girl — and practically all the girls in Hogwarts, including the snooty Fleur Delacour, feeling, for a moment, that they had all been had.
And that, he admitted to himself, was where his resentment came from. If Hermione had gone with him, he wouldn’t have been embarrassed to death with his stupid dress robes, which were more properly dress than robes. She’d have been able to come up with a hundred and one charms to make his robes more presentable … she would have made him relaxed at his first-ever formal ball … she would have been a comfortable companion during the dinner, the dancing, the walk back to Gryffindor Tower …
He would have entered the Great Hall of Hogwarts on the arm of a beautiful girl who accepted him for what he was.
Instead, she’d gone with Vicky … but then again, why shouldn’t she? He never asked her … never even thought of asking her … he’d been so engrossed with hooking up with the most beautiful girl he could think of that he’d totally ignored her … and conveniently forgot the fact that she was a girl.
He’d turned to her only as a last resort … and was rightly, shot down in flames.
And of course, he being himself, had acted the total and complete prat about it … pestering her about who her date was … boiling in resentment during the ball that he’d forgotten all about his date … finally ending what should have been an enjoyable night for all of them with the biggest fight he’d ever had with her — and in public at that!
And there lay the difference.
Harry simply accepted it … he trusted Hermione enough to let her be … to let her have her time with Viktor with no questions or recriminations … to tell her that he had no issues with her dating Krum … in fact, he’d told Ron later that Hermione could have shown up with the Mountain Troll that almost killed her in first year and he wouldn’t have any issues with it.
Because Harry trusted her.
As Hermione trusted Harry.
While he …
Flinch, cringe, wince, shrink … what more did he need to do? He’d done it all in the space of a few minutes more than once … it would be a mercy if the earth just opened up and swallowed him whole …
He’d been so engrossed in his thoughts that he wasn’t thinking about where he was going … and looked up in surprise as he heard someone shouting, “Give it back!” followed by another small voice shouting, “Yes, give it back!”
He walked towards the alley where the voices were coming from, and saw a huge student he recognized as Derrick, a Slytherin Beater, holding up a wand as a small, thin-framed girl with long, straight black hair kept trying to grab it from him, but looking more like a poodle trying to jump for a stick held out of reach. They were surrounded by other students … beside the huge Beater was his partner Bole, easily holding off another small girl, with long, slightly wavy black hair but with a somewhat stockier build than the other.
She was trying to get to Derrick, crying, “Give it back, or I … I’ll …”
“You’ll what? Tell your Muggle mother?” Bole sneered. It was then that Ron noticed an older woman dressed in muggle clothes standing by a wall near the two girls, shocked and uncertain about what to do. “Filthy mudbloods! We don’t need your kind at Hogwarts …”
Ron’s protective instincts, never far below the surface, boiled out. “Give it back, Derrick! Or can you only handle little girls who haven’t been Sorted yet?”
The Slytherins turned to him, surprised … but another huge player that Ron recognized was their Chaser, Montague, sneered, “It’s only the Weasel, Potty’s lapdog. He can’t do anything …”
That did it … all his frustration, and perhaps all the cringing that he’d been doing throughout the day, finally let go. In a blur, he pulled his wand and shouted, “Expelliarmus!” … and watched in gleeful satisfaction as the wand in Derrick’s hand flew into the air while the huge Beater was thrown backward to crash into the alley’s wall … with a graceful move that belied his assumed awkwardness, he grabbed the little girl’s wand as it flew towards him, and spun around to face the other Beater — only to see Bole doubled up on the ground, gasping for breath, and the stocky little girl walking backwards away from the fallen goon, a look of surprise on her face …
A movement seen from the corner of his eye and he dropped to the ground, dodging the jinx thrown at him and casting the Full-Body Bind at the same time … and watched the slow-motion, face forward, fallen-tree collapse of his opponent.
He stood and spun around, wand ready … and realized his predicament: there were still six or seven thugs facing him, led by the massive Montague. He could possibly hold off one or two at a time … but if they all rushed him, no amount of magic and cursing would prevent him from being beaten up …
Apparently, the same thought had come to Montague; with a cry of, “No wands! Let’s beat him up!” the gang rushed and he prepared himself, thinking only of his regrets for all the prattishness that he’d shown his best friends …
* * * * *
No words were exchanged … they fell again, naturally, into their established routine: Harry leading, bulling his way through the crowds, and automatically dropping his hand behind him, and Hermione’s hand automatically finding its way to his … for an instant, their hands flinched at the contact but entwined themselves together effortlessly as she followed behind him …
“Was he going to kiss me?” she wondered as she followed him automatically through the crowd. “Why? What’s happening to us … what’s happening to me? Is he my friend or my brother … no, he isn’t, I know that … but why was he going to kiss me … but why was I going to kiss him … stop it, Hermione! Focus … where’s Ron … if that silly prat uses this against Harry, I … I’ll … “
“You’ll what, Hermione?” She looked up guiltily at Harry’s concerned face and wondered how much she’d actually said … and she could read the worry and concern in his eyes.
His friendship with Ron meant so much to him … Ron had been his first real friend, aside from Hagrid … not just in the wizarding world, but in the whole wide world, in fact. She felt a twinge of … envy? jealousy? spite? as she remembered their reconciliation last year at the end of the First Task … how she’d been crying and had hugged both of them … feeling happy that their Trio was intact, but at the same time, feeling a wrenching loss, knowing that the time spent alone with Harry was over …
But why should she feel that she had lost something, when their Trio was back together again? He was still her best friend … if anything, that incident had bound the three of them closer together but still …
She bumped into him and was surprised, realizing that he’d stopped at a deserted area of the marketplace and was facing her, both hands held in his, and she looked up to see his eyes on her face … an unreadable expression in them. Which was a surprise, because she’d always been able to read and understand what he was thinking …
“He’s still our friend, Hermione,” she heard him say … and she turned away, nodding. Yes he was, she thought, but wondering at the same time whether what she felt for Harry was going to interfere … to work its insidious way between the three of them and force a break … and worrying that, if it came down to a choice, she would be the one left out …
And she barely caught his whispered words, “… and if he doesn’t like it … … he can go hang!”
“Harry,” she whispered, uncertain of what he’d said, and watched as he locked eyes with her. Before she could continue her question … or he could respond, they both heard a muffled, “Petrificus Totalus!” from a nearby alley… and both ran towards the sound …
* * * * *
Ron watched, shocked, as Montague hit an invisible barrier — and bounced back into the rushing gang, bringing them down like pins in a bowling alley. He tensed as he felt a presence materialize beside him, and relaxed as he realized who it would be …
“Took you long enough,” he said, without looking around, still focused on the hooligans.
“You were doing quite well on your own,” Harry said. “Four down … think we can take the rest?”
Before Ron could respond, he felt a presence on his other side, and knew that Hermione was there, wand out and probably casting her death-glare at the fallen thugs. If that was not enough to make anyone back down …
For a single, satisfying moment, the Trio felt their fellowship fall into its accustomed place: facing a gang of enemies together as they’d faced danger before, prepared to do what was right, assured of their mutual protection and concern for each other … all other thoughts and issues set aside for the moment …
The shocked gang stepped back … facing two determined wizards and a witch who looked just as capable as the other two. They slowly moved back … away from their fallen comrades: Bole still rolling around on the floor, clutching his groin; Derrick still winded by the wall and unable, or unwilling, to move; another Slytherin still in the Full-Body Bind; Montague shaking his bashed head from running into an invisible wall … one of them suddenly turned and ran down the alley … as if that were the cue, the rest turned and followed, leaving the Trio alone, with the two little girls and their mother standing there, still in shock at what had happened.
Ron slowly put down his wand, feeling his rapidly beating heart rumble along … heard deep pants roaring into his lungs … felt his knees weaken as if hit by the Jelly-Legs jinx … but forcing himself to stand straight and tall, thinking, “So this is what Harry has to go through …” and knowing, in the same moment, that what he had just gone through was a mere fraction of what his best friend had gone through every single year since he started at Hogwarts.
He made his way over to the two girls and their mother. With a smile and a flourish that he couldn’t feel, he handed over the wand to the long-haired girl, saying, “I believe this is yours?”
The younger girl slowly reached for her wand, looking at Ron with teary eyes and whispering in a small voice, “Thank you … thank you …”
Before Ron could even say, “You’re welcome,” the girl had jumped into his arms and was hugging him tightly, saying “thank you” over and over, and crying into his shirt … before he could say anything else, he was slammed back as the other girl leaped in to hug him also, saying the same thing to him …
He awkwardly held them, patting their backs and thinking, “So this is what it feels like to be a hero …”
* * * *
Harry and Hermione glanced at each other, smiling as Ron gently disentangled himself from the sobbing girls. With a glance at his companions (and a quiet nod from them), he gently placed a hand around the younger girls’ shoulders and started pulling them towards their mother, who was standing still, shocked at what had happened …
“Ma’am?” She looked up at him (Ron stood a head taller than her) and silently nodded as he said, “I think we better go …”
Ron gently pushed the sobbing girls towards their mother, and was surprised when the older lady wrapped her arms around the girl with the long, straight black hair … after a moment, she enveloped the other girl in her embrace, and the three quietly began walking away towards the mouth of the alley.
“That was bloody brilliant, Ron,” he heard Harry say as his friends walked up to him. The three started following the others, Hermione walking on Harry’s other side, and he turned to her with gratitude.
“Thanks, Harry … and thanks for finding that Shield Charm, Hermione,” She waved his thanks off, glancing at Harry; and Ron saw Harry blanch … and remembered that Harry had tried the charm against a giant spider during the Third Task, and he shuddered at the thought.
“Good thing that the stupid git was a lot smaller than …” and he stopped suddenly at Hermione’s glare, mentally kicking himself for his big mouth, knowing that it wouldn’t help to remind Harry of the nightmare in the maze. He was saved from burying himself deeper when they reached the others, who were now waiting for them at the outskirts of a more crowded section of Diagon Alley.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” he asked as he came closer, noting that his two friends had slowed down, allowing him to take the lead.
“Thank you,” the older woman said in a heartfelt tone. “If you hadn’t arrived … I don’t know what would have happened, Mister … err …”
Shaking his head in apology, he held out his hand, “I’m so sorry. I’m Ron … Ron Weasley.”
“Pleased to meet you.” The woman paused as she shook his hand, and continued. “That sounds so … inadequate, after what you’ve done for us. Oh! I’m Mrs. Wright … and this is my daughter, Carolyn (gesturing to the girl with long hair), and her friend, Cindy …”
“You’re Ron Weasley?” The other girl was looking at him with something close to awe, and she was actually trembling as she extended her hand to Ron. “I’m Cindy … Cindy Galloway.”
Before Ron could ask why she was looking at him so strangely, she squealed in excitement: “… I’ve heard so much about you! You’re Harry Potter’s friend … my cousin Clara’s a Ravenclaw and she’s told me all about you and Harry Potter! Is it true that Sirius Black went after you with a knife? She was in first year when that happened, and she said everyone was talking about it … and you were also with Harry Potter during last year’s Triwizard tournament … and … and …”
The sudden chatter from what Ron had assumed was a quiet little girl (now almost bouncing with excitement and glee) was interrupted by a shy, almost ashamed and definitely bewildered voice asking, “Who’s Harry Potter?”
Ron turned in surprise to Carolyn, who looked as if she wanted to hide behind her mother’s skirt, so embarrassed was she at professing her ignorance. The awkward silence was broken, however, as Cindy took her friend’s hands in hers and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Carolyn! I keep forgetting that you’re not from our world … I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I can get my books. Maybe you can stay with me for a few days … we can go to Platform 9 and ¾ together and from there take the Hogwarts Express … I’ll clue you in on what to do, what to expect … I hope we get into the same House, I would love to be in Gryffindor …”
Ron looked at Mrs. Wright with raised eyebrows; the latter, with an embarrassed smile, explained, “We met Cindy and her parents at the wand shop … Ollivander’s? She was nice enough to volunteer to show us around since we … uhm, were not familiar with the place … until those … those thugs decided to make fun of Carolyn. If you hadn’t arrived in time …”
“I see,” Ron said, nodding slowly and he smiled. “Well then, allow me to welcome both of you to the magical world. Please don’t think we welcome new members of the community in the same way that those, uh … apes did. You will find that most of us know how to welcome guests …”
A slight cough from behind interrupted his speech. Turning, he saw Hermione covering her mouth to stop from giggling … Harry beside her, doing his level best to control his grinning face as she said, “You sound just like Percy, you know.”
Taken aback, Ron hissed back, “I suppose you can do better?”
Turning back to Mrs. Wright, he said, “Please, call me Ron. And may I introduce my classmates and fellow Gryffindors, Hermione Granger (Hermione extended her hand, which Mrs. Wright clasped briefly) and …”
“Ohhhh,” said Cindy in a voice of mingled embarrassment, humiliation and despair. She looked as if she were suddenly younger than eleven, as her eyes focused on Harry, and he gave her a winning smile at which point she blushed deeply … or so it seemed, for she had rosy cheeks that made it difficult to see if she were indeed blushing.
“Harry Potter, ma’am.” Harry extended his hand to the older lady, who warmly shook it. There was something in her look, he thought, as if she had already heard of him from somewhere … He shook the feeling off as he extended his hand to Carolyn, who shook it hesitantly, and turned to Cindy, who looked almost scared to be touching him, chagrined as she was with her earlier rambling … and looking as if she were about to meet the Pope or something …
“Now who’s acting like the mayor?” he heard Hermione whisper beside him.
“Shut up, Mione – Owww!” he said, as she immediately swatted his head at his use of the hated name. A small giggle escaped Carolyn’s lips, and both saw her mother smiling at them.
“I take it all three of you are good friends?” she asked in a very amused voice, although her expression proclaimed clearly that she knew there was something more between two of the three. Hermione smiled back at her.
“Yes, ma’am … we’ve been friends since our first year at Hogwarts …”
“Seems like ages ago,” Ron said in a light voice, “when she (pointing a thumb at Hermione) barged into our compartment on the train and asked (in a perfect imitation of her voice), ‘Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one’.”
Hermione blushed, and gave him a glare as Harry laughed beside her. She was grateful, however, that Ron had said that was when they became friends, not wishing to be reminded, once again, of her unpopularity during her first months at Hogwarts …
Ron turned back to Mrs. Wright: “Would you like to join us, Ma’am? My family should be at Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor (he glanced back at his friends, who nodded back) … and they would love to meet with you.”
“Oh!” Cindy glanced at her watch, and said, “I almost forgot! I’m supposed to meet them there about now! Mum’ll be furious …”
“Well then, why don’t we all go there together? Would you like to join us, Mrs. Wright? Carolyn?” Ron repeated his invitation. The mother and daughter looked hesitant, and he quickly assured them, “My Dad works for the Ministry of Magic and he would just love to meet up with Mug … I mean, uh …”
“Thank you, Mr. Weasley, but I don’t want to impose …” Mrs. Wright looked in surprise at Hermione, who was trying to suppress what looked suspiciously like a laugh. “Is there something wrong?”
“Oh no, ma’am. It’s just …” she bit hard on her lip, as she quivered from suppressed laughter, “I mean …”
“She’s just not used to me being called Mister Weasley,” Ron replied with a hard look at his friends. “Please, call me Ron … every time someone calls me ‘Mr.’ Weasley, the next thing I expect to hear is …”
“Ten points from Gryffindor for your cheek,” Harry supplied, a hint of laughter in his voice.
Ron raised an eyebrow at him. “Speak for yourself, Mr. Potter … you lost ten points from Gryffindor within the first ten minutes of our Potions class.”
Harry raised an eyebrow in return: “Don’t look at me! She (pointing at Hermione) started it!”
“Oh, stop it you two!” Hermione said with a smile. “Let’s just keep in mind the fact that, if it were not for me, the two of you would still be pickling rat’s brains in Snape’s dungeon!”
Ron and Harry looked at each other over Hermione’s head … the same thought flashing through their minds: they’d spent an uncomfortable evening doing just that, when they were still not speaking to each other …
Ron broke the sudden silence: “She’s right, you know.”
“She’s always right,” Harry said, smiling down at her. “That’s my Hermione.”
It felt as if a cold draft wafted through the street, and an uncomfortable silence descended until Ron replied, “That’s our Hermione.”
Mrs. Wright, noting the sudden tension in the air, broke it by starting to walk towards the ice cream parlor, forcing the three teenagers to join her. She started asking questions about Hogwarts and the magical world from Hermione; soon enough, the two boys joined in the conversation, alternately listening and responding to her questions … and watching in amusement as a chattering, bouncing Cindy pointed out various shops and places in Diagon Alley to her amazed friend.
Harry, smiling at the way the two younger children were talking, suddenly turned to Ron, “Doesn’t she remind you of someone we both know?”
“Uh-huh,” Ron nodded, a broad grin now on his face. “Except for the hair, she sounds exactly like …”
“Hermione!” The two friends started laughing, both of them remembering their first encounter with their bushy-haired, bossy, take-charge, know-it-all friend, who was now glaring at them with all the force of her considerable personality … but this time, surprised that her death-glare was simply bouncing off the laughing pair.
“Stop it, you two!” She glared at them and, with a suddenly evil smirk, continued, “Besides, I’m not the one with the fan’s club …”
The two boys quickly glanced at the direction she was looking at, and caught the look the younger girls were giving them … actually, giving Ron – the two younger girls blushing simultaneously and looking away at the same time. Smirking, Hermione started chanting in a low voice, “Ronnie’s got a fans’ club … Ronnie’s got a fans’ club …”
Ron, beet-red, said, “Shut up, Hermione!” as Mrs. Wright gave in to a laugh.
Trying to divert attention from the gibe, Ron suddenly called the younger girls over, “Cindy? I wanted to ask … seeing as you’re a witch and everything … how’d you get that big git Bole down? You must have hexed him with a hell of a jinx …”
Cindy’s face, now returned to its normal, rosy-cheeked state, was suddenly blushing so badly that it looked as if she’d spent far too much time in the sun (if that were possible), and seemed to be unsure of how to answer.
Carolyn, however, gave a sudden giggle – and the three friends looked at her in surprise. In a soft voice, she explained, “After you hit the one holding my wand, that big lunk was about to curse you or something, but Cindy suddenly kicked him …”
“My foot’s still aching,” Cindy said plaintively, as she looked daggers at Carolyn, “It felt like kicking a wall, to tell you honestly …”
Ron looked at Cindy in admiration, wondering at the same time why she looked as if she wanted to dig a hole in the ground and pull it over her, “You kicked him?”
As the girl nodded slowly, he said in an admiring tone of voice, “That must have been some kick!”
Carolyn, however, couldn’t stop from giggling. “It wasn’t the kick,” she said in her soft voice as she giggled, “… it was where it hit that did the trick.”
The three turned in surprise at a sudden hoot of laughter from Mrs. Wright. Trying to control herself at the puzzled look on their faces, she made a gesture at the region of her waist, waggling her hand at the area between her legs. Ron’s eyes widened … and he gaped at the still-blushing Cindy, asking, “You mean …”
Mrs. Wright nodded … and finally, couldn’t stop herself. She lapsed into a shout of laughter so loud that it startled them all … and then Ron, Harry, and Hermione also dissolved into laughter as Cindy, in a sudden fit of inspiration, mimed the look on Bole’s face when he was hit by a physical, not magical, force …
The stopped laughing, however, as a familiar voice called out, “There you are! I thought you three had gotten in trouble again …”
“Bill!” Ron called out, “I’d like you to meet …”
He stopped as he saw his brother’s face … gone so pale that his tan looked as if it had been painted on, face stricken as if he had taken a Bludger to the stomach and it was still grinding in, staring at Mrs. Wright – who was looking at him with an expression of profound puzzlement on her face.
Bill whispered, “Erin?”