It was a two-toned world … black and white with every shade of grey in between. The only illumination came from the brilliant orb of the moon and the cold, sparkling light of the stars as they stared with cold indifference on the world below them. They’d been witness to the calumnies of men, both Muggle and Magical, over countless millennia; if they knew any secrets, they kept these to themselves in spite of the efforts of ordinary mortals, astrologers, Seers … or centaurs.
Harry Potter rubbed his eyes … and felt a sense of panic as he realized that his glasses were gone. He wondered whether that was the cause of his seeming color-blindness but realized, in the next moment, that the world around him was that way: cold, forbidding, grey.
There was no sense of familiarity about this place, even to his blurred eyes. It was not the village of Ottery St. Catchpole … neither was it the neighborhood surrounding No. 4 Privet Drive. For a second, he wondered whether it was Hogsmeade Village – but no, he could not make out the dilapidated walls of the Shrieking Shack, or the warm sign of the Three Broomsticks … or the other houses and shops that he’d grown familiar with in the two years he’d been allowed to visit the tiny wizarding village.
This must be a dream, but what did it mean? He’d fallen into a comfortable sleep last night, after spending a most enjoyable evening with Hermione, Ron and the usual cast of characters in what he called the Weasley Common Room – although there was something off-kilter about it: Hermione and Ginny playing Exploding Snap, the Twins playing Wizard’s Chess, Molly knitting while Arthur discussed the latest developments at the Ministry with Percy … Ron and himself, reading.
Ron was perusing what looked like an old, beat-up journal with seemingly avid interest, his eyes running down each page swiftly … but just as often stopping, and looking off into the distance, brow furrowed in deep thought – although Harry had felt several moments when he thought that Ron was staring at him, only to look up to see Ron either looking away, or else seemingly focused on Hermione.
And as for him? He was reading a book of Ancient Runes … which may well have sent his dorm-mates into epileptic shock. Why should he, Harry Potter, the greatest slacker next to Ron Weasley among the fifth-year Gryffindors, be spending the last few days of summer reading up on a subject he was not even taking up? Or rather, that he was not yet taking up. He’d made the decision some time during the day before … probably when he was reading the book that Hermione had ‘lent’ him, and which he had lugged around all over Diagon Alley (along with her other books) …
He nearly slapped himself at the thought. The decision to take Ancient Runes was made the moment he found himself staring at his best friend in the Leaky Cauldron, thinking to himself yet again, as he had since the Yule Ball last year, that Hermione was not just brainy, bossy and a general know-it-all … but was absolutely … beautiful.
At least, to his eyes.
Unconsciously he began rubbing his forehead … and felt as if he was slowly turning to ice … as if someone or something had sucked out the warm marrow from his bones and was slowly pouring in bucket after bucket of ice-cold water …
His scar was aching.
It wasn’t the sharp, acute pain that he’d felt before … it was a sustained, throbbing pain; for a brief moment, he wondered if it was the mere thought of his best friend and how she looked to his eyes that was keeping the worst of the pain away.
He shook off that thought – and felt the pain suddenly explode as he fell to his knees. It was excruciating; he tried to stifle his screams and the agony in his bones by clamping down, hard … grinding his teeth as he fought against the pain …
He tried to bring back the picture of his best friend, tried to bring back the pleasant memories of that day in the same way that he prepared himself to cast a Patronious, but failed … the pain was piercing, radiating from his scar down his marrow to his extremities and he doubled over in pain, as he felt movement around him … sensed them moving towards a small, isolated house at one edge of the unfamiliar village.
He tried to hide but knew that he could not … realizing, in the same moment, that this was but a dream, a nightmare even, but powerless to stop it – and feeling fear at the memory of other dreams, other nightmares … especially those that he’d had since he stepped into the hallowed walls of Hogwarts.
His wand! A simple “Lumos!” — and he experienced true panic as he realized that it wasn’t on him … and he clamped down again, feeling his teeth encountering cloth and other things as he tried to stifle his screams … through his tightly clenched eyes he felt, more than saw, a wash of green light emanating from that isolated house outside the unfamiliar village …
Harry thrashed and kicked, fighting his way out of the dream, the nightmare that assailed him … screamed once again into the cloth that had stifled his yells as he heard the high, cold voice that haunted the deepest regions of his subconscious roar: “MORSMORDRE!”
As the Dark Mark exploded into the sky, Harry felt his clenched fist slam into the night table and pain lanced through his arm … felt the nightmare dissolve as his conscious mind registered the tiny bedroom, his sweat-soaked clothes and the pillow he’d been clutching and which had helped muffle his screams … felt someone holding him, trying to shake him from his nightmare.
He reached out, eyes glazed and stinging from the sweat that had poured over his face … unable to see anything clearly without his glasses, but needing to hold on to someone, to assure himself that he was out of his nightmare and in the real world … felt himself embracing whoever it was like a drowning man clutching an extended arm, and felt himself hugged back …
He felt a fleeting warmth in that human contact and drew in a deep, ragged breath … felt himself relaxing momentarily, and released the air in his lungs with a whispered, “Mione?”
He felt the person holding him stiffen and pull away; confused, he let go and grabbed for his glasses by the night-stand … before he could even put them on, his mind registered a flash of red hair … as his eyes finally focused through the lens of his glasses, they met a pair of shiny blue eyes that held an infinite sadness and a look of reproach as she stared back at him …
“Ginny?” he whispered. He spun around, quickly registering the undisturbed and empty bed beside him, and asked, “Where’s Ron? And Hermione?”
* * * *
“It’s Harry, isn’t it?”
The moon and stars spread their silvery light over the grounds of the house just outside Ottery St. Catchpole … and the words floated in the air between them. For a brief moment, it seemed as if the world was waiting in breathless anticipation for the answer to the question raised.
Ron looked at the person sitting beside him on the bench and wondered again at the changes that had taken place over the years of his friendship with her. His mind drifted … comparing the person beside him with the girl he first met on the Hogwarts Express years ago. At first glance, nothing much had changed – the same bushy brown hair, the same look of intelligence in her brown eyes, the same nose, lips and chin … her teeth as she bit her lower lip were the only things different from the memory he held of her.
He sighed, wondering where he found the courage to follow Hermione when he heard her stirring awake and walking out of the room she shared with Ginny … how he found the nerve to watch as she sat on the bench outside The Burrow where she had sat with Harry, watching yesterday’s dawn … where he found the strength to sit beside her calmly – and open up about his confused and conflicting feelings for her.
‘Bill’s diary,’ he answered himself. ‘Where else?’
It was surprising – but at the same time, gratifying – when Bill pressed the journal into his hands when they were saying their goodbyes at the Leaky Cauldron. He had (somewhat cheekily, he thought) asked if there was anything interesting that he should know about Erin, Nicole, or Carolyn before Bill left for Cairo. Bill’s response was a smile … and the journal.
He still didn’t know what he truly felt after reading Bill’s … memoirs. It was exhilarating at the start, looking into the innermost thoughts and feelings of a younger Bill – the larger than life brother who was their hero and icon … but at some point, he felt as if he were riding a hexed broomstick, as he felt his emotions zoom up and crash down the deeper he got into Bill’s story …
And he began to wonder, what was the point of it all?
Why had Bill given him the diary in the first place?
He’d been so engrossed in reading that he had simply nodded distractedly as the others went up to bed; he must have read and re-read portions of it so many times that the words seemed imprinted on his eyes … and he had sat in his chair in the living room, immobile and so sunk in his thoughts, that he’d actually fallen asleep right there.
Only to be awakened by the sounds of Hermione coming down … and walking out to the bench outside The Burrow.
It was that darned thing, Ron thought, that made him do this … follow Hermione out to the bench, made him sit down beside her … and forced the jumbled, rambling and incoherent words out of his mind.
But as he talked and tried to arrange his jumbled thoughts and emotions into some logical order, he began to realize the futility of his plans and intentions. It wasn’t a mere crush that he felt for Hermione Granger; it was a combination of so many things: admiration for her intelligence and strength, appreciation for all the academic help over the years, respect for the loyalty and affection that she showed him, even during the worst days of the Scabbers incident – and his falling out with The-Boy-Who-Lived.
And yes … there was the comfort of having her as a friend: someone who accepted him for what he was, who looked beyond his lack of money, his hand-me-down robes, his second-hand books and Spell-o-taped wand …
And there, he realized, was where the truth lay: it was Hermione’s friendship and acceptance of who he was and what he was that formed the solid core and foundation of everything that he felt about her. At the heart of it all was gratitude for everything that she had been to him … but beyond the sense of thankfulness and appreciation for all that she had been to him was … nothing.
Hermione accepted him for what he was, and that was enough. There was no need for anything more …
But there lay the difference between him and Harry.
Because even he could sense that there was something more between them … something that made Harry look beyond the bushy-haired, know-it-all, interfering and indescribably bossy persona that Hermione initially exhibited … and made Hermione go past the messy-haired, green-eyed, clueless face of The-Boy-Who-Lived.
It was the same something that made Harry realize, in a series of steps that even he could never explain, that Hermione did not know about the Mountain Troll that had gotten into Hogwarts – and the same something that made Hermione recognize that someone was hexing Harry’s broom during his first-ever Quidditch match.
And made both of them act, thinking of only one thing: that the other was in danger, and they had to do something about it.
They needed each other.
At the heart of every thought and every action was that single overriding reality: they needed each other … to survive, to continue …
While he … did not really need them as much as they seemed to need each other.
He could hear himself rambling … but it was as if his mouth was running on auto-pilot (which, he ruefully admitted to himself, was something it was wont to do often), fueled as it was by that stubbornly optimistic side of himself that often refused to accept facts until he was beaten bloody and bowed, forced to stare facts in the eye. He heard himself stumbling and mumbling until his mouth ended with the question: “Will you be my girlfriend?”
And now that the question lay between them, he was totally surprised that what he felt at this moment was … release.
There was no sense of anticipation, not one iota of expectation about the answer that she would give … thinking back on the past ten minutes or so, he realized that she knew … that she was expecting something like this to happen … and that he had known what her answer would be.
He watched as she turned to him, tears in her eyes as she said, in a soft, strangled voice, “I’m sorry, Ron but I can’t … I can’t …”
He placed a finger on her lips to shut her, for once exhibiting a tenderness and understanding that he knew was often absent in his dealings with her and told her, in the same soft, strangled voice, “I understand, Hermione.”
And he truly did.
They fell silent at that, turning away from each other … retreating into their thoughts, staring at their surroundings etched in black, white and shades of grey from the light of the moon and the stars …
He took a deep breath of the cool night air and released it in one explosive exhalation … and felt his sense of relief magnified, expand to immeasurable proportions and spread through his mind and his soul
It was … he struggled to find a word to describe his feelings … it was wonderful! It was liberating … it was wonderful to sit in the garden with his best friend …
Not someone to court. Not someone to think of as a prospective partner … just a bushy-haired, bossy girl with whom he frequently bickered, often teased and sometimes insulted without thinking, but who was attractive in her own way: enjoyable as a companion, intelligent in a way he would always admire and want to emulate, loyal to her friends and the causes she espoused … but, at the end of it all … a friend.
And he was happier for it.
But the stubbornly insistent part of his personality demanded an answer … needed confirmation of his thoughts and observations … required an assurance that he could still understand his friends, that he was still a part of them as they were a part of him … and that they would continue to treat him as one.
Which was why the question had to be asked.
“It’s Harry, isn’t it?”
From behind the curtain of her hair, an answer came … so softly that he almost missed it: “No.”
He turned to her, stunned. “No?” he repeated, unsure whether he heard her correctly.
She turned, pushing aside her hair to look at him, unencumbered by anything in the way: “It’s Gilderoy Lockhart, Ron … always has been, always will be.”
He felt his jaw dropping … he would later swear to all the wizards and witches in his extensive collection of chocolate frog cards that he felt his lower jaw waggle in shock before he could blurt out, “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
Hermione simply stared back … and he could only gawk in disbelief. His brain shut down and he didn’t see Hermione biting her lower lip, didn’t notice that she was beginning to breathe rapidly and shallowly, didn’t realize that she was turning red from the effort of holding back, until:
“I wish Colin Creevey could take a picture of your face …”
And he knew he’d been had; royally, totally had by his friend … he lunged at her, only to trip over his own feet … and he was eating dirt as her laughter rolled out above him.
He sat up, spitting dirt and leaves … watching Hermione, who was now on her knees, laughing at him. He wanted to stand up and brush himself off … to try and regain what dignity he had left … but her laughter was infectious, and he found himself clutching his stomach as the humor of it all hit him and he joined her in the cleansing relief of laughter at himself and his willingness to believe his friend … and the sheer joy as he realized that he could still understand her, he could still appreciate her sense of humor, even if it was at his expense.
The moon and the stars continued their course, indifferent witnesses to the sight of two friends rolling around on the ground, sharing the cleansing gift of shared laughter.
* * * *
The silence between them stretched and expanded, neither one sure of where they were going, or even how to get there, wherever or whatever it was. Harry couldn’t look at Ginny’s reproachful face and eyes and he felt himself torn between the need to get out of bed and see to his friends’ safety … and the immobile figure of Ginny Weasley in front of him.
Harry’s head suddenly snapped around at the sound of Ginny’s quiet voice: “It’s Tom, isn’t it?”
He didn’t respond immediately as his inner turmoil continued. He had no wish to rake up Ginny’s buried memories, no desire that she confront once again those painful, tormented days and nights when she had fallen so deeply into Tom Riddle’s power that she had ended up alone in the Chamber of Secrets … drawn there by her childhood crush on Harry Potter and his own feeble, and in the end, inept efforts to help her.
In truth, he had no inkling, no clue of what to do about her feelings for him … he’d recognized the signs from the moment she walked into the kitchen and fled, that first time he’d visited The Burrow. He didn’t need the constant snickers of the Twins or the sly teasing of Hagrid, to know that Ginny had a crush on him … all he felt he could do was to let time and maturity work its way on her and eventually, help her move on …
How was he to know that the infernal diary from hell would turn the tables on him?
Instead of the crush fading away, Ginny was now bound even closer because of the debt she owed him. Instead of friendship and affection replacing immature emotions, he now had to deal with hero-worship and awe – both of which he hated with a passion.
It was just another of the insidious ways, he thought, that Voldemort had ruined his life … aside from the guilt that he had to carry, he again had to confront the fact that he was not living an ordinary life … that he could not even hold a decent conversation with his friend’s sister because of what had happened between them.
He remembered Piers Polkiss’ sarcastic remark from way back in his abused childhood (a miserable time caused, once again, by Voldemort’s interference in his life): “Whoever said that life was fair, Potter?”
His head snapped up at Ginny’s strident whisper, “Harry!”
He gawked at her next statement, “You better get dressed … we need to talk with Ron and Hermione about this.”
She looked him in the eye as she responded, “Well, you got me up anyway, right? Might as well be in on what happened … and what’s going to happen.”
“Shut it, Potter.” He gaped, surprised at the intensity of her reaction. “I’m involved … we are all involved. You’re a member of this family now … whatever happens to you, happens to us. You can’t keep on like this, carrying the load by yourself … if we can help you, we will.”
“Oh, stop it, Harry! I know what you’re trying to do! You want to protect me … keep me from getting involved, stop me from getting hurt. Well, get this, Mr. Harry Potter – I am involved. Tom used me to try to get at you … he almost succeeded because I was too weak … but no more. No more, do you hear me? I’m not going to let you or my big brothers keep on hiding me from the real world. I have a life too, you know … the sooner I learn to face it, the better for me.”
“What? If you’re going to go all noble and protective on me …”
“Ginny! Would you please step outside while I get dressed?”
Blue eyes clashed with green, and Ginny felt the blood rushing to her head … but this time, it wasn’t because of her feelings for the boy on the bed. It was embarrassing, she thought, she’d been so engrossed with her declaration of independence that she had totally forgotten who it was she was talking with (and his state of undress at that moment) … and remembered, once again, the reasons behind her conflicting emotions for The Boy-Who-Lived.
She turned away, the blush still on her face from her mortification, and whispered, “I’m sorry … I’m such a girl …”
She felt him leaving the bed and standing beside her, felt his hand on her shoulder and heard him say, “Never apologize, Ginny … never apologize for the things we have no control over. If there is one thing I learned over the summer … never blame yourself for the things that you never know … and could do nothing about when they happen.”
The kind words and the soft touch broke her down. She turned around and hugged him; for the first time in a long while, she gave in to her emotions and embraced him in the same way that she’d hugged Bill during her troubled, growing up years as the youngest child and only girl in a family of boys.
She wept not for the loss of him as a potential boyfriend; she cried from the sheer comfort of knowing that he was around, that no matter who he was and would be, no matter who he was with and will be with … that she’d have his friendship, his understanding … his protection and warmth from what she knew was the gathering darkness.
She felt his arms around her, holding her tightly as he’d held her when she woke up in the Chamber of Secrets … felt his clothes getting wet with her tears in the same way she’d wept on him then … heard his comforting words: “Shhh, Ginny … it’s all right. It’s all right …”
Too soon, she could feel him pulling away and she convulsively hugged him tighter, wishing only for a few more moments of comfort and protection … and let go only when she heard him say, “You’d better wait for me outside, Gin. I doubt being a member of the family will keep Fred and George away when they see you in my room!”
She giggled and wiped her eyes, whispering, “Thanks, Harry.”
He smiled at her and they spent a few moments looking at each other, understanding running between them, before she turned and walked to the door of the room. As she was about to step out, however, she paused again to look at him: “You’re not going to jump out the window when I’m out here, are you?”
He grinned back at her, the patented Harry Potter Smile that once would have made her weak-kneed and red all over, but now only bathed her in warmth and comfort, and replied, “Only if Fred, George or Ron come in here demanding to know what you’re doing in my room.”
She giggled again and stepped out, secure and confident in Harry’s trust and affection – and realized that she had been spending all that time talking and hugging him in her nightdress. She felt herself blushing all over, knowing that the only non-red parts of her body would be the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet, thinking at the same time, ‘No wonder Harry was scared of the Twins or Ron or Percy finding me there!’
Soon enough, he was outside the door again and they started down the stairs, pausing only for her to grab a robe from her room. They were in the living room, heading for the door when the fireplace suddenly blazed with a startling, green light … and the face of Albus Dumbledore could be seen in the midst of the flames.
“Arthur? Arthur, are you there?”
Ginny and Harry froze in surprise: why should their Headmaster be looking for Mr. Weasley at this time of the night? Unconsciously, Harry began rubbing his scar, even though its aching had stopped earlier … Before either one could respond, Dumbledore’s eyes focused on Ginny and, seemingly ignoring Harry, called out, “Miss Weasley? Can you please call your father here? I need to talk with him, urgently.”
Ginny looked in confusion to Harry; before he could say anything, however, she had given him a gentle shove towards the door, whispering, “Go on ahead, I’ll catch up with you.”
As she turned and ran back up the stairs, Harry hesitated … and decided to go on. If Dumbledore needed him, he’d have asked for him – and he could see that the Headmaster had turned away from the fireplace, as if he was talking to someone out of his field of vision.
The decision made, Harry walked swiftly to the door and stepped out into the cool darkness of the remaining night …
* * * *
They’d been sitting in comfortable silence for some time, both of them awed by what a few moments of honesty and openness had wrought.
It was a silence without a tinge of tension in the air; it was comfortable with no sense of anything unsaid floating between them. It was companionship, friendship and familiarity … and though both knew that they would soon be bickering over things trivial or important (since both had distinctly opposing views of what was trivial and important), they both knew that it would be more in the nature of bantering, good-natured joking – and never bickering.
Because they both knew where they stood.
And both were comfortable with that.
Soon enough, Ron broke the silence – and Hermione smiled. He could never stand the silence, she thought. Having grown up with a large and rowdy brood, he’d never understood the value of silence … unlike Harry who was used to the silence.
“It’s Harry, isn’t it?”
She let her hair fall over her face once again, not willing to verbalize her response. Yes, she wanted to shout out loud, yes, it’s Harry … it has been, always will be … but she didn’t want to say it, fearful that doing so may break the magic … in much the same way that a mispronounced Levitation Charm found Wizard Baruffio on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.
After a moment, she shook herself and turned to him, a teasing tone in her voice: “Are you sure you’re Ronald Weasley? The Ron Weasley I know would have been turning the air blue with four-letter words … “
“You forget, Hermione, love is also a four-letter word.”
She looked at him, eyebrow raised in surprise and speculation … and he smiled at her. “Well, that Ron Weasley was a real prat who didn’t deserve you or Harry. Let’s just say that he’s had a change of heart and mind … it just needed a few things to make him realize how much of a dense, insensitive and totally immature prat he was.”
“Oh? And what would those changes be?”
Ron turned away and repeated his words, softly: “Bill’s diary.”
As if those words were the key to an unopened door, the words spilled out, and he started telling her about what he had been reading that night … quoting passages from Bill’s thoughts … interspersing these with his own thoughts and feelings memories … and as the words poured out, Ron felt Hermione’s hand enfolding his, holding him tightly as she watched his face move from elation to sadness …
“I guess it was that last letter that did it for me, Hermione. He’d kept the letter in that diary … Spell-o-taped together after he’d torn it up … smudges here and there from his tears, her tears, who knows? But he’d kept it …”
He took a deep breath and looked into her chocolate-brown eyes, now glinting with unshed tears. “I kept asking myself … what would I have done in Bill’s shoes? Would I have turned away from Erin simply because she was in love with someone else? From what Bill wrote, Richard was a nice enough guy … who’d also been his best friend. In fact, it seemed as if Bill was the one who got them together in the first place … during the times when he thought that Erin was just a friend to him …”
“Oh, Ron … that’s so sad.”
He didn’t appear to have heard her, as he continued talking … “I finally understood what Erin was trying to tell Bill … and why Bill tore up her letter to him. He felt she had betrayed him and was trying to make up by throwing in his face something he’d said to her years before.
“It made Bill bitter. We never understood why he decided to accept the Cairo posting from Gringotts. We always assumed that he would continue working here … in fact, Gringotts had offered him a position with their London headquarters, but he said Cairo gave him a higher allowance and better scope for promotion …”
He fell silent, breathing heavily, as if Bill’s story had been some sort of catharsis for him. Hermione wisely kept silent as she listened to the story, although she wondered what had been in that final letter that seemed to have affected Ron so deeply.
“I’m not going to repeat Bill’s mistake, Hermione. He turned away from his best friends because he felt they had betrayed him when in fact, he betrayed himself. If there is one thing I’ve come to realize from reading his diary … I’m not going to let myself destroy one of the most wonderful things that has happened to me.”
“And that is?”
“You. Harry and you … you and Harry.” He turned to her and suddenly grabbed her hands, and she looked into his blazing blue eyes. “You’re my friends, Hermione … you have always been with me all the time. Even when I was acting like a complete idiot, even when I was being Hogwarts’ biggest prat last year, neither of you ever gave up on me … I’m not going to risk that. I’m not going to risk what we have just because I’m jealous of what you and Harry have … I want to be your friend, Hermione.”
“Oh, Ron.” There was nothing else she could say, so she did the next best thing … and gave him a hug. For a moment he sat frozen on the bench, and finally gave in to his emotions – and embraced her tightly, closer than he’d ever hugged anyone before – even his mother or father. As their embrace tightened, he felt her tears soaking his chest … but did nothing because he knew that she could feel his tears falling on her hair.
Neither one saw that Harry had come upon them … neither one realized that he was standing there, gaping like a beached salmon at the sight before him … neither one heard as he turned away and started walking swiftly away towards the paddock the Weasleys owned … only to suddenly stop some distance away from them and turn back, staring as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, feeling as if his insides had turned molten and was pouring down into his feet …
They finally broke their embrace … faces flushing at the raw emotions they’d felt … Ron feeling that his emotional liberation was finally complete, Hermione finally understanding what Ron had gone through during the past four years as he watched the friendship grow and deepen between his two best friends, never knowing what it was that was happening, wanting to be a part of it all but too often incapacitated and out of it through no fault of his own …
Impulsively, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek … unconsciously, he turned his head to look at her and the kiss landed near his mouth … they sprang apart as if stung, but their looks of shock quickly turned into smiles and they hugged again, but this time without the raw emotions of only seconds before.
This time, the hug was comforting … it was a hug shared between friends who’d reached a deeper understanding of each other … for whom acceptance had arrived without fanfare or grand gestures … who knew that their friendship would last for an eternity, never seeking or wanting anything more from each other but acceptance, tolerance, support, affection …
Finally, they broke apart, to sit comfortably once again on the bench that had seen its share of heartbreaks and loss, as well as affection and promise … but had never before seen or felt the renewal or re-casting of a friendship into a different form.
Hermione leaned her head on Ron’s arm and felt him wrap an arm around her; instinctively, she placed an arm around him in a reaffirmation of the new level of friendship they shared, and she heard him murmuring something that she knew were the words of the mysterious Erin to Bill:
“Sometimes, the love you hold for a person can never be realized in the usual ways. At the moment of realization, it begins to change … away from selfishness to one of truly caring without the need for any actual ‘return’.
“Love is never lost.”
She sighed in contentment, happy that she hadn’t lost a friend … feeling delirious in the knowledge that she had nothing to fear in her deepest feelings for her other friend … feeling a burden lifted from her shoulders that their Trio could only grow stronger, even if two of them were going to be closer in a way she had hoped for and wanted …
But the moment was broken as they heard running footsteps behind them, and they broke apart as Ginny’s frightened, strident voice reached their ears: “Harry! Harry! Ron! Hermione! Where’s Harry?”
They stared at each other in shock – why should Ginny be looking for Harry out there? Wasn’t he in bed, sleeping? He would have said something, anything if he had gone out to look for them, wouldn’t he?
Their mouths dropped simultaneously just as a panting Ginny reached them. Ron grabbed his sister’s shoulders tightly and shook her slightly in an effort to calm her down.
Ginny was babbling, almost incoherently: “Harry was having a nightmare and I woke him up … we were going to look for you when Professor Dumbledore came on the Floo network asking for Dad … I went upstairs to get Dad but told Harry to go ahead … where is he, Ron? Where is he?”
Before Ron could answer, they heard more footsteps coming their way and turned to see Arthur Weasley and Percy bearing down on them, disheveled, hastily thrown-on robes flapping in the air, both in fuzzy bedroom slippers that had seen better days …
“Dad!” Ron called as they approached, “What happened? What’s going on?”
“Ron! Hermione!” Arthur Weasley stopped beside them, gasping for air, “Where’s Harry?”
“What happened, Dad?”
Arthur’s eyes kept darting around, apparently searching for Harry as he answered his youngest son, “It’s Dedalus Diggle, Ron. Dumbledore told me … there’s been a Death Eater attack and they killed him … “
Ron’s eyes widened at this and he croaked out, “Are you sure?”
“The Ministry just confirmed it, Ron,” Percy said, as he tried to catch his breath. “There was a Death Mark in the sky above Mr. Diggle’s cottage … the Aurors got there too late … they’d left a sign …”
“What sign, Perce?” Ron asked, puzzled but trying to keep his panic down.
A stunned Ron looked from his father to his brother to his sister … and his eyes met Hermione’s, who was now biting down hard on her fist, as she tried to keep from whimpering. Before he could say anything, Hermione had turned and fled – and his eyes followed her as she ran, not to The Burrow but towards the paddock and he breathed a sigh of relief …
He turned back to his family and their increasingly frantic questioning of where Harry was and replied, in a voice that quickly silenced them all: “Hermione’s gone after him.”
He didn’t voice the next thought that popped in his mind: “Better her than me.”