The next day, Saturday, found Harry looking outside the window at the sunrise.
He stayed that way until Ron, Seamus, Dean and Neville Longbottom woke up.
"Harry?" Neville said groggily as he stood up, stretching. "Whatcha looking at?"
For a moment, Harry stared at Neville. Here was another kid whose family—at least his mum and dad—were taken away from him by the same evil that took Harry's family. Voldemort. But that morning, Harry didn't—couldn't— feel anger. He could only feel sadness and a painful sense of longing.
He smiled briefly. "Nothing really, Neville."
"Harry!" Ron suddenly said. "Why in the world did you go to sleep so early last night?"
Ron walked over to Harry. Harry wished Ron would just turn away.
"Hey…are you okay?" Ron asked uneasily. "You…you look as if you cried all night."
"Oh." Harry rubbed his eyes. "No, I was just…awake all the time. Didn't get a drop of sleep."
"Yeah, like I believe that." Ron looked at him seriously. "Honestly. Was it something Trelawney said or what?"
"I'm not going to cry over Trelawney, for heaven's sake!" Harry said indignantly. "I'm not that weak."
"I know you aren't," said Ron quietly.
Hermione's reaction was the same.
"What's wrong, Harry?" she said as they met in the common room. "You look really terrible."
"Thanks," he said dryly, "but I'm okay, Hermione."
Harry didn't want to share the discovery of the clasped rings with Ron and Hermione yet. It didn't feel right telling them—or anyone—about it. He felt as if the rings were his alone, for now.
"Hey, guys!" It was Ginny bouncing down the stairs, looking all bright and well. For some reason, Harry didn't want her to look at him and see his face.
Now that was silly. He was a year older than she was, after all, and feeling embarrassed around her didn't seem right. It had been the other way around until last year.
"'Morning," Ginny said in a cheerful tone as Harry felt a light tap on his arm. "Hi, Harry. I never thanked you for the lesson on Thursday night—it really helped me write my essay."
Ron and Hermione had turned away, and it seemed likely that Hermione was asking Ron what had happened to Harry.
Careful not to let Ginny see his eyes, Harry tried to smile. "Anytime, Gin."
Ginny seemed to have sensed Harry's lack of enthusiasm. He felt her grab his arm, and before he could do anything, her soft brown eyes were staring into his.
"Harry," she began softly, her whole attitude changing all of a sudden, "are you okay?"
"Yeah," Harry said, willing himself to believe it. "Of course…uh, I'm hungry, aren't you? I think I'm going to the Great Hall."
Ginny let go of Harry's arm as he walked towards the portrait hole. He could almost sense her gaze on his back even as he closed the door.
It was a funny thing…but he almost wished for Ginny to run after him. Ginny, of all people.
"I told you, he wasn't at breakfast!"
"He's gone again! I looked all over the school for him—the library, the Owlery…did you check the kitchens?"
"The first place I went into."
"Any other ideas?"
"Try the portrait hole."
Ron, Hermione and Ginny looked up suddenly as Harry entered the common room at ten in the morning.
"Where were you?" Hermione shrieked, charging towards him. "Ron and I were worried sick about you! We looked all over the school for you!"
"I even braved the cold and went to Hagrid's hut, you know!" Ron almost yelled.
"Hey, calm down, guys," Harry said, holding both palms up. "I didn't want anyone looking for me, you know that."
"But we were worried sick, can't you get through your skull?" Hermione snapped. "You can't keep disappearing like this! You've been doing it all year!"
"Hermione," Harry said, removing his winter cloak, "I really appreciate your concern, but a guy's gotta have some time alone too, you know. And I'm okay now—I'm feeling a bit refreshed, actually."
"But you looked so awful when you got out of here," Ginny said quietly; she was the only one who didn't sound hysterical that Harry had gone off.
"Hey, were you thinking I was going to drown myself in that squid's lake?"
Ginny smiled a little. "Well—I wouldn't put it past you," she said.
Harry stared at her. Then he broke into a grin. It felt as if he hadn't smiled for days.
Ginny smiled back—uneasily, at first. Then it widened into that now-familiar cool smile.
"Can I just say he's probably okay now?" Ron muttered to Hermione.
"Ron," Hermione said, shaking her head, "weirdoes like Harry smile one second and jump into the lake the other."
"Jump into the lake?" Ron looked sideways at her. "Weirdoes like Viktor Krum, for instance?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "If you don't stop mentioning his name, I'm going to strangle you with my bare hands."
The common room was beginning to fill up and get noisier. Fred and George, Ron's twin brothers who were now in their sixth year, were selling a bunch of Ton-Tongue Toffees to enthusiastic second-years. Fred and George waved, and Harry grinned at them, recalling the day when his Muggle cousin Dudley Dursley ate one and had his tongue expanded to the size of a boa constrictor.
"Gee, I hope Fred and George have told them what they really are," Hermione whispered.
"They have," Ron said. "They plan to plant it in their Slytherin classmates' Energy Potion for retaliation after the Slytherins made the Gryffindors' Acne Mixtures blow up."
Harry, Hermione and Ginny grimaced.
"Let me guess—Snape didn't let them go to the hospital wing until after classes," Harry said.
"Typical of him," said Ron. "Remember when Malfoy gave you the long molars, Hermione?"
"Those were incisors," said Hermione.
"Teeth," said Ron. "Your parents are dentists, I know, I know."
"So where were you all morning, Harry?" Ginny asked.
"Oh…somewhere. Somewhere that I reckon only I know of."
Ginny arched an eyebrow. (She knows how to do that?) "Yeah?"
"You don't believe me, do you?"
She wrinkled her nose. "Not really. But maybe I will when you show me where it is."
Harry had no intention of telling anyone about the "place" he had found that year in Hogwarts. It had been his own sanctuary for months—where he simply sat down and mulled things over.
"Maybe someday," he told Ginny.
Meanwhile, Harry and Ginny hadn't noticed that Ron and Hermione's conversation had moved from teeth, to smarts, to the Triwizard Tournament last year.
"No, really, Hermione. You are way too smart. I humble myself to your omnipotent presence."
"Oh, don't be such a git, Ron, shut up. Don't I have the right to correct you when you are obviously wrong? You're being as insufferable as you were in the Triwizard last year when you wouldn't admit that you were wrong."
"Oh, the Triwizard, eh? Still can't keep Vicky out of your mind, huh?"
"Ron, shut up, or I'll make you."
Ginny was shaking her head in disbelief. "Why are you being so secretive this year?"
"Me?" Harry said. "I had loads of secrets since first year and you never bothered."
"Why should I? I knew you were going on well despite everything. But now…I don't know, even Ron and Hermione are worried ‘cause they don't know what you're up to."
"I'm not up to anything," Harry said firmly.
Ginny was peering at his face thoughtfully. "Yeah, but…I guess what I'm saying is, you're becoming quite distant. You've…changed a bit. Especially since you started disappearing into this hiding place."
"…Especially since you started to go after him!" Ron's angry voice suddenly broke into their quiet conversation.
"I am not going after him, how many times have I told you!" Hermione shrieked. "I didn't even go to Bulgaria even when he begged me to!"
"Well, geez, I hate to wonder why," said Ron sarcastically. "But I'll give it a shot—you're smitten by some other kid down here, aren't you? Aren't you?"
"Why do you care?"
"Why don't you want to tell me?"
"BECAUSE THAT KID IS YOU, YOU STUPID GIT!"
The whole common room suddenly fell silent.
Harry looked from Ron to Hermione. Hermione had her hands pressed to her mouth, staring at Ron with wide eyes. Ron looked like the full meaning of what Hermione had said suddenly hit him on the head like an overlarge cauldron.
Then, without warning, the two ran off to separate directions—Hermione to the girls' staircase, Ron to the boys'. They both raced to their respective dormitories.
The other Gryffindors in the common room stared at the two for a few seconds, then a buzz of conversation broke out in the room. Harry noticed that, in the far corner, Lavender and Parvati were giggling madly.
"What was that all about?" Harry asked in astonishment.
"Didn't you hear?" Ginny asked Harry. "Something about being smitten by some kid around here…then Hermione said the kid was Ron…."
Harry's jaw dropped. "You mean…?"
Now Harry knew how Hermione felt when he and Ron weren't talking last year. He went from one to the other, listening to what they had to say, but both were muttering things quite unintelligible by other human standards.
"I shouldn't've…should've kept my mouth shut…began with teeth…went blank…frustrating me…."
"Only playin'…annoying her…mutt'rin' whatever…Vicky butted in…sh-she said she was smitten with some stupid git that I am…."
"Hey, don't you feel relieved that you've confirmed the feeling is mutual?" Harry asked, only half-joking.
"THAT'S JUST THE WHOLE POINT!" Ron yelled, flapping his arms as if he had wings. "THE FEELING IS MUTUAL! ONLY I NEVER WANTED TO FIND OUT IF IT WAS!"
"You're weird," Harry told him. "If I were you, I would've asked a long time ago."
"You're going to eat your words, Harry," Ron said. "You don't know what it's like when one of your best friends suddenly comes out and says, ‘Hey, I'm love-struck with you.' It's…scary."
"But the feeling is mutual," Harry insisted.
"But I…I didn't want to hear it from her!"
"I wanted to be the one to tell her…but today's not the right time! I was expecting after maybe three years, I'd ask her out…but not today! Not when we're fifteen! Not when I still blush!"
In classes, Ron and Hermione avoided each other by sitting at far corners of the room. Harry did his best to divide his time among them. It was a tough job.
On Wednesday evening, Harry and Ron went into the common room to find Hermione sitting on one of the tables, with a long list of calculations spread out in front of her.
"Hermione—" Harry started to say.
"I'm going to bed," Ron suddenly said, dashing to the stairs. Looking at him from behind, Harry saw that his ears had turned beet red.
The few people in the common room began to laugh—news of the event on Saturday morning had spread among the Gryffindors by Saturday lunchtime.
Harry approached Hermione, who had begun to groan in frustration. "I hate me, I hate me, I hate me," she muttered.
"S'okay, Hermione," Harry teased. "Even though you hate yourself, somebody else loves you."
She glared at him. "Harry, before I hex you, shut it." "‘Then afterwards we drop into a quiet little place and have a drink or two,'" Harry began to sing in a slightly out-of-tune voice' "‘And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like "I love you"…'"
"‘I can see it in your eyes that you despise the same old lies you heard the night before,'" Seamus, trying not to laugh, joined in. "‘And though it's just a line to you, for me it's true and never felt so right before.'"
"‘I practice every day to find some clever lines to say to make the meaning come true,'" Colin Creevey, who was in Ginny's year, was also singing. His brother, Dennis, followed. "‘But then I think I'll wait until the evening gets late and I'm alone with you.'"
Before long, almost all Gryffindors who were raised by Muggles were singing, and Hermione had buried her head in Numerology and Gramatica.
"‘The time is right, your perfume fills my head, the stars get red and oh the night so blue…and then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like "I love you".'"
Harry leaned a bit closer to Hermione. "‘And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like "I love you…"'"
"Harry, you great git, shut it," Hermione said through gritted teeth.
"‘And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like "I love you…"'" Harry repeated, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUP!" Hermione screeched, and before Harry knew it, Hermione had her wand pointed at him. She had hexed him. But looking at himself and touching his face, Harry didn't find anything wrong. He still had ten fingers, his limbs were all on the right places, and there was nothing nasty sprouting out of his face.
"Okay," he tried to say, but instead of the words coming out, he burped loudly.
"Urgh," Parvati and a few other girls said in revulsion. Ginny's jaw dropped.
Harry looked uneasily around him. "Hermione," he tried again, but an almighty belch came out. The Gryffindors groaned in disgust, while a few laughed.
Harry gestured at his throat, crossed his heart and held up a hand, as if telling her to remove the hex and he'd stop singing.
"Vocis!" Hermione said with a flick of her wand.
"Ahhh, loads better," Harry said in his normal voice as he massaged his neck. "Let me see if it still works—‘But then I go…' I was kidding," he hastily said when Hermione began to twirl her wand on her fingers.
"Nice going, Harry," said Fred, laughing heartily with the others. Hermione glared at him.
"Why do I think I've heard that song before?" asked George.
"It's quite an old Muggle song," said Seamus, still grinning. "My dad had it memorized."
"We heard it on Dad's Muggle wireless, George, just last summer," Ginny told him. "Radio, he called it."
Harry looked at her in surprise. "You listen to Muggle songs?"
Ginny shrugged. "Well, he never really gave us much choice, did he?"
"Ah." Harry nodded. "Like it?"
"Yeah—when I heard it over the radio." Ginny grinned mischievously. "I kinda hated it when you sang it."
Harry snorted in laughter. Now that he thought about it, he realized that Ginny, after all, had quite inherited Ron's sarcastic humor.
He liked it, actually.
"You prat," Ron groaned at Harry. "You enjoy this, don't you?"
"Trying to get a hold of you and Hermione and trying to convince you to talk to each other again?" Harry shook his head vigorously. "Absolutely not."
After a hurried lunch the next day, Ron had dragged Harry for a walk around the grounds—for Ron to give him a tongue-lashing after the scene the night before.
"I'm going to get you for this, I really am," Ron said. "Trying to exasperate her more, eh?"
Harry sighed dramatically. "Oh yes, of course, Ronald Weasley will do everything to protect the love of his life," he said, clutching his chest mockingly. "How well do I remember you belching slugs for her when a friend of ours called her a Mudblood."
Ron had stopped in his tracks. "And speaking of the devil."
"Well, well." It was Draco Malfoy, Harry's not-so-best-friend in the world over, with his cronies Crabbe and Goyle at his side. "If I've heard right, the Weasel has decided to begin snogging the long molars of that Mudblood."
"They were incisors you lengthened," Ron snapped (Harry had to stop himself from grinning), "and shut up, before I decide to pull yours out."
"Oh, wow, that scares me, that does," Malfoy said in mock fright, and Crabbe and Goyle sniggered stupidly.
"Come on, Ron," said Harry. "This git still hasn't learned to pull out a funny joke."
Harry pulled at Ron's sleeve, dodging a laughing Malfoy.
"You might consider moving out of your excuse for a house when you marry," Malfoy said. "But I doubt you'll buy something much bigger than a fireplace?"
"All right, that does it," said Ron, turning back to Malfoy.
"Ron," said Harry, grabbing Ron's arm, leading him away. "And you," he continued, looking at Malfoy, "you can get your arse kicked to Mars."
Harry led Ron away to the enormous marble fountain that was still void of water in front of the castle.
And there was Hermione, looking surprised that they were both there.
"What is she doing out here, sitting in the cold?" Ron asked indignantly.
"Ah," said Harry. "Waiting for you. Say I leave you here so that you two can talk? We've got twenty minutes before History of Magic."
"No," Ron growled, his face bloodless. "Not now. Don't leave me."
Harry laughed and pushed Ron towards Hermione. "Now. Show some courage—show me that you're a true Gryffindor!"
"Gryffindor my arse," Ron muttered darkly. "Maybe some other time, Harry."
"Now, I say. I'll leave you. Look at her, she's expecting you to come. She looks like she wants to tell you something. You going to leave her with a sad face?" he finished with a pitiful voice.
Ron seemed to consider this for a while; he looked at Hermione, who was still staring at them, her expression unreadable.
Ron took in a deep breath and began to walk awkwardly towards her, as if this was costing him his entire life.
Harry, smiling to himself, watched. He saw Ron sit down beside Hermione. They both looked at him, and he jumped back, giving them a small wave. He turned around, heading back to the castle.
As much as he wanted to hear everything Ron had to say, he thought he'd better leave them. This was a private moment, and no matter how close he was to the two of them, some things were not to be shared. Things like this one.
"Well," he said, as if Ron was still beside him, "good luck."
Author's Notes: Huge thanks to Lisa and Amy for beta-reading the first two chapters! You were a great help...I don't know how I'll ever get through my grammar without you, hehehe. =)