"Ugh," Ron heard Ginny complain as he returned from the kitchen with a cold butterbeer. "It's so hot, you could cook a Hippogriff out there." His sister was lounging dramatically on the couch in a skimpy outfit designed to keep her as cool as possible. He would've commented on it if he weren't so damn hot himself.
"I'd prefer a hamburger myself," Ron said as he sat down next to his sister.
"It's an expression Ron," Ginny returned moodily. "And why couldn't you have gotten a butterbeer for me?"
"You didn't ask," Ron answered, ignoring Ginny's glare. He held the bottle of butterbeer against his forehead and tried to forget that his t-shirt and shorts were sticking uncomfortably to his body.
"It would've been the courteous thing to do," Ginny said testily. "I bet you would've done it if I were Hermione."
"What's Hermione got to do with it?" he asked. Leave it to his sister to bring up the one issue he'd been trying to avoid thinking about all summer.
Ginny straightened in her seat and leaned toward him. "Because you fancy her, obviously." Ginny smiled as if she were the holder of a secret her brother could only wonder at. "You should ask her out."
Ron opened his mouth to yell at Ginny, but thought better of it and only muttered, "I think the heat's getting to you."
He was about to ask if she wanted to play chess when Ginny casually asked, "When's she getting here anyway? Hermione, I mean."
"Dunno," Ron responded.
Ginny smiled before jumping up and pointing at her brother. "I knew it! You do fancy her!"
"Ugh, get out of my face." Ron swatted her hand away.
"You know very well that Hermione, and Harry for that matter, are arriving at precisely seven o'clock tonight. Mum made you tidy up your room, and I saw you try on three different shirts this morning."
"Stop smirking Ginny. It's unattractive."
Ginny rolled her eyes. "Oh, rubbish! I'm sure I look gorgeous when I smirk."
Ron decided that his sister was acting way too arrogant. Especially now, prancing around the room talking about his relationship with Hermione and feelings that he'd just recently admitted to himself he had and Ginny didn't understand. Feelings that Hermione didn't return if all those letters reminding him to do his schoolwork and write something cheerful to Harry were any indication. Ron suspected her long letters to Krum weren't lecturing him to set a good example. And it seemed like forever since he'd had a conversation with Hermione that hadn't involved school or Harry's well being. And Ginny was being a prat about the whole thing.
"Well, shall we ask Harry's opinion then?" he said as Ginny started to sing some love song he'd never heard before, whose main characters sounded suspiciously like him and Hermione.
Ginny stopped mid-spin. "Ask Harry what?"
"If he thinks you're gorgeous when you smirk."
Ron tried to hold a haughty smile as the realization dawned on Ginny and the smile on her face froze, but getting back at Ginny wasn't as satisfying as he'd hoped. Nothing seemed very satisfying these days.
Ginny recovered and looked Ron fully in the face before saying harshly, "I bet if he weren't a dense prat like his best friend, he'd tell me without having to be asked."
Ginny was already out the door before Ron stopped gaping long enough to shout, "What do you know?"
Harry Potter was having a dismal summer. His guilt over Sirius was so all-encompassing that it felt like a part of him now. On top of that, the prophesy had ripped from him whatever sense of control he had felt before. What was the point of it all, really, if it had all been plotted out ahead of time? Murderer or dead. With the way he'd been feeling lately, Harry couldn't really say which would be worse. Death was starting to look like it might be a relief.
The worst part was that Harry felt that he couldn't talk to anyone about it. Whoever he told would end up acting even odder towards him than they had been. He was tired of being treated like glass about to break. He'd fairly destroyed his room after the last Remus and Tonks visit. They'd spent the entire hour trying to get him to talk about his feelings and assuring him that things would be okay. Ron and Hermione's letters had been written in the same vein.
Things weren't okay, he thought, and they should all bloody well know that.
The Dursleys weren't any better. They'd alternated between glaring at him and ignoring him since he'd gotten back. And though they never said anything overtly rude since Moody threatened them, they weren't above complaining about chores and looking pointedly in Harry's direction until he did them.
He didn't even know if he would be able to spend any time with the Weasley's before school. Ron had been unsure every time Harry asked when he could come to the Burrow and after a while Harry had stopped asking. Why bother asking questions when no one would give him an answer?
"Boy!" Harry had to keep from rolling his eyes when he heard Uncle Vernon yell.
"What?" he responded harshly.
"Get down here! This bloody bird is trying to peck through the kitchen window!"
Harry ran downstairs just in time to see Errol fly right into the window and fall out of sight.
"About time it dropped dead," Vernon muttered as Harry raced out the door and crouched in the grass next to Errol.
The owl got up and Harry tousled his feathers before grabbing the letter he had dropped.
This letter is a Portkey that will activate at 7 o'clock. We can't wait to see you!
"Thank God," Harry breathed.
"Ginny dear, please change into something more appropriate for dinner. We're going to have guests." Ginny gaped as her mother turned back toward the stove.
"But mum! It's only Hermione and Harry. And it's too bloody hot to wear anything else."
"Language Ginny!" Molly Weasley turned sharply and pointed towards the stairs. "Go change now!"
"Fine!" Ginny said before storming upstairs.
"Is my outfit appropriate mum?" Fred joked.
"It's rather... lurid," Molly said of Fred's orange and green shirt and matching dragonskin tie, "But at least you're fully clothed."
"You didn't say a thing about my spiffy new shorts mum." Fred tutted at his mother and turned to his twin, "Oh no. George, does this make my bottom look big?"
"Shut it you two, and come mind the stove while I set the table."
Just then the door swung open.
"Oh! Hermione dear! Is it seven already?" Molly ran over to give Hermione a big hug.
"Hi, Mrs. Weasley. Shall I go put my things in Ginny's room?"
"Oh hush! Ron can do that for you," Molly said walking over to yell up the stairs. "Ron! Hermione's here!"
Fred and George started chuckling as they heard a few distinct crashes before Ron appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
"Oh no," George quipped. "Hermione's here, I simply can't control my motor functions anymore."
Hermione gave Ron a quick hug that caused them both to blush before the two of them started upstairs, with Ron carrying Hermione's luggage.
"Too right," Fred continued in an attempted imitation of Ron's voice. "And I'm glad I settled on this t-shirt. It's loads better looking than the six others I tried on. Maybe Hermione will snog me now."
A glare from their mother sent the twins over to the kitchen counter. George grabbed the pitcher of pumpkin juice.
"How do you take your pumpkin juice dear brother?"
"Sweetened," Fred replied as he held out a glass. "Not stirred."
"Oh, don't think you can pull off that innocent act! I want you two to go de-gnome the garden... and don't even think about embarrassing Ron or Hermione."
"Fine, Mum." George replied. "Although we're just trying to do our part to help out those two lovebirds."
"They really should realize that they love each other soon," Fred added. "Would be a pity if they wasted another year of time that could be spent in broom closets."
"Or empty classrooms."
"Right George. There are loads of useful places in that school."
"Go de-gnome," Molly said sternly.
The twins continued their conversation as they headed outside.
"You know," George said. "Hermione would probably know about some nice places in the library too."
"Spot on!" Fred shouted. "That locale is probably fairly deserted too. Never spent much time there myself. Rather dreary place." Both boys frowned at the memory of the library.
"Maybe we should inform Ron that there are better uses for the library."
"I imagine he's already thought of it, maybe we best inform Hermione."
"Oh, our children are growing up so fast!" George wailed in high-pitched voice. "Soon they'll be leaving us again!"
"Well then, dear brother, we've got two days, twelve hours and...," Fred checked his watch, "twenty seven minutes to come up with SOMETHING! We can't have them leaving for Hogwarts again without imparting to them some fundamental knowledge."
"Righty-O Gred. It's time for a plan."
"I think I have just the idea," Fred said with an evil grin.
Soon after Harry had arrived and brought all of his things up to Ron's room, the entire group sat down to eat. It was chaotic as usual, but there was an edge to the event that hadn't been there in the past. Harry, though he professed happiness at being there, looked rather sad and had only spoken a few words since he'd arrived. Ron and Hermione were trying their best to cheer Harry up and involve him in conversation, but it wasn't working well.
Ginny, for her part, was sweltering in her t-shirt and jeans and tried to ignore the heat. She looked around the table. Her parents were quietly and intensely talking about ministry politics at the opposite end of the table. Ron and Hermione looked like they were almost flirting as they joked about something or another. Harry was looking around uncertainly, as though he wasn't sure if he fit in anymore. And the twins were laughing and pointing at Ron.
Laughing and pointing at Ron, who seemed to be wearing a t-shirt that said, I want to snog Hermione Granger. Ginny snickered. She was trying to hold in a full out laugh when Harry caught her attention, eyes questioning. She nodded towards Ron. There was a moment's pause and then Harry laughed for the first time since getting to the Burrow. Ginny was so glad to hear it that she couldn't help but laugh along with him.
"What's going on?" Ron said suspiciously through a mouthful of food. Hermione looked over at Ron and then across the table to Harry and Ginny.
"Er," Ginny started and then looked over to Harry.
"Ron," Harry continued. "you might want to change your shirt."
Harry and Ginny nodded. Hermione looked beside her at Ron's shirt and her eyes went wide.
"Ron?" Hermione said shakily as she pointed to his shirt. Ron looked down.
Ron's jaw dropped in horror and he started to yank the shirt off before realizing that he was still at the dinner table. He stood up quickly, upsetting his chair in the process, and ran up the stairs.
There was a moment of silence before Molly turned towards the twins.
"Fred! George! Go to your room now! I told you to leave Ron alone. You best listen to me this time, or de-gnoming won't be your only punishment."
The twins, trying not to laugh, headed up stairs.
"Sorry about that Hermione dear," Molly said glaring at the twins. "I don't know what's gotten into them. They've been more mischievous than usual lately. I think it distracts them from everything that's been going on."
"Yes," Hermione said absently. "Quite all right. I think I'll go up to my room for a bit."
"My room, she means," Ginny corrected as Hermione left the table.
Harry glanced at Ginny. "Well, it's turning out to be an interesting day."
"Too right you are," Ginny replied.
"Well," Molly sighed. "More potatoes anyone?"
"Hermione," Ginny said forcefully the next morning. "You can't stay up here all day. We're going swimming."
"I have to finish my Potions paper," Hermione said as she avoided Ginny's eyes.
Ginny gave her an appraising look. "If you haven't finished your schoolwork, then I'm Celestina Warbeck. Don't worry, it'll be fine."
"Yes, Ron's coming too," Ginny said, wondering if Harry was having the same problems convincing Ron to come out of his room. Honestly, she'd never known two people more afraid to face their emotions. "You're a Gryffindor, where's that courage?"
"I should've been in Ravenclaw," Hermione muttered.
"Regardless," Ginny said. "We're going to have a great time at the lake and sooner or later you'll admit that the reason this has fazed you so much is that you want Ron to want to snog you."
"Ginny! I don't-"
"Save your excuses, now let's get into our bathing suits. This heat is killing me. And... you get to see Ron with his shirt off."
"I, well...." Hermione stopped, looking decidedly flustered. "Fine," she said with a frown.
"I don't want to go swimming," Ron grumbled as they waited for the girls to come downstairs.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Stop complaining Ron. It'll be fine."
"It's not fine. I bet Hermione hates me now."
Harry looked over at Ron leaning against the kitchen table and couldn't help but be angry at him. Ron, though he didn't believe it, had nothing to worry about. Once he and Hermione actually admitted out loud what everyone else had suspected for a while, they'd be happy. And, Harry suspected, they'd be on their way to falling in love.
Which was just bloody perfect, he thought, because people are allowed to be happy. And in love.
Except for me, Harry amended as he remembered his disastrous time with Cho. Always except for me. The soon to be murderer or murderee.
"This is the worst day of my life," Ron said beside him.
"I somehow doubt that," Harry said shortly. "In fact, if this is the biggest of your problems, you're pretty damn well off."
"Harry," Ron said as he suddenly looked up. "What's the matter?"
"It's nothing, I'm just so damned sick of all-"
"Harry?" Ron said when Harry abruptly stopped talking. Ron followed Harry's gaze to the stairs. And to his sister, dressed in a scandalous blue bikini.
"Uh, Ginny, aren't you a bit under-dressed?" Ron said, trying to cover his sister with the towel she'd been carrying.
"Ron, stop it!" Ginny pushed Ron away and grabbed the towel, wrapping it around her waist. "God, you're so overprotective!"
"Well," Ron sputtered. "Shouldn't you wear something a little less revealing?"
Ginny narrowed her eyes at her brother. "It's a bathing suit and this isn't the early nineteen hundreds. This is a perfectly normal bathing suit, isn't it Harry?"
Ginny looked past Ron, hoping to get some help in this argument, but Harry's eyes seemed glazed. "Harry?"
"Yeah," he replied dazedly. "Normal."
Ginny gave Harry a questioning look, but he avoided her eyes. "Fine," she muttered under her breath before she called up to Hermione.
"I don't know what's taking her so long," Ginny said as she apologetically looked at Ron, who shifted nervously.
Just as Ron started to look like he was going to bolt, Hermione came down the stairs, looking just as awkward as Ron had moments before.
"Well," Hermione said steadily as she avoided looking at Ron. "Aren't we going swimming?"
"Exactly," Ginny said. "Let's get moving." She pushed Ron and Hermione out the door. "Coming Harry?" He nodded and followed her out.
The four of them were unusually quiet as they walked to the lake. Ginny tried to facilitate conversation, but the other three weren't much for talking. By the time they got they reached the lake, Ginny was so fed up with the whole situation that she jumped in without bothering to wait for anyone else.
"Ah, relief from the heat," she sighed. And space from those three moody prats, Ginny added silently as she watched Hermione spread out her towel and open the book she'd insisted she be allowed to bring. Ron, surprisingly, laid out his towel beside her and sat down. Harry headed towards the lake.
"Nice, isn't it?" Ginny said once Harry had gotten into the water.
"Yeah," Harry said absently as he looked over to his best friends.
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Ginny said to ease Harry's mind.
"Of course they'll be fine," Harry responded. "They're bloody overreacting."
Ginny had been thinking along the same lines earlier, but it surprised her to hear the bitterness in Harry's voice.
"Well, they are," he said as he turned to face her. "They spend all this time worrying what would happen if one of them said what they were actually thinking and then they end up fighting and missing the whole point."
"Oh," Ginny said with her eyebrows raised. "And since when are you the expert on talking about one's feelings."
Harry glared at her.
"Well then," she continued. "What is the whole point?"
Harry looked at Ginny as if she were also missing the whole point.
"The whole point is that they want to be together and they don't realize how damn lucky they are that they feel the same way...."
"That they love each other," Ginny said quietly as she looked into Harry's dark green eyes.
"Exactly," Harry breathed.
"They are pretty damn lucky, aren't they?" Ginny whispered. She looked over to where Ron and Hermione seemed to be starting to talk.
"Yeah." Harry was staring at his friends with a look that she knew she'd seen before.
"You're jealous?" she questioned.
"No," he answered shortly.
"So it's one word answer time in Harry Potter Land, is it?"
"Why do you always have to do that?" Harry said angrily.
"Do what?" Ginny asked. "You were the one who wasn't elaborating."
"You point out things that I don't want to think about and I hate it. Why can't you just leave me alone?" Harry's eyes blazed, but Ginny saw something else lingering there.
"Harry, what's this really about?" Ginny said compassionately. She reached up to touch his shoulder, but he pulled away.
"Not you too," he growled desperately. "I can't have you treating me like that too."
"Like I'm about to break!" Harry pulled in a shaky breath.
"But you were just saying that you hated how I made you look at things! I can't read your mind, I don't know what the perfect responses to Harry Potter's many moods are." Ginny took a deep breath and counted to ten. Harry looked like he was bracing for a fight. "For what it's worth, I don't thing you're about to break."
Harry nodded and looked down at the water. He started moving his hand on the surface of the water. Touching the water made him feel like not everything was out of control. Like some things would stay constant. They both stood there silently for a moment until Harry finally spoke.
"I just hate how everyone treats me differently now, like they have to pay special care to spare my feelings." Harry's quiet voice was full of emotion. "Even Ron and Hermione watch what they say around me, like it'll throw me into some sort of angry fit."
"Well," Ginny said earnestly. "You were a bit of an idiot last year."
Harry ran a hand through his hair. It irritated him how Ginny could throw him off like that. "It's nice to see that you aren't concerned with what you're saying around me anymore."
"Well, you asked for it," Ginny retorted. "I'm sorry that people have been treating you as if you're about to break," Ginny continued seriously. "I remember what that's like. I hated it."
Harry nodded as he was reminded that perhaps Ginny knew, more than anyone, what he was going through.
"I just want to be normal, you know?" Harry said as the memories faded from Ginny's brown eyes. "I want to be able to live without having to worry about Voldemort and death and responsibility. I want to be able to be like everyone else and have girls and schoolwork and Quidditch be the things that I'm most concerned with. I want to know what it's like to fall in love," he looked over towards Ron and Hermione. "And I don't want to feel all this guilt and pain all the time."
"One day this'll be over and Voldemort will be gone," Ginny said fervently. "and you'll be able to play Quidditch and be irresponsible." She smiled wickedly. "And fall in love. And you'll finally let yourself be happy. You'll have it all."
"But what if I don't Ginny?" Harry said, thinking of the prophecy he'd heard at the end of term. "What if it all goes to hell and I don't get your storybook ending?"
Ginny looked at Harry understandingly and took his hand under the water, fingers interlacing. "You will Harry, and I'll be with you all the way until you get there."
Harry looked at Ginny and wished that he could have the same faith in himself that she had in him. He took in the way her wet hair was dripping and the way her small hand fit into his and almost started laughing. A day ago he never would've imagined having a conversation like this with Ginny in the middle of a lake. This definitely isn't normal, Harry found himself thinking.
"I'll never be normal, will I?"
"No, you'll never be normal Harry," Ginny said with a smile.
Harry frowned, wondering why she was smiling as she confirmed what recently had been one of his major concerns.
"But," she continued. "What's so great about normal?"
Ginny looked up at him and Harry thought that her smile must be contagious because he found himself smiling too.
"How can you be so happy with everything that's going on?" Harry vaguely gestured around him.
"Being sad is really tiring," Ginny said as she squeezed his hand, "I tried it for a while, but it wasn't worth it. What's going to happen will happen whether we're happy or sad in the meantime. I'm really just saving energy." And then she winked. Harry smiled back at her.
"You know Ginny, I'm glad we ended up talking today."
"Me too. It's amazing how even fighting with you ends up being worth it." She shook her head slightly.
Harry wanted to question what she'd meant by worth it, but instead said defensively, "We didn't fight much."
"Ron always says that about his fights with Hermione," Ginny joked.
"Our fights aren't like theirs," Harry responded. For some reason, Ginny's innocent comparison made him extremely nervous.
"Well then," Ginny said. "If Ron and Hermione's fights are their way of avoiding their emotions, what do you think ours are?"
Harry thought about the few times that he and Ginny had fought. They all stood out in his mind. He couldn't hold back when he fought with her and he strongly suspected that she couldn't either.
"Probably revealing emotion," Harry said before realizing it. "I mean-"
Ginny held up her hand and Harry stopped.
"Well, if that's true," Ginny said as she thought of the way both of them tended to keep things to themselves. "Maybe we should get into fights more often."
"I don't know," Harry said slowly. "You'd have to play fair."
"Like this?" Ginny laughed as she splashed Harry in the face.
"Looks like they're having fun," Hermione said as she looked over to the lake where Harry and Ginny were involved in water war.
"Yeah," Ron agreed darkly. He and Hermione had talked about everything since they'd sat down, except for what was causing the awkwardness between them. And as much as Ron didn't want to bring it up, this avoidance of the situation was starting to bother him. Especially since other people were having fun, while he felt as though he were sitting in Snape's dungeon.
"Look Hermione," he started. "I'm sorry about that thing at dinner, but you know that Fred and George can be idiots."
Hermione looked up from her book and turned to him. "Yes, they can be."
"Er, well," Ron continued disjointedly. "They must've thought they were helping me or something, but they're mental." He brushed some dirt off his towel and looked back at Hermione for agreement on the mental state of his older brothers.
Her eyes widened. "Helping you?"
"Well, they talk to Ginny too much and she has all these crazy ideas."
Ron looked at Hermione, who seemed to be waiting for an answer. A few strand of hair were falling out of a carefully constructed bun and Ron felt the urge to tuck them behind her ear.
"Like that I fancy you or something," he mumbled, not believing that he'd said it out loud. He thought he heard Hermione draw in a breath.
"And you don't?" Hermione questioned with her mouth set.
"No," he said slowly. Maybe she'd believe him. Maybe things could go back to when they were just friends and life would be easier again. Things would be normal again, not spinning into the messed up depths with the rest of the world.
"Oh," Hermione said before giving him a grin and then smiling down at her book.
"What are you smiling about?" Ron said moodily. "Would it really be that bad if I fancied you?"
She had the nerve to smile at him again. "You know Ron, I think that we should celebrate the past day."
"You're off your rocker. Why would I want to celebrate the memory of the worst day of my life?" Ron frowned when Hermione continued to smile at him. Maybe, he thought, she didn't realized that in the past twenty-four hours he'd been humiliated more than once, dealt with Harry's moodiness, and on several occasions almost told one of his best friends that he fancied her.
"Well," Hermione said as she leaned towards him. "Let's start a list."
Ron groaned. "Not a list."
Hermione shot him a threatening look before starting.
"All of us are able to be here together before school starts. There are no huge exams this year like the O.W.L.'s or N.E.W.T.'s."
"Quidditch is going to start soon and I'll get to watch Gryffindor's Keeper lead the team to another Cup."
"Now you're just patronizing me."
Hermione ignored Ron's grumbled complaint and continued.
"Harry's over there smiling, for the first time in months I imagine. And I've suddenly been overcome by a giddy appreciation for the fact that you, Ronald Weasley, are a very bad liar."
Ron was just noticing that Hermione's infernal grin was back before she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
"What was that for?" Ron asked a few moments later when he was able to form a coherent sentence.
"I fancy you too, you dense git."
Ron grinned and was just about to hug Hermione when heard two very loud voices.
"Attention all remaining Hogwarts students!"
"Hermione," Ron hissed as he dove underneath his towel. "Hide me!"
"Ron," Hermione said, laughing, "We're only going out - I didn't sign up for a lifetime supply of your problems. Besides, it's just your brothers."
"They're not my brothers! They're evil!" Ron whispered. "Wait, did you say going out?" He dropped the towel and stared at Hermione.
"Well, if you want to," she said hesitantly.
"No," Ron said with a laugh, "Of course I do. We'll still be friends though right?"
"Ron," Hermione said as she took his hand. "We'll always be friends. No matter what. You make me feel like not everything's gone crazy." They started leaning towards each other when Fred and George's voices sounded again.
"It has come to our attention that you are not making the most of the many snog-worthy locales of our fair alma mater. So we have decided to come up with a list in hopes that your recent lifestyles are only because you are uninformed."
Hermione started laughing and Ron shook his head.
"Our first locale is in honor of school prefect and all-around nice gal, Hermione Granger. The library can be a perfect place...."
Ginny and Harry had started moving towards the shore as soon as they heard the twins' voices and watched Hermione start looking around for them in outrage. It wasn't until they had walked close enough to hear, "number 5 - the hospital wing, in honor of Harry Potter who needs someone to kiss him and make him better," that they realized what exactly the list was.
"Number 6 is for our little sis Ginny, who as Seeker last year for the Quidditch team has surely enjoyed catching the Snitch and might enjoy searching for it, if you know what we mean, in the broom closet of her choice."
"Ugh," Ginny said. "That was entirely unnecessary."
"Yeah," Harry agreed, thinking that if he was going to snog anyone next year it definitely wouldn't be in the hospital wing of all places.
"I think that Fred and George deserve our 'thanks' for this list," Ginny said with a glimmer in her eyes. "Are you in?"
"Revenge? How could I turn down plotting with a girl like you?"
"That's what I like to hear Potter," Ginny said as she continued to look for the twins.
"Especially," Harry quipped. "Seeing as I wouldn't want that pretty smirk working against me."
"All you need is love people. Now on to number 7...."