Ron sighed as he watched Hermione laugh with Harry.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, he thought. I'm the one who makes Harry laugh. What does Hermione ever do that Harry finds funny?
Not that she's not a good laugh, but she's never been able to make him laugh like this. When have they ever gotten on that well?
I suppose that I finally know which one of us she fancies, don't I?
He turned back to his Potions essay, always a sure sign that he was feeling low. Normally one of his friends would notice this and come over and help cheer him up, and then the next day he'd borrow Hermione's essay and copy enough of it to scrape a pass.
It was a tried and tested system. It had worked for years.
Tonight, though, Hermione was giggling - giggling! - with Harry.
And, as Harry knew perfectly well, tomorrow was Valentine's Day.
Harry knew that perfectly well, not, Ron had thought, because he had any particular interest in Valentine's Day, but because he had helped Ron choose the perfect present for Hermione. Made helpful suggestions. Helped with the finance. Laughed the whole time, sometimes openly at Ron's frustrations, sometimes silently, behind his back, knowing the whole time that the matter was already decided.
A good laugh, five Galleons worth, apparently.
"I just don't understand - how did it get there?"
Harry sighed, and looked up from his magazine. "What does it matter? Go and get it."
"It's filthy under there. Hermione's having a bad effect on the house-elves, you know. They're not cleaning under the beds anymore."
"Since when have you cared about getting your clothes dirty?" Harry asked, putting down the magazine and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He stood up and stretched. "Or is this just another excuse to have a go at Hermione when you see her again?"
Ron looked up and frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You two have been like cat and dog ever since Christmas," Harry said, picking up his razor and heading into the bathroom. "Dean's running a book on when she's going to punch you, did you know that?"
The door clicked behind him, and Ron stayed kneeling on the bedroom floor as the shower hissed into life. He could hear Harry's off-key humming as he washed and scrubbed. When Harry emerged from the bathroom, patting his hair dry with a fluffy towel, he was still staring vacantly ahead.
"Are you still there?" Harry asked. "Ron, it's only a bit of dust. I'll get it, if you're so bothered."
"Valentine's Day," Ron said, looking up for the first time.
"Valentine's Day. That's when Hermione's going to hit me. If you want to win the bet, put your money on February fourteenth."
Harry blinked several times. "Ginny's already got it," he said. He sat down on the other side of Ron's bed and peered short-sightedly at his friend. "Why then?"
"Because that's when I'm going to ask her out, and give her a decent Valentine's gift, and then I'm going to make sure I've got something soft behind me to land on."
Ron dived under the bed and rooted around for several minutes as Harry sat motionless, dripping water on his friend's blankets. Eventually Ron emerged, clutching a battered looking trainer in one hand.
"You're going to ask Hermione out?" Harry asked. Ron shrugged.
"How long have you wanted to do that?"
Ron mumbled something under his breath as he bent over to pull the trainer on.
"I said, 'For about two years'," Ron sighed. "But she was mucking about with Vicky all that time, and then there was the whole thing with her parents, and now..."
Ron stopped. Harry had become considerably better at reading people's moods in the last few months - Ron wondered occasionally if his friend was reading his mind - and was now looking at him with something dangerously close to sympathy on his face.
"Don't say it," Ron snapped, shaking the last of the dust free from his trainer with a vicious swipe of his foot. "I know I'm a bloody wimp, I know that I should have said something ages ago, but so help me Merlin, if you of all people with your bloody appalling track record with women dare to give me a lecture on how to ask girls out then I swear I'll hit you with a hex that'll put you through that wall so hard you'll end up in Hermione's dormitory."
Harry grinned, and Ron's sudden foul temper disappeared immediately.
"Maybe we should try it," Harry said, his eyes sparkling. "I'll use the most powerful spell I can think of, knock you through the wall and land you on Hermione's bed. It'd be a great entrance, if nothing else."
"Shut it, Potter," Ron smiled ruefully. "Leave me alone for a bit, will you? I need to think of something to get her that won't be ridiculous and rubbish."
Harry's mouth quirked a little, and Ron knew that he was biting back some remark or another, but ignored him.
Harry got up and toweled himself dry, dressing quickly. He walked to the door and laid one hand on the handle. Ron, lost in thoughts of possible presents for Hermione, didn't notice that his friend hadn't left for several minutes until Harry's voice broke through his thought process.
"She'd like some Brandy Cremes from Honeydukes. The expensive ones. Ginny gave her some at Christmas, and she's hooked on them. They're amazing, apparently. Problem is, they're so expensive that she can't afford to buy them, even if she saves up in between every Hogsmeade trip."
"How do I tell her what I want?" Ron said to Harry, about forty minutes later. Ron had frog marched his friend at double time into Honeydukes, negotiating a complex repayments scheme that had ultimately resulted in Harry telling him to sod off and name his firstborn Harry Weasley.
"You go up to the counter, name the item you wish to purchase, wait for her to bring you the item, exchange Galleons for goods, perhaps offer some pleasantries as you complete the transaction and then you're done," Harry said. "You have shopped before, right?"
"But she's going to know!" Ron said. "She'll know that I'm not buying these things for me. And then everyone else-" he waved his hand, taking in the clientele of Honeydukes, which seemed to be comprised entirely of teenage girls drooling over the huge pink boxes of chocolate "-will know that I'm buying Brandy Cremes for someone, and then how long before someone puts two and two together?"
"Look, do you want me to buy them?" Harry sighed.
"You?" Ron said.
"Yeah," Harry replied, sounding bored. "Everyone knows that I'm a romantic disaster area, remember? Girls talk to me, then walk away all angry and annoyed. This lot-" he gestured at the tumult of teenagers "-will just assume I'm getting some comfort food ahead of Valentine's. And they are pretty nice, at that."
Before Ron could say anything, Harry strode confidently up to the counter and caught the proprietress' attention. Seconds later he was walking back to Ron with two large, pinkly wrapped boxes under one arm.
"Two boxes?" Ron asked.
"Comfort eating sounded like a good idea," Harry said, a little sheepishly as they left the hordes of chocolate starved girls behind them.
Ron had felt buoyant all afternoon. The box had sat in his trunk from the moment he'd returned from Hogsmeade, Harry distracting Hermione and Ginny so that he could sneak their purchases up to their dormitory.
Feeling thoroughly pleased with himself, and having enjoyed a rare morning alone with Harry -for Harry's Occlumency, supplementary Dark Arts and Apparition training had swallowed up much of his free time- Ron had made his way to the Room of Requirement where he anticipated working up a sweat against one of the animated skeletons that Professor Flitwick had charmed for the DA.
And then he'd seen them.
Hermione had come through the doorway first, and Ron had automatically slipped into the shadows. He didn't want to talk now, didn't want to say anything that would spoil the mood he was in.
She'd turned, and he'd followed her out. They'd slipped easily into an embrace, Hermione standing slightly on tiptoe to nestle her chin against his shoulder, his arms clasped comfortably around her slim frame.
They had held the pose for a moment, two moments, more, until finally they'd stepped apart. With a smile he'd held out his arm, and she'd linked her hand through it. They'd walked off, happy as could be.
When Colin and Dennis Creevey entered the Room of Requirement later that evening, the taint of magic in the air was tangible. The skeletons lay in fragments on the floor, the odd intact bone waggling slightly, a miraculously unharmed leg hopping forlornly amongst its scattered and shattered brethren.
And in the sixth form boys' dormitory a brightly wrapped box of chocolates crashed into the wastepaper basket with a loud clang.
Ron was only driven to the Great Hall on Valentine's morning because he had missed dinner the night before. No-one had come to speak to him, no-one had missed him. He wasn't surprised. Dean, Seamus and Neville were girding their loins in preparation for the day ahead, Ginny would be off with whatever boy had caught her eye that week- Ron had tried, Circe knew, but she was adamant that she would see who she wanted, regardless of what he felt on the matter -and Harry and Hermione were...
His stomach rebelled. Were it not empty, Ron knew, then it would have been making efforts to become so.
He dropped into a place opposite Neville, who was holding hands triumphantly with Hannah Abbott as she stared unabashedly at the bunch of flowers he'd bred for her. Seamus, to Ron's right, was poking miserably at his sausages and for a moment Ron was tempted to join him in a rite of Valentine's enforced bachelordom.
But then a post-owl dropped from the roof of the Great Hall and landed neatly in front of Lavender. She unwrapped the tiny parcel attached to its leg and let out a squeal of delight so loud that it surely carried clear across the Hall to the Slytherins. Ron glanced over his shoulder momentarily at their table, and his mood soured still further
Even they've got dates and presents and stuff. I wonder how many of them got ditched by their two best mates?
Ron stared morosely into his porridge.
"Good morning, Ron!"
Ron looked up briefly to see Hermione taking her seat next to Neville. She smiled at him, a real, happy smile of the sort that he'd barely seen on her face for her months. Oh, she laughed at jokes, and even when Gryffindor had beaten Hufflepuff she'd been happy enough, but there had always been a part of her walled off, a part of her that he'd never been able to reach.
But Harry can.
He was almost ready to smile. Almost ready to wish them both the best of luck.
He makes her happy, truly happy. That's going to have to be good enough.
And then Hedwig and Pig arrived, flying awkwardly together as they carried a huge, instantly recognizable pink box through the air.
He gave them to her. He used my own bloody owl. I was ready to...
Hermione's face lit up still further as the owls dropped the box in front of her. She read the tag and beamed.
And Ron stood up abruptly, nearly sending Pansy Parkinson flying as the Slytherin girl made her way to the Gryffindor table.
"Brandy Cremes? They're amazing, and really expensive," he heard her comment to one of her hangers-on as he strode from the Great Hall. "Who would have sent it to her?"
Me, Ron thought. But I had to be told they were her favourites first.
Ron soared above the Quidditch pitch, wondering briefly if he could manage to use emotional blackmail on Harry to get his Firebolt off him.
If I'm going to be the brooding loner, out here in all weather, while he hangs around with Hermione, I ought to do it properly.
Eventually, he dropped back down to the ground and trudged up to the Gryffindor common room. A wild party was taking place- either the students were celebrating Valentine's Day or someone had managed to get Snape sacked, such was the noise from the revelers -but Ron made his way through the confusion and up the stairs. He dropped onto his bed in the darkened dormitory and didn't bother to look up as the door swung open again a few minutes later, briefly letting in the noise of the party before shutting again.
A heavy weight landed on his stomach, making him sit up abruptly.
"Careful," a voice familiar from long association scolded. "You'll spill them! Do you want one?"
"What are they?" Ron asked.
"Brandy Cremes," Ginny said cheerfully, picking up the box and waving it under his nose. "Not that I'd normally waste one on you, but you look like you could use one. Rough day?"
Ron looked balefully at the proffered box until Ginny got the message and set it down beside her.
"Suit yourself. They're really nice."
Ron told his sister exactly what he'd like her to do with her sweets.
"I'd rather just eat them, if it's all the same to you."
"I'm not in the mood, Ginny," Ron said.
"You don't say. But I have to give you a message."
"What is it?"
"A communication from another person to you, but that's not important right now," she replied. Ron groaned.
"Okay, okay," she said, and he could hear the grin in her voice. "You have to go to the Room of Requirement in ten minutes."
"Why?" Ron said.
"I didn't ask. But apparently you'll be sorry if you don't go, Harry said to tell you."
Oh, so that's it. The thieving git's going to come clean. Well, nice surprise for him when I tell him that I already now he's a lying, cheating, double-dealing bas-
"Sure you don't want one?" Ginny asked. Ron took one by reflex, popping it into his mouth while he silently cursed Harry.
Then he stopped.
Merlin's beard, these are amazing!
Ginny insisted on walking Ron to the Room of Requirement although, spying his covetous glances at her chocolates, she had stopped in her room on the way to put them away. Ron had noted without surprise but with some disappointment that the box he'd bought for Hermione had already been tidied away by the elves.
Still didn't clean under the bed, though.
Harry was standing outside the Room of Requirement, until about a second after Ron had laid eyes on him. Then he was lying on the floor outside the Room of Requirement, nursing a discoloured cheekbone as Ron sucked on a split knuckle.
Ginny knelt beside Harry, looking in confusion from one to the other.
"You-" Ron began, but Harry waved a hand at the door to the Room.
"Go inside," he said, sounding as though he was missing a tooth. "And then see if you want to hit me again, you git." This last was added without any apparent rancour, and Ron began to wonder exactly what was going on.
He opened the door as Ginny helped Harry to his feet. Pushing it open, he gasped as he found himself in the Great Hall, or a perfect replica of it. He recognised the scene immediately. It was laid out exactly as it had been for the Yule Ball during his fourth year. And there... His jaw dropped.
Merlin, how did I ever not see how beautiful she is?
Hermione stood beside a table, on which sat a box of Honeydukes Brandy Cremes.
"All yours," Harry's voice came from behind him. He looked over his shoulder, at Harry with his arm around Ginny's shoulders. At Ginny, with her arms around Harry's waist.
"Two boxes of chocolates?" Ron said.
"One for you, one for me," Harry said. "Somehow yours ended up in the bin, but Hedwig and Pig seemed to know where to take them."
"They wrote the tag out as well?"
"Apparently so," Harry said, straight-faced.
"Harry Weasley it is, mate," Ron said quietly.
"Too right. Now, Ginny, where have you hidden your Brandy Cremes?"
"I'll never tell," Ginny said as the door swung shut. "Unless you ask nicely..."
"Hi," Ron said as he turned back to face her. She was clad in robes of pale blue, like she had been so long ago, but now she was older, and he wanted nothing more then to walk over to her, take her in his arms and hold her to him.
He did. Eventually, they shared the Brandy Cremes as well.