Ron let out a very put-upon sigh. ‘You were pretty clear, Hermione. I don’t really see how I could have got it wrong.’
‘He’s not standing here, is he?’ Hermione asked, looking pointedly around the Gryffindor common room. ‘Which means you must have got it wrong.’
‘Look, I told him everything you said. Word for word.’ Ron raised his right arm in the air and twirled it around in front of him in a mad, sweeping motion, almost poking a startled first-year in the eye. ‘I even did the gestures.’ Hermione pursed her lips as his left arm joined in the wild gesticulating. The first-year glanced anxiously at the oblivious pair, and then rose to scurry away unnoticed to a chair on the opposite side of the room. ‘Short of transfiguring myself into you,’ Ron continued, ‘I don’t know how much more of an accurate impersonation I can do, but if you reckon you’d have had better luck –’
Hermione heaved an equally put-upon sigh and stood up. She placed a dozing Crookshanks gently onto the chair she had just vacated, and marched determinedly across the common room floor.
‘Hey!’ Ron’s windmilling arms dropped forlornly to his sides. He sounded slightly out of breath. ‘Where’re you going?’
‘To talk to Harry myself.’
Ron hurried after her and overtook her in a couple of long strides. He placed himself squarely in front of the door she was heading for and folded his arms across his chest in a determined manner.
‘You can’t go up there!’ he said, a look of outrage on his features. ‘That’s the boys’ dormitory!’
Hermione came to a halt in front of him and attempted to manoeuvre herself around his gangly form. ‘So?’ she asked. Her hand accidentally hit a ticklish spot on Ron’s back and he arched squeamishly away. Taking advantage of his distraction, Hermione pulled the door swiftly open and ducked inside.
Ron dashed in after her. ‘Wait! What if they’re naked up there!’
Hermione paused and turned back round to face him. ‘At six-thirty on a Sunday evening?’ The faces of twenty interested, and some slightly worried, Gryffindor faces gazed wide-eyed at the two of them through the still open door.
‘They might be,’ Ron insisted. His voice was overloud in the sudden silence that had fallen in the previously noisy room.
Hermione looked thoughtfully up at the staircase rising in front of her and then back at Ron. ‘Well, are they?’
‘Naked?’ Ron made an awkward shrugging motion when Hermione nodded. ‘I don’t know, do I?’ he said peevishly. ‘I’m standing here with you. I can’t see through walls.’
‘You were just with them a minute ago,’ Hermione said impatiently. ‘Didn’t you notice?’ She eyed him suspiciously. ‘Or do you all often sit around up there like that?’
There was a burst of laughter that ground to a quick halt when Ron whirled round to glare angrily at the room at large. The eerie quiet abruptly gave way to the sound of industrious noise and bustle.
‘No!’ Ron faced Hermione again and flushed when she continued to stare at him silently. ‘No one was… you know, when I came down, but who knows what’s happening now –‘
Hermione made an exasperated sound and continued on up the stairs.
‘Hang on!’ Ron still seemed to be under the mistaken impression that he had some say in the proceedings and he stepped manfully in front of the dormitory door. ‘Let me at least check things out first.’
Hermione allowed it with only a very small eye roll. Ron rapped loudly on the door and shouted, ‘Is everybody decent in there?’
His question was met with dead silence. Hermione made an impatient tutting noise and pushed Ron aside. As she reached for the handle, the door inched open and Neville’s eye appeared in the crack. He took one look at Hermione’s scowling face and banged the door firmly shut again.
His whispered words were clearly audible to the pair left standing open-mouthed on the small landing.
‘It’s Hermione,’ he hissed.
‘Are you sure?’ Seamus asked, making no attempt to lower his voice. ‘It didn’t sound like her.’
‘No, it definitely is – I could see her through the gap. Why would she want to know if we’re decent?’ Neville whispered worriedly. ‘Is it a new prefect thing, do you think, like an inspection?’
‘No, I reckon this has more to do with the passions of Miss Hermione Granger,’ Seamus said slowly, devilry clear in his tone. ‘I always thought she had a bit of thing for you – looks like today’s your lucky day. Hey, Hermione,’ he suddenly shouted, obviously wanting to be sure he could be heard through the thick wooden door. ‘Do you want us all to clear out so Neville can get undecent?’
‘Ouch! Careful!’ Ron had barged his way into the dormitory at the exact same moment Harry had been attempting to get out. Harry had come off worse in the confrontation and was gingerly rubbing his injured elbow. He had an expression of mixed annoyance and surprise on his face as he waited, in vain, for Ron’s explanation.
‘Quick, Neville, get your shirt back on,’ Seamus said out of the corner of his mouth. His attempts to sound furtive were spoiled by the twitching of his lips, giving him the look of a rather bad ventriloquist. ‘Ron’s with her and he’s looking a bit fierce.’
Hermione stomped stiff-backed to the centre of the room. ‘Oh, that’s very funny, Seamus,’ she said scathingly. ‘And for your information,’ she drew back her foot and sent a stray sock and a mud-splattered Quidditch top spinning across the floor, ‘”undecent” isn’t even a word.’
‘I didn’t take my shirt off,’ Neville mumbled to anyone who was listening. He looked so miserable, Hermione paused to give him a comforting pat on the arm.
‘I know you didn’t, Neville,’ she said, frowning reprovingly at Seamus. ‘Some people just enjoy being silly.’
‘Yeah, Seamus,’ Ron said, his hands clenching into angry fists, ‘shut it.’ Seamus took a cautious step backwards. He seemed relieved when Ron turned his glower on a suddenly-quivering Neville, who had been absently rubbing at the spot on his arm where Hermione had touched him. Neville dropped his arms to his sides with an audible slap and stood stiff to attention like a soldier. Ron nodded his approval and directed his scowling attention back to Seamus.
Hermione narrowed her eyes at the silent exchange. ‘There’s no need to be rude, Ron.’
Ron spun sharply round, but before he could respond, Harry stepped between them. ‘Er, Hermione, what’s going on?’
‘Harry! Oh, I-I just wanted to know why you won’t come to dinner,’ she said, looking suddenly flustered under his curious stare. ‘You need to eat and Ron said –’
‘Oh great, drag me into it,’ Ron said grumpily. He sank down onto the edge of a bed and began kicking the toe of his shoe against the trunk sitting at its foot. ‘Me who keeps getting it in the neck just for following orders; I come up here and tell him what you’ve said, I go back down and tell you what he’s said. I don’t get any thanks, just moaned at and told I’m doing it wrong or being rude.’ He shot Seamus a dirty look, who shrugged and ambled over to Neville and the card game their arrival had obviously interrupted. ‘And while all this is going on, I’m missing dinner!’ Ron flopped back on the bed, as though the lack of food had left him too weak to hold himself upright any longer.
‘Look, Ron –‘ Harry began.
‘It was shepherd’s pie tonight.’ Ron lifted himself up onto his elbows to glare accusingly over at Hermione. ‘You know that’s my favourite.’
‘– I didn’t say anything about –‘ Harry tried again.
‘You don’t have a favourite,’ Hermione said scornfully. ‘You eat it all. And at the speed you shovel it in, I’d be amazed if you could tell the difference between shepherd’s pie and sawdust!’
‘– you two not going to eat –‘
Hermione whirled round to glare at Harry. ‘Can you just hang on a minute please, Harry,’ she said sharply. She turned back to Ron. ‘And I most certainly did say thank you!’
Ron levered himself up off the bed like a shot. ‘No, you didn’t!’
‘I did,’ Hermione insisted and then she paused, looking vaguely discomforted. She shook the expression away with a quick toss of her frizzy hair. ‘And even if I didn’t, it’s not as if it was some chore I’d forced you into – it was your idea to try and talk Harry into coming, remember? You were the one who asked me what you should say!’
‘Yeah, well.’ Ron and Hermione looked at each other, the anger draining from their faces. ‘You’re better at stuff like that than me,’ Ron muttered finally, his feet shuffling awkwardly on the floor when Hermione beamed at him. ‘And you do need to eat, Harry,’ he said quickly, turning to look behind him.
‘Yes, Harry,’ Hermione agreed. ‘Ron’s right. It’s no good for you missing meals like –’ She paused and blinked over at Neville and Seamus.
‘He left,’ Seamus grunted, not raising his eyes from the hand of cards he was busily rearranging.
Ron and Hermione shared a panicked look. ‘When?’ Ron demanded, already halfway to the door.
‘Somewhere between the shepherd’s pie and Hermione telling him to shut up, I think.’ Seamus said with a shrug.
Ron and Hermione made a dash for the stairs. Ron took the steps two at a time and arrived in the common room before her. The first-year he’d terrorised with his earlier arm flailing let out a squeak of alarm at Ron’s wild-eyed appearance and sank lower in his chair.
Hermione clattered down the stairs seconds behind him and almost slammed into Ron who stood stock still in the entrance to the common room. ‘Is he here?’ she asked, glancing quickly around.
‘No,’ Ron growled. ‘Does anyone know where Harry went?’ he asked loudly. Headshakes were the only response and he swore angrily. It was a clear sign of how worried she was that Hermione didn’t take him to task.
The portrait hole swung opened and Dean Thomas clambered in clutching an armful of books.
‘Dean,’ Hermione said, rushing eagerly forward, Ron at her heels. ‘Did you pass Harry on your way here? Do you know where he was going?’
‘Yeah, er, dinner, I think. He’s cutting it a bit fine, though,’ he added, peering at his watch.
‘Thanks!’ Hermione said with relief. She hurried past him and started down the corridor.
‘Did you hear that?’ Ron asked. He had to increase his pace to keep up as Hermione trotted quickly down the staircase towards the Great Hall. ‘Cutting it a bit fine, he said. That sounds like there’s already nothing left!’ His stomach rumbled loudly in response. ‘If he’s not there, Hermione, I’m going to have to hang about for something to eat before we carry on looking.’
‘Will you stop keep thinking of your stomach!’ Hermione snapped. ‘That’s the reason Harry left in the first place!’
‘No, it isn’t!’ Ron denied hotly. ‘He cleared off because he’s sick of us arguing – he’s said it often enough!’
He paused to scowl at a painting of a woman who raised her finger to her lips in a shushing gesture as she gently rocked a baby in a cradle. ‘All right!’
Hermione grimaced apologetically at the young mother, and sped up again as the sound of an indignant wail split the air.
‘So are we going to pack it in?’ Ron asked, hurrying to catch up. ‘And I mean properly this time.’
‘Well maybe if you didn’t keep doing annoying things –‘
‘Oh, now I see,’ Ron cut in. ‘Your plan to get him to stop being mad with us for arguing is to argue more? Genius, that is.’
‘Quiet!’ Hermione hissed. They had reached the Great Hall. They both held their breath as they pushed the doors quietly open. The room was almost empty. Scattered food dishes were dotted around the few remaining students, with the rest of the long tables bare. Ron let out a growl of longing as the mouth-watering aroma of at least a dozen different foods assailed their nostrils.
‘There he is,’ he breathed in relief as he spied Harry sitting alone at the Gryffindor table. ‘Come on.’
The two of them made their way almost reluctantly towards the lone figure. Harry was in the process of piling mashed potatoes onto his plate when they sat down on either side of him.
‘Thought you said you weren’t hungry, mate,’ Ron said cautiously.
‘I wasn’t when you asked,’ Harry said. He raised a loaded fork to his mouth and made an appreciative sound as he swallowed.
Ron licked his lips hungrily. ‘Is there any of that left?’ he asked, leaning forward to peer longingly down the empty table.
A smile tilted the edges of Harry’s mouth. ‘I saved you some shepherd’s pie,’ he said, reaching to his right and pulling a still-full dish forward.
‘Brilliant!’ Ron grinned.
‘I thought you’d rather have casserole, Hermione,’ Harry said, indicating the earthenware bowl sitting next to her.
They ate in hungry silence until Ron finally pushed his empty plate away with a satisfied sigh. The last remaining Hufflepuff student at the table behind them stood up, and Ron quickly reached over to pull an untouched treacle tart and a jug of custard onto their table before the house-elves could clear it away. ‘Waste not want not,’ he said happily, cutting three large slices.
Only when the dishes were scraped clean and they were all feeling pleasantly full, did Hermione speak again.
‘I’m sorry, Harry,’ she began hesitantly, her fingers twisting knots into the napkin she held clutched in her hands, ‘about… before. I know it probably feels lately as if we’re badgering you all the time to do things you don’t want to do, but we’ve just been so worried.’
Ron lowered the knife that been edging towards the treacle tart and nodded quickly. ‘I mean, we know why you’ve been like you’ve been after… Sirius and everything,’ he continued awkwardly. ‘But we hoped that once we were all out of Grimmauld Place and back at school…’ he trailed off.
‘I know,’ Harry said, not looking at either of them.
‘But you haven’t been better,’ Hermione said carefully. ‘Not really. No one expects you to be back to normal straight away, of course,’ she hurried on, ‘and we’re not asking you to talk about Sirius, not if you don’t want to –‘
‘I don’t. Not… yet.’
‘Then we won’t,’ Hermione said immediately. ‘I just,’ she paused and turned slightly on the bench so that she was facing both Harry and Ron, ‘we just want to make sure that you’re looking after yourself properly.’
‘I know,’ Harry said again, although he still didn’t meet their eyes.
Hermione sighed, and then straightened her shoulders determinedly. ‘So we’ll probably still keep on at you to eat more, but we’re going to try harder not to fight so much,’ she promised. ‘Because we know you don’t like it –‘
‘No, it’s OK,’ Harry interrupted, his attention focused on a fork he was slowly pushing backwards and forwards on the table in front of him. Ron and Hermione stilled in surprise and peered at each other cautiously over Harry’s bent head. ‘It doesn’t really bother me that much anymore.’
‘It doesn’t?’ Ron asked doubtfully.
Harry shook his head. ‘No.’
‘So that isn’t why you came down here?’ Hermione pressed. ‘To escape from us?’
‘I just realised I was hungry,’ Harry said with a shrug. ‘And being as the argument was about food anyway, I thought I’d leave you to it and meet you down here.’
‘Wait, are you saying us arguing gave you an appetite?’ Ron asked, sounding slightly offended.
‘I suppose it did,’ Harry agreed. ‘But even if it didn’t, you both enjoy it so much it would be cruel to ask you to stop.’
‘I wouldn’t say enjoy…’
‘It’s not a sport, Harry!’
Ron and Hermione broke off, matching embarrassed expressions on their faces. Harry lifted his head and grinned broadly, suddenly looking more relaxed. ‘Anyway,’ Harry continued, ‘I realised over the summer that I like it best when you two aren’t constantly worrying about what I like best.’
Ron pretended to consider Harry’s request before thumping him cheerfully on the arm. ‘I think we can manage that, mate.’
‘Yes,’ Hermione agreed eagerly.
‘But thanks,’ Harry said in a muffled sort of voice, ‘for not, you know, hexing me or anything when I was being a prat.’ He drained the last of his pumpkin juice, and placed the goblet carefully back on the table. ‘I know you’ve probably wanted to once or twice.’
‘Once or twice?’ Ron let out a disbelieving snort, but his face was bright with mingled happiness and relief.
Hermione beamed tearily and said, ‘We would never do that.’
Harry smiled crookedly and pushed himself away from the table. ‘Come on then,’ he said. ‘We’d better be getting back.’
‘I suppose so,’ Ron grunted, his happiness instantly turning to gloom. They made their way towards the Entrance Hall, the last of the dishes vanishing behind them to leave the wooden tables gleaming dully in the candlelight, ready for the rush of breakfast. ‘We’ve still got that essay for Snape to finish before tomorrow,’ Ron said as they reached the door.
‘You haven’t done that?’ Hermione stopped and spun round to face Ron. Harry shook his head and walked on, unnoticed, past them. ‘You told me you’d been working on it when I was in Ancient Runes!’
Ron gave her a pitying sort of look. ‘Yeah, working on it. Not finishing it miles early for no good reason.’ He took hold of her elbow and began steering her towards the staircase and Harry waiting patiently at the bottom. ‘I might have learned something in that week that I could have put in the essay.’
Ron sighed and bent his head confidingly close. ‘I said might…’