Chapter 3 : Gawker Unmasked
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By morning the rain was over and while Harry was out hunting things down to eat like worms and other disgusting creatures, Ginny decided to sit on the stool Hermione had vacated the previous evening and poke fun at her brother with Malfoy.
“Look at him, all grown up,” Ginny giggled lightheartedly. “He looks so…”
“Awkward?” asked Malfoy, tilting his head to one side.
“Shuddup,” mumbled Ron, rolling over and putting an arm around Hermione without realizing it.
“Aww, look!” Ginny cried, clasping her hands together.
“Do you think they did it last night?” Malfoy snorted.
Ginny smacked him.
Ron looked over. “Are you two going to shut the hell up any time soon?”
They shook their heads. “Probably not,” said Ginny. “It would be best if you just got up before we start thinking of nicknames.”
“Stickable nicknames,” added Malfoy.
Ron sat up and yawned. “Where’s Harry?”
“Out finding food,” replied Ginny, pouring her brother a cup of tea. “He thinks he’s the provider or something.”
“Better him than me,” said Malfoy, spotting the coloring book on the window sill. He walked over to it, stepping in a puddle on the way. “What the devil?” He looked up. “Grand. Bloody grand.”
“The roof leaks apparently.”
Ron sighed. “That’s just great. You’re fixing it.”
Malfoy narrowed his eyes. “Where’d you get the idea that I can fix things?”
“It’s simple, really,” Ron said slowly. “Harry’s finding food, Hermione and Ginny couldn’t even cook something edible, and I’m sure as hell not doing it. That leaves…you.”
Malfoy folded his arms. “Kiss my arse, Weasley.”
Ron flicked him off and sipped at his tea. “We’ve got to get out of here. I can’t stand him.”
“Welcome to my world,” said Ginny, shrugging.
“And mine as well,” yawned Hermione as she sat up, her hair tossed around her face. “Is anyone else really warm?”
Ginny was nearly beside herself with what could be said about that comment, but instead nodded, peeling off her sweater and glancing out the windows. “It’s really warm in here…and it’s not all from the fire.”
Ron decided to see what was going on and walked outside onto the porch. The clearing was bathed in hot sunlight and everything was nearly dry from the night before. It was very warm outside, so irregular from being chilly yesterday and freezing the one before. “Harry? You around?”
He didn’t get an answer immediately so he plopped down on the chair, figuring Harry was in the woods trying to be a hunter with his animal baiting skills like the wolves. Ron leaned back, watching the ripples on the pond from the wind and the grass blow in the humid breeze. He didn’t understand the temperature changes or the storms, but at this point he didn’t much care. As long as it didn’t go back to freezing he was fine with it.
Hermione opened the door moments later and joined him, complaining about how Malfoy was telling her that her hair was post-sex hair.
Ron smirked. “What a prat.”
“You’re telling me,” she replied, taking a seat on one of the steps. “So we slept in the same bed. Big deal.” Hermione let her back rest against one of the porch posts and made a defeated face.
Ron looked over. “Are you all right?”
“Not really,” she said, hanging her head a bit.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Ron raised a brow and looked to make sure the door was closed.
“I failed,” she said slowly.
“At what? A test?”
“No, Ronald! I can’t bloody cook!”
“I ate it!” he said, trying desperately to get her in a better mood.
“I tried some a few minutes ago after I warmed it up,” she said, looking annoyed. “It was completely awful. I can’t believe you lied to me, Ron.”
Ron’s eyes widened. A trap. An old-fashioned lie trap and he was caught in the jaws. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“I thought I was going to vomit, Ron. Why would you lie to me?”
“I didn’t want you to be upset!” he said quickly. “Seriously, it wasn’t that bad last night and I was hungry!”
“How bad was it exactly?”
The jaws were closing in on him. “It’s wasn’t that bad… it was… it was bad, it just wasn’t vomit-inducing.”
Hermione burst into angry tears. “I can’t believe I failed! I’m ridiculous! Ron, why would you not tell me? You would seriously have me believe that I made a good soup only to figure it out for myself in front of Malfoy of all people! I can’t believe you!”
“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to make you feel better,” he snapped back.
“Not when you lie to me!”
Trapped like a rabbit. In the jaws of the log-baiting wolves.
Ron focused his eyes on the lake far off. “So I’m supposed to look you in the face and tell you that it’s awful? Is that what you wanted…because I had no idea.”
Hermione narrowed her own eyes in irritation. “You want to pin this on me now, don’t you? Fine, Ronald. You just sit out here on the steps, avoiding reality. Sometimes I can’t believe you.”
Ron wheeled around to look at her. “Reality? Tell me something about reality, won’t you? Why do you get mad when you do?”
“What are you talking about? Don’t be daft, Ron.”
“Why do you get mad when the girls are talking about attractive Quidditch guys? Why do you get all red in the face when my name comes up? And why in blazes do you avoid doing things with me only to go shopping with Parvati and Lavender?”
Hermione, clearly not expecting this, stepped back, her face a solid burgundy. She sputtered a few words at first, trying to strategize her plan. It was failing. Her eyes flew around the clearing, matching the obvious panic in her shaking hands. She had no idea what to say.
Hermione, who was usually the one in control of every situation, was completely speechless. Her muscles were tightening up and she turned, eyes full of tears she did not know were there, looking at the door. “I can’t deal with this, Ronald! Leave me alone!” With that she ran off into the cottage, slamming the door behind her. Ron heard her slide down against the door on the other side, sobbing quietly. Ginny was there to ask what was wrong.
Of course it was entirely his fault. Hermione didn’t tell Ginny what was said, but it was all his fault. It always was. He was the one that was trapped. He sprung the trap. He escaped. And now his escape passage was caving in around him. He knew it wasn’t good when Ginny opened the door, her face as scarlet as her hair.
Ron rolled his eyes, bracing his head for the blow. He knew she’d hit him, she always did. He also knew she would blame everything on him; Malfoy would laugh at it from inside, and Harry would slink into a corner once he got back from the Neanderthal hunting expedition. No one with half a brain wanted to go up against those two.
Ginny hit him ‘round the head and folded her arms.
“You’d make Mum proud,” groaned Ron, rubbing his skull.
“What did you do? How could you be such a bloody PRAT!?” She was screaming now and Malfoy’s giggles could be heard from the cracked door.
“I didn’t do anything,” he muttered in reply, standing as to avoid another whack.
“You insulted Hermione, lied to her, and then you were just a complete prat,” replied Ginny, looking down at him from the porch. “You’re ridiculous.”
Ron rolled his eyes once again and stepped away. “Why don’t you mind your own business, Gin? You don’t see Harry rushing at you every time I make you cry, do you? And I don’t think he slaps you upside the head.”
“You never make me cry, Ron. You’re too much of a woman to do that.”
The insult stung. It wasn’t because being a woman was a bad thing at all, but it’s what Fred and George used to call him when they wouldn’t let him play with them. He flicked her off. “Go to hell, Ginny.” With that, and without waiting for a reply, Ron walked the other direction, around to the other side of the pond and there he sat on the very edge of the overhang, his feet dangling toward the stagnant waters.
He could hear her obvious huff as Ginny stormed back inside and slammed the door. He heard her say “stupid prat” and a sob in reply. Then everything was quiet. Not even Malfoy’s laughs were loud enough to be heard where Ron was sitting and he lay back in the sun, letting the rays roast his pale skin.
This was ridiculous. Ron glared up at the stationary clouds, pondering. He always thought it was dangerous to ponder. That’s what got him in trouble with Hermione in the first place: Harry’s pondering. All of this thinking needed to stop.
He wondered if he should just bust through the door without thinking and say the first thing on his mind. Unfortunately, he knew that would be something along the lines of Why can’t you stay out of my bloody life, Ginny or Hermione, quit whining!
Ron put a palm to his forehead. Life was confusing and he didn’t like it. Maybe he would just stay out there forever and eat grass instead of that oatmeal. It probably tasted better anyway, he thought as he picked out some dark grays among the numerous clouds.
He leaned over and glanced at the cottage again. Who would have thought only days before this Hermione was perfecting operatic singing charms on candlesticks and now she was attempting to cook over a fire. He felt trapped in a box because of her crazy emotions and to hell with her if she was going to step on his toes. Ron smirked to himself, enjoying the nice, hot breeze.
Then one wet, cold droplet collided with his cheek.
“Fuck.” He sat up and rubbed his cheek, staring at the tip of his wet finger. There were more drops after that, a few on his face, some on his legs, and the occasional one on his forearm. Ron got to his feet, watching the ripples expand in the pond, and he groaned. Hermione was sitting at the windowsill inside, probably watching the raindrops on the water.
Thinking it felt too much like a mid-summer’s rain, he walked back to the cottage. The rain was falling harder now. With a quicker pace, he jumped up onto the porch and settled into a chair. There he could hear Hermione’s breathing behind him mixed with the sounds of droplets hitting the roof sporadically.
Ron was furious, but at the same time at ease. His heart was beating ridiculously fast and his face was now about as red as Ginny’s had been when she smacked him.
Emotions running high, Ron leapt out of his chair and burst inside, startling Hermione. Harry had somehow snuck back in empty-handed while he was lying across the lake and he and Ginny were sitting beside the fire, discussing some things in whispers and Malfoy was tossing his empty basket up and down from the sofa.
“Hermione,” he said loudly, leaving the door open behind him, “this is rubbish!”
“Oh, is that right?” she countered, folding her arms.
“No, I don’t want you to talk. I need to tell you what I need to tell you.” He said this forcefully and in a booming, masculine voice. Ginny peeked over. Malfoy stopped throwing the basket. Hermione looked alarmed, but did not reply.
“Some days I just can’t believe you,” he continued, looking all around the room before his eyes landed on hers. “One minute you’re level-headed, working on homework, and the next you’re flying off the handle threatening me with a frying pan to the head! I don’t understand you. Hell, I don’t understand women. I don’t think I ever will, but I’ll be damned if you’re going to get all crazy with me just because I wanted to make you feel better. I’m bloody sorry for caring, but I’m going to do it anyway!” He paused for a moment and the room was silent.
“You know, there’s another thing. I think you’re jealous.” She cocked a brow at his continuation. “No, not at me. You’re jealous of those girls. You know, those girls that say I’m cute after the Quidditch games. You get mad when they say they like me and Hermione Granger, I ruddy saw you jinx one that told her friend she was going to get me to go on a date with her. I saw you. You go on shopping trips which you hate with people you hate because you’re afraid you won’t be in control with me. You always want to be in control. I know this.” He looked her directly in the face. “I think you…I think you have feelings for me. And don’t you even try denying it.”
Hermione didn’t change her expression. “All right.”
“All right what?”
“All right, I won’t try denying it then.”
Ron nodded. He was triumphant. So why did his stomach feel like it was floating away? He looked at her again. “Just had to get that off my chest.”
“So that’s all?” she said, once again looking at him with a straight face.
“Erm, yeah. That’s all.”
Malfoy snorted from the sofa. “It’s no wonder you don’t get the girls, Weasley,” he said, laughing. “You figure all of this out…after seven years, mind you… and then you don’t do anything about it. What a bloody prat.”
Hermione nodded. “Malfoy’s got a point.”
Harry gasped. “Someone get a camera.” He got a basket thrown at his face.
Ron suddenly went from completely in control, to the victim. Everything was thrown back at him. Hermione’s expression remained still and unchanged, Malfoy was pointing and laughing at him (not new, however) and Harry was silently judging every action that followed so he could probably ponder it later.
What am I supposed to do? He thought quickly, his eyes darting around the room. Nothing had changed. Is this some sort of trick? Everyone was staring. Some sick Hermione trick? He paused in thought for a moment, glancing over to Hermione, who was looking quite humble. But since when does she pull weird tricks like this? She has never even been that cruel to Parvati or Lavender, let alone someone that is supposed to be her friend. She does have that strangely cute dimple though… FOCUS RON! Is it a trick?
“His brain sure it trying to work,” muttered Malfoy happily.
“Ssh, he’s weighing his options,” Ginny said, laughing, and Hermione gave her a cold stare.
Ron was trapped, once again, like a little rat. All he could do now was stall. “So why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Tell you what?” she replied smoothly.
“Tell me that you…that you had… you know, feelings for me.”
Hermione shrugged, so in control. “Never the right moment.”
Ron glanced at the windows. He could make an escape if need be—they weren’t double paned. “Oh. Well, yeah, with everything that’s been going on.” He looked at her again. “How long?”
“How long what?”
“Are we even having the same conversation?” he cried, frustrated with her questions. “How long have you liked me, woman?!”
She shrugged nonchalantly. “I dunno.”
He folded his arms, beaten. “You’re ruddy difficult, did you know that?”
“I might have been aware.”
Ron groaned. “Women. I hate them.”
“Going for men now, eh Weasley?” Malfoy snorted and Ginny threw the coloring book at his head. “Weasley loves the men…”
Hermione shrugged slowly. “I like you, Ron. That’s all I have to say, but if you’re going to run around in circles through conversation then I don’t want to have it. You either like me back, or you don’t. This doesn’t have to be so… so third year.”
And with that, Ron was beaten. He surrendered at that moment, watching her with sad eyes.
“So are you going to make him check yes or no on a slip of parchment?” asked Harry, snickering from the fireplace.
“I’d rather not.”
Ron nodded. “I get it. I…” he trailed off, unsure of how to reply. He liked her, right? How could anyone really tell? He thought about it for a minute, ignoring the gap of silence in the room. He liked the way her hair smelled even when it smelled like murky pond and he stared for a long time when he had to undress her. He smiled when she talked (unless it was about school) and she was fun to be around…right? Yeah. That was right. He marched over to her and looked her in the face. “Ok. I like you back.”
“I feel thirteen,” she said, but she was grinning now.
Ron could also feel a smile creep up his face. “So do I.”
“I feel like I’m an extra in a cheesy romance novel,” groaned Malfoy, standing up. “I need food.”
Harry nodded, ignoring both Ron and Hermione who had gone stupid with staring at each other. He looked at their food. “I feel like I need to go out into that forest and find something to kill.”
“Before it kills you of course, right?” Ginny asked, leaning against his shoulder. “I won’t have it. You’re not.”
“Oatmeal it is then.”
“So you didn’t find anything good outside?” Ron asked, finally tearing his eyes from Hermione’s.
“Nothing. Couldn’t even find any worms,” he replied reluctantly.
Malfoy sighed from the sofa, watching the roof. “It’s leaking again. What are we supposed to do? It’s raining, so Potter can’t go up there and fix it.”
“I thought we agreed you were fixing it,” Ginny said lightly.
“Didn’t I tell someone to kiss my arse and that I wasn’t doing it?”
Ginny shrugged. “Maybe, don’t remember…too many arse kisses going around.”
Harry handed Malfoy a large cooking pot. “Put this under it to catch the water.”
Malfoy wrinkled his nose. “I feel like I’m poor. Poor people do this, don’t they? I don’t see why they don’t fix their roofs, but there you are.” He smirked. “Do you do this, Weasley? Got a whole cupboard of pots just for rainy days?”
Ron rounded on him. “You were just starting to get bearable, you know.”
“Can’t have that, can we?”
He gave up, looking around him. “So it’s raining… and we’re going to shovel down oatmeal or weird soup again.”
“Still mad,” muttered Hermione.
“Get over it,” Ron mumbled in reply.
“I’m going to sit outside,” said Harry, moving toward the door.
“In the rain?” asked Ginny.
“On the porch,” he chuckled and left, shutting the door gently behind him.
Ron sank down onto one of the beds and stared into the fireplace. “I really don’t want oatmeal. I think I might just wolf down some of those herbs and hope they fill me up. Or maybe some grass. Yum, grass.”
“You’re disgusting, Ronald,” Hermione said, making a face at him. She adjusted the pot under the dripping roof and sighed. “This is just too much.”
Ron almost knew what was coming when he woke up the following day to find the grass invisible under a thick coat of red and brown leaves. It was interesting, but he also knew once he felt the chill in the air that the next day would be the same as their first in the cottage—cold and barren.
It was Ginny, however, that did the waking on that strange autumn morning with her disgruntled comments.
“This is rubbish,” she said from the kitchen. “There’s nothing. There isn’t even oatmeal anymore. We have some sage or grass or something…whatever is in this pan.” She started beating it against the counter. “I’m just so hungry!”
Ron groaned, tossing some twigs into the fire. “What are we supposed to do? It’s been four days and no one’s come to get us….bloody hell.”
“It’s obvious,” replied Harry, swinging his legs over the bed and standing up. “We have to go into the woods.”
Hermione was awake now. “You can’t be serious.”
He nodded. “What else are we going to do? Starve? It’s pretty obvious no one’s coming or they would have been here by now. I’m not going to sit around and wait for my ribs to start showing.”
“It’s not a good look for you,” said Ron with a chuckle as he pulled open a few more cupboards with less and less hope. He glanced up at Harry.
“Well, I’m going.”
Ginny’s face went white.
“Good luck, Potter.” Malfoy smirked. “I’ll support the girls while you’re gone.”
Harry rolled his eyes and pulled on his shoes. “We’ve got to eat. Who’s coming with me?”
Ron groaned. He knew what that meant. He knew Harry meant Ron to come with him and stand by him while he tried to kill vicious wolves or raid some sort of den. He even needed Ron to help him dig up worms.
“Good, Ron,” Harry said without Ron even having to volunteer. “Malfoy’s coming too.”
“I don’t know how you figured that one out.” Malfoy snorted in reply. “Do you really expect me to follow you into the middle of no where?”
“If you want to eat, then yes, I do.”
Ron found his own shoes and ignored the stare coming from Hermione. She was angry with him, judging by the cold silence, but there was nothing else he could do. He wasn’t going to be responsible for having the lot of them starve to death. Besides, perhaps there was some sort of mushroom out there that was worth cooking.
“I’m coming with you.” Hermione pushed back the blankets and huffed loudly.
“Oh, no you’re not!” said Ron and Harry simultaneously.
“Oh yes, I most certainly am.” She grabbed her sweater and stared at them. “Someone has to make sure the two of you don’t die.”
“What about me?” asked Malfoy.
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Do you even want me to answer you?” She turned back to Ron and Harry. “I’m going with you. I don’t care what you think.”
“If she’s going I’m going!” cried Ginny, throwing the pan at the floor in an uproar. “I’m not going sit around here waiting for some creeper stranger to claim the cottage and the oatmeal that we ate—I’ll let Malfoy do that!”
Harry stared at his girlfriend for a moment. “Ginny, I don’t want either of you going. It’s not safe.”
This time it was Ron’s turn to be annoyed. “Look, Harry, there isn’t much we can do.” His stomach was making grotesque noises by now and all he could think of was warm Butterbeer and a large steak. “If the girls want to go—and I mean all of the girls—” He looked at Malfoy. “Then they have the right to go and get killed and mauled by crazy rabid wolves.” He shrugged and watched Hermione’s jaw drop. “I don’t have time to be making sure my stupid sister isn’t getting her leg gnawed off by a wolf.”
Ginny’s face went from freckled to a solid green. “Well, that’s a risk I’m willing to take!”
“Good. The odds are so good I might actually come along on my own accord now.” Malfoy chuckled and shut the door as everyone left the cottage.
The air was crisp and Ron could just smell the snow coming. He pulled his sweater tighter to him as the group wandered silently toward the dark trees. Hermione was walking beside him, whether on purpose or coincidence, but Ron liked the way he could see her hair bunch around her face and he didn’t have to worry too much about what she was thinking.
“You’re sure you really want to come?” Harry asked Ginny just before reaching the small bushes lining the forest. “I still don’t know how I feel about it.” He was looking at Ron for support, but Ron knew better. The glare he was getting from Hermione was enough to tell him not to butt in.
Instead, Ron focused his attention on the cottage they were leaving after nearly four days. It looked the same as when they had found it—run down with the porch at an angle and the door missing a few hinges. As glad as he was to leave, Ron felt a sense of longing for the building as they stepped into the trees.
Then again it was probably because they were leaving sunlight and headed into the shade.
“Oy, Malfoy,” said Ron just as Harry was the first to step inside the trees. “Since we’re leaving the cottage—what ever happened to that basket of biscuits?”
To Ron’s surprise, Malfoy smirked. “I ate them all while I was hung over,” he replied slyly, moving a few meters away and into the trees. “By the way, Weasley.”
Ron glanced over.
“They were nice…washing down the oatmeal.”
At that point, several sticks were thrown at Malfoy, one of which was large and left a red mark on his forehead (it was thrown by Ginny). Ron tossed a rock and then kept walking, trying to get the thought of warm, crisp biscuits out of his mind.
The trees were so close together he had to step around each individual one. Ron made sure to keep Hermione in his sight—just in case those wolves he was lying about actually existed. Her eyes were wide as she walked over the large roots, pupils darting everywhere in the darkness.
Harry was silent up front and Ron could see him tugging along Ginny by the hand. He thought about reaching up and taking Hermione’s hand, but in the end when his face turned a loud shade of red he decided against it. She looked fine on her own anyway, pushing off of trees to get around thorns and occasionally shoving Malfoy out of her way.
It was darker and darker as they walked through the trees, which was a given but that didn’t make Ron less worried. There were also various noises around them, rustlings and grunts, and he instinctively moved toward Hermione, who was still maneuvering around branches and roots.
“How’s everyone doing back there?” asked Harry, a few steps ahead. His voice was awkwardly quiet.
Ron made an irritated noise. “I’d be better if I could actually see where I was going.”
Hermione smiled at him from a meter over. “I agree. I keep tripping.”
Ron returned the grin as they walked, leaves crunching under his shoes. “What exactly are we supposed to be looking for because if it’s worms…I think I might have crushed on one a few steps back.”
“No…I’m looking for something bigger. Something…” Harry paused for a moment. At first, Ron thought it was to be dramatic or even because Harry was dangerously pondering about something that could possibly effect himself or Hermione, but then he realized it was because there was a large growl coming from somewhere off to the party’s left.
Ron’s hand went immediately for Hermione’s. She stiffened. He stiffened but did not let go.
“What…what’s that?” asked Malfoy quietly.
Harry shook his head. “I’m not sure…of course I would know if I had my bloody wand…”
“Not the time, Harry,” whispered Ginny. Her voice was shaking.
Ron didn’t trust himself to speak. Instead, he moved a few centimeters away from the noise, tugging Hermione with him. Their fingers were laced together in the darkness and she squeezed his hand, following him over some roots.
“We might have to run,” whispered Harry.
“How?” asked Ron finally. “We don’t stand a chance if it’s a wolf.” Hermione’s fingers tightened again. “Not that it is or anything…but with all these trees and roots…I’m liable to smack right into a tree and never wake up.” Another finger grasp, but this time it hurt. He glanced over at her frightened face for the first time and realized that she wanted to be holding his hand too. “I mean, of course I’ll wake up. I’ll fight it off with my bare hands!”
Hermione smiled, but then jumped as they heard another growl. It was getting closer.
“Harry…” Ginny said. “What do we do?” They were stepping to the right every few seconds, followed by Malfoy and then Ron and Hermione.
Harry did not reply for a little bit and all that could be heard was heavy breathing, crunching leaves, and the occasional growl. Ron tightened his own grip on Hermione’s hand.
“We need to run.”
Ron didn’t need more of an incentive than that. He tightened his grip on Hermione’s hand, opened his eyes to their full capacity, and took off running back the way they came. His other hand hit trees as he ran and his ankles kept getting caught in random roots. Behind him Hermione was nearly in tears. Apparently branches were getting caught in her hair and her shoes were now lost somewhere several meters back.
Instead of the growls, there was a distinct barking sound now. Ginny was gasping for air as they ran and Ron could hear thuds behind him. He did not look back.
Ron could see breaks in the trees ahead, but did not quite make it because he was thrown backward by what felt like something warm and crashed into a tree. There was a bright light in front of them and he found himself helpless, his rear crushed between two large oak roots. Hermione was next to him, but the only reason Ron knew is because their hands were still together. He could not see her.
Hell, Ron could not see anything because of the light. He heard Harry’s loud yell behind him and then the sound of a few whimpering dogs. Then it was silent.
Without knowing what happened, Ron unshielded his eyes as the light diminished. He squeezed Hermione’s hand and pulled forcefully so that she landed beside him. Even though Ron felt gutsy from the move, he was surprised when she placed her head on his shoulder.
“Weasley, get a room.”
For a fleeting moment, Ron figured the voice was just an annoyed Malfoy, but after letting his eyes adjust to the new lack of light and actually thinking about the voice itself, it became apparent that Professor Snape was standing in front of the group in dark robes, holding a wand.
“Professor!” Malfoy was on his feet immediately. “You saved us—I told you we were going to get killed, Potter! I told you there were wolves!”
Ron could almost feel Harry’s eyes roll.
“Get up, Malfoy,” barked Snape. “Why you lot are in here is beyond me. Come on.”
“Where are we, Professor?” asked Malfoy, leaping over to Snape’s heels as the cloaked man led the way out. “Are we still in Scotland?”
Ron rolled his eyes and helped Hermione to her feet. He never let go of her hand.
Ginny seemed to notice because she was giggling behind them.
“Technically, yes,” replied Snape. “It’s…it’s a unique feature of the castle actually. You are in the forbidden forest, but you are in a part of it that cannot be found if you enter on the outskirts of the forest and you cannot get out of it you enter the forest from that clearing. You would have been lost forever, idiots.”
Harry made a noise.
Ron put an arm around Hermione’s waist as they finally made their way out of the forest and into the clearing. The air was cooler now and there was frost beginning to form on the corners of some of the red and brown leaves. She smiled at him.
“So how did we get here? Is it like that Room of Requirement?” asked Malfoy.
He was such a prat.
“A little,” said Snape as he led them around the small pond to the area where they entered. He was kicking around dirt with his foot. “But a little more vicious.”
“So why didn’t you come and get us four days ago?” snapped Harry. Ron was waiting for Harry to finally say something. “Did you go tanning? Eat a long dinner?”
Snape rolled his eyes as he stared down into the water over the ledge where Hermione fell into the water. “Good joke, Potter. In reality, one day goes by for every four seasons here. So it hasn’t even been a day yet.”
Ron groaned. It had been nearly four days of torture here and not even an entire day back there?
“It still took you almost a day!”
“Yes, well, I had other affairs to attend to. I thought you lot would be just fine.”
Malfoy wrinkled his nose. “You thought I would be fine with the likes of them? They could have killed me and eaten me for food! I’m sure it would have been more tempting than the oatmeal.” He looked back to the group.
“Don’t think it didn’t cross our minds,” replied Ginny, throwing him an innocent wink.
“All right,” said Snape. “Get in the water.”
Hermione stepped back. “No thank you.”
“That wasn’t a question. Get in the water. Under this spot is a small cave. Once you swim under it, it will immediately take you back to the dungeons…dry.” Snape shoved Malfoy in. At first the Slytherin flailed in the water and for a second Ron wondered whether or not he could swim, but eventually he vanished under the ledge. There was a small piece of light and the water smoothed out.
Hermione was still unconvinced. “Why doesn’t Dumbledore keep that closet locked?”
Snape ignored her. “Get in the water. I don’t have all day for this nonsense.”
“So how do you explain the fact that none of us have wands?” asked Ginny.
“That’s because you’re rubbish and don’t hold on to them! The force to get in here repels wands unless you’re holding on tight. And when you twits were running away from me I don’t suppose you were clutching your wands tight—now GET IN!”
Ron glanced back at Harry as if to ask him who was going first. Before he could even roll his eyes, he was being thrown into the water. It was freezing, though not as cold as when they had first arrived, and he quickly paddled toward the ledge to get transported back. He felt Hermione splash next to him and just before he saw a small flash of light.
The dungeons seemed like a desert compared to the lake. His clothes were dry again and his hair was not sticking to his neck like before. Malfoy was a few meters away, leaning arrogantly against one of the slimy walls. Seconds later Hermione appeared, followed quickly by Ginny and then Harry.
“I never thought I’d want to be back in the dungeons,” muttered Ginny, pushing her hair down against her shoulders.
There was a loud crack and Snape appeared at the end of the dungeon corridor, walking the other way back toward the Great Hall. He ignored Malfoy running toward him screaming things like “Sir! Professor! Can you tell me more about that place? Would I be able to—store—things in there?”
Ron rolled his eyes. “Typical Malfoy. I’m just glad he doesn’t have a flask of whiskey in his hand this time.”
Harry nodded as the quartet slowly followed Snape and Malfoy. “As long as I don’t have to see him or hear him for a couple of days I should be all right. I just want some food. A lot of it in fact.” He glanced at Ginny. “I’ll race you.”
“No, don’t be stupid. I’m exhausted.” Ron laughed at his sister.
Harry jabbed an angry finger in Ron and Hermione’s direction. “I’ll RACE you,” he said a little more stubbornly this time.
Ginny gasped. “Ooh!” she cried, running to keep up with him. “I’ll take you down, Potter!”
Ron rolled his eyes. “What a great best mate,” he muttered. His hand was feeling a little fuzzy from all that time when his fingers were laced with Hermione’s. They had been squeezing very tight when the wolves were there.
“Did you really think there were wolves at first—when we were in the cottage?” Hermione asked suddenly.
Ron shook his head, almost laughing. “No, that was the last thing I thought of. I thought at most there would be some weird bug in there or something.”
“For what?” He glanced at her. She stopped walking and Ron turned to face her.
Her eyes fell to the stone floor. “For…for not only pulling me away from opera-singing candlesticks, but also pulling me along with you in the forest. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up and I wanted to say thank you.”
Ron smiled warmly at her, reaching out and taking her hands in his own. “Well, thank you too.”
“For what? Tripping and losing my shoes in the roots?”
“No. For having the guts to say what I’ve been thinking for a long time.”
Hermione looked up and their eyes met. For once, neither blushed.
Ron reached down and kissed her gently on the lips. His cheeks tinted red and Hermione squeezed his freckled hands in her own.
It was solidly unromantic, snogging in the dark, disgusting dungeons, but for some reason Ron did not mind. He broke the kiss and looked at Hermione and he knew he cared about her more than any other person he had met. He also knew, however, that no matter what, she would always like him for being himself.
“I gawked at your knickers when I undressed you.”
A/N- Please read and review, especially since this was the last chapter!