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Hermione sat on a fallen log at the edge of the woods with her cloak wrapped tightly around her. The bitter cold stung her nose but she didn’t want to leave; she wanted to sit right here in the middle of her and Charlie’s beaten path and bask in the memories of their walks. Never one to base relationships on physicality, Hermione still couldn’t help thinking that making love to Charlie was the closet to perfection her life had ever been. But now she’d had to leave behind Grimmauld Place—the place where she shared all her most treasured moments with Charlie.

Soft footsteps sounded behind her. “Hey, ‘Mione?”

She wiped a tear away and turned to find Ron with his hands in his pockets, staring at his feet as he prepared to be chastised for his interruption.

“I know you said you wanted to be alone, I mean, that you didn’t need anyone to walk with you, but err, you looked a bit lonely so I thought I would join you,” Ron said rapidly while fumbling with the threading on the insides of his pockets. “That is, if you don’t mind, because I can go if you like…”

“Sure. That’s really nice of you, Ron.” She smiled and offered a seat on her log.

He sat down, being careful not to let any part of his body touch her. They sat in an understood silence for several minutes, Ron glancing sideways at her every now and then as she looked off into the trees.

“I know you miss him, ‘Mione.”

She shivered but kept her gaze fixed ahead of her. Ron wondered whether he should put his arm around her but decided that doing so would cross their agreed-upon boundaries of friendship and kept his limbs to himself. Besides, he had never been too good at the sentimental stuff anyways, and figured he might screw it up if he tried now.

When Hermione didn’t answer him, he continued, “He’s a good guy.” And then, not knowing exactly what to say after that, filled the silence with, “Yep. All us Weasley men are good guys, ‘cept Percy, maybe,” and then chuckled. “Nah, he’s a good guy, deep down, but I’d be a little more worried if you took up with him.”

The red-faced girl looked at him for the first time since his arrival. She hadn’t expected this from Ron at all. Surely he didn’t know…? Ron might be a bit thick, but he wasn’t blind, she reasoned. Hermione said nothing and only nodded as she inched herself closer to him so that their legs touched, feeling comforted by the instant warmth.

Ron let his muscles loose as he relaxed into her touch and realized how tense he had been. “Just your luck, huh? Your new friends always have to fulfill the criteria of either living or working a thousand miles away from you, though I’m happy this one isn’t a Bulgarian Quidditch player,” he laughed. “Maybe you should find someone closer to home.”

Whatever Ron knew, which Hermione couldn’t be certain, it was apparent that he didn’t expect her friendship (as Ron had implied) with Charlie to last any longer than the poinsettia’s of the kitchen table centerpiece. And if she wasn’t mistaken, it had sounded like his suggestion of finding someone closer to home was actually a subtle ploy to work himself in. Oh but it couldn’t be… He just wanted to keep an eye on her.

Hermione sighed heavily and watched her foggy breath fade away before her eyes. “You’re right. I do miss him,” she said, completely evading the previous topic.

Ron stood, now resenting the cold he felt on one side of his body, and offered Hermione a hand up. “Mum’s just about got dinner ready. I think you’ve had enough of this weather.”

“I’d rather stay…” she said listlessly while staring at his hand.

“No, really. I don’t want your brain to freeze—Harry and I need you to help us with NEWTs. Come on in, and save us the trouble of failing out of Hogwarts.”

As downtrodden as she was, Hermione couldn’t help smiling and accepted the hand to help her up. Her chilly fingers felt good in his warm hand, and before setting off she asked earnestly, “We’ll be friends no matter what, right?”

“No matter what.”

Still holding his friendly hand, she allowed Ron to lead her to the back door of Grimmauld Place. Hermione ate a little more at dinner that night than she had the previous few days in which Charlie had been gone, and Ron couldn’t help but think he’d had some part in it. The festivities and cheery moods of the Weasley clan didn’t cure her completely but did, at least, have a small uplifting effect on her heartache. Hermione looked at her watch and listened to the family begin the countdown.

“Three…two…one…HAPPY NEW YEAR!” they shouted.

Hugs went all around, and Hermione smiled inwardly. Happy New Year, Charlie.

Across the room, Harry and Ginny were enjoying the customary New Year’s kiss, and Ginny seemed to have forgotten there were others present in the room. Ron smiled awkwardly and tried not to look at his best friend and his sister in such a compromising position, as it made him feel more than a little uncomfortable. Hermione couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, but also wanted to thank him for being there for her earlier, so she stretched up to kiss him on the cheek. “To another year of friendship and many more to come.”

Charlie sat in the weathered old chair in the living room of his apartment, absently picking at the bandage around this left wrist. His co-worker’s nasally voice drifted into his head: “If you’d been paying attention, this wouldn’t have happened you know. Grendel is quirky, and I know she’s not your dragon, but you’ve got to be alert at all times.”

“I know, Johnson. Just had my mind somewhere else.”

“Well keep it here, or else you’ll just be handing yourself to that monster. A dragon reserve is no place for a lady.”

“Who said it was about a girl?”

“It’s always about a girl.”

Charlie winced when he realized what he was doing and watched the blood trickle down onto his trousers. Thinking about Hermione constantly was not proving to be very good for his health. He rummaged around through is first-aid kit and redressed the wound. She’s right—this is a dangerous job, but only because of her, he mused.

He yawned deeply and took another large gulp of his tea (lifting it with his right wrist) and then yawned widely while mentally encouraging the clock to hasten its ticking. 1:55am. Almost time. Charlie finished off the remainder of the tea he’d been drinking not because he was thirsty, but to stay awake to ring in the New Year on Hermione’s time. 1:58am. Getting closer. He washed out his tea mug and left it in the sink to dry, watching the clock on the wall trudge steadily along. Bracing himself on the counter with his good arm so he wouldn’t fall over from exhaustion, he counted down quietly, “Three…two…one… Happy New Year, Hermione.”

Grimmauld Place was all a shambles; three school-aged kids rushed around trying to find all their belongings to make sure they didn’t leave anything behind before returning to Hogwarts. Hermione, of course, had packed the night before, so she helped her irresponsible friends gather their things and place them neatly in their trunks.

As Hermione traipsed around the house while scouting for Ron’s left shoe, Fred (or George) pulled her aside and down to their laboratory before she could protest.

“Now Fred, I haven’t got time for this! Your mum is having a fit over it… We’ll miss the train and I’ve still got to find Ronald’s shoe!”

“First of all, I’m George, and secondly, I just wanted to let you know how bloody difficult it was for me and Fred knowing what we know and not being able to tell anybody. This thing with you and Charlie better work, because I’m not going through all this hell for nothing!”

“Yeah!” piped Fred from behind a steaming cauldron. “You need to hurry and get on with telling, because we can’t take this much longer. Secrets kill us—”

“—Unless they’re our own,” interjected George.

“Right-oh!” agreed Fred.

“Well, you’ve certainly done a good job keeping your own secrets. I don’t see why it should be that hard with mine,” Hermione combated.

The twins gave each other questioning glances and tightened their faces into scowls seemingly meant for Charlie. Well, it was only fair that Hermione knew about their girlfriends; after all, what they knew involved Hermione as well as their brother.

“All we’re saying is—”

“—Get on with it.”

“Live happily ever after with Charlie—“

“—And try not to break ickle Ronnie’s heart in the process.”

Hermione rolled her eyes at the twins annoying habit of finishing each other’s sentences and tried not to think too much about what they had said. Breaking Ron’s heart was something she was entirely not prepared to deal with. She obviously had no intention of doing so but didn’t see any other way around it if she wanted to be with Charlie.

“Yeah. I won’t. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some footwear to find,” she said coolly while turning on her heal and marching out of the lab.

“Feisty one, she is,” Fred stated.

“Charlie’s got himself a handful.”

Mrs. Weasley’s insistence on “moving with a sense of urgency” was taken seriously by the kids after she found Ron’s shoe in the broom closet and beat him about the head with it, harping at him that he’d have to learn to keep track of his belongings one of these days. They’d never packed so quickly before in their lives, and it was a good thing they learned how because Mrs. Weasley was frantic trying to get them to the station, and apparently serious about doing whatever it took to get them there.

After saying their goodbyes, the four Gryffindors shuffled off and situated themselves on the train in a compartment along with Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood. Hermione noticed that they sat uncharacteristically close to each other and saw Neville blush ever so slightly whenever Luna spoke to him. Everyone’s pairing off…and my other half is an entire time zone away.

Hermione had planned on taking the time during the train ride to write to Charlie, but with all the commotion going on and all the chatter, she decided it had better wait until later. The girls conversed amicably while the boys discussed Quidditch and played a few games of Exploding Snap (excepting when Ginny and Ron had to take leave to do prefect’s patrols, and when Hermione tended to her Head Girl duties). Though Charlie was so far from her, Hermione had a decent trip, nonetheless, and only got sad when she thought how this would be the last time riding to school on the Hogwarts Express.

Five months and it’s all over, she thought. Five months until NEWTs, five months until graduation, five months until Charlie. Merlin, get me through these five months…

She stared out the window and absently clicked the lock on her briefcase (which she’d insisted on carrying with her and not having it put in the luggage racks with the rest of the students’ trunks). She ran her fingers back and forth over the black leather, thinking how much it felt like Charlie’s hands—tough, smooth, and strong. Locked inside the briefcase was the rest of Charlie’s gift and the letter promising his greatest gift of all: his love.

Ron noticed her vacant state and requested she join him in a game of Exploding Snap. She accepted with mild interest, but really was glad to have something to take her mind off of Charlie.

“So, what’s with the briefcase, ‘Mione? Surely you haven’t traded your schoolbag for it?” Ron teased.

“It was a gift,” she answered easily, though calculating if she ought to say who had given it to her. No, now was not the time, and she hoped he wouldn’t ask.

“Must be some special gift if you can’t take your hands off it for two seconds. What about your other presents? Don’t see you fondling them, do we?” Ron continued. He felt he might have gone a little far with the banter but seemed to think Hermione was in a good enough mood to handle it.

“For your information, Ronald, I have the quills Harry gave me inside my briefcase, and here—“ she said while pulling out the silver necklace from under her robes, “is yours.”

Ron couldn’t stop himself from smiling. He loved getting her worked up, and then seeing his gift around her neck made him that much more satisfied. He stopped giving her a hard time, and they continued their games (of which Hermione even won a few times, though she wondered if Ron had gone easy on her) until arriving at Hogwarts.

She hopped off the train, monitoring the rest of the students’ behavior, and scolded a second year who was trying to frighten the wits out of a first year. (“Second term is the worst for first years,” the boy said. “That’s when the professors get really nasty!”) She shook her head in exasperation at already having to deal with troublemakers. This was going to be a long term.

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