Ron was not in a good mood. Trudging back from the lake after nearly showing Hermione the family jewels, anger bubbling and boiling inside him, he contemplated several appropriate hexes to apply to a certain best friend. As he entered the cool of the house, the steam was finally beginning to filter out of his system. Even though he could see the humor in the situation, and even if Harry had had his best interests in mind, it wouldn’t do for Ron to let him off too easily. So Ron resolved to act angry until Harry’s party, just to make sure Harry knew that he couldn’t get away with being that much of an insufferable git.
First, Ron needed to find Hermione and try to defuse the situation with her before she made good on her threat to end their friendship. One thing about Hermione was that she always kept her promises--Ron shuddered involuntarily at the thought. Not really knowing how to handle the situation, he thought about asking Ginny for advice, but her disinterest was clear, and he had no choice but to face Hermione on his own.
Ginny had obviously been lying about her being in Percy’s room. As good a liar as Ginny was, he had learned to see through her half-truths. That meant Hermione wasn’t in the house - which meant she must be outside, and since it was so hot outside, she would seek shelter, meaning the shed, or the tree house.
With a plan in mind, Ron felt more confident, even if he didn’t see how he was going to talk to Hermione. It was always difficult to talk to Miss Know-It-All Granger, and now that their friendship was on the line, he was more intimidated than he’d ever been. He struggled to keep his composure as he thought about the impending conversation.
He flopped down the stairs and into the kitchen to grab a bite of something. Hopefully, his mum would be too busy with the decorations to notice.
When he entered the kitchen, he was momentarily taken aback by the size of the room, and almost thought he was in the wrong house. Gathering his wits, he padded carefully over to the pantry; his mum was nowhere to be seen. He opened the pantry door and grabbed a small loaf of bread and two apples, only taking those because there were no sweets. Still trying to remain silent, he made for the garden door and slipped into the late morning heat.
Once outside, with a great sense of relief at not being caught by his mum, Ron walked more confidently towards the shed. With some level of trepidation, he opened the door and peered inside. The bright sun made it hard to see within the dark building, so he had to wait for a moment before his eyes adjusted. Finding no one, he closed the door and walked towards the tree house.
The tree house was located in an old oak tree that rested on a hill overlooking the village. Bill had built it when he was seven with dad and Charlie’s help and the twins had modified it with an enlarging spell three years ago. It was their first attempt at a time delayed spell and when it was first cast, the effects were unpredictable. Time however, had increased its stability as the power waned and as the bits of magic they infused in the spell melded together.
The outside of the tree house appeared normal to the casual observer. It was square, made of rough, hewn lumber that was worn and gray from years of exposure to the elements. A single closed window dominated the southern wall and a rope ladder led to the trap door on its bottom. The entire structure was built on and around several large branches of the tree, providing it with support and kept it a good ten feet off the ground.
Ron grabbed the bottom of the ladder and adjusted the bag on his shoulder as he climbed to the top. Before he could push the door open, he heard a muffled sob and froze on the slightly swaying rope. Time seemed to stand still as he strained to hear any sign of who it might be. Finally deciding that he was being stupid, as it could only be Hermione in the tree house, he pushed against the door until it swung over to the floor with a loud bang.
“Agh!” screamed Hermione, who was backed into the corner of the magically enlarged room, clutching at her chest. Her other hand was brandishing a shaky wand aimed at Ron’s head, which was the only thing poking through the door.
“There you are,” said Ron somewhat triumphantly. He pulled himself onto the dusty floor and closed the door with an only slightly quieter slam. Noticing the wand for the first time, he held out his hands and said, “I’m not going to attack you Hermione, I only wanted to talk.”
Hermione didn’t relax, but put her wand down in any case. “You scared me to death, Ron!” she said, stamping her foot to punctuate her words. “How was I supposed to know it was you?”
Ron grimaced and looked at his feet in a vain attempt for help. “I’m sorry,” he whispered sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He heard Hermione sigh and glanced up to see her wiping at her face. “It’s fine, Ron,” she said as she sank into a crouch in the corner. “What did you want to talk about?”
A fresh wave of butterflies erupted in his stomach as he wrestled with what he wanted to tell her. “Well...I sort of...” Ron cursed himself inwardly as all semblance of coherent speech abandoned him. Why does this blasted girl do this to me?
“Yes, Ron?” she prompted.
Sunlight spilled into the cutout holes that passed for windows in the tree house, illuminating the slowly swirling dust in the air and fell on the side of Hermione’s face. Her eyelashes glistened with a wetness that Ron failed to understand. He was close enough to discern the small bumps on the skin of her face, highlighted by the light and miniscule shadows they cast. It made her seem surreal, as if she was the creation of a master sculptor.
Seeing Ron falter, Hermione smiled. His breathing hitched and he almost forgot to start again. No wonder I can’t ever say anything around her.
Then without pausing to consider the words that had been bouncing around his mind for years, they slipped past his guard and spilled from his mouth. “You’re so beautiful, Hermione.”
Several things happened at once. Ron’s breathing started again while Hermione’s stopped with sharply inhaled lungful of air. Ron widened his eyes in surprise and he looked anxiously around the room, trying to find the person that had uttered those words. Finally, the bag that was hanging on Ron’s shoulder slipped and fell to the ground with a clatter.
Then their eyes met and Ron knew there would be no going back to the way it was before. He felt himself floating in between the comfortable friendship that they’d enjoyed for the last five years and a space of unknown territory that was laid out in front of him. It was either going to be marked with Hermione’s presence or it would not and Ron became numb with the anticipation of knowing which it would be.
Hermione let out her breath and blinked, eyes still locked with Ron’s and she said, “What did you say?”
Ron was in agony. Not only had his traitorous mouth let loose with one his carefully guarded secrets, but now Hermione wanted him to relive the agony by repeating it. Summoning all the courage he could find, he closed his eyes and clenched his fists with determination. “I said, that I think you are beautiful, Hermione.”
Trembling, he cracked one eye open to see her reaction. She stood up and walked tentatively towards him. “You...you really think so?”
Fighting the urge to jump out the nearest window, he stood his ground and nodded his head. “Yes,” he said opening his eyes more fully. “I really do.”
She stopped just in front of him and touched his still clenched fists with a light finger. “But my hair is atrocious...and I never paint my nails...and I don’t have any pretty clothes to wear.”
“I like your hair,” Ron interrupted. “And the dress you wore to the Yule ball was very pretty.” He paused and looked down at their hands. Ron’s fist unclenched and gently lifted her hand. “And you did paint your nails.”
Hermione looked down quickly and flushed red. “Well, that’s just...Ginny and I were....” She pulled away from him and brought her hand to her forehead.
“I like it,” said Ron proudly. “But maybe something red would be a better color?”
She peaked at him from under her hand and smiled wryly. “And what do you know about which colors look good on me?”
“Well, red is a great color, so...um...well, it’s a Gryffindor color anyway,” said Ron stumbling over his words yet again.
Hermione grinned and approached him yet again. “I think it’s sweet that you noticed, Ron.”
A bead of sweat dropped from his forehead and ran down his cheek. “Yeah...I...guess I notice things about you, Hermione.”
She brushed the back of her hand on his face and kissed him where the perspiration had been. “Harry’s party will be starting soon so we better get back.”
Ron’s face heated, and combined with the already hot air in the tree house, threatened to spontaneously combust. With a lingering look at Hermione’s face, he said, “Yeah, we’d better get back.”
The walk back to the Burrow had taken far too little time in Ron’s opinion as a wonderful tension filled the air between him and Hermione. They talked the entire time, their hands brushed occasionally because they were far too close together. He couldn’t think of anything better to happen to him. Not only had they been able to repair the mysterious rift their friendship, but he couldn’t help smile every time Hermione looked at him. He was grinning like and idiot and he didn’t care what anyone else said about it. Except maybe Harry. Harry.
He still needed to smooth things over with Harry, but with whatever was happening with Hermione going on, Ron couldn’t think of a way to reconcile and tell Harry that his relationship with Hermione was becoming something more. So he decided not tell him just yet.
They arrived in the Burrow’s expanded kitchen just as they started to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. Ron gave up his grudge for a moment and with a slap on the back, wished him a Happy Birthday. Ron’s stomach was growling, so he didn’t waste any time in moving over to the food trays.
Hermione had a tear in her eye, so he asked, “Is there something wrong?”
She looked at him quizzically and said, “Didn’t you see the look on Harry’s face?”
Ron glanced at his best friend, who was watching Ginny lay into the twins. “No. Was there something I missed?”
Hermione huffed and crossed her arms as Ron continued to pile food on his plate. His mother had outdone herself and he wanted to have some of everything. “Ron Weasley! Harry has never had a real party before and was on the verge of crying, while all you can think about is stuffing your face!”
Placing another chicken leg on his burgeoning plate, Ron licked his fingers and said, “Oh, tosh. Harry’s not the sort of bloke who gets all emotional about things.” Then under his breath he muttered, “’Verge of crying’...honestly.”
Ron expected another scathing attack, since that was what had happened every time they rowed. It was quite amusing really, to see her get wound up so tightly. This time, however, she let out her breathe and said with an air of contentedness. “Well, perhaps you’re right, but that doesn’t mean he’ll always be insensitive.”
Just as Ron was about to reply, Hermione grabbed his arm and led him back to the table. “Careful!” yelled Ron, trying to balance his precariously loaded plate. “I don’t want to drop any of this.” Then eyeing her empty hands, remarked, “Where’s your plate, anyway?”
They sat at the center of the rapidly filling table and Hermione casually said, “I’ll just eat off your plate.” Then apparently seeing the look of concern on his face added, “You’ve certainly got enough for two people...or five.”
“Hey!” he said in protest.
“Oh, be quiet and eat your chicken,” she scolded half-heartedly.
“Fine, but I’ll just end up going back for seconds.”
“Whatever,” she said distractedly. “Look, here comes Harry and Ginny,” she said, nodding in their direction. “I’m going to go get us some drinks. You should probably apologize to him, you know. It is his birthday after all.”
Ron huffed and made to retort but she had already gone. He knew that she was right, but couldn’t quite bring himself to that level of humility. Harry did deserve to be left in the cold for a while. After all, he had been.
“Hey, mate,” said Harry after he sat down next to Ron.
“Hey,” said Ron, still staring at his half-eaten chicken leg.
“Look...about the whole lake thing. I wanted to apologize about that.” Ron tried to figure out how long he would torture his friend, when Harry continued. “It wasn’t my place to force you to talk to Hermione.”
“It wasn’t very funny, you know.” Ron tried to keep his face straight and focus on making Harry suffer just a bit longer. “I was starkers out there, and then you dropped my trunks right next to her.”
Ron’s resolve broke when he saw the look of terror on Harry’s face and he let the smirk he had been fighting come to the surface. “You’re having me on?” asked Harry.
“I was mad,” he said, still smiling. “But after you left, I realized that besides being mortified in front of Hermione....”
“What about me?” interrupted Hermione, who apparently hadn’t returned with any drinks. She gave Ron a questioning look and when Ron nodded, said, “Someone thought it would be funny to enchant the punchbowl to spray punch at the girls.”
Ron rolled his eyes, remembering the last time they had used that wretched piece of glass. “It’s not enchanted to do that, Hermione. Mum’s not used it since Bill graduated from Hogwarts and it’s quite shirty about being in the attic for so long. I guess it has a thing against girls.”
“Well, I’ve sorted it out now, but not before it could spray half the girls here. Luckily, your mum was able to clean us up.” She made to grab one of the chicken legs on Ron’s plate, but changed her mind when Ron’s eyebrows shot up, and she took one off the nearby serving dish instead.
Presents were opened, cake was served, and Ron stuffed himself until he could barely breathe. Hermione kept shooting him disdainful looks as he ate, but would invariably smile when he looked up at her.
Eventually, the need for food faded and an idea formed in Ron’s mind. He pulled himself from the couch he was occupying and grabbed Hermione’s hand with a grin on his face. “Wanna go for a walk?” he whispered into her ear.
“Sure,” she answered with a smirk of her own.
Ron pulled her out the front door of the Burrow and led her down the dirt path. It wound towards the village for a couple of miles, but he wasn’t interested in going there. Instead, he made a left where a small trail forged a path in the undergrowth of the trees on the side of the road. After a couple of minutes tramping through the bushes, Hermione pulled on his hand.
“Where are you taking me?”
He tried his best to look innocent. “Just somewhere I always went before I left for Hogwarts.” Seeing the disbelieving look on her face, he added, “It’s not much further, and I promise you’ll like it.”
She seemed to consider this, but finally relented. “All right, but we shouldn’t wander far.”
“Why not?” he asked impatiently. “It’s not like Death Eaters would attack us in the middle of a thicket on Harry’s birthday.”
Something shook inside his still too full belly and he wondered just how sure he was of himself. Hermione seemed to be thinking the same thing because she said, “That’s exactly the kind of thing Voldemort would do. Wait until we’ve been lulled into a stupor by celebrating Harry’s birthday and then attack.”
Ron waved his own queasy feelings aside, as well as Hermione’s argument. “They don’t even know he’s here. Only Dumbledore and our family knows.”
“And Lupin, and my parents and...”
“All right, all right, you’ve made you point.” He turned to face her fully and said, “I won’t let anything happen to you, Hermione.”
A faint pink appeared on her cheeks and she looked down at her feet. “I know you won’t Ron, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful.”
Feeling a little twinge of pride at having earned Hermione’s trust, he took her hand once more and pulled her towards his ‘spot’.
The babbling sound of water drifted to their ears as they neared the stream and as they approached it, Ron could hear Hermione’s breathing increase. A small patch of grass clung to the riverbank and held two small smooth boulders that looked as if they had been carved into the same kind of pouf that Trelawney used in her classroom.
They sat on the rocks and watched as a myriad of insects flew lazily over the water, occasionally being eaten by a jumping fish. “It’s beautiful, Ron,” said Hermione after a moment.
Ron’s mind was buzzing with the heady rush of being in this wonderful place with a pretty girl at his side. Hermione turned to look at him and something in her eye made him move his head closer. She smiled at his motion and tilted her head slightly, only encouraging him on. Just as their lips were about to touch, a piercing scream echoed down from the Burrow.
“Ron, we need to get back right now!” shouted Hermione, who had jumped up and was already running towards the road.
Quickly, Ron ran to catch up with her, before she could get lost in the waning light--he grabbed her hand and pulled her closer to him. Then he took the lead and followed the path back through the trees as fast as they could go.
When they emerged on the dirt road, a full-fledged battle was taking place in front of the Burrow. Bill and Charlie were dueling with four Death Eaters, while their father was shooting hexes at another group hiding behind the large willow tree in their garden.
Ron and Hermione both took out their wands and walked over to the tree, using various shrubs and bushes for cover. No one in the ranks of the enemy had thought to cover their flank and Ron thought with glee that it would cost them. As one, Hermione and Ron raised their wands and sent off stunners at the group of attackers that Arthur had unsuccessfully tried to fell.
Two of the three were hit with the spells and the remaining Death Eater spun around in time to get hit with another hex from Hermione. Ron was amazed that she had fired off another spell so quickly, but didn’t have time to compliment her. Soon, the other four were aware of their presence and had turned to shoot stunning spells of their own at the newcomers.
With a dive roll, Ron dodged the red streak of light and ran crouched over to the willow, now free of conscious Death Eaters. Hermione followed, casting a shield charm that deflected the stunner aimed at her. Ron goggled at her, but she just smirked in reply, sending off another spell at the now scattering attackers.
Bill and Charlie took advantage of the distraction and quickly dispatched the remaining dark-cloaked Death Eaters. Before they had hit the ground, all three of the eldest Weasleys ran back through the front doors, towards the sound of more spellfire from the back garden.
Hermione grabbed Ron by the arm and they took off after them.
The next five minutes was a blur for Ron and he barely had time to shout “NO!” at Ginny before a Death Eater grabbed her dress and pulled her and Harry out of the Burrow’s garden and into the unknown.
Fred and George appeared from the floor above them, dragging a large duffle bag behind them. “Right,” said Fred with a grim look of determination. “Who’s going with us to get Harry and Ginny back?”
Arthur Weasley limped into the garden, followed by his wife. “No one is going anywhere until I’ve contacted the Ministry,” the eldest Weasley informed his family.
“But dad, they could already be in with Voldemort!” said Ron forcefully. “We’ve got to go now!”
“Calm down, Ronald,” said his mother. “Let your father handle this, and don’t think of traipsing off again like you did last month!”
“Will you give that a rest, Mum?” Ron said dejectedly. “I told you, I’d die for Harry and there’s nothing you can do to stop me from going to find him. Besides, did you forget that Ginny is missing too?” He paused to catch his breath and try to reign in his rising temper. “I wasn’t there for her when she was writing in that damn diary, so I’m going to bloody be there for her now!”
“Watch your mouth, young man!” said Ron’s mother heatedly. “You’re just too young to be...”
“Molly,” said her husband calmly. “Let it go for now.”
She turned to face Arthur, shock evident on her face. “But...”
“No, love,” he said, still completely calm. “Ron’s almost a man now, and we can’t be in the way of his life forever.”
“He isn’t...” she started. “But...”
“Listen to me, Molly.” Arthur stared into his wife’s eyes, hands holding hers gently. “This is their fight as much as it is ours. Do you remember what Albus said to us yesterday about their role in the war?”
She nodded mutely.
“It’s time for them to step into their own lives now, and we can’t stand in the way any longer.”
Molly stood there, tears glistening in her eyes as she looked from Ron to Fred and George and finally Bill and Charlie. “I just don’t want to lose any of you!” she burst out, tears finally falling down her cheeks. “I don’t want to lose another son....”
Arthur scooped his wife into his arms and held her close while she let her emotions run into his tattered tweed coat. At length, she wiped her eyes and took a steadying breath. “All right, you lot! Let’s get moving!”
Fred and George responded instantly, rubbing his hands together, “We’ll head to the shop and pickup some equipment.” The twins shared a mischievous glance and pulled out their wands to Apparate.
“I’ll alert the Ministry and meet you two in Diagon Alley,” instructed Arthur. After the twins disappeared with a crack, he looked to his eldest and said, “You two split up and find Dumbledore or Minerva. One to headquarters and the other to Hogwarts. Meet us at the twins’ shop when you’ve found them.”
“Right, dad,” said Charlie. “Don’t start the fun without us,” he said with a wink and disappeared, followed closely by Bill.
Arthur turned to Ron and Hermione and said, “You two Floo to Diagon Alley and help Fred and George. I’m going to find out where they were taken and we can coordinate our rescue plan from there.”
He turned to his wife and kissed her on the cheek. “You stay here, Molly and make preparations to receive wounded,” then seeing the look on her face, added, “Just in case.” They looked at each other for a moment before he said, “I’ll let you know as soon as we know something’s happened, love.”
“Be safe, Arthur and come back to me,” she pleaded, and Ron could tell she was trying not to cling to him as he made to leave.
“I will, Molly,” and he was gone with a crack.
Ron grabbed Hermione’s hand and went to the fireplace. He took a handful of powder from the jar on the mantle and was about to throw it into the fire when his mother came into the kitchen. “Take this with you, Ron,” she said, holding his backpack in her hands.
Hermione grabbed it and he smiled at his mum before shouting “Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes!” and throwing the gritty powder into the cold fireplace.
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