"Caught In The Middle"
"She's driving me mad, Harry."
Harry looked up from his half-written letter to Sirius to see Ron plop himself down on the empty armchair next to Harry in the common room, popping a half dozen or so Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans in his mouth so that he was now only barely comprehensible as he spoke. "Honestly," he managed to say in between chews, "she's impossible, that's what she is..."
Harry was almost afraid to ask.
"What's the matter?" he said. Somehow he knew this would probably not be worth interrupting the letter he was trying to write, but Ron did look as if he needed to get a few things off his chest, and Harry thought it only fair to be a proper best friend and humor him.
"Just when I thought she couldn't get any bossier," Ron was saying, "she goes and gets herself made prefect this year." He shook his head vigorously, then paused to swallow and shovel more beans into his mouth. "And why she chooses to pick on me all the time is beyond me..."
Harry resisted the urge to laugh. Sometimes, Ron could be so oblivious.
"Yeah," he said, feigning ignorance, though he knew perfectly well why Hermione was particularly harsh with Ron all the time, "wonder why that is..."
"I'll tell you why," Ron went on, waving his index finger authoritatively. Harry noticed that his face was scrunched up with so much tension that the color of his face was beginning to match his hair. "It's because-"
He stopped abruptly in mid-sentence, and Harry could only guess that Hermione must have entered the common room at that very moment. He turned around and saw her, wordlessly sending daggers at Ron with her narrowed eyes, and Ron responding with an equally icy glare.
Without breaking her eye contact with Ron, she said simply, almost as an afterthought, "Hi, Harry." Harry turned back to Ron, who looked as if he were still trying to think of a million smart-alecky things to say to her, but couldn't decide on which.
"Um... hi, Hermione," Harry finally said.
No sooner than he did, Ron shot up from his chair and said to Harry, "I've got homework. See you upstairs later."
With that, he disappeared into the boys' dormitory.
Harry watched Hermione follow him with her eyes until he was out of sight, then heard her cluck her tongue against the roof of her mouth.
"Homework!" she exclaimed. "Who does he think he's fooling!"
She groaned in exasperation and sank into the chair Ron had vacated moments earlier. Harry had gone back to writing his letter to Sirius, hoping that avoiding her eyes would somehow send the message that he did not particularly wish to be her sounding board at the moment.
Unfortunately, Hermione seemed to have missed the message entirely.
"He's driving me mad, Harry!"
Harry tentatively raised his eyes to look at her. She looked completely out of sorts, her hair wilder than it normally was, and her face flushed pink with anger.
"Well?" she demanded, "aren't you going to ask me what he did this time?"
With a sigh that Hermione didn't seem to notice, Harry decided this letter to Sirius would probably remain unfinished tonight at this rate. He replaced his quill in the inkblot and gave her his full attention.
"What did he do?" he asked half-heartedly.
Hermione sighed dramatically. "He stole food from the kitchen!"
Harry gave her a blank stare.
"Did you hear what I said? He stole food from the kitchen!"
"Yeah, I heard you," Harry said. Once again, he had to resort to biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. "But Hermione," he began, hoping not to catch her ire for saying what he was about to say, "it's not like he's committed some great crime-"
"He broke the rules!" she snapped back.
"But Fred and George do it all the time, and you've never-"
"Fred and George are wrong to do it too, and now that I'm prefect-"
She narrowed her eyes in an unmistakable look of disapproval. Harry threw her an apologetic smile--she must have caught him rolling his eyes just now.
"Sorry," he mumbled incoherently.
She went on, unperturbed.
"He has such complete disregard for the rules, I swear," she said. "When is he ever going to learn? We're fifth years now, we're supposed to be setting an example for the younger students..."
Harry had a feeling if he didn't make a break for it now, she'd be likely to continue her tirade against Ron. Finally, he said, "Um... Hermione? I just remembered, I haven't finished my essay for Transfiguration class yet."
"Oh no! But it's due tomorrow!"
"Well you should get right on that, then!"
"Okay... I'll see you tomorrow then."
She gave him a somewhat dejected smile. "Yeah, all right."
Harry turned to go up the stairs, when he heard her call after him.
"Can I... ask you something?"
Something about the way she asked the question, with a tentativeness that was so rare, made him turn around to face her again.
She opened her mouth, then as if thinking the better of it, closed it and shook her head. Harry noticed a blush creep along her cheeks.
"Never mind, it's silly," she muttered.
He lingered for a minute, in case she changed her mind, then finally said, "Well... Good night, then."
As he started up the stairs again, he heard her.
"Say good night to that lunkhead too."
By the time he turned around, she was already making her way to the girls' dormitory. He watched her, then looked in the direction of the boys' dormitory, and shook his head. When he was sure Hermione was out of earshot, he finally let out a chuckle, unable to contain his amusement any longer.
He awoke to the sound of his name.
Groggily, he answered back. "Yeah?"
"Are you awake?"
I am now, he thought.
Harry waited for Ron to finish the question, but his voice just trailed off. After a few more seconds, Harry said, "What did what?"
He heard Ron start to speak again, then let out a sigh.
"Blimey," Ron muttered.
"Ron, just spit it out, will you?"
"Okay!" he whispered back. "Just don't wake the others, all right?"
"What is it?"
"What did... Hermione say? You know, back in the common room, after I left?"
Harry stifled a laugh, grateful that the curtains were drawn on his four-poster bed so Ron would not see him struggling to keep the laughter in check.
After a few more moments, "Really? She... really said nothing?"
Harry debated for a bit whether Ron would be better off knowing Hermione had gone off about him while he was gone, then finally decided giving him a slightly different version of the events might be better.
"She was upset about you two fighting," he said. That was more than just a slightly different version of what had gone on, but Harry suspected it was not too far from the truth anyhow.
"She was?" Ron was unable to hide his genuine shock. "Really?"
Inside his four-poster bed, Harry was grinning. "Yes, really."
Ron was quiet for a while; Harry thought he had gone back to sleep. Then Harry heard him stir and say, "All right, then."
Harry listened for more follow-up, but there was no more to come. When he was sure Ron had finally fallen asleep once again, he took out the sheet of parchment paper with his half-written letter and decided to finish it.
The tension at breakfast was as bad as it had ever been since they had started at Hogwarts. As seemed to have become customary, Harry found himself sitting in the middle, Ron and Hermione flanking him at either side. It had been nearly half an hour, and still, neither one had said a word to the other. Harry had thought that his little white lie to Ron last night would have prompted him to say something to Hermione at breakfast, but no such luck.
Hermione cleared her throat. "Harry," she said, in her best I-won't-let-you-get-to-me voice, "would you please ask Ron to pass the jug of milk?"
Harry waited until he had turned to Ron before rolling his eyes. "Ron-"
"I heard her," Ron snarled, and handed the jug to Harry, who then passed it to Hermione. "I thought you said she was upset over us fighting," Ron muttered to Harry.
Harry simply shrugged in response, then cringed when he heard Hermione's voice turn shrill in the next instant.
"You said what, Harry??"
He gave her a weak smile meant to assuage her, but she would have none of it.
"I can't believe you!" She craned her neck to look at Ron. "Is that what he told you, that I was upset over our fight? AS IF!"
Harry scrambled for a reasonable explanation. "I just assumed that-"
"Next time, don't assume, Harry," Hermione snapped.
Great. Now she was mad at both of them.
"Why did you tell me she was upset when she wasn't?" Ron demanded. "Blimey, Harry, as if I didn't look like a big enough fool..."
Harry sighed. He hated being caught in the middle of their endless war.
"Well perhaps if both of you stopped using me as your referee, this wouldn't happen!" he spat out. "Did it ever occur to either of you that I may have more important things to worry about than which one of you is going to be the first to apologize?"
Ron and Hermione both looked back at him, dumbstruck. Then, slowly, both of them closed their gaping mouths.
Harry squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, feeling the heat of their stares.
Ron finished Hermione's thought. "... is it... you-know-who?"
"Your scar isn't hurting again, is it, Harry?"
"Last week," he said at last.
Ron's eyes widened to the size of the saucers on the table. "Why didn't you tell us?"
Because you two were too busy going at it again, he thought.
"I thought I could just handle it on my own," he said. "I sent a letter to Sirius this morning."
Ron sank back in his chair, and Harry could tell he wanted to say something, but didn't know what. Hermione finally broke the silence.
"I'm sorry we've been so... preoccupied," she said.
She looked up and locked eyes with Ron, then Ron said, "Yeah, Harry, I guess we've been a bit daft. What with you-know-who back and all..."
"Forget it," Harry told them. In truth, he hadn't minded their increasingly prevalent spats so much. Given how dire things seemed to be for him and the rest of the wizarding world at the moment, they were actually welcome distractions.
Of course, he didn't dare let on to Ron and Hermione that they were.
He heard Hermione get up and saw her walk over to Ron. Ron slowly got up, towering over Hermione, who had to tilt her head up to look him in the face.
Harry hid a smile; they must have been attempting to make up for his sake.
"I'm... sorry, Hermione," Ron finally said.
Surprise lit up Hermione's features. "I'm sorry too, Ron..."
A few awkward moments passed, and as if suddenly realizing that Harry had been watching them all this while, both broke into sheepish smiles and laughed nervously. Then, Hermione reached up on her tiptoes and embraced Ron, who clearly was not expecting it.
"Well, then," she said, when she finally eased off him, blushing madly, "shall we head to Charms now?" Ron was still looking at her, as if he had not yet registered what just happened. Hermione blushed even harder under the weight of his stare.
"Yeah... I s'pose," he mumbled.
Harry followed them both, trailing behind so he could smile knowingly without either one seeing him.
Harry knew he should have paid closer attention to Professor Flitwick's lecture today--especially since Hermione never failed to remind him and Ron that they were going to take their O.W.L. exams at the end of the year ("But Hermione, that's another six whole months!" Ron would plead)--but at the moment, he was a bit more intrigued by the show Ron and Hermione seemed to be putting on.
He had never seen them act this way with each other before, and he had to admit, it was more than mildly entertaining. They were as close as three friends could get, but at the moment, one would never know it by the way Ron and Hermione were behaving.
It was as if they were scared of each other in some way. Awkward and self-conscious, they seemed to be extra careful with their words and actions towards each other right now. But what unnerved--and amused--Harry the most was how utterly polite they were being with each other.
"That's good wrist movement, Ron," Hermione was telling him, as they each practiced the usual swish-and-flick for the shrinking spell they had just learned.
"Thank you, Hermione," Ron replied. Again, he aimed his wand at the feather in front of him and said, "Reducio!"
The feather shrank even more, and Ron gave Hermione a lopsided grin. Hermione returned his smile and practiced on her feather.
As if noticing that Harry was eying him and Hermione, Ron turned to look at Harry and said, "So..."
He seemed to be thinking hard of what to say. Harry wondered if Ron weren't just trying to distract him from watching the rather stilted interaction between him and Hermione. At last, having come up with a question he was satisfied with, Ron said, "Have you heard from Sirius yet?"
Harry was not quite keen on talking about him at the moment, or his scar--or anything to do with Voldemort for that matter. He shook his head. "No."
"Oh." Again, Ron seemed at a loss for words. Harry wanted to reassure him that he needn't try so hard at starting a conversation, since he was perfectly happy practicing the spell and seeing Ron and Hermione try to be as nice to each other as possible, before one of them inevitably snapped.
"If you don't hear from him today, I think you should go to Dumbledore," Hermione told him matter-of-factly.
"Shh! What do you think you're doing, talking about this so loudly that people can hear?" Ron hissed.
"Don't you shh me!" Hermione countered. "I'll talk however I please-"
"Is there a problem here, Miss Granger?"
Hermione flashed an apologetic smile to Professor Flitwick and shook her head. "Er... no, Professor," she said.
Professor Flitwick smiled. "Good," he said. "Keep on practicing then..."
He turned his attention to another group of students, as Hermione shot a venomous look at Ron, who simply rolled his eyes at Harry.
"There she goes again," he muttered.
Harry tried hard not to snicker, then noticed that Seamus Finnigan seemed to be aiming his wand a bit too carelessly as he practiced his spell.
"Reducio!" Seamus kept repeating. His feather did not seem to be responding. Again he commanded it, "Reducio!" He gave his wand another vigorous shake, and inadvertently sent the spell in Ron's direction, shrinking his stool.
The stool shrank to an inch tall in the next instant, and Ron, who had been leaning back and was caught badly off-balance, fell hard on the ground, head first.
Hermione screamed and jumped off her stool to attend to him. Harry joined her immediately, as Professor Flitwick ran over to them.
"Oh dear," he said. "Someone get Madame Pomfrey, quickly!"
Hermione was shaking Ron to get him to open his eyes. Harry grabbed hold of her arm to stop her. "Don't," he said. "If he's got a concussion, that'll make it worse."
"O-okay," she said meekly. She seemed as if she wanted to cry, but was holding back because of Harry and the other students who were now gathered around them.
Ron began to stir, and his eyes fluttered open. "Wha' happened?" he said, trying to sit up. He looked around, seeing all the students hovering over him.
Draco Malfoy's unmistakable cackle rang out. "You really should be more careful, Weasel," he taunted.
"Show's over, vampire-breath," Ron said. He turned beside him, to Hermione, whose face was overcome with relief now that Ron was conscious and speaking again.
"Oh, Ron!" she said, as she threw her arms around his neck and squeezed hard.
Ron gave Harry a silent plea, but Harry only looked at him and laughed.
"I'm sorry Mr. Potter, Miss Granger, but visiting hours are over. Mr. Weasley needs his rest."
Harry nodded at Madame Pomfrey and tugged at Hermione's arm. "We should let him get some sleep tonight," he said. Hermione was still looking at Ron when she stood up from his bedside. Ron looked at Harry and smiled as if to thank him, and Harry smiled back assuring him he understood.
All this show of concern from Hermione was just a little too much for Ron to handle, Harry figured, even if Harry suspected he enjoyed it much more than he would ever admit.
Hermione seemed a bit disappointed. Perhaps she had been waiting for some sort of thank you from Ron for having stayed with him these last few hours, until Madame Pomfrey decided they were lingering a bit too long. "Well," she said dejectedly, "all right, I guess you should be getting to sleep."
She and Harry reached the door, then she turned around one last time and said, "I'll see you tomorrow in class."
Harry felt a bit sorry for her when they came out of the hospital wing. They walked back to the Gryffindor tower in silence, and after climbing through the portrait hole, he heard her sigh. He looked at her, sensing she wanted to say something.
Their favorite word, Harry thought with a knowing smile. Before he could say, "Are you sure?" Hermione spoke up again.
"It's Ron," she said.
"He'll be okay. Madame Pomfrey just wants him to stay overnight, so she can-"
"That's not what I meant," she said.
"Okay, you promise not to ask me why I'm asking you this?"
Harry tried to keep his grin to a minimum. "Of course."
"Why does he act like..."
"You know, sometimes he'll act like I'm the biggest pain in the neck... Why does he do that?"
Harry chuckled. "Well, I do that too sometimes," he reminded her.
"Yeah, but that's different," she said instantly, then, as if realizing how that must have sounded, she blushed, and fumbled around for the right words to cover up what she had just said. "I meant..."
"It's all right, Hermione, I knew what you meant."
She looked up at him. "You... did?"
He nodded. "It's a bit... well, obvious."
She blushed even more, and said tentatively, "It... is?"
"Well, not to Ron, if that's what you're asking."
Suddenly, the fire returned to her eyes. "Well, that I knew!" she huffed. "Honestly, could he be any more dense?"
"Hermione, why don't you just tell him?"
She looked back at him in shock.
"I mean, he can't very well read your mind, can he?"
"If things are so obvious, he shouldn't need to!"
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't take it out on you just because Ron Weasley needs to be hit with a club to get a clue." She stood there for a moment, fiddling with the sleeves of her robes, then she said, "Does he..." A breath. "Does he ever... talk about me?"
"All the time."
"I mean... you know what I mean... Does he ever talk about me in that way... you know, like you talk about Cho-"
Harry blushed. "How do you know about Cho?" he said.
Hermione shot him a look, then to Harry's relief, changed the subject back to her and Ron. "Well... does he?"
Before Harry could answer, Hermione quickly interrupted him.
"Never mind," she said firmly. "I... don't think I want to know the answer..."
She turned around and run up the stairs into the girls' dormitory. Harry remained standing there, and finally said, "All the time."
Harry flinched, readying himself for the inevitable attack by Ron's bishop to his king. Yet another loss to Ron. That made five just this afternoon, but Harry didn't mind so much today--at least not more than usual--since it was Ron's first afternoon back in the common room after having been discharged by Madame Pomfrey.
"Want to play another round, Ron?"
Ron shook his head. "Nah, it's all right." He reached beside him to an open box of chocolate frogs, and grimaced when he realized it was empty. "Bloody hell, did it leap away when I wasn't looking?"
Harry guessed what was about to come next.
"Hermione looked kind of cross with me yesterday... after Madame Pomfrey kicked you both out..."
"Did she?" Harry said as nonchalantly as he could. Surely Hermione would not want him to betray her confidence last night, especially since she practically admitted--as much as she would ever be willing to--how she felt about Ron.
"I dunno, Harry," Ron said, "sometimes girls are so much trouble."
Hoping to help Hermione along somewhat, Harry said, "She's not so bad, Ron, you have to admit that." He looked up just in time to see Ron try to hide a grin. "I... guess so," he finally muttered. "Still... What is her problem, anyway?"
"Well, if you want to know so badly, why don't you just ask me?"
Harry swallowed hard. Hermione must have just returned from the library.
"Who says we were talking about you, Hermione?" Ron bellowed. "Honestly, the nerve... And what're you doing eavesdropping on our private conversation, anyway?"
Hermione glowered at him. "Excuse me for being so presumptuous. I mean, what was I thinking--you talking about me? What a bloody joke!"
Harry watched Ron's mouth fall open, then turned around to see Hermione make her way up the stairs. Ron chased after her, face as red as his hair. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"If you have to ask, then there's absolutely no point in me telling you, is there?"
Ron and Hermione both whipped their heads in Harry's direction. "Um... perhaps I should leave you two alone for this-"
"No!" Hermione pointed a finger at him. "You stay put, there's no need to go anywhere." She looked back at Ron. "This conversation is over, believe me."
"No, it's not," Ron said.
Harry, caught in the crossfire once again, decided to just follow his own instincts and quietly slip away while Ron's and Hermione's attentions were still focused on each other. They were still tearing into each other when Harry walked up the stairs to the boys' dormitory.
"How dare you contradict me in front of him!"
"How dare you give us orders? You may be a prefect, but you don't own me or Harry!"
Harry rolled his eyes and shut the door to their room. He could still hear muffled sounds coming from the common room, even through the closed door. "For goodness sakes," he muttered. "Can't those two just admit they like each other and get on with it?"
He noticed Hedwig sitting on his bed, a scroll tied to her talons.
"A letter from Sirius?"
Hedwig gave him an affirmative hoot.
"Good," he said, "I can think of something else for a while besides the fact that my two best friends are driving me crazy."
He began to unroll the scroll, when the noise downstairs--or rather the lack thereof--really began to concern him. "My God, did they kill each other?" He looked at Hedwig, who hooted once again, as if she shared in the joke.
"Guess I'd better go check up on them," he sighed. "Perhaps I should conjure up a full-time referee for those two and be done with it..."
He headed down the stairs, the tense silence worrying him. But one look at what was happening in the common room put all of his fears to rest.
Ron and Hermione were locked in a tight embrace--kissing!
Harry's hand shot up to his mouth to keep him from letting out a yelp. Immediately, he turned away, feeling as if he had walked in on something that was completely none of his business. "Wow," he mouthed at last. He leaned his head back against the wall and made his way up back to the dormitory. As he did, he couldn't help but smile to himself.
He closed the door behind him and looked at Hedwig, who seemed to be waiting for him to say something.
"Well," he told her, "they finally got it right."