Ron Weasley had never, until this moment, harbored any particular feelings one way or the other where his eyebrows were concerned.
Granted, there was the occasional moment when they were brought to his attention – when they got badly singed during a game of Exploding Snap, maybe, or when they, despite his best efforts, refused to change colors in Transfiguration because apparently a stupid ruddy moustache would suit him better. But all in all, before now he simply hadn't paid them much mind.
Maybe that's where he'd gone wrong.
It's just that he hadn't thought to pay attention. Really, what kind of git paid attention to their eyebrows, anyway? Not anyone Ron knew, that was for sure. And it figured, it damn well figured, that he was the one who'd been forced to suffer for an error that pretty much everyone who happened to be sane was guilty of. Why couldn't it have been some other bloke who just happened to not pay attention to his eyebrows?
"Because," he muttered bitterly to himself, and kicked at an unsuspecting patch of ground for good measure, "it's always me."
He didn't see Hermione failing, and was pretty sure she didn't pay a whole lot of attention to—
Sighing, Ron gave up on that particular train of thought. Fact was, he couldn't quite bring himself to get upset at her over this; he'd never for a second expected her not to pass, after all.
And besides, he decided, the thought accompanied by an unpleasant sinking sensation, I suppose I've been upset at her just a bit more than necessary already this year.
Yeah. Just a bit.
Anyway, what it really all came down to was that no one paid attention to their eyebrows, or even really needed them, if you wanted to go further into the whole thing, and what the bloody hell was half an eyebrow worth?
Well, all right, apparently lots of stuff, according to the examiner (who was, Ron suspected, the kind of bloke that paid a whole lot of attention to his eyebrows). If one went by what he'd said, well, then, that half an eyebrow had encompassed the fact that he was unprepared and, quite frankly, not yet mature and responsible enough to take on the grand and glorious responsibility that was Apparition.
"I'd like to see him face down a troupe of Death Eaters and a couple of mad brains and see who's mature and responsible then," Ron mumbled venomously.
For a second, his heart took up residence in his throat and he was overcome by the acute sensation that he might be sick; he immediately dodged a few feet to the left, preparing to disappear completely behind some makeshift hiding place, only to meet the horrifying discovery that there was nowhere to hide.
Resigning himself to his fate, he took a deep breath and slowly raised his eyes to meet—
"Honestly, Ron, this is just getting foolish," Hermione said, exasperated.
The sight of her standing there, her lips pursed in disapproval and hands placed on her hips, was enough to fill him with the overwhelming desire to throw his arms around her for the sole fact that she wasn't Lavender Brown.
And, well, er, also for the fact that lately, throwing his arms around Hermione seemed like a weirdly good idea.
But mostly because she wasn't Lavender.
"Oh," he breathed, not bothering to mask his relief. "It's you."
"It's me," Hermione confirmed wanly. "You know, I don't know why you have to get so worked up every time I say something to you without you seeing me – she and I sound nothing alike."
"You've both got girl voices," Ron retorted. "And if you'd had to put up with her the way I have, damned if you wouldn't be a bit jumpy too."
"Yes, well," said Hermione, in a lofty sort of way, "I doubt I'll ever put up with her the way you have." The corner of her mouth twitched.
Ron scowled at her. "Ha, ha."
Hermione allowed herself a smile, and they began walking back down the square. Ron didn't mind – he was very keen indeed upon putting as much space between him and that mad examiner as possible.
"So," Ron said, and shoved his hands into his pockets, trying not to pay too much attention to the way Hermione's arm would occasionally brush against his, "I suppose this summer you'll be popping in and out of places like mad, then."
"Oh, no." Hermione wrinkled her nose. "I hated the way Fred and George kept doing that constantly once they'd passed – very obnoxious," she added, and sniffed.
"Well, yeah," Ron said, "but there's Fred and George for you."
"I suppose," Hermione agreed, and upon casting a sidelong glance at her, Ron realized just how excited she was to have passed – and just how hard she was attempting to hide it, for his sake.
He felt a sudden surge of affection toward her, and took a moment to be thankful for the fact that his hands were safely inside his pockets. He wasn't sure he'd have been able to resist reaching out and taking her hand in his, otherwise.
"Congratulations, Hermione," he said instead, and forced a smile at her.
She smiled back, but kept on staring at him intently, as though trying to find some clue as to just how upset he was regarding The Eyebrow Incident.
Well, he wouldn't give it to her. He figured she deserved to be happy about this, without being forced to worry about him.
"Really," he pressed earnestly. "You were brilliant."
Hermione's smile grew brighter, and she reached out and touched his forearm. "Thanks."
How he'd managed to convince himself for Merlin knew how many years that he wasn't completely in love with Hermione Granger, he had no clue. In any case, he was glad he'd finally come to terms with it – it was about time he'd accepted the inevitable. (The inevitable, as it so happened, could be rather nice indeed.)
For a hazy moment, he found himself contemplating whether it'd be a bad idea at all if he were to simply lean down and kiss her, right then and there. True, he wasn't quite sure that she'd want him to, but it couldn't be just him, could it? She'd nearly asked him to Slughorn's party and shot canaries at him when she'd found out he was going out with Lavender. Canaries meant something, right?
Of course they did. They had to.
His internal To Kiss or Not To Kiss debate was ceased immediately at a very unwelcome (though not quite Lavender-unwelcome) voice ringing through the air.
Hermione turned to face the direction the voice was coming from, and, in doing so, removed her hand from Ron's arm.
For a moment, Ron tried valiantly not to scowl before giving up. Funny, really: he didn't need any more reasons to detest Zacharias Smith – he already had quite the impressive collection of them – and yet they just kept on coming.
"Oh," Hermione said, and glanced anxiously at Ron as soon as she realized who it was. "Hello."
"I hear you passed your Apparition exam," Smith said, and grinned widely at her. Ron didn't punch him. It felt a very notable feat.
"Oh, um – yes," Hermione said. "Yes, I did."
"Me too," Smith proclaimed smugly, and then, after a moment, deigned to refocus his attention upon Ron. "What about you, Weasley?"
Killing him wouldn't be such a big deal, really. Did anyone actually like him? Probably not. Ron doubted even his own parents were overly fond of him. Yeah, he'd probably be doing the world a favor, really – a great big favor – he and Harry could become a sort of beloved duo in the Wizarding World, even! The Boy Who Lived and The Boy Who Killed The Boy Who Never Shut His Bloody Mouth Even Though He Damn Well Would If He Knew What Was Good For Him.
Well, maybe that was a bit lengthy.
"He practically passed," Hermione was saying all of a sudden. Ron glanced over at her in surprise. "It was just a little thing – he'll be able to do it next time with no trouble at all, I expect."
Smith was staring at her with the kind of skepticism that made Ron seriously contemplate leaning into his new lengthy title.
"Really?" Smith asked, and smiled again.
He'd look much better, Ron concluded, with a couple of teeth knocked out.
"Yes, really," Hermione said firmly.
"Huh," Smith said. "Well, that's nice of you to tell me, Hermione. I guess Weasley's not ready to talk about it himself just yet."
And, really, in addition to the teeth, he'd probably be able to pull off a black eye nearly as well as Hermione could.
"Can't have been a really little thing," Smith went on, in the airy tone one might use to talk about the weather, "or else they wouldn't have failed him, though, right?"
Come to think of it, his whole head was a bit unseemly: decapitation suddenly held some undeniable appeal.
"You get splinched?" Smith asked conversationally. "Leave a toe behind, or something?"
"Don't see why you find it so fascinating, Smith," Ron growled. "Don't you have friends to celebrate with?"
"Sure." Smith shrugged easily. "I just thought I'd say hi to one. Anyway, congratulations, Hermione.”
Hermione said nothing in return, but fixed him with a steely glare that Ron himself had gotten to know very well thanks to years of sneaking perfectly innocent looks at her essays and, every so often, accidentally bumping into Crookshanks with his feet.
Smith looked a bit taken aback, but recovered; he shrugged, gave them both a look that confirmed he thought them nothing short of spectacularly mental, and turned to head toward a group of Hufflepuffs in the distance.
"If I killed him…" Ron began, attempting to keep an even tone.
"You'd be put in Azkaban," Hermione reminded him reasonably.
Or possibly the next savior of the Wizarding World, of course, but he wasn't sure Hermione was ready to digest that particular possibility.
Instead, he opted to glower moodily at Smith's back as he walked toward his friends. "Can't believe that great brainless idiot passed and I didn't."
"Yes, well," Hermione said, sounding a bit uneasy. "It just comes easier to some people than others, that's all."
"And naturally it doesn't come easily to me," Ron grumbled. "Big surprise, eh?"
"Don't say things like that," Hermione said in a no-nonsense tone. She began walking again, and after she'd taken a few steps, Ron chose to follow her. "You'll be able to take it with Harry this summer," Hermione continued with perfect confidence. "He'll like that."
"Yeah," Ron said glumly to his feet. "I s'pose so."
"And it's just an eyebrow," Hermione went on smoothly.
"Half an eyebrow," Ron corrected her despite himself.
"Half an eyebrow," Hermione amended. "See? That'll be no problem at all next time. Smith's just a big prat, that's all."
Hearing Hermione talk about anyone like this was somewhat rare – he almost suspected she was doing so to cheer him up – and Ron couldn't help but feel less disheartened as he glanced up at her.
"He is, isn't he?"
"Absolutely," Hermione said brightly.
"A great big prat," Ron went on, unable to resist. "It's a wonder that he's got any friends at all; perhaps his mum pays them to hang out with h—"
And it was then that something occurred to him.
"Say, why was he being so friendly toward you?"
"What do you mean?" Hermione asked immediately; her gaze flew to the display in the Honeydukes window. "You know, I'd love to get more of those deluxe Sugar Quills—"
Deluxe Sugar Quills, however, were the last thing on Ron's mind, though a detached part of him wished he could be thinking of them, as they were infinitely less terrifying. Instead, a myriad of new, nausea-inducing possibilities had spread out before him, all of them involving Zacharias Smith and Hermione standing far closer together than should have been allowed—
Well, piped up a logical little voice in the back of his head that he wanted to somehow tear from his skull, you were snogging Lavender bloody Brown, for God's sake. I suppose you couldn't blame her for—
But no. No. This … this was just too much. Sure, he knew Hermione had never liked Lavender very much, but that hadn't been why he'd started snogging her! He'd started snogging her because she was the only girl he'd known who didn't stare at him in disgust when he came within two feet of her! He hadn't meant to hurt Hermione by it, exactly.
Or, well, yes he had, kind of.
But he felt completely awful about it now! And besides, nothing he could possibly do could even begin to hurt Hermione as much as the thought of her and … and … oh, God, he couldn't even think it without wanting to bash his head against something very solid—
"You didn't—" he managed to croak before his voice failed him. "You haven't—" he tried again, but to no avail. "You two aren't—"
He took a deep breath and finished, unable to mask the sheer misery the idea caused him, "… friendly, are you?"
Because Viktor Krum was one thing, and he could even sort of see how a girl might like McClaggen, but Smith—
Hermione understood exactly what he was asking, despite his slight lack of coherence, and her brown eyes widened as she hastened to respond, "No, no! Not at all. Nothing like that. He might have thought, for some stupid reason, that I might have been interested in asking him out back around Christmas--but no, not in the least."
A huge weight was lifted from his chest, and he took a reassuring breath.
"Really?" he said.
"Of course not. I can't stand him, you know that."
"Well, yeah," Ron admitted, "but Harry can't stand Malfoy, and that hasn't stopped him from going all creepy and obsessed—"
"Harry is not friendly with Malfoy," Hermione cut in sharply.
The very idea that she had taken the comment seriously made Ron's stomach do a few disgusted somersaults.
"'Course he's not!" Ron barked. "I wasn't serious!"
"Don't joke about things like that," Hermione ordered sternly.
"I didn't mean to," Ron snapped. "S'not my fault that that's all Harry talks about these days."
"I think I know perfectly well who Harry fancies right now," Hermione said, "and it certainly isn't Malfoy."
"No kidding, it isn't Malfoy," Ron said, pulling a face. "He hasn't gone completely mental." He took a moment to eternally banish the concept from his mind, then asked, "Who do you think he fancies, then?"
"Oh, just someone," Hermione said.
Great. Really nice of her, not to go all cryptic and annoying about this. Otherwise, he'd have been forced to get a bit frustrated with her.
"I deserve to know," Ron reminded her. "I'm his best friend too, you know."
"I know!" Hermione said. "It's just that ... well, I'm just guessing. It's not definite, really. And I wouldn't want you to get ... forget I mentioned it."
"I hate it when you go all mysterious," Ron informed her sulkily.
"Do you?" Hermione replied, enjoying his irritation. "So, speaking of fancying, how are things with Lavender?"
"Fancying," Ron scoffed. "Yeah, okay. I'd fancy pushing her into the lake, more like."
"Quite the excellent boyfriend, aren't you?" Hermione observed dryly.
He was struck by a sudden nervous pang; it seemed unlikely that Hermione would ever agree to go out with him, were she under the impression that he was the kind of bloke who wanted to shove his girlfriends into large bodies of water.
"It's not that!" he protested. "I mean, I don't – I wouldn't actually do it, you know."
Hermione kept a straight face, but her eyes were sparkling in amusement. "Yes, I doubt you would. Terribly chivalrous of you," she threw in, and he rolled his eyes and elbowed her good-naturedly in the side.
"It's just …" He paused, attempting to decipher how to go about saying this in a way that wouldn't forever damn the chance of anything between Hermione and him. "We're not exactly compatible, me and Lavender."
"You don't say, Won-Won," Hermione said in mock surprise, laughing a little.
"Yeah." Ron let out a rather dark laugh himself. "You know, she's not very good to talk to."
"Yes, well, talking can be a bit difficult when your mouth is busy all the time.” He was struck by the impression that perhaps Hermione was enjoying this just a bit too much.
"Yeah," he said awkwardly. "You know, about that—"
"It's fine," Hermione cut in. He could not help noticing that her eyes had dimmed slightly; something in her expression suddenly suggested that this was a topic she very much wished to avoid.
It was kind of ironic, Ron supposed, when one stopped to think about it – after all, if it hadn't been for Hermione, he seriously doubted he ever would have kissed Lavender Brown in the first place.
Yeah, that seemed about right. Really, it all came back to Hermione and …
"Hermione," Ron discovered he was saying; it appeared he had lost control of his own mouth and vocal cords, "did you really snog Krum?"
Hermione looked utterly taken aback.
"I … what?" she finally sputtered.
Ah. Right. This was probably the sort of thing that he wasn't supposed to voice aloud, then. Never mind that it had been driving him out of his mind ever since he'd found out about it in that stupid, stupid conversation with Ginny—
"Sorry," he mumbled, staring at his shoes. "You don't have to answer that."
"He kissed me," Hermione replied, strangely prim. Ron felt as though a Bludger had slammed head-on into his stomach. "After the Yule Ball."
Yep. He could have lived a long, happy, utterly complete life without having ever discovered that piece of information.
"Ah," he replied faintly.
"How . . . how did you find out?" Hermione asked, looking very much like Ron felt.
"Oh." Hermione offered him a very weak smile. "Remind me to hex her later."
"I'll do that," Ron agreed. "Might even join you, actually."
Hermione laughed, but it sounded oddly forced this time, nothing like her amusement over Lavender's little nickname for him.
They continued walking in stilted silence, nearing a group of Slytherins who were also making their way back to the castle. Ron was careful not to let his arm brush hers. Brushing your arm against the arm of the girl you liked was one thing, but it was, he suspected, pretty different when that girl had kissed an international Quidditch star and you couldn’t even keep track of your eyebrow halves.
Silence. Silence. And even more silence. Well, except for the soft crunching of their feet against the ground, and the sound of Hermione breathing. Sure, it was light, barely audible, but really, he'd take what he could get right now.
Out of sheer cluelessness as to what to do next, he found himself beginning to count her breaths. He'd gotten to twenty-six, and dimly recognized the fact that said breaths seemed to be getting closer together, when—
"Oh, really, Ron!" Hermione burst out angrily. "You can't tell me that you're not speaking to me because of that!"
"What?" yelped Ron, caught off-guard.
"Yes, Viktor kissed me," Hermione said; Ron worked up enough courage to look at her, and found that her eyes were alight with fury. "So what? Once. He kissed me once, Ron, and really, it was very, very nice! I'm not going to pretend it wasn't just to make you happy, when you spent months acting as though someone had performed a permanent sticking charm on Lavender Brown!"
She paused to take a breath.
"Er, Hermione—" Ron attempted.
"And besides," Hermione plunged on, ignoring him, "you aren't the least bit entitled to act as though you've been horribly wronged! At that time, you barely even noticed that I was a girl! And yet I still told Viktor that I couldn't kiss him anymore because it wouldn't be fair to him! Meanwhile, we had a date and everything, and you just decided to … to totally ignore it, and stop talking to me without the slightest bit of warning, and go off and have a lovely little saliva exchange with a girl you barely know for no reason!"
"You kissed Krum!" Ron snapped instinctively. It was all he had.
"Two years ago!" Hermione howled. "What in the world gives you the right to get mad at me because I kissed someone once two years ago?"
Irritated at her reasonableness, Ron yelled out the first thing that popped into his head. "I didn't want you kissing anyone!"
"Why not?!" Hermione demanded, livid.
"BECAUSE I WANT T—… No reason."
Bloody effing hell.
What was wrong with him?
"J-just because," Ron finished, as forcefully as he could manage. “Not very hygienic, is it? Like you said. Saliva.”
Hermione was staring at him with a very peculiar expression on her face, and damned if he could blame her. After everything he'd felt for her over the past few years, after all the (okay, slightly irrational) agony that thoughts of Krum had caused him, after all the fantasies of what going out with Hermione might have been like, and he proclaimed that he wanted very badly to kiss her in the middle of a screaming match? And then brought saliva into it?
He was doomed.
Girlfriendless for life.
Might as well start checking out Malfoy himself.
"Oh," Hermione said lightly.
"Yeah," Ron answered hesitantly.
"All right then," Hermione said. She stared at him for a moment, a complicated whirl of emotions in her eyes that he couldn't even begin to decipher. Then she kept walking.
At a loss, Ron decided to walk along with her.
"So," Hermione said.
"So," Ron echoed.
Suddenly, leaving behind half an eyebrow seemed a very trifling matter.
"I wonder what Harry's up to," Hermione ventured, courageously attempting normal conversation.
"Yeah," Ron said, eager to follow her lead. "He'll be pleased to find out you passed, I expect."
"You think so?"
"Of course. He's your best friend, isn't he?"
"One of them," Hermione agreed, and shocked Ron quite thoroughly by slipping an arm through his.
That had to mean something, right? That was way more than canaries.
Ron glanced at her, with utmost nonchalance, out of the corner of his eye, and saw that she was smiling a little. It was the sort of thing that made it hard not to grin your own face off.
And so they continued to walk arm in arm in a much more companionable silence back towards Hogwarts, leaving Ron to reflect that maybe who you'd snogged in the past didn't matter so much in the present, and that even passing one's Apparition test wasn't such a big deal after all. There were more important things in life. More important body parts, even. Like arms that could press deliberately, on bloody purpose!, against the arm of someone you’d fancied for ages. Bugger eyebrows.
"Can you believe some people actually didn't pass?" rang out Pansy Parkinson's shrill, unpleasant tones from the group ahead of them. "I hear that Weasley forgot his eyebrow!"
This inspired an explosion of malicious laughter, followed quickly by the impromptu composition of a second, eyebrow-themed version of 'Weasley is Our King.’
"I'm pathetic," Ron announced despondently.
Hermione patted his arm and sighed in a long-suffering, but not entirely un-fond, sort of way.