Part One – "Prefect Patrol"
Six Weeks Later…

Ronald Weasley, sixth year Gryffindor student at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry walked down the boys' stairs to the common room of Gryffindor Tower, pinning his shiny scarlet-and-gold prefect's badge to his lapel before buttoning his faded robes over his battered old jeans and flannel shirt.

As he reached the bottom step, he found his best friend and partner-in-prefect-duties, Hermione Granger, standing by the portrait hole, smiling as she waited for him. Ron eagerly returned the smile and made his way across the room to joinher. Ordinarily, Ron would hate wasting a Saturday night doing "school stuff", but being alone with Hermione for three hours made it worth giving up a precious, homework-free weekend night.

On his way to reach Hermione, Ron noticed something odd about the common room for a Saturday night on the verge of curfew: it was conspicuously absent of any students older than a fifth year. Understandably curious, Ron questioned Hermione about it.

"Where is everybody?"

"What do you mean, Ron?" Hermione looked around at the dozens of students whiling away their night around them.

"The older students, Hermione," he explained, "Neville's upstairs writing a letter to his Gran, but the rest of the sixth and seventh years aren't here."

"Well, Harry's with Dumbledore," she replied as she looked around for any sign of the absent older students, "And I suppose Ginny is off with Dean somewhere…"

"Well, they'd better just get backbefore curfew…or I'll give them all detention!" Ron growled, disgruntled at the mention of his little sister and her boyfriend, as opposed to the students actually being out of the Tower as curfew neared.

Hermione rolled her eyes and huffed in annoyance at him. "Honestly, Ron, let it go! Ginny is old enough to make her own decisions about who she dates; you have no businessinterfering."

"I'm her brother," Ron argued, stating the obvious.

"Yes, and as her brother, you should trust her enough to respect her decision," Hermione snapped, "This is just like Fourth Year all over again!"

"What is that supposed to mean?" Ron exclaimed, eyes wide. They'd been getting along so well, and nowall of a sudden she was bringing up Fourth Year? That would inevitably lead somewhere…and to someone…Ron really didn't want to discuss.

"The way you're treating Ginny with Dean is the same way you treated me with Viktor back then," Hermione explained, on the cusp of shouting, "Saying he's too old and that he has an ulterior motive…!"

"This is a completely different situation, Hermione," Ron said, trying not to shout…though her bringing up Krum made it extremely difficult, "Ginny is my sister, and you…well…you're definitely not my sister!"

"Oh, once again, well spotted, Ron!" Hermione snapped, though she blushed when Ron made the point that she was definitely not his sister. She had often wondered and worried that his feelings for her were those of an older brother; that he protected her for the same reason he tried to protect Ginny. She hoped, desperately, that they were on the same wavelength, and he saw her as un-sisterly as she wanted him to. An unmistakable feeling of warmth spread through her at the prospect, but Ron quickly quashed it with his next words.

"And for the record, Hermione," Ron said acidly, "Viktor and Dean are too old and they could have ulterior motives!"

"Ron," she snapped, putting her hands angrily on her hips, "You are an utter prat, do you know that?"

Before Ron could answer her, Hermione turned on her heel and began crawling out through the portrait hole.

"Hey!" Ron shouted, hurrying after her, "We're not finished with this!"

"Oh, yes we are!" Hermione shouted back over her shoulder as she emerged from the hole into the hallway in front of the painting of the Fat Lady, "I'm quite finished, Ronald!"

"Hermione, come on…wait up!" he called after her as he saw her taking off towards the stairs, "We're supposed to patrol together!"

Reminding her of her duty as a school prefect seemed to do the trick, for Hermione stopped in her tracks and waited for Ron to catch her up…though she didn't look the least bit happy about it.

"You are a real piece-of-work, Ronald," she spat once he caught up and, together, they began moving down the staircase towards the fourth floor, where they were slated to begin their patrol, "One minute you say something that's almost sweet and makes me think you might just care about me, and the next minute you null it all out by making a stupid comment about Viktor!"

"I do care about you, Hermione," he said, though his tone was no indicator, "That's the reason I get so worked up when you start talking about Vicky!"

"His name is Viktor, Ron," she replied darkly, completely ignoring his declaration, "And the only reason I brought him up is because you're treating the situation with Dean the same way you treated the situation with him! Don't you see the corollary?"

"Uh…no?" Ron didn't want to admit it, but he wasn't quite sure what 'corollary' meant.

"You didn't want me to date Viktor, and now you don't want Ginny to date Dean. Why is that, Ron?" Hermione was determined to get an honest answer out of him once and for all.

"Because she's my little sister and I'm the only Weasley son left at Hogwarts," Ron explained, causing Hermione to frown as he avoided the part about her, "I have to look out for her…protect her from all those perverted sods who just want to get into her knickers!"

"And Dean is one of those perverted sods?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at him, "You've never spoken badly of him before."

"Maybe not," Ron conceded, "Maybe he's not a pervert, but he isn't nearly good enough for Ginny."

"Then who is good enough to date your sister, Ron?" Hermione asked, knowing that Ginny would be interested in hearing the answer, even if it was second-hand.

"I dunno," he said, shrugging his shoulders and running his fingers through his hair, "Harry, maybe?"

Silence fell between them as Ron and Hermione reached the fourth floor landing. Hermione realized that they had finally reached the root of the issue…at least the issue concerning Ginny and Dean.

"Ron," Hermione began in a softer tone, her anger and frustration starting to abate, "You do realize that Ginny's moved on from her childhood crush on Harry…"

"Well, I didn't until she started dating that git, Michael Corner," Ron replied in a tone that seemed to imply that he didn't like being kept out of the loop, "You have to admit that she's way to good for him!"

"Maybe so, but Michael was her choice and so was Dean," she said, shrugging noncommittally, "And Harry doesn't see her as anything other than your sister, Ron…not yet at least."

"I reckon you're right," he sighed.

Hermione reached over and patted him on the shoulder, "I know you'd like for Harry to some day be an official member of your family…it could still happen you know…once Harry realizes Ginny is a girl and not just a Weasley boy with long hair."

"Maybe we could lock them in a room together until he figured it out," Ron suggested, only half-joking, "I mean…if anyone's going to date her…well…he's the bloke I trust the most."

"As I said, Ron…it could still happen," Hermione repeated, but her tone of voice was such that it was obvious she was about to qualify her statement, "But…you also have to face the possibility that Ginny might wind up with someone else. She's happy with Dean right now. Isn't that enough?"

"I reckon it ought to be," Ron admitted, running his fingers roughly through his hair, "But Harry's a lot better than Dean…I mean, if I really admitted it to myself, he's the only bloke good enough for you, in my opinion."

"I beg your pardon?" Hermione laughed, looking completely taken aback by Ron's statement.

"Come on, Hermione, he's Harry-bloody-Potter...the Boy-Who-Lived," Ron said, as if encouraging her to fall in love with Harry, "He's rich, famous, powerful, he's a natural at Quidditch -…"

"Then maybe you should date him," Hermione scoffed, "Need I remind you that he's also moody, secretive, emotionally closed off, often-times unwilling to listen to his friends let alone authority figures, and much too willing to get himself and us in trouble over and over again."

"But you said yourself that you fancy him," he replied, sounding confused.

"I said no such thing!" she yelled, unable to believe Ron would make such an asinine statement.

"You did so!" Ron urged, "The morning of the Quidditch trials…you said Harry's never been more interesting or more fanciable; then you went on about how he's the Chosen One and battled You-Know-Who and has been persecuted and scarred and how he's gotten tall…I'm tall and I have scars, Hermione, but you don't go around calling me interesting or fanciable!"

Hermione gaped at him in shock. It was obvious that she had inadvertently hurt Ron's feelings back then, and would need to soothe him now.

"Ron, I absolutely do not fancy Harry," she assured him, "All I was trying to do was boost Harry's confidence…trying to make him understand why everyone seems to be so enraptured by him…maybe even get him out there showing interest in girls again."

"You've never done that for me…" he pouted.

Once again, she looked stunned at Ron, then she blushed deeply, "There's a reason for that, you know. To be honest…I don't want you out there showing interest in girls. Why do you think I made such a big deal of you not realizing I was a girl?"

"What? I…"

"I want you out there noticing me, Ron! Me!" Hermione seemed out of breath and her face was bright red. Her mane of frizzy chestnut hair seemed to be even more out of control than usual.

"I do notice you, Hermione," Ron admitted, "And I noticed that you were a girl before Fourth Year rolled around as well."

Hermione shot Ron a look that said she didn't believe him, but he just nodded and continued.

"I always knew," he continued, "I just never realized I was supposed to make a big deal about it. I mean, did you really want me to point out that you were a girl all the time?"

"I didn't need you to point it out," she answered, "I just needed you to acknowledge it."

"I reckon I wasn't comfortable acknowledging it. I mean, the minute I do, you stop being my friend Hermione and start being my girl friend…err…friend-who's-a-girl Hermione," Ron blushed at nearly calling her his girlfriend. He kept his eyes downcast and wouldn't look at her as he spoke.

"Would that really have been so bad?" Hermione asked, blushing as well.

"I would've thought you'd have felt left out if we were all of a sudden two blokes and a girl instead of just three mates like we'd always been," he explained, shrugging slightly.

"How would that be any different than it is now, Ron?" Hermione asked with a plaintive warble in her voice, indicating that she was close to tears, "You and Harry exclude me from so much already!"

"Like what?" Ron asked defensively.

"Oh, just everything!" she exclaimed, tears finally falling as years of pent-up frustration was finally vented, "You and Harry have been thick as thieves since Day One; do you realize how hard I struggled trying to become friends with you? Everything I did just pushed you further away. It took that stupid troll nearly killing me before you'd let me in! And even after that, your friendship with Harry just came naturally, while we've had to fight…literally…to remain friends!"

"It's just easier with Harry," he said matter-of-factly, "He's a bloke so we have a lot of common interests…like Quidditch! You hate Quidditch!"

"I don't hate Quidditch," she retorted, her voice taking on that haughty, superior tone that always led to some of their worst rows, "I just don't understand why you boys treat it like it's the most important thing in your lives!"

"See? This is what comes of acknowledging your girlness," Ron replied heatedly, "You exclude yourself by lumping me and Harry together as 'boys'; where's that leave you? By yourself because you're not a boy! Isn't it better when we're just three mates regardless of boyness and girlness?"

"Regardless of gender, Ron, the three of us are friends, but you still exclude me," Hermione insisted, "How many Weasley jumpers has Harry received in the last five years, and how many have I received?"

"You actually want one of Mum's homemade jumpers?" Ron asked, eyes wide with incredulity, "Merlin, Hermione, I figured you were too good for that."

"What is that supposed to mean, Ronald?" she asked, feeling insulted, "Do you think I'm a snob?"

"I just mean…your parents are well-off…they can afford to buy you nice things," he said and realized almost immediately that he'd once again put his foot in his mouth where Hermione is concerned.

"For your information, Ronald Weasley," she replied, her eyes full of hurt and anger, "I would cherish one of your mother's Weasley jumpers! I'd rather have one of them than a dozen outfits from the finest boutique in Muggle London!"

"Mum will love to hear that," he told her, smiling bashfully, "She's been dying to make you a Weasley jumper for years!"

"Then why hasn't she?" Hermione asked, completely beside herself now.

"I told her not to," Ron admitted, looking down at his feet again, not willing to meet her eyes, knowing there was hurt and sadness lurking in those deep brown orbs that he had once again put there, "I thought you'd be embarrassed if you got one."

"Ron!" she cried in exasperation, "I always felt left out because of that! Everyone I was close to in the Wizarding world had one of your mother's wonderful jumpers except me! You never thought I'd feel excluded?"

"I'm sorry, Hermione, I really am," he said, shame-faced, "I didn't realize…I…I'm sorry. I'll owl Mum in the morning and tell her to make you one this year, alright?"

"Ron, if you don't want me to have one of your mum's jumpers, you don't have to owl her," she said, trying to sound matter-of-fact, but deep down hoping that she'd receive her very own Weasley jumper this Christmas.

"No…now that I know you want one, I want to let Mum know as soon as possible," he replied, wishing he could make up for the last five years of excluding her from something he only now realized she desperately wanted to be a part of, "She's really going to burst her buttons when she finds out she gets to make you a jumper."

Hermione smiled demurely. She was finally going to get her very own Weasley jumper…she could hardly wait until Christmas morning. She was so caught up in the notion of getting the jumper that she almost forgot what she and Ron had been so hotly discussing moments before; but Ron managed to bring her back in his own clumsy fashion.

"So that's why you say we exclude you…because you've never gotten a jumper?"

"What? No, of course not," she countered, surprised that he would think that was the only problem, "You and Harry exclude me in other ways as well. For instance, you two keep secrets from me all the time."

"What secrets?" he asked, agog.

"Well, how many times has Harry had a nightmare and you didn't tell me because he told you not to?" she asked him, her arms crossed stiffly.

"I don't know, Hermione…a fair few, I reckon," Ron admitted, "But believe me, I'd rather not know about them than to have to watch and listen to Harry having them. You want to deal with Harry's bad dreams? Be my guest…but you'll also have to deal with Neville, Dean, and Seamus and their…bodily functions."

"Ron, that's disgusting!" Hermione laughed, relaxing her angry stance a bit.

"Exactly," he replied, flashing her a cheeky grin.

"I suppose you'd enjoy living in my dorm, though," she said, giving him her own cheeky grin, "With Lavender and Parvati in their skimpy nightdresses and their incessant chatter about boys, clothes, boys, hair, boys, makeup, boys, boys, boys, and oh, did I mention boys?"

"Reckon I can do without the chatter," Ron said, looking as though he was picturing the girls' dorm in his mind, "But I wouldn't mind the skimpy nightdresses."

"Now, why is it okay for you to acknowledge that Parvati and Lavender are girls, but it's such a problem for you to show me that courtesy?" Hermione asked rather huffily.

"Why, do you want to wear skimpy nightdresses, too?" he asked, blushing at the image of Hermione in some flimsy, sheer nightgown like the ones in the Muggle catalogues Seamus and Dean brought with them every year…something that showed ample cleavage and lots and lots of smooth, creamy thigh.

"You're avoiding my question, Ron," she said sternly, trying to hide her blush as she thought of Ron looking at her in some of the 'sexy' nightgowns that Lavender and Parvati had been known to wear from time-to-time.

"Parvati and Lavender are not my best friends," Ron stated flatly, "You are. They're girls and everyone sees them that way…especially the blokes…but I don't care because they're not you. But as soon as everyone sees you as a girl, blokes will do as well, and before you know it, you've got some poncey git for a boyfriend, and I've lost you."

Hermione gaped at Ron, unable to believe his words. "How could you lose me, Ron? You're my best friend; no boy will change that. We'll always be friends."

"When I say I'd 'lose you'," he said softly, keeping his eyes glued to the floor, "I mean I'd lose my chance with you; just like I did in Fourth Year."

They stood in silence once again as Hermione took in his words. The fact that Ron wanted a chance with her made Hermione want to climb to the top of the Astronomy Tower and sing at the top of her lungs. A look over at Ron, however, popped her bubble of happiness and quelled her urge to sing.

He looked miserable. Ron's face was still downcast and his eyes were locked on the flagged stone floor that he kept scuffing back-and-forth with his feet. He looked as if he'd lost all hope and Hermione's heart went out to him.

"I won't lie to you, Ron," Hermione began tentatively, "Other boys have taken notice: Terry Boot, Ernie MacMillan, Anthony Goldstein, and Zacharias Smith have all shown me some interest. I've even caught Seamus giving me the once-over once or twice…and I won't even mention the lustful leers from that awful Cormac McLaggen…"

"I'll kill 'em!" Ron growled, finally looking up. He looked angry enough to breathe fire, and Hermione had to fight back a satisfied smile.

"You can't kill every boy who shows me some interest," she said, hoping he'd get the hint that it was him she wanted to show interest in her, "Besides, you have something those other boys don't."

"And what's that?" he asked, understandably curious.

"The inside track," Hermione said simply, her lips turned up at the corners.

"Huh?" Ron was a bit confused by what he assumed was a Muggle figure-of-speech.

"I did ask you to Professor Slughorn's Christmas party, didn't I?" Hermione asked when she realized she needed to spell it out for him, "And you did agree to go, didn't you?"

"Yeah…" Ron said, nodding.

"So, technically, we're going on a date, aren't we?"

"Yeah!" he said it with such enthusiasm and such a big smile crossed his face that Hermione couldn't help feeling her heart swell.

Hermione smiled broadly as Ron beamed at her. "So, as long as you don't do something completely stupid…like snogging Lavender Brown in the common room or something…"

"Even I'm not that big a prat!"

They laughed at the completely ridiculous image of Ron and Lavender sprawled on a couch in the Gryffindor common room, attached, lamprey-like, to each other's mouth, sucking face. Something that absurd could never happen! By the time they stopped laughing, Ron and Hermione had followed their patrol route up to the sixth floor.

"I think we should establish some ground rules for our date," Hermione said in the voice she used when setting up timetables for revising for exams.

"Rules? Bloody Hell!" Ron exclaimed in exasperation.

"There you go," she said quickly, smiling, "Rule #1: No swearing."

"Come on, Hermione," he pleaded, "You know the sort of prats who get invited to those 'Slug Club' parties…I'm sure I'm going to have to swear at someone!"

"Rule #2: Best behavior," she went on, ignoring him, "This is a date, Ronald, so I expect you to act accordingly. Rule #3: No fighting. I don't care who they are, Ron! No fighting at all…not even if it's McLaggen!"

"He's a pervy git, Hermione!" he exclaimed, trying to make her understand, "You said yourself he was leering at you! The Conjunctivitis Curse will teach him to leer at my…err…you."

"No spells either, Ron," she said, trying to hide her joy at him slipping and almost calling her his, "No wand-play at all. That's Rule #4."

"Bloody girls and their barmy rules," Ron grumbled as they continued to patrol along the sixth floor corridor.

"Thank you for reminding me, Ron," Hermione said with a wry grin, "Since you've finally acknowledged that I'm a girl, I expect to be treated as one on our date…Rule #5."

"What does that even mean?" Ron asked humorlessly.

"Surely someone in your family has told you how to treat a girl on a date," Hermione replied, "Perhaps not the twins or Percy…but certainly Bill or Charlie or your father must have said something…or maybe your mother. If you didn't pay attention, perhaps you should send an owl and ask them to repeat the lesson. I'm certainly not going to tell you what you should do on the date. Putting forth a little effort into this date will be good for you."

The fact that, by establishing rules for the date, she was telling him what he should and shouldn't do on the date seemed to escape Hermione's notice.

"You're turning this into homework, Hermione," Ron huffed, whinging a bit.

"Ron…I don't want this to be like homework…I'm sorry," she frowned, "It's just…it's our first date. I want it to be special and I want us to enjoy ourselves. Don't you?"

"Well, yeah…of course," he nodded.

"Then you'll do this for me? You'll put the effort in?" she looked hopefully at him.

"Yeah…" he sighed, nodding his head in defeat.

"Good!" she smiled happily, stepping in and giving him a quick hug, "Who knows, Ron…? If the night goes well, I might be inclined to go on a second date with you…though I insist that you ask me out next time. Rule #6: Learn to take the initiative."

Ron sighed and rolled his eyes as they concluded their patrol of the sixth floor and made their way up to the seventh. Talk of rules for their date continued (Rule #7: Absolutely no talk of Quidditch; Rule #8: No alcohol; Rule #9: No talking while eating) and eventually passed on to talk of wardrobe.

"I'm actually rather excited to see you in your new dress robes," she said as they moved past the entrance to Dumbledore's office, "Not that I didn't think your old robes were…interesting…"

"My old robes were hideous!" he groaned, remembering the maroon-and-lace hand-me-down nightmare he reluctantly wore to the Yule Ball, "The ones Fred and George gave me are much better! I still can't believe they did that…I mean, they're never nice to me. I keep expecting some kind of trick…like I'll put on the robes and turn into a giant canary!"

Hermione laughed at the imagery of Ron transforming into a big yellow bird and he couldn't help but chuckle along with her.

"You did try them on, didn't you…and nothing happened?"

"Well, yeah," he said, nodding, "But it would be just like Fred and George to jinx the robes so they only do it when I'm wearing them at an actual party."

"You do have a point," Hermione laughed, "If you like, I can take a look at them and see if I can find any hidden spells that have been cast on them."

"Brilliant!" Ron said with a broad smile, "With you on my side, whatever the twins did to my robes won't stand a chance."

Hermione smiled and blushed at Ron's words. This was what she liked most about being a prefect; not the prestige or the added responsibility or the respect of the other students…this: getting to spend a few hours alone with Ron, talking and getting to know each other better. She loved Harry to death, but he dominated their attention when he was around; they were always so worried about Voldemort and the war that she and Ron had to put their own wants and needs aside. But here, patrolling the halls…without Harry…it was all about them and it was very nice.

"So, what color are your robes? Maybe I'll get robes that match…although I was thinking of going with red since it is for a Christmas party…" Hermione trailed off as she heard Ron chuckling at her. "What?" she asked, looking disgruntled.

"You sound like Lavender and Parvati," Ron laughed, "Going all mental over clothes."

"I do not sound like them!" she huffed, stomping her foot.

"Sure you do…but it's cute when you do it," he said, smiling shyly.

"Cute?" she squeaked, blushing deeply.

"Yeah," he replied, blushing as well. Ron couldn't believe he said that to her…though he really did think she was cute. Still, admitting it was a bit embarrassing, so he changed the subject back to clothes, "They're dark blue, by the way…my robes that is."

"Oh, really?" she was starting to sound excited again, "Those will go very well with your eyes." She blushed again as she realized that she actually did sound like her roommates. Ron was smirking at her, so she scowled at him. "Shut up."

They fell into a somewhat comfortable silence for a few minutes as they patrolled until Ron spoke again, breaking it.

"Why do you need new dress robes?" he asked, "I mean, the blue ones you have are…they make you look…they're nice."

He grimaced at the aborted attempt at a compliment. The dress robes she wore in Fourth Year were beautiful and they made her look gorgeous, but he couldn't tell her that. After all, he was still slightly embarrassed from calling her earlier clothes-inspired rambling "cute".

"Well," she replied, happy that Ron was at least trying, "They also no longer fit, you see. It's been two years and I've grown a couple of inches and…filled out…a bit."

They both blushed at the mention of her filling out. Ron had seen her in a swimming costume over the summer at the Burrow, and he knew for a fact that Hermione had filled out considerably, not merely "a bit".

That first day, seeing her in the pond in the Burrow's back garden, Hermione's filled-out proportions had forced Ron to remain in the deeper part of the pond until his embarrassing erection went away. That night he'd wanked a fair few times to mental images of Hermione in…and out of…her tight red swimming costume.

"You look good in red," he squeaked, his voice cracking embarrassingly.

"You think so?" she was surprised…but incredibly pleased…that he would make such a declaration, "Then it's settled; red dress robes, it is!"

Ron smiled and Hermione smiled back until they were both overcome with embarrassment and looked away from each other. They had stopped walking without realizing it, so they returned to their patrol. This time when the silence was broken, it was Hermione who broke it.

"There is another reason I want new dress robes," Hermione said, unsure if she had the courage to reveal the truth to Ron.

"What's that?" Ron asked, curious.

"I wanted the robes for our first date to be robes only you had seen me in," she confessed, "A dress that's just for you."

"I…you…really?" he stammered, "Just for me?"

"Is there something wrong with me wanting to look nice just for you?" she asked, blushing.

"N-no…of course not…I just…" he seemed to be searching for the right thing to say, failing miserably, "Cheers, Hermione."

She smiled at Ron and moved a little closer to him as they walked down the corridors of the seventh floor on their way back towards Gryffindor Tower. They were so close that their hands kept brushing together as they walked.

Hermione wasn't sure who started it, but they started taking turns extending their fingers so they'd brush more definitely against each other. This continued for several minutes until Ron captured her fingers in his hand, making her gasp.

From that point on, Ron and Hermione walked hand-in-hand. They patrolled in silence but kept stealing furtive glances at each other and smiling happily. For the first time in quite some time, Ron and Hermione were content…both with themselves and with each other.

Ron and Hermione were about halfway between the entrance to Dumbledore's office and the portrait of the Fat Lady hiding the entrance to Gryffindor Tower when a green door suddenly appeared about ten feet in front of them in the wall across from the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy…a wall that had been previously blank.

"The Room of Requirement?" Hermione looked dumbfounded as the door appeared completely, "Ron, did you…?"

Before Hermione could ask Ron if he had somehow summoned the room into being without first walking in front of it three times, the door opened and loud music and other strange noises could be heard from within. They were just about to step up and investigate when a very flustered-looking Colin Creevey exited the room and closed the door.

"Colin?"

At the sound of Hermione's voice, the nervous-looking fifth year jumped nearly a foot and backed up quickly against the wall, his eyes wide and his face pale as he took in the sight of the two prefects standing before him.

"Hermione…Ron…h-hi! W-what are you doing here…i-isn't it past curfew?" Colin was normally very high-strung and he seemed even moreso now.

"It is past curfew, Colin," Hermione said, nodding. She let go of Ron's hand and approached the younger boy, "Ron and I are on prefect duty, patrolling the halls. But what are you doing here?"

"Oh, I was just heading back to the Tower. I was…uh…I lost track of time while I was working on some Herbology homework," Colin replied, obviously lying, "I was just heading to bed."

"Colin, why are you lying to us?" Hermione asked, calling him on his dishonesty. Before he could answer, though, Ron asked his own question.

"I thought I heard voices in the Room of Requirement, Colin; is that where all the missing Gryffindors are?"

"Missing Gryffindors?" Colin repeated Ron's words, squeaking as he spoke.

"The sixth and seventh years, Colin," Ron explained, his voice rising along with his temper, "Do you realize how much bloody trouble you all are in?"

"Language, Ron," Hermione scolded him out of habit.

"Sorry, Hermione," Ron replied, giving her an honest look that told her he really meant it.

She flashed him a quick smile before turning back to Colin. "Ron's right…the whole lot of you are going to get a detention for this."

"And once McGonagall finds out that we handed out detentions to more than a dozen fellow Gryffindors all at the same time," Ron continued, his voice harsh…so unlike his usual demeanor, "She's going to want details…and she'll probably dock us every single House point we've got!"

"No! You can't tell Professor McGonagall!" Colin exclaimed, looking positively frightened at this point, "That's why Cormac didn't invite you in the first place!"

"What?" Ron and Hermione shouted at the same time.

Colin slapped his hands over his mouth, blushing embarrassedly as he realized he had said too much.

"What is going on, Colin?" Hermione asked sternly, in her best emulation of Professor McGonagall.

"Yeah, what didn't that git McLaggen invite us to?" Ron asked, eyes narrowed.

"It's a party," Colin confessed, knowing he was caught and there was no way around it, "Cormac didn't invite either one of you because he knew you would go to Professor McGonagall if you found out, Hermione; and he figured you would tell Hermione if you knew, Ron. He only told me about it because he wanted me to take pictures of the whole thing."

"What about the seventh year prefects?" Hermione asked, her voice somewhat bitter. She didn't like being thought of as someone who would automatically report students for having a party. Of course, she'd have to report them now…it was very nearly midnight….well after curfew.

"They're in there," Colin admitted, "They're not as strict as you are, Hermione."

Ron scowled at Colin; he knew the younger boy's words would undoubtedly hurt Hermione's feelings. She was a stickler for the rules, sure, but she didn't like being thought of as some kind of junior McGonagall. Ron hated it when he hurt Hermione's feelings, and he absolutely despised anyone else hurting her feelings.

"They'll be lucky to still have their badges when this is all over with," Ron growled, glaring menacingly at Colin, causing the boy to cower away from him, "Get back to the Tower, Colin. Now."

"Okay…thanks," Colin said, smiling anxiously, "I was heading back there anyway to get more film. Be right back!"

"No, Colin…go back to the Tower and stay in the Tower," Ron clarified, doing his best not to lose his temper at the squirrelly fifth year.

"Oh…okay…bye," Colin waved awkwardly and left, hurrying off down the hall towards Gryffindor Tower. Ron watched him go and waited until he was sure the younger boy was out of earshot before he spoke again.

"Can you believe him?" Ron said in exasperation, "As if we'd just let him nick back to his dorm for more film so he could return to the party!"

"I'm sorry, Ron," Hermione sniffed. It was only then that he realized she was crying.

"Sorry? For what?" he thought that he should take her into his arms and comfort her…what's more, he really wanted to…but he didn't. He was too shy…too unsure of their newfound closeness, so he settled for once again taking her hand.

"I know how getting invited to things like this party is important to you," she said shakily, not looking at him, "You're being left out, just like with the Slug Club…only now you're being excluded because of me."

"Hermione…"

"They didn't want me at the party, and they knew you'd never leave me behind if you were going, so they just didn't invite you. For all my talk of you and Harry excluding me from things, the truth is you really do make a point of including me in so much…and now you're being excluded because of it. I'm so sorry, Ron."

She started to sob and despite the potential for awkwardness, he knew he had to hug her. Tentatively at first, Ron stepped closer and put his arms around Hermione. She stiffened for a moment – no doubt shocked by the caring gesture from a boy she had once accused of having the emotional range of a teaspoon – and then sank fully into the embrace, burying her face in his chest.

"Hermione, do you really think I'd go to some stupid party that a git like McLaggen would throw?" he asked as he tightened his arms around her and rested his chin on the top of her head…noting how well they fit together, "Slughorn's parties have you…and they have Harry…and they even have Ginny; I'm being excluded from partying with the three people I'm closest to by Slughorn…that's why I get resentful about the Slug Club."

"Oh," she said softly, her voice muffled by his robes.

"You're not at McLaggen's party," Ron said, slowly running a hand up and down her back in a comforting manner while his other hand was buried in her bushy chestnut curls, "Without you, it wouldn't be a party anyway."

She looked up at him and smiled. Her eyes were red and her nose was running and her cheeks were tear-streaked, but her smile was brilliant, and Ron decided right then-and-there that this hugging thing was something he could definitely get behind. Anything that could make Hermione smile at him like that was definitely a good thing.

"Are you ready to crash the party?" he asked, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously.

"Ron, there is no way we're going to that party," she said, her voice regaining some of its sternness as she started scolding him, "It's against the rules, for one thing."

"Exactly," Ron replied with a devilish grin as he stepped away from her and approached the green door. It had yet to fade away, so the Room of Requirement must have known they would need to enter, "We've got a party to break up and a fair few detentions to hand out."

"Ron, we don't have to do that," Hermione said, her tone changing from stern to defeated in an instant, "People already dislike me for trying to enforce the rules…you don't want them to treat you that way, too. Let's just go back to the common room."

"Who are you, and what have you done with Hermione Granger?" Ron asked, looking at her in disbelief.

"Oh, ha-ha," Hermione rolled her eyes and turned to walk back to Gryffindor Tower, "Let's go."

"No, I'm serious, Hermione," he said, grabbing her hand so she couldn't walk away, "This isn't like you. You don't just roll over like this; where's the fire…where's the fight…where's my Hermione?"

"I…" she was stunned by his words, and couldn't think of what to say.

"Hermione, look, if we look the other way and let this pass, they're going to think they can get away with this whenever they want. And if they get caught and McGonagall finds out we knew and just let it happen…well, if I'm going to lose my badge, it's not going to be for those idiots in there," he said, pointing at the door, "I'm not saying we have to hand out detentions to everybody if you don't want, but it's our duty to end the party. Besides, if I know McLaggen, he's got more than just butterbeer on the drinks table."

She smiled at his impassioned speech. He gave her strength as he always seemed to do, and her confidence returned in an instant. "I always knew you'd live up to your responsibility as a prefect one of these days."

He returned her smile, squeezing her hand, "Had to happen sooner or later, yeah?"

"Yes, it did," she nodded squeezing his hand back and then lacing her fingers together with his. The words had not been said, but there was a definite feeling that it was now the two of them…Ron and Hermione…a team…partners…willing to go up against whatever they had to face out there, so long as they did it together. She wouldn't have it any other way. "Ready, Prefect Weasley?"

"Ready, Prefect Granger."

They opened the door and stepped inside the Room of Requirement intent on breaking up the party and dealing with the room full of rule-breakers; the truth was, however, that they were nowhere near ready for what they found on the other side of that door.