A Bittersweet Evening
It was Ronald Billius Weasley's firm belief that a good mug of butterbeer could wash just about any worry away, which may very well be why, if one were to look, he could have been found in The Three Broomsticks during that particular visit to Hogsmeade. However, despite its warm atmosphere (and warmer beverages), Ron couldn't be bothered to muster up any more than a half-hearted 'mmph' whenever someone approached him. Even Madam Rosmerta, the pretty little landlady on whom Ron had developed the slightest of crushes, had a hard time putting a smile on his face (something she had a tendency to do without even trying, most days). In the end, she simply assumed a look of motherly concern and offered him a free butterbeer to "warm you up a bit, and to Harry and Hermione, too."
But, that's just it, Ron notioned bitterly. There was nobody else. Hermione was more than likely in the Gryffindor common room completing the heaps of homework they had all been assigned over winter break (It's the fourth bloody day of break! Can't she wait just once like the rest of us?), and Harry was probably in the library preparing for that ridiculous Triwizard Tournament he somehow entered himself into. (As if he isn't famous enough already, the prat!) Sure, he could turn to Neville or Luna (They're nice and all, but...), or even Colin Creevey (I may as well lock myself in the dungeons with Snape!), but it just wouldn't be the same. They don't know him like Harry and Hermione do. They don't know what it's like to constantly try to live up to expectations so high that they're just flat-out unreasonable. Nobody does.
Madam Rosmerta returned to Ron's niche in the corner of the pub with three fresh mugs of butterbeer and a "buck up, buckaroo" smile on her face, inviting him once more to help himself. Seeing no other solution, Ron simply obliged, if just to appease her enough to leave him to his misery. He raised the mug to his lips and felt the warm liquid trickle down his throat, but recoiled instantly as his eyes widened in surprise and a small "Blimey..." left his lips. This wasn't the butterbeer he was used to drinking, and after living with Fred and George for so long, he had learned that it paid to be a bit skeptical of anything unfamiliar and/or liquefied, however good it may taste.
Rosmerta chuckled, expecting as much from such a young client, "It's my special recipe!" she announced with a hint of pride, "Always helps me relax after a hard day. Take it slow though, Ronnie; it's a bit strong!" She smiled and turned as if she were about to walk away, but then thought better of herself and added, "Oh, and be sure to let Harry and Hermione know that, too. Wouldn't want you lot to think I'm trying to poison you, now would I? Haha!" Satisfied, Rosmerta gave one last hopeful wink and sauntered away to tend to a group of Gringotts goblins winding down after a long day of embezzling funds.
Ron merely smiled after her, musing that unless Harry and Hermione were to enter the pub within the next four minutes and beg forgiveness, he wouldn't give them so much as a drop, not of something this good. It did more than just make him feel warm on the inside; it made him feel lighter, like he could fly higher and faster than Harry, even with his Firebolt. It almost made him forget that he couldn't afford a new broomstick at all! Each sip meant another worry out the door and, soon enough, Ron began to wonder if he was ingesting butterbeer or hundreds of little Cheering Charms. It was a high unlike any other; a high he'd needed for a very, very long time.
And that was just after the first mug.
As Ron sped through the second and third portions of Heaven-on-Earth, the pub's goings-on were magnified as if he were witnessing them for the first time, despite having spent most of his day there. Katie and Angelina were discussing the best way to avoid bludgers without depending on a beater to be there ("No, no, swerve, THEN roll! Anything else and you're liable to fly right off your broomstick!"); Cho and Marietta appeared to be conversing about the three male champions and which one would look best on Witch Weekly ("I say Lockhart beats all three! Oh, whyyy did he leave? He never got the chance to ask me to the Yule Ball..."); Justin and Ernie had very serious expressions on their faces and appeared to be mouthing the word 'Potter' every so often (or poppies, it really could have gone either way); even Hermione looked as if she were enjoying herself, flying from table to table like a true social butterfly but staying for no more than a few seconds at each, almost as if she were searching for someone.
As it turns out, she was.
"Oh, Ro—? RON!" Hermione shrieked as horror crept onto her face. Unbeknownst to him, both of Ron's ears and cheeks had turned a surprising shade of scarlet from an unwise amount of butterbeer and a dazed look dominated his features, making it appear as if he'd had at least five too many shots of hard liquor. "What are you doing?!" she chided, "You look positively awful! How many butterbeers have you had? You do know that these contain alcohol, don't you? Ooh, you are SO lucky Fred and George played that horrible prank on me and switched my quill for that ridiculous Sugar Quill or I may not have come to find you until who KNOWS when!"
Ron sniggered semi-appropriately, interrupted by the occasional hiccup. "Ahaha! They got you again! Brilli-hic!-ant!" he hollered, so loudly that it seemed he either thought Hermione to be half-deaf or the situation to be much more amusing than it really ought to have been, "Really, Hermione, how much longer are you gonna -hic!- keep leaving those out? It's like you ask for -hic!- it!"
Fortunately for the both of them, Hermione knew better than to try to reason with him in such a deplorable state of mind. Instead, she forced him out of his chair (dutifully ignoring any 'ow's that may have escaped from the mouth of the boy with the flaming red hair), maneuvered him through the bewildered crowds while lecturing him under her breath, and pushed him out of the stuffy little pub and into the soft glow of dusk at Hogsmeade.
It was as if he was seeing magic for the very first time.
A light snow danced to the ground ever so gracefully; little ballerinas there for but a moment before melting away into the mystical haze that always seemed to encroach upon the little village at such a time of day. Warmth exuberated from every building, gently contrasting the slight chill commonly associated with the British breeze. The air was littered with the careful whispers of passerby, afraid that if they made any sudden movements or sounds the moment might shatter and disappear as if it were never there. Witches and wizards and creatures alike leisurely strolled through the streets, anxieties purged and important appointments forgotten, the scents of cinnamons and fudges and toffees the only things on their minds.
Nothing could spoil this for Ron. Not Harry, not Hermione (who was still half-dragging him through the snow, though at a considerably slower pace now), not Fleur, not Percy, not Malfoy, not even Severus Snape himself. It's as if the whole world stood still, if just for a moment, and let him submerse himself in absolute bliss; forever untainted and untouchable, locked in the annals of time. It suddenly became very clear to Ron why alcohol was such a powerful industry, and if he didn't know it would all eventually catch up to him, he wouldn't hesitate to intoxicate himself every once in a while. It was quite the experience; at least, until he began feeling so sick to his stomach that he could hardly stand on his own two feet. It was catching up to him sooner than he thought.
Hermione nearly tripped over herself when Ron stumbled and began to lurch forward constantly, as if he were about to gag. "Oh, Ron…!" she nagged, bending down to brush some of his unkempt hair out of his fairly flushed face (just in case), "This is exactly why you're supposed to either drink in moderation or not at all! How on Earth am I expected to get you back to the castle like this?"
Ron vomited in response, coloring the snow a sickly shade of yellow and nearly causing Hermione to drop him in surprise. She gave a sigh of exasperation and heaved him onto his bum, his back against the front wall of the local sweetshop, Honeydukes. Hermione sighed once more, this one of acquiescence, and, after making certain that Ron was stable enough to sit, stood up. "I'll be out in a moment, Ron. With any luck, we'll find someone to— oh, Rooon, don't slouch!" she cried out in irritation, lowering herself again to hold him up, "You'll fall over! Honestly, I could be halfway through my report on Bridget Wenlock's contributions to Arithmancy if you would just coopera—"
"… Herm-own-ninny…?" interjected a deep, almost rough voice as it emerged from the sweetshop. Although he's sure he had heard it before, Ron simply couldn't place who was speaking, his senses dulled from a mild case of alcohol poisoning. He could only make out a tall silhouette wrapped in a crimson red so vivid from the sun's stark illumination that it hurt his eyes.
Bloody hell… why is it so bright all of a sudden…?
Hermione turned around quickly; her bushy brown curls nearly slapping Ron in the face. At last, a solution! "Viktor!" she exclaimed in triumph, "Oh, Viktor! Ron's really ill, I don't think he can stand anymore, and he's far too heavy for me to carry, even with a Wingardium Leviosa… oh, I really do hate to ask, but could you possibly—?"
"Of course, do not vorry," Viktor cut in soothingly, sensing the apprehension in her voice. He then knelt down next to Ron and propped him up a bit so as to better fit his arms behind his neck and under his legs and, in one deft movement, swept Ron up into his agile arms, completely oblivious to Hermione's attempts to conceal her blushing. Turning to face her, he inquired, "I veel take him to the nurse, yes?"
Mmm… it's warm…
"Oh, y-yes…" she stammered, wondering whether Krum had any idea that Ron appeared to be a little too comfortable in his embrace. She composed herself swiftly and continued, "That's… that's right, Madam Pomfrey. She ought to be in the Hospital Wing, on the third floor…"
She paused, allowing a look of sadness to find its way onto her face; she knew perfectly well that Ron would only grow even more furious at her if he were to discover that it was she who found him completely smashed and humiliated him in public. She couldn't take him to the infirmary, not if she wanted him to ever speak to her again. Resigned to her decision, she whispered, not quite looking Viktor in the eye, "I actually have a few more things I need to buy before I head back up to Hogwarts myself… you don't suppose you'd be able to find your own way, do you?"
Viktor cocked his head to one side, an unreadable expression on his face. "I—" he began, when Ron inadvertently nudged him in the chest with his elbow. Viktor interpreted this as an "I'm here too, you know!" (though it was really an "I'm uncomfortable, let me move around a bit...") and decided to start over, "Ah... I mean, ve'll manage, I am sure."
Barely conscious, Ron smiled. Finally, someone was paying attention to him.