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Adventures in Solitude

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Justin Finch-Fletchley and Ernie Macmillan strutted down the path toward Herbology, their heads held high. Every time one of them caught a glance of Harry Potter they nudged the other so that they could sent twin glares his way.

"The nerve," Ernie said, as he rolled his sleeves up to slip his dragon hide gloves on. "How do you think he always manages it?"

"Don't know," said Justin, shrugging his shoulders. Truthfully he wasn't as full of ire over the matter of Cedric Diggory and Harry Potter as Ernie was, but he would support his friend no matter how furious he was. "Could have been an accident, how would he have crossed the Age-Line?"

"How should I know! He did it somehow." Ernie was flushed with his own indignance by now. "As if Hufflepuff House isn't second to Gryffindor enough. The champion was ours."

"Shh, I know. Relax." Justin patted Ernie's shoulder soothingly. For good measure he made a point to catch Harry Potter's eye over his shoulder, then turn away huffily. "Cedric isn't put out about it -- we should try not to be either, it's beneath us."

Ernie scowled, then let out a deep breath. "You're quite right. We'll just have to support the real champion all the harder."

And indeed, they had. Every time they passed Cedric in the halls they both gave him enthusiastic waves and words of encouragement. Justin stuck close to Ernie, mostly out of concern that he might go berserk left on his own. His concern was such, in fact, that he suggested to Ernie that the two of them accompany one another to the Yule Ball.

"As mates," he said, thinking nothing more of it. He put his hands on his hips, standing assertively to show off and prove to himself how purely mate-like this invitation was.

"Oh," was all Ernie said at first, looking surprised. Justin's heart sank and sped up for a moment, though he wasn't sure why. "Actually, I'm already going with Hannah Abbott. But you should ask Susan Bones -- we could go in a group."

"Brilliant," Justin said, weakly. He didn't exactly feel that it was. In fact, it felt incredibly unpleasant for reasons he couldn't quite discern.

But he had asked Susan, and she'd been quite pleased to accept. She even wore her hair down when the evening came, long dark hair spilled across her shoulders. Their robes complimented the others', and they found Ernie and Hannah shortly. Justin made sure to get the seat beside Ernie when they immediately sat down, Susan taking one on his other side. The girls glanced at each other, then to the dance floor.

"Who's that with Cedric?" Justin asked Ernie, sitting close.

"Cho Chang," Ernie said knowledgeably. "And that's -- er… one of the Patils over there with Potter. Don't know who that is with Krum, though."

"Funny that they have a Ball for the tournament," Justin continued. "Festive, though! To take your mind off the dangers, I reckon. Do you think so? I do."

"And they want us to get on with the other schools. It's politics."

"I wonder what the next task will be! I think it'll have more beasts in it -- but how do you even beat dragons? I don't think you can. That was incredible."

"Maybe I should have invited Neville after all," Hannah said, resting her chin on her palm in boredom.

"Er, shall we dance?" Interjected Susan, taking Justin's hand. He looked surprised.

"Oh -- yes, let's," he said quickly, standing. Ernie stood in turn, squaring his shoulders.

"Yes, may as well! We're lucky to experience a Yule Ball at all, first one in centuries, isn't it?" He looked extremely pleased and took Hannah's hand. The four of them went on as a group, only pairing off when the music slowed. Justin's hands felt clammy against Susan's and he apologized for sweating.

"Just concentrate," she murmured. "You keep stepping on my shoe."

"But I've had lessons! I've -- oh, you're right." He kept glancing around the floor, stepping on Susan when he wasn't looking. He looked at her apologetically.

"I know," she said, sourly. "Eyes on me, if you don't mind."

"Of course, of course," Justin said gallantly, determinedly not looking over as Ernie and Hannah spun across the floor together.

--

Fifth year was a fevered rush that mostly recalled heavy books, the library, and ceaseless boredom. For Justin, however, this wasn't fully the case. He'd found himself preoccupied with a more pressing train of thought, and pulled aside his friend one day as they settled in a corner of the library to study.

"Susan, I have to tell you something," Justin said, pressing his fingertips together anxiously. She looked at him, dark eyebrows raised. He continued before she could interrupt and he lost his nerve: "I think that I like Ernie."

Whatever it was Susan had been expecting, it wasn't that. Her expression hadn't changed aside from her eyes groaning about an inch wider.

"Ernie?"

"Yes."

"Macmillan?"

"Yes."

"The--"

"Yes," Justin said in mild exasperation, his ears turning pink. "Why? What's so unbelievable about it?"

"I guess I didn't think--" She frowned a moment, toying with her braid. "Well, it's not that I didn't consider that -- you are rather obvious about it sometimes, come to think of it, but really… have you spoken to Hannah about it?"

"Hannah?" Justin plucked at his thumbnail, looking at Susan. "What's Hannah got to do with anything?"

"She's his best friend, isn't she? Couldn't she ask him a bit, and find out--"

"I'm Ernie's best friend," Justin corrected, a touch defensively. His thumbnail wouldn't cooperate and he bit it off instead. "I don't see why anyone else needs to know, I'm not planning to do anything about it," he added hesitantly after a moment.

"You're not?" Susan leaned her chin on her hand, clearly fascinated.

"We're terrific friends, I reckon that's enough for me…" His cheeks pinked and his eyebrows furrowed. "Because I don't expect he'd, er, fancy me back."

"I think you're rather cute," Susan said, trying to be helpful. "Your cheeks are a bit round and your ears are sort of goblin-like, but it's not unpleasant."

"Oh, thanks," Justin said in annoyance, covering his ears with his hands. "Goblin-like?"

"They're just a bit pointy, that's all! Anyway… I don't think he's seeing anyone, but I don't know if he'd, well, slide to the right or to the left, if you catch my meaning," she said.

"That's why I'm not telling him."

"Not telling who what?" Said Ernie, dropping a couple of large books onto Justin and Susan's table. "Hey, I'm glad I caught you two here. I was thinking: whilst we all study for our exams, why not do it in a little group, right? We can divide it in chapters and take notes that we share with one another, then we don't have to read as much." He looked flushed with exhilaration.

"Actually, I should go, planning to meet -- er -- Padma Patil for some Potions review. I'll leave you two to it," Susan said, standing abruptly and giving Justin a knowing look. Justin scowled and mouthed "Let it alone", waving her away.

"What was that about?" Ernie asked, watching her bounce away. Justin shook his head.

"No idea." He looked at the books Ernie had brought over. "Are we going to need all those for our exams, really?" The thickness of them was concerning, though he could easily picture Professor McGonagall or Binns indeed sliding in obscure questions that hadn't been covered in class just to see who'd been reading.

"Well, I'd thought it'd be us three, not two," Ernie said, mildly put out about his study group plans, "so there will be more for us to go over unless we can get someone else to join us. Neville and Hannah, maybe, they get on well."

"My head's hurting already," Justin groaned. "Let's find them tomorrow. Take the evening off and… um… wander the grounds? The sun's out."

Ernie frowned, casting a suspicious glance to one of the library's windows. He smiled after a moment, scooping up the books into his bag. "We can study outside, come on, brilliant idea, I hate it in here anyway…" He glanced at Madam Pince, who was looking at them both as if she expected them to start ripping apart their books and eating the pages.

Sighing but wanting to get outside anyway, Justin scooped his belongings into his already over-full book bag and hoisted it on his shoulder. "All right, but I'm not whipping my wand out for any practical study. Go over the theories a bit…"

"But it's the wand work you need practice in," said Ernie as they swept past the library doors. "You've got the theory down… more or less. We need both, you know!"

"But it's nice out!" Justin pursed his lips. "Oy, do you want to practice Transfiguration?"

"Transfiguration?" Ernie wasn't the best with it, though he was visibly pleased to see Justin getting into the spirit of his pre-exam fervor. "All right! What should we start with?"

"Try my ears," Justin grinned, pulling on one. "They're so pointy, aren't they?"

"I don't think I could do something careful like that, it's awfully precise. Hermione Granger, maybe, somehow she got those teeth of hers looked at but--" Ernie's eyebrows lowered and he glanced at Justin. "We're not learning Transfiguration for cosmetics, and there's nothing wrong with pointed ears anyway. They're not exactly noticeable, are they?"

"I think they are," Justin pulled on them both, feeling the helixes over with his thumb. Still, they reddened slightly under his fingers. "But if you say there's nothing wrong with them I suppose I should listen," he added, with a hint of humor.

"Yes, you should always listen to me," Ernie agreed. "You can't pretend not to hear, with ears like that."

Playfully, he tugged on one and Justin's ears turned redder.

--

"Muggle Studies? Why are you taking Muggle Studies?" Justin goggled at him as the two boys reviewed each others' new schedules. "You've got me, Ernie, I could tell you all of this stuff and I won't quiz you on it!"

"Maybe I want to surprise you with the vast range of my knowledge," Ernie said haughtily, tilting up his chin. "Though you may always counsel me on the finer points of some of the customs. I wouldn't mind showing that Hermione Granger a thing or two."

"Er, well…" Justin expected Hermione would, in fact, be far more knowledgable on that front, since his perspective of Muggle life was a very particular one; he didn't think Muggle Studies covered higher society. But he nodded his head anyway, sliding closer. "Sure, I'll tutor you, how about that? Privately."

"Splendid!" Ernie beamed, his pale blue eyes energetic with thought. Justin was enamored with them. "Maybe we could we start now. I've got my textbook, may as well get the ol' leg up, right?"

"There's only one free armchair," Justin said, observing the common room. Ernie scoffed.

"We can share. They're large enough. Come on." He took Justin by the wrist and sat upon the soft chair, leaning his back against its pillows. Justin surveyed the chair carefully and the small space still left beside Ernie, then brazenly sat himself so that his legs stretched out over Ernie's lap, propped up on one armrest while the other supported his back. Ernie blinked at him, face turning pink in annoyance as he tried not to comment and leaned his book against Justin's knees.

"Not exactly what I meant," Ernie said, "but I suppose it'll do."

"What's the first chapter on?"

"Transportation." Ernie looked at the chapter index, seeing what else the textbook covered. "Cars, trains, ae-ro-planes, boats… well, I already know about most of these…"

"Airplanes are simple, they're a bit like -- er." Not as simple as Justin thought initially, explaining them to someone with no idea. "Like a train with wings, I suppose. You can fly overseas in one, they give you meals and pillows and everything."

"Oh." Ernie frowned thoughtfully. He glance down at the page again. "What about bi-cycles?"

That one was easier. "Brooms with wheels! Can't fly, though," Justin said, chewing on his fingernail. His thumb stung briefly, reminding him not to chew as fervently this time. "Funny that they have trains and cars in there, are Muggle cars different than wizard cars, I wonder? I've never been in a wizard car…"

"I think I'll skip over to Muggle government," Ernie said, adjusting slightly so that his hand brushed across Justin's hip. "I see they call theirs the Prime Minister. Why's that? How many have they got?"

"Just the one, essentially, but they call the people in his Cabinet Ministers as well. Way it works is that the Cabinet helps to--"

"Cabinet!" Ernie looked at Justin incredulously. "What do cabinets have to do with government at all??"

Justin blinked, then grinned coyly. "You ought to wait to read that chapter 'til class starts, I think." Ernie shut his book in annoyance. "Who else is taking it, d'you know?"

"Oh, Granger," Ernie said blithely, "Neville Longbottom, Hannah, not that she needs it… or Granger for that matter, I swear--"

"Hannah?" Justin willed his cheeks not to color, though he felt the heat of them. "That reminds me, are you two a -- you know, an item?"

"A what?" Ernie looked surprised. "As in going together?"

Justin nodded, biting his nail again.

"I think you'd know if that were the case, wouldn't you?" Ernie said, raising his eyebrow. "I don't have any girlfriends."

"Would you consider…? With Hannah, I mean, I just figure since you two spend so much time together you might--"

"Hannah? Oh… no, I don't reckon she's really my type," Ernie said, after considering it for a moment. "We're friends, merely, and that's quite all right. Stop chewing your nails, Justin, it's uncouth." He pulled a package of Sugar Quills from his robe pocket and offered them to chew on instead. Justin ignored them.

"Really?" He kept his voice casual, peering over his book. "What is, do you think? Your type, I mean."

"I haven't thought much on it. I'm not one for it, particularly… dating, it's…" Ernie pursed his lips, tapping his quill against them. "Well, I've nothing against the idea, but I expect to get high OWL scores and I won't if I'm fixated on snogging somebody all the time. Time for it after exams, don't you think, Justin?"

"Oh, yes, um, absolutely." Justin adjusted himself so that he was more comfortable, bottom pressed awkwardly against Ernie's thigh. Neither of them made mention of it, and Justin pressed his own quill to his mouth, chewing the end absently. "Did I mention to you, I've decided I want to work for the Ministry. Transportation, I think."

"Don't chew that. For Merlin's sake -- here," Ernie said, passing Justin the packet of Sugar Quills again. Justin didn't take them, instead simply opened his mouth. Ernie frowned at him, rolled his eyes and plucked one of the candies from the package and placed it on Justin's tongue. "I did expect Ministry. You've got it written all over you. With your… cabinets… I haven't decided, myself, but whatever it is I plan on being damn good at it."

"Of course," Justin said, grinning as he chewed. "You could make a smashing Groundskeeper."

"Just like you'll make a smashing Ministry employee, you can't even explain what they use the cabinets for."

"They aren't cabinets. And I'm not interested in the legislation, else I'd go for Minister, proper…" He licked the sugar off his upper lip and eased further onto Ernie's lap, pulling the book open again. Ernie's face went full pink, but this time Justin was oblivious to their nearness. "Hah! There's a chapter on Muggle Music!"

"So?"

"So -- surely they'll let you hear some," he said, as if it were obvious. "And then we can talk about it. Oh, but jazz isn't for funerals…"

"It isn't?" Ernie grabbed for his quill, forgetting Justin was situated right on top of him as he excitedly wrote a note down on his book, negating the statement. "Excellent! I'll do well there, anyway. I think we'll need to study together vigorously from now on."

"Yes," Justin agreed, plucking out another candy and holding it toward Ernie, who opened his mouth for it absently. "You know I'm always here to help out."

--

"I've it on good authority that Ernie fancies you like mad," Susan Bones said to Justin in a whisper as the two of them left Herbology.

"He what?" Justin stared at her, mouth open in surprise. A couple of passing students glanced over, curious. "Says who?" He kept his voice quieter this time.

"Says Hannah," Susan said proudly. "He hasn't quite figured it out yet, though."

"You told Hannah?" Justin clenched his jaw. "You know I told you that in confidence." Still, the news left him feeling extraordinarily elated; he felt like he'd swallowed a firework.

"Sorry." She sighed. "I'm trying to help you. I think the least you can do is not be so bloody rude about it, I never complained about the Yule Ball, did I?"

"What about the Yule Ball?"

"Oh, come on! You spent far more time 'round Ernie than dancing with me. Mind, it was still good fun -- but had I fancied you or something I'd have been put out, wouldn't I?"

Justin hadn't considered that. "Well… we were just, discussing the Tournament, is all, it wasn't anything like… I'm sorry, that was awfully rude of me."

"It's nothing, I was giving you good news, remember?" Susan rolled her eyes. "He's sure to notice you eventually. Once he's, you know, ready to."

"How's that supposed to help me?" Justin groaned, tempted to stick his head into his book bag -- he'd find the room, somehow -- and hide there. "He doesn't want to date until he graduates!"

"Oh, like he really means that."

The rest of Justin's classes that day went by miserably, because he was so distracted by what Susan had said. It circled his mind and he kept trying to grab hold to the words and analyze them from every angle, testing them for weakness.

Fancies you like mad. Me, fancies ME like mad. FANCIES me. That means we feel the same about each other, doesn't it, and that means there's no reason we can't -- but Ernie didn't say that, Hannah could be mistaken…

He flumped down onto his four-poster weightlessly, letting his face rest on his pillow until he needed to come up for air. When he turned himself over he noticed Ernie had entered the room behind him and was changing into his pajamas, a glimpse of his pudgy hip peeking out under his shirt.

"Hey," Justin said, awkwardly. Ernie turned.

"Hello," he said, raising an eyebrow. "All right, Justin?"

"Completely. Just didn't notice you there, before," Justin said, turning his head so he was looking upward. He caught a glance of Zacharias Smith opposite, sending Justin a wary glare. Justin frowned, seeking to find something to talk about. "What do you think about that club Potter's putting together? For D.A.D.A."

"I think it's an absolute laugh," said Zacharias, to Justin's immediate annoyance. "Utter crap. Who'd be foolish enough to sign up for something like that? For one, Umbridge is bound to catch on. For two, since when were we supposed to be trusting Potter again? Half the things he says make no bloody sense--"

"I think it's brilliant! It's exactly what we need, is what. How are we supposed to defend ourselves against You-Know-Who if we aren't learning anything in our classes? It's an outrage that they call this education! I'm behind Potter completely," Ernie said, fervently. "Justin, are you coming along too?"

Justin inhaled, having to attempt an answer a couple of times. He was too preoccupied wondering if Ernie was asking him because he fancied him back. Still, he already had his answer: "Of course, I don't doubt his stories for a second. Decent chap, he is, he wasn't upset with me at all after we thought he was the one behind petrifying everybody. And he's sure to have Hermione Granger and that Weasley fellow with him, isn't he? She's brilliant, and Weasley's dad is in the Ministry so it can't be all be barmy."

"You're both joining?" Zacharias sounded a bit unsure now, though he looked at Justin skeptically.

"Indeed," said Ernie. "Did you change your mind, then?"

"I guess there could be some merit to it," Smith said begrudgingly. Justin glanced at Ernie and saw that he was trying to hide exasperation. Even if Potter is a crackpot seemed to be the unspoken conclusion to that sentence.

"Glad we're agreed, then," said Ernie charitably.

Justin didn't say anything further, turning toward the wall sulkily.

--

On the afternoon of Dumbledore's Army's first meeting, Justin meticulously debated with himself whether or not to bring his bag with him. He wouldn't need his textbooks, or his snacks, or parchment, or a change of clothes, or gold, or any of a dozen other things, but on the other hand, he didn't know how practical the session would be.

Deciding to bring his bag along after all, Justin was corned by Zacharias Smith just outside their common room.

"I think," said Smith coldly, "that you should stay behind."

"Why?" Justin demanded, immediately defensive. "I want to help as much as anyone. And I'm rubbish at Defense Against the Dark Arts, I need all the practice I can--"

"Are you sure that's why you want to come? Really? It has absolutely nothing to do with Ernie being there?"

Justin blinked. His nose wrinkled indignantly while his lips parted to protest, though his sudden inability to meet Zacharias's eyes was telling. "I'm sure I believe in Harry Potter more than you do," he said.

"Listen, Justin, I don't care how much time you want to spend mooning over Ernie like some sad schoolgirl, but I don't want to be in any group that has you in it if you're only there hoping to check out his bum when he waves his wand -- I'm just there to learn this stuff, not have to suffer your mawkish incompetence!"

"I'm not trying to check out his bum!" Justin's face was red again, but in anger, not embarrassment. "I think you're just jealous that I'm better friends with him than you are! You're the one that thought it was all nonsense!"

Zacharias narrowed his eyes and stepped closer, trying to intimidate Justin with his size. Though he was a bit burlier on account of being a Quidditch player, he and Justin were the same height; regardless, Justin would have just stood on his toes now had he been shorter.

"I stand by my friends," he said. "I believe in them. I'm not trying to change Ernie just because I want something from him. He doesn't need y--"

"Oh, aren't you?" Annoyed Justin hadn't backed down, Zacharias shoved his shoulder. Justin stumbled backward and instinctively rooted into his bag to find his wand. Smith just stepped forward, not needing his.

"That's exactly what you want to do, I don't believe for a second that it isn't. You want him to fall in love with you and snog your brains out so you don't have to feel guilty for all the time he wastes in your company! He's a prefect now, you know. He's outgrown you! He stays with you because you've got no one else."

Justin stared at him, speechless. "You--" His voice didn't work, all the color drained from his face. Zacharias raised his eyebrow smugly. Justin still couldn't find his wand; he instead swung his bag at Zacharias, hitting him in the head with a loud thunk.

"Oh! OW!" Zacharias staggered back, clutching his head. He looked at Justin like he'd gone mad. "What the bloody hell do you have in there?!"

"I don't want to fight you," Justin said, exhaling as he set his bag aside. "I don't. But you don't know what you're talking about -- if you were really his friend you wouldn't try and sabotage things for him."

Zacharias flushed angrily.

"You think you-- you aren't--" He didn't seem to have any retort ready that he was quite impolite enough to say; his face contorted into a frustrated scowl and he turned on his heels, stomping ahead of Justin toward the Room of Requirement. Justin took a moment to collect himself before he followed.

"You seem simply plagued with dabberblimps," said Luna Lovegood, when she and Justin faced each other to practice disarming. Justin must have looked horribly alarmed, because Luna looked alarmed back at him.

"I am? What are those?" Nothing he'd read about in any Gilderoy Lockhart book, but they didn't sound pleasant. "They're not dangerous, are they?"

"Oh, no… quite uncommon, actually… you have that look about you," she said, whisking her wand toward him. His hair stood up. "They fly around you and upset your thoughts, although it's nothing that a pumpkin under your bed couldn't fix. You're concerned about something that you needn't be."

"How would you know?" Justin asked, now annoyed, still worried about Luna's dabber-whatevers biting him, or whatever it was they did.

"Like I said, you have the look about you," Luna said calmly as she waited for him to take his turn trying to disarm her.

"I suppose," Justin began, waving his wand and disarming one of the Creeveys on accident -- "Expelliarm-- oh, bugger, sorry -- suppose that one might feel that way, if they were told their best friend only hangs around them out of pity."

"Expelliarmus!" Luna flicked her wand again, and Justin's went flying. "Well, you know… I don't think many people hang round people they don't like, really, unless they're afraid… I didn't know that before I made some real friends of my own." She smiled, unbothered. "I like to think we rather enjoy one another's company, now."

"He's nothing but loyal, though, what's he going to do -- just walk off if he's fed up? Expelliarmus!" This time, Luna's wand flew backwards. She clapped excitedly for him before she went to retrieve it.

"In that case… well… it isn't true loyalty if you're staying due to pity," she said, looking at Justin with her large grey eyes. "Don't you think? If you're loyal you stand by who you care about. That's what my father thinks, too."

Justin considered her seriously, then glanced over at Ernie practicing opposite Terry Boot. Ernie glanced over at him and tipped up his chin proudly, raising an encouraging fist. This, unfortunately, allowed Terry ample opportunity to send Ernie's wand flying. Justin turned back to Luna, smiling a bit in spite of himself.

"I think that's brilliant," he said.

--

"Is it true you and Zacharias Smith got into a fight outside the common room?" Ernie asked Justin the Sunday before their OWL exams. They were sitting outside by the lake, the sun spilling highlights across their hair, both of their minds bursting past the point where they could study any longer.

"Yes," Justin admitted, moving his finger toward his mouth to chew it before he caught himself and set his hand on his leg instead. His back teeth ground against each other. "If you could call it a fight. I only chucked my bag at him. I'm not proud of it…"

"What would you two even have to fight about?" Ernie asked, perplexed. He lay back, stretching in the sun to rest his head on Justin's lap. The brightness of the day brought out the redness spreading in Justin's ears the way it brought out the pale freckles across Ernie's nose. Justin looked down shamefully, then realized in doing so that just brought his eyes to meet Ernie's rather than slide them away.

"Er… you."

"Me?" Ernie raised his eyebrows. "Dreadful! You git, why on earth would you fight on my account? I can defend my own honor. Smith's harmless. You know how he gets," he continued, in a dismissive tone. Justin pursed his lips.

"Maybe I wanted to defend your honor," he said. "He made some foul accusations of your character -- and mine."

"Ah," Ernie smirked, looking up at him. "Justin Finch-Fletchley, born to Muggles, ever honorable, ever chivalrous. I'm proud to call you a fellow Hufflepuff."

"I'm proud to call you my friend," Justin said.

"Pish-posh. We needn't have to say to each other what we already know."

They looked at each other, Ernie's blue eyes focused on Justin's brown ones. Justin brushed Ernie's fringe from his forehead; Ernie reached his hands up to cup Justin's face and bring it toward his own. Their lips met in the middle, softly pressed and open just slightly.

"Ah--" Justin blinked when they parted, breathing hard. He didn't know what to say; Ernie sat up then, his hand brushing Justin's. "What about exams?"

"I think right now," Ernie said solemnly, looking at Justin and running a finger along the pointed ridge of his ear, "there are far more important things for us to be thinking about than exams."

Justin kissed him again, pulled him closer, and Ernie returned the favor with an arm slung around Justin's back. Perhaps that was enough -- they both needn't say anything further.