"So it was all a...an act?"
He'd been expecting her for some time. It had been in her face as she looked from Harry to him to Voldemort; questions transmuting to certainties in an instant. Hope and horror and relief and anger had flickered across her face like pale butterflies of emotion sweeping through the air between them, before she focused her formidable mind on the matter at hand.
He had known the storm was coming. Both he and Harry had known that she'd want to know why. Both he and Harry had known that the answers they had for her were vastly inadequate to explain the yearlong limbo in which they'd left her.
Had there been another option? Maybe. But Dumbledore had insisted that the game play out this way, for reasons that Ron still couldn't believe.
This checkmate of wizardry was nothing but one more game, albeit one with higher stakes.
However, even in games, there were casualties. Some things could not be taken back, some wrongs could not be righted, and some actions were unforgivable and always would be.
Ron closed the clasps on his old, battered suitcase, pulling his wand and setting a Locking Charm on it before he turned to look at her. She was standing in the old pose; hands on her hips, her hair as brown and bushy as ever, eyes flashing with anger and hurt.
"Yes," he said, firmly. "It was all an act."
"The fight in the Great Hall?"
"All that yelling, night after night?"
"And the sulking?"
"Yes." He could see the betrayal in her eyes, a liquid salt that shimmered over the edges of her lashes, threatening to spill down over her cheeks. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Her fists clenched by her sides, and he was suddenly reminded of her slapping Malfoy in their third year. Would she slap him? He wondered. If it would make her feel better, then he'd let her take her best shot. "You think that 'sorry' is going to..." Her voice cracked, and the tears dripped down her cheeks, trailing glassy brightness even in the light of the boys' dorm fire. "For the last six months, I've...I've cried nearly every night because of you-- because you and Harry... And you - neither of you - told me! You didn't think you could trust me--"
The words spilled from him without thought. "You're one to talk about trust." Then he bit his lip and turned away.
Between them, the air froze, and he could feel her eyes upon him. "What exactly does that mean?"
Anger was good - better than tears, anyway. If he could keep her angry at him...
"I spent six months worming my way into V...Vold..."He forced himself to say the word: mere syllables. "Voldemort." It was a triumph he had no time to savour. "Voldemort's good graces. Six months where the only people who would talk to me were Harry and Dumbledore - neither of them in public. And d'you know why?" He turned to face the mingled anger and horror in her eyes with his own anguish. "Because not one of the people I trusted to know me actually did."
It had hurt. Merlin's beard, it had hurt. There were nights when he couldn't sleep for the knowledge that everyone he'd cared about, everyone he loved, thought he was a traitor for the words he and Harry exchanged.
As if seven years meant nothing.
As if he wasn't worth anything.
Ron laughed, and heard his own bitter ache in the sound. "Let me tell you about trust, Hermione. I trusted a friend to know that I wouldn't give up on my best mate so easily. I trusted this friend to know me better after six years. I thought I could trust her to see what was going on." He snorted. "Guess what? I was wrong."
The horror dawning on her face was almost comical, but satisfying in some small way. "But you couldn't just expect me to know!"
"Why not?" He demanded. "You know everything else." He waved a hand at the walls around them. "Spells and curses and facts and figures, people and...and what they're thinking, what they're feeling... You're a bloody know-it-all, Hermione! Tell me why I shouldn't expect you to know this, too!"
She'd gone red in the face, the otherwise pretty features convulsing into frustration. "Because I don't know everything!" Her voice was a screech, her anger was a brand, but Ron's own frustration with everything that had been and gone was equal to hers. "Because I didn't know what to think! Harry needed me!" It was a plea for understanding, for his acceptance that she hadn't looked beyond Harry because, hey, Harry was the hero, after all. "Harry needed me there when you'd gone--"
Ron's hands clenched by his side. It was always Harry. It would always be Harry. And something in him would always accept that, helpless and hopeless; and something in him would always reject that, raging against being 'just' the sidekick.
But all he gave her was a bitter smile. "Yes. Harry needed you there. That explains everything." He turned back to his suitcase, and pulled out his wand, casting the Feather-Light charm on the battered luggage.
"He had to defeat Voldemort! There was nobody else who could!"
"Yes," Ron said. "He did. And he did defeat the D... Voldemort." Dumbledore said the habits he had learned in the last six months would have to be unlearned, painstakingly and slowly. It would take time, the old wizard said, and it would not be without pain; but Ron would get through it.
He turned back to the girl - young woman, now - who faced him, fierce as his mum could be. He'd loved her as much as his adolescent heart could, and tried to give her what clumsy affection he was capable of giving. Yet he'd misjudged her belief in him so badly it shook him.
"Dumbledore once told Harry that it was our choices that made us who we are," he said. "I made my choice, Hermione, just as you made yours." The shrug hurt in its nonchalance, but he had to walk away from her now or risk always being the sidekick.
Besides, Harry needed him.
And that was the crux of it, wasn't it? Harry needed Ron in one way and Hermione in another and their loyalties ran to him first before they ever touched the other.
Chess was a game for two, and two only. There was no room for a third party.
What was love but another kind of chess? Heart against heart, with every move watched and the hidden secrets of the other player only decipherable when many moves had been made and the pattern became clear.
Ah, but in love, it should be that both players were winners. In chess, there was only the one winner.
Ron Weasley looked at Hermione Granger and wished he could reach out to her. All it would take was one step; one small step and so much would vanish between them. But he couldn't afford that step. He couldn't, because his journey had only just started and he had a long road down which to go.
"And that's it?" Her voice became shrill. "That's it? You just walk away and...and...that's all?"
"What did you expect, then?" Ron demanded, angrily, exasperated with her stubbornness. "What do you think happens next?" He waved a hand at the stones of the tower around them. "Do you think it ends with a happily ever after? That I forgive and forget those six months when everyone I knew didn't know me? Pretend that I can look at anyone I used to know and wonder when they'll desert me again?"
"I thought you'd at least have enough courage to keep fighting!" Hermione snapped, cheeks flushing with anger. "Not run away with your tail between your legs!"
He narrowed his eyes at her, "Who says I'm running away?"
He ignored her pointed glance at the suitcase, and waited for her retort. The days when he would answer her unspoken questions were gone. "It looks like that's what you're doing."
In answer, he rolled up his sleeve, revealing the ignominy of the Dark Mark that Voldemort had inscribed into his flesh. Voldemort's creature, branded like the way they branded cattle. "In case you haven't noticed," he said, his voice as cold as winter ice, "appearances have deceived you before."
She paled at the proof of his service, and he squashed the anger and shame at her expression and turned to cast another Feather-Light charm on the suitcase. Then he picked it up, his fingers gripping the handle with a force so hard it hurt, and brushed past her on his way to the door.
There was nothing more to be said or done here.
The tears in her voice stopped him in his tracks, froze him where he stood as nothing else she had said this evening had. But he did no more than that, afraid she might see the tears in his own eyes.
"What?" He was curt with her because he had to be. Where he was going, in what he was going to do, he could not afford what he felt for her. But he wanted-- He wanted--
"I missed you."
He wasn't sure he would have turned for anything else.
The suitcase dropped from his fingers as his arms were suddenly full of crying Hermione Granger. She was warm and close and she smelled of cinnamon and apples. Ron tightened his arms around her, involuntarily, only half-hearing the words she sobbed into his shoulder.
For once, he knew why she was crying - she'd always cried for the weirdest reasons - but he had a feeling that if he'd been the crying type, he might have been crying, too.
He had no idea how long they stood there in the late afternoon, but the shadows had lengthened when she lifted her head from his shoulder.
"I missed you, too," he said quietly, brushing back a damp strand of hair from her face. He'd never been good with all the romantic stuff - and she understood that much at least, because she smiled at his words, even through her tears.
"But you're still going."
"I have to."
Ron shrugged, wishing he could tell her - wishing he knew himself. "I just have to." She wasn't going to move out of his way, he could see that, and he tried to move past her, but she stepped into his path.
"Where are you going?"
It was a measure of how much had changed that she didn't tell him all the reasons why he shouldn't, she didn't try to talk him out of it.
Hurt flared in her eyes. "You can't tell me?"
"I can't," Ron repeated. "I don't know myself."
He saw the moment her eyes changed - her goal changed. "Let me come with you." It was more like a demand than a request. "Look, you did...you did...that - those last six months alone," she said in the tone of voice that meant she was trying to be reasonable - for her. "You're in no condition to go out into the world by yourself." She paused. "You haven't even finished school!"
He couldn't help the snort. It was almost reassuring to know that if Hermione had learned when not to try to argue a person into submission, she was still in the habit of organising other people's lives.
It was also heartbreaking to know that, as much as he wanted to take her with him, he couldn't. She didn't belong in the world he now inhabited. She might want to go where he was going, but she'd never be able to keep up.
This wasn't her fight, it was Ron's. And he had to do it alone.
So he used a weapon he knew would work. The one person that stood between them and always would - not in love, but in loyalty.
"You said it yourself earlier," he said. His words fell quietly into her desperate eagerness. "Harry needs you here."
Harry needed someone to be his right-hand, to organise what he led. That someone would be Hermione.
He hated to do this to her, hated the bitterness that fell over her face as she realised what their friend had cost them - and always would. Harry needed them, and his need was such that they would never have enough for each other - a painful knowledge and one that Ron had struggled with until acceptance finally came.
She was caught, trapped in the same way as he, stalemated through no fault and no desire of their own.
Growing up was far more difficult than anyone had ever said it would be.
He had to go. Now, or he never would.
But there was one more thing he had to do now, or he never would.
Ron kissed her. Once. Just once. He took her face between his hands and didn't ask her permission, just brushed his lips across hers. There was a moment when surprise stiffened her body, and then she kissed him back, her fingers digging into his arms, forbidding him retreat.
She was cinnamon and lemon sherbet, tingling on his tongue. She was quiet evenings by the fire and the blustering wind in his face as he flew through the air, the pleasure of friendship's experiences and the anger of friendship's trials. She was the calm cool of intellect and the intense ardour of emotion, and he would have been more than happy to stand here before the door of his bedroom in Hogwarts forever, holding her, kissing her.
But no piece in chess could be allowed to remain still. The pieces had to move forward, had to advance, or they were of no use to the player.
He had to go. Much as he hated it, he had to go.
He broke away from her, eluding her, and grabbed for his suitcase, determined to leave before she gave him any reason to stay.
"Ron--" She caught at his arm. "Please--"
There were tears in her eyes - he saw that much before his own sight blurred helplessly. His fingers briefly caressed her cheek, loving and tender, then he turned and took his bags and clattered down the stairs and out of Hogwarts.
- fin -