I'm a planner by nature. I am at my best when I have a strategy in place. When faced with a predicament, I consider my options, evaluate them, and map out a sound plan for moving forward. It's what I do.
So it's no wonder that I'm feeling so lost right now. There is no comfort to be had in making plans, developing tactics, when they have no context. We don't know what lies ahead for us. We've pledged ourselves, Ron and I, to be by Harry's side in the coming months. But we don't know what that means.
In the best of all my possible scenarios, something miraculous will happen this summer and we'll all be back here at school this September. The boys can enjoy their last year of Quidditch while I nag them all year about revising for N.E.W.T.s.
But we don't know if school will reopen. Or if it does, whether we'll be here. So, you see my frustration. No planning. Only wondering.
"Hermione?" Harry's voice breaks into my thoughts and brings me back into the present, where we all sit in a quiet compartment on the Hogwarts Express. Each of us, no doubt, unsure about what will happen next. Ron is unusually quiet, staring out the window. Neville busies himself with some Herbology book, but I notice he's been on the same page for the last twenty minutes. Ginny sits near the compartment door, fiddling with her robe hem and surreptitiously stealing glances at Harry, who seems anywhere but here. Which is why his inquiry surprises me.
"Yes, Harry?" I ask, thankful for the diversion.
"Didn't you say you and Ron had Prefect Duty?" Oh, Merlin. I can't believe I'd actually forgotten.
"Oh! Yes. Ron, we're going to be late. Thanks, Harry." I grab my wand and stuff it into my robes, making for the door. I notice Ron's reluctance to get up, and press, "Come on, Ron, it's only one more time, for heaven's sake."
And truly, this is what's on my mind and Ron and I take our leave from the compartment and set out to do our patrols. When I said one last time, I meant for the school year, but then the double meaning hit me. This may very well be our last time doing Prefect Duty ever.
I can't believe how much the finality of that effects me, and I feel the compression in my chest as I remember when we got the badges almost two years ago. I remember a great deal about it.
I remember seeing my badge tumble out of my letter onto my bed at Number Twelve.
I remember being surprised at how heavy it was, for its size.
I remember - with shame - that I was shocked to learn that Ron was chosen over Harry. It was unexpected by everyone, and I wished later that I had been the only one to expect it. That might have meant something. Set me apart?
Immediately, though, I secretly began to rejoice that it was Ron. For the first time, Ron and I would share something that was just ours. At that stage of our friendship, we had very little between us that was separate from our connection to Harry. A small part of me hoped that maybe sharing Prefect status might finally afford us the opportunity to be alone together. To figure out exactly what it was (is?) between us that causes my heart to swell with longing one minute and then makes me want to strangle him in the next.
But that day seems like so long ago. Another lifetime. Even though the shadow of this war has been threatening us for years, it still seemed like just a concept back then. Something coming, to be sure, but not as much a part of our everyday lives as the things we worried about daily – revising, Quidditch, Hagrid's poor lesson planning, Draco's bullying . . .
It's strange, I think, how it seems nostalgic thinking about it now. As if it's already a part of The Past.
I'm lost in this train of thought, when I notice that we've stopped. Ron's watching me. With an odd expression on his face, as if I am a puzzle that needs riddling out.
"What are you thinking about?" he says, more plainly than he usually addresses me. Or anyone. I try not to place too much meaning on that and just answer the question.
"I was thinking that this might be the last time we have Prefect Duty. You know, if we're not here in the fall." I start walking again, nervous about standing still with him. Alone, here, in the dim corridor leading to the boxcar. Have we really come all this way already?
"I'm sorry about that." I hear him say to my back.
"You are?" Surprised, I turn back to meet his gaze.
"Well . . . I can't honestly say I'm going to miss it, no." He smiles, and my bones seem to turn to marshmallow. How can it be that after all this time, when I know which shoelace he ties first, and how old he was when he got his first broom, and the name of his favourite Quidditch player, for Pete's sake, when I don't even follow the sport … I still get all gooey inside when he grins at me like that? Maddening, that is.
He continues, "I just meant that I know you'll miss it. And I'm sorry. Really."
Oh. Sometimes he really can be sweet, which I suppose is how I get into this trouble in the first place. I think I must be standing there beaming at him like an idiot, but somehow it doesn't really matter anymore. He understands me. Maybe even better than Harry, when you come right down to it. Which is why I can't for the life of me understand why he hasn't figured out that …
In the middle of my musings, the boxcar doors bursts open and two fifth year students quite literally fall out into the corridor floor. The boy is Kevin Entwhistle, a Ravenclaw I see often in the library. I don't remember the girl's name, but I think she's a Hufflepuff. She looks rather tarty. And not only because her blouse is completely unbuttoned, revealing a racy bra. Just tarty in general.
To their credit, they both look completely mortified, and immediately start apologizing and pleading their case.
"Hermione, we were just…"
"It's just that my parents aren't letting me return, you see …"
"… and we don't know when we'll see each other again …"
Rolling my eyes, I shove Kevin aside, and all but push the girl back into the car and close the door, so as to give her some privacy as she straightens her clothing. As if she might be concerned about privacy issues. She's still apologizing as she straightens herself out, but I don't respond. When she is done, I open the door and address them both together.
"I think you should probably both get back to your seats. It's not safe to be all the way down at this end of the train alone." Gobsmacked, they are. Still, they don't need to be told twice. They collect themselves and hurry off as if they can't believe their good fortune.
At which point I turn to Ron, who still has not said a word. Big surprise. He's staring at me, openmouthed. So I raise my eyebrows at him.
"What?" I ask, casually. Out with it, Weasley.
"You're just going to let them off? I can't believe it," he says.
"What, you think we should have been more severe?"
"No. I would have let them off, too. I'm just surprised that you . . ."
Of course. Of course he's surprised. Uptight Hermione. By-the-book Hermione. The rule enforcer. Good grief, it's no wonder he's never looked at me twice in all these years. I'm like McGonagall the Second to him.
I don't even have the energy to feel indignant about it about it anymore. I just feel defeated.
So, instead I shrug by way of explaining my out of character behavior. "It's been a rough day. Rough year. I expect if I were lucky enough to be in her shoes I'd be clinging to my boyfriend in the boxcar, too." I catch the predictable widening of his eyes as I turn to start toward the door.
"Wait, what? What do you mean, lucky enough?"
"Oh, come off it, Ron. I'm not exactly the kind of girl who snogs in the box car," I snap, unable to contain my snort of derision. "I'm well aware that I'm on nobody's list for that purpose…"
"It's okay, Ron, I know what they all think of me. Priggish Hermione, stick-in-the-mud, Hermione, homely Hermione…" I'm on a roll of self-pity, now.
"…all she cares about are top marks and making up to teachers …"
"No, Ron, stop. I don't want to hear it. And I don't really want to think about it anymore, either. I fall into one of three categories with my school chums: non-existent, homework helper, or, if I'm really, really lucky, friend. But that's about it. I get it, okay, now can we please just finish rounds so we have some time to relax before we get to London?"
I turn on my heel and make to leave the car. But then I feel his hand on my shoulder, and I stop. I can't help it. Part of me wants to just flee, tired of the same frustration, the same disappointment over and again.
But another part of me is always hoping that somehow, maybe one of these days I'll turn around and see him looking at me the way I've wished for so long. In more rational moments I try to tell myself I gave up this daydream long ago, but heaven help me, it's still there. Buried, but not all that deeply. What can I say? I guess I'm really a glutton for punishment.
This time, though, I don't get the chance to decide to turn around. He does it for me. Grabs my shoulders and literally turns my body around to face him. Pulls me back into the boxcar and closes the door. I would be offended if I weren't so surprised.
"Hermione, please. Let me say one bloody thing, will you?" The look on Ron's face is unusual. During the course of our friendship, we've rowed about 5,000 times, and I thought for sure I knew every expression this person had in his stores. But I was wrong. He's not angry, but frustrated. And something else I can't put my finger on. As I pause to puzzle it out, though, I seem to have given him the few seconds he needed to choose his next words.
"You say these things about yourself like you say everything. As if by saying it, you'll make it true. But you can't just decide how the world feels about you. That's not up to you." He runs these hands through his hair, and I'm surprised to see he's trembling a bit. What does that mean? As I am inexplicably speechless, he continues.
"Look, Hermione. Here's the thing. I can tell you for a fact that blokes don't think you're bookish." I flash him my best glare, and he clarifies. "Okay, maybe they think you're bookish. But what I mean is that, well . . . they don't think you're unattractive."
This startling news somehow revives my capacity for speech. "Ron, what are you on about? Of course they do. How else can you explain my utter lack of a love life?"
Inhaling deeply, he offers, "I reckon because of me."
I am aghast, and immediately images of Ron playing the protective big brother spring to mind. Taking a deep breath of my own so that I don't completely lose control, I say, "Please don't tell me that you told anyone not to pursue me. Ron, you have no right to interfere in my life that way. You're my friend, not my brother!"
He looks taken aback. "No, no, Hermione, that's not it. It's not like with Ginny. I didn't say anything like . . . Oh, Merlin. How can I say this?" My anger is dissipating quickly, as he looks like he's about to pass out. And his ears have gone all red. Adorable, that is. Wait, am I still supposed to be cross?
"Please, Ron. I really don't know what you're talking about."
"I know. Look, can we sit down?" he asks, more quietly now, casting his glance around for somewhere to sit. Our options are quite limited. I choose the only real seat, which is a wooden crate in the corner of the car. As there are no other options, Ron just sits on the floor near my crate.
He's having trouble meeting my eyes, so I stop staring at him, and instead look down at my hands. Only then does he begin.
"Round about fourth year, some of the Gryffindor blokes started talking about you in a new way. You started looking … different. They noticed. Harry and I, of course, kept the conversation clean. You know we'd never let anyone insult you, or…"
"I know." I do know that.
"Well, around that same time, I reckon I might have gotten a little too defensive about you, or protective of you, or something. I don't know. Anyway, Seamus and Dean started referring to you as 'off limits,' as a way of ribbing me, saying things like, 'Granger looks good, too bad she's off limits, yeah, Weasley?' It was their way of trying to get me to own up to being more than just …friends… with you." He can't look me in the eyes, and he's completely red now. It's all I can do not to hurl myself at him.
"They were just taking the mickey out. Still, it stuck, and maybe some other people didn't know if they were joking or not, and I think you just came to be known as unavailable to a lot of them. At the time, I suppose I was glad, if it kept them away from you. They're not good enough for you, anyway. But I'm sorry if I got in the way of anything you might have wanted." Finally, he looks up and meets my eyes, and I think he's waiting for my reaction.
Anything you might have wanted? What is that supposed to mean? I mean really, what the hell is that supposed to mean? All the years of wondering, hoping, guessing, wishing come crashing down on me until I feel like I can't breathe, and I bury my face in my hands. I don't even know what I feel anymore. If he had told me this a year ago, I would have been furious and lashed out at him. Now, though, I just want to know. I'm so very tired of waiting, and I feel like if I go on any longer hoping for Ron to finally put the pieces together, I'll go mad. One way or another, it's got to stop.
I raise my head and consider the boy – no, man – in front of me. He looks horrified, and I realize with embarrassment that it's mostly because I am crying.
"Ron, if this has been going on for so long, why didn't you just set them straight? Why didn't you just tell them that I'm just your friend?"
"I couldn't do that." As if in slow motion, Ron raises himself to his knees in front of where I'm sitting and with one index finger, wipes a tear from my check. It makes me shiver.
I hold my breath, waiting for him to tell me that he was protecting me. Bracing myself for the familiar taste of disappointment. And then, I whisper, "Why not?"
And he whispers, "You know what a terrible liar I am."
And then, before my usually quick brain can process what he means, his lips are on mine. Softly at first, but when he realizes I'm not going to throttle him, he immediately raises his hands to my cheeks, and I thread my hands into his hair, and soon we are clinging to each other like mad.
And it's like nothing I could have ever imagined, though I've tried often enough to do so. I expected that if this ever happened, he'd be hesitant, or else I'd be cautious. But by the time he deepens the kiss, and the warm slide of our tongues sends a shock wave through my body that I've only previously experienced in dreams, I've already decided that caution is completely overrated.
I can taste my tears in his mouth, and he's making little moans that are literally making me tremble. I feel relieved, and desired, and happy, and hopeful. I feel so many things at once I think I might explode. Wait, why does that sound vaguely familiar?
Ron breaks the kiss and pulls back to look at me. To check on me. I love that in the middle of this moment, his instinct is still to make sure I'm alright. I can't help but flash him a conspiratorial smile. He beams back at me like it's Christmas morning. Everything is okay. Finally. Reassured, he plants a quick kiss on my cheek before leaning down to tentatively touch his lips to my neck. Oh, my.
A throaty moan escapes my lips, which spurs him on, and he begins to lavish my throat and neck with warm, wet kisses. I'm dimly aware that everything is happening much too quickly, but it doesn't really matter. Completely overcome by how …right this feels, and needing to feel more of Ron, get closer to him somehow, I allow my hands to wander over his back. He's so strong. No longer the little boy I met so many years ago on this very same train. We're growing up, and I realize that feelings I have for him are, too, very grown-up. The implications of this, combined with the sensation of him nibbling a path up to my ear, are intoxicating.
Unable to restrain myself, and with a boldness I didn't know I possessed, I tug his shirt from his jeans and slide my hands under it, along his abdomen and toward his chest. This elicits a bit of a gasp from him, and he momentarily stops kissing my neck.
"Hermione …" The roughness of his voice and the warmth of his bare skin against my fingers are fantastic, and I try to recapture his lips, but he pulls away.
"Wait …wait…I just …" he's stammering, and even that is lovely. I know I must be grinning like a fool, but I'm way past caring.
"What is it, Ron?" I say, even as I'm pulling him back to me. "Do you want to stop?"
"No!" he says, with a strangled voice. "I don't want to stop. Believe me, I really don't want to stop." But he takes my hands off his body, firmly holding them instead in his own, and then fixes my eyes with his. Oh, no. He's going to take it back. Please don't take it back.
"Oh, Ron, I'm so sorry…" I can feel the familiar prickle behind my eyes. But I will not cry. Not again. Instead, I rise to my feet, straightening my skirt, gathering myself. "I think maybe I misunderstood - "
"Hermione," he starts, as he scrambles to his feet and takes me by the elbows. "You really are mental. Of course you haven't misunderstood. " He's almost laughing, and I would smack him, if I weren't so relieved.
More gently than I would have thought him capable, he takes my chin and leans down for another soft kiss. Just a small peck, chaste really, but perfect none the less.
Then he takes a deep breath and says, "I just think we should slow down for a second. I feel like I have so much to say to you. You need to know … that is, it's not just a snog … damn, I really need to do this right." He runs his hands through his hair the way he did earlier and takes another deep breath.
"Hermione, I've felt this way for awhile now. I don't know why it took me so long to tell you. I was an idiot. I know I go about things the wrong way. But I want us to get it right this time." Oh.
Putting my fingers to his lips, I move closer to him and then slide my hands back around his waist. "Ron, I think we have a history of running into trouble when we rely on our words. And I think we are getting it right. Just right. We're going to have loads of time to talk about this later."
He allows himself to put his arms around me as well, and it amazes me again how natural it feels. I can see his smirk returning despite his good intentions, so I continue.
"As I was saying earlier, it's been a rough year. Right now, I think I'd just like to be clinging to my boyfriend in the boxcar."
"I like the sound of that," he says, and leans down to meet my lips with another kiss. A proper one this time. Warm, and deep, and so exciting I can feel my knees giving out on me. No more hesitation, no more wondering. Finally, some planning.
And Horcurxes be damned, it's going to be a great summer.