Three weeks. Weeks during which the confrontation between Umbridge and Harry came to a head after his Quibbler interview was published. A time when tension around the castle was at an absolute high as the High Inquisitor did her level best to make everyone miserable. And a time when Ron and Hermione found themselves sneaking out to spend the few moments they could spare losing themselves in one another. It was a dangerous game and Hermione was sure she didn't want to play anymore, however much her body might disagree.
She remembered the exact moment she realized things were going very wrong. They'd been in Defense Against the Dark Arts, of all classes, and Umbridge had just threatened a detention with Filch to the next person who quoted Harry's interview. There were a few murmurs of protest, but as the room fell silent, Ron caught Hermione's eye. They shared a smile and then he whispered something about how wide and sturdy Umbridge's desk looked. After a few seconds of wide-eyed staring, Hermione had had to use her copy of Defensive Magical Theory to hide the warmth spreading over her face.
It wasn't any better in Charms the next day. Every chance he could get, Ron found ways to touch Hermione—playing with her hair, brushing his hand against hers, touching her leg through her robes. When he'd danced fingers across the back of her neck, she'd jumped and had to cover it up by asking Professor Flitwick a question about a charm he'd already discussed. Even Harry had begun giving her strange looks after that.
Now here they were, on Ron's birthday, and all Hermione could think was that she couldn't give him what he wanted, because she wanted it too, possibly more than he did. No, that was wrong. He wanted to have sex. She wanted to make love. Or, the closest equivalent she could have with Ron. Silly, right? She wanted him to do all the things he'd been whispering to her when they'd touched and actually feel something other than lust during and after.
At the heart of it, Hermione wanted Ron to want something she'd conditioned him out of since Christmas Eve. She'd repeatedly encouraged a series of detached physical interactions, never letting him know she could want more. And she hadn't. At first. She'd been content to tease, then enjoy, then forget who she was and all her boundaries when they were together. And who was she? She was, unfortunately, infatuated with Ron Weasley. Again. Again, as if she'd truly forgotten her feelings scarcely a year after she'd decided to ignore Ron and truly focus on Viktor. But that had been right for her then. For both of them. Now? Now she had to stop this whole situation before she made a fool of herself showing her frustration with Ron because he didn't feel the same things she did and she couldn't force him to do it any faster. If he ever would.
All of which created a dilemma. Hermione wanted what she couldn't have, at least not fully. She could imagine Ron's feelings ran deeper and try to use what power she had to tease him into saying he felt something more than friendship. But that would be false, forcing him to say his feelings were deeper in order to get what he wanted. Hermione couldn't live with that. She could let him go the best way magic allowed for her to do so and spare herself the embarrassment of having to break up with her non-boyfriend. But she could not let things continue this way. She would not lose control for him again.
"Hermione, you're not listening to a word I'm saying, are you?"
Hermione's eyes jerked up from the table. She'd been picking at the food on her plate for about twenty minutes. Looking around, she saw that Ron and Harry hadn't done much better. Harry because he was headed into another Occlumency session with Snape and Ron because the pressure of Quidditch practice was making him anxious. Hermione had smiled when he said their time alone together was the only time he felt relaxed, like himself. It had only been hours later when she realized that was the closest she was going to get to what she wanted from him. She was still trying to make peace with that.
"Sorry," Hermione said. "I'm a bit distracted." She cleared her throat and offered Ron a smile. "I thought you looked better at practice today."
"You mean because I didn't get anyone hurt?" Ron asked. "Yeah, that's an improvement. I'm really not looking forward to the next match. The last one was bad enough."
Hermione placed a hand over his on the table. "I'm sure you'll do fine."
"I wish I could give you guys some help," Harry said. "Umbridge actually threatened me if I go to practice. Can she even do that?"
"It's getting to the point where she can do anything she wants," Hermione remarked. "I've lost track of how many stupid rules there are now." Feeling Ron's hand move under hers, Hermione pulled her hand back and placed it in her lap.
"I was just saying that I don't want either of you waiting in the library for me tonight," Harry said. "Umbridge wants to see me after my 'remedial potions' lesson, probably so she can interrogate me. Considering how much Snape enjoys torturing me, I can't imagine being back at a decent hour, certainly not before the library closes."
"So we'll meet you in the common room then?" Hermione asked.
"I'm sure we can find something to do without him," Ron said. He smiled. "You and I can fill a few hours on our own."
Slapping him would be bad, she knew that. But Hermione felt the urge briefly before she glanced at Harry and realized he wasn't paying attention to the exchange. He was staring across the room at Cho.
"I'm sure we'll make do," Hermione said. Harry turned back to them and she smiled. Ron slipped his hand into hers under the table. They would certainly do something tonight, Ron would make sure of that. Hermione just had to figure out how she would live with herself the next day.
Hermione closed the door to the Room of Requirement behind her and turned, bumping into Ron.
"It took you long enough to get here. Where were you?" Ron asked. He placed his hands high against the door, blocking Hermione from moving further into the room. Without waiting for her response, he dropped his head and captured her lips with his, frowning when she didn't respond. "What's wrong?"
"This has got to be the last time."
Ron smiled. "You've said that before." He bent to kiss her again, this time lingering until she moved to kiss him back. After a few seconds, he let his mouth drop to her neck. His hands traveled to her waist and he began fumbling with the catch on her skirt. "What have I told you? You're wearing too much clothing." Ron grinned as a thought occurred to him. "Unless, you want me to take it off. I'd be happy to help you with that."
"I'm serious this time," Hermione said. She pushed at Ron's shoulder until he leaned back. "We can't keep doing this. It's too distracting. For both of us."
"I like the way you distract me. It's the best part of every week." One hand slid to her neck and he pulled Hermione closer. "Tell me you don't like what we do together."
"You don't want me to lie," she whispered. Hermione sighed when Ron's hands fell to her shirt and he began popping off the buttons. She had to stop herself from jumping as the ping of each bit of plastic hitting the floor was punctuated by a kiss down the column of her throat and her chest. Ron kneeled in front of her and removed what was left of her shirt. He began kissing her stomach.
"I just, I think—"
"You think too much," he said. His tongue dipped into her navel. Hermione pushed away from the door and walked around Ron, just barely escaping his reaching hand.
He smiled. "I don't mind chasing you, if you won't mind what's going to happen when I catch you."
"Really?" He knew she heard the disbelief in his voice, but she didn't turn when he asked the question. Ron couldn't believe that was all it had taken. No begging, no hours of touching her until she was simultaneously begging for him to stop and clutching at him if he tried to move away. Just two small words indicating acceptance. He really had broken down her resistance.
Ron moved to stand behind Hermione and put his arms around her. She leaned her head to the side as he pushed her hair across one shoulder and kissed the side of her neck. His hands came up to sweep over her stomach before landing to cup her breasts.
"There's a catch," she said as Ron began to massage her through the thin lace.
"I know you won't let me put it there," he responded. "I promise I won't even try to surprise you. I value all of my parts."
"Not that. Not just that," Hermione said. "This is really it. I can't do this anymore."
Her knees wobbled when Ron dropped one of his hands and slid it beneath her skirt. He almost wished she'd worn knickers this time. He had gotten used to stealing and keeping them in his trunk.
"You sound like you could do this all night if you want to," Ron said. He dropped his mouth next to her ear. "And the next night. And every night after that."
Hermione moaned and then grabbed Ron's wrist. He thought she was going to push his hand away, but instead she held it. Her hips began moving against his hand, creating a slow, steady rhythm as his fingers flexed.
"See? You like this too much to stop," Ron said. He squeezed her breast and tugged her earlobe into his mouth, suckling until he heard her breath catch. "Tell me you want me."
"I want…" Hermione fell silent. The only sound in the room was her panting as he touched her.
"Tell me," he repeated.
He stopped moving his hand and smiled when Hermione continued moving without him. "Is that really what you want?"
"No," she whispered. "But it's what I need."
"No, you need this," he whispered. His hand slid to her waist and he pulled her against him, letting her feel what she did to him every time they were close. Hermione's hand slipped behind her to run along his leg. "You know what I can do to you. Why would you ever want to stop?"
"Because we have to." Hermione pushed away from him then and stumbled back a few steps. As she looked up at him, Ron caught a glimpse of something he couldn't place in her eyes before she looked away briefly. When she looked up again, the unnamed emotion was gone.
"I thought you wanted this," Ron said. "I admit, the teasing was great at first, but at some point you have to make up your mind."
"I have," Hermione said. "It's been fun and—and—"
"Fun? Is that the best word you could come up with?"
Hermione frowned. "You've been fantastic. You know that."
"So why are we stopping?"
"Because, we—the war." She threw her hands up and gestured around her. "Everything that's going on. There are so many horrible things happening around us and Voldemort is going to come after Harry and we have to be ready to help him. I have to…I can't focus on learning defense and deciphering whatever lies the Ministry wants everyone to believe and helping Harry and school and you. It's too much," Hermione finished.
"That's your reason? Harry's your reason?"
"Why do you say it like that?" Hermione asked. "We both knew this was never more than just…an experiment at first. A game."
"This has all been a game for you?" Ron asked quietly.
Hermione nodded. "It's been great, but I just can't have you touching me in class or anywhere else anymore and…it's not going anywhere. After tonight, we'll have gone as far as we can and we'll still be nothing more than friends."
"So, you want to be more than friends?"
Hermione frowned, opened her mouth and didn't speak. Ron held his breath, just knowing this was when she'd finally tell him she wanted more from him than a few hours of mindless pleasure. Not that he minded as much, but he felt there was something she was keeping from him. She might be able to lie to Harry with a straight face, but Hermione had never been able to keep a secret from him.
"No," Hermione said finally. "I think it's best if we remain friends from now on. Only friends."
"And how are we supposed to do that?" He gestured between them at her state of half-dress and his obvious arousal. "I am never going to act like none of this ever happened. I've hardly been able to keep from telling Harry what's going on all this time. I'm surprised he hasn't guessed."
"Harry has too much going on to even think about us, especially like this. And you should never let on," Hermione said. "Besides, I have a solution for that." She paused. "We're going to do just about anything you want tonight. Afterwards, I'm going to erase your memory."
"Of tonight?" Ron asked. He rolled his eyes. "Then I'll just go back to feeling frustrated."
"Of everything we've done together. Starting with that conversation last December." Hermione looked down, avoiding Ron's eyes. "I've been reading about it. I can erase the memories altogether or replace them with something else. And I'll get my property back as well," she said, blushing faintly. "As flattering as all this attention is, and as much as I've enjoyed it, I don't think we'll make it through sixth year without getting expelled if we keep this up. You can barely keep your hands to yourself in class as it is. And, like I said, I have to focus. The best way to do that is to erase your memory so you won't be tempted anymore."
"And you won't?" Ron asked.
"I'm certain I can control myself."
Yeah, right, Ron thought. You've been doing a stellar job of that so far. "So, I have until tonight to enjoy our time together and then it's all gone?"
Hermione nodded. "We'll finish the school year like we always have, as friends."
"And you'll be the only one who has memories of any of this. How is that fair to either of us?"
Hermione shrugged. "It's the only thing I'm offering, Ron. Take it or leave it." Before he could say anything, she added, "I'm going to erase your memory tonight, whether we do anything or not."
Ron sighed. He wasn't going to remember touching her or being touched back, the way she sighed his name or anything remotely good about this entire wretched school year. He wasn't even going to be aware of the best part of his birthday the following morning. Some deal she was offering. As Hermione watched him for an answer, Ron thought of finally getting her to do what he'd been dreaming about for weeks. Never mind that he wouldn't remember anything after. He was going to enjoy every moment before then.
And he would still have his dreams. One day in the future, he might even be able to make them a reality again. As talented a witch as she was, Ron knew Hermione couldn't erase every trace of what they'd meant to each other these past few weeks. If he was being honest with himself, he didn't want her to. But Ron could hardly argue with her logic, especially given that he could see the strain this was putting on her. Better to let everything end on her terms than dissolve into the fighting they'd put behind them months ago. Besides, knowing Hermione as well as he did now, removing the temptation he provided by being the aggressor was the only way she could control herself around him. But it would only be a matter of time before she wanted to be with him again. And he could experience getting to know her this way a second time.
He moved closer to Hermione. She was staring at the floor between them and didn't look up when he stopped before her. Ron glanced past Hermione to the bed the room had materialized for them. His hands moved to her shoulders and he played with one bra strap until it fell to the side revealing a few more inches of skin. He began running his finger from her shoulder down the inside of her arm. "Is this really what you want?" Ron asked.
Hermione looked up, frowning. "Ron, if you don't want me—"
"You know better than that." Ron bent until his mouth was next to her ear. His hands ran along her arms. Her breath caught and she leaned towards him. "You know how I've been dreaming about having you." One hand slipped to the small of her back and up along her spine. "I know you've been thinking about me the same way. I just want to make sure you know what you're doing, ending things this way."
Hermione stood still in Ron's arms for a long moment, breathing heavily as he gently touched her. "I know what I'm giving up."
"Good," he said. "Because I won't after tonight. But I want you to have something to remember in case you change your mind."
"I won't," she whispered. Her words were sure, but her voice was shaking.
"You say that now…" Ron kissed Hermione. She didn't respond at first, letting his lips press against hers as his hand continued to stroke her bare back. Gradually, she relaxed in his embrace and shifted her mouth, welcoming his kiss as his fingers finally managed to undo the clasp of her skirt. Ron unzipped the garment and let it slide to the floor. A few seconds later, he made quick work of her bra, socks and shoes until Hermione was standing before him naked.
"Get on the bed."
Hermione moved backwards at his command, her eyes on Ron as he followed her. She sat and watched in anticipation as he removed his clothes. For the first time he could recall, Ron wanted to take his time. He felt her eyes on him as he pulled his shirt over his head, but resisted the urge to smile. Something about this night felt more serious than the other times they'd come together. Something about the way Hermione was staring at him, one hand on the inside of her thigh as he approached the bed, made Ron wish suddenly that he could convince her to change her mind. This could be the first night rather than the last. Maybe, just maybe, he could convince her with something other than words.
He kneeled on the bed then moved to lay next to her.
"What are you doing? Why aren't you touching me?"
"Shh." Ron cradled Hermione's face between his hands. "I told you, I want this to be a night you won't want to forget. It's not going to be over that quickly."
"What are you talking about?" Hermione asked. "Just—"
He stopped her words with a kiss. Slowly, Ron kissed Hermione until she relaxed her body against him, until she had parted her legs and reached for his hand to caress her, until she was shaking in her eagerness to have him inside her.
He pulled their mouths apart. "Tell me what you want," Ron whispered. He ran a hand along the outside of her thigh.
"I want you," she breathed. "Now. Please." She moved her hips upward, silently protesting the gentle touch of his hands. Hermione squeezed her thighs together around his arm. Ron removed his hand and she closed her eyes. "Don't do this to me. You can't."
"I can't deny you what you want?" He lay his head next to hers on the pillow. His hand went back to the outside of her leg. "Aren't you doing the same thing?"
"It's not the same and you know it." Hermione pushed at Ron's shoulder and slid away from him on the bed. "Fine, you don't want to do this. I'm not going to force you."
He grabbed her arm before she could get off the bed. "I just want you to be honest about what you want."
Hermione stiffened. She sat for a few seconds before turning back to Ron. "I want you. Tonight. Don't make this any harder than it has to be."
"Fine," Ron said after a moment. "But never say I didn't ask."
Before Hermione could question what he meant, he pulled her towards him. Ron drew her body beneath his in one swift move, taking her mouth with his. It took only seconds for Hermione to relax again, moaning as Ron's lips ran over her neck and collarbone, before dropping to her breasts. Then his hands and mouth began their magic and Hermione lost track of anything but the sensations he was creating in her body. She arched into and beneath his touch, filling the air with soft moans of his name.
Ron captured her wrists in one of his hands and held them over her head on the bed. He experienced one brief moment of hesitation, when he was poised above her on the bed, her eyes locked with his, her lips parted, the back of her foot stroking against his calf. The air was charged between them and they breathed in unison. Ron felt moved to whisper in her ear, demand that this be the first of many nights, but he stopped himself at the last second. She only wanted tonight. She would get her wish.
He lowered his body to hers, whispered her name and, reinforcing his grip on her hands, joined their bodies. It was exquisite, the tight, warm, soft feel of her wrapped around him. Ron couldn't move at first. He stopped breathing as she adjusted her legs to lock behind his back. He whispered her name again and then shook as she wrenched her hands free and ran her nails over his back, begging him to continue in a rough whisper. Then he began to move and she cried out for him, moaning her pleasure until he was lost in the sound of her voice.
The fire had long since died by the time they were able to pull themselves apart. Ron lay staring at the ceiling, wondering when and why things had changed. Why they had to go back to the way they had been. For a few seconds, as she had looked into his eyes, Ron had begun to wonder if maybe…he pushed the thought away and reached for her across the bed.
Hermione was turned away from him, curled around the pillow. Ron slid behind her and placed his arm around her waist.
"You really don't have to do it. I know why you think you do, but—"
"I have to." Hermione turned to face Ron. "It's for the best." He could barely make her out in the dim light, but he could tell from her voice how much she was struggling to hold on to the useless lie.
He moved his hand along her back. "I wish we could stay like this a while longer." Ron smiled as Hermione's hand moved along his stomach, slowly traveling lower. She giggled.
"I love that you're always ready." She moved her hand in slow strokes until he filled the circle of her hand, firm and strong. Ron pulled her over him until her hips rested firmly on top of his. Hermione maneuvered a bit, adjusting to the feel of Ron inside her. She arched her back and squeezed. Ron gasped. Hermione giggled again.
"I don't even care anymore about whoever you were with first," he said. "Whatever he taught you—that is amazing."
Hermione leaned down until her lips were next to Ron's ear and whispered, "I don't think I ever told you my tutor was a 'he'."