An Ostensible Invitation

Ninnik Nishukan

Summary: In which a hurt Hermione confronts Ron, trying to find out why he's suddenly giving her the cold shoulder after she'd invited him to Slughorn's Christmas party and he'd seemed to accept. Just because I wondered why she didn't.

Half-blood Prince what-if. Some dialogue in the story taken from book six out of necessity (and some slightly altered), but not, I believe, enough for it to be bothersome.

"Ugh, that McLaggen!" Hermione bristled as they walked down the corridor from Slughorn's office at a vigorous pace, her still leading him by the arm. "What a vileugh!" She slowed down, then, walking with him rather than almost dragging him in her eagerness to escape McLaggen. "Sorry I just pulled you out of there, but I could tell you were about to hit him!"

"He deserved it," Ron insisted, scowling, "the things that bastard said to you…!"

Hermione cast him an odd glance, sort of flattered, amused and exacerbated all at once. "I won't lie, I'm not sure I would have minded, but I thought— well, what with all the teachers there, it'd only serve to get you in trouble, and he'd just love that— not to mention we're prefects and shouldn't be getting involved in fights— but thanks for the thought, anyway."

Her unexpected gratitude towards his protective intentions made his face heat up, his heart flipping pleasantly. "If you hate him so much, then why do you keep going to Sluggy's meetings, anyway?" asked Ron, trying his best to clean off his sticky fingers with the napkin without having to release Hermione's arm; he suspected he wouldn't have the nerve to take it again if he did, and he couldn't just assume that she would.

Hermione glanced at him with a slight frown. "Ron, it's not as if he's the only one in the club. That's like saying I shouldn't go to Hogwarts because Malfoy goes here. The Slug Club can be sort of fun," she admitted then, shrugging. "The food is good, and we meet a lot of interesting people."

"Bet you love feeling so special," Ron muttered, roughly stuffing the napkin into his pocket and looking away, but immediately changing his mind and looking back to see her reaction. Was that the sort of thing she wanted? Because he couldn't provide her with that.

Hermione shot him a guilty look. "Ron, I'm really sorry I tried to…to promote you to Professor Slughorn. I think I've completely misunderstood things. I thought…I thought you actually wanted to be in the club, you see," she said in a small voice, "or maybe I wanted you to want to be there, I don't know. Merlin, I must've sounded so— and I kept calling you Ronald! I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," she sighed. "I just didn't know what to say. It was stupid."

His stomach seemed to squirm as he listened to her; being reminded of their conversations with Slughorn brought forth a cocktail of shame, guilt and agitation. "Yeah, well…I probably shouldn't have acted like I did, either, all rude. I did agree to go to the party, and maybe I did want to be in the club…or at least I might've, before I got to see what it was actually like."

She shook her head. "Perhaps, but I'm the one who was putting you under pressure and didn't even realize I was doing it."

Ron gave a weak laugh. "Well, blimey, if I can't even handle old Sluggy, how am I supposed to handle the pressure of fighting You-Know-Who?"

Hermione laughed as well, sounding like she'd needed it. He liked making her laugh. "See? Like I said earlier, there are far more important things than the stupid Slug Club! Not only do we have to go up against the most powerful dark wizard of our time, but we have our N.E.W.T.s to think of as well! Who has time to sit around eating crystallized pineapple and listening to people bragging about their influential relatives?"

He shot her a sideways, sceptical glance. "Right, so tell me again…why haven't you quit the club yet?"

She coloured. "All right, I'll admit I was flattered by being picked for The Slug Club, especially since Harry's really been outdoing me in Potions…but it's not just that, it's also the fact that…well, we don't have the D.A. this year, do we? I just really enjoyed being…you know, part of something," she confessed, looking a bit self-conscious. "You and Harry still have Quidditch, while I…didn't it ever occur to you that I don't have anything like that?"

"Oh," said Ron, to whom it hadn't. He'd simply assumed she ran off to the library whenever he and Harry went to Quidditch practice. It hadn't crossed his mind that she might've been bored or lonely sometimes.

"It's also one of the few things I can tell my parents about," she explained, brushing a lock of curly hair out of her face with one hand as they walked, her other arm still looped through his. "The magical world doesn't make much sense to them, but they understand things like grades and clubs and…well, it's like when I was chosen as a prefect. They understand that."

"Can't imagine they went as mental as Mum, though," he snorted. "They probably expected you to get the badge."

"Honestly, Ron," she said matter-of-factly, squeezing his arm, "it was obvious your mother expected you to be made prefect as well."

Ron shook his head, trying not to let her reassuring gesture fluster him. "If she did, it was only because Bill and Charlie and Percy already—"

Hermione let go of his arm. "Are we really going to start this sort of discussion up again?" she said flatly, rolling her eyes. "Now, right at the end of the evening? Because I don't know about you, but I've enjoyed myself, and I don't fancy having another row right now."

"You've enjoyed yourself?" asked Ron, all traces of complaint suddenly dropping from his tone, his eyes widening a little.

Glancing at him as she kept walking, Hermione bit her lip. "Well…yes, haven't you?"

I have now, he thought, but couldn't bring himself to utter it out loud. Besides, some bits of the party had been very nice. "Hermione?" he asked instead, his voice turning low and serious.

She stopped and turned to him, noticing he'd already halted. "Yes?"

"Why'd you invite me to the party?" he went on bravely, nearly not even believing he was asking her this significant question.

She hesitated, a frown flitting across her brow. "What do you mean?"

He seemed to lose some of his momentum, then, turning his attention to a tiny chocolate stain on his robes. "I mean, um…you told Slughorn we were friends…"

"Oh." He saw her feet shuffling a bit, couldn't quite decipher her tone. "Well…to be honest, it was none of Slughorn's business, was it?"

Ron perked up; that almost sounded like they had a secret together. "Wouldn't you rather have gone with…?" he nevertheless felt compelled to ask, rubbing absentmindedly at the chocolate with his fingers; he should be applying a 'Scourgify', he supposed, but this provided him with a decent distraction.

She released an exasperated little puff of breath. "No."

He exhaled, surprised at her certainty, her finality. "What…what does that mean?"

Her brief annoyance fled as quickly as it had arrived; for a second, she almost looked scared. "It means…it means that this is…out of the ordinary."

They were being so careful it felt like they were back in first year, trying desperately not to wake up the slumbering, vicious Fluffy. It seemed it was forbidden to say anything in an uncomplicated and direct manner, because then it would all be over. "You mean…like, different from going to a Quidditch match to watch Harry together?"

Anyone listening in on this floundering parody of a conversation would definitely think they were mental, Ron thought. Hermione must've been thinking the same, because next she pulled out her wand, took a quick look from left to right, then left again, as if she was going to cross the street; then she was whispering 'Muffliato', before replacing her wand, sticking it back into the gauzy sash around her waist and out of sight.

"Yes…" she answered weakly, shaking her head a bit as she added: "…and I wouldn't…I wouldn't bring Harry to this party."

Ron was staring at her now, flabbergasted. She'd just used one of the Half-blood Prince's spells, even though it always annoyed her when Harry did. So this was well and truly a private conversation, then. "You wouldn't have to, he's already in the club," he said, his calm tone belying his frantically thumping heart. He was playing thick now, he supposed, but he couldn't help himself. This was starting to get bloody terrifying.

She made a small noise of frustration. "I wouldn't bring Harry to a ball, either."

Ears turning red, he opened his mouth to speak, but apparently he was predictable. "Please don't mention Krum," she said hastily, and he couldn't help but think she'd refrained from calling him 'Viktor' on purpose, "Krum has nothing to do with this."

He found himself leaning forward with acute curiosity. "Hermione…?"

"There's a reason I asked you," she said tightly, her lips pursing for a second. "If you still don't know why, I'm…I can't tell you."

Abruptly, he experienced a sting of shame, feeling like he was some big child she was trying desperately to handle, to keep it from throwing a fit. It was ridiculous that he should need to be treated with special care, wasn't it?

He swallowed; or perhaps she didn't think he was useless, but was simply just as afraid as him, afraid that she'd misunderstood, that he didn't want her.

Want her, his mind repeated mercilessly, and another blast of fear flooded him.

"Ron?" she asked timidly. "Do you…do you like blonde girls?"

This abrupt change of tone and subject totally threw him. "What?"

"I mean," she began, her voice rising in pitch a bit, the way it often did when she was upset, "Fleur always seems to distract you to the point where you look like you're daydreaming about her, and you're always staring at Madam Rosmerta at the Three Broomsticks, and I've noticed Lavender's been paying you more attention this year, and then there was Luna, and you must've done something to encourage Lavender and Luna, whether it was conscious or not, and I don't know, maybe that's what you really want— and I mean, I'm not— I'm not really very— " she was tugging slightly at her hair with one hand now, a wretched expression stealing across her reddening face, which she then waved her free hand at, as if to sum up everything she didn't like about it. Then, to his great dismay, her hand descended to make a curvy sort of gesture in the air in front of her chest for a second, as if to indicate something was lacking there as well.

It had now begun to dawn on him that perhaps it was worse, perhaps she wasn't only afraid of a mere misunderstanding, of crossing the all-important friendship line, but perhaps another reason for these odd questions was because she was actually trying to suss out if there was something wrong with her. If that was why he was stalling, avoiding, being awkward, playing dumb, being a total—

It appeared that it hadn't necessarily been Luna, specifically, who'd made her jealous. It'd been some general sense of insecurity, a feeling that what he wanted was the opposite of her, which was mad. Was this why she'd been so quiet and withdrawn during the day of the party, before they'd met in the evening?

Somehow, it had never occurred to him, not really, that she could be anything but confident and in charge, or that he could be the idiot responsible for a decline in said confidence, that he could honestly hurt her ego, even in small ways— had never occurred to him that she was honestly concerned about her looks, because she wasn't a normal girl, she was Hermione Granger, who was supposed to be far too intelligent to be as silly as other teenage girls, or even as him— had never occurred to him that he might not be the only one wondering not only if they were wanted, but why they even should be wanted in the first place—

"Ron?" she prompted, sounding breathless now. Expectant. It did things to him. Pushed him forwards onto whichever path that lay ahead whether he wanted to or not; or perhaps it signalled to him that his passage might be safer than he'd thought. Either way, he wasn't going to waste their time discussing other girls and his imaginary feelings for them (of course he'd noticed other girls, but that was only because he wasn't blind or dead, it didn't mean what she thought it might mean), not when they obviously needed to get straight to the crux of the matter.

"Hermione…I know why you asked me," he admitted, "I just didn't…know why…you know?"

He was acutely aware that he sounded like a complete and utter tosser, but miraculously, she seemed to possess whatever code necessary to decipher his babblings, because she actually smiled at him.

"I s'pose I didn't know why you'd ask me of all people, when you seemed to have your pick," he mumbled, still discomfited with the vulnerable situation he'd put himself in, yet emboldened by her response. Sure, sometimes her attention had made him preen, sometimes he'd even believed he had a chance with her, but it never took much for him to hurtle back into the constant, dull background hum of self-doubt, like a small child stumbling and tumbling head first into a river— which, incidentally, he'd done once near Ottery St. Catchpole at age five, so he knew what he was talking about.

"Ron," she sighed, her eyes suddenly bright, his name sounding oddly melodious and tender. He felt as if she'd never stop inventing new ways in which to say it. "Why on Earth wouldn't I?"

"Hermione," he heard himself beckoning softly as if from a distance, thunder clapping in his head as he realized she was actually reaching out for his hand. The dizzy anticipation barely had time to build, however, before she snatched her hand back, grabbed her wand and performed a hurriedly whispered "Finite incantatem!".

Disorientated, Ron spun around to find out what she'd seen, suddenly almost as breathless as Harry, who was running down the corridor towards them. "Ron! Hermione! I've got to tell you…!"

Frowning, Harry came to a halt, looking from one alarmed, scarlet face to the other. "What's the matter? Has something happened?"

Hermione cleared her throat a little too loudly. "Er, no— nothing, don't worry, Harry, you just startled us, that's all— what's going on? What did you want to tell us?"

At this question, Harry's excitement seemed to return full blast. "You caught Malfoy claiming to be 'gate crashing' the party, right? Well, I just knew something else was really going on, so I decided to follow him!"

As Harry began to tell them of his discoveries, Ron's eyes flickered, for a moment meeting Hermione's, who looked just as uncomfortable as he was. They both knew, it seemed, that odds were they wouldn't be able to talk properly before leaving for the holidays.

Well, nothing for it. At least now he'd have some time to determine what to do, he supposed.

Sighing inwardly, Ron tried to forget the matter for the time being in order to concentrate on Harry, whose story did sound potentially important. Judging by Hermione's suddenly contemplative and resolved expression, she was already starting to analyze the new information in her head.

Next morning, the usual farewell before the holidays started seemed to be over in two seconds.

There was a bright, rushed 'Have a happy Christmas, Ron' spoken at his left ear, and then there was a buzzing in his head, leaving his mind oddly blank as she stood on tip-toe and embraced him, placing a fleeting kiss on his cheek.

Despite how dazed he felt, he still couldn't help but notice that while she also hugged Harry, she left out the kiss. That had to be important, he decided.

When they opened their presents Christmas Day, however, he had no idea how to interpret Hermione's present for him. It wasn't the same as Harry's, as it'd been a few times in the past, so at least she'd differentiated between them, but at the same time, he wasn't sure his gift was something you'd give to someone you were…somebody who was allegedly more than a friend.

When he asked, Harry told him he'd given Hermione a book. No surprises there.

During Christmas lunch, Ron's stomach churned as he pondered the quality and reception of his already-sent present for Hermione. Now that he'd seen his own, he was once again revising the choice he'd made.

He'd given her what his Mum (in an atypically quiet, understanding, non-insistent voice that had kept him from regretting he'd asked for her help) had reassured him was a rather discreet necklace that Hermione could wear beneath her school uniform. It was thin, silver, and included a tiny, delicate sugar quill pendant. It hadn't obliterated his allowance, either, although it hadn't been exactly cheap. He'd been unsure if it was a wise purchase, but in the end he'd sent it, reminding himself he'd already bought her a bottle of perfume the year before, and surely this couldn't be any more inappropriate or unusual (yet at the same time, he wanted her to understand it was unusual) than that?

Hermione had given him two books. While thankfully neither had been a homework planner this time, but a book about Muggle sweets from around the world and one about the history of Wizard's chess, they were still books, and therefore not really anything out of the ordinary for Hermione…which made her gift impossible to interpret.

The best he could do, he concluded, was to take the two books as a sign that she hadn't been able to decide what to get him, as opposed to Harry, who'd received a single, big Quidditch book. This made him feel marginally better, and he was able to relax and enjoy his holidays with his family and Harry (even if the twins teased him relentlessly about Luna Lovegood the first couple of days; knowing them, it wasn't a given that they'd obtained this information from Ginny, so he kept the Christmas peace, such as it was, by refraining from yelling at his sister).

It was comforting, fun and easy to spend some time with his best friend and only talk about uncomplicated things like Quidditch, food, Chess, school, their families, the Ministry and Voldemort (hah!) as opposed to the impossible topic of girls.

Not for the first time, Ron reminded himself never to buy any magical portraits for when (or if) he managed to get himself his own house. He'd already had enough attitude from the ones at Hogwarts, St. Mungo's and especially Grimmauld Place to last him a lifetime.

Currently, it was the Fat Lady that was giving him trouble by refusing to accept the password, which had suddenly (and unreasonably) become obsolete over the holidays.

"There is a new password," said the portrait irritably, "and please don't shout."

Ron exchanged a disbelieving look with Harry and Ginny before gawking at the magical portrait, affronted. "But we've been away, how are we supposed to—?"

"Harry, Ginny…Ron!" Hermione called, hurrying over to them; she was wearing a cloak, hat and gloves and her face was pink, evidently from the cold weather. "I got back a couple of hours ago. I've just been down to visit Hagrid and Buck— I mean, Witherwings. Did you have a good Christmas?"

"Yeah," said Ron, beaming anxiously at her. "It was pretty eventful, actually, wish you'd been there."

Turning even pinker in the face, Hermione cleared her throat delicately. "By the way, they changed the password to 'abstinence'."

"Precisely," groaned the Fat Lady, rubbing her forehead and swinging forward to reveal the portrait hole.

"What's up with her?" asked Harry.

"Overindulged over Christmas, apparently," Hermione said, rolling her eyes. "She and her friend Violet drank their way through all the wine in that picture of the drunk monks down by the charms corridor. Anyway…" she added, pulling a scroll of parchment out of her pocket and handing it to Harry.

"Great," said Harry, as he unrolled the scroll; Ron snuck a peek over his shoulder to discover that Dumbledore had scheduled another lesson with Harry the following night, "I've got loads to tell him— and you. Let's go inside and sit down."

Hermione shuffled her feet, not quite meeting Harry's eye. "Um, to be honest, I was hoping to…to have a word with Ron first, if you don't mind."

Ron felt something leap and squirm inside him; exhilaration, curiosity, stone cold fear and uncertainty tangling up together until they were one big, undistinguishable mess. He hadn't thought she'd want to talk this soon. He'd also hoped he'd be able to take the initiative for the discussion; both so he'd feel more prepared and because he'd wanted a chance to show her he wasn't completely gormless when it came to these things.

To Harry's credit, he merely nodded, the only sign of his surprise a slightly raised eyebrow. As for Ginny, however, Ron felt her keen eyes on his face, and just knew she was trying not to laugh.

"Uh, don't you want to go inside at all, then?" Ron heard himself murmur as Harry and Ginny began to climb through the portrait hole, and Hermione remained standing, quiet. Immediately, he went slightly red; he sounded like some shy little schoolboy! Thank goodness, at least, that the days of his voice breaking with vicious unpredictability were finally gone.

"If it's all the same to you, I'd like a bit more privacy than just sitting on the opposite side of the common room," said Hermione, pulling her hat off and combing her fingers through her wild, ruffled hair in an uneasy sort of manner. "Besides, I'm not sure I'd have the heart to wake her."

Glancing to the side, Ron realized the portrait hole had closed again. The Fat Lady was now dozing off in her picture frame.

"A-all right," Ron agreed, swallowing. "Where'd you want to go?"

"I don't know, let's just…walk around a bit, okay?" she proposed resolutely. "I know you just came back, but I thought…on the whole, we'd better take this opportunity to get this out of the way first, before term starts."

Ron's heart sank as he took in her suddenly business-like manner. Out of the way?

She was changing her mind. She'd had the entire holidays to come to her senses, and now she was changing her mind. No, she— was she?

"How about you, did you have a good Christmas, Hermione?" he blurted out, trying to distract himself from his own nerves, or possibly delay the other subject.

Hermione blinked at his outburst, before taking off down the hall, signalling for him to follow her. "Oh, you know, it was all right…probably not as action-packed as yours, though. My family's not very big," she said somewhat apologetically, shrugging. "Oh, that reminds me," she went on, brightening, "you said something about Christmas being…eventful? What did you mean?"

Relieved that he was getting a soft, chatty start to what seemed like a big, important conversation, Ron started telling her about the unusual visitors they'd had at the Burrow.

"Oh, that's terrible, Ron!" Hermione exclaimed, appalled. "How could Percy do that to your parents? Pretending to miss them just so the Minister could— and Rufus Scrimgeour, trying to weasel himself into Harry's good graces like that, trying to put all sort of ideas into his head— symbol of hope— stand alongside the Ministry— to make it seem as if he approves— and after what they've done, particularly Umbridge, they expect— and poor Stan Shunpike— Harry as the Ministry's mascot! Hah!" she spat contemptuously, seething over the deeply insulting, almost tragicomic punch line of the story.

Ron grinned at Hermione's disjointed rant. He loved having a captive audience, which was why whenever something interesting happened to him, he made sure to tell it to as many people as possible and as many times as he could, but engaging Hermione had always been the most coveted outcome; he loved seeing her get this worked up over things that provoked her and things she cared about. It helped a little, distracting him further from the impending Talk. "Yeah, I doubt Scrimgeour'll pop round our house for any more 'social visits'," he agreed, with satisfaction. "Harry doesn't like to brag, of course, but I could tell he was pleased about getting to put the Ministry in its place."

"I should bloody well think so!" Hermione huffed, blushing as Ron barked a delighted, scandalized laugh at her uncharacteristically colourful language.

"Blimey, Hermione, you're more offended than Harry was!"

"Well, I don't…I just don't like corruption, all right?" she sputtered lamely, ducking her head and glaring up at him. "I mean, who does?"

Ron grinned hugely, undeterred as an idea came to him. "Hey, you should start another organisation— Union for the Obliteration of Bureaucratic Bastards! Or the Corrupt Wankers Resistance Committee!" Chuckling obnoxiously, he knew he was getting carried away, but couldn't help himself. "Of course, they don't spell anything amusing, like spew, but— oh, wait, how about P.R.A.T? People for the Removal of Administrative Tossers?"

"Oh, stop it, Ron!" Hermione scolded, smacking his arm, but she was trying hard not to laugh. "Honestly, you're such a…a boy!"

Ron smirked, feeling self-satisfied for once.

Hermione gave a heavy sigh that was clearly designed to prevent any further temptations of mirth. "By the way…thank you for the necklace," she said softly, then.

Ron's own amusement died with the sincere subject change. "Oh, um…you're welcome. I had Mum help me pick it out," he explained, then immediately cringed, feeling daft. Mum helped? What was he, nine? She didn't need to know that!

To his surprise, however, this seemed to please her. "Really? That was rather thoughtful of you, Ron."

He couldn't help himself; his skinny chest seemed to inflate, his long back straightening. Thoughtful, was he? That sounded pretty mature, didn't it? "Cheers, no problem," he replied, in what he hoped was a suitably casual manner, considering his heart seemed to be flopping around in his chest as he wondered if she was indeed wearing the necklace right at that very moment. "Thank you for the…uh, books, too. I really liked them," he remembered to say, then, which was true. He'd already devoured (no pun intended) the book about Muggle sweets, and had just started on the other one when the holidays had ended.

"Oh, good. I wasn't sure which one to get, so I just thought…why not both?" Hermione gave him a bashful shrug and a zippy smile; Ron answered it, happy he'd been right. Next, Hermione seemed to hesitate a bit before asking: "Did you know your Mum actually sent me a Weasley Christmas jumper for the first time?"

Ron blinked, his spine going stiff. What did that mean, all of a sudden? Oh, no, Ginny hadn't told Mum anything, had she? Gah, he'd turn Ginny into a— or possibly, in her passive-aggressive disapproval of Fleur, maybe Mum had tried to make certain really everybody got a jumper, except her daughter-in-law-to-be? It could be, although it seemed a bit mental, even for Mum. Why had she, though?

Ron glanced nervously at Hermione. "Er, no, I didn't…but that's nice of her."

Hermione favoured him with a shy smile as she started peeling off her gloves and putting them in her pocket. "Yes, wasn't it? I sent her a letter to thank her."

Another thing I didn't know, thought Ron, feeling a bit befuddled, and wondering again what else he was going to hear tonight that was news to him.

Ron decided to just take the plunge. "Yeah, but…uh, what was it you really wanted to talk to me about, Hermione?"

Hermione bit her lip, not quite meeting his eyes as she paused outside a classroom door, reaching out to open it. "I don't know, I just felt like…we were interrupted, after the party. Like we should've had the chance to talk properly then."

"Yeah," Ron agreed, but proceeded with caution, both further into the conversation and into the classroom with her, "but what exactly did you want to…?"

"We went on a date," Hermione said simply, being nearly noiseless in closing the door behind them once he was inside.

"Ah." His eyebrows rose as he finally heard the word spoken aloud. Stopping in the middle of the floor, he turned around, only to see her leaning coyly against the door, not moving closer.

"We've never done that before," she ventured, in a demure, yet pointed tone, clasping her hands together down in front of her.

He nodded slowly. "Right."

She gave a delicate cough. "So I thought that might merit some discussion."

"Like what about, specifically?" Ron asked, keeping his tone careful so she'd know he wasn't affecting ignorance. Even so, he did wonder a bit about what they were supposed to be discussing. Either she fancied him or she didn't, he reasoned, so there shouldn't have to be a big discussion. If there was a need for that, it usually meant something was wrong, didn't it?

And why was she still standing all the way over there?

For a panic-stricken, nauseous second, Ron almost considered fleeing.

Hermione shrugged, but her eyes were searching his face as if waiting for a specific reaction. "Like…do we do it again or not, that sort of thing."

Again, he nodded, but his voice seemed to crack a bit when he spoke next, sounding rather insubstantial. She'd confused him further, ironically enough, by being uncomplicated. It wasn't like Hermione at all. "Right, so…d'you want to?"

She watched him expectantly. "Do you?"

For a moment, Ron stood frozen, complicated internal organs seeming to contract and contort inside him. "Yes," he croaked, trying to moisten his lips with a suddenly dry tongue. If she could ask him to Slughorn's party, in effect sparing him of taking the first step, he considered this admission owed to her. He wanted to give something in return, even if it frightened him, because it sounded like she needed it, like she didn't dare take another step before he did.

He heard her draw a shallow breath. "Oh."

Ron scratched his head briefly before dropping his hand to his side again. "Er, there's always the next Hogsmeade weekend…" he suggested reluctantly. The Hogsmeade weekend seemed ages away, and he wasn't keen on having to wait until then to get a chance to explore this fragile, new thing further. Frightening as it was, waiting might be much worse.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be a special occasion," Hermione clarified hastily, making Ron wonder if she was thinking along the same lines.

Relieved, he nodded. "Ah…it doesn't?" he asked in a bright tone.

Hermione shook her head, looking faintly flustered now. "No, we…just sort of have to be alone, I guess."

"We're alone now," Ron said, stating the obvious and worrying how she would interpret it. Would he sound forward to her? Was he being forward?

She nodded, her gaze locking with his. "So it would seem, yes," she said, almost in a whisper. Ron stared back, attempting to decipher whether she was trying to convey her wishes or if she was simply making nervous conversation. She still wasn't moving from her spot by the door.

A memory, and the jolt of excitement that he associated with it, came back to him, then. After the party, she'd intended to take his hand before Harry interrupted them. Surely, he mused, surely it wouldn't be end-of-the-world-inducing stuff, simply taking her hand, would it?

Before he knew it, his arm was sticking stupidly into the air in front of him, like he was a child attempting to reach for a tin of sweets while being dragged away from the shop shelves by its parents. His hand convulsing slightly as if trying to grasp something intangible, he felt his face go hot, and made to withdraw his arm.

That's when he noticed she appeared to be drifting closer, a strange expression on her face.

For all of her usual criticism, he realized now, often when he felt at his most dense or vulnerable, or both (and especially lately), she actually didn't respond by being overbearing or impatient. No, there could be something tender and, unless he'd been imagining things, almost hopeful about the way in which she regarded him.

Almost like now. As if that silly, aborted attempt at reaching for her had been her cue, had boosted her confidence.

Hermione's big bushy hair seemed to float around her like mist as she moved, meeting his half-outstretched hand with her own and reeling herself in by their joined hands, closing the remaining space between them, her lips brushing his tentatively before retreating. Ron's brain had barely begun registering what was happening when she then stood up on tip-toe, flung her arms around his neck and brought her mouth against his once more.

Sensations rushed through him— warm, moist pressure on his mouth, sweet, damp breath on his face, clothed hips, stomach, breasts pressing against him, small, eager hands touching his hair and neck and ears— flickering across his mind like the frames of that ancient, choppy roll of Muggle film Dad had showed him once, each picture coming together to make a whole motion, a complete idea: Hermione Granger was kissing him.

A muffled, choked noise crashed against her mouth, his eyes wide, but then he came to his senses, managing to fumble his arms around her waist, anchoring her further to him, and somehow even managing to start moving his lips in tune with hers, responding, responding, letting every doubt be washed away; it didn't matter if he wasn't an expert, because she was here kissing him, not Krum or McLaggen.

When he mindlessly opened his mouth, progressing naturally by deepening the kiss, exploring the slippery other sides of her lips, feeling her breath mingle with his, he heard her sort of whimper in excitement, her grip on his hair tightening.

Ron groaned, letting his hands roam around on her narrow back, making them feel giant; if she'd ever uttered such a sound in the common room, he was certain he could've been knocked over by a quill.

"I'm just going to…erm," Hermione panted, then, struggling within her cloak, shifting, discomfited, in his arms, before finally slipping it off of her shoulders, leaving him faced with a thin, woollen jumper that was radiating her body heat in an intoxicating way, the shape and softness of her breasts suddenly much more clearly defined against his chest; swiftly, she recaptured his lips, and he felt like he might collapse then and there.

When her tongue slipped into his mouth, sliding and caressing warmly, his reaction was inevitable, hot bolts of shocked pleasure shooting down between his legs.

What with their close proximity, especially since she was currently winding her arm around his waist and squeezing him closer, he couldn't avoid it; his miserable cock was now bumping into her thigh through the straining front of his trousers. He heard her gasp, and he froze.

This is it, he thought wildly, as he felt her embrace go slack, felt her pulling back just a little, this is the moment where I bollixed it all up.

But she made a soft, trusting sound, then, giving him a look of affection before standing back up on tip-toe and hugging him to her, burying her face in his neck and inhaling, one hand groping gently at the hair on the back of his head…

Trapping his erection happily between them, the length of him rubbing against, through the material of her skirt, her slightly yielding abdomen and a hint of something very warm longer down...

"Ron…Ron, Ron, Ron…" she sighed into his skin with a sort of blissful desperation. She made his name sound like a life-saving incantation. He felt himself trembling, couldn't make himself stop, heard his breath escape him in shallow, sharp bursts, felt himself swallowing heavily, his throat feeling constricted.

"Hermione…" he moaned, large, clumsy hands descending, boldly finding her delicious arse cheeks and squeezing, lifting her and placing her bum on the nearest desk, pushing her further against him so they met properly at last; he felt her shudder, heard her grunting softly, felt her squirm. His entire body buzzed with pleasure. For fear of embarrassing himself by dirtying his trousers, he didn't actually thrust much, just sort of kept them pushed together, gingerly rubbing himself between her thighs, against her woollen tights (her skirt was riding up now), his hands stroking her arms and her sides (straying close to her breasts, but always shying away), and then of course there was the kissing, all of which was in any case more than exciting enough for him right then, especially considering his lack of experience.

If her trembling and heavy breathing were any indication, it was exciting enough for Hermione, too.

"Yes," she insisted, ordered, begged; he lowered his mouth to her neck, breathing in her intoxicating scent, sucking at the vulnerable skin there. Whining softly, she threw her head to the side, giving him better access, clutching his shoulders and wriggling her hips a bit, so he reckoned he had to be doing something right. Jubilation fluttered in his chest when his questing lips encountered a thin, silver chain; she was wearing his necklace.

It wasn't going to go much further right then, he knew, she knew, they knew— he suspected, with mixed emotions, that there would be no removal of clothing at all; it was probably too cold for that here, anyway— but it was yes and that was all that mattered. Admittedly, like most teenage boys would in this situation, he wished he knew if he was allowed to touch her tits or not. A sense of hormonal logic told him he should be, considering he was allowed to rub his crotch against hers, but he wasn't willing to risk having his unaccustomed hands squeeze her too hard or in the wrong place (or both) or fiddle her nipples inexpertly, like he was tuning a wireless, jarring them out of the euphoric haze of sensations when she squealed in discomfort (or, goodness forbid, even pain), pushed him away and accused him of being a ham-fisted git. No girl should have that as the prominent memory of her first proper snogging session (Krum didn't count). No, he should build up both his own and her confidence in his abilities at least a little before he allowed himself to make any big blunders.

He assumed (or hoped) there would be other opportunities for exploring her tits, anyway, and didn't girls respect you when you held off a bit (there was that hope again)?

The next kisses seemed wetter, warmer, her body growing more pliant against his, her breath practically steaming up his face. She couldn't have been more enthusiastic, more…well, interested in him even in his wildest dreams. He'd never felt this welcome or wanted before. She was so good, she was honestly the most wonderful person he'd ever met (he'd meant that, he'd realized now, oh, how he'd meant that), and she'd accepted him, she liked him as a person, she cared about him, she desired him as a man— and bloody hell, all he could think about were tits? Well, that and the fervent wish to please her, to treat her right, but still…tits. Ron assumed she'd use that giant brain of hers to interpret what he really felt if he ever said anything near as barmy, though, and she'd have the chance, too, because to the best of his abilities, he'd try to avoid throwing any cryptic moodiness in her face and storming off again, ever.

He'd never imagined she'd be like this in this sort of situation; if he had imagined a few different scenarios (which he'd probably never admit), they usually involved descriptive words like shy, domineering, critical, nervous, hesitant or moralistic (because evidently he was a masochistic prat even in his fantasies, and he'd still wanted her). This, how she actually behaved, was a very thrilling surprise indeed.

He wondered if he really knew her.

He wondered (again) if he was going to have more chances to know her better, because this was—

"Brilliant," Ron declared thickly, nuzzling her neck, pressing his swollen, hot mouth against her throat.

Again, Hermione hugged him tightly, warmly, as if she was overwhelmed with emotion. "Ron…" she sort of moaned, then, and he knew what it meant.

Groaning, he sagged against her, face nestled in her springy, mad hair. "I suppose we'd better go, right?"

"Mmm," she murmured into his shoulder, nodding. It lifted his spirits a bit that she sounded rather reluctant.

"What're we supposed to do tomorrow?" he asked when they broke apart, wincing a little as he discreetly adjusted himself in his trousers. The appreciative smirk she sent him as she slid off the desk told him he hadn't been as discreet as he'd thought.

She came up to him as he stopped by the door. "That should be a conversation for tomorrow, shouldn't it?" suggested Hermione in an almost sleepy voice, fingers trailing down his arm. This surprised him; Hermione Granger was never one to do tomorrow what she could just as well do today.

Ron still pursued his coveted answers. "When we come down to breakfast and go to classes and everything, how are we supposed to act? I mean," he ventured valiantly, his voice dropping to a deep, tender murmur, "…what'm I allowed to do?"

For a moment, Hermione looked so astounded that he had to wonder what sort of naughty implications she thought he'd intended by his question. "Well, I think public displays of affection are a bit inappropriate at school," she stated primly, as if she'd abruptly returned to herself. Considering she said this as she was smoothing down her hair after their rather heated encounter, however, the picture of the proper, responsible young lady she was trying to sound like was a bit ruined (not that he minded).

Then there was the darkening suction mark left behind by his lips on her neck. As he wondered whether a quick 'Espiskey' would take care of it or not, he realized he also wasn't sure whether he actually wanted her to get rid of it just yet. Part of him wanted everyone to know. What with her keen attention to detail, however, she'd probably spot it in the mirror while brushing her teeth, and it'd be gone by breakfast tomorrow.

"Not to mention it'd definitely be weird in front of Harry," Ron reminded them both, sighing. He loved the bloke, and he always enjoyed spending time with him, but it occurred to him now that they were in front of Harry a lot. When would they get another chance to be alone? Well, there were always prefect duties to tear them away, he remembered, feeling a bit more cheerful.

Nodding her agreement, Hermione fell silent. "I suppose…I suppose a bit of hand holding every once in a while wouldn't be out of the question," she said slowly, as if she was turning the words around in her mouth to see how the concept tasted. "As long as we keep a sense of the right time and place for it, you know…"

Ron swallowed; the now very real prospect of publically revealing to everyone that something had indeed changed between himself and Hermione was both daunting and alluring. "That'd be excellent," he all but squeaked.

The way his response made her glow, her bright smile dimpling her cheeks, would stay with him for the rest of the week.

"Still bothered about 'blonde girls'?" he teased, grinning softly at her as she picked up her cloak and they left the empty classroom.

"Well, over the holidays I considered the fact that you'd actually paid more attention to the chocolate cake than Luna at the party, so…" Hermione trailed off with a wry smile, closing the classroom door behind them. "Anyway…can you tell Harry we'll all talk about the Malfoy thing properly tomorrow? I wouldn't mind a word about the Minister, either…but right now I think I'm going to head upstairs to unpack."

After they'd said goodnight, exchanging a couple of hurried, sheepish kisses, he let her go up to the common room while he excused himself to the bathroom (to have a quick wank, although he left out this last part). In between reliving bloody excellent moments of what had just transpired between them, he pondered what she'd think of him if she'd known what he was up to— and then he wondered whether she might possibly be doing the very same thing, in her own way, right at that very moment, because while she wasn't a horny teenage bloke, she was still a teenager, and didn't girls also— they had to, didn't they, surely they would, or they'd go mad, and surely even Hermione Granger had to— and of its own volition, his hand sped up, and he found his relief picturing this very notion.

"Where've you been, Ron?" Harry asked innocently from where he was sitting on his bed, reading, as Ron more or less sneaked into the boys' dormitory. "Did something happen to make you forget the new password?"

Grateful that none of the other boys were there yet, Ron was able to relax at least a little, even if he knew his ears were flaming red. "Shut up, Harry," he said, grinning as he picked up a pillow and threw it at Harry, who laughed.

Harry was silent as Ron began unpacking his trunk, but when he eventually spoke, something about the seemingly casual inquiry made Ron look up in surprise from putting away his socks. "All right, Ron?"

The two boys looked at each other for a moment, Ron fiddling with the roll of greying socks he was still holding and Harry absentmindedly ruffling the pages of his book. "Yeah, I reckon so," Ron replied at last, and Harry seemed to relax a bit, "I told her all about the Minister's little yuletide visit, by the way," he added, flashing a grin and getting one in return, "she was livid, of course— oh, and she said to tell you we'd discuss Malfoy tomorrow. Maybe she's had a few thoughts over the holidays, dunno."

"Good," said Harry, giving him a nod and a smile before returning to his book, which Ron now noticed was the volume about Quidditch he'd received as a Christmas present from Hermione.

Ron understood the apprehension in Harry's voice and expression, because he himself still felt uncertain about what would happen between him and Hermione, how he would deal with this raw, new situation or how it would affect the friendship between the three of them, but for now, Harry at least seemed to think, or hope, that it was a good thing, which helped a little.

When Hermione came down to breakfast the next day and he noticed (only he, because he was looking for it; or if anybody else did notice, they didn't comment) that the mark on her neck still remained there, that helped a little as well.

The End.

Author's note: Sorry for the delay. For some reason, I suddenly got sidetracked by writing Coraline fanfic (of all things) and even *gasp* an original story with not so much rat in it, uh, I mean, with no fanfic stuff at all, which naturally gets to be prioritized over fanfics.

Ron's acronyms: Ron being immature and Hermione being charmed by it despite herself, but not necessarily my personal idea of the height of humour. :P

Well, things are finally looking up for Ron and Hermione! But poor Ron...this still doesn't mean he'll escape the poisoned mead in chapter eighteen! ;)

Or, uh…y'know…the war. Shit. Ah well. :P

I figured I'd let the Wretched Harmony take the initiative to kiss Ronnie the Bear, considering she did so in the books. Just seemed right to me, I guess.

I hope you enjoyed it. :P And I have absolutely no idea why I ended up writing this entire story from Ron's perspective. It was never my intention. D: