Author's Notes: Yes, and I've actually seen a pair of dudes dance in a club the way I had Fred and George dance in the previous chapter. Guys, whoever you are, please know that you've been fanfic-ized!
The music, the voices around her, everything sounded very far away, garbled, as Hermione became more and more immersed in her thoughts. The rational portion of her mind was reeling, desperately trying to find alternative explanations for everything, but a different voice in her head, an unnervingly distinct one, told her that all the pieces were perfectly fitting together. At that moment, she hated Ron for agreeing with Harry. She had wanted him to laugh it all off, to say that Harry was being paranoid, to call Trelawney the old batty scammer that she was, but instead he had confirmed Harry's theory, fueling her fears, adding to the horror she was feeling now. She suddenly felt very abandoned.
"Hermione," Ron said eventually. His voice was hollow and when she looked at him, she saw that his face was very pale. "Can you tell me more about that obelisk comic?"
She knew that Ron had said that for the sole purpose of distracting himself from his own thoughts that she was certain were not unlike hers, and she gratefully accepted this diversion. They started to talk again and while it did not fully divert her thoughts from their discussion on Voldemort and all its gruesome implications, it gradually brought her considerably closer to the here and now.
Hermione did not know how much time they had been spending there, sitting and talking, but she slowly started to feel drowsy, the dim light and the deep murmur of numberless voices only adding to this sensation. Her head seemed to weigh more than usual and her eyelids became increasingly heavy as well; she found herself purposefully jerking up and widening her eyes on multiple occasions to keep them from fluttering shut. A yawn forced its way out of her mouth, but she tried her best to stifle it. Next to her, Ron was enthusiastically telling her about the first time he had beaten his brother Bill at chess, and for once, he was practically glowing with pride. She did not want to offend him by making him think that she found his narration boring.
Ron was relieved that the longer they talked, the more Hermione seemed to relax, and, fueled by this knowledge and keen of driving her thoughts as far from Voldemort as he could, his speech became more and more animated and energetic. He did not fail to notice, however, that as the night went on, Hermione's responses became increasingly sparse and curt. As he threw a glance at her, he noted how droopy her eyelids had become and that she had obvious trouble staying awake. He wondered why she was doing this, forcing herself to sit through this, instead of simply telling him that she needed to go to bed, which, after all, would be the reasonable thing to do. Then a thought crossed his mind - was she doing this for him? Was it possible that she enjoyed his company remotely as much as he enjoyed hers? That she was doing just what he would have, had their roles been reversed, namely dragging out the inevitable moment when they had to split up for their respective dormitories? He smiled tenderly at her, his insides warming at the mere thought. But it also made him feel guilty. He did not want Hermione to feel uncomfortable just because of him.
"Are you tired?" he asked softly, leaning somewhat closer to her. "Do you want to go upstairs?"
Ron thought that it took Hermione longer to reply than this simple question of his would have accounted for, but probably, as the rational part of his brain reminded him, it was simply because of her fatigue.
"Yeah, if you don't mind," she said with hesitation.
"'Course I don't," Ron chuckled, watching her as she rubbed her eyes, a sight that made him feel oddly protective for some reason.
He made to get to his feet, but something about this felt wrong. It wasn't supposed to go like that, was it, ending a ball night by simply getting up and walking off after an angst-driven conversation, as if this was just like any other night in the common room? No, this was special, and he had to do this right.
"But... but before we go..." he asked. "W-will you please allow me f-for one last dance?"
He had barely finished his question when he felt a strong urge to shove his foot into his mouth. Hermione was looking dead tired and he had just asked her to stay up and dance. Well done. He was such a stupid, selfish idiot.
But then the strangest thing happened. Hermione looked up at him and her eyes were sparkling brightly as she beamed at him, as though his question had completely woken her up. It might have been the most beautiful thing that Ron had ever seen and he instantly decided that he regretted nothing.
"With pleasure," she said in a quiet voice that did not quite match her radiant expression, and, all of a sudden, the memory of how intimately they had danced earlier crashed down on him and his stomach churned at the realization that they were about to do it again.
Ron slowly stood up and, grinning nervously, took her hand into his, this time with full intent and consciousness. As he helped her to her feet, her hand closed around his and its warmth seemed to seep from her hand into his, running up his arm and spreading all over his body. His feet felt abnormally heavy as he guided her to the dance floor, occasionally chancing a shy glance at her. One time, she caught his eye and he immediately turned away with embarrassment, painfully cricking his neck as he did, and he felt his ears and face heat up.
"Urgh, not here," he suddenly said and came to an abrupt halt, instantly regretting it as Hermione walked into him and her shoulder crashed into the back of his arm. He turned his head and looked down at her apologetically.
"Percy," he explained in a hushed voice and tilted his head into the direction of a beverage stand where Percy stood, a drink in his hand. He was gazing with what appeared to be an approving smile at something that was hidden from Ron's view by a knot of Ravenclaw girls. Ron did not have the least interest in talking to his brother and having him gush about Hermione and him. Not that he minded that people saw them together, not at all... But knowing Percy, he would probably make a full-blown speech out of it, reading creepy things into the fact that they had gone out with each other and droning on about what a great example they were setting for the relations between Muggles and Wizards, and blah, blah, blah. Creepy.
Without further ado, he struggled through the nearest gap in the flock of people to their right, walking past the Ravenglaw girls in the process. When they had bypassed them, he subconsciously turned his head into the direction Percy was looking. There was a pair that was dancing a couple of feet away from Percy and Ron's eyes became wide when he realized that it was Harry and Ginny. They were a good three feet apart from each other, Harry looking awkward and Ginny looking extraordinarily nervous. Ron arched a brow. When the hell had that happened? He knew that Harry fancied Cho, so surely it must have been Ginny who had asked him. But since when did Ginny talk in front of Harry? Ron sighed inwardly, glad that Harry had not turned Ginny down. He might be his best mate, but if he ever did any such thing as hurting the feelings of his baby sister, things between them would not be pleasant to say the least.
At the sound of his name, Ron stopped dead in his tracks again, feeling that he had just jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. The upside was that this time, Hermione had not collided with him, he thought, as he saw Fred and George walk over to them from the table they had been sharing with Lee, Alicia, Katie and Angelina. Both were showing identical grins and they gave him a sense of dire foreboding. This was bound to be ugly.
"Having fun?" George asked.
"More than I thought he'd have, I daresay," Fred replied before Ron could say anything, one of his eyebrows raised as he scanned Ron from top to toe. "Those are most certainly not the robes that Mum has bought."
Ron felt himself blush furiously, both mortification and a wild urge to punch his brother, hard, washing over him, and he was glad that Hermione was still gripping his hand because otherwise, he probably would have acted on that latter emotion. Why the ruddy hell did Fred have to bring those god-awful robes up in front of her?
"I wonder who has," George said overarticulately.
"Really?" Fred said, now raising his other brow as well. "I don't."
He conspicuously winked at Hermione and Ron could feel her squirm uncomfortably by his side. Squaring his shoulders, he rose to full height and balled up his free hand to a fist, digging his nails deep into the flesh of his palm, as he tried to fight his increasingly strong want to ram it against Fred's jaw. Making fun of him was one thing, but dragging Hermione into this made his blood boil.
"You better don't mess that up, little bro," George smirked, patting Ron on his back, and Ron suddenly felt deflated, as if George had knocked all air out of his lungs.
"Huh? What d'you mean?" he asked, perplex.
"Well, whoever's bought you that must really like you, spending so much gold for you," Fred said and rolled his eyes. "Though I have no idea why they should bother, daft as you are."
Chuckling, they both scurried back to their table, but not without flashing Ron and Hermione a last grin. Ron instantly dragged Hermione further into the crowd, keen on getting away from the twins as fast as possible.
"They're gits," he muttered apologetically once they had found themselves some space to dance quite in the middle of the hall.
"But they're right about one thing," Hermione said quietly and turned to face him. He gazed down at her, cringing. She appeared nervous and was so much smaller than him, and yet, at that moment, she was the person that he feared most. In the light of the things that the twins had said, whatever she had to say was either great or dreadful and had the potential to completely destroy him now and there was only so much that he could do about it.
"I really do like you," she whispered and gently put her arms around his waist.
Ron could not breathe, both her confession and the sudden closeness overwhelming him. Before he knew what he was doing, his arms went around her shoulders, holding her close to himself as he emitted a short laugh of relief whilst she buried her face into the crook of his neck. Feeling her warm breath tickling and lightly moistening his skin, he squeezed his eyes shut and rested his cheek against the side of her head and slowly, they started to dance again, still in their embrace. It did not really befit the music that was currently playing, but Ron did not care. In his fuzzy mind, it was perfect.
"I like you, too," he whispered into her ear, feeling utterly dazed. He could feel her smile against his shoulder as she hugged him tighter and at that moment, he felt like the proudest, luckiest bloke in the world.
But all too soon, the song ended and they reluctantly separated. Ron was barely able to suppress a grin as he looked down at Hermione who bit her lip as she met his gaze. There was something about the way she looked at him that befuddled his mind even more, making him feel all grown up and gleeful like a little boy both at the same time, and feeling that he had to let out some of it, he stood straight and with a deliberately pompous, Percy-like gesture, offered her his arm. Chuckling, Hermione looped her arm through his and they made their way up to the common room.
They did not share many words as they walked and Ron used the time to replay the night in his mind. He could not believe that this all was for real. He had had - wait, what - something like a date with Hermione and had not completely mucked it up. He had danced with her, embraced her, held her hand and she had dressed up so nicely for him and had given him all those incredible looks and smiles. Hadn't she even ditched Viktor Krum for him? It was unbelievable that he was accepted, allowed, by her, Hermione Granger, the most brilliant and amazing witch he knew, the girl he loved...
The girl he loved?
A cold shiver went down his spine at this sudden realization and he felt his heart thump violently somewhere near his collarbone. Could that really be? Did he truly... love... Hermione? It was kind of scary. 'Love' was such a big word. But was a perfect explanation for that had been happening. It explained why he had spent so much time furtively staring at her in the past few months. Why he had willed himself not to ask her to the ball. Why he had eventually decided to break his own defenses and accepted when she had asked him. Why he had been so nervous in her presence. And why it felt so bloody right to be so close to her, to hold her, and to now have her by his side and walk her up to her dormitory. Yes, he loved Hermione. He was madly, head over heels, in love with her. And probably had been much longer than he would admit to himself.
Ron was startled out of his reverie when they suddenly came to a halt in the common room, right in front of the door to the girls' dormitories. He blinked his eyes in confusion. He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had not even realized how they had gotten here.
"So..." Hermione said awkwardly, looking up at him but not meeting his eyes.
"Yeah..." Ron replied, not sure what else to say, shock and confusion still clouding his mind. Part of him wanted to throw all caution to the winds and shout out how he felt about her, but the other part was scared. Scared of the significance of his discovery and scared of her possible reaction. He could not think. And so he froze, and he hated himself for it.
It was like the start of the ball all over again. He desperately wished that she would say something, anything. It was just him and though she could not know that, of course, he was vulnerable like never before. She really had no reason to be anxious around him.
Of course, he knew that thinking this, he was quite the hypocrite. After all, it was obvious that for whatever reason, she appeared to be just as nervous around him as he was around her. The way she looked, she probably wanted him to speak as well, just like he wanted her to, because it was just her and he had no reason to be anxious around her.
But as fate would have it, right at the moment when he had decided to speak, Hermione piped up.
"Thanks for tonight, Ron," she said. "I've really enjoyed myself."
"Thank you," Ron responded and he wholeheartedly meant it. 'Thanks for... for everything."
There, he had said something. And still, he felt so disappointed with himself that he wanted to give himself a nice and proper kick. He had failed her. He had made her break the silence the second time tonight, just because he had not had the guts to speak up himself. He was such a loser. He had to make it up to her.
He was not sure if it was right, if it would not go too far, but he really could not think of anything else to do. And so, he took a deep breath and slowly bent down until his face was level to hers, desperately trying to decipher her expression in the progress. But to his dismay, he found her face impossible to read.
"Good night, Hermione," he whispered and, scraping together all his Gryffindor courage, quickly closed the distance and gave her a shy little peck on the cheek. The moment his lips touched her skin, he immediately pulled back as though they had just come into contact with white-hot iron. He held his breath, ready to take a slap in the face or a good hex, as he looked down at her. She was, however, still opening her eyes, slowly, and then, for a few agonizing, painfully strong heartbeats, just stared at him blankly.
But then her face split into a beam and she threw her arms around him, her embrace so powerful that he actually stumbled a step backwards.
"Good night, Ron," she said merrily, standing on her toes and kissing him on the cheek as well.
Leaning back in her embrace, she looked up at him again and badly suppressed a chuckle. Ron could not blame her. If his expression only conveyed part of his emotions, he surely must be looking like a complete tool. But strangely, he did not mind. Hermione had not objected to his kiss, had even kissed him back... All was good. More than good. Finally putting his arms around her, he grinned back and with a short breathy laugh, she hugged him again, giving him a gentle squeeze, before ultimately letting go and rushing up the stairs to her dormitory. Before she got to the other side of the newel, she turned her head, throwing a last glance down at him and they both beamed at each other.
"Night," she whispered and raised her hand for a little wave.
Finding himself too overwhelmed to speak, Ron just nodded and raised his own hand in the same fashion. She cast him a last warm smile and then continued to walk up and he watched her until she disappeared from his view.
He remained standing there for a couple of moments, his eyes still fixed on the spot where Hermione's hair had swished behind the newel. But then he felt his knees go weak and so he slumped into the nearest armchair, his brain fogged by emotion and memories. He barely noticed how, minutes later, Harry and Parvati came in and walked over to the door to the girls' dormitories themselves where they briefly hugged and then Parvati followed Hermione up.
"Hey, Ron, you alright, mate?" Harry asked, turning towards him.
If possible, Ron's smile grew even broader. "I've never been better," he replied truthfully.
Little did he know that a few flights of stairs further up, the same grin was plastered on Hermione's face.
As she entered her dormitory, she did nothing to conceal her expression of sheer elation. She felt like singing and dancing through the room, and perhaps she would have even acted on her impulse, had it not been for the bathroom door that creaked open the next moment, giving way to Lavender who was clad in a pink fluffy bathrobe and busy toweling her damp hair.
"Hey, you're back?" Lavender asked unnecessarily, wrapping her hair up in her towel. "Er, are you alright? You're looking sort of funny."
Hermione pondered on that a bit as she drew her pajamas from out of her bed. Was she alright? So much had happened between Ron and her during the last couple of hours and there were so many thoughts and emotions running through her mind, along with a slightly frightening, yet exciting new range of possibilities... She still could not fully wrap her mind around it all. Ron had kissed her. Ron, wonderful Ron, the boy she loved from the bottom of her heart, had really kissed her! She could still feel his lips on her cheek and it made her feel lightheaded.
"I've never been better."
And this is it. I hope you enjoyed this fic. If you did, please leave a review. If you didn't, then I'd appreciate some constructive criticism. If it has given you diabetes - well... you have been warned! ;-)
Happy holidays! :-D