Knifelike, cold wind stabbed through the tent as Hermione slipped back inside, returning from her nightwatch. Since sundown, winter had fully established itself. They would need to find a way to dress for the cold weather, but for tonight, she had taken the blanket from her bed and transformed it into a parka. Her hands were freezing anyway.
Harry had been sitting on the edge of his bed, pulling on his thickest socks, getting ready to take over on watch duty. He hopped to his feet. “Blimey that’s cold.”
“Too right,” Hermione said, blowing into her hands one last time before slipping her arms out of her parka sleeves. She draped it over Harry’s shoulders. “You’ll need this over your jacket.”
Harry frowned at the familiar print of tiny orange flowers on the transformed parka’s fabric. “You’ve made this out of your bedding. What will you sleep under if I’ve got this?”
She scoffed. “Honestly, Harry, I’d rather not argue about it. Just because you don’t want to wear a floral print – ”
“It’s not that,” he insisted. “You need to warm up.”
“I’ll just get into your bed while you’re out of it,” she said, a little too snappishly. “Sorry, Harry. I don’t mean to be cross.”
“No, none of us does,” Harry said. “It’s that locket horcrux. It’s trying to turn us on each other. Even when neither of us is wearing it there’s some kind of – what’s the word I want?”
“Disinhibition,” she said. “The locket – it gets rid of our inhibitions, but not in a fun, tipsy way. In the belligerent way that makes people want to get in fights.”
They both looked across the tent to where Ron was lying in bed on his back, his arm still wrapped in a sling from their apparation accident.
Hermione gave a heavy sigh. “He’s wearing it right now, isn’t he. I’ll go take it off him before I turn in. He’s still weak from that injury. I told him not to take a turn with the locket until he’s well again but – ”
“He’s impossible,” Harry grumbled. “Disinhibited enough to want to punch my lights out if I so much as smile at you – “
“Harry, that is not –
“Sure it is. By all means, go and take it off him,” Harry said. “And while you’re at it, explain why you’re getting into my bed, and make sure he knows I’m not in it too. No more jealous rages – “
“Will you stop that, Harry Potter?” She tried to maintain some indignation but the more she protested, the more she stammered. “Jealous – how can you – there certainly isn’t any – so ridiculous.”
Harry was buttoning the parka, moving to the tent flap, shaking his head. “He’s jealous as anything. Always. Do me a favour and while you’re getting the locket, give that meathead a snog. Set his mind at ease about what he means to you once and for all.”
With that Harry was gone, his presence replaced by another wave of cutting winter wind. What did Ron Weasley mean to her? So many things.
She watched as he tossed in his bed. Had he been listening to them? Hermione took a huge breath and walked toward him. In the dim light of one her tiny flame spells, his hair looked warmer and redder than usual. Something funny trembled inside her, like a hand held loosely around her heart.
“Ronald,” she whispered as she stood over him. “It’s my shift with the locket. Give it here.”
He muttered unintelligibly, his eyes still closed, fighting to lift the locket from around his neck with just one sleepy hand. She watched him struggle, tangled in the chain for a moment before she bent over to help him, her fingers grazing the warm skin of his neck.
Ron yelped. “What have you done to your hands, woman?”
“It’s winter, Ronald. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Well give me some warning, for stars’ sake,” he said as the locket passed over his head. Hermione didn’t like it close to her face so she wound it around her wrist.
“Sorry,” she said. “Go back to sleep. I’ll be warming up in Harry’s bed while he keeps watch.”
“Stop it, Ron,” she said. “Harry’s wearing my blanket outside so – Oh, never mind. It’s no real business of yours.”
But Ron had made it his business, reaching out to take her cold hand and pull her to sit on his bed. “Listen, the warmest place in this tent right now is here with me. So tuck yourself in. As long as I’ve got warning, I don’t mind cold hands. Not on you. And anyways, being a warm body is one of the few things I can still do for you in the condition I’m in. Yeah, a warm body. I can wear the bloody locket and I can do this for you and that’s about it.”
As he spoke he’d raised his blanket and spread it over her, lying her down onto the pillow beside him, arranging her hair, smoothing it away from her face and behind her ear. The light was already rosy and her cheeks were already flushed from hours in the wind outside so she didn’t have to make any excuses, but her heart was suddenly pounding as he leaned over her, fussing and doting.
The warmth between the sheets with him was heavenly and fragrant with his scent. There was something perfect about it, but also sad. “You are not just a warm body,” she said, her voice no longer petulant but quiet, gentle. “Harry needs you or he’ll fail at this horrible assignment.”
Ron huffed. “Right.”
“I am right. You’re not really mad at each other,” she said. “You’re just disinhibited. It’s part of the darkness of the locket. It’s not you. I know you both so well, and you’re not really like this.”
They lay in silence long enough for Hermione’s heart rate to get used to being so near him, leveling into a steady beat. They stayed close even as she grew warm, her hands folded together on her chest as she lay on her side, pressed to Ron’s uninjured arm. They hadn’t slept this close since that night in Grimauld Place, when they joined hands, comforting each other until they’d fallen asleep.
It seemed like ages ago now, and the memory of it made Hermione want to sigh. As this thought passed through her mind, Ron’s body heaved beside her as he sighed. She breathed a laugh through her nose.
“What?” he said.
“How are your hands?” Ron asked.
She touched his cheek with her forefinger. “Better. See?”
Ron’s throat bobbed, swallowing as she trailed her finger along his jaw as she tucked her arm back under the blanket. “My arm is getting better, you know. The pain in it used to be the first thing I noticed whenever I woke up. But just now, it felt pretty normal.”
“Really?” Hermione said, propping herself on one elbow, beginning to swell with pride at her own skills in healing. “Let’s have a look at it.”
Ron tried to shrug but it was more like a twitch. “No need to bother with that. It can wait til our usual morning dressing change.”
“No, I’m curious right now,” Hermione said. “Let me see.”
Ron cleared his throat, raising one hand to twist at the buttons of his flannel shirt.
“I can get it for you,” Hermione said.
“Oh, no,” Ron said, clucking his tongue. “No, you’d better not. Disinhibition, remember? With Harry it makes me want to fight, with you it might be – well, never mind that. Just bear with me while I undress myself.”
She did tug at the bottom of his sleeve to help him wriggle his arm out. He had lovely arms, long and well-built. She couldn’t think of any she liked better, even if Bill and Charlie were counted. Ron pushed the short sleeve of his T-shirt over the mass of his deltoid, the site where she’d fastened a dressing over the wound. He grimaced as she peeled it back with her wand, but once his skin was bared, all they saw was a neat, red scar.
He let out his breath with a laugh. “I knew it. It finally stopped oozing.”
Hermione leaned closer, eyeing it carefully in the low light. She brushed it gently with her fingertips, the skin was still raised and hot but at last it was completely whole and dry. She studied it, hovering over him, her chest not quite resting on his, his breath moving her hair.
“Well-done, Ronald,” she said, turning to smile at him. “It won’t need bandaging any more.”
He was watching her examine him, his mouth held shut, eyes fixed on her face, tiny sparks from the reflected firelight flickering in his blue stare. He was the only person who ever looked at her like this. There was a name for this intensity. She couldn’t quite think of it, but as she looked back at him, she felt her face returning his emotion. And then she knew it. This was longing.
Stars, she adored him. Even when he was injured and lightly cursed by this awful horcrux currently coiled around her wrist, she couldn’t help but like him better than anyone she knew. How could they go on like this, pretending he didn’t know? He must know. One way or another, he was about to.
Maybe part of it was the disinhibition, but she lowered her voice and said, “Harry told me to give you something when I took the locket from you.”
Ron blinked, the sound of Harry’s name breaking one kind of tension and inflaming a different kind. “He did? What was it, a punch in the face?”
She couldn’t speak. But she couldn’t bring herself to snog him either. All she could do was shake her head and then, without a word, press her lips, slow, sweet and dewy, against his cheek. It wasn’t the first time she had kissed him like this. There was that morning at school, before a quidditch match, when she’d stood on her tiptoes and kissed him in hopes that he’d love himself as much as she did, no matter what happened on the pitch.
He hadn’t forgotten, his mind reeling at the feel of her mouth on him, running over the same tracks as hers. He turned toward her as she sank away from him, back to her place beside him on the thin camp mattress. Finally free from its sling, his hand found hers and held it beneath the blankets.
“You know,” he began, “one of the greatest regrets of my life is not kissing you back that morning before the quidditch match. And I don’t mean in a big, messy, exhibitionist snog in front of the entire Great Hall. Any kiss would have done, really.”
She squeezed his hand, “Why? What would returning a peck on the cheek have changed?”
Ron sighed again, as if giving up a battle he’d been fighting too long. “It’s a whole sequence of things. If I had kissed you myself, then I wouldn’t have been so mad with jealousy when I heard Krum had kissed you.”
He shook his head against his pillow. “And then, I wouldn’t have taken up with Lavender the instant she threw herself at me. And then,” he turned onto his side, face to face with Hermione. “Then we would have gone together to Slughorn’s Christmas party, and it wouldn’t have been bloody Cormac tussling with you under the mistletoe. It would have been me. Us.”
He raised their joined hands and settled them over his heart, its beat palpable through his shirt. “And then when I got poisoned and spent all that time in the Hospital Wing, you would have come and cared for me, and then – “
“But I did,” Hermione said, her eyes huge and dark, wide open. “I did exactly that. I was there from the moment they’d let us in to see you until they ordered me away at curfew.”
Ron startled. “You what?”
“Yeah,” she said, no longer able to look at his face. “You weren’t properly conscious but you were sleeptalking, or something, and you – you said my name. You were hurt and you wanted me – “
“You said you did,” she said, nodding, eyes closed now. “Harry and Ginny heard it too. And so did Lavender. She ran off in tears and I – I took your hand, and sat next to you on the bed, and I stayed there with you, all day. Watching you sleep, wiping your brow when it got sweaty and – and your lips when they got dry. You were so fitful, suffering. I was sick with worry.”
Ron had let out a strangled cry and leaned over her, face to face again, eyes wild. She was pushed flat on her back, blinking furiously at him. “Do you mean to tell me, Hermione Granger, that for an entire day during sixth year we were together – like, actually together? You were my girlfriend for a whole day and I didn’t know it?”
Her mouth opened, but she remained speechless.
“You’re telling me this happened, and I missed it? Slept through it? Completely clueless? And everyone closest to me at school knows about this, but no one has ever said a word to me about it?”
Her heart beat in her throat, her skin electrified, her eyelids fluttering. “Well – well, I wouldn’t let them mention it. I figured if you couldn’t remember it on your own, it must not have meant much after all.” She wanted to sound sane, matter-of-fact, dispassionate. But she heard it in her voice, her own heartbreak.
Ron heard it too. He clenched his eyes closed, collecting himself, breathing deeply. “Hermione – please,” he began. “Don’t mistake what I’m about to say as some effect of the locket curse. This is not some dark magical disinhibition. This is me, pleading with you to tell me if it’s too late for me to make any of this right. Don’t mistake this for being based in anything but me honestly believing you are the best, most brilliant, most beautiful woman under the stars, and – “
She had threaded her fingers through the hair at the back of his head, drawing his face to hers, her lips parted. His voice sounded in ecstatic surprise as his lips latched onto hers. Under the blanket, their hands came apart, his arms twining around her waist and pulling her as close as he could. She hooked her ankle around his leg and the kiss deepened, so sweet, so long in coming. Her hand moved over his chest, from his heart to his clavicle, her fingers on his throat.
Ron breathed her name, his voice so much like it had been when she sat with him in the Hospital Wing that it drove her pace higher, kissing him positively senseless, tilting into him with enough force to move him onto his back. He brought her along with him, moving her on top of himself. His body was changing against hers, hungry and insistent, jarring her senses.
“Disinhibition,” she said, pulling away. “The locket. I need to be careful. There’s no need for us to rush. You’re not going anywhere this time, are you? You’re not going to wake up and have forgotten about all of this?”
Ron was still elated but also sorry, crushing her close enough to print soft kisses along her forehead. “As long as I live, I will never forget this,” he said. “But if it will make you feel better…”
He was wriggling his arm out of his flannel shirt, sitting up to take it off of himself. Hermione slipped back into his lap, smirking as he handed the shirt to her. “Here, wear it,” he said. “And when you wake up and find yourself still in it, you’ll know for certain we both remember.”
She put it on, hugging herself for just a second before Ron grabbed her and tucked her back into bed beside him.
“Right,” he said, flicking the locket’s face where it hung from Hermione’s wrist, “now until we destroy this monstrosity I think you’d better let me snog you at least once a day to help manage my disinhibition. It may save me from goading poor Harry into maiming me in a duel.”
She linked her hands behind his head, brushing her nose against the end of his. “Agreed. It’s a sacrifice I am willing to make for the good of this mission. I will continue to snog you, Ronald Weasley, at least until you get your strength back from the accident. And who knows how long that will take? Maybe weeks.”
“Now you’re talking,” Ron said, kissing her again. “May I never recover.”