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"Checkmate." Ron's deep blue eyes glittered mercilessly as the white king threw down his crown in defeat. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Fin ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Oooh...I'll get you yet, Ron Weasley. I will win one of these days!"
He just laughed. Hermione amused him to no end when he beat her at chess, which was every time they played. It was, he admitted to himself, pretty much the only thing in which he was better than she was. He enjoyed watching little patches of irritated heat spring up in her cheeks whenever she lost.
Harry, sitting nearby, glanced up from Quidditch Through the Ages and chuckled. "Someday, Hermione," he assured her, "someday we'll both beat him."
"Thank you, Harry," she said, ushering the beaten white pieces back into their box. The portrait hole swung open, and Fred and George bounded into the common room with their usual exuberance. Their pale faces were pink from cold, and their cloaks were well dusted with fresh snowflakes.
"It's snowing again!" Fred announced joyfully. "Who wants to go have a proper snowball battle?"
The Christmas holidays had come to Hogwarts again, and the twins had lost no time getting into the holiday spirit. The common room was already bedecked with tinsel and holly as usual, but the bowls of red and white candy canes had been mysteriously replaced with canes striped in Gryffindor scarlet and gold; nobody had dared to try one.
Very few of the students in the house remained for the holidays this year; with the Dark Lord's return, it seemed that more families wanted to spend this precious time alone together. Harry stayed, of course, because he always did. Hermione's parents had gone to Italy for the month -- some European dentistry symposium, and they agreed to let her stay at school where she would be both safe and far from bored. As for the Weasleys, because Arthur and Molly were part of Dumbledore's "old crowd," it was agreed that the children would stay at Hogwarts for the duration of the break; their parents were planning to come to the school on Christmas day.
The twins' snow battle suggestion was met with enthusiasm by Harry, Ron, and even Ginny (who had particularly good aim). Hermione, however, frowned.
"We really shouldn't," she told Harry and Ron. "I know neither one of you has even started that Potions essay yet, and I still want to add to mine."
"Hermione, it's Christmas," said Ron exasperatedly. "Don't you ever take a break?"
"I just took one now, to play chess with you," she reminded him.
"A whole ruddy half-hour, big deal --"
"Ron, I'm a prefect, I have to set an example --"
"Oh, excuse me, Miss Perfect Prefect!" They were both on their feet now, their voices rising with every sentence. "Forgive me for thinking you'd be willing to associate with us mere mortals any longer than you had to!"
Hermione opened and shut her mouth silently, like a stunned goldfish. "You -- you -- auggh!" She turned and stormed up the stairs to the dormitories. Ron watched her go, ears burning with irritation, and continued to stare after her until a smothered laugh from behind made him turn. "What?" he demanded of the snickering twins.
"Nothing," Fred protested.
"Absolutely nothing," George concurred.
"Right, so are we going to go throw snowballs?" asked Harry, clearly wanting to move past the awkward silence left by Hermione's departure.
"Yeah, okay. I'll get our cloaks," said Ron, mellowing a bit. He took the stairs to the boys' dormitory two at a time, trying to burn off his agitation. Halfway down again, however, he froze, listening.
"It's really getting quite ridiculous. I mean, enough's enough!"
"They're too blind to see it," said Harry's voice. "Trust me, this has been going on for ages."
"They need help," said the wicked voice of one of the twins.
Hermione chose that moment to appear on the landing behind Ron. "Ron, if you -- "
"Shhh!" He flung a hand toward her to halt her progress down the stairs. "Listen. They're talking about us."
"So what should we do about ickle Ronniekins and his female problem?"
Ron felt his face start to burn, and the temperature rose quickly as he heard the answer. "Mistletoe might do the trick." He glanced at Hermione, who looked positively horrified.
"Do you think it'll work?" asked Ginny.
"Leave it to us," one of her brothers assured her.
Ron turned to face Hermione. Where his face probably resembled a freckled tomato, hers had gone quite white. "Upstairs. Quickly."
He ushered her into his own room and shut the door. "I dunno what's got into them, Hermione, but I swear to you I have nothing to do with it." He wasn't totally sure why he felt the need to explain this to her; he just knew that whatever anger he'd been feeling toward her had thoroughly disappeared, now that they shared a common enemy. She nodded, looking upset.
"I should dock them house points for this," she muttered. "But that hardly seems fair to us. We have to do something, Ron, we can't just walk down there and pretend we don't know what's going on!" She seemed like she might be on the brink of tears, which only made Ron angrier about what they'd overheard.
Suddenly he paused, and a curious grin spread across his face. "Maybe we can," he said slowly.
"What do you mean?"
"Hear me out..."
"You amaze me sometimes, Ron Weasley," Hermione said with grudging admiration. "I can't believe you came up with this."
He shrugged. "I haven't been Fred and George's brother for fifteen years without learning something, you know. Sometimes the only way to win is to play the game by their rules."
"So we give them what they want and then some, and they leave us alone. It makes perfect sense, really."
"You sure you're okay with this?" For some reason he felt really...shy. "I mean, we'll have to hold hands and, uh, do other stuff like that. I wouldn't, you know, want you to do it if, uh, you didn't want to."
She avoided his eyes, which was perhaps just as well; Ron had started to notice that his knees felt slightly weak any time Hermione looked into his eyes. "Well, I guess if you don't find me too repulsive for this, I can handle it too." She laughed then, and he suddenly felt a lot better.
Feet were heard clattering up the stairs, and the dormitory door opened to reveal a puzzled Harry. "What's taking you -- oh, hi, Hermione," he concluded lamely.
"Sorry, mate," said Ron. "Hermione and I were just, uh...just making up." Harry glanced at her quizzically, and she nodded.
"That's right," she said. "You know, I think I will come and throw snowballs with you. Ron here was just reminding me how important it is to get enough fresh air and exercise." She favored Ron with a smile, and he felt his knees do that weak thing again. "I'll meet you downstairs." She swept out of the room before another word could be said. Harry gaped at Ron, who just grinned.
"She'll learn," he said calmly, tossing Harry his cloak.
The following day started out like any other. Harry and Ron awoke well after sunrise, dressed, and headed downstairs, deep in a discussion of Quidditch tactics they'd like to see implemented in the spring. Ron had become the new Keeper earlier in the fall. Fred and George, curiously enough, were already in the common room, acting completely innocent and totally above suspicion. Ginny came down the stairs a moment later, followed by the prefect-in-residence. She walked right over to Harry and Ron; Harry, apparently on some prearranged signal from the twins, took a few gigantic steps backwards.
Grinning madly, Fred lifted his wand and declared, "Wingardium leviosa!" Ron turned in the direction where the spell had been aimed; sure enough, a large bunch of mistletoe, tied festively with red velvet ribbon, was floating upward and gently wafting its way toward himself and Hermione. It hovered conspicuously in the air a few feet above their heads, where they stared at it.
"Guess you know what to do now, mate," George said slyly. Harry seemed to be wavering between amusement and a desire to shut his eyes tightly; well, Ron mused, Hermione was sort of like a sister to Harry, and he knew that he wouldn't like to watch some bloke snogging Ginny.
"I reckon I do," he said, surprising himself by keeping his voice totally steady. He turned to Hermione, who gave him the smallest of wicked grins. With his left arm, he caught her deftly around the waist and dipped her backward, away from their prying eyes. Her arms flew up round his neck and clung tightly. Ron could hear the other four people in the room gasp audibly.
What they couldn't see, because of the angle at which he was dipping her away from them, was that in between Ron and Hermione's lips was Ron's right hand. From their vantage points across the room, it looked as though the pair were locked in an embrace of smoldering passion; in reality Hermione was struggling to suppress a fit of giggles and Ron was developing a cramp in his hand.
After a moment or so (which felt like a brief eternity), Ron righted Hermione again. Her hair had been sufficiently mussed by the experience, and both their lips were reddened from having pressed them against Ron's hand. "Oh...Ron," said Hermione breathlessly. "I never knew..."
"Now you do," he said in a low, throaty growl, slipping an arm around her shoulders. He glanced up at the others, who were all positively dumbstruck. "I guess I have to thank you guys for forcing me to do that," he said grudgingly.
"Uh..." said Fred.
"No problem," managed George.
"Wow," was all Ginny could say.
"About time," said Harry.
"Shall we go to breakfast?" asked Hermione, giving Ron what could pass for a genuine starry-eyed gaze. He smiled down at her, feeling oddly proud. Right clever little actress she is, he thought. He dropped his arm from around her shoulder and caught her hand instead; they led the way down to the Great Hall. The others followed in stunned silence.
The next few days progressed almost normally, except for the fact that Ron and Hermione now insisted on sitting side by side in the common room, their fingers entwined lovingly or Ron with his arm around her. The gag factor was steadily rising wherever they happened to be, and soon the others -- at first so pleased with themselves by the overwhelming success of their trick -- became quite disturbed by the whole thing. Fred and George excused themselves to the library for perhaps the first time in their lives. Eventually Harry actually broke down and started to work on his Potions essay -- up in the dormitory, away from his friends. When Hermione wasn't around, Ron was just as annoying. She was all he talked about, all he seemed to think about; Ginny confided to Harry that Hermione was no better. "We've created a couple of monsters."
Whenever they had a moment alone, Ron and Hermione compared notes. "This is fun," Hermione admitted. "I feel sort of badly about deceiving everyone, but -- well, they asked for it!"
"You've been great," Ron said abruptly, and she looked at him in surprise. "You have. You're totally convincing."
"Thanks," she murmured, glancing away. "You're a pretty good faker yourself."
Ron smiled, but it was a strained sort of smile. He'd begun to wonder just how much of the whole act he was faking; a lot of it was starting to feel pretty natural.
On Christmas Eve, the six were all in the common room. Fred and George were perfecting a batch of fake wands in one corner; in another, Ginny was borrowing Ron's chess set and working Harry into a stalemate. The lovebirds were cuddled on the sofa in front of the fire, whispering back and forth and occasionally giggling. Harry had never before heard Ron giggle and it was a sound he could have lived without ever hearing.
An hour or so before dinner, Ron stood up, stretched, and held out a hand to Hermione. "Want to go for a walk, love?" he asked.
"That sounds nice," she said. Playfully, she whipped out her wand and said, "Accio cloak! Accio Ron's cloak!" Both garmets came sailing down the stairs a moment later and into the hands of their respective owners. Ron beamed at her.
"Isn't she brilliant?" he asked the group. The less-than-enthusiastic mumbles that answered him did nothing to dim his ardor. He took the cloak from Hermione's hands and, with a flourish that might have been inspired by Lockhart himself, swept it around her and fastened the clasp. He pulled on his own, then opened the portrait hole and gestured for her to precede him from the room.
As soon as they were out of sight, Fred let out a low moan. "I -- can't -- take it anymore," he wailed dramatically. "They're making me sick!"
"At least you don't share a room with him," countered Harry. "I don't remember the last time we had an intelligent conversation! It's all Hermione this and Hermione that. 'Isn't she beautiful, Harry?' 'Aren't I the luckiest man alive, Harry?' It's driving me mad, honestly!"
"She's the same," added Ginny. "Whenever we're alone, it's 'Ron's so sweet' and 'I never knew Ron could be so romantic.' I'm happy for her, but for crying out loud, he's my brother. I really don't want details."
"So what do we do?" asked George. "It's not like we slipped them a love potion and there's an antidote. We can't undo what's happened."
"I guess all we can do is hope that it subsides a little over time," Harry concluded. "I mean, they can't be this disgusting forever...can they?" He glanced at Fred and George, who looked at each other in dismay.
"You don't know our parents very well, do you, Harry?"
Unbeknownst to the four in the common room, the Fat Lady had not closed entirely. Ron and Hermione were standing right outside the door, holding her open the width of one finger and listening intently. Hermione kept covering her mouth with one hand to fight back her laughter. When George mentioned his parents, Ron almost choked. "Come on," he hissed. Gently they pushed the Fat Lady closed (she had been staring at them in bewilderment the whole time) and dashed down the hall to the main stairwell. At the top they stopped to get their breath, then burst out laughing until they nearly cried.
Neither of them seemed to notice that they were holding hands the entire time.
Christmas morning dawned cold and white. Ron awoke early and slipped downstairs to the common room, carrying a small pile of gifts. To his surprise, Hermione was already there, wrapped in a comforter on the sofa and staring into the fire. She glanced up and smiled. "Happy Christmas, Ron."
"Happy Christmas, Hermione," he replied, smiling. "You want your present now, or should I give it to you more dramatically in front of an audience?"
She chuckled. "I was thinking about that. I don't know what you got me, but what I got you isn't exactly the most romantic of presents. Do you think that's going to matter?"
"Well, we've only been madly in love for a week or so," he said thoughtfully. "I guess they don't think we've been shopping much. But listen, what do you think of this idea?" He dropped onto the couch beside her and started whispering in her ear. She gasped, laughed, and shook her head when he finished. "Ron, you are...something else."
"You are too," he said. His ears immediately began to ignite, and she looked at him in that way that jellied his knees, but he plunged ahead anyway. "Listen, whatever happens with this prank -- I just, um...I just want you to know that...it's been great. Working together. That's all."
"Oh, Ron," she breathed, "that's so sweet." They looked at each other for a long moment, and Ron became aware that the distance between their noses was gradually shortening. He was finding himself within very close proximity to Hermione's lips, and they were awfully nice-looking...
They sprang apart guiltily before remembering the charade. Harry was standing there, his own bundle of presents stacked in his hands. "Happy Christmas."
"Happy Christmas, Harry," said Hermione a bit too brightly. Ron pulled back, trying very hard to will himself not to turn red.
Three more red heads appeared in the common room, and the opening of gifts began. Ron pulled apart the wrappings on his packages with great energy, trying not to laugh as he readied himself for the stunt that was coming. Ginny had given him a large box of Every-Flavour Beans, and Harry bought him a new set of Gobstones. From the twins came a most surprising gift -- a brand new set of blue dress robes. "No Yule Ball this year for you to show them off at," said Fred, "but rumor has it that there might be some kind of dance this coming spring."
"Thanks," Ron muttered. He glanced at Hermione, who smiled. "It's time for me to give one of my gifts," he went on, forcing himself to be bold. Think Lockhart, he told himself grimly. It's the performance of a lifetime. He got up and strode over to kneel beside Hermione.
"We haven't been together very long, Hermione," he said theatrically, taking her hand, "but dammit, I love you. I've always loved you, and I just can't wait any longer. Will you marry me?"
There was a collective gasp of shock, including a very convincing one from Hermione herself. "Oh, Ron!" she cried, throwing her arms around him. "Yes, I will!"
"Okay, that does it!"
Ron and Hermione turned, feigning surprise. The others stared at them, looking at once mortified, dumbfounded, and just plain baffled. "You can NOT get married," said George. "You're too young."
"Of course we are," said Hermione soothingly. "I can live with a long engagement -- can't you, darling?" she asked Ron.
"I don't know," he told her. "You're certainly worth waiting for, love, but I just don't know if I can be that patient." She smiled adoringly.
"What on earth do you plan on telling Mum and Dad? And your parents, Hermione?" asked Fred.
"The truth, of course!" Ron looked incredulous that the question needed to be asked. "I heard you, Harry, when we first kissed under the mistletoe -- you said it was about time. Looking back, I figure everyone must have realized how we felt about each other even before we did. I'm sure Mum and Dad aren't totally blind."
"As for my parents," Hermione added, "they're very sensible sorts. I know they'll understand."
Fred and George exchanged exasperated looks. Ginny looked like she wanted to be happy for them, but was too shocked. Harry was just shaking his head, apparently unable to find the words. Ron got to his feet and, in one swift, graceful motion, he wrapped one arm around Hermione's waist and caught her under the knees with the other, sweeping her completely off her feet. Wow, it worked! "Guess I have to practice carrying my bride over the threshold," he said lightly, and carried her out of the room and up the stairs.
At the first landing they stopped, listening carefully.
"Have they gone mad?" one of the twins asked.
"How can they be talking about marriage? Merlin's beard, they're fifteen years old!" said the other.
"Who's talking about marriage?"
To Ron's horror, he heard his father's voice. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley had arrived to spend Christmas in Gryffindor tower.
"Oh, no," Hermione breathed. They looked at each other, terrified. Ron suddenly realized he was still holding Hermione.
"Oh! Oh, um, sorry." He set her gently on her feet again, surprised at his reluctance to let go of her.
"RONALD WEASLEY, COME DOWN HERE!"
Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, still wearing their cloaks, were staring at him as he entered the common room. Near the portrait hole stood Headmaster Dumbledore, looking merely curious.
"What is this your brothers tell me?" Mrs. Weasley demanded of her youngest son. "What can you be thinking, proposing to Hermione?" She glanced at the girl. "No offense, dear," she added more gently. "Not that I wouldn't love to have you in the family, but you're both so young!"
Hermione and Ron exchanged guilty looks. "Guess we'd better come clean," Ron said.
"And that's what happened," he concluded several minutes later.
He had admitted everything -- overhearing the mistletoe plan, hatching his own counter-prank, and how they'd culminated it with the extravagant proposal at the fireside that morning. Mrs. Weasley looked relieved; Mr. Weasley and Dumbledore both kept twitching the corners of their mouths, as though trying very hard not to laugh.
Fred and George, however, looked outraged. "You mean to say," George sputtered finally, "that Ron -- Ron -- outpranked us?"
"And Hermione. It wouldn't have worked if she hadn't gone along with it," Ron pointed out.
The twins glared at them both, but then subsided into sheepish grins. "Blimey, mate," said Fred, "that was brilliant." They swept low to the floor in identical bows. Hermione laughed.
"So all of this was an act? All of it?" asked Harry skeptically.
"Uh..." Ron hesitated. Trust Harry to interrupt a perfectly good prank by demanding complete honesty.
"No, not all of it," replied Hermione seriously. "The Christmas gifts -- well, apart from the proposal -- were real." She glanced at Ron, laughter brimming in her brown eyes. Despite going weak-kneed again, he grinned.
"That's true," he said.
"Well, now that everything has been settled," said Dumbledore, "may I suggest we all go downstairs? There's a wonderful Christmas feast awaiting us in the Great Hall, and I for one am anxious to see what I can get out of the wizard crackers this year." His eyes twinkled as he surveyed the un-engaged couple. "Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley, my congratulations on the need for no congratulations."
The elder Weasleys trickled out of the tower, followed by Ginny and the twins. "I'll be along in a minute," said Hermione. "I need to run upstairs quick -- I forgot your present, Ron." She darted up the stairs.
Harry and Ron looked at each other. Ron swallowed. "Harry, er..."
"It's okay, Ron. I understand." Harry grinned. "But I still say it wasn't all an act."
Ron shrugged, doing his best to look nonchalant. "Why don't you go on ahead," he told Harry. "I'll wait for my Christmas present, and we'll be down in a minute."
Harry didn't say anything, just gave Ron a very shrewd look and headed out of the portrait hole. As it closed behind him, Hermione came down the stairs again, carrying a wrapped parcel. "I hope you like it," she said breathlessly, pressing it into his hands. He pulled off the paper and felt his face split into a wide smile.
It was a gray shirt, with scarlet and gold accents. On the front was the word Quidditch in large letters, and below that a pair of broomsticks were crossed behind a scarlet shield reading Gryffindor House Team. Across the back, also in scarlet, were the words Weasley and Keeper. "Where did you get this? It's wicked!"
"I had it custom made at a shop near my house, over the summer," she explained. "They'll put anything you want on a shirt, although I had a time trying to explain what Quidditch is without really explaining it." She chuckled at the memory. "I finally told the shopkeeper it was a new music group. I don't know if he believed me, but he stopped asking questions. You really like it?"
"Like I said, it's wicked." He looked at her and felt the jelly sensation yet again. He was starting to get the idea of why that kept happening. "So..."
"I -- oh, no," he said, his ears beginning to flame. He had been glancing around, trying to get his knees back to normal, and realized that the inconvenient mistletoe had been granted a permanent spot dangling from the ceiling -- just above them.
Hermione glanced up. "Oh...um, no one's here. You don't have to."
"Yeah, that's true." He looked down at her again, tracing his eyes over her features. Then, before he lost his nerve completely, he bent and kissed her.
It was a short kiss, as first kisses tend to be. But in that short kiss, the blaze crawled out of the common room fireplace and swept over Ron until he was completely engulfed in its heat. All he knew was the warmth and the joy in his heart and the sensation -- the wonderful, beautiful, perfect sensation -- of Hermione's lips responding to his own. Then it was over, and they parted. Her eyes were slightly glassy, her expression radiant. "Why did you..." she began.
"Because I didn't have to," he said, feeling a little dizzy.
She smiled. "Happy Christmas, Ron."
He reached for her hand, curling his fingers around hers. "Happy Christmas, love."
A/N: Fluffyness! Whee! Incidentally, the shirt Hermione gave to Ron is almost identical to one that I own; obviously, mine doesn't say Weasley or Keeper, but the rest is the same. (Zsenya, my totally wonderful SQ beta-reader, says I should add those words!) I couldn't think of what else she could give him that would be "not exactly romantic" and yet clearly conveyant of her feelings. I hope you enjoyed this -- a Christmas present to all those who voyage on the Good Ship!!