The Sugar Quill
Author: Magnolia Mama  Story: Leave-taking  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Leave-taking
by Magnolia Mama

Note: This story is an outtake from my sixth-year WIP, "Seo Gerecednis", which is archived on Schnoogle. You do not need to have read it in order to understand what is happening here, but I have provided the link for those who may be interested.

Ron found her curled up at the base of a chestnut tree, her bushy brown hair pulled loosely off her neck, a book open in her lap. In truth, she hadn't been hard to find; she was a creature of habit, a quality he found equally maddening and endearing. Although he was not prepared to admit even to himself how closely he'd been watching her, he knew she'd chosen this place as a refuge--from him, he thought with a pang--soon after the letter from Dumbledore had arrived, offering her the opportunity to study at a wizarding school in Calcutta for a year.

As far as he was concerned, that invitation and her enthusiastic acceptance represented the absolute lowest point in his entire life. How could Hermione do this to him? How could she leave her family, her friends--him--and go off to India? What could possibly be so important?

Once they were alone, he'd begged her not to go. He'd tried to make her see reason, to make her understand why she shouldn't go, why she couldn't go. He'd played the Harry card, though it make him feel sick doing so. It had been a mistake, he'd realized almost immediately. She'd got angry, her normally soft brown eyes turning cold and hard. Then the shouting started.

They'd shouted at each other before, perhaps most famously that horrible night during fourth year. But this time...this time had been much worse. He'd said things he regretted the instant he said them. Coward And the things she'd said to him hurt so deeply he felt as though he'd been stabbed in the gut. Small-minded, petty, parochial Then, when he'd told her she could go to hell for all he cared, she'd slapped him.

He'd held his hand to his stinging cheek and watched her, dazed, as she stormed out of the room. She wasn't crying. Hermione always cried when she got emotional, because that was the way she was. Not this time, though. She didn't shed a tear this time. That's when he knew he'd really bollixed things up. That realization hit him even harder than her slap across his cheek had.

Not a word had passed between them in the week since. They were in the same room together at meals, but only at opposite ends of the table. His sole consolation was that she hadn't left the Burrow and returned to her parents, until he remembered that she'd probably only stayed because of Ginny. She didn't even seem to mind spending more time with Luna, a realization that only made him feel that much worse.

Tomorrow she would leave. Tomorrow morning Tonks would come and escort Hermione back to her parents' house in London. She'd leave for India three days after that, and then he wouldn't see her again until next summer. His gut clenched at the mere thought of it: ten months without seeing her every day. He didn't know how he'd last.

He'd come out here to tell her that. He'd swallowed his pride, nearly choking on it in the process, and come here to beg her one last time not to go. He'd followed her to her place of refuge--risking yet another explosion--but he'd had to. He sat down far enough away that his presence, if she detected it, wouldn't drive her away, yet close enough that he could watch her, his arms folded across his bent knees.

Ron lost track of time as he watched her turn page after page in that bloody book. Probably Hogwarts, A History, he thought darkly. It was a wonder she hadn't memorized it yet. Finally, she closed the book with a satisfied thwap and stretched her arms over her head, revealing the faint curves and outlines of her changing body. He'd been observing those changes for well over a year now, but this summer they seemed to be more pronounced, a realization forced upon him by his own capriciously changing body.

As Hermione stretched and twisted the kinks out of her shoulders Ron watched, unmoving, waiting for her to notice him sitting there...if she chose to. At long last she got to her feet, brushed off the back of her skirt, and turned around.

He held his breath. He'd taken the first step just by coming here; it now rested in her hands to choose to accept his peace offering. He didn't want her to go, but more importantly, he didn't want her to go thinking ill of him. He didn't want her to go thinking he didn't care. If she was determined to go he wouldn't stand in her way, but he'd stop at nothing to win back her affection before she left.

He watched in anxious silence as Hermione's eyes, her soft, golden brown eyes that he could never grow tired of looking into, widened and her hand clenched around the book she held. When she didn't turn on her heel and stalk off, her voluminous hair bouncing along in her angry wake, he relaxed slightly, allowing his breath to escape through his nostrils. On the other hand, she didn't come any closer.

"How long have you been there?" she finally asked.

He shrugged. "Dunno. A while, I guess."

"Why didn't you say something?" Ron shrugged again. Hermione sighed. "Do you intend to say something, or are you just going to sit there and stare at me?"

He lifted his chin and hugged his knees tighter to his chest. "What do you want me to say?"

She shook her head. "Ron, it's not what I want that matters here. You obviously followed me out here for a reason."

"You know what I want."

"No, I don't. I'm not a mind reader. You're going to have to tell me." They studied each other in silence for a long time, before she bent over and picked up the book she'd dropped. "Fine. Have it your way." She turned to move away from him.

"Don't go!" he called out at last. He forced himself to stand up, ignoring the ache in his knees from sitting in one position for so long. "Don't leave me."

She made a half-turn back toward him and looked at him as though he'd just sprouted leaves. "I'm just going back to the house."

"That's not what I mean, and you know it." He hastened down the hill toward her, but stopped about ten feet away. "Don't go."

She rubbed at her temple. "Ron, please."

He took another step toward her. "Hermione--" he pleaded.

"Can we please not do this again?" Her eyes shone with unshed tears. "Can't we at least be...pleasant with each other this last day before I go?"

"I'm trying to be pleasant. I don't want to fight with you."

"Then don't."

"I'm not." He struggled to keep his voice even. "But I don't want you to go."

"Why not, Ron?" she cried, turning on him. "Why can't I go to India and do some good for a change? Why can't I go where I can be useful?"

Panic gnawed at his insides and he opened and closed his mouth like a fish on dry land. "But-But you're doing good right here! You are useful!"

She gave him a sad smile. "Letting you and Harry copy off my History of Magic notes is not being useful."

"What about S.P.E.W. then, hm? Look at all the progress you've made there!"

"What about it? If I can't even convince you that house-elves have rights, what chance have I got with anyone else?" Hermione sighed. "Besides, what good will it do Harry if I succeed in liberating house-elves?"

He took another step closer, holding his arms out in supplication. "What good will it do him if you're thousands of miles away?"

"I can help win other witches and wizards to our cause, that's what! Do you honestly believe Voldemort will be content with just Britain under his thumb? You know he won't stop until he's taken over the entire world. If we're to have any chance of defeating him, we have to stay one step ahead. That's why Dumbledore arranged this exchange, and that's why I have to go!"

He was now so close he could see the dusting of freckles across her nose. "But why you, Hermione? Why can't someone else go?"

"Because Dumbledore knows he can trust me. Because he knows how much I support Harry." She lifted her chin to look up at him. "Don't you trust me, Ron?"

"Of course I trust you. But what if--"

"What if what?" Her voice, which had grown more shrill as the momentum and tension between them increased, suddenly softened.

"What if something happens to you?"

She tilted her head to one side to look up at him. "What if it does?"

"I-I won't be able to help."

"I'm not helpless! I can take care of myself."

"Like you did in the Department of Mysteries?" He knew he was treading in dangerous waters now.

Hermione's lips pressed together in an angry line. "What happened to me in June won't happen again. I know how to learn from my mistakes."

Though he doubted she'd meant it to do so, her retort hurt him deeply. His hands, jammed inside his pockets, clenched. "And I don't?"

"I didn't say that."

"No, but you thought it."

"What?" She made a sound of exasperation. "I give up. This is utterly pointless." She turned and walked away from him again.

He called out desperately to her retreating back, "Are you still writing to Krum?"

Deep grooves had appeared across her brow when she turned back to face him. "Viktor?" Ron nodded. "What does he have to do with anything?"

"Are you?"

"Why does it matter?"

"Answer the question."

She pulled herself up to her fullest height--which, granted, wasn't much compared to his own, but he knew all too well he was perilously close to crossing the line with her. "I will not. Who I write to is no concern of yours."

"It is so my concern!"

"On what grounds?"

"On the grounds of--I don't want you writing to him!"

She glared at him, arms crossed over her chest. "I see. So not only am I not allowed to go to India and do my part to help win the war against Voldemort, but I'm not even allowed to have my own friends without your approval." Blooms of color had risen in her cheeks. "Why don't I just lock myself up in a convent and stay there until the war is over? Will that make you happy?"

Ron slumped against a tree and closed his eyes in defeat. No matter how hard he tried, he always managed to say the wrong thing. Clearly nothing he did or said was going to keep her from leaving; clearly she still fancied that Bulgarian wanker. Why did he even bother trying? He slid down to the ground and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Bugger," he groaned to himself.

He squeezed his eyelids tight when he heard twigs snapping underfoot, resigned to his failure. Misery overwhelmed him. All he'd wanted to do was to make things right with her, to show her how much he wanted her to stay, but he'd only succeeded at bollixing things up even more than before. He should have seen it coming, but he just couldn't stop pushing until he'd pushed too far. Tomorrow she would go, despising him, and she'd probably keep writing to Krum and not write to him at all, and she'd completely forget he even existed while she was away, and he'd ruined the last chance he'd ever get to show her how much she meant to him. "Bugger," he said again, pressing against his eyelids until he saw stars. "You bloody stupid git."

Something warm pressed against his arm and a soft voice said, "Ron?"

Astonished beyond all imagining, he lifted his head to see Hermione sitting before him, her mouth pursed in a moue of concern. "Her-Hermione?" he croaked. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the fog from his vision. "I thought you'd left."

"Ron, why are you crying?" Her voice trembled.

He swiped angrily at his face. "I'm not crying."

When she looked away from him he saw the barriers start to fall back into place, and grabbed at her hand. "Hermione, please."

"I don't understand what it is you want from me," she murmured, looking down at their joined hands.

He laced his fingers through hers and tugged gently, urging her to look at him again. "I don't want you going to India," he said.

She closed her eyes. "Why not?"

"Because-Because...I don't know why," he finally admitted. "I just don't. I'm afraid." He took a deep breath. "I'm afraid you'll go and I won't ever see you again. I'm afraid you'll go and forget about me. I'm afraid...I'm afraid of losing you." He swallowed a hard lump in his throat.

Her eyes were brimming with tears when she opened them. "Oh, Ron," she sighed, giving him a wan, teary smile. Then, to his great surprise and joy, she launched herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck. Helpless to resist, he slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her closer. "I'll never, ever forget about you," she breathed damply into his neck, sending a shiver down his spine. "You mean too much to me."

It was more than he could ever have hoped to hear. At that moment, he could've single-handedly Stupefied a dozen Death Eaters, if she'd asked him to. But he had to be sure she was really saying what he hoped he'd heard. He ran his hands up her back to her shoulders, then down her arms to her elbows, before gently pulling her arms from around his neck. When she looked at him her face was blotchy and her eyes swollen, but to his mind she'd never looked more beautiful.

"Er...Hermione...er..." he stammered, his voice growing weaker and more raspy by the second. He felt the lump rise again in his throat as she studied him, her lips slightly parted.

Quickly, before his courage failed him, he leaned forward to kiss her.

Unfortunately, she ducked her head down at the last moment to wipe her nose on the hem of her skirt. Ron ended up jamming his lower lip into the edge of her eyebrow.

"Ow!" he cried, drawing back with his fingers pressed to his bruised mouth.

"Ow!" she cried, drawing back with her fingers pressed to her bruised brow.

Ron and Hermione stared at each other in shocked, wide-eyed silence for what seemed to last a lifetime. Then, as though they'd read each other's mind, they leaned forward, closed their eyes, and with a single sigh of pure, unadulterated bliss, made contact.

Kissing Hermione was more wonderful than anything he could have imagined: sweeter than a Chocolate Frog, more satisfying than blocking a Quaffle. Over the years he'd listened to his brothers and, more recently, the other boys in his dormitory, talk about the joys and wonders of kissing girls, but none of it had prepared him for the real thing.

It should not have been a surprise, then, that it wouldn't take him long to find a way to spoil everything.

When they'd leaned toward each other Ron had had one hand in his lap and the other pressed against the ground, for balance. As the kiss lengthened, however, tiny pebbles embedded in the ground dug into the tender flesh of his palm, distracting him from the pleasurable sensation of Hermione's lips against his own. He wanted to move his hand, but where to?

Then he remembered the feeling of Hermione's soft, warm hand on his arm, and knew exactly where he wanted his hand to be. He carefully lifted it from the ground and raised it to her shoulder.

The tiny squeak that erupted from Hermione's throat inflamed him, and he brought his other hand around to her waist. When her hands came to rest on his upper arms he squeezed gently, pulling her closer and deepening the kiss.

Or so he tried, until Hermione wrenched her mouth from his with a wet smacking sound. "What do you think you're doing?" she said.

He couldn't take his eyes off her moist, pink, swollen lips. He'd like some more of that, please. "I-I'm kissing you," he said, still staring at her mouth and wondering if the inside was just as nice. "Aren't I?"

"Your hand," she hissed.

Baffled, he tore his gaze away from her mouth to look at his hands. One rested against her waist, just above her hip. The other was on her...not on her shoulder. Bloody hell. No wonder...never mind. He snatched it away as though he'd just touched a hot stove. Which, in many respects, he had.

"What kind of girl do you take me for?"

"Wha--?" he murmured, his gaze now fixated on where his hand had just been, remembering how perfectly she had filled it.

"Do you always grope at girls like that the first time you kiss them?"

"Wha--?" he repeated, licking his lips. Then, suddenly, awareness came flooding back, and he realized just how furious Hermione was. "No!" he cried.

Hermione leaped to her feet with more agility than he knew she had. "Oh, so it's just me then? I'm a Muggle-born, so I must be a tart, is that it?" Her face was red with fury.

Ron stared up at her, dumbfounded. "Wha--?" But she had already fled, leaving him--and her book--behind.

*****

He didn't see Hermione the rest of the day. She didn't even come to the supper table; Ginny gave him a withering glare as she headed upstairs with a plate their mum had prepared for Hermione and accidentally-on-purpose knocked the back of his head with her elbow. Bill just looked at him as if he'd broken wind. If Luna had any opinion on the matter she kept it to herself, instead humming "Weasley Is Our King" under her breath as she ate her roast pork and potatoes. Feeling miserable and sorry for himself, Ron excused himself from the table before his mum had had a chance to serve pudding and locked himself in his room. He wanted to write to Harry, but he didn't know what to say. "Dear Harry, Today I snogged Hermione for the first time. Now she thinks I'm a tosser because I also accidentally grabbed her tit. Don't let the Muggles get you down. Wish you were here! Your friend, Ron." He didn't reckon even Harry would appreciate receiving a letter like that.

"Bloody hell!" he groaned, yanking his pillow out from under his head and pressing it over his face. Of all the rotten luck! Even Harry's first kiss had gone better than his. None of his brothers would've done something so stupid or clumsy either, he'd wager. Just him. Foolish, bumbling ickle Ronnikins, who couldn't seem to do anything right.

*****

Ron awakened several hours later to a soft scratching sound. At first he thought Pig was asking to be let in through his bedroom window, but Pig was already in his cage watching him unblinkingly with his round amber eyes.

He sat up, shaking the fog of sleep from his head and rubbing his hands across his face. He could feel the first faint signs of stubble just below his jawline; for two years now Fred and George had teased him about the peach fuzz on his cheeks, but he knew it wouldn't be long before he'd be shaving with the rest of them. Harry, on the other hand.... He grinned at the thought of Harry. At the rate he was going, Harry'd be well into his twenties before he started shaving. Hazards of spending a decade in a broom closet, Ron supposed. It brought him little comfort to know that Harry hadn't had any better luck with girls than he had.

He ran his fingers through his hair and yawned, thinking he might as well change into his pajamas and go to bed properly. Judging from position of the moon in the sky, and the silence of the house around him, it was nearly midnight. Even the ghoul in the attic had retired for the night.

Then he heard it again: the scratching sound that had awakened him before. It was too loud to have been made by a mouse, and whatever was making the sound seemed to be just on the other side of his bedroom door. Scratching his belly and yawning again, he crossed to the door and opened it.

Hermione stood before him in a flowered dressing gown, her hair a riotous mane around her pale face, her illuminated wand in her hand. His hand froze in mid-scratch, although he at least had the presence of mind to close his mouth. "Hermione?" he said stupidly.

"Ron? Did I wake you?"

He could see that she was trembling, though for the life of him he couldn't understand why; the night was warm and humid, without even a breeze to move the stagnant air. "Er, no," he said, moving aside. "D'you-d'you want to come in?"

"Thanks." She stepped gingerly over the threshold. Rone remained rooted by the door and watched as she sat at the foot of his bed. She looked as though she might take flight any moment. "Could you-would you close the door please?" she asked. "I don't want to wake anyone up."

"Oh!" he said. "Sure." He closed the door and leaned against it, crossing his arms over his chest. He had no idea what had brought her to his room at this time of night, but after what had taken place earlier that day, he wasn't about to presume anything and risk screwing up again. Hermione wasn't one to fudge and mudge, for which he was grateful; she'd tell him what was on her mind directly.

She stared at her hands as they lay in her lap. "I'm sorry for the way I reacted earlier," she said.

His heart leaped up into his throat. Had he heard correctly? "Sorry?"

"This-this afternoon," she whispered. "When-when we were...kissing."

He could see the flush in her cheeks in the pale wandlight. "Y'mean...when I--" She nodded. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had just gone very dry. "I didn't mean to-I mean, I'm really--"

"It's okay," she said, saving him from his fumbling tongue. "I realized after I'd had a chance to think about it, that you didn't mean to-to do what you did. I just-it just-I was just surprised, that's all. I was scared."

"Oh." Ron couldn't think of anything else to say.

"I just-I never--" She took a deep, shaky breath before plunging in again. "I'd never imagined things would turn out this way. I'd never r-really believed you f-felt that way. A-About m-me."

Ron didn't know what to say, but he couldn't ignore the tremor in her voice. He sat down on the edge of the bed beside her and did the first thing he could think of: he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her towards him until he could feel her tears soak through his shirt. He held her there for the longest time, eventually slipping his other arm around her waist and mentally kicking himself for all the times he'd hurt her over the years. He'd been such a fool....

Eventually her sobs subsided, and although Ron hated to see her cry, he hated even more the realization that she'd soon pull away from him. He wanted to keep her there forever. When he felt her hands push against his chest, however, he relaxed his embrace and let her pull back.

"I must look a fright," she sniffed, wiping at her face.

"Not at all," he said. He reached up almost instinctively to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. When she looked up at him from beneath her glistening lashes, he knew that things between them would never be the same. Which, in the end, was all he'd ever really wanted.

The kiss they shared this time was still chaste, still tentative, but carried with it promises of so much more. He ached to touch her as he had before and thought she might even welcome it this time, but held back, afraid he might not be able to later if he didn't. He was so scared he couldn't even wrap his mind around it. Scared of the intensity of the feelings he had for her; scared he might frighten her off if he revealed them; scared of the fragile hope she might actually return his feelings; and, above all, scared he might never see her again.

*****

Some time later Ron found himself lying down with Hermione stretched out beside him, her hand on his chest, her head pillowed on his arm. He felt happier than he had in a long time. A bit frustrated, to be sure, but his memories of tonight and his imagination could take care of that later. For now, he was awash in contentment, despite the numbness in his arm.

He felt her stirring beside him and groaned, knowing the end was rapidly approaching. If only she still had that bloody Time-Turner, he thought.

"Ron?" she murmured.

"Hm?"

"Ron, you know I have to go."

"I know," he sighed, staring up at the ceiling.

"Your mum will be up soon. You don't want her catching us together like this."

"Uh-uh."

Neither of them moved. Then, a few minutes later: "Ron?"

"Hm?"

"Dumbledore recommended I take Muggle transport to India." His insides roiled. He'd been trying to forget about India all night. "I'm taking an airplane. My flight leaves from Heathrow Airport in London at 4 o'clock on Tuesday afternoon. It would mean so much to me if you could be there to see me off."

He shifted to meet her gaze. "Really?" She nodded. "Er, okay." He had no idea how he'd get to Heathrow Airport, whatever that was, but he'd find out.

She sat up and smiled down at him. He reached over and took her hand in his, twining their fingers together. "I'll miss you," she said.

"I'll miss you, too." His voice was scratchy and hoarse. "I wish you wouldn't go."

"I know. But I have to."

"I know."

His heart swelled in his chest when Hermione leaned down to kiss him one last time, and then she was gone.

*****

Many thanks to Lady Narcissa for her insightful and critical comments that forced me to acknowledge my unhealthy love affair with commas and the imperfect tense. It's been a long time since I last had to defend my writerly choices, and I appreciated the opportunity.
//
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