The Sugar Quill
Author: Shina Laris  Story: A String of Xs  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.

Disclaimer: The world of Harry Potter belongs to JK Rowling, Time Warners Bros, and various publishers (Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Inc., etc.). No money is being made off of this and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author’s Note: I don’t even know how to thank my brilliant beta-readers, Ada Kensington, MissK, and lavenderbrown, enough for all the time and attention they've given this fic. Believe me, it wouldn’t have been half as good if it weren’t for them. I owe them many ‘thank you’s.



A String of Xs
by Shina Laris




Should she put it on there? Would it be too obvious? Hermione bit her lips, frowning at the written parchment in front of her. Only four more letters, and then she would be finished. The problem was, dare she put those four letters on the ready-to-send correspondence?

Pig hooted loudly as he hopped from his temporary perch by the window down onto her organised desk, knocking a few items over. Hermione, who had ascended too deep into her own inner arguments, ignored him. After all, she couldn’t really blame him for his impatience, since it was long past the normal time that he should have departed for the Burrow. Never had she taken so long to write back a reply as this time, for she had never been faced with this problem before.

She raised her hand and patted Ron’s owl on the head, quieting him down a little. The small owl nudged against her palm, trilling contently, before he swooped back to his perch, cocking his head slightly as if to observe what she was writing about.

Mind filled with indecision, Hermione twitched nervously, knowing that the owl’s gaze was on her. It was completely unreasonable, really, to feel jumpy about being watched when the spectator was only an owl – even an intelligent, if somewhat overexcited, one. She fiddled incessantly with her quill, turning it over and over between her fingers without really thinking.

Right now, only a single thought occupied her mind: Should she write it down?

For a long moment, she entertained the thought of just writing it and getting it over with, as she had resolved to do before losing her nerves at the last minute. Just do it! she told herself sternly, but her hand refused to write it down, or rather, her brain nerves refused to pass down the command.

It wasn’t as if Ron would know what they meant, anyway… would he?

Hermione checked herself in horror. She hadn’t thought of that, assuming that since he was just an insensitive and clueless prat, he wouldn’t know what the word meant – but now, thinking about it, chances were he did. Even if he didn’t, he could just easily ask one of his numerous brothers. She groaned slightly; this wasn’t something she’d like to let the whole Weasley family know.

No – no, he won’t ask them, Hermione reassured herself. He’ll just wave it off as some strange sort of runes I wrote in there for fun and knowledge’s sake. He won’t even think twice about it – or he won’t notice in the first place.

Then again, wasn’t the whole point of putting the letters on there so that he’d notice? So that he’d get the message that she liked him too?

Does he like me that way, though? Hermione wondered uneasily. She had thought so when they said goodbye at King’s Cross, but now, she wasn’t so sure anymore…



They watched quietly as Harry turned around and led the way out of the station, with his uncle, aunt, and still cowering cousin hurrying after him.

Hermione reluctantly turned around and gripped her trolley with considerable force, willing sadness and worries not to overwhelm her. She had never liked goodbyes, especially when Death Eaters were lurking everywhere, dangers were high, and there were chances, no matter how little or how much, of not seeing those she loved dearly again. Oh, the Order would be very careful this year, as she was already hearing the adults discuss, stationing protectors all over Little Whinging, particularly at Number Four Privet Drive. However, that didn’t mean Harry would be safe; far from it, actually. Last year, he was almost killed by the Dementors. Granted, it was from Umbridge rather than Voldemort, and Mundungus was the most pathetic guard there was, but that didn’t alter the fact that Harry had almost lost his life due to the ineptitude of the Order last year.

Sighing, Hermione berated herself silently. It wasn’t fair that she should take it out on the Order; they had done much to help ensure Harry’s safety – but that wasn’t enough to keep him absolutely out of harm’s way.

“Don’t worry, Hermione,” Ron said abruptly as he approached her, reaching out his hand to help her with the trolley. “He’ll be all right.” Even as he said this, Ron still glanced over his shoulder at the direction where Harry and the Dursleys had gone, although they had been engulfed in the crowd by now.

Hermione smiled a little. Typical of Ron to reassure others when he himself was worrying no less. However, she replied softly, “Yes… he’ll be all right,” as she let Ron take her trolley, his hand brushing past hers in a slight contact, sending goose bumps through her body and butterflies in her stomach. She shouldn’t feel so unreasonable over such a little thing, but Hermione had long ago given up on being reasonable where Ron was concerned.

Hermione tried to ignore the feeling as she followed Ron slowly towards where the handlers had dumped her trunks and bags down amongst various others’. Silently, both of them stooped down and began picking up the bags, dumping them onto the empty trolley. Ron had chosen the heavy trunk full of her school and outside reading books for himself, but it seemed that it was too heavy even for him. From the look of it, though, Ron wasn’t about to ask her for help.

Refraining from letting out a frustrated sigh, Hermione dropped the bag she was holding unceremoniously on the trolley and turned over, slipping her hands under and pushing the trunk up. Even with Ron taking most of the weight, it was still heavy.

“Hermione…” Ron protested, breathing heavily, “you don’t… have to. I’m fine…” He trailed off under her unwavering gaze. Sometimes she hated it how the boys treated her as though she wasn’t strong enough to do the rough things on her own. Admittedly, they were much stronger than she, but she was not, by any means, delicate.

They proceeded with loading the rest of the trunks, letting the silence creep by without any interference. Hermione would’ve felt a bit awkward were her mind not full of worries, some justified, some not.

“Erm… Hermione?” Ron asked uncertainly, sounding closer than he had previously.

Hermione glanced up at him, surprised at the distance between them. Instinctively, she quickly took a step back, blanching as she did so, realising what Ron must have thought of her reaction – he would know it wasn’t because of him, wouldn’t he? She couldn’t tell from his impassive expression, but then…


Of course he’d know, she told herself, while externally took a deep breath and replied, “Yes, Ron?”

He easily picked up the bag Hermione was having a hard time trying to put on the trolley and asked nonchalantly, “D’you want to come over during the summer?”

In some part of her, Hermione had known, or guessed, that the Weasleys would invite her over as they had done the last two summers. However, she just didn’t expect Ron to ask her, and especially not now, even before they had said goodbye. Normally, the position of writing the invitation was reserved for Ginny, who’d owl her about a month into summer holiday so that she would have some time to spend with her family. So, she was quite taken back to hear the invitation from Ron.

Taking her temporary silence for a ‘no’, Ron tried to push it off, looking dejected. “Well… if you don’t want to, as I’m sure you’ve some other… obligations, then it’s okay – you don’t have to –”

“No, Ron,” Hermione interjected hurriedly, “I would love to come.”

Ron’s face brightened. “You would?”

“Of course I would! You didn’t honestly think I would say no, did you?”

“Well…” Ron said sheepishly, “when you didn’t answer, I thought –”

“It’s just that… I didn’t expect that question, so I was kind of unprepared to answer it.”

“What did you expect then?” asked Ron rhetorically, stooping down and hauling up the biggest and final trunk, grunting as he did so. He wasn’t expecting an answer, Hermione knew, from the way he asked it. But for some reason, the question still lingered in her mind long afterward.

‘What did you expect, then?’ What did she expect? She wasn’t so sure – only there was a sensation deep in her stomach told her that, whatever she had expected, it wasn’t something she’d care to remember, for it was bound to be quite embarrassing and disappointing, especially since the question turned out to be different.

“Mind giving me a little help here?” Ron’s irritated voice brought her back to earth. She just then realised that Ron was having huge trouble trying to lift the enormous trunk off the ground. Guiltily, she helped Ron put it on the trolley, before turning back towards him, breathing heavily.

Ron, it seemed, was no less tired; he wiped his eyebrow and the line of sweat that was running down along the line of his jaw. “So… when do you want to come over?” he asked her, leaning a bit against the trolley.

“I don’t know,” Hermione answered thoughtfully. “I suppose I would be expected to spend at least a month at home, since I cut short my Christmas holiday with my parents. I’ll see if I can get them to let me come over in about a month or so.”

“Maybe you could even come over a day or two before Harry’s birthday,” Ron said excitedly. “I’ll try to badger Mum and the other Order members into letting Harry come over and celebrate his birthday at my house. It’d be great if you’re there, too.”

Hermione smiled brightly. “Harry would love it.”

“I’m sure he would,” said Ron, his voice turning serious, “and so would I.” The last part was no more than a whisper, and Hermione had to strain her ears to catch the hushed words. What she heard had stopped her heartbeat for a second and sent butterflies fluttering in her stomach – the one thing she hated the most, because it meant she was losing control of the situation and of herself.


Don’t get any ideas, Hermione, she told herself sternly. He means it in friendly way – no more than that. But, as much as she wished to, Hermione couldn’t suppress the blooming hope radiating from her chest at his words. Maybe, just maybe, he meant it in a more than a slightly friendly way.

The long stretch of silence hung between them, and it had just become slightly awkward when Hermione decided to break it.

“Well… goodbye, Ron,” she began uncertainly, turning slightly to her left and looking up at him. For some reason, it was always harder to say goodbye to Ron than it was to Harry, even when the latter always stood at the more vulnerable position for danger to approach. It was true that she didn’t want to say goodbye to either one of them, but in Ron’s case, it was particularly so.

“Yeah…” Ron said, “goodbye, Hermione.” He was staring at her intently – that was all it took for warmth to spread in her entire body.

Hermione gulped. “Remember to take care, all right? And owl me as soon as possible, especially if something… if something…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it, but she needn’t bother, anyway, for Ron had understood her perfectly.

“Don’t worry, Hermione,” he said reassuringly, placing an awkward hand on her shoulder. “Nothing will happen. And in a month, we’ll all be together. Things will be all right.”

Taking a deep breath, Hermione nodded. At least she’d have to pretend to be okay for Ron’s sake; she didn’t want him to be worried about her when the threats on Harry’s life had stressed him enough as it was.

Hermione offered him a small smile, intending to reassure but she wasn’t sure if it was doing its job. “I know ... things will be all right,” she repeated firmly, more to herself than to Ron. She shook her head. “I was just being silly; of course we’ll all be okay. After all, it’ll only be a month, right?”

“Yeah. It’ll only be a month.” He retracted his hand, and Hermione found that she sorely missed the warmth of it.

As she glanced over her shoulder, Hermione saw her parents wave towards her. It was time to go.

“They’re waiting for you.” Ron’s voice called her attention back to him; he was also staring at her parents, and therefore unable to see her gaze on him. Suddenly, Hermione had the impulse to kiss him on the cheek, at the place where she had kissed him for the first time before his first Quidditch match. Nobody would think anything of it, right? She had just kissed Harry not half an hour ago, and Ron was no different. He was just another one of her best friends. Or at least that was how it was to the world. To her, it was a totally different matter.

Feeling her heart speed up, Hermione quickly absorbed in her surroundings. Nobody was watching them, even her parents had turned to talk with Mr. Weasley again. She collected her resolves. It was now or never.

Quickly, before she lost her nerves, Hermione stood on tiptoe and planted a light kiss on Ron’s cheek.

“Her –” Ron looked down at her and began, but the word stuck in his vocal cord as Hermione’s lips brushed past his freckled skin.

She drew back a second later, feeling her face begin to heat up, but she didn’t particularly care as a warm fire lit up at the bottom of her stomach. Shyly and hesitantly, Hermione let her eyes flicker to Ron’s face, watching his expression closely. Contrary to her trepidation, he didn’t look disgusted – but nor did he look ecstatic. However, under the layer of obvious shock, Hermione could just discern a trace of… was it happiness?

The same happiness surged through her when his hands landed on her shoulders, and he gulped visibly. “Hermione, I…” he began, his voice cracking slightly on the last note. “Well, I –” He had
almost hugged her, when George’s (or Fred’s) voice boomed at them.

“Oi, Ron! Hurry up, will ya, or we’ll have to leave you here!”

Ron jumped back almost guiltily, his ears bright red. “Bye, Hermione,” he managed finally, not quite meeting her eyes. “I-I’ll see you soon.” With that, he grabbed his own trolley and scurried towards his family.

“Goodbye, Ron,” she whispered as the flutter of red-heads mingled along with the crowd before turning back to her own parents, resolved to put the whole thing out of her mind, at which she failed miserably.



During the fleeting seconds Ron placed his hands on her shoulders, Hermione’s imagination had flown out of her normally firm, sensible grasp and jumped to the hasty conclusion that what he felt towards her was more than just friendship… but then, it could just be her imagination. Despite the emotions she thought she saw in Ron’s eyes just then, she still wasn’t sure of what he thought of her. Was she only a best friend to him… or was she more?

Once again, the piece of parchment covered with tiny handwriting flickered at the border of her vision, and Hermione felt compelled to glance down at it. So much for her resolves not to impend upon what happened at King’s Cross.

Not for the first time, she wished she had never learned the meaning of the letter ‘X’; that would’ve spared her a whole lot of troubles and headachy demurs.

It had all happened innocently enough last Monday, when she was cleaning out the attic upon her mum’s request. The job in itself wasn’t much of a problem – rather, Hermione had found it refreshing to occupy herself instead of just sitting around after she had done all of her holiday homework as well as read all the books she brought home with her. The attic wasn’t half as bad as the Weasleys’, which had been so packed up with useless things last time Hermione saw it that she was made to wonder whether they had ever cleaned it out. From the way Ron had ranted about it, however, it seemed that the unwelcoming job was forced upon him every summer.

Despite not being allowed to use magic to help her, Hermione still had a grand time sorting out ancient things that had been there forever – or at least as long as her dad had lived (it used to be her grandparents’). Several of them included toys and books she had not seen since she was a little girl.

There was a little teddy bear she had resolved to throw away in order to prove that she was a ‘big girl’; never did she think her mum had not thrown it away as she’d promised. Some were dust-covered fairy tales books that she had grown tired of when she turned eight. They all brought back happy, childish memories that Hermione had found herself smiling fondly about.

However, what had triggered her curiosity the most was the little odd-looking, wooden box snuggled in the corner, under all the other stuff. There were designs carved along the rim of the box and an unlocked fastener in front of it. Slowly, she had opened the box, brushing off the dusts that had accumulated over the years. Inside, she’d found stacks of papers yellow with age.

She’d had a nasty feeling that she shouldn’t touch them, that they were confidential information that outsiders should never read, but curiosity soon won over, and she found herself reaching for the top piece of paper.

Imagine how surprised she was when the papers turned out to be love letters written from her mum to her dad. They were all packed with feelings, and Hermione found that she was a little queasy upon realising those ancient (if twenty years old could be counted as ancient) words expressed all that she presently felt towards a certain red-head that she had no business feeling. That realisation would’ve totally consumed her and left her uneasy for days if not for another realisation that weighed in not long after.

At the end of every letter, her mum had written in elegant handwriting, XXXX.

Hermione had been told that she was the smartest witch of her year an immeasurable number of times, but right then, she couldn’t have felt farther away from those praises. She knew a lot of things, including extra information on every goblin rebellion that had ever occurred in Europe, as well as spells that students weren’t exposed to until their seventh year, but this was something she didn’t know. And not knowing something irritated her to no end, even though she knew it should not affect her so, because there was always something somebody didn’t know.

Oh, she knew enough about the letter X in itself, of course, both from Mathematics in primary school and Arithmancy at Hogwarts, as well as the glimpses from many of her books on the subject. Most commonly, X stood for the unknown, the subject to be discovered. However, none of what she knew applied here.

Briefly, she’d pondered the notion of putting the box back where it belonged, but her own inquisitiveness, which had been triggered by the presence of the common yet strange letters, refused to be dampened. With a shrug, she’d taken one letter out of its place in the box and jogged downstairs, finding her mum in the kitchen, preparing her favourite food. Her dad would’ve been highly embarrassed at the prospect of his daughter reading the love letters he and his wife interchanged years ago, but her mum was a different matter. She was always in good humour and rarely got embarrassed by anything. Hermione supposed she inherited most of her traits from her dad.

She had approached her mum nonchalantly and asked just what ‘X’ means when someone puts it at the bottom of a letter, and felt a flush of heat rose up her cheeks at the knowing look that instantly jumped into her mum’s eyes even though she hadn’t done anything… yet.

“And why would you want to know that?” her mum had asked, a mischievous smile beginning to form at the corners of her mouth.

“Just for curiosity,” she’d answered truthfully.

A raised eyebrow was enough to tell her that her mum didn’t really believe that.

“I found this.” Hermione took out the letter she was hiding behind her back and had the grace to look a bit guilty.

Her mum’s surprise at seeing the letter was abundant, and she had exclaimed that she couldn’t believe her dad had kept it all this years, to which Hermione responded that there was a box full of these letters up in the attic, buried under everything else. When her mum seemed to lapse into silence, looking at the letter, Hermione had reiterated her question. The response she received wasn’t something she’d anticipated at all, and indeed, it couldn’t have surprised and embarrassed her more than the letter did her mum.

As she turned towards the door, mumbling she should get back to the attic, her mum had called out, “But I don’t believe curiosity was the only reason why you asked.”

She’d shrugged then, reasoning that her mum was just over-thinking the whole thing; for truly, it was curiosity – which, even now, it still was. The curiosity that she wished she had never acted by.

Had she never learned what ‘X’ meant, she would not be contemplating whether she should put it down onto the letter she was about to send to Ron or not. Okay, Hermione, just do it! Are you a Gryffindor or not?

Well, truthfully, courage had nothing to do with this, but the question always got her to make up her mind, and with a deep breath, Hermione scratched four hasty Xs at the very bottom of the letter, right below her signature. Without leaving herself time to change her mind, she hurriedly folded the letter and gave it to Pig, who was still perched patiently – too patiently – by the window, saying breathlessly, “Take this to Ron right away.”

The owl gave a loud hoot as though answering her question before taking flight towards the orange horizon.

Hermione slumped down onto her bed, suddenly finding herself inexplicably short of breath. Nervousness and trepidation swirled inside her. She hoped she hadn’t just made the biggest mistake of her life.



***


Utterly confused and frustrated, Ron glanced again at the letter lying slightly crumpled in his hand. He’d read the letter ten times so far, but he was no closer to figuring out whatever message was hidden in the text than he was the first time he’d read it, hours ago.

Well… perhaps there isn’t any hidden message, Ron told himself, pacing from one end of the room to the other, both times encountering a bright orange poster of the Chudley Cannon players waving at him.

True, there might not be anything to the letter except what had appeared quite plainly on the surface; however, that didn’t help answer the question that had bothering him ever since that morning, right after breakfast. Pig had returned with the letter from Hermione last night, but Ron had been too tired after a day of grilling chores from his unmerciful mum to read it. He had put it off until today, but right after breakfast (to which he was almost late in coming because he had overslept), he had proceeded directly to discover what Hermione had written to him; what he did discover left him more confused than enlightened.

Sighing, Ron flopped down on his bed, his leg reclined on the wooden bed-post, and straightened out the crinkled parchment. He would read it one more time; if he couldn’t figure it out this time, he’d give up.

Dear Ron,

Things are normal around here, with the exception of the trip my parents and I took last weekend to this newly opened theme park. The trip was all right, I suppose, but the theme park was a bit boring (but I don’t doubt that you and Harry would probably love it).

“Yeah, anything being called by her as boring would definitely be a cool place to go,” Ron muttered quietly to himself, smirking slightly. That didn’t hold anything that could be served as a clue. Although he didn’t know what ‘theme park’ was, he was quite sure that it had nothing to do with what he was looking for.

I’ve had plenty of time since the trip to finish up the rest of my holiday homework, and I’ve also been doing a bit of light reading lately, since there’s nothing else to do. I’ve been helping mum with the chores around the house, but since I don’t have any expertise in cooking, there’s not much I can do. And my mum wouldn’t let me do anything particularly energy-draining, despite how much I insisted.

“She insisted on doing housework? That’s the first.”

But right now, as I’ve already finished all the books I brought home with me, I wish I could go to Flourish and Blotts. Mum has some Muggle fictions that she gave me to read. They’re all right, but they don’t have a lot of relevant information. Oh yes, my parents say that I could come over to stay in three days, the very day of Harry’s birthday. He is coming, is he not? I hope so. I owled him, but he never mentioned anything about it. Do you think he’s all right? His letters are the same, but his words seem quite forced. I hope this birthday party will cheer him up after… last month.

Anyway, don’t forget to do your homework so you won’t have to finish everything at the last minute.

Ron rolled his eyes.

Say ‘hi’ to everybody for me. I’ll be there soon.

Love from,
Hermione

XXXX

There. It was those last four letters that had sent his mind into overdrive, trying to figure out some reason, or reasons, none of which made any sense or even slightly resembled well thought-out guesses. And, from all the times he had spent reading the worn letter, the body itself held no relation to the words. In fact, its altogether normal tone contrasted greatly with the unbidden letters at the bottom.

“RON!”

He literally jumped up from his place at the sound of his mum’s bellow. Quickly, Ron dropped the letter on the desk next to his bed before darting out of the door and down the stairs, to come standing, slightly breathless, in front of his fuming mum.

“You called me, Mum?” he queried hesitantly.

His mum glared at him. “Do you remember what you’re supposed to do this morning?”

Try as he might, Ron couldn’t remember. “Erm… no?”

“Well then, I suppose I must remind you that you’re supposed to be out there de-gnoming the garden!” The volume increased gradually until Ron had to wince at the intensity of it. It still surprised him sometimes that his mum had so much energy.

“I’d let you off yesterday with the promise that you’d do it today, but no, you’ve been at Merlin-knows-where ever since breakfast. If I hadn’t called you down, you’d probably scurry off until dinner, too –”

“All right, all right, Mum,” interrupted Ron hastily, as she paused for breath. “I’m going out there to de-gnome the garden right now.”

“You’d better, mister,” said his mum dangerously, brandishing a wooden spoon threateningly at him, “or else you’ll be very sorry.”

Mumbling a quick ‘yes, Mum’ Ron turned around and hurriedly scurried out of the kitchen, towards the back door, keen on escaping another trail of scolding that his mum seemed set on delivering. Suddenly, an unbidden thought fleetingly crossed his mind. And he couldn’t pass it away.

“Mum?” Ron called, his hand on the handle that was warm from the heat outside.

“Yes?” His mum’s voice sounded slightly irritated, but Ron was more worried whether he had made the right decision in asking his mum this rather than how close to explosion his mum was at the moment.

Hesitantly, he asked, “D’you know what... ‘X’ means?”

There was a slight pause... and then his mum’s voice boomed out, its irritation ebbing away. “Are you asking me what I think you’re asking me?” There was a certain note of disbelief in her voice.

“I don’t know what you think I’m asking you, Mum,” he answered, avoiding her eyes and instead settling his gaze on the garden outside. Several gnomes were popping their heads out of their holes.

“You mean ‘X’ as in at the end of a letter?”

“Yeah – yeah, that’s what I meant.”

“Where did you learn of it, Ron?” It didn’t sound as commanding as his mum’s questions usually were, only slightly surprised, bemused and interested.

“N-nowhere,” Ron answered hastily; he didn’t think it would be a very wise decision to say that it was at the end of Hermione’s letter. Somehow, he got a bit suspicious about the whole thing, especially since his mum was acting this way. “I – I just saw it at the end of a letter, and I was curious, that’s all.” He fervently hoped he didn’t look as embarrassed as he felt right then, and that his face wouldn’t betray him this time, as it often did.

“The letter was addressed to you?” she pressed.

“Mum – just answer the question!”

His mum just shook her head, a grin slowly spreading across her face. “I think your father is much more fitted to answer it than I am,” she said, amusement clearly evident in her voice.

Dad? Ron’s incredulity couldn’t have been greater had his mum told him that he’d just sprouted horns (which had happened before when he had inadvertently, and admittedly foolishly, accepted something from Fred and George). Normally, his dad was the one to direct him to his mum whenever he had a question.

“Yes, your dad,” she replied – Ron hadn’t realised he had just said it out loud. “Now, get along with your chore. Go on!” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand, turning back to the knives that were cutting up the vegetables on their own.

Still incredulous, Ron finally turned the doorknob he’d been holding for several minutes and walked outside, readying himself for the extreme heat. This was, without saying, his most despised chore to do under the scorching sun of a summer’s morning. However, all he could possibly do was to get it over with as quickly as possible. He let his eyes roam over the garden, noticing the gnomes scattering over the unkempt ground as they caught sight of him; it was not going to be anywhere near a quick task.

As he had predicted, the de-gnoming took longer than it usually would, especially because nobody had done the job since the beginning of the holiday, inundated as everyone was with other important business. Now, two days before Harry’s birthday, preparations were called for, and, as always, the most unpleasant job was deterred to him.

Plus, Fred and George aren’t around to help with the chores anymore, Ron reminded himself, ignoring the ‘Gerroff me!’s of a rather large gnome and swinging it as far as he could. Indeed, Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes was flourishing more than Ron had first fathomed, and it required a large part of the twins’ time, although not large enough that they couldn’t pull a prank or two on him every other week…

About a million years later, after which he had successfully thrown the last gnome far over the wooden fence at the expense of a painful bite on his left hand, Ron wiped the sweat running down the sides of his face with his the back of his hand and lumbered back to the shades provided by the back porch. The heat, which was intense before, was even more unbearable now. Cursing slightly under his breath, he stopped in front of a chair placed right under the kitchen window and slumped down onto it, breathless.

He just sat there silently as a few gnomes, those that were not as dull as most, staggered back towards the direction of the fence, but were unable to climb through in their state.

“Ron!”

He started at his sister’s voice, looking back to find her standing at the doorway.

“You’d better go in and take a shower, Ron,” advised Ginny, wrinkling her nose at him. “Lunch is almost ready.” With that, she turned around and headed back into the house, slamming the door behind her.

Ron had to muster all of his left-over energy to stand up and force himself to take a shower. It wasn’t a bad prospect. Contrarily, it sounded like a grand idea, considering how hot he was feeling, but right then, he’d be content just to lie there, resting his sore muscles.

A cold shower proved to be more than worthwhile, and it took a shout from an irritated Ginny for him to rinse himself and put on his summer clothes.

Lunch was a quiet affair, mostly because the twins weren’t present, proclaiming they had some important orders they needed to fulfil before they could rest. It was a wonder to see the two of them take anything seriously, even their jobs, but it was evident that they did.

For the rest of the afternoon, the two youngest Weasleys were kept busy preparing for the upcoming birthday party, and it wasn’t until late afternoon that Ron started thinking about the letter X again. His dad had got home an hour or two early, and, after a small talk with his mum about what had transpired at the Ministry that day, he sat back in the dining room with a Muggle cars magazine, which he had undoubtedly got somewhere in the random stack of papers he always kept on his desk.

“Dad?” he questioned, sitting down in the chair opposite his dad after he had begged for an early release from his mum, which was almost impossible to get.

His dad lowered the magazine slightly. “Yes, son?”

“What is – I mean… d’you know what ‘X’ is?”

“‘X’? As in what? Muggle maths? Wizarding Arithmancy? As –”

“No – ” Ron interrupted hurriedly. “I’m talking about ‘X’ at the end of a letter.”

Maybe it was just his imagination, but his dad’s face seemed to turn red rather quickly right after this assertion; Ron wondered why. For a moment, his dad seemed to have troubles getting words out. “W-what makes you think I’d know what it means?” he finally stuttered, the magazine lying on the desk, quite forgotten.

Ron shrugged. “Mum told me to ask you. She said you’d know it better than she would.”

The blush was even more pronounced on his dad’s cheeks now, and with a grimace, he said, “Your mum said that, didn’t she.”

It was a statement rather than a question, but Ron felt compelled to reply nonetheless. “Yeah,” he said vaguely. “But what does it mean, though?”

“Ah – I don’t think I would be the best –”

“Of course you’d be, Dad,” Ron insisted impatiently.

“No. No, I don’t think so. Perhaps your –”

“Dad! Just answer the bloody question!” Ron cried, completely exasperated, throwing his hands up in irritation. His dad’s hesitation in responding due to years of living with his mum was something Ron was used to. However, that didn’t make it any less frustrating when Ron was simply dying to know just what those blasted letters meant while his dad beat around the bush, even when he would always come about to answer the questions eventually. Why he didn’t just answer the question from the start and save them minutes of torture was beyond Ron.

Arthur Weasley just shook his head, reaching out and picking up the opened magazine lying in front of him – but the expression on his face could not be called disapproving. “Your mum would have a fit, hearing you using such language in here…”

“But she isn’t here, though,” Ron muttered.

“No,” Ron’s dad agreed, raising the magazine in front of him after his eyes had flickered briefly to the doorway, “she’s not here. But I reckon she’d be likely to hear if you keep that up.” With that, he immerged into the Muggle pages once again.

Realising with increasing irritation how well he had been driven off from his original question, Ron heaved a huff and rested his back against the hard surface of the chair. “Dad! What does it mean?”

Behind the magazine came a muffled reply, “Itmeansakiss.”

Ron leaned in eagerly. “What did you say, Dad?”

His dad coughed visibly, pulled the magazine up, and burrowed himself further into it. “A kiss.”

For a few moments of ringing silence, Ron just sat there, shocked and flabbergasted at his father’s unexpected answer.

No, it couldn’t be. His dad hadn’t just said what Ron thought he had said. It must’ve been a mistake, a mere error in listening on his part. Yes, that must’ve been it. But Ron couldn’t stop himself from wanting a clarification.

“What?”

“It means a kiss, Ron,” his father’s voice replied with evident hesitation and embarrassment – but that was nothing compared to how Ron felt right then.

A kiss. That’s what it means? But… impossible! Had the letter come from anyone else except Hermione (or Harry), that would’ve been plausible. But, since it came from Hermione, the meaning of the letter didn’t make the slightest sense. The very notion of her putting… that on paper to him was more than unlikely.

But then…

Ron shook his head quickly, driving out any thoughts on the subject. “Dad?” he said hesitantly, “…er...thanks for answering...”

“You’re welcome.”

“I – I think I should go now…” he continued quickly. “Mum must be looking for me – so, erm…” He trailed off, as his dad didn’t seem very interested in what he had to say, or at least he was pretending not to be interested – which was perfectly fine with Ron at the moment. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He’d rather go somewhere he could think about everything in peace.

Or better yet, somewhere he wouldn’t have to think at all.

***


“Ah… Ronniekins. So what is this I’m hearing about your asking Mum and Dad what ‘X’ means?” queried George with a wicked grin threatening to escape his carefully concealed mask of indifference.

Ron was in the middle of drinking his pumpkin juice, but it never got past the first process before he spat it out in surprise and horror, earning him an admonishing “Ronald Weasley!” from his mum.

“W-what?!” Ron sputtered, completely ignoring his mum’s rebuke. He did not hear what he thought he heard.

“Yes, I forgot about that,” Fred piped in. “Thank you for reminding me, George.”

“You’re quite welcome,” George said modestly. He looked at Ron again, and this time, he didn’t even try to conceal his evil grin. “So, now, why would you want to know what ‘X’ means?”

“I don’t,” Ron shot back, but his ears betrayed him. Sometimes he considered cutting those traitors off, if it weren’t for the fact that he’d be hurting himself in doing so.

Evidently, the blush wasn’t lost on the twins. “Aww… look at him. Trying to deny the truth – quite unsuccessfully, may I add.”

Ron just glowered at them.

“Come on, Ron. We all know it already, so why bother hiding it?”

“Just sod off, both of you,” Ron muttered. “There’s nothing to hide.”

“You can’t hide it forever. Besides, we have a witness; Ginny told us she heard you asking Dad what ‘X’ means. Now, little bro, why would you want to know that, eh?”

“Ginny?” Ron said incredulously, ignoring Fred’s adamant press. Suspicious and annoyed, he quickly turned around and fixed his sister with a hard look; Fred’s testimony was confirmed when she squirmed uneasily under his scrutiny.

“Well… I…” Ginny faltered guiltily. “Yeah, I did.”

“And here I was thinking there’s at least one person in this house I can trust,” Ron said sarcastically, choosing to ignore Ginny’s apologetic look. After all, she did betray him even though he never told her anything to begin with…

At this comment, Ginny indignantly opened her mouth to retort back, but George got there before her. “Now, now, just what are you implying?” he demanded, putting on a hurt expression. “We can’t be trusted?” He indicated at himself and Fred, who was nodding in agreement.

Ron snorted. “As if.”

“Well… we’re not hurt, are we, Freddie?”

“Definitely not,” agreed Fred, “especially since we’re having such a good time.”

“Like I care.”

“But you do. Say, Ron, does the reason you asked Dad about the letter ‘X’ has something to do with a certain bossy, brown-haired know-it-all?” Fred asked slyly.

As much as Ron willed himself not to go red, he had a feeling – no, he knew that he wasn’t very successful when he felt the heat rise up his cheeks, both from embarrassment and annoyance. Why couldn’t they just bloody well leave him alone?

Pressing his lips into a firm line, Ron replied through his gritted teeth, “No.”

“Bzzz. Wrong answer.”

Ron glared at them. “Why bother asking if you already know the answer?”

“That means we guessed right?”

“You wish,” Ron muttered under his breath.

“Heard that, Fred?” George said, the gleam in his eyes sparkling dangerously. That had always signified bad news on Ron’s end.

“I definitely did.”

“Did it sound to you the way it sounded to me?”

“If what you heard sounded as if our little brother had just received a letter from his smart girlfriend with an ‘X’ on it and he was trying to deny it, then yeah, we’re on the same page.”

To say that Ron merely flinched at this exchange between Fred and George would be a bit of an understatement. “Bloody hell,” he swore under his breath. Luckily for him, his mum was sitting at the other end of the table and did not hear, while his dad was pointedly ignoring the latest comment in what he would consider an amusing conversation.

“Tsk, tsk… Watch your language, Ron,” Fred said, with uncanny imitation of their mum. How Ron hated his ability to do that, especially when he had never used it for anything good.

“Shut it, Fred,” Ron growled. If looks could kill, Fred and George would be six feet under. Unfortunately, looks couldn’t, so he was forced to put up with them for a while longer.

There were a lot of things the twins could do, but it seemed that knowing when to keep their mouths shut wasn’t one of them. “Care to reveal who’s sending the ‘X’s?”

Out of patience, Ron opened his mouth to throw a particularly nasty retort at them when his dad spoke up. “Leave him alone, you two. After all, you don’t really need him to answer, do you? It can’t be that hard to figure out.”

His dad definitely was not helping the situation.

“But dad –” George protested.

“You heard your dad,” his mum cut in for the first time, for which Ron was eternally grateful. “Leave your brother alone. Poor boy – if you two tease him any longer, he’ll not be able to sleep tonight due to thinking to much about the author of the letter. And we don’t want that, especially since tomorrow’s going to be a busy day.” There was definite laughter in his mum’s voice.

Ron let his eyes rivet heavenwards. And here he was thinking that at least one person was on his side. Evidently, he was as utterly wrong as he had always been.

He tackled his food with amazing speed, hoping to finish it fast and get away from the table, or, more accurately, the rest of the family. An hour later, when he was done with all the necessary chores after dinner, Ron trudged wearily upstairs, intending to get some sleep for the rough day he knew would be ahead tomorrow. However, intending was one thing, but actually doing it was another.

For a long time, Ron lay awake on his bed, not feeling the least bit sleepy. As much as he would have liked to pretend that nothing had happened, and that he hadn’t insisted on acquiring information that he now wished he didn’t know, there was nothing he could possibly do. Now that he had learned what he had been so intent on learning, he had no idea what to do with it – at least, not anything useful.

It wasn’t possible (if not to say downright improbable) that Hermione would ever send him a letter holding such meaning as everybody had insinuated, but then, what other explanation was there?

Ron turned over on his bed. Okay, let’s just suppose that Hermione had sent him a letter with that meaning, surely it was merely platonic… right? After all, Harry would be sure to get the very same thing at the end of his letter, too, and, unlike Ron, he would not pay it anymore attention than what it truly deserved. Funnily enough, even as his mind agreed with him on this matter, a feeling under his ribs did not. Steadily ignoring it, Ron resolved to ask Harry tomorrow to see if he also had Xs at the end of his letters, and if he did, that would solve everything – and if he did not…

I’ll worry about that when it comes.

Slowly, he fell into a fitful sleep.

***


The next day, as Ron had predicted, was extremely busy. The whole house seemed to be in uproar; Mrs. Weasley ordered all of her children about, cleaning up the house and preparing for the party that would take place tomorrow. Ron had complained that she was acting as if they were going to have an all-out feast instead of a simple family birthday party. Whilst knowing he was completely right, his mum didn’t pay him even an ounce of attention except for throwing an irate look his way by means of a reply. She was set on making this the best birthday party Harry had ever had, perhaps trying to make up for all the dreadful birthdays he’d had in the past. Ron didn’t know why she even bothered. Harry, being a teenager, was in no mood for such fussing, and plus, no amount of care would make up for all those years where care had been conspicuous by its absence. But, still, Ron had to give her credit for trying.

All the thoughts of the earlier day, although not completely driven away from his mind, were pushed to the back in light of all things that Ron had to do. But that only lasted until mid-afternoon, when Harry arrived through the escort of several Order members, all of whom wore tight expressions on their faces, presumably because of the gravity of the situation. After all, making sure somebody whom You-Know-Who was trying to kill arrived safely from one destination to another was no easy job.

Of all the faces that Ron saw that day, perhaps Harry’s was the brightest. He clearly didn’t enjoy himself at the Dursleys’, for which Ron couldn’t blame him. Hearing about those Muggles was bad enough; Ron couldn’t imagine how things would be like to live with them. And he had no intention of finding it out anytime soon. Or better yet, ever.

“You okay, Harry?” Ron said, letting a grin escape as he came to greet his best friend.

“Yeah, I’m all right. How ’bout you?”

“You can’t imagine how summer has been so far with only Ginny and Mum at home. Of course, I shouldn’t complain, since that also means the twins aren’t here normally to blow things up…”

“Hey, watch what you’re saying, Ron,” Fred’s voice interrupted loudly behind him, but as he also came up to meet Harry, there was only delight on his face. “Glad you made it here safely, Harry,” he said. “Me and George wanted to go too, but they didn’t let us. Saying we’re not experienced enough, although we’re much better than they give us credit for.”

As he said this last bit, he shot a not-so-friendly look at the Order members, who, at the persistent insistence of Molly Weasley, were having a little refreshment before going back to their respective jobs. Fred had said it loudly enough for everybody in the room to hear, but nobody made any reply, except for his twin’s indignant “You tell them, Fred old chap!”

When Harry had had the chance to greet everybody in the house and the twins had levitated his luggage up to his room, Ron said quietly, “I’m really glad you’re here, Harry.”

A smile broke out on Harry’s face, a genuine smile. “Yeah – me too.”

That evening, when things had settled down, and when Ron had done most of his chores (with no intention of doing the rest), he sat down on the back porch with Harry, who was looking at a few scattered gnomes that had found their way back to the garden.

“I just de-gnomed them yesterday,” Ron moaned, preparing himself to sit down. “Now half of them are back, and by tomorrow night, it will be as if I had never de-gnomed the bloody garden in the first place. Wonder what’s the use of de-gnoming then?”

Harry glanced at him and gave him a wry smile. “You sound like a Muggle who wonders why he has to cut the grass when it’ll grow back anyway.”

“Well, you have to cut the grass because if not, it’d grow too tall,” Ron said reasonably. “But this – I mean, isn’t that a waste of time?”

Harry just amusedly shook his head, his eyes reverting back to the garden, but Ron knew that his attention was not on it.

“So... erm, how was it with the Dursleys?” Ron began falteringly, not sure whether this was a welcoming subject or not. It was hard to tell with Harry nowadays.

“It was okay,” said Harry noncommittally, shrugging. “They were too afraid after the threats Mad-Eye gave them to do anything. They ignored me most of the time, but to tell you the truth, I rather liked that. They’ve never had anything interesting to say before.”

“Sounds like you had a better time of it than I did,” Ron grumbled, but internally, he was glad that Harry had a… well, maybe not good, but okay summer so far. He surely needed it after what happened a little more than a month ago. “Mum worked me to death preparing for your party.”

Harry blushed slightly. “She doesn’t have to do it, you know…” he muttered quietly.

Ron waved it away. “She knows she doesn’t have to do it, but you know Mum, if she wants to do something, she’ll do it. And besides, it’s nothing compared to what you’ll get next year when you come of age. I bet she’ll make even a bigger fuss of it, especially since you have your birthday over the summer. Aside from you, only Ginny does.”

“Yeah, but she’s making it too big.”

“Nah, it’s not that big. Only a family party. She just makes such a fuss that it seems big.”

“Well, I suppose that’s okay, then.”

Silence weighed in, and although it didn’t seem to affect Harry at all, it certainly did unnerve Ron, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat before speaking up, “D’you know that Hermione’s coming tomorrow… probably in the morning?”

At the mention of Hermione, Ron’s memory suddenly clicked back to yesterday’s episodes, and the nagging feeling of finding out exactly what Hermione meant by ‘X’ was back again.

“Yeah, I know,” Harry replied. “She told me so in her last letter.”

“What was her last letter to you about?” Ron asked, trying to sound casual.

“Oh, you know, the usual things,” said Harry distractedly. “It’s all about school and doing homework and books.”

“Was there anything… strange in the letter?” Ron could definitely feel his face heating up as his friend glanced at him with an eyebrow raised.

“Strange? As in what?”

“As in… you know – something at the end of the letter that’s not supposed to be there.”

The eyebrow was still up. “No – there’s nothing like that.”

“Are you sure?” Ron pressed. “No Xs at the end of the letter, right under where she signed her name?”

“’Course I’m sure. It’s perfectly normal. Why did you ask?”

Ron shook his head hastily. “Er – nothing. Nothing. Forget I asked.”

“Are you all right, Ron?” Now it was Harry’s turn to ask, his voice sounded sceptical.

“Yeah – yeah, of course I’m all right,” was Ron’s answer, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was glad that Harry didn’t pursue the matter and just merely nodded and leaned back, resting against the magical wooden chair that was as comfortable as any couch.

Ron himself also sat back as he reflected upon what he had just found out. Hermione didn’t include Xs in Harry’s letter as she did his, and according to what his parents said, it meant… that. Of course, he never thought that was what Hermione had meant to say, especially since she was so obviously attached to Vicky despite how adamant she was against the accusation, but then… it might just be possible that she actually meant what she had written (assuming, of course, that he hadn’t totally misinterpreted a platonic message).

As much as he wished for it to be true, it just didn’t seem likely that Hermione liked him, at least no more than purely platonic level. This wasn’t just his insecurities trying to have the upper hand; it was based upon facts. Last Christmas, when Ron had gone out of his way to buy her a gift that actually represented some feelings, all he had got was a casual thanks. Men more intractable than him had given up long ago, and although he had not allowed himself to give up quite yet, he also saw no reason to cling to hope, when he was likely to be disappointed once again.

But the tiny hope that she might just return his feelings was still there (especially after what happened at King’s Cross), regardless of whether Ron wanted it to stay or not. After all, if there was even a small chance of it, why shouldn’t he just grab it and hope that he hadn’t made the biggest mistake of his life? He had missed his chance a year and a half ago, and this was, whether it seemed like it or not, another chance for him to undo the mistake of not grabbing it in fourth year. Chances like these weren’t likely to present themselves over and over again until you finally got them right, and he might never have another one.

Whether he felt secure about whether Hermione actually meant what he hoped she meant or not, he knew he had to plunge on ahead and at least show her, however vaguely, his feelings. If luck was on his side, this would turn out to be the wisest decision he had made yet; if it was not, then… he wouldn’t even think about it.

***


“Oi! Get your arse out of there!” George bellowed outside the bathroom door. When Ron opened the door, he found his brother looking extremely annoyed, having stood waiting for nearly fifteen minutes. Neither of the twins was very high on patience. “Do you have to take so long to prepare for your girlfriend?” he demanded quite irritably.

Ron felt his face flare up for the hundredth time in the last three days, but he merely shot back, “Wake up earlier next time if you want to have first turn with the bathroom.”

His brother didn’t even heed him when he closed the door on Ron’s face. Muttering about being way too cranky in the morning, Ron shoved his hands into his pockets before turning around and heading downstairs. Hermione was coming early today, but nobody really knew exactly when she’d arrive, so he’d take care to dress himself properly, hoping to look at least presentable whenever she got here. It was said that first impressions are important, right?

As it turned out, Hermione arrived shortly after breakfast. Being in the kitchen, helping his sister clean the last of the crumbs (why Mum didn’t just clean them with a bit of magic was beyond him), Ron heard her voice and the commotion that went on before he even met her. That gave him a little more time to prepare himself and assuage his jumpy nerves. He was determined to carry through with this; even if he was a coward when it came to the female population of the world, he would do it.

“Ron!” his mum’s voice boomed. “Hermione’s here!”

You’d think that I’m deaf or something, not hearing all those noises.

“Go on, Ron,” Ginny prompted, giving him a little wink. “I’ll clean up the rest here. Tell Hermione I’ll be out in a second.” She paused. “And remember to give her a proper welcome.”

Ignoring the meaning behind the wink and the comment, Ron strode nervously out of the kitchen, and into where the majority of the Weasleys were. It was a bit hard at first to see her amidst five tall Weasleys (well, tall compared to Hermione, at least) and nearly half a dozen trunks, which Ron was sure were full of the books she had memorised by heart.

When he spotted her, she was hugging Harry lightly, grinning. Quelling the unbidden tingling feeling that had suddenly risen up inside him, Ron approached her, and was glad to see that her eyes lit up as they settled on him.

“Ron!” she exclaimed, with a slight tremor in her normally controlled voice.

“Hi to you too, Hermione,” Ron replied with a forced grin. Even the brightness of the situation didn’t help assuage his nervousness.

He waved his way through the trunks and, without waiting for her to make the first move as she had done with Harry, hugged her lightly – and, before he lost his nerves completely, placed a gossamer kiss on her cheek.

He was sure that his face was bright red when he released her, but he couldn’t help but grin. Hermione, it seemed, was slightly shocked; however, unless he was seeing things – which Ron fervently hoped he wasn’t – she looked quite pleased. Her face beamed with happiness, with absolutely no trace of any emotions that Ron had been dreading he would find on her face.

“I’m glad you’re here, Hermione,” Ron said, keeping his ecstasy in check, his voice sounding slightly hoarse even to his ears.

“Yeah, me too,” replied Hermione, with a smile that made things felt better than it had been for a very long time.

>From the looks on Fred and George’s faces when he and Harry helped Hermione with her luggage, Ron knew he was in for it. But he didn’t particularly care about them at this moment.

Perhaps her X’s did mean what his parents said they meant – perhaps they did not. All he could feel was gladness that he had made the right choice by taking the chance.



* THE END *


//
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