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Forever a Wish
by Shina Laris
Author’s Note: Many, many thanks to my two wonderful beta-readers, MissK and Ada Kensington, who had beta-read this story very swiftly despite the lateness and abruptness of it and despite how busy they must have been, for making helpful and very thorough suggestions on how to improve it. I don’t know how to express my full gratitude to both of you. =)
This is a fluffy little Christmas tale that arrives a bit too late. However, I hope you all will still enjoy this. Happy holidays!
"If you could wish for one thing for this Christmas, what would you wish for?"
"What?" Hermione glanced up from her essay, frowning at Ron's innocent smile.
"Well, that's what I'm asking you," Ron answered, drawing a chair out from beneath the table and sitting himself down next to her. There was something about the way he was acting that made Hermione suspect a deliberate purpose behind this question, rather than just a mere inquiry uttered out of curiosity.
Hermione also suspected that she knew just what that purpose was.
Hermione shrugged lightly, propping her left hand on her chin, dipping the quill into the swirling black ink with her right and resuming the task she was doing before Ron disturbed her. This was one of the questions that she wasn't about to answer. Let Ron think what he might, but her Christmas wish was not something she'd ever think of sharing with another person, not even with him.
"Come on, Hermione," Ron said, sounding slightly exasperated, when he found that the silence she had drawn up was impenetrable.
The tip of the quill stopped again, and Hermione raised her eyebrows. "Why do you ask?"
Ron rolled his eyes. "So I'm not allowed to wonder just what my girlfriend wants for Christmas?"
"Oh, you're allowed to wonder, all right," Hermione replied with a hint of a grin, "but that doesn't mean I'm going to enlighten you with the answer."
"Don't be such a spoil-sport. It's… it's just a game that Harry and I are playing."
"I'll tell you what I'd wish for this Christmas," Ron offered. As interested as Hermione was to know just what Ron wished, she still shook her head. She could not tell him the one thing she had always wished for several Christmases past, and the one thing she'd likely to continue to wish for many Christmases to come, but neither could she lie about her wish. It was one thing that just wasn't done.
"Sorry, Ron, but what makes you think I'd want to know what you'd wish for Christmas?" she replied jokingly, adding the last few sentences to her essay.
Ron appeared to look hurt. "Oh, I see… Should've known you wouldn't even care. Dunno why I even bother – " The way he carried on was so convincing that Hermione wasn't even sure whether he was actually as offended as he was making out to be, or if it was just another façade with the sole purpose of jesting.
Well, better to be safe than sorry.
"I was joking, Ron," Hermione intercepted his tirade, shooting him an exasperated glare before returning to her homework.
A smirk was visible underneath Ron's innocent smile, which made Hermione want to do nothing more than to throw a particularly nasty hex at him. "I know that," he told her smugly.
"Of course you did," she replied stiffly. Not deeming him worth her attention, she went back to reading her essay, pausing now and then to add or scratch something out. Ron, amazingly enough, only rested his cheek glumly on his palm and did not interrupt her further until she was finished with her essay and had tidied up her writing instruments and books. Only then did he sit up, pull his hand back, shove it into his pocket and heave a deep sigh.
"Aw, come on, Hermione," he said. "It's not like you'd be telling me your greatest secret or something."
But that's exactly what I'd be telling you, Hermione thought.
Mutely, she just shook her head, pushed herself up, hauling the heavy bag over her shoulder with the intention of moving to the couch next to the roaring fireplace. She had enjoyed working at the table next to the window to occasionally watch the snow fall soundlessly upon the frozen grounds, tiny dots of white against the black background of the sky. But it had also been an experience of discomfort, since the cold drifts often slipped through the gaps between the stonemasonry and the thick glass and rushed into the common room before fusing with the temperature inside. Right now, she would welcome the warmth offered by the fireplace above almost everything else.
Ron hastily gathered himself and stood up after her. "It's only a wish…"
Sighing, Hermione was about to tell him that to her, it wasn't just a wish, it was something much more sacred than a little wish one made every Christmas, only to forget a few months later and replace with another just as insignificant. It was an eternal wish that she'd keep wishing forever. Luckily, Harry chose that precise moment to show up.
"Hermione, for my sake, just tell him it already," he said, greeting them with a long-suffering sigh. "He's been going on for days about just what you'd like for Christmas, and it's getting ridiculous. If you don't tell him now, I'm sure to suffer again later."
Ears red with the tell-tale sign of embarrassment, Ron made to elbow Harry in the ribs, which the latter parried quickly. "Shut up, Harry," he muttered, looking as though he wanted nothing more than to murder his friend. "You are going to suffer whether Hermione tells me what she likes or not I'll make sure of that."
"Whatever kind of suffering it is, at least it can't be any worse than hearing you going on about Hermione's tastes for another time," Harry returned mildly. Hermione chuckled slightly as the shade of red on Ron's face turned even darker, if such thing was at all possible.
"If I were you, Harry, I'd shut up while I was ahead."
Harry just smirked as the three of them walked around and settled themselves on the couch. Hermione gladly dropped her bag down and flopped down on the end closest to the fireplace. Heat radiating from the dancing flames helped warm her up right away, and, within seconds, Hermione began to feel her cold hands with normal sensitivity again. The pleasantries, however, didn't last long. Soon, Ron was badgering her about what she wished for again.
"I already told you I can't say."
"It's just a wish – not like it's something major – " His voice started to pick up a sarcastic tone that Hermione especially hated.
"Well, it's not just a wish," she snapped, "and even if it is, it isn't something that you can give wrapped up in a box."
"It – "
"Look, Ron," she sighed, exasperated. "If you're trying to find me a present, anything is fine. You know that."
"But – "
Harry intercepted, "If she already said that anything is fine, take it as a blessing and stop arguing. At least when she gets something she doesn't like, she can't complain since it's her fault to begin with."
"Boys," Hermione muttered, rolling her eyes and extending her hands towards the flames, letting warmth spread from the tips of her fingers to the rest of her body. Sitting next to her, Ron was close enough to hear her sarcastic comment, but he ignored it entirely and chose to direct this attacks towards Harry instead. That was perfectly fine with Hermione, who, with the desire to get comfortable, snuggled as close as she could to the fireplace without dislodging herself from the enveloping warmth and comfort of the couch, arms circling each other and resting on the soft, silky surface of linen covering the arms of the couch.
Mentally blocking out the loud and argumentative conversation that her best friends were currently having, Hermione just rested her chin on the circle of her arms and stared unseeingly into the cackling fire, her mind reeling back to last Christmas, the time when she and Ron hadn't begun to casually date yet, and the time when she still stubbornly clung to a wish that had seemingly gone unfulfilled….
It had always been that one wish which she had kept on her Christmas wish list for several years now, that one wish which had never been possible, and that one wish which she would hold onto forever, regardless of the result.
Tonight, it was the same wish that occupied her whole mind, leaving little place for anything else.
Tonight was Christmas Eve, and currently, Hermione was the only one in the deserted sixth year girls' dormitory, which seemed so much colder and lonelier than it normally did. Sighing, she bent down, dragged out her heavy, dark blue sweater from the bottom of her trunk and put it on quickly over her pyjamas. Only after she felt that she would be securely warm for the night did she slip between the thick layers of her blankets. Normally, it would not feel this cold since the magical spell performed to keep the dorms relatively warm in the night was performed today like every day before, but there was something about being the only one in the room that made it feel so much cooler than had there been the body heat of four more girls. Never did Hermione dream of the day when she'd miss Lavender and Parvati despite their non-stop chattering.
This year, after much persuading, her parents had finally allowed her to stay at Hogwarts with Harry, Ron, and Ginny. With Voldemort rising to power steadily, Hogwarts was the safest place for Harry to stay during the holidays, apart from the headquarters. But the headquarters, despite its security, was the last place Harry wanted to be in, since it was filled up with happy memories of the only Christmas he ever had with his godfather. Now these happy memories were nothing but bitter reminders of what he had lost and would never again possess.
Shivering very slightly, Hermione tugged at her blankets and drew them closer, covering her chin. She would like to do nothing more than get a good sleep, neatly tucked under the warmth linens, but, today being Christmas Eve, there was still one thing that she had to do.
Drawing her arms to circle about herself, Hermione closed her eyes. It was time for her to say her Christmas wish out loud, the wish that hopefully would become reality during Christmas or the year that followed. Sadly, she had been uttering the same wish for the last two years, and it was no more of reality than the wish that Santa Claus would come visit her had been ten years ago. But it was still her Christmas wish, be it likely to become real or not.
"If there's any truth and substance to this practice of saying your Christmas wish out loud on Christmas Eve," Hermione began – the words were bare whispers, "please let my wish become reality…" In whispers so quiet that no human could possibly decipher them, even in this silent night, she recited the same wish that she had said twice before in the last two consecutive years.
Even after she had uttered the wish, it didn't feel any more real than it had a minute before. There was only a tiny flicker of hope, which was all that remained of a flame that had kindled gradually for the last two years.
Sighing, Hermione slid down from her seat near the head of the bed and lay her head down on the soft, warm pillow. Hopefully, just hopefully, this year, the wish just might come true…
It was rather late by her standards when Hermione woke up, but judging by the time her alarm clock was showing, it was doubtful that any of the boys were awake yet. The room was slightly colder than it had been the night before, the result of the waning Heating Charm, but with her sweater on, Hermione felt no serious desire to instantly search her trunk for something warmer. Suddenly, remembering just what day it was, she pushed her blankets aside and searched the foot of her bed. Just as she had predicted, there was a pile of presents, covered in different colour wrappers.
Grinning like an over-excited first year, she began to open her presents so neatly and carefully that there were only a few scratches visible on the wrappers, so unlike the way the boys opened their own presents, which she had disdainfully witnessed several times. In the stack of presents, there were several books and a scarf from her mum and dad, a Weasley jumper from Mrs. Weasley (which made she feel very touched, as this meant that Mrs. Weasley had considered her as a member of the Weasley family), a copy of Ancient Runes for Advanced Wizards and Witches from Harry, two long-sleeves shirts from Ginny and several other presents and cards from Fred, George, and a few other students whom Hermione had made acquaintances these past years, including Neville and Luna.
Last, at the bottom of her pile of presents, was Ron's, which was rather clumsily wrapped, but as that was so characteristic of him, it didn't surprise her much. Gulping and suddenly finding herself trembling slightly, Hermione quickly opened it. It was an Arithmancy book.
A bubble of hope that she had unknowingly carried burst, and she felt a wave of disappointment wash over her. She hadn't exactly expected anything special of him, but after last year when he had given her a perfume, which she had happily considered to perhaps be an indication on his part that he might like her the way that she did him, she had thought that maybe this year, he would give something with even more meaning. However, it seemed that the level of their relationship had suddenly dropped back to strictly platonic friendship with a painful thud – at least painful on her part.
Drawing in a deep, determined breath, Hermione picked up the parts of her emotion shattered by disappointment mentally at the same time as she gathered the wrappers stacked neatly at the foot of the bed and sent them to the trash can at the far corner of the dormitory.
She would not, would not let the disappointment show, and, like it or not, she was going to at least pretend that she was happy today, for everybody's sake. After all, it was Christmas, and she wasn't going to spoil it for everybody just because her unjustified hopes had been shattered by something she should've seen coming.
After ten minutes, Hermione was already dressed in suitably warm clothes for a winter day and was down in the common room. To her surprise, Ron and Harry were already up and sitting on the table nearest to the fireplace, playing chess.
"Merry Christmas, Hermione," Ron said, looking up from the chessboard and grinning at her.
She echoed his greeting, feeling her heart do a painful flip. Ignoring it and keeping her face a steady mask of cheerful delight, Hermione said the same thing to Harry, who muttered a "Merry Christmas," while glancing at her and offering her a very brief smile, before going back to making his move.
"You two woke up rather early today, I see," Hermione commented, as she took a seat on the couch nearby. Sitting next to the fireplace was not necessary; it was much warmer down here in the common room than up in her dormitory… or maybe it was just that the heat radiated from inside her, the heat that was a lot less than pleasant.
"Christmas presents, you know," said Ron. "Who can wait for that?"
Hermione shook her head. "You two act like two first year boys rather than two matured sixth years," she said teasingly, choosing to conveniently forget for the moment that just twenty minutes earlier, she herself had felt quite giddy and had acted in a manner slightly better than that of an eleven year old girl.
Ron grinned again. "Does it matter? Nobody's here to witness it, and it's Christmas." The way he said it made the simple statement itself felt like something so big, something incredibly powerful, unfathomable and unreachable that even Hermione found herself suddenly quite at loss to fully grasp it, something that would make all the difference in the world by itself.
From the look on Ron's face and the feel of the holiday spirit floating around, Hermione suspected that such thing was exactly it – Christmas.
Instead of chiding him as she would've done normally, she just gave him a light smile that conveyed that she understood precisely what he was talking about.
When Ginny came downstairs a few minutes later, they all exchanged ‘thank you's for the gifts that they received from each other. Hermione did her best to hide her pain behind a façade of happiness when she expressed her gratitude to Ron for his book. To deepen the disappointment, Ron seemed genuinely happy when she thanked him, as though he was satisfied that she loved such a platonic gift from him.
Well, what else do you expect? she asked herself sternly, trying to keep out the bitter disappointment even in her inner voice. It was Christmas, the time of happiness and joy, and she was determined for it to be exactly that.
Breakfast at the Great Hall during the holidays was a small and quiet affair, even on Christmas day. In Gryffindor House, there were only four other people staying apart from Hermione and her friends, but as they were from different years, she barely knew them past their names. Since Professor Dumbledore had once again used the single table set in the middle of the Great Hall for the occasion, as using the long tables of the four houses was ridiculous with such a small number of people, nobody chattered much, feeling the oppression of many eyes on them.
Soon after breakfast, when the four of them were lounging in the common with little to do, Ron proposed a snow ball fight.
"It's really cold out there, Ron," Hermione answered dubiously, placing a bookmark between the pages she was currently reading and looking out the window. "And it's also snowing."
"Yes, I do realise that snow is what is needed for a snow ball fight," Ron said sarcastically.
She rolled her eyes. "Stop twisting my words around." Deciding to ignore him, she said to Ginny, "Don't you think it's a better idea to wait until the snowing has stopped? At least then, we won't get soaked with the remnants of melting snowflakes."
Ginny looked ready to answer when Ron interrupted, "The point of a snow ball fight is about getting soaked."
"Yes, and catching a cold in the process."
"Hermione, I don't think it's going to stop snowing any time soon today," Harry said, before Ron got a chance to produce a suitable return. "At least right now, it's not snowing as hard as it did yesterday."
Knowing that this was an argument of three against one (Ginny had looked very supportive of Harry's conviction just a moment before) where she didn't stand a chance of winning, Hermione merely sighed and said, "All right." The snowing was just an excuse for her not to participate in the snow fight with others, and from the look Ron bore on his face, he knew it. "I'll go get my cloak," she announced, abandoning them to hurry up the girls staircases to her dorm.
It wasn't as if she hated playing the snow – it was the opposite, really – but the fun and novelty of a game wore off very quickly when you had to face three opponents by yourself. For some reasons, it seemed that Ron, Harry, and Ginny preferred to pick on her whenever they engaged in a snow ball fight, and though her aim wasn't all that ‘bad,' she could barely stand against all three of them. However, like it or not, she wasn't about to let them see her backing out of the game just because of the sheer unfairness in numbers.
A few minutes later, Hermione had donned on her long, black cloak, scarf and gloves and was already heading down into the common room. Despite her fondness for winter and the beautiful whiteness it brought, she wasn't a fan of cold weather, which was too harsh in her opinion.
"Ready, Hermione?" Ron asked when she appeared.
She nodded mutely, climbed through the portrait hole and followed them outside. It was truly beautiful; the grounds were an unbroken sheet of white, stretching far out into the distance, clinging in clumps to the bare branches of the trees. When they arrived at the place where they usually used as their battle grounds, Hermione quickly chose the side the most places she could hide behind when the battle got too rough for her.
Clearly expecting the three of them to be in a team and concentrating on just what would be the most strategic place for herself to stand, the place that they would least likely to score direct hits at her, Hermione didn't notice when Ron approached her. As the result, she almost bumped into him when she turned around abruptly, hands shaping a scoop of snow into a ball, a strategy forming in her mind.
"Oh! What're you doing over here?"
Ron rubbed his hands together, grinning. "Well, I'm helping you against them. Don't want you to lose interest in the game just because you're always on the losing side."
For an instant, she was surprised and couldn't hide it, but she quickly recovered. "Oh. Thanks."
That didn't sound very sufficient, and she blamed it on her brain for the lack of sentences she could've said in place of those two short words. It was unexpectedly nice of him to side with her instead of against her.
"That's all – Hey!" A snow ball hit him squarely in the back of the head, and Ron indignantly whirled around. Harry and Ginny were laughing hard at the expression on his face. "That's not fair!"
"This isn't supposed to be – " Whatever Harry had intended to holler back at Ron was abruptly cut off when a snow ball hit him in full, courtesy of Hermione.
Ron turned to her, grinning. "Great throw, Hermione."
Blushing slightly, Hermione shrugged before hastily dodging a snow ball pelted towards her by Ginny. Laughing, both Ron and Hermione began to pick up handfuls of snow and hurled them back at Harry and Ginny in full force. It was much more fun than the snow fights that they had had yesterday and the day before; at least now, she had Ron on her side and, with him, things were looking much more even and far less bleak.
Hours later, Hermione was too tired to even dodge a feeble excuse of a throw Ginny attempted against her; snow splattered against the back of her head, sending her frizzy curls flying, blinding her for a briefest second. "S-stop," Hermione wheezed out happily, taking in several huge breaths and holding her hands out in a sign of surrender. She was quite breathless, and, from the looks of things, everybody else was in no better a state.
Brushing the snow off one of the many benches near the oak trees, Hermione flopped down on top of it.
"It was fun, wasn't it?" Ron asked, sitting down beside her.
"Yeah, it was," she answered with a smile. For her, it was fun because of him, because he had chosen to be on her side, but Hermione wasn't about to tell him that.
"Are you guys going back to the castle right now?" Harry stopped in front of them, with Ginny close behind him.
Hermione exchanged a look with Ron. "Well, I'm not – at least not yet. How about you, Ron?"
In a split of second, an important thought must have shot through his mind; Hermione could see it clearly on his face, although she doubted if the others had. They weren't being the most observant people right now. However, it passed quickly, because Ron started to answer after a pause that lasted no more than two seconds. "No, I guess I'll stay out here with Hermione for a moment." The answer was addressed to Harry, but Hermione sensed that it was as much for her as for her best friend.
"All right," Harry conceded. "Try not to stay out too long. You'll catch a cold." He quickly walked back to the castle, following the barely visible footprints that they left when they first came out here, most of which had been covered up by the pouring snow. Ginny just stood there and gave Ron a half-confused, half-understanding look until Harry turned around very slightly and called, "You coming, Ginny?"
Tearing her eyes off the two of them, she hastily picked up her pace. "Yes, wait a second."
Several minutes after Harry and Ginny left, silence descended; the only sound to be heard was the disconnected whistling of the winds around them. But instead of being uncomfortable, as most stretches of silence normally were, this was a peaceful and comfortable one. Perhaps it had something to do with winter, when people were contented just to be near each other and demanded nothing else.
It would've been perfectly welcoming to Hermione if they had just stayed that way for the rest of their existence, but Ron broke the silence. He, it seemed, at least had a purpose for staying out here in the cold apart from just watching the world wrapped up in white and stretched from end to end.
"So, erm, what was your wish on Christmas Eve yesterday?" he began tentatively, not looking at her in the eyes.
Whatever Hermione was expecting, it wasn't this. It was too close to home for her comfort. "I – I didn't wish for anything." It wasn't what she was planning to say, but anything was better than the truth.
"You didn't wish for anything? Why?"
"Wishes don't come true, Ron," Hermione replied, the corner of her lips curling up in a bittersweet smile. "Why should I bother wishing just so I can get my hope quenched?"
Ron titled his head very slightly to glance at her. For a while, he didn't say a single word. "Wishes do come true, Hermione," he finally replied quietly. "Just give it some time."
And more than two years is not enough time?
Hermione just shook her head sadly, shaking off droplets of water melted from the snow in the process. "There has been plenty of time, Ron. Just admit it – wishes don't come true, not even those uttered on Christmas Eves."
Again, Ron didn't answer her. He just stared straight ahead at the vast, white plains. "You know, I wished for the end of this war." The statement was so abrupt that Hermione jumped a little, but she recovered quickly. Suddenly, she felt ashamed of herself, ashamed of the very fact that while others were wishing for the end of this war, the safety of their loved ones, she wished for something entirely selfish. There was so much more that she could've wished for, things that had chances of happening, instead of dwelling on a wish that she knew, deep inside her heart, was unattainable.
"That's one of the wishes that will come true," she said with a firmness in her voice that was hard to miss.
Even though she forced herself to look at anything but him, she could still tell that he was smiling slightly at her through the corners of her eyes.
"Then what makes you think whatever you wished for won't happen?"
"Because it has as much chance of happening as Fudge has of becoming a Minister of Magic again."
"But you don't know for sure. You're just allowing yourself to believe that your wish isn't going to happen. What if it happens right now?"
Hermione ran a hand through her slightly wet hair. "It's not happening right now, Ron," she said, with a sad smile.
"But that's not going to stop it from happening a month from today, or a year."
"It hasn't happened for several years now, and from the way things are, it isn't about to happen anytime soon." Saying it out loud was a lot different than just thinking it inside – it was as if she was admitting that there would never be the chance of Ron liking her. Such thing she knew long ago, but it had never felt as real as right now. It took a lot of self-discipline for Hermione to force down the rising disappointment that was threatening to rise up in her heart again, but self-discipline had always been something that she was good at. She wouldn't be who she was without her ability to keep her emotions in check.
Suddenly, Ron reached up and ruffled her hair very lightly, causing several snowflakes to drop on her shoulders. "You never know, Hermione," he was saying, but she barely paid attention to his words any more. The mere sensation of his hands on her hair, even when it meant the wet, cold hair was pressing against her scalp, was exhilarating. Hermione closed her eyes unconsciously, savouring the feeling.
It escaped her attention that Ron's hand had stopped ruffling her hair long ago, and it now merely rested there, occasionally moving back and forth to smooth the frizzles that refused to be straight. And even if she had noticed, she would not have cared. It felt right just to sit right here, like this, forever.
"Hermione?" Ron finally asked softly.
Not wanting to, yet knowing that she must, Hermione opened her eyes slowly and looked straight into his eyes, something that she hadn't dared to do for months now, afraid that she'd lose herself in it.
Utterly confused and feeling as if the magic of the moment had been broken, Hermione moved her head ever so slightly, but enough so that his hand was no longer resting on her hair, and stared at him. "What?"
"I – I lied to you earlier about my wish of the end of the war," he muttered, stuttering slightly as if not only the moment but he too was losing the magical sense of calmness and perfection he radiated with just seconds earlier. "I mean, I have always wished for that but last night, when I said my Christmas wish, it was the furthest thing from what I said."
Hermione didn't answer her, only intertwined her fingers together and patiently waited for him to continue. This, somehow, seemed to unnerve him further.
"I'm – I'm sorry I lied," he said weakly, suddenly unable to look at her in the eyes. Not that Hermione blamed him; she had averted her eyes first.
"I'm sorry too," she said softly, fidgeting in her seat. "I lied to you when you asked me about my Christmas wish. Actually, I did say one last night."
Hermione did not ask how he knew because, considering how long they had known each other and how deep their friendship was, it would not come as a surprise if he had guessed part of the truth from the expression on her face.
"What did you wish for?" he asked.
Hermione blushed but parried the question quickly. "What did you wish for?"
To a certain extent, she had half-expected him to fluster, blush, stutter, not answer the question, or basically anything except to look calm once more. He took a deep breath. "You want to know what I wished for?"
"That's what I asked."
Instead of rising to the bait of a perfect excuse for an argument, Ron merely brought his hand up and ran it through her hair again, but this time, instead of letting it rest on her head, he placed it lightly on her cheek instead. It was cold, that Hermione wouldn't deny, but she didn't care. A tingling sensation coursed through her body, and she had to resist the urge to close her eyes. Ron was staring at her intently, and, whether she liked to or not, it was hard not to stare back at him.
"I wished the wish that's almost too improbable," he muttered, his thumb caressing her cheek very lightly, his face bright red, whether from embarrassment or from the cold wind, Hermione didn't know.
"Yes, I wish that you'd care about me the way that I care about you."
She barely noticed how close their faces were in her ecstasy at this declaration. The wind was picking up around them, but neither of them noticed, and neither of them paid it even the least bit of attention. The worry of catching a cold didn't so much as flit across their minds.
"That's not at all improbable," she said quietly, before Ron gently brushed his lips against her own. It all happened in fleeting fractions of a second, but the effects it left was quite profound. There was a definite tingling where his cold lips touched hers. Even though the kiss was very short-lived, the memory of it was dappled with spices of Hermione's own feelings and fantasies, making it the best memory she had ever had. There was something in the air surrounding them that Hermione felt she could shred with a knife – but it was something wonderful.
Ron pulled away quickly, his face now red with definite shades of embarrassment, the slightly wonderful tension in the air evaporating quickly. "S-sorry. I – I shouldn't have – " he said, withdrawing his hand. Despite her own embarrassment, she found that she quite missed its warmth and the scent that was distinctively... him, something that Hermione'd recognise anywhere.
"That – that's all right. It's perfectly fine." She managed to get the words out in a rush, standing up quickly. "We should go inside, or else we're going to catch a cold."
Ron just nodded, rising and following her. The silence that they experienced walking back to the castle, braving the winds blowing against them, was the exact opposite of the silence that had risen up after Harry left. Whereas the other one was full of pleasantries Hermione would never have broken of her own accords, this was decidedly dreadful, every second dragging out to be days, the silence that she would've been only too happy to destroy – if only she knew how.
We're walking too slowly, thought Hermione, glancing out to her right at the huge lake, shimmering almost like a rainbow from the light reflecting off the thin sheet of ice on the surface. But she was making no move to walk faster – rather, despite the awkward silence that should've made her wanted to get back to the castle and out of Ron's sight as soon as possible, she quite enjoyed walking this slow, leaving deliberate imprints of her boots on the snow-covered grounds.
"So – erm – do you?"
His voice shocked her out of her reverie. He wasn't looking at her, but, once again, his ears were bright red. For a moment, she didn't answer; she almost wished that he hadn't asked. The discomfort of the situation had just begun to ebb out slowly when he had to say something and return it to its original state.
"Do I what?"
"Well... you know..." He seemed to be unable to finish his sentence, and he didn't need to. She understood him perfectly, although she was much less willing to answer the question.
"Yes." Her answer was low, so low that she thought it could not be heard by anybody when the winds were whistling so loudly.
Ron stopped abruptly. Evidently, he could.
"D'you mean that?" he asked slowly, his voice filled with restrained happiness and anticipation.
Hermione had stopped walking as well, and now she was shifting her feet discomposedly, kicking at the snow softly, defacing the perfectly formed footprints. Even as she expected Ron to say something to rush her, she knew from the pause that followed that even though he wasn't going to badger her into giving him the answer right then, he was perfectly willing to stand right there forever, waiting for her affirmation (or denial) of her earlier answer.
"Yes, I mean it. You know I do," she answered quietly but loud enough so that there would be no question regarding the credential of hearing it. It was embarrassing, admitting such thing, but, at the same time, she felt as if a great weight had been lifted off of her shoulders.
"You really, really do?" The laughter and joy in his voice was unmistakeable.
"Well, I said yes, didn't I?" asked Hermione, rolling her eyes in jest, grinning. For the first time since they began to head back to the castle, Hermione dared to allow herself a full look at Ron, instead of the stolen glances out of the corners of her eyes. He was grinning hard, his face shining with unrestrained happiness that mirrored how Hermione felt at the moment.
"You really mean it?" he asked again for the umpteenth time, as though he sacredly believed it himself. She understood him perfectly; however...
"Honestly, Ron, if you ask me that one more time, I'll be sure to say no."
His chuckle was loud and true. A moment later, he awkwardly circled his long arm around her shoulders, and Hermione leant in, resting her head on his chest. The position felt natural to her. She'd be contented to stay that way forever, but her own practical sense forced her to see the situation they were in for what it really was, namely a bad one, for the snow had started to pour down at a greater pace than before, and they would be likely to catch a very bad cold if they stayed out here any longer than necessary. And as pleasant as snuggling into Ron's arms might be, it was not a necessity at the moment.
Reluctantly, she pulled away. Ron, it seemed, had also developed a practical outlook at things, at least in this situation, so it was needless for either of them to communicate that they needed to get inside the warm, protective walls of the castle as soon as possible.
"Hermione?" Ron asked, taking her hand in his as they waded through the snow.
"You still haven't told me what your Christmas wish is," he pointed out.
Hermione tilted her head slightly to bestow him a quick glance. "Since when did I say I'd tell you my Christmas wish if you told me yours?"
"That's not fair," he protested.
"When will you learn, Ron?" she replied. "Life's never fair."
Despite his constant badgering all the way back to the Gryffindor Tower, Hermione still adamantly refused to even mention what her wish was about. It was too import a wish for her to take lightly, be it had happened yet or not. If the only way for the reality of the wish to last was to keep wishing it forever, then that's exactly what she was going to do. And a wish to keep for eternity was not a wish that you could boast about, not even to those who were the subjects of that wish themselves....
"Hermione." It was his voice calling out to her, but it was so far away that she felt herself incapable of reaching out to it. "Hermione!"
"Go away, Ron," she felt herself answer out of habit, but in her mind, in the depths of darkness, her inner self was struggling to wrap itself around his voice.
Hermione woke up with a start. Her first instinct was to draw the blankets closer to herself, but she soon found out that such thing was virtually impossible, as there was no blankets around. Indeed, she was half-sprawled across the couch, head still resting on the circle of her arms, and Ron was kneeling beside her, his expression a mixture of amusement and concern.
"Took you long enough to wake up," he commented.
"Shut up, Ron," she said and yawned slightly, rubbing her eyes. She had fallen asleep unknowingly, and right now, as she took a look around, almost everybody had gone to bed, leaving the common room almost deserted. Evidently, Ron and Harry had just finished whatever game they were playing, and it had fallen upon Ron to wake her up.
Something he seems to enjoy doing greatly, she mused.
Ron stood up, extending out a hand to help her. "You should go get a decent sleep. You sure need it."
"Thank you," she said, as much for his concern as for his help.
The lop-sided smile she received in return was something she had expected, but she could no more prevent her heart from melting at the sight of it than she could prevent herself from falling asleep half an hour later.
She yawned again, this time slightly longer than the last. "Ah, I think I should take your advice and head back to my dormitory now, Ron," she said, blushing. "Goodnight, Harry."
The black-haired boy looked at her with a sympathetic smile. "Night, Hermione."
"Let me take you to the girls' staircase," Ron intercepted quickly before she could say the same thing to him. Hermione raised an eyebrow but did not protest against it.
When they were standing at the bottom of the girls' staircase, Ron plunged on hastily. "Hermione, what do you want for Christmas?" He was being a lot more indiscreet, and though she knew that she shouldn't, Hermione loved it. It was more characteristic of Ron than being discreet.
Still, she shook her head. "You know me well enough to know that I'd love anything you give me." Well, that was a bit untruthful, but she didn't particularly care, as the point she was trying to make came out clearly enough.
Quickly, she stood on tip-toe and brushed her lips very lightly against his. She knew her face to be red from embarrassment at a few cat-calls she heard, but she smiled at him reassuringly. "Don't worry. Everything is only a bonus since you've already given me my greatest wish."
By always being there for me.
"Goodnight, Ron." With that, she raced upstairs, sleep temporarily being pushed out of her mind by things of greater importance.
Yes, for her, there would always be only one wish, the one wish she'd keep forever.