The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.
Thanks to Oliver for the idea that led to this ficlet. =)
Hermione looked across the room and watched in silence as Ron filled a bag with extra food. It had been his idea to separate. She remembered the determined flash in his eyes as he explained his idea to her and Harry, plotting their moves as if they were pawns on a chess board. Hermione had certainly felt like a pawn over the last year, taking one or two steps at a time, unable to think about what was behind her. Vulnerable to the towering forces she faced, with their ability to cross the board and do away with her at any time they chose. "I feel like a pawn," she had said. Neither Harry nor Ron had replied.
She didn't even realize that she was still watching Ron until he glanced up and met her eyes. She looked away quickly.
"I once beat Percy because of a pawn," he said. She heard him zip up his bag, and then he crossed the room to her. "I kept sneaking it up the far side of the board, and he didn't even notice it. By the time it got to his side, there was nothing he could do. Remember what happens when a pawn reaches the other side?"
"What?" Hermione asked, raising her head again.
"It turns into a queen," Ron grinned, "and the enemy's in trouble. The pawn is the sneakiest piece. See? Everyone notices when a bishop or a rook is getting close. But the pawn..." He walked two of his fingers up her arm. "Sneaky. And dangerous."
Hermione was acutely aware that his hand stayed on her shoulder. She breathed in deeply, trying to sort out what she wanted to say. She had to say it, didn't she? One of them had to say it. Just as she opened her mouth, though, Ron spoke again.
"But sometimes, yeah, they have to be given up to protect the important pieces." His hand left her shoulder, and he used it to twist the zipper on his bag as he spoke. "Harry's the big piece."
"I know," she said quietly, her mind filled with the image of a stone arm smashing into Ron's head. They had been twelve years old. Twelve!
"Whenever I play a game, I like to pick out one piece and decide that nothing's going to happen to it. No one good ever plays against me, so it makes the game last longer."
"Hey!" Hermione protested. "I almost beat you back in fifth year, when--"
"That game I never moved the queen?" He laughed, and Hermione scowled. "Hermione, you're that piece."
He said it so quickly, so casually, that she almost didn't catch it. She tried to reply, but no words came.
"I mean... Harry's the big piece. The win-or-lose piece. But..." Ron cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. "What I mean is, you're the piece that I won't let anything happen to."
"It's the least I can do after all that homework I copied off you, right?"
Hermione took a step closer and leaned into him, slipping her arms around his waist and holding on. When she felt his arms go around her, she closed her eyes. She didn't want to separate. She didn't want to go in her own direction, away from Harry and Ron. It had always been the three of them, hadn't it? They always went down the trapdoor together.
She lifted her head and looked at his eyes, the freckles scattered over his nose and cheeks. "The best way to make sure I'm okay is to... to make sure you're okay."
"I'll make sure," he said. She watched his gaze lower to her mouth, but he raised it again and said, "I better say goodbye to Harry before I leave."
"Yeah," she replied.
The shine she saw at the corners of his eyes felt like a kiss.
Harry found her an hour later as he himself was about to leave. "Here goes," he said, smiling nervously. "See you soon?"
"Soon," she nodded with a confidence she didn't entirely feel.
After they had hugged, he held out his hand. "Ron said to give you this."
Hermione took the wooden, cream-colored chess piece from Harry's palm. Ron had written "SPEW" on the knight's tiny shield. Hermione laughed, closed her fingers over the piece, then slid it into her pocket.