The Sugar Quill
Author: Carma  Story: Systematic Desensitization  Chapter: Default
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Systematic Desensitization

Systematic Desensitization

The Hangleton Forest reminded Hermione of the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts, except it was much larger.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione had been walking for hours, and it was Hermione who suggested they take a break from their Horcrux search, since they all seemed quite exhausted from walking through the thick trees all day.  When they came to a small clearing, they pitched a tent and ate the sandwiches she had prepared for the journey.  Even though they were fairly sure they weren’t being followed, Hermione set up a strong barrier around the area in case of intruders or other creatures that happened to be lurking in the unfamiliar forest.  They decided to take turns on look-out while the others got some sleep. 

Hermione volunteered to go first.  The night was relatively quiet, except for the occasional owl hooting nearby and Ron’s snores echoing from the tent.  She was actually rather surprised at how quickly time passed as she spent the two and a half hours reading up on defensive spells.  When she was finished, she woke Ron to relieve her before returning to the tent to fall asleep beside Harry.  He looked so peaceful and boyish, lying there without his glasses on.  It amazed her that he could even fall asleep, considering his responsibilities.  On the other hand, they had been hiking all day, and she felt the exhaustion pulling her into slumber as well.

She wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but she woke suddenly when she heard a bit of a commotion outside.  She chose not to wake Harry, who was sleeping soundly beside her, unless it was urgent.  Slipping her cloak on, she quickly grabbed her wand and stepped out of the tent.  She muttered, “Lumos!” and scanned the area. 

Ron was gone.  She spun in a circle, squinting at the surrounding trees and bushes, looking to catch any glimpse of red.  “Ron?” she whispered shakily, backing toward the tent to go and wake Harry.

 And then she heard him.  “Psst! Hermione!”

“Ron?” she hissed, pointing her wand in the general direction from where she’d heard his voice.  “Are you under Harry’s cloak?  Where are you?”

“Er—up here.” He shook a small twig to get her attention. 

Hermione’s eyes widened when she looked up and saw him; he was about fifteen feet above her, his long legs dangling down as he sat on a very thick branch.  “Dare I even ask what you’re doing up in a tree?” She raised her brows, awaiting an explanation.

“Um, you see….”  Ron cleared his throat, which indicated that he was about to tell a lie.  “Well, I just figured that from up here, I’d be able to watch over the area better.”

Skeptical, Hermione walked toward him, and froze when she noticed Ron’s wand on the ground, surrounded by four or five little spiders.  She picked it up, grinning a bit.  “I see.  You won’t be much use without this, even if you are getting a better view of the clearing from up there.”

Ron winced a bit, peering over at her from above.  “Oh!  How… how forgetful of me,” he said lamely, reaching out for it.  “Toss it up here, would you?”

Hermione pulled her arm back, preparing to throw it, when she stopped, her eyes going wide in realization as she brought it closer to her own lit wand.  There was a tiny spider crawling along the tip of his wand, and she smiled innocently up at him.  “Why don’t you just climb down and get it?  It’s almost Harry’s turn anyway.” 

Ron shifted a bit in the tree; she could see the look of horror on his face when he saw the tiny shadow of the spider crawling on his wand.  “I… I really prefer it up here.  The air, it’s clearer.  And, erm… this tree is quite—it’s rather comfy,” he said unconvincingly, scratching the back of his neck uncomfortably. 

Oh, honestly, she thought to herself.  This spider thing is ridiculous.  “You know, Ron, this little creature is actually quite cute.”  She picked the spider off of Ron’s wand and laid it in the palm of her hand, watching it crawl about. 

“Blimey!  Don’t do that!”  Ron’s voice broke slightly and he clutched at the tree trunk harder.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Ronald.  It’s not going to bite me.”  A wicked smirk crossed her face and she gasped slightly.  “What?”  Her expression turned to that of surprise, and she brought the spider closer to her ear.  “Yes, I know, Mr. Spider.  Don’t mind my friend Ron, he’s a bit shy.  Of course he’d like to meet you!” 

Ron’s face turned ghostly pale.  “Are you mad?  Stop playing games!  Spiders can’t talk!”

“Some spiders can talk!  Aragog spoke quite eloquently, according to Harry.  This little one is a different breed is all.  I’m sure he can still understand you.” 

“I don’t want that hairy little beast anywhere near me!”

“Hush, Ron.  You’ll hurt his feelings,” Hermione snapped, cooing at the little spider, which crawled around to the top of her hand. 

Ron crossed his arms over his chest, glaring lightly down at her.  “Spiders don’t have feelings, they’re just creepy and ugly,” he muttered.

“What?”  She gasped in an overdramatic fashion and feigned taking strong offense to that.  “Don’t have feelings?  Of course he has feelings, Ron!  He’s a living, breathing animal.  How would you feel if someone was afraid of you because they thought you were creepy and ugly?”

And Ron took offense to that.  “I’m not a bug, Hermione!”

“Well you bug me!” she retorted matter-of-factly.

“Oh, brilliant comeback.  How many O.W.L.s did you say you got?”

Fuming, Hermione stuck her chin up at him.  “It looks as if Mr. Spider has something better to say!”  She stuck the spider in her cloak pocket and started to climb Ron’s tree with determination.

“Hermione!  What the hell d’you think you’re doing?”  Ron watched with horror as she brought the spider closer to him.  When she reached his branch, he crawled outward, away from the tree trunk.  “You’re completely off your rocker!  Go back down, or I’ll… I’ll…”

“You’ll what?  Jump and break your neck?” she said smartly, situating herself on the same branch as Ron.  He was merely a foot away, since the branch thinned out slightly and it was too dangerous with his weight to climb out any further. 

“You take your spider and go back down right now!” he commanded.  “You don’t understand, Hermione.  I’ve... I’ve got a serious fear of—I’ll jump off!  I will!” he threatened half-heartedly, trying to control his panic.

“Now seriously, Ron.  I read a very fascinating article just a few months ago on phobias and fears.  What you have is an example of a common phobia, not a fear.”

“Phobulla?  That’s comforting,” he said sarcastically, gripping onto the branch for dear life.

She rolled her eyes.  “A researcher named Dr. Bartoli says that the systematic desensitization of a phobia is generally a combination of very gradual exposure and relaxation techniques.”  She reached into her pocket to fish out the little spider.

Ron gasped and turned away.  “Don’t!  I’ve had… plenty of exposure, really!  Second year Harry and I were surrounded by them, don’t you remember?”

“Yes, but that certainly wasn’t gradual or relaxing.  That probably only worsened the condition.”

“You think so?” he said sardonically, snorting a bit. 

“I really think this’ll help you. Now stop being such a baby and come closer!”  She scooted closer to him, which only made Ron squirm, shifting uncomfortably against the bark of the branch.  The spider was in her fist.  She held it out in front of her and uncurled her fingers. 

“I’m not being a baby,” he pouted, looking down at his lap. 

She slowly moved her hand in front of Ron and watched as he seemed to hold his breath, trying to keep it together.  It was quite adorable, actually.  A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

“Don’t you laugh at me, Hermione!  You don’t understand!”

Aware that he was now watching her, she wiped the grin off her face immediately.  “I wasn’t laughing at you, Ron.  Relax.  Just breathe,” she said soothingly, keeping her eyes on his face as she saw him peer down at the spider. 

“I can’t relax,” he muttered, a mix of frustration and anxiety present in his expression. 

“Yes you can!” she said encouragingly.  “Just… think of something you’d normally find relaxing… like Quidditch, or chess, or those terrible comic magazines or-” She was cut off mid-sentence because Ron had kissed her.  Caught off guard, she clutched at his cloak when she nearly lost her balance; her stomach felt as if she had, in fact, fallen out of the tree and was plummeting to the ground.  The kiss itself was completely innocent, and Hermione was sure she’d burst from feeling so much happiness and warmth in one single moment. 

When it ended, she opened her eyes and saw Ron looking at her differently.  He still seemed terrified, but triumphant.  She was sure she would have a hundred things to say to him when this moment finally occurred, but for once in her almost eighteen years of life, she was speechless.  She felt herself grinning and blushing, and though she knew she must have looked like a complete fool, she watched as Ron visibly relaxed to mirror her inane expression. 

And then he said something that she wasn’t expecting.  “I had a… um… phobia of doing that,” he said with a nervous laugh.

“That was a fear, not a phobia,” she replied once she found her voice.  “I had it too,” she admitted shamelessly, loosening her grip on his cloak. 

“But what’s the difference?”  Ron asked, and Hermione was taken aback by how sincerely interested he seemed in her research for once. 

It caused her smile to widen.  “Well, fears are more frustrating.  Dr. Bartoli says that fears cannot be reasoned with; no matter what deductions or insights one may develop regarding their fear, it does not eliminate the fear.  Fears also tend to worsen and broaden over time.”

“Yeah,” Ron nodded.  “That sounds pretty accurate to me,” he said with a laugh.  “Bright fellow, that Dr. Bartoli.  I’m glad, er… we got over this fear.  Y’know, so it doesn’t get worse.” 

She was about to add to that, when she gasped and looked at her hand, which had just let go of Ron’s cloak.  “Mr. Spider!  He’s gone!”

“Oh, what a pity!”  Ron said with a chuckle, seemingly relieved.  “Let’s get down from here.  This branch won’t hold us forever.” 

When he started to move, Hermione caught a quick glimpse of Mr. Spider—on Ron’s shoulder, crawling toward his neck.  Gradual exposure, she thought, realizing that this might be far too much exposure, too fast.  If Ron noticed this, he would most likely panic and fall out of the tree.  Instead of drawing attention to it, she did the only sensible thing—she leaned in and kissed him again.  Ron seemed surprised but didn’t object.  As she watched him shut his eyes, she reached up to gently pick up Mr. Spider and place him safely on a nearby leaf. 

They were interrupted by a very off-pitch rendition of, “Ron and Hermione, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!  First comes-”

Ron broke the kiss, tore off his already unlaced trainer, and chucked it at Harry, who was grinning up at them from down below.  “Bugger off, Potter!” Ron bellowed, and Hermione had the grace to look embarrassed. 

Harry snickered and caught the shoe.  “It’s my turn for look-out duty.  You two ought to get back into the tent and sleep.  It should be sunrise in just a few hours.  I’ll wake you both when we’ve got to pack up and go.”

Hermione moved first; she untangled herself from Ron and slowly climbed down the tree. 

Harry must have noticed that she looked a bit shaky, because she heard him call out to her, “Hey, Hermione, don’t you have a fear of heights?”

Her voice trembling a bit, she looked down at him and shrugged.  “I’m working on it,” she said, saving a knowing grin for Ron when he looked at her as well.

Ron had his feet firmly on the ground right after she did, and they both brushed off their cloaks as he turned to Harry.  “You know, mate, it’s actually called a phobia; a fear is different.”

“Come on, Ron,” Hermione said with a soft laugh, beaming as she took his wrist and pulled him toward the tent. 

“Fears are more fun to conquer!” he called out to Harry before ducking into the tent behind Hermione. 

And they continued to conquer their fears until the sun came up.


Author’s Notes:  The article and interview with Dr. Bartoli (Professor of Psychology at East Stroudsburg University) were written/conducted by Greg Predmore.

Psych major?  Me?  Of course not… ;-)


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