A/N: This one's got a bit of sexual stuff in the first half, just fyi. ETA, I've updated the rating on this one to M.
He bathed in a pool of icy water whilst she hid be hind a row of bushes. Why he'd selected her to stand guard for him this morning, she could not understand. It was always Harry, which made sense. And it was always the pair of boys together who stood her watch in return. Surely Harry had not been so busy, snoring, that he could not be roused to stand Ron's bath watch. But it did not occur to her to question Ron's request for her to accompany him until she could hear him splashing on the other side of the bushes, letting out a grunt of a shiver in what was surely quite an uncomfortable water temperature...
"Perfect," she muttered, sighing as she sat on the ground with a thump, atop a thin coating of rotted leaves.
And with a moment to breathe, she clamped her wand between her teeth and pressed the heels of her palms hard against the sides of her pounding head as she shut her eyes for just a moment.
This... was so unfair. Her cataloged list of simultaneous emotions was starting to overflow.
As she opened her eyes and grasped her wand once more in her right hand, she sighed again, staring out into the wintering forest for any signs of approaching threat. It was her job, after all. She was not meant to sit here seething that he'd put her metres away as he stripped down naked, goose-pimpled, skin pinkening with the cold... each splash he made giving her a multitude of guesses, each one equally as maddening... and arousing and terrifying and bloody annoying.
Gripping her wand tighter, she heaved in a breath, chest expanding almost comically.
"Hermione?" he called out in his sleepy, morning voice, the first syllable of her name not quite audible, as if the sound had been scraped through gravel before it reached her.
"Yes?" she shouted back, louder than she'd meant to. She winced as she waited for his reply.
"Just making sure you're still there."
"Right, why wouldn't I be?" she mumbled as she scooted back to lean against a rough tree trunk, stretching out her stiff legs, rolling her ankles... imagining his large, freckled hands smoothing down his own chest and stomach-
And for some inexplicable reason, right then, her eyes filled with tears and her breath hitched painfully.
Of course. Of course she'd finally lost it now, over him.
Arse. He must have known what he was doing, that he was crushing her, that she wanted him yet, even while she still raged at him for what he'd done... even when she didn't deserve to want him.
But wait. Where had the thought come from, anyway? She didn't deserve him?
Was the part of her that remained bloody furious over how he'd left them actually warring with buried pity?!
Of course he'd left - he never cared for her the way she cared for him - he didn't love her. And why not? Because she wasn't like those other girls he obviously fancied, big chests, painted on faces-
She leapt to her feet, gasping and training her wand on him, where he now stood in front of her, even though she knew he was harmless before her. He raised his hands defensively, shirt clinging to his torso more than usual from the droplets of water he'd skimmed over as he'd dried himself while she'd been too distracted to do her job.
"You startled me!"
"I can see that," he said, slowly, timidly. "Are you alright?"
Oh, she must have looked a bloody mess, leaves stuck to her jeans, hair frizzy, eyes puffy, still watering...
"Fine," she said, sharply. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Warily, he blinked at her, as if he wanted to ask for more but was afraid to try. So, he sniffed instead, and changed the subject...
"So, you're probably going to hex me," he began, and her heart dropped to her stomach at the wide range of possibilities for what he could say next, "but I left my soap back at the tent..."
A beat passed before she could speak.
"What?!" she barely whispered.
"Yeah," and he actually creased his face into a believably apologetic expression.
"Ron," she started, watching his expression melt delightfully at the sound of his name... from her?
Oh, sod it. Her face was burning now.
"I've been polite about this, haven't I?" she shouted. "But this is ridiculous! You drag me out here - isn't this Harry's job? - and you expect me to s-sit and wait and LISTEN while you-you... I hate you, Ron! You 'forgot' your soap?! You're a bloody terrible liar."
As she panted, glaring up at him, she honestly expected him to play dumb, to pretend not to have a clue what she was trying to say to him. But instead, something very different and honestly much more frightening happened.
He swallowed, neck moving beautifully. And he licked his bottom lip so briefly that she was sure it had been unconscious.
"Okay, I admit it," he said, so softly, nervously. "Yeah, I'm a twat, and I knew what I was doing. But you do hate me! So it had to be worth a shot. I dunno, Hermione! I've tried to be quiet, or just listen better to you. I've tried being a bit more serious... tried really awful jokes... I've tried fucking everything! I know, I know- I don't need you to remind me, because I'm the prat who walked out when you needed me - both of you - and-and..."
But as he caught her eyes with his own, he seemed to lose steam, as if knocked heavily off course by her gaze. She couldn't breathe as his words washed over her, and she felt that any moment now, she was likely to cry again, though she concentrated all she could on preventing it.
"I swear, the soap was an accident."
As if severing a limb from her own body, she forced her eyes away from his.
"You can go back and stay at the tent," he added quickly. "I'll wake Harry. I really shouldn't have-"
But he cut himself off to run a frustrated hand through his hair.
And, wand now limp at her side, she found that though she could not rationally explain it - though it went against all she'd thought she'd built to keep from hurting again - she wanted nothing less than to go back now. To give up.
And maybe a small part of her wanted to prove a lie - that she was fine here, and that he had no effect over her now. Not today.
"No," she heard herself say. "I told you I'd do it, and I intend to finish what I start. Sometimes I wonder about you - and Harry, too. Forgetting soap for a bath... ridiculous."
And she sat back down in front of her tree, scratching her back against the bark and re-aligning her wand toward the space beyond that stretched out past their protective boundaries.
He was staring. Openly. Directly down at her.
"What, Ron?" she sighed as her heart flipped over with a thud.
"N-Nothing," he shivered. "I'll be back." And he practically ran away from her, turning left to skim the edge of the pond.
This had been a very bad idea.
She was completely aware of that.
Her skin itched oddly, like any part of her was willing to try and physically relieve the pressure she'd put herself under.
No, HE'D put her under.
And then, once again without reason, she was clamping her lips tightly to keep from smiling.
He'd brought her out here ON PURPOSE. He'd wanted her to notice him. But... he'd also wanted... to drive her mad. Which meant...
"No!" she gasped.
Oh, he knew!
Fretting with the hem of her shirt, she stood again, frazzled and pacing, eyes darting out into the woods every few seconds.
Such a bad idea to wait here. Such.
But before she could consider an escape plan, he'd returned, soap in hand. He held it up proudly, waving it toward her.
"I'll be quick," he muttered, clearing his throat. And was he holding his towel a bit oddly there, in front of his-
No way. NO way. Her face lit on fire and she sank with a purposeful thud to the ground again, trembling.
It took all she had not to turn around and squint through the bushes. All.
She heard his clothes hit the soft ground with a shuffle.
Her fists clenched in the grass on either side of her legs, knuckles turning white.
This time, she was so much more aware of him than she'd been before. And how was that even possible, considering how distraught she'd been just moments ago?!
She heard the muffled sloshing of his feet sliding into the water, and she shuddered, head to toe.
Scan the forest, look for threats.
Wand held out at chest level, her eyes darted before a heavy splash made her jump... and turn round.
"Oh!" she whispered, realising her mistake as a flash of his skin on the other side of the bushes flew by her eyes, like a strobe of lightning. "Damn it, damn it-" she breathed, nearly inaudibly.
The bushes were much too thin. Much.
Stiffening her shoulders, she tried everything she could to clear her mind as she firmly faced forward again. Incantations, listed from charts. Her sixth year potions book, ingredients in a line down the page...
Scan the forest, look for threats.
He cleared his throat deeply behind her, and she clenched her thighs together.
Scan the forest! Look for threats!
Unconsciously, she'd begun to breathe through her mouth, her ears burning, every sound magnified tenfold. And she could not stop the flood of images she was brewing, years of trying to imagine what he looked like underneath his clothes. And he was THERE. Naked. Completely starkers, right behind her.
Water dripped in an uneven, tap-left-on kind of way. It was too quiet. What the hell was he doing?!
Curiosity was threatening to end her.
And all it took was a sudden, backward splash for her to turn sharply round again. She cursed her wide open, unblinking eyes as they landed on his smooth back, body sunken to just below his hipbones, into the pool, hair darkened and stuck to his neck from the water. Droplets cascaded in perfectly timed patterns down his skin.
Oh. My. God.
She wasn't breathing as she stared. His hand rubbed the back of his neck before he tensed. His muscles rippled beneath skin that was infinitely more perfect than she remembered, having scarred her last sight of him shirtless with her guilt over his splinching. Now, he was infinitely more real. Alive. Breathing.
Her thighs might have been permanently clenched as she pressed her palms into the dirt, guilt over watching him stamped down again and again as he tilted his head back, stretching.
For balance, she was forced to allow her eyes to slip shut. And it was that simple gesture that made her give in. It was no longer temptation. It was action.
When she opened her eyes once more, she had no intentions of turning away.
His hand dipped under the water, in front of his body, where she couldn't see... Her heart stopped.
There was absolutely no way in hell that he was about to do what he was about to do.
She was metres away. Bloody metres!
But then his back. Freckles shifting atop shoulderblades. His muscles melted, relaxed... his shoulders lifted.
"Ron," she half-breathed, half-mouthed. It had been so long since she'd felt like this. She'd begun to think that her once active hormones were fading to be replaced with malnourishment and disappointment.
But as drop after drop of icy water formed a pattern carefully down his thin torso, tracing his spine...
Her hand moved between her legs, easing down until she jolted with pleasure.
Well, this was new.
She'd done this before. And it had been nice relief when she knew it was all she had. But so very short before it built again, never providing complete satisfaction.
This felt like what she'd read all about.
And it was him. Regrettably, she knew it. As well as she knew her trusted rules and charts and charms.
He moaned. Actually MOANED, as his head tilted a fraction further back, right shoulder lifting up, hand still hidden in front of him, underwater.
He was actually doing this! Wanking while she was so close he had to know she could hear him, even if he hadn't expected her to... watch...
Her fingers slipped inside her jeans, over her soaked knickers, and she was done. Muscles contracting against her own knuckles, she shuddered, holding herself up with her left palm, still planted against the dirt.
"Oh God... Ron..." she sighed out, ears ringing. And his shoulders slumped, groaning softly as he shook his head, water sloshing as he moved.
For a moment, he sank a bit deeper into the pool, as if unable to stand on his own, needing the water's buoyancy for support. And she understood, eyes half-shut, lids heavy.
But suddenly, she came back to herself, like being slapped across the face. And he was turning around, toward the shore. Gasping, she righted her zipper and twisted back around to face forward.
It occurred to her then how she'd sighed out his name. There was no way he could have heard her. No way! Was there...?!
Flushed and cold all at once, she wrapped her arms around her body, once again clutching her wand as she stared, eyes darting around, into the bright morning light.
Harry would surely be awake by now.
Leaves crunched to her left, and she stiffened, trying much too hard to look innocent. Nonchalant.
He appeared before her, shirt clinging once more to his damp chest, coat hastily shimmied into...
Avoiding eye contact at all costs, she stood, nodding at nothing, and led the way back around the pool toward their tent. Silence mingled with sniffs as Ron pocketed his hands, keeping up with her accelerated stride, her left shoulder too close to his right elbow.
It had to have been, quite literally, the most awkward she had ever felt. If there was any way he knew what she had done, she wouldn't be able to face him again for... quite possibly a couple of lifetimes. But somehow, the idea of it kept creeping up, nagging at her, begging her to question whether he could have...
Her eyes drifted sideways, and she caught him. Grinning. A tiny little grin, to himself, that told her all she needed to know.
Choking to swallow, she knew it was true. Her worst nightmare... and somehow, an absolutely exhilarating reality.
But they'd nearly reached the tent now. And she found herself wanting to both run toward it, for safety, and also away from it, with him, at the same time.
She stopped in her tracks, horrified at her own choice as he stopped and turned to look back at her. He couldn't meet her eyes either, and no wonder. If he knew.
And he did.
She was trembling, head to toe. Surely she was making herself ill. Or he was. Prat.
"What?" he managed.
"What do you know?" she choked out.
He pressed his lips together, took a shaky breath through his nose, and suppressed another tiny grin.
"Probably a lot more than you want me to."
This verbal confirmation was more than she'd anticipated. This was not the Ron who ran away from what he'd done, who played oblivious and left her to suffer, frustrated, alone.
This Ron was bloody scary. And perfect. And warm. And smelled fantastic...
"We never speak of this again, understood?" she squeaked. "I'm making you promise me."
At least she could hold onto the desperate hope that perhaps he hadn't heard her sighing his name, pleasure running through her like she'd never felt before... because of him.
He began to walk again, and she had to jog to catch up. He rubbed the back of his neck, and she finally spotted the intense, burgundy blush that had spread over every inch of pale skin there. He was just as nervous as she was. And the idea of it brought him back to her reality. He was exactly the same as he'd always been. Only he was letting her come a bit closer.
She tensed with anticipation and paused again as he finally breathed in once more and slowed his pace, until he'd stopped walking altogether.
"Only other time you've said my name that way was when I heard you, a second time, in the Deluminator... the day I found you," he said, turning back to face her.
Her heart froze inside her chest.
"I didn't say that part in front of Harry because..." He paused, and she wasn't breathing. "...it felt sort of... private."
"Oh," she squeaked, as her stomach flipped. The world was spinning.
He'd. Heard. Her.
And the time he'd recalled, on Boxing Day...
They were dancing much too close to a consuming fire. She was going to lose all grasp on her emotions, momentarily... as if she'd been particularly amazing at keeping them in control the last few weeks, anyway.
"I just had to tell you that first," he explained, "so you wouldn't think- ...but yeah, I promise."
It took her several beats to figure out what he could possibly be promising her. But then, she remembered how, moments ago, she'd frantically asked him to promise never to mention what had happened today, ever again. But now, after what he'd told her, that didn't seem like exactly what she wanted, anymore...
"After the first time I said your name," she started, hoarsely, "on Christmas morning, with Harry there... I don't know. It felt like- like something had changed, like I wasn't going to get you back. Of course, I'd known it would be impossible... thought, anyway. But a part of me had been completely irrational. I didn't see- Ron, I didn't see how I was going to make it, without you... how either of us could. Harry was inside his head, and I missed you... I missed you so much. And I was so afraid."
He sniffed roughly, eyes glassy and hardly blinking as he stared down at her. He was captivated, on every word.
"So, I think I just kept hoping that if I didn't really face it - that you were actually gone - then maybe-"
She closed her eyes, anger and hurt and loneliness merging.
"But once I'd said your name to Harry..." she continued, opening her eyes and gazing painfully up at him, "that made it so real. I didn't have hope anymore. I didn't mean to lose it. But when I realised it had happened..."
She didn't want to recall that night as vividly as she did. His name - three letters - once so full of light and possibility had come to mean something she wished she'd never faced.
"When you came through the tent with Harry," she resumed, so quietly, "I'd been crying all night, h-hating you."
He squinted and suddenly looked down, and she felt a chill, bone-deep, at the loss. He wasn't supposed to make her feel so many things, anymore.
"If I could go back and change just one thing, in my whole life..." -he glanced back up at her and licked his dry lips- "...I'd take the fucking locket off and stay."
She felt it start, deep inside her chest, like aching fingers reaching outward, traveling down her limbs and making her weak. She began to tremble, unable to stop, watching him.
He would do anything for her. She could see it in everything. And guilt became quite a looming threat as she saw his brokenness. She wanted to fix it, to tell him everything would mend. But the hurt was still there.
"You brought me out here because you want things to be like they were before you left, but-"
"No, I didn't," he cut over her, voice low and gravelly, but loud enough to stop her. "I brought you out here because I want things to be better than they were."
She sensed what he meant, still too afraid to fully believe it.
"I wanted proof that things would eventually be okay between us..." he continued, forehead creased, "that you still cared. But now I realise that wasn't right. It doesn't prove anything. You could just be lonely. It's not like you've got choices. It's just me, you and Harry out here. But-"
"Ron, it's not like that," she admitted, painfully. "I am lonely, but you're-"
"Hang on," he interrupted. "I was gonna say more. I was gonna say... that you sort of proved it another way. What you said, how it was while I was gone... When I first saw you, when I came back, I didn't expect you to just forgive me. But you were so angry, and I couldn't tell how much of it was because I'd hurt you and Harry... or because I'd hurt you."
Oh, then he understood far more than she'd even guessed. She'd felt it, too, that unknowing. Was she so angry because he'd abandoned them on a nearly impossible quest to save the world? Or because... because she loved him, and would she never be enough to make him stay?
But if love was meant to win, over everything, then could she do this, part of something so much bigger than her capabilities... without love? She'd felt despair, a mechanical impulse to push ahead, without the passion and fire he gave her. And his love for Harry... He'd given him that, the family Harry had never had. And she had seen the way their heart had been removed, a collective breaking of bonds built to last, only as three.
She never wanted to feel that way again.
"It was both, Ron," she nearly whispered. "But the second one... that was much worse."
"Really?" he asked, tentatively, and she noticed how badly his hands were shaking.
She sighed, caught. How could they move forward now? And then she recalled what had brought them to this moment, his choice to ask her to accompany him when he knew-
"This was clever," she said softly, almost smiling.
"What?" His dazed expression faded slightly.
"Annoying me so we'd talk."
His lips twitched.
"That's not exactly how I'd describe the plan, but..."
Watching him swallow, her eyes trailed down, following a water droplet beneath the collar of his shirt...
Her cheeks flushed, and she shivered.
"I can't believe you did that in front of me..." she muttered, recalling his naked back in the water, hand moving out of her sight, beneath the surface...
He laughed nervously and ran that same hand over the back of his neck.
"Neither can I..."
A short distance behind Ron, the tent flap opened, and Harry stepped out, stretching and yawning. Disappointment crept up, but it mingled now with something else. Her strength had been undeniably renewed, since Ron's return. And now, with so many words in the air between them...
She considered how right Ron had been, how this wasn't just going to be the same as before. Before he had left.
This would be different. Better. His eyes lingered longer, when he watched her. He'd found this tiny smile, a way to tell her some kind of secret, a comfort, maybe.
"Okay," she said, stepping just a bit closer, close enough that she had to tilt her head back a bit to see him properly. "Let's make it better."
And this smile, the one he gave her then, was another one altogether. This was relief. Happiness, even in the darkest times.
He sighed and closed his eyes, shaking his head as he puffed out a breath, laughing when he looked at her again.
"You won't regret it," he said, still smiling. "I know I don't deserve it."
"You do," she whispered, "just didn't want you to know that..."
He laughed again, and she broke his gaze, smiling.
"Anything edible out there?" Harry asked casually, and Ron turned to glance over his shoulder.
"I'll see what I can find."
He met her eyes again and reached forward to take her wrist, only for a second. And when he let go, he brushed past her, his back toward her as he walked away.
"Thank you," she called out, and his smiling glance back over his shoulder confirmed he knew what Harry didn't.
She wasn't just talking about breakfast.