"He Always Has"
Hermione Granger pressed her forehead against the Gryffindor common room window, staring at the school grounds, the glistening lake, and the sun-tipped expanse of the Forbidden Forest. The sight was common – students milling about, exams completed, another year gone. Time for laughter and ease. Under different circumstances, she might be there herself, daydreaming about her N.E.W.T.s results. But today, even the sun seemed callous as it glimmered over scorched grass and broken castle stones. It recalled more missing faces than Hermione could yet bear to think about. She sighed, her heart heavy.
"Ready?" came an unexpected voice in her ear.
She blinked her stinging eyes, then glanced up at Ron Weasley's freckled face.
"Not quite yet." She hesitated. "I don't know that we should go." To traipse off today, after all that had happened recently, seemed…disrespectful.
"Not scared of the Forest, are you?"
"You mean the Forbidden Forest?"
"Yeah, that one," Ron said with a grin. "We're going to have forbidden fun, so hurry. We've been in there loads of times already."
"Never for enjoyment!" Hermione retorted in a hushed whisper. She turned back to the window, leaving an uneasy silence between them.
"Did you see Dobby?" she asked after a pause, noticing the hamper at Ron's feet.
"I did, and he packed a right feast for us."
"Ron!" she protested. "Oh, he shouldn't have done that! It's not part of his duties – "
"Does that make it a forbidden feast?"
" – and I'm not sure he's even fully recovered yet."
"He was happy to do it," Ron said calmly, moving in closer and taking her hand. "And he sends his regards to Mistress Herminny."
Hermione ducked her head, feeling an unbidden smile on her face. She and Ron had come to a tacit compromise about the elves ages ago, but their banter was familiar and often comforting, much like the tatty pink dressing gown she'd kept from her first year. The garment barely covered her knees now, but it reminded her of a time when escaping from a vicious Cerberus had been their greatest worry. The years following had been much less simple, as the sight of a motionless head of black hair, barely visible over an armchair in the corner, forcibly reminded her.
"There really is something I want to show you – " Ron went on, but her words rushed out before he could finish.
"I don't think we should leave him."
Ron fell quiet, and Hermione saw the lines of strain tempering his face.
"I asked him again," he murmured, kicking his foot against the wall. "He wants to be alone."
Hermione bit her lip, and fixed her eyes on at the armchair. She felt useless, and she hated it.
"Ginny's staying behind, just in case," he added.
She sighed again. Their time at Hogwarts was ending, and they'd soon move on to lives of jobs and bills and other "adult responsibilities". The thought seemed ridiculous after assisting in the defeat of Lord Voldemort.
"I'll meet you behind Hagrid's hut, in five minutes?" she said finally. Her spirits were bolstered by the flash of cheer in Ron's eyes when he nodded.
"How did you know about this?" Hermione asked later that afternoon, leaning her head against Ron's worn t-shirt. She curled her toes into the grass, and watched as dapples of persistent sunlight snuck through the foliage and glinted off the dancing stream before them. Such tranquility seemed out of place in the Forbidden Forest, so recently a battlefield.
"Fred brought Angelina during their sixth year," Ron replied. He lobbed a pebble into the gurgling water. "I think he was a bit fresh with her, and…well, that was the end of them."
"Thank you for bringing me."
"I didn't want your last memories of Hogwarts to be about fighting and Death Eaters," he said simply, tossing in another pebble.
Hermione closed her eyes. The sounds of the water and Ron's warmth were lulling her worries away. "So, this is where Fluffy went?" she said with a small laugh. "I never thought we'd see him again."
Ron snorted. "Yeah, the nutter just let him out into the Forest. That's Hagrid for you…" His voice trailed off, growing quieter when he continued. "Fluffy was brilliant against the ogres, wasn't he? Wish Hagrid could've seen him."
"He'd have been so proud," Hermione agreed. The image of the silent, unmoving head from the common room flashed before her eyes again, coupled with a surge of guilt for feeling so selfishly peaceful.
"We shouldn't have left him," she blurted out. "He shouldn't be alone now."
"He'll pull through," Ron said, quickly and decisively. "He always has. Think of everything else he's handled. And Voldemort's gone now." His tone made her wonder if the words were for more than her alone.
"But what if he's taken all that's left of Harry this time?" she asked, her voice shaking. "He barely speaks, he won't look us in the eye – "
"He'll come around, Hermione. He always has." Ron's arm went around her shoulder and pulled. Though still distressed, Hermione had to smile. Ron's pats had been so awkward when she'd first flung her arms around him, years ago. For a long moment, she listened to the stream and let herself be held.
"C'mere," Ron said suddenly, rising and tugging at her hand. "Let's try the water."
"The water. Let's dip our feet in." He took a tentative step out onto the slick stones.
"You're mad." Hermione wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "It looks freezing."
"I know a w-w-way for you to get used to it more qui-quickly," he offered, as his lanky legs started to knock together.
She suppressed a snicker, and held out a steading hand. He was making her laugh despite herself, just as he always had. "Does it involve pulling my feet out from under me?"
"Maybe," Ron grinned. "It is f-fre-freezing – "
"I thought so!"
" – in a very for-forbidden sort of way."
A/N: Many thanks to Yolanda, Clarimonde, Tapestry, heRmiONe rox, and soupytwist for the last-minute betas! This was written for The Sugar Quill's Forbidden Forest Exploration Mission 2003 challenge.