It was a mad-looking Ron who finally found Harry in the corridor outside Snape's classroom. His red hair was sticking up at all angles, as if he'd been running his hands through it non-stop. He had skidded to a halt next to Harry from a dead run, and his overall manner simply screamed "distraught".
"Harry!" Ron said urgently, after spotting his friend, "You've got to help me."
Harry grabbed one of Ron's shoulders to steady him, and was disconcerted to realize he had to reach up slightly to do so. He put it aside. "Easy, mate. Calm down. I was just heading up to get some dinner, do you want to come with me?"
"I'm not hungry," Ron said dismissively, flooring Harry. He didn't think he'd ever heard those three particular words in that particular order ever come from Ron's mouth before.
"Listen," Ron went on, "you've got to help me find Hermione. I've looked everywhere!"
"Maybe she's not back from Hogsmeade, yet?" Harry suggested.
"No, she's back," Ron said, raking his fingers through his hair and confirming Harry's guess. Ron took a deep breath. "I went to apologize to her," he started.
Harry began to get a bad feeling. "Don't tell me," he said, holding a palm out to Ron to forestall him, "You went to apologize, but it ended up deteriorating into another row, and now she's stormed off."
"Er, not entirely," Ron said. "If she was just angry with me, I could take that. One of us always seems to be upset with the other."
"Well if she's not angry," Harry asked, "why did she run off?"
They had started walking down the corridor to the stairs that led up and out of the lower level where Snape taught his classes, but now Ron stopped, a pained expression settling on his face. "Because she's hurt," he said. "She's…she thinks I don't trust her or something, because I won't tell her my bloody secret, and that I don't want to be friends with her any more."
Harry's eyes bugged out behind his glasses. "How'd she come to think all of that?"
"You tell me, mate," Ron said a little huffily. "You're apparently the one who told her I didn't want her to know what it was."
"Well you didn't, did you?" Harry countered effectively. "Don't blame me because you took the coward's way out of all of this by not telling her how you felt."
"I was trying to do the right thing!" Ron exclaimed. "I thought you understood that? I just didn't want to bust up our friendship."
"Um, Ron?" Harry said tentatively, "I think you sort of failed."
Ron swallowed, his shoulders slumping in defeat. Harry watched him, thinking. Finally, as they started walking again, he said, "You've got to tell her, Ron. It's the only way out of this."
Ron rolled his eyes. "I tried already. When I realized she was taking it entirely the wrong way, I said I'd tell her."
"And what did she say?" Harry wanted to know.
"That's when she ran off!" Ron said. "She said she didn't want me to feel like I had to tell her."
Harry thought about it for a moment. "Not as the last resort," he said softly, remembering.
Ron had been walking with his head down; now he looked sharply up at Harry. "I was just thinking about that earlier today," he said.
Harry winced. "You didn't learn from it very well, did you?"
Ron was dumbfounded. "Hey, who's side are you on, anyway?"
"I'm on the side of my friends," Harry answered. "Both of them." When Ron had no comeback for that, Harry went on. "Look, it's clear what we have to do. We'll split up and search for Hermione. If you find her first, you can just tell her what's going on. If I find her first, I'll let you know where she is."
"But I've already looked everywhere she goes," Ron said, frustrated. "And I've been to the library twice."
As they reached the top of the stairs, Harry's determined green eyes met Ron's troubled blue ones. "Then we'll look again."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Harry had tried it Ron's way for awhile, blindly going from place to place, looking in all of the spots that he knew Hermione frequented.
But it wasn't until he tried thinking like Hermione that he figured it out. She needed a place to go – a place that no one else would think of straight away in connection to her – but where she could stay for quite a while if she needed to. It all came down to what she needed.
Once he thought of the Room of Requirement, he headed there immediately, sure he was on the right track. She had to be there, they'd looked everywhere else.
He hurried to the corridor where, once or twice a week, his Dark Arts group used to meet to practice in secret. Since the tyrant Umbridge had gone, however, secrecy was no longer required, and they had Dumbledore's unspoken permission to practice their "homework" in a room specially set aside for that very purpose. Harry still lead the practice sessions, but now from time to time an actual professor would drop by and teach them something new.
Now, as he neared the hidden doorway, he reminded himself not to think about Defense of the Dark Arts. "I need to find Hermione," he thought urgently.
Even as he thought it, a magic door appeared in the wall. Grasping the knob firmly in his hand, Harry swung the door inward. Inside…he found the library. Despite the situation, he chuckled a little. "I should have known," he said to himself.
When he heard a quiet sniffle from within in response, Harry closed the door behind him and stepped into the room, which was – of course – a perfect replica of the studying area at the library. He peered into the dimly-lit room, trying to spot Hermione. He wasn't sure if she'd specifically turned the lights off, or if the Room of Requirement had somehow sensed her need for the dark, but shadows lurked in the corners and pooled under the tables. The stacks were alleys into gloom, and he shivered, not understanding how Hermione could take comfort in being in such a spooky place alone.
He still couldn't see her, but he knew she was somewhere ahead of him. "Hermione…can I come in?"
There was another sniff, and then Hermione's voice came back to him, sounding put-out. "No point in asking now, you're already here." A moment later, however, some of the misery had left her voice…it wasn't Harry, after all, who had hurt her. "I've got to admit that I'm surprised you found me here," she said, sounding a little impressed despite herself.
"Well, it took awhile," Harry answered, honing in on her voice. "Ron and I ran ourselves ragged looking all over the school before I thought of the Room of Requirement."
He finally located her, sitting on the floor with her back up against the check-out desk. Her knees were pulled up and pressed tightly together so that they supported her head, which was resting in her crossed arms. When Harry approached and crouched before her, she looked up.
"Is Ron with you?" she asked, somehow managing to sound both as if she hoped he wasn't, but also a little hopeful that he was.
"No," Harry told her, sitting down next to her against the desk. "We split up to cover more ground. Or, in Ron's case, to cover the same ground over and over again. I think he passed me on his circuit five times just in the past hour."
This didn't produce the smile he'd been hoping to elicit from her, and he got serious. "Look, Hermione…you can't really believe that he doesn't want to be friends any more. He's out there looking for you right now. I've never seen him like this. He's…frantic."
Hermione didn't appear cheered at this news. "I'm not trying to make him worry," she said softly. "And I know he cares, it's just…"
She shifted a little, turning to look at Harry. "I know I'm overreacting about all of this. I know, intellectually, that whatever he's going through isn't necessarily a reflection on me. It just really hurt when you said he didn't want me to know what it was, and didn't want my help. What hurt was that it was me in particular he didn't want knowing."
Harry sighed. "I think quite a bit of this is my fault. I knew I normally stayed out of it for a reason!" he said more to himself than to her. "What I said this morning, that was all me. Ron never said anything about not wanting your help. In fact, it's not really even something that can be helped, it just is. And I swear that neither of us ever meant to make you feel left out."
He turned, facing her, and made sure she was paying attention. "The reason I didn't tell you what was going on, is because it's not my place to. That's all it was. You and Ron are my best friends, Hermione, and nothing can change that for me. I know Ron sees it the same way."
Hermione sniffed again, obviously moved. Encouraged, Harry pressed on. "And this thing…you're going to laugh when you find out what it is, knowing what a big huge ruckus got made over it. It's all a huge mistake, because Ron's a block-head."
Hermione surprised Harry by putting a restraining hand on his arm. "He's not," she disagreed softly, "He's smart, really. Smarter than he thinks. He's just…"
"Got the emotional range of a teaspoon?" Harry grinned. He'd always particularly liked that one.
Hermione stifled a smile. "It just takes him a while to understand why people think or feel the way they do."
"Yes," Harry agreed dryly, "you've hit that one dead on. Even himself," he added under his breath.
"What?" Hermione asked.
Harry shook his head. "Nothing. Thinking out loud."
Then, something occurred to him and he turned back to her. "Although, that's some pretty decent insight you've got, into your friend," he said, placing a light emphasis on the word 'friend', and watched her carefully. "And then defending him, and all, after he's been a right idiot to you all day."
It was pretty dim in here, but Harry was fairly certain she blushed at his words. How very…interesting, he thought.
A minute or so passed in silence, as Harry left Hermione to her thoughts. "All right," she finally said. "I won't ask you again what's bothering him, because I understand the reason why you can't say. But will you tell me…is it something I did? Is that why I'm the one who can't know?"
"No," Harry said hastily. "It's nothing like that. Like I said, this is all a big misunderstanding." He met Hermione's dark, chocolate coloured eyes directly. "The only way I can really put it is…the thing on his mind, he was afraid to tell you about it because he was afraid of what you'd think of him. It sounds ridiculous now, after we got you all riled up, thinking he didn't want to be friends anymore, but the reason he decided not to tell you was because he didn't want to risk busting up our friendship."
"That's ridiculous!" Hermione said, finally coming out of her quiet melancholy. Her cheeks were flushed with outrage. "Ron should have known better! Honestly…some of the things we've been through, and he still thinks I'd stop being his friend over…" She stopped, faltered. "Over, whatever it is," she finished in a less certain tone.
"I mean," she said tentatively, looking at Harry. "How bad could it be?"
"It's not," Harry said, nearly laughing from the absurdity of it. "It's not even, that's what's so hilariously tragic about this whole thing."
Hermione felt herself beginning to respond to Harry's levity. Somehow, she felt better, now. There was even the beginning of a smile on her lips as she said, sort of fondly, "I don't know why he'd even worry so much about what I thought…he never cares what I think. It's the reason we argue, half the time."
"That's not true," Harry said, serious again. "He cares more than you think he does, Hermione…especially about this."
Hermione looked thoughtful. She was obviously still trying to figure out what the whole issue was. "What could he be worried that I'd think was so awful that I'd stop being his friend?" she wondered aloud. "Since you're joking about it, I can only assume that no one's been hurt, and that everything's all right with the Order, and that he hasn't done anything truly horrible…"
She broke off suddenly, looking very much as if a devastating thought had occurred to her. "He's not," she started, looking at Harry for confirmation. "I mean he hasn't…is he…going out with someone?"
Harry stared back at her, astounded by what her question revealed. "No," he answered her slowly, but firmly, but how interesting that you think him going out with another girl would be horrible. Wow…she hid this from me a lot better than Ron did.
Almost as if he'd been summoned by Harry thinking about him, the door opened at just that moment and Ron crept in, peering into the gloom. Harry and Hermione could see him, back-lit as he was by the doorway, much better than he could see into the room. Harry could tell that he hadn't stopped running his hand through his hair, because it was even wilder than before.
"Hermione?" Ron stage-whispered, glancing once back over his shoulder. Hermione realized it must be after curfew, and was surprised to discover how long she'd been holed up in the Room of Requirement.
Ron stepped into the room hesitantly, then appeared to realize where he was. He looked around at the imitation library, complete with an endless supply of books, and said to himself, "I should have known." He shut the door behind him, and the room plunged back into near-darkness.
Harry snorted. "That's what I said," he called out.
From the direction of the doorway, they heard Ron's voice. "Harry? Is that you? Is she in here?"
"Yes," Harry answered, "to all three questions." He stood. "We're over by the check-out desk."
Hermione remained sitting on the floor as Ron approached, not looking up. Harry went to meet Ron, and ran into him several feet away. "Easy, mate," he said, holding out an arm to bar Ron from going to Hermione immediately. "Let's establish some ground rules, shall we?"
"What are you talking about?" Ron asked.
"Hermione and I have been sitting in here having a nice, rational discussion, and I don't want you coming in here, rooting around and tearing up all my progress, all right?"
He was close enough now that he could see Ron's scowl, and he hoped that meant that Hermione was smiling. "Relax," he added. "Everyone's calm, no one's upset. And if you two can keep it that way, I'll leave you alone. I personally am going to sneak down to the kitchen and see if Dobby can get me some food. I've been stuck in detention all day, and then Ron drafted me for the great-Hermione-search immediately after, so I haven't had any dinner yet."
He suddenly turned to Ron again. "Come to think of it, neither of you had any dinner, either, did you? When was the last time you ate, Ron?"
Ron was too distracted to think very hard about it. "I don't know," he answered. "I…I've been too busy worrying about Hermione," he admitted.
Several feet away from each other, Harry and Hermione's jaws dropped in unison. Ron couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten? Because he'd been too worried about Hermione?
After he recovered from his shock, Harry grinned. Hopefully, Hermione recognized that as the declaration of love that it was. His work here was done.
"All right," he said. "I'll leave you two to have the conversation that you should have had last night. I'll bring some food up to the common room for you."
As he passed Ron, Harry muttered "Do something about your hair, mate, it's completely insane."
As Ron took the first step toward Hermione, nervously trying to pat his hair down without being too obvious about it, Harry added, "Relax. It'll be easier than you think."
Ron frowned. That had sounded just cryptic enough to penetrate his preoccupation. Bemused, he watched Harry leave the Room of Requirement, shutting the door behind him and leaving him alone with Hermione.
Ron turned away from the door, crouching down before her as Harry had done not too long before. Hermione met his gaze feeling a lot calmer than she thought she'd be when she came in here. It helped that he wasn't yelling at her.
In fact, he surprised her when he asked quietly, "Are you all right?"
Hermione swallowed, cleared her throat. "Better," she answered.
Ron nodded. "I want you to know that I figured it out," he said. At Hermione's confused look, he elaborated. "It's the 'last resort' thing again, isn't it?"
Hermione said nothing, and Ron expounded. "Like with the Yule Ball, two years ago. I think, from what you said, that maybe you would have gone with me if it had been what I'd wanted from the beginning. I understand now why you got angry when I just assumed you'd go at the last minute. And once I remembered that, I realized it was the same thing I did yesterday…just assuming that you and I would go to Hogsmeade today.
"But see, in my mind," he continued, "it's a foregone conclusion that the three of us go everywhere together, when we can. Harry couldn't go, because of the detention, but when he urged us to, I took for granted that you and I would still go."
"That, uh…I can see how you would assume that," Hermione admitted. "I should have thought to ask you before I agreed to go with Dean."
Ha, Harry!Ron thought, Look! We can have progress on our own!
"So that's…that," Ron said awkwardly. "I think I've finally learned my lesson not to take you for granted. I hope so. But…as far as this whole 'secret' thing goes…"
"Ron, stop," Hermione said, putting a hand on his arm. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
His incredulous look actually earned a laugh from her. "I realize that I could have saved us all a lot of trouble if I'd come to that conclusion this morning, but I…had to learn a lesson too, I guess."
Ron breathed a deep sigh of relief. Not because he was off the hook, but because she'd laughed. If he could still make her laugh, it wasn't all lost. There was still a chance he could make it right.
Her laugh had also swept away the pained formality between them, and he moved to sit beside her against the desk. He didn't sit close enough touch, but it was close enough so that he could feel the heat from her body against his side.
"You didn't let me finish though," he said lightly. "I'm going to try really hard to not take you for granted any more, Hermione. But when it comes to this 'secret', I need you to know that I'm telling you as a last resort."
Hermione blanched, all humor gone again from her face. Before she could say anything, Ron nudged her with his elbow. "Listen to me," he asked her.
When Hermione continued to watch him expectantly, Ron went on. "Well, it's kind of a last resort, anyway. See, I originally made the decision not to tell you because more than anything in the past six years of my life, I've valued our friendship. It's like I said to Harry yesterday…the three of us have something special. We each found something here, in each other, that we didn't have before. And all I knew was that I didn't want to lose it. When I decided not to tell you, I was trying to protect us.
"I didn't want to tell you because I was afraid of how you'd react, and what you'd think of me. I was trying to avoid the whole situation. But when I realized my choice was either to tell you, or live with having driven you away because you thought I didn't trust you…well that made it simple for me, really. So yes, I suppose you could say that it's as a last resort…but I want to tell you. Does that make a difference?"
He looked over at her, and saw that she was crying again. But something told him it wasn't a bad thing, this time. Hermione reached up with her left hand and wiped at her cheeks, and reached over with her right to take his hand. He was relieved when she laced her fingers through his and squeezed. "It makes a difference to me," she said, smiling. She leaned over a little and rested her forehead on his shoulder, her eyes closed, as if she were giving and drawing strength from him.
Finally, she looked up and met his eyes. Ron stared down into hers, very aware of how close she was. Hermione squeezed his hand again. "I just want you to know, Ron," she said with a little difficulty, "that whatever it is won't matter to me. I'll always be your friend…I really want you to know that."
"Yeah," Ron said, trying desperately to keep any traces of disappointment out of his voice. Above all else, he needed her friendship. He could live without her loving him back, but she had to know how much her friendship meant to him. "I know that," he said warmly, squeezing back.
As the moment stretched out, Ron suddenly realized he hadn't quite gotten around to confessing, yet. "Right," he said, clearing his throat. "Well, um…the thing that I was afraid to tell you was uh…it's just that I um…"
He took a deep breath, staring straight ahead. He couldn't look at her, he couldn't. "It's just that I'm in love with you," he said on the exhalation. Immediately, he closed his eyes. He couldn't believe he'd just said it. Now that he had, the words came in a rush. "I don't know for how long, apparently it took me forever to figure it out. Harry said he's known for a couple years, but I think it's been longer, now that I've realized it. And I know that you don't feel the same way, and that's okay… Well, actually, that part pretty much sucks, but I didn't expect anything different, and I just want you to know that the most important thing is having you in my life, because without you and Harry I…"
He stopped, because Hermione had shifted so that she was kneeling next to him now, instead of sitting, and she was looking at him. He could see her there in his peripheral vision, though he was still staring straight ahead. His heart was racing, and he couldn't really catch his breath, but he finally made his head turn to face her.
She was looking at him in wonder, and he didn't know what to make of that. She didn't appear to be angry, though, and that was a welcome surprise. She wasn't laughing, either, and that was nice, too.
The wonder, though…what did that mean? Her eyes were wide and luminous; they seemed to have caught all of the light that was available in the room, because they were shining at him. She wasn't exactly smiling, but she looked…happy?
Finally, he couldn't take it any more. "What are you thinking," he whispered, not trusting his voice.
Hermione took a shaky breath, laughing a little. "I'm thinking Harry was right…you're a block-head."
At Ron's look of consternation, she laughed again. It was a bright, silvery sound that unburdened his heart. She was so close now, and then she reached out and traced her fingertips down his right cheek. "Oh, you idiot," she breathed. "I've loved you for ages."
Ron gasped, and his heart started beating triple-time. Her touch sent shivers through him, but it was nothing next to the effect her words had. He couldn't quite believe his own ears. "You…you love me?" he asked.
Now she was smiling, smiling through her tears. "I do," she said softly.
Ron made a sound…it sounded too hysterical to be a laugh. This didn't feel real. Had he really heard her right? He tried again. "You love… Me?"
Hermione's laugh sounded a lot like his…disbelieving, incredulous and joyous all at the same time. "Yes," she said.
Ron let out a deep breath he hadn't known he'd been holding, giddy with relief and possibility. Hermione loved him! Though it felt like a million bludgers had been set loose in his stomach, he found the courage to reach up, placing his hand over hers on his face. It was real. He could feel it. He could smell the light scent on the inside of her wrist, and recognized it as the same brand of perfume as the kind he'd given her for Christmas a couple years before. It made him dizzy, or maybe that was just because she was so close. Closer.
Instinctively, he lowered his head to her as she looked up at him. And sitting there together against the desk in a magical room, their lips met and pressed softly together.
He had automatically shut his eyes when he kissed her, but it only intensified the sensation of her soft lips on his. That perfect moment seemed to last forever, and then it didn't so much end as melt into something deeper. Hermione opened her mouth very slightly, and pressed another kiss upon him, swamping him in sweetness. Oh…he hadn't known anything could feel like this, ever in the world.
When at last they drew apart, Hermione's deep sigh brought a new smile to his face. He wasn't ever…EVER…going to ask her if Viktor or Dean had kissed her – he was done with being the jealous bloke on the sidelines – but he was pretty sure that if they had, it hadn't been anything like what he and Hermione had just shared.
They leaned in to each other, their foreheads touching as they basked in the afterglow of that perfect kiss. Suddenly, a thought that had been hovering above Ron fell down and smacked him in the head. "Hey!" he said indignantly, straightening up and opening his eyes. "You said you've loved me for ages."
Hermione smiled indulgently. "Years," she clarified.
"Y…years?" Ron echoed, responding to that amazing knowledge – and her smile – with a big, goofy grin.
At her nod, he grinned even more widely, then immediately dropped it for a scowl. "Years! You've loved me for years, then, and never said anything 'til now! So you kept a secret from me!"
Hermione laughed, delighted with him. "Now Ron, that's entirely different."
"I fail to see how!" Ron exclaimed. She grinned impishly at him, and he was having a hard time keeping a straight face. Damnit, it was too hard to frown when he was this happy! But he had a point to make, he did.
"Well, let's examine the facts, Ron," Hermione said in a business-like fashion. Ron found it hard to take her entirely seriously, however, as she had drawn one of his hands to her and was stroking his palm absently. "You've just told me that it took you at least two years to realize how you felt about me. I'd put it right about the same time, myself, but it developed from a crush that started in second year. If I'd told you all that time ago, how do you think you would have reacted?"
Ron forced his attention up from her fingers on his palm to her mischievous eyes. The vixen, she was teasing him! He fought a grin as he conceded her point. "I'd probably have been really confused, highly embarrassed, and totally unwilling to admit any feelings in return," he admitted. "Twelve year old boys aren't very good with emotions."
"Yes," Hermione said dryly, "and sixteen year old ones are regular Casanovas."
"Regular whats?" Ron asked, befuddled.
Hermione shook her head, smiling at him. "Never mind. You're a lot cuter than Humphrey Bogart, anyway," she said as he stood and offered her a hand up. "A lot taller, too," she observed once they were both standing.
"So…how should we tell Harry?" Ron wondered.
Hermione smiled, and squeezed his hand, which she hadn't released after he helped her up. "Why don't we just walk into the common room and let him come to his own conclusions?"
Ron grinned at her, then looked surprised as he remembered something. "He said he was going to bring food up for us!" he said excitedly, pulling her along behind him toward the door. "Come on!"
Laughing, letting him pull her away from the despair she'd come there with, Hermione didn't look back.