The ironic thing was, there'd been no damage to the Gryffindor Common Room or the dormitories whatsoever. Ron wished there had been a way to know that before this night started; he could have been spared hours of worry if they'd just stayed put. He sighed deeply and threw himself down on the sofa before the fire, reveling in the way his muscles were able to relax after the hours and hours of physical effort involved in putting things right. It was almost painful, how good it felt just to lie down.
They still had a long way to go, of course. There was a lot of wreckage and fire damage left to be seen to, but that was for another day. Tonight they had set themselves toward making sure that everyone was all right, assuring that the structure was sound in all of the places people needed to go, and cleaning up the rubble that blocked the stairwells and doorways. And then, of course, they'd had to look after the younger students, who were still frightened and needed explanations.
Just then, the portrait hole swung open ( the Fat Lady, after much persuasion, was once again guarding the entrance to the Gryffindor Common Room. Ron had had to listen to her frightened ramblings for twenty minutes before she was reassured enough to consent to resume her position in the portrait ) and Hermione stepped in. Ron quickly sat up.
She'd taken the time to clean herself up a little while they were waiting for Madame Pomfrey to see her, so her face was no longer streaked with dirt, and her hair had been tamed. There had been quite a few minor injuries for the Hogwarts Healer to see to, as well as several more serious cases of broken bones and the like, and since Hermione hadn't wanted to waste the time it would take to have her arm healed properly, she'd asked Madame Pomfrey to just set it in a cast, for the time being. Pomfrey hadn't liked the idea – Muggle medicine was so very inferior to just doing it right – but with seven other students clamoring to see her, it seemed prudent to give Hermione what she wanted and let her get back to helping the Professors clean up the mess of the battle. As long as no further damage was done to the arm, she could fix it up in a jiffy later. The cast (which she'd had to research quickly in a very old, very dusty medical volume in her office) would suffice until then.
Since then, Hermione had been a trooper, working along side him all night despite her broken arm. Honestly, Ron thought that everyone had done a fine job…except for the prefects of Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, that is. Ron was miffed at them; if they'd been able to handle their responsibilities the same way Hermione and Draco Malfoy had handled theirs, Hermione wouldn't have had to go off risking her life to save the students, and he wouldn't have had to agonize for hours about whether or not one of his best friends was dead.
Now, his very alive friend came and sat next to him on the sofa, sighing in very much the same way Ron had when he'd finally been able to relax. Her eyes closed for a moment as she leaned back and enjoyed the sensation of rest. Ron watched her, unaware of the naked tenderness on his face. "Are you all right?" he asked. "How's your arm?"
Hermione's eyes opened again, and she looked at him…missing nothing. Something in her own expression must have spoken to him, because he seemed to be having trouble looking away. As the moment between them stretched out, a pretty blush rose on Hermione's cheeks, captivating Ron.
She finally dropped her gaze, clearing her throat delicately. "I'm fine. The numbing charm Madame Pomfrey put on my arm should hold up through tomorrow, when she's got the time to take the cast off and fix it properly."
Ron scooted closer, taking her broken arm gingerly and examining the white, plaster cast. He tried – and failed - not to notice the way her thigh pressed against his as he sat next to her. "This is really an odd thing," he commented. "How did you even think of it?"
Hermione shook her head to disguise the shiver that ran through her when Ron leaned close to her. "I didn't think of it…not originally, anyway. It's standard in the Muggle treatment of broken bones. I had a cast once when I was a little girl, before Hogwarts. I remember my Mum and Dad signing it and drawing little pictures on it for me when we got home from the doctor, and suddenly it didn't seem like such a bad thing to have on my leg."
"People sign them?" Ron asked, going still. "Why?"
Hermione thought about it for a moment. "You know, I'm not sure. It's just what they do. Someone breaks a bone, they get a cast, and then their friends and family sign it. Maybe it's just to cheer them up. You know…a constant reminder of happiness, for however long they have to wear it."
Ron swallowed, then committed himself to the idea that had just come to him. "Can…can I sign it?"
Hermione looked back up at him, surprised. "It's coming off tomorrow," she started.
"That's okay," Ron said quickly. "I just…want to write something." When Hermione nodded, Ron leaned over to the end table, picking up a felt-tip marker he'd seen there. Awkwardly, he turned so that he faced away from Hermione. She sat behind him with her arm extended, the cast resting along his leg. He bent over it and started writing, not giving himself a chance to back out. He started at the very top of the cast, up by her hand:
I wish I could just say this to you, but I can't. I've been trying for over three years, and haven't been able to make the words come. Until now, my biggest fear was always that I'd drive you away if I told you the truth, and I couldn't bear the thought of us not being friends anymore. But after tonight, I have a different greatest fear.
"Ron?" Hermione asked, trying to lean forward and look over his shoulder at her arm. "Are you writing a novel? Most people just put 'Get well soon', or something."
"Just give me a minute," Ron stalled, trying to block out the sensation of Hermione pressed against his back. He had to finish this.
He wrote on:
I know you. I knew that if anyone could get those students through that hell alive, it would be you. You know every word of every spell we've ever been taught, and you've got the talent to perform each one without a hitch. You've been nagging and mother-henning Harry and me for the past seven years, always keeping us on track…I knew you could take care of those kids and get them through. But Hermione, I was so afraid you wouldn't make it. There was so much stacked against you. Though I believed in you, I was desperately afraid that I'd never see you again. That I really had lost you forever.
When we saw you herding the kids to us, all of you safe and sound, I fully realized how afraid I'd been to never see you again. When you came running up and threw your arms around me, when I was holding you…that's when I knew how much I needed you. When you insisted Madame Pomfrey only bind up your arm so you could help us get everything back in order, that's when I knew I loved you…that I've always loved you.
"Just hold on; I'm almost done."
And when you looked at me just now, your eyes so full of words unsaid, that's when I knew I wanted to be with you always. I knew I needed to tell you.
So now you know. I love you, I have loved you, and will always love you. If you don't feel the same, I…I'll learn to live with it. The most important thing is having you in my life. But from the look on your face just now…I think you do. I hope you do.
I hope you didn't want anyone else to sign your cast, because I've used up every inch of room on it. But I'm going to stop writing now, and give you back your arm. I'm going to let you read this, and then I want you to look up at me. You don't have to say anything…I'll know by your face how you feel. I hope you're smiling. I hope your eyes are shining at me the way they do when you're happy. I hope you love me as much as I love you. I hope.
Heart pounding, Ron capped the marker and tossed it back onto the end table. He released Hermione's arm, and shifted so that she could read what he'd written. He didn't quite have the courage to watch her read it, so he stared at the fire instead. There was a long, long moment of silence.
After a little while, Hermione cleared her throat. When Ron didn't move, she said, "You asked me not to say anything, but you're not looking at me."
Ron croaked out a hollow laugh, still staring at the fire. "I'm afraid to look at you," he said.
He felt Hermione's hand on his arm, a gentle, intimate touch. "You don't have to be afraid," she replied.
Scarcely daring to believe what that statement implied, Ron forced himself to look at her. She was staring at him the way she had a few minutes ago, when he asked her if she was all right. Only this time she wasn't looking away. "Are they shining?" she asked him, smiling.
To his relief, to his wonder, to his joy…they were.