The night was quiet, peaceful. It was cold, but not the kind of cold that pierces your skin—it was more of a crisp cold, the kind that makes everything seem sharper, brighter, more in focus. Ron liked it. He sat in the mouth of the tent, still marveling at the fact that he had actually missed this: trading shifts to keep watch, staring out into the forest, living in a tent with his two best friends, almost like they were practicing for some day down the line when they might rent a flat together.
Tonight was December the 31st. That meant he had officially been back with Harry and Hermione for five days now. It felt more like five weeks, what with Hermione's attitude toward him and all that had happened with Xenophilius Lovegood. Yet he was happier than he had been in a long time.
The flap of the tent opened suddenly, and Hermione stormed out and plopped down next to him.
"He—is—driving—me—mad!" She growled.
Ron let out a sympathetic sigh. "Yeah, I know," he replied. "But you know how he gets when he's absolutely convinced of something—remember his obsession with Malfoy last year?"
"But Ron, this is just so, so stupid," Hermione huffed. "I mean, not only are the Deathly Hallows nonexistent, but even on the off chance that they weren't, he should still be focusing on Horcruxes! Isn't that why we're on this mission in the first place? Isn't that what Dumbledore instructed him to do?" She scuffed the ground angrily with her sneakers. "He is just so stubborn sometimes!"
Ron checked behind them to see if Harry had heard her ranting, but it seemed she had successfully kept her fuming to a minimum. "He'll get over it, Hermione," Ron reassured her. "He's just really excited right now, that's all."
Hermione released a deep sigh. "I know. You're right. Sorry, I know I've been ranting a lot lately."
"'S okay," Ron told her, "at least you're not ranting about me anymore."
She glanced at him with a guilty grin. "Which you deserved, you know," she said, half-severely, half-playfully.
"I don't deny it," said Ron seriously, looking out at the trees. "I know I messed up. Why have you suddenly decided to forgive me?"
She shrugged. "Honestly, it's a lot of work trying to stay mad at you for so long when we're in such close proximity."
Ron laughed. "So this had nothing to do with my repenting? Or the fact that you're hacked off at Harry now instead of me?"
"Well, I mean, it could be that, too," she said with a smile.
"Oh, Hermione," Ron sighed, "you've no idea how much I missed this." He gestured between the two of them.
"I think I do, actually," she said quietly.
That simple answer made Ron very aware of the grave mistake he had made.
"I really hurt you, didn't I." It was a statement, not a question.
"More than I can say," she told him.
"As much as I did with the whole Lavender thing?"
Again, she considered, and her eyes roamed over the surrounding trees and the frost-bitten ground. She played with the sleeves of her sweatshirt as she thought about it.
"I think this was different," she finally said.
"In what way?" Ron asked her. There was a frown on her face; she was thinking hard about how to articulate her feelings.
"In the sense that...Okay, yes, the Lavender thing really did cut me deep. We've talked about that. But I tend to think of you and I in—phases, I guess, would be the word—and it seemed that after you broke up with her, we were in a new phase. Better than any of the previous phases we had been in."
Ron could not have agreed more. He had never thought about the two of them that way—only Hermione could be so insightful—but now, as she said it, he found it very fitting.
"And then we promised each other we would stop all the nonsense, remember? At the Burrow? You said we would stop all the jealousy and cruel teasing and the...game...or whatever it was we were playing, and we would just be us."
Ron nodded. Of course he remembered that conversation.
"Well...I thought things were very clear after that. I thought it was very evident that we both cared about each other a lot, that we were determined to go on the Horcrux hunt together, to help Harry, and that afterwards, we would see what would happen."
"Yeah," Ron said quietly.
"And, well, Ron, that's not what played out. You became moody and sullen and angry, and at the end there you just—just broke all your promises, to me and to Harry, and you left us."
Her words resonated in the still winter air: You left us.
Ron felt that someone had just placed a heavy weight on the top of his head, or maybe over his heart. He was condemned, he was forced to face his gravest mistake, he was being shown the most loveless act he had ever committed by the one person he loved the most.
"Hermione, I need to explain something to you," Ron said timidly.
"Ron Weasley, if you're about to try and justify—" she began hotly, but he cut her off.
"No, I'm not going to try and justify anything. But you should know that Harry and I were not completely honest with you when we came back with the sword that night."
"What do you mean?" she asked sharply.
Ron took a great breath. "Okay," he said. "Thing is, when I destroyed the locket, a lot of stuff happened."
Hermione sat perfectly still, watching him with a shrewd expression, and he almost wondered if she had suspected this all along.
"Something in that locket, some lingering bit of You-Know-Who, it really messed with me," Ron continued.
"Do you mean you were hurt?" Hermione asked, and there was a definite trace of concern on her face and in her voice.
"No," Ron said quickly. "Not like that. But...okay, you know how when we kept taking turns wearing the locket, we all got really edgy? Especially me?"
"Well, I think...I think the locket was kind of possessing us, in a way. Not like the way the diary possessed Ginny, but...I think keeping it so close to us, and feeling emotional...the locket kind of fed off of that."
"Okay, I follow you..." she said slowly.
"Alright, well, during those weeks before I left, I was feeling kind of...left out. Useless. Like I wasn't as smart as you or Harry and I just kept missing things that you two understood with such ease. And I know I was miserable and grumpy, we all were, but in addition to that, some of my emotions were running high."
"I don't think I know what you mean."
Ron ran a hand through his hair, wondering how best to explain everything. "Look, Hermione, when Harry opened the locket in the forest, Tom Riddle's voice came out of it, and it started saying things to me—things like that my mother didn't love me, that you didn't love me, that all of my worst fears were true. And then—" Ron's face screwed up in obvious pain as he remembered—"These weird shapes came out of the locket. Really messed up versions of you and Harry."
"Me?" Hermione gasped. "And Harry?"
"Yeah," Ron confirmed. "They were just kind of...representations of you two. Except really evil looking, see? And the two of you told me that you had been better off without me, that you didn't want me to come back at all, and then Harry said my mother had told him she wanted him as a son instead of me, and you agreed with him, you said—"
He found it hard to
"Said what, Ron?" Hermione asked gently. "What did I say?"
"You said that next to Harry, I was nothing," Ron admitted pathetically. "That no woman would ever want me, compared with him. And then you kind of...wrapped around him, and you kissed him."
Hermione looked completely taken aback. "And then what?" she asked breathlessly.
"Then I stabbed it. I don't know what made me do it. I was a mess—I couldn't think straight, couldn't think of anything except how much I hated seeing you wrapped around Harry like that."
Hermione was clearly at a loss for words. Ron seized the opportunity to explain a little further.
"Hermione, the locket fed off my deepest insecurities. It learned too much about me and it used it against me in the end. Every time I wore it, I got to thinking stuff like that—but I think wearing the locket magnified all of my fears and made them seem inescapably true. And that night that Harry and I got in a row, and I asked you what you were going to do, you told me you were staying with him, and I thought that meant you were choosing him over me. And I snapped, because it was my deepest fear: that you two really are better than me, that I'm nothing compared to either of you, and that you could never choose me over Harry."
He said all of this in a rush, and it felt good to put it all out there, but he suddenly felt vulnerable at the same time. Now he watched Hermione carefully, waiting for her to respond, worrying about what she would say.
Finally she turned and looked at him, plainly showing her emotions on her face.
"Ron," she said quietly, and his heart skipped a beat. She had used that tone only several times before, when they were having meaningful conversations or sharing a special moment. He believed it was her way of indicating tenderness. "I'm really, really sorry," she continued, looking up earnestly into his face. "If I had known you were feeling those things, I could have helped you, could have explained to you that there was no need to worry about that, that I would never look at Harry like that."
"Never?" he asked disbelievingly.
"Never," she repeated. "Look, I love Harry with my whole heart, but not in that way."
"So you'd never..."
"Kiss him?" she asked.
Ron was too embarrassed to say anything, so he simply nodded.
"No," Hermione said clearly. "I would never kiss him. I've never thought of him like that, and I never will. He's my best friend and I love him dearly, but in a brother-sister kind of way."
Ron let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Okay."
"And listen to me," she said, suddenly stern. "I know you worry all the time that you're not good enough. You always have. I know you feel overshadowed, I know you feel incompetent, but you need to stop thinking that way, because it's the biggest lie imaginable."
He frowned at her. He had not expected a mini-lecture on his self esteem problems. "Well, alright then, Mum," he said.
"I'm serious, Ron. You are completely invaluable to us—smarter than you realize, braver than you think, more compassionate than you can fathom. But even if you weren't all those things, we would still love you and need you. Do you understand me?"
He was blushing. Why was he blushing? He could feel the heat on his face and looked down at his hands. "Yes," he told her.
"Good," she said with an abrupt return to the gentler manner she had adapted for most of this conversation. "And I'm sorry for punching you that night you came back."
He raised his head and looked at her face: there was definitely a playful smile there. He loved it when she was playful.
"Oh," said Ron. "Well, I can't forgive you for that, sorry. I'm still in too much physical pain. The bruises are still purple."
She laughed. "Shut up, you arse." Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her eyes were illuminated with that rare spark she had when she was completely joyful. Her smile was all for him.
"You're beautiful," Ron said before he could stop himself, "d'you know that?"
She blushed a little bit and let out a small laugh. "No, I don't. But thanks for the random compliment."
"Least I can do," Ron said with a grin. "Say, Hermione, do you know what tonight is?"
She thought about it for a moment, wearing her usual problem-solving look. "It's not New Year's Eve, is it?"
"Right in one," he confirmed. "Goodbye 1996, hello 1997."
"This could be a big year, Ron," she said solemnly.
"I sure as hell hope so," he said. "But it's a big year for us regardless."
"Come off it, this is a whole fresh start! Let's think back on 1996: Okay, at the start of the year, I was still dating Lav-Lav, you hated me, then I got poisoned, we were kinda friends again, then it was all awkward, then, oh yeah, Dumbledore got murdered by Snape, we were all a mess, Mad-Eye was killed by Death Eaters, we spent most of the fall living in a tent while I acted like a jerk, and then I left you. Mmm. Great year."
"Well, I guess when you put it like that..."
"Point is," Ron continued, "we—meaning you and I—are starting over. Again."
"Again," she laughed.
"Yeah. But seriously now, I am not going to be a git to you anymore. And that is a promise I intend to keep."
Hermione smiled. "Alright then, I'll take it."
"Great," said Ron. "So you and I are good again."
"Yes, we are," said Hermione. "We're more than good. We're fantastic."
"Excellent," Ron returned with sincere enthusiasm. "Now why don't you go inside and warm up? Your watch isn't for a couple of hours. I'll be fine out here."
"It's not exactly warm in there, either," Hermione reminded him.
"Go put on my Cannons sweatshirt. I left it on my bunk. It's really warm, it'll keep you comfortable."
Hermione beamed at him. "Well, if you insist," she said.
"I do. Go read or knit or whatever it is you do for fun."
She rolled her eyes and stood up, brushing off her old pair of Gryffindor sweatpants.
"Have fun now," said Ron teasingly.
"I will," said Hermione. But before she turned to go back in the tent, she bent down over him and gently kissed the top of his head. "I'm really glad you're back, Ron."
"Yeah," he said breathlessly, "me too."