Ron watched as the door melted back into blank stone once Harry and Luna had passed through it. He knew that they would be all right, especially with the Invisibility Cloak, but he couldn't help but be concerned. They had been on the run and hiding from everyone for so long that for Harry to have gone into the halls of Hogwarts, invisible or not, felt far too much like exposure.
He descended the narrow flight of steps back to the new and improved Room of Requirement in time to hear Hermione giving the others gathered there an abridged version of their adventures. She glossed over what, exactly, they were searching for, but Ron noticed his sister shudder and walk away when Hermione briefly mentioned Riddle's diary. He moved in that direction and put an arm around Ginny's shoulders, giving her a brief squeeze. "You OK?" he asked, careful to keep his voice low.
"Yes. No. I don't know." Ginny laid her head on her brother's shoulder. "It's still so hard to hear. . . it mentioned, even all these years later." She pulled away slightly and looked up into Ron's face. "What does that have to do with what else you three have been doing?"
Ron hesitated before replying. "I really can't say, Ginny. It's Harry's decision who to tell the entire story to."
Ginny looked angry and tried to pull away from Ron completely, but he held her fast. "Harry hasn't told you anything up until now by choice, you know. He made a promise to keep all of this a secret from everyone except Hermione and me."
Ginny snorted, a sure sign that she was severely irritated. "A promise to who?" she asked.
Ginny's mouth made a small "O" of surprise, and the flush of anger started to fade from her cheeks. She was a little bit upset with Harry for keeping things from here, but had to regard a promise to their late headmaster as an excellent reason for doing so. She felt Ron's hold on her relax.
"I can tell you, though," Ron said, "that knowing about the diary was a major clue for us. That and a few other things that happened in the Chamber. In fact, in won't be very long now before all of the lessons we've learned will be put to use."
Ginny had to bite her tongue to not ask anything more. She had learned patience in the past few months, despite the hardness of the lessons. Besides, she trusted her brother, and Hermione, and Harry most of all. When the time was right she'd learn everything. She just had to be patient and wait.
Ron could feel the tension leave Ginny. The two of them had always had a close relationship and he was glad that she trusted him and accepted his word so readily. He was also conscious of a powerful feeling of home as he stood there with his arm around her. He had missed all of his family in the months since Bill and Fleur's wedding, not least of all his little sister. To be back with her now, even under the current circumstances, made him conscious of a surge in hope; hope that they would soon see the end of the war.
But even as he started to feel more hopeful his mind started turning over what remained of their task. They had lost the Sword of Gryffindor during their adventure at Gringotts, which took away the one known method they had for destroying Horcruxes. Even as that thought crossed his mind he felt the weight of the cup in his jacket pocket. It seemed to be getting heavier, almost as if it knew of the dilemma and was awaiting its chance to escape. He took his arm from Ginny's shoulders and pinched the bridge of his nose; his eyes were burning with fatigue and his brain felt like it was clawing through glue as he thought about what to do next.
Ginny, sensing that Ron was absorbed in his thoughts, moved away from his side and approached Hermione. The two of them conversed in low voices as Ron watched. Maybe it was the fatigue, but he couldn't get his mind to focus on the present. He kept seeing Hermione as she had looked, Petrified in the hospital wing, and Ginny at age eleven, her face pale and her robes dirty, as she and Harry had emerged from the Chamber of Secrets.
And then, in a flash of insight, he knew what needed to be done. He strode over and took Ginny by the arm, spinning her around to face him squarely.
"Ginny, I'm not asking this to upset you, but I need to know something about what happened in the Chamber."
Ginny scowled and tried to pull away, but Ron held her fast. "Ginny, it's important. Maybe life-or-death important." He reached out with one hand and cupped her cheek. "You know I wouldn't bring it up if it wasn't."
Ginny, her stance tense and tight, searched Ron's eyes. She saw the urgency there, and knew that he was telling her the absolute truth; it was a matter of life or death now. She relaxed a little, and gave a curt nod, indicating that Ron could ask what he needed to.
"What happened to the basilisk's body?" Ron asked
"What?" Ginny was totally confused; she had thought for sure Ron's question would have something to do with Riddle himself that she was caught off guard.
"The body!" Ron repeated. "The body of that giant snake! What happened to it?"
"Nothing!" Ginny replied. "Harry killed it and we just left it there. Why?"
Ron turned aware from her, his mind racing. It was a chance, a small chance. A long shot, even. But if it worked out. . .
He strode forward, taking Hermione by the hand and moving towards the stairs, grabbing a broomstick as he went.
"Ron, wha. . .?"
"Come on," he said. "I know what we need to do."
"What?" Hermione asked, recognizing the urgency in his words and falling into step beside him.
"We need to go to the bathroom."
"Ron, are you sure about this?" Hermione's voice sounded worried, as usual. They had managed to navigate their way to the door of Moaning Myrtle's bathroom without incident, probably because of the uproar that they heard in the Ravenclaw Tower and somewhere on the sixth floor. Ron didn't relax, though, until they had safely slipped inside the lavatory and Hermione had cast her strongest locking charm on the door.
Hermione breathed a sigh of relief. "OK, now what?"
"We have to find the sink," he said. "Look for a snake scratched on one of the taps." Hermione moved towards the closest sink. "And pray that Myrtle doesn't put in an appearance."
Hermione shot a quick grin over her shoulder before leaning over the sink to examine the faucet. She ran her hand along both sides, feeling for something that might escape her eyes in the flickering torchlight. Ron watched her for a few moments, almost hypnotized by the motion of her hands. He gave himself a quick shake and moved to the sink on the opposite end of the room.
He had no idea how long they were searching; it seemed like hours. It was probably only a few minutes, though, until Hermione gasped. Ron looked up, surprised to find her right next to him. She was smiling.
"I think I've found it," she said, and took Ron's hand, guiding it to a particular spot on the tap. He could feel the roughness on the copper; he carefully moved his fingers to trace the shape. It curved and coiled under his touch; Hermione had, indeed, found what they were looking for. Without giving it a thought Ron leaned close and quickly kissed her on the cheek; Hermione blushed.
"Well done," he said, and took a step back. "Now, of course, comes the difficulty."
"Because the entry won't open without Parseltongue."
Hermione was silent for a moment. "Then why are we here?" she asked. "It's not like we can get in."
Ron gripped Hermione by the shoulders, turning her to face him squarely. He met her eyes and held them. "We have to try, Hermione. Do you have any other ideas?" When she shook her head no he released her. "I'd better be the one to try," he said. "I was with Harry the last time, after all. Maybe I'll remember what he sounded like."
Hermione resisted the urge to shrug and stepped back from the sink so Ron could get closer to it. From a certain angle he could see the snake scratched on the surface of the tap, and he concentrated all of his attention on it. His memory of the last time he and Harry had stood in that spot was hazy, but he did his best.
"Open," he said, then turned to look at Hermione.
She shook her head. "English," was all she said. She had her hands clasped together and the fingers entwined. Her knuckles were white.
Ron turned back to the sink, this time concentrating more on his memories than on the snake. He tried again, but heard the word come out of his mouth in English. He sighed in frustration, shoving a hand through his hair.
"Try again," Hermione said. "You said it yourself; we have to try."
So he tried. And tried again. He could feel Hermione's frustration and it was definitely feeding his own. He was on the verge of giving up when all of a sudden he heard the sound of air escaping from something long sealed and the sink shifted, and then sank out of sight.
Hermione grabbed his hand. "Oh my God, Ron! You did it!" She threw her arms around his neck. "You actually did it! You are absolutely brilliant!" She pulled away and looked up into his face with a sly grin. "Scary sometimes, but brilliant."
Ron rolled his eyes. "Very funny." Taking Hermione's hand he stepped forward and gazed down into the slimy, gaping hole that he remembered from before.
"Now what?" she asked.
Ron grinned. "What do you think?" he asked, and wrapped his arms around her waist before jumping into the hole.
Hermione screamed in terror for the first part of the drop, but once they hit the slope she quieted down briefly. Before Ron knew what was happening she was laughing as they twisted and turned through the roller-coaster of pipes. He couldn't help joining in; he felt that they were getting that much closer to their goal. And what a surprise it would be for Harry!
All too soon the ride was over, and they were tumbling out of the pipe and onto the wet floor of the tunnel. Ron expected Hermione to be disgusted by not only her own condition but that of the floor, but she simply stood up, attempted to wipe the worst of the goop from her jeans and looked around. "Which way?"
Ron moved in the direction he remembered, taking Hermione's hand as he did. He was rather surprised to find that the snakeskin he remembered was decayed into dust and for the first time since the pipe opened he felt a shiver of concern. What if the basilisk itself was gone – decayed into nothing? He mentally shrugged; better to find out for sure than not try at all.
They had to climb over the rock fall that had been caused by Lockhart's backfired spell and struggled through the hole that Ron had made years ago for Harry and Ginny to pass through. It was a tight squeeze for both of them; Ron almost got stuck but Hermione pushed from behind and he made it through. He quickly turned and helped her, setting her gently on her feet on the other side. When Hermione picked at a small tear in her jeans he shrugged. "The hole was a lot bigger five years ago."
"And you were quite a bit smaller," Hermione replied with a smile. "So was I, for that matter. Especially in a certain area." She reached inside her sweater and adjusted her breasts; Ron turned away, blushing as she laughed. "I'll have some bruises there in a couple of days."
"Come on," Ron said, his face still aflame. "It can't be much further."
They walked forward, the sound of their footsteps echoing in the tunnel. There was also patches of water, and the wet slapping sound was unnerving, to say the least.
The echoes started to get more pronounced. "There's definitely a large, open space ahead," Hermione said, and cringed as her voice reverberated back. She went on in a softer voice. "I hope we find what we're looking for."
The words had barely left her mouth when they arrived at the entrance to the Chamber itself. The two giant, stone doors stood open a crack; it took quite a bit of effort to open them wide enough to admit two people. Hermione stared at the snakes carved on the doors for a few minutes before she shuddered and stepped through, Ron at her heels.
She stopped just inside the door and Ron ran into her back. He reached out to steady her, but Hermione broke free and ran towards the far end of the Chamber.
"It's here!" she shouted, the echo distorting her voice. "It's still here, and intact!"
Ron started to run after her and saw what she saw. The basilisk was, indeed, still there and still intact. Completely intact. It didn't appear to have decayed at all in the five years since Harry had killed it.
"It's a powerful magical creature," Hermione said, answering Ron's thoughts. "It would take decades, maybe even a century, before it would start to decompose." She smiled up at Ron. "We'll be able to do it! Destroy the last Horcruxes!" And she threw her arms around Ron's neck, hugging him with every ounce of strength in her body.
It took Ron a moment to respond due to shock, but when he got over it he hugged Hermione tightly, lifting her off of her feet. She was warm and soft and the best hug he could ever imagine. He lost track of time until he felt her start to pull away. He reluctantly released her and turned to the business at hand.
He approached the basilisk's head, giving its mouth with the poisonous fangs a wide berth. He paused to think about the next step and then pulled out his wand. He shrugged once, said "It's worth a try", pointed his wand at one of the fangs and shouted "DIFFINDO!"
With a loud crack the fang came loose. With a cry of triumph Hermione stooped and picked it up, careful to keep her hands away from the jagged point. With her other hand she took out her wand and repeated the spell. Another fang fell to the damp floor.
It didn't take long for the two of them to magically remove every fang in the creature's mouth. They gathered up as many as they could and started back towards the tunnel.
Hermione stopped short at Ron's shout. "What?" she asked. "We've got what we came for, and I don't want to spend any more time down here." She looked around at the enormous Chamber. "This place gives me the creeps."
Ron shook his head. "We can't leave yet," he said, dropping the fangs that he held with a clatter. He pulled Hufflepuff's cup out of his jacket pocket and set it on the floor between them. "We can't leave until you destroy it."
Hermione looked down at the cup and started to back away. "No, no, no. I. . . I. . . I can't," she said. "I don't want to go near that thing." The fear in her voice was palpable, and it matched the fear on her face. She continued to back away, shaking her head, until she came up against the far wall of the Chamber. She slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor, still shaking her head. The fangs she had been holding spread out around her, skittering across the floor.
Ron moved closer and knelt before Hermione. He was surprised and dismayed to see tears in her eyes. He took her hands in his.
"Hermione, believe me I know how you feel. I do. But you are stronger than that hunk of junk. You're smart, powerful, and you have a heart as big as that snake back there." He jerked his thumb towards the basilisk's body. "And you have me; you have my love to keep you strong." He was hardly aware of what he was saying: all he knew was that it was important to get through to Hermione and support her. He poured all of his feelings for her into the words, feeling his inhibitions collapse like a house of cards. "I love you, Hermione, and I know – I know – that you can do this."
Hermione looked up into Ron's blue eyes and saw all the truth of his words reflected there. "You. . . You love me?" she asked, sounding bewildered.
Ron smiled. "I always have. There's never been another girl in the world for me. It's always been you, Hermione." He kissed both of her hands before helping her rise to her feet. "Now let's get rid of that damned thing!"
Hermione felt a surge of emotion in response to Ron's declaration, and suddenly realized he was right. She was strong enough. She would prove, once and for all, that being a Muggleborn made no difference. And Ron's love would be with her, giving her that something extra. She could do this.
She stooped down and picked up one of the fangs, then knelt alongside the cup. She took a deep breath and raised the fang above her head. She glanced behind her one last time.
"For the record I love you too. Always have."
And the basilisk fang plunged down.