Author's Note: This is my second in a series of one-shots that accompany my epic work, Soul Nexus. As before, this can be read alone without any background, but do know it's an interlude between Chapter 14 and 15 of that work. Soul Nexus readers - this details Ron and Hermione's trip to Hogsmeade while Harry and Alicia are having their conversation, among other things.

I hope you enjoy and don't forget to review. :D


Foundation

Hermione Granger thought her life was going pretty well. She had two best friends that, while a little boyish for her taste on occasion, she cared deeply for and felt close to. Her studies were going well, and while it was exhausting keeping up with more classes than she had the time for, the end of term had brought about a huge sense of relief as she'd received no less than an Outstanding on each of her exams.

Presently, she was walking with one of said best friends down to the wizarding village of Hogsmeade on the Saturday after term ended. She'd slated this one day to be completely free of anything work-related and filled with things that truly interested her and that she enjoyed; a vacation of sorts to reward all of her hard work. Tomorrow, of course, she'd be back to her regular routine of studying and memorization, but for now, she could relax.

At least, she'd thought she would be able to relax. As she and Ron passed through Hogwarts' front gates, she realized that one of her favorite redheads wasn't talking much, or at all, really. It was a jarring realization for her after two years of watching Ron's every emotion play out on his face, body language, and particularly his ears. This was one of the things she'd noticed early on about Ron, just like she'd realized she could never tell what Harry was thinking or feeling from expression alone. In that, her two best friends were complete opposites.

However, as of late, she'd been wrong about a number of things, and for her, that wasn't something to be taken lightly. She hadn't missed the fact that most of the things she was wrong about centered on one Ronald Weasley, and that she was making mistakes in reading him like she'd never done before. All the trivial things were still in place – she could tell exactly how much of his homework he'd done whether he wanted to tell her or not, she could tell when his envy of Harry's fame was getting the better of him, and she could tell when he was jealous of something or someone. Which happened all too often, in her opinion. But as of late, she hadn't been able to figure out why his mood could change on a dime, or why he'd been acting almost afraid of her, as if she was going to reach out and slap him at any given moment. She'd even once caught him pick up a book when he'd spotted her walking over.

When all else failed, she'd always been taught to ask an expert. However, the only expert on Ron's feelings was walking right next to her, dead silent and looking down at his shoes as he walked. She'd been trying to force herself to ask him for nearly a week now, but every time she thought she'd gotten up the courage, she'd see him in one of his better moods, laughing and joking around with Harry or one of his other Housemates. Such times were hardly good for a deep conversation, if Ron was capable of one.

"Ron?"

He looked over at her, his eyes devoid of emotion. She'd seen the look somewhere before, but it hadn't been on him. It had been on Harry as he left to go back to live with his Muggle relatives for the summer, cutting him off from the wizarding world and sentencing him to three months of solitude.

"Are you all right?"

He immediately tried to put on a fake expression, but Hermione saw right through it. It wasn't hard, given Ron's experience (or lack thereof) of hiding his feelings. "Yeah, I'm fine. Where do you want to go?"

They'd come up on the village proper while Hermione was lost in her thoughts; so lost that she hadn't even noticed the train station as they passed by it. "Umm, I need to do a bit of Christmas shopping, if you don't mind."

He nodded. "I reckon I should too. I don't think Mum would like an empty box for Christmas."

Hermione smiled, but she found it hard to laugh or even chuckle while she saw the strange sort of apathy in his expression. "Do you know what you want to get everyone?"

Ron shook his head, sighing. "Not really."

"Maybe something will come to you while we're shopping." She, of course, had already made a list of things she wanted to get for everyone else with the exception of Ron. She'd get that later, seeing as he'd be with her the entire time they had in the village. "Come on." She pulled him toward Honeydukes eager to get started. Ron's face brightened as they approached the candy store, and Hermione silently congratulated herself on her own subtlety.

------

The next two hours were spent both finding everything on Hermione's list and Ron wandering around looking for things that he didn't know he was looking for. Eventually they finally got everything together and Hermione splurged on a post owl to deliver it all back up to the castle, straight to her dormitory so no one would be the wiser. After unloading their parcels, Ron's stomach made a loud protest and they headed off to Three Broomsticks. Ron had loosened up as they shopped, and now he was almost back to his normal self.

Of course, this didn't appease Hermione. She knew this was probably the one chance she would get to talk to Ron away from everyone else, where they had the time and the place to discuss things without fear of interruption or someone overhearing. Of course, there were hundreds of Hogwarts students around, but none of them seemed interested in Ron and Hermione past the surprised whispers of seeing them together. Hermione threw those thoughts aside as ludicrous – she cared for Ron deeply, but the idea of being "together" was laughable. After a small voice in her mind pointed out she hadn't declared the idea impossible, Hermione crushed the line of thinking with the millions of reasons why Ronald Weasley was a repulsive, arrogant boy. Even if the boy in front of her was nothing like the Ron she knew.

"Ron?" Her voice broke the silence that had descended over them after their conversation about Christmas plans had slowly died.

"Hmm?" He looked up as he was eating, but at least he had the decency to not open his mouth to speak. Hermione gave him a silent point for that.

"Is everything all right with you? I mean, you've just been acting a little weird."

Ron set down his mug of butterbeer as his eyes darkened and a sad frown crossed his face. "I'm sorry for whatever it is."

Hermione's eyebrows furrowed, confused. "You've nothing to apologize for, Ron. I'm just worried about you."

His mouth moved soundlessly as a telltale pink smear appeared on the tips of his ears. "Why?"

"Well, you're just not usually this quiet, and you've been really nice." When she saw his eyes widen, she wanted to bite her tongue, but the words wouldn't come back. Strangely, Ron didn't seem to be angry, frustrated, or feeling particularly strong about anything. After a moment of surprise, he just looked accepting.

"I'll try to be nicer more. I mean, if I don't muck it up."

Hermione was starting to wonder if she really understood anything about Ron at all. "Why would you think that? I think you're nice enough." Most of the time.

"You just said it was weird for me to act really nice."

Time to put her foot in her mouth, so to speak. "That's not what I meant. I guess the word I'm looking for is docile." That was the word she was looking for, but judging from the question on Ron's face, he hadn't a clue what it meant. She tried to keep her speech at a level he could easily understand, but sometimes it was impossible. "It means calm, and I guess it sort of implies submissiveness." She cringed from the connotation of such a statement, but again, it didn't seem to bother Ron.

"And I'm not always like this?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. You're usually very expressive." She hoped that wouldn't have a bad connotation either.

"Oh."

She let him contemplate things for a while, but it was nearly killing her to know what was going through his mind. For a brief moment, she almost wished she had a connection with him similar to Harry and Ginny's, but trashed that almost instantly. She only wanted it for a moment, a few minutes even. Just enough to figure out what was bothering him. Not all day, every day. That would be a nightmare.

"Ron, there's something bothering you, and I'd like to know what it is." Maybe a more direct approach would help.

"I don't want to talk about it."

"You need to talk to someone."

"I talked to Harry."

Hermione blinked in surprise. She'd never pegged either Ron or Harry to be the type to talk about feelings or emotions; but then again, they surprised her all the time. Perhaps that's why she found them so fascinating and, well, fun. "What did he say?"

"What I expected him to."

For someone who was supposed to be so shallow, Ron was showing incredible depth and Hermione wasn't sure how to react. Maybe later she'd be able to laugh at strangeness of things, but it was too real at the moment. "Did it help any?"

"Not really."

Madam Rosmerta came over to collect their plates and Hermione ordered two more butterbeers, even though her mug was still half-full. She waited until the Madam was safely out of earshot before turning back to Ron and trying a completely different tactic.

"I'm frustrated."

Ron looked up, caught off-guard. "Why?"

"Because one of my best friends has something bothering him, and he won't tell me how I can help. I tried to give him time to work it out, but it's just been getting worse."

"You could probably help him by leaving it alone. Maybe it's not something you're supposed to be able to fix."

That was a start, at least. Maybe talking about himself in the third person, projecting his feelings onto an imaginary third best friend of Hermione's would help. "But I can't just watch him be depressed all the time, even if he is a bit of a prat occasionally." She'd meant the last bit to lighten the mood, but Ron's reaction was anything but. She could tell she'd struck a sensitive nerve, that perhaps she'd hit the source of the problem.

"I'm sure he'll work it out eventually. Honestly, Hermione, you can't do everything. Maybe let someone else do something every once in a while."

Were there two problems here? She'd have to deal with them one at a time. "This is more important than a lot of things, so I guess I'll have to drop something else."

Finally, a strong reaction. His eyes burned into her in a way she'd never seen before, something completely different than the aloof comedy that he normally approached life with. Something that gave her thoughts of sapphire blue fire. "I'm sure he can handle himself. Would you want Harry to give up Quidditch for you?"

It seemed that Ron was taking to the third person even more than she could have imagined. His comment stung a little, because deep down, she knew it was true. It also didn't apply here, but the reasons for such a thought were lost on her. However, she'd learned something important, and could turn his example back around on him. "Harry is perfectly capable at Quidditch, but if you saw something he didn't, would you want to help him? Even if he tells you he doesn't need help?"

Ron didn't seem to know how to respond to that even as Hermione watched his frustration build in the form of reddening ears. He was playing her game now, and she had him trapped. Now she just had to make sure he didn't quit before giving up the goal. "Harry's different."

"How so?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. He's always been different. You know what I mean."

She did, sort of. She'd always known there was something different about Harry, something that almost made him larger than life. The closest she'd ever come to describing it was the word "hero", but even that lacked all of the things she (and apparently Ron) saw in him. "Different, but not more important." There seemed to be an undercurrent to this conversation, and she wanted to see where it led.

Almost predictably, Ron shook his head. "You and I wouldn't have even been friends, if it wasn't for him."

Bingo, Hermione thought, nearly bursting with her excitement. "Ron, you can't possibly think that. Even if Harry were to disappear today, I would still want to be your friend. Honestly, you'd probably get sick of me because without him, you'd be my only real friend." That was probably a bit more than she wanted to share, but it seemed Ron needed a cure for insecurity.

And by all accounts, it seemed to have worked. His eyes softened almost imperceptibly, and his posture melted into something decidedly less defensive. Hermione hadn't even noticed how tense he was before he relaxed. "It's not like that, Hermione." He didn't even sound like he expected her to believe that.

"Then tell me how it is. I want to know."

Ron gazed at her, the sadness in his eyes making her very uncomfortable. She'd known something was bothering him, but this was painful to see. "I'm just not a part of the group anymore."

Hermione tried to rewind her thoughts. "What group?"

Something inside of him must have broken, because his next words seemed to be uncensored transcripts of his thoughts. "It was you, Harry, and I, but now it's you, Harry, and Ginny. I just don't feel like I belong anymore."

For one of the few times in her life, Hermione was speechless. She knew what might have caused the feeling; it was hard for even Ron to miss that she, Harry, and Ginny were hiding something from him, but she'd never thought he would react like this. She'd expected him to try and force it out of one of them, or at least be angry about it. This quiet, silent, depressed Ron was something entirely out of character.

"How can you think that? We care about you!" Her voice was getting more urgent as she understood less and less. It was work to keep it down and not attract attention. Unfortunately, he just stared at her, as if he expected she already knew the answer. She hadn't a clue, so she tried a different approach. "Why aren't you angry about it?"

He shrugged. "It's not important. I reckon it was going to happen sometime, and now is good as any."

Hermione closed her eyes and shook her head. "Something has changed about you Ron. You never used to be like this. I hate it."

"Like what, Hermione? Like me?" The implication was clear – he was asking if she hated him.

"No!" She exclaimed, loud enough that half of Three Broomsticks turned to look at them. Rather curiously, as soon as the patrons had identified the source of the outburst, and the boy sitting with her, they turned back to their business as if everything was completely normal.

"What's different, Ron? Is it because of Ginny?"

He shook his head. "No, I'm just thinking clearer. And feeling something I should have felt long ago."

"And what is that?"

For the first time, exasperation started creep through his apathy. "I told you. I'm just realizing I don't belong."

"Belong where?"

Ron laughed, but it wasn't a wholesome laugh. It sounded like someone had poked a hole in his throat and made him breathe. "For someone so brilliant, you really don't get it."

"Did you ever stop to think why I don't get it?" Hermione hissed, trying to keep her voice low. "Like maybe because I didn't think you'd believe something so stupid?"

Ron blinked, and then as fast as his irritation and spite had come on, it was gone. "I really don't want to talk about it anymore."

Hermione debated a moment, and then before Ron could think, she'd pulled her wand out of her coat pocket and put her hand on the table, briefly allowing him to glimpse it before covering with her other arm. "I'm not letting you go until you explain this to me. You know I can't stand not understanding something."

Ron took a sip of his butterbeer, obviously pondering his next words. "Then I guess we'll be here a while, because you can't understand."

Hermione's eyes checked her watch – they still had hours before they had to be back at the castle, but she didn't want to spend the entire time in a glaring match with Ron. In fact, she couldn't even believe she'd threatened to curse him if he left; a very large part of her wondered if she would really do it.

"If you explain everything to me, and I feel like you've left nothing out, and I still don't understand, I'll drop it."

"I have explained everything."

"How long have you felt like this?"

"Like what?"

"Like you didn't belong." He obviously felt it; whether it was true or not hardly mattered.

Ron sighed and leaned back. "I guess it was back when we were staying at the Leaky Cauldron. That whole thing with Harry and Ginny." He waved his arm, obviously hoping she knew what he meant. Fortunately, she did, since she'd observed the same thing.

"But that has nothing to do with me?"

"No, I thought it was Harry and Ginny. They won't admit it, but there's something going on between them. I honestly didn't want to know. I guess they told you, because they trust you." He shrugged, as if that made his point, and it did. Hermione wondered how she was going to explain it without revealing Harry and Ginny's secret, and without admitting Ron was right. They didn't trust him; at least Ginny didn't.

"Can we leave Harry and Ginny out of it? I can't speak for them."

"I suppose."

Hermione sighed inwardly at his response. "Ron, I want to be your friend. I thought I was your best friend, but I must have been badly mistaken. Have you ever thought of me as a best friend?"

She must have said something right, because his face, expression, and ears all said he was surprised. "I always did."

"Then why are you trying to push me away?"

She expected him to look away, to deny it, to do anything except stare straight at her and answer her question. But that's what he did. "Because no matter how hard I try, nothing I do is ever good enough for you."

Hermione's jaw dropped. She'd never judged Ron liked that, and she'd never found him incapable in the least. Lazy, yes, a little thick-headed, absolutely, but she'd never thought that he wasn't good enough for her. If anything, it had been the other way around for a while. Ron came from an old wizarding family that she could never compete with, and he would always be a part of a world she loved and had to work to be in.

"Why would you think that?"

Ron closed his eyes. "I can still see your face when you realized that I was trying to stop you from working so hard. You blinked twice, and looked shocked that I could actually do something like that." His eyes fluttered open, but somehow they still looked dead. "What does that say about me? Who would want to be friends with someone who can't care about them?"

At the time, she had known Ron was upset simply by his reaction in the library, but with Harry winding up in the Hospital Wing, she'd completely forgotten to talk to him about it. A lot of things started falling into place, like why he'd become so distant, and why he'd refused to talk to her about anything. She'd even gotten on bad terms with him because of it and without realizing she was the cause in the first place.

"For what it's worth, I'm truly sorry." Hermione reached out with a hand, but he pulled away. "I didn't mean it like that, I was just surprised. That's all."

"But you were still surprised that I cared about you. Like it was something new."

Hermione thought about that, and it didn't seem quite right. She took a moment to place it, and then nodded. "You're not the type to show it, but that doesn't mean you can't feel it." She took a short breath, and then added, "And that doesn't mean I don't know it."

Ron was silent for a moment, long enough that she was about to ask him if he was all right before she saw it. A tear slipped out of his closed eyes and down his cheek, looking horribly out of place. Yesterday, if someone had told Hermione that she would witness Ron Weasley dissolve into tears in the middle of Three Broomsticks when they went to Hogsmeade, she would have laughed at them. But now, the only thing she could feel was shock and guilt.

"Ron, come on. Let's get out of here." She pulled on his robe and laid more than enough for the butterbeers on the table; Madam Rosemerta would enjoy the tip. Ron didn't resist until he looked up and horror registered on his face. He jerked away from her and started back toward Hogsmeade.

"No, I can't go back."

She hurried to catch up with his brisk pace. "Why not?"

"Don't ask."

"Either you tell me or I drag you all the way up to the library and keep you there until you tell me."

Ron sighed and stopped. His eyes looked back toward the castle, obviously avoiding Hermione. "It's the dementors, all right? I shouldn't be around them."

Hermione's brow furrowed. He'd never mentioned problems with them before; it was usually Harry and Ginny that were terrified of them. "It would only be for a minute."

He shook his head. "No, it wouldn't. I'd want to stay with them. You can't let me near them, not right now."

Hermione blinked. "What?"

Something made Ron shiver, and she suspected it wasn't the cold. "I've been walking down by the gates when I wanted to think. I didn't notice it at first, but my head was clearer and I could think better when I was down there. I kept going until I realized what it was – the dementors were affecting me. I wasn't close enough to feel terrible or anything, but I think they made it easier to understand what I'm feeling. I know it's probably not good for me, but I couldn't think of any reason not to go."

Hermione felt as though someone had kicked her in the gut, the air rushing out so fast a high-pitched squeal escaped before she regained control. She was, simply put, horrified. She'd read about dementors the moment she'd had the chance after getting off the train, and nothing about this situation could be good. Ron may have been able to feel his emotions better, but only because the dementors were draining away the good half and leaving the bad half for him to reflect on. No wonder he'd been so depressed and miserable all the time.

"Wh-When were you doing this?"

He shrugged and started walking again, deeper into the village. "While you were studying and Harry and Ginny were together. I figured they didn't want to be bothered, and I know you have a lot of work to do."

"I don't mind if you want to come sit with me, even if you don't want to work." She knew that was only a statement made in hindsight, but it was true now, and that's what mattered.

"You're already working too hard, you don't need to worry about me too." Ron laughed, sort of. "I reckon everyone gets what they wanted – I'm not so emotionally dense anymore."

She had to give him that, even if it was a terrible rationalization. "Do you know what they're doing to you?"

He shrugged. "I would have stopped if anything bad had happened."

"You don't understand." Hermione rubbed her temples; of course he didn't. "I don't even want to know what your mind looks like –" she bit off her statement and prayed Ron wouldn't notice. She'd almost said to Harry, but she'd caught it in time. "It's probably a wreck."

"Not much I can do about it now, eh?" Ron smiled dejectedly. "I'm already insane."

"You're not insane," Hermione protested, though she wondered if that would be the right classification for him. Plenty of Azkaban inmates could be classified that way. She shoved that thought from her mind. "We just need to rebuild you."

"Rebuild me?" Ron chuckled, and for the first time, his humor appeared to be genuine. "How do you suppose we do that?"

Hermione bit her lip, thinking. "Like anything else. From the ground up."

Ron raised an eyebrow, inviting her to explain.

"Well, I suppose you'll need a good foundation, so that if things come crashing down, there'll be something to catch you. That will have to be me."

Ron's eyes widened. "You?"

"Me," Hermione confirmed, a lot more confidently than she felt. "I'm the only one who knows about all of this, and I'm your best friend." She stared at him, hard. "And I will always be your best friend, no matter how many dementors you spend time with."

Ron nodded silently. He probably knew it wouldn't do him a lot of good to disagree at this point.

Hermione was already planning far ahead in her mind, but she wanted to keep it simple for Ron. There was no reason for him to get overwhelmed, particularly in the early stages of his "recovery". She didn't want to scare him off. "All right then. First thing – whenever you want to go for a walk, come find me. Maybe we'll go down there together, but I won't have you going alone." Nor would they be going together, but if she told Ron that, she didn't think he'd listen. Better to physically stop him than have him slip off in the middle of the night.

He bowed his head slightly, indicating his acknowledgement. Again, Hermione thought he was being unusually submissive, but she didn't want to ask.

"And second, none of this "you don't belong" nonsense. I don't care what anyone else does, you're still my friend. Got it?"

Once more he nodded, looking down at his feet.

"We're clear on this."

"I suppose."

"Good. Now we still have two hours before we have to be back at Hogwarts, and I intend to enjoy them." She pulled him into Zonko's Joke Shop, nearly cursing when she realized where she was. She hadn't even looked at the store before dragging him in, she'd assumed one was as good as the next. Ron's eyes glanced at her questioningly, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. She sighed, glanced around, and took a step further in.

"How bad can it be?"

Ron finally smiled and followed her, his eyes already searching around for something to answer her question.