(Would be best if you read "In This Firelight," another FF by me, since the outcome of that event gets mentioned. However, it's not required that you do, as it's not a major part of the story anyway.)
Set sometime in the middle of Chapter 22 (The Deathly Hallows), after they have visited Xenophilius Lovegood and before they get dragged into the Malfoy manor. During this time Hermione is no longer angry at Ron (for leaving them).
"Least loved, always, by the mother who craved a daughter. . . ." Tom Riddle hissed, his eyes gleaming scarlet. "Least loved now, by the girl who prefers your friend. . . ."
"No," Ron whispered, his hands shaking. He felt a heavy weight pulling down his chest.
Riddle smirked, a sinister look gleaming on his face. Then, quite suddenly, he split into two people. The other one took the form of Harry, his best mate, and the other—Ron felt his heart give a sudden jolt—Hermione. She was beautiful, possibly more beautiful than he had ever seen her. Her face shone in the moonlight, and Ron felt happiness seize him—but as it did, he saw something different about her, something he couldn't quite comprehend.
Ron peeled his eyes away from Hermione as Harry sneered: "Your mother confessed, that she would have preferred me as a son."
The miniscule amount of happiness that Ron shortly felt now left him entirely. He remembered how his mother would be so happy to see Harry in the Burrow, much happier, even, than when she saw him. His grip on the sword tightened a bit as sadness and anger seized him.
"Who wouldn't prefer Harry?" Hermione crooned. Ron tore his gaze from Harry and faced her. "What woman would take you? You are nothing, nothing, nothing to him!"
"Hermione," he croaked desperately, as he felt his heart plummet downwards. He was nothing. His knees were buckling under this weight in his chest that seemed heavier than ever before. He was nothing compared to his brothers, to Ginny, nothing, even, to Harry.
He watched in pain as Hermione stretched out and took Harry in a close embrace, kissing him full on the lips. A look of anguish flooded his face as he found it harder to breathe. He gasped for air, but he was choking with hot tears, which were now forming in his eyes. He grasped the sword so tight that his knuckles went white. . . .
Ron gasped and sat up, clutching his blanket tight in his fist. He was drenched in sweat. He pushed off the blanket and stared around the tent. Everything was quiet and quite dark, with only one of their gas lamps burning in the middle of the tent; it must be just past midnight. Harry was still snoring above him in their bunk bed, and he saw Hermione at the mouth of the tent, reading a book. She took a very long nap that afternoon, so she volunteered to keep watch that night.
Ron sighed and ran his hands through his hair, burying his face in his arms. "You are nothing to him!" Riddle-Hermione's voice rang in his head. "Nothing, nothing, nothing!"
It's just a dream, Ron told himself, and they were just ghosts made up by Riddle. . . they weren't real.
Yeah, they weren't, but what they're saying could be, said another, stronger voice in Ron's head.
Ron shook his head, covering his face with his hands. Harry said he thought of her as a sister.
That's what Harry says, yes, but is that what Hermione thinks?
Ron glanced at Hermione again. Just seeing her—even when she was buried in a book—made him happy. Is there even a slight chance that she could feel the same way about him?
Impossible, said the voice in his head, as if Tom Riddle were there inside him, why would a clever girl like Hermione fancy someone like you?
It was true. He really was nothing. He was not smart, he was weak, he was poor, and he wasn't even good looking. He was nothing. Hermione deserved someone better. . . . someone who was actually worth something. . . . someone like Harry, perhaps, The Boy Who Lived, The Chosen One, the hero of all.
Ron winced as he remembered how Riddle-Harry and Riddle-Hermione kissed. It seemed so real. He tried in his heart to accept it, to make him understand that it was better if it were that way. . . . but he simply couldn't. That heavy weight he felt in his dream took hold of his chest again, and he felt his windpipe constrict once more.
He ran his hands through his hair again, clutching lumps of his hair tightly in his frustration. You're not good enough for Hermione, the voice inside him said. He gasped for breath as his eyes began to water.
"No," he whispered to himself, "get a grip, Ron."
There were other, more pressing matters to think of. It was better to focus on finding the Horcruxes. . . . or even the Hallows, which they had recently discovered from Mr. Lovegood. He should think of Luna, who has been captured by the Death Eaters, and his own family, who might soon be in danger too. . . .
But the image of Harry and Hermione kissing overwhelmed his thoughts. It was impossible to think of anything else. Nothing, he heard Hermione's voice again, you are nothing!
He couldn't control it. He coughed, choked up with tears, as he clutched his face in his hands. As he cried, the negative thoughts that Riddle presented to him in his dream seemed to get worse: he saw his mother favouring her other children, he saw his best friend getting clapped on the back for doing something marvellous—like defeating you-know-who, while he was shunted to the side, with no one to notice him, and he saw Hermione, embracing Viktor Krum, the International Quidditch player. Even Viktor Krum was loads better than he was.
His shoulders were shaking uncontrollably now and his hands were wet with tears.
"Ron?" He heard Hermione say from a fair distance.
He froze. His hands were still on his face. He couldn't let her see him like this. What was he thinking, sobbing so loudly when Hermione was mere feet away from their bed?
He heard her footsteps coming close. "Ron," she said again. Her voice was louder and he guessed that she was now right beside his bed.
He did not move.
She placed a hand on his shoulder. "Ron, what's wrong?" she asked quietly, her voice worried.
Ron shook his head, wiping his face with his blanket. He still did not dare to look at her.
"I. . .you were. . . I heard. . ." she stammered, trying to find the right words. She knelt down so that her face was level with his. "Are you okay?"
Ron merely sighed, wiping his face with the back of his hand to make sure that no trace of tears could be found on his face. "Yeah," Ron managed, "I'm fine. You—you can go back and read."
Hermione stayed rooted where she was.
Ron turned to face her.
"Oh, Ron," Hermione frowned, seeing his red eyes. She placed her hand on the side of his face.
"I'm fine," he said, taking her hand gently away from his face and placing it on the bed. "I'm okay."
Hermione grimaced. "Ron, for whatever it is that's bothering you," she said, her face full of concern, "I'm here to talk to if you need me."
She placed her hand on top of his.
He glanced down at their hands and remembered that time in Grimmauld Place when they fell asleep holding hands. Did that mean anything? If he were Harry, not Ron, would Hermione still have held his hand?
"Ron," Hermione said again, frowning.
"It's okay, I'm sorry I bothered you. I'm fine, really," he managed a weak smile.
Hermione narrowed her eyes. "You don't expect me to believe that, do you?"
Ron sighed, defeated. No, he never expected her to believe his attempt at lying.
"Look, I know I shouldn't be meddling or anything," Hermione squeezed his hand, "but I care about you a lot," she said, blushing slightly, but it was hardly noticeable in the dim room.
Ron looked at her and grinned. Those words lifted that weight in his chest a little bit.
"But. . . if you really don't want to tell me anything, I'll understand. I just want to know you'll be okay," she added.
Ron stared at her and saw the sincerity in her eyes. He wanted so much to tell her what was bothering him, but he feared the rejection he may have to face in doing so. He also feared what would happen to their friendship, if, when he tells her, she does not feel the same way that he does—and, from the looks of it, she most probably doesn't.
Hermione smiled and gave his shoulder a pat. She stood up and began to leave, seeming to understand that Ron just wanted to be left alone.
But he didn't really want to be left alone. Ron quickly grabbed Hermione's hand as she turned, before he was conscious of what he was doing.
Hermione turned back to face him, raising her eyebrows.
He swallowed. "I—I'm not sleepy anymore," he slid his feet into his slippers on the floor. "Is it okay if I sat and kept watch with you?" he looked at her and stood up. "Or, well, I could take your place keeping watch if you're sleepy." He wished she would choose the former.
She did. "No, it's okay," she said, smiling, "I'm not sleepy either, and I would like company."
He nodded and followed her towards the mouth of the tent. With a swift movement of her wand, Hermione summoned one of the chairs in the kitchen to the spot right beside her chair in the tent's opening and beckoned Ron to sit beside her. She took her book, which she had momentarily lain down on the floor earlier, and began reading once more.
Ron clasped his hands together and stared out onto the forest they were in. He could barely make out the moon through the dense treetops, but it gave enough light for them to see through the darkness. Hermione, of course, has conjured a small flame from her wand to hover above her book while she read. He glanced at her and noticed how her face glowed beautifully with the ball of fire floating a fair distance from her face. He grinned. He wondered if it was just the light from the flame that did it, or if he just found her beautiful altogether?
Somehow, the glow of her face from the flame reminded him of the glow Riddle-Hermione had in the moonlight. Suddenly, his thoughts, no matter how hard he tried to shrug them off, went back to the way Riddle-Harry and Riddle-Hermione had kissed right before his very eyes.
He sighed, staring at Hermione. He needed to know. He cleared his throat. "Hermione?" he said.
Hermione closed her book shut immediately and faced him. It gave Ron the impression that she was not reading her book at all to begin with, and was just waiting for him to start talking. "Hmm?" she said, eyebrows raised, a sympathetic smile on her lips.
"D'you fancy Harry?" The words came out of his mouth before he even knew what he was saying. Even he was surprised at himself.
Hermione held an incredulous look on her face. She gaped at Ron, waiting for him to say something else, to explain himself, perhaps.
Ron merely stared back.
Hermione scoffed. "Harry?" She laughed, but after seeing that Ron wasn't laughing with her, she pursed her lips and stopped. "Ron," she said, "what. . . how—?"
Ron shrugged. "It's just. . . . Harry," he gulped, not knowing where he was going with this, "he. . . .well, he's a hero, isn't he? And, er, he's—he's really nice and funny and. . . .everything. Lots of girls fancy him, don't they? I just thought that. . . . I dunno. . . . maybe you did too." Ron was quite proud that he had managed that; his true intention for asking that question was not obvious at all, in his opinion.
"Oh," Hermione nodded slowly. "Well, yes, he is quite fanciable. . . ."
Ron felt like his lungs might have stopped functioning. He also felt his heart on the verge of committing suicide somewhere in his chest.
"But," Hermione continued, and Ron looked up hopefully, "no," she shook her head, "I don't think I fancy him at all, really," she said, shrugging. Then she looked suspiciously at Ron, who was now biting his lower lip to stop himself from grinning like mad. "Why do you ask?"
Ron gulped. He started to formulate another clever retaliation—half-hoping he had just shut his mouth and not have asked that question in the first place. "Well," he began, "it's just. . . ." his voice trailed off.
He turned to look at Hermione, whose eyebrows were still raised.
"Just curious," he said hastily.
Hermione seemed satisfied with this, although still slightly puzzled, and began to open her book once more.
"Sometimes I wonder why you—and Harry—like sticking with me." Ron said, causing Hermione to close her book again and look up at him. "I mean," he continued, licking his lips, "Harry's brave and strong and all, and I'm just. . . . quite lousy, really."
"Oh, Ron," Hermione looked at him rather sadly—the same expression his mother had when he had asked her for a toy broom as a child. "Harry may be such a hero, and a popular figure whom most girls fancy, but to me, he's really just Harry." She gave him a consoling smile.
Ron nodded, trying his best to force a grin back.
Hermione sighed. "Ron, I think—" her cheeks flushed a tinge of pink, "I think you're wonderful."
Ron chuckled, shaking his head. "No, it's okay, Hermione, you don't have to say that to make me feel better."
"No," Hermione said with all seriousness apparent in her voice, "I mean it."
Ron stared at her.
"You have a good heart," she stated.
"No, listen," Hermione said firmly. She then looked at the grass as she spoke, "when Malfoy called me a mudblood—" Ron winced "—during the second year at Hogwarts, you stood up for me." She gave a faint smile at the memory. "That meant a lot—it showed me how much you cared about your friends. . .about me."
Ron's ears turned pink.
"And every time anyone would say anything bad about me—or Harry, or any of our friends—you would stand up to them."
Ron opened his mouth to retaliate.
"I know," Hermione said, reading his expression, "that there was that one time in the 4th year when you chose to disbelieve Harry instead of defending him. . ." she sighed, shaking her head, smirking, "but you were being a prat then, Ron, honestly."
Ron gave a low chuckle.
"But that was that. We all make mistakes and we learn from them. . . . and you did." She smiled at Ron, "you value friendship and love above all. . . that's what makes you a wonderful person. You just don't know it."
"Yeah, then I go and leave you and Harry out here because of selfish reasons," Ron said, scowling, "so much for love and friendship."
Hermione shook her head. "That was the locket's fault, not yours—I knew from the moment you said you never even went home and immediately sought us, wanting to come back."
Ron looked up at her, half-grinning, but with a sad look in his eyes. "You were pretty upset with me, though."
Hermione sighed and looked down at her hands on her lap. "Yeah, well, when you left," she said, frowning, "it got really lonely."
After you left, she cried for a week. Probably longer, only she didn't want me to see. Harry's voice echoed in Ron's head. He frowned, glancing at Hermione, feeling guilty that he had left, but at the same time glad that she had missed him.
"It felt hollow. . ." Hermione continued, "like something was missing. . . ." she furrowed her eyebrows thoughtfully, "something really important." She faced Ron, her eyes glistening slightly. "You," she whispered, "you're really important. . . to me." Her words were soft yet sincere, and she looked as if the memories of that time were now washing over her sadly. She blinked, then, snapping out of her reverie, said: "and to Harry," hastily, quickly looking away.
Ron smiled and swelled with gladness upon Hermione's words. He was something worthwhile after all.
He placed his hand on top of hers, and, to his joy, Hermione tilted her hand upwards and took his hand in his. She looked up at him, grinning.
"Thank you," said Ron sincerely, squeezing her hand a little.
Hermione merely smiled back.
They grew silent, staring into the moonlit trees, listening to the insects, birds, and other nightly creatures move around the forest. They still were holding each other's hand, as if this gesture had now been a normal occurrence between them two, after having slept holding hands in Grimmauld Place. They were silent, but neither felt awkward about it; they were comfortable just being there together, holding hands.
Ron grinned. Being there with Hermione—just the two of them—felt right.
He stared at their hands. "Is this normal?"
"Huh?" Hermione asked, bewildered.
"Holding hands," Ron stated, "do you. . . normally hold hands with. . . friends?"
Hermione's eyes grew wider and her face turned pink. "Well," her voice cracked, "I-I've held hands with Harry before. . ."
Ron's face fell.
"But," Hermione continued, "it was only during those times when, you know, we were being chased by some. . . bad people. . . or when we were faced with danger and I was scared." She stared down at her lap, biting her lip.
Ron gave a sigh of relief, grinning a little. He cleared his throat. "But, say, if you weren't in danger of any sort. . . I mean," his heart was beating loudly in his chest as he spoke, "if you were just sitting together. . . like this," he said motioning to the two of them, "would you still hold his hand?"
Hermione looked at him briefly, pressing her lips together. She looked away and faced the grass. "No," she said, her face turning a deeper shade of red.
Ron simply could not prevent a huge smile form on his face. He wanted to run around and do cartwheels in the middle of the forest, amongst the nocturnal animals in the trees. He put his free fist on his mouth to stop himself from shouting from glee.
"Would you?" Hermione asked, not removing her gaze from the ground.
Ron lowered his fist. "Would I what?" he raised his eyebrows, tilting his head, "hold hands with Harry?" he snorted.
Hermione narrowed his eyes at him, but smiled, punching him lightly on the arm. "No, you idiot," she said, shaking her head in disbelief, "I meant, you know," she chewed on her lower lip, "if you had a friend that was a girl. . . like Luna," she said thoughtfully, "would you hold hands with Luna?" she looked up at him.
He smiled gently at her, tucking a few strands of her hair behind her ear. "No," he said.
Hermione beamed at him, a tinge of pink still visible on her cheeks. She tightened her grip on Ron's hand and leaned her head on his shoulder.
Ron laughed silently, resting his chin on top of Hermione's head.
Hmm. Maybe she does fancy you after all, that voice in Ron's head said, defeated.
Ron shrugged, smiling. He still was not entirely certain that she did, but something was telling him that it might just be so. He'll find out soon enough—but for now, just sitting here, holding her hand is enough to keep him happy.
A/N: Although a confession of fancying each other would have been appropriate for this scene, I wanted to stay as canon as I could to the 7th book. Also, the last bit with them asking each other about holding hands was the most obvious thing and Ron should have been entirely sure that Hermione fancied him, but he had to stay in character—even Hermione won't go believing that Ron fancied her, although she, of course, would have had a clue, like Ron did. Those two are the most oblivious people on earth, I think. Please review! :D