Author's Note: I wrote a story a few years ago about the conversation I imagined Ron and Hermione having after the final battle because, as I believe I said then, I refuse to believe that one kiss is enough to fix seven years of sexual tension. In a lot of ways, this story is that story's inverse. That story put the conversation after The Kiss. This one puts it before, spread out over several months, starting about a week after Ron's return. So really, I'm just adding my version of a very often written R/H missing moment to the collection.
DISCLAIMER: I own neither Ron nor Hermione, nor do I have any claim in their world. I just enjoy throwing them into situations and seeing what they do.
Also, unbeta'd, so all mistakes are mine.
For TheSteppyOne. Because I don't write nearly enough to please her, and I certainly don't write enough Ron to please her. So, for her birthday, I decided to sit down and give her 5000 words of Ron-centric goodness. Because she's awesome.
All We Don't Know How to Say
Ron couldn't sleep. Much as he knew he should grab rest where he could, and as exhausting as his day had been, he couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw those two ghostly figures, heard those awful, awful words, and relived every horrible moment of what had happened the night he stormed off and the night he'd come back.
He'd had a lot of time for self-reflection in the weeks since he'd so impulsively stormed away, and even more in the days since he'd returned – not during the day, no. During the day, he focused his mind solely on the task before them of locating the remaining Horcruxes and disposing of them, twice as dedicated as either of them, never voicing a complaint, never wavering from that goal. But at night, once watch had been put in place and they'd gone to sleeping in shifts . . . then, he had plenty of time to sit, reflect, remember, no matter how ugly or disgusting what he found.
He'd thought himself so mature at the beginning of the summer, so world wise, so ready to take on the task in front of them. He'd thought himself so wise. But in reality he'd been unbelievably naive, thinking there was something Harry had kept back, never once really believing they were going in as blind as Harry'd said they were. He'd never considered himself spoiled before, but he knew now that he'd been a spoiled child at the start of it all. It wasn't an image of himself he particularly liked, but it was one he had to find a way to deal with.
Harry had forgiven him so instantly. Ron still didn't know how. Every time he delved into examination of what he'd done and why he'd done it, he became amazed at all that Harry was willing to forgive, and forgive so entirely. He knew if he asked Harry about it, Harry would say that Ron's saving his life more than made up for anything that came before, but that hadn't been deliberate. Ron had acted without thinking. He saw his best friend in danger, and he did the first thing that came into his head to eliminate that danger. And as for the Horcrux . . . well, Harry didn't really know what had happened in that moment, and as far as Ron was concerned, neither he nor anyone else ever needed to.
He had almost killed Harry. For one, terrifying, despair-filled moment, he had wanted to more than anything else because he had truly believed with his whole heart that Harry had stolen from Ron one of the only things he had ever truly wanted, and the only thing that had kept him from running Harry through with the poisoned sword of Gryffindor was the clear, firm voice that had arisen in his head and told him he was not about to do You-Know-Who's dirty work for him. That he was Harry's best friend, and Harry would never purposefully take something away from Ron. That he wouldn't be the boy who killed Harry Potter, wouldn't do that to his mother, to Ginny. To Hermione. Because if he truly loved Hermione, he'd want her to be happy, even if that meant letting her be with Harry and not him.
It had almost killed him, and he still wasn't entirely sure that something in him hadn't died that night. Something had definitely ended that night, and if he had to put a name to it, he'd called it his innocence. His childhood. When he'd turned from Harry and stabbed the locket, he'd learned that loving someone who didn't love you back was a constant breaking of the heart and nothing could ever fully remedy that.
And what haunted him now, still, more than perhaps all the rest was something he hadn't known consciously or rationally before he'd left – that the Horcrux he'd worn around his neck for so long had preyed on the very darkest fears of his heart – not, embarrassingly, that they would fail or that those he cared about would die, but that at the end of it all, he still wouldn't be worth anything in her eyes.
And so, Ron couldn't sleep. The tent was stifling and Harry was restless and he could hear Hermione moving around outside, keeping watch. What he really wanted to do was move, pace around to try and order his thoughts more coherently, but he didn't want to risk waking Harry. So finally, when he felt as though he was about to suffocate, he rose as quietly as he could, grabbed his cloak, and stepped outside.
The night air was soothing and cool, but he'd barely had time to take a few deep breaths before he felt the telltale jab of a wand at his back.
"Hermione," he hissed. "It's me!"
"Ron?" Her voice was unreadable, but the pressure at his back lifted, which he took as a good sign. "You should have said something," she said then in a short, clipped voice. "How was I supposed to know it was you and not someone who'd gotten through our wards? I could have taken your head off – or worse."
Ron bit back the angry response that had automatically risen up in him at the unfair accusation. It had been almost two weeks since he'd returned, and still she hadn't forgiven him. Oh, she put on a good face during the day, just like he did, and it was possible that Harry, as preoccupied as he was with the idea of those damned Hallows, hadn't noticed anything, but the tension was there, almost palpable, and Ron was so tired of it. He wished she would yell, scream, rail at him, even try to attack him as she'd done when he'd first returned because until she directly accused him of something, he couldn't stand up for himself as he so dearly wanted to do.
But snapping at her for what was, on the surface, a very reasonable claim wouldn't do either of them any good, and so, ignoring the fact that she hadn't given him the chance to announce his presence, that she would have heard the tent flap being pulled back, and that she would never have reacted that way if he'd been Harry, he forced himself to take a deep breath and relax. "I'm sorry," he said. "You're right. I should have said something."
It wasn't the response she was expecting, and he knew she was thrown by it, though she covered it well. "So what are you doing out here?" she asked, sitting stiffly on an upturned log by what remained of their fire.
"I needed some air," he said softly, sitting on another, further removed, his elbows braced against his knees. "Couldn't sleep."
"Guilty conscience?" The words were a barb, icy and sharp, and they hit their target. He closed his eyes against them, knowing he deserved it to some degree. But it was the opening he'd been waiting for, and he took it.
"How long are you going to punish me?" He said the words without a hint of anger, which surprised even him. He glanced up after the words to spoke to find her staring at him sideways, stiff on her log.
"And don't tell me that you don't know what I'm talking about; we both know you're smarter than that," he interrupted quietly. Her mouth tightened at that, pulled white around the edges.
"I wasn't going to," she said defensively. "I was going to say . . . I don't know."
He gave a short, humorless breath of laughter and focused back down on the ground, head bowed. "I'm not going to sit here and pretend that you don't have a right to be angry with me," he said then, "because you do, but . . . do you really think I don't know what I did? Do you think I don't know how badly I screwed up and exactly what I lost because of it? Do you really believe I haven't wished a thousand times every day that I could take it back? Believe me, Hermione, I know I messed up. I know exactly how bad. You have every right to feel angry, hurt, betrayed, all of it. But be angry, would you? Yell at me, scream at me, and say exactly what you want to say, to my face, but let's knock off the passive-aggressive, cold shoulder, silent superiority, all right? It's not helping anything, so let's just – clear the damn air. Do you want, at the end of it all, to be able to say that you alone were loyal and stood by him from start to finish? Go ahead. Say it. Say it, because you can and I can't and –"
"That's not what I want!" Hermione hissed angrily, cutting him off.
"Then what do you want?" he demanded. "What do you want, Hermione?"
"I want not to have been left alone to be the only one who could say that! We were supposed to stay together, stay with him, no matter what! You swore, to him, to me – we were supposed to – you promised, Ron. You promised."
He closed his eyes and let the accusations wash over him in a twisted kind of welcome penance. With those words came the hurt and the anger and the betrayal he'd been expecting from the beginning. "Yes," he said. "I did. And yes. I broke that promise."
He was silent for a long time, wanting to tell her everything, knowing this wasn't the time or the place. "I can't tell you that," he said finally. "Not because it doesn't matter, not because it's a right or a wrong reason, but because this isn't the time, nor the place. There are more important things right now, and we have to focus on those. I'm not asking you to forgive me, Hermione, but – we have to be able to stand together."
She was silent for a long time, but then, she spoke, words that tore at his heart and were the hardest of anything he'd had to hear so far. "You left me once, Ron. How do I know you're not going to leave me again?"
"You don't." It was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to say. "You just have to trust me."
"I don't know if I can anymore."
It wasn't a barb. It wasn't pointed or meant to be hurtful. It was just a sad, simple truth, and it almost broke him. But he couldn't be mad at her for it, not really. It was regret, not anger, that filled him, hearing her say those words. Regret and an immense sadness.
Not meeting her gaze or even knowing if there was a gaze to meet, he nodded. "I understand," he said in a whisper.
Neither of them knew what to say then, so they just sat, not looking at each other and not speaking in the heavy silence, words that neither of them knew how to form hanging in the air between them, until finally Ron spoke, saying, "It's almost two. You should get some sleep. I'll keep watch til dawn."
"Harry's supposed to take the watch," she said softly.
"Harry needs his rest. I'm already up, and I won't be sleeping anymore anyway."
"Why not?" he heard her ask. He looked up and met her eyes then.
"Guilty conscience," he said, and for a moment, she looked like she might reply, but instead, she just nodded and disappeared into the tent.
He could hear her moving around inside, and the words he wanted to say to her swelled up within him, demanding to be released. He waited though, waited until the sounds died down, until she was settled in her bunk, the one closest to the flap. He waited until the sounds died down and then waited some more until he honestly didn't know if she was still awake or not, and then, with one thin flap of canvas between them, he spoke.
"I felt worthless," he said simply. "That's why I left. I felt worthless. I was an idiot, going into this. I thought it would be easy. I thought there were things Harry hadn't told us. I thought we'd head out, find the Horcruxes, and destroy them, all in a matter of, I don't know. Days, even. I wasn't prepared, and it was my own fault. But the longer the search went on, the longer we wandered around, not knowing anything, the more obvious it became that I had nothing to contribute. Harry is Harry, and he's the one who'd been told what we needed to do, and you're the planner, the one who thought out all the steps and had all the ideas and made sure everything worked. But I was just me, and I didn't have anything, and I became more and more aware of it every day. And that Horcrux . . . it fed on it, and it brought out weaknesses in me that I never . . . it got to the point where all I could see was how I was dragging you both down.
"I have seen my biggest desires and my biggest fears, Hermione, and they're the same. I've always been unremarkable, only noticed 'cause of my family and my friends. My biggest accomplishment is being Harry Potter's best friend. And for a long time, I was okay with that. I was okay with being the least of us. But that day I left . . . you two didn't need me. You were figuring things out all on your own, and it was like I wasn't even there, and . . . I had been on edge for so long, waiting for Harry to tell me he didn't need me, and then he did, and . . . you didn't contradict him. Not that you were supposed to, not that you didn't do exactly what you should have done, but you didn't contradict him. And that was all I heard. I was worthless. So I left."
There was more, more to it than that, more that she should know and deserved to know, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. Saying it out loud would make it real, and there was a part of him that knew he couldn't make it real. Not yet. So even though the words that had been pounding around inside him for years now were demanding even more loudly than usual to be uttered, he forced them down, shut them away, and went on with what could be said.
"I do understand why you don't know if you can trust me, but . . . I came back, Hermione. For whatever it's worth, I came back. And for the first time since we started this whole thing, I feel like I'm on the same page as you. I have things to contribute now, and the same things that are important to you are important to me. I feel like I've caught up. I'm just sorry it took so long."
He shifted on his log, glancing out at the still woods beyond them. "Anyway," he finally said, "I don't know if you're even awake, or if you've heard any of this, but I needed to say it. It's not supposed to justify anything or be an excuse . . . it's just an answer to your question."
He had no idea whether or not she'd heard him. Neither of them spoke of it or mentioned it, but something shifted after that night. She was far less stiff and cold toward him, and the tension that had lit up the air between them since his return and dissipated, leaving only the tension that had lit up the air between them for almost seven years now, and he knew how to deal with that tension.
The words he hadn't said to Hermione still ate at him from time to time, but he knew his focus had to be on the tasks at hand, and, somehow, that when the time came to tell her, he'd know it.
And in hindsight, he supposed he shouldn't have been surprised to learn that that time came in the middle of the biggest battle either one of them had even seen.
He and Hermione stood in the middle of the Room of Requirement, watching Luna lead Harry off to help him try and find a diadem that had been lost for centuries. Without Harry there, attention all but fell from Ron and Hermione, as Neville and Ginny and a few of the other older students mobilized the room into teams and started giving out assignments in a fashion that felt much too much like an army camp for Ron's comfort. Teenagers shouldn't be generals, he thought, his focus on his baby sister as she discussed battle tactics with his one-time-weakest roommate. Then, with a hand on his sleeve, Hermione pulled him from the disconcerting thoughts with a point even more disconcerting – that whether or not Harry found the next Horcrux, they couldn't do anything unless they had a way to destroy them.
It was his idea to use the basilisk fangs, to find a way into the Chamber, and it was his voice that got them through the entrance, but he never could have done either without her. She helped him remember the basilisk venom was what let the sword destroy Horcruxes in the first place, and she was the one who kept him trying hiss after failed hiss until the sink in Myrtle's bathroom sank into the wall.
Time seemed to have no meaning in that place. A few days might have passed for all that it had changed since Ron had last been there. And getting to the basilisk and back seemed to take no time at all. He and Hermione went forward in silence, both so focused and anxious about what was to come, both trying to pretend that they didn't hear the distant, distorted voice that they seemed to instinctively know was Voldemort's or feel the crashes that shook the castle even at its very foundation. They worked quickly and efficiently, and soon were back at the bottom of the pipe, arms full of basilisk fangs.
"All right," Hermione said in a voice that almost didn't shake. "Let's find Harry—"
"Let's destroy it," Ron said, stopping her with a hand on her wrist. "The Horcrux we have. Let's take care of it."
"Here?" she asked, looking around doubtfully.
"Here's as good as anywhere," Ron said. "It'll be one more done, Hermione, one less thing to worry about."
"You're right," she said after a moment, nodding. "You're right." Kneeling carefully on the damp floor, she set the fangs beside her, reached into the enchanted beaded bag and pulled out the golden cup. Gingerly, she held it out to him.
"No," he said, taking half a step back. "I think it has to be you." She looked at him, startled.
"Me? Why?" she asked.
"When we had to destroy the locket, Harry said it had to be me. Said he just knew it was supposed to be. I didn't understand then, but I do now. Harry destroyed the diary, and he almost died. Dumbledore destroyed the ring, and you saw what happened to his hand. I think – I think it's supposed to be shared. I think it's not something that gets easier, and it's not a burden that should be faced alone. I think you have to do it, Hermione. I think, somehow, that's what all this is about."
She stared down at the cup in her hand for a long moment, then asked in a voice so quiet he almost missed it, "I just stab it?"
"Yeah," he said, trying to calm the nerves that had inexplicably risen in him. "Just stab it with a fang, but . . ." Her eyes snapped to his at the hesitation.
"What?" she asked, her voice a little higher than usual.
"When I destroyed mine, it put up a fight."
"Put up a fight? You said it just screamed," she said, looking small and scared.
"Well, it did that, too," Ron said, and when the panicked look in her eye didn't disappear, he knelt beside her. "Listen, maybe yours won't. Maybe you'll destroy it without any problems. It certainly wouldn't surprise me. But . . . you should be prepared. Just in case. And I'll be here. I'll be right here if anything happens."
Taking a deep breath, she nodded, and set the cup on the filthy ground in front of her. Ron noted with a jolt in the pit of his stomach that she seemed to have a hard time letting go of it. Knowing this wasn't going to be as easy as he'd hoped, he placed a fang in her reaching hand and braced himself for whatever might come next.
For a moment, he thought it would work. For a moment, Hermione raised the fang with a steady hand and brought it whistling down toward the gleaming cup without issue. But then, just before she pierced its side, she hesitated. Then her hand went limp and the fang clattered to the floor.
"Hermione?" Ron breathed.
"You left me," she said, in a voice that was quiet and deadened, and for a moment, Ron couldn't figure out what was going on, why she was bringing that up now.
"What?" he asked, confused.
"You left me," she repeated in that same, strange voice, not looking away from the
cup."Why should I trust you?"
Then it hit him – he'd expected ghostly figures, audible voices, everything he'd seen and
had to fight against. But Hermione's demons, it seemed, were purely internal. The cup had entranced her somehow, and rather than help her fight some ghostly image they could both see, he had to hear her say these things to him and find a way to get through to her in the worst way possible. He realized that while Hermione might be its main focus, the Horcrux was also feeding on his presence.
"You left me," she said a third time, and Ron knew he had to answer.
"Yes," he said in a voice that shook. "I did. But I came back, Hermione. I came back, and I'm here now."
She shook her head. "How can I believe you?"
"Because," he said forcefully, almost panicking now. What would happen if he couldn't get through to her? "Because I'm right here, Hermione!" He put his hands on her shoulders, but she didn't seem to feel them. "Hermione!" he shouted, putting a hand on her chin and forcing her to look at him. Her face was toward his now, but she wasn't seeing him.
"You're not there," she said in that deadened voice. "You're never there. You're never there when I need you. You leave me, you leave me alone when I need you most. You hurt me and you don't even see it. You never will. You'll just keep leaving me and hurting me. It'll never change. There will always be something more important than me that you'll turn your back on me to head towards. You'll always be leaving me."
"Hermione," he whispered desperately, taking her face in his hands. "Hermione, listen to me, please." There were tears in his voice and pricking at the corners of his eyes, but he didn't care. The time had come, he knew, to say the things he hadn't been able to say before. If he couldn't say them now . . . "Hermione, I know I've hurt you, and yes, I left, but I wasn't leaving you. I wasn't leaving to hurt you. I was leaving because I was hurt. Because I thought you were choosing Harry over me, just like you chose Viktor. I left because the thought of watching you make a life with someone who wasn't me killed me, and I couldn't stay and watch it happen. I left because – because I loved you, and I came back for the same reason." The tears threatened to overwhelm him, to choke away his voice, but he forced them down because he knew he had to keep talking until he got through to her.
"I came back because I knew that if I really loved you, I had to come back, no matter what choice you made. If I loved you, I had to let you be happy. And I do love you, Hermione. I love you, and I haven't said it before because it scared me. I know why Harry broke up with Ginny now, because half of what scares me is knowing that, somewhere, you're more important to me than what we have to do here, that I would give up the war and everything we've worked for if it meant keeping you safe, and I know I can't feel that way. But I love you, Hermione, and I'm here, right now, telling you that. I am right here, and I am not going anywhere, not anymore."
Desperately, he searched her face, looking for any sign of recognition, and something was there, he could see it. Something was fighting, struggling to make its way to the surface. "Can you hear me, Hermione?" he breathed, moving his hands to her arms. "It's me. It's Ron. I'm here. I'm here, and I love you. Come back. Hear me, and fight it!"
For two fast heartbeats, nothing happened. And then, Hermione gave a shuddering, sobbing breath, and shaking, reached out blindly, desperately. Snatching the fang from the floor, he put it into her searching hand, and with a furious, muffled sob, she brought it down on the cup, stabbing it again and again and again until the metal was pierced and dented. Even after it had been mangled almost beyond recognition, she stabbed away at it, until Ron caught her arm and forced the fang out of it and gathered her to him.
He could feel her shaking, and he knew he was shaking, too, but in that moment, it didn't matter. He held her, feeling her own arms tight on his back, holding on to something real for all she was worth. He held her just as tightly, never wanting to let her go. When he thought back over all the years they'd known each other, remembered all the times he'd almost lost her, to a Basilisk attack, an International Quidditch star, to his own ridiculous, jealous stupidity, he couldn't stand the thought of letting go now, because now more than ever before, the possibility of losing her was very, very real.
"I didn't want to tell you like this," he said into her hair. "But I think – I needed you to know. Whatever it is we're about to walk into, whatever it is we're about to face, I needed to go into it knowing I had told you everything. I needed to know you knew. Now or never."
She didn't respond then, just as she hadn't responded five months ago. He'd poured his heart out to her twice now, only to be met with silence both times. But this silence, at least, he was more comfortable. This silence he knew. This silence was the same silence he had shared with Harry the night he'd destroyed his own Horcrux. It's the silence that comes when too much has been said and too much is left to be said and there isn't time to get it all out. He understood this silence, and he just had to trust that eventually, the words would come.
And come they did, though not when he expected and not as words at all, but as a kiss, unexpected and desperate in the middle of war while their best friend looked on. In that kiss was everything that the two of them had been trying to say to one another for years but had never been able to manage.
It was over far too quickly, and the harsh reality of war was back surrounding them far too soon, but an understanding finally passed between them, and when Harry was turned away for the slightest moment, Ron heard, "I need you to know, too," and found Hermione looking up at him, sadness and fear and longing and regret in her eyes.
"I do," he said, and then the words had to be put away as the war became all too real, and he could only hope, at the end of it all, there would be time to bring them out again.
And when all was said and done, when the triumph of their success had worn off and the sun had fully risen on the rows of bodies of those who had given their lives to the fight and the wreckage of the castle that had been both shelter and tomb, she found him, lost in his thoughts, hiding from those who wanted to hear things he didn't have to say.
"I'm sorry about Fred," she said quietly.
"He knew what he was getting into," he responded, just as quietly. "We all did." Her hand slipped into his then as they looked out together at the ruined landscape.
"I heard you, you know," she said into the silence after a long moment. "Both times." There was another long silence, then, "What was it for you? The locket."
"You and Harry," he said. "You came out of the locket, told me you'd been better off without me. Told me nothing I could ever do would ever compare with what had been done by others. And you told me that you wanted Harry, that you could never want me." Her hand tightened in his.
"I never wanted Harry," she said.
"Why?" He turned his head to look at her then.
"Harry's too . . . heroic," she said. "He's larger than life. He has to be. The world won't let him be anything else. But me . . . I need life to be simpler than that. I could never fit Harry the way he needs that person to, and he could never fit me." She met his gaze then. "But you do."
"I've been asking myself that question for almost four years now," she told him.
"And?" She shook her head.
"I haven't found the answer yet. But I know I have forever now to figure it out. And I know I want to figure it out with you. Because I love you. And for right now, that's enough."
And she was right. For the first time in their history, they stood together in a silence not heavy with words left unsaid, and looked out as one to the future.