It was one of those muggy summer evenings when the setting sun had not quite slipped past the horizon yet, and you could still feel its lingering, orange, rays attempting to raise the humid air's temperature one final degree before disappearing altogether.
The air was so hot and heavy that it actually seemed to impair one's movement, and if a person spent any more than five minutes outside, their clothes and hair were sure to start sticking to them uncomfortably. And Ron, unfortunately, had been outside since noon. He, Harry, Fred and George had all been given the distasteful assignment of clearing the Burrow's yard of gnomes for Bill and Fleur's upcoming wedding, and this had been no small feat: the only way to get rid of gnomes was manually.
Well, it had been almost fun at first; chasing the gnomes around, catching them, swinging them around in the air above their heads and then seeing who could toss them the farthest, but after about two hours of working directly under the scorching sun and still having what seemed like infinite little knobby pests running about, the work had become more than tedious. The fact that the gnomes knew an impressive array of choice swear words also didn't help. So, deciding that they simply couldn't stand the thought of spending the entire day in the yard, the boys had come up with a compromise; they would divide the rest of the day into four quarters, and each boy would work for one of these time slots while the others could do whatever they wanted.
It had seemed like a very good plan at the time, actually. Ron had been given the last time slot, and spent the day playing one on one Quidditch with Ginny, chess with his father, and relaxing. But now that it was his turn, he had to slog all over the yard searching for any lingering monstrosities while everyone else prepared for bed. Yes, life had started to seem very cruel to the redhead, and he was feeling rather sorry for himself. After all, how was it fair that he had to spend his last few days before the life threatening Horcrux hunt… chasing gnomes?
Finally, after determining that the yard was probably as gnome-free as it was ever going to get, Ron decided to turn in; a thoroughly inviting prospect as it was now pitch black outside and well past 10:00.
He was exhausted and sweaty, so the shower he took as soon as he entered the Burrow was heaven; the cold water completely relaxing his tired flesh. Then, he changed into his maroon pajama bottoms and a comfortable Chudley Cannons t-shirt, and climbed a few more flights of stairs to his room, where Harry was already asleep.
Asleep, but not serene. Ron's friend seemed to emanate stress even in his sleep; as if he were ready to get up and fight the dark forces at a moment's notice. Some people would find having this sort of constant tension unbearable, but Ron was used to it, as Harry hadn't seemed truly relaxed for more than a moment since Dumbledore's death.
Ron, on the other hand, felt that he'd earned a bit of a break, and therefore, he decided that there was nothing in the world he wanted more than to grab some cold milk and a chocolate chunk cookie before bed. So, he meandered down from his tiny attic bedroom, relishing the familiar feel of the Burrow's worn wooden stairs against his bare feet, and allowed himself to think only of the warm, tender cookie which awaited him at the bottom.
The entire house was dark and quiet, except for the soft hooting of numerous owls, periodic thunks which were courtesy of the ghoul, and the standard creaking noises of the Burrow at night. And as Ron listened to these noises, noises which sane people found annoying but he only found comforting, he was suddenly struck by an overwhelming sense of loss.
This was his home, the place which held almost as many beautiful memories for him as Hogwarts, and he was about to leave it far behind for who knew how long. Perhaps he'd never get to see it again at all, …
Ron had never felt more attached to the ramshackle house. He loved the house and it loved him. In fact, it loved him so much that as he walked down the hall towards the Burrow's kitchen, it turned the kitchen lights on for him all by itself.
Aw, bless you, kitchen. You've never done that for me before; I usually have to magic mum's ancient oil lamps on myself! I'm so sorry that I let a bludger loose in here when I was ten, and that I never bothered to properly appreciate your applian-
Wait, what am I saying? Kitchens don't turn their own lights on… bloody hell, there's an incompetent Death Eater playing with the lamps in my kitchen!
For a moment, Ron's sleep deprived mind started panicking and wondering where he'd left his wand, and then he realized that Death Eaters did not invade houses merely to play with kitchen lights, and that the Burrow was too well protected to be penetrated so easily. So, he came to the natural conclusion that someone else was still awake, and it was them, not the Death Eaters, who had turned on the lights.
Still, Ron stumbled into the kitchen apprehensively, squinting tightly and blinking hard as his eyes adjusted from the dark hallway to the bright room. Then, to his extreme surprise, he heard a quiet sniffling that sounded vaguely like, "Hermione?"
Eyes still almost shut, he tried to scan the room for his friend, and found a blur sitting in the general direction of the kitchen table which looked rather promising. "Is that you?" Ron asked softly.
Hermione didn't respond, but by then Ron's pupils had contracted enough that he could see her properly. She was indeed sitting at the table, and facing away from him, barefoot as well but still wearing the forest green t-shirt and blue jeans that she'd donned that morning. Her hair was a loose cloud around her shoulders; made even bushier by the humid weather, and her face was buried in her hands. Worryingly, Ron could hear light sobs coming from her direction.
Now, if Ron had been more awake, he would have tried to remember if there was a section in Twelve Fail Safe Ways to Charm Witches on crying girls, and acted on it. As it was, he hadn't a clue what to do, and merely sat down next to her, trying in vain to become more alert without physically slapping himself awake in front of Hermione. After a moment of uncertainly, Ron finally spoke:
"Are… you alright, Hermione?"
Extracting her face from her hands, she looked up at him through puffy red eyes. When she saw his look of somewhat groggy concern, she hastily wiped her face of tears, "Of course I am, Ron. Go to bed."
There's nothing I'd like to do more 'Mione; I'm dog-tired. But I can't leave you like this…
"Hermione, I'm not sleepy-"
"Of course you are; you've been out all day. Go."
Hermione looked determined, but Ron didn't care. With a sigh, he merely put a comforting hand on her shoulder, "Look Hermione, I may not be as good with emotions as you, or Harry, or even a warty-arsed garden gnome for that matter, but I can tell when my best friend's feeling miserable, and you, are."
She shook her head, "It's nothing, really. I'm just being silly."
"You? Silly? Not bloody likely", Ron offered a hesitant smile, "What's really wrong?" Then he was struck by a thought, "It's not a, you know - er… girl thing, is it?"
"No no, it's nothing like that. It's just…" and Hermione cracked, unable to hold her emotions in any longer; "I can't believe that this has all happened this fast! If someone had told me a year ago that by now You Know Who would have gotten this far… Not that I'm saying it's hopeless, because of course I believe in Harry, but… My parents… my parents don't know that I exist, and I might never see them again! And I'll never graduate from Hogwarts, never see my home…"
She was trembling, tears were streaming from her eyes again, and Ron was desperately wishing that he had taken an earlier shift with the bloody gnomes so that he could be more awake for this. Hermione looked as though she'd been bottling her feelings up for weeks, and was only now letting go to a person whom she absolutely trusted: him. And all he could seem to think about was how terribly annoying it was that every time he closed his eyes he saw gnomes dancing a conga…
Focus, Weasley; do not let your head nod like that…
But mmm… Hermione's hair would make a charming pillow. I'm sure she wouldn't mind if I just leaned over and-
Hermione, oblivious to Ron's internal struggle, continued gushing; "And Merlin, I know that this is all completely necessary, but I just wish I had some more, I don't know, assurance. I wish I could see the future, and know for certain that no one I love will get hurt and that You Know Who will lose. I just wish I could have some sort of proof that everything we've done, and everything we're going to try to do, won't be in vain."
Hermione looked at him through damp eyes, and Ron had an overwhelming urge to wipe the tears from he cheeks, hold her close and whisper into her ear that he would never let anything happen to her, but he wasn't sure how she'd react to that. So, he just put a careful arm around her, "Well, Hermione, if you really wanted to see the future, you wouldn't have dropped Divination. I mean, I didn't, and look where I am."
Hermione looked up at him questioningly, "Where are you?"
Ron shrugged, "I haven't the foggiest; but... please don't cry, Hermione."
And to his astonishment, she did stop crying. But the sadness was still there in her eyes, and it made Ron's heart lurch uncomfortably. After taking a moment to let her breathing slow back to normal, she looked at him, "I'm… sorry about that, Ron, I didn't mean to lose it so completely… Gosh I must look like Cho Chang!" She rubbed her red eyes self consciously, "I just miss my parents so much…"
Hermione looked away, and Ron realized that she was waiting for him to leave so that she could sniffle to herself some more. To him, this seemed like a horrible idea, and he hated the thought of her left alone to her own miserable thoughts. Consequently, he decided that it was his duty as a best friend to take her mind off things, no matter how loud his warm, soft bed's siren song was at the moment.
"Normally I'd never suggest this, but I've an idea."
This succeeded in grabbing Hermione's full attention, "What sort of idea?"
"An idea that's going to keep you from brooding like this all night."
Eyes still damp, but curious, Hermione contemplated this, "Is it… something I'll regret in the morning?"
Hermione arched a brow, but then sighed, "Well, why not. Anything's better than this", she gestured towards her tear stained face.
Ron nodded in agreement, "Great, I'll be right back." And he climbed up the Burrow's crooked stairwell to his room, from which he emerged mere minutes later, having exchanged his pajama bottoms for a pair of black jeans and running shoes. He then gestured for Hermione to get her own sandals from the corner and put them on, which she apprehensively did. And as she started on her left sandal's buckle, Ron braced himself for what he was about to attempt.
Alright, Ron, you can do this…don't think, just do it!
Hermione, for her part, also had butterflies in her stomach. But what she was feeling wasn't nerves or excitement; it was more complex then that.
She inexplicably felt as if she were Alice from Wonderland and Ron was her white rabbit, leading her from misery to a mysterious new place. A place which she knew nothing about, but which her heart ached to see. And like Alice, she was overwhelmingly curious as to where her rabbit would take her; what exactly did Ron have in mind? Whatever it was, Hermione had a gut feeling that it would be something she'd never forget.
"So, we're going outside?" She asked, pulling on her right sandal.
Ron's lifted an eyebrow, "More or less." He appeared confident, but he felt anything but.
Hermione… you're gonna completely freak out, but this is for your own good.
Hermione frowned, "What does that m-"
But before she could finish her sentence, Ron had already wrapped an arm around her, spun around, and Hermione felt the familiar sensation of being sucked through a narrow airless tube, and then released on the other side; Ron had just apparated to some unknown location, and taken her with him.
The first thing Hermione felt was the cooling night air which the day's heat had finally given into. Ron had taken her outside somewhere, to a deserted field of tall, unkempt grass which looked slightly grey in the bright moonlight. There was a light breeze, and it felt good on her flushed, tear stained cheeks.
Then she remembered that it was Ron who'd apparated, and checked her body for any missing parts. After having made sure that she was whole and healthy, she turned to her companion, not sure whether to be angry or impressed;
"Ron! You've never done Side-Along apparition before; you could have spliced us both! Not to mention the fact that you're half asleep."
His spare hand flew to the back of his head to scratch it awkwardly, "Er, yeah… I know…" He was standing very close to her, and his wand arm was still wrapped firmly around her, as if he'd forgotten he'd put it there after apparating. Or perhaps he'd left it there on purpose…. For some reason, this flustered Hermione, so that instead of telling Ron that she was stunned by how perfect his apparition had become, she frowned, "Well… where are we anyways? I don't think I've ever been here before."
He suppressed a yawn, "I don't think so either."
"How helpful, Ronald."
He blinked at her, then, "Oh! Right, erm… follow me."
Ron removed his arm from her shoulders – leaving her colder and with an incomprehensible sense of deep dissatisfaction- and turned to lead her through the grassland towards a faint light that she could barely make out. It looked like a tiny star on the horizon, but as they approached it Hermione realized that the light was coming from a little wooden building with a large window.
As they got even closer, Hermione could see the door of the building, and a large carved sign above it which read, The Stranded Phoenix, and she finally understood what was going on.
She stopped walking and grabbed Ron's arm to stop him too. "A pub. You've brought me to a pub?"
Her eyes bored into his disapprovingly, in a way that was frighteningly similar to his own mother's stare; Ron swallowed hard, "It, er, seemed like a good idea… but now I'm not so sure…"
Lowering her voice to a harsh whisper, Hermione glared, "But we're in the middle of a war! That place could be crawling with You Know Who's informants, and they all know who we are, this is dangerous!"
Ron shook his head, "I don't think it should be. I mean, it is a muggle place."
"Well, it's owned by a family of wizards –Fred and George reckon they're half leprechaun, actually – but they mostly serve the local muggles. My Uncle Billius discovered them, and hardly any other wizards know about 'the Phoenix'."
Hermione took a moment to consider this, then said, "I suppose it should be safe then... but I still don't think we should go."
Hermione sighed, "Ron, you are aware that I never drink, aren't you?"
Looking slightly crestfallen that his brilliant plan to make Hermione feel better had failed, Ron asked, "Never?"
"Never", Hermione replied with conviction.
For a moment, Ron looked at a loss. Then, he perked up, "Well…as you always say, you should never hesitate to try anything new, right?"
Sighing once more, Hermione shook her head, "I was talking about taking new subjects. To learn new things."
Ron shrugged, "It's still your ideology."
"But drinking is really horrible for-"
"Hermione, this is the wizarding world. You know perfectly well that magical liquor isn't harmful; we've fixed that."
"Yes… but when I said you should never hesitate to try new things, I meant that –"
"So, you're saying that you only follow your own rules when it's convenient. I expected more of you, Hermione Granger."
Ron shook his head at her solemnly, and Hermione had to laugh as she realized that she didn't have any more arguments to prevent going to the pub. "Ron… I do believe you've just defeated me in a battle of wits!"
He grinned, "Always the tone of surprise. But now that I've won, you have to come in with me, alright?" Ron spoke with confidence, but Hermione could see the uncertainty in his eyes. They were softly pleading with her to agree with him, and she couldn't resist.
And so Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole, chasing her destiny…
Giving in and smiling back, Hermione consented, "Alright, let's go. I mean, how bad could it be, right?"