A/N- The characters (sigh) are not mine.

Hello! This is my first ever fan fic. I am so excited for you to read & review! =-P

Big thanks to my Beta readers, Monkeywand and KatelynnLynn for their time and efforts!

26th of December, 1997

...nine...ten...eleven... Whoever said mentally counting was an effective way to ease anger was a daft pillock!

Hermione Granger was sitting at the table in the tent they had set up in the Forest of Dean, sipping tea while fidgeting with the necklace she had on and trying hard not to hex the ginger-haired prat who was making puppy dog eyes at her from the other end of the table.

Ron, you childish git, stop staring at me! Her mind screamed. You've been back all of six hours, after weeks of you abandoning me and Harry! I am not ready to talk to you without having the uncontrollable urge to knee your dangling bits and stomp on your face!

Only hours after their run in with Nagini at Godric's Hollow, Hermione and Harry had made it to the Forest of Dean and set up camp. She had just cast the last in the myriad of protection and repelling spells when she'd seen a tall figure walking their way.

After alerting Harry and getting in a defensive stance to fight, recognition slowly made its way through her sleep deprived brain.

It was Ron.

Reluctantly, she'd stepped with Harry out of the protective circle guarding their tent and greeted their estranged friend.

Once they had stepped back inside their protective barrier, she and Harry had gone off on Ron for leaving them.

It felt good.

But after a while, the impossible happened. Harry had started to show patience and reasoning. He'd actually let Ron tell his side of things... and he listened. Harry was willing to forgive, forget and move on before she was even ready to listen.

What bloody dimension had they slipped into? For as long as she'd known Ron and Harry, Hermione had always been the one in the middle objectively listening and trying to strike peace treaties.

But this situation was different. They weren't having a flaming row over who ate the last chocolate frog, why the Chudley Cannon seeker couldn't find his own arse with a map, Harry's popularity or any of the other asinine things they quarreled over constantly. No, they were talking of a real life and death situation; more so than any of the others. They were in the middle of a war, running for their lives on a mission and... and Ron abandoned them.

When tough times got really, really tough... he'd just up and left.

How could Harry forgive him so readily?

Probably because he was lonely and missed the ginger-headed brute as much as she did. Okay, maybe not as much as she did, but still...

She couldn't just forgive and forget that easily, not this. Oh, she would forgive him eventually; begin speaking to him without the shrillness and anger in her voice in a day or two…

But not now. Not right at this moment.

She kept her eyes resolutely on her tea cup and willed Ron to look away and leave her be.

"Mione?"

Well, bloody fuck!

Not answering, Hermione sipped the last bit of her tea and hoped Ron would get the message.

"Hermione?"

Why? She looked skyward before sucking in a calming breath and answering shortly, "What?"

"Mi, can we talk?" Ron shifted slightly on the bench on the far end of the table and looked hopefully at her.

Gripping onto the last bit of calm in her reserves, she answered, "There is nothing to talk about."

Ron shook his head. "No, Hermione, there is plenty to talk about. You haven't spoken two words to me since Harry took your wand and used a silencing spell on you."

Yeah, she would have to pay Harry back for that.

When Ron kept pleading for forgiveness upon his arrival and Harry was through speaking his peace, Hermione couldn't for the life of her reign in her temper. She couldn't stop yelling, pacing and throwing sticks, stones and leaves at the prat; it hadn't helped that she was wearing that blasted horcrux around her neck at the time either. She had been ready to hex Ron's arse with so many boils that he wouldn't be able to sit for a month when Harry had taken her wand and silencio'd her. He'd demanded the locket and said he would take next watch. Glaring at the both of them, Hermione had given Harry the locket and haughtily huffed that she was going to bed.

That had been nearly six hours ago. She had spent four of the six sleeping.

She regarded Ron levelly for a few moments before speaking. "With good reason, I suppose. I'd have screamed myself hoarse."

Ron scooted a little closer to her end of the table. "I wish he wouldn't have."

That was a surprising statement.

"I wish he would have let you say what you wanted to say." He nodded to himself before squaring his shoulders and looking at her, "Well, we're here now and I'm not going to stop you. Go on, Mi, say what needs sayin'. Vent whatever you're feeling so we can get past this-"

"Get past this?" She stood suddenly, her voice as shrill as ever. "This is not as if you've cheated off my Charms test or you insulted me in some way because you are an insensitive git, Ronald! This is about you abandoning us! Me and Harry..." She shook her head, "Me and you. How can I possibly get past that?"

He stood as well but slouched his shoulders and kept his voice quiet and pleading. "Hermione, I said I was sorry. I said I wanted to come back after I'd left-"

"You said a lot of things, Ronald! About balls of light and hearing my voice-"

"It was true! All of it."

"I don't care!" Hermione finally shouted.

There was a sizable silence before Ron spoke again. "I was a jerk-"

"Bloody right you were a jerk! And a few other choice words..." she huffed.

"But I came back," he stated in a pleading tone. "I know I was wrong. I'm willing to take your anger, Mi, but not your silence. Scream if you want to, just... speak to me."

Scourgifing her cup, Hermione vanished it back to her beaded bag. "And what exactly do you want me to say?"

"Anything," he said quickly, "Tell me I'm a right foul git."

"You are," she stated shortly.

He stepped towards her, "Tell me I'm a bull headed, horrid friend." His face twisted with shame. "Tell me I'm a cowardly bastard."

While her anger didn't necessarily fade at his words, it did allow some room for reason. With a heavy sigh, Hermione shook her head. "While I agree with the bull headed, horrid friend bit, you are not a coward." She was surprised to see his blue eyes glitter with unshed tears.

"Yes, I am. I left. I left you both because I was scared and tired." He sat back down on the bench and scrubbed his face with his hands. "Harry was right, before I left. I did think that this would be a bit of an adventure. Find a horcrux every other week, destroy them and be back to see the family by the holidays."

Hermione closed her eyes and willed herself not to comment on how ridiculous that sounded.

"Stupid, really." Ron rested his elbows on his knees. "I left my best mate and my gir-..." he paused, as if searching for the right words, "you, Hermione. All because I just wanted to go home."

"Ron, that isn't being a coward, that's natural." She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "I think about packing it all in and going back home every day."

"Yeah, but you'd never actually do it. That's what separates 'natural' from 'coward', isn't it." Although posed as a question, it was definitely a statement.

"And the only reason I hadn't acted on that is simply because I have nothing to go back to." She stated bluntly, "Neither does Harry. I couldn't leave him, Ron... we're all we have."

The redhead looked up at her, looking completely broken as a tear fell down his freckled cheek. "So, that's it, then? You a-and H-Harry... You're together?"

Her anger sparked to life again. "NO! Honestly, Ron, to think something like that is just..." She paused and took a deep breath, "Ron, I don't know how you got it in your head that I am even the slightest bit attracted to Harry. He is my best friend. I look at him as more of a brother than anything else. Not to mention, Ginny would hex the skin off my face if I even thought of Harry in those terms."

After a pregnant pause, Ron wiped his eyes and asked, "Really?"

"Yes, really!"

A relieved smile took up residence on his face. "Bloody hell, Hermione, you have no clue how glad I am to hear you say that." He stood and stepped to her, "Thinking of you with him was tearing me up inside." He opened his arms to hug her but she quickly raised her hands to his chest to stop him.

"No, Ron!"

Ron froze.

She took a few steps back from him as she crossed her arms over her chest. It was then that her anger bowed down to another emotion; hurt.

For the first time since the redhead returned, Hermione let her hurt show plainly on her features. "No, Ron," she said again with less force. "You may be relieved at my words, but that does not help me." She motioned between them. "It doesn't help this."

His face fell. "Mi, what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that I'm still angry with you."

Nodding, Ron stepped to her again. "That's fine, Hermione. I'm fine with that as long as we're still friends... as long as there is still a chance for us."

The witch sadly shook her head again. "Ron, I am furious with you, but that will fade and I will eventually forgive you. I hope we can always be close friends." She paused before locking eyes with him and saying with conviction, "but there is no chance for us being anything more than that anymore."

His ginger-brows knitted in confusion. "But-"

"No. You leaving has put a few things into perspective for me. For years we've skirted around this attraction we've had for each other-"

"Had?"

Ignoring his interruption, Hermione powered through, "-every year, hoping that something would change, but it ends with me being let down every time!"

"You think you were the only one being let down?" Ron raised his voice, his aggravation beginning to mount, "I was pretty let down when you went off with Krum to the Yule Ball forth year, wasn't I? And what about McLaggen?"

"I wouldn't know. You were too busy acting like a petulant child with the former!" Her hands were at her sides and balled tight. "And you were too busy snogging Lavender at every turn around the time of the latter!" She shook her head again. "No, I'm not rehashing old tiffs with you. All I'm saying is that this 'almost' thing with us seems to be a pattern, a pattern I'm tired of-"

"So let's break it!" He shouted.

The young witch shook her head. "Have you ever sat down and wondered why it never seems to happen for us?" she asked. "I can tell you, I've been doing plenty of thinking about us in these last weeks and..." She sighed. "Maybe there's a reason."

"I'm right here, Hermione!" Ron said as patted his chest, "Asking you to forgive me so that we can be together. Being away from you had me thinking too, made a few things clear to me. One of them was that I was a prat for leaving in the first place and another was realizing just how much I care about you," he explained. "I want to be with you, Hermione. No more 'almost'. The only reason we haven't gotten together, Mi, is me. I've been a childish berk. But I promise that is going to change... right now. I want us to be together."

Hermione looked at the boy who had been the object of her affection for so long as he looked back at her with pleading eyes. She would have been over the moon if he made that same declaration to her a month ago, but now, she stared at him and felt... nothing. "That's just it, Ron. I'm tired of the 'almost' because I no longer want the whole thing anymore. That type of relationship, it isn't for us… I've finally come to terms with that."

Hermione turned to walk to her cot and put on her coat, hat and mittens before walking back to a stunned Ronald Weasley. "Like I said, I will forgive you eventually and I truly hope we can still be friends, but it's not meant for us to be more."

"How could you possibly know that?"

"If it was, don't you think it would have happened already? Don't you think all of this," she motioned between them, "would have been a hell of a lot easier?" After a pause, she spoke again. "I'm going to go relieve Harry." With that, the witch left the tent, not seeing the redhead collapse to the bench again as he held his face in his hands while his shoulders shook with heartbreak.

Hermione stared at the tent as she watched the shadows of Ron and Harry on the canvas. Harry sat next to Ron and after a time, she watched his shadow get up and produce a bottle. Sure that it was fire whiskey the boys were about to indulge in, the witch gave a derisive sniff before casting a cushioning charm on the ground next to the tree Harry had been propped up against when she came to relieve him. After casting a warming charm on herself and the spot of frozen ground she planned on occupying, Hermione pulled her coat tight around her and dropped to the forest floor.

Harry had refused to let her have the locket, claiming she still looked angry. He insisted that he could hold onto it a bit longer or he would hand it over to Ron. Before she could argue, her messy haired friend all but ran back into the tent.

The young witch looked back at the tent to see Ron's shadow take a large swig from the fire whiskey bottle as Harry's shadow patted his back. She did feel bad; he had been one of her best friends and deepest crush for years, after all. What was shocking, though, was how much lighter she felt. As if a giant weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Relief.

A part of her may have felt bad but the majority of her felt relief and that was how she knew she had done the right thing.

Ron had been a major part of her thoughts ever since he'd left. At first she was devastated, scared and heartbroken. That gave way to depression but eventually her brilliant mind kicked into gear and began to really look at their friendship and the potential it had to be a lasting relationship. Over a month on what muggles termed an 'emotional rollercoaster', Hermione came to the conclusion that her friendship with Ron was special in its own right but they really wouldn't have lasted long if they had gotten together. They had absolutely nothing in common when she really thought about it; apart from being Harry's friend. Without common interests, how long could any serious relationship form... or last for that matter?

No matter how long she thought through it, Hermione came up with no optimistic answer. So she would let Ron brood or vent or do whatever he needed to do to move on but she was certain that she wasn't changing her mind. Even though their friendship was on shaky ground, she would rather be a tentative friend than a girlfriend.

All either of them could do now was wait and cool down. Hermione watched her breath come out of her mouth in clouds and smiled. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Leaning her head back on the trunk of the tree she was sitting against, the witch looked up at the stars that she could see through the thick branches and heaved a deep sigh.

In the hours that followed, Hermione wondered if they were indeed on a fool's errand. They were no closer to destroying the horcrux they had nor had they a clue of where the others were. That line of thought had her mentally going through every supposed clue they had come across since living on the run. After bringing on a slight headache, she turned her thoughts to her family; wondering what they were doing and if they were happy.

Her thoughts focused on these main topics for a few hours before she was brought back to reality at the feel of her bum falling asleep. Standing up, she stretched and looked around. The lantern in the tent was out so she figured that the boys had gone to bed. Checking her watch, she found that she had been on watch for two hours and had a good four hours to go.

After Ron had left, she and Harry had agreed that having eight hour guard shifts between the two of them was too much. Instead, they brought their shifts down to six so it was easier to split up evenly throughout the night.

It was just after midnight and the forest was still. All she heard was the occasional hoot of an owl. It was peaceful.

Deciding to walk the perimeter of their little warded bubble to stretch her legs, Hermione gripped her wand tight and put a silencing charm on her shoes to keep them from making a sound on the frosted, leaf-soiled ground.

"There's a pale moon in the sky," Hermione looked up through the branches to see the moon peek out from behind a cloud, "The kind you make your wishes on, like the light in your eyes...the one I built my dreams upon. It's not there any longer..."

Quietly, Hermione sang absently and off key as she made her way around the perimeter of their barrier. She sang for a few reasons: One was it kept her from thinking herself dizzy. It also kept her from freaking out when her eyes searched the darkness of the forest and it helped her express what she was feeling at any given point in time.

"Something happened somewhere and we both know why..."

Hermione kept singing, never loud enough to disturb the boys.

"I don't care who's wrong or right, I don't really wanna fight no more..." Getting closer to the tent, the young witch began to hum the rest of the song stuck in her head.

She had just about come full circle when she noticed a small light glow from about thirty to thirty-five paces away; beyond the borders of her wards. She paused mid-stride and stood as still as a statue. Logically, she knew no one outside of the barrier could see or hear her, but seeing something so distinctly out of place had her fight or flight senses on high alert.

The witch watched with horrified curiosity as the light grew, coming closer to her position. At first it had no shape; it was simply a silvery white orb. As it came closer, though, Hermione could discern certain features of the odd light. It had four hoofed legs, pointy ears and a narrow face. It took a few seconds for Hermione to realize what she was looking at, but when she did, she gasped for air. It can't be! Holy crickets! Holy frick! Oh my gods! Shit, shit, shit! Quickly, she turned and was about to head to the tent to wake the boys and get them ready to fight when a thought froze her in her tracks.

She turned back to the silvery white light that had formed into an animal and was staring right back at her, or so it seemed. Upon further inspection, Hermione surmised that it was a deer; a doe, to be precise.

What gave her pause and had her inspecting the ghostly animal instead of running for Harry and Ron was the simple fact that she had remembered Harry speaking about a glowing orb of light a time or two in the past few months when he had just finished a night watch. He had never spoken about the light becoming an animal but he had seen it and spoken of it enough times for her to know that she was looking at the exact same thing Harry had spoken about.

He had been convinced that the orb of light was some sort of guardian, watching over them. He went so far as to say that he believed it was one or both of his parents at one point during their many hikes along the countryside.

Now, as ghostly as the being was, Hermione Granger was a bit more pragmatic. She knew that Harry's parents were not the cause of this glowing doe. If they were to come back as ghosts in the afterlife, they would come back as themselves. Not to mention, they would have shown themselves as spirits or otherwise years ago.

The witch decided that the animal she was looking at had all the characteristics of a Patronus. Almost 100% positive that was what she was looking at, so many more questions came to mind.

If it is indeed a Patronus… that means somebody cast it. That means somebody knows we are here. Who could it be? Could it be a Death Eater? An order member? A Snatcher? What do they want? Have they been following us the whole time? If so, why haven't they come forward? Do they mean us harm? If they did, they know where we are, why don't they just harm us, then?

It didn't take long for her to rule out the Patronus being cast by a Death Eater because she overheard at one Order meeting (actually, eavesdropped outside the door) that Death Eaters couldn't cast Patronuses because they lack good memories. Well, not so much good memories because she was sure that they thought torturing and killing was a good time had by all, but more so a pure, innocent memory. Hermione had also ruled out Snatchers, because they were usually thugs or school drop outs who had never learned how to cast Patronuses. That did not take away from the very real possibility that it was somebody working for Voldemort. It could very well be some tortured witch or wizard who was given the task to watch and report their whereabouts so that their family would not die some sort of horrendous death.

But if that was the case, why produce a Patronus?

Doing something so blatant suggested that the caster wanted to be noticed, wanted to get their attention. Possibly, even wanted something from them. That line of thought made more sense.

Hermione's heart leapt as she thought of the possibility of it being an Order member. If that was the case and Harry had seen the light a few times before, maybe they weren't as alone as they thought they were.

With hope filling her and a smile gracing her face, the petite witch took a few steps toward the doe before stopping herself. But if it was an Order member, why not just make themselves known during the day, face to face? Why stay separated from us?

She fought internally with her thoughts of all the possibilities and 'what ifs' for many moments before she came to the conclusion that whoever had cast the doe obviously wanted something. Wizards didn't just cast their Patronuses in order for them to stand about in a forest. The Patronus was a protector but also a means of communication. The doe was obviously waiting for something.

Nibbling on her lower lip, Hermione looked back at the tent before resting her eyes on the doe once more. Clutching her wand tight in her hand, the witch made up her mind and left the security of the warded barrier. She had thought that once she emerged from the heavily protected area, the doe would speak its message and vanish. However, once she took a good 10 steps away from the barrier, the doe turned and began to walk away.

Hermione went rigid for a moment, not knowing why the Patronus had just turned on her and was debating on if she should turn around and run back to the tent. But she could not shake that the Patronus was there for a reason and if, by some way, it had been cast by a snatcher or Death Eater, they would have come out of the woodwork and hexed her by now. With a deep breath and her hand firmly around her wand, the witch followed the doe.

Her eyes darted from shadow to shadow as she moved through the Forest of Dean. Her heart was beating a mile a minute and she felt as if she was going to hyperventilate but the young witch pushed on.

She gauged that she walked about a half-mile before she noticed the glowing animal come to a stop and stare at her over the small body of water. It was a pond that was frozen over so Hermione cautiously stepped onto the ice and moved to where the doe was standing.

Once she was less than five paces away, the ghostly animal morphed once again into an orb of light and drifted beneath the surface of the ice.

With her only real light source greatly diminished, the witch waved her wand. "Lumos!" The end of her wand lit up as she bent down to her knees on the ice and looked to where the glowing orb was hovering. Wiping off the surface of the ice to get a better look, Hermione's large cinnamon eyes bulged at the site of Godric Gryffindor's sword shining happily at the bottom of the pond, seemingly only about seven or eight feet beneath the surface.

Suddenly, the orb disappeared and she was staring at nothing but blackness under the ice. Hermione looked up and surveyed her surroundings before she gathered that the Patronus' mission was achieved and therefore was no longer needed.

Could it be? Could it really be that the gods had finally smiled down upon them and presented them with a tool that would to be invaluable in their mission to destroy horcruxes?

How in the bloody hell did the sword of Gryffindor get down there? Obviously it was a rhetorical question because whoever had cast the Patronus had put the sword there. That fact made her stomach twist with happiness and hope that they may have an ally looking out for them. Now how do I get that ruddy sword out?

Standing, Hermione glanced around the dark forest again but could not see anything abnormal. She eyed the polished piece of ice that she had brushed off and pointed her wand. "Accio sword!"

Nothing.

Figures, Hermione thought darkly as she looked around yet again. With a heavy sigh, she decided that the only way she could get the sword was to go down herself and fetch it. Maybe the Patronus caster isn't on our side after all. This is sheer madness, not to mention torture.

Thinking about how she was going to go about this, the witch decided that a localized fire spell would be the safest way to get through a portion of the ice without cracking or compromising the rest of the surface. She stepped back and pointed her wand at the polished bit of ice again. "Lacarnem Inflamarre!"

A large burst of fire left the tip of her wand and settled over the ice, quickly melting a circular hole about three feet in diameter.

Hermione took that moment to strip. Her clothes would quickly rob her body of any heat as soon as they got wet. Ask her how she knew this and she would give you quite a few answers: One being her time spent as a trophy under the Black Lake in her fourth year. Coming out of that water with her full school uniform on and being exposed to the bitter Scottish wind was not a pleasant experience. The second explanation would be that her father is the outdoorsy sort, (hence why she had been camping in the Forest of Dean before) and watched the Discovery Channel. But the main reason she knew stripping to go into ice cold water was better than going in fully clothed was because it was common sense, pure and simple. Oh yeah, she may have read it somewhere in a book too.

Down to her bra and knickers, Hermione was startled when the fire that had been melting the ice went out suddenly with a loud hiss. She turned around and realized that the fire had melted its way through and hissed because it had hit the water.

Still with her wand tightly in her hand, the young witch made her way to the melted opening and thought through what she was about to do. Okay, I should cast my illumination spell now, take a deep breath and plunge in because there is no way to gradually get used to water this cold. Any attempt would only elongate the process and send me into a fit of shivers before I could even get to the sword. I do think I hate whoever put the blasted thing down there.

"Lumos Maximus!" she said with authority at the edge of the melted entrance. Staring down into the black water, Hermione gathered up all of her Gryffindor courage, mentally counted to three and jumped in.

FUCK!

That was all the witch could think as the icy water felt like a million daggers tearing through her skin as it enveloped her. Moving quickly before her muscles began to seize up, Hermione noticed that her jump into the water had taken her only three fourths of the way to the sword. Kicking her legs as fast as possible, she stretched out her left hand and kept her eyes on the shimmering rubies on the handle of the sword.

It felt like ages before her stiff fingers gripped the handle when in reality it had been only seconds. But that was enough to be lethal. No one knew that more than Hermione at that particular moment. She tried swimming back up to the surface but her limbs weren't cooperating. Her legs' responses were sluggish and her arms were so stiff they hurt. Still, she worked hard to get to the surface.

Almost out of air, she gasped loudly for breath as she broke the surface, only to submerge again. Her arms ached and her fingers were frozen and locked around her wand and the sword.

She broke the surface again and tried to get to the edge of the entrance she had made in the ice but her legs felt like dead weight and she could barely focus on anything other than to try and keep breathing. Her body was shaking now, almost convulsively so even taking in a full breath was proving to be a difficult chore.

It was when she went under for the third time that Hermione realized that she was going to drown. Not able to move her legs enough to keep treading above the surface, Hermione closed her eyes and hoped that Harry and Ron would find her body, if only to find the sword.

She stopped thrashing and was just letting out the last bit of breath from her lungs when she heard a splash from behind her and a hand grip one of her frozen arms.

Harry... Ron... they've found me...

That was her last thought before she lost consciousness.

A/N- The song Hermione was singing absently was Tina Turner's 'I Don't Wanna Fight'. Also, I used an English to Latin translation program for the spells not readily known from the books, so I apologize if it's not correct.

Reviews welcome.

Thank you for reading!