Hermione leant against the outside of the tent, a blanket covering her legs as protection against the cold of the winter's night, and fought against the exhaustion that was threatening to consume her. She was on watch; she could not afford to lose conciousness. She didn't even want to think about the consequences if that were to happen.
The locket pulsed against her chest and she sighed, tugging at the chain frustratedly. What was the point in even having a Horcrux if they had no clue how to destroy it? The different elements to the mystery floated around at the back of her mind constantly, yet she could not for the life of her figure out how to piece them together. Nothing had ever given Hermione's orderly, logical brain so much grief before. And this was the thing that the future and security of the entire Wizarding world depended on. Hermione had never failed at anything before. She had never felt so inadequate in her life.
Hermione was brought back to her senses by the sound of a twig snapping, mere feet away from her, it seemed. Panicking, she drew her wand in a flash, but relaxed and gave a sigh of relief when the figure was illuminated in the moonlight and she saw that it was only Ron.
"I didn't mean to startle you," Ron said apologetically, sitting down on the ground beside her. "I couldn't sleep," he explained. "I needed some air. That tent gets a bit stifling sometimes."
Hermione nodded. She could certainly identify with that. Sometimes it just accentuated the claustrophobic feeling that they were stuck there until they could work out how to destroy Voldemort for good. "Harry asleep?" she asked casually. She was really starting to worry about him; it definitely wasn't good that he was having all these visions.
Ron shook his head. "Still obsessing over that map. Don't see what good it does," he muttered bitterly.
"Give him a break," Hermione said gently. "He misses Ginny. He feels bad that he's not there to look after her, so he looks for her on the map so he feels like he's doing something. Watching over her."
Ron's expression was unreadable. "When did he tell you that?"
"He didn't. I'm guessing. But I'm pretty sure I'm right," said Hermione, grinning sheepishly.
"You're always right," Ron laughed, his expression lightening up a bit. "You know him so well," he said after a minute. Hermione detected something in his tone - envy? But why?
"I know both of you so well," Hermione corrected, confused. "After all these years, how could I not?" Ron says some strange things sometimes, she thought.
Ron shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't guess what Harry's feeling, did I?"
"Yes, but that's because you're a boy. You never think about other people's feelings," Hermione teased.
"Hey! That's not true," Ron protested defensively, looking genuinely hurt. Hermione felt a little guilty, even though it was only a joke; Ron had definitely been making an effort to be more considerate lately.
"I know. Sorry," she said quietly.
Ron stayed silent for a while, staring upwards towards the stars. "You know, when we were at school," he began finally, "it used to scare me that I had no idea where my life was going, no idea where I'd be in ten years' time. Now I don't even know where we'll be tomorrow. Hell, I don't even know if we'll be alive tomorrow." He paused. "Doesn't that scare you sometimes?"
"It'll be fine," Hermione said evasively.
Ron looked at her, straight into her eyes, almost as if he could see what was going on behind them. "You can tell me, you know. Even Hermione Granger is allowed to be scared," he told her. She looked at the ground self-consciously. He was more perceptive than she thought, evidently. He took her hand, slipping his fingers through hers and she looked up in surprise.
The truth was, she was scared, and she didn't want to show it. Hermione was meant to be the rational one, the one who could cement the trio together and the one who could come up with the intelligent ideas to advance them in their quest. However, she was finding that increasingly difficult to cope with, and she didn't want to lower the morale even more by admitting it. But sometimes you can't keep things bottled up inside forever.
"It does scare me a bit," she confessed. She didn't need to say anything else. She knew that Ron understood.
"You don't have to be responsible for all three of us," he said softly. "We're in this together." He looked down at their joined hands. "I'm here for you."
Hermione hardly dared to breathe. His words, their body language - it didn't seem like something that would happen between friends, even best friends. She could feel it suggesting so much more.
She twisted to look at him properly, and she felt her eyes drop to his lips; all the feelings that she'd had for Ron over the years, the ones that she'd tried to deny except in her dreams, washed over her as they drew closer together, and Hermione couldn't quite believe that this was really happening, that after all this time they were finally admitting their feelings for each other, and now their faces were mere inches apart... so close...
"You two all right out there?" came Harry's voice from the entrance of the tent, and they sprung apart, ripped from their dream world, as he emerged.
"Yeah, fine," said Hermione quickly, her voice coming out much higher than usual. "Just... talking."
Harry looked at them suspiciously. "Right. Well it's my turn to take over the watch, you can go inside and get some sleep now if you want."
"Thanks," Hermione said gratefully, despite the disappointment that was coursing through her. Sleep did sound very tempting. She started to get up, Ron already making his way towards the tent.
"You'd better give me the Horcrux, as well," Harry reminded her.
"Oh - yeah," Hermione said breathlessly, yanking it up over her head. "There." She passed it to him. "Night."
"Sleep well," Harry called, but Hermione had a feeling that now that would be unlikely.
She entered the tent to find Ron lingering by the entrance. He'd gone slightly red, and seemed to be struggling to find words. "Well... night, then," he said finally. He turned around and started to walk towards his bunk. Hermione was so tempted to run over him, to grab him, to turn him back round and to crash her lips against his. But she just couldn't. The moment was gone.
They'd been so close, and yet so far. That extra couple of inches could have made all the difference. It could have changed everything.
A/N: This is for the Almost Kiss Competition (oh my god, you do not even know how much I hate myself for not letting them kiss) and the Middle of the Night Challenge, both on HPFC, but this story has been evolving in my head for several months, so I'm glad I've finally got it published!
Thank you to my beta, kci47, and also thank you to J K Rowling for writing this wonderful series, which I unfortunately do not own ;)