The rain pounded the windows of the Burrow in Ottery St. Catchpole and the thunder clapped overhead. The storm matched the mood of Ron Weasley perfectly as he sat on his bed and contemplated the letter in his hand.
There was nothing unusual about the letter, and that's what was bothering Ron the most. He and his friends had faced their worst battle yet just weeks ago and Hermione wrote to him as if it hadn't even happened. It wasn't like her, and it was driving Ron mad.
He'd nearly lost her. They'd all come very close to losing each other. Sirius was gone. Harry was drifting further and further into his own misery. Yet everything was "fine" in Hermione- land. Ron wanted to shout at the unfairness of it all.
He knew his mother was worried. She's had a lot on her plate already; to hear that her two youngest children had fought Death Eaters at the Ministry had been too much for her. Mrs. Weasley had completely broken down at the sight of the scars on Ron's arms and she had been ordered to bed for almost a week.
Once she had recovered, Mrs. Weasley had yelled and screeched at both Ron and Ginny, cursing their stupidity. Ron's fists clenched at the thought of her lecture. What had she expected? What had anyone expected? That they'd stay all tucked up at Hogwarts and let Harry fight his battles on his own? Not bloody likely.
Ron threw Hermione's letter on the ground as his jaw snapped shut. He barely resisted the urge to stomp on it and instead turned to his desk. He didn't notice the burning in his throat as he pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill. He ignored the tears that ran down his face as he wrote out everything he was feeling. He had no intention of sending it. It wasn't even a real letter - even if it did have "Dear Hermione" written at the top.
Some hours later, Ron emerged from his room, his stomach rumbling for the first time since they had arrived back home for the summer. His lack of appetite was one of the major things that was concerning his mum, but he just couldn't bring himself to eat. Now, after writing down everything that had been in his head, he felt replete. Oddly sated. He was sure it had been incomprehensible, but that didn't bother him too much.
He was passing the bathroom when Ginny emerged, wrapped in nothing but a small towel and looking extremely frustrated.
"Uh, Ginny, aren't you a bit under-dressed?" Ron said, trying to cover his sister. This was made tricky by the fact that he had closed his eyes to avoid the skin she was showing.
"Oh, if that's not the understatement of the century!" Ginny exclaimed angrily. "I took a shower to get cool - in case you haven't noticed it's hot enough to cook a Hippogriff out there, even with the storm - and the prats took my clothes!" Ron hadn't even noticed that the twins had stopped by, but was certainly glad that they chose to torment Ginny instead of him.
"Uh, right. Well. I'll just head down, shall I?" Ron made a hasty escape down the stairs, ignoring the angry grumbling that followed him. He entered the kitchen hesitantly; unsure about the mood his mum was in, and was relieved when she turned and smiled at him. It was the first real smile he'd seen on her face since coming home.
"How do you take your pumpkin juice?" Mrs. Weasley asked, the mirth in her tone unmistakable. Ron grinned widely, remembering the appropriate answer. It was a joke that had stemmed from his father's Muggle obsession.
"Sweetened, not stirred," Ron replied quietly, somehow sobered by the memory of his father's video thingamy. It had been in happier times when Mr. Weasley had brought it home, and made his family watch something called a movie. It had starred some bloke called Jim Pond.
He knew that his mum had asked him the old question as a peace offering, and he was more than willing to accept it. The strained conversations between them since her lecture had been starting to wear him thin.
Dinner, normally a boisterous time at the Burrow, was all but silent. Ron, Ginny and Mrs. Weasley sat at the large kitchen table, speaking only when it was necessary. Everyone else was either working for the Order, or at Grimmauld Place waiting for their shift. It wasn't long before Ron once again lost his appetite, and he made his way up to his room.
He was just getting into some serious wallowing and scowling at the wall, when a small, timid knock sounded on his bedroom door. Ron got up off his bed and opened the door, surprised to see Ginny there. He couldn't remember her even knocking on his door before, let alone timidly.
"What?" Ron said grumpily.
"Do you mind if I come in?"
He knew then that something was definitely up as he stepped aside to allow her entry into his room. Normal Ginny would have snapped his head off for speaking to her like he did, at the very least. He watched as she walked straight to the window and, watching her open it, he realised how stifling it was in his room.
"Ah, relief from the heat," she said, hanging her head out a bit.
"What do you want Ginny? I'm busy."
"I know you are," she said understandingly. "But there's something I think you and I need to talk about. First, though, you have to promise not to be mad."
"Ginny, if this is about your crush on Harry-"
"You git, Ron! I thought Hermione told you. I don't have a crush on Harry. So, no, this isn't about that. It's about you and the letter you wrote."
It took all of about two minutes for Ron to work out what letter Ginny was referring to. In truth, he had shoved it to the back of his mind as soon as he'd left his room for dinner. He felt ice crawl through his stomach at the realisation that his sister had read his most private thoughts.
"You - you read that letter?" His voice was barely above a whisper.
"Oh, Ron. I didn't mean to! I came up to borrow Pig, after my shower, and saw it sitting on the desk. I promise you, I didn't mean to read it, but once I started I couldn't stop. I didn't know that you could be so-" Ginny paused, looking for the right word. "That you could so open about your feelings."
"I was only bloody open because I didn't think anyone was going to read it! You had no right Ginny. No right at all."
"I know." Ginny hung her head. "I think you need to tell her though, Ron. I don't think it was pure chance that the letter was addressed to Hermione. I don't want to lecture you though."
"You're doing a pretty good job so far." Ron couldn't help the sarcastic tone creeping into his voice. Knowing exactly what it was that he'd written - and that his sister had read it - made him feel about two inches tall.
"I'm sorry, Ron, I really am. I only came up to tell you that I'd read it, and that you can talk to me whenever you need to. I was there too, and I lived with Sirius for as long as you did. I know what it's like for you. I've missed you since you started Hogwarts, and I want to be here for you if I can."
Obviously, Ginny hadn't expected that reaction. Ron got a small sense of satisfaction, seeing the bewildered look on her face. He didn't reply to her question, he just stared at her. The silence stretched out, before he decided to break it.
"When you've been best mates with the Boy-Who-Lived for five years, you can tell me what it's like, that you understand. Until then, Ginny, stay out of my business. Now get out."
He tried to trample down the guilt that rose up inside him as he realised what he'd said. Ginny raised her chin in defiance and stomped towards the door.
"That's fine. Just fine, Ron. I'll leave you to it." She pulled open the door. "But there's one more thing you should know."
"Yeah? What's that?" Ron was looking at his feet and didn't notice the smirk on Ginny's face.
"I borrowed Pig to send an invitation. Hermione should be here tomorrow afternoon."
The door slammed shut behind her, and Ron sat on the floor with a thump. He was doomed.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, which did nothing to better Ron's mood as he stomped back up to his room after breakfast. Ginny sure had a nerve, inviting his best friend over without even talking to him about it first.
She'd received Hermione's reply at breakfast. She was arriving at two o'clock and Ron couldn't think of anyone he'd rather see less. He was still annoyed with her for pretending everything was fine in her letters. Adding that to his anger over Ginny's interference, he had decided to sit in his room the entire time Hermione was there.
It wasn't long after Hermione arrived that she was knocking on Ron's bedroom door. He sighed, trying to just ignore it. She knocked again and called out his name. The sound of her voice made him remember how much he had missed her. How much he had wanted to see her over the last few weeks.
His feet, as if they had a mind of their own, stood him up from the bed and made him walk towards the door. His heart was beating painfully in his chest, as if it was holding a hammer. He opened the door, and his breath caught in his throat.
"Are you ignoring me?" Hermione asked, without even so much as a hello.
"If I am, it's not as though you're respecting that, is it?" Ron hated the sarcasm in his voice, but it was better than the alternative - vulnerability.
"Should I?" She barged past him through the door. Once she was inside, she swung around and put her hands on her hips. Ron tried not to notice how her eyes sparked fury at him, or how wonderful she made a simple outfit of jeans and a T-shirt look.
Instead, he stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at his feet, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"What's wrong with you Ron? Ginny told me you've been horrible to her!"
"Ha! Oooh I get it," Ron said harshly. "You came up here for Ginny's sake. Silly me for thinking that you'd actually want to talk to me about anything significant."
"What? Ron, what are you talking about?"
"If you don't know then I'm not going to tell you!"
Ron ran a hand through his hair, totally at a loss to what it was he was actually doing. He didn't want to push her away, not really. He didn't have a choice. She was his best friend, and even if he wanted more, it wasn't like a poor, stupid boy could have a chance with Hermione Granger.
"Honestly Ron, you're being irrational. I did come here to see you. There are things I want to tell you that I just couldn't put in a letter."
"Irrational? Me? You're the one who's been going along for weeks as if nothing happened! You're the one who wouldn't tell me how you were coping! You're the one who's been in touch with my entire family when I hardly get to see them anymore! What am I supposed to think? How am I supposed to react? Tell me Hermione, what am I meant to do when I'm stuck here, losing my two best friends?"
"Losing us? Ron, you're not-"
"-Don't tell me. Don't tell me you haven't distanced yourself. I've read the letters you sent this summer."
"But I just... I just told you there were things I couldn't say!"
"You could have said more than that you were BLOODY FINE!"
Ron cringed. He hadn't meant to yell, not really. He never meant to with Hermione, but she got under his skin. He'd been mad with her for weeks, it felt good to finally let it out.
"I- I'm sorry, all right? I didn't realise you were suffering."
Another harsh laugh forced its way out of Ron's throat, as if of its own accord. He suddenly felt as if the walls were closing in on him, smothering him. As Hermione stared back at him, he felt something inside him snap. He had to leave, he had to get away from this cell that was his bedroom, away from the girl that was breaking his heart.
"I have to get out of here," he said roughly, turning on his heel and all but running down the stairs. He passed his mother in the lounge room, mumbled something about degnoming the garden, and slammed through the kitchen, out into the yard.
The sun was glaring as he strode angrily towards the garden wall. It beat down on the top of his head, neck and back as he picked up the first gnome and threw it blindly. He let out a satisfied growl as he bent for another gnome, and another and another.
Ron didn't know how long he was out there throwing gnome after gnome until his rumbling stomach told him it was almost time for dinner. His breathing was harsh and ragged as he walked towards the Burrow. His anger wasn't quite sated, but at least now it wasn't sitting at the very top of his heart.
He stopped short as he looked towards his house, seeing a familiar figure start towards him. Her bushy hair flew out behind her and as she got closer, Ron noticed that Hermione had a piece of parchment in her hand. She was crying, and he felt his blood run cold. Something terrible had happened.
The possibilities ran through his mind in the short time it took for Hermione to reach him. Each one making his heartbeat quicken until he thought he'd never breathe again. Harry was in danger, one of my brothers has been hurt, all of my brothers have been hurt, Dad was attacked.
Thought left his mind altogether as Hermione launched herself at him and sobbed on his shoulder. Mindlessly, he wrapped his arms around her, fighting back the tears that had been building in his eyes at the thought of losing someone close to him to the War.
"R-Ron," Hermione said, vulnerably. His hand rubbed her back mechanically.
"It's all right, Hermione," he said quietly. "Whatever it is that's happened, we'll get through it."
"Oh, Ron!" Hermione pulled back and stared at him with red-rimmed eyes. "Nothing's happened. Not really."
Without warning, she shoved the parchment she had been holding in his face. He wasn't sure he wanted to read it, and when he saw whom the letter was addressed to, and the first line, he felt ice settle in the pit of his stomach.
"You read it?" He felt his legs turn to jelly as he realised the truth. It was unbearable. All of what he had been feeling since the Department of Mysteries was on that piece of parchment, as well as all he had been feeling for Hermione since the Yule Ball.
"Yes, Ron. I found it on your desk, and it had my name on it. I never-"
"-You know what I wrote? You really read it? All of it?"
"Ron, will you listen? This is part of what I couldn't say-"
Whatever it was that Hermione couldn't say, Ron didn't hear it. The blood was rushing in his ears as he collapsed on the grass. She knew. She knew he loved her and she was crying because she had to hurt him, reject him. How could things between them ever be the same again? Not only was he about to lose a love that he had only imagined, but also the best friend he had come to depend on.
He started to rock in his position on the ground, everything that had happened since the end of their third year came rushing back at him like a film in his mind and it was too much to cope with. He felt as if everything he had been holding in for the sake of those around him was being ripped out of him now. It was a pain like he had never experienced.
Ron was standing on the edge of a dark pit in his mind. He was about to leap into it, escape from everything - the War, the Order, Harry, his family, Hermione - and disappear forever when two strong arms wrapped themselves tenderly around his neck.
They pulled him back from the edge, back into a warmth he didn't want. A soft voice was whispering something in his ear. It was telling him that everything would be fine, as long as they stuck together. Ron felt that nothing would be fine ever again.
Soft lips kissed his forehead, his brow, his eyelids. They woke him up from the darkness and once again the sun was beating down on his head, neck and back. The arms were still locked around his neck, the voice was still whispering promises that echoed so nicely in his head.
The arms, the voice, the lips belonged to Hermione. They all came down to Hermione - as everything always did. He opened his eyes and met her chocolate brown ones, filled with concern and something else that Ron couldn't name.
As if it had a mind of its own, his hand found its way into her hair and he was surprised by the silkiness of it. He stared at his hand, fascinated that it was exploring her head and not being slapped away.
It was with a dazed kind of wonder that his eyes met hers again and as their heads drew closer Ron had one clear thought in his head. As their lips met with an innocence that only the first kiss can bring, Ron remembered the one promise that stood out most from the voice that had saved him. Hermione Granger loved him He knew it was enough.