Ron was certain of only two things about the path he and Hermione were on: he knew it was a long and twisty one, and he knew where it was going to end. Beyond that, he was pretty much lost, which is what they both were at the moment, though neither of them were particularly worried about that.
Not yet, anyway.
Actually though, he thought as he watched Bellatrix Lestrange’s wand jerk back and forth in the palm of Hermione’s hand, he wasn’t absolutely sure where following the path would take them either. A year ago he probably wouldn’t have been at all modest when it came to locating himself. He wasn’t smart, he knew, but at least he had a good sense of where he was and what direction he was facing and what was going on around him (he figured that if he was any kind of decent Quidditch Keeper at all it was surely for that reason, as he definitely couldn’t claim Cormac McLaggen’s muscles for himself). He was pretty certain they were still heading north, and he was almost sure the path they were on was the one which emerged from the forest near the back of the Three Broomsticks — the same one that he’d tried to convince Hermione to take back to Hogwarts when they’d gone on their own to Hogsmeade at the beginning of their third year.
But Hermione thought their path probably looped around to the other side of Hogsmeade, and merged with the rutted gravel road beyond the Shrieking Shack. Moreover, she was getting doubtful about their direction, hence the need for the Four-Point spell. And what Hermione thought… well, that mattered. For years, Ron had privately figured that if Hermione didn’t agree with him, well, the odds were that she was probably right — she was the smart one, after all — but now… now he realized that he was a lot more willing to admit that to her (even if it was true that her sense of direction in the outdoors was often shite). And that meant, he realized as he stood beside her, watching her annoyance with the wand in her hand mount, that he wasn’t so interested in insisting on what he thought he knew any longer.
But if that’s the way it is, we won’t row so much, Ron said to himself, and I really kind of like that. He shook his head. Another thing to try to figure out later; there was too much on his unsettled mind already.
Hermione’s brow furrowed as she said “Point Me!” over and over. She hadn’t noticed Ron’s gaze.
“Can I say that I just hate using this wand?” she announced to the forest around them, repeating a point she’d made several times over the past two and a half days. “I can feel the spell coming out of me the right way, but the wand doesn’t do what it’s supposed to with it.” She glanced about, then turned back to the wand, apparently wanting to stare it into obedience. “I wonder if there are walnut trees in the forest throwing it off. There’s a passage in Spellman’s Syllabary which suggested that the effectiveness of some types of wands can be compromised by the presence of magic amidst trees of the same type they were—”
“Hermione,” Ron said, with a hint of humor in his voice, “I’ve never seen walnuts in the forest, and even if there were some around, I don’t know how they could mess with any spell you’d cast.” She flushed slightly, and gave him an exasperated smile. Ron just shrugged. “And the wand worked well enough against the bitch herself, you think? So, I mean, the problem is probably just the way the castle’s enchantments have everything so wonky.”
“I guess you’re right,” she said, putting the walnut wand away. “But I thought if we got far enough from Hogwarts, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Who knows how far away we need to be?” Ron replied. “With the Floo network down all the news for the past day has come in by owl, I think, so that doesn’t tell us anything. Remember what McGonagall was saying about stuff from the castle walls being thrown all around the grounds by giants or being blasted by curses?”
“Yes, Ron, I remember!” Hermione huffed, taking off down the path again. But then she stopped and turned back, looking at Ron with another smile and holding out her hand. “It’s just, I don’t know — it’s good to wander a bit and get away from everything, but what time is it? We should probably get back.”
Ron leapt to catch up with her, then took her hand while taking out his watch and checking it. “Look, it’s not even lunchtime yet—”
“Oh I knew that; your stomach would have announced it,” she said, her smile widening.
“— and so I doubt we’ve missed anything important,” he said extravagantly, ignoring her interruption. Ron took a quick step or two ahead of her, pulling her along, his eyebrows waggling a bit. “McGonagall said Kingsley will be coming by sometime in the afternoon, so we won’t be called upon to wake the ‘savior of the wizarding world’ until then, right?”
Hermione fell in step alongside him, her smile turning to a small laugh. “Oh, I think Ginny will want to take over that responsibility, don’t you think?”
Suddenly Ron’s heart was flying (How the hell could I have gone all these years without feeling this way every time I saw her face?, he wondered) and he felt an urge to spin Hermione around as they walked and kiss her again. But thinking about Kingsley’s return reminded him of other things, and his heart just as suddenly turned a little cold. His steps faltered. “Mum and Dad will be coming back with Kingsley; that’s what he said to McGonagall when they got the Floo working this morning.” He had to get it out, though he really didn’t like thinking about it. “They’re going
to take Fred — Fred’s body on the Hogwarts Express, along with some others, I reckon. All of them, maybe. I don’t know where to. There’s just, you know, too much dust and, er, everything scattered around the castle to keep the — the bodies clean and…”
“I heard already,” Hermione whispered, pulling Ron’s hand closer to her, but keeping up their pace. They walked in silence for a while. Ron listened to Hermione’s breathing.
I don’t know what I want to say, and I don’t know if whatever comes out of my mouth will make me laugh or cry, Ron thought, stealing another glance at her, hoping that she wouldn’t pick up on his confusion and get the wrong idea. This is the best and worst time I’ve ever had. I’ll kill myself if I bollocks this up.
Once they left the Headmaster’s Office, Harry set off towards Gryffindor Tower (or what was left of it; Ron was pretty certain he’d seen one of the tables from the common room laying broken on the grounds as they’d made their dash to the Whomping Willow the night before) to get some sleep. Though his adrenalin had carried him — carried them all, really — through the longest night Ron had ever experienced, Ron could tell Harry wasn’t just tired; he was exhausted, absolutely knackered, almost ready to collapse in their arms. They picked their way past smashed doors and broken walls, until they found the Fat Lady.
“I feel like every part of my body has been squeezed by Grawp,” Harry said as he leaned against the portrait hole. “Aren’t you beat?” He looked at Ron, then glanced at Hermione, his voice registering disbelief.
Ron shook his head. “Yeah mate, but I — I just gotta go downstairs and see about… things…” He’d trailed off, thinking of Fred’s body below, lying alongside all the others.
“You’re right; this is stupid, let’s go down—”
Of course he’d choose to go down, Ron thought with a bit of annoyance, no matter how much he really wants to be alone, he’d let everyone else nibble him to death if they asked for it. But before anything could come out of his mouth, Hermione interrupted.
“No, Harry, you just said you’re worn out, and, really, after this morning, what more is there to say?” She pushed him through the hole and into the room; there were some broken windows and some missing furniture, but it didn’t seem to be damaged much more than that. “Everyone will want you to explain it all again and again, and you need some time to yourself. I’m going to get some sleep myself—”
“Now?” Ron couldn’t help himself.
“Yes, and so are you, as soon as you let your parents know where you are,” Hermione said emphatically, giving him a look; Ron wasn’t sure what he saw in her eyes, but he hoped it meant she wasn’t being entirely honest with Harry. Quickly though, she turned back and started up again: “I mean, the castle is damaged all over the place, and Luna was saying something about spells not working right, and I don’t know if that’s so, but if there is some Dark Magic or cursed items or whatever else the Death Eaters were using still around, then no one should go off by themselves without someone at least knowing where they are and checking up on them, and we can do that for you, Harry, and so the Weasleys need to be able to do it for—”
“I get it, Hermione” Harry interrupted, though he smiled a little as he glanced back and forth between his two friends. He walked (staggered is more like it, thought Ron) toward the passageway to the boys’ dormitory. “Fine — as soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m dead to the world. Let everyone know, okay?” He stopped as he went through the door, started to say something, but faltered, and then just looked deeply at them both. “Thank you,” he finally got out.
“Get your arse up there, Harry,” Ron said, with a bit of a choke. He felt a rush of gratitude for Harry’s friendship, and his forgiveness. Dammit, he’s just such a good bloke. Such a good… man. “We won’t be going anywhere.” Then Harry was gone.
Hermione leaned against Ron quietly, resting her head in the crook of his shoulder. He reached his arm around her, and felt his heart begin to beat faster. Merlin, I could get used to this. He looked down at her, and ran his free hand through her hair. He noticed for the first time just how singed it was.
“I think you got more hair burned off by that berk Crabbe’s spell than Harry and I put together.”
“More hair to burn,” she said, almost sleepily, not moving. “Maybe I’ll get it cut short.”
Ron adjusted his position, and rubbed his facial growth, then looked at his hand. It was streaked with dried blood, dirt and ashes. His face must be a mess. But then, everyone’s was, and no one cared. “Maybe I’ll grow a beard,” he heard himself say aloud.
Hermione looked up at him. “Why?”
“I dunno. Maybe I liked Dragomir’s look.”
Hermione pulled away from him far enough to give him a soft punch on the arm. He responded by grabbing her hand as she attempted another punch, and drew her back close to him. Hermione took a step, her eyes bright, but then pulled away, back towards the portrait hole.