Hermione tried to process the scene in front of her. The library, the place where she came to study, but also the place at Hogwarts where she had felt truly content, in ruins. She knew it was stupid to feel like this over what was essentially just a room full of books. But for six years of her life, she had possibly spent more time here than anywhere else. It almost felt as though a childhood friend had died, or her home had been destroyed. (She cast her mind briefly to her actual home. Had the Death Eaters paid a visit? She didn't want to think about it.) It was a lot to take in.
But strangely, as she felt Ron's hand on hers, she wasn't as upset as she could have been. During their sixth year, when her friendship with Ron had been crumbling, the library had been her place to seek solace, the place that was solid, constant. Now it was the library that was crumbling, and Ron that was her rock. Somehow it felt a lot better that way around.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Hermione decided that action was the way forward. It wasn't as if the library was broken beyond repair. "Well, we'd better get on with it, then," she said, her tone surprisingly businesslike as she surveyed the damage properly. "We should probably start by repairing the roof, and then move onto the bookshelves and the books."
"That sounds logical to me," Ron said quickly, sounding relieved, and Dean and Seamus nodded their agreement.
"What would you know about logic?" Hermione teased, and the atmosphere visibly relaxed.
It would be a long process: they needed to reassemble the rubble into its individual bricks before they could even think about starting to rebuild the roof. Hermione showed the boys the technique and they got to work, making slow but clear progress.
At first, they were focussed on their task, rarely speaking, but it was dull, repetitive work, so their concentration didn't last for too long.
"I'm bored," Seamus complained, looking at his watch. "Can't we take a break now?"
"We've only been here for half an hour. We still need to finish repairing the bricks, then reassemble the roof and that's before we've even started thinking about putting all the books back. We'll be here all night at this rate," Hermione pointed out disapprovingly.
"Let's carry on so we can finish sooner," Ron suggested, and Hermione tried not to laugh at how obviously he was trying to agree with everything she said.
Seamus scowled as the other three continued their work, and walked over to a pile of disordered books by the wall, picking one up and flicking through it.
"Blimey, Seamus, you must be bored if you've picked up a book," said Dean, impressed.
Hermione saw the book in his hand - Quidditch through the Ages. "It's a surprisingly good read, actually," she commented.
"You've read this?" Seamus demanded, flabbergasted, knowing Hermione's dislike for Quidditch.
"What?" she asked defensively. "I do read rather a lot, you know."
"You don't say," Ron muttered, rolling his eyes.
"Hey, listen to this," said Dean, who had also abandoned their task and was reading over Seamus's shoulder. "One famous match in 1884 on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, had to be abandoned after six months of fruitless searching for the Snitch. Many believe that it is still loose in the area to this day, which is fully possible due to its properties."
"Oh, Bodmin," Hermione said without thinking, "Harry and I stayed near there for a while before Christmas."
Ron's head snapped up to look at her, a pained expression on his face, and Hermione realised her mistake - Harry and I. Nobody else knew about Ron's absence. She looked at him apologetically and prayed that Dean and Seamus hadn't picked up on her stumble.
But they were surprisingly observant. "You and Harry?" Dean repeated, eyebrows raised. "Not Ron?"
"Um - yeah - I -" she stuttered, not sure how she could get them out of this. She knew that Ron was still extremely guilty, and he needed to tell people in his own time.
"I need some air," Ron announced loudly, and Dean and Seamus looked after him, confused, as he marched out of the room. Hermione gave them an I'll explain later look (although she wasn't sure how she would explain) before dashing after him - there were times when Ron needed to be left alone to work out his emotions, but Hermione didn't think that this was one of them.
Ron strode down the corridor until he spotted an open window. Leaning his body out of it slightly, he tried to clear his head.
He'd known that people were bound to find out eventually. It would be hard to hide such a big part of their journey, and Ron and Hermione's relationship (because he couldn't pretend that it hadn't been damaged by his foolish decision). Especially since he really wasn't keen on lying to their friends. Hermione wouldn't want to do that, either. He felt guilty for the position he'd left her in just then.
But he really didn't want them to know. He definitely got the sense that people thought of Harry and Hermione as the better part of the trio, and this would definitely back up those feelings. He hoped that he'd done enough to compensate for running away, and to show that he was truly sorry, but he just couldn't be sure. Plus, he needed to work out his own feelings on it first - Hermione claimed to have forgiven him, but they hadn't really spoken much on the subject. He didn't want to, but maybe they needed to.
He heard footsteps and turned around, alarmed, but luckily it was Hermione. "Hey," she said quietly as she reached him, and he moved over to make room for her at the window.
"What did you say to them?" Ron asked nervously.
"Nothing," she assured him, to his relief, "I just followed you out. We'll have to think of something to tell them later." Hermione paused, looking uncomfortable. "I'm really, really sorry," she said guiltily. "It just slipped out; I didn't think."
"It's okay, it wasn't your fault. My stupid fault for doing it in the first place," he muttered, still angry with himself. He sighed. "We still haven't discussed this properly, have we?" he said tentatively.
Hermione shook her head. "Don't worry, that's kind of my fault," she told him. "I was so angry when you came back; I wouldn't even look at you. And then there was just never really an opportunity."
"Shall we... do you want to talk now?"
"If you want," Hermione said, "but really, we don't have to. I've forgiven you, Ron. I understand why you did it."
Ron could hardly believe it. He really didn't deserve her. "Thanks," he mumbled, struggling to find better words. "There's something I never told you, though," he said suddenly, and Hermione looked apprehensive. "And we said no more secrets, right?"
"Yes," she said warily. "Go on."
"I..." Ron began, feeling stupid. "I genuinely thought there was something going on between you and Harry. And I was jealous."
Hermione looked shocked. "Me and... what on earth made you think that?" she asked, flabbergasted.
He shrugged. "I don't know - the Horcrux's influence, mostly, but I think I just felt set aside when you were discussing all those theories, and... I don't know, I just sometimes feel like I'm just Harry's sidekick or something. Living in his shadow. Tagged on at the end." He had never confessed this thought to anyone before.
Hermione stood there looking stunned for a second longer, then suddenly, unexpectedly, kissed him.
"You have never been that to me," she said after she'd finally pulled away. "Harry... he's like a brother to me. It's completely different from what I feel for you. And I've never felt like this about anyone before."
"What, even Krum?" Ron couldn't stop himself from asking.
"Oh, for God's sake, Ron," Hermione said, rolling her eyes, but she was smiling. "When are you going to get over him? I was fifteen."
"Sorry," Ron apologised quickly.
"No, it's okay," she sighed. "We said we'd be straight with each other. Viktor was very nice and everything, just not... I don't know. Exciting."
"And I am?" Ron said immediately, grinning.
Hermione laughed. "Yes."
Ron couldn't help feeling slightly smug at being compared positively to an international Quidditch star. "Well, since you've said that, I'll say this."
"Lavender? She's not my type."
Hermione's face creased in puzzlement. "So what is your 'type', then?" she enquired.
"You, idiot," Ron said, rolling his eyes.
"I am not an idiot, Ronald Weasley, and I think you should take some lessons in flattery; that was pitiful," Hermione said reproachfully, but Ron could tell that she was struggling to suppress a smile.
"Whatever. I know you loved it."
"Maybe," she admitted, giving in and letting the smile spread across her face. There was a pause, and Hermione looked at Ron hesitantly. "Shall we go back in?" she asked cautiously. "We don't have to tell them anything now."
Ron considered. He was feeling much more relaxed now, and he would have to face them sooner or later. "Sure," he agreed. "We couldn't have Hogwarts reopening without a library, now, could we?"
"No," she agreed slowly, and Ron could tell from her tone that she was trying to work out if he was being sarcastic or not. He laughed and took her hand, leading her back towards the library to face the task in front of them.
A/N: Well I kind of lied when I said I wouldn't keep you waiting for the next chapter... but never mind, here it is! :)
Thank you again to my fabulous beta, kci47.