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The clinking bell on the door of the Three Broomsticks was barely audible over the loud chatter of students that crammed themselves into the small pub. Hermione felt stifled just stepping foot into the overcrowded room and would have turned back, if not for the absolute necessity of talking to Ron. What she really needed was fresh air, and she was absolutely certain the pub would not provide it.

Standing on her tiptoes, Hermione craned her neck to see over the gaggle of teenage witches and wizards to look for three in particular. She spotted two redheads sitting in a corner, and as she walked closer, she could see Harry’s black hair that nearly blended into the dark background of the walls. The three seemed to be talking easily—or two of the three were talking, as the boy redhead seemed disinclined to share his opinions or thoughts with them at all. Upon looking at the boy, one might think that he didn’t much care for butterbeer, either, as his glass sat untouched and nearly full to the brim.

Winding her way through the maze of people, Hermione finally reached her friends. Harry was the first to break the awkward silence by saying hello and asking how her meeting went. She returned his ‘hello’ and also greeted Ginny and Ron, though she didn’t hear an audible response from the latter. To Harry’s question, she answered, “It was fine.”

Ginny immediately wanted to know all the details. “Well, you’re obviously not in trouble, so shat did he want?”

Hermione screwed up her face slightly; she was nervous as it was, and Ginny wasn’t helping anything by putting her on the spot like that. She threw the redhead girl an “I’ll tell you later” look, while Harry clandestinely nudged his girlfriend in the side.

“Well, Gin, we should probably get going or we’ll be late for…that thing,” Harry said awkwardly.

“Oh! Oh, yes… Right. We’ll be leaving, then, unless you’d rather we stay?” Ginny asked.

Hermione nodded her head violently, but Ron waved them off with a limp hand. Of course Hermione knew that she needed to talk to him alone, but having the support of her friends there would have been comforting.

“See you,” If I’m alive after this, Hermione mused. She stared down at the table, wondering where on Earth she was going to begin explaining everything, and took a large gulp of the half-finished butterbeer that Ginny had left. Then she took another. And another…

Surprisingly, it was Ron who spoke first. “Let’s get out of here.” His request left no room for refutation as he stood up and exited the Three Broomsticks, leaving Hermione to fend for herself amongst the stifling crowd. When she was finally able to battle her way out and catch up to him, Ron had already made it halfway up the road.

He heard her panting behind him, and turned back once to look at her, but said nothing further; his gangly legs kept widening the distance between them so that Hermione struggled to keep pace. Hermione had been waiting for him to stop so that she could look at him when they talked, but clearly she wasn’t going to get that chance. Ron had yet again taken off ahead of her and had reached the top of a hill when she yelled, “I’m sorry, Ron!”

Ron stopped abruptly in his tracks, catching a glimpse of the Shrieking Shack in the distance as he turned to face her. “Sorry for what, exactly?” he snapped. “For lying to me or for tearing out my heart with your fingernails?” Ron’s upper lip quivered with rage and his watery eyes sparked with pain. He started to say something else, but his words were cut off by choking sobs.

Hermione clenched her fists and gritted her teeth, while staring straight back at her friend. She was angrier than she could ever remember being in her whole entire life: angry about how the whole situation had turned out, angry at how Ron discovered her relationship with Charlie, and angry with herself for not telling him sooner.

After thirty seconds without an answer, Ron turned and stomped away. Hermione still couldn’t make her brain react, but desperation set in when she saw how far away Ron was getting. “BOTH!” she shouted at his back.

Ron froze in his tracks, but didn’t turn. “So you knew what you were doing the whole time, did you?”

“Merlin, Ron, I didn’t plan on it! It just happened!” Hermione cried. She approached his back and placed a hand on her shoulder and said tenderly, “I never meant to hurt you… Please believe me!”

The crying boy shivered and fell to his knees, covering his face with his hands. “How could you do this to me, ‘Mione?”

Hermione kneeled beside him and put her arm around his shoulders, but Ron shook it off and inched away from her.

“I love Charlie,” she said, as gently as she could.

Ron shook his head slowly, forcing the tears further down his cheeks. “You used to love me…”

That comment twisted the knife even harder into Hermione’s chest. She’d never felt such incredible pain before hearing those words from Ron’s mouth. “I still do, Ron, only…. Only not like that, anymore.”

“There’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there? ‘I used to love you, Ron, but you were too late. Have a nice life.’”

“It doesn’t have to be like that, you know. We can still be friends. Please…” she begged.

“It’ll never be the same. Nothing will ever be right again. You’ve got Charlie now, and…” Ron paused as he tried to regain control of his tears. “You’ll forget all about me, about what we had—or what we could have had.”

So Ron was afraid that she’d forget about him. She understood why he’d think that, but it hurt her so badly to hear him say it. Hermione would never forget a friend like Ron, though he’d never believe her if she told him. She had to show him. For the second time since Christmas, Hermione reached into the collar of her robes and pulled out a silver necklace.

“I still wear it,” she said, holding the Gryffindor pendant in her hand for Ron to see.

Ron removed his attention from the grass he was tearing out of the ground and looked at Hermione, seeing that she was, indeed, still wearing his Christmas gift. It made him feel a little better, but not enough to end his verbal fight with Hermione. “It doesn’t mean anything. It was a stupid gift and look what it got me!”

“It means everything, Ron!” she countered. “Don’t you understand?”

“Apparently I don’t understand a lot of things, or else you’d be with me instead of Charlie.”

Ignoring his self-pitying remarks, Hermione continued, “It means everything because you gave it to me! It means you care about me, just like I care about you!”

“I don’t just care about you, ‘Mione. I LOVE YOU!” Ron shouted. “I thought you knew that!”

“How could I have known when you never told me, Ronald!?” Unable to continue to stay calm, Hermione was near shouting as she explained, “All I could do was guess, and that made me miserable! I couldn’t go on like that!”

Ron frowned and ripped out another large chunk of grass and added it to the pile he’d created. He tried to just ignore her, but he couldn’t handle keeping it all inside. “So you just moved on to my brother,” he stated, his voice still raised. “Did you ever think to ask me if I’d be ok with it!?”

“When have I ever asked you who I could date?”

“Never! That’s the problem!”

“Well, did you ever think it might just be a little difficult to discuss my love life with you? Why do you think it took me so long to tell you about Charlie?”

“You didn’t tell me! You threw a bloody note in my face and let me find out for myself!”

Hermione inhaled rapidly as she remembered her poorly made decision from the day before. She’d never regretted anything more than when she showed Charlie’s note to Ron without even the slightest warning. She started crying again just t thinking about it. “I’m s-so s-s-sorry.”

Ron had begun crying again, too. He’d tried not thinking about that traumatizing note, but somehow he just couldn’t get it out of his mind; every time he saw Hermione, he also saw the words written in Charlie’s handwriting. “To say I was shocked would be an understatement. It was like I’d just been pummeled by a troll,” he said.

“Ron, I’m—“

“I was expecting Malfoy,” Ron interrupted. “I could have handled that; I’d have just murdered him. But Charlie? I can’t kill my brother.” He shook his head sadly.

“I know—“

“I should have seen it coming. I was happy when you started becoming friends with Charlie during the holidays, because I knew he’d be good to you, but I wasn’t expecting it to go this far.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, both gathering their thoughts and sorting through their emotions. The quiet hill was peaceful and serene above the bustling town of Hogsmeade and was a perfect place for them to be alone for this difficult moment. But it still wasn’t quiet enough to keep them calm for long.

“I didn’t expect it, either, but I wouldn’t take it back. He saved me, Ron.”

“And he killed me.”

Hermione sighed. “All he thought about was you, you know. He didn’t want to hurt you any more than I did. I’m the one who screwed up, Ron, not your brother.”

“Don’t take all the credit! If I’d have listened to him in the first place I wouldn’t be in this mess…”

Confused, Hermione waited for him to clarify, but he never did.

“And if I didn’t go nuts on you about Malfoy… Everything would have been different.”

She put a hand on his shoulder again, but this time he didn’t slither away from her. “Don’t think about that, Ron. It’ll only leave you with a lifetime of regrets and ‘what ifs’. You’ll drive yourself mad like that.”

“I can’t help it, ‘Mione. I’ll always wonder.”

Hermione’s knees became sore from how she was kneeling, so she shifted her weight and sat cross-legged in the grass just inches from Ron’s side. “You know,” she said, “I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself, knowing I caused such everlasting damage to my best friend.”

“Best friend?” Ron asked skeptically. “What about Harry? I’d think he was your best friend, not some stupid git like me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Let’s see. Who’s famous, rich, decently clever, very powerful, everyone’s favorite hero, nice bloke…?”

“Ronald, you know that has nothing to do with being a best friend.”

“…And I’m the one that always argues with you, makes you angry, copies off your homework…”

“You’re the one who keeps me on my toes! You keep life interesting, and even though we might have our disagreements, you never fail to defend me or help me when I need it. You’re loyal and supportive—with the exception of S.P.E.W.—you’re caring, thoughtful, and reliable. Ron, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and I can’t lose you. I won’t lose you.”

Ron tried to hide a smile but did a pretty poor job of it. It seemed that no matter what argument he came up with, Hermione always found a way to turn it around and discredit it, and he loved that about her. Ok, so he was her best friend, but what did that mean, anymore? His smile faded as he pondered what role he would play in her future.

“But I reckon you’ve got a new best friend, now…” he said, wiping his face dry with his sleeve.

“No one could ever replace you. You know that, right?”

“Well, if it has to be someone, I guess better Charlie than Malfoy.”

“Did you not hear what I just said? You’re not being replaced.”

Ron nodded disbelievingly. “Right. You don’t have to spare my feelings anymore, ‘Mione. It’s ok.”

Hermione sighed in exasperation. Ron was always one for an argument.

“Well, you might be replaced, if you don’t stop acting like such a prat,” she teased. Ron’s horrified look forced her to explain that she was kidding, and she thought she heard a faint laugh.

“There’s one other thing…” he said. “You really didn’t date Malfoy, did you?”

She couldn’t help but chuckle.

“I see that’s quite funny, isn’t it? Well, I’ll have you know I’m very serious…”

“Don’t worry about him, Ron. It was just a misunderstanding, that’s all. Nothing you need to fret about,” she assured. “So please don’t go and hex him or do anything too…Ron-like.”

Ron acted offended and crossed his arms. “Hey!” But Hermione just laughed again and wrapped her arm around Ron’s back, settling herself into his side as she rested her head on his shoulder.

“I just want to tell you again that I’m sorry for the way things happened. I was wrong to keep it from you. I just hope you can forgive me someday,” Hermione said.

“Yeah,” Ron replied. He ran a hand over her hair once before making to stand up and forcing Hermione to do the same. With both hands in his pockets, he started to walk to the other side of the hill and admire the view. Hermione knew she needed to get back to the castle—there was no telling what Charlie and Malfoy were up to—but she was reluctant to leave Ron alone.

“You coming?” she asked.

Ron shook his head and said, “No. I’ll just stay here for a bit. Tell Harry not to wait up for me at practice this afternoon.” He continued to walk in circles around a large boulder and scuffed his feet in the grass as he went.

Hermione approached him, but he just walked right past her. The second time around, she positioned herself directly in his path so that he had to stop. Neither of them said a word as Hermione reached up and kissed him quickly. She then made her way down the hill alone while Ron perched on the hard rock and watched her go.

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