Ron squinted ahead and set his jaw, determined to keep his face impassive. Dumbledore's body had just disappeared in a burst of flame and smoke, almost as if his death were a cheap magician's trick - something cooked up by Fred and George. But there was no trick, nothing funny at all about the white stone that now marked Dumbledore's tomb. Harry said something to Ginny in a low voice, and Ron turned to look at Hermione.
She was completely still and silent, though her pale cheeks shone with tears. Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Ron slid his hand from his own lap to cover both of Hermione's, which were clasped, cold and white-knuckled, at her stomach. She started slightly and turned to him, bit her bottom lip for a moment, and then curved into a sob. When she leaned forward, it was into his arms, and Ron folded her in as if nothing was more natural.
He remembered the afternoon three years ago when she'd done this - an afternoon that now seemed impossibly distant. He hadn't known what to do then, for one thing. But now he knew instinctively how close to hold her, how to slide his hand soothingly over the small of her back, how to move his fingers in her hair the way his mother used to do when he had nightmares. For all her bossiness and fierceness, Hermione seemed impossibly fragile and small as she cried against him. It wasn't until he felt a cool tickle on the bridge of his nose that he realized he was crying as well.
"Ron," she wept softly into his shirt, "I don't know what to do. I don't know how to..."
"It's okay," he said, even though nothing felt okay - nothing except holding on to her.
He saw Harry leave, and Ginny not long after that. Almost everyone around them had gone, but Ron had no desire to leave this spot. He was surprised at how much stronger and braver he felt when he held Hermione like this. He was surprised at how different it was to hold her, rather than Lavender. One night in the common room, Lavender had said, "I love you, Ronnie. Do you love me?" Not knowing what to say - or rather, not knowing how to say "no" - he had simply snogged her for several minutes. Lavender was an Oakshaft 79. Hermione was a Firebolt.
Ron stilled his hand in Hermione's hair and sighed against her. "Hogwarts will be weird next year, won't it?" he asked absently.
Hermione sat up, sniffled, and gave him a half-smile. "We won't be at Hogwarts next year."
He didn't have to ask what she meant; a moment's thought was enough. "Yeah." He looked off towards the lake, then back at her. "Yeah, you're right." A few curly strands of hair stuck to her cheek, and Ron reached up to smooth them back with his fingers. Some color rose under her skin, and she smiled at him again.
There were lots of things he wanted to say to her but couldn't: that Lavender had meant nothing, that nothing scared him more than the thought of something bad happening to her - Hermione. That she was the next girl he wanted to kiss, and no other girl after her.
"You'll miss the N.E.W.T.s," he said lightly.
"Not if I apparate back to take them."
Ron grinned in spite of himself. "Honestly, Hermione, haven't you read Hogwarts: A History? You can't apparate here."
"Oh, so you do listen to me occasionally, Ron Weasley!" she exclaimed with an indignant tone, though her smile gave her entirely away.
Always, he thought. "When you're too loud to block out," he said. "Want to go find Harry?"
"Yes, but Ron..." Hermione laid a hand on his arm. "I... Do you... I mean... oh, never mind."
Apparently, like so many other things between them, it would have to wait.