Ron and Charlie were sprawled on either side of a campfire laughing themselves into stitches. Ron couldn't even remember the last time he had laughed this much. Charlie was in the midst of retelling one of his favorite Hogwarts stories.
"So….so then he runs right into Tonks, who by this point has made herself look like Sprout, and he just starts babbling at the top of his lungs about how he's been under the Imperious curse this whole time!"
Charlie could barely get the story out between his hoots of laughter. Ron was grateful for the distraction, Charlie had promised to get his mind off Hermione and so far he was delivering. He had always loved hearing Charlie's stories from Hogwarts, particularly when they involved his legendary quidditch career, but most of tonight's stories involved Charlie's adventures with his friends. None of them involved dark wizards or saving the world of course. Ron briefly wondered how different his life could have been without Voldemort.
"Earth to Ron?" Charlie had noticed Ron go quiet.
"It's nothing, just wondering what a normal Hogwarts experience must be like."
Charlie gave him a sympathetic look. "You lot never did get a chance at that, unless you decide to go back this year." Ron could see the hidden question.
Truth was he had given it a lot of thought and no matter how he stacked it, it just made sense to finish out his N.E.W.T.s.
"Yeah you're right. It will be nice to finally get that experience, even if it's in my final year."
They sat in amiable silence for a while, taking in the scenery. They had hiked among the mountains for two days now. Charlie had offered to take Ron to a camp where his buddies were currently holding some fresh caught dragons, but Ron had declined. He just wanted his brother's company and he really had had his fill of dragons for one lifetime.
They were currently camped on a small plateau on the outer skirts of the Carpathian Mountains. The land seemed to stretch forever in front of them and the lights from the towns and villages seemed like tiny fireflies from their height. It was also a clear night and the stars seemed close enough to touch. It was all quiet and beautiful.
It was just what he needed. Tomorrow was when he would be meeting his friends again to head to Australia. After spending a few days away from them, he had very mixed feelings about returning. He missed his friends and genuinely wished for their presence even now, but the hurt was still very fresh from Hermione. It would be a bittersweet reunion.
"Wanna talk about it?" Charlie had moved to sit next to him.
"I don't know that there's much else to say."
This was not strictly true. Ron could think of a million things he wanted to say to Hermione: A million different apologies, arguments why they should be together, or ways to beg her to come back. He thought very briefly of leaving to go after her, but knew it would only make things worse. He knew that Hermione had made her decision and it was final.
"You know, you are a great guy to not give up her friendship over this. I'll say it again, I'm very proud of you." Charlie patted Ron on the back. "It proves just how much you've grown. I know it's clichéd to tell you this, but this too shall pass. I know it hurts, but it won't hurt forever and you will be very grateful to have a friend like her."
Ron gave Charlie a grateful look. He knew what his brother said was true, even if it didn't change the fact that it hurt like hell at the moment.
He sat by the small campfire just watching the flickering lights below and the stars above for ages not saying a word. Charlie bid him goodnight and gave him a warm hug around midnight. Ron knew that he understood.
Ron took out a small stone that he kept in his pocket at all times. He had picked it up that day that he and Hermione had went running along the river through the woods watching the otters play. It was the happiest he had ever been in his life. He had picked the stone from the riverbank in order to always remember that day.
He ran his fingers over its smooth surface. Anger welled within him and his first and overwhelming instinct was to throw it as far as he could; but he knew that he would regret it the second that he did it.
Instead, he simply stared at it, remembering every small detail about that day: the sunshine dappling through the trees, the soft gurgling of the river, the way her brown hair had flown wild behind her, and those soft brown eyes that had simply melted his heart.
He didn't realize he had picked up his wand or cast a spell until the silver light of his patronus alerted him of its presence. The small terrier jumped around the rocks in front of him like it was having the time of its life. Ron felt hot tears running down his cheeks. As the memory faded from his mind the patronus leapt into the brush and out of sight.
He didn't know how long he had sat there, but it seemed like an eternity until his breath evened out and the tears stopped pricking at his eyes. He honestly did feel better, like a huge weight had been taken from his chest cavity. He knew that Hermione would need his support on their trip to Australia, and he was determined to be the best help he could.
He sensed that now that he had reached some sort of equilibrium on his feelings for her. It hurt still, but he knew now that he thought of her still as his best friend besides Harry. He was more worried about her and getting her parents back than he was about how he was going to feel seeing her again.
He smiled. Everything was back to the way it should be.