Late the next day, the weather cleared so they decided to move. When the tent was collapsed and stuffed into Hermione's bag and all evidence of their presence was cleared away, Harry took Hermione's arm. She gave him an odd look that Ron couldn't interpret. He took her other arm, conscious of the fact that this was the first time he'd touched her since he got back. She'd hit him, of course, but he didn't feel like that counted. She stiffened when his hand wrapped around her arm. Harry threw the Invisibility Cloak over the three of them and Hermione raised her wand. They spun into the tight squeeze of Apparition.
When they landed, Hermione immediately yanked her arm away from Ron and started setting up the wards while Harry put away his cloak and dug through her bag for the tent. They were in a wooded glen. Ron looked around and started gathering firewood. As he picked up branches, he noticed a hole in the ground that he thought looked like a rabbit warren. He cast the spell for the stunning snare. He didn't know if it was an active warren or not, but if he managed to get a rabbit or two, at least dinner wouldn't be so bleak. He looked over to see that Hermione was done with the wards and was looking for mushrooms. Harry had finished with the tent and was picking up firewood too. Ron caught his eye and signaled him over.
Harry joined him and Ron explained about the snare. "If we're lucky, we'll get one or two and then I can make stew. It won't be proper stew without a bit of cream but I reckon it'll beat a pot of peas.
"I'm so sick of dried peas," Harry said.
"Fingers crossed then, mate," Ron said and resumed collecting firewood.
When they'd picked up all the fallen wood within the protection of the wards and stacked it near the tent, Ron and Harry started to break it up. Hermione returned with a basket full of mushrooms.
"I found Velvet Shanks," she said. "I'll just take the skin off the tops and they'll be ready to cook."
Ron's wand vibrated in his back pocket. "Yes!" he said, grinning. He hurried over to where he'd set the snare and was treated to a mature rabbit stunned on the ground. Harry and Hermione had followed him.
"What are you going to do now?" Harry asked.
"Reset the snare and clean it," Ron said.
"Oh," Hermione said. She'd gone a bit pale.
"You don't have to be here for that bit," Ron said. "Go inside. I can take care of it."
She bristled. "Please. It's not as if I'm a vegetarian." But her eyes darted away uncertainly.
"Right," Ron said. "Course not, but unless you know the spells to skin and clean a rabbit…"
"No," Hermione admitted. "Fine. I need to look at the maps and find a village anyway."
"Sure," Ron said.
She headed back to the tent.
Ron redid the stunning snare, showing Harry the spell as he did it. Then he picked up the rabbit by the ears and took it over behind the tent. "This'll be quick," he said to Harry, who looked a bit nervous. "You don't have to stay."
"No," Harry said. "I should learn how to do it."
Ron could hear in case you leave again at the end of the sentence. "Yeah, alright." He wanted to say he could do it. He wanted to say he would always do it and that he would never leave again, but that seemed like opening a barely closed wound. It only took a minute to have the rabbit skinned and cleaned. "Accio plate," he said and a tin plate came sailing out of the tent. Harry grabbed it, as Ron used Diffindo to remove the head and cut the rest of the body into six different pieces. "Could you cast a charm to dig a hole?" he asked Harry. "I don't want to leave the head out here where Hermione might come across it."
"Sure," Harry said, looking a bit green.
"There's not much to it, is there?" Ron said, sadly. "I hope we catch another one." He took the rabbit inside and cast a cooling charm on the plate to keep it fresh. Hermione was sitting on the sofa pouring over a map of the UK that she had spread out across the coffee table. Harry took out his wand and held it to the kettle to make it boil.
"Is there any tea left?" Ron asked.
"No, but there's some instant coffee that was left in the tent when we got it. Want some?"
Ron sighed. "I guess. I know there's no milk. Any sugar left?"
Harry shook his head.
"We've got to get supplies," Ron said. He looked at Hermione. "Any luck finding a place?"
She sighed. "There are loads of options. It would be nice if we could pick one that mattered in some way."
Harry handed Ron a cup of coffee. "Hermione?"
"Sure," she said.
He went back for two more mugs.
"I'd like to find the next Horcrux as much as you," Ron said. "But, right now the immediate concern is food."
"He's right," Harry said. "Just pick the nearest village. We've got to stock up."
She sighed and pointed to tiny nearby hamlet called Norton Saint Philip. "My mum had a friend who lived in this village. We visited her several times. I could get us there. They have a Co-op."
"Perfect," Harry said. "We'll go tomorrow. It's already getting dark and we have food for tonight."
Ron got up and went into the small kitchen area of the tent. He'd soaked two cups of dried peas the night before, so he drained those and started pealing the potatoes, making sure to get all the green off where they'd started to sprout. Then he pealed the carrots, got out the mushrooms Hermione had picked, and cast a spell to chop everything. He got out the soup pot, put it on the stove and lit the burner. Then he put a bit of oil in the bottom and let it get hot while he sprinkled the rabbit with salt, pepper and garlic powder. When the oil was ready he started sautéing the carrots. He kept hoping his wand would vibrate again and that they'd have another rabbit to go in the pot, but it remained distressingly still. When the carrots started to soften, he put in the pieces of rabbit and the mushrooms, letting it all brown before he cast Aguamenti to fill the pot with water. He added the peas and cast another heating charm to speed up the boil and let everything cook.
Ron went back into the sitting area and found Hermione reading on the sofa while Harry fiddled, yet again, with the Snitch that Dumbledore had left him. He was rolling it between his fingers, but looked up when Ron came in. "That smells good," Harry said.
"Thanks," Ron said. "I was hoping for another rabbit, but it doesn't look like that'll happen."
"It's kind of surprising you got that one, isn't it?" Harry said. "Don't rabbits hibernate this time of year?"
"No," Ron said. "They just aren't as active."
"Are you sure?" Harry said. "I thought—"
"Rabbits don't hibernate," Hermione said, without looking up from her book.
"Oh," Harry said.
Ron smiled. It wasn't much, but it felt a bit like a victory that she'd taken his side. After all, she could have just chosen not to comment. He looked at her. She was sitting cross legged on the sofa in jeans and a flannel shirt with a heavy wool jumper over it. She'd put her hair in one long braid like she wore it most days. The braid seemed a lot longer than it had before. It was halfway down her back now. When they'd started out, it had only reached just past her shoulders. She pulled the jumper down over her hands and it reminded him of holding her hand as they fell asleep at Grimmauld Place. Even though it was only a few months ago, it seemed like a life time, like they were just kids back then, and now they were firmly and grimly adults. He sighed and went back into the kitchen to check the stew. The water was boiling, so he added the potatoes and cast a spell to bring it down to a simmer. He tasted the broth and then added more salt and pepper and more garlic powder.
"I reckon that'll be ready in a half an hour," Ron said, taking the other end of the sofa and stretching his arm along the back." His hand was only about six inches from Hermione, but she might as well have been miles away. She made no indication that she even noticed he'd sat down.
"I can't wait," Harry said.
Ron chuckled. "Me either. I'm really hungry." He looked at Hermione, hoping for a comment, but she kept her head down and turned a page. He sighed and pulled over the piece of parchment that he'd started the grocery list on and added a couple of items. He hated this part of being out here, the waiting around with nothing to do. Harry was back to fiddling with the snitch. Hermione was reading a book he was sure she'd read a dozen times already. He sighed again and picked up a book on charms. It was a relief to close it a half hour later. He'd already read it twice before. He got up and went to serve the soup.
Fishing around in the pot he pulled out the pieces of rabbit and put them two to a bowl and then used a ladle to pour stew on top. "Harry," he said. "Could you get water for everyone?"
"Sure," Harry said. He pulled his wand and filled three glasses and brought them over.
Ron brought over the bowls of stew. Hermione remained where she was. Ron sighed. He couldn't tell if she was engrossed in what she was reading or just being churlish. "Hermione," he said. "Soups on."
She closed her book and took a seat at the table all while avoiding looking at Ron.
Ron took a spoonful of stew and was delighted. It was good. It was really good. All those hours with Fleur in the kitchen had paid off.
Harry grinned at him. "This is amazing."
Ron grinned back. "Thanks." He looked at Hermione.
"It's very good," she said, without looking back at him.
"How'd you make it," Harry said.
Ron walked him through the process. "It's down to Fleur," he finished. "She taught me all the basics, like browning the meat before putting the water in and sautéing the vegetables first. I learned a lot."
Hermione rose from the table. "It's getting dark. I should start my watch," she said to Harry and went to get her coat.
When she'd closed the tent flap behind her, Harry said quietly, "Here's a tip for getting back in her good graces, stop talking about what a great cook Fleur is."
"What? Why, she really—"
"You used to complain all the time about Hermione's cooking."
"Yeah, but…well, you and I were rubbish at cooking too," Ron said. "None of us knew what we were doing, did we? It wasn't just her."
Harry gave him a withering stare. "Are you seriously that thick?"
"What?" Ron said. "You're the Hermione expert now, are you? Well, fine. What other wisdom can you share."
Harry's face went hard. "Not everything I know about Hermione is your bloody business." He stood, and went outside. Ron understood now, that while Harry had forgiven him for his transgressions against him, he hadn't forgiven him for his transgressions against Hermione. Ron rubbed a hand down his face and looked at the bowls on the table, empty now except for some rabbit bones. As he cleared the dishes, he couldn't help wondering what all Harry knew about Hermione now. He wondered what all those nights alone had been like for them. A sick feeling washed over him. He knew the locket had lied. He knew Hermione had never fancied Harry, that they weren't in love, but then, it wasn't always about love was it. He glanced at the tent flap and wondered what kind of comfort they might have taken in each other while he was gone. After all, it had been weeks, and they had no way of knowing how desperately he'd tried to get back to them.
"Bloody hell," he muttered and cast the spell to clean the dishes.
Harry came back in a little while later to find Ron walking toward him with two mugs. "I thought she might like some coffee."
"Yeah probably. It's freezing out there."
Ron nodded. "There's more hot water on the stove."
"Thanks," Harry said and Ron stepped outside.
Hermione was sitting by the fire with her arms wrapped around her knees which were drawn up to her chin. Ron handed her a mug. "Coffee."
She looked up to take it and he thought to catch her eye but her glance skittered away from him. "Thanks," she muttered and took a sip.
"Cheers," Ron said, and sat next to her, not too close, but not on the other side of the fire either. "Bloody cold out here," he said, looking up at the stars. "But at least it's clear." He took a sip of his instant coffee. It was bitter and hot, like Hermione, he thought and snorted at his own joke.
She glared at him. "What?"
"Nothing," he said. "I just hate this stuff, but at least it's warm."
She made a noncommittal noise and drank some more.
He cast around, desperate for something to talk about, but it had to be the right something, nothing that reminded her that he'd left, nothing that made them too sad about missing home. "Do you know the constellations?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes. "You took the same Astronomy classes I did."
"Yeah," Ron said wistfully. "I wished I'd paid more attention now. I'd like to know the names of what I'm looking at."
"I didn't bring any Astronomy books," Hermione said.
"Right," Ron said. "Course not." He'd hoped, of course, that she would name the stars for him.
They sat in silence for what felt like a long time and drank coffee. When she was done, Ron took her cup. "Goodnight then," he said.
"Night," she muttered back.