It smelled worse than anything Ron had smelled in his life: pungent, sweet, rotten, sharp, sour, all at once. It was as though every scent he'd ever known in his life, good or bad, had been swept up together into something so awful he could hardly comprehend it. He knew he'd never complain about a Dungbomb again, that was for sure.
Hermione swayed on her feet beside him, and he grasped her arm gently. He'd be right cross if the result of his twenty-plus minutes sounding out proper Parseltongue was Hermione unconscious on the floor. She smiled up at him gratefully, then whipped out her wand and said firmly, "Anosmio!"
And like that, it was gone. Ron breathed in deeply through his nose and couldn't stop the gigantic grin that spread across his face. "Hermione! How'd you do that?"
"What, the Stopsmelling Charm? We learned that in fifth year, Ron! Now you see why I always said -" She stopped herself, shaking her head slightly. She smiled grimly. "Now's not really the time, is it."
"Nope." The pair moved forward slowly towards the rotting basilisk, quiet on their feet as though it might pop up alive at any moment. "Ugh," Ron said, wrinkling his nose as they drew closer. "This thing's been dead for years, how has it not rotted away yet?"
"I suppose the...conditions...down here have kept it preserved," Hermione answered distastefully. They now stood right before the great snake's head, its eyes crusted over with thick, dried black blood, its horrible, toothy mouth gaping open towards the ceiling. She hesitated, looking over at him. "Er..."
"Well, I s'pose we should dig right in, then," Ron said with resignation. He rolled up his sleeves, stuck his wand in his pocket, and grasped the nearest yellowed fang between his hands.
"Be careful!" Hermione admonished, her own hand flying to his shoulder. "They're very sharp!"
Ron just looked at her. "No kidding." Turning his attention back to the fang, he steeled himself, and gave a great tug.
The tooth came dislodged easier than he'd expected, and Ron peered at it closely, holding it in one hand. "That wasn't so bad," he said, shrugging, and carefully placed the fang a few feet behind him to the left.
"Only because you can't smell it," Hermione said, and with a flick of her wand she Scourgified the front of his shirt, where he had failed to notice the basilisk blood that had dribbled from the fang onto his front. Ron grimaced.
And so the two of them set about their task in silence, stopping every now and then to clean off spots where the basilisk's liquids had seeped through the fabric and onto their skin.
"You know, I'm glad this thing's dead," Ron finally said as he reached for an oddly-angled fang further back in the snake's mouth.
Hermione looked at him in amusement, depositing a lower tooth onto their pile. "Oh really?"
"Yeah," he said, resting his foot on the monster's lower gums, which had already been cleared of all teeth. "I remember second year, when we thought it'd got you," he added quietly.
Hermione's face fell. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then closed it again, turning back to her side of the mouth.
"It was awful," he continued after a moment's silence. "I mean, not as awful as some of the stuff we've been through now..." He trailed off. "But we were only second-years."
He thought he heard Hermione give a muffled "Mmm hmm," but her back was to him as she leaned into the open mouth. With a final yank, the troublesome fang left its home and Ron turned it over in his hands a few times before dropping it onto the pile. He stood looking at the fangs for a moment, working out in his head how many they'd each be able to carry back to the Room of Requirement. A few more, and that would be it, he thought.
"I could hear you." Ron turned and was surprised to find Hermione standing right behind him. "When she...you know. I heard you calling for me."
Ron swallowed and looked at the ground, feeling the heat rising in his ears. He'd thought they weren't supposed to talk about that, not after she'd acted so normal at Shell Cottage. Sure, she had continued to let him put his arm around her, and he had sat by her bedside for hours that first night, but that had been going on for ages now and she'd been unconscious for most of the bedsitting. He understood why she wouldn't exactly want to relive her time at Malfoy Manor, but a part of him had hoped that it might really let her see just how important she was to him.
"I heard you too," he said quietly. "I thought they were going to kill you."
"They were," she said, trembling slightly, and then her arms were around him, her face pressed into his neck. "You saved me," she whispered, and suddenly Ron never wanted to leave the Chamber of Secrets, giant rotting snake carcass and You-Know-Who be damned.
"Dobby saved you," he said finally, his fingers gently skimming the ends of her hair. "And besides, you saved me loads of times before that."
Much to his disappointment, Hermione chose that moment to pull away, smoothing out her shirt. "Well it's not a contest," she said, giving an almost-laugh. She looked up at him. "It's just what you do for the people you love. Right?"
Ron felt faint. "Course." Love. He'd known that he loved Hermione for months now, since the end of sixth year, really, and he'd known for much longer that he loved her in that friend way and vice-versa. But he didn't think that either of them had ever spoken it out loud.
Without even thinking he moved to embrace her again, but she had already turned her attention back to the pile of basilisk fangs before them. "I think this is enough," she said briskly. "Where's the cup?"
Pushing aside his disappointment, Ron knelt down and dug through his rucksack on the floor. After a few seconds he retrieved it. It felt cold, and when he held it, it seemed to pulse in an odd sort of way.
He handed the cup to Hermione. "Go ahead."
She blinked at him. "What, you want me to do it?"
Ron shrugged. "Yeah, why not? I got the locket, you get the goblet. Fair's fair."
"Oh - oh. Alright." She seemed bewildered, but not displeased. "Erm. Okay, well, here goes." She set the cup carefully on the ground, and tightly grasped a particularly large basilisk fang between her hands. The cup trembled as she drew nearer to it. Ron watched intently as she pursed her lips and then plunged the poisonous fang into the cup's center.
The cup did not break, but twisted; it contorted itself around the fang and discolored, losing its golden sheen. Ron thought that he glimpsed a bit of greenish mist escape, but it might simply have been his expectations. They each let out a deep breath.
"Well, that was easy," Ron muttered.
Hermione looked up at him from where she kneeled on the floor, worried. "What? Did I do it wrong? Was something else supposed to happen?"
"What? No, no, no," he assured her, shaking his head, though he couldn't help but feel a bit bitter that she'd gotten off so easily. Nonetheless, there would be a time to tell Hermione what he'd seen in that locket, and that time was certainly not now.
Hermione glanced at her wristwatch and paled. "Oh, Ron, we've been here much longer than we should have," she said, and threw the cup back into the rucksack. He bent down beside her hastily and they each began to scoop up as many yellowed fangs as possible without sticking themselves on the sharp points. Finally, his arms full, Ron stood up and grabbed the broomstick leaning against the wall that they'd used to get down there in the first place.
"Ready?" asked Hermione breathlessly.
"Yeah." He started off after her towards the entryway, but stopped short. "Hermione, wait!"
She spun around, face flushed with anxiety. "What?"
Ron faltered. He couldn't do this now; not after so many months of showing-but-not-telling, not when a great moldy basilisk lay toothless just meters behind them. "Nothing," he lied, walking quickly. "You're brilliant."
She smiled up at him, somehow keeping pace with his long strides. "You're the brilliant one, Ron, this was all your idea," she said. "Just wait until we show these to Harry!"