Hermione awoke at two o'clock in the morning with her heart pounding. Ron was sound asleep next to her. She eased out of bed so as not to wake him and went into his kitchen for a glass of water. Her hands were shaking as she got the glass from the cabinet. She decided to skip the water and go straight for the Ogden's. It was hard to imagine that the last twenty-four hours were real. She had wanted so badly to be back with Ron, but now that it had happened, she felt panicky that it would end again. If he knew everything that had happened in the last three years, she doubted he'd have been so quick to get back together. She glanced down at her hand. He'd given her a ring. He'd said to pick a date. She gulped down the whiskey and poured herself another. Did he even know her anymore? Sometimes she hardly recognized herself.
She sat at his tiny kitchen table and pushed her hair back from her forehead. Maybe this was a chance to clear the slate. She'd cut ties from Viktor. He was on the road for the next few weeks, which gave her plenty of time to collect her things from his flat. She looked around at Ron's place. Would he want to live here? Would they move in together again right away? It was all happening so fast. How could he sleep at a time like this?
"Hey," Ron appeared at the kitchen doorway rubbing his eyes. "What are you doing up?" he glanced down at the glass in her hand and raised his eyebrows.
She suddenly realized how it looked, and it dawned on her, not for the first time, that perhaps she drank a bit too much. "I couldn't sleep."
Ron sat down next to her at the table. "Why not?"
She smiled at him. She loved it when his hair was mussed from sleep. "My mind is racing with everything that's happened."
Ron took her hand. "I know it's fast, but it's us, it's alright. This is how it's supposed to be."
Hermione looked down at their joined hands and a tear slipped. "So much has happened, Ron."
"Oh, now," he said, sliding his chair over and putting his arms around her. "None of that. We're sorted. We've both had a wild few years, but that's in the past. I'm only concerned about the future and the two of us together in it."
She rested her forehead against his shoulder. Maybe he was right. Did all that really matter? It wasn't as if anything could be done to change the past. Here was a chance to start fresh with Ron. Here was a chance to start fresh with everyone. There was no point in risking such a precious gift by bringing up things that didn't matter anymore. It was time to bury the past. She brought his hand to her lips and kissed it. "You're right. Let's go back to bed."
He smiled and followed her.
Hermione was up early the next morning. Despite Ron's assurances, she still felt agitated and nervous. The best way to deal with her anxiety was to work, so she sipped her coffee and collected her thoughts about what she needed to get done at the Department of Mysteries. Ron wandered into the kitchen just as she was rinsing out her coffee cup.
"Why are you up so early?" he grumbled.
"This is when I usually get up. I like to get into work and get my day started early."
He made a sort of grunting sound and poured himself some coffee. Hermione couldn't help smiling. It was nice to know some things never changed. Ron hated mornings and always had. She kissed his cheek. "I'll see you later."
He frowned. "Aren't you going to eat breakfast?"
"No. I'll get something at work."
She held up her wand to Apparate.
She lowered her wand.
"Um, what are you…where…after work, will you come back here?"
She slid her wand back into her robes. "Do you want me to?"
She smiled. "Then I will."
There was a knock on the door.
Ron sighed. "That's Harry. I forgot we were getting together for Quidditch this morning. Can you let him in? I need to get dressed."
"Sure," Hermione said. Even though Harry knew they were together now, she felt her stomach tighten as she walked to the door. She wondered what he really thought of this new relationship.
When she opened the door, Harry raised his eyebrows in surprise and then his face split into a grin. "Good morning, Hermione."
She could feel herself blushing as she smiled. "Hullo Harry. Come in. Ron will be out in a minute."
"He forgot, didn't he? I knew I should have sent an owl last night to remind him."
"He's had a lot on his mind."
"I'm sure he has. Are you joining us? Ginny's playing."
"No, I can't. I need to go into work."
"They don't give you time off at Christmas?"
"It's not that. I have a sensitive project that I need to check on."
"Then check on it and meet us after," Harry said.
"That's a great idea," Ron said, coming out of his bedroom.
Hermione nodded. "Alright then. I'll do that."
"Lunch at The Three Broomsticks then?" Harry said.
"I'll be there."
"Smashing," Ron said, and leaned down to kiss her.
Hermione's breath caught at the simple gesture. She kissed him back before Apparating away.
Ron stood there a moment, breathless.
"You alright, mate?" Harry asked.
"Yeah. Did you see that? How does she do that, Apparate out of a kiss?"
Harry shrugged. "Who knows? Hermione can do a lot of things."
Ron snorted. "Tell me about it."
Harry rubbed a hand across the stubble on his chin. "Could I get a cup of coffee?"
"Sure. I guess we have a little time." Ron poured them both a cup and they sat at the little bistro table in Ron's kitchen.
Harry took a sip and looked out the window to the narrow alley behind Ron's flat. So, what's going on with you two?
"I asked her to marry me and she said yes," Ron said nonchalantly.
"Yes, I know that. I just wonder what happens now. Is she moving in here or are you going out to her parent's old place? Have you guys set a date?"
Ron looked down at his coffee cup. "Not a specific date yet and I'm not exactly sure where we'll be living. Tonight, she's coming back here."
"That's good then."
"Yeah." Ron sighed. "It's all happened kind of fast. She freaked out a bit in the middle of the night. So, I'm trying to let her catch her breath, you know?"
"What about you? Don't you need to catch your breath?"
Ron shook his head. "I know what I want. And I know what I lost. I'm not interested in wasting any more time."
Harry nodded. "I see."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. I just wonder if you aren't rushing into this. I mean a lot has happened in the last few years. We're all different."
Ron looked at him and frowned. "But Hermione's more different." There was touch of protective anger in his voice.
Harry shrugged. "I didn't say that."
"I'm not an idiot, you know."
"I know she's different. There's an edge that wasn't there before. I see it. I feel it. And I know the drinking seems like it may be an issue. But she's still our Hermione. My Hermione."
Harry held up his palms. "Alright, Ron. I wasn't suggesting you shouldn't get back together with her. I like you guys together. I love you both and I like seeing you happy. Don't think I'm in any way against this. Because I'm not."
Ron took a breath. "Good."
"Yeah," Harry said. "It's all good." And he kept the rest of his worries to himself.
Lunch at the Three Broomsticks had been a quick one. Hermione didn't have much time and had to go back to work. Ron was disappointed. He was hoping she'd take off the rest of the day. She apologized but said that was impossible.
When she Apparated into Ron's flat that evening, she stumbled and held her side, but quickly recovered when she realized he was sitting in his parlor listening to the weekly Quidditch highlights on the wireless.
"Hey," he said, getting to his feet. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," she said tightly. She remained standing there trying to slow her breathing.
Ron looked at her as he reached for a mandarin orange from a bowl on the coffee table and began peeling it. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Hermione said lightly. "Just a long day at work. I would have taken the Floo, but you don't have a stop."
"No," Ron said. "Everyone I know can Apparate, so it didn't seem important to connect it."
Hermione cleared her throat. "Sometimes, after a long day. Apparition is difficult."
"Even for you?" Ron popped a section of orange into his mouth.
He frowned at her. "Let me see."
Her eyes slid away from his. "What?"
Realizing she was still holding it, she dropped her hand. "Why?"
"You've been holding it since you got here." He popped another piece of orange into his mouth. "Mandarin?" he asked, holding out half of the fruit.
She took it. "It's no big deal." She put a piece of orange into her mouth.
"Good," Ron said, smiling. "So, show me."
She bit her bottom lip.
He finished his half of the orange. "It's not a good idea to start off by trying to hide things from me."
She closed her eyes. "If I show you, you're going to think it's a bigger deal than it is."
"Because I'm stupid?" Ron said, raising his eyebrows.
She huffed at him. "Of course not."
"Then why don't you think I can tell a big deal from a small one?"
She swallowed her last piece of orange. "I don't like the way they look."
"I know. You've had them under glamour charms most of the time we've been back together, which is okay, as long as that's what you want and not what you think I want. Because they don't bother me. I know how you got them. I know what they cost you and what they mean. They're part of you, so I love them. Now let me see."
She closed her eyes and began unbuttoning the high collared traditional robes that she wore to work. "You're really making something out of nothing here. All I need is a stiff drink and some numbing balm and I'll be right as rain."
The scar that ran between her breasts appeared first. Instead of the pale line he was used to, it was bright red as if it was new instead of years old.
"Why is it so red?"
"I told you, it was a rough day at work."
"What does that mean?"
She closed her eyes again. "You know I can't tell you that." She stopped unbuttoning her robes.
"Come on," Ron prompted. "Let's see the other one."
She sighed again and pulled her arm out of the sleeve, exposing her side.
"Hermione," he whispered, reaching out his hand.
She grabbed it. "Don't touch. Please." She let his hand go and walked into the kitchen pulling the top of her robes back up as she went. She was pouring herself a measure of whiskey when Ron walked in.
"I know you can't tell me specifically what you did today, but can you give me a general idea why those scars look so fresh."
She didn't turn to look at him. "They'll fade back to white by tomorrow. I used a lot of magic today and sometimes that aggravates them. That's all." She drank down half the whiskey.
"I don't have any numbing balm," Ron said.
"That's okay," she said. "Let me just finish this and I'll pop back home and get mine."
"No," Ron said. "There's an apothecary down the block. I'll just go get some."
"There's no need for you to spend the money," Hermione said. "I just need a minute. I can go."
Ron shook his head. "I know when we were together before that money was tight, but surely you must know that's not a problem anymore."
Hermione turned around to look at him blankly.
"Seriously, Hermione? My ads are in the paper every week."
"I'm sorry. I don't keep up with the paper like I should. I really just read the major headlines these days. They print such bloody lies."
Ron chuckled. "So, you really don't know?"
"I know you have your own shop and that you sell charmed…televisions, right?"
He smiled at her. "Right. I sell a lot of them. Loads of them. I can barely keep them on the shelves, which is why my shop opens at ten and closes at six. And we're closed on Sundays and Mondays."
"That sounds like a nice schedule."
"It makes my employees pretty happy, yes."
"How many employees?"
"Seven. And all of this to say, stay here, I'm going to pop down to the apothecary for some balm and I'll be right back."
"Alright then. Thank you," she said.
When he got back to the flat ten minutes later, he found Hermione in a hot bath full of bubbles. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a messy bun and she was leaning back with her eyes closed. Another glass of whiskey was in her hand and Ron noticed the almost empty bottle of Ogden's was on the sink. He couldn't help noting it was a full unopened bottle on Christmas Eve.
"Hey," he said. "I've got your balm."
"Thank you," she said. "I'm sorry."
"This isn't how I imagined our evening starting, but if you can give me half an hour, we can be back on track."
Ron raised his eyebrows. "Back on track for what? Did we have plans?"
"Um," Hermione said sitting up. "Not specifically. I just thought…" She took a sip of whiskey.
"You just thought what?"
"That you would want to…" Her cheeks went red and not from the heat of the bath.
Ron raised his eyebrows. "You're telling me that if I just give you thirty minutes you'll be up for a shag? I thought you said you'd had a hard day."
She shrugged, took another sip of whiskey, and wouldn't look at him.
"Hermione? What's going on?"
She squeezed her eyes shut and went to take another sip of whiskey but she felt Ron's hand close around hers and he took the glass away.
"Look at me," he said, leaning over the bathtub.
She glanced up at him, but then looked away again.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here tonight and tomorrow night and the night after that. I'm planning on being with you every night for the rest of our lives, so if we don't shag tonight, there will be plenty of future opportunities."
She nodded. "Of course."
Ron wanted to know what she was thinking and why she seemed so upset. He wondered about Viktor's expectations and why she seemed so different. Sometimes she seemed so much more bold and confident and yet at other times she seemed so fragile. He wanted to understand, but he didn't know how to ask. He decided to lighten the mood. "If you're that disappointed, I can poke you in the morning."
She chuckled and cupped his cheek in her palm. "You say the sweetest things?"
"I do. I really do."
"Let's get you out of there so we can put this balm around those scars."
He helped her out of the tub and handed her a towel. "Come lay down on the bed when you're ready. A few minutes later, she came into the bedroom wrapped in his bathrobe. She turned her back to him and slid it off before getting into bed.
"Hey, what's this?" Ron said.
"What?" Hermione asked.
"You have another one on your back." There was a long red scar that ran along the bottom of her shoulder blade.
"Almost three years ago." She shook her head. "I don't…please."
"Yeah, okay. I understand." As he smoothed the numbing balm around the scar, Ron couldn't help wondering about its origin. Almost three years ago meant she was with Viktor. He knew if she and Viktor had been in any kind of magical battle in England he would have heard about it, so either it was work related and happened at the Department of Mysteries or she'd been in a magical battle somewhere else. He held his tongue. After all, he didn't like it when people asked about his scars. That's why he'd grown a beard and why he usually wore long sleeved shirts. "Okay, roll over so I can get the one on your chest."
She rolled over on to her back giving him access to the scar and a perfect view of her breasts. He smiled. "Nice view."
She blushed. "Thanks."
As he smoothed balm around that scar he said, "What I wouldn't have given to be able to do this in the hospital wing fifth year."
She snorted and then laughed. "Madam Pomfrey would have killed us."
Ron laughed too. "She didn't much like us to begin with. I reckon that would have sent her right over the edge."
"Well, in her defense, we were in the hospital wing for a long time and we did make a lot of noise and we had a lot of visitors. Or rather you did."
"What are you talking about? Everyone that came to see me was there to see you too."
She rolled her eyes. "That's not true and you know it. If I'd been in there alone, you and Harry would have come to see me. Maybe Ginny. And that's it. Half the school came to see you, not to mention your family."
"It is. You know it is. People like you. You're likeable. You're funny. You're easy to be around. Everyone likes you. I get it; I like you too."
"Well, I like you and those other dolts don't know what they're missing. Now roll over on your side so I can get the last one."
She did as he asked, but gasped and clenched her teeth when he started applying the balm.
"This one really hurts, yeah?"
She nodded and closed her eyes.
He moved as quickly and as gently as he could, making sure to cover the whole area around the scar. As he did, he noticed she didn't have a tan line around her breasts, but she did where bikini bottoms would be. Without thinking, he said, "You sunbathe topless?"
Her eyes popped open and she blinked at him, clearly unsure of what she was supposed to say. "Um, sometimes, if it's a topless beach."
"Of course. Not that there's anything wrong with that," Ron amended.
"Right," she said softly.
Ron finished applying the balm. "Is that better?"
"Yes," Hermione said. "Thank you. They should be fine tomorrow."
The next morning, Ron found himself in the unusual position of being awake before Hermione. It was a few minutes before six. She had her back to him and the blanket had slipped enough that he could see the scar under her shoulder blade. He looked at it for a long time, but resolved not to ask about it ever again. She'd tell him when she was ready. Her hair was fanned out over the pillow and he slipped his hand into it. He loved her hair. The wilder it was the better he liked it.
He felt her stir and pulled his hand back. She rolled over and looked at him. "Good morning."
He smiled at her. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine. I told you they'd be back to normal in the morning."
He nodded. "And you were right, now what was it you wanted last night?"
She let out a throaty laugh as he reached for her.
A little while later she came out of the shower wearing his bathrobe.
"Hmm," Ron mused from the bed where he was tying his shoes. "We should probably talk about this."
"What?" Hermione asked, reaching for her wand.
"You don't have any clothes here."
"She looked down at the Black Watch plaid robe she was wearing. "Sorry."
"Don't be. You look smashing in that. It's just, well, we should talk about where we're going to live, don't you think?"
"Oh," Hermione said. "Sitting on the edge of the bed. Sure."
She seemed suddenly nervous to Ron. "We don't have to decide today, but we should think about it."
She nodded. "Right."
"I like this place well enough, but it's pretty small for two people."
She bit her bottom lip.
"I could always rent something bigger, if you like."
Hermione looked around and continued worrying her lip.
"Or there's your place," Ron ventured.
She glanced at him.
"At the very least we should go out there and pick up some things."
"Oh," Hermione said, shaking her head. "You needn't go. I can take care of that."
"I don't mind," Ron said. "I don't have anything pressing this morning and you said you had the day off, right?"
"Great," Ron said. "Let's go then. Get changed."
She shook her head, but started getting dressed. "It's such a mess. Why don't I just go? I don't want to hijack your morning."
Ron snorted. "Like I care about a mess. Can you imagine what this place would look like without Dobby coming in to clean. Besides, I haven't been there in ages. I'd like to go."
"Alright then," she said grimly and held out her arm to take him.
The house was dark when they popped into the foyer. Ron started to step into the parlor when Hermione grabbed his arm. "Please. Can you just give me five minutes?"
"Come on," Ron said, pulling away from her. "How bad can it be?"
She sighed with resignation and flicked her wand to open all the curtains.
"Bloody hell," Ron said.
There were more bottles than she remembered and the ashtray was overflowing. There were clothes scattered everywhere and crumpled blankets on the sofa where she'd been sleeping. It was horrible to be confronted with the last few weeks in stark relief and worse with a witness.
Ron turned around to look at her with his mouth agape.
She blinked back tears and started to tremble. "I don't do well on my own," she whispered.
Ron looked back at the coffee table with the empty bottles and dirty glasses and all the cigarette butts. She braced herself for the onslaught, the lecture. Viktor had done it often enough, returning home from away games, he'd rail at her about the state of the apartment, about her drinking, her smoking. She'd apologize and rein it in until the next time he left her on her own. She dropped her head and waited.
Ron put his arms around her. "Don't worry about it. We'll fix it. It's okay."
She looked up at him. "It's not all the time."
"I know," he said, holding her close.
"I don't want to be this person," she said into his chest.
"I know," he said again.
When she'd calmed down a bit, Ron stepped back and wiped her cheeks with his thumbs and kissed her forehead. "You're going to be okay."
She looked at his blue eyes and the conviction she saw there made her believe him. She nodded.
Ron went into the kitchen to get the rubbish bin and brought it back into the parlor. Instead of pulling out his wand, he began reaching for the empty bottles and dropping them in the bin. Hermione started taking the dirty glasses back into the kitchen.
"I was drunk for a couple of months after you left," Ron said. "Completely legless every day. Finally, it got so bad Ginny told Mum and Dad. Dad came and got me and took me to St. Mungo's."
Hermione stopped in the doorway. "Really?"
Ron nodded and picked up the ash tray and dumped it in the bin. "I saw the same healer I saw after those brain things attacked me in the Department of Mysteries. The one that helped with the nightmares. She really helped me get my head on straight. I still have the occasional drink, but I don't get drunk anymore."
"You think I should see her?"
"Maybe. It could help. When did you start drinking like this?"
She bit her bottom lip. "It started after I got the job. You know how cursed scars are. Potions don't affect them; spells don't affect them. The numbing balm helps the muscles around them, but not the scars themselves. Whiskey and a hot bath are the most effective way I've found to deal with the pain."
Ron looked at all the bottles in the bin. "Was all this about work?"
"No. The thing is I found drinking to be useful for all kinds of pain, not just the scars."
"So, when did that start?"
"I don't know. Probably the first time someone wrote in to the Prophet or Witch Weekly and called me a filthy Mudblood slag or maybe it was traitorous whore or gold-digging bitch. I can't recall which description specifically set me off the first time." She shook her head and unsuccessfully tried to blink back tears. "I broke up with you and people treated me like I'd broken up with Britannia."
Ron put down the bin and took her hands and pulled her over to the sofa and sat down. "I know. That wasn't fair. I never understood why you didn't set them straight on that. Not once did you ever say anything bad about me, about the drinking, about the things I said to you. Why?"
Hermione sat down and blew out a calming breath and pushed her hair off her forehead. "It was no one's business, and besides I thought…"
"What?" Ron said.
"I thought…" She closed her eyes. "I thought you'd pull it together and come for me. I know that's stupid, and after Harry and Ginny's wedding, I knew it was never going to happen. Then, for a long time, I couldn't say your name without crying, so whenever anyone asked about you, I said nothing."
Ron nodded. "I should have gone to you. I know that. It's just, by the time I'd dried out, you were with Krum and you two were everywhere. I couldn't walk down the street without seeing a picture of his arm around you. It ate at me. I've never been that jealous in my entire life. I mean of all people, Hermione."
"It's not like I sought him out," she said. "He didn't seek me out either. We literally ran into each other at the market." She didn't say it to Ron, but it was good timing, potentially life-saving timing. It had been a very dark day. "I wasn't trying to hurt you."
Ron reached for her hand and squeezed it. "I know."
"Anyway, it's over. I want us back, us before we stopped being us. These last three years have been so hard."
Ron nodded. "I know. For me too. For all my success at the shop, for a lot of the last three years, I've felt like a gutless failure. If I was half a man, I would have marched into the Ministry and apologized to you for being such a complete git and I would've told you I loved you, that I'd never stopped loving you, and that I wanted you back."
Hermione smiled sadly and stroked his cheek.
"I thought about it, you know, every day."
"I thought about you too," Hermione said. "I missed you so much. I'd see pictures in the paper of you and Harry and Ginny and you all seemed to be having such a good time. I assumed you were happy without me."
Ron huffed. "You of all people should know better than to believe everything you see in the papers."
She smiled. "I know. Stupid."
He shook his head. "Not stupid. Hurt, I think."
"Come here," he pulled her into his lap.
She cupped his face in her hands and kissed him. He opened his mouth to her. There were too many clothes. He slid her jumper up and she pulled it over her head.
"Hey, let's take this upstairs," Ron said. He smiled at her. "It'll be like the first time." He winked.
She opened her mouth to say something, but didn't.
"Not the first, first time," he corrected. "Loads better than that."
She shook her head. "We don't count that, remember? Besides, it's not that. It's just…well…"
"What?" Ron asked.
"It's all gone."
Ron looked at her askance. "All of it?"
"Yes. And everything else."
Ron raised his eyebrows. "Everything?"
"Well, I kept some of the books, and a few odds and ends but nothing else."
Ron looked around. He looked through the door into the dining room and realized it was empty. There weren't even any barstools in the kitchen.
Hermione stood. "I know. I replaced some of the furniture in here and in the study. But the rest…"
"Hey," he said, taking her hand again. "It's okay."
"I couldn't look at it anymore."
"Even your room?"
"Especially my room. It just stood there like a monument to failure."
"You didn't fail," Ron said.
"Didn't I? I couldn't keep my parents safe. I couldn't keep you at all. I couldn't even hold on to myself. If that's not failure, I don't know what is."
"The war was over. You couldn't possibly have known they'd go after your parents. And I screwed us up far more than you ever did."
She shook her head.
"And you're still here. Sure, you're different, but we all are. How could we not be? You've got to stop beating yourself up."
She shook her head again. "You don't understand."
"I do. I've gone crawling into my cups. I know what it's like to look up from the bottom of a bottle and not to be able to see anything else. We can't bring your parents back, but we can be us again. I promise. You'll see."
She wanted to tell him then exactly how far she'd fallen, exactly what she'd lost in the process, and how far she'd already crawled back. She wanted to tell him it was so much worse than what he knew, but she couldn't bring herself to say the words, for fear that faced with the whole truth, he wouldn't feel the same way. That he'd find her damaged beyond repair and she'd lose him all over again. Better, she thought, to omit the worst of it and let the past stay in the past and move forward from where they were right now. She could do it. She could quit drinking or at least cut way back. She could stop smoking. She could get married and have Ron's children, the way it should have been all along. With Ron beside her she could do it. She could get her life back on track. She knew she could. Instead of saying any of that, she just nodded, and kissed him. "Where were we?"
Ron couldn't stretch out completely on the sofa. Hermione lay on top of him, sound asleep. He had his knees bent and she lay cradled between his legs. He hated to wake her, but he needed to go into work for a couple of hours. "Hey," he finally said, running his hand down her back. "I need to leave for a little while."
She blinked awake. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to doze off."
He grinned and squeezed her bottom. "It's not your fault if I wore you out."
She chuckled. "Right."
"Come on, get up. I've got to go into work for a bit."
She slid off him and stood. "I guess I'll finish cleaning up here."
Ron sat up and looked around the room. "You know, this is a great house. Plenty of room. How would you feel about staying here?"
"You'd want that?" she said, surprised.
"Yeah, I've always loved this house. There's a lot we could do with it."
Hermione looked around as if seeing it for the first time. He wasn't wrong. "Why don't we talk about it when you get back."
He smiled at her. "That sounds good."
She found her dressing gown on the back of a wing chair and pulled it on. "Do you want to get in the shower first?"
"No time. I'll just do a charm," he said, reaching for his wand. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"That sounds good."
After Ron left, Hermione took a shower, and then used magic to finish cleaning the parlor. While that was happening, she went into her father's study, which she'd taken over as her own, and opened her potions cabinet. She sorted through the bottles until she found two clear bottles with what looked like silver liquid inside of them. They were labeled with the date written in the tidy script of a Bulgarian Auror. She pushed them to the back of the top shelf and took three empty bottles out of the cabinet. She sat down at her desk and took out her wand. Holding it to her temple, she carefully removed three particularly troubling memories. With them safely out of her mind, she ran no risk of talking in her sleep or blurting out something she'd regret if she got drunk. Now those events were just pale echoes. She was only vaguely aware that they had happened at all and eventually, they should slip her mind completely. She smiled and labeled each bottle carefully with the date of the memory. She pushed them to the back of the cabinet where the memories of her abduction in Bulgaria were kept. Viktor had been very upset to find she hadn't restored the memories the Aurors had asked for in hopes that they could identify the death eaters involved. She'd listened to his reasoning and then ignored it. The vague sensation of the events that she had now was bad enough. Remembering the whole day in its brutal entirety was more than she could bear. Better to leave them bottled. She closed and locked the cabinet and went to get dressed.
Her clothes were piled on one of the wing chairs in the parlor. She pulled on a pair of new jeans and a flannel shirt and thought about how she'd like to redecorate.
When Ron arrived back at the house a little while later, he found a much more lighthearted Hermione. She smiled at him with a delight that he hadn't seen in a long time.
"I was thinking," she said.
"Really?" he said. "How unlike you."
"Stop," she said, smiling. "I'm serious. I think, if you want to, we could make this house work."
He grinned back at her. "I want to."
She hugged him and he lifted her off her feet and swung her around. "Only one problem," he said, setting her down.
"What?" she said, sobering.
"We'll need a bed."
"We could just bring yours here," she said.
Ron shook his head. He'd slept with a lot of women in that bed and it seemed like a bad portent to start a marriage with it. "No," he said. "We should pick one out together. Something we both like."
"Alright, when do you want to do that?"
"No time like the present," he said. "Come on."
"Right now?" she said.
"Yup, let's go." He pulled out his wand. "Last one there is a rotten egg."
She laughed and Disapparated.
"Damn," Ron said and Disapparated right behind her.
Furniture shopping with Ron turned out to be more fun than Hermione had had in a long time. He tested everything. Sitting on the edge of a bed or sitting in a chair wasn't nearly adequate. He rolled around on the beds. Flopped into chairs slinging his legs over the side. He talked at length and hilariously about the merits and failings of each piece he tried. The poor salesman followed them anxiously throughout the store. When Ron realized how worried he'd made the man, he clapped him on the shoulder. "Don't worry mate, I'm not leaving here without buying something."
The salesman was visibly relieved.
In the end, they settled on a modern bed with a padded headboard. Ron felt the bed to be the perfect height, meaning if Hermione knelt on it they were eye-to-eye. They picked a mattress they both agreed was comfortable. Ron asked for the whole set with matching dresser and tall chest of drawers and two night stands and reading lamps. After the bedroom furniture was chosen, Ron insisted on picking out some barstools for the kitchen and a dining room set. Hermione was shocked by the price of everything but Ron took it in his stride.
"How soon can we take delivery?" he asked.
"Everything is made here, Mr. Weasley, so does tomorrow work for you?"
"Absolutely," Ron said smiling, then he turned to Hermione. "If that's alright with you?"
"Of course," Hermione said. She thought she'd heard something familiar earlier when they were talking, but she couldn't quite place it, and just now she'd heard it again. She looked around, but didn't see anything untoward.
"Let's go," Ron said. They went out into Diagon Alley and walked down to Ron's flat. "Tomorrow night, we'll stay at yours."
"Ours," Hermione corrected.
Ron smiled. "Ours."
That night, Ron lay in bed watching Hermione sleeping. She seemed to have undergone some kind of transformation from that morning to the afternoon. When he'd returned to the house, she was less burdened somehow. He didn't know if it was the conversation they'd had or something else, but they'd laughed furniture shopping as if nothing had ever changed between them. Now, she lay peacefully sleeping next to him, her brow smooth and her breathing even, as if she hadn't a care in the world. Even the way she'd made love to him tonight was different. It lacked the edge of their previous encounters. Tonight, she hadn't seemed pressed to perform. Tonight, she'd been sweet and fun. She'd kissed the dark bruise on his collar bone and apologized for biting down so hard on Christmas Eve. She promised not to be so rough in the future and to prove it had kissed her way up and down his body until he couldn't take it anymore. She'd laughed when he pulled her on top of him and moaned when he was sheathed deep inside her. She shifted in her sleep and Ron lay back and stared at the ceiling. He smiled and said the sing-song incantation that made the night sky appear. As he lay there looking at the stars twinkle, he decided not to think too much about the changes in Hermione today. She was happy. He was happy. Best not to question it.
The next morning, they went to the Burrow for breakfast with his parents and whatever siblings showed up. Saturday breakfast and Sunday dinner were standing invitations at the Burrow. Ron usually only went on Sunday, but he was in such a good mood, he thought a hearty breakfast was in order.
Hermione was still nervous around his family. She knew they must think they had rushed the engagement but were entirely too polite to say so.
If Ron's family were unhappy with his choice to marry her, they certainly hid it well. Everyone hugged them when they arrived and chatted amicably. Harry and Ginny were there as were George and Angelina. Their son, John, was having a sleepover with his cousins at Bill and Fleur's new house. They had bought a new, larger house on a stream and Charlie was going to move back from Romania at the end of the year and into Shell Cottage.
Mr. Weasley was sitting at the table reading The Daily Prophet, when he said, "Oh my!"
"What is it, Dad?" Ginny asked.
He folded the paper to the back page which had the society column and handed it to Ron. There was a picture of him stretched out diagonally across a bed on his back but up on his elbows. Hermione was sitting on the edge of the bed. He says something to her and she laughs. There wasn't anything sexual about the picture except perhaps the bed. They were both fully clothed and not even touching, but there was something about his expression and her full body laugh that made it very intimate. The caption read, Rumor has it Granger and Weasley are back together and furnishing a new love nest.
"Who the hell took this picture?" Ron shouted.
Hermione shrugged. "Someone in the shop."
Ron turned to her. "We were the only customers. It had to be an employee."
"Ron," she said quietly, placing a hand on his arm.
"No!" he said yanking his arm away. "This is unacceptable." He looked at the clock. It was half nine and the shop was open. He pulled his wand.
"Ron," Hermione said, more urgently, but he Disapparated.
"Harry!" Hermione shouted. He came in from the parlor and she grabbed his arm. "Come with me!" They Disapparated before anyone could say anything.
"Bloody hell," Ginny said.
When they popped into Diagon Alley, Hermione started running with Harry hot on her heels. She pushed open the door to the furniture shop to find Ron towering over the shop keeper with the newspaper clenched in his fist and his fist in the poor man's face.
"This is the kind of place you're running?" Ron shouted. "I can't even shop in peace without someone taking photos and selling them to the paper. What kind of disgusting—"
"Mr. Weasley, Mr. Weasley, the shopkeeper kept saying." His palms in the air.
"Ron!" Harry shouted from the door.
Ron turned around and looked at him.
"Let's hear what he has to say for himself."
The shopkeeper at first looked visibly relieved until he realized who had spoken. "Harry Potter?" he whimpered. He looked at Hermione. "Miss Granger?" It seemed to dawn on him then that he had the three people who were most responsible for destroying Voldemort in his shop and they were furious at him. He took a deep breath. "I am so sorry, Mr. Weasley, Miss Granger. My nephew took that photo. I've already fired him. I never wanted to hire him, to be honest, but my sister insisted. You know how it is with family." He cleared his throat, aware that he'd strayed from the matter at hand. "I'm so sorry. The salesman you dealt with last night was unaware that the photographs had been taken. I will do whatever you like to clear this up. I can speak to the newspaper. I can cancel your order or I can give you the furniture as a gift. Whatever you want me to do to make this right, I will absolutely do."
Ron looked at Hermione. "What do you want?"
She closed her eyes for a moment. "There's no point in him speaking to the paper, because the story is true. This isn't how I wanted our relationship to be made public, but what's done is done. As for the furniture, I like it. It seems unreasonable for him to give it to us as a gift though. He didn't even take the photos, but he's incurring all the cost."
"Don't worry about that," the shopkeeper said. "My employee, my responsibility. My nephew will be paying it off working in my home and garden for the foreseeable future."
"Fine," Ron said.
"Good," Harry said. "Let's get back. I'm hungry."
When they arrived back in the front garden of the Burrow, Ron said, "Can you give us a minute, Harry?"
"Sure," Harry said and went inside.
Ron turned to Hermione. "Are you alright?"
Hermione raised her eyebrows. "Me? I'm not the one threatening shopkeepers."
He frowned at her. "You know what I mean."
"I'm fine. I wish it didn't happen, but it did, and now it's out there. I'm sure letters to the paper will be streaming in tomorrow, but that was going to happen anyway. Might as well get it out of the way. It's not as though I haven't been through this before."
"Don't be. I know how to handle it this time. It's not going to wreck me. I'm happy to be back with you. I don't care what they call me. As long as I'm with you, it doesn't matter."
Ron pulled her into a hug and held her tight. "I love you so much."
She pressed her face against his chest. "The feeling's mutual Weasley. Let's go in, I'm starved."
Later that day, Ron brought some of the things from his flat, including the wireless, and waited for the furniture to be delivered, while Hermione went to the market to pick up groceries.
When the furniture arrived, the shopkeeper was there to make sure everything was to Ron's liking and placed exactly where he wanted it. Hermione got back from the market just a few minutes after they left. Ron helped her put away the groceries.
"So," he said as they were finishing up. "want to give the new bed a spin?"
She smiled at him. He took her hand and they hurried upstairs. When they reached the door to the bedroom, he scooped her up and laid her down on the bed. She reached up to cup his face and pulled him down for a kiss. They took their time exploring, taking off their clothes as they went. He was delighted when he slipped his hand inside her knickers to find her completely ready for him. "Come here," he said. He got off the bed and pulled her to the edge. "Roll over."
She gave him a slow smile and complied.
"On your knees Granger," he said. He cupped her breasts as she got to her knees and she closed her eyes. He ran his hand up her spine and lightly pushed. She leaned forward on her elbows and looked back at him, which is when she realized that there was a mirror over the new dresser and she froze.
Ron slipped inside her and began to move in slow, smooth strokes.
She closed her eyes tight and turned her head away from the mirror, but now that she knew it was there, she couldn't think about anything else.
Ron realized there was something wrong when she didn't thrust back against him. He realized how tightly her eyes were shut, so he stopped moving. "Hey, what's wrong? Am I hurting you?"
"I'm fine. Go ahead," she said tightly.
"No seriously," Ron said, desperate to start moving again, but also disturbed by the sudden change in her. "What just happened?"
"Nothing. Just finish."
He slipped out of her and sat down on the edge of the bed, raising his eyebrows. "Just finish?"
She shifted off the bed and held out her hand and her dressing gown flew into it. "Fine," she said, pulling the sash tight around her waist. She turned to go.
"Wait a minute," Ron said. "I don't understand. What did I do?"
"You didn't do anything. Where did that come from?"
She pointed to the mirror over the dresser.
"I think it came with the set."
"I don't like it."
"Okay, I can take it down."
Ron looked at her for a moment, before it dawned on him that she meant right now. He got up and took the mirror off the wall and set it in the hallway. When he stepped back into the bedroom, she was still standing with her arms folded tightly across her chest and her eyes closed.
"You want to tell me what that was about?"
She shook her head. She wasn't entirely sure what it was about the mirror. There was something, skirting on the edge of a memory, but not quite there. She knew it was something to do with one of the memories she'd removed, but she wasn't sure what it was or even which memory it was associated with. She only knew she didn't want a mirror anywhere near where they were having sex.
"Okay," Ron said slowly. "Um." He pulled on his own bathrobe and turned back to her. "You want a cup of tea?"
She looked up at him. "That sounds good." She followed him downstairs where he filled up the kettle and set it to boil with his wand while she busied herself putting tea leaves into the pot. When Ron poured the boiling water over the leaves, he put the lid on the pot and sat down on one of the barstools. Hermione sat on the opposite side of the bar. She wouldn't look at him.
He sighed. "Is there anything else?"
She glanced at him. "What?"
"Anything else bother you that I should know about?"
"In the bedroom?"
"No. In house elf legislation. Of course, in the bedroom," he said irritated.
"Well, there's actually quite a lot about house elf legislation that upsets me, but if we're keeping it to the bedroom, maybe just a couple of things."
She didn't say anything, but worried her bottom lip.
Ron blew out a frustrated breath. "Are you going to tell me or is it just going to be another surprise?"
She looked up. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize I'd react like that to the mirror."
"Why did you?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I just don't like it. It feels like I'm being watched."
"It's not an enchanted mirror. It's not looking back at you."
"I don't care. I don't like it."
"Fine. So, we don't have a mirror in the bedroom. What else?"
"I don't like cameras," she said softly.
"In general, or just in the bedroom?"
"Both, I mean I don't mind snapshots, holiday pics, that sort of thing. But definitely not in the bedroom."
"Not a problem," Ron said firmly. "Anything else." She went back to worrying her bottom lip and not looking at him. He sighed again and poured the tea. "You want a biscuit?"
She shook her head.
He sipped his tea. Finally, he said, "Let's have it."
"Okay," she said, and shifted uncomfortably on the barstool. "I don't mind things a little rough, but no actual restraints, and nothing dangerous enough to require a safe word."
Ron's eyes widened but he didn't say anything. He wanted to scream Bloody hell, has that been an issue for you in the past? But he held it together. "Also, not a problem," was all he said.
"Good," Hermione said softly. "Is there anything that bothers you?"
He shook his head slowly. "Not that I can think of, but listen, if something is upsetting you, tell me. Don't just freeze up and tell me to keep going. That's wrong on so many levels. It's offensive that you even think I'd want to do that."
She looked up at him. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply anything about you. I couldn't fathom why the mirror bothered me. I was trying to get past it."
He reached for her hand. "But you don't have to. Easy fix. We take it off the wall. Why deal with it when you don't have to?"
"You don't have to power through everything, you know? Sometimes, the best thing to do is avoid what hurts you."
She nodded. "I know. I'm trying." She sipped her tea and he sipped his. "Are you angry with me?"
He smiled. "No. A little frustrated maybe, but not angry."
She pursed her lips and then smiled. "I might be able to help with the frustration."
During the next few weeks, Ron and Hermione settled into a routine at work and at home. People did write letters to The Daily Prophet, as they had when she and Ron had broken up, but this time they were a mixed bag instead of universally condemning her. Some people saw her as a fickle tart, but others were quite chuffed that they were back together. Hermione tried to ignore all of it. She loved having Ron home every night and she was trying to keep more reasonable hours at the Ministry.
Ron felt like the world had finally righted itself. Hermione had cut way back on the drinking. She was even trying to quit smoking, which turned out to be harder than she'd hoped. At least she wasn't doing it in the house anymore. Ron didn't care. He was happy. They went out with friends and spent time with his family. They had long conversations about magic and politics and what they wanted out of life. The last three years began to slip away from him as if they'd never happened. He started to think of them in one unbroken stream, as if they'd always been together. He liked that. It seemed right to him, the way it should have been all along.