When Ron woke up, he started (as per usual) when he felt Hermione beside him, and then remembered that she'd spent the night. She was all tucked up in a ball, knees almost touching her chest. She didn't have much of the covers over her. He hoped she hadn't got cold in the night, and nudged her a bit to see if she was awake.
She started herself and rolled over quickly to face him, her limbs unfurling and stretching out. The side of her bare leg touched the side of his, all the way down. It sent a thrill down his spine, but he controlled himself as best he could, and smiled at her.
"Morning," she said sleepily.
"Hello. Sorry I woke you."
"It's time to hop up, anyway."
"Did you get cold?"
"Oh, a little. I'm alright."
"You should have taken some blanket."
"I'm fine, honestly."
"Just tug it off me next time," he protested. "As long as you leave me a bit. Remember what I said –"
"I don't need to be polite," she finished for him. "Thanks, Ron, but I'm OK. Really."
She pushed the covers away and slipped out of bed, dressing with that swift Hermione-grace she had. While he liked watching her change, it also meant that she was all covered up again, and about to go, and he didn't like that so much.
Except she didn't go. She sat on the edge of his bed, facing away from him, head lowered slightly, not saying anything. Ron waited a while, and then wriggled closer, sitting up and touching her back.
"Are you OK?"
She shook her head mutely, and he had the sudden, wild thought that maybe the sex hadn't been good. But that didn't make sense, because she'd – er, seemed happy. He'd thought so, anyway. He found himself flushing, and was just about to ask, when she spoke up.
"You saved my life when the Death Eaters were here, and – I didn't know how to bring it up, but I just – I wanted to say thank you, and – I just – thank you."
She stopped abruptly, biting her lip, and Ron didn't know what to make of it.
"I don't want you to thank me," he said eventually, uncomfortably. "What else was I going to do?"
"I don't know."
"Are you taking the mickey?" he demanded, incredulous now. "I – well, I love you, don't I, and that's what people do when they love each other. They take risks for each other, and – they'd do anything – to stop the other person from being hurt. I mean, you'd probably have done the same thing if it was the other way round. And I couldn't just watch. And my wand was in my pocket. So I – so that's what I did," he finished, trailing off a bit. He didn't know quite what he was trying to say, but he didn't want her thanks, not for that.
There was a long silence.
"I would have," she said, just as he was beginning to think she wasn't listening.
"Would have what?" he asked, a bit nervously.
"I would have done the same."
She met his eye properly now, and he felt like his heart was being squeezed out of his body.
"Well – OK," he managed.
She put a hand on top of his head, flattening his hair, and smiled slightly.
"And I know you don't want me too, but I have to thank you. You were really brave, Ron."
He couldn't even speak then. His ears burnt red, and he mumbled something along the lines of 'shuddup-and-fuggedaboutit', but inside he was glowing.
Hermione kissed him once, soundly, and then stood. He did the same, grabbing his boxers and yanking them on as he spoke.
"Are you going?" he asked, even though it was a stupid question.
"Yes, I'm going." She sighed nostalgically. "I have to put my uniform on. It's our last day at Hogwarts."
"I know. Sorry."
"Well. I'm going to head back to my room."
"You could just go down to the Great Hall like that."
"No thank you," she said, raising her eyebrows. "Can you see McGonagall's face?"
"More like, can you see my Mum's?" he pointed out, and tucked a loose curl behind her ear. "Anyway, I don't think they'd be that worried, not with things as they are. Everything's out of order."
"I suppose," she agreed, rather soberly, and he immediately wished he hadn't mentioned it. As always with Voldemort, even in death, it was easier not to think about him.
"See you soon, then," he said, pulling back the curtains and kissing her, just as Harry re-entered the room. He tried to backtrack as soon as he saw Ron in his boxers, and Hermione in her nightie, but Hermione waved him back in.
"Don't be silly, I'm going," she said.
"Sorry, I can –"
"Honestly," she insisted, her cheeks only a little red. "I'm going right now."
And in just a few seconds, she was gone, and Ron was left standing alone in his underwear.
"Er – hi," he said, and Harry managed a small, lopsided smile, the first Ron had seen all week.
"Hello. Did I catch you at a bad time?"
"No. We're – finished," he said, rather lamely, and Harry nodded, smile dropping away.
"Right." He moved to his bedside table to get his uniform. Ron noticed that he was wearing the same jeans and t-shirt as the previous night, but chose not to comment. He hoped Ginny had made him feel a bit better. He did seem – he couldn't pick it exactly. Lighter, maybe. Less weighed-down. But his eyes were still underscored in dark circles, and when he glanced at Ron, there was that same haunted shadow in their corners.
"What?" he asked, and Ron shook his head.
"Nothing. I'm – nothing."
Harry shut his drawer, and Ron noticed that his hands were trembling, very slightly. They'd been doing that since he woke up. Pomfrey said it was a nervous reaction, and would probably disappear over the summer. Harry was self-conscious about it and, noticing Ron noticing, put both hands in the pockets of his school robes.
"Well?" he said, a bit defensively. "Are you getting changed too?"
He did so, quickly, and Harry waited for him, flattening his hair over his scar. It was a bit red, but not as noticeable as previously.
"Hair alright?" Ron asked, as Harry's hand went up to his fringe for the hundredth time, and Harry jerked his hand away.
"Sorry," he muttered. "Thought the bloody thing might disappear when I – you know."
"Yeah. Never mind." He hesitated, feeling as though he should say something more, but didn't know exactly how to approach Harry with sympathy. He'd never taken well to it, and Ron didn't think he ever would, but there had to be a way of saying it – of saying how glad he was that Harry was alive, that he didn't have to fight Voldemort again, that things could go back to some degree of normality.
There had to be a way – but in the week Harry'd been walking about, he hadn't come up with one yet.
"Come on," Harry said suddenly, and walked out.
Ron followed him, all the way down to the Great Hall. Harry hadn't made much of an appearance there, only just before or after meals, in order to miss the inquisitive audience. Ron didn't say a word as he headed for the doors, but stopped him as they were about to enter.
"Harry – d'you want to go in there?"
"It's the middle of breakfast."
"Ron," Harry said, eyes on the door handle. "I want to do this. I want things to be normal, and I want to eat breakfast like everyone else."
He sounded so determined, so himself, that Ron let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding.
"Right," he said firmly, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Right, then. Go on."
They pushed open the doors, and walked right in as though it was any other morning. Hermione was already in place next to Ginny, and Ron kept his gaze on them as every head – literally every head, including those of the staff – swivelled to watch their progress to the Gryffindor table.
"Freak show, aren't I?" Harry said in his ear, through gritted teeth, and Ron shook his head slightly.
"Forget about it. You're fine."
As soon as they sat (Harry on Ginny's left, Ron on Hermione's right), muttering rose up from all areas of the room. Harry ignored it studiously, said a few brief words to Ginny, and then began to serve himself breakfast.
"He's here," Hermione breathed in his ear, and he turned so that their noses almost bumped. He grinned, and so did she, and then they both pulled back a little.
"Yeah," Ron said, in an undertone. "He wanted to. Wanted things to be normal."
"Oh. Of course." She paused as Ron put toast on his plate, and then leant close again. "Things aren't normal, though. I don't suppose they will be for a while."
Ron buttered his crisp bread. "Well, he has to make the effort, doesn't he? He wants to be himself and forget about it, and that's just what he's doing."
"That can't be healthy, forgetting about it," Hermione worried, but he cut her off, pointing his fork at her.
"'Mione, don't start. He's doing his best. He'll talk about it when he's good and ready."
This was exactly the way Ron felt about Lucius Malfoy. He couldn't examine the issue head on, so he shoved it down, consciously deciding to consider it later.
She eyed him briefly, and then shook her head in a sort of half-agreement. "Right," said Ron, hoping Harry hadn't heard them. He was fairly engrossed in his food, and whispers to Ginny, so it was a fair chance he wasn't listening. "Right," he repeated. "Did you save me any bacon?"
She gave him a look. "I thought you said the platters refill every fifteen minutes?"
She went on looking at him for a while, and then sighed, and passed the pile on her plate onto his. "Alright, I saved you some. Happy?"
"Very," he said, and kissed her ear. "Thanks, love."
She smiled a bit. He knew he was in her good books then. She liked it when he called her that.
After breakfast, the other grades filed out, and the seventh-years remained for their graduation. Various relatives showed up, including the entire Weasley clan, minus Percy. While Ron knew his parents had reconciled with his brother, the rest of them hadn't, and Ron didn't think he was quite up to it yet. He'd received a few awkward letters, but that was all. Fred and George refused to see him altogether, or even write.
It was like he'd always said – the twins were terrible when they were angry.
Fleur was also in attendance, with Bill. They were back from Paris, he presumed. She sent him an enthusiastic wave from across the room, and he returned it. Hermione made a funny sound, and he glanced at her.
"Is it Fleur?"
"Is what Fleur?"
Ron looked at his brother's girlfriend, and then back to his own. Once, Fleur could make him feel dizzy just passing in the corridor. Now, it was like waving at a stranger. It didn't mean anything important.
"She's got nothing on you," he said lowly, nudging her. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her smile again, and then nudge him back.
"Shut up, Ron," she said.
Ron saw Snape shift in his seat, and then remembered that Draco Malfoy wasn't present. He was still recovering in hospital – still in the Headmaster's custody, as well. Ron didn't think anyone knew quite what to do about him, and was going to ask Hermione if she had an idea, when McGonagall announced the beginning of the ceremony.
It was over fairly soon afterwards (the Transfiguration professor was always efficient when it came to these things), and they were all seated at their respective tables as Dumbledore rose to make his traditional graduating speech. The room was suddenly tense with anticipation – because there was so much to say, and no easy way to say it.
He stared down at his lectern for a little while, and then rose his head and spoke.
"The events of this year – particularly these past few weeks – have changed many things. We are all aware of that. We are also aware of the fact that Voldemort is dead. Please, don't flinch at my use of this man's name. He is entirely gone, and the misplaced fear that guided our previously masked references to him are even more misplaced now, in his absence."
Dumbledore's eyes travelled across the room, and finally came to rest on Harry. Harry met his gaze bravely for half a minute, and then had to look away.
"There are certain people to whom we owe a great deal," Dumbledore said gravely. "And there are certain people who have suffered greatly at our expense. I hope that you will keep them in your thoughts this summer – our gamekeeper, Rubeus Hagrid; our Defence teacher, Professor Lupin, who remains in St Mungo's; our Aurors; Ministry officials …" There was a long silence, and then Dumbledore had to stop looking at Harry too. "Our courageous students," he said eventually, "who have exceeded all my expectations, and proved themselves – proved themselves more than capable of going out into the world."
Hermione's hand had found its way into his, and he clutched it hard. It hit him, very abruptly, that they wouldn't be back here again like this, and the thought was hard to take. He glanced around the table – there was Neville, and Seamus, and Lavender, and all the people who'd been part of his childhood, whom he'd seen nearly every day for seven years.
And after them all, Harry and Hermione, who were so much a part of his life that he could hardly picture himself without them.
There were tears shining in Hermione's eyes, but she blinked them away, and he had the fierce urge to ask her to promise not to disappear after all this, but then he remembered that Dumbledore was speaking, and dragged his thoughts back into focus.
"You have done well," he pronounced, reaching his conclusion, "and I am immensely proud of you. Subsequently, I have decided not to give a single house the Cup this year."
There were sharp whisperings at this, which he quieted with a waving hand.
"This year," he said, speaking more loudly, "for the first time in – what is it, Minerva, three centuries?"
His eyes were twinkling now, and McGonagall responded with a single, quite delicate nod.
"Well, then. This year, for the first time in three centuries, I would like to announce that we have a draw. All four houses have taken the House Cup."
And with that, he raised his hands, and the entire Hall filled with decorations of red, gold, blue and green, spilling from every corner, ribbons and confetti and balloons and banners, and there seemed to be music too, triumphant, resounding over all their heads. Everyone began to smile, and then laugh, and then Ron found himself whooping crazily. They stood, cheering as though they were at a Quidditch match, and Ron pulled Hermione up with him, an arm around her waist.
Harry didn't stand – but he had a slow, quiet smile on his face, looking at the decorations, and Ron knew he was as close to happy right now as he could be.
When they'd all settled again, Dumbledore began to call for silence. Everything twinkled and bobbed in the air, as though stopped with his instruction, and they turned to face their Headmaster.
"That went down well," he murmured, and then raised his voice once more. "I will announce this again at our full assembly. In the meantime, I suggest that you complete your packing, and make your way down to the platform before noon."
And with that, Dumbledore took his seat, and the decorations continued to fall and spin, and the Hall filled with chatting and exclamations.
"Train already?" Ron asked, a bit bewildered.
"Seventh-years have preference on the ride back," Hermione shrugged. "Didn't you know?"
"No," he said, "but I like it. Maybe we can – find a compartment for ourselves."
She slapped his arm, then laughed at bit and leant against him.
"Harry –" Ron began, craning his neck to find his friend, but then stopped when he saw that he was in the middle of kissing his sister. They were half-hidden by balloons, glittery red and gold pieces floating down onto their hair, and it was such an oddly private moment that Ron had to look away.
"Oh," said Hermione softly, gripping his arm now.
"What?" he asked, but then understood as he spotted the Weasleys making their collective way towards him. "What are you worried about?" he said, but she couldn't reply, because his family was already there, and his mum was sweeping him up into a hug – he'd had a few of those these past weeks – and bawling.
"You did very well," she sobbed, "and you looked so tall up there!"
"I am tall," he said chokingly, and wriggled his way out of her grip. "Hello Mum."
Then his dad was there too, and he hugged Ron quickly, and ruffled his hair.
"Well done," he said, and Ron shrugged with one shoulder. His dad hadn't been around much this year, but Ron knew he tried, and was glad that he'd come.
"Make way," announced Fred and George, pushing in front of Bill and Fleur. Fleur said something cranky in French, but Bill just smiled indulgently and let them. "Well," said Fred, hands on his hips. "Here we are, then. Come on, invalid," he added, and hit George with an elbow. George rolled his eyes and put out his left hand – his right was still in bandages.
"Lovely graduation," he said earnestly. "Shame about your hair, though."
"Ha-ha," Ron said, unable to come up with something better.
"You look comfortable," Fred commented.
"Happy," said George.
"Must be all the –" George began in a stage whisper, and Ron cut him off before he could use the s-word in front of their mother.
"Thanks for coming," he said through gritted teeth – then realised, with Fred's sudden smirk, that he'd set himself up for a 'coming' joke. Luckily, Bill had decided it was his turn to shake hands, and then Fleur (who held his hand, rather than shook it), and then Charlie, and then he'd done everybody and they all stood in silence a moment.
Ron looked at Hermione and squeezed her hand, and Mrs Weasley jumped.
"Oh, you too dear!" she said hastily. "Oh, you did marvellously!"
She gathered Hermione in a tight hug, and then pulled her back to examine her.
"Your parents are here?"
"They couldn't make it," Hermione said. "They're working."
"Oh, never mind. And you look lovely! Just – lovely."
"Yeah, she does," Ron said, without really thinking, and his mother glanced at him in surprise.
"Thank you, Mrs Weasley," Hermione mumbled, flushing, even as Ron did the same. Did he just say that, in front of everyone?
His mother looked from her son to Hermione, and back to her son again, before she understood.
"Are you two …" she began incredulously, and then, as Ron became even more embarrassed, hugged Hermione a second time. "Oh dear," she said, and began to cry again. "Well, that's lovely too."
It was quite some time before Hermione was able to extricate herself from Mrs Weasley's embrace, but once she had, she went to stand beside Ron and his whole family grinned at them, Fred and George with particular amusement.
"I – guess we'd better go and get our trunks," Ron said finally.
"Yes, we ought to," Hermione agreed.
"Oh. Right. See you at home, then," Mrs Weasley said. "And don't forget all your things, will you? Make sure you put them in the luggage compartment before you do anything else."
"Of course," said Ron, and then Hermione tugged him away.
"Now where's Harry?" he heard his mother say as they left.
Ron really hoped he'd stopped kissing Ginny. He didn't know if his mum could handle much more.
Everyone was waiting at the platform, including the staff. When Ron and Hermione came down (Ron lugging both trunks, because Hermione had a pile of books that wouldn't fit inside), Harry was saying goodbye to Hagrid. They joined him, breathless, just as the two broke their hug.
"Ron, 'Mione," said Hagrid, smiling shakily. "Alrigh'?"
"Yes, thanks," said Hermione.
"Rubbish. Le' me take those for yeh." He hoisted their trunks up, strode over to the compartment, and stowed them carefully away before adding Hermione's book-pile. When he was done, he made a show of dusting off his hands, and then put them on his hips.
"Well," he said. "Firs' years no more, eh? I was jus' telling Harry here that I've a mind t' retire."
"Retire?" Ron said, startled, and Hagrid gave a strange shrug.
"Ah, I'm no' as young as I used t' be, yeh know," he said. "An' – I think I'd like to spen' some time jus', you know, sorting things out."
He seemed shy, and Ron didn't pursue the issue.
"Hagrid – I – " he began, but then the gamekeeper put one arm around him, and the other round 'Mione, and held them (rather too tightly).
"S'alrigh'," he said, sniffing loudly before letting go. "I'll be seeing you very soon. P'raps in London or some-such?"
"Of course," said Hermione, sniffing herself, albeit more surreptitiously. She glanced at Harry, who had his eyes on his feet, and then looked back at Hagrid. "We'll miss you," she said, but then the first train whistle sounded, and Hagrid jumped.
"I'd bes' be off," he said. "Be good, won't yeh?"
He moved away down the platform, and they watched him go.
"He seems nervous, doesn't he?" Ron commented.
"It's the Death Eaters," Harry said shortly. "He remembered what happened with the giants when they came, he said, and he's been strange ever since."
Before Ron or Hermione could reply, McGonagall was there, shaking each of their hands and wishing them well with a firm formality. She looked at though she might hug them too, but thought better of it, and suggested they call her once they had their placements, to let her know what they'd be doing.
The second whistle came, and by now the other years were streaming onto the train too, and they were losing their seventh-year privileges. Hooch and Sprout offered quick goodbyes – Hooch insisted that Harry would fly for England one day, but this enthusiasm only succeeded in making him uncomfortable – and they were just climbing onboard, Harry and Hermione ahead, when Ron felt a tug on the back of his jumper.
It was Snape.
"Leaving without a word of goodbye, Weasley?" he said archly, and then, to Ron's utter shock, he held out his hand.
Ron considered not taking it, but then threw the concept out. If Snape could be gracious, then bloody hell, so could he. He shook his hand carefully, and then Snape was releasing it, and striding off.
He didn't have time to think about this, because Hermione was calling him. He ducked inside, shut the door, and watched the platform, via a small window, as it began to slide away.
At the very end of the platform stood Dumbledore, alone. He raised his hand as the train went by, and then they picked up speed, and he was gone.
They found a compartment to fit the four of them, despite Ron's suggestion, and had a relatively quiet trip back. Hermione fell asleep with her head in his lap, and Ginny and Harry held hands and spoke occasionally.
He watched her sleeping, not for the first time, and felt, not for the first time, like he hardly deserved her. In fact, he had a sense that he'd feel like this for the rest of his life – and then realised that he was thinking about her and the rest of his life simultaneously, and that he didn't dislike what that implied.
Actually, he didn't know what the rest of his life was without her in it.
She stirred as they reached Platform 9 and ¾, and sat up.
"Sorry, did I hurt your legs?"
"No," he said, and had to clear his throat, because his voice didn't come out right. "No, I'm OK."
"Are you sure? You look a bit funny."
"I'm fine," he said honestly. "Better than fine."
She smiled, puzzled, and then glanced at Harry, who was scanning the platform. Mrs Weasley was there, minus her entourage, but Harry's Muggles were decidedly absent.
"Thank God," he said faintly, and Ginny frowned at him.
"No Durselys," he said.
She brushed back a bit of his hair and rested her head on his shoulder. "No," she said. "You're coming home with us."
Ron could have sworn she almost said 'with me' instead.
"Ron. Hey. Are you coming?" said Hermione. She waved a hand in front of his face, and raised her eyebrows at him.
"Wow, 'Mione," he said. "This is it."
She knew what he meant right away. "I know," she agreed.
"When we get off this train, that's the end."
"No," she said, taking his wrists and pulling him upright with an effort. "It's not the end. I don't know what it is – but it's not the end."
Ron looked from Harry, whose gaze was still on the station, to Ginny, who had her eyes on her boyfriend, and then back at Hermione, all beautiful, knotted hair and big eyes and serious, set lips.
She was right. It might be the end of Hogwarts for them – the end of an era, even – but it wasn't the end of everything.
Some people might even call it a beginning.
He didn't know what was going to happen next. He didn't know how his N.E.W.T.s would turn out, or whether Lupin would live, or if they'd catch every Death Eater still roaming the planet, or if Hagrid would ever come back to Hogwarts, or if Draco Malfoy would go to prison, or – hell, if he'd be with Hermione for the rest of his life.
All he knew was, no matter what had happened, or what they'd done – there were still more things to happen, and more things to do ahead.
So he took a deep breath, and Hermione's hand, and stepped out.
Hurrah! It was time to finish this, I think. I'm quite buggered, as it happens, and I believe the story's gone about as far as it can go for now. One day, I may return to it – who knows 'what's going to happen next' – but right now, I've had enough. :)
More than anything, I have to thank all you reviewers for being incredible. As per usual. I've loved reading everything you've said, good and bad, and you were usually so nice and helpful and sweet that – well, it brings a tear to the eye. I'm sorry I kept you waiting these last few chaps … as I said, crazy life taking over, and my trip is edging nearer and nearer and scaring me with how disorganised I am. As you can imagine, I probably won't be back writing on fanfic for a while, but when I am, I might give that 'Aftermath' sequel a shot, and see how I feel after that.
I'd also like to formally dedicate this fic to Meegs, who should get a medal for all the little things she does that make people happy.
Again, thanks for the support. I'll see you on the other side – of the world, hehehe!
~no more 3x5s~ and be good