Bill Weasley wasn't by nature a foolish man. He was usually calm, cool and collected while others around him panicked. It was this level of self-possession that helped him become a curse breaker. He was excellent at his work, but he knew that not all curses could be broken. The ones that did the most damage had non-magical origins.
Hermione Granger had been with his brother Ron since they were both eleven-year-old first years at Hogwarts. The fact that they were in love with each other was taken for granted much as the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. When Ron's own sun had set for the last time, Hermione was broken.
After everyone else had eventually left the grave site, Bill walked up to Hermione to talk to her. Even as he spoke the words, he wasn't sure what demon had possessed him to commit such an action, but he had bravely asked her to become his wife then.
"I know it's not the time or the place, but I want you to know you always have a home with us," Bill began quietly.
She protested, of course, because she was a modern witch. She was a member of the family in heart even if she didn't have the Weasley name.
He didn't look at her as he spoke, but Bill continued softly. "In the ancient times when one brother would fall, the next brother would take care of his family like it was his very own. I will do that for you and for Ron's child if you let me."
Her surprise at his statements was enough to cut through the din of her grief. "I'm not pregnant," she began emphatically.
"Yes, you are," he insisted. As the oldest of seven children, he knew the signs.
Hermione looked at his aquiline profile and asked him, "What do you want, Bill?"
"I am offering to be your husband for the one that Ron can not be," he said simply.
"Bill, how can I possibly accept!" she said, flabbergasted.
"Yes is a simple enough answer," the oldest Weasley brother said to her. He turned to look at her and placed his hand on her shoulder. "Think about it," he said in parting.
Frightfully, she had thought about it, and thought often since the time Bill had made his offer at Ron's funeral. It was unfathomable how he could suggest such a thing! In the deep of night when Hermione was feeling weak and lonely, she wished for someone to hold her in his arms. At that time, it was when Hermione wanted most to make him commit to his offer.
Six months later she was standing pounding on Bill's door.
"Hermione, what are you doing here? It's two in the morning, and it's raining!" He cautiously looked around before bringing her in to his flat.
She laughed shakily. "It's always raining in the books, so it's appropriate. Don't you think?"
He patted her wet head with a towel as he asked, "What are you going on about?"
"In the books, when the girl goes crawling back to the man she loves, it's always on a rainy night." She sounded completely unbalanced.
His hands stilled. "You've never loved me, Hermione."
"No, but maybe I could learn. I want to learn, Bill!" Her woeful eyes added depth to the begging of her words. "You offered to be my husband, and I want to know if the offer still stands."
"Yes, of course" he said, taken aback in surprise.
"Thank you," Hermione said before crumpling into his arms.
Bill performed the first of his husbandly duties by picking up Hermione though she was heavy with his brother's child and took her to his bed. There he put her to rest under dry sheets and a warm comforter.
Three days later Bill and Hermione were wed in a sparse ceremony attended only by Arthur, Molly, Charlie and Harry. No one had asked questions at the ceremony, and any they might have had were stilled by Bill's stony expression and Hermione's wall of grief.
Six weeks after that, the love child of Ronald and Hermione was delivered to Mr. and Mrs. Bill Weasley. The name chosen for her was Renee Elizabeth.
Hermione and Bill were not in love with each other, and that was a fact. Even so, they were friendly and had high esteem for each other. Through the course of raising a daughter together, they had begun the overtures of kindness.
"I love you, Bill," she'd often said to him. It was easy and as light as cotton candy, and almost as ephemeral.
"I love you, Hermione," he'd reply back to her in much the same regular way.
It was all very shallow and left both feeling very cold afterward. It was never offered with the depth of passion but in the same way that others might say 'It's Tuesday,' or 'The sky is blue.'
At first she hadn't stayed in the same bed with him, but eventually they learned to share the bed. Already they were the strangers together that so many married couples take years to achieve. Again in the darkness of night, she craved the human warmth beside her even if it wasn't that of Ron. She'd wake him demanding him to sate her appetite, and for a time he would accommodate her before her violent eruptions of sexual desire dissipated.
In the night when she was awake as Bill slept, she would trace patterns lightly into the freckles on his back remembering the skin of the man she used to love and had so often stroked intimately. One night when she was touching Bill, she realized in a panic that she had forgotten how Ron had felt. The only thing her fingers now remembered were the patterns unique to Bill. In guilt over forgetting Ron, she stopped touching him.
Bill had known of her hands on him for a long time. He often pretended to be asleep to encourage her to seek him. It was one of the few times she did without censure. In the waking hours she was always polite, but never close. In the night, the paths of her fingers had been different, and their absence from his flesh created a void in his heart.
Years had begun to pass and Renee grew to be a strong, beautiful young girl who was the very example of a "daddy's girl." Bill doted on her and that was one area of his life that was not guarded or protected. He had not known it possible to care so much for one being.
He was not always so lucky with everything else. It wasn't for a lack of opportunity or invitations to temptation, either, for Bill had retained the outward appearance of his charm. To others in the world, he was still noticed, perhaps even more so because his marriage was a farce though his intentions had been honorable.
One particular night Bill had gone to the Leaky Cauldron for drinks after work, and he had sat at the bar nursing his drink. A lovely brunette had slid beside him and made pleasant conversation which quickly turned to flirting. She was offering and making no disguise of her intention.
"I have to go home to my wife," he explained as he backed away from her.
"She must not be a very good wife if she lets someone like you get away from her to go talk to strangers." She tried again with more charm, "How could she not love a strapping wizard like you?"
Bill grimaced. "She doesn't. At least not yet."
Leaving willing flesh behind, he Apparated home to his distant wife and magnificent daughter. His pride in Renee had never failed, and in his heart the girl was his own. It was that love that Hermione used to crush him.
In the night some time after that Hermione was awake as she often was. Bill, unlike himself, had turned in his sleep over to her, placing his arm instinctively around her. Muttering softly, he said, "I love you, Hermione."
She froze in terror at his words. The shallowness of his words in the day could be overlooked, but this was an unguarded truth spilling out of his sleeping psyche. It was a truth she didn't want to face. She sprang from the bed as if she were being prodded by tens of needles.
Her sudden movement woke Bill up, and he raised his sleepy head. "What's wrong, Hermione?"
"Nothing! I think I'm going to be sick," she said as she ran away.
Getting up with concern, Bill followed Hermione. "What can I do to help?"
"Go away!" she pleaded. She didn't want his confusing presence near her. Bill was absolutely not allowed to love her. That wasn't part of the agreement in their marriage, Hermione thought to herself in a panic.
Bill walked to her to try to offer comfort, but Hermione only shouted, "Leave me!" His hand that he'd extended stilled in the air and was withdrawn without a sound.
Instead he left her and moved to Renee's room where the little girl was sleeping as if surrounded by angels. He sat in the rocking chair and fell back to sleep there until morning when Hermione was scurrying around the room packing items for her daughter.
"What are you doing?" he demanded. "Where is Renee?"
Hermione swiped at her face quickly while throwing things into the travel case. "She's with Ginny."
He watched her packing with a rising sense of dread. "Put that down!"
"No!" Hermione shouted back at him. "We're leaving!"
"You can't take Renee away from me. I'm her father, Hermione!" Bill shouted at her.
"No, Bill. You're not," she said with quiet hardness while still packing. "You're Renee's uncle, only we don't tell her that Daddy is actually Uncle Bill."
"That is my child! How can you do this to me? I've loved her since before she was born," he said as a tear rolled down his face.
"We're still going, and you can't stop us!" she said as she ran from him.
"Don't take my daughter away from me!" he begged after her.
Hermione turned a sad face to him, saying, "She was never yours." Bill Weasley's wife then Disapparated away from him.
Hermione's departure with Renee had changed so many things about Bill's life. He had a hole there from the absence. He was never given a reasonable answer as to why she left, but the cynical voice in his brain said he should have somehow expected it. After almost five years together, he thought they'd built something to unite them. They'd shared pride in their daughter, or he thought they had until she verbally slapped him to remind him that he was only Uncle Bill.
Bill had been walking alone in Diagon Alley on one particular day. Since the time that Hermione had left and taken Renee with her, he changed several things about his appearance. For the first time in his life, he felt old and haggard. He took off his fang earring and cut his hair, something that had long been the bane of Molly's existence. Even with short hair, he still managed to carry the air of cool, similar to that of a maturing Muggle rock and roll musician.
Taking him completely by surprise was a small red-haired bundle of energy that had run to attach itself to his legs. "Daddy!" Renee shouted with glee.
He stared down to the red hair and brown eyes of his lively daughter. Ron's lively daughter, Bill corrected himself. Then he bent down to scoop her up in his arms.
She laughed at his hug and played with his hair. "Daddy, where did your hair go?"
"I've given it to Grandma Molly. She's going to make a scarf for the cat!" he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
"That's silly, Daddy!" she said, laughing again.
"I know, but no one argues with Grandma Molly!" he said with a smile and touched his nose to hers. Renee hugged him around his neck and squealed with glee as he spun around in the street.
His unexpected moment was interrupted by Hermione and Ginny as they both rushed nervously out of one of the shops with shouts of, "Renee!"
"I'm right here," the girl said happily. "I found my daddy!"
Seeing his sister and wife coming near them, Bill clutched his daughter closer to him so as not to give her up. "Ginny. Hermione," he said with a touch of coldness at his wife's name.
"Bill," Hermione replied, looking at him sideways.
"We need to go home, Bill," Ginny said, looking at Renee.
Renee again let out the sound of delight. "Home!" she beamed, thinking she was going to the home she'd had with her parents.
"No, Renee," Hermione said with an edge. "You're not going home with your... Bill."
The girl's happy face turned to deep sadness as she looked at him. "Don't you love me anymore? Why can't I go home with you?"
Bill felt like he was kicked in the gut. "I will always love you. My love is unconditional," he said with a pointed look at Hermione.
The woman yanked the girl from Bill's arms with the scolding words, "We have to go!" Hermione stalked away barely holding the kicking and screaming child while Bill stood alone and bereft.
In the weeks that followed, Harry invited Hermione over for tea to try to talk sense into the woman who'd been his closest childhood friend with Ron Weasley.
"You have a good man, Hermione," Harry said with a weary sigh.
"He's not Ron, Harry," Hermione stated. She reminded him that it had been just over five years since Ron's death, and she knew quite well he wasn't Ron.
"No, he's not Ron, and he's never tried to be. Do you even know Bill?" asked Harry quietly.
Hermione's face pinkened, and Harry was relieved she had enough good grace to blush.
"I don't think I've ever tried," she said in a quiet voice.
"I thought as much. Look, Hermione, you deserve to be happy, and so does he. He loves Renee, and that's all any child could ever want. Believe me that I'd know!" he said angrily with a glare. As long as they'd been friends, Harry still didn't talk very openly about his neglectful childhood with the Dursleys.
"Do you think he can't love you?" Harry continued to probe.
"He can," Hermione murmured. "I heard him say so in his sleep."
"Ah," Harry said, "then it's you who is afraid to love him. You won't betray Ron's memory by loving someone again. I promise you."
"But I can't let the memory of him slip away!" she said in a keening wail.
"I lost Sirius," Harry said to remind her of his own pain. "This is not the way to live. It's not life at all, but some limbo where there is never any joy."
Hot tears started dripping down Hermione's face. Harry put a comforting arm around her, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
"Go back to him," he said with quiet conviction.
"I... I don't know if I can," she said.
"All you can do is try," her best friend said. "Do it as fast as possible before you lose any more happiness that should be yours."
Hermione didn't act on Harry's instructions immediately. She was shy to approach Bill at home. It was finally when she attended an anniversary party for Neville and Ginny Longbottom that she had a chance to see her own husband again.
Oddly, he wasn't alone. Hermione watched Fleur talking to Bill. The French woman was smiling and laughing and even once reached up to tousle Bill's shorn locks. It made Hermione's hackles rise, and she wasn't sure why the witch would have been invited to a family party.
Finally screwing up her courage, Hermione walked over to Bill, and the first words out of her mouth were, "I don't like her."
"You wouldn't," he said accusatorily.
"What do you mean by that?" she said defensively.
"Let me see," he began, ticking off the next few points with his fingers. "Ron fancied her. I dated her. She's stunningly beautiful, and she's just as intelligent as you are without being so pretentious about it."
Before Hermione could protest his statements, Bill cut her off. "Since you've made it clear you want nothing to do with me any more, why are you here?"
She let out a long breath and nodded. "I want to ask you something, but I'd like to sit down when I do it. Would you sit with me... over there?" she asked, pointing to an out of the way table.
"Okay," he said with caution and walked there with her.
When they sat down, Hermione noticed the gold band flash on Bill's hand. After Bill saw her staring at it, he covered it up with an invisibility charm.
"You're still wearing it," Hermione said with surprise.
"Of course, but you didn't want to ask me about my jewelry habits, did you?"
She looked away and began her speech patiently. "Bill, I do have something thing to ask of you, and it's very important. I don't think there is anything else more important on this earth that I could ask," she said and looked at him unsurely.
Bill was fully expecting the worst. She had finally come to ask for a divorce and to take Renee completely away from his life. "What is it?" he finally asked neutrally.
"I want to be your friend. We have done many things in this marriage, but I don't think I ever learned to be your friend," she said sincerely. "At least, not the way that you want me to be. Not like real friends are."
Bill was completely surprised. "No, we've never been friends. Do you honestly think you can do this? You came to me five years ago asking to learn to love me, and you can see how well that went."
Evading the question, Hermione asked, "No, Bill. Do you think you can do this?"
"Oh, I actually liked you once upon a time," he said before taking a long drink of water.
When he set down his glass, Hermione reached her hand across the table, and it hovered in the air between them. Bill stared at it suspiciously until she spoke.
"Hi, my name is Hermione!"
His expression showed surprise before he slowly reached his hand to clasp hers. "Bill Weasley," he said and watched her smile timidly at him.
Dropping the facade of new introductions, Hermione begged softly, "Take me home, Bill."
He nodded once, and stood up. He reached for her hand, which she took, and guided them out of the building so they could Apparate home.
When she'd gotten to her own home, she stood in the kitchen. Bill quickly made some tea while Hermione looked like she was afraid of being swallowed through the floor like quicksand.
"Hermione, what did I ever do to hurt you?" he asked honestly with his arms crossing his chest protectively.
"You loved me," she said as bitter tears fell on her cheeks. "No one was supposed to love me."
He shook his head as he said, "You can't live in that world of hurt."
"I can't leave this pain, Bill! I can't forget Ron," she said with a sniffle.
"No one ever asked you to do that!" Bill exclaimed with annoyance. After a while he asked, "Do you think Ron would be happy knowing you are so torn up inside?"
She laughed on the edge of hysterics. "I don't know, Bill, and I can't ever know because he's dead!"
"Hermione," he said as he reached to touch her face, "Ron loved you with everything he had, and I love you now. As bloody difficult as you make it for me, I do love you."
"How can you love me?" she asked in amazement. "I don't deserve your love."
"I don't know!" he exclaimed with something akin to exasperation, throwing his hands up away from her. "Love doesn't ask questions. It just does."
"It just does," she repeated softly, thinking of all the time she'd had with Ron and her recent years with Bill. She looked away from him, trying to hide her face.
"When I asked you to marry me," Bill admitted, "I wasn't so vain as to think you'd love me back, but I did think you'd enjoy me, that I'd at least amuse you."
Hermione sucked in her breath and looked at him. "I'm so sorry," she said sincerely.
"I knew what I was getting when I asked you," he said with the soft sound of regret. He leaned over to gently place a kiss on her forehead.
Losing her courage, Hermione struggled against him. "Let me go. I will only hurt you again."
"You probably will," he said with a resigned sigh, "but that doesn't mean I want anyone else."
Hermione looked at him in surprise at his honesty.
"I'm here. I've always been here," Bill said as he held out his hand.
Faltering, she put her fingers into his, watching how he protectively wrapped her hand in his. The gesture alone spoke volumes of his caring.
He promised her they would retrieve Renee from Molly in the morning. With that promise spoken, Hermione followed Bill to the room that had been theirs for so many years. As she went to sleep that night in her own bed, painfully aware of the human warmth beside her, she gave up the last of her struggle against feelings for Bill. Hermione assured herself they would become friends in due season, and she would be open to the possibility of anything else that might come.
Time continued to slip away from her as it does every person, but Hermione finally watched around her taking in so many of the things that she had been missing in the last several years. On the sixth anniversary of Ron's death, she was contemplative. Neither Bill nor Hermione had made a point of mentioning it before they went to sleep.
That night she had resumed her exploration of Bill's skin. With every new touch a tear would fall for the dead man she had loved, and a piece of her frozen heart would break for the living man under her fingers. She reached her arm around him and said into the night those three special little words that couples usually say. This time, Hermione meant it. Meanwhile, her husband Bill and their daughter Renee slept peacefully unaware.