The Calm Before the Storm
Chapter Two: The Arrival
For Ron Weasley, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had not just been a place to learn the magic that he would need to survive in the adult wizarding world, but it had also been a place to learn valuable life lessons. It was where he learned to never accept candy from Fred and George, and how to properly balance one's chin in a cupped palm. A necessary skill that helped prevent one from falling and cracking their skull on a desk when they fell asleep in History of Magic. One near-concussion had been enough to commit that lesson to memory. It was also where he learned to never kiss a girl after she had eaten spinach, because no matter how impressive or enjoyable the act may have been, it still tasted like spinach. And Hogwarts was where he learned that the spinach-eating girl didn't quite measure up.
Today, however, a lesson which had been taught many times due to his propensity to procrastinate, had come once again to rear its ugly head. A deadline truly did come sooner when one was unprepared.
It was six forty-five and eternity now seemed to be a whole lot shorter than it did that morning. Just a mere fifteen minutes until Hermione's scheduled arrival and he didn't have a clue as to what he was going to say to her beyond, 'Hello.'
He'd spent the afternoon doing more chores around the Burrow: mending the fence, tidying up his father's shed, and clearing some weeds out in front of the garden. When he'd finish one job, Fleur and his mother would come out to investigate and direct him to something new. All of the time alone had allowed him the opportunity to consider what he might say to Hermione, but everything he came up with seemed forced or unnatural.
Now he paced his bedroom, desperately hoping for divine inspiration to strike.
His bedroom door opened just wide enough for Ginny to poke her head in. "C'mon down," she said, "Dad and Bill are taking the wards off of the fireplace."
He frowned at her. She had avoided him all afternoon, almost as if she knew that he'd been considering broaching the subject of Harry with her. Now here she was, observing him as if he had a severe case of Spattergroit, and poised to flee.
"Get in here," he said sternly.
She pushed the door all the way open and stepped across the threshold. She regarded him quietly for just a moment before speaking.
"You know," she stated.
He nodded. "What happened?"
"He ended it," she replied simply, in the manner of someone reporting the weather.
"He. Ended. It," she said, raising her voice slightly and carefully enunciating each word.
"I can understand English."
"Then what was the question?" Her eyes widened and a touch of pink blossomed on her cheeks. "Oh, I get it. I broke it off with Michael, I broke it off with Dean, so I must have broken it off with Harry."
He raised his hands defensively. "I didn't say that. I just don't understand."
"He said it wasn't working out."
Her composure and delivery were picture perfect. So good in fact, that Ron was convinced that just about anyone, save Hermione and himself, would have believed her. But he had seen Harry Potter with his sister, and he wasn't buying it.
He shook his head. "Try again."
Ginny sighed in resignation. "He says it's for my protection."
"Apparently, he seems to think that now is the time to pull away from people," she said.
She wasn't wrong about that. Just after Dumbledore's funeral, Harry had tried to express his intent to move onto the next part of his journey alone, but he and Hermione would not hear of it. When the time came, Harry might have to be the one to eliminate You-Know-Who, but until then, he wasn't going to be without his two best friends.
Ron gazed at his sister thoughtfully, wondering just how much Harry had told her. He wasn't about to break his promise to keep the prophecy a secret, but he wanted to dig a little deeper. "Why do you think he feels that way?"
She saw right through the question. "You know something."
"No, I don't," he lied. "Look, I didn't even know until today that you and Harry weren't together anymore."
He waited patiently while she mulled that over, absently pushing an owl treat with her finger across the top of Ron's dresser. Then she finally responded in a quiet voice. "He intends to go after Voldemort. He thinks I'll be safer if we aren't a couple."
He tilted his head at her.
She sighed and answered the unspoken query. "No, I don't like it, but there are times to pester Harry, and there are times to support him. Now isn't a time to pester." She turned on her heel and paused at the doorway. "C'mon. Hermione'll be here any minute."
Ron followed Ginny down the stairs, now feeling more confused than ever. His best friend had decided that now was the proper time to end a relationship, while his brother had decided that now was the right time to consummate one. It was a dangerous time to be sure, and Harry did have the prophecy hanging over him, but Bill was still involved in the war as well. But unlike Bill, he would be in the eye of the storm, right there by Harry's side. Did the inherent danger of being Harry Potter's friend make his and Harry's situation exactly the same? It was a question that he just couldn't answer.
He watched as Bill and his father used their wands to tap stones on the hearth in sequence, lowering the last of the wards. Crookshanks circled around his right leg twice, purring softly as Mr. Weasley lit the fireplace with a wave of his wand. Then Bill and his father both stepped back, holding their wands at the ready.
"Crookshanks will know if it's really her, Dad," said Ron.
"I suspect he will, Ron, but we shouldn't be lax. We'll keep the same routine."
"It's time," said Mrs. Weasley.
As if on cue, a burst of green flame erupted from within the lit fire, and Hermione Granger stepped from the fireplace, pulling a trunk behind her. Mr. Weasley pointed his wand under her chin as Bill began to lay down the wards that would once again protect the Weasley's fireplace.
"Good evening, Hermione," said Mr. Weasley. "Perhaps you could tell me what your dearest ambition in life is."
"To help achieve freedom and equality for all magical creatures," she answered.
Ron smiled at this very Hermione-like answer, even though he knew it not to be entirely true. Her dearest ambition, which was very much in line with his own, was to see Harry survive the prophecy.
"Are you sure that it's not to one day beat me in chess?" Ron asked.
With just a hint of a smile, she shook her head at him. "No question about who you are."
"Hermione?" prodded Mr. Weasley.
She turned to him. "Mr. Weasley, what's your dearest ambition?"
"To discover how aeroplanes stay up."
Hermione smiled broadly at him. "It's nice to see you again, Mr. Weasley."
"And to see you, Hermione," he replied warmly.
Mr. Weasley turned his attention to helping Bill with the fireplace as Hermione accepted a hug from both Ginny and Mrs. Weasley.
"Bill, when you're finished there, please take Hermione's trunk up to Ginny's room, would you?" asked Mrs. Weasley.
"All set, Mum," he answered, as he tapped one last stone with his wand. He flashed a nod and a wink at Hermione as he passed by, levitating her trunk out in front of him.
"I need to help Fleur finish in the kitchen," said Mrs. Weasley. "Dinner will be ready soon, but in the meantime, make yourself at home, Hermione."
"Thank you, Mrs. Weasley," she answered.
Hermione watched Mr. Weasley follow Mrs. Weasley out of the room before turning to Ron and Ginny. "Have you heard from Harry yet?"
Ginny shook her head. "No, and I'm guessing that you haven't either."
Hermione scooped up Crookshanks and scratched him gently behind the ears. "No, I haven't, but he said it would be a few days."
"He's fine," said Ron, noting the frowns on both girls' faces. "He's got members of the Order watching over him night and day. I'm sure he just wanted these last couple of days to torture the Muggles."
"Ron!" exclaimed Hermione.
"Besides," he continued, turning to face Hermione, "it wouldn't surprise me in the least if he got here tomorrow."
"Maybe," said Ginny, alternating her gaze between Ron and Hermione. "I think I'll go see if Mum and Phle- I mean, Fleur- need any help."
He watched Ginny leave, part of him wishing that she'd turn around, and come back in to distract Hermione further until he could think of something intelligent to say. The other part of him was insanely pleased to finally be alone with her, even if just to watch her reach up and brush a curly lock of hair out of her face, as she did right then.
She lowered Crookshanks onto the couch and turned to him.
"Hi," she said.
"It's good to be back."
"It's good to have you back."
Ron winced. Ten hours of 'planning' and all he could come up with was a quick rephrasing of Hermione's greeting. Score.
She moved in front of him, pulling him into an embrace, which he was more than happy to return. She squeezed him gently, resting her head against his shoulder. The two of them remained that way for just a moment before Ron's stomach rumbled loudly.
Hermione stepped back from him, a smirk on her face. "What? Has it been more than an hour since you've had something to eat?"
"It's been closer to two."
She rolled her eyes. "Well, let's go then."
He followed her into the kitchen, understanding that he may have let another moment filled with potential pass by. This time, there had been no Bulgarian Seeker to blame, but with the memory of holding Hermione fresh in his mind, the status quo didn't seem so bad after all.
After dinner, they remained gathered about the table. Fleur was leading a discussion with Mrs. Weasley, Ginny and Hermione about the arrangements for the wedding, while Mr. Weasley flipped through the Daily Prophet, and Ron and Bill engaged in a chess match.
"Eet will be settled once Bill makes a decision," said Fleur.
"Fred or George," said Bill absently, as he studied the board.
"Yes, pick one."
Mrs. Weasley patted Fleur on the forearm. "We'll just take one of them to get fitted, dear. No matter which one Bill chooses, they'll fit into the robes."
"See," said Bill, as Ron's knight took out one of his castles, "no problem."
Fleur sighed and the girls moved on to discussing floral arrangements.
Ron smiled as he angled his bishop forward a couple of spots. Bill's game had fallen into a state of disrepair. He glanced at Fleur and determined that his brother probably had better things to do than play chess.
Bill noticed the grin. "I'm missing something."
Hermione broke from the conversation to peer at the board. "Ron's going to have either your king or your queen. I suggest you let him take the queen."
"Has someone been preparing for a match?" asked Ron.
She disregarded him with a wave, but wore a grin as she returned to the wedding discussion.
Eight moves later, Bill's king lay down his crown, and Ron shook his head sadly. "I never thought I'd see the day that Ginny was a better match than you."
"Hey!" exclaimed Ginny.
"I want a rematch," said Bill.
"After I dispatch Hermione, I will gladly beat you again," answered Ron.
"Right confident, aren't we?" asked Hermione as she traded places with Bill.
He shrugged. "Prove me wrong."
Fleur got up and walked around behind Bill, placing her hands on his shoulders. "Bill, I theenk maybe no more chess tonight. I need to clean your cuts."
He got right up from the table. "'Night everyone. Good luck, Hermione."
Hermione opened the match by moving a pawn forward two spaces and Ron nodded. "A fine opening," he said. "Looks like you'll be trying the Alexikhov Attack."
"It always amazes me that you can remember all of these chess strategies, but couldn't remember that the Giant War of 1812, was actually in 1812."
"I thought it was a trick question."
Over the course of the next fifty moves, Ron announced that she had switched to the Fischer Counter, then the Romanian Blockade, followed by the Antonelli Defense, and finally, the Weasley Gambit.
"I'm sorry," she said, "the Weasley Gambit?"
"Well, it was named after someone else," he said with a smile, "but I've made it my own. It'd be a fine play though, if you thought you could do it."
She shook her head at him. "Nice try, but you won't be getting me off of my game plan."
It was the longest and toughest match that she had ever played against him. She had certainly improved and he gave himself a large part of the credit. Clearly, she had been paying attention to the master. Perhaps sometime soon, she would be good enough to play him to a stalemate.
The master leaned forward to study the board after Hermione slid her castle sideways three spaces, and he didn't like what he saw. His eyes narrowed as he played out the moves in his head three times, just to be sure. It appeared that the master was in trouble, but he wasn't certain that his opponent knew it.
He backed his queen into a defensive position and waited to see if six unblemished years of chess playing were in danger. Her hand hovered over her knight, the very piece that Ron was hoping she wouldn't move, but instead of grabbing it, she sat back and surveyed the board.
After a moment, she rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward over the board, her brow furrowed in concentration. Seeing her like this reminded Ron of how she would read those impossibly large books in the library, and how he would sometimes watch her read, rather than do his own assignment. For a brief second, he wondered if she ever just sat and watched him. He thought it unlikely, as he was sure he would have noticed that.
She massaged her bottom lip with her index finger. Then she reached out and moved her knight. He did his best to give no reaction as she looked up and met his eyes with a smile.
"Hedwig," she said.
"You don't have checkmate," he said defensively.
"What? Ron, no. Hedwig."
He heard a soft tapping at the window and turned to see a snowy white owl waiting to be let in. Harry had finally made contact.