three: two plus three equals four

A note changed in the routine, a hair of misplacement to the normal schedule. Hermione went to work and came home with a smile on her face. She never understood why.

The French woman had more in common with her than she had realized. The same books had been read, the same passages memorized. The same favorite Muggle movies. Hermione watched it all happen, this slow seduction by intellectualism, and while there was that part of her screaming for her to make it stop, she didn't. She let Fleur touch her hand, the small of her back, leading her through the restaurant or movie theater. She let Fleur kiss her on the cheek, let her eyes linger for a few moments longer than necessary.

She didn't even really want it, she realized after every one of their dates together. She just needed someone to make the loneliness subside. She needed someone to help her forget.

Fleur really was a lovely distraction.

"Good afternoon, Arthur," Hermione said with a smile as she walked into the Burrow, letting her jacket sleeves slip from her shoulders. Arthur Weasley took it for her and set it on a rack by the door. She noticed Ron's hanging there and frowned slightly, but quickly demolished her outward apprehension. "How are things here?"

"Just fine, thank you," he replied. Ginny's death had hit him hard; where wrinkles had never been creases had appeared; there were thick circles under his eyes and Hermione noticed small patches of greying hair in the trademark red. "And with you, Hermione? We haven't heard from you in quite a while."

She blushed slightly. By 'quite a while,' he had really meant since a week or two after Ginny's funeral. She had felt like she had been overstepping her boundaries by continuing to think of the Weasleys as her family, too; she had speculated that the welcome would have died with Ginny. Then an owl had showed up at her house only two days before, Molly Weasley demanding politely that her Hermione dear visit a grumpy old woman for a cup of tea. Smiling, Hermione had written her back with an apology and an affirmation.

"You're still our daughter-in-law," he told her, echoing her thoughts. "Ginny being gone doesn't change the way we care about you. We're still your family."

Hermione nodded, looking down, shamed. "I know," she said softly.

Arthur smiled, pulling her into a hug. She accepted it wholeheartedly. When he pulled away, he had brightness to his eyes that Hermione hadn't seen in a while. "Now," he said, "let's see what Molly's made for tea, shall we?"

"Hermione, will you just grab this," Ginny said in a slightly strained voice, pulling a pan of fresh biscuits from the oven. Hermione quickly ran over to take it, balancing it on top of her oven mitts.

"Are we going to tell your mum today?" Hermione asked out of the corner of her mouth, afraid of being overheard. She took the biscuits gingerly off the pan and into a bread basket, arranging them carefully so they would all fit. Ginny, busy taking out the right number of tea cups, didn't answer. Her face was strained in concentration, more concentration than necessary for such a simple task. Hermione waited for a few minutes, then tried again. "Gin?"

Ginny looked up, startled. "What?"

"Are we going to tell your mum today?" she said with a little more annunciation. She noticed how Ginny's face whitened slightly at the question. Hermione felt automatically guilty. "I'm sorry," she mumbled, "we don't have to… today, at least."

Ginny shook her head, tripping to get over to Hermione quickly. "No, we can tell her today," Ginny replied. "I want to… You know I want to." They smiled at each other nervously. "I'm just… I'm a little scared, that's all."

"You don't think I am?" Hermione asked, puckering her eyebrows.

Ginny sighed, kissing her lightly. "I know you are. But everything's going to be okay. My mum loves you. My dad loves you. Hell, even my brother loves you." Hermione laughed a little. Ginny grinned. "See? Everything's fine. It'll be a piece of cake."

Hermione bit her lip. "You don't think we should make a cake, do you?"

Ginny thought for a moment, then nodded. "It probably wouldn't hurt."

They sat around the living room, three redheads and a brunette. In her head, it sounded like the beginning of a bad joke. In reality, Hermione really didn't mind taking tea with the Weasleys; Molly and Arthur really were like her parents. But Ron made her feel like she had an itch that she couldn't scratch. He hovered around her like a cobweb caught on her hand, unable to pull completely off. He'd been like that since Hogwarts, since before her and Ginny. Ron never gave up hope that maybe, just maybe, she'd chosen The Wrong Weasley.

He approached her once Molly disappeared into the kitchen, leaning close and smelling vaguely of cheap cologne. She held in a sigh and let him mumble into her ear. "Want to go for a walk?"

She shrugged her complacency. He announced it to his parents as they stood and he helped her with her coat, his hands lingering on her shoulders. She stepped out of his potential embrace and heard him sigh softly; or maybe it was just the rustling of his coat.

It wasn't too chilly, just an occasional breeze that made goose bumps rise on their arms and legs. Hermione took in their surroundings, the field where the boys and Ginny would play Quidditch, the path to the small pond where they would swim, the trees and the tall grass. It was all still the same superficially, but Hermione could feel the change in the air from when she was a teenager, even from when she would come here with Ginny as an adult. Ginny's heart, which had originally filled this place, was subtracted from the sunset and the difference was glaring to Hermione's trained eyes. There were only ghosts here.

They didn't speak as they walked. She could tell Ron was mustering up the courage to tell her something. She hoped desperately that he would lose his nerve. She didn't want to deal with his grasping for straws that didn't exist, trying to find the glimpse of a glimmer in her eyes when she looked at him when there wasn't anything notable for her to see. Ronald Weasley would always be Ronald Weasley; not Ron darling, or Ronald honey, or the inadmissible Won-Won. He was Ronald Weasley, friend. He was Ronald Weasley, Ginny's littlest older brother.

She heard his intake of breath. Her insides steeled and her skin became her armor. She closed her eyes against the coming assault and let the arrows fly at her. "Hermione," he began uncertainly. She stopped and looked at him. She wondered if he thought she looked beautiful, and hated him for thinking of her like that. "You know I, I care about you." He looked uncertainly away, towards the sunset, down at the grass. "What I mean to say is, I… Sometimes I wish things could have been different." His blue eyes, slightly darker than his sister's, slid up to her face. "Do you ever wish that?"

She feigned a misinterpretation. "For some things, of course," she answered. "Everyone does."

"What about… you and me?"

Ah. There it was, the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, the release of radiation over a delicate land. She could feel it pollute their friendship in a rush of toxins. She reasoned internally that maybe, once upon a time when she had been young and foolish, she had played with the idea of a romance with him. But this was back when romance was intangible, back when her breasts hadn't yet poked out from her skin and she prayed that she would get her period soon to start this wretched process she had heard about so much. This was back when no one paid attention to her, boys and girls alike. Ron had been a relief to her ego that she was desirable – back when she was twelve through fourteen. Then Viktor filled that space. Then she realized that boys for her were like thinking two plus three equals four. The equation didn't quite fit. Then she found Ginny, the missing puzzle piece, and everything fell into place. Ron was in the picture as a smiling face in the background.

"Ron," she said slowly, cautiously. His frightened stance reminded her of him as a teenager. "There never was a you and me. I realized this very early on, even when I still toyed with the idea of it." She rubbed her temples gently and watched his hurt but still hopeful expression with exasperation. "You know how much I love Ginny."

"But, Ginny's gone," he blurted wildly. Desperation crept into his voice. "And you're lonely, and I'm a good substitute!" He waved his arms to exaggerate his words, gesturing pulling at her sleeves, eyebrows knit together and lips pouted. "I could love you just like she did. It could be the same-"

Her palm connected with a crack to his exposed cheek. Her hand smarted. His face, slightly reddened from blood rushing and the blow, reflected shock. Words bubbled out of her mouth like a raging waterfall.

"Don't you ever say that again," she hissed. "How dare you think you could replace her in my life, like she was just a placeholder for when you could step in and be the hero?" He opened his mouth to speak; without thinking, she slapped him again. "Fuck you, Ron. Don't ever bring this up to me ever again. You're just as insensitive as you always have been. I don't want to see you until you can fucking grow up and get over it."

He glared at her, rage mingled with shame mixed with an ego burst and emotions aching. "Fine," he spat, "but maybe you should just fucking get over it, too." With hunched shoulders, he popped out of sight.

There was nothing really remarkable in the way they came together. There was no magnetic force, no controlled whirlwind breeze. Hermione just started going over there. Her apartment was only a shrine for a love that didn't exist anymore. Or, at least, a love that was no longer even remotely tangible.

Fleur's apartment was clean and modern. Her furniture was in hues of blue with black accents. Everything was glass and leather. The paintings on the wall were by up-and-coming European artists and a few prints of Georgia O'Keefe's flowers: just subtle brush strokes of a woman's vagina, open and ready. Hermione blushed when she saw them, and discreetly crossed her legs.

"Tea? Coffee? Something stronger?" Fleur asked, still standing. There was a slight curl to her mouth, like everything was going according to plan. Hermione wondered vaguely if Fleur planned on sleeping with her.

"You mean there's something stronger than coffee?" Hermione wondered.

Fleur laughed, then nodded resolutely. "I have the perfect thing."

Her accent slipped out even more when she was drunk. The Frenchwoman drank glass after glass of dark red wine, slipping from one tongue to the next. Hermione drank more slowly, asking for glasses of water with her alcohol. She wasn't stupid.

"Ah, ma cherie, pourquoi est-ce tu es triste?" Fleur purred in her native language, crawling across the distance. Hermione felt her stomach twist uncomfortably when she came too close, sliding over to avoid Fleur's touch. She didn't want this, not yet. It wasn't time; she was just a virgin to this experienced touch. She needed preparation, comfort, something more than a wine-induced lust and slurred French phrases.

She needed Ginny back.

"My lover died two months ago," she replied frankly. Fleur blinked confusedly, trying to understand. While her brain processed, Hermione slipped off the couch and grabbed her coat from the rack by the front door. She could hear the sounds of Fleur attempting to follow her, tripping over her own drunkenness.

"Going, so soon?" Fleur pouted.

Hermione sighed and Apparated with a disapproving pop.

The wine in her system mingled with the general disorientation of Apparation. Dizzy, she fell to the floor ungracefully and looked around her dark apartment with swirling eyes, images of red hair everywhere.

What the hell was she doing? Ginny had only been gone for two months. Just because she was lonely, just because she was lost, didn't give her any right to attempt to find a solution in someone else, especially in that drunken ex-supermodel. She hadn't told anyone of her and Fleur, not only because there was barely anything there, but also because she was ashamed of herself. Burying her grief in hard kisses and lunches out wouldn't make it go away.

"Hermione, you're being too hard on yourself." Hermione lifted her head slightly from the floor, looking around. She didn't have any talking photographs. Ginny was dead. And yet that voice… it most certainly belonged to her redheaded lover. But where was she? "I understand that… that it's hard to be without me, okay? I don't want you to fall to pieces. I really do just want you to be happy. You understand that, right?"

Hermione swallowed. The voice was just behind her frontal lobe, like a conscience, a slight tickling of her brain. Ginny was just in her head. She was just telling herself the things Ginny would say to her if she could. So she answered, "Yes… I understand, but…"

She could imagine Ginny smiling a little, shaking her head. "Don't argue with me, lover. You know I know better than you right now. You're not in your right mind."

Hermione snorted a little and rubbed her temples. "I'll say. I'm hearing your voice in my head."

"It's better than nothing, isn't it?" Ginny's voice was tinged with sadness and regret. "I'm really sorry I died."

"I am, too." Hermione sighed and pulled herself off the floor, peeling off her coat. She set the garment on the couch arm and then settled into the comfy red cushions. She and Ginny used to sit together for hours, talking quietly and just enjoying each other's presence. "I really miss you, Gin."

"I really miss you, too, sweetheart," Ginny replied. Hermione felt her skin warm a little. Whether it was just a psychological effect or not wasn't really important to her. "But I know we'll see each other again."

Hermione felt suddenly sleepy. Maybe the alcohol had hit her more than she had realized. Her eyelids began falling. She clutched to consciousness for another brief moment. "Promise?"

She barely heard Ginny's answer in her head: "I promise."