Chapter 4: Reaching Beyond the Emptiness

Hermione didn't seem to notice he'd come outside. It wasn't until he cast a warming charm on her and settled the coat over her shoulders that she looked at him. She seemed surprised that she was covered in snow.

"You'll catch your death," Ron said, tugging the coat around her.

"Viktor's gone," she said.

"I see that."

"I'm really on my own again," she said.

"I know the feeling."

Hermione sniffled. "I thought you were seeing someone named Michelle."

Ron laughed bitterly. "Michelle broke it off months ago. She just happened to leave her jumper behind."

"Oh," Hermione said softly.

"Besides, what kind of slimy git do you think I am that last night would have happened if I was seeing someone else?"

Hermione shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm saying."

"I brought your Christmas present."

Hermione looked up at him and smiled. "I thought last night was my Christmas present."

Ron grinned. "I considered that a mutual gift." He got serious. "I bought this ages ago, but then things went sour and I didn't give it to you. That was a mistake."

"Ron –"

"Let me finish. After the war, after the last battle, when we were in the hospital wing…"

Hermione closed her eyes.

"I was having a nightmare. I was in so much pain and you –"

"Ron, please."

"And you" Ron continued, "I don't know how, because you were injured as bad as I was, but you made your way over to my bed, and got in beside me and you said 'I'm here, Ron, I'm right here,' and I was so stupid that I thought that meant forever. And I took it for granted and I shouldn't have. I'd lost you before I even realized you were really gone."

She pushed tears off her cheeks and wouldn't look at him.

"It's been three years, and even now, when I have a question, when I want an opinion, when I want an argument even, I naturally look for you. I still feel like you're there, just around the corner. It's been like losing a limb living without you. I don't feel like a whole man. And the other girls, they always end up with the Lavender problem."

Hermione arched an eyebrow at him.

"No matter how nice they are, they just don't measure up. They're not clever enough by half; they're not sexy enough and they're not bossy enough." He smiled on the last part.

Hermione shook her head. "I don't –"

Ron took a small box from his coat pocket. "I know it's too soon for you to give me an answer. I know this seems like I'm trying to rush you, but really, I'm giving this to you now because it's yours, and the offer stands whenever you're ready."

Hermione's eyes widened as she watched him open the ring box. "Ron, I…"

He held the ring out to her. "Marry me."

Her hands shook as she reached for the ring. It was beautiful, with an intricately scrolled goblin gold setting for a large, dark ruby. "It's perfect."

"It should be, it's yours."

She looked up at him. "I want so much to say yes."

Ron closed his eyes, girding himself for her next words. "But," he said softly.

"How would it look, Ron? To walk in there with your ring on, after just having it out with Viktor, they'll think I'm a tart."

Ron looked down at her. "Wait a minute, is that a yes?"

Hermione wiped more tears from her cheeks. "Of course, it's a yes. You're right, you know. I never should have left you. I said I'd be there, but I wasn't."

"You had every reason to leave me. I was full of myself back then, a right bastard I was."

Hermione shook her head. "You were just enjoying yourself. No crime in that."

"But I lost you in the process," he slipped the ring on her finger. "I won't make that mistake again."

She held her hand out to admire the ring. "I really can't wear this just yet."

"Don't be so thick. Thanks to me, everyone already thinks you're a tart." He grinned at her.

She swatted his arm. "That stupid, stupid article."

"Hey, now," Ron said, "I still get owls about that. All manner of birds and blokes with their offers and suggestions."

"Join the club," Hermione said.

Just then Ginny stuck her head out the front door. "Dinner's ready," she called.

"It can't be," Ron shouted back, "it wasn't near ready a minute ago."

"Dobby showed up," she called back at them. "Come on."

Ron took Hermione's hand. "Leave it on. You're among friends here."

She reached up and cupped his face. He leaned down and kissed her softly.

"I like the beard," she said as they walked back to the house.

"Thanks, it covers up the scar."

Hermione shrugged. "I don't mind the scar."

"It's not so much that I mind it, it's just when people come into the shop and they see it, they want to talk about it," Ron said, stroking his beard.

Hermione nodded, "I've often been grateful that mine are hidden under clothes." She took his arm and they walked back in together.

Not so hidden as you might think, Ron thought, but kept it to himself.

Christmas dinner was in the formal dining room, which Ron noticed had been enlarged, as had the table. Judging from how good it looked, he had to assume it wasn't done by his father, who was dreadful at all manner of construction spells. He figured it was either Dobby or Fred and George. He and Hermione took their seats. She had only to reach for her water goblet before his mother noticed the ring.

"Hermione," Molly said, "is that an engagement ring?"

Hermione looked up, clearly caught off guard by the question. "Yes," she said awkwardly, blushing furiously.

Everyone looked up.

"Gave it to her just now, I did," Ron said around a mouthful of ham.

"Damn it!" came Charlie's voice from the archway. "This was going to be the year I asked her out."

George set down his water goblet. "I'd had the same thought."

"Didn't you read the Witch Weekly article a while back?" Ginny quipped, "I expect she'll take all comers."

"Ooh," Hermione clenched her fists, "how I hate that woman."

Everyone laughed.

Charlie took his place next to his mother and kissed her cheek. "I suppose you're still the only one for me, Mum," he said.

"So you're finally tying the knot?" Harry asked.

Hermione tucked her head. "Yes."

"About time," said Angelina from across the table. "Who won the pool then?"

George seemed to do some quick calculations. "I believe Ginny won, but I'll check to be sure."

"Stop it," Ron grumbled, but Hermione didn't seem to mind. She smiled actually, a big warm smile that he hadn't seen in a long time.

He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "I love you like mad, you know that?"

She put her hand over his and wove their fingers together. "I'm starting to remember."

After dinner, they all crowded into the parlor to listen to a Christmas music program in the parlor. Well, everyone except Fleur who took her children up to read to them before bedtime. There wasn't enough seating, so Ron and Hermione ended up sitting on the floor. She sat between his legs and rested her head against his chest as they listened to the music. Actually, Hermione wasn't really listening to the music. Instead she closed her eyes and listened to Ron's heartbeat steadily under her ear. She felt safe and secure in a way she hadn't for a very long time.

As the evening wore on, Fred and Angelina took their children home by Floo. George and Charlie decided to go out for a nightcap and Ginny agreed to accommodate them by opening up the Three Broomsticks, which she and Harry had purchased after Madam Rosmerta had been killed in the war. Ginny ran the inn now while Harry taught Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts. He was the youngest member of the staff, but since he had broken the curse on the job, Headmistress McGonagall had offered him the post when he asked for it. They asked Ron and Hermione if they'd like to come along, but Hermione declined.

"I have work early tomorrow," she said, "I really should be getting back to London."

As the parlor began to empty out, Arthur and Molly said their goodnights and went to bed.

Finally it was just Bill left sitting with them. He eased himself off the sofa and stood slowly. "It's good to see you two together again," he said to them, as he stretched and the joints in his back cracked. "Well, I'm off to bed. Fleur will be wondering where I am."

"Goodnight, Bill," Ron and Hermione said together. They smiled at each other.

"Are you really going back to London tonight?" Ron asked as he played with the sleeve of her jumper. He noticed that sometime during the day she had taken off Michelle's old jumper and put on the one his mother made.

"Well," she said thoughtfully, "Diagon Alley is in London."

"Yes," Ron said, "and very near the Ministry."

"Ah, yes, the Ministry," Hermione said wistfully.

"How goes the Unspeakable business these days?" Ron asked.

"Unspeakably well," Hermione quipped.

He knew she wouldn't talk about her work. He was a little surprised she'd showed him the Apparition string. It must be very close to release if she was willing to share it with him. "So what do you say? Come back to my flat with me."

She worried the hem of his jumper and didn't say anything right away. "I really do have to work in the morning. I can't be up all night like last night." She bit her lip and Ron knew what was bothering her.

"Last night," he said, "was fun, but mostly I'd just like to make love to you, fall asleep and wake up with you in the morning. I don't see any reason why we should have to pull out our whole bag of tricks every time we take our clothes off."

"About that, I don't know –"

"Shhh," Ron kissed her. He knew what last night had been about, but he didn't want to talk about it. He knew Viktor must be a man with certain tastes and that since women must throw themselves at him all the time, Hermione had probably felt compelled to make the most of every time they spent together. Knowing her, she'd probably researched the subject thoroughly and, if last night was any indication, she hadn't missed anything. Still, fun was one thing; pressure to perform was another. He'd felt the tension in her last night. She'd been strung tight like a wire. She had a high-pressure job and a high profile relationship. Ron was pretty sure she was at her limit last night. Even now, he could feel her anxiety starting to build. It was in the way she held her body, the tightness of her jaw. "I love you," he said softly as he came out of the kiss. "You don't have to do anything to impress me. I've been impressed for years."

Hermione smiled, but tucked her head, still clearly embarrassed. Ron figured it would just take time for her to relax and be totally comfortable with him again. He pushed her hair behind her ear. "I've missed this hair," he said. "You can't find hair like this just anywhere, you know."

"Thank goodness, otherwise everyone would be as insane as I am in the morning."

"Just leave it down," Ron said pushing his hands into it, loving the softness. "It's lovely."

Hermione shook her head, "It's a mess."

"It's a lovely mess," Ron said, and moved her hair aside to kiss her neck. She melted against the sofa and Ron pushed forward laying her back against the floor. He continued kissing her neck for a while before returning to her lips. When his hand moved beneath her jumper to cup her breast, however, she caught it.

"Ron, I swear if your mother walks in here, I will die."

Ron grinned. "You didn't die last time."

"I came very close and I'm not seventeen anymore. I don't think my heart could take it."

"Then let's go back to my flat." He smiled down at her.

She took a deep breath and nodded. "All right then."

Ron stood and held out a hand to help her up.

She stopped and put her hand on his chest. "You really want to marry me?"

"Pick a date," he said as he pulled his wand out. With a pop he disappeared.

Ron was somewhat amused to see that Hermione appeared next to the bookcase in his flat a moment later. He supposed that was the area she remembered best from the night before.

"How about this summer?" she asked as she put her wand away.

"June?"

Hermione shook her head. "I have a big conference in June."

"July then?" Ron asked.

"July would work," she bit her lip, but Ron could see she was trying to suppress a grin.

Ron hooked his fingers through her belt loops and pulled her toward him. "I believe," he said, running his hand under her jumper, "that my hand was here."

She glanced back toward the wall next to the bookcase. "Mind if we take this into the bedroom?" she asked without looking at him.

He reached down and caught her hand. "Come on," he said.

Ron took his time. He peeled off each layer of her clothes as though he'd never done it before. When he got to her knickers, though she stilled his hand.

"Let's just get under the covers," she said, blushing.

"In a minute," Ron said, moving her hand.

"Don't," she said. "I don't…" she shook her head.

"Look," Ron said, looking up at her. "I don't much go in for the prepubescent girl look myself, but it'll grow back. In the meantime, I'm taking these off, and then you're going to lie down on the bed, and then I'm going to make you scream. All right?"

They locked eyes for a moment before she nodded and he slid them down. Ron wasn't sure he'd ever seen her this shy or insecure before. As he ran his hand over the deep scar on her side, it occurred to him again that all of Hermione's scars couldn't be covered with clothes. He made love to her with all the gentleness, kindness and compassion he had in him for the next hour until she lay limp against him.

She softly kissed his chest. "I love you so much. I can't even express how much I've missed you."

Ron kissed the top of her head and pulled the covers up a little further, tucking them in behind her. "You can't possibly have missed me more than I missed you," he said, but inside, he knew that probably wasn't true. After all, he still had his family during the break up and still saw Harry and Ginny regularly. Hermione had been cut off from all that due to the awkwardness of having to avoid Ron in order to see Harry, and visiting with the Weasleys was simply out of the question. Still, he didn't care. He'd missed her enough to know he didn't ever want to feel that way again, that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He noticed then the change in her breathing that indicated she was asleep. He kissed the top of her head again and closed his own eyes, feeling for the first time in a long time, that things were really right with the world.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank Harpinred and BBennett for beta reading these stories. I'd like to thank Harpinred for posting them.

The title of this story and all the chapter titles are taken from "Same Old Lang Syne" by Dan Fogelberg. I'm happy to report that the story ends a lot happier than the song. Love the song anyway.

Thank you so much for reviewing this story. It really makes my day.