I was going to put this bit at the start of Chapter 14, but it seems more appropriate to have it here. So...
Number of years in the making: 2 3/4
(I first had the idea for this story on New Year's Eve 2005, stuck at home in bed with a heavy cold - which is why it's still set in 2006. Chapters 1 and 2 are still pretty much unchanged from that first draft. Perhaps I should get ill more often!)
Number of months I've been writing it for Ffnet: 15 (but it feels like longer)
Number of chapters: 15
Number of words: 192,937
Number of hits: 34,007 and counting
Number of reviews: 428 and counting
Number of laptops purchased in order to be able to write at home as well as in my lunch hour: 1
Number of laptops that broke exactly one week before I was due to finish the last chapter: 1
Number of notebooks filled with my scribblings: 8
Number of times I stopped dead in the street in order to jot down an idea or a scrap of dialogue: Ooh, loads
Number of periods of oh-God-will-I-ever-finish-this writer's block: 2 (chapter 4 and Chapter 13)
Number of chapters that practically wrote themselves: 3 (Chapters 1, 2 and 12)
Number of instances of the word "fuck" uttered by Ron: 84
Number of instances of the word "fuck" uttered by me (mostly in the last week): 5,462
Number of cups of tea, coffee and Activia fig yoghurts consumed: immeasurable
This for all of you, my lovely readers and reviewers, but especially for Coconut Girl, who was my first ever reviewer for this story over a year ago, has stuck by it ever since, and always leaves a wonderful review. Plus, her early comment "I can't see how you are going to wrap this up in only 2 more chapters" confirmed my nagging doubts that it wasn't realistic to tie everything up with a neat bow only two weeks after they'd got back together. For those of you who can remember back that far, this was originally going to be a mere 5 chapters long (hence the original chapter titles Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Two Weeks Later, which was set on their anniversary). But she was absolutely right; the story needed more depth and development. So it's entirely her fault you've all had to sit through fifteen months and fifteen chapters of this!
So for her, and for all of you who have been waiting for what must seem like forever, here - finally! - is The End.
As Ron would no doubt say, "Halle-fucking-lujah!"
Pinky Brown, London, Saturday 11th October 2008
Chapter Fifteen: The Last Match Of The Season (Part Three)
We are standing on a wide shingle beach, with a grassy bank separating us from the salt marshes stretching away beyond and providing a not very effective windbreak. It is very dark except for the not-quite-full moon hanging in the sky above us, and utterly silent except for the sound of the waves sucking at the shingle, dragging it back and forth with the tide. There are no houses, no people, no signs of life in any direction. It is wonderfully desolate and empty. Just us, the sky, the sea, and the stars.
"Where are we?"
"Salthouse. Norfolk. I came here once with my Granddad. There's a tiny village about half a mile back, with a pub and a church and a post office, but apart from that there's nothing here."
I glance up at him, suddenly unsure. "You wanted fresh air."
He laughs, as a gust of wind off the North Sea nearly blows us off our feet. "Well, it's certainly fresh!"
He stares out at the dark waves.
"Is it okay?" I ask, uncertainly.
"It's brilliant," he whispers. "I love the sea. What made you think of coming here?"
"Oh, I don't know, it was just something my mum said yesterday."
"It's brilliant," he repeats. "You're brilliant."
He looks around slowly, as though breathing it all in.
"The air smells different here, don't you think?" he murmurs. "Like air, rather than..."
We make our way to the second ridge of shingle and sit down. For several minutes, we don't say anything at all; we just sit there in the darkness, looking out at the moonlit sea.
Ron shivers slightly and pulls on his sweatshirt, then lies back on the pebbles, gazing up in wonder at the night sky above.
"Look at all the stars," he whispers. "Have you ever seen so many stars?"
"I know. You don't really get to see them properly in London because of the light pollution. You just get that funny pinky-grey smog."
"It's like you're floating in space," he murmurs, awe-struck. "When you lie down all you can see is the sky and the stars. I feel like I could just step forward and fall off the edge off the world."
He notices I am still sitting up, and pats the shingle beside him. "Lie down."
"I'm fine," I mutter, feeling oddly awkward at the thought of lying down next to him when things are still undecided between us.
"Come on, don't be stupid. Lie down. You can't see the stars properly otherwise."
So I lie down beside him, and we both just lie there staring up at the millions of bright stars above our heads. At first I feel slightly anxious, but that feeling soon passes. My Mum was right, there's something about being by the sea. You can't be angry or upset for long. It's so quiet here, so peaceful, the only sound the waves breaking gently on the shingle. We're both speaking quietly, even though there's no-one around, as though we are in a church. As though if we raise our voices, we'll break the spell.
"Is that the Plough?" I ask, pointing at the relevant patch of sky.
"Dunno. I never really paid much attention in Astronomy. Or any of my other lessons…" he adds, turning his head towards me with a grin. "Although I can tell you which one's Cassiopeia…"
He laughs. "You could sound a little less surprised!"
"Sorry, I didn't mean -"
"Forget it, I'm kidding. No, it's that one up there."
He grabs my hand before I can stop him, and holds it up to direct it to where he's pointing. I feel my heartbeat speed up a little.
"See? Fred and George showed me it when I was little. They told me that every wizarding family had their own star, and that was ours."
He traces the shape of the constellation in the sky, his large, warm hand closed around mine.
"It looks a bit like a 'W', you see."
"And you believed them?"
He looks a little sheepish. "Yeah, well I was only five! Actually, it wasn't until I was about twelve and we started studying it properly in Astronomy that I realised they'd just been pulling my leg. Pretty stupid, eh?"
"It's not stupid at all!" I protest, "I think it's a lovely story!"
His grin suddenly fades as he looks down and realises we are still holding hands. He returns his gaze to the sky, but he doesn't let go, and he doesn't say anything. We lie there like that for several minutes, the stars forgotten.
"Hermione…" he says, in a slightly choked voice, "Say yes."
A jolt goes through me. "I can't," I whisper. "Two days a week… I need more than that. Come home."
He wrenches his hand out of my grasp, and sits back up again, clutching his knees tightly to his chest.
"You know I can't do that."
I sit up too, placing a hand on his arm. "We've wasted so much time already, Ron. Two years through my stubbornness and stupidity. Two years because neither of us were brave enough to admit how we felt about one another. Another two years fighting a war when we could have been properly together, and believe me, it's one of my biggest regrets that we waited so long. Don't let's waste any more time."
"But that's exactly why I'm doing this, because I don't want any more regrets! If I don't do this, and it all goes wrong again... I don't want to be kicking myself for the rest of my life that I didn't do something to stop it."
"And you think that moving out is going to help, do you?"
"Well, what else are we going to do? I've run out of answers. If you don't say yes to this… I don't want it to be over, Hermione."
"Nor do I, remember? You were the one who sprung this ultimatum on me! It doesn't have to be this way."
"I think it does. We couldn't have gone on the way we were going. Something needed to change. One of us needed to make a decision. I just thought that this time, it ought to be me."
"There you go again!" I exclaim.
He frowns. "What do you mean, there I go again?"
"'This time it ought to be me'! Is that what this is all about? You wanting to make a point, get your own back for me leaving last time?"
"No!" he retorts, "Anyway, at least I'm giving you a choice, which is more than you gave me!"
"Some choice!" I sneer.
"You just upped and left, if you remember, you didn't even ask if I wanted to come with you! You didn't even give me the chance to say yes."
"You can't compare the two situations, Ron. They're completely different. And I really don't think you continually bringing up the past is helping, actually."
"What, so I'm just supposed to pretend none of it ever happened?" he says, scornfully.
"No, of course not. Look, for God's sake, I know what I did was terrible, and I've apologised a thousand times for it. But you keep saying you don't want to hear it any more, you just want to get on with things, and that's what I'm trying to do. You're the one who keeps bringing it up, Ron. Yes, I left, yes, I was wrong, yes, you can win every argument we ever have just by bringing out that trump card, but it's not going to help either of us move on from this."
He opens his mouth to argue back, then stops again, looking both chastened and defiant. "I'm not doing this to make a point, Hermione. I'm doing this because I honestly think it's the only chance we've got."
"I was going to give up my flat for you! I was going to move to Devon! I thought that was you wanted!"
"I know, and I appreciate the offer, but what would that change, exactly? We'd still be arguing, we'd still have the same problems, we'd just be living somewhere else, that's all. And then, what if it didn't work out? To have got everything I wanted and then lose it all again… I think that would just about kill me, Hermione."
"You just don't want to make a commitment. You want to be able to run back to Harry's if it all goes wrong."
"No, I don't. Believe me, moving back to Harry's isn't a decision I took lightly. You think I want to go back there and tell everyone I failed, just like they all said I would?"
"Then don't! You just need to give it more time. It's only been five weeks, Ron!"
"Yes, and it's already not working! What do you think's going to change if I come back, Hermione? Seriously, just because you want something, doesn't mean it's going to happen. I've learnt that lesson the hard way..."
He makes a frustrated noise. "Look, do we have to have this conversation now?"
"Well, when are we going to have it, Ron? You said yourself; this might be our last night together."
"Yeah, and I don't want to waste it arguing!"
"But if we don't sort this out now, there won't be any more chances! You've as good as told me that if I don't agree to this, it's over. You can't expect me to just give up without a fight, surely? Well, I won't do it! I won't!"
All the stress and emotion of the last two days finally overwhelms me, and I burst into hot, frustrated tears.
"Oh, sodding hell…" he mutters, and moves to my side in a flash, pulling my head against his chest and wrapping his arms around me tightly.
"I'm alright!" I protest, making a half-hearted effort to push him away, and then giving in almost immediately.
"Shh," he murmurs, stroking my hair.
After a few minutes I manage to get my tears under control, but I still don't move, cocooned in Ron's tight embrace and feeling the soft warmth of his jumper against my cheek.
"You're good at this," I murmur.
"I'm good at lots of things," he says, wryly. "Be more specific."
He chuckles, and the movement shakes both our bodies. "Well, I've had a lot of practice."
I snuggle up closer. "I used to sit next to you in lessons and wonder what it would feel like to have your arms around me."
He doesn't say anything for a few seconds, then he says, quietly, "What does it feel like?"
"Warm. Wonderful. Safe."
"Safe?" he whispers.
"Safe. Do you remember when you hugged me at Professor Dumbledore's funeral?"
A hesitant nod.
"I do. I remember every second of it. I was so scared. I knew that Harry would want to go after Snape and Malfoy, that we probably wouldn't be coming back to school in the Autumn, that nothing was ever going to be the same again. We'd only had six weeks together, and now it might all be taken away from us. It just seemed so unfair. That a few weeks of happiness might be all we'd get… I think that was half the reason I was crying so much. Not just for the death of our Headmaster, but for the death of all my hopes, too. I wouldn't get to finish school, or be Head Girl. We wouldn't get to go to Paris. Everything I'd hoped for from my relationship with you would have to be put on hold. Maybe even indefinitely. And I knew it was the right thing to do, of course, that we had to put Harry and the future of the wizarding world before ourselves, that we didn't really have a choice, but that didn't make it any easier to accept."
"And on top of all that, there was this crippling fear that not finishing school was the least of my worries. We were going to fight a war. A war that our best friend was at the heart of. A war that we might lose. Our Headmaster's death had taught me that. If someone as powerful as he was could be killed, what chance did we have? We might not all survive what we were about to do. I'd nearly lost you once already, Ron. The thought that anything might happen to you… I couldn't bear it."
I wipe the last of the tears from my eyes and look up at him.
"But then you hugged me, and I buried my head in your chest and closed my eyes… You were stroking my hair, just like you are now… and I felt safe, somehow, even if it was just for a few moments. It sounds silly, but I felt as though the moment I opened my eyes, the moment I let go of you, that would be it, it would all start up. We'd be at war. I knew it was inevitable, of course, but I just felt that as long as your arms were still around me, as long as you were there by my side, nothing bad could happen. We had to survive, because we had to be together. As though God – or fate, or whatever - wouldn't let one of us die before that happened."
Ron's own eyes are damp with tears now. "Hermione -"
"And that's what it felt like throughout the war, when we were stuck in that bloody cave for months on end, throughout all the terrible things that happened... that your arms were still around me, keeping me safe."
"Do you still feel like that?" he whispers.
My heart breaks a little to have to answer him. "Sometimes."
"Only sometimes?" he croaks, and I can hear the anguish in his voice.
"I suppose… I suppose when I left - no, before that, when you didn't ask me to stay - it felt like you had let go. I'm not blaming you, but… these last two years... I just felt so alone. I need you, Ron. We need to be together."
I take a deep breath. "You said…you said it's always been about me, those other girls; Lavender and Luna and Linda and Anna… Well, Viktor and Cormac and Jeff; they were all about you. There's never been anyone else for me and there never will be. So we can't function apart from each other? So what? We don't have to. D-do we?"
He lets go of me instantly, and moves to sit a few feet away from me, hugging his knees to his chest and wiping his eyes with his sleeve. I'm certain he feels I manipulated that whole conversation for my own ends, to turn the emotional screws. I feel guilty for playing with his emotions like that, for turning it into a plea for him to stay, but I can't let him walk away from us. I did it myself, and I've regretted it ever since. I can't let him make the same mistake. Because it is a mistake, I'm sure of it.
In desperation I throw caution - and the last remnants of my dignity - to the wind.
"Come home, Ron," I plead. "I don't think you want this anymore than I do. We can sort this out, I know we can. Just come home."
He shakes his head. "That wasn't fair, Hermione."
"I know, I'm sorry. But I've got to try, haven't I? What if we -"
"No," he says, firmly.
A troubled silence descends upon us. He is sitting a few feet in front and to the side of me, so I can't see his expression to know what he is thinking, just his tense profile and the wind ruffling his hair.
"I just don't understand why you're doing this," I tell him. "Don't you want this to work?"
For several minutes he doesn't say anything at all, then he clears his throat and says, quietly, "Two years is a long time, Hermione. It's taken me all that time to even start to get over you. It's gonna take a lot longer than five weeks before I can… I mean, that's what this is all about, Hermione. That's the whole point. I can't go through all that again. I just can't."
He picks up a pebble and hurls it towards the sea, where it disappears beneath the waves with a loud splosh.
"At least if we're just dating, I've got less to lose."
I stare at him, not knowing what to say. I think he's kidding himself if he thinks a break-up will be any easier to cope with if we're only dating rather than living together. But what can I do? He obviously thinks there's a high chance I'm going to hurt him again, and he's putting up emotional crash barriers around himself to limit the damage.
"I'm sorry," I tell him, although I feel as though I have apologised so many times, the word has become almost meaningless.
He shakes his head. "I'm not blaming you. This is my decision. I did blame you, for the longest time, but there comes a point when you have to accept you're fucking everything up perfectly well on your own. I could have not drunk the rent money and ended up basically homeless for six weeks. I could have swallowed my pride and asked my family for help. I could have moved out of Harry and Ginny's. I could have looked for another job, or made more of an effort to meet new people. It's just that when absolutely everything in your life's shit, it's hard to get up the enthusiasm to do anything about it. And there was a point when just getting out of bed in the morning and forcing myself to get dressed and go to work was about as much as I could manage to do all day. Not even that, sometimes…"
He glances up and our eyes meet. "I know it's not the perfect solution, Hermione. I know you don't want to do it, and I'm sorry for that, but you've got to understand… I need to do this. I need to stop letting things just happen to me and do something for myself."
"Even if it turns out to be a mistake?"
"At least it'll be a mistake I made," he says, wryly.
"Well, that's the stupidest thing I ever heard!" I exclaim, angrily.
Ron's whole demeanour changes instantly. His shoulders tense, and his face darkens. He opens and closes his mouth several times before he can find the words.
"Right," he mutters. "Okay, then." And he turns his back on me.
I stare at his stiff back in dismay.
"I didn't mean -"
But I can't finish the sentence. I did mean what I said, and we both know it. He can't base a life-changing decision like this on fear. We both need to be 100 per cent committed to each other if this is going to work, and how can it if he's already got one foot out of the door? Oh, I understand his reasons for doing this. I understand them all too well. I just can't accept them.
"Ron," I say, imploringly, "Please look at me."
Nothing. No response.
Finally, when it seems as though he is never going to speak again, I throw a pebble to get his attention, and it lands beside him in the shingle with a dull crunch. He flinches at the noise, but he doesn't say anything and he doesn't look around.
Well, if Mohammed won't come to the mountain…
I shuffle forward to sit beside him, and touch his arm gently. "Ron."
"What?" he says, in a resigned voice.
"I missed you this week."
"Missed the sex, you mean?" he jokes, weakly.
"Both. Everything. Your laugh, your arms around me, your kisses, your smile, your stupid jokes, your hair, your eyes looking back at me, your warm body next to me in bed, your legs entwined with mine... I even missed your bloody socks lying on the floor. I just missed you."
He runs a weary hand through his hair. "Hermione -"
"I know, I know, you're not going to move back in. I just… wanted you to know, that's all. I'm not pressuring you."
"You sound like Lavender," he says, darkly.
He affects a girly, wheedling kind of voice. "Whenever you're ready… I can wait."
His imitation is so horribly accurate that I laugh out loud. "Oh, dear!"
"She had to wait a long bloody time."
"You didn't… do anything with Lavender, though, did you?" I ask, curiously.
He shakes his head. "Just a bit of snogging and some touching up over the clothes. She wanted to, though. Once, she -"
He stops talking abruptly, and even though I can't be certain in the moonlight, I am willing to bet that his ears have gone crimson.
"She what?" I tease.
He shifts uncomfortably. "Well… there was this one time, we were in this empty classroom, and she, um, sort of molested me."
"No, that's not what I mean, she tried to, is what I mean. She tried to -" - he lowers his voice, as though the seagulls might be listening in - "Stick her hand down my trousers."
"Bad Lavender! And what did you do?"
"I freaked out and ran away."
I can't help it, I start laughing, and once I start I can't stop.
He just watches me with a resigned sort of amusement on his face. "Oh, you think it's funny, do you?"
"I can... just imagine… your face… Oh, my God… I shouldn't laugh, but oh, dear! Poor you!"
"It's not funny! You wouldn't be laughing if it was the other way around!"
"No, I know. I'm sorry. It's just that I can completely picture your face, that's all. You were so sweet, and you didn't even know it."
"I wasn't sweet!" he protests, offended, "What's wrong with women? Lavender used to say that as well and it used to annoy the fuck out of me. I've never been sweet in my life!"
"I'm sorry, but you can be incredibly sweet when you want to be. And the idea of you freaking out because some nasty girl wanted to touch you is the sweetest thing ever…"
"I'm not sweet," he grumbles, "It was only because she took me by surprise, that's all."
"Oh, so, if you hadn't been taken by surprise, you'd have let her?"
"No!" he blurts out, not realising that I am teasing him. "I'd already decided I wanted to split up with her by then. Anyway, I knew if anything like that happened, I wouldn't have a chance in hell with you."
"Well... you would. I wouldn't have been happy about it, but I don't think it would have put me off."
"Oh, like I'd have told you!"
"You probably would have, actually. I know you. You'd have confessed because you felt so guilty about it. It's a good thing I was too distracted at the time to pursue it."
He grins. "By all the snogging, you mean? Yeah, I'm glad we didn't talk about it then, too. We only had six weeks 'til the war started, so I'm glad we didn't waste any of it arguing about Lavender."
"Yes, except we've been arguing about her ever since, haven't we? We argued about her just last week, in fact. Lavender and Viktor... Are we going to be arguing about Anna and Luna and Jeff in ten years time, too? Because if we are, Ron..."
I stop myself before this sentence can reach its logical conclusion. I don't want this to be over any more than he does.
"If we are, what?" he says, gruffly.
I just shake my head. "We never really sorted all of this out the first time round, did we? Because the war started, and with everything that was going on with Harry, and Bill, and Professor Dumbledore... We never had a proper chance to talk about what happened."
"Well, it didn't really seem important at the time."
"Exactly my point."
"And to be honest, I was just glad to see the back of Lavender and that I'd finally managed to persuade you to go out with me. I didn't exactly want to remind you what an idiot I'd been."
"I didn't want to bring it up either. I just wanted to forget it had ever happened. Maybe if we had discussed it at the time, we wouldn't have spent the last ten years dwelling on this stuff."
"I haven't been dwelling on it," he protests.
"Nor have I, I just mean... it's never been resolved, that's all. We argued about it two years ago as well, didn't we?"
He shrugs. "I suppose so. We argued about lots of things."
"Well, don't you think the reason we keep arguing about the same things is because we've never discussed them properly? Until we do, they're never going to be resolved."
He folds his arms defensively across his chest. "Maybe," he mutters, grudgingly.
"So, should we talk about them now?"
He takes an age to answer, then he just nods.
I take a deep breath. "The thing about Lavender is… you still hold a grudge against Viktor and hardly anything happened with him. You still blame me for that, and yet you had a proper relationship with her, you went out with her for months. I went on one date with Viktor, and it meant nothing. I said yes to him because he asked me, that was all. I would have said yes to Neville if he'd asked me first. I would have said yes to anyone who asked me. Who wants to be the ugly girl no-one wants to take to the ball?"
He stares at me, shocked. "That's what you thought?"
"That's what I thought. And I wanted you to ask me, but you never did. I waited and waited, and eventually Viktor asked me and I said yes, just so I would have someone to go with. And yes, because he was your hero and all the girls fancied him, and I thought it was a sure-fire way to get your attention. And it worked, didn't it?"
He gives a sheepish smile. "It certainly did. You got my attention."
"Yes, except I've been paying for it ever since, haven't I? Twelve years later and we're still having arguments about him."
His face darkens. "That's not just my fault. You were the one who brought him up in front of Anna."
"I know. I know it's just as much my fault as yours. I know I used to mention his name when I wanted to make you angry, or I wanted to hurt you. It was an easy button to press. But I'm trying to explain how ridiculous it is. He never meant anything to me, and yet we're still arguing about him. That one little decision, to say yes to a boy who asked me to a party when I was fifteen, and all the endless repercussions of that, like ripples in a pond. You only went out with Lavender to pay me back for kissing him before you, didn't you? None of that would ever have happened if I hadn't said yes to Viktor."
"Yeah, well, that was a hard one to forgive."
"But he didn't mean anything to me. It didn't mean anything. I didn't love him. I didn't even fancy him. He was just a friend."
"A friend who you kissed," he says stubbornly.
"Yes, about twice." I let out a sigh of frustration. "I don't know whether you still secretly sort of think I went further with Viktor than I did, that it was more serious than I'm letting on. And all it was, was two or three very chaste kisses with - no, from - someone I didn't even fancy at the time, because I was already in love with you."
"He didn't try to touch you or anything?"
"No. He was a perfect gentleman."
"What, you'd rather he tried it on?"
"No, of course not."
There is a short silence.
"Why did you call him a git, then?"
He gives a violent shrug. "Force of habit?"
I shake my head. "I don't understand why you're still so bothered about Viktor. Even after all this time, even after I told you it was always you I wanted."
He lets out a short bark of laughter. "You really don't know?"
I frown. "I really don't know."
"Because he got there first, alright?" he bursts out, "And it should have been me, and I hate that it wasn't, and that most of that was my own stupid fault! He didn't even know you and yet he could see how wonderful you were, and I couldn't, and I spent every day of my life with you. What does that say about me?"
"You were fourteen, Ron. Viktor had four years and a lot of experience on you. You can't compare yourself at fourteen to him."
"Harry was the same age as me, and he managed to ask the girl he liked to the ball."
"Yes, eventually, when it was far too late and she'd already agreed to go with someone else. And anyway, it was more complicated for us, wasn't it? We were best friends, what if it had ruined our friendship, or I had said no?"
He looks aghast. "You might have said no?"
"No, of course not, I'm just saying... from your point of view, you had no way of knowing whether I'd say yes or not. It would have been a big risk. That's why you took so long to ask me out, isn't it? Part of it, anyway. That you never really thought I liked you in that way."
He shrugs. "Partly, yeah. For Christ's sake, Harry even had to get me a pity date for the Yule Ball because I couldn't manage to get a girl interested in me on my own. And there you were, with Viktor Krum, International Quidditch star. I mean, come on, how was I supposed to compete with that?"
"You didn't have to compete with him! You just had to ask me, and I would have said yes!"
"I did ask you!"
"Yes, about a week before the ball, after you'd already been turned down by someone else! And you didn't even ask me properly, you just said, 'Well, you can come with me or Harry'. Or Harry! As though you didn't really care who you went with, you just didn't want to look stupid going on your own! What I wanted didn't even matter!"
He looks suitably chastened. "Yeah, alright, I admit that wasn't exactly my finest hour. But as soon as I said it, I realised I really did want you to come with me, not Harry. And then three seconds later, when you told me you already had a date… well, it was like being smacked in the face with a Beater's bat. 'What do you mean, someone asked you out? Seriously? A real boy? Not just Neville?' And then suddenly realising I was jealous as hell about it."
He gives a hollow laugh. "It was a bit like… discovering a fantastic new broomstick and then finding out that everyone else has already been flying around on it for months."
"Ron Weasley," I think to myself, wearily, "A Quidditch analogy for every occasion…"
"And then of course, you turned up with Viktor Krum, and I was really glad I hadn't made an arse of myself by asking you properly, because clearly, you were way, way out of my league..."
I bang my head against my knees in frustration. "No, I wasn't! God, I wish you would stop saying that! Look, you remember what I was like at that age. I was a nice girl from a nice family with no experience of boys whatsoever, apart from my two idiot best friends. I had no more experience of the opposite sex than you did! Viktor and I… we went on one date, most of which was conducted in front of the entire school, so you know that nothing happened. It was a couple of innocent kisses, that's all. You went out with Lavender. You went out with her for six months. You did far more than I ever did with Viktor, and you were a lot older, so you had less of an excuse. I was fifteen when Viktor asked me out, and only just fifteen too. You were sixteen and a half, and you did it out of spite."
He shakes his head vehemently. "No, that's not true. That's not true at all. Alright, so I was older than you, but I was still in the same boat you were when Viktor asked you out. I'd never had a girlfriend, never kissed anyone, never done anything… Everybody else seemed to be getting girlfriends and I wasn't even close. I thought I didn't stand a chance with you. I thought you only saw me as a friend. And then you asked me to Slughorn's Christmas party and I started to think that maybe you were interested; maybe there was a chance after all. Then I found out you'd kissed him, and any tiny pathetic little hope I'd had that you might actually like me as more than friends went straight out the window."
"Lavender… I never even cared about her. I just wanted to kiss a girl, any girl - well, not any girl, I wanted to kiss you, but that wasn't going to happen, so I just grabbed the first person in a skirt that showed the slightest interest in me. You didn't want to be the only girl at the ball who didn't have a partner, and I didn't want to be the only boy in our dorm who'd never kissed anyone. Did you know Neville was Ginny's first kiss? After the Yule Ball? I didn't find that out until I'd left school; she got drunk one night and confessed. Neville! Neville got a snog and I didn't! He was fourteen, for fuck's sake! She was thirteen! Basically, it just seemed like everyone was at it except me. My little sister was onto her third boyfriend, Harry was always surrounded by girls, you were going out with Viktor Krum -"
"But I wasn't!"
"I thought you were! And then there was me, I'm not smart, I'm not famous -"
I note the change to present tense now he's upset.
"I'm not good-looking, I'm not rich, I'm not even very good at Quidditch, my fucking shoes are held together with Spellotape, and no girl is ever going to look twice at me! So, Lavender… I didn't care whether she was a nice person, or what she looked like, or anything, I just threw myself at her because I thought that was going to be the only chance I'd ever get and if I didn't take it, I'd die a virgin. Which I nearly did anyway, ironically..."
He gives a short laugh.
"When I found out about you and Kr - Viktor… I was so angry, I couldn't think straight. Not just with you, but with myself too. Why hadn't I said anything earlier? Why hadn't I just told you? And then, but what would have been the point? You obviously weren't interested in me. Why would you be, when you could have Viktor Krum? All my insecurities came out. Of course she fancies him and not me, of course she'd pick him and not me, I'm nothing and he's famous and rich and successful and I'm nothing."
"Ron…" I whisper, a lump in my throat now, but he doesn't hear me.
"And before you say it, yes, I know I was a total arsehole to you after I found out, and I'm sorry for that, but I couldn't help it. Every time I looked at you, I just got this image in my head of you with him, kissing him, doing stuff with him, and it made me want to smash things. You remember that time we bumped into him in Gringotts? I wanted to smash his face in then, and that was, what, six years later? I wish it didn't still bother me, Hermione, I really do, but every time you mention his name, it just reminds me of every stupid fuck-up I've ever made over you, every one of the million reasons you should have gone out with him instead of me. It's like watching you walk into the Great Hall with him, or finding out you kissed him before me, all over again."
Something I've been wondering about for years suddenly comes into my mind, but this isn't the moment to ask it.
Instead, I ask, "So that's why you kissed Lavender? To prove something to me?"
He shakes his head. "I didn't think you'd care either way, to be honest. Hardly anyone was even talking to me anymore; you, Harry, Ginny… Everyone was acting like it was my fault, and as far as I was concerned, you were the one in the wrong. You were the one who'd gone off and snogged Viktor, I hadn't done anything. And on top of all that, I was about to be thrown off the team because I was playing so badly, I was getting really bad marks in all my lessons because you weren't checking my homework anymore... even Harry seemed to have given up on me. He told me that if I didn't pull myself together, he'd have to replace me as Keeper, did you know that?"
I nod, soberly. Poor Harry probably had an even worse time of it than we did, trying to remain friends with both of us, while at the same time having to put up with each of us spending half our time complaining bitterly about the other, and the other half refusing point blank to discuss the problem.
"I don't think he really meant it, though," I tell him. "I think he just hoped it would spur you into playing better. Reverse psychology and all that."
"Yeah, I know. To be honest, it kind of made me feel worse. It was his first match as Captain and his best mate was screwing it all up for him. If we lost, he'd be the one taking all the flak for it, for putting me on the team in the first place. I'd already lost one friend, I didn't want to lose another."
"Oh, Ron, you wouldn't have lost him! This is Harry we're talking about. He would never have put Quidditch before your friendship."
He shrugs. "Yeah, well, I didn't want to risk it. I told him if we lost the match, I'd resign. I was absolutely sure it was going to be my last ever match as Keeper. I suppose the only positive thing was that at least everyone would blame me instead of Harry. And I could keep a tiny pathetic bit of dignity in resigning rather than being sacked."
"He wouldn't have sa-"
He ignores me. "And then… then a mad thing happened. We actually won the match. I wasn't thrown off the team, I actually played well for once, and for the first time in about a week I was actually happy and not torturing myself over you and Krum. Well, for about five minutes, anyway. And then you accused me of cheating."
He gives a short laugh. "Like that was the only way I could ever be good at anything!"
"But that wasn't why I said it! You know I don't think that about you!"
He shakes his head. "I'm just trying to explain what it felt like at the time, Hermione. You were the one who said we should talk about all this, remember?"
That shuts me up. He has a point.
"So that was the final straw, really. It was like, what's the point? You're never going to like me, you're never going to be impressed by anything I do, you clearly think I'm some sort of massive loser… I just thought, fuck you, I'm sick of you always having a go at me, I'm never going to be good enough for you, so what's the point in even trying. I'm sick of being this idiot, I want to win things, I want to have this feeling all the time, and Lavender was just there… and I... I kissed her," he finishes, defiantly.
"And the reason I could kiss her and not you was because I had nothing to lose. I didn't care about her, I didn't care if she hit me or freaked out, I didn't care about kissing her in front of everyone, because it didn't mean anything. I didn't stop and think about it beforehand, I just did it. You, I thought about for years, and every time I pictured myself telling you, or making a move, it always ended with you recoiling in horror, or telling me you only liked me as a friend, or never speaking to me again. Whereas if she'd done any of those things, I'd have been pretty embarrassed, obviously, but I'd have got over it."
"But that's exactly why it was so easy for me to ask out McLaggen, because I didn't care about his reaction! I half expected him to say 'no', to be honest. And I didn't kiss him either. He kissed me, and I let him, it's completely different. The whole time I was hating myself for sinking so low as to ask out some boy I didn't even like, just to make you jealous. I thought I deserved to be punished."
"So being kissed by McLaggen was your punishment?"
I can hear the note of eager triumph in his voice.
"Something like that." I shake my head. "I thought you chose her because she was pretty."
He looks dismayed. "Fuck, Hermione, that's not… I chose her because she was there, that's all. Because she didn't turn me down. And yeah, maybe a little bit to prove something to you as well. That someone thought I was worth something, even if you didn't. Actually, I didn't really choose her at all. I just made a stupid spur-of-the-moment decision and spent the next six months paying for it."
He gives a short laugh. "Well… the next ten years, really..."
A jolt goes through me. Isn't that just what I did? Told him I was moving to Yorkshire on the spur of the moment, without thinking through the consequences, and ended up paying a very heavy price indeed. I'm still paying it now, in fact. We both are. God. When we mess up, we really mess up, don't we?
"I'm sorry," I tell him.
He frowns. "What are you talking about?"
"Well… I made mistakes, too. McLaggen…"
He shrugs. "I don't blame you for that."
"Well, you should. I didn't speak to you for six months, either. You were my best friend and I treated you terribly over the whole thing. I should have handled it better."
"You didn't handle it any worse than I did. At least you weren't snogging the face off McLaggen all over the school like I was with Lavender. Every time I think about that now, I just cringe. Why someone didn't just throw a bucket of water over us is beyond me… Why you didn't…" He shakes his head in disbelief.
"I thought you loved her."
He gapes at me. "Why?"
"Well… you were pretty much inseparable for the first couple of months. It was like you were glued together at the mouth."
"We were inseparable because no-one else was talking to me! And because Lavender the Limpet didn't like me hanging around with any of my other friends. Not that I had any, 'cos they all took your side."
He runs a hand through his hair in frustration. "Look. I'm not gonna lie to you and pretend I didn't enjoy the snogging, but after a while it was all we did. It took us about a fortnight to realise we had nothing else in common, and the rest of the time we were just stringing it out because we wanted to go out with someone, even though we both knew it was a dead duck. Misery and snogging was better than misery and no snogging. But I never loved her, Hermione. You do believe that, don't you?"
I nod. "Oh, I know you didn't. But at the time… well, I just couldn't see why you would go out with her for so long if you didn't have feelings for her."
He looks at me as though I have lost my mind. "Errr… sixteen year old boy, remember? A girl wanted to snog me, Hermione. What was I supposed to say? 'No, thanks, I don't have feelings for you'?" He gives a derisory laugh. "I don't think so!"
"I think she had feelings for you," I tell him, slightly hurt. "In fact, I know she did. I had to listen to her crying on Parvati's shoulder over you enough times."
He shakes his head. "I'm not so sure, to be honest. I think she just liked the drama. I think she just wanted to be in love, she wanted all that grand romance stuff, and even though she'd got lumbered with me, she carried on pretending it was more than it was. That I wasn't just another teenage idiot who just wanted to get my hand up her top."
He shivers slightly in the stiff North Sea breeze, and pulls his sleeves down over his hands for warmth.
"She told me she loved me once and I didn't know what to say. I just thought, 'You don't, Lavender, you don't even know me. If you knew what I was thinking right now, you'd run away screaming.' Lavender didn't love me. I don't think she even liked me, not really. She just liked the idea of me. She wanted a boyfriend, and she wanted an impressive boyfriend she could show off. She picked me because I was on the Quidditch team, and because I was mates with Harry, and because of all that stuff at the Ministry at the end of fifth year, like I was some great hero or something. It's like, I was famous for about three days and she couldn't have Harry, so she set her sights on me instead. I was a massive disappointment to her, I know that. I don't know what she expected, but it wasn't me."
He throws me a furtive, sideways glance. "We used to argue, too. Not like I argued with you, where it was always halfway between arguing and flirting, but all these endless, sniping little rows. 'Why are you doing that? Why are you like this? Why can't you do that instead? Other people's boyfriends do this…' Oh God, it used to drive me up the wall! Seriously, I was pretty much completely miserable the whole time I was going out with her."
"I was a horrible boyfriend, too. Horrible. I never showed her any affection apart from the snogging, I didn't want to hold her hand, I hated it when she called me pet names in public, I didn't buy her a Christmas present, I didn't even pretend to like the one she bought me... I made up rubbish excuses not to spend any time with her, like pretending I had homework to do when I didn't. I'd go and hide in my room a lot. At least it was quiet, and I didn't have Lavender trying to climb in my lap and you giving me death stares across the common room every five minutes. And she wanted me to be funny all the time, like I was some sort of performing monkey or something. I mean, you know me; I can be a miserable sod sometimes. Every time she laughed at one of my jokes, I'd act deliberately grumpy just to annoy her. I'd be really sarcastic to her because I knew she wouldn't get the joke and it would go right over her head, and it made me feel like I was smarter than her. Which was a new experience, obviously, after hanging around with you for five years."
"Actually, I wasn't very nice to her at all, really. I'm not proud of it, but I was sixteen, in my defence, I was way out of my depth, and I didn't know how you were supposed to act towards your girlfriend. That first couple of weeks when we didn't come up for air, I thought she was brilliant, but as soon as that stopped, and I realised she wasn't going to let me do anything else anytime soon, I lost interest."
He stops, and corrects himself swiftly. "No, well – it wasn't just about that. She was just… she thought I'd had girlfriends before her, she thought I was more experienced than I actually was. When she found out I wasn't… I dunno, she treated me completely differently after that. There was this weird sort of power shift. Like she resented me for not living up to this ideal she had of me before we got together, even though it wasn't my fault she had all these stupid expectations. And I was just grateful, because she was pretty much the only person still speaking to me by that point, and I think she knew it, too. I suppose I just didn't know any better, either. I'd never had a girlfriend before, so maybe this was what it was like for everyone. Alright, so I didn't actually like her very much, but at least I was getting some action."
"I still don't know what she got out of it, except I suppose she got to have a boyfriend who was on the Quidditch team. She would have dropped me in a second if she could have seen what was going on in my head. I remember I went through a really rough patch after Christmas; I was playing even worse than usual, and I was seriously thinking about just packing the whole thing in. I asked her whether she'd still want to go out with me if I wasn't on the Quidditch team, and she just looked really horrified and said, 'You're not going to quit, are you?' Which wasn't really the answer I was hoping for…" He sighs. "Kind of said everything, really."
"And of course, the whole time, there was this third person between us... She wanted me to be something I wasn't, and I… I wanted her to be you. She knew it, I knew it... We both just knew I'd rather be with you. Even when we were kissing, I was thinking of you. What kind of person puts up with going out with someone, for months and months, knowing that person would rather be with someone else? What kind of person goes out with a girl he doesn't even like, just because not having a girlfriend is worse?"
"You said you felt like you were punishing yourself by letting McLaggen kiss you. Well, I felt like my whole relationship with Lavender was like some sort of punishment. Like I didn't deserve any better. You know how bad my self esteem was in fifth year? Well, going out with Lavender it went through the sodding floor. She made me feel worse about myself. Seriously, three months into that relationship, I was about ready to top myself. I was convinced you hated me. I had a girlfriend I could hardly bear to be in the same room as, who none of my friends liked either. I hardly even saw Harry, let alone talked to him. Lavender expected me to spend every waking minute with her. Harry obviously blamed me for the three of us not being friends anymore. Ginny hardly spoke to me for about three months except to punch me in the arm and call me a bastard every time she walked past me. School was shit, Quidditch was shit... I couldn't see things ever getting any better. I just knew I'd end up leaving school with no NEWTs and having to get a job as a bus conductor or something. Getting poisoned was an improvement."
He gives an ironic laugh. "Something of a wake-up call, too. Literally, because the second I woke up and saw you sitting there by my bedside, I really woke up, if you know what I mean. Realised what a total plank I'd been. Realised how badly I'd fucked things up. Realised I'd got a second chance with you that I really didn't deserve."
"Yes, except -" I have to stop and clear my throat, my voice sounding cracked and strange with emotion, and from staying silent for so long. "Except then you took another two months to do anything about it. You carried on going out with her, even though you knew how I felt about you."
He gives a guilty shrug. "Not really. Sometimes I thought I did, but then other times it still just seemed really unlikely, so I'd talk myself out of it. You know how good I am at talking myself out of things." He forces an ironic laugh. "And then, of course, there was the Lavender problem…"
"Ah, yes," I say dryly, "The Lavender problem."
"It wasn't just my fault," he protests. "She knew I liked you. Probably knew I liked you more than I liked her, and she still let it drag on for months instead of putting us both out of our misery and just dumping me."
"You could have dumped her. You should have dumped her before Christmas."
"Yeah, and I might have done, except then you went and asked McLaggen to Slughorn's Christmas party, and after that... well, there didn't seem to be much point."
"But I only asked him out to make you jealous! You know that!"
He looks uncomfortable. "Yeah, I do now, but at the time… well, it was just confirmation of everything I suspected."
I sigh. "Which was?"
"Well… you know, that you never really liked me in that way at all, and you only asked me to Slughorn's party in the first place because you felt sorry for me. And… that you obviously had a certain type, and that wasn't me."
"Type?" I repeat, confused.
"Yeah, you know... big muscly blokes with arms like tree-trunks." He holds his arms away from his body like a gorilla and pulls a moronic face.
I shake my head in disbelief. "But that didn't matter to me! The only reason I picked McLaggen was because he was your rival for the Keeper position. Because I knew it would drive you mad with jealousy if you still liked me. If... It was a test. How he looked... that was irrelevant. I just used him to get back at you. I was jealous, and I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me, but at the same time, I wanted you to see us together and realise that you didn't like Lavender after all. I just wanted a reaction, to know that you still cared. And when I didn't get one… well, I just assumed that you didn't care, after all."
"You thought I didn't care? Christ, while you were off snogging him at the party, I was up in my room, hiding from Lavender and feeling mightily sorry for myself because I was going out with this stupid girl who made me want to kill myself just for a bit of light relief, while the girl I really liked apparently hated me!"
"Well, you never said anything! I thought you'd go mad with jealousy, shout at me, punch him, something... but you didn't. You didn't say a word. I thought I must be wrong about you liking me after all. What other explanation was there?"
"I thought you'd liked him all along! I thought you chose him because he was the better player -"
"That's ridiculous! Since when I have cared anything about Quidditch? And I certainly wasn't the type of girl who only went out with boys because they were on the team. I wasn't Lavender. Why would you even think that?"
"Because you said so! You said you only liked boys who were really good Quidditch players! You said it right in front of me!"
"Yes, but I didn't mean it! I just said it to get back at you, get a reaction! I said it -" I feel thoroughly ashamed all of a sudden - "I said it to hurt you, that's all."
"Well, how was I supposed to know that?"
"Because… because… you should have known me better than that! When have I ever expressed an interest in Quidditch, Ron?"
"You went out with Viktor Krum, Hermione!"
"Not because he was a Quidditch player! Because he was nice, and he asked me, that's all! None of that other stuff ever mattered to me!"
"Well, you could have tried telling me that!" He runs his hand through his hair in frustration. "You know I told you the reason I wanted to get on the team was because I wanted to be good at something for a change? Well, that's not entirely true…"
I stare at him. "You wanted to get on the team because you thought I was only interested in Quidditch players?"
He shrugs. "I thought it might help, yeah."
"But that's… but I never cared about any of that stuff… I was the one who told you to give up the team because it was only making you miserable, remember?"
He laughs, bitterly. "Yeah, and you can imagine how that made me feel! I joined the team to impress you, and ended up just making you feel sorry for me instead!"
"I didn't feel sorry for you. I just didn't see why you would carry on with something, when you -"
"Were rubbish at it?"
"That wasn't what I was going to say! Why you would carry on with something, when you weren't enjoying it?"
He gives a short laugh. "You could say the same about me and Lavender."
"Well, why did you carry on going out with her for so long? Why didn't you just tell her you didn't want to go out with her anymore?"
"Why would I do that?"
I stare at him, incredulously. "You just said she made you miserable!"
"Yeah, but she still liked me, which was more than you did. It's not like if I wasn't going out with her you'd have suddenly started speaking to me again. I'd still be miserable, I just wouldn't be getting any action."
"But I would, Ron. If you had dropped her, I would have started speaking to you again straight away. Then that whole ridiculous business with McLaggen might never have happened, either."
"But I didn't know that, did I? Anyway, she was pretty, she was popular, what excuse did I have to dump her? People would think I was nuts. And I… I didn't want to be a failure at that as well as everything else. You know, couldn't even keep a girlfriend more than five minutes without fucking it up."
He sighs. "Anyway, I didn't want to upset her. Didn't want to be the bastard. Of course, I was actually being more of a bastard by letting it drag on for so long, and just behaving worse and worse towards her in the hope that she'd get fed up and dump me. Seriously, you think our relationship is complicated, we've got nothing on me and Lavender in the twisted stakes."
"Our relationship isn't complicated, Ron. It wasn't, anyway. We met, fell in love, got together… what could be more simple than that? Alright, so we took our time about it, and there were a few little hiccups and misunderstandings along the way -"
"A few?" he scoffs.
"But we've both always known the other was the one we wanted, haven't we? And after everything we've been through - Viktor and Lavender, the war, the break-up… I know it now more than ever. Of course I have regrets. Of course there are things I wish I'd done differently. And I know you're sick of all the apologies, so this is the last time I'm going to say it, but -"
I take a deep breath. "I love you very, very much and... I am sorry."
"For taking you for granted. For taking it out on you when I should have realised that it was my problem. For leaving. For some of the things I said in anger that I wish I could take back. For not getting my priorities sorted. For not staying and trying to sort things out between us. For waiting for you to come to me when I should have thrown my pride to the wind and come back to see you. For taking too long to realise that love should be enough. For everything you've been through over the last two years. For all that time we can never get back. For ruining everything. For hurting you. For saying no that time you asked me to marry you, even if we were too young. For God's sake, after everything we'd been through and how long we'd known each other, what the hell was I waiting for? And I'm sorry I kissed Viktor and Cormac before you. If it helps, I always think of our first kiss as my proper first kiss. For not making it properly clear that it wasn't Viktor I was interested in. For waiting for you to ask me out when I should have been brave enough to make a move myself. For those fourteen weeks I didn't speak to you in sixth year. For making you wait two and a half years to see me naked. For that time I threw a cup of tea at you. For -"
I take a deep breath. "For everything."
He doesn't say anything for a long time, and then he says quietly, "I'm sorry too."
"For arguing back. For making it hard for you to stay. Whatever I've said before I do know you did it for the right reasons, in the end. Things couldn't have gone on much longer the way they were. For some of the things I said to you before you left. For not trying hard enough to stop you leaving until it was too late. For just giving up and spending two years sitting around feeling sorry for myself, instead of coming up here and trying to fix things. For not having the guts to say anything that time I saw you in Charing Cross Road. For Luna. For going out with Lavender. For not chucking her sooner so we could have had another couple of months together before the war got in the way. For not asking you to the ball that time and for acting like an arsehole about it when somebody else asked you instead. For every stupid, sarcastic little remark I've ever made about Viktor Krum. For taking about a million years to realise I had something wonderful right under my nose, and for being too scared to do anything about it. For nearly getting you killed by a troll. For that time I fell asleep when we were having sex. For that eight hour Quidditch match I made you sit you through in the rain. Erm... for -"
I reach across and press a finger to his lips. "I'm sorry I said you had the emotional range of a teaspoon. I've never been more wrong about anything in my entire life."
"Yeah," he jokes, "It's at least a tablespoon, right?"
He forces the weakest of laughs, and I suddenly remember what it was I wanted to ask him earlier.
"Can… can I ask you something?"
"You know you used to say that you were lucky to get to me early before I realised I could do better…?"
His face clouds over and he looks away from me, down at his shoes.
"It was a joke," he mutters, "I was joking."
"Because you know you're wrong, don't you?"
"It was a joke," he repeats. "I just meant, if we'd met as adults you wouldn't have looked twice at me, that's all. We've got nothing in common apart from our history. If we'd met at work, we'd have hated each other."
"I don't think that's true. And anyway, we hated each other when we first met at school too, or had you forgotten? But then we got to know each other properly. And as for not looking at you twice… you have no idea."
"Yeah, you'd have gone -" - he demonstrates a comedy double-take - "Christ, what is that ginger-haired bloke wearing? Is that a Mr. Tickle t-shirt?"
He chuckles to himself but I don't laugh. He is deflecting the attention away from himself with a joke again, and I'm not going to let him.
I watch him staring down at his shoes, his shoulders hunched and his brow knit in a frown, and suddenly realise something.
"Do you still feel like you're nothing, Ron?"
He just shrugs miserably.
"Do you have any idea how wonderful you are?"
"If I'm so wonderful, why did you leave?"
The bitterness in his voice makes me look up sharply, and we stare at each other.
"Because I'm an idiot, Ron. I didn't leave because I was fed up with you, or because I wanted someone better, or because I stopped fancying you, or didn't love you anymore. The reason I left was me. Me and my insecurities, for once. I made it all about you, when I should have realised that it was my problem."
Ron continues to look sceptical.
I rub my eyes, wearily. "I think I put a lot of my issues on to you, to be honest. All that stuff about you not having any ambition, and not caring about the future... I don't know, maybe it was because you were happy with the way things were, and I wasn't… Maybe I thought that if you felt the same way, it wouldn't be my fault, it wouldn't be me that had the problem. Just me, I mean. I wished I could feel that way myself, that I didn't feel this terror at the thought of my life slipping away from me and not having achieved any of the things I'd set out to achieve... Yes, we'd fought a war and won, but my God, we weren't even twenty then, was that going to be it, for the rest of our lives? I mean, what happens when you save the world at nineteen? What are you supposed to do after that? Just settle down and be normal like everyone else?"
We stare at each other.
"Well, I couldn't do, that, Ron. I didn't want to look back on my life when I was forty and realise that from then on it all had been disappointments and thwarted ambitions. I didn't want to look back and realise I'd just settled for normal."
"So being with me was settling?"
"No, of course not. That's not what I meant."
"Right," he says, with the distinct air of someone who doesn't believe a word of it.
I shrug, helplessly. "I don't know what else I can say."
I watch him violently yank a loose bit of thread from the increasingly ragged edge of his bandage.
"I don't want you to be with me because you just haven't found anything better, Hermione. If you're just settling…"
"But I'm not! You're twisting my words!"
"You said it!"
"I was talking about my job, not you! Oh, God!"
I let out a cry of frustration.
"Look. You asked me once, what I wanted, and I couldn't give you an answer because I didn't know. Well... now I do."
He doesn't say anything, waiting.
"You're what I want, Ron. You always were."
"You said that to me once before, too. And then you left."
"That's not fair, Ron. I'm trying to make you realise that you are the only one I want. Not Viktor, not McLaggen, not Harry, not Jeff; you. What do I have to do to persuade you of that?"
"Not leave?" he mutters under his breath.
I have to fight the impulse to slap him. Instead I just take a deep breath and ask once more, "What do I have to do to prove to you that you're the only one I want?"
He just shrugs.
"Do I have to tattoo your name on my arse? Because I will, you know. If that's what you want, I'll do it!"
He stares at me, looking awed and more than a little scared. "You wouldn't."
"I don't want you to tattoo my name on your arse, Hermione," he says, sounding slightly revolted.
I scrabble through my bag looking for a pen. "Fine. Write your name on my arm."
"Write your name on me. It doesn't have to be my arm. Write it anywhere you want."
"I'm asking you to do it."
He stares at me for a few seconds, his expression unreadable, then he takes the pen from my hand and, still looking at me, takes my arm and slowly, carefully, signs his name on my forearm.
"There you go," I say triumphantly, "I'm yours now."
"I always was, of course, but now you've written your name on me, there's physical proof. I belong to you. You own me."
"I don't want to own you."
"No, I don't mean it like that, I just mean… I'm yours, that's all. I must be yours," I joke, feebly, "Look; I've got your name written in me."
"You know, like a coat or a pair of gloves."
He looks blank.
"Didn't your mum ever write your name in your coat so it wouldn't get lost at primary school?"
"No, of course not, you were taught at home, weren't you?"
He taps his forehead and rolls his eyes, as if to say, "Mental…"
"Shut up!" I laugh, "It's perfectly normal! Ask Harry!"
He grins, and looks down at his feet. "So now I own you…" he jokes, in a blatant attempt to diffuse the strange atmosphere, "Does that mean I can sell you if I want to?"
"No," I say, firmly. "You're stuck with me for life."
He glances out to sea and a slight breeze ruffles his hair. "This doesn't change anything, you know. I'm still not coming back."
"I know. I just wanted to… to make a commitment. To let you know that I'm yours forever. If… if you decide you want me, that is."
He is still staring out into the darkness, and I can't tell at all what he is thinking. My smile wavers, and I begin to wonder if I haven't horribly misjudged this entire situation. Finally he hands me back the pen and wordlessly pushes back the sleeve of his own jumper, holding out his forearm to me. My own hand shaking slightly, I write my name on his arm, not signing it, as he did, but using his freckles to join the dots and form odd shaped letters, with the result that my name looks like it was written by a hyperactive toddler. A faint smile crosses his lips as he looks down at my name on his arm.
I put the pen back in my bag. "You know we have the same number of letters in our names, don't you?"
He raises a sceptical eyebrow. "How d'you work that one out?"
I laugh. "Because we do! Including our middle names, we both have nineteen letters in our names."
"So what does that mean? I never did Numerology."
"Actually, nothing," I admit. "That's not how Numerology works." I feel myself blush. "It was one of the first things I did when I started studying the subject, actually. Looked up to see how compatible we were."
He chuckles. "You sound like Lavender. I remember she did this chart, proving that we were destined to be together because I was a water sign, and she was a… whatever she was."
"Numerology is nothing like Astrology!" I protest, thoroughly put out at being compared to Lavender, "There are very sound mathematical principles behind it, which you certainly can't say about Astrology!"
"Lavender said we were opposite star signs. Me and you, I mean. She said that was why we argued all the time."
"No, we argued because we couldn't do what we really wanted to do to each other."
To my immense gratification, he blushes.
"Besides, I think Lavender might have had an ulterior motive for making you think we were incompatible, don't you?"
"Well, like wanting to get in your trousers…"
He groans. "Oh, God! Don't remind me!"
We both laugh, and I look down at his name on my arm, and suddenly realise that this is enough commitment for me. I know he wants this just as much as I do. I know he'll try his hardest to make this work. And really, shouldn't that be enough? I thought this was going to be the end, but he's still offering hope, the chance of something, a possible future. He still wants the same thing I do, doesn't he? He still wants us. Yesterday I thought I might never see him again. Shouldn't I be grateful for that? I can't lose him again, not after everything we've gone through. I can't take that risk.
And suddenly, I know exactly what I need to do to prove to him that he is the only one I want.
"Well…" I begin, weakly, "If we're going to be..." - I can hardly bring myself to say the word - "Dating... what does that involve, exactly?"
He flashes me a grateful smile. "I suppose it means we go on dates."
"What, like to the cinema, that kind of thing?"
"Okay," I say, feeling rather as though I've just made the worst deal of my life.
"Okay?" he asks, hardly daring to believe it.
I shrug. "Okay. Yes."
He lets out a long breath all at once. "Great!"
Great is not the word I would use to describe this feeling. Sick, anxious, unhappy... an overwhelming sense of loss. I feel like I want to crawl into a dark hole somewhere and cry.
He obviously realises I am less than happy about my decision, because his smile fades and he continues to watches me, frowning.
"Hermione, I'm sorry. I know you don't want to do this, but I really think it's the only chance we've got."
"I know!" I snap, a little too aggressively. "You said that already. I said yes, didn't I? You got what you wanted. Let it go."
"But if you're not happy about it…"
"Let it go, Ron."
"So…" he begins, brightly, after a particularly tense and protracted silence, "I suppose if we're going to be dating, I should probably ask you out first…"
I frown at him. "What do you mean?"
He shrugs. "Well, I never did last time, did I? Not properly, anyway. I just sort of -"
I manage a small, tight smile. "Kissed me."
He smiles too. "Yeah, except I didn't even manage that, did I? You kissed me."
"Well, I suddenly wondered what the hell I was waiting for."
"You were waiting for me to stop being a muppet and get up the nerve to ask you."
"Yes, but why should you have to do all the work? I knew you wanted to, I wanted you to, so why couldn't I ask you out?"
He laughs. "Except you didn't ask either!"
I smile. "No, I didn't."
"Which, when you to come to think about it, is pretty funny considering we're both talkers…"
"Well, you've always been the only person who can get me to shut up, you know that."
He affects shock. "Are you... flirting with me?"
"I might be. What are you going to do about it?"
A faint grin crosses his face. "Do something I should have done ten years ago."
"Oh, yes? And what would that be exactly?"
He takes a deep breath. "Hermione?"
"Will you go out with me?"
I can't help it, I start laughing too.
"You're not supposed to laugh!" he protests.
"I'm sorry, it's just - it's funny, that's all."
"Me asking you out is funny?"
"Well -" I suddenly realise that he really isn't joking, that I am being asked out properly, the way he wanted to when he was sixteen. "No, of course not. I'm sorry. You just took me by surprise, that's all. Ask me again."
"You won't laugh this time?"
"No. I promise."
"Hermione Granger, will you go out with me?"
I have to turn my head away to hide my smile. "Yes. Yes, I'd love to!"
We beam at each other slightly foolishly, then there is an awkward moment where we are not sure whether we are allowed to kiss or not.
"So how did I do?" he asks, eventually.
"On the finally asking you out?"
I pretend to consider. "Not bad… but I think I liked it better the first time around…"
He laughs out loud, and I am seized with the desire to kiss him. Instead, I ask, "Do you know what I kept thinking, Ron? That first night you came back?"
"What?" he says, warily.
"I kept thinking how much I'd missed hearing you laugh. You have the best laugh in the world, did you know that?"
He flushes slightly. "Yours is pretty good," he mumbles.
"Yes, but yours… it's infectious. They should bottle it, it would stop wars."
He raises his eyebrows at me in an I-can't-believe-you-just-said-that fashion, and his serious expression begins to slip, until we both burst out laughing.
"I'm sorry!" I gasp, "That was quite possibly the most hideously trite thing I've ever said. My Mum would be appalled…"
He shakes his head. "I love your mum, she's hilarious. I can see where you get your dry sense of humour from. Plus, of course, if it hadn't been for her and your dad going to that wedding in Scotland for the weekend, I'd probably still be a virgin."
"Oh, God!" I suddenly exclaim, "I didn't tell you, did I? They've split up!"
"Your Mum and Dad?" he exclaims, horrified.
"No, Mark and Carol! The couple whose wedding it was. They got divorced last year."
We stare at each other as my words sink in. It seems significant somehow. This other couple we didn't know who were starting out on a new stage of their life together, just as we were embarking on a rather different stage in ours.
"Did they have any kids?" Ron asks, unusually sober now.
"No. Well - yes, but not together. They were in their fifties when they got married. I think they had grown-up children from previous relationships."
He is silent for a minute, prodding at the pebbles with the splintered remains of his wand, then he says, quietly, "Do you still want kids? I know we were sort of joking about it last weekend, but… I mean, it was the one of the reasons you left, wasn't it?"
"That you didn't want to get married and have kids. You didn't want to end up like my mum."
"No, that's not it at all. That was never it. I always wanted children with you, I just... I was twenty-four when I left, Ron. I didn't want them yet, that's all. You didn't either, did you?"
A shrug. "I suppose."
"Did you?" I ask, somewhat taken aback.
Another shrug. "I don't know," he admits. "I mean, I don't think I'd have been devastated, you know... if you'd said you were… I think I'd have been happy about it. But… I can barely manage my own life, let alone a kid. The thought of being responsible for a whole new person does sort of scare the shit out of me a bit. Alright, a lot."
Our eyes meet.
"Me too," I say, softly.
"Bill says you're never ready," he goes on. "He says the first one is terrifying, but then you just get on with it, and by the time the second one comes along, you feel like you could cope with anything."
"You've got good role models, though," I muse. "I mean, your mum and dad brought up seven kids and you've all turned out okay."
He smiles slightly. "Yeah, none of us have turned out to be Tornados fans or anything. They did alright. I still say seven is too many, though."
There is a short pause.
"So," he says, in a casual voice, "You do still want kids, then?"
We look at each other.
"I'm not asking you to sign a contract or anything," he says, misreading my expression.
"I know, Ron. Of course I still want kids. I never had any doubts about that. I just..."
I sigh, heavily. "I suppose I just felt that time was slipping away from me. I was coming up for twenty-five, and it felt like something of a milestone. Five years had gone by before I knew it, and I hadn't achieved any of the things I wanted to achieve. My job wasn't working out like I'd hoped. I wasn't doing anything remotely worthwhile with my life. I wasn't helping people."
"I just felt that I'd failed myself, and what sort of example would I be to my own daughter if I didn't reach my true potential? You don't understand; I've always had it, my whole life. My parents, my teachers, everyone around me, telling me I was destined for great things, that I could do whatever I wanted, that I was going to make them so proud. You used to say it too. You used to tell me I was the most brilliant witch you'd ever met. I felt like I was letting all those people down. Letting myself down."
"And then there was all the pressure from our family and friends about getting married and having kids, too. 'When are we going to hear the patter of tiny feet?' 'You're not getting any younger, you know.' 'Isn't it about time you made it legal?' That kind of thing. And I didn't feel ready for any of that. I didn't feel ready to be a wife, or a mother, because to me that's always been something you do instead of having a career. You're right that I didn't want to end up like your mum, giving up my life for my husband and children, living my life vicariously through their achievements. And that's fine for her," I add, hastily, "It's what she wanted. But it's not what I want."
"It's not what I want, either," he protests. "Contrary to popular belief, Hermione, not all men want to marry their mothers, you know. For Christ's sake, if that's what I wanted, I'd have married Lavender..."
I laugh, despite myself. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Oh, God, forget it. No more apologies, alright? I reckon we've both done enough apologising for a lifetime, don't you?"
I nod. "Okay."
"Okay. And having just said that... I'm sorry if I made you feel pressured. You know, about getting married and having kids and being tied down and stuff..."
I shake my head fervently. "You didn't, Ron. That was all me. I should have seen it coming. We're from such different backgrounds, it was inevitable, really. People from wizarding families tend to get married younger than those from Muggle families. For you, it's normal to get married in your early twenties. For me, I never imagined getting married before I was thirty, because my mum was about that age when she married my dad. And it was easier for her, because she only had one child, and she could afford help, so she was able to go back to work pretty quickly, but I knew you wanted more than one child. I did too. Do, too."
"And of course, women have to think about biology as well. You can't leave it too late to think about having children, especially if you want more than one, so that means the time you have to actually do something with your life while you only have yourself to worry about gets less and less. I suppose I felt that I only had four years left to make something of myself. I was nearly twenty-five already, I was just drifting along, time was passing, and I started to panic that before I knew it I'd be married with a couple of kids, and I wouldn't have the time or the energy to invest in all those grand projects anymore. I just couldn't see how I could fit in everything I wanted to achieve in just four years, when I still didn't even know what it was I wanted to do!"
I let out an ironic laugh. "I think in Muggle terms it's called a quarter-life crisis. It sounds stupid, I know, but that's the only way I can describe it."
I shake my head. "I know, I know, it's silly. My mum said the same. I wish I'd talked to her about this two years ago. I wish I'd talked to you about it two years ago too, but I didn't even understand myself what the issue was. I'm sorry it took me until yesterday to finally realise."
"I wish you'd talked to me about it, too. I mean, if you'd just said you were having problems at work, maybe we could have talked about it properly. We could have worked it out together."
"But I didn't know that was the problem, Ron. Honestly, I didn't think any of this at the time. I'm just trying to figure it out now. Why what happened… happened."
I stare out to sea for several long seconds, lost in thought, then turn to face him. "What do you want?"
"What do you mean?"
"From life. From me. From the future. All we've talked about is what I want."
He is silent for a few moments, then he says, "I want the same things I've always wanted. "
"I want boring things, Hermione. Marriage and kids and all that stuff. A job I enjoy that pays enough to live on and a little bit extra. I want to be able to afford to go on holiday once a year and maybe buy a house one day. I want my kids never to have to wear anything second hand. I want to be able to take my wife out for a nice meal now and again. And you can say I'm unambitious if you want. Maybe I am. I don't really care. I don't want to have to think about work when I come home. It's only a job. Family's more important."
I suddenly realise that by family, he means me. Not his parents and brothers and sister and nephews, all the people I've always thought of as his family. Me, and our imaginary future children.
"Well, that's what I want too. A job I enjoy and enough money to be comfortable, and you beside me."
He shakes his head. "Yeah, but it's not all you want, is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You want more than that. A job you just enjoy isn't going to be enough for you. It wasn't before and I'd bet my right arm it isn't now. And that's fine, it's one of the reasons I fell in love with you in the first place. Because you had all these ideas. But what's to stop you finding out what it is you want, and then realising that doesn't include me?"
I am silent for a few moments, not knowing what to say. Then I let out a long sigh.
"Well, alright. Maybe a job I just enjoy isn't going to be enough for me. But that doesn't mean I don't need you in my life as well."
I shake my head. "I don't know what else I can say to convince you of that. I said 'yes', Ron. Against my better judgement, even though I still think it's a mistake. I said it to prove to you how much this means to me. How much you mean to me."
"You still think it's a mistake?"
"I hope not. I really, really hope not."
We look at each other.
"Ron..." I begin, cautiously, feeling the need to explain something, "What I said earlier... I didn't mean to make you feel bad, but... This whole self-deprecating charm thing you've got going on... you know I love you for it, but sometimes I just want to scream at you to shut up. I don't think you're unambitious, Ron. I think you're a teensy little bit easily distracted and you have a tendency to let things drift along, but when you really care about something, you throw yourself into it wholeheartedly. I just don't think you've found what that thing is yet. And that's not a criticism. I haven't found it either."
"Look, I know I didn't exactly help your self-esteem by leaving you, and I'm sorry for that, but you need to know... none of that was anything to do with you not being good enough. For me, for yourself, for anyone. One of the reasons I was so angry with you was because you're better than a job measuring hoop sizes. You could do so much more, if only you put your mind to it."
He screws up his face in frustration. "I know," he says, through gritted teeth. "And I don't feel like I'm nothing, either. Not anymore, anyway." He gives a short laugh. "I feel like I've got nothing, but that's a whole different issue..."
He sees my reproachful look and lets out a sigh. "I don't think I'm nothing, Hermione. I don't mean half the things I say. They're jokes, that's all. You of all people should know that by now. My 'whole self-deprecating charm thing'..." – he invests the phrase with as much scorn as he can manage – "It's just the way I am. You might as well ask me to stop breathing."
I feel suitably chastened. "I'm sor-"
He cuts me off. "And as for my job... I was just starting out, Hermione. I'd been in the job four years, of course I wasn't expecting to do it for the rest of my life. I was just happy to get a chance to live like a normal person for a little while. Just go to work, come home, not have to think about it, have dinner, shag my girlfriend... Just enjoy being alive and not having any worries. Harry's the same, why didn't you have a go at him about it?"
"Because I wasn't going out with him! You're the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and I didn't want you to be restless and bored and miserable in a job that didn't fulfil you."
"I wasn't restless and bored and miserable! That was you!"
I open my mouth to argue back, but then have to concede the point.
He gives an ironic laugh. "Of course, now I am restless and bored and miserable…"
"You are?" I ask, surprised. "You haven't said anything."
He doesn't say anything for almost a full minute, and then he sighs. "I've been doing this job for nearly seven years, Hermione. I could do it standing on my head. I could do it blindfold and standing on my head."
"Now that I'd pay to see..." I offer him a smile, but he doesn't return it.
"Well, why don't you leave?" I ask.
"And do what?"
A rush of excitement surges through me. "Come travelling with me!"
He laughs. "What?"
"Come travelling with me. We can both pack in our jobs for six months, see where it takes us. When are we ever going to get the chance again? It's perfect timing!"
He frowns. "I haven't got any money, Hermione."
"No, but I have. No, Ron, wait -" (for he shows every sign of interrupting) "That money. I don't want it. It's just misery money. The only reason I have it is because I was so unhappy without you that I worked overtime every night, every weekend, just so I wouldn't be alone. I earned it by being miserable, what could be better than using it to make myself happy again? And you're the only thing that makes me happy, Ron."
"I'm not taking your money," he says stubbornly, seeming not to hear my heartfelt words and only hearing the word money.
"Well, I don't want it!"
"Give it away, then. Burn it. I'm sure you can think of something to do with it."
"Yes, I can. I want to go travelling."
"So do that, then!"
"But I don't want to do it without you!"
We stare at each other for several long seconds, then he bites his lip and looks away. "How much would I need to go travelling for six months?"
My stomach flips over in excitement. It sounds as though he is coming round to the idea, if he could pay for it himself.
I shrug. "I don't know. A thousand pounds maybe?"
As soon as I say it, I'm certain the true amount would be a lot more, but I push the doubts to the back of my mind.
He frowns, and I can see him trying to work out what that is in 'normal money' in his head.
"It's cheaper to travel by Floo Network of course," I continue, quickly, "But half the joy of travelling is the getting there. It would be more fun to use trains. You might even finally get to go on that plane!"
"I haven't got a, what do you call it, passcard, remember?"
"Oh." I am temporarily fazed, but then I brighten again, "No, of course not. Well, that's alright, we can Floo to the relevant country, then travel by train. You don't need a pass - card - for that. You can get a train right up to the summit of Machu Picchu apparently. It looks amazing, they -"
He holds up a hand to silence me. "I haven't got a thousand pounds, either."
"Well, how much have you got?"
He gives a rueful smile, reaches into his pocket and holds out the meagre contents to me on the palm of his hand.
I want to cry. "That's all?"
He shrugs. "Pretty much. 'Til I get paid next week anyway."
My dream is slipping through my fingers. "You don't have any savings at all?"
He shakes his head. "I live on my wages, Hermione. Even if I had something to save for, which I don't, I still wouldn't have more than a few Galleons to spare each month."
"But surely Harry doesn't charge you rent?"
He narrows his eyes at me. "Of course he does. What, you think I'd just sponge off him for two years?"
"Yes, but not the full amount, surely? I mean, you're his best friend! You're practically his brother! And it's not as though he needs the money..."
"That's got nothing to do with it," he says, stubbornly, "I found out what I'd be paying if I was renting a room in that area, and that's what I pay. Plus bills, of course."
Of course. Stupid of me to even doubt it. Harry doesn't live in a cheap area either, even by London standards. He inherited a lot of money from his parents, and even more from his godfather, and was able to buy a house outright, on a quiet little street in a nice part of town, backing onto a park. If Ron's paying the standard rent for that area… well, no wonder he can't afford to save any money. Stupid, stubborn, pig-headed idiot.
"Well…" I rack my brains for a solution. "What about if you moved in with me? Properly, I mean?"
"No, no, not now, obviously!" I say, hastily, "I just mean, you know, in a few months time or whenever…"
"Then I'd start paying you rent."
"Hermione, I'm not taking your money. You know me. It's never going to happen."
"Even if it means we're both stuck in jobs we hate?"
He bites his lip and looks away from me. "Yeah, you know what? Moral blackmail isn't going to make me change my mind."
"No, that's not -"
"Don't make this my fault too," he says, coldly.
I am shocked into silence. We sit there for almost a minute without speaking, then I let out a sigh.
"I'm sorry. I was just getting carried away. It was a silly idea."
"It wasn't a silly idea. It's just not practical, that's all. And it's too soon."
"No, I know. You're right."
"Wow, really?" he jokes, weakly, "I'm right about something?"
"You're right about lots of things, Ron. I'm the one who's done everything wrong these last two years. And then I finally did something right, and realised I needed you back, and I fucked it up again. I pushed you away. I'm so sorry."
Ron looks slightly uncomfortable at the turn this conversation has suddenly taken. He knows I only ever use language like that when I'm really upset.
"It doesn't matter," he says faintly.
"It does matter!"
"Yeah, I know, I didn't mean…" He sighs. "Why don't you leave your job, if you hate it so much?"
"Why don't you leave yours?"
"I asked first."
"I don't know," I admit. "No, well, I do. For the last two years my job's been the only thing in my life. And I'd given up so much for it, I suppose I just couldn't bear to admit I'd made a mistake. It's only since you've been back that I've realised quite how much I hate it. Every morning when I walk into my office, it just reminds me of the worst decision I ever made. I haven't really had time to think about what I might want to do instead. I suppose I keep waiting for inspiration to strike."
"You need something like SPEW, something where you can really make a difference."
I am stunned. "You always used to tease me mercilessly about that!"
He gives a small smile. "Yeah, but a) you were really passionate about it, and b) I was an idiot."
"You weren't an idiot, Ron."
"Well, yeah, I was. It was something you really cared about and I took the piss out of you for it. That makes me an idiot."
I stare down at my feet for several long seconds. "You're right, though. I always wanted to take it further, but then I suppose the war got in the way. And… other things. I need a new challenge. Just another job isn't going to do that."
"You need a cause," he says, thoughtfully.
I nod. "I think you're right. Maybe that was my problem before. The war was our cause for so long, and when it was over, there was nothing to fill that gap."
"You could take a few months off, do some voluntary work. I mean, if you've got enough money saved to pay the rent and buy food, why not? Speak to Anna about it, if you want."
I glance up at him sharply, but he seems perfectly sincere.
"Well, I could, I suppose, but…"
"But what? You seem determined to spend it on something. Why not on something useful?"
"I'd rather spend it on you."
A small, tight smile. "I'm not useful."
"Us, then. When are we ever going to get a chance like this again?"
"Probably never, but that's not the point."
"Wouldn't you like to see the world?"
He shrugs. "I'm not that bothered, really. I've seen the Pyramids and Stonehenge and you with no clothes on, what else do I need to see?"
I open my mouth to retort, then sigh and give in. "That's a very Ron thing to say," I tell him.
He frowns, obviously not quite understanding my point.
"A compliment wrapped in a joke," I explain.
"Ah," he says, grimacing, "Sorry."
"Don't be. No more apologies, remember?"
He smiles. "Alright."
"Anyway, I like it."
After that, we sit there in silence for some time, just staring out to sea. My mind is racing. I could take a few months off work. There's no reason whatsoever why I couldn't. They'd probably even let me just take a few months' sabbatical, in fact, as I've got two years worth of accrued holiday I've never taken. But then, why not just leave? If I'm honest with myself, I just don't want to work there anymore. What's to stop me going into the office tomorrow and handing in my notice? Apart from the fact that I'd be unemployed with no job to go to, of course.
It would have been nice to go travelling with Ron - it would have been wonderful, I think, wistfully - but it was never anything more than a pipe dream. I can't believe I even suggested it, to be honest. Harry would laugh if I told him. "I'm sorry; you offered to pay for him? How long have you known Ron, again? He won't even let me buy him a cup of tea without insisting he pay me back."
And actually, although I'd have to swallow my pride in quite a major way if I were to ask Anna for advice, Ron's charity idea is a pretty good one. The more I think about it, the more I think it may just be the best idea he's ever had, in fact. How many charities are there crying out for volunteers? Just in the Muggle world, let alone the wizarding one. I'm sure I wouldn't have any trouble finding something useful to fill my time. Somewhere I can really make a difference, somewhere I can help people.
And he's right about SPEW, my youthful one-woman campaign to improve the legal rights of house elves. What happened to that girl? The passionate girl he fell in love with, who had ideas. Who wanted to make a difference. Why didn't I take that further? It was something I always wanted to do, but then the war got in the way, and after that I was busy with work, and Ron… just living, I suppose. I just never seemed to have the time. Well, maybe now I have. Time is a luxury not everyone can afford, but I can, at least for a few months, so why not make the most of it?
After all, I realise, with a sudden pang of regret, I'm going to have a lot of free evenings to fill if I'm only seeing Ron a couple of times a week from now on.
I glance across at him, and my mind drifts back to the kiss we shared earlier, in the romantic environs of a hospital corridor. He could have pushed me away, but he didn't. He kissed me back. He wanted it just as much as I did.
And when we were in the Three Broomsticks, he was definitely considering us renting a room for the night. I saw it in his eyes. Just like I'm sure I saw the same look in his eyes that very first night, when I pulled open the door to him, and he saw me in just my knickers and an old t-shirt.
And when we were leaving the hospital, he made that joke about me having to go on top for a while… I mean, that doesn't sound like he thinks we'll just be dating, does it? It sounds as though he pictures us still together, sleeping together, the way we have been. I don't think he really wants this... this dating idea, only seeing each other a couple of times a week. I don't think he wants it any more than I do. I don't think he knows what he wants, to be honest. Hope soars within me. Maybe I could still change his mind.
"So," I begin, lightly, "There's something I've been wondering about…"
Our eyes meet, and I hold his gaze.
"That first night... when you came back... the way you looked at me. I thought, for a second..."
"What?" he asks, softly, "What did you think?"
"I thought you were going to -" I stop, feeling my face grow hot, although I've no idea why it should. "You know."
He looks down at his shoes. "I was," he admits. "I wanted to, anyway. At least, for about three seconds." He rubs his knee distractedly. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" I ask, surprised.
"I would have let you, you know."
He raises an ironic eyebrow. "Let me?"
"Well, okay, maybe that wasn't the best choice of words. I would have wanted it just as much as you did. I would have -"
I hesitate, then decide, to hell with it. "Shagged you silly."
He bursts out laughing, and it makes me laugh too.
"You could have tried," he grins, "But I don't think you'd have got very far."
"Well, I don't know if you noticed, but I'd had rather a lot of Firewhiskey..."
It's my turn to laugh. "I remember. You smelled like you'd been bathing in it."
He chuckles. "Yeah, it's a good thing you didn't light a match anywhere near me. I'd have gone up like a firework."
We grin at each other, and then Ron's gaze slips automatically down my body and quickly away again. I feel the heat rise within me. God it's been a long week.
I know that we both want to (I don't think there's any doubt about that!), but I don't know if we should. If it would just complicate things or if, since we have already agreed that tomorrow is a new start, it almost doesn't matter what happens tonight.
"Ron?" His eyes flicker back to my face and I hold his gaze. "What are we tonight?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if the dating starts tomorrow... I mean... is this a date?"
He frowns. "No…" he says, slowly, "No, tonight's just… whatever tonight is." He gives an apologetic shrug.
"The last match of the season," I say, ruefully.
He looks away to hide his smile. "Something like that, yeah."
"So tomorrow's a new season?"
"Yeah, I suppose it is. New season, new start." He raises his eyebrows suggestively. "New positions for the players…"
We both laugh.
"You always have to make something filthy of it, don't you?" I say, reproachfully.
"And you love it," he grins, then his grin fades. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"
I stop smiling too. "I'll have to be, won't I?"
"Yeah. That's not really answering the question, is it?"
"Well, I'm sorry, but it's the best I can do right now. If you want me to be happy about it…"
We fall silent and Ron distracts himself digging for interesting pebbles and shells amongst the shingle beside him.
"You didn't really answer my question, either," I remind him.
"About what tonight is. What we are tonight."
"Why does it matter?"
"Because..." I take a deep breath. "Because I want to kiss you and I don't know if I can. If you want me to."
He flushes. "Oh."
"Actually, I want to do more than kiss you, but that would definitely be going too far considering we haven't even had our first date yet. Wouldn't it?" I add, when he looks as though he might be tempted.
"Mm," he says, uncertainly.
"I'm sorry. We don't have to do anything if you don't want to."
He gives a short laugh. "I do want to. I just... don't know if it's a good idea."
He picks up a large, smooth flat pebble and turns it over and over in his hand, staring absently out to sea.
"It's not that I don't want to, it's just... I think there are still a few things we need to sort out, and… well, I can't argue with you if my tongue's in your mouth, can I?"
"I think you might give it a damn good try."
He laughs out loud. "Well, if anyone can manage to argue and snog at the same time, we can!"
I force a laugh, but I'm still somewhat confused as to exactly what I've signed up to here. What the small print is that I foolishly didn't read before I said yes to him. What the rules are. The messages I'm getting are mixed, to say the least.
"So if we're dating…?" I persist.
He just looks at me.
"Are we… can we still… I mean, is it just dating?"
I can tell he has no idea what I'm trying to say.
"I mean, will we just go to the cinema or out for a meal or whatever, and then go home again? Separately?"
"Well… yeah. That's what dating is."
"No, I'm sorry; I'm not explaining it very well. I meant to say, will you stay over afterwards?"
He shakes his head. "I don't think that's a very good idea."
"Is that okay?"
"Yes, yes, of course."
There is a short pause.
"So there won't be any… you don't want us to…"
"Just say it, for Christ's sake!"
"There won't be any…" I lower my voice to a whisper - although I'm not sure why, when there is no-one around except us and a few seagulls - "...sex?"
His eyes widen and his mouth falls open in surprise. "Oh! I hadn't - I didn't really think about that."
"You didn't really think about that?" I repeat, incredulously.
"Hard to believe, I know. Nah, look, it's our first date, I'm not expecting anything more than a kiss on the cheek. I mean, you're not the type of girl who goes all the way on a first date, surely?" He laughs, nervously.
Strangely, I find the idea of dating from scratch something of a turn-on, but I don't tell him that.
"What if I want to give you more than just a kiss on the cheek?" I ask boldly.
He shrugs. "I don't know. That's the point. We'll just take it as it comes, I guess. But I'm not staying over. And nor are you, if you come back to mine. I'll turf you out in the middle of the night if I have to."
"I don't think Ginny would like me coming over to yours."
"Tough. I pay rent. If she doesn't like it, I'll just move out. It's about time I did anyway."
"Look, it's silly to pretend we haven't got all this history. It's not our first date first date, it's just the first step in this next… part. I think we should just play it by ear. If we want to... do stuff, we should let ourselves do it. It's not about that, anyway. It's about having some space and some rules and not living in each pockets until we can work some of this stuff out. You know, no assumptions, and no guarantees. If you're busy, you can just say no, you know?" He watches me uncertainly.
"I won't be busy, Ron."
"Well… you can be, if you want. We shouldn't assume anything. I want to take this really slowly. Let's just see how it goes. Is that… is that OK?"
"Yes, but... when you say no guarantees… do you mean, date other people as well?"
I raise my eyebrows at his language and he laughs. "Sorry. But no, absolutely not. I don't think that would be a good idea at all." He frowns all of a sudden. "You don't mean you want to, do you?"
"No, of course not. I just wasn't sure what you meant, you know, by dating... So we're exclusive, then?"
"God, Hermione, of course we are! Look, I don't want things to change between us, I want us to still be together, we're just… not living together for a while, that's all. I don't want to go out with anyone else, and I hope you don't either."
"I don't. I definitely don't."
We smile at each other, and I feel marginally more hopeful than I did a few minutes ago.
"So when are we having our first date, then?" I ask, in what I hope is a casual voice.
"Don't mind," he says, in exactly the same tone of pretend indifference, "You say."
Tomorrow's too soon. Tuesday probably is too. But if I say anything later he might think I'm not bothered, and I am. Wednesday, maybe?
"Thursday?" I suggest, hopefully, not wanting to sound like I'm pressuring him.
"I was thinking Friday," he mumbles, going crimson.
My heart sinks. Okay, so he really is taking this seriously. This isn't going to be just seeing each other every night and falling back into our previous routine. He really means it about only seeing each other a couple of times a week.
"Friday's fine," I say weakly.
"Is that alright?"
"Of course it is. It's fine."
He bites his lip. "It's not because... I'm just doing something on Thursday, that's all."
That and you don't want me to assume anything, expect anything.
"Me and Anna are going to Monkey World," he says, fixing me with a challenging stare.
I'm too surprised to be upset. "Monkey World?"
"Yeah, it's a zoo. In Dorset. She thought it might cheer me up. You know, looking at monkeys." He shrugs. "She rearranged all her shifts 'specially so she could get the day off, so… anyway, that's what I'm doing," he finishes defensively.
And you can like it or lump it, he might as well have added. I understand that he's not going to give up his friendship with Anna just because of my petty jealousy. I am going to have to learn to live with it, that's all. If I want him, she's part of the deal. I have to trust him, even if the thought of him just going to look at monkeys with her, let alone anything else, makes me feel anxious and sick.
"She's a good friend," I finally manage to say.
"Yeah. She is."
There is a slightly awkward pause.
"Right, then," he says, decisively, "I'll come and pick you up at seven, then, shall I?"
"Pick me up?" I repeat, blankly.
"Yeah. That's what people do when they go on dates. So they tell me, anyway."
"Oh. Okay, then."
We are silent for a few seconds. "So where are we going?" I ask.
"When?" he says, absently.
"On Friday. For our first date."
He looks away from me to hide his smile. "Well, actually… I was thinking maybe we could do something we've never done before. Make it really special, you know? Something we'll remember."
He grins. "Shame Monkey World's already taken."
"Something we've never done before?" I repeat, blankly. "Like what?"
He shrugs. "I hadn't really thought it through that far, to be honest."
"What," I say dryly, "Like hang-gliding?"
"Well, maybe not exactly like hang-gliding, but yeah, that was the idea. Maybe something a bit less... lethal."
I rack my brains for something that would be romantic, but not actively dangerous. I can't help wondering what's wrong with a nice meal and a film, exactly?
"I've never been in a hot air balloon."
"It doesn't have to be something a hundred feet up in the air," he says, dryly.
I shrug. "Bowling?"
He laughs. "Bowling?"
"Well, you think of something, then!" I retort, rather sharply, "This was your stupid idea, remember?"
His smile vanishes instantly, and I wish I had not said it.
"So, where...?" I ask, brightly, as though I hadn't just snapped his head off.
Ron's brow is furrowed in thought. "I've never been Scottish country dancing."
I shake my head. "Ron. I am not taking you Scottish country dancing."
"Why not? Aside from the fact that I can't dance, obviously."
"I was thinking more along the lines that you're a six foot three man with a Scottish first name and red hair. You'll be mobbed."
He laughs, delightedly. "Oh, so that's why we never went!"
"Well, that and I knew I'd never get you to wear a kilt."
"Oh, God no! Not with my legs!"
"That's what I thought."
We both laugh and then he raises a mischievous eyebrow. "Hmm, something we've never done before…"
"You're thinking of something filthy, aren't you?"
He pretends to be offended. "Not necessarily."
We both giggle like teenagers, then something almost imperceptible changes in the atmosphere, and we fall silent.
"I've never had sex on the beach," he says, carefully not looking at me.
A small thrill of expectation goes through my body. "Me neither."
I clear my throat. "Do you… do you want to?"
"Do you want to?" he says, hoarsely.
"I could be persuaded," I say, lightly, my voice sounding very far away.
He stares out to sea for what seems like an eternity, and then he shakes his head. "You know what? I'm probably gonna kick myself for this later, but I think I'd rather wait."
I can't help feeling rather disappointed, and he seems to sense this, because he adds, hastily, "I mean, if you're not the kind of girl who has sex on a first date, I definitely don't think you're the kind of girl who has sex before it…" He throws me a grin to let me know he's joking.
"Third date, maybe?" I tease, remembering Jeff and his assumption that three dates equals sex.
"Well, that's up to you, isn't it?"
"Not just me. I rather think it depends how good you are at charming my knickers off."
He chuckles. "You'll just have to wait and see, won't you? Anyway, we haven't even had our first date yet. What if we don't get on? You might disappear to the loo halfway through the evening and never come back."
"I don't think there's much danger of that. Anyway, you were the one who ditched their date in the middle of dinner. If anything, I'm the one who should be worried."
"No chance. I'm on a third date promise. You could spend the whole of the first date slagging off the Cannons and the second one talking about horoscopes, and I'd still turn up for the third one."
I affect outrage. "You're very sure of yourself!"
"You were the one who said it! Anyway, it'll be nearly three weeks by then, won't it? You'll be gagging for it."
"Yes, you, Miss I-Can't-Last-A-Week. We might as well just have the date in your bedroom, because that's where it's gonna end up."
"Fine, then why don't you come round to my place for dinner? I'll cook for you. You can bring a bottle of wine and some flowers."
A slow grin spreads across his face. "You're really taking this seriously, aren't you?"
"Well, if we're going to do this, we should at least do it properly. And besides, I've never been on a proper grown-up date before. I want flowers."
"Alright," he nods, "You're on."
"I'm looking forward to it already."
"Not half as much as I am."
We grin at each other, and then look away.
"So that's our third date sorted; what are we going to do on the first one?"
"I dunno," he admits. "Leave it with me. I'll think of something. It'll be a surprise."
"But how will I know what to wear?" I ask, slyly.
He smiles slightly. "Wear something nice, of course. You want to make a good first impression, don't you?"
"Well, I have got a nice new dress I could wear…"
"Have you?" he deadpans, "Wear that, then."
"Or I could surprise you…?"
He smiles. "Good. Surprise me. I look forward to it."
"I've got some sexy new knickers as well," I say, boldly.
He looks down at his shoes to hide his grin. "Well, I don't expect to get to see those, seeing as how it's only our first date and all, but I'll bear it in mind for later. Third -"
"Date..." we finish together, then laugh.
I beam at him, amazed. This was something that should have been depressing, something we were forced into a last resort because we failed at living together, and he's somehow managed to turn it into a game. Something fun, rather than a difficult hurdle to be tackled. Something exciting, something to actually look forward to. God, I love this man.
"I've never been skinny-dipping," I whisper, feeling daring now, "Have you?"
"No!" he laughs, "And I'm not going to now either!"
"There's no-one around."
"It's the North Sea! It's probably about four degrees in there!"
"I will if you will."
He shakes his head. "My cock'll freeze solid and snap off."
"Ron!" I scold, laughing.
"Fine," he says, mock-grudgingly, "If you're not bothered about having children… at least let me test the water first. I'm not having you catch your death."
He leans forward and starts to untie his shoelaces.
"If I lose any toes, Granger, I'm blaming you."
I reach out and put my hand on his arm to stop him.
"You were all for it a minute ago!" he protests, indignantly.
"I know, but you shouldn't get your bandage wet. And you're right, the water will be freezing. And – well, we wouldn't want to risk the chance of anything snapping off, now, would we?"
He smiles slightly. "No, we wouldn't want that."
He lets out a wide yawn, then glances automatically at his watch."Shit."
"What time is it?"
"You don't want to know. Let's just say it's going to be a long, long day at work tomorrow. Today, I should say. As if Monday mornings weren't bad enough already!"
He rubs his face wearily. "Another week in hell…"
"Do you really hate your job that much?"
"I don't hate it… it's just boring, that's all. I come in and I know exactly what my day's going to be like. I only took the job in the first place to earn some money so I could move out of Mum and Dad's. Alright, it didn't hurt that it was working for the Quidditch League, and I don't deny that the staff discount on my Cannons season ticket helped too, but… I've been doing this job nearly seven years, Hermione. I've seen blokes younger than me come in and get promoted, whereas I'm still basically doing the same job I was when I started, and for not much more money either. I'm never going to be able to afford to save money or go on holiday or buy a house on this salary. But it's more than that, it's just that I'm doing the same thing I was doing seven years ago, and I'm bored of it. It's not challenging anymore. Well, it's never been challenging, but I suppose the difference is I've started to care…"
"Have you been looking for other jobs?"
He shakes his head. "I'd need to know what I wanted to do first."
"Well, what are you good at?"
An ironic little laugh. "Nothing."
"Ron," I warn.
He shrugs. "I don't know what I'm good at, Hermione. I'm not being… deliberately negative or anything. I just don't know. If I knew, I'd tell you."
"Well…" I am at a loss for words. "What would you like to do?"
"I'd like to play Quidditch, but I'm not good enough."
He says the last with a distinct air of triumph that he's "won" this little conversation. We stare out to sea for a few minutes, him turning a pebble over and over in his palm, me desperately racking my brains for something he could do.
"Have you ever thought about teaching?"
He lets out a short bark of laughter. "Yeah, right! Can you imagine me teaching?"
I feel rather hurt that he's rejected my idea out of hand.
"Well, obviously I don't mean teach History of Magic or anything like that. I can't imagine you setting homework. I mean, teaching Quidditch."
He shakes his head. "I think Professor Hooch might have something to say about that. Anyway, I told you, I wouldn't go back to Hogwarts if you paid me. And I'd have to live at the school." He shudders in mock-horror.
"Well… it doesn't have to be at Hogwarts… aren't there any other magical schools?"
I know the answer is no before I've even finished the sentence.
"Durmstrang. If you're happy to move to Russia. It's a bit further than Devon…"
I'm not giving up just yet. "Well, what about -" I start, but he cuts me off.
"Hermione. Can you seriously imagine me as a teacher? Seriously?"
"I think you'd be rather good at it, actually."
That shuts him up. He just stares at me, mouth open, finally at a loss for a snappy comeback.
"You've lost it," he says, weakly. "I'd be the worst teacher ever. I hated school, remember?" He starts laughing suddenly. "The only people who'd be worse than me are the twins. When I used to Keep for them when we were kids, they just spent the entire time trying to hit the Quaffle at my head. They were supposed to be looking after me, but they kept thinking up new ways to torture me instead. I'd come in from the field every day with a different new head injury. I think Mum just assumed I was particularly accident-prone."
"Yes, well," I say, stiffly, "They were lucky I wasn't around then, or I'd have had something to say about it."
He chuckles. "Oh, I didn't mind too much. I was just grateful they let me join in their game. It was either that or be stuck inside playing tea parties with Ginny's dolls. At least I was getting to play with the big boys. We were lucky we had the field, actually. That's definitely an advantage of living in the country, having a little bit of land you can use as a Quidditch pitch. I remember Dean telling me he grew up in a tower block, and the only place he could play football was in the street."
"So where did all the other kids from wizarding families learn to play Quidditch? The ones who lived in towns?"
He shrugs. "I suppose they didn't. Not until they went to Hogwarts, anyway."
"But… there must be somewhere for children to go to play Quidditch before they're eleven, or in the school holidays? Playing fields, or…?"
"Not as far as I know. I wish there had been, it would have been nice to get to play with other kids without having to worry about the twins bashing my head in."
"So unless they're lucky and have their own field, kids from wizarding families don't get a chance to play Quidditch until they're eleven?"
He shakes his head.
"But... you had a field, and you got to play Quidditch from when you were very little, and your family produced four people good enough to play for their House team at school, and another good enough to play professionally, if -"
"If he hadn't buggered off to Romania to work with dragons instead, yeah." He throws me an amused look. "What are you suggesting, Hermione? I buy my own field?"
"No, of course not. But it doesn't seem fair... You work for the Quidditch League; you must be able to do something about it."
"Like what, exactly? I measure goal hoops for a living, Hermione. Why on earth would they listen to m-"
He stops talking abruptly and his eyes widen. "You know, that's actually not a bad idea."
I am not sure exactly what I have just proposed.
"Er... it is?"
"Yeah. I mean, there's definitely a gap in the market, isn't there? You're right, there's nowhere for kids to go to play Quidditch or learn how to play it properly before they go off to school when they're eleven. If there was some sort of… I dunno, scheme, or something…"
"Well, why don't you suggest it?"
"Your boss. You could run the scheme, teach them the basics... maybe even set up a Junior League, if there's enough interest."
He stares at me. "That would be a brilliant idea... a Junior League… yeah, that would…" He frowns. "I can't do it, though."
He shrugs. "Well... it's a fairly major undertaking, isn't it?"
"But you like the idea? You'd be interested in doing it?"
"Yeah, of course I would. It would be amazing. I just…"
He tails off, lost in thought. "God, I'd have loved that when I was a kid, if there was somewhere I could go and play Quidditch. Not that we could have afforded anything like that, of course."
"Well, that would be the point. The League would pay for it. Or at least subsidise it. It's an investment in the future of the game, after all."
Doubt suddenly seizes me. I have no idea whether the League would pay for it, or even be interested. How could I? I know next to nothing about Quidditch, and even less about how the League works. I could be setting him up for a major disappointment if this doesn't work out.
But Ron's imagination has caught fire.
"God, you're right!" he exclaims. "I mean, all the really good players start out young. If we could catch people with talent early, we could train them up, give them special coaching a couple of afternoons a week or something. No, wait! You know what could really work? We could set up some sort of traineeship scheme with the clubs! Then they wouldn't have to shell out thousands of Galleons for the best players from abroad, because they'd have a ready-made squad of the best young players from the local area already coached in the team style. God, it could really change the game completely!"
"And you're supposed to be the unambitious one?" I think to myself, ironically.
"Not to mention that the fans would have more investment in the club, because it'd be local players rather than foreigners, so you'd get bigger crowds, and the England team would have a wider pool of players with professional experience to choose from for international matches. Oh, fuck. This is such a good idea, I can't believe someone at the League won't have thought of it already. There'll have been some reason it wouldn't work. Yeah, there'll..."
He turns to look at me, his eyes alight with possibility. "This could actually work, couldn't it?"
"Of course it could!" I say, more confidently than I feel.
He falls silent again, and I cough gently to remind him of my presence.
"What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking it's a brilliant idea, but I can't see them putting such a big project in the hands of someone only one step up from the tea boy."
"Ron," I say, sternly, "You're talking yourself out of it again."
"So, what, I'm just supposed to walk in there and say, 'My girlfriend reckons there ought to be a Junior League for under-sixteens, and I should run it. Can I have my own office, a field, and ten thousand Galleons to set it up?' I'd be laughed out of the building!"
"Well, that's what we'd need to work on. Putting together a proposal listing all the reasons why they'd be mad not to hire you for the job. I'd be happy to help you with it, if you want. Not that you aren't capable, of course!" I add, hastily.
"No…" he says, slowly, "No, that would be brilliant."
"You'll need facts and figures to support your case, of course. What it might cost, that sort of thing. You'd need to find out how many people this could appeal to, for a start. How many children there are from wizarding families in the UK. There must be a register or something."
"I've no idea. A few thousand? I could ask Percy, I suppose. It's the sort of thing he might know."
"You know, I bet if you talked to your Dad about it, you could even use the field at The Burrow. Initially, at least, just to see how things work out. You could even mention it in your proposal, that you have somewhere in mind already, that it wouldn't need to cost them anything. It certainly wouldn't hurt. Oh!" I exclaim, suddenly excited, "I could make you a pie chart! And some graphs!"
He laughs at my burst of enthusiasm. "You're more excited about this than I am!"
I feel all at once incredibly guilty. "Oh, God, I'm so sorry! I'm getting carried away, aren't I?"
"No, it's good. I like you getting carried away. I haven't seen you this excited about something for ages. Not since you came back from that museum on our anniversary weekend, in fact."
He laughs, and I shove him good-naturedly.
"I am not only interested in graphs and museums!"
"I know you're not, I'm joking." His expression suddenly grows serious. "You know, if I had the backing of the League, this could really turn into something amazing. Maybe I could even persuade them to pay for an advert in The Prophet!"
"Or get them to do an article on it, and get free advertising. They could interview you, maybe even use a picture of you with the House Cup… I think I've got one somewhere… Harry will, if I don't."
His face clouds over all of a sudden. "Knowing my luck, they'll think it's a great idea, but they'll want to get someone with proper experience in, like an ex-professional player or something…."
His eyes narrow, and I can tell he's thinking of Viktor Krum.
"Well, then, you'll just have to convince them you're the right person for the job, won't you?"
"Am I?" he says, doubtfully.
"Of course you are!"
"I haven't got any experience, though."
"You helped win the cup two years in a row at school, didn't you?"
"Yeah, nine years ago!"
"And you play in a Sunday League team now, don't you?"
"Yeah, but -"
"And you've worked for the Quidditch League for nearly seven years, haven't you? You know how it works, you've got connections at the clubs, you know the right people to ask…"
"I'd have to cut back on my swearing…" he says, half to himself, "And I haven't got any qualifications or experience of working with kids… why would they even listen to me?"
"But you have!" I exclaim, suddenly excited.
"You have got experience working with kids! You were a prefect at school for two years, weren't you?"
He shakes his head. "I was a shit prefect, you mean..."
"No, you weren't, Ron! Listen… you're good with kids. You don't talk down to them. I saw how you were as a prefect, remember? If they were in trouble, they'd come to you, not me. I was one step down from McGonagall as far as they were concerned, but you… they trusted you. They knew you weren't going to tell them off, or shop them to a teacher. You'd just try and help. Help them hide the evidence on one occasion, if I remember rightly…"
He laughs. "No comment!"
"But that's just it, Ron. You were one of them, and they knew it. Kids aren't stupid. They knew they could trust you, because given half a chance you'd be up to some of the same stuff they were. That's why I think you'd make a good teacher. You understand what the kids are going through. You care. Remember Remus? What a good teacher he was? Well, that's how good I think you could be. Better, because you'd be doing something you really love. And I don't think it would hurt that your surname's on a chain of famous joke shops, either."
"Yeah, but that's my brothers, not me."
"That doesn't matter," I say, dismissively, "It's a name everyone knows, and both children and adults will trust."
He doesn't answer, just picks up a pebble and turns it over and over in his hand, brow furrowed in thought.
"Actually, I take it back," I tease, "You'd be a terrible teacher. You'd be an absolute pushover."
It suddenly strikes me that I might well end up married to a teacher after all… albeit not one with leather patches on the elbows of his corduroy jacket, or a book of poetry in his pocket. I laugh out loud at the unlikely mental image this conjures up, but he's too distracted to notice.
"Why would parents want me to teach their kids, though? Harry, I can understand. You, I can definitely understand, but me..."
"Oh, of course," I say, sarcastically, "Why would parents want their kids taught by a war hero?"
I can feel him blush rather than see it in the darkness. He waves his hand dismissively. "Yeah, but I'm hardly gonna mention that, am I?"
"Why not?" I demand.
"Well... it's like showing off, isn't it?"
"No, it isn't! You did all those things, didn't you? You did them when you were barely more than a kid yourself. Don't you think that ought to count for something?"
Ron looks uncomfortable. "You and Harry did all those things with me. It wasn't like I was on my own."
"Yes, and if I were applying for a job I'd make damn certain I put it on my C.V, and so should you. You're one of the youngest people ever to have received the Order of Merlin, Ron, you should be proud of it! I assume you mentioned it when you applied for this job, didn't you?"
He shakes his head.
I gape at him. "Why not?"
"Well… it wasn't really relevant, was it?"
I shake my head in disbelief. "For God's sake, Ron!"
"What?" he snaps, defensively. "It was an entry level position working for the Quidditch League, Hermione. It's not like I was applying to be an Auror or anything."
"You wanted to be an Auror once."
"Yeah, well, I was young and stupid, wasn't I? That kind of thing's all well and good when you haven't just spent two years of your life fighting Death Eaters and seeing people die. I've done all that. I wouldn't be an Auror for a thousand Galleons. I told you before, I'm just happy to be doing something I enjoy."
"But you don't enjoy it! You said yourself, it's boring. There's no challenge. No-one's saying you have to fight Death Eaters and save the world, Ron. I wouldn't want to do that either. You just shouldn't waste your talent on a job you don't enjoy. You're better than that."
He falls silent. He hates, absolutely hates, being paid compliments. I wait for him to deflect attention away from himself with a self-deprecating joke, but he doesn't say anything, just picks up a pebble from the beach beside him, and jabs it violently into the shingle.
"You need to give yourself more credit," I chide him, gently.
"I still don't see how it's relevant to a job teaching Quidditch," he mutters. "Which doesn't even exist, so I don't know why we're still talking about it."
"Because you'd be good at it, Ron! Because you'd be doing something really worthwhile, and you'd actually be enjoying it!"
He just shrugs.
"Fine!" I say, exasperatedly. "Because you could be training up the next Cannons Seeker, and maybe they might actually win something for once!"
He shakes his head in awed wonder. "You never give up, do you?"
"No. And nor do you, or you wouldn't be sitting here now."
He smiles slightly. "Do you really think I could do it?"
"You're bloody amazing, you know that?"
I feel my heartbeat quicken.
"You're not so bad yourself."
We beam at each other for what seems like ages, then he just says, "Oh, fuck it," and the next thing I know I've been knocked backwards on the pebbles and Ron's mouth is pressed against mine.
"You taste salty," I murmur, pulling away after a few moments to get my breath back. I feel his chest start to shake with suppressed laughter. I thump him in the arm, and he laughs out loud.
"Like the sea, I mean," I protest, heat rising in my face, and then, when he only laughs even louder, "Oh, for God's sake, Ron…"
I get a sudden stab of déjà vu and a pull on the heartstrings. We've been doing this routine for fifteen years, Ron making a suggestive joke and me pretending to be offended, and I hope we carry on doing it for ever. If we ever stop, then we know something's wrong.
We come together and kiss again, and awkwardly resume our previous position on the shingle, both of us making little noises of protest when the pebbles hurt our soft bodies.
"Ow! Jesus Chr-!"
"What's the matter? Is it your hand?"
He shakes his head. "Elbowed some pebbles."
He rolls off me and flops down onto his back, rubbing his sore elbow and picking off the tiny stones that are stuck to the underside of his arm.
"Whoever said this was supposed to be romantic needs their head examined," he grumbles.
I laugh, then groan. "We need shells, like crabs."
He sighs. "It's not working, is it?"
I shake my head. "We could try again if you want," I say, hopefully.
Ron stifles a yawn. "S-sorry. Been a long night. Nah, let's just wait, like we said. Third date promise and all that. I think I'd probably just fall asleep on you, anyway."
"Have you thought about where you're going to take me yet?"
He shakes his head. "It's a surprise, remember?"
I shuffle across to lie beside him, and he slides an arm around my shoulder.
"A good surprise?" I murmur, sleepily, snuggling up to his side and burying my face in the soft warmth of his jumper.
"Yeah, I've been thinking about that… how do you fancy paintballing?"
I narrow my eyes at him and he laughs. "Alright, alright, not paintballing!"
We fall into a companionable silence, lying there happily in each other's arms, just listening to the sound of the sea and gazing up at the starry sky.
"You know," says Ron, suddenly, "I could live here..."
I hardly dare look at him. "Oh?" I say, lightly.
"Yeah. There's something about being by the sea, isn't there? Like you can't be depressed, do you know what I mean? And it's so quiet here. Devon's great, but there are so many tourists. This would be a really good beach to walk a dog, too," he adds, gazing longingly down the beach as though picturing himself throwing a stick to an imaginary dog.
"It would," I agree. "Maybe even two dogs."
He glances at me, smiles slightly, then looks away again, back at the stars. "Maybe."
I smile to myself and cuddle up closer.
"So which one's Cassiopeia again?"
Ron is shaking my shoulder gently and whispering my name.
"Nooo," I protest, throwing off his hand and rolling over onto my side, "Come back to bed..."
His laugh wakes me up completely, and it is only then that I realise I am not in my own bed at all, but have fallen asleep on the beach and am still lying uncomfortably on the pebbles.
"What's the ti-"
"Look," he says, and turns his face away from me, toward the sea. I follow his gaze and see that the sun is coming up over the horizon, and the sea is bathed in a hundred different hues of glorious oranges, purples and reds.
"It's incredible…" I breathe.
He smiles at me, then reaches for my hand and laces his fingers through mine. I don't know how long we sit there in silence, just looking out at the sea, until the sky is blue and it is definitely daylight. I am so tired that for once I am able to switch off my mind and just enjoy the warmth of the new day's sun on my skin, the sound of excited seagulls cawing overhead, and the feel of Ron's warm hand in mine.
"Heh," says Ron, suddenly, "I've just thought…"
I turn to look at him and he starts laughing. "If I go into work with my hand all bandaged up like this, everyone will think I've had some sort of terrible wanking accident!"
I let out a groan. "You really know how to spoil a mood, you know that?"
He is laughing so hard now he falls onto his back, clutching at his sides. I manage a smile, but then the mention of work reminds me that the night really is over, and I have to turn away from him to hide my tears. I feel... a sense of loss, and of apprehension. It's tomorrow. It's tomorrow. We're - whatever we are now. Dating. I won't be able to see him until Friday. He's not coming home. Not for "six months, maybe longer". Six months of only seeing him a couple of times a week and waking up alone.
"Hey," he says, dismayed, "It wasn't that bad a joke, was it?"
He sits up again and puts a concerned arm around my shoulder, tucking my hair behind my ear so he can see my expression.
"I'm fine," I say, looking up at him and forcing a smile.
And I think I am. Okay, so I won't be able to see him until Friday. But I will see him. This time last week I didn't think I'd ever see him again. This time last week I was waking up to find that he hadn't come home the night before, and the bed was cold and empty beside me. I have to choke back a laugh. I wanted to spend the night with him, and - well, I got my wish, didn't I?
He watches me for a few more seconds, apparently unconvinced, then he says quietly, "It'll be alright, you know. I just need a little time."
"I know. It's fine. Really."
"Nothing's really changed, after all. We're still together. I just won't be leaving any more of my socks on your bedroom floor, that's all."
For some reason this makes the tears well up again.
He gives an exaggerated sigh. "Oh, alright! If it makes you feel any better, I'll lend you some of my socks, then you can throw them on the floor and pretend I still live there."
I laugh, and wipe my eyes. "Maybe I could leave some dirty tea cups in the sink, too…" I add, mischievously.
"Oi!" he protests, and we both laugh.
"See?" he jokes, "You won't even notice I'm gone." His smile slips for half a second, barely long enough for me to notice, then he gives my shoulder a comforting squeeze, and kisses my forehead tenderly.
"I could eat something."
"Well, do you want to go and get some breakfast?"
I suddenly realise how hungry I am. "God, yes! That would be perfect. I could just eat bacon and eggs, and a big plate of toast, and some coffee, and - oh, a bacon sandwich!"
He laughs. "I know where we can get the best breakfast in the world."
"Give me your hand."
"Why, where are we going?"
"Not in the slightest."
He laughs. "Oh, just give me your hand, woman!"
I hold out my hand to him, smile, and close my eyes in readiness.
Ron gives a small, pointed cough. "Er, and your wand..."
Moments later when I open my eyes, we seem to be standing in a dark field, edged by trees. I glance up at him and frown, confused.
He doesn't answer, just grips my shoulders wordlessly and turns me around to face a familiar tall, ramshackle building, a solitary light shining from the kitchen window. The Burrow.
"Oh, no, Ron!" I exclaim, wrenching myself out of his grasp and backing away from him. "I'm not ready for this!"
"Shh," he says, soothingly, "It'll be fine. Besides, we've been everywhere else. It was either here or the Cannons' ground, and you can't get a bacon sandwich at the Cannons' ground."
"But... I'm all windswept! And I'm wearing the same clothes I had on yesterday! And I need a wash!"
"You look fine. It's a cup of tea with my mum and dad, Hermione, you're not meeting the Queen. Anyway, Mum will still be in her dressing gown. She can't get too annoyed before breakfast, can she?"
He flashes me a grin and I manage a weak smile in return.
"We can't just turn up..."
"'Course we can. Mum's always saying she doesn't see enough of me. Anyway, at least this way you won't have had time to worry about it beforehand, and Mum won't have had time to get all worked up. And you won't have to face my entire family all at once, just Mum and Dad. We don't have to stay long, either. We'll just have some breakfast, and if it's really awful, we can just tell them we have to go to work and leave. It's true, anyway, so they can't complain."
"I don't know, Ron, are you sure?"
"I'm sure that this is the best place to get breakfast in the world, yeah."
"But are you sure about this?"
"It'll be fine." He pulls me to him and kisses the top of my head. "I promise," he murmurs into my hair, even though we both know he can't promise any such thing.
He reaches for my hand again and laces his fingers through mine, and we walk towards the door together. My stomach is churning with apprehension and fear. This is ridiculous. I'm more nervous now than I was before that last battle, when I was facing the very real possibility of my imminent death. But then, I suppose I'm fighting for much the same thing now. A future where Ron and I can be together.
"Only this time I don't have to fight Death Eaters," I think wryly to myself. "I just have to have breakfast with Ron's parents."
At the thought of food, my stomach growls loudly, and beside me Ron gives a low chuckle.
"Wow," he jokes, "You really need that bacon sandwich..."
We both laugh.
"It'll be alright," he says, bracingly, "You'll see," and for the first time I hear the slight shake in his voice and realise he's trying to convince himself as much as me. For some reason this gives me more comfort than all of his reassuring words put together.
"I know," I say, with as much confidence as I can muster, and he flashes me a grateful smile.
We reach the door far too quickly for my liking, and Ron turns to look at me.
I take a deep breath and nod, squaring my shoulders and holding my chin up high.
We can do this. It is just us, together, the way it always used to be. Me and him against the world. We lived through a war together. I fought Voldemort, for God's sake. I sure as hell ought to be able to face Molly Weasley.
Even though I am prepared for it, the sound of Ron's knuckles rapping loudly on the heavy wooden door still makes me start nervously. A person-shaped shadow appears through the glass and I watch it getting closer and closer, my heart in my throat.
The door opens and Ron's dad is standing there, his mouth open in surprise and a piece of toast clutched forgotten in his hand.
His gaze falls first onto his son, then onto me, and finally drops to our joined hands.
"Who is it, Arthur?" Ron's mum's voice calls from the house.
Ron squeezes my hand in support, and I look up at him and smile uncertainly, and he smiles back. When I look back, his dad is beaming.
"It's Ron and Hermione," he says.
And at that moment, I'm sure it's going to be alright. Whatever happens, I know we'll both try our damndest to make this work. And if it doesn't… well, I can't think about that now. Friday evening is as far as I can think into the future. Our first date. The first match of a new season. New season, new start. New positions for the players. It's a match that can only end in a draw. We can both win, or we can both lose. Although today, for the first time in weeks, I'm starting to feel as though maybe we're playing for the same side. We're an and again. We're an us again. Ronandhermione. That's what we've always been.
You weren't really expecting one of those dreadful "And then they all got married in a big double wedding and everyone lived happily ever after in a giant house made of marshmallows" kind of endings, were you? Remember what I said in Chapter 12? "There are no happy endings in real life, as in fiction…" Plus, every time someone begs me to give a story a happy ending, a kitten dies.
(metaphorically speaking, of course...)
If you haven't already done so, do go and read my other R & H fics, "The For And Against List" and "Six Foot of Ginger Idiot" (ideally in that order). "SFOGI" is the story of how they got together the first time round (from Ron's point of view), and covers the whole of Half-Blood Prince, so you can also read about 'the Lavender problem' first hand. If you can bear it.
Do also add me to your Author Alerts, as I have already started writing my next Ronandhermione story, "Waiting", which will be the story of their relationship during the war. Progress updates will be posted on my biog page, but I want to finish at least the first three chapters before I start posting the story, so don't expect anything before the New Year at the earliest.
And finally - oh, you know what I'm going to say - please leave a review! The person who leaves the "best" review will win the chance to commission me to write a short R or R/H story of their choice. Consider it a little thank-you present from me to you!
(Just a little tip: if you don't sign in, I can't reply!)
Right, I think I deserve a very large glass of wine now!