An hour later, they were back at their hotel in Bujumbura just in time for a quick shower. The clerk on the desk asked no questions as he indifferently handed their keys over the reception desk, and they didn't exchange a word. Bill opened Hermione's door for her, in a silence that echoed with all the things that were probably going through his mind right now. She heard the door close behind her, and missed the bewildered look he threw at her back; Hermione just jumped into the shower and let the water wipe every thought, and then stepped out and spelled her hair dry while she looked at herself in the steamed-up mirror.
She hadn't expected to look any different, but she did. Her cheeks were flustered, and her lips bruised. Her eyes were shining, and for a second, watching the marks and scratches that reminded her of the ground she had rolled over some hours ago, she experienced an unknown sensation; shakily, she recognized the fleeting emotion of feeling desirable, desired, even if it was under such circumstances. She had never thought she, of all people, would have been able to elicit that kind of response from a man.
Of course, that would be all very well, if, that was, she could make the small voice in her head shut up and stop telling her that after all, that had been no regular man, and no human behavior, and than on a normal situation, Bill wouldn't have looked at her twice. Indeed.
She lowered her glance and bit her lip. Embarrassed, she now started recollecting broken sentences, and shuddering, she turned her back to the mirror. She had, one could say, taken advantage of Bill. If she hadn't been so appalled at herself she could have laughed at the very idea of her taking advantage of any Weasley male. But he had given her several warnings, asked her to stop, and she, the only one in the right state to make a decision, had chosen to ignore them. She had thought she had the right to decide for both, and had disregarded Bill's plea, practically forcing that to happen.
And he was probably torturing himself with self accusations, if she knew him at all. He must have noticed, even in the previous night's somewhat unusual circumstances, that it had been her first time- not that she was completely inexperienced, but still. And he was very likely feeling that he, who should have been in charge had, somehow, failed her. How very ironic.
Perhaps, she thought, she might have to enlighten him about her feelings. She didn't think he would laugh- he was not that kind, and that should ease his conscience. Or maybe make him feel worse, she answered herself quickly. Face it, Hermione, you just don't want to see that look, the rejecting look, in his eyes…
But she didn't have time to talk herself into doing something or not doing it. A knock on the door, and a very serious, wet-haired Bill was standing on the threshold of the door. He was apparently attempting to dry his hair with a towel, and not very successfully, too, his wand forgotten in the left pocket of his trousers, which was a pretty conspicuous indicator that his brain was otherwise engaged.
He looked at her, and she looked back at the very serious, tall, handsome wizard who had just entered her room with such a sudden surge of mixed emotions that although she knew she should say something, she could not possibly utter a word. She remained silent, focused on breathing regularly, or at least, on breathing at all.
Here it comes, she thought. He left the towel hanging from his neck and looked at the palms of his hands, apparently at a loss for words.
And then, against all odds, all of Gryffindor's celebrated courage deserted her and turning around, she said, in what she hoped was a neutral enough voice:
"When are we leaving for the station?" to avoid looking at him, she reached for the ruby, which she had been keeping, and passed it to him.
Anything, anything to postpone The Look. Anything not to hear the regret in his voice. Anything to postpone the hurt. I cannot believe I just… Bill Weasley, for Merlin's sake. What was I thinking?
Bill was obviously caught off-guard. He grabbed the red stone and checked his watch.
"Right now, if you want. We were actually expected here a bit earlier" he said, and it was all the reference any of them made to what had happened scarcely two hours before.
One hour ago, you were still lying against his skin, she thought, sadly. "Well, let's go, then" was what she said.
Bill seemed a bit nonplussed, but he was probably counting on the long trip ahead. She didn't feel particularly relieved about it, but after all, the train was as good a place as any other to have that conversation.
She shouldn't have feared. As they got on the train, Bill went for two cups of coffee. When he went back, she had taken two seats and was curled up, facing the wall, deeply asleep.
"Hermione" Bill said, unsure whether she was faking it or not. Apparently she wasn't.
Lack of sleep had taken its toll, and although she had no plans of upsetting him, upset him she did, and he'd have gladly fallen asleep, only his conscience didn't allow it.
Light awoke her. She rubbed her eyes, startled as she recognized England, and then turned abruptly around.
Bill was there, sitting in front of her, looking distractedly through the window, with the air of a person who has had a rough night or two. She enjoyed his profile for a few seconds, then noticed a tray with her untouched food and his half-eaten sandwich and awoke fully.
"Bill" she gasped, horrified. "I… fell asleep" she half apologized, half explained.
Bill looked at her and lifted the corners of his mouth in a small smile that again didn't reach his eyes.
Before she could say anything, a woman came pushing a trolley with food and candy. Then Bill "had to check something", and for the time he was back, they were already entering London.
She pressed her lips, and grabbed her bag, and they both exited the compartment, and the train.
The station was even more packed than it had been when they had left, so Bill had to hold her arm again. His touch, however, was as impersonal as it could possibly be, although he was still nice to her, and caring in a way she detested; like if she were something about to break, a small child he was fond of.
Like a small child. That was probably what she was in his eyes.
She hadn't been, then, she thought with her last remains of pride.
But he had been beyond control, and still under the effects of some heavy emotional turmoil. She had known, he had trusted her, and still, she hadn't cared, and had hurt two people on the process, and now, as an adult and "not a small child", she had to face the consequences of such a decision.
- - - -
Again, Bill still held her when they Apparated into the garden at The Burrow. But it was, again, as impersonal, dispassionate and distant as he could make it. So cold that even under the circumstances she wondered if perhaps he could feel the stone lying inside a bundle of socks in her backpack.
He opened the garden gate for her, and they exchanged a look that made her stop for a second; as if there was something he had to say that couldn't wait, but he walked in behind her and turned around to close the gate, and the moment was over. Then, Molly caught sight of them and went out, shouting with delight, and hugged both of them warmly. She ushered them into the kitchen, forced a plate of food into their hands and interrogated them apparently mistaking the awkwardness that made them avoid each other's eyes for lack of sleep. She immediately sent them to bed.
Hermione thought she wouldn't be able to sleep anymore, but both her body and her mind felt exhausted, and she was deeply grateful to have a bed with its mattress and fresh linen beneath her body. Before she could be very thankful, though, she passed out. Which was, all in all, Very Good.
- - - -
She woke up somewhat disoriented, and got down just to discover it was time for dinner. Horrified, she realized that all the Weasley household was waiting to hear the whole story from her lips. She wished she had agreed on a version with Bill, and looked around for him, only to learn from a happily humming Mrs. Weasley that he was gone to Gringotts and wouldn't return until late.
Her heart sank, when a moment before she had been dreading to see him, and embarked in what she thought was a passable, if not entirely truthful, version of their trip.
- - - - - - - -
Bill wasn't around for the next couple of days. He was, very likely, avoiding her, and she felt as if her heart could stop beating any moment. As she tossed and turned in bed for the third consecutive night, ignoring Ginny's attempts to see whether she was awake and well, there was a knock on the door. She heard Ginny get up, open the door and someone whisper something.
"Hermione" Ginny then called on a low voice, as if she had known all along she was not asleep. "It is for you. Bill" she clarified.
Hermione's heart skipped a beat. Looking apologetically at her roommate, who just shrugged, she got up, painfully aware that she was a bushy-haired girl wearing a short summer pajamas, when she'd have liked to be wearing something mature and sexy, like something Fleur would have worn to bed, and then she stopped that very sick and twisted train of thought and got out, closing the door behind her, with a questioning look.
She didn't like what she found. Where was Bill, and who was this mature, grown-up, serious-looking wizard with dark rings under his eyes and an upset expression? What had she done?
She felt a rush of guilt, but then he spoke, and hopes that she had unknowingly been harboring- of him, um, who knows, getting there late in the night to confess he could not eat, or sleep, or get her out of his head, or perhaps of him going there and shaking her and telling her to quit being stupid and to be just friends- were crushed.
"Hermione." He greeted her. "Ah, my superiors at Gringgotts would be very glad to meet you. They've" he smiled wryly "actually been quite insistent, so we wanted to schedule a meeting for tomorrow at 5 o'clock. I need to know whether that suits you"
She nodded numbly but couldn't think of a thing to say.
He nodded, too.
"I will be working all morning, so I won't be able to come here for you. I'll pick you up at the Floo connection in the Leaky Cauldron at ten to five, if that is ok."
"That's fine, thanks, Bill" she heard herself answering, and shivered as she uttered his name.
He nodded again.
"Well… er… good night, then" he said, and left.
"Good night" she murmured, and entered her room, and went straight to bed, while Ginny shook her head.
- - - - -
At ten to five she emerged from the Floo connection in the Leaky Cauldron, brushing off the ashes in her head. Why on Earth did people use Floo if they could Apparate, she'd never know. Bill was, as promised, waiting for her there. As always when she saw him lately, her heart did a summersault. She had to get that under control before she suffered a fatal stroke.
He walked her to Gringotts, always half a step before her, until she could no longer help it and she reached for his sleeve.
"Bill" she pleaded, without thinking. "Please, can we… could we just be normal?"
Bill stared at her. He shrugged.
"I guess" he looked at his watch "Look, Hermione, I… I wish I… we don't have the time right now" he said in frustration. "Would you… will you want to have dinner later, so that we can discuss some things?"
"Well" he said, and he seemed a bit easier. "This way"
And again, he was the professional Bill, back in control, and she smiled.
Soon, they had reached a small room filled with goblins. It is common knowledge that most goblins tend to be quite hostile towards wizardkind, so Hermione saw easily through their rough manners and was able to decipher their praise out of sentences which apparently carried none. A brief apology for the misinformation was uttered, then a contract produced and she was left with a job offer and a week's time to decide. One of them then fondly proclaimed to be glad Bill had taken the job instead of the wizard previously assigned to her, which, again, was probably the most effusive statement a goblin could make about a wizard, and with that and Bill's modest complaints, they were off, and the moment they had both been waiting and dreading for days finally came.
"Where do you want to go?" Bill asked.
Bill nodded and took her to a crowded, muggle, Chinese restaurant. She looked at him questioningly, but he ordered their food to take away. So they did, and they walked, Hermione didn't know where to, through a few streets. And then, most surprisingly, Bill stopped dead and produced a key.
"What's… what's that?"
He looked at her and followed her gaze to his fingers and back to her, and couldn't help but to let out a wonderful, delightful, deep, butterfly-in-the-stomach-provoking sort of chuckle, and said:
"I would have thought that you, of all of us, would have recognized a key. It opens doors. Less practical than an Alohomora, but tends to draw less attention."
"I know what it is" she hissed. "Where does it lead to?"
He pointed to the house in front of them.
"A house? You have a house next to Diagon Alley?"
"Well, you didn't really think that I was going to get married and go to live in the Burrow" he said, not hiding his amusement.
"Oh." Hermione said sheepishly. Nice. He was taking her to Fleur's and his house. Wonderful.
"I bought it last year, but never said anything to anybody but mum. I come here often- where did you think I'd spent these few days?"
"Oh" she repeated. Although he didn't seem completely relaxed, Bill looked more at ease now that they were going to face… the events, Hermione thought, wincing at her chosen phrasing.
She followed him into the house. It was a beautiful place, and very much like Bill. A lot of wood, moving pictures of Egypt, Australia and somewhere Hermione could not identify, a lot of windows, and them sitting on the floor there with their Chinese food.
Nothing Fleur's. No pictures of her, no flowers she might have left, no cup with lipstick marks, no anything.
He seemed to understand her concerns suddenly.
"Oh! No, no, no, Fleur never lived here. It was… a surprise of sorts. I wanted to wait until after the honeymoon. Probably because I could foresee she would not want to stay in England, and I just had my hopes to stay here- I love this place."
"You never told her you had bought a house"
"I know, not such a great beginning for a relationship, huh?" he said, back to old Bill. And then, in the blink of an eye, he was the new, awkward Bill again.
Hermione sighted, while in the back of her mind she realized she felt a mixture of envy and pity for Fleur. To have the possibility to inhabit this home, with Bill, to see him wake up in the mornings, to see the creases left by the pillow in his cheeks, his toothbrush next to hers, to sit on the sofa with him around. Envy, because she had had it, pity because she had lost it.
She grabbed her Coke, took a long sip and said:
"Hermione" said Bill at the same time.
Hermione was bursting to apologize, but still couldn't find the exact words that conveyed how really sorry she was of any possible pain she had inflicted by acting like a stupid, capricious, hormoned child, so it was Bill who started speaking.
"I am so sorry"
"Bill" she tried to cut him
"No, what happened was unpardonable. You trusted me, Gringotts trusted me, my family trusted me to take care of you, and…"
"Bill! First of all, I don't need being taken care of. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a kid"
"I know. But still, to take advantage of you in such a way…"
"You can't be serious. You warned me. More than once."
"I know, but I should have done more"
"Bill, you clearly said that you couldn't"
He looked down, his brow furrowed.
"I shouldn't have lost control that way. When we went back to the hotel, I was slightly coming back to my senses and I was terrified. Merlin, I'm so, so sorry I can hardly look you in the eye, Hermione" he said, looking down.
"But Bill, it was me who started it all! You gave me fair warning!"
"Yes, yes, very clear and definitive warning I gave you" he answered bitterly.
"I wouldn't have started it if I hadn't wanted it" she finally offered.
"Of course you thought you wanted it!" he exclaimed. "In this job there's always risk, and fear, and a rush of adrenaline, and a couple of near-death experiences per year, and damn, I am a senior curse-breaker, fully prepared to distinguish and avoid the aftereffects of it all, and what happened is right out of a beginners' manual. I should have stopped it. And I… I didn't. I can't believe I did… Did I… did I hurt you?"
She shook her head, truthfully.
"No" she said. "It was actually quite nice. Except for the stones on the floor" she made a show of frowning, trying to lift the mood, and Bill looked positively mortified at such a graphic reminder.
"Look Bill." She kept on, trying what she thought was a wicked smile "I don't mean to hurt your feelings with this, but you are not the first guy I go through something exciting and potentially lethal with" he smiled "… but I've never wanted to get either Harry or Ron laid afterwards, that's for sure."
Bill winced a bit, but still muttered a hearty "Thanks Merlin for that." Then he looked at her intently. "I'm sorry" he whispered. "Damn, you are supposed to be like a sister to me".
There it was again. Like a small, infant sister. Hermione was surprised of how much it still stung. Still, the look in his eyes was her undoing.
"Look, it doesn't matter. It's actually me who should be apologizing. You said loud and clear that you didn't want it, but that you were not exactly in control right then. And I didn't care. I was selfish. And it was not because of the adrenaline rush or anything. I… I should have never accepted that trip to Africa. Not with you. Because, you see, the thing is, I'm in love with you." She babbled, so low and quick that she was sure it had been hard to understand her.
But she knew she wouldn't be able to repeat it. She felt hot in the face, and more flustered that she had ever felt before, so she fussed over her half-finished food and got up, taking it to the kitchen. Then she took her jacket, and then, only then, she risked a glance to the silent wizard. He had his face in his hands and his shoulders were shaking slightly. For a second she thought he was crying and almost stepped towards him, but then she thought she heard a soft chuckle, and she turned around abruptly, her eyes wide, her heart beating wildly in her chest. She opened the door mechanically.
"Goodbye" she whispered.
She ran stairs down until she got to the street; at some point she heard his steps following and she ran more; she just couldn't face him anymore. She was aware of him calling her name while she disapparated.
- - - - - - - - -
How funny. How funny it must have been for him. Relieved from the responsibility of the whole thing and faced with a stupid crush instead. Even though he was a gentleman, he hadn't been able to suppress a good, hearty laugh.
It was not that she had expected him to kneel down and propose, not even to reciprocate, but damn, to have laughed in her face… but after all, it was her, Hermione Granger, declaring her love, if only out of moral duty, to none other than Bill Weasley. Where the hell had her self-preservation instincts been during that stupid trip? How had she permitted herself to become aware of such feelings? It should never have happened. She had crushed things before-ever since the boys had made fun of her in her second year, due to her stupid infatuation with that git Lockhart- she had even carried herself with dignity when Fleur was around…
The realization that her feelings were there to stay, together with the queasiness of making up the destination of her apparition in the last second, made her sick in the stomach. She rose quickly from the floor, and launched herself towards the bathroom. She was now in Grimmauld place, the only place she'd been able to think of in such a haze. The Burrow had seemed unbearable at the time, and she had only had a couple of seconds. She was aware that an empty, unwelcoming, cold house such as this, full of dark objects and sad memories might not be the better place to sulk around in her current state, but she could not get herself to leave.
However, she had never been one to wallow in self pity. Laughing at her own stupidity, she got in a more practical mood, and decided to make a ritual of her own to get over Bill Weasley.
- - - - - - -
It had been three intense days. Three days of reading into the wee hours of the night. Three days of getting acquainted with the futileness of human emotions, three days of acknowledging her aching, and three days of making fun of herself. Three nights of thinking over the offer of the goblins, of long baths and of tiptoeing around the cursed objects that threw insults at her. She hurt, but she did it her own way, and no one had to see it- it was, really, not a spectators sport.
Now it was enough, and she emerged out of the old headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix on a sunny morning, apparating in front of the Leaky Cauldron, and with firm steps and a new haircut, she walked in. She nodded briefly to Tom, the bartender, and kept on moving, ignoring the stares- she was one of the Trio and friends with Harry Potter after all- into the back yard, where she tapped some bricks and watched, not without fascination, as the archway that led to Diagon Alley opened in front of her. She would never tire of contemplating magic at work. She walked through, and soon enough caught a glimpse of her destination: Gringotts.
She cringed inwardly as she walked through the door, but that was the only sign of weakness she allowed herself. She had rehearsed it through; she could, she had decided, take the job, and not see Bill; and this was her first trial.
As soon as she walked in, she was flanked by two goblins, who professed themselves "delighted" about her visit. She said she would wait if necessary, but as hoped, it wasn't. They took her to the same room where they had held the meeting with her and Bill. It was quick; time, as goblins put it, was galleons.
She went out feeling smug, and decided to treat herself to one of Fortescue's ice-creams- even though she didn't like them as much since his return as she had liked them before. As Hermione walked towards the parlor, she heard someone call her name and was tempted to run, or disappear, but the hand in her shoulder felt somehow small, and anyway, she was too tired.
She turned to find a lot of red hair, but on the last person she had been dreading to see, the youngest Weasley.
"Ginny!" she gasped, genuinely surprised.
"Hermione, where the hell have you been?" Ginny demanded. "We were all worried, and Bill was frantic!"
"Bill?" Hermione asked, trying to sound neutral.
"Oh, Hermione, come off it. I understand if you don't want to talk, but don't think I'm an idiot. I'm not Harry, or Ron, I notice things." The redhead hissed, and Hermione let herself be carried to one of the tables in the parlor.
"I'm sorry, Ginny. I should have told you, but…"
"I know. You've been hanging out with two guys for too long, though, if you think you can cope with everything just by yourself. By the way, I love your haircut. Chocolate and ruibarb, please" she said to the waiter.
With a huge ice-cream cup in front of her, Hermione started telling her friend everything that had transpired since she had first walked into Bill's room at the Burrow to find herself staring at its owner.
Although she pressed her hand in a sign of support, Ginny was laughing at the end of Hermione's self-deprecating report. It seemed to be a family trait, Hermione reflected, but the laugh of her friend was strangely refreshing, unlike Bill's. To be truthful to herself, it was an incredible relief to let it all out, and Ginny was the right audience, laughing, "aaahh"ing and grimacing in all the right places.
"For such a clever person, Hermione, you can manage to be very obtuse." The redhead finally said.
Hermione stared blankly at her.
"I have no idea… I mean, sure, I could have thought it better before I told him…"
"I'm not talking about that"
"Oh, I don't know, how comes it took you six years to figure out something I had known since I first saw you around my brother? And there I was thinking you were playing it safe, biding your time…" she giggled "you had me fooled with the whole Krum thing, but…"
Hermione let out a cry.
"Viktor! How long has it been obvious for!?"
"Don't worry… I don't think anyone else noticed. Not Bill, or my brothers, you know how dense they can get. I guess I felt kind of in the same situation…"
"So what do I do now?"
But Ginny was laughing again.
"Oh, I think I shouldn't tell you. You've been doing so well on your own, and all…"
And she wouldn't budge. She, however, insisted that Hermione should go with her to the Burrow to see everyone and let them know she was ok.
"I know I should have said something, but I just… couldn't face anyone at the time"
"I understand" Ginny answered "but that won't save you from my mother's rantings for at least a couple of hours. Bill sure had to hear her."
"Oh. Yeah" Ginny said, suddenly uneasy
"He… came home asking after you, and he said you'd been with him and then disapparated."
"Did he say why?"
"N… no, not really" said Ginny evasively, and then brightened. "Hey! There you go with all your respect for the rules! Little though I like to think of my brother's intimate life, didn't you just manage to sleep with a co-worker? And on your first job and task, too?" she asked as she walked into the hearth at Fortescue's and showered herself in a rain of Floo powder, leaving a pink Hermione exposed to the stares of anyone who cared to be listening.
- - - - - -
Hermione concentrated on the tea in front of her to avoid looking at Molly in the eye. Honestly, she was worse than her mum. And a bit bipolar, too, shouting at her then nearly crying all over and hugging her and psychologically blackmailing her into never doing it again.
She had honestly not given it a thought; she had assumed they'd have thought she was home, but the Weasley clan had been a bit alarmed. Thankfully, Bill had let them know he had seen her and that she had probably had other things in her head.
Other things in her head, indeed.
Finally, they all retired to bed, and Hermione slept soundly… for almost 3 hours, when the nagging feeling that she shouldn't have drank so much tea awoke her to the creepy noises of the small hours and made her rush into the bathroom.
Trying to sleep now, she decided, would be no good. She was wide awake, and her tossing and turning would do nothing but wake Ginny and earn her a pillow in the face. She decided on a Calming Draugh or its muggle equivalent (which she had conveniently stocked some time ago) of Linden Tea, or Valerian capsules, whichever came handier.
Linden Tea it was, and she sipped it while she stood on the threshold of the door that led to the garden. It was a nice night, and the air was soft and refreshing in her face. She couldn't help but remember her earlier teas, and Molly's, well, mollycoddling, and she let out a chuckle.
Looking at the new family portrait Arthur had gotten for Christmas, which hung right over her head, she raised her glass to the family and apologetically said:
"Not that I didn't deserve it, but you gave me a good lecture today…"
"Yes, my mother has a tendency to do that sometimes, doesn't she?"
Hermione nearly jumped out of her skin.
"What the f…" she caught herself just in time. "Bill" she panted. "What… what are you doing here?"
"I live here, remember?"
"I didn't think you were in"
"I just came by"
That much was obvious. He was, unlike her, fully clothed, his hand on the back pocked of his worn jeans. She, instead, was wearing a pair of long old trousers and a straps t-shirt, and felt very much uneasy and at a disadvantage when he faced her and leaned on the doorframe in front of her.
"Well," she said, turning to leave her cup over the marble countertop, and prepared to make a quick and ADAP- as dignified as possible- exit. But it didn't work. Bill's hand quickly grabbed her wrist in an iron grip. She raised her eyes, surprised at the strength and the hostility of the gesture, and saw he was shaking his head.
"No, this time, you don't" he said warningly.
She smiled faintly while trying to break free.
"Look, Bill, I'll still be here tomorrow, but I'm really, really tired right now…"
"Tired, my ass" he said, looking meaningfully at the Linden Tea caption in the bag of tea hanging from her cup: "Morgans Linden Tea helps you get a relaxed night's sleep"
"I am tired" she insisted, deciding against faking a yawn.
"I just want a few words" he wouldn't be deflected, and he pulled her out into the garden, even though she was barefoot and a bit cold, and he closed the door after themselves.
"No, not this time, either. This time you listen, and you don't walk out on me" he sounded the slightest bit menacing, so tall in the dark night.
She nodded quickly, shuddering.
"Hermione, I'm really sorry I laughed. I am!" he repeated when he saw her burrowed eyebrows. "But that doesn't mean it was wrong. I mean, if you knew… I just couldn't do anything else"
"Well, you could, um, lets see, have said 'oh, look, you really are too young for me blah, blah, blah'" she suggested. "that'd have been more what I'd been expecting"
Bill looked amused.
"Or you could even have used the 'my brother likes you' excuse, I was prepared to let you get away with that too" she was getting more and more incensed.
And Bill, Bill was threatening to laugh again.
"I am very funny, now, aren't I?" she asked, angrily.
"You really have no idea" He shook his head, looking at her as in wonder, and made it sound like a question. All of a sudden he pulled her towards him, holding the back of her head and her waist, and she felt as if squeezed through a toothpaste tube.
Side-along apparition without warning. Damn, was her last conscious thought before she fell on her knees and recognized the floor as Bill's. The very same place in which he had laughed at her for the first time. Neat.
"I'm sorry" he said. "I just couldn't have this conversation in my parent's garden, with you barefoot and barely dressed"
She didn't comment; in fact she was intent on not saying anything at all.
"Hermione" he called at her softly "Look, just let me explain. You left so quickly the other day…"
He threw a quick glance at her; she was looking mutinous, but at least, she was listening.
"Hermione, do you have any idea why I didn't want to go to Africa with you in the first place?" he asked.
She shrugged. Finally, seeing he wouldn't speak otherwise, she gave in.
"You said you wanted to go to Egypt and not deal with the whole situation"
"The whole situation, as you call it, was very complicated"
"I know. And I should have realized that, but I didn't. I already said I was sorry, Bill, I should have given you time to get over it"
"Get over the situation. Get over it, she says. You really" he chuckled sadly "have no idea. Look, I know I did it all the wrong way, I chickened away, and I took the easy exit, but I really had no idea at the time- I mean, I did, but… That was really the reason for not wanting to go to Africa, after everything…"
"What are you talking about?" asked Hermione, lightheaded by the very surrealism of the whole conversation. "What was the reason?"
"Me what?" she said stupidly, feeling like when about to grasp something but not quite doing it.
He smiled self-deprecatingly.
"I had imagined several answers, but that was not one of them"
She couldn't move or think, or anything- her heart has beating so wildly that she thought he probably could hear the blood pulsing in her temples, deafening her. Feeling slightly dizzy, she managed to let out a weak "I don't get it"
"What don't you get? Merlin, Ginny's right. Hermione, for the alleged brightest witch of your generation, you are extremely dense. I have feelings for you" he said, somewhat softly this time
That was so not what Hermione had been expecting that it took a while to register in her head. But there are some bits of information that a brain, clever though it may be, can just not process. Bill had feelings for her? She swallowed hard to avoid bursting out laughing hysterically, and composed her face so that it looked serious enough for the present conversation.
"Feelings? What do you mean by feelings?"
He sighted, asking Merlin for patience.
"I mean I feel something for you, Hermione"
"Like what? You mean you like me?"
He was staring at her incredulously, as if his meaning couldn't be plainer.
"I have always liked you, you know that" he explained, again as if she was very, very young and couldn't grasp big concepts. Which right now, she couldn't. "I don't mean just that I like you. It's more like…"
He sighted, and took air, and steeled himself. Then, he lowered his gaze to the floor, and the impossible happened.
"I love you" he burst out. "There".
- - - -
She had lowered her head, and her hair concealed her face, but her shoulders were shaking slightly, and the barely audible sounds escaping her lips were the sounds of something in pain.
He got closer and tentatively, stretched an arm and laid a hand on her shoulder
"Hermione…" he said, trying frantically to find the right words "I am not asking you for anything… I know what you said, but still, you don't have to do anything or say anything…I know it's a lot to ask" he paused "I finished Hogwarts way before you even knew you were a witch- I can remember the First War, if we come to that- I'm a lot older than you. And it's not just that. I've seen you grow up around my family, and Ron is in love with you, and the attack, and I just got married and annulled a marriage, and I am part-werewolf, and all in all, it's a very stupid thing" he paused, rubbing his forehead "but I just cannot help it."
But when she looked up, he saw she was laughing softly.
"I guess" he said, looking unhappy "this is what they call poetic justice"
"I'm… I'm sorry. I see what you meant now."
And she did. She felt so full of joy she didn't think she could stop laughing, not for her life; but the sight of the wizard in front of her did stop her.
"Bill" she said, reaching out for him.
But he walked away, and stared at her from a distance, as if he didn't want to come in contact with her. She looked down at her own hand, in a very good reflection of her younger self when it once had been covered in Bubotuber pus, but this time, it was clean.
"No. Let me finish what I want to tell you. I heard what you said the other day. At the moment, I felt a bit, um, overwhelmed, you see, and I don't think I have to explain that to you anymore" he said. "But now I wonder. I wonder whether you said that to make me feel better, to stop me from being guilty" she shook her head and opened her mouth, but he kept on, raising his voice and preventing any interruptions. "No, listen. And even if you meant it, I still want you to hear what I want to say. I want you to know what you are getting into."
He turned around and faced the window.
"You" he said "were the reason I did not want to go to Africa, because you, too, were the reason I got my marriage annulled" he paused, and glimpsed slyly back, to check that she hadn't flown the room at this confession. The truth was, Hermione was too shocked to do anything of the sort.
"I really cannot tell when it began, and that makes it all worse, I guess, but I know that I realized it far too late- and I've always been supposed to be quick. I guess I liked having you around, and I took you for granted as my brother's little friend. But then, when Ron started showing an interest of you, I was acutely aware of how ill-suited you were. The whole thing bothered me far too much. Then the attack and you were so… caring while I was half-conscious, when you'd never even spoken to me before, and you did not avert your eyes like Ron does… Well, it was a confusing time for me, but I never really wondered. Fleur had started making wedding plans, and I was away for as much time as I could. There were just so many people in the Burrow! Ron, Ginny, Harry, Fleur, the twins, you…" he stopped to regain some breath "But I'd go back, every once in a while, just to, you know, check up on things, to check up on you all… it took me a long time to accept it, Hermione, and I though that if I didn't acknowledge the feelings, they'd go away. After all, I couldn't do a thing about them. You have to understand me, I know it's sick, but I couldn't help it. I knew it was wrong all the time, so I started working more, and more, trying to be away from the Burrow, and rushed Fleur even more." he shook his head. "What a coward I was. When I finally gave up it was too late. Far too late. If you still haven't guessed, it was that afternoon. By the tree. You were talking to me about that book and all the pieces clashed together. I was so shocked I could barely answer you. You were really glowing, you know, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen"
She couldn't help but snort. She was, after all, no half-Veela.
"You were" Bill said, and his tone was so sincere she couldn't say anything.
"And still, I went on with the wedding. I went on and married Fleur, and made everyone I care for unhappy. Because I knew I would always compare her with you. And I did. And she didn't live up to it. And because I knew I was in love with someone challenging enough, but it was too difficult, too complicated, so I just settled down for the second best. Without fighting. Just like that"
Hermione didn't know what it was that finally broke the proverbial camel's back, the fact that she came best in any comparison involving herself and Fleur other than "most leonine hair", or the sudden realization that Bill was not the innocent victim she had pictured him to be. Her breath was caught in her throat in a mixture of awe and horror, and she just stood there, looking at his broad back, and feeling relieved that she didn't have to hold his gaze.
"I just want you to know I did not plan on anything that happened. I honestly believed you would be good for Gringotts- as you proved yourself- with your Arithmancy and Runes and experiences with Harry and my brother. Maybe I also secretly wanted you to see what I did, or to get you away from Ron, but I swear I didn't propose you for the job with anything like that in mind. And I assure you I did not want to accompany you to Africa, and not only because I like to work alone, but because I knew how dangerous that would be for me, and the dangers such closeness would bring to a novice like you. I only took the job on my mother's and Gringotts' insistence, and I swear, Hermione, I swear to you on my family" he turned around and faced her, his expression contorted with effort "that I did not plan what happened. I seriously tried to avoid it, but there was nothing I could do".
Hermione still remained speechless under the weight of such a confession; it took her a while to realize he was staring at her.
"I don't know what to say" she uttered.
He then glared at the floor for a few seconds, then pressed his hands together.
"Look, I hope you will forgive me, I really messed things up, but I really did not find any other way out. My worst mistake, I guess, was being blind until the very last moment. I am very sorry, and I hope you can forgive me. I would say I am not asking you for anything, but I cannot say I did not find a bit of hope in your words the other day. Listen, Hermione. Take your time. Think it over. Work with other curse-breakers. And the next time we see each other, let me know if you have forgiven me."
He looked up swiftly without lifting his head, but she wasn't looking at him.
"Well" he said hesitantly "I guess you can… see yourself out. I have… business to attend to, then."
Hermione heard some steps, and the door closing.
She slept, curled up like a ball, on the wooden floor.
- - - - - - - - - -
She had been in France the previous week, coughing over the smoke of one of her very rare cigarettes. She had met Eugene at a petite boulangerie which had three small tables over which they could eat croissants and discuss their plans. Together they had traveled to Italy to look for the documents, but the contact had left the country barely seconds before. Eugene, senior curse-breaker, and Hermione, no longer a beginner either, followed his trace around for a while, and before the spring was over, it leaded them towards Jerusalem, where they had suspected from the beginning their search should take them.
Eugene was an easy-going young man who liked his job like no one Hermione had ever met before- or like nearly no one. He was funny, and attractive, and although a bit of a player, he was very serious on the one and only time he let Hermione subtly know that he was interested.
She, unluckily, wasn't, so even if they tried that one time, she gave it up as a bad job. He, too, went back to his girls in every country, and everything was soon back to normality. And if she caught him staring at her sometimes, she told herself it was her vanity. He never said anything again, and contented himself with staring, and with a new tendency to collect bushy-haired girlfriends overseas. He was a good partner, but she, as the overachiever she had always been, craved the opportunity of her first job alone, which, if successfully completed, would give her the status of senior curse-breaker within the first year in the job, a rare achievement no one doubted she was capable of.
That opportunity came with the trip to Jerusalem- Eugene was otherwise occupied collecting information on the preliminary stages of a new case. On the days previous to the trip, Hermione gathered courage and information, and walked decidedly on the train that would take her to Egypt (as it was now illegal to enter Africa by any other means, something she had learnt in her own very first experience with curse-breaking), from where she would take a Portkey to Israel, and then travel on camelback to Jerusalem. Wizard relations in the holy city were no better than muggle ones, she soon discovered.
She arrived in Cairo pretty short of time- there would be plenty of sightseeing in her way back, Gringotts had promised- their contact in the city made a good tour guide, but first things came first, so she dropped her things at the hotel (a modest, though very clean one, not one of those huge five stars complexes in the city), took her smallest bag spelled with her now trademark incantation that helped her fit as many things as she could carry, and after a quick and refreshing shower, she started walking through the picturesque streets towards her meeting point.
She should probably have known, she chided herself when she saw his red hair appearing. Apparently, neither had he known the identity of the liaison, if his surprised face was to be believed. Although her body tensed, months had gone by now- she had asked herself if Earth had swallowed him- and she was somewhat pleased to see him; and anyway, she knew he would be the best for the job… she had somehow matured a lot in the time that had transpired since their last encounter.
"Hermione" he greeted politely, still surprised, and when she extended her hand, as she had read she should, he bent swiftly and kissed her cheeks very briefly, which was a bit forward in the region, but still acceptable in a big city like Cairo, and even regular in established friendships in the capital.
She guessed she should consider that a good sign.
However, if he was really shocked, he didn't show it. He conducted himself with his usual professionalism, and only after he heard the soft "pop" of her disappearing with the Portkey did he allow the yearning he felt to show in his eyes.
- - - - - - - - -
He should have guessed she would find someone else; he had, after all, been a fleeting fancy of hers. She would be, upon her return, a senior curse-breaker; she would be successful, and she was even prettier than he remembered her, and he was sure he should leave her well alone to enjoy it. He was sure he could snare her a bit; he had done so, once, without intending to. Also, he had shown her that world, and he would show her around Cairo, and Egypt, in a couple of nights; there was nothing he could possibly do better than that. However, he wanted to be careful, and to be fair. He did not want to risk another year of heartbreak, and he did want to play it nice this time. So he wasn't going to even try.
But he was damned if he was going to miss his very last chance to enjoy her company, even if returning to the city he loved most in the world was too painful afterwards.
- - - - - - - - - -
Of course, she did it. He had never had a doubt, although he had been worried. He was there to greet her when she walked into the empty back yard of a deserted restaurant out of apparently nowhere. She was nearly unconscious, and very pale, so after asking her and getting a very weak confirmation, he carried her to his own apartment, where he laid her on his bed, opening the windows and doors and closing the curtains, so that a fresh breeze circulated around, and produced a bottle of chilly water, and some wet towels.
Hermione took the proffered drink, and drank it before she quickly passed out with sheer exhaustion. He looked troubled at the sight of her sleeping on his room, and left the building so fast he could have disapparated.
When he returned, it was already dark, and the lump of clothes on the bed gave no signs of life below them. He walked silently, starling Hermione, who was trying to make something out of his kitchen. She smiled at him.
"Thank you for that; I haven't been able to sleep a wink in the last four days"
He nodded his acknowledgement.
"Would you still like to visit the city, or would you rather stay in and sleep?" he asked neutrally.
She looked at him, narrowing her eyes as if looking for something.
"If you are not too tired…"
A bit of the old Bill came out in his smile, and it took him seconds to get ready to go.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
It was, they both reflected, a perfect night. And if everything had been easy between them, it would probably have been true. But both were holding something back, there was something between them that did not allow them the confidence of their first trip nearly one year back- they were intimately unacquainted, one could say.
So he walked her to her hotel, and said goodbye, and turned around with his hands in his pockets and a heavy feeling he'd never felt before in his life. The whole city seemed to be crumbling upon him. He walked slowly, breathing in and out, and even if he was tired, when he finally got to his apartment, he couldn't bring himself to go to sleep in his bed, where she'd been; he knew he was on a too fragile state of mind.
So he was lying on the sofa when he heard the knock on his door. He opened the door and found her shivering in a white dress in front of him, and he knew the image would be burnt in his retinas forever. Incredulous, he gestured for her to get in, holding back his first instinct to tell her off for walking alone at night- she was, after all, a witch. With Egyptian manners, he made sure she had a warm tea and a thick wool jacket on her hands before she could even say hello.
And then, he watched, waiting for her to speak.
"I've been thinking about what you said last time we saw each other" she said simply, as if not time had passed since, as if it had been just a few hours, not months, and season, and moons. His heart beat wildly on his chest, and he was sure his whole life hung in her next words.
"And?" he urged her.
"Here I am, am I not?" she said, sniffing a bit.
"You… you…" Bill stared at her and suddenly, a bright, roguish smile crept up his features."Do you mean…?"
Hermione glared at him, but was unable to hold her gaze for long at the sight of his brilliant, wide smile. When she next looked up, she found him towering over her, and his arms came up to steady her.
"Hermione… could you possibly love me back?"
"What do you think?" she asked sharply, drying any tears that were menacing to fall roughly with the left sleeve of the wool jacket in a very un-Fleurish manner.
Bill smiled even more broadly, as he held her close against his chest, so strong that she felt she would break. Still tense, she looked up, and saw the shadow that had been haunting him for months leave his face, and a new, unknown look fill it, while he lowered and whispered something she didn't quite get in her right ear, and then, finally, blissfully, bent down and kissed her, and all the strain seemed to loosen and she could, finally, for the first time in months, relax.
- - - - - - - -
That night, as they walked back to her hotel, she had known why she wasn't interested in Eugene, or Ron, or anyone else she had met. He walked her home and she had the hope that he would try to at least kiss her. They had enjoyed dinner and their tour, so maybe, if he still wanted her, they still had a chance. Their gazes had linked a couple of times over tea, and she wondered whether that had the same effect over him it had over her.
She watched him walk away, tall and red-headed against the lights of the sleeping city which she had started to love as well. And with a sight, she decided that this Weasley man was no different than the other Weasley boys she had met, and that she would have to move first, once again. She stared at the brown piece of paper with his handwriting and the address. Out of her trance, she changed into a dress she had bought that same afternoon in the flea market, and left the hotel with the intention of not coming back for the night. She wasn't overly optimistic, but it wouldn't be her if she didn't try.
So when, shivering with cold and cursing her stupid assumption that the night would be as warm as the day he opened the door before her, some red hairs escaping his ponytail, his eyebrow raised questioningly, his defined profile barely visible in the threshold, she felt relief wash over her.
She wasn't sure why. It was stupid to feel relieved, she knew, but the sole fact of being in his presence made some dull ache in her chest disappear. A tea and a jacked appeared out of nowhere, and then, there he was, staring at her and it was time.
"I've been thinking about what you said last time we saw each other" she said, as if it had been yesterday. After all, for her, it felt like time had gotten stuck back at the last time she'd seen him.
"And?" he urged her, and by the urgent tone in his voice, she knew the offer was still on. She felt like crying, and shrugged.
"Here I am, am I not?" she sniffed.
Everything happened so fast afterwards that she barely remembered it. He pulled her into an embrace so tight that he nearly crushed her; she looked up, he bent down and kissed her. Her fists immediately curled up in his shoulders. He felt warm against her, and she shivered again.
"Cold?" he asked, in a ragged voice.
She shook her head, and he chuckled, moving them to the bedroom. The dress was the first thing to fall down, but his shirt followed it soon enough. He laid her down on the bed, carefully.
"I must say this is a nice change" she joked, caressing the bed. He laughed huskily, and bent down to kiss her.
And this time, there was nothing savage about it. They were slow, millenary under the Egyptian moonlight.
She was falling asleep when he bent down and whispered he loved her in her ear. She couldn't answer, she was far too gone, but she smiled broadly. More than she had in a year.
- - - - - - - - - - -
An Egyptian breakfast consisted of a lot of things if it was prepared by a proud Bill Weasley trying to show off, Hermione discovered. But then, it would have taken a great deal more than a coffee to get her to wake up that morning. She was truly asleep the first time he left the room, but the second one she was just pretending, and as soon as he disappeared through the threshold she moved quickly and gathered her scattered clothes, trying to put them on all at once, a bit ashamed under the bright light of an unforgiving sun. When her head emerged from the dress, she was embarrassed to discover a grinning Bill on the doorframe. However, her embarrassment was not such that it could not be further deepened by a groan of her stomach at the sight of the tray he was carrying. He just laughed more and sat on his bed opposite her, crossing his (red-haired) legs and staring at her. She was nibbling on something when she realized that.
"What?" she asked, reaching for her hair, and moving so that she could see her reflection in his mirror. A bit bushy, but nothing out of the usual.
He just shook his head and smiled, but did not stop staring, and finally Hermione did not care any more. She just grinned back.
- - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - -
Apparently, they had been anything but subtle. When they came in holding hands, most of the Weasleys just smiled knowingly. Mr. Weasley even hugged Hermione in a fit of emotion she had never witnessed on him before, and they, whatever she might have presumed, looked happy. That, however, did not apply to the whole Weasley household. The twins had been thoroughly surprised, but had soon recovered enough of their shock to shoot a few jokes at them; there was no doubt they approved, if in their own way.
Ginny and Charlie actually shook hands, as if it had been them who had managed the whole intrigue, and Mrs. Weasley was close to tears of happiness. But there was, nonetheless, the morose figure staring at them from a corner of the kitchen; there was the issue of Ron.
While Bill talked to his family, she quickly grabbed Ron's arm and walked with him into the garden.
"Ron! How are you?" she asked cheerfully, and got a little packet out of her pocket. "I got this for you"
He was still scowling while he unwrapped his Egyptian Quidditch Snitch, one which worked accordingly to Egyptian rules.
"Thanks" he said, but she could tell he did not mean it.
"I have so much to tell you, Ron! Oh, Egypt is wonderful!"
"I bet it is, with the won-dear-fool Bill, isn't it?" he asked making voices.
"Oh, Ron, come on, you cannot be mad at me"
"Not be mad at you? How can I not be mad at you? That was supposed to be me!" he hissed, and then he blushed and looked pointedly at an apparently fascinating gardenia.
"Supposed to be?" she asked, carefully, in a tone anyone but Ron would have recognized as dangerous.
"You know what I mean, Hermione, you and I were supposed to be together! Just like Harry and Ginny!"
"Ron" she said calmly "we were not 'supposed' to do anything"
"But you like me!"
"As a friend, yes, but nothing more" she was curt.
Ron reddened brutally.
"So that is how you want to do it"
"Forget it" he said, and he brusquely freed his arm from hers and left the garden, where Bill soon took his place.
"I saw that" he commented
"I'm sorry" she said
"I do not want to be a problem between you and Ron".
"Oh, you have been a problem in so much other ways that doesn't bother me" he chuckled. "He'll come around, believe me" He knew she had not that kind of feelings for Ron, anyway.
She sighted, and they walked inside.
- - - - - - - - - -
They'd barely dated for a month, but every now and then they would dine at the Weasley's, or at Hermione's parents', who liked Bill very much. It was one of these Fridays, and they were eating heartily around Mrs. Weasley's table. Ron and Harry were there too, Harry holding Ginny's hand under the table, Ron looking more or less contented.
After the meal, Bill walked with her into the garden; that garden, she reflected, where so many important events of her life had taken place.
"Gringotts called" he said.
"What would you think about traveling to Australia for a month?"
"Australia!" she knew she couldn't pop up from here to there without breaking the rules. Trasatlantic apparition was a fishy business.
She was torn between her passion for the job and the desire not to leave him. It would be the first time since Egypt, and for a month, too.
"I would like to go" she confessed. "But I really do not want to leave you"
"Oh, no" he grinned. "I would be going with you"
"That's a deal, then" she said, looking at the glint in his eyes, and reached up and kissed him "let's seal it just in case" she added, wickedly.
He didn't let her go.
"I've been thinking" he said, and she could feel his heart beating faster.
"After the job, I was thinking, you could move over to my place, if you wanted to" it was so unlike Bill to be hesitant that she had to hold the urge to laugh. She threw her arms around him.
"I'd love to" and she felt him relaxing a bit. It was shocking how unconfident she could make him sometimes; she seemed the only person who could make him do that and she didn't particularly like it.
"Did you have any doubt?"
"Well, with you, I'll never know"
"Bill, I love you. There cannot possibly be anything more reassuring than that"
He looked dubious. "I'm just being careful" he admitted.
"There's no need to" she said "I'm crazy about you. Bill, let me down!" she protested, for he had caught her up.
"We have things to celebrate" he chuckled.
"What about your family?" she said, and saw Ginny waving her goodbye from the kitchen window.
"Bugger them" he said, and they disappeared with a pop.
Sorry it took forever, I've been going through informatic hell. My computer died and took everything I had to the grave with it, so I had to reconstruct from memory. I was so depressed at first I didn't even want to think about it… if anyone is still reading, please leave a review, they really make my day! Thank you all so much for your support and for reading!