Author's Note: This will be canon-compliant EXCEPT for the Epilogue to DH, for obvious reasons. Like many fans, I found myself wishing the story could have ended in a different way. This is my take on what might have happened next.

One: Farewells

Hermione Granger sat upright in her chair, ankles crossed beneath her, gaze fixed directly forward. It was easier that way. If she stared straight ahead, she wouldn't have to make eye contact with anyone, wouldn't have to see the expressions of shock and sorrow and sympathy that surrounded her.

It had to be a nightmare. Her mind kept telling her that, in a dreary, tired sort of way, as if it were easier to repeat the same old weary denial instead of recognizing the situation for what it was. That couldn't be Ron lying in the casket of gleaming pale wood, a casket that would soon be buried in the earth not far from his brother Fred's resting place. Wizard-kind tended to keep their dead close to home; the Weasleys' burial ground lay a scant half-mile from the Burrow, in a glade surrounded by rustling beech trees. It was a lovely spot -- she'd allow that much. And she supposed it was important for Molly and Arthur and everyone else that the boys should keep each other company in the small cemetery, which was closely guarded by Muggle-repelling charms to ward against unwanted intrusion.

To one side she could hear Ginny sniffling into a handkerchief as Kingsley Shacklebolt finished the eulogy. Harry sat as still and white-faced as Hermione supposed she herself must be. Perhaps it would be better to let the tears flow, to allow herself to break down as everyone probably expected her to. But it was only through rigid self-control that she'd managed to survive thus far -- if she began to weep now, she had the feeling she might never stop. Better to sit here with burning, dry eyes, even though her unnatural calm had earned her a few askance glances.

Ginny's pregnancy was just beginning to show, and seeing the curve of her sister-in-law's belly made the self-recriminations rise once again in Hermione's mind. I always thought we'd have plenty of time…I wanted to get that bloody degree…and now….

Her thoughts lashed out at her. And now you have nothing, except memories.

The agony welled up in her then, a burning ache that seemed to lodge itself in her throat, making it almost impossible to breathe. She took in a deep gasping swallow of air, and Harry looked past Ginny to her. His green eyes seemed almost impossibly bright behind the lenses of his spectacles, and Hermione realized it was because they swam with tears.

Don't look at him, she told herself. Because then you'll dissolve, and you still have the whole reception afterward to get through. Bloody barbaric practice, if you asked her, but it was the custom, and therefore something that couldn't possibly be avoided.

She swiveled her head forward again, just in time to see George and Percy and Bill rise from their seats to move toward the coffin, and then Harry pushed past her to join Ron's brothers as the final pallbearer. The four of them lifted the casket and began the slow progression toward the grave site. She could see the strain in their faces and realized they would not use magic for this, their final gesture of respect. No, they would honor Ron with the strength of their arms and backs, nothing more.

All around her people began to stand, and Hermione stumbled to her feet, her limbs feeling dead and numb after sitting for so long. She felt Ginny's hand creep into hers, although Hermione wasn't sure whether her sister-in-law reached out to offer comfort or to seek it. Whatever the case, Hermione clung to Ginny, the two of them supporting one another as the mourners filed off to the cemetery. She saw her parents come up to drop in behind her and Ginny, just as Arthur and Molly shuffled along directly behind the casket, both of them moving like sleepwalkers.

Her own pain seemed unendurable, so Hermione couldn't begin to comprehend what her in-laws must be suffering. They had already buried one son, seen two more maimed -- and now, to lose Ron to a dreadful accident, years after Voldemort had been defeated, must have seemed like the action of a most capricious and cruel fate. It wasn't fair.

What ever is? a cool inner voice asked. Life isn't fair. The Weasleys should know that better than anyone.

Hermione blinked, once, twice, three times in rapid succession, willing away the hot tears that threatened to overwhelm her if she gave them an inch of ground. Just a few hours more, and she could dissolve into a flood of weeping that would surely put the wet summer of several years ago to shame. Just a while longer, and this would all be over….

A fresh breeze came from nowhere, ruffling the loose tendrils around her face, bringing with it the scents of dry grass and wildflowers and all the other beauties of late summer that Ron would never see again. She'd pulled her hair back into a careless knot, thinking that having it up would be more decorous than its usual riot of curls, but the stray strands irritated her, made her wish she hadn't bowed to convention. Who cared what she looked like, after all, when her husband was about to be put in the ground forever?

He'd been so damned proud, too, so happy that he could drive a car like any other Muggle. Hermione herself had learned to drive soon after the War ended, mostly because her parents thought it was a useful skill -- despite their overwhelming support of her wizarding abilities, they'd never been terribly keen on broomsticks, Floo Powder, or any of the other means the members of the wizard world used to get around. And since she could drive, of course Ron had to learn as well. She wanted to blame herself, but she knew logically that Ron's desire to drive had only a little to do with her and quite a bit more to do with his father's preoccupation with all things Muggle.

Besides, it hadn't even been Ron's fault, except that, as usual, he'd forgotten to put on his safety belt. Easy enough to forget, she supposed, when one was overwhelmed with checking mirrors and seat positions and clutches and gauges and everything else driving a car required. If she wanted to assign blame, she supposed she could hand it over to the management of the delivery company that owned the lorry which smashed into Ron's shabby old Volvo. The signal had changed, the lorry driver had slammed on the brakes -- and they, old and worn, couldn't hold, and the oversized vehicle smashed into Ron's car just as he was pulling out into the intersection.

Everyone had been so kind -- the constable in the village, the horrified onlookers, even the stricken driver of the lorry, who kept saying over and over, "I tried to stop -- I tried -- I did --" And Hermione, who had been waiting for Ron to pick her up from the local library, could only nod dumbly and stand by while she watched the ambulance swoop in and take Ron off to the hospital. That was the problem with venturing into Muggle territory, she supposed. Perhaps if they'd been someplace else, he could have been immediately taken to St. Mungo's. Maybe he could have survived --

Not possible, her mind told her, still in that cold, even tone, as she trudged next to Ginny across the small field that separated the funeral area from the actual cemetery. The paramedics said he died almost at once. Might not have even felt anything --

She gave a strangled, hitching breath, and immediately felt Ginny squeeze her hand. Poor Ginny, to lose another brother, and now Ron would never get to see his niece or nephew --

That thought had to be stopped in its tracks. Later, when she was alone, she could dwell on all the might-have-beens, all the moments that Ron should have lived to enjoy, but not now. For now, all she could do was this.

They stopped at the grave, the crowd of mourners giving Hermione and Ginny room to move forward and take their place with the rest of the family. The coffin sat on the bare earth, awaiting its entombment. Just past it, Hermione could see the pale headstone that marked Fred's grave.

The Weasleys had never seemed to practice any religion, and so Hermione hadn't been quite sure what to expect from the service. The eulogy that Kingsley Shacklebolt had delivered and the various other speeches given by family members and friends alike had been secular in nature, and so she expected the final words, spoken by Harry, to follow in that vein. It was with some shock that she heard him say the familiar words of the Church of England's service, the same ones she recognized from her grandfather's funeral:

"…I am the resurrection and the life, and whosoever believes in me shall never die…."

Her friend's voice sounded deeper, more measured, as if reciting those ancient words had somehow helped him cross the final threshold from boy to man. Oh, Harry had suffered unspeakable losses in his life, but losing Ron had been like losing a brother, the final blow delivered long after anyone could have foreseen its coming.

Did Harry truly believe what he said? He had been reticent about his own experience with near-death, but something had happened to him, something that had changed him, made him seem certain some sort of existence was possible beyond this world. If that were the truth -- if Ron were in heaven or whatever else you wanted to call the afterlife -- then perhaps the knowledge might make this a little bit easier to bear. Of course she wanted Ron, wanted to be with him, but if she could tell herself that he waited for her somewhere beyond the bounds of the world, that his existence hadn't been cut short forever by the horrendous wreck which had interrupted their lives only four endless days ago, then maybe she could live through this. Maybe.

The breeze whipped tears to her eyes, but this time she didn't bother to blink them away. Someone behind her pressed something cool and slender and hard into her hand, and Hermione looked down to see herself holding a single white rose. A flash of pale hair at the corner of her vision told her it was Luna who had done so.

Harry had finished speaking, and the four pallbearers lifted their wands and gently lowered the casket into the hole in the earth that awaited it. Hermione stepped forward. Faces turned toward her, but she could not make out any individual features beneath the blur of tears in her eyes.

"I will always love you, Ron…my best friend," she said, the only words she could force past the tightness in her throat. Then she dropped the rose into his grave. It seemed to take a long time to fall.

No need of shovels at a wizard funeral -- the mourners all helped to fill in the grave, each murmuring the words under their breaths or bringing out their wands to move the earth to cover Ron's casket. Hermione knew she should do so as well, but somehow couldn't bring herself to pull out her wand and assist in transferring the dirt back into the gaping scar in the earth. The sound of the clods dropping on the oak casket sounded louder than thunder, and she wanted to press her hands against her ears, scream at them to stop -- didn't they know it was Ron they were putting down there in the dirt and the dark?

"Come away, my dear," came Minerva McGonagall's voice at her ear. "They'll finish it for you. Come back to the house."

Unable to speak, Hermione could only nod, then felt her former teacher take hold of her arm and Disapparate the both of them away from the cemetery, and back into the familiar chaos of the Burrow. Dimly she was aware of being pushed gently down into a chair, and then a cup of something warm being pressed between her cold fingers. Strange how her hands should feel so chilled, with such a mild summer day outside.

"Drink that," Professor McGonagall said, and Hermione, schooled in six years of following her Head of House's dictates, obediently lifted the cup to her lips and swallowed the warm liquid inside.

Plain tea, she realized. Darjeeling, black, just the way I like it.

"I won't tell you any nonsense about it getting better with time, or that Ron's in a better place," Professor McGonagall said, in the same brisk tones she used to employ in her Transfigurations classes. "Because you know that's all twaddle. Perhaps he is, and aches do tend to become more bearable as the years go on -- my arthritis has taught me that if nothing else. But you'll have to decide these things for yourself."

Hermione opened her eyes wide and focused on her former teacher's face for the first time. Minerva McGonagall appeared mostly unchanged, although her eyelids looked red, and the lines around her mouth and on her forehead seemed deeper than Hermione had remembered. The Transfigurations professor had stepped in as Headmistress of Hogwarts for the three terms following the end of the War, but then decided to retire, saying she thought she had done enough. Hermione wondered suddenly what exactly Professor McGonagall had been doing for the past few years. Somehow she didn't seem the type for a quiet retirement.

"Thank you," Hermione said.

The sharp blue eyes didn't blink. "For what?"

"For not talking at me, trying to tell me foolish things that don't make sense." She lifted the cup and drank again. "I know it's everyone else trying to work through it in their own way, but I swear, if I hear one more person tell me I should be proud of what Ron accomplished, even though he was taken from me so soon, or how we were lucky to have even the time we did, considering how many people died in the War -- well, I think I shall go mad!"

"As well you should," Professor McGonagall commented. "People think they're trying to help, and often only end up making things worse. Ignore them as best you can, Hermione. Do what you have to in order to keep yourself sane."

Hands shaking, Hermione set the cup down on the kitchen table. Underneath its coating of polish, it was scarred from years of abuse at the hands of the Weasley children. She wondered briefly which rings and scrapes had been left there by Ron. Her voice trembled a bit as she asked, "Any advice on that?"

A look of infinite sadness passed over Professor McGonagall's face. "Let it hurt for as long as you need to. And after that, decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. Just make sure it's something worthy. The world expects nothing less from you."

It was full dark by the time Hermione returned home, to the small cottage about five miles away from the Burrow that she and Ron had chosen as their first home. It was close enough to the Weasleys that Ron hadn't felt as if he were separated from his family, but far enough away that they had some measure of privacy. It had been named Rosedell for as long as anyone could remember, due both to its location in a small dale and the rose garden that surrounded it. The wizard family who owned the cottage were only too glad to rent it to the young newlyweds, and Hermione had always thought she and Ron would be able to spend many years there together, although it could not have held a family much larger than three.

After the funeral, Molly and Arthur pressured her to stay at the Burrow, and her own parents had taken her aside and inquired whether she would prefer to return home with them for a spell, but Hermione had resisted all their efforts and insisted on going back to the house she and Ron had shared. In the end they had acceded to her wishes, but with puzzlement and, in Molly's case, downright hurt. It seemed no one could understand her wish to be alone.

How could she make any of them realize that she would have to come back here someday, even if she hid at the Burrow for a fortnight, or even if she had run away to her childhood home? Sooner or later she would have to face reality and confront the empty cottage which, although none too large, somehow felt huge and hollow with her husband gone.

The Ministry had given her a leave of absence for as long as she required it, but Hermione felt that she would like to return to work tomorrow -- except for the fact that such a move would surely scandalize coworkers and family alike. That made no sense to her; at least by taking up her duties once again she could try to fill this enormous aching hole in her center. What on earth was she supposed to do with herself, with days that had no occupation but remembrance and regret?

She murmured the words of the candle charm under her breath, and all around the room tapers and pillars lit themselves, banishing the darkness. The cozy, familiar chamber took shape once again, from the chintz-covered couch -- which Ron had hated with a violent passion -- to the hand-me-down table and chairs her parents had given them. So many hours spent here as she had curled up on the couch with a book and Ron had played chess against himself, so many suppers shared with Harry and Ginny, so many happy days when the world had seemed a gift and each day a gleaming pearl on a strand that appeared unending.

Crookshanks jumped off the sofa and wound around Hermione's legs, his meow sounding more plaintive than ever. Did the cat somehow know that Ron would never share this house with them again, that he had gone somewhere they couldn't follow? He and Crookshanks had maintained an armed neutrality at best, but perhaps the cat, always sensitive to Hermione's moods, had somehow divined the true reason for his mistress's despondent behavior of late.

"Oh, Crookshanks," Hermione murmured, then sank down onto the couch. Immediately the cat jumped into her lap and began to purr, rubbing his head against his mistress's stomach in an unusual display of affection. Absent-mindedly Hermione stroked the soft fur between the cat's ears, trying to let that be her focus, so that she didn't have to think of anything else.

But thought kept intruding. Of course she'd never been able to get her brain to slow down -- it always seemed to go a mile a minute, churning with thoughts and ideas and memories and plans. It had surprised her somewhat to realize that not everyone went through their entire lives with so much interior dialogue competing for their attention, but sometimes she did wish she could come up with a satisfactory way to shut it off, if only for a few moments.

The reception really hadn't been too dreadful. Harry and Ginny had stuck to her side like faithful cockle burrs, carefully guiding her away from anyone who could be trusted to say the wrong thing or even begin to suggest that if Ron hadn't been so infected with a love of the Muggle world (a love, these people would often insinuate, that extended to her, a Muggle-born), then perhaps he would still be with us today. Somehow Hermione had managed to nod and thank people for coming and murmur the correct things, watching the whole procedure as if it were happening to someone else.

Only Luna had gotten past the wall of glass that seemed to separate Hermione from the goings-on, Luna who always seemed to know to say the wrong thing (or right, depending on how one looked at it). She materialized at Hermione's elbow and said, "I rather imagine Ron and Fred are having a good laugh right now, looking down at everyone's serious faces. Where did you get that tie, Harry?" Then she wandered off, leaving Harry and Ginny to stare at after her before giving Hermione a furtive look, as if they weren't quite certain how to react.

The wave of pain was as frightening as it was unexpected. Perhaps it should have been heartening to think of Fred and Ron off in some afterlife together, cooking up some new mischief and amusing themselves with the ritual formality of the reception. But Luna's words made Hermione realize anew that Ron really was dead, that he would never again surprise her with Chocoballs from Honeydukes or steal the covers from her in the middle of the night.

She made an odd sound that sounded halfway between a hiccup and a gasp, then clenched her jaw. Harry had reached out to touch her hand, and she forced a smile and said, "You know, Harry, that really is a dreadful tie. What were you thinking?"

And both he and Ginny, who had looked both apprehensive and sympathetic over what they no doubt thought were going to be impending waterworks, had burst into nervous laughter that earned them more than a few disapproving stares. Well, perhaps it was inappropriate, but Hermione had thought they could honor Ron far more by laughing together and remembering their friend for who he was than going by about sober-faced as Wizengamot members. At least, that was what she hoped.

Mercifully the evening had come to an end at last, and Harry and Ginny Apparated with her back to the narrow lane that wound past Rosedell.

"You could come to London with us," Ginny offered. "I can see why you wouldn't want to stay at the Burrow -- Mum's smothering would probably drive you mad -- but we've got room. I still don't like the thought of you being here alone."

Harry nodded. "Really, Hermione, I'm not sure -- "

"It's all right," she said. "I've had enough clamor and sympathy. Right now I just want some quiet."

The moonlight had drained the color from Harry's eyes -- in the half-dark, they appeared a spectral gray. His face was solemn as he looked at her. "If you're really certain -- "

Hermione said firmly, "I am. Really, I'll be fine. I'm just going to have a cup of tea and go to bed."

Both he and Ginny looked doubtful, but it seemed they were ready to abandon the argument. "All right, then," Harry said. He reached out to give her hand a quick squeeze, and Ginny pulled Hermione into an awkward, lopsided embrace. Then they stepped back, and the night air crackled as they Disapparated.

Her protestations that she would be fine now seemed hollow, full of false confidence. The very air of the empty house seemed to press around her. True, Crookshanks offered a little comfort, gave some reassurance that Hermione hadn't turned into a ghost herself, but the cat's company couldn't hope to fill the searing hole Ron's death had left behind.

She knew she should get up and make herself that cup of tea she'd told Harry and Ginny she'd planned to drink, but suddenly she felt very weary, as if she didn't have the strength for even that simple task. Even the act of lifting Crookshanks off her lap seemed far beyond her.

McGonagall's words echoed in her mind. Decide what you're going to do with the rest of your life. Just make sure it's something worthy. The world expects nothing less from you.

What that cause or occupation might be, Hermione couldn't begin to guess. Right now all she could think of was the gaping wound in her heart, the loneliness that she had just begun to comprehend. Finally she bowed her head and let the savage tears come, the sobs clawing at her with such violence it felt as if her entire body were being torn in half. Crookshanks fled to the far corner of the couch, watching Hermione with pale, wary eyes.

How could she even begin to think about the rest of her life, when she wasn't sure she could even get through the night?