Something bounced off his head, making him look up with a start. He wiped his sweaty palms on his shop robes as the room came into focus, blinking like he'd just woken up. He found George and Verity staring at him, the former with exasperated amusement, the latter with eyebrow-knitted concern.
"Mr. Weasley, are you feeling all right?" Verity asked.
"He's fine, Verity. Big night tonight, chief?" George asked with a waggling of his eyebrows.
George laughed. "Verity's been trying to get your attention for five minutes now. She must've said 'Mr. Weasley' two hundred times, and you were utterly in your own word, happy as a Hippogriff in shi--"
"Did you throw something at me?" Ron asked, shaking his head in an attempt to clear the cobwebs.
"Several things, actually, but I regret to say that my aim was off."
"Welcome to the land of the living, Ronniekins, the land where it's only three o'clock in the afternoon. What time are you meeting the lady?"
"Six." Gods, it's three o'clock?, he thought, amazed. The last time he'd looked at the clock, it was going on noon.
"Well, I guess you'd better continue not doing work for another couple of hours." he said, straightening up as a pair of giggling young witches entered the shop. "Hello ladies, Happy Valentine's Day."
The girls looked at each other and dissolved into fresh titters. "Hi."
"What can I interest you in today?" George asked, ushering them further into the store.
The blonde-haired witch nodded encouragement to her brunette friend, whose lips were the unbecoming hue of crabapples. "Do you have any more of those heart things?"
Ron bit back a smile as George feigned ignorance. "I'm afraid you're going to have to be a little more specific…."
"You know… the ones that turn into knickers when you put champagne on them."
"Ahhh yes. One of our most popular items this year. Follow me, ladies." he said, leading them through the curtain towards the back of the shop, talking nineteen to the dozen on every product they passed. Then Ron noticed that Verity was still studying him closely.
"What's up, Verity?"
"Nothing, Mr. Weasley, I just want to make sure that you're all right."
"I'm fine. I just have some big plans tonight, and I'm worried about them going okay. What are you doing for Valentine's Day?"
"Oh." Her round cheeks took on a pink cast, and she ran a hand self-consciously through her short hair. "My boyfriend is taking me out. He says it's a surprise where."
"That's nice. What's his name again?"
"David, sir. Are you taking Miss Granger out tonight?"
He nodded. "Yeah. I'm taking her to see a play, and then booked a table at The Fat Duck--"
"Oh!" she clapped her hands excitedly, squealing in a very un-Verity-ish way. "How wonderful! You're going to have such a marvellous time, Mr. Weasley!"
"Have-- have you been there?" he asked, surprised by the reaction he'd inspired.
"I haven't personally, no, but it's where my dad proposed to my mum."
"Oh. Well, it'll be appropriate, then."
Her mouth dropped open. "Mr. Weasley, will you be asking Miss Granger to marry you?"
"If all goes according to plan--" He faltered as she threw her arms around him, jumping up and down. "I… wow."
"Oh, I'm sorry to be so forward, Mr. Weasley, but this is very thrilling."
"Do you want to see the ring I picked out?" he asked hopefully. George had told him it was nice, as had the wizard who's sold it to him, but he figured it'd be a good idea to get a real, live girl's opinion.
He reached into the pocket of his robes and closed his hand around the velvet square. "I've been afraid to lose it, so I've had it with me." he explained, pulling it out and flipping open the top. "What do you think?"
As Verity exclaimed over the ring, George and the two young patrons re-emerged from the back room, each girl carrying fist-sized satiny hearts in assorted jewel colours. All three looked pleased, and Ron knew that George was close to unloading his entire supply of the things.
"Oi, what are you doing?" George asked, motioning for his employees to clear out from in front of the counter.
"I'm showing Verity the ring. I wanted to know what a girl thought."
"Oh, are you getting married?" asked the brunette customer, peering over Verity's shoulder. "Wow, that's gorgeous! Look at this, Monica."
The blonde squeezed next to her friend and gasped. "That's really beautiful. Are you going to propose to your girlfriend tonight?" she questioned eagerly.
"Yeah." Ron answered proudly.
"Oh, she must be so lucky!" Monica's friend cooed. "I wish my boyfriend would ask me to marry him."
"To hell with married, I wish my boyfriend was handing out nice jewellery!" Monica replied, looking back at the ring enviously.
"That too." her friend agreed. "But look at this ring! Wow, you must really love your girlfriend."
George caught Ron's eye over Verity's head and surreptitiously mimed gagging. He looked away quickly before he could laugh. "Yeah, she's pretty great."
Eventually, George was able to finish the sale and the two witches left the shop, still talking about boyfriends and engagement rings. Verity drifted dreamily away from the sales counter and was feather dusting every display in sigh, humming very feminine-sounding music as she went. Ron had closed the box and slipped it back into his pocket, where it hung, a comforting presence, just out of sight, as he stood at the counter.
"Why don't you two call it a day?" George suggested a few minutes later.
"Huh?" Ron asked, certain he hadn't heard correctly. "What?"
"How… about… you… leave?" George said very loudly, enunciating each word carefully. "Both you and Verity. I can finish the day by myself, we're only open 'til six. I'm almost out of the knicker hearts too, I might just close up then. No one wants anything else today."
"Oi, are you serious?"
"As a killing curse. Now scarper."
"Oh, Mr. Weasley, you're very kind." Verity said, appearing on the other side of the Pygmy Puff cage, feather duster in hand. "What are you doing for Valentine's Day."
"Lee and I are going to the Leaky Cauldron to make fun of the couples and talk about how happy we are to be single. Oliver Wood might nip over just so people don't think we're… how to say this delicately… together. Then we're all three going to find the rowdiest sports pub within walking distance and play drinking games with the Muggles. We'll probably end up at that place on Regent Street-- they play this moronic game called Fuzzy Duck and Lee wins every time."
"That's so sad." she said mournfully.
George just laughed. "Actually, it's about the furthest thing from sad--" He trailed off as a delivery wizard in heavy blue robes came through the door, juggling two very large floral arrangements, one exclusively of pink roses, one of bright orange lilies and a lot of greenery.
"I'm from Spelloflora," he said in a monotone, "and I have a delivery for Verity Howsham."
"That's me." Verity said, tucking the feather duster in the pocket of her robes and coming forward to accept the vase of roses. "Oh, thank you!"
"Happy Valentine's Day." he said, sounding very much like he'd be extraordinarily happy never to utter those words again. "I also have these for a Mr. George Wheezy. Weasley." he corrected, pulling a yellow delivery roster from his pocket. "George Weasley."
Ron pointed to George, who leaned over the counter to take the lilies, looking very confused. "Thanks?"
"You don't have to say it, mate."
"Don't have to tell me twice. Have a nice day, you lot." he replied, touching his index finger to his forehead and heading back out onto Diagon Alley, presumably with a lot more last-minute arrangements to deliver before supper.
"What's this?" Ron asked, jerking his thumb at the vegetation on the counter. His money was on flowers from Mum. Verity looked up from her roses as well, smiling curiously as George liberated the small white card from it's perch and tugged it open.
"Son of a banshee." He tossed the card down and pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, as though he had suddenly developed a very bad migraine.
Ron swiped the card from the counter and turned it over. To George, it read, in swirly-looking script. Here's to seeing what happens by next Valentine's Day. Sorry about what happened at Holyhead-- I was trying to avoid catastrophe. Love, Alicia. He looked up at his brother, astonished. "Alicia? Alicia Spinnet?"
"Yes." George mumbled, rubbing his temples with his thumbs. "Yes."
"You never told me--"
"There's nothing to tell. She fancies me. I do not reciprocate her feelings. Quite honestly, it gives me the screaming abdabs. But somehow, she has yet to pick up on this."
"What's the problem? She's nice-looking."
"She's all right, yeah. But I've known her forever. It'd be like dating Hermione."
"You know what I mean. But fine, if it makes you feel better, it'd be like dating Harry. Alicia's part of the furniture up here." He tapped the temple he was currently massaging. "And for the love of Godric, I knew her when Oliver Wood was nailing her."
Ron's eyebrows shot up. "When did that happen?"
"Year after we left Hogwarts. He'd just played his first season with Puddlemere. She wouldn't shut up about it. I know things about both of them that I'd have been perfectly happy remaining ignorant of. Fred used to put the Muffliato charm on us when she'd get going." He shook his head. "Well, anyway. I thought both of you were leaving?"
"We're riveted to your tales." Ron replied, though Verity was looking a bit glazed over.
A smile appeared on George's face. "As well you should be. But get the hell out of here, I mean it. I'm going to start hexing."
After saying good-bye to Verity and George, Ron slowly climbed the steps to the flat. Pigwidgeon began hooting as soon as his foot touched down on the top step, and he paused by the small owl's cage. "Oi, Pig, you made a mess of your food." He opened the cage and stroked the soft feathers on Pig's back, then fed him an owl nut and went about his business.
A large basket of candy sat on a pile of dog-eared invoices and coffee-ringed Daily Prophets on the dining table, the tag addressed to Ron and George, love Mum. He skimmed a few chocolate hearts off the top, chewing mechanically as he stared absently into the kitchen, eyes focused on the tea kettle but really thinking of Hermione-- what she was doing right now, what she was thinking, if she suspected anything more than dinner and a show, if she even expected that. He was pretty sure she didn't. Somehow, that made him more nervous.
Behind him, Pig hooted again softly, startling him out of his reverie. He brushed the chocolate crumbs off of his face with his sleeve, then stripped off his Wizard Wheezes robes and headed for the shower.
"Get a grip on yourself." he muttered to himself, catching a look in the mirror. His face looked pale and sickly, his hair stuck out all around his head like a red halo. Not good, he thought, momentarily wondering if he'd be able to charm some scissors to cut his hair. "Quit acting like a nutter." he scolded himself, then turned away from the mirror and hurried into the shower before he could actually convince himself to try anything else.
Following a quick shampoo and shower and a relatively uneventful shave with his old enchanted razor, Ron found himself standing in the twins'-- George's, he corrected himself-- office, wearing new underwear and dress socks and staring at a suit of Bill's that hung on the back of the closet door. He'd borrowed it the week before without exactly telling Bill why, though he was pretty sure that he'd managed to figure it out. It looked too big on the hanger, and as he was considering this, he found himself welling up, Fred's funeral in his mind's eye, and how lost George had looked, not only in this borrowed suit, but standing by himself, without his twin at his side.
"Oi." he said, swiping furiously at his eyes, disgusted at himself for his complete loss of control of his emotions. "It's just an effing suit, get yourself together."
Finally, he was able to get himself dressed, though he found he had a bit of trouble with the tie. After three disastrous attempts, he finally just got his wand and charmed the damn thing tie itself. He laced up the overly shiny shoes, then headed back to the bathroom to see about taming his hair.
He swore furiously, but finally managed to get it settled, significantly less unruly than per usual, but not so slicked back that he looked entirely chav. Then, with heart pounding, he turned off the light and turned towards the sitting room. Before he could go back out there, and against his better judgement, he laid his hand on the handle on the door that shut Fred's room off from the rest of the flat. To his surprise, it opened easily.
"Keep an eye out for us tonight, will you, mate? I'd appreciate it." he asked the empty room. The last vestiges of golden late-afternoon light gave the room an ethereal glow that was rapidly fading to dusk. "It'll be nice to know you're around. If I start saying something stupid, you have my express permission to use extreme measures to ensure that I stop. Make a waiter explode, or something." He smiled to himself, picturing a ghostly Fred torching a potted plant in a fancy restaurant, or using the Bat-Bogey Hex on the maitre'd.
Just as he was about to shut the door, he noticed a bunch of folded squares in lurid colours on top of the night table. He picked up the top one, which was very soft and a rather obscene shade of lightning-bolt blue. It was a unicorn-hair handkerchief. Before he was actually conscious that he was doing it, he stuck it into his pocket and left the room, closing the door once more behind him.
He stowed his wand and the ring box in the inside pocket of his jacket, and carefully folded the tickets and a stack of Muggle pound notes into one of the other pockets. Then he gave a quick good-bye to Pig and went back down the steps, locked up the flat, and started across the Diagon Alley, which was beginning to close up for the night.
He whirled around. George stood in the doorway of the shop, grinning at him under the lamp fixed above the doorframe. "Nice hair."
"Does it look bad?"
"No, it goes with your whole… thing. Are you nervous?"
"I'll try not to be. George?"
"What if she says no?"
"She'll say yes."
"How do you?"
"Because I'm a neutral third party, and I know she's stark raving mad about you. You're just totally mental. Now go."
Ron turned to leave, then changed his mind and spun in a circle to face George again. "George?"
"What is it now?"
"I-- I took one of Fred's unicorn-hair handkerchiefs with me."
A shadow seemed to pass over his face, but as quick as it came on, it was gone. "Was it the orange one?"
"The blue one."
"Good. The orange one's mine."
"Are you angry?"
"Nope. Use it to dry her tears when she realizes she's going to become a Weasley."
Ron took a few steps towards his brother and hugged him. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me, I didn't do anything. Now go get me a sister-in-law; I'll need someone to iron my socks." He slapped Ron on the back and watched as he started towards The Leaky Cauldron. Then he went back inside, leaving Ron alone with his galloping heart.
The walk to the house where Hermione rented two rooms from an elderly couple seemed to take bare seconds, though it was full dark by the time he stepped up onto the porch and rang the doorbell. The old woman, whose name he could never remember, opened the door.
"Oh, Rodney, you look very handsome." she said, beaming at him.
"Thank you." he replied, not bothering to correct her.
"Would you like to come in?"
"Oh, no, thank you."
"Certainly, dear. Let me get Hermione."
If this night was a typical night, he'd marvel at the fact that the woman could remember an peculiar name "Hermione" but not something so mundane as "Ron." But these were not ordinary circumstances, and as he stood on the porch, his main concern was that the front of his suit jacket would start moving with each thunderous beat of his heart. His blood rocketed through his veins, a million kilometres a second. Then, all conscious function ceased as the door opened and Hermione stepped out, looking resplendent.
"Hello." she said simply, leaning over to kiss him. Then she stopped, half a yard from his face, looking confused. "You're-- you're wearing a suit."
"Do you not like it?" he asked hurriedly.
"No, no, you look wonderful, but… Ron, where exactly are we going?"
"I have tickets to Shaftesbury, and then dinner reservations at The Fat Duck."
Her mouth dropped open. "Ron! How wonderful! But-- but I can't wear this!" She looked down in horror at her quilted coat, tailored navy pants and plain white blouse. He thought she looked lovely, but she seemed to disagree. "What time is the show?"
"Can you come inside for a moment? I have to change."
"You look beautiful."
She smiled, and his heart skipped a beat. "You're sweet. But you're dressed up, and tonight is a special night, and I want to look as good as you." She backed up and he stepped into the foyer. The elderly couple both stood in the doorway to the sitting room, smiling happily as Hermione leaned over to kiss his cheek.
"Thank you." she said to him, then turned to her landlords. "Mr. and Mrs. MacLeod, I'm going to go upstairs and change. Is it all right if Ron stays here for a minute?"
"Of course!" Mr. McLeod said jovially. Hermione trotted up the stairs and out of sight, and Ron stood uncomfortably on the mat just inside the front door. He smiled at the MacLeods, who just smiled back. The seconds ticked by, achingly slow, until finally she reappeared on the steps.
Mrs. MacLeod exclaimed over her dress, but Ron was wordless. In the moments it took for her to make her way down into the foyer, it became extremely clear to him why men would gladly leap into the sea to follow a siren.
Hermione looked something from a painting, or some delirious dream. Her dress was a deep berry colour, knee-length, full-skirted, strapless, but there was more than just what she wore-- the way she had swept her hair up, the graceful curve of her neck and shoulder, how she moved in her delicate black shoes, her slender hands clasped around a narrow black purse, the way her lips were parted in a shy smile, the way her eyes were trained on his.
"What do you think?" she asked, turning in a slow circle.
"You look… radiant." he said, voice thick in his throat.
"Here, dear." Mrs. MacLeod said, bustling over with a long black wool coat. "You'll need something to keep you warm, but you can't wear your ski jacket with that."
"Oh, thank you!" Hermione replied, slipping her arms into it. "That's very kind."
"Our pleasure, love. Have a good time."
Ron, who was rooted to the spot up until this point, rushed forward to open the door for her, and together, they stepped out into the night. Behind them, the MacLeods waved, still smiling happily.
"Where did you get that dress?" Ron asked as they started up the road. "It's amazing."
"Well, I'm glad you like it." she said, sounding discomfited. "Because you'll be seeing it again tomorrow."
"It's my bridesmaid's dress for my cousin's wedding." she said with an embarrassed laugh. "I didn't exactly have anything else fancy enough."
"It's ace. You really do look perfect."
"Thank you. So do you."
They walked without speaking for a few minutes, the steady cadence of Hermione's heels against the sidewalk fading into the background noise of the city. Her hand was tucked in the crook of his arm, and the simple touch, even through the layers of fabric that separated the skin, gave him goosebumps.
"Are you feeling okay?" she asked quietly.
"Don't be." She smiled. "I'm excited for tonight."
"Me too." Terrified was more like it.
"I hope you didn't go to too much trouble to plan it. I would have helped."
"No trouble at all."
Her hand squeezed his arm, quickly. "All right."
Anxiously, he checked his watch. Seven o'clock was ticking closer, and he wasn't exactly sure how much longer it would take them to go on foot. Trekking through London like a Muggle wasn't exactly a swift process, and he wasn't exactly sure which way to turn at the end of the street.
"What is it?" she asked a few moments later, after he'd looked at his watch for the third time.
"Do you want to Apparate?"
So they ducked into a narrow alleyway, back behind the rubbish bins and a bicycle, and emerged in a similar passage on Shaftesbury Avenue a few moments later, strolling casually into the holiday crowd. Soon, they stood outside the theatre, looking up at the signboard. Light seemed to erupt from every flat surface.
"Oh! Rent!" she said happily. "I've heard that this show is exceptional!"
"Great." he said, trying to sound as excited as she did.
Once inside, settled into their seats in the dim hall, Ron was feeling slightly less nervous. Next to him, Hermione was paging studiously through the programme, pointing out interesting bits of information as she read. All around them, the seats were beginning to fill up until, finally, the lights went low and the unseen band struck up. She slipped her hand into his as she turned her attention forward.
Ron knew he was in for a long evening when a line of people appeared on the stage and started singing about minutes. Minutes. When twenty minutes had passed and no one had uttered a word that didn't have a melody, he began to sweat again, but this was less from nerves and more from the desire to plus his ears with his fingers.
Next to him, Hermione was rapt, her eyes trained on the stage. She gasped and laughed and smiled and even got teary at regular intervals throughout the show, and was so captivated that he spent most of the first act watching her reactions. She even re-read the programme during the intermission.
Only the fact that she sat in the plush seat, waiting for him to return, kept him from running screaming into the night. He must have stood in the bathroom for the entire twenty minute interlude, washing and re-washing his hands, until finally he trudged back to his seat and braced himself for more theatrics. When the lights went down again and the singing began once more, he tried to hide his wincing from her.
The curtain fell at about the time he was about ready to start climbing the walls. No one had told him that this was a bloody musical. And he wasn't exactly sure that he had followed the entire of sequence of events, what with all the singing and the music and the… singing. He thought that perhaps someone had died at the end-- maybe that girl with the hair-- and that she had come back from the dead, or something like that. Typical Muggle fairy-tale ending, he snorted to himself.
Hermione, on the other hand, jumped to her feet as the lights came up, applauding frenetically with the rest of the crowd. He watched, amused, as she dabbed tears from the corners of her eyes, then got up to stand next to her and applaud as well.
"Oh, that was wonderful." she sighed happily as he helped her into her coat. "Thank you so much, Ron, I loved that."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Oh. Yes. It was, er, brilliant."
"Wasn't it? That actress who played Mimi… she's exceptional. I wish I could sing like that."
They joined the slow-moving herd of people making their way out of the theatre into the cold February night. Outside the doors, she took his arm again as they started back down the street. He checked his watch, and skidded to a halt when he saw the time. It was almost ten o'clock.
"What, what is it?" she asked, alarmed.
"We missed our reservations." he moaned, feeling panic rising in his throat. "Quick, do you have your Time-Turner?"
"No, I had to give that back after third year."
"It's all right, Ron."
"No it's not. Now what'll we eat-- it's Valentine's Day, there won't be a table anywhere."
"Of course it's all right. We can go get take-away, or I can make you dinner. I don't mind at all."
"Of course not. The show was more than enough. We can spend the rest of the night wandering around London.; as long as I'm with you, that's all that matters." She started walking again, tugging gently on his arm. "Come on."
"Where are we going?"
For the better part of an hour, they strolled down random streets, talking and laughing and, in Ron's case, keeping an eye out for a restaurant, or at least a picturesque little niche where he could safely get down on one knee. They were meandering through an upmarket residential neighbourhood when he saw what looked like a fountain up ahead. It took a great deal of self-control not to go sprinting towards it. The wrought-iron gate that would separate it from the street stood open, and Ron had a sneaking suspicion that Fred was looking out for him, after all.
The square was minuscule, deserted, and surrounding on three sides by stately brick homes. A dozen topiaries in large urns stood at regular intervals around the fountain, glittering with hundreds of tiny white lights and affording some privacy from anyone watching from the houses.
"Oh, how charming." Hermione said, eyes lighting up as she studied the lights reflected in the moving water.
"It's beautiful." he agreed, but he was not looking at the fountain.
He eased his hand into his jacket and slipped the ring box from his pocket, squeezing it in his palm as he watched her. The light reflecting off the water caught her hair, making it shimmer. At that moment, he heard-- or maybe he imagined that he heard, but it did not matter-- the voices of those he'd lost, in the steady gurgling of the water, encouraging him. He heard Lupin and Tonks offering their congratulations, and, as she reached out and traced the surface of the water with two fingers, Fred telling him that it was about time.
His breath hitched in his throat, and his heart threatened to burst. Almost unable to move, lest he break the spell of this near-perfect moment, he sat down right next to her, watching their reflections in the water.
"Hermione?" he asked quietly, and reached out to take her hand. The pads of her fingers were still wet from the fountain.
"You know that I love you, don't you?"
"Yes." She sat up a little straighter.
"And you love me too, right?"
He took a deep breath and opened his mouth. Before he could say the words, though, he became aware of an odd, incessant buzzing sound. "What's that noise?"
She looked distinctly embarrassed. "It's my phone. Let me shut it off." She dug a slender pink phone out of her small black bag. It was quivering of it's own accord. "I'm sorry, I put it on vibrate but forgot to-- that's odd." Her forehead creased in bewilderment as she looked down at the tiny screen.
"I have six missed calls from this number that I don't recognize, and they've just called again. Bizarre." She pressed a button. "But no matter, I'll turn it--" The buttons lit up as the phone began to shake and tremble once more. "This is the same number. How strange. I'm sorry, Ron, they must have a wrong number or something-- let me just set them straight so they don't bother us any more. I'm so sorry." She pressed another button and brought the phone to her ear. "Hello?"
Ron tightened his grip on the ring box, as though sheer determination could make the caller go mute and leave them in peace.
"No, I'm sorry, you must have the wrong num-- No, I…. I'm sorry, who?" She turned to him, eyebrows raised. "Well yes, I do know him, but.… And who is this?… Oh yes, I have heard of you, but please, it's Valentine's Day and I'm out with…. What? What did you say?…. You're joking." The seriousness in Hermione's voice caused a strange fear to blossom in his belly. "I see. Well…. No, no, it's no problem. Will you be at this number for much longer?… Oh, your mobile number, of course…. Of course. I'll find him right away. Stay by the phone…. Yes…. Yes, your welcome…. All right, good-bye."
She got to her feet and snapped the phone closed. The look on her face made Ron's dreams of proposing marriage in this wonderful secret place burst hotly like one of Seamus Finnigan's first-year spells. Something had happened, something big. "What's wrong? Is it your parents?" he asked, trying not to sound too anxious.
"Where's your brother?"
This confused him. "I, er... Which one?"
"Uh, I think he's at some pub with Lee and Oliver Wood. Why?"
"Do you know which one?"
"Yeah, I think so. Hermione, what's going on?"
"I'll explain it all soon." She looked at him sadly. "I'm so sorry. Can you take me to him?"
"Oh, Ron, I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important. Can you find him?"
He nodded, defeated. "I know you wouldn't. Yeah, come on, let's go."
As she gathered her bag, he slid the ring box into his pocket. As he did so, his fingers brushed the handkerchief he'd liberated from Fred's room. This had better be worth it, he said inside his head, but whether it was to himself or to Fred, he wasn't quite sure. Neither responded.
Without another look at the place where his life almost changed, he grabbed onto her hands and spun quickly. They appeared in a foul-smelling alley a moment later, mere kilometres and an entire world away from the glittering fountain square. He weaved around the overflowing rubbish bins and out onto the sidewalk.
"There." He pointed across the street, to a brightly lit sports pub.
"I think so."
"Oh, I could hex George." she said in exasperation, and started across the street.
"So could I." he muttered darkly as he followed her.
Inside, it was hot, loud and smoky. It was also packed wall to wall with Muggles-- mostly the young, rowdy type. They started cat-calling and yelling as they caught sight of Hermione in her fancy dress, and laughing when they noticed Ron in his suit. His fists clenched and unclenched, and his hands itched for his wand. Still, he kept his eyes trained on her back as they moved deeper into the pub, not letting himself look at the faces he'd greatly enjoy punching.
"Where are you going, love?" one guy called, leaning off his barstool and watching Hermione walk away. "Come back with my heart!"
Ron skidded to a halt and turned to the Muggle. "I'll take something more important than your heart if you don't shut the fu--"
Hermione's small hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him away as the guy and his friends laughed uproariously. "Come on." she said soothingly, darting around a large man in a cowboy hat. "Ignore them."
"Not bloody likely." he grumbled.
Just when he was sure that he'd been wrong, that George and his friends had gone somewhere else, the crowd parted and he caught sight of a shapely, black-haired girl in a very low-cut red top in the corner. She was perched in the lap of a broad-shouldered bloke, whom she was snogging enthusiastically. The girl looked to be some sort of waitress. The guy was Oliver Wood, and Lee, George, two Muggles in rugby shirts, and a great many bottles were sharing the table with him.
Ron caught Lee's eye, who leaned across the table and said something to George, who whipped around, looking alarmed. "What's going on?" he asked, looking from Ron's grim face to Hermione's concerned one. "What's happened?"
"I need to talk to you. Now." Hermione said.
"Uh-oh, ginger, are you in trouble?" a red-faced Muggle in a backwards hat yelled from the bar. They ignored him.
"What is it?" George asked, looking from her to Ron. "Tell me."
"Not here." she said, tilting her head towards the door.
Hermione and George started towards the door, with Ron in pursuit. "Hey, you can't take that outside!" the bartender yelled, pointing to George's beer.
"I'll be right back." he replied, taking Hermione by the elbow and hurrying towards the door. Ron picked up his pace as well, but found the way blocked by two large men arguing, one of whom was wearing what looked like a bed sheet and paper wings, and carrying a toy bow.
"Excuse me." he said angrily, sidling between them and towards the front door, which was just closing behind George.
"Watch it, fancy britches!" the surly Cupid spat, grabbing for Ron's shoulder as he passed.
He pulled away and sprinted for the door, opening it and stepping out just in time to see Hermione speaking quietly to his brother, and to hear the loud crack of Geoge's beer bottle hitting the sidewalk, a look of absolute horror on his face.
Author's Note: I succumbed to the cliff-hanger ending. Why? Well, I prefer to think of it not as a cheap plot device, but as a way to keep people interested in reading the next story in the series. I've gotten a couple of really sweet messages from folks asking why this is the last chapter. That is because I was feeling ambitious and decided to write a four-part series. This is the last chapter of "Winter", and, next week or the week after (it depends on how much I get done this weekend-- I like to be a chapter ahead of what I publish), I'll put up the first chapter of "Spring". It will pick up a few weeks after where this one leaves off.
That said-- and this really isn't (okay, well, not entirely) a plea for more people adding me to their alert list-- I'd like to take the time to remind anyone who is interested in continuing to read the series to keep an eye out for the new story (again, titled "Spring"). This one will not be updated.
By the way, I've never seen Rent. That's the show that was actually playing at Shaftesbury in February of 1999, and I wanted to be historically accurate, so I got the information from Wikipedia, and watched YouTube clips of the movie. I can't believe that guy from Law & Order can sing so well. Has anyone actually seen the play, or even the movie? Is it any good?
Can I just say, again, how much you guys rock? I've never written anything this long, and I'm so jazzed that it entertained some really boss people. Many internet hugs to those who reviewed the second-to-last chapter: Hyperlily, Amaherst, cinroc, WaffleNinja and Spottedfeather. I hope to see you guys again in a week or two. wink wink nudge nudge
Enough shameless pandering for awhile, promise.