A/N: The final part. I hope you enjoy.
As It Always Would
"Got an owl from Ron today."
Hermione looked up from her lunch.
"Really? How is he?"
Harry picked a piece of raggedy lettuce out of his sandwich. Frowning at it, he shrugged.
"Good, normal, I think. Getting into the groove of things."
"That's good, good," Hermione took a long drink of water to hide the discomfort she seemed to always feel when Ron was mentioned.
"Got a girlfriend already, of course."
"Of course," Hermione cleared her throat a little. "Well, thanks for lunch, Harry, but I've got to get back to work."
"Yeah, no problem." He helped her gather up their trash and walked with her to the wastepaper basket. "You having lunch at the Burrow on Sunday?"
She shook her head.
"Probably not. I've got this big case, and we're so far behind..."
Harry glanced at her.
"You should come. It's strange enough without Ron, not having you would just be bizarre."
Hermione forced a small laugh.
"True. I'll try to come, I guess."
She started walking away, but Harry's hand on her arm stopped her. Her friend looked at her levelly.
"Are you doing okay, Hermione?"
"Yeah." At his disbelieving look, she smiled to make her point. "I'm doing fine, Harry. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Okay, I just wanted to check."
Hermione leaned over and kissed his cheek.
"You're sweet. I'll maybe see you Sunday, okay?"
"Definitely see me," Harry called after her as she walked away.
Hermione closed her door as soon as she reached her office and leaned against it. She was doing fine, but that didn't change the fact that when someone said Ron's name, she tensed, or that when she spoke about him, she was always acutely aware of doing so.
The brunette sighed and made her way over to her desk. This would take some getting used to.
A knock came at her door, cutting off her train of thought.
"Come in," Hermione said as she settled herself into her chair.
Lisa, her assistant, poked in her head.
"An Oliver Wood to see you?"
"Do you know him?" Lisa asked.
"Yeah, um, I was at Hogwarts with him, I'm just...I have no idea why he'd want to see me."
"Should I send him in?"
"Sure. I'm curious now."
Lisa disappeared and soon Oliver entered. He looked much as she had remembered him from Hogwarts, just older and, she couldn't help but notice, even handsomer.
"Oliver, hi," she said, extending her hand.
He shook it, looking at her with genuine warmth.
"Hermione Granger. I haven't seen you since you were what – fourth year? Fifth?"
"Um, the Quidditch World Cup I think? Ireland and Bulgaria."
"Wonderful game. You a Quidditch fan?"
She smiled and shook her head.
"You'd think being friends with both Harry and Ron," (she felt herself say his name) "that I would be, but it never really rubbed off, I'm afraid."
"Ah, well." Oliver didn't seem very disturbed by this news and smiled back.
There was a brief pause before Hermione remembered herself.
"I'm sorry, sit down, please. Now, what did you want to see me about?"
Hermione marveled by how quickly Oliver's demeanor changed from friendly to professional.
"Yes, well, it's a bit of a sensitive subject. Perfect for your department, I thought."
The witch leaned forward, interested, as Oliver continued.
"See, there's a chaser on my team – sorry, I coach Puddlemere United, should have mentioned that first – and there's this chaser, Johnathan. Amazing player, really energetic, accurate, takes risks."
"Hm hm," Hermione nodded, not sure where this was going.
Oliver took a deep breath.
"It just recently came to light – by which I mean Jonathan confided in a fellow chaser and that chaser leaked it to the press – that Jonathan is, well, that he's a werewolf."
"Oh." Hermione sat alert, her mind instantly racing ahead through the situation. "And the other chaser wants him off the team."
"Well, he hasn't officially said as much, but it's been heavily implied. There seems to be a bit of a jealousy issue there, to be honest."
"It's strange that I haven't heard of this yet," Hermione mused. "Usually my staff is looking for this sort of thing."
"It hasn't been released yet. The reporter came to me this morning and told me he was breaking the story later today, wanted to give me a bit of a heads up. Anyway, this whole thing is about to explode, and you just know that several groups are going to be clamoring for Jonathan's head."
"While others try to make him into a cause."
"Exactly. I just want to keep my team intact and to protect the man. He's a good person."
Hermione bit her lip and nodded, thinking.
"Can you arrange a meeting for me with Jonathan? His lawyer should be present, of course, and you can attend, if he's willing."
Oliver nodded, relief on his face.
"Yes. Absolutely. Thank you so much for looking at this, Hermione, it's...it'll be a wonderful help."
"Well, I'll see what I can do. Talk to my assistant, she'll get that meeting scheduled."
They stood up and Hermione shook Oliver's proffered hand.
"It's really wonderful what you're doing with your life, Hermione," he said, that warm smile back on his face.
Hermione couldn't help but smile back before she realized they were still holding hands. Awkwardly, she released her hold.
"Yes, well. Thank you."
Oliver left her office, glancing back once at the door. Hermione watched him go, a small fluttering beginning in her chest.
"I don't see what the issue is, 'Mione," Ron says, following her as she storms into the bedroom.
"The issue, Ronald," she begins, still furious as she crosses to her wardrobe and starts rummaging through her dresses, "is that you promised you'd be with me tonight! You knew I didn't want to go to this, you knew I had to , and you said three weeks ago that you'd go with me! And now you're backing out because Harry got some bloody Quidditch tickets?!" Hermione grabs a black cocktail dress and throws it on the bed, snatching some heels and tossing them to join the dress.
"They're not just Quidditch tickets, 'Mione, it's the Chudley Cannons! Their first shot to get the England championship in three hundred years, three hundred years, and Harry got tickets. You know how much this means to me."
"And I thought you knew how much your support meant to me!"
Ron leans against the door jamb, watching her change as fast as she can. He runs his hand through his hair.
"Of course I support you. That's not what this is about."
"No, it's not," Hermione snaps. "This is about you being unwilling to let go of a childish obsession. You're an auror, Ron, and that's incredible, so stop pining about and wishing you can play professional Quidditch!"
"You think that what's going on? God, 'Mione, I - can't anyone have interests, or, or like something that's maybe not reserved for people with immense IQs? Just because you can't have fun or relax, you think that if someone likes anything it's some...psychological problem. Loosen the fuck up!"
She stops her quick change to stare at him disbelieving. She can tell he instantly regrets his remark.
"Love, I didn't mean it like that," he says, moving towards her. She evades his embrace.
"So what, you think I'm just this uptight prude, is that it?"
"You know I don't think that, not at all," Ron tries again to reach to her, but again, she dodges his grasp.
"I have to get ready," she says, and her tone brooks no further argument. Ron waits, but there is only silence.
"I'm sorry," he whispers as he leaves the room. Hermione doesn't respond.
He looked good, Hermione thought, watching him from across the room. Australia was good to him. He looked older, somehow. More sure of himself.
"A toast, everybody!" She looked over to where Arthur Weasley stood in the center of the room, glass raised. "To a very Merry Christmas, and to having the family back together again." He smiled in Ron's direction. Hermione glanced over automatically towards George, as she had for the past seven Christmases, but even he looked happy and relaxed.
"Merry Christmas," everyone repeated after him, and drank from their glasses.
"He looks good, no?" A soft French voice said beside her. Hermione jumped.
"Sorry, what?" Hermione turned to look at Fleur.
"Ron." The stunning blond gestured over to where Ron stood with Harry and Ginny, laughing. "Australia, eet has been good for 'im, yes?"
"Oh. Oh, yes, I guess. Excuse me," Hermione murmured and moved away from the French woman, who was looking at her with a knowing look Hermione didn't particularly like.
Harry caught her eye and motioned her over to join them. With a reluctance she was surprised to feel, she moved over to the fire where they stood.
Ron's smile slipped a little as she approached, a fact she noted instantly. Wonderful, she thought. She had officially lost one of her best friends. Of course, she had surmised that when he had only written a few terse notes during the nine months he had been gone, but the confirmation hurt nonetheless.
"Ron just told us this ridiculous story about a...what was it called again?" Ginny asked her brother.
"A dingo," he supplied.
"It's really wonderful, Hermione, you should make him tell you. Harry?" The younger woman looked up at her husband. "We should really go check on James. I think all this noise might have woken him up."
"Whatever you say, love," Harry said gallantly, letting himself be led away by his wife, who gave Hermione a very significant look as she passed, the type of look that made Hermione remind herself to kill the redheaded witch as soon as possible.
Ron and Hermione stood in awkward silence for a few moments, glancing back and forth between their drinks and the fire. Finally, Hermione began "I'm sorry I - ," just as Ron started "I meant to - ." They looked each other and laughed slightly.
"Go ahead," Hermione said.
"No, it's okay, you, you go."
Hermione swallowed a little.
"I – I was just going to say that, um, I'm sorry I didn't keep in good touch, I've been really busy lately, things, the office is just been crazy..."
"Yeah, Harry told me. And it's okay, I mean, I was going to say I meant to...I didn't keep in good touch either, it's – it's not your fault."
"Good to know," Hermione tried to joke, and took a long drink from her glass. "So," she began again. "You're enjoying Australia?"
"It's really wonderful. My assignment's challenging, my team's great, it's, it's good."
"That's good," Hermione said, nodding and wondering why she seemed to have lost her entire vocabulary.
"Harry tells me you're seeing Oliver Wood?" Ron's voice was casual, but Hermione still flinched, startled by the question.
"Um, yeah, well, I helped him out with a case about seven months back, and we, yeah, we started seeing each other."
"Oliver's a good man."
"Yes, he is. Harry said you're still with...sorry, I forgot what he said your girlfriend's name is."
"Lydia, and yes, yes, we're still together. Moving in together after Christmas, actually."
"Oh! Oh, that's, that's great."
There was another long pause.
"I should go talk to George," Ron finally said. "Make sure he's, you know."
"Good idea. Good catching up."
Ron opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it and smiled weakly, walking away.
Hermione drained the rest of her glass. As soon as was politely possible, she was going to leave the Burrow. Oliver was with his family, so, she decided, the only good plan was to get absolutely roaring drunk and try to wipe that most awkward of encounters out of her memory.
"So, when are you and Ron getting married?"
Hermione tries not to choke and her tea. Coughing, she stares at Molly Weasley.
"You and Ron. Are you engaged yet?" Molly smiles beatifically at the young witch and sips from her cup. Hermione blinks, trying to recover some semblance of composure.
"Oh, well, um, Molly, we haven't really talked about it, to be honest."
"Really? I would think, with Harry and Ginny married, you two would be getting engaged anytime now. It's been what, three and a half years?"
"Three years, five months," Hermione replies automatically. "Molly, I – I don't think Ron or I, I don't think either of us is really at that stage yet. I mean, we're only twenty-one."
"Harry and Ginny - "
"With all due respect, Molly, we're not Harry and Ginny. We're just...different."
"Hm," is all Molly replies, but Hermione sees the frown on her face and knows that she's just stumbled into a different world entirely.
"A year and a half," Ginny said, dropping a box to empathize her point with a bang.
"Ginny, be glad those were books, and nothing fragile," Hermione said, glaring at her friend as she shifted the box she was carrying to her left hip. "Can you move the lamp to that other corner?"
"A year and a half," the redhead repeated.
"Ginny, I'm a witch, not a psychic. A year and a half what?" She set the box down upon the table and started to open it.
Ginny picked up the lamp, glaring at the other woman.
"Ron's been gone a year and a half and you've only talked once? At Christmas?"
"Where did this come from?" Hermione asked, beginning to sort through the objects in front of her.
"When Harry and I visited him, you came up. You know, because we're all friends. Or so I thought until I asked him what he thought about you and Oliver moving in together, and he said, I had no idea they were, she never told me, and I said, huh, that's funny, seeing as how you're best friends. And then it turns out that you haven't spoken in who knows how long, and my husband is just sitting there looking guilty, and no one chose to inform me that you two are no longer friends!" Ginny's voice rose steadily throughout her diatribe so that she was practically yelling.
Hermione stared at the box in front of her.
"Frankly," she said, her voice cool. "I didn't think it was any of your business."
"None of my business? Hermione, this is my best friend and my brother. Screw that, this is you and Ron! It's not like you suddenly stopped talking to...I don't know...Neville, or something, this is Ron!" The younger woman gazed at her friend in disbelief. "Hermione, what the hell happened? What's going on?"
"Nothing is," the brunette replied, carefully unwrapping a small incense burner. "And it hasn't been only once, we wrote a couple times."
"Bullshit nothing's going on. You two were messed up the day he left, I saw you guys at Christmas, if you're not with Oliver, you're gloomy as hell, he's been with the same girl for months, months, and this is Ron mind you, not exactly the most committed guy, and you two don't talk to each other, you don't talk about each other." Ginny sighed. "I'm not an idiot. What's going on?"
Hermione brushed a lock of hair behind her ear, avoiding Ginny's gaze.
"The night he left? I, I went to my office early, I was upset about something, he came and found me." She took a shaky breath and looked directly at her friend. "He tried to kiss me, he told me he was in love with me, he told me he had never stopped loving me, he said...I don't even remember all he said, but I basically said...no, no I didn't love him back, not like that, and, and it was awful, Ginny, it was awful."
Ginny's mouth had opened slightly as she stared at Hermione with wide eyes.
"Oh, 'Mione," she finally said. "I...I wondered, but...I'm so sorry."
Hermione shook her head, trying to clear the sudden fuzziness.
"It's okay. Well, no," she backtracked. "It's not okay, because everything between us is just...ruined, really. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt him." She blinked hard to prevent the sudden tears in her eyes.
In a second, the redhead was by her side, letting Hermione rest her head on her shoulder as she struggled to regain composure.
"It'll be fine," Ginny said reassuringly. "You guys have too much history to throw away."
Hermione gave a short, bitter laugh.
"I think the history is what got us in this trouble."
The two women stood in silence for a moment. After a while, Ginny pulled back.
"Hermione..." she began haltingly. "I actually had something to tell you about Ron today. I don't know if this is the best time, but..."
"What?" The brunette asked, feeling suddenly that whatever Ginny was about to say was vitally important.
"Okay," she said after a while. "That was unexpected."
"Are you alright?" Ginny watched her with a tremulous look.
Hermione paused to consider.
"I think. I guess. Just, didn't expect that." She laughed deprecatingly. "What, did I think he was going to be in love with me the rest of his life? He needs to move on. It's good he's doing it. It's just...no, it's good."
She could tell that there was still some doubt in Ginny's face, but at that moment, Hermione loved her friend for accepting her answer.
"Alright," the redhead said. "It'll be a long engagement, I think. Probably won't last."
"Maybe we'll be talking by the wedding then, who knows?"
"You've got to stop shutting me out."
Hermione stares blankly at Ron.
"I'm not shutting you out."
"Yes, yes you are."
"Since when have I - "
"You've been weird lately. You've been distant. We don't have as much sex. 'Mione." Ron's voice is surprisingly calm. "What's happening?"
"Nothing, nothing," she says, reaching out a hand to brush his hair from his forehead. "I'm not trying to shut you out."
He catches her hand with his.
"I'm not leaving, if that's what you're afraid of."
She looks at him, knowing that he has no idea what's going through her head.
"That's not what I'm afraid of," she says, and kisses him before he can reply.
Oliver's hand in the small of her back was comforting as they stood in the backyard of the Burrow. She could feel the warmth of his body next to hers, something that always reassured her.
"You're quiet," he murmured in her ear, and she shivered as his breath ghosted over her neck.
"I'm tired," she replied, shifting her head slightly so that their faces are almost touching. "Not really in a party mood, I suppose."
"We can leave, if you'd like."
Hermione shook her head.
"Molly would kill me. We have to stay a little longer, at least."
"As long as you're okay." His fingers rubbed small patterns against her back and she sighed, leaning her head against his chest.
To be honest, engagement parties always wore her out. They always evoked the wide gamut of emotions she had felt at Harry and Ginny's years ago, and the fact that this was the part of her ex, both boyfriend and friend, made it a bit more exhausting that most.
She looked over at Harry and Ginny, entwined on the dance floor, oblivious to anything but each other. Ginny was practically glowing, Harry looking equally ecstatic. They had confided in her earlier that week that they had just discovered Ginny was pregnant again, a girl, they hoped. Hermione smiled as she watched her friends, a smile that faded slightly as Ron and his pretty fiancée danced into view.
"I'm going to get some water, okay?" She said to Oliver. "You should go talk to George and Angelina, you guys haven't caught up in a while, and they've been trying to catch your eye."
Oliver kissed her gently before walking to join his friends. Hermione softened as she watched he and George exchange friendly punches. She made her way over to the buffet table, quietly demurring whenever someone tried to grab her attention.
The water was cool and refreshing, and went a long way to alleviating some of the headache that had been building all evening. Maybe she should eat something. She'd been working such long hours lately, she hadn't really been taking care of herself.
"What you think, am I going to have to kill Harry when he and my sister jump each other on the dance floor?"
Hermione jumped, spilling some water down her front.
"Oh, shit, sorry, I didn't mean - " Ron scrambled for a napkin to hand to her.
"It's okay, you just startled me." She accepted the cloth he held out and dabbed at her dress. She glanced over at the Potters. "Probably. I give it about five minutes."
"That's what I thought." Ron and Hermione looked at each other. He shifted and stuck his hands in his pockets. The gesture suddenly made him look fifteen again, and Hermione couldn't help but smile fondly at the memory. "You look good," he said, breaking her reverie.
She blushed slightly. "You too. Lydia's very nice."
"Yeah, she is, isn't she?" Ron glanced at where his fiancée stood chatting with Fleur. "Look, Hermione." He paused and frowned, obviously struggling with trying to say something. "Want to dance?" He finally blurted out.
The request caught Hermione off guard so much that she let out a surprised laugh.
"Okay," she replied. "Sure. I'd like that."
They grinned at each other as they moved to the dance floor. The tension that had previously been palpable between them had melted away, and she had no idea why.
She moved into Ron's arms naturally and they danced for a while in companionable silence. Hermione closed her eyes briefly, enjoying the feeling of being around her friend once more.
"I missed you." The words came out of her mouth without thinking. "It's been so strange, not - "
She looked up to meet Ron's eyes. He smiled down at her gently, but there was a slight sadness lurking in his face.
"I've missed you too," he said.
Hermione couldn't move her eyes from his, wondering at the lump developing in her throat.
"Can we – can we be like we were?" Said out loud, it sounded more like a plea than anything, and Hermione would have cursed herself if she hadn't been so absorbed in the moment.
Ron tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, his hand lingering briefly on her cheek.
"I don't know," he said honestly. "I'm sorry we didn't talk. I just needed to figure some things out."
"I didn't ever want to hurt you," Hermione whispered, and Ron's hand on her hip briefly tightened its grip.
"I know," he said after a moment. "I didn't want to either."
The song came to an end. They separated and clapped politely as the band announced it was taking a brief break. Couples began drifting off the dance floor as Hermione and Ron stood in silence.
"So, wedding's in a year, is it?" She was surprised by how easy it was to segue back into normality.
"When my assignment ends. Lydia and I'll come back here for the wedding. We're not sure where we'll go after that, but somewhere in England, that's for sure."
"Done with the dingoes?"
He laughed. Hermione had forgotten how much she loved the sound of his laugh.
"Done with the dingoes, the dust, the dryness, you name it. You don't know how much I long for it to just rain for a week straight, like the kind we had back at Hogwarts, remember? With the mist and the fog...I'm ready for that again."
"I remember." They looked at each other until she heard someone call her name.
She glanced over to see Oliver walking towards them.
"That's where you went. Are you feeling better?"
She moved closer to Oliver, noting how Ron stepped back when the Scottish man approached.
"A bit. Do you mind leaving now, though?"
Oliver shook his head, and she reached out to squeeze his hand. Hermione turned back to Ron.
"It was good talking to you." Inadequate words, she felt, but all she could think of to say. "Write me this time, okay?"
Hermione hesitated briefly, then leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. His skin was warm beneath her lips. Pulling back, she managed a smile before she moved back to Oliver and they walked away.
Hermione shakes with sobs as she wraps her arms tightly around herself. This is not how it is supposed to go. This is not how she is supposed to feel.
The conversation keeps coming up, and she can't avoid it anywhere she turns. They're so young, why does everyone expect them to get married? Ron – Ron won't say anything about it, but it's the unmentioned subject between them, the one they both keep tripping on like a worn hole in a carpet.
She doesn't know why being with him is suddenly so hard, but every time someone says the word 'forever,' something explodes in her chest and she has to struggle to breathe.
Oliver proposed to her a month after Ron's engagement party while they were cleaning out his parent's attic.
"I was talking to my mum this morning," he said blithely as he picked up an ugly ceramic statue of a fairy. He scowled at the gleeful face of the fairy as he set it down in the "Throw Away" pile. "She told me she reckoned we should get married." He cleared his throat slightly. "And I agreed."
Hermione wondered why she was so calm, why her stomach was doing none of the flippy stuff Ginny had described so giddily. She looked up from the box of Christmas ornaments she was sorting.
"Really," she said mildly.
Oliver's voice came back to her slightly muffled, as he had bent his tall frame into a large and extraordinarily dusty box.
"Well, she pointed out that we'd been together a few years, living together for a while, and you know, you're the kind of girl I would marry." He sneezed loudly.
Hermione picked up a cherub ornament that was grinning nearly as obnoxiously as the fairy and tried to figure out why she was on the receiving end of the most unromantic proposal in Wizarding history.
"I need some time to think about it," she said just as mildly, stomach calm.
He turned and smiled up at her, dust smeared on his cheek.
"I love you, you know."
"I'm breaking up with him."
"You're breaking up with him?"
"I'm breaking up with him." Hermione knocks back another shot, ignoring Ginny's gaping stare.
"You're breaking up with Ron."
"That's what I said. Another, please."
Ginny takes a shot of her own, wincing as the alcohol slides down her throat, before pouring more vodka for the both of them.
"Well fuck is right."
Hermione went to her office that night, flicked on a few lights and set her purse down on the table by the door. She sat at her desk, elbows propped against the surface, chin in her hands, and used her feet to swing the chair back and forth.
Her eyes drifted to the corner of the bookcases lining the walls, and a smile crept on her face as she remembered the day Ron and Harry helped her move in. Harry had tried to put the books on the shelf, but Ron had stood behind him and hexed him so that every book fell back down onto his head. Hermione had laughed silently at her desk as she watched Harry's face grow redder and redder before he realized what was going on. Ron had caught her eye and winked that wink that always made her angry and dizzy at the same time.
The brunette stopped the movement of her feet. Oliver's question finally hit the bottom of her mind.
"Shit," she murmured, because it was the only thing she could think of to say.
Oliver had asked her a question (though "asked" might be a generous word), and he expected an answer. There was no answer inside her. No answer. That was it. Hermione stood up slowly and prepared to walk home, alone, without an answer, without anything to tell the man waiting for her.
But no. She was Hermione Granger, and because she was Hermione Granger, she always had an answer, so she turned back and started rummaging through the papers on her desk, the drawers, first slowly and then frantically, as if somewhere buried there would be the response she needed to find.
And her fingers brushed the long forgotten envelope from Ron.
Immediately she stopped, her body rigid. Slowly, so slowly, she eased the envelope out and opened it with a deliberateness that surprised even her.
Two things fell out: a thick, multi-paged document of some kind, official looking, and a folded piece of paper, slightly stiff with age. Her hand stretched to the smaller item and she unfolded it, sinking gently back down into her desk chair, still moving in that slow, strange deliberate way.
Ron's messy handwriting stared back at her.
Sorry I'm abandoning you to deal with Harry on your own…hope this makes up for it. You said you've been wanting it, and I knew this guy in the States who knows about that sort of thing, so I mentioned it to him and…well, there you go. Three years isn't that long. Does saying that make it true? Let's try again. Three years isn't that long.
Hermione picked up the document and felt something stop inside her chest.
Perceptions of Something Rich and Strange: Magical and Phantasmagorical Wonders as Portrayed Through Muggle Literature.
"You'll be useless when you finally get your hands on it," he said once, grinning at her.
"Why do you say that?"
"Are you kidding? First you'll read it, no matter where you are, your own wedding even, then you'll re-read it, mark it up, read it a third time, research all the references and sources, and start composing your own fifty page reply." He'd ruffled her hair in that way she refused to admit she liked. "You'll be out for weeks."
Her eyes closed on their own and she clutched the article tight in her hands. She'd read it first thing, he had said, but she couldn't bring herself to look at the words in front of her. Instead she had to concentrate on breathing, because right now, she was so in love with Ron she was going to choke with it.
His face when he left. That wink from the corner. His sloppy handwriting. Messing her hair. Holding her, tickling her, teasing her. The way his eyes danced. His lopsided smile. The stunned look after she kissed him. The feel of his lips that first time. The feel of them the second time, outside the Burrow. The sun on her face when he said he loved her. His hand tightening on her hip. His hands on her body, his eyes on her face, his breath with hers, his freckles, his stride, his laugh. Him. Ron. Ron. Ron.
Hermione opened her eyes. She loosened her death grip on the precious article and set in gently on top of her desk.
He no longer loved her, not in the way she had just realized she still loved him. But if she was right about one thing (and she was right about many things), it was that there was no other man for her in this world than him.
She'd wait for him. She'd waited once before and she could wait again. Because there was nothing else but each other. Because she was Hermione and he was Ron.
Simple as that.
It's a question, technically, but the words, spat out of his mouth, sound more like an accusation.
"No, you don't get to 'Ron' me. That's it?"
Hermione bites her bottom lip to keep from sobbing.
"Yes," she whispers.
The air pauses between them.
"Fuck that," he says.
"Fuck that, Hermione, this isn't...what the hell are you doing?"
He's as angry as she's ever seen him, and she's been around some of his more spectacular tempers.
"Ron, don't yell."
"I'll yell if I bloody want to, Hermione, you're throwing this all away and you're standing there telling me not to yell?!"
She clenches her fists.
"I'm not throwing it away!"
"Oh yeah?" His face is red and he is shaking he is so livid. "What do you call this? I love you, 'Mione, I love you, and last time I knew, you loved me too! So, fuck that!"
"I do love you, I do, I just..."
"You just. Oh, you just. Well, that explains everything, doesn't it? She loves me. She's dumping me, too, she's chucking away our entire relationship, but that doesn't matter, because 'oh just!'" His voice is so loud she closes her eyes instinctively.
"I can't do this anymore, Ron! I...I can't care anymore."
And with that, she turns and walks out of their apartment.
"Fuck you, I don't care either!" he screams at her back as she leaves.
She gets all the way to Harry and Ginny's house before she starts to cry.
"It's because of Ron, isn't it?"
Hermione was surprised by how calm this conversation was, how gentle it was in comparison to her other breakups. Malfoy shredded her heart, Terry was incredibly awkward, and Ron...breaking up with Ron was like slamming a hurricane into a tornado.
But here Oliver was, sitting on their couch, staring down at his clasped hands. He hadn't raised his voice once.
"Yes," she said simply, because if she was going to break the man's heart, she might as well do it honestly.
"I had a feeling." Oliver jiggled his left leg, a nervous habit he had whenever he was upset or stressed. "At his engagement party."
"Did you know then?" he asked.
Hermione shifted on the couch.
"I don't know," she replied. "Not consciously. But it's...I think it's always been there."
Oliver took in a deep breath.
"That's one of the reasons I asked you, you know. I thought, if she says yes, she can't love him." He finally looked up at her. "I thought, Hermione would never be with someone if she was in love with someone else."
Hermione reached out to grab his hand. He clasped hers tightly, holding on desperately.
"I didn't want it to be like this, Oliver. I do love you. But I can't..."
"But you can't," he repeated softly.
They sat in silence, hands still joined.
"Hey," Ron says.
Hermione looks up. She stares at him, not even bothering to hide her surprise.
"Hey," she eventually manages.
Ron comes forward and sits next to her. She sets down her book. He looks at the carpet. She can't tear her eyes away from him.
"Anything good on the telly?" he asks, and her face softens.
As she watches him settle himself onto the couch, slowly work his way back into familiarity, reach for the remote, start half-minded chatter while he watches, Hermione realizes that she will always love this man.
"I'm a cow."
"Yes, you are, but that color is really lovely on you, and my arms are going to fall off if I don't set this basket down soon, so can we please get moving?"
"I want to apparate."
"You can't apparate."
"Because you're eight months pregnant. Ginny, stop being childish and keep moving."
The redhead stuck her tongue out at Hermione.
"You're a tyrant."
"No, I'm just a very hungry woman who's holding a lot of food. And you're a very pregnant woman, a beautiful woman, just pregnant, who has a very hungry husband and a very hungry son waiting for us very close by, so can we please, please, keep walking?"
Ginny turned away from her reflection in the side of the building next to them.
"Why am I a cow?"
"Oh, for Merlin's sake..." Hermione restrained herself from saying anything further and began to walk. "We're two blocks away from the park. You can join me when you've stopped being vain."
Grumbling, Ginny waddled to catch up. Finally, the two women arrived at the park, where they saw a laughing Harry playing chase games with James a short distance away.
Hermione couldn't help but smile as she watched her friend.
"You do realize that he's going to spoil your daughter rotten, don't you?"
Ginny came to a stop, wheezing.
"That man is a fool for children. He's never going to let me be not pregnant again." She held up her hand as Hermione started walking over to them. "No, no more. I declare this to be the spot. Let them come to us."
"Sounds good to me," Hermione said, quickly setting down the picnic basket with a groan and sinking beside it. "My arms feel like butter. I need to exercise more."
Harry glanced up and saw them. His face breaking into a grin, he swung a laughing James int
his arms and joined the women.
"I wanna go to Aunty Mione!" James yelled, his hands grabbing for the brunette.
"So loyal, my son," Ginny muttered, lowering herself to the ground.
Hermione promptly found herself in possession of one lap full of squirming toddler.
"What do you feed him, Harry?" she asked. "He weighs as much as an elephant."
Harry dropped down beside his wife, giving her a quick kiss.
"Blame Ginny. I was always a skinny child."
"And I'm a cow," the redhead repeated her litany. "Now give me food."
"Yes, my darling, my light, my love," Harry opened the basket and began rummaging.
Hermione raised an eyebrow.
"You're in a scarily chipper mood, Harry," she began, automatically removing James' hands from her necklace. "Might I ask why the high spirits?"
The dark haired man shrugged, pulling out pieces of chicken and handing them to his wife.
"Oh, just my normal mood, I guess," he said, but Hermione saw the mischievous glint in his eyes and narrowed her own in suspicion.
"I still don't know why you asked me to get so much food, Harry," Ginny said, marveling at the contents of the basket in front of them. "You know I'm eating for two, not twenty, right?"
"I thought it would be best in case we had some company." Harry took a bite from and apple and winked at Hermione.
"Harry James Potter," she started to threaten, fed up, but was cut off by Ginny's squeal.
Hermione stopped breathing and her heart constricted. Her head whipped around.
The redhead strolled towards them, infuriatingly casual.
"Mr. Weasley, how lovely of you to join us," Harry said, grinning.
"Just passing by, you know," Ron replied. "Are you having a picnic of some sorts?" He hugged Harry, bent to kiss his sister on the cheek, and tickled his nephew until James was shrieking defeat. Through it all, Hermione sat almost frozen, unable to look away from him, so startlingly aware of every muscle in her body.
Ron turned to her and she thought she might as well just die there.
"Hey," he said, his voice soft.
"Seems like you and Harry have been doing a little bit of plotting." She was proud of how normal her voice was, and how she didn't tremble when he hugged her.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me you were coming back! I can't believe you didn't tell me he was coming," Ginny brandished a chicken leg threateningly at her husband. "How long are you staying?"
Ron sat down crossed legged next to Hermione. His thigh brushed her foot.
"Well, I was thinking the next sixty years or so, at least."
"You're staying for good?" Hermione's voice squeaked, and she cursed herself.
Ron glanced at her.
"Yup. My assignment ended early, and to be honest, I couldn't wait to get away from that desert. Harry and I decided we'd have a bit of fun. Pass the chicken?"
Hermione handed him some food automatically, trying not to brush his fingers with hers.
"Is Lydia coming later?" Ginny said, slightly muffled by the grapes in her mouth.
Harry and Ron exchanged a look that made something inside Hermione twist a little bit tighter.
"Um, no," Ron started. "I broke off the engagement."
"Oh, Ron. I'm so sorry." The redheaded witch didn't sound very sorry at all, but at least she looked convincing.
"Mum'll kill me, but oh well. Just wasn't supposed to happen."
Hermione's head was light and her entire body was throbbing, but she feigned normality and somehow, got through the entire meal. She knew she must have talked, because other people laughed at her jokes, she knew she must have listened, because no one commented on her distraction, but for the life of her, all she could think was that Ron was sitting next to her.
A while later, at the first rumbling of the clouds overhead, Harry sighed and began to pack up the leftover food.
"We should probably head home before it starts to rain."
The foursome slowly clambered to their feet. Harry roused a sleeping James, who drowsily clung to his mother's hand, and picked up the picnic basket.
"Ugh. Do we really have to walk back?" Ginny asked. Harry laughed.
"James doesn't say a word, and you're the one complaining. I won't let you forget this."
"You wouldn't," she said darkly, and embraced Ron and Hermione each in turn. "I"ll see you later. If I survive the trek, that is."
The Potters walked away, Harry turning back slightly to wave. Hermione watched them go with rising dread as she realized she was now alone with Ron.
"Where are you staying?" she asked casually.
"I'm at the Leaky Cauldron for about a week until my apartment opens back up again. Not too bad."
"Well, I should probably head home," Hermione said, starting to rush away.
"Wait," Ron said, and she stopped, tensed. "You apparating?"
She shook her head.
"I sort of feel like a walk right now."
"Even if it rains?"
He moved to join her.
"Here, I'll walk you. Your flat's on my way, anyway."
There was nothing she could say to dispute that, so they began to walk slowly away from the park.
The first few blocks were silent. Hermione kept glancing at Ron out of the corner of her eye, trying to be surreptitious. She hated him for being so seemingly calm, so at ease, while her entire body was rioting.
"Sorry I didn't write as much as I promised," Ron said around the third block.
"No, it's alright. I liked the letters you did send."
Around block seven, Hermione cleared her throat.
"So, um, the thing with Lydia? Are, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." He laughed gently. "Actually, I feel great. Weird, I know."
At block ten, she stumbled on the curb, and he caught her arm to steady her.
"Thanks," she said, blushing.
"No problem," he replied, his hand letting go of her arm. She felt that it left an imprint behind.
"I heard about Oliver. Are you okay?"
"I'm okay. I feel...I feel bad really, but I, I wasn't ready for that."
Ron made a small noise in assent.
Five blocks later, just as the rain started gently drizzling down, Hermione stopped in front of her building.
"Well," she said. "This is me. Thanks for walking me back. There's an apparation point right around the block, if you want."
Ron shook his head.
"I've missed the rain. I think I'll just keep walking. It's not far."
He moved forward to hug her, and her eyes closed instinctively as his arms closed around her. All too soon, he released her and stepped back.
"I'll see you around," he murmured, and she raised a hand in farewell.
Hermione almost raced into her building. She got as far as the foot of the stairs before she stopped short. For one long moment, she stood there, foot poised to begin the climb, eyes fixed on some point ahead of her on the wall. Then she whirled around, accelerating quickly from a walk into a jog into a run as she raced out the door.
She frantically ran after the tall redhead moving steadily away from her. Her hair clung to her face, small rivulets of water beginning to course down her shirt as the rain came down in earnest.
"Ron," she cried as she drew closer. He turned and she didn't pause, she didn't think, but as once before, she hurled herself into his arms and kissed him fiercely.
"I love you," The words spilled out of her mouth as she pulled back. "I love you, I've always loved you, I...I tried so hard, and I thought I wasn't, but then we weren't talking and it hurt so much and I saw you again and you were just so – you were you and – it's like you said, every time I see you something stops, something just ends in me, because it's you and it's me and you have to love me back, you just have to." She ended in a rush, her hands still gripping his arms. Gathering all the courage she possessed, Hermione raised her eyes to meet his.
She had no time to register the look on his face before his mouth was on hers again, his arms crushing her against his body, his hands in her rain-soaked hair. When they finally parted, breathless, she was able to appreciate that look in his eyes that had been there so many years ago, the look that said she was light and dark and that he had no idea how she had ended up there.
"Silly girl," Ron murmured as he kissed her again. "What took you so long?"
There is a strange feeling in her chest as she walks away.
It is not exactly excitement, though that's part of it, and it's not exactly fear, though that's there too. She enjoys the rocking of the train beneath her feet as she moves from compartment to compartment and tries to forget that odd shifting inside her.
But when they are all crowded into the hall, scared and wet and surrounded by so many other, older students, her eyes naturally find the boy who had dirt on his nose.
The dirt is still there, and Hermione feels that she may be on the brink of something very important, if only she can figure it out.