THIS CHAPTER HAS BEEN REVISED AND BETA'D. PLEASE RE-READ!

"The winner takes it all the loser standing small beside the victory, that's her destiny." – ABBA

"Where is he? Where is that deceiving lout?"

Remus looked up from the book he'd been reading, momentarily startled. Hermione Granger stood in front of him on the brink of rage; he didn't have to be an expert on body language to distinguish that. He'd seen her angry a few times before but never like this. Her hands were fisted on her hips, chocolate brown eyes flashing fiercely, and her normally full-lipped mouth was set in a hard, thin line.

"Well?" she demanded, tapping her foot in agitation.

Remus closed his book, using his finger as a book mark, and set his face into a carefully neutral expression. No need to make matters worse, was there?

"You're looking for Ron?" he suggested, going for the obvious. Of course, no one else had the brilliant ability to get Hermione worked up into such a state. The boy was a menace, in his opinion, and very clearly did not value his life or his limbs.

Throwing her hands up in the air in exasperation, she snorted, "I prefer to call him by title he's earned: Dumb Ass!"

Remus' eyebrows rose in amusement; dumbass? "He's out back playing Quidditch with Harry and the Weasleys. Sirius gave Harry a new set of Quidditch balls and he was eager to try them out."

Gritting her teeth, Hermione declared with alarming sincerity: "Ronald's going to need a new set of balls by the time I'm done with him!"

Remus winced at the very notion. One did not walk around threatening a man's family jewels—it just wasn't done—but apparently that little fact had escaped Hermione.

"Now, Hermione…" Remus started calmly, hoping to defuse a bit of Hermione's ire.

"No, Remus!" she yelled; then, as if realizing she was taking her temper out on a totally innocent bystander, she ratcheted her tone down a bit. "I know you're only trying to help," she said, her face softening. "I appreciate the gesture, but there's no way that anything you say is going to save this situation."

Hermione had always thought that Remus was a good man; he managed, for the most part, to be the voice of reason when everyone else was losing their minds. A born mediator, he'd parlayed with the giants at Dumbledore's request in the hopes of garnering their support against Voldemort. Dumbledore had theorized that they might listen to someone who was an outcast in the majority of the Wizarding world, who could relate a bit to their situation.

As usual, Dumbledore had been correct. Remus had been instrumental in winning the giants over and it had been no mean feat. He had returned to headquarters frightfully fatigued but triumphant. It hadn't been accomplished overnight; it had taken time and patience, two characteristics Remus possessed in mass quantities. Hermione admired him tremendously and thought that Tonks was one hell of a lucky woman. She sighed, flopping down tiredly on the couch. What had she been stuck with? Ronald Weasley, king of the clueless with about as many reasoning skills as an ogre!

&&&&&&&

She looked like she'd been trampled by a herd of wild hippogriffs, Remus thought in sympathy; over the course of a few months, it was nothing new. The poor girl had been a wreck lately and the man outside whizzing about on a Firebolt as if he hadn't a care in the world was the cause.

Remus had always despised it when others looked at him with that mixture of pity and trepidation for his affliction, and now he struggled to keep that same look out of his own eyes. Hermione definitely wouldn't have welcomed it. She was a proud young woman with an uncommon strength few, outside of the Order and her closest friends, were aware she possessed. Fragile-looking she might be, but she had a stout force of will that refused to be squashed. She'd proved that beyond a shadow of doubt when, despite all the hardships and dangers they'd faced, she'd never left Harry's side. The ordeals they had overcome together on their hunt for the Horcruxes had been horrendous and beyond all imagining, and Remus had marveled at her ability to adapt and focus when the road they'd traveled had become twisted beyond recognition. For someone of a logical bend as Hermione, the uncertainty of where they were headed must have been frustrating, but she'd just kept rolling with the punches. Harry had said he would have been lost, not to mention dead, without her, and Remus could do nothing but agree with him.

Unconsciously shaking his shaggy head from side-to-side, Remus wished he could afford Ron the same accolades. Not that Ron hadn't, in the end, played his part in the scheme of things, but there was no getting around the fact that he'd faltered a bit at key moments where his support would have been eagerly welcomed and desperately needed. Yet, when all was said and done, he'd somehow managed to redeem himself.

He'd played a masterful game of chess during the search for the Philosopher's Stone. Then, behind the scenes, he'd made sure that Harry discovered what he needed to defeat in the first task of the Tri-Wizard tournament. When Harry was on the brink of drowning in bottomless, muddled waters trying to retrieve Godric's sword, Ron rescued him and destroyed a malevolent Horcrux. Yes, when push came to shove, Ron delivered, and his relationship with Harry had flourished in a multitude of areas.

So Remus was confused as to why Ron couldn't seem to do the same for Hermione. Why couldn't he let his relationship with her grow beyond childhood dimensions? Hermione had once confided to him that although Ron, Harry and she had eventually become the best of friends, at first they hadn't liked her much, Ron in particular. If he would have had his way, she would probably have remained an outsider and more than likely wouldn't have become friends with them at all. To Remus' discerning eyes, it appeared as though Ron had maintained that habit of keeping Hermione on the outside, just on the fringe of things. Giving only enough of himself to keep Hermione tied to him but not enough to make her truly happy to be there. It was a conundrum.

Harry, Merlin love him, couldn't seem to see beyond the face of a pretty red-head. Not that Remus blamed him. Ginny was definitely what Sirius called "a looker." Harry constantly followed her with those amazing green eyes and so immersed was he in his own burgeoning emotions that he failed to see the mess unfolding right under his nose. One couldn't really blame him for reaching out to grab at a chance for happiness at long last, but in his own way, he was leaving Hermione to fend for herself within the confines of her own love life; "confined" was exactly what she was, although no one else seemed to notice that glaringly obvious point—not even Hermione. Remus couldn't help but look at her with the affectionate sympathy.

&&&&&&&&

It was definitely the wrong moment for the doors of Grimmauld Place to open and admit the very person who was causing Hermione her immeasurable agony. The group rushed in, carrying with them a joyous, exuberant energy that was palatable to both occupants of the room, and Remus braced himself for the impending confrontation which was about to take place.

Harry clapped Ron on the shoulder. "That last save was a good one, mate! There was nothing getting past you! Definitely in rare form"

"Oi," shouted George as he pushed through the throng intent on a reaching the nearest butterbeer to quench his thirst. "If we'd been really on our game…"

"…we'd have knocked our little brother right out of his holey socks," finished Fred.

Ignoring the twins and grinning from ear to ear, Ron accepted Harry's congratulations with a combination of bashful pleasure and cocky confidence.

"It's not just the Keeper, you know," Ron remarked expansively, including his other team members. "To win the game you need a right strong offense, too."

"Strongly offensive is exactly how I'd describe you," snapped Hermione as she jumped to her feet, her tiny hands clenched so tightly that her knuckles showed white.

And just like that, the entire atmosphere was altered. An oppressive silence followed Hermione's acid filled comment, and it didn't look good for Ron at all.

"Hermione." Ron's greeting was sorely lacking in enthusiasm and came across more as an uncertain question. Pulling himself together quickly, he plastered on a smile and asked, "What are you doing here, luv? Thought you were having tea with Parvati."

"Well, Ron I was," she started nastily. "Then imagine my surprise when Rita Skeeter stopped by our table to pass along a 'job well done' on your impressive display at the try-outs for the Chudley Cannons." Ron visibly gulped. Pinning him with an icy glare, she continued, "I, of course, put no credence whatsoever in that obnoxious bint's words, seeing as how she's plastered heaps of hogwash about our lives in that libelous rag for years!"

The jig was up and everybody knew it by the tell-tale sign of Ron's fire-engine red ears. Those ears were a dead giveaway when it came to gauging what passed for a truth or a lie; Ron had no more control over that reaction than he did at controlling the number of freckles that covered his body.

Hermione, quite aware of Ron's discomfort, showed him no mercy. "Do you know what she did, Ronald, when I told her to stick her hateful quill up her arse?" Ginny giggled, but quickly stifled it when Hermione sent a glare her way. "Do you?" she demanded when Ron didn't answer.

Moving toward Ron with amazing speed, Hermione went on in a perfect mimicry of Rita Skeeter's voice: " 'Well, my dear…perhaps you should have a look at these.' At which point she pulled out her photos and there you were, flying your little heart out." Hermione made a moue with her mouth, another perfect imitation of the expression Skeeter used before making a nasty stab. " 'Though, personally, I'm not surprised he felt it necessary to keep you in the dark; you are a bit of a kill-joy, now aren't you? He's a brave man, giving up his dreams and wasting an incredible talent just to stay by your unassuming and clearly ungrateful side. Tell me, dear, how does it feel having the man you love lie and deceive his future wife and more importantly, do you think that this is a pattern which will follow you into marital bliss?' "

Hermione had been crushed and humiliated when she realized that Skeeter—for once—had been telling the truth. Pictures didn't lie, and what upset her more than anything else was that he'd looked so happy and carefree, obviously having the time of his life. When was the last time she had seen that look on his face? She couldn't even remember, and that right there was not a good sign. The real rub was that he was good, very good. Hermione was no expert at Quidditch, but she didn't need to be when she could see the coach of the Chudley Cannons jumping up and down, obviously thrilled by Ron's performance.

Ron, worrying his bottom lip, set his gaze on a small patch of floorboard between his feet. Hermione's own bottom lip trembling she asked, "How could you, Ron? Tomorrow, the whole Wizarding world will believe that you went behind my back because you were too frightened to come clean with me. She'll make sure of it. They'll think that I'm some selfish, shrewish cow! We agreed that you wouldn't be attending the try-outs. That it was a foolish notion on your part and not conducive to married life. What about children, Ron? I want my children to know that they have a father and not just some near stranger who stops in on occasion while in between matches! We've been through all of this! So why, why did you?"

Hermione waited for some sort of explanation, a reason for his actions. When none was forthcoming, she Apparated away, but not before everyone but Ron saw the tears of frustrated fury and betrayal trailing down her cheeks.

"Go after her, Ron," Remus urged, more upset by Hermione's pain then he thought possible.

"No," he whispered after a slight hesitation. Raising his blotchy face, he declared with more conviction, "No."

"Merlin, Ron, you have to!" Harry said fiercely. "Go on." He gave Ron a shove to his shoulder. It was a far cry from the congratulatory slap he'd given it earlier.

"I'm not going, Harry."

"You'll lose her, Bro, if you don't," Fred put in, confused as to why Ron hadn't followed Hermione immediately; he would have.

"I know," he admitted, his voice cracking.

"You know?" Harry asked in exasperation.

"You little shit!" Ginny rebuked waspishly. "You're dumping her!"

Harry's head swung toward Ginny. "Don't be ridiculous," he said firmly. "Ron wouldn't do that, he loves Hermione."

"She's right," Ron said, wiping at his tear stained face with the sleeve of his old school Quidditch robes.

"What?! Are you mental or something?" Fred demanded.

"You don't know what it's like, none of you," Ron said, shaking his head sadly. "You and George have your joke shop. You guys are living your dream." He spoke softly but with angry undertones. "Harry's been famous since the day he was born, the darling of every witch and wizard since Voldemort died. He has a free pass for life." Harry tried to interrupt, pissed at Ron's assessment of his situation, but Ron didn't give him the opening he needed. "Sirius has more galleons than he knows what to do with and now that he's cleared of all charges, he's out with a new witch every night. And what do I have? Huh? What did I get?" Ron all but whined.

"You got an extraordinary, beautiful, kind-hearted woman," Remus answered before anyone else had a chance to. "Someone who put friendship before all else when you threw a terrible ultimatum at her feet. Someone who, although she felt great love for you, never wavered in her quest to save this world and stalwartly stood next to Harry, helping him to overcome perils of the most atrocious kind. Someone who loved you enough to take you back and never again mention how hurt and betrayed she must have felt when you deserted her and Harry. That's what you got, Ron, and it's a sight more than most people walked away with."

"It was the Horcrux that made me do all that!" Ron exclaimed petulantly.

"Maybe," Remus acknowledged. "But the Horcrux calls to the darkness that lies in our souls and perhaps even our deepest, most hidden desires, the ones we don't want to look at, and to my way of thinking, you returned out of a sense of duty to Harry. Hermione had never been the main draw, but you took her anyway."

"Are you saying that Ron never wanted Hermione?" Harry gasped at the implication.

"I'm saying he never wanted you to have Hermione. Harry…we all know that his biggest fear was that she would love you. He saw you and Hermione together, you getting the prize again; leaving him behind just like he left you."

Harry shook his head from said to side, mouth gaping. "He came back to us; to me and Hermione, but he couldn't find us. He didn't desert us! You're spouting rot!"

"Maybe," Remus said again, not really believing it. "Consider the fact that perhaps one of the real reasons, other than his regard for you, that he came back was to make sure you and Hermione didn't become more than friends. Ron had to have something you didn't, Harry. It's as simple as that. Is that love? Is it, Harry? I don't doubt he also returned to help in the fight against Voldemort—believe me, I'm grateful for the part he played. I might not be standing in front of you today without the joint effort of the three of you. But in the end, he really came back for Hermione not because he was desperately in love with her, but because he didn't want you to get there first."

"You filthy liar!" Ron snarled, lunging at Remus. "What to do you know?" he demanded, fisting Remus' robes in his hand.

With no fear whatsoever, Remus stated firmly, "I know that Hermione cried for weeks after you left and that she's somewhere right now crying because you're deserting her again."

"I do love her! I always have!" Ron growled, releasing Remus.

"Are you in love with her, Ron?" Ginny asked.

"What kind of question is that?" Ron snapped back at Ginny.

"One that deserves an honest answer." Ginny retorted, with the look of woman who would not be put off by anything other than the truth

Remus was impressed by Ginny's persistence and intuitive understanding of the situation; she would make a fine mate for Harry. Remus didn't doubt for a second that one day they would marry; she was just as crazy about him as Harry was about her.

Ron pushed his sweat-soaked hair back off of his scrunched up forehead. He was obviously giving the matter some serious thought and finally asked, "Is there a difference? Love's love, right?" He sounded so unsure that Remus couldn't help but feel sorry for him; Ron truly didn't know the difference.

Ginny clucked her tongue in reproof, placing her hands on her hips and looking remarkably like Hermione just before she gave a lecture. "Of course there is, you dolt," she said gently. "I have lots of guy friends…."

"Sure do," Fred chuckled.

"Cut quite a swath through the young wizards at Hogwarts, that's for certain." George grinned at Harry's scowl.

"The point is," she went on, ignoring her brothers. "They weren't the right guys or I would've settled on one. I loved them but that was all. I didn't feel that certain something; the needthat fills you whenever the one is near. When just the slide of a single finger across the back of your hand, even when it's totally innocent without a hint of sexual intent, sets your heart thumping. You wanna touch and be touched by that person and only that person; you ache for it." She sent a shy sideways glance at Harry, who blushed. "There's no substitute, no one else will do and you know it…here." Ginny put her hand over her heart. "And here." She moved her hand lower to her stomach.

"Go any lower and mum will have your hide," George joked half-heartedly, secretly in awe of his sister's observations. He'd been there himself, had felt firsthand what Ginny was talking about. But how Ginny had come to this realization at such a young age was downright scary. He might just have to take Harry aside for a "brotherly" chat.

Ron collapsed onto one of the kitchen chairs, emotionally exhausted. He did love Hermione, he did! But what Ginny said was a revelation. Could she be right? Was it a friendship kind of love he felt for Hermione? It was all so confusing. Ginny made it sound like being in love was all-consuming. Did that mean you never thought about other witches? Never made love imagining others' faces to help spice things up? Was that wrong? Hermione touched him all the time and it was nice, very nice. But was "nice" enough? He had to admit that he just didn't feel for Hermione what Ginny had described, although he'd wanted to. Merlin knew he'd tried, he really had. He groaned and slouched back in his chair. Besides Lavender Brown and Hermione, he'd not had much experience with girls. It just went without saying that after the war, he and Hermione would become a couple; it was expected. Yes, he loved her, but even he could admit that what they had between them was not an all consuming, grand passion. It was…comfortable.

"Well?" Ginny encouraged.

Ron scrubbed his face with his hands and muttered, "No."

Harry hauled him out of the chair by the back of his robes and, thrusting his face into Ron's, he gritted his teeth and snapped, " 'No,' what?" Even though Harry was pretty sure he knew what Ron meant, he still needed to hear the words from Ron's own mouth to make it real.

"No, I'm not in love with her! All right? I'm not in love with her!" Ron cried out, dragging in great gulps of air between anguished sobs. "I wanted to be, but I'm not! I'm sorry," he wailed as another torrent of tears fell fast and furious.

Harry dragged him into a rough embrace. "It's okay, mate," he whispered. "It's okay." Harry tried his best to comfort his distraught friend, knowing he lacked the means and the words to do an adequate job of it but made the effort none-the-less.

Ron clutched at Harry. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he cried, over and over again.

Ginny slumped against the kitchen counter, weeping softly at not only Ron's suffering but also at the realization that Hermione would never be her sister in any true sense of the word. George and Fred stood beside each other, stunned – for once – into silence at this surprising turn of events. Remus, watched the Greek-like tragedy unfold, thinking only of Hermione.