"Five years." Hermione folded the newspaper, setting it down carefully beside her untouched breakfast plate. She gave the eggs a half-hearted poke with her fork, then gave up, reaching for the coffee instead. "I'll have taken the exam by then, be done with the Aurors and a proper solicitor."
"It's not five, Hermione," Ron said carefully, shaking his head as he sopped up the last of the yolk from his own plate with a bit of toast. "They gave him fifteen. Still, not so bad as it could have been...the prosecution wanted life."
"Five years until he's eligible for parole." Her chin lifted stubbornly, and she gave a dismissive flick of her wand, vanishing the offending periodical. "I'll have him out, mark my words. I owe him."
"We owe him." There was a quiet shudder beneath the agreement, and Hermione caught the look in his eyes, sending a chill down her spine that needed no words. It had been enough, they had thought, being captured and held through twenty-four hours of surreal terror, meticulously prepared step by step for the fate of human sacrifice, but when Neville and Seamus' testimony had revealed what could have been.... Hermione swallowed hard, the hot coffee suddenly feeling cold and gelatinous in her stomach. They had known they were being prepared to die, but some things were worse than death.
Her hand passed unconsciously over her belly, and she closed her eyes, imagining what it must have could have been like. The Wizengamot had looked at her with a kind of awe when her final act had been described to them, but it had given her no pride. It wasn't the suicide, either - Hermione had been ready more than once to give her life when it had seemed necessary - but that her own body could have betrayed her to the point where it was necessary by harboring that unnatural beast.
Then other hands were touching her, and she startled, her eyes flying open and the hex already on her lips before she recognized them. Ron, of course, the freckled fingers rubbing her shoulders in deep, soothing circles, the familiar smell of his aftershave mixed with the orange marmelade and tea on his breath as he leaned in close to her ear. "It didn't happen. I'm here, and you're here, and that monster is gone forever, and you're going to be brilliant."
"The test is in two weeks." She didn't know what else to say, neither quite wanting to pull away nor entirely comfortable with his touch. It wasn't fair, she knew - he was right, of course, the worst hadn't happened -- and he'd been so understanding for so long already. "Maybe I should put it off."
"I said," he repeated, "you're going to be brilliant. You know magical law better than most of the blokes who wrote it."
"There were witches, too."
"Of course." She heard him take a deep breath, felt his hands pause, tense with hesitation, then he kissed the side of her neck so carefully that it almost tickled. "And then maybe...I thought...."
He trailed off, and when she turned to look at him quizzically, his face was flushed as if with embarrassment. Hermione frowned. "And then what, Ron?"
"I thought...." Another deep breath, and then to her surprise, he dropped to one knee, taking her hand in both of his and looking her hard in the eyes. "Marry me, Hermione."
Now she was completely confused, and she shook her head, pulling her hand free to display her engagement ring. "We've already been through this, Ron. I said yes."
"Not someday," there was a quick shake of the ginger head, and he took her hand again, gripping it more tightly this time. "Now. Whether the worst happened or not, it was still a close call, and I spent that whole night thinking of what I regretted and what it was going to mean to die at twenty-three, and the worst thing was that I've let being practical mean not being able to say you're really mine."
Hermione's eyes widened, her lips pressing tightly together. "I am not going to be your property when we get married, Ronald."
"Not my property," Ron amended quickly, "but it'll be realer than now. There'll be vows, it'll be, you know, official. For both of us."
The offense vanished, and even though the pungent, bitter taste of the coffee still tasted too queasily like adrenaline, and though the cuffs of her shirt were still too like ropes on her wrists, the touch of his skin on hers was not so bad after all, because it wasn't all the same. There was, honestly, such a world of difference between hands that loved and hands that held, and she took a long, deep breath, swallowing down the acid fear as she leaned forward to rest her forehead against his. Every muscle tensed, she could feel her pulse begin to speed as she broke out in a cold sweat, but it hadn't happened, and damned if she was going to let that black devil have her from beyond the grave. Her own last words never spoken rang through her mind. I am not yours to use.
Ron's arms were so tentatively around her now, and she wanted to scream, wanted to pull away, but she didn't, refused to allow it, and there was a faint smile of triumph bent around the shaky whisper. "More real."
"Sorry." She couldn't see his face as he bent his head over her shoulder, but she could feel the smile, and she knew that it wasn't pity. "Like now. Now is more realer."
"You're an ass, Ron." When she had started crying, she didn't know, but the taste of salt on her lips and the moisture on her cheeks were their own unfair betrayal, and she wiped them with a harsh swipe of her head against his shoulder. "But yes."
"Yes?" He pulled back enough to look hopefully at her. "You mean."
"If I pass. But yes." Hermione pushed back the stray curl that had worked loose from its utilitarian braid, drawing herself up so straight that she could almost ignore that she was shaking. "I'll marry you. You're right, we have a second chance; let's not waste it."
His answer was a grin that was so genuine, so speechlessly happy that for a split second, he was the boy she had known since she was eleven years old, and there was so much beyond one dark night that it gave her a burst of courage that was almost insanity. Hermione darted forward, grabbing his head in both hands and kissing him so hard that her lips bruised against her teeth, kissing him as if she could suck down all that had happened between them in antidote to all that hadn't. Ron was paralyzed at first, too startled to return it, but then he did, and she had no idea how long it was before they were just holding each other so tightly that it would have been reason enough for her to be gasping for breath.
It was their own house, there was no one else to see, and so she wasn't really ashamed, even though she couldn't have stopped the tears now if she had tried. "Now." She made the smile come, running her fingers over the spot of bright copper scruff just below his lower lip that he always managed to miss. "Now is more realer."