Chapter 18 - And Now, It's Real

[Companion Track: frYars - Our Father (http : / / www . youtube . com/watch?v=nVv23ppphfA) - remove spaces in link]

She stood with her back to the bathroom door, clutching the sheet in rumpled bunches around her body, eyes shut blissfully. Everything smelled like him. She smelled like him. She could still taste him, still feel his hands on her. She was still warm because he'd warmed her.

On her next exhale, she squeaked with delight, reminding herself of the silly girls at school she used to roll her eyes at. But as she opened her eyes again, she wasn't ashamed of this fact at all.

She grinned broadly at her own disheveled reflection. And, hearing Ginny shuffling around on the other side of the door, she was reminded of what came next, of going home.

Where was home now, again?


She squeaked again and covered her mouth as she bounced, dropping her sheet to the tile and skipping to the shower...

She spotted him from across the lobby, water still dripping off his fringe from his shower. He tilted his head down, tilted his eyes up, and grinned at her as he shoved his hands into his pockets, rolled his shoulder to adjust his bag strap, and shuffled shyly closer, closer... until the four of them stood in a circle - Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione.

Hermione bit her lip as she grinned back up at Ron... who was now avoiding her eyes altogether, rubbing an invisible smudge on the lobby floor with the toe of his trainer.

"Ready?" Harry asked, looking between them all.

"Not really," Ginny sighed dramatically. "Ten Galleons it's raining back home." She grumbled as Harry took her hand.

And Hermione waited, watching as Ron licked his lips. But with one last nervous tremble, he stretched out his own hand towards her, lifting an eyebrow and one corner of his mouth as he looked at her again.

She shivered as she took his hand, warmth enveloping her from his touch as he closed his larger hand around hers.

"Home," Ginny said as Ron looked into Hermione's eyes. And the word sounded much too perfect as the hotel lobby swirled away, bodies sucked into the vacuum of Apparation.

He'd taken them to the front door for some reason, instead of simplifying their journey by Apparating directly into his flat. Hermione adjusted her bag as she waited for Ron to dig his key out of his pocket and unlock the door, the process taking longer than it should have. The familiar signs of his nervousness stuck out, red patches across the back of his pale neck, peeking out from under his shaggy hair.

But finally, he swung the door open and stepped inside.

Thunder cracked as Hermione followed him in, and she shivered, rubbing her arms as he closed the door behind them, shutting them inside the cold living room, dark and deserted and a bit too quiet.

"Ginny was right," Ron said hoarsely, glancing towards the far window. Rain smacked the glass furiously, and the dark sky loomed, alight with lightning for a moment as they both stood watching.

He cleared his throat.

"Maybe I'll make some tea," and he dropped his bag where he stood, glanced quickly at Hermione, and disappeared into the kitchen. From her position, frozen just inside the front door, she could see him through the open kitchen door, moving around, scratching the back of his neck as he set the kettle on the stove top.

There was something exciting buried beneath the discomfort of their shyness now. It was strange, to suddenly be so cautious and nervous around someone she'd just... well, spent the night with.

No, someone she'd spent a very large portion of her life with.

Lost in thought, she hardly noticed time had passed, and when Ron returned to the living room with two mismatched cups of steaming tea, she was startled enough to jump.

"You alright?" Ron asked, stopping in his tracks and watching her curiously.

"Fine," she said, smiling briefly. But the need to keep talking through the awkwardness bubbled up to the surface, and she said the first thing that came to mind as Ron moved to the sofa... "Where should I put my things?"

He set the cups on the coffee table, straightened up, and licked his lips. Avoiding her eyes again, he toed off his trainers as a distraction.

"Uh, wherever you want, really," he said as he sat down.

So he was leaving it up to her. That's not at all what she'd wanted. She'd asked because she didn't want to have to answer the question herself. And now what was she supposed to do?

Leaving the question unanswered for now, she dropped her bag to the floor next to Ron's and made her way to join him on the couch.

As she sat down, inches away from him, he jumped up, and for a horrifying moment, she imagined that he'd been repelled by her, like opposing magnets. But then he spoke as he crossed towards the fireplace.

"Should make a fire."

"Oh," Hermione said, sounding much too relieved. And she blushed as he knelt and straightened the coals and wood inside the fireplace before aiming his wand at it and lighting it suddenly.

And with another loud burst of thunder, the room was suddenly glowing with warmth, softly comforting and crackling with life as Ron resumed his position on the sofa. Only closer. At least a few inches closer. If he breathed too deeply he'd probably be touching her...

Hermione smiled, reached for her cup of tea, and relaxed back into the cushions.

"Mm, much nicer," she said as she took a long sip of the tea, allowing the steam to travel up her nostrils and down the back of her throat as she breathed in. "Thank you, Ron," she added, tipping her cup in his direction.

He shook his head slightly, smiling, eyes glowing in the firelight.

They drank in silence, and it slowly became a bearable silence, through all the tension and absurd uncertainty of everything, so much so fast.

Finally, Ron replaced his cup on the coffee table and cleared his throat. Hermione held her breath, waiting for him to speak, but he just scratched the back of his neck, licking his lips again, mesmerizing her.

"So..." Hermione trailed off, having no idea what word should follow.

"So," Ron echoed.

"I uh," she began, suddenly landing on something to say but not really wanting to say it... though she needed to get it out, maybe to clear the air for good. "Last time I was here... I was sort of a mess, wasn't I. Just... I'm sorry. Again."

Ron's lips curved up, slowly arching into a wide grin as his cheeks glowed from the fire and his flush. He shook his head.

"I was so nervous when the confusion wore off," he admitted through his amused grin.

"Nervous?" Hermione asked, furrowing her eyebrows as she set her own now-empty cup on the coffee table next to Ron's, turning her body in slightly to face him fully. He rested his elbow on the couch back and pressed his cheek against his palm.

"Yeah, really nervous," he confirmed.

"But why?"

"Well," he licked his lips yet again and Hermione's stomach jumped as thunder cracked outside once more, "I loved you and I wasn't supposed to and I'd told you I didn't want to see you but, blimey, of course I did, so I had no bloody clue how I was supposed to act."

Hermione blinked at him.

"That's ridiculous," she laughed.

"Oh?" Ron arched an eyebrow. "As if you haven't done just as many ridiculous things. We overthink everything." He shrugged. "That's what got us into this mess in the first place, yeah? And now we think it's sorted but we're sitting here all twitchy anyway."

"Thanks," Hermione laughed again, shaking her head in disbelief at his frankness. But he'd fixed it, hadn't he? All he had to do was say it. And now she felt her whole body relax, as if everything made sense again.

He smiled at her, and held her gaze for a moment. She felt her blood run faster, her vital organs turn to heaps of mush, and her brain stall somewhere between sentences. She could do nothing but let his heat pull her closer, and she leaned into him. He dropped his arm flat across the back of the sofa, using the other to wrap around her as she rested her head on his chest.

"I'm sorry I left," she sniffed.

"Which time?" he joked, and she stiffened. "Shit, that was stupid."

She closed her eyes, not that she could see his face anyway from her awkward position against him. He shifted against the couch arm and gathered her closer to him. But she had to pull back finally, body skewed into an uncomfortable position... and a stitch lodged distinctly in her chest now from his reminder of the magnitude of what she'd really done.

"I meant the night I stayed here," she said through her now-tight jaw. "I should have-"

"Stop saying the word 'should'," Ron interrupted. "Just do what you want. Now. Or whenever you want it. And forget it."

"That's what you really want?" she asked, eyes burning.

"Yeah," he nodded. "We went over this."

And as she studied him, she saw just how sincere he was. No signs of hurt or discomfort remained in his glowing eyes, his relaxed features... he'd forgiven her. But he was much too easy. She wasn't the same, never had been. It was so much harder to come to terms with a mistake, especially when she was the one who had made it. She wasn't supposed to make mistakes. In fact, everything she did seemed to contradict the idea of mistakes. She ordered her life so she never took a wrong turn or a false step.

Never... except for when it suddenly mattered the most.

How long before she could forgive herself?

"Come here," Ron said softly, and he jostled against the couch arm again, lifting his legs to stretch along the length of the couch, dropping them onto Hermione's lap in the process.

She sniffed with the hint of a chuckle and extricated herself to crawl towards him as he separated his legs, inviting her. His long arm stretched far down the back of the couch, just to the right of her cheek as she repositioned herself between his legs, back towards him. She felt oddly nervous again, encased in his scent, so close.

But then he dropped his arm to her waist, tucking her tight against him. And as she melted, allowing both of his arms to close around her and his head to drop on top of hers, they seemed to fit perfectly.

He breathed deeply, and she felt his chest push against her back heavily.

There was this need, rising to the surface, like she had to fill a void, words to break through stiff tension as the storm outside intensified. But she sensed him about to speak for her, chest constricting in that instant before the words made their escape...

"We don't have to talk," he said quietly. "You don't have to say anything, if you don't want to."

She let her head drop fully against his chest now, her eyes drifting shut. How was it possible that he was... perfect? Oh, she'd guessed. She'd known, in a way. But now she was here and he was here and he'd asked her to be here and all he wanted was her...

"Are you happy?" he asked.

No words could describe her happiness, and to simply answer 'yes' seemed a poor response. So she twisted in his arms and he lifted his head to allow her to face him, noses almost touching.

She tilted her head, parted her lips, and watched as his eyes slipped shut, before her lips had even touched his, blissful anticipation of the feeling that was coming...

She kissed him for as long as she could, back twisted awkwardly to face him, before she had no choice but to flip, drawing him down further onto his back as she hovered over him. And at last, through a warm haze, tingling tongues where they'd mingled between a newly created space, she pulled away, smiling and watching... waiting for him to open his eyes and look back up at her.

His pale eyelashes fluttered, and then he was staring into her soul.

"Happy?" she whispered. He lifted a trembling hand to the back of her head, let his fingers flow through her hair, and brought her forehead gently back to his.

"Never better," he sighed, and he kissed her again.

A/N: Whew! So sorry for the delay. I'm back into the swing of this story now. Been having weeks and weeks of trouble uploading anything to this site, and now I finally found a workaround in the forums for how to upload a new chapter to an existing story, so that's good at least. If you are having the same trouble, check my profile for steps on how to fix it, thanks to some geniuses over on the forums :)