Warnings: Infidelity, angst, character death (before fic begins)
Notes: I have never, ever shipped Harry/Hermione. I personally never saw a spark between them. But the two of them finding something in each other after Harry's wife dies, with Hermione still married to Ron? Sparktacular. Written For LJ's Hp_emofest.
The Price of Love
The day after Ron found out, he went into the office as usual. The receptionist, the secretaries, the junior Aurors, they all greeted him as usual, and he went to his desk, as usual, and Harry came in to say good morning, as usual, except that Harry quite visibly knew that he knew and Ron's smile was so tight he thought his whole face was going to snap.
"Mate," Harry began, looking as awkward in his skin as Ron had ever seen him.
Ron didn't mean to snap, but the words, "Don't call me that!" fairly burst out of him.
Harry's eyes shone uncertainly behind his trademark glasses. Ron had a sudden urge to reach out and snap the damned things in half.
"Look, I know-" Harry began.
"I can't talk to you," Ron cut him off, meaning ever again. He'd known for twelve hours, less even, and he must have been in some kind of shock. Why else would he have deliberately put himself into the same room as Harry on this morning of all mornings?
Harry blinked a few times. "Er," he began, and that was all it took for a litany of excuses to dance through Ron's head. Harry might talk about Ginny's death and sorrow and loneliness as though Ron hadn't been feeling all those things too. As though that justified any of this.
Ron was on his feet and without quite deciding to do it, he overturned his desk. Paperwork, stationery, experimental equipment, the photograph of Hermione – all of it crashed to the floor. Ron felt a vicious thrill at the way Harry flinched away from the evidence of Ron's anger, the shattering of glass. The buzz of office chatter abruptly silenced as every eye in the room turned to them.
Ron wasn't thinking then of how this was going to play out in the Daily Prophet, though he would later. He might have made the same choice anyway; anything rather than stand on the sidelines with the same stupid patient expression he'd been wearing for twenty years as his best friend or his wife out-stripped him in every single thing he did.
The upside down in-out trays slid from atop the mounds of open files onto the carpet. Ron was breathing hard, as though he'd run the length of Hogwarts. His blood raced through his body, every heartbeat screaming at Harry, Fuck you. Fuck you.
Harry looked wretched. On any day but this that would have mattered.
Ron glared at his former best friend. "Consider that my resignation," he spat, and with that he walked away from his twenty-year career as an Auror; an extremely successful career which had nonetheless left him trailing behind Harry Potter, as he always did, in everything.
Ginny died suddenly. It wasn't supposed to happen, obviously, death never is when it comes to the young, but in this case when they'd all been through so much…
Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny. When Ginny found out she was pregnant, Ron and Hermione were the first to know after Harry. They'd had a celebratory drink, with Ginny bitching because she couldn't touch alcohol for the foreseeable future, Harry blushing whenever Ron congratulated him – which caused Ron to think about how it was Ginny had become pregnant, which made his mind recoil so fast his head swam. And then that night Hermione had whispered to him, I want that to be us, and that night for the first time he made love to his wife without a contraceptive charm. He remembered her expression as she rode him, felt the ache in his back as he arched beneath her, calling out her name.
She'd loved him then.
And she'd loved Ginny, too, shared the things with her that they could never have shared with their respective husbands, talked about who-knew-what while Harry and Ron went for a beer and let them get on with it. And Harry would talk about work, and about the house he wanted to buy for them, and later he'd talk about how James had taken his first step and Al had grabbed his finger and Ginny still wanted a girl, but wasn't willing to keep going until she got one like her mother had.
"Two's enough for me, mate," Ron had said, shaking his head.
Harry sighed. "Three's a good number. Three would be great." And Ron had shifted, knowing that Harry wanted more.
Hermione had, too. It was Ron who'd said that two was enough, remembering the stigma of being poor and the least impressive of seven. Hermione had objected but they'd talked it out, in the way they'd learned how to talk and not shout when it was really important, and she'd understood even if she hadn't agreed.
Ginny understood. They loved their family, wouldn't change it, but when Ginny, pregnant again said, "Three's plenty," and Ron said, "Yeah," they knew their reasons were the same.
They were always in each other's lives, was the thing. Harry and Ron and Hermione had done everything together practically since they met, and with Harry married to Ginny they were going to the same places for Christmas and New Year and Easter and Hallowe'en, the same Hogmanay parties, the same everything and of course the kids went to the same school and the four of them were a unit you couldn't have pried apart with crowbars. They were always popping in on each other, always borrowing things and babysitting and going for dinner. It probably would have continued like that forever, but then Ginny died.
Ron couldn't bear to go back to the house, home, house he'd shared with Hermione for all those years. He couldn't handle his parents' reaction, didn't really have many friends outside of his work or his family, and so he ended up, as he had once before, staying with Bill and Fleur.
Victoire had moved in with Teddy after finishing school, which is where Dominique and Louis were at the moment. Ron thought about having to tell Rose and Hugo that their mother had left him and didn't even know where to begin.
Ron had showed up in the middle of the day with red eyes and bruised knuckles from punching the wall on the way out the ministry. Fleur had taken one look at him and said, "Fire-weeskey I theenk," and then more or less left him alone with the bottle until Bill came home.
Bill listened, his face turning white as Ron blurted out not the whole story, but certainly the gist. And there was cursing, and more drinking, and concerned faces and telepathic husband-wife conferences between Bill and Fleur, and then the money shot:
"What are you going to do about the kids?" Bill asked.
Ron sipped his drink. The first four had burned on the way down but this one, the seventh, was going down like water. "I dunno," he said.
"Ron," Bill's face was serious, "Ron, you have to tell them before it gets out. You know what our lives our like, particularly Harry's-" Ron snarled a little and hunkered down into the settee; Bill held out his hands apologetically and lowered his voice. "This is going to hit the national newspapers really, really soon. The whole ministry is talking about the scene in your office this morning – you know Percy Owled me about that this afternoon?" Ron looked at Bill sharply, eliciting a wry smile. "I'm home three hours early, little brother, didn't you notice?"
"You have to talk to Rose and Hugo. It would be best if you and Hermione-"
A snarl wasn't enough this time. This time Ron had to stand up and hurl his whiskey glass against the opposite wall. It shattered, leaving streaks of amber liquid dripping down the lavender wallpaper that Fleur must have overruled Bill to buy.
Ron stood there, breathing hard, furious and ashamed and hurting and Bill breathed out, long and slow.
"Maybe not ready to talk to Her… to her," Bill conceded.
"Maybe not," Ron echoed. And then the anger left him all in a rush and there he was, nearly forty with a wife who'd screwed his best friend and might even get to take his kids away. He felt a strange gulp in his chest, but he didn't realise he was crying until Bill made a sound deep in his throat and dragged him into his arms.
Ginny got a disease none of them had ever heard of. She contracted it in Indonesia when she was out there covering the World Cup, but it had remained dormant until she had been back in Britain for a month and some potion ingredient had activated the virus in her blood.
It was awful watching her go from thinking it was a cold, to too weak to stand, to dying in front of them all in the space of a week.
The potion of which the lethal ingredient had been a component was a contraceptive that Harry hadn't known Ginny was taking. Harry had been furious in a way Ron hadn't seen since they'd been in fifth year, railing against the world for being fucking unfair and Ginny for being stupid and Ginny for not wanting more kids and Ginny for lying to him. Hermione had wrapped her arms around him and the protest in Ron's throat died a death under her stare.
Harry blamed Ginny for taking the potion, Ron knew it. Harry blamed her and loved her and hated her for leaving him. And Ron blamed Harry, he could admit that now. Blamed Harry for pushing the kids issue and making Ginny hide it because maybe if she'd been able to come clean about the potion earlier, maybe, maybe…
Rationally Ron knew that it wasn't Harry's fault, of course, but there are so many other things that are.
Ron, unable to put it off any longer, went to the school two days after moving into Shell Cottage. He sat in what had once been the Transfiguration classroom and was now a museum to the Battle of Hogwarts, and waited for them both to come.
Rose and Hugo, now sixteen and fourteen respectively, were extremely wary on seeing him there, likely remembering the expression on his and Hermione's faces the last time they'd come here unannounced.
Hugo took one look at him and tensed; Rose reached out for her brother's hand and tightened her fingers fit to snap bones.
"It's Mum this time, isn't it?" Hugo said, face white.
Ron hadn't thought before of how this might seem.
"It's not-" he began, and then Rose had burst out with, "That's what her owl was all about wasn't it? She was talking about changes and how you have to make hard choices and it didn't make any sense unless she's-"
The tone, the rising panic, the ridiculous swell of emotion coming from virtually nothing was all pure Hermione and for a split second, a split second he will hate himself for, he just wanted to hurt his daughter for daring to be like his wife.
"She's fucking your Uncle Harry," Ron had snapped. He would have given anything, anything at all to have it unsaid the next second, but that was how he broke the news to his children of their parents' impending divorce.
They hadn't hid the fact that they were spending a lot of time together. Why should they? It was perfectly natural for Harry to need someone to lean on, and the candidates were not exactly numerous. Molly had gone to pieces herself, Arthur was kind but getting frail as he grew older, and Ron was not renowned for his emotional sensitivity, as Hermione had reminded him frequently throughout their marriage. Harry had never been as close to the rest of the Weasley brothers, certainly not close enough to talk about something like this. And besides, the fury he'd expressed on the day they found out why Ginny was dying, the rage he'd managed to suppress when he held her and told her he loved her and whispered goodbye, the anger he had put aside when he explained to their children about the disease minus one key fact, all of that had come back and was tearing him apart. Hermione had loved Ginny, but she was also the one person who could sympathise with what Harry was feeling without loyalty to her getting in the way.
Ron had been glad that Harry had her to lean on. Harry had done a decent enough job of masking his conflict in front of his kids, but when they had eventually, shakily, gone back to school, he still seemed to veer wildly between despair and raw fury. Hermione was able to soothe him with a hand on his back or a whisper in his ear. Harry had told him once that without him around, he and Hermione didn't really have all that much to say to one another, but Ron could see how in a situation like this that might be comforting. Hermione had finally encountered something that would make her shut up, and Ron could see how the silence might be comforting to someone used to Ginny's way of handling these things.
Ron had been used to Hermione's, though. She wasn't quietly supportive; she prodded and poked you into action. She lectured you until you proved her wrong and then she scowled. When someone was hurting, Ron or one of the kids, she would talk them through it softly, soothing with words. Her exhausted silence after yet another night of dropping in on Harry to find him breaking things or drinking or staring blankly into space frightened Ron. She'd crawl into bed with him and he'd hang on to her, tight, wondering where exactly his wife had gone to and who this silent stranger was. He'd seen her tired before, of course; they had two children after all. But he'd never seen her so drained, so lifeless. He'd held her those nights, feeling the tension in her body. She wouldn't even snap at him that he was being silly the way she usually did when he was feeling tender for no obvious reason, she'd just curl up further into his embrace and hold herself there
Had it already started then?
George and Angelina had moved into a house on the outskirts of Hogsmeade not long after little Fred had been born. The staff sometimes used the old flat over the shop, but at the moment it was empty so Ron was able to use it in the meantime.
"Keep you away from Mum at any rate," said George, meeting Angelina's eyes and wincing.
Angelina shrugged. "You can't blame her really. She's always been so protective and this…" Ron met her gaze and the words died in her throat.
He would have been welcomed at the Burrow, of course. He would have been welcomed and pampered and Molly would have ranted about how Hermione was just awful and how could Harry do this and what was going to happen to the kids and Ron could not have stood that for more than five minutes absolute maximum. Never mind all the in-laws dropping in, all the happy families and the kids and all that crap. He'd barely been able to stand Bill and Fleur and they weren't exactly the most sickening of couples.
Besides, this way he was closer to the school, and therefore his children.
After blurting out the news like that, in the most direct and vile way he could possibly have managed, Ron had tried to back-pedal but there wasn't really room. Both Rose and Hugo had stood there stunned and then Rose's lip had started to tremble and she'd screamed at Ron that he was lying, he had to be, Mummy would never do something like that!
Rose hadn't called Hermione "Mummy" since she was six.
Rose had screamed at Ron and he'd been so ashamed of himself for his earlier slip that he hadn't shouted back at her. He had instead sat down heavily on the wooden study desk, eyes burning and said, "It's true."
Rose went off again, wailing about how it couldn't be, couldn't be happening, and Ron was certain that he really was going to cry in front of them both until Hugo finally snapped at her, "Shut up!"
Ron's head snapped up; Rose's eyes widened but the torrent of words ceased. She stifled a sob with the back of her hand.
Hugo wiped his mouth as though he might throw up. "Dad," he said, "Dad, are you…?"
Ron couldn't bring himself to hear the whole question. "I moved out of the house," he said quietly. "I don't know where she is, if she's there, or…"
"You haven't spoken to her at all?" Hugo asked, sharply.
"Not since I asked her about…" Ron looked away.
Rose let out a low moan and Hugo reached out the hand that wasn't in hers to stroke her back.
"Do you know what's going to happen with…" Hugo's voice gave out.
"I'm sorry," Ron said. He'd cocked this up something fierce, hadn't he, all bull in a china shop with his kids of all people. He rubbed his hand over his eyes, and noticed absently that he was still wearing his wedding ring. "I just didn't want to lie to you, and if they haven't told you, well…"
"You're really splitting up?" Rose asked softly.
Ron didn't know anything much with any certainty, but he did know that after this his marriage was over.
"Yeah, Rosie-girl," Ron said. "Yeah, we are."
Being in London meant that he was further away than he would have liked from the school. With Hermione… well… Anyway, Rose and Hugo had to be his concern now. Ron had told them where he was living, and that they could write to him whenever they wanted. It hadn't occurred to him that at present he didn't exactly have an owl, having left Iris with Hermione. He could always borrow someone else's owl, but it was rather an imposition, and the thought of asking Hermione to send him Iris – the thought of asking Hermione anything, frankly – was more than he could stomach.
Owls weren't cheap, but Ron could afford one. He'd afford anything in the world to ensure that he could reach his kids if they needed him.
Ron sighed and decided that he'd hidden himself away for long enough. It was time to go out into the world; he could drop by Quality Quidditch Supplies in an attempt to distract himself, maybe go by Flourish and Blotts for the insatiable readers he'd raised, and he'd likely need to go to Gringott's first...
There was an abrupt tightening in his stomach as Ron realised suddenly that his money and Hermione's was all tangled up together; either of them could empty that vault and leave the other destitute.
She would never… a voice objected, but Ron shoved it down. There was very little that she wouldn't do, as he'd found out to his cost.
The tension built up in Ron sharply as he pulled on a cloak as quickly as he could and headed out on to Diagon Alley. The street was quieter this early on a Tuesday, which was just as well because Ron was walking the fast, purposeful stride he'd perfected as an Auror; the stride said, do not mess with me, do not get in my way, do not stop me.
Someone wasn't paying attention and Ron found himself crashing into a petite brunette outside of Twilfitt & Tattings.
"Oh!" she exclaimed as he slammed into her so hard she nearly fell. Ron reached out automatically to steady her, placing a hand on her waist. She looked up at him for a moment, all dark hair and blue eyes, and then she said, quite composed, "I'm so sorry, I was just leaving the shop and I didn't look. I-"
"Not a problem," Ron said, and resumed the charge down Diagon Alley. He was hard pressed to keep his pace slower than a run, sudden visions in his mind of everything he had painstakingly built up over the years gone in a single stroke. He screeched to a halt outside the bank, knowing it would do no good at all to approach the goblins flustered.
"Vault 649," he said, gasping a little, grateful that of all the things he had left behind when he had stormed out of his marital home, he at least had his key to the Gringotts vault.
The goblin had glared at him in the way that they do, and then everything was a bit of a blur until Ron was standing in the doorway to the vault, and there was nothing, nothing missing at all. She had taken nothing. Ron rubbed his hands over his face and tried to steady himself; he couldn't, and sank to his knees.
Was that better or worse? Ron asked himself as his breathing slowed. Is it better if she takes absolutely nothing from me at all? If she never wants anything, if I can give her absolutely nothing after all these years of being her world, is that better?
"Sir," the goblin said in disgust, "Weeping at the sight of gold is all very well, but must you be so loud about it?"
It took Ron some time to compose himself, but eventually he managed it. He collected money enough for an owl and resolved that his first letter would be to Bill, to ask what to do about the money and the house as he and Hermione dissolved their marriage. The goblin scowled at him as he left the bank, but that was more or less business as usual.
Eeylops Owl Emporium hadn't changed much over the years, but then it didn't really need to; the light was muted, the floor lined with straw, and the gleam of eyes seemed to fill the room. A flutter from above Ron drew his attention just in time for him to see white wings folding away. He hadn't remembered that the owls were allowed to fly around, but maybe it was a recent change.
"Good afternoon," said a voice behind him. "With what can I assist?"
It was the woman he'd run into on the street. Ron turned and said, "Um, hullo."
She raised an eyebrow at him. She was clearly too polite to mention that he had nearly mown her down on the street, but he could tell that she was thinking about it.
"Sorry… about before, I mean," he said. Her composure was incredibly unnerving. She didn't seem to react to that at all; her lips merely curved a little at the edges.
"In for an owl I assume?" she said.
Ron nodded. "A fairly smart one. Nice steady character, not too hyperactive."
The woman's lips curved a little further.
"I have just the soul." She picked up a piece of wood which looked a little like a door handle and called out, "Iris!"
With a loud flap of wings, a tawny owl came to rest on the perch, Ron realised it must be. The owl looked at him, tipping its head from side to side, then tilted and hooted softly. The woman tilted her head, mimicking Iris' movement.
"She thinks you'll do."
"Thanks loads," Ron said before he could stop himself. The woman smiled, properly this time. Ron noticed that she was really quite ridiculously beautiful, and a little familiar now that he looked.
"Will you need cage, perch, owl treats? Iris likes the nutty kind."
"All of that," Ron said, frowning. "All of that is fine. Do we know each other?"
The woman shrugged. "Maybe just from here? Around Diagon Alley?"
"Could be, of course," Ron conceded. He extended his hand. "Ron Weasley."
The woman paused briefly before taking it. "Astoria Malfoy," she said.
"Bloody hell," fell out of Ron's mouth before he could catch it. This was Draco Malfoy's wife? "And you work here?"
"I know," Astoria said, smiling though there was an edge to her expression. "Who would imagine a Malfoy in trade?" She laughed, but Ron could hear the hurt, until she added, "Lucius was horrified." Her tone revealed nothing but good breeding, but Ron could feel her satisfaction.
Ron wasn't used to people expressing two contradictory emotions with every sentence; he cleared his throat. "I, um, I never thought about anyone rich working, really."
Astoria looked straight at him. "What do you know about me?" she said, the most minute frown on her face, barely a crinkle in her smooth forehead. "You see expensive robes and hear my surname and you assume I'm Narcissa. Everyone does," she shrugged. "But I like working with the owls."
"I'm sorry," Ron said, feeling wrong footed for what had to be a record number of times during one conversation, even for him.
"For what?" Astoria said breezily, though she didn't look at him again. "Let me get you the things you'll need."
When Ron got back to his flat, the letters had already started to pile up. He hadn't realised that perhaps Hermione had lost track of him, but he'd told the kids where he was and that, he supposed, was how he found himself with two letters from her and one from Harry. He imagined all sort of things they might say, starting with anger at him for telling the kids without talking it through. He wondered if they would contain apologies or vitriol.
He was interested in neither. "Incendio!"
Iris hooted at him reproachfully from her perch. Ron looked at her.
"There are some people," he said fiercely, "you will never be required to deliver to."
Letters came the next day not only from his mother and Rose and Hugo, all of which were expected, but also from James Potter. Ron was a little surprised, then kicked himself for failing to realise that of course Rose and Hugo would have told their cousins.
The letter wasn't a howler, but on reading it Ron felt exactly as though it had been. James was furious, angry with Harry and Hermione, hurt that Ron had told his own children but no one had thought to tell him or Al or Lily, worried about what would happen which the holidays came, painfully confused by the whole situation.
Al doesn't even believe it, he wrote. So Hugo had a go at him about calling you a liar, and Al said that you were calling Dad worse than that, and Lily had to shout at them both to get them to stop it, and if Rose hadn't cast a muffling charm everyone at school would have heard about it. Al's writing to Dad today, so I suppose we'll hear their side of it soon enough, but why did no one think to tell us?
Pain radiated off the page; Ron could only feel sorrow for his failure and anger at Harry and Hermione for having left this to him when they were the ones who'd caused all of this.
He had been too concerned with Rose and Hugo to think about the others, and the parallel with Hermione's being too concerned with Harry to think of Ron made him sick.
One morning, about a fortnight after Ginny died, Ron had woken up alone in his bed. It wasn't the first time it had happened recently, but it was still unusual enough for Ron to worry. Downstairs he found an unusually subdued Pigwidgeon with a letter for him, and as he stumbled into the kitchen to make his morning tea, he found James sitting at the dining table.
James hadn't been reading or studying or eating or doing anything at all. He had simply been sitting at the table, staring at his hands resting on the wood.
Ron had never been much good at saying the right things, so he hadn't tried. He had simply sat at the table and waited for James to speak.
He waited a long time.
Eventually, James cleared his throat. "I used to go flying when I needed to clear my head," he said, voice trembling with the effort of suppressing his feelings.
"Yeah?" said Ron gently.
"But I can't now," James went on. "Because Mum taught me to fly, and now..." His face collapsed. He wasn't crying. Ron thought at first he was trying not to, but then realised the worse truth: he was trying to cry because it would express some of the yawning emptiness his mother's death had caused, but the exhausted pain was simply too consuming for tears to be any refuge. Ron had reached out and clasped the back of James' neck, keeping him anchored. That was all he had felt able to do.
Ron hadn't realised until this moment just how much of a distance that revealed between Harry and James. He'd always been close to Al, but James and Lily had been closer to Ginny, and James had reached out not to his father but to him, Ron.
Ron had failed him too, now.
And James had pointed out something else in his letter, something Ron had not allowed himself to think about.
It hasn't been in the papers yet, but it will be. What are we supposed to say?
Ron didn't have the answer for that one.
Another owl arrived. Pigwideon again. This one was in Hermione's writing.
Ron didn't burn it, but he didn't open it, either.
Ron had known that the longer he put off answering the letters, the more likely it was that someone would come to talk to him in person.
He just hadn't expected it to be at the shop.
He'd started helping out over George's protests. The permanent staff had been a little worried about losing their hours at first, and George had assured him that he was doing ok for help. Ron had replied that he wouldn't feel right about staying in the flat without doing something, and until the money was sorted out with the separation, this was the best he could do.
The truth was that he simply needed something to keep himself occupied. He suspected George had understood, and that was why the subject had been dropped.
In any case, George had started using Ron's presence as an opportunity to better train his staff, showing some of those who were interested some stages in the development process with an eye to developing future products. Ron was on his own on the shop floor, replenishing the Tickle Terrors, when Harry's voice interrupted him.
"Can I talk to you?"
Ron stilled, put down the boxes in his hands and turned to look at Harry. He wasn't wearing his Auror robes, which was something, just his usual weekend Muggle wear. In silence they looked at one another, alone in the same room for the first time since Ron had thrown a desk at him.
Ron had never hated Harry. Oh, there had been resentments and arguments and that falling out in fourth year fuelled by white-hot anger and jealousy, but Harry had always been Ron's best mate, always relying on him.
But now it was fourth year all over again, only much, much worse. The vision of Harry and Hermione from the horcrux taunted him again and again. Harry had told him it would never happen, wasn't even a consideration.
Ron had trusted him, but he shouldn't have. Ron should have known that Harry would always win everything in the end.
"Talk," Ron said. He wished he felt something other than the cold, hard rage solidifying his insides, but he could not. This was not a conversation he wanted to have, but he knew it was necessary.
"You told the children," said Harry. "I wish you'd talked to me about it first."
"You stole my wife," Ron replied, knowing it wasn't going to help anything but unable to stop himself. "I don't think talking to me about it first would have made it better."
Harry swallowed. "Look, Ron, it wasn't... It was just a mistake, all right? It just happened, and... I know you think we're living together or something, but..."
"You are," Ron replied coldly. He knew that for certain.
"Not like that," Harry said quickly. "Not at all, it's just, our family is your family, yours and Ginny's, it always has been. And it's been so hard." He swallowed. "I lost her, and now I've lost you, probably Hermione too in the end, and I don't want to lose my kids so please, Ron, just let's all talk about this and decide what we're going to do."
Ron tried for some compassion. Harry was his oldest friend, his brother for years. There had to be some way Ron could feel for him. But the fury just kept getting in the way.
"Nice speech," Ron spat. "Just one question. How long was my sister in the ground before you fucked my wife?"
Harry's face turned white. "Ron-" he forced out, but that was as far as he could get.
"Yeah," Ron nodded. "Not sure I'd know what to say either if I were you."
After a conversation like that one, going to the pub immediately was an absolute necessity. Ron wasn't sure how long he sat on the bar stool, but the Firewhisky was never empty and that was what counted. If he drank enough of it, he was certain, the solid lump in his stomach would finally dissipate. And perhaps if he drank enough, he would be able to submerge all his pain below the alcohol and drown it until it died.
He hadn't drunk enough yet.
"Ron Weasley?" said a voice.
Ron looked up and blinked slowly. "Asteria Malfoy!"
"Astoria," she corrected him gently and sat down. "Are you all right?"
"Not yet," Ron said, lifting his glass to toast her. "But I'm working on it." In another motion the contents were down his throat and Ron signalled for another.
Astoria looked at him for a long moment and said, "I don't know exactly what's wrong here, but I'm going to tell you something. Do you remember Daphne?"
Not immediately, he didn't.
"Daphne Greengrass," she clarified.
"Right, right," Ron nodded. "Slytherin. Quiet around us, not like most of the others."
Astoria smiled a little. "She wasn't quiet around me. She liked to pretend to be bookish, but really she was quite the adventuress. Worked with vampires, werewolves, dark creatures, trying to help them. There was an accident one full moon. She died." Astoria's voice was quiet, but a wealth of emotion trembled there.
"I'm sorry," said Ron, not understanding what this had to do with anything. "She was your friend?"
"My big sister," Astoria told him.
Ron swallowed and looked away.
"I know you lost a brother in the war," Astoria said carefully, her eyes still on his face. "But losing your sister that way, it must have been even harder to take."
"It was," Ron said, his throat clogging uncomfortably as he got the words out.
"I just wanted you to know that I understand. Sometimes you just can't share that with the people around you." Astoria patted his hand.
But she was talking about Harry, not him. Harry had closed himself down and Hermione had gone to get him to open up as she always had, never realising that just wasn't how Harry operated. Ron had needed her, he acknowledged fully for the first time. Ron had loved Ginny and had wanted Hermione to be there with him, holding him and listening to him talk about her, but Hermione had chosen Harry instead.
It wasn't the sex that was the betrayal. It started before then.
And yes, all right, Ron knew it was selfish, but he had been hurting and he had wanted his wife. He still wanted his wife back. Or if she had to go, he wanted to talk about it with his sister.
"Can I tell you about Ginny?" said Ron suddenly.
"Please," Astoria said, smiling gently.
Ron didn't read the letter from Hermione when he got home, either. Instead he wrote to the kids – all of them. One for Rose, one for Hugo, one for James, one for Lily – even one for Al, which was the hardest of all. He didn't want Al to feel like he was trying to usurp Harry's place, but he wanted Al to know that although they hadn't worked things out yet, he could talk to any of them as he needed to.
When replies came, James was calmer, Lily was unhappy, Hugo was trying to keep everyone cool-headed. Rose and Al had written almost the same thing. Can't you get Mum to come back to you? Rose had pleaded as part of a long missive, while Al's letter had been one sentence long: Why couldn't you hold on to your wife?
Ron couldn't have told him.
The sickest thing about all of this was that a part of Ron almost understood. He could see how losing Ginny like that, watching the kids fall apart, watching your happy ending unravel, he could see how all of that could make you reach out for something, anything that you could cling to. He could understand Hermione's agony at seeing her oldest friend in pain, someone she'd loved nearly all of her life, and wanting to comfort him, wanting to take the pain away. Ron could understand all of that.
But how they could both have forgotten about him? That was the part that made him furious, because he understood that as well. He had allowed them both to take him for granted, stood back and been a rock for Harry, accepting his role as side kick because after all Harry was the saviour of the wizarding world. He'd stood back and watched Harry rise to Head Auror, watched Hermione leapfrog her way up the Ministry and the old insecurities just hadn't bothered him, because maybe he was nothing special compared with his wife or his best friend but they loved him, relied on him. The way everyone else in the world looked at Harry hadn't mattered one bit to Ron because of how Hermione looked at him. How Rose and Hugo were the perfect blend of all the things Ron loved about Hermione and all the things Hermione loved about him; Hugo had Hermione's eyes and Ron's nose, Rose had Hermione's hair, poor girl, and Ron's freckles. He had loved them for themselves, yes of course, but he had also always loved the way he could see himself and the woman he loved together forever in their faces.
Hermione had chosen Harry over all three of them and Ron almost hated her for that.
The story broke just two days later. On was only surprised that it had taken so long. Someone had apparently been in the shop that day – who would have thought that the Prophet would take the time to check if its stories were true? But now there it was.
WIDOWED POTTER FINDS COMFORT WITH MARRIED SISTER-IN-LAW screeched the headline. Put like that it was really awful. A photograph of the three of them together immediately after Ginny's funeral was in the top corner, with two photographs below. One was of Ron alone, working at Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes; the other was of Hermione and Harry together at the Hogs Head. They weren't exactly all over each other or anything, but they were clearly there alone together. Hermione sat down next to Harry and he smiled at her reassuringly. Ron watched the loop three times, tracing Hermione's every expression hungrily. She was unhappy but calm about it, he thought.
He didn't read the article. What would be the point? Either it would be lurid or it would be a damning indictment of either him, Hermione or Harry. There was nothing to be gained from it.
He lasted two hours before his Mum came through the Floo unannounced.
"Well," she bustled, "have you seen this? What a pack of lies – terrible things about you, and how that pair deserve one another which I suppose they do but not in the way that woman means," Molly sniffed.
"Mum," said Ron weakly, "I can't..."
"Really, as though this wasn't going to be hard enough on your children," Molly went on, absently wandering through into the flat's tiny kitchen and inspecting the teacup Ron hadn't got around to washing yet. "To make such a fuss about it all, it's just not right. Well, you should come home now, of course."
Ron put his head in his hands. "Mum, would you just please shut up?"
Molly gasped. Ron had never said that to her before, not even during the worst of his teenage rebellion. But now he was just so exhausted and drained that he really couldn't listen to it.
"Mum," he said, "I need to decide what I'm going to do. I know you want to help," he said, forestalling her intended objection, "but I really have to work this out myself. And I can't listen to how evil Harry and Hermione are because it doesn't help. I'm going to have to talk to them if only for the sake of the kids."
Molly looked at him hard. "I've never been prouder of you."
Not what Ron had expected to hear. "Come again?"
"Reacting with dignity and strength of character?" Molly smiled. "There have been many times I've seen what kind of man you are, but you never fail to amaze me."
"Thanks Mum," Ron said, trying to resist the age-old blush. She hugged him, hard, and Ron felt stronger than he had for quite a while.
According to the Prophet, Harry and Hermione were staying at Grimmauld Place meantime. Neither marital home would exactly be appropriate. Harry's wife had died in one, Hermione's husband had been told he was a cuckold in the other.
Ron could hardly stay at the flat with dozens of reporters camped outside waiting for him to give a comment on how fucked his life had become. It was his own home or his parents', and his mother's moment of grace notwithstanding, there were limits.
He wasn't sure until he was standing in the foyer just how much being back here would affect him. He hadn't been here, after all, since Hermione's sobbing confession to which he had responded by screaming at her to get out.
He hadn't watched her go. He hadn't trusted himself not to shout, beg, cry – horrifyingly, he hadn't even trusted himself not to hurt her. Shake her. Scream into her face, force Veritaserum down her throat and demand answers that would do nothing to ease the pain.
He remembered the sound of the door closing and how he had been certain even then that she would come straight back.
Ron straightened his shoulders and walked in. It was still the house where he'd raised his children after all. The good memories still outweighed the bad.
Hugo had once been so tiny that he hadn't been able to reach the top of that sideboard. Rose had sat at that coffee table, a present from Dad, learning arithmetic so well that Hermione had wanted to start her on Arithmancy at the tender age of seven. Hugo had had his first flying lesson in that back garden. Rose had scowled at Ron's effort to teach her how to cook and said that she shouldn't have to just because she was a girl – which bemused Ron somewhat, given that he, her father, was the one doing the teaching.
Ron breathed in deeply, taking back the house for himself.
Then he removed Harry and Hermione from the wards. There might be legal consequences, but he would deal with that as they became apparent. For now he simply focused on doing it.
Ginny could still access the home. Ron couldn't bring himself to remove her name, silly though it was.
"What is this?" said Astoria, raising an elegant eyebrow.
Ron grinned. "Open it."
Astoria did so, slowly and with a touch of wariness. The paper had concealed a selection of Weasley's Wizard Wheezes' new line of products, not available to the public until autumn. She looked at Ron inquisitively.
"I thought your son might like them," Ron said.
Astoria smiled. "Ah, you've heard that he's a bit of a joker then."
Ron shrugged. "Actually I heard quite the opposite, but maybe these will be useful for self-defence."
At that Astoria laughed a little, throwing back her head. She really was pretty.
"Listen," Ron began, but whatever he was about to say stalled as the door to Eeylops opened and Draco bloody Malfoy walked in.
"Dearest," said Astoria, a small but unmistakeable happiness diffusing on her face.
Ron felt something he hadn't even known was in him flinch.
"You left so early this morning I didn't get a chance to speak with you," Malfoy said, his voice still something of a sneering drawl but a little gentler than Ron remembered it, either from time or because he was speaking to his wife, Ron didn't know.
"Well if you didn't insist on sleeping until afternoon," Astoria chastised, but it was clearly a tease. This was how they spoke to one another.
"We can't all keep these plebeian nine-to-five hours you favour," Malfoy replied with a smile that was almost an honest to goodness smile instead of a smirk. "Some of us have Ministry officials to schmooze even late into the night."
"Draco, did you just say 'schmooze'?" Astoria said, a giggle threatening to escape.
Malfoy grimaced. "I believe I have spent too much time talking with Scorpius of late. My vocabulary has suffered terribly." He kissed Astoria gently. Ron looked away.
"Can I take you to lunch?" Malfoy said. "You don't seem busy, are you..." He turned then and saw Ron standing by the counter.
For just a moment, Ron looked at Malfoy and saw the man Astoria was married to. Someone who bantered and teased without malice, who'd raised a son and loved him. But then the shutters came down and Ron was looking into the face of his old schoolboy rival.
I was the friend Harry Potter chose, Ron thought. And look what it got me.
"Weasley," Malfoy said. Ron expected that to be it – Malfoy didn't stoop to insults these days, hadn't for years, but he and Ron had never had anything to discuss. Ron might have suggested a toupee from the upcoming range, but he was schooling himself not to be childish.
And then Malfoy said something Ron had never expected. "I was sorry about Ginevra," he said. "And everything that's happened since. Truly."
Who'd have thought the bastard would develop grace this late in life? But Ron saw that it wasn't a pose for his wife, wasn't insincere. Malfoy was just content in his life, and had no reason not to pity those who weren't.
"Thanks," Ron said, his lips feeling strange forming the word in Malfoy's presence. "I'll let you two get on."
"See you later, Ron," Astoria said. "And thanks for the box."
Ron raised a hand in salute as he headed for the door. He half-turned as he opened it, to see Malfoy looking at the gift box still on the counter, Astoria smiling as he prodded it warily, and the thing inside him that had flinched, the feeling he hadn't even given name to, quietly died.
Things kept happening recently that Ron should have anticipated. Not Hermione leaving, of course, but things since then. Like Harry turning up at the shop. Like the papers getting hold of the story. Like his returning home on the Saturday of the last Hogsmeade weekend of term and finding five teenagers in the house.
"Rose? Hugo?" he began – but James, Al and Lily were all there too.
"What's going..." he began, but James cut him off.
"We want to stay with you over the summer."
Ron went a little slack-jawed. "All of you? I mean - you don't want to be with your Dad?" The question was directed to Al, but it was Lily who answered.
"He can't even look at me because I remind him of Mum." She shook her head, already a little tearful.
James said, "He's been acting like a selfish arse ever since Mum died."
"That's not fair, James," said Rose, but it was Al who cut her off.
"No it's not bloody fair, but it's true. He cut us all off and didn't talk to us, and left Lily and me to look after each other. And Gran was great but she drives us mental. And I wanted to see Dad, but not if he's going to keep ignoring us, and..." Al was trembling with the force of some suppressed emotion. "And Mum's dead and Hermione is Aunt Hermione and I don't want her."
Ron expected a reaction to that from either Rose or, more likely, Hugo. But when he looked at his son, what Hugo said was, "You put us first, Dad. You always have."
"All right," he said. "All right, I'm going to do what I should have done in the first place. I can't just say it's OK for all of you..." he raised his voice over the protests, "because of the law! Not because I don't want you here. But I haven't been putting you first lately you know. I've been hiding and I can't anymore."
"What are you going to do?" said James.
Ron bared his teeth. "I'm going to talk to them."
An owl and a readjustment of the wards, but Ron wasn't really ready. As soon as Hermione walked into the room, he felt a sudden swerving in his stomach, as abrupt as when he'd dived for a save during Quidditch. It was as though the whole world had without warning flipped itself over then righted itself again. Ron swallowed against the threat of nausea and the horrible jolt through his body as the force of his remaining love for Hermione twisted in his gut.
She was smarter than Harry, she'd always been smarter. She didn't try to apologise. She didn't look at him with pity. She took a deep breath and looked at him resolute, waiting for him to begin.
But all Ron could do was stare at her.
When he continued to say nothing, Hermione eventually tried to smile and said, "Hullo."
"Hullo?" he echoed. "Bloody hell, Hermione…" He raked a hand through his hair.
"Yeah," she said. There was so much to say, but no words were coming. It was all in the eyes. She loved him. She missed him. She was sorry. She hadn't wanted to hurt him.
The corner of her mouth curled. "Ron, what are we going to do?"
Ron could count on one hand the number of times Hermione had asked him that during their life together. She always had a plan, always knew the answers, knew what she was doing.
"I don't know," Ron whispered.
Hermione reached out to him and Ron tangled his fingers through hers. He didn't know what to do about any of this, least of all the fact that, despite everything, he was glad she was there.
"I don't know," he said again, and closed his eyes.