Chapter Eight: Come What May
"Please tell me this is your idea of a completely tasteless joke," Bill said in a low, dangerous voice.
"I wish I could," Hermione murmured. "I'm so sorry, Bill. It was the most difficult decision of my life. I never wanted Fleur to get hurt; I was just trying to save Tonks."
Slumping forward, he gripped the stack of charts and notes in his hands with white-knuckled desperation. She wanted to reach out, to layer comforting hugs and soothing words over him, but she didn't think he was in any state to accept solace — least of all from her.
"That time just after she died," he croaked, "during the battle...this is why, isn't it? I couldn't figure it out at the time. I barely knew you back then, really, but you hugged me and apologised over and over again. Oh, Christ." Clambering to his feet, he scooped up the dented pewter box that had held her notes and hurled it against the far wall of her living room. It crashed to the floor with a bang that made Hermione jump in her seat.
"This is what you meant, isn't it?" he shouted. "When you said naming the Veela project after Fleur was the least you could do, you were talking about making amends for this."
"It's why you hired me, why you befriended me...Merlin, Hermione, is it why you let me kiss you, too?"
"No!" she exclaimed. "And it's not why I befriended you, either. I like you, Bill — for who you are, not for what I did to you."
"I wish I could say I feel the same way about you, love, but I'm not sure I even know you anymore."
"Yes, you do," she whispered, her voice turning quiet and choked with the tears she struggled to hold in. "I'm still me — still the same person who has been bossing you around for the past seven years."
Hobbling over to the window, he turned away from her and stared at the harsh winter rain that pounded against the pavement outside. A pang resonated through her chest when she realised that he refused to so much as glance at her reflection in the glass.
"Were you responsible for this as well?" he asked, pointing to his bad leg.
"I don't know. I'm not sure if you were limping in the original version of the future. I was too focused on who was alive and who was dead by that point. It's quite possible that it was my fault, yes."
Bill groaned. "I can't take this, Hermione. I need...hell, I don't know what I need. Some space to think, I guess. I'll see you at work after the New Year."
Without waiting for the reply she didn't have, he stormed out of her house, charts still in hand.
Aimless walking had always helped Hermione to quiet her mind when it became too full. She let the slow rhythm of her steps dull her senses until her only thoughts were one-two-one-two-one-two. When she finally looked up and found that her feet had led her to the little cottage across the river, she wasn't surprised. It was, after all, where she spent most of her waking hours. Even though it felt strange to knock where she was so used to barging in, she rapped her knuckles against the familiar green door.
"Hermione?" Remus said, frowning at her rain-soaked appearance. "What's the matter?"
As he led her inside and got her situated in front of the fire with a blanket and a steaming mug of tea, Hermione spilled the whole story — everything from the arrival of Snape's gift to what had transpired in her living room less than an hour before. Remus remained quiet throughout the whole long-winded affair, only offering a slight nod now and then to show that he was paying attention.
"Merlin," he breathed once she'd finished. "That explains so much. I have always wondered why I've felt such a strong compulsion to protect you and help you since the Battle of Hogwarts. I assumed it was just due to affection—" pausing, he rested a hand on her shoulder, "—and I am fond of you, don't get me wrong. You've become...not like a daughter to me, exactly. More like a younger sister, I suppose."
She offered him a tremulous smile. "Really?"
"Really." He sounded certain and gentle — the polar opposite of the unhinged, hateful man she'd once seen in Snape's Horcrux. "But this intense need to look after you must have been due to my Life Debt, at least in part." A humourless gust of laughter escaped him. "During your first three years here, I spent far more time than I should have worrying about hurting you during the full moon — almost as much as I worried about hurting Teddy. It wasn't until Bill joined us and took over a few of your overnight duties that I started to relax. Not that I wouldn't have been devastated if something went wrong with my potion and I broke out of the cellar and attacked Bill, mind you, but it didn't occupy my thoughts to nearly the same extent."
Leaning forward, he placed a whiskery kiss in the centre of her forehead.
"I'm not going to lecture you about how dangerous your actions were," he murmured. "It's as foolhardy to play around with the future as it is to meddle with the past, but I think you've already learnt that lesson, so I'll just say thank you. Thanks for saving my life — for giving Teddy and me the chance to know each other. And...thank you for trying to save Dora."
"You're welcome," she whispered, drumming her fingernails against the side of her mug. "I think...if I was given the chance to roll those dice again, I'd always try to save Tonks and hope for a better outcome. I would have done the same thing for Fleur if their situations had been reversed and she was the one with only an 11% chance of surviving — I know I would have."
Remus raised his eyebrows. "Then maybe it's high time you started to forgive yourself. Dangerous as it may have been, you did a lot of good with that box as well." His mouth twisted into a rueful frown. "Preventing me from coming along on your Horcrux hunt, for instance."
Visions of Remus sneering insults at her before morphing into a wolf and springing to attack swam through Hermione's head. The words he'd never truly uttered came back to her, as vivid and hurtful as the day she heard them in that haunting version of one potential future.
"Snape and I have disagreed about a great many things throughout the years, but I'm beginning to think he was right about you all along. Brightest witch of your age...I must have been mad. You really are just an insufferable little know-it-all, aren't you?"
Shuddering, she pulled the blanket tighter around her body.
"Did you ever think I was an insufferable know-it-all?"
He let out a quiet, raspy chuckle. "A know-it-all, perhaps," he said, scratching his chin. "From time to time, anyway. We all have our flaws, Hermione. But insufferable?" He gave a firm shake of his head. "Never."
"Damn. You look like hell."
"Thanks," Hermione muttered, chucking a pillow in the direction of Ron's head. "Don't you ever knock?"
"Ah, but if I'd knocked, I would have missed out on this," he said, kicking his foot through the mound of crumpled tissues next to her bed. "And wouldn't that be a shame?" Flopping down next to her, he wrapped a lanky arm around her shoulders. "Have you got all of the tears out of your system?"
"Just about, I think."
"Good. Bill came over earlier."
"Yeah. Oh." Tracing a finger over the cheerful yellow flowers on her duvet cover, he grimaced. "I found him sitting on the cliff — you know, like he used to do just after the war? He told me everything."
"Again, I say oh."
"It was a damn good thing Gabi and the baby were off shopping with Lavender—"
"Wait, what? Gabrielle was with Lavender?"
"Oh, God, yes. Didn't I tell you that they're friends now? They met at some antenatal class. Bloody terrifying, if you ask me. Wives shouldn't be allowed to befriend ex-girlfriends. It's against the natural order of things. Anyway, like I said, it's a good thing they were gone, because Bill needed to vent. Loudly."
Cringing, Hermione motioned for him to continue. Better to get it over with quickly, to rip off the plaster before she had time to anticipate how much it would sting.
"I'm not going to tell Gabrielle what you did, and neither is Bill," Ron said in a quiet, sad voice. "She told me a bit about what things were like for her after Fleur died, and I don't want to do anything that might make her relive that." Hesitating, he caught his lower lip between his teeth and made a pensive hum. "That box thingy or whatever from Snape...you used it to look at our future, didn't you? You and me together, I mean."
"Yeah, I did."
"It's why you refused to start anything with me."
It wasn't a question, but Hermione nodded anyway.
"I meant it when I said we'd be a disaster," she said. "I saw that you would be happier this way, so...here we are."
To her surprise, Ron enveloped her in a warm hug.
"Thanks for letting me go," he said. "Though, really, you could have at least had the kindness to shag me before you broke my heart—"
"Kidding, kidding. Mostly." With an unrepentant grin, he bounded to his feet and tousled her already messy hair. "Bill will come around, I think. He went from shouting about you keeping this from him to moping about not spending Thursday with you within the space of an hour — the big girl. Just give him some more time. Oh, and by the way, Hermione?"
"You owe me twenty Galleons for cheating on that bet, you little sneak."
Splashing cool, calming water over her face, Hermione rinsed the tear tracks from her cheeks.
She'd had enough.
Crying about Bill wasn't going to make him forgive her and magically appear on her doorstep, and wallowing never accomplished anything. She'd known the risk she took in telling him the truth, but it had been the right thing to do. She could hold her head high and look herself in the mirror, even if her reflection did say snarky things about the bags under her eyes and the rumpled state of her clothes.
Remus was right. It was well past time to forgive herself.
In a flurry of bin bags and orange scented furniture polish, she tidied her home the Muggle way, taking comfort in the simple tasks of scrubbing and dusting. Only when everything was gleaming did she allow herself to collapse onto the freshly vacuumed sofa. She had no sooner sat down than three rapid knocks sounded against the front door.
Bill didn't give her a chance to say anything. He burst in as soon as the door swung open, holding up a yellowed piece of parchment that bore Fred's name.
"You really should have led with this bit," he said. "You didn't tell me that you saved my brother's life."
"You already knew that I blasted Fred away from that wall."
"Yes, but I didn't know just how close he came to death. And before that, you let yourself be Crucio'd into unconsciousness because the alternatives all led to harm coming to Ron or Harry. And this—" he pulled out a crumpled paper littered with numbers that related to Charlie, "—you saved Charlie from permanently damaging his leg. If he knew what you did for him, I'd probably have to compete with him for your affection. It would have killed him if he was forced to quit being a dragon keeper."
Hermione choked out a strained imitation of a laugh. "Perhaps you'd better not tell him, then. I get the feeling that he and Desmond are sort of a package deal, and I don't know if I could handle that much excitement on a daily basis."
His lips twitched with something that might have been the beginnings of a smile. "Few could."
An uneasy sort of silence fell over them, interrupted only by their muted breaths. Taking a chance, Hermione inched closer to Bill and rested a tentative hand on his forearm.
"I know I said it already," she whispered, "but I'm so sorry — about Fleur, about your leg...everything. If I could bring her back, I would — even knowing how I feel about you now."
"I know you would." Sighing, he placed his hand on top of hers and twined their fingers together. "The choice you made...Fleur would have told you to do it, had she known. She wouldn't have hesitated. If it meant the possibility of saving Tonks's life, she would've gladly taken the risk." His eyes fluttered closed, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed hard. "I loved her more than anything, but...I would have told you to do it. I can't really fault you for making the same choices I would have made, can I?"
A thread of cautious hope wove its way through Hermione's turbulent emotions. Standing on her tiptoes, she dusted a soft kiss over the jagged scars that cut across his cheek.
"I don't expect anything from you, Bill," she said. "I'd like for us to at least be friends, but I'll understand if you don't want that."
He exhaled something between a scoff and a laugh. "I wish it was that simple." His fingers loosened their hold on hers, trailing up her arm to the nape of her neck. "I almost wish I could hate you. I'm still angry that you didn't tell me sooner, but Merlin help me, that hasn't made me stop wanting to kiss you."
Relief crashed over her, manifesting itself in a wide smile. Bending at the waist, Bill skimmed his nose along her cheek. With a whisper-soft touch, he traced work-roughened fingers along her spine and brought his hands to rest on her waist.
"So kiss me," she whispered, pressing her body closer to his.
After a moment's hesitation, he did. His mouth felt heated against hers, the claw mark that sliced through his upper lip somehow warmer than the rest. It was gentler than their first kiss — shaky and searching. Hermione's fingers gripped his shoulders, holding on as if she feared he'd try to run away. Gradually, Bill slowed the kiss, allowing it to trail off into a series of light pecks.
"So," he said, giving her the most genuine smile she'd seen from him since he arrived. "Just where the hell do we go from here? Any thoughts?"
Her heart felt lighter the instant his ordinary grin appeared on his face — like that simple quirk of his lips was the first step towards something glittering and deep and wonderful.
Hermione laughed, her eyes crinkling at the corners and her head falling back as the joyful sound echoed off of the walls.
"I have absolutely no idea what happens next," she said.
She didn't know where they were headed, nor did she want to. Maybe they would burn out within a week and only remain civil to one another when they were in the presence of their goddaughter. Maybe they would discover that they were better off as friends. Maybe they would fight every day and reconcile every night. Maybe they would never escape the shadow of the past that loomed over them. Maybe they would get married and become one of those couples who almost never spoke due to their mutual, bitter resentment.
Maybe he wouldn't be able to forgive her role in his late wife's death.
Tilting her head up, Hermione kissed Bill's smiling mouth until he made that noise in the back of his throat she liked so very much. She felt her own lips turn up at the corners, grinning into the kiss.
Maybe — just maybe — they would be happy.
A/N: Since I posted the first chapter of this early due to Callinectes breaking her foot, it seems only appropriate that I post the last chapter a bit early to celebrate her being able to walk again! Happy very belated birthday, m'dear! You're awesome, and I still can't believe that you beta'd half of your own birthday fic. :P Thanks.
And thank you to everyone else who has read this story as well. I've loved reading all of your comments. :)