It's been a long time, or what feels like a long time, at least for Ron - but he's not like anyone else when it comes to time, not any longer. Everything feels like years, which means there's a lot of years, and he touches all of them one by one before going to sleep.
It's only been a problem as long as he's been able to admit it is, which has only been a few weeks. Before that, everyone thought they were imagining things. Ron did, too, until he realised he wasn't. He'd close his eyes and his mind would drift like a ship, black sails blue anchor, until he opened his eyes hours later. All that time gone - dead - and it's because of one moment far enough back, one soft spot that nobody can touch but Ron.
It comes to be that he opens his eyes and it's the night before Harry finally leaves for auror's training.
"Are you sure you won't come with me?" Harry wants to know.
Ron nods. He must have meant it, but his neck nearly breaks.
Everyone comes to a bonfire down at the beach. Goodbye. There's food. Too many drinks, beery kisses and rants and soliloquys. Seamus is asleep on the step of Bill's cottage before midnight; Lavender has to shake him awake before apparating. Ron's brothers gamble with Dean and Neville for galleons and make mum upset. Harry disappears with Ginny for hours. Luna decorates a cake with Fleur and Gabrielle. They look like angels. Percy brought Cho Chang along as a new girlfriend, and her nails are blue. Ron doesn't ask questions. He talks to everyone, but the hole in their line of faces - the hole in him - is still too clear, and it leers, cuts him chin to stomach. He has to leave before his insides fall out. It's been this way for months, but it's getting better now. Ron can say that and it's true.
He goes to the beach again, where the water is dark like horses. He won't come back after he leaves Bill's this time, not till Christmas, when the ocean's not half so nice. Also true.
And another true thing is: Ron doesn't know what he's going to do now that he has to grow up, but he won't be with Harry, and that's why it won't come to him. He knows that's why. And it doesn't frighten him - just makes things difficult.
The sand is bare and cool; he thinks he can find the place he lay once, when they came here last summer. Maybe the imprint of his head is still there, cos it was heavy enough.
"Would you like a piece of cake?" Luna asks.
"No," says Ron.
"Look," she tells him. And he does. Red and gold and lion head roses that open their tiny mouths for the moon; but all around him, everything is silver. Luna's hair gleams, more alive than she is, and the henna on her hands looks like broken snakes. This time he looks in her eyes, and they're still as stones.
"This will make you happy," she suggests, smiling. "I know because I asked it to."
"It's not going to make me happy."
"Not if you tell it no."
Ron takes a bit of frosting with his finger. It tastes like peaches and ecstatic light. He tries to smile for her, but it's so much that he can't - his mouth stings with magic, lips burn with it. Luna stays a minute longer. She puts the cake down, then can't think what to do with her hands.
"Ron," she says.
Now his head is heavy enough. There's that hole inside of him so big that he could put everyone in it, if they would just stand still.
Harry finds him again, once the party is over. Ron watches his dark head come down the beach.
"Ginny?" He asks, stretching out his limbs in the sand. He could reach the stars in the water if he tried hard enough, but they pull him instead: heart by string. He wants to go pretend he knows their names, but Harry moves first. He's fidgeting, adjusting his glasses.
"Not with me. Luna?"
Then there's a smile; it's little and wan in this light. Harry moves to lie next to Ron after a moment, but pauses; then he sits very still, resting his chin against his scarred knees. Ron has to stop, try very hard not to say anything stupid. He closes his eyes desperately, but by now everyone knows not to let him do that anymore. Harry reaches forward and pinches his arm.
"Not now, Ron."
"Let's go home, then."
And he lies in his bed just like on the beach. This time Harry lies next to him. When he closes his eyes, he can imagine that the weight belongs to someone else - and she would've been here, back to the wall, grinning at him in the dark. If Ron pictures it too clearly he can feel himself rotting at the edges. Soon his bark will peel away and there will be worms underneath. Lightning will strike and petrify him, but only the half that managed to live. He still has to picture the old grief like this; by now it's habit, like tending to a secret garden of stony trees.
Between them he sees Harry. Harry looks tired, and young, like he always does without glasses: his eyes are just a little small, and his lashes too long, but his face falls truer. Ron can feel the edge of his breath under the blanket, warming him. He doesn't know what to do about it. The last time he can remember anything like this was in the tent: like another life, one he imagined to make up for what he's missing now.
But Harry shifts again before he has to think about it too long, remember too much; he turns his face down and all of that warmth blooms against Ron's heart instead.
"I dunno," says Ron.
A funny thing is: Harry smells like Ginny. Under the scent of sand and surprisingly expensive soap is her candy rose perfume. Harry shouldn't smell like that. But Ron really doesn't care what he does with Ginny, or he doesn't think he does: not now, after everything.
"Do you love my sister?" He mutters without thinking. "Are you going to marry her?"
This is that stupid thing from earlier.
It always wins.
But Harry doesn't move. He sort of stiffens a little, like something's brushed up against him and he doesn't know what. After one, two, three breaths he lifts his face again, and his eyelashes touch Ron's lips. They laugh woodenly together as if it was just a joke, and half of him wants Harry to say yes, I love her more than anything. I'll marry her next year. Which is also true, as true as anything else - it's just not what Harry says. The other half of Ron wants him to say something else; he's holding his breath to hear it, straining for even a little warm piece of it, but that's not what he says either.
"You used to smell like someone, too," is what Harry says.