He used to hate mornings. The morning never held anything positive. At the Burrow, mornings meant getting ready for chores, and at Hogwarts it meant getting ready for lessons, which more often than not meant finishing coursework from the night before. It used to be sleep that he looked forward to most. After five days in Australia, the best part of falling asleep had become waking up in the morning.
He kept hoping a night would come when he was not awoken by a nightmare and she would stop shaking against him, but every night it was still the same. They could push out the memories of the last year every waking hour, but the moment sleep descended it all came rushing back.
His dreams were never coherent. They were random and disjointed and took place in bizarre locations that didn't make sense, like Madame Malkins' or a hill in the West Midlands they'd camped for several days. Sometimes it was Professor Snape bleeding out with a container of mint humbugs in his hand, sometimes it was his brother falling off his broom, sometimes it was just Hermione screaming somewhere in the distance where he could never reach. Though the thrashing had subsided and he no longer awoke in a sweat, it still took several moments for him to collect himself and recall where he was after each one.
Sometimes she'd wake up, too. Usually it was because he had, but sometimes it was her own nighttime disturbances. Neither ever made mention of the fact that their nights were still far from peaceful. When they woke up it was just like when they fell asleep, all whispers and touching beneath the covers and happy smiles.
Yes, morning was his favorite time of day.
He wondered if mornings would ever look the same after Australia. Waking up alone in his bedroom at the Burrow would be awfully dull after six days waking up with Hermione across the pillow. He shivered imagining just what tomorrow morning would be like. He had trouble figuring out if last night had all been a dream or not. He suddenly wished he had a pensieve to relive it all.
There had been the wonderful carefree day they'd spent together - the way she'd attacked him in the lift...and then they'd had the conversation he still didn't quite believe had happened. He was surprised he'd been able to fall asleep at all. He truthfully didn't want to do anything but stay in this bed and wait until tonight. He had a sudden heavy feeling as he realised what they had to do first, then an immediate rush of guilt because he dreaded it: they were going to see her parents today.
Then they were going to have sex.
He wondered which she was thinking about more.
She was resting on her side, facing the edge of the bed and Ron scooted over to get closer, instinctively draping an arm around her. Such intimacy had become second nature here in Australia.
"You awake?" he mumbled in question.
"I am now." Her scratchy reply sounded.
"Sorry." He nestled his face against her neck.
"It's fine." Still in his embrace, she rolled over to face him. "Just didn't sleep great."
"Sorry." Ron tried to pretend like the words were a surprise and he hadn't felt her shaking against him.
"Not your fault." Though he knew she certainly didn't intend them that way, the words felt like a sharp reminder that, deep down, they were indeed his fault. He knew what likely caused the nightmares. He hadn't been able to save her. "Although you did wake me up once."
"You came up behind me and you were umm…excited." It pleased Ron to see that her cheeks didn't flush at all at the words. It didn't embarrass her anymore to talk about it. He wanted her and she wanted him and tonight they were finally going to do what they both wanted. They were ready for this.
"Sorry," he apologised half-heartedly for his semi-conscious state.
"You were asleep," she excused.
"How do you know I was asleep?" he teased.
"You were talking in your sleep about chocolate trifle and strawberry jam."
"I was not."
"Yes, you were."
"I don't talk in my sleep!" he insisted.
"Yes, you do!"
"Well, so do you." He blurted it out without even thinking.
"No, I don't," she laughed dismissively. He knew he could lie. He could tell her she muttered nonsense words in her sleep like he did. He could tell her she talked about chocolate trifle and strawberry jam, too, but anything else would be a lie and he hated lying to Hermione.
"Yes, you do." He spoke more seriously now.
"I do not!" she laughed, clearly missing the gravity of his words. Fuck, but this would be hard to do.
"You say my name and you uh...you uh..." As his voice faded away and he struggled for words, she slowly seemed to realise the nature of what he was discussing. Suddenly, the morning lost its playfulness.
"What?" she pressed.
"Nothing. You just sort of..." Ron struggled with how to convey what happened to her. You go someplace else. You don't know I'm there. You relive it all over again. "Shake." The one lame syllable didn't come close to explaining it, but somehow the word seemed to be enough.
She looked like she'd come over queasy all of a sudden. Her face grew pale and she swallowed loudly, like her mouth had gone dry.
"How often?" she creaked. When Ron failed to respond, diverting his eyes down to the pillow, she continued. "Every night?" A look of sudden betrayal flashed over her face that made Ron feel even worse. He wondered what it was like to find out something like this, something you didn't even know you did. He felt guilty now for keeping it quiet. Guilty for not telling her that morning in Gryffindor tower or even the night in Shell Cottage when he'd first noticed it.
"It hasn't been all year, has it?" she asked the question so quietly Ron knew she already knew the answer. They both knew the only thing that could possibly cause such a reaction in someone so strong.
"Do I say anything else?" Ron detected a sudden glassy sheen in her eyes and he felt his stomach twist at what he'd done. They were facing enough today going to see her parents. Now he'd gone and ruined his favourite part of the day.
"No, but maybe you're just – I don't know – I'm probably - it's probably not real-" he backpedaled quickly, "it's – it's probably just my stupid nightmares. It's probably me hearing things."
When her voice sounded to cut off his stupid attempt to change his story, it was so soft he could hardly hear the words.
"No, I did call for you," she admitted then. "Not loudly, of course, but I did."
Ron licked his lips, struggling for words, wondering what he could possibly say. She was talking about it again. Talking about what had happened to her, what she'd endured at the Malfoys. All he'd heard were screams- dreadful, terrified, anguished, cries he doubted he'd ever be able to forget. But she'd called for him. The words made him feel worse than he thought he could feel.
Before he could speak, she threw the covers aside abruptly and swung her legs over the bed.
He could do little but watch her rummage around for clothes and then retreat behind the bathroom door.
This was a different Hermione than the one he'd sparred with for years, the one whose moods he could read so easily. Her actions all week had been muddled and contradictory. The only thing he could tell for sure was that she was confused about a lot of things. It wasn't just navigating their relationship, either. She was confused about finding her parents. She was confused about how to deal with her torture. She'd give these brief hints that she did want to talk about it, but then they would disappear just as quickly. And he still wasn't confident whether it was the kind of thing he should push or not, or whether he ought to take the same approach he had last night and leave it entirely in her hands.
Staring at the closed door, he was briefly reminded of the sight he'd found when she retreated behind it three nights ago. The visceral memory of finding her huddled on the floor with her knees to her chest caused him to rap on the door with his knuckles hesitantly.
"You can come in and wash in a moment!" she called.
"Hermione - "
"I'm on the toilet, Ron!" she screeched at him, her voice shrill and clearly annoyed, and he retreated silently to the edge of the bed like Fang after being scolded by Hagrid. He waited patiently outside the door, listening to the sound of the toilet flushing and the tap running and her teeth being polished and her hair brushed. It was the longest she'd ever taken to get ready. Her actions seemed deliberately slow.
"Sorry," he blurted out when she finally emerged and glared at him. "I - I didn't know you were on the toilet I - I thought - "
"You thought I was crying in the corner again, didn't you?" She turned to him knowingly.
The accuracy of the statement alarmed him a bit. Still, he knew Hermione wouldn't take kindly to him thinking her such a mess.
"No, it's not that - I just thought - "
"See if you have any clean clothes to wear." She threw his rucksack at him.
"Hermione-" He doubled over as the half-empty rucksack hit him hard in the chest.
"I'm fine." He'd heard the flippant words before and they did little to assure him. "Come on, we have to get dressed."
"I know, but -"
"The sooner we get dressed, the sooner we go look up the address, the sooner..." Her fingers coiled around his shirt, drawing him close to her. "We can come back here."
The words hinted, for the first time that morning, at what they had planned for tonight. It was the first concrete assurance that last night had not been a dream. When her lips met his, Ron momentarily forgot his protestations over the abrupt manner in which she'd left the bed or the fact that she now seemed to be deliberately avoiding the brief conversation that had played out there. He forgot all that when he kissed her.
But then he remembered and he knew telling her this morning was just as much for him as it was for her. He wanted to talk about it. He had to talk about it. It ate away at him every time he looked at her arms, every time he felt her tremble. The visceral memory of Hermione being pulled away by her hair made him want to retch.
No matter how badly he wished he could change things or how many ways he relived what had happened, the outcome was always the same. Hermione ended up broken, a different girl than the one who'd been dragged away from him in the Malfoys' parlor. It was all just so fucked up. He hated even thinking about it. His long fingers ran gently up and down her scarred flesh, a necessary reminder that he'd always have to think about it. They both would.
There was a longing to the way her lips moved and a promise to the way her tongue rolled over his. She wanted to be able to talk about it. She wanted to be okay.
Slowly, her mouth trailed away from him and the kiss turned into a hug. There were no tears and no wandering hands. It was just a hug. Yet Ron couldn't recall a hug ever saying so much. They held each other firmly, wordlessly promising the other they'd be okay. They'd get there. Today, everything changed.
"So what exactly does an encyclopedia salesman wear?" He broke apart from her slowly and turned his attention to the wrinkled assortment of shirts he'd pulled from his rucksack.
"Well," she cleared her throat, "I suppose this would look best." The blue collared shirt in her hands was the same one she'd selected for him to wear to Viktor's.
"I don't think I have anything to wear with it," he sighed, pulling out a rumpled pair of jeans he'd last worn while trekking across India.
"Are you running out of clean clothes?"
"Running out would imply I had some left," he grumbled, turning the rucksack completely upside down.
"Is this really all you have?" She frowned, looking at the assortment of dirty clothes on the bed.
"I didn't pack a lot." He shrugged. "What's it matter?"
"I just - well, I thought maybe we could, you know, go out to dinner again. Someplace nice," she admitted bashfully. "You know, tonight, before we..."
"You want to go out to eat before?"
"I thought it'd be - it's just - last night - it was...fun," she stammered with a touch of embarrassment.
"Yeah, it was," he smiled, knowing exactly what she meant. Though they reminisced about their time at Hogwarts, he hadn't felt like an eighteen year old who'd helped shoulder the weight of the Wizarding World for most of the year. He felt like a proper boyfriend, pulling out her chair for her and sharing dessert. Their smiles widened and he thought the moment might give way to another kiss, but she withdrew.
"But I don't want to eat too close and, of course, we'll have to come home and shower."
"So erm - what time will this all be happening?" he grinned. "It sounds like you've got it all...you know, planned out."
Ron tried to stifle a laugh. He'd been taking the mickey when he asked the time.
"It'll be dark outside, but not too late and our food should be digested and...what?" She stopped, noticing the threatening smile on his face.
"Sounds a bit like you're planning a revision schedule."
"Your first time only happens once, Ron!"
"Okay." He gave an obliging nod.
"I just want it..." Her voice trailed off and he didn't let her finish.
"I know," he assured with a smile. "Me too."
"We have to stop at the chemist too," she continued to go through the obvious checklist in her mind.
"That's the Muggle apothecary, right? Why d'you have to go to one of those?" Ron frowned, concern briefly washing over him.
"To get the Muggle contraceptives," she replied calmly.
"Oh, right, the pills."
"No, not the pills. I need a prescription for those and they take a month to be effective," she dismissed.
"Oh," Ron replied tersely, realising what it meant. "So you do want me to wear that er...the thing."
"It's just..." She chewed on her lip. "I know it's silly, but I promised my mum that if I - whenever I did - I'd, you know, use one."
"She knows there's charms. She just...she doesn't understand magic and - and -"
"I'll wear it," he replied with a shrug. "I said I would."
The explicit mention of her mum seemed a sharp reminder of the task they had to fulfill before going through Hermione's checklist for tonight. They hadn't talked at all about what tomorrow would hold, but Ron couldn't help but fear that after tonight his days sharing a bed with Hermione would be at an end. Even talk about the apparently very honest conversations Hermione's mum had had with her about sex did little to convince Ron that they'd allow her to stay with him.
He wondered if Hermione was thinking along similar lines. Though her parents' address was across the river and they had to walk south to catch the bus that would take them there, she led them north to the river instead. They moved slowly, ordering breakfast at a sandwich bar across from the odd library they'd first arrived at and they walked along the Promenade like they'd done that first evening in Australia. They ate their bacon butties on the edge of the pavement, legs dangling as they looked over the now familiar Brisbane skyline.
He thought about the itinerary he'd found that first day and how they could finally cross off step five. They had the address, right there in Hermione's hand: 117 Highgate Hill. It turns out that the impossible task of finding two people in a city of two million was not quite so impossible.
She leaned into his shoulder comfortably. He could feel her jaw move against him as she finished the last bit of bacon.
"Do you want to go over it again?" he queried.
"Hermione," he managed a laugh at the evasive response.
"You knock, say you're selling encyclopedias. I'll transfigure a book so you have something to hold. They'll say 'no, thank you' because my parents hate traveling salesmen - "
"Oh, well, that's wonderful,," Ron laughed at the revelation that her parents would dislike him on sight.
"Then you leave and that's it," she shrugged. "I stand in the back and...I watch." Ron could detect the slightest bit of guilt in her voice at the minor role she would play.
"Well, that's what you said you wanted, right?"
"Yes," she replied meekly. Ron knew she wasn't ready to speak directly to her parents and certainly not ready to reverse the charm and explain herself. This was just about seeing them. She hadn't even dared to carry a picture around with her all year. Today was simply about resting her eyes on her parents and seeing that her spell had worked, that they were safe and happy because of her actions. She'd see she'd done the right thing. This would be the first step toward bringing them home. This would be another step to being okay again.
Each time he thought they were prepared and ready to set off for Highgate Hill though, she'd run her hands through her mane of hair and insist she wasn't ready. After many attempts and a few less than subtle kisses on the bank of the river, Ron finally succeeded in hoisting her to her feet and they set off for the western suburbs. The bus ride was quiet and she just leaned into his shoulder, staring at the passing scenery and counting the stops until they arrived.
"It's a nice neighborhood," he remarked when the bus finally dropped them in a green neighborhood full of beautiful homes with spacious gardens full of tropical plants and palm trees. She said nothing, but just continued to walk slowly alongside him. "You don't even have to see them today if you don't want," he assured knowingly. "I can do it. I can just check that they're there."
"Here, you need a tie." She ignored his words and instead reached into the beaded bag then and pulled out a handsome necktie.
"When did you get this?" he laughed in surprise at the random article of clothing.
"You ought to remember it. You wore it at your brother's wedding. It was in the bag all year."
"And you repacked it? What, did you fancy us going to dinner parties?" he snorted with laughter and when she blushed faintly he could tell it wasn't far from the truth. She wanted to get dressed up and have fancy dinner dates. "I never understood the point of these," he complained then as she slipped the tie around his neck right there on the street corner.
"What do you mean?" He watched as she scrunched her face up, folding and tying.
"I mean, who decided tying a piece of fabric around a man's neck was fashionable," he grumbled.
"I think you look handsome," she remarked plainly, readjusting it. Ron looked down at his attire uncomfortably, unsure why traveling salesmen even had to wear a tie. "Maybe you could wear it tonight."
"Tonight?" He raised his eyebrows.
"Right." He wondered for a moment if this was another thing that pleased Hermione that he should file away. Like being able to cook and get around a Muggle city.
"Let's go." She took a deep breath and began walking. He was grateful to see the nerves from that morning beginning to fade. Whether it was the playful banter about the tie or the talk of tonight, she was back in the lead. Wrapping her hand around his long fingers, she set off down the suburban street with a confident and excited air. They weren't stalling anymore.
He couldn't believe she'd got them here. He reflected on the long journey as they continued to wind down the street. A foreign alley to a rainy Dijon square to a two day train ride to Viktor Krum's. He laughed, thinking back on all the dumb mistakes he'd made along the way. A crowded Mumbai train station and a dusty road in Madyha Pradesh, the shrimp ponds in Thailand and the spiders threatening overhead in the Wet Tropics. It had been a crazy trip, but he knew he should expect nothing less after the last seven years.
They'd both practically memorised the neighborhood map that morning so they didn't pause at any of the crossroads or hesitate at all when they made a left on Kenyon Street then a right on Barton Avenue. Her hand was sweaty in his as they continued the walk to 117 Highgate Hill, but she still walked confidently onward. He gave her hand a squeeze and offered a smile.
"Maybe we can get lunch after," he proposed, knowing it was still early in the day.
"Then...go to the cam-ist?"
"Chemist," she corrected with a smile. "Close." Chemist. Ron tried to commit the word to memory. He wondered how the chemist even worked and how exactly you went about buying these Muggle contraceptives. A brief moment of horror flashed over him as he wondered if perhaps you had to get fitted for them. "That won't take but a minute," she assured then, pulling him out of the horrible image of an old Muggle measuring his cock like Madame Malkin measured his inseam. "We'll have a good bit of the afternoon still."
He wondered what kind of other preparations she had to make. He wasn't entirely sure how one prepared for sex. He wondered if he shouldn't have had that wank this morning or eaten bacon for breakfast. Maybe he shouldn't have eaten everything. He probably ought to have a shower again when they got back to the hotel and brush his teeth a time or two. He ought to turn down the bed and maybe find the station on the telly that played music. And candles. Charlie had talked to him about candles. Perhaps he should buy some of those at the chemist. Because she wanted to make it perfect and he wanted to make it perfect for her. All he wanted was to make her happy.
"Where do you want to go to dinner?"
"I don't know, I've always thought that place along the Promenade looked nice." Ron grinned, knowing the exact restaurant. It was the one he'd spied their first night in Brisbane.
Ron wanted to tell her he agreed, but they both fell into silence as they made the final turn onto Highgate Hill and number 117 became visible at the end of the cul-de-sac.
It was a quaint bungalow raised up on stilts with a red roof and a small veranda where two small chairs sat. Ron saw the faintest makings of a smile form on Hermione's face at the sight of the two chairs and the mental picture of her mum and dad sitting there in the evening hours. Ron's heart swelled with pride then. Everybody in the world could call it selfish, but she'd given her parents a life of peace this year, freedom to tend to the garden and soak up the Queensland sun. Coming to a sudden halt at the end of the drive, she handed him his rucksack, which she'd skilfully transfigured to look like a briefcase, and gave him a shove toward the door.
Ron straightened his tie nervously and gave a loud swallow. For all his assurances to Hermione, he was quite terrified to approach her parents. He knew they wouldn't recognise him, but the fear still gripped him. Hell, what if they did actually want to buy encyclopedias and he had none to sell. They were Hermione's parents, after all, of course they'd want books filled with knowledge. He glanced behind to look to Hermione. She was standing by the chain link fence at the corner of the neighbor's yards, wringing her hands together and staring nervously at the front door.
Ron turned back around to face the door and stepped slowly toward it, noticing for the first time a flowerbox full of dry soil, but devoid of flowers. He frowned at the odd sight and continued on, looking down as he tried to recall the sales pitch Hermione had given him about the fictional Encyclopedias he was supposed to be selling. When he looked to the ground he couldn't help but notice weeds had come through the stones in the walkway. Some were quite tall, brushing his ankles, indicating they'd been growing for quite some time. Ron pushed the thoughts slowly crawling into his brain away and focused instead on the two chairs on the veranda. They were angled toward each other and he could see rings on the small table between them where the heat from a cup of tea had likely warped the wood. The sight was a comfort and helped assuage the pesky feeling growing inside him that the house was uninhabited. When he finally reached the door he felt his stomach lurch. There was a thick coating of dust on the doorknob. Not just dust blown up from the garden, but the type of dust that accumulated when nobody had touched it for months.
Nobody lived here.
Nobody had lived here for quite some time. All her worry and anxiety over seeing them today and they weren't even here. He looked back to Hermione, trying to disguise his horror. He knew she couldn't see the weeds and the dust. She saw the two chairs and that was all. For all her delays, all the dragging of her feet and the avoidance all week, she looked hopeful now. More hopeful than he'd perhaps seen her all year. So he rapped on the door with his knuckles, knowing full well nobody would answer.
He waited and knocked again.
"You know, they're probably still at work," she called from the edge of the neighbor's yard. "We really ought to have waited until the evening."
"Do you want to wait?" Ron wasn't sure why he asked the question. He just knew he needed her to realise it herself. He couldn't tell her. This was all they had. This was the end of the search.
Hermione didn't answer, but her feet traveled up the path to him. He couldn't tell whether she didn't see the details he did or she just didn't want to see them. She was smiling when she peered through the window. "Do you think it's all right to have a look inside?"
He could manage little more than a weak shrug of the shoulders in reply, his stomach twisting at the thought of what they might find. "If you keep watch, I can unlock the door. A simple freezing charm should halt the security alarm." She sounded like her typical authoritative self, which only made it that much worse. He obliged her however, turning his back to look at the four other houses in the small cul-de-sac and wondering if asking the neighbours about the Wilkins would be of any use.
The door clicked open and he heard Hermione mutter about the peculiarity of no alarm as she stepped through the doorway. There were no holes in the wall, no scuff marks or shattered glass. None of the sleek angular furniture looked at all out of place. The drawn shades gave it a foreboding air, but a quick survey showed no sign of a struggle. Releasing a sigh of relief he didn't know he'd been holding, Ron looked closer at the details of the home. It was sparsely decorated and oddly minimalistic. The furniture looked nothing like that which decorated their home back on Stuart Avenue and though there were pictures on the wall, they were generic landscapes of the beach. There was nothing personal anywhere to give any clue about the inhabitants.
"It must all be rented," she remarked, passing her hand over the black leather sofa and making her way to the kitchen. It had been kept as neat as the sitting room, but Ron wondered if she noticed the accumulating dust on the range and the windowsill. He looked up to the clock on the wall, noticing the small hand was an hour behind his watch and claiming it was already three o'clock when it was only two. The electric lights still worked, as did the television, though he couldn't seem to find more than five channels. The promising signs seemed to give Hermione a bit more strength to continue exploring.
She combed the bathroom and bedrooms in search of some sign that this had, in fact, been her parents' home, growing more frantic with each cupboard and drawer. He could see her hopeful eyes deaden with each empty drawer though and she looked like she'd been punched in the stomach when she finally opened the closet in the bedroom. Standing behind her, Ron put a hand on her shoulder and tried to turn her away. Two old blankets and a couple of mothballs were the only things there.
"Come on." He turned her away slowly, hoping it was just the light streaming through the gap in the curtains that made her eyes look suddenly glassy.
"This might not even be their house," she announced defiantly. "You know, I bet they gave you the wrong address."
"Probably." Gently, he steered her out of the bedroom.
"You sure it was 117?"
"I could have fucked up," he assured, happy to take the blame even if he knew it wasn't true.
"Or - or maybe they just - they went away for a long weekend," she stammered hopefully, as if to convince him. "They're probably at the beach and they packed their things. Mum loves the beach." Ron didn't bother asking why they'd taken all their clothes for a weekend at the beach. It was peculiar how some things in the house were in order, but other things not. Like the neatly trimmed lawn and working electricity, but the empty flowerbeds and closets.
"We'll ask the neighbours, yeah?" he proposed, but she didn't seem eager and practically hid behind him as he led her outside and around the cul de sac to knock on the first door. The first neighbour was an old man with wisps of hair growing out of his nostrils which reminded Ron of the hair in Kreacher's ears.
"Yeah, er, hello, sir," Ron tried to remember his manners.
"WHAT?" The old gentleman barked so loudly Ron wondered if perhaps he had hair in his ears, too.
"Hello!" Ron shouted back.
"ARE YOU SELLING SOMETHING?" The man looked none too happy by the prospect. Ron suddenly recalled he was wearing the tie Hermione had put on and holding a briefcase.
"Er - no. I'm not."
"You're selling what?"
"I'M NOT SELLING ANYTHING." Ron felt guilty shouting at the old man, but it seemed the only way he could hear him. "DO YOU KNOW THE WILKINS?" He spoke slowly and jerked his thumb over to the house her parents had supposedly inhabited.
"That house? Yeah, new people in there every year." He sounded quite irritable and waved his hand.
"NEW PEOPLE ARE THERE?"
"Every year it's someone new. Least this time there weren't any bloody kids," he continued to grumble.
"SO THEY WERE NEW THIS YEAR?"
"This year, last year, I can't remember." He waved his hand dismissively again. Ron turned to look at Hermione, who was still standing beside him. All the crotchety old man had confirmed was that the house was indeed a rental and the Grangers had perhaps lived there. Thanking him, they retreated down the steps to inquire at another house. Two had no one at home and the third could only confirm that the man and woman who lived at the house had given out sugar-free candy on Halloween.
Returning to the vacant house, Hermione collapsed on the steps.
"Let's just...wait a while longer." The heartbreaking words sounded very much like a plea and Ron could hardly say no. So they sat on the step and they waited. They waited for what felt like hours beneath the hot Queensland sun, but when Ron glanced at his watch he saw it still wasn't even three o'clock yet. "They're at the beach," she muttered finally and he knew she was grasping at straws that she didn't even believe.
"Maybe," he replied softly, his voice sounding weaker than hers. He'd known when they set out from the Burrow that the possibility might arise that they might not be able to locate her parents. The futility of their search the past week had certainly made him consider that reality a bit more. He thought he'd readied himself for what he would say or do, but he knew now he had no idea. They were so close. They had found them. Her parents had lived here. He pulled the crumpled address out of his pocket. They'd found the old practice. They'd found where her parents lived, but for some reason they had left. He was relieved only by the fact that it didn't look like they'd been chased. "We can stay longer." He moved a large hand to her back then, not sure if staying was even what she wanted.
While she didn't reply, she made no effort to move, either. She just continued to rest on the step, her elbows resting atop her thighs and her head between her hands. Ron couldn't tell if she was tired or deep in thought, perhaps playing over the countless possibilities that could explain their absence from the home. Maybe the rent got too high. Maybe they didn't like their old crotchety neighbour. They could have simply left the neighborhood and moved somewhere else in Brisbane. But they also could have left Brisbane and moved somewhere else in Australia. Or they could have left Australia and moved somewhere else in the world.
Any way he looked at it, the Grangers were lost to them.
One look at Hermione told him she knew that, too. She continued to stare at the neatly trimmed grass, the one positive sign she could cling to, but even that last hope seemed to fail her. He could only watch as she clinched her eyes shut, blew a loud shaky breath out through her nose and moved her hands around her head.
They were gone and she had no way to find them. Ron watched a single tear slide out from the corner of her eyes, which were still clenched shut.
He had no placating words this time to stop the tears that began to fall from behind her tightly closed eyes. She was trying to keep it together, he could tell, trying to stifle the sobs that threatened so all that he heard were shaky breaths and sniffles. His hand still rested on her back and he could feel her trembling as she continued to weep silently, trying so hard to swallow the cries that threatened. His long fingers spread out across her back, moving slowly in a pitiful attempt to soothe her. He knew this was beyond the kind of thing a kiss could cure and he felt stupid and helpless. It sickened him that she felt the need to hide her cries, to fight against the sadness that came with his empty house and the loss of any lead as to where her parents were.
Her shoulders soon began to shake with the effort of keeping her cries hidden and he was almost relieved when he heard her lose the fight and the horrible gasp finally sound. It was a low, throaty almost guttural sound and she clapped her hand to her mouth instinctively when it loosed, like she was appalled she'd let it sound from her own mouth. He stretched his long fingers across her back, up to her shoulders, somehow trying to tell her it was okay even though he knew it wasn't.
All her stalling, all her fears about reversing the spell were for naught. She claimed she'd prepared herself, that she tried to convince herself she wouldn't find them, but he knew no amount of preparation had readied her for this. He could hear her starting to come apart now, great heaving sobs beginning to rack her body. He felt a sharp pain behind his ribs at the sound that spread upward through his torso, like he was being physically gutted. He pressed his palm and fingers into her back then, as if the warmth from his hand could somehow replace the giant gaping hole he knew she now had in her heart.
The feel of his hand seemed to remind her he was there and when she crashed against his chest and his arms moved around her, he knew then the reality had sunk in.
They would never find her parents.
She'd hidden them too well, disguised their identity to a point where she had no way to locate them now.
She poured out her anguish in a storm of tears that dampened the silk tie they'd playfully tied a little over an hour ago. He pressed his chin against her temple, squeezing her to him, trying to think of something, anything to say to help soothe her. She was so undone, it made any time she'd ever cried before seem like crocodile tears. Every fear she held in about her parents seemed to finally emerge. Every single fear or worry she'd held in the last year seemed to awaken within her. Everything she'd endured and kept silent about for months now poured out. The sounds were animalistic almost, reminding him of his mother's howls over Fred's body. He kept thinking it had to stop, but it continued. Convulsive sobs racked her body at an uncontrollable pace until she was left gasping for air against him.
"Come on, Hermione," he finally spoke, his hand moving around her back in calm, deliberate circles. "Look at me." But she seemed to make no effort to halt the great rasping sobs that made her shoulders shake violently against him. When he called her name a second time, she managed to take in a staggered hiccuping breath against him and raise her head off his chest.
He could tell she wanted to speak, but every time she seemed to attempt to collect herself, she came undone again.
"It's my f-fault," she stammered, "I'll n-never find them and it's all my fault!" Then she broke into another series of desperate and uncontrollable sobs.
This wasn't Hermione.
"Hermione," he called her name again as the heaving sobs came so fast they almost seemed to choke her. She began sucking in breaths in a manner he could tell was quickly moving beyond her control. She wasn't getting enough air. "Hermione, stop, you're scaring me." He made no effort to disguise the panic in his voice now as he seized her shoulders.
Her normally soft brown eyes appeared almost black, as they stared blankly ahead, hardly seeming to notice Ron, and her mouth fell open wide like she was trying to speak, but all she did was gasp in air in short, ragged breaths. "Hermione, stop," he spoke strongly, trying to disguise his own fear as he realised what was happening to her was a physical reaction. Her eyes were black because her pupils were dilated. He could feel her pulse racing against his thumb when he moved his hands to either side of her splotchy face. She began sucking in more shallow breaths as tears continued to stream down her cheeks. Ron again felt a visceral pain at the pitiful sight.
"Stop," he gritted, seizing her cheeks between his hands. "You're stronger than this."
She avoided his gaze, still hiccuping with each breath so that her whole body gave a jerk. He got the sense that, if not for his hands on either side of her face keeping her upright, she would collapse in a heap.
"Look at me," he repeated, drawing her face so close he rested his forehead against hers. She continued to focus her eyes downward, her breathing still terrifyingly shallow. He knew if she didn't get enough air she'd pass out. A part of him feared that that might be what she wanted at this point. Despite the desperate grip he had on her, he couldn't force her eyes to look at him and she seemed to be making no visible effort to calm herself. "Hermione, please, look at me," he pleaded. "You need to breathe."
"It's - all my fault," she gasped again.
"It's not your fault."
"It is my fault."
"It's not," he repeated.
"I'll never see them again and it's my fault." She still wasn't looking at him, but he could see her dilated pupils and bloodshot eyes up close now. They were still brimming with tears and he wondered how she could possibly have any left to drip down her cheeks.
"Come on and breathe. Just breathe, Hermione. I know you're stronger than this." He spoke calmly, trying to bring her breathing back to normal by taking steadying breaths alongside her. When he finally released her face from his hands, she just crumpled against him. It wasn't like before, though. Her cheeks were still wet, but he could feel her ragged breaths slowly growing longer against him. They were shaky attempts, but they were attempts.
She was trying.
"It's going to be okay," he kept repeating until her breathing finally got under control again.
"No, it's not," she creaked against him, the first normal words that hadn't come out like a gasp or a hiccup in at least an hour.
"It's not okay."
"It is. We can still find them."
"I dunno. We'll go to the Muggle police. You can report missing people, right?"
"And what do I tell them? The last time I saw them was nearly a year ago."
"They've gotta be able to do something."
"We don't even know if they're in Australia anymore!" she laughed at the absurdity of the situation. "They could be anywhere! Literally anywhere in the whole world."
"We'll find them."
"How?" she fired. "How can you find someone if you have no way of knowing where they are?"
As soon as she said it, Ron felt stupid for not thinking of it earlier.
"With this!" He reached into his pocket and pulled out the smooth piece of metal that had been a constant fixture there for the last year. He figured now it was time to pass on Dumbledore's gift. Holding the Deluminator aloft, he looked to her with suddenly hopeful and confident eyes. "Do you want to find your parents?"
"Do you want to find them more than anything in the whole world?"
"I suppose, yes."
"You have to know. You have to know that that's the only thing you want. That it's the only thing that'll make you feel whole. It's the only thing you need in this world." He pressed the contraption into her hand and wrapped her fingers around it.
"I just want to find them." She didn't seem to feel the same urgency he was describing.
"But you've got to feel that. It's got to be the only thing in the world you want. It'll take you to them. I promise." His eyes closed and he wrapped his own hands over hers then. As he spoke, it suddenly seemed to dawn on Hermione that he was describing his own feelings this year, the feelings that had brought him back to her. She looked to him and for the briefest of moments it was as if they both remembered what they'd planned to do tonight, but it quickly passed.
"You really think it'll work?" she asked skeptically.
"It did for me," Ron stated confidently. "But you were all I was thinking about." He didn't even hesitate when he spoke and there was a long pause as the confession seemed to echo around the empty veranda.
"But I said your name," she broke the silence at last. "I - I said your name. That's how this thing worked, right?" She held up the the strange silver object. "I said your name and you said my voice came out of it. My parents don't know I exist." Ron had hoped she wouldn't point out that very large flaw in his plan.
"Maybe they're reading Shakespeare," he offered, and she surprised him by actually turning the sides of her mouth up in a tiny smile. "It's going to be okay." It was about as far from okay as they'd been the entire trip, but he wouldn't let them fail now. They'd come this far. He wouldn't go home without the Grangers. They were her family and she was his. He wouldn't leave Australia without them.
She closed her eyes then, he knew probably just to give them a rest after the last hour of near constant tears. Her face probably ached too. He wondered what she would do if she could see herself. Her skin was red and blotchy, her eyes bloodshot and the skin around them puffy and swollen. She looked like she'd been hit with a stinging jinx.
"Do you want to go back to the hotel and lie down?" He knew he didn't even need to ask as he hauled her to her feet. Most of her weight leaned against him and he was impressed by her ability to even put one foot in front of the other. Her eyes were fixed on the ground and his eyes were so transfixed on her that they didn't even notice the shaggy-haired young man suddenly walking toward 117 Highgate Hill.
"Help you two with anything?" he called out, his dark eyes fixing on Ron and Hermione. Ron's hand tightened around Hermione's and he reached to his jacket pocket instinctively as the young man approached them. He was wearing a ragged pair of dark blue jeans and a long-sleeved maroon rugby shirt that also looked quite tattered. His dark hair curled around his ears, a bit like Ron's, but his hair was much thicker and wavier. Ron could see the distinct evidence that he'd just been in a fight as he sported a fresh cut above his right eye and a large bruise on his cheekbone. He gripped Hermione's hand even tighter.
"No, we're fine," Hermione replied curtly.
"Who are you?" the unkempt young man asked.
"Who are you?" Ron shot back, not comfortable with how long his eyes seemed to linger on Hermione.
"I asked you first," he laughed, seeming to find it all rather amusing. "Oi, I see you've had as rough a day as I have!" he chuckled again and pointed to Hermione's puffy eyes.
"Who are you?" Ron demanded again without cracking a grin.
"I cut the grass here," the boy relented with a sigh. "I know the flowers and all ain't lookin' the best, but my whipper snipper broke last week and they only pay me to trim the grass and get the mail."
"They?" Hermione interrogated.
"Yeah, are you looking for David and Emily?"
"No, we..." Likely so used to asking for Monica and Wendell, Hermione nearly dismissed the young man's casual inquiry. It took a moment for the words to register. Her puffy eyes widened and she squeezed Ron's hand so hard he thought she might break several small bones. This stranger in tattered clothes knew her parents. "Y-yes, we are," she stammered. He could practically feel her quivering against him, trying to disguise her emotion. For a moment he thought she was going to burst into tears all over again. "You know David and Emily?"
"You know David and Emily?" The young man looked skeptical as he walked by them and grabbed a handful of mail from the box out front. Ron cursed himself for not even bothering to check the box earlier.
"Yes, do you know where they are?" The urgency in Hermione's voice seemed to be completely lost on the young man.
"Yeah," the boy replied simply, casually flipping through her parents' mail. He could see Hermione bubbling with an obvious jealousy, looking very much like she'd like to rip it out of his dirty fingers. "They're in Perth."
"On holiday?" Ron inquired hopefully, unsure where Perth was, but thinking what a laugh they'd have if Hermione had been right and they'd just gone to the beach.
"No, they live there now," the young man dismissed flippantly. "Haven't lived here for months." Ron watched Hermione's face fall at the words.
"W- why did they leave Brisbane?"
"Who wants to know?" The shaggy-haired youth challenged, his dark eyes narrowing at the two of them. Hermione narrowed her already swollen bloodshot eyes right back at him.
"Why did they leave?" she fired again, ignoring his inquiry. Ron could see she seemed oddly threatened by the young man, who clearly didn't know this was not the day to trifle with Hermione Granger. "Who are you?" she demanded again.
"I told you, I cut the grass," the stranger sighed wearily. "They told me to keep cuttin' it and look after the place."
"So they're coming back, then?" Ron asked hopefully.
"Nope," the boy dismissed flippantly and waved around a postcard that he pulled out of his jacket. Ron saw Hermione's eyes lock on the handwriting, which he recognized from all the letters she'd received at Hogwarts as her mother's.
There was proof at least, right there in front of them, that they were okay. Her mum had written a postcard.
"Can I see that, please?" she asked, her lip trembling, her eyes never leaving the neat cursive script.
"What's it to you?"
"Let me see the damn postcard!" Hermione demanded and he could see her getting heated, despite the tremble in her voice. Ron's eyes raised at how quickly her temper had flared and the language he'd never heard her use before. Her eyes hadn't left the postcard still in the young man's hand.
"Do you want to come out to eat with us?" Ron blurted out suddenly. Hermione looked to Ron, clearly shocked and appalled by his invitation. Ron wasn't sure why he'd asked it, all he knew was that whatever this peculiar young man knew, interrogating him on the street was hardly the way to discover it.
The young man glanced at his watch and seemed to weigh the invitation for a moment, sizing up both Ron and Hermione. Ron couldn't help but think his eyes seemed to again rest longer on Hermione.
"I could eat," he shrugged.
"Then come join us," Ron invited, ignoring Hermione's horrified expression.
"I can't stay too long 'cause I'm leavin' town today, but yeah, I could eat," he shrugged and gave a toothy smile. Ron noticed one of his front teeth was chipped. He wondered if he'd chipped it in the same messy encounter that had given him the black eye.
"Where are you going?" Hermione inquired curiously, narrowing her eyes again. The young man just laughed, folded the postcard and shoved it back into his pocket.
Despite the fact that Ron was the one who initiated the late lunch, they allowed their raggedy companion to select the eatery, mostly because neither had any idea where the closest restaurant to 117 Highgate Hill even was. The pub they walked to was the epitome of a hole-in-the-wall, dark and smoky, but with an incredible array of sandwiches whose listing took up an entire wall. The young man seemed to know the staff and clientele quite well and proudly claimed to have eaten every sandwich on the enormous menu. The delectable combinations of meat and cheese would usually make Ron salivate, but he was far too busy surveying their young companion to think about food.
He was a peculiar sort of fellow, and Ron could tell Hermione didn't seem quite ready to trust him yet. Ron wasn't sure why he was so willing to believe him, but there was something honest and straightforward about him, reminding him almost of Luna. He was perfectly willing to sit down and have a meal with the two of them, despite the fact that he hadn't even gotten so much as a name out of them yet. In fact, he seemed quite eager for the company. From the state of his clothing, Ron reckoned he looked as if he didn't go out to eat often, despite his friendliness with everyone at the pub.
He was perfectly willing to share details of his life and explain how long he'd been cutting the grass for David and Emily. Ron noticed he still used the surname Hermione had invented for them and Ron couldn't tell if Hermione seemed more saddened than relieved by the news that they still weren't quite the Grangers.
"So round December, they say they start feeling funny, see," he informed, stuffing a handful of chips in his mouth. "Not funny like ill, but...funny in themselves, y'know? An' everyone here thought they'd gone round the twist 'cause they started sayin' things like they didn't belong here. That this wasn't where they were...supposed to be." Ron felt Hermione's hand suddenly seize his thigh, her nails digging into his legs.
Her spell had failed. Or it was failing. Whatever had happened, it had gone wrong somehow. "
Most people thought they were crackers when they started calling themselves different names, but they told me they kept callin' each other those names in their dreams so they reckoned it was what their names was supposed to be."
"Why'd they tell you all this?" Hermione asked, clearly still as suspicious as she'd been outside 117 Highgate Hill.
"Because I'm the only one who listened." he shrugged then. "I believed them."
"But that's...crackers," Ron used the same terminology the young man had. "I mean thinking you're somebody else and all?" he tested the youth.
"Why?" he frowned, looking a bit put out by Ron's comment. "I think you can spend your whole life sayin' ''I'm a dentist', but then you wake up one day and you say 'I don't want to be a dentist no more. I think there's more out there'. An' they thought there was more," he shrugged simply. "More than just tendin' to people's teeth in Brisbane, at least, so they packed up the car and they left."
"To Perth?" Ron didn't know Hermione's parents well, but he knew enough to know that didn't sound at all like the sensible dentists from Henley-by-the-Thames.
"Not at first, no." Ron watched a large blob of mayonnaise drop onto his ragged shirt. He was the only one eating. Despite being the ones who asked him to join them, he and Hermione had been so rooted to his narrative, they'd hardly touched their food. Fortunately, he didn't seem to notice. "First they went to Sydney. Then Melbourne, then Adelaide. They just kept movin' west, I reckon. I get postcards from them from all over, wherever they are. I can show 'em to you if you want."
"Why do they keep moving?" Hermione asked desperately, like Ron likely fearing the worst.
"Don't know. Just tryin' to find a fit, figure out where they belong, I reckon. Nothin's felt right 'til now." He pulled the postcard from earlier out of his pocket again.
"What's it say?"
"Read it." He readily handed Hermione the card. There was a picture of a beautiful ocean sunset on the front and the postcard was made out to the Highgate Hill address where they all had just come from.
Hello from Perth! We arrived here a month ago and were quite ready to continue on when we found the house. It's a brick house with ivy climbing the side and the neighbour has an orange cat that always comes into our yard. It feels better here somehow. Closer to home or whatever home used to be. Something still feels amiss, but we are going to try to find it here. Our lease in Paddington ends this month so you no longer need to tend to the grass. Thank you for being a wonderful friend. I hope you'll come visit us in Perth.
"Ron," Hermione gasped as she read over the words again and again. "That sounds like..."
"I know." Though he'd only been there once he could recognise the description. It was her house back in Henley. The orange cat. The ivy climbing the wall. They were starting to remember parts of who they are. He'd never seen Hermione look so happy to find out one of her spells hadn't worked.
"Is that why you're going to Perth?" Hermione was having difficulty containing her excitement now.
"Well, my luck's sort of run out here in Brisbane, if you know what I mean," the young man replied vaguely and pointed to his face. "The job cuttin' the grass was the last bit o' cash flow I had so I figure, why not Perth? I've got a friend or two there anyway been tellin' me to visit forever."
"So you're just going to go to Perth? Leave everything here behind?" Ron queried.
"Not much I'm leavin' behind really," he dismissed, not sounding too sad over the fact. "Besides, I've moved lots of times. I've lived in Sydney and Newcastle and Canberra. I've even spent a few years in Melbourne." He seemed quite proud of his list of cities.
"So you just travel around?" Ron looked to the young man with a certain admiration.
"I go where I want, yeah," he shrugged. "Perth seems nice enough. I was goin' to leave today. Just came by the house one last time."
"You're leaving for Perth today?"
"And you know where my – " Hermione corrected herself. "Where David and Emily live?"
"Er - uh, no. Not exactly," he admitted after a long pause, picking at a piece of food that had gotten stock behind his chipped tooth.
"They didn't give you their address?"
"No, just the uh - the postcard here." He turned his attention back to his food suddenly.
"But you're going to try and look them up while you're there?" Ron queried.
"I was planning on tryin' to find em, yeah."
"And you believe all that, about them feeling like different people?"
"Told you, I think I could wake up every day and say 'that's blue'. But then I wake up tomorrow and it looks red. And if that's what I believe, then who's anyone to tell me different." Ron felt a rush of affection toward the scruffy young man with the black eye. "So I'm leavin' today. You can come with me, if you like," he invited with a casual shrug, like he invited strangers whose names he hadn't even learned yet out with him all the time.
"Come with you to Perth?" Ron nearly choked at the offer and looked to Hermione for guidance.
"You'd let us come with you?" Ron gaped.
"I invited you, didn't I?" the young man laughed. Ron looked again to Hermione. "Think about it." He shrugged again and then, rather conveniently, announced he had to use the toilet so Ron and Hermione could discuss things.
"I think we should go with him," Ron announced immediately before the young man was even out of earshot.
"Ron, we don't even know who he is!" she laughed absurdly.
"He knows your parents."
"Yes, how does he know them? It all seems a bit strange, don't you think?"
"What, that your spell failed?" Ron challenged.
"I didn't say that!" she snapped. "I just I mean it's all a bit convenient, isn't it? That he just so happens to come by the house and he just so happens to be leaving for Perth today!"
"You don't believe in coincidence?" Ron shrugged.
"I do, but it just - you're the one who wouldn't even trust Archibald Darling!" she reminded him of his hesitance to believe the Ministry employee in London at the start of their trip.
"Well, I was right wasn't I? The twitchy little ferret sent us to the wrong Portkey!"
"Look, I know I'm the last one to say let's go off with a stranger, but - I mean, that was your mum's handwriting, wasn't it?"
Hermione grew quiet at the reference to the postcard that seemed almost sacred now. She looked down to where it rested on the table. Ron wondered if the young man had left it there deliberately.
"Do you really think we can trust him? He's a bit odd, don't you think?"
"Yes on both accounts," Ron replied without a moment's hesitation.
"Do you realize where Perth even is, Ron?"
"It's on the other side of the country."
"So he didn't say how we'd be travelling - "
"I reckon in his car."
" – or where we'd be staying."
"We've got a tent."
"Yes, that's all back at the hotel," Hermione reminded him. "We've got to go back to get our things and we really ought to send another note off to your parents and let them know - "
"Hermione, this bloke is the way to your parents. I know it."
"We don't know anything about him! We don't even know his name!" Hermione reminded him of the ridiculousness of the situation.
"I say we go," Ron spoke confidently. He wasn't sure why he wasn't more wary of the stranger. Despite the cuts on his face, his threadbare jeans and scuffed trainers hardly made him look like a threat. His gut inclination to reach for his wand after being approached by the young man had passed. The only odd thing he could detect was that he seemed oddly protective of her parents, which Ron wasn't sure was a bad thing. One thing was certain- he was their key to finding them. He refused to let her parents disappear now. Not when the key to finding them was just around the corner using the loo.
"Why do you trust him?"
Because I have to.
"Because if he's not who he says he is then I'm a Blimmering Humdinger."
Hermione gave a reluctant smile at the silly reference. The action looked painful almost, like the muscles in her face couldn't work after this afternoon.
"I think you need to get some sleep tonight." He reached up to touch her still tear-stained cheek gently. Her eyes closed instinctively. "I think you need to get some sleep and I think we need to go with him," he affirmed, keeping his hand on her cheek.
"So whaddya think?" The young man returned to the table, still wiping his hands on his trousers. "You gonna join me?" He grabbed what chips were left on his plate and stuffed them in his mouth.
"Yes." It was Hermione's tentative voice that sounded first. "Yes, but we need to stop by our hotel first, if that's all right. Get some things together and send a message off."
"And er – you're sure we have to leave today? We couldn't wait til tomorrow? It's all a bit sudden."
"I've got some outstanding debts, if you know what I mean," the young man whispered. Ron wondered if the cut above his eye had anything to do with said debts.
"We'll – we'll leave today then," Ron stammered, looking to Hermione for assurance.
"Yes," she spoke slower than him. "We'll leave with you tonight."
"I'm Ron." He outstretched his hand to the young man finally. "This is Hermione." He grinned, a wide toothy grin that made Ron think he was quite happy to have company. He squeezed Ron's hand tight and his eyes twinkled.