Final Author's Note: I'm sure many of you truly thought that this moment would never come, but here's the epilogue to Australia. This is actually the first part of the story I ever wrote so I'm not exaggerating when I say I've been waiting to post it for years. I cant really put into words how much all your kind words over the years have meant. I've been posting sappy stuff over on my tumblr all day because I know I won't ever experience anything like the incredible support I've had for this story again. Nothing is more overwhelming to me than the fact that something I wrote is being read all around the world. To all you wonderful people, all I have left to say is:
danke, спасибо, tack, gracias, تريما کاسيه, grazie, tak, কে ধন্যবাদ, dank je wel, დიდი მადლობა, teşekkür ederim, köszönöm, آپ کا شکریہ, takk, σας, obrigado, ευχαριστώ, multumesc, 감사합니다,, dziękuję, ありがとう, hvala, धन्यवाद, asante, köszönöm, дзякуй, 谢谢, děkuji, תודה לך, kiitos, хвала, धन्यवाद, ju faleminderit, நன்றி, ngiyabonga, dankie, ačiū (to my single reader in Lithuania!), آپ کا شکریہشك, salamat, merci, and thank you!
Thank you for all the smiles you have brought me.
As the queen herself said, "no story lives unless someone wants to listen."
Thank you for listening.
When the soft pop sounded he thought at first nobody heard them arrive. They stood in the drive of the Burrow hand-in-hand, staring at its five chimneys and asymmetrical frame and Ron recalled how eager he'd been to leave it a month ago. Hermione squeezed his hand, but before they could even take a step forward, Ron heard the broomshed door rattle and Harry and his sister quickly came tumbling out from behind it along with all the brooms.
"You're home!" Ginny shrieked and flew at him before Ron could even react to the undone buttons and flushed colour in their cheeks. "Mom! Dad! Percy! George! It's Ron and Hermione!" Her joyful cries as she flung her arms around his neck indicated just how long his family had been awaiting the reunion. Harry stood to the side, sheepishly scuffing his toe in the dirt and rumpling his hair while avoiding Ron's accusatory gaze.
"I don't even want to know what you two have been up to while we've been gone," Ron announced over his sister's shoulder. He reckoned he'd really have to get used to the fact that Harry and his sister were together the way he and Hermione were. It was certainly nothing he could berate them over anymore, not after what he and Hermione had done.
"Welcome home." Harry gripped him tightly. Then he hugged Hermione and then they were all hugging each other at once. It was a hug that had been lacking since those moments when Voldemort first crumpled to the ground. It was a hug that acknowledged much more than the mere fact that they'd survived. Maybe they weren't ready for carefree trips to Diagon Alley yet, but they were getting there. He couldn't explain how a silent hug could say so much, but it was his best mate and he could feel it.
The clatter of pots and pans sounded next as his mum came barreling out the door, in such a hurry she nearly tripped over a pair of Wellington boots. Ron could hardly recall ever seeing her move so fast. She practically knocked him over and wrapped him in a hug so tight he lost his breath for a moment.
"You're home!" Her voice, though full of emotion, didn't break and she wasn't teary. She sounded deliriously happy and her joy was magnified tenfold when she enveloped Hermione in an equally vigorous hug. "Arthur, they're home!" she shouted back into the house. "They're home!" Ron could hear his dad thundering through the house next and when he finally emerged with his belt jangling around his waist, Ron couldn't help but laugh with the realisation that he was likely on the toilet prior to his mum's bellowing cries.
"You could have finished doing a shit, dad." George appeared behind his dad with a shake of his head and Ron laughed even louder, especially when his mum slapped George so hard upside the head at the crass statement that he winced. They all laughed then, loud belly laughs the Weasley family likely hadn't shared in well over a year.
"Honestly, what is all the racket?" Percy emerged next. "You know perfectly well the Ministry won't allow me to work from home if I can't get anything done."
George and Ginny both shook their heads and Ron laughed some more for no other reason than Percy was back to being good old Percy. And he realised then how much he missed his family, embracing each like he hadn't since the night they lost Fred. His mum and dad he hugged the hardest. He wanted to apologise then for everything - for what he was like before he left, for avoiding them and getting pissed and missing the funeral, and yelling all the time, but their enveloping arms and wide smiles told him there was no need.
He needed this. They knew that. And they knew he was back.
"Where are Charlie and Bill?"
"They're both at work. Charlie's working in Wales now studying a colony of Greens," his mum informed. "He comes home every Sunday for dinner."
Ron felt a brief pang of guilt as he recalled the accusatory words he hurled at his brother about being away from home, but his mum was beaming so wide at the news it was hard not to smile back.
"I missed a lot." He felt like the smile would never leave his face.
"You were busy yourselves, eh?" Ron knew his dad meant nothing suggestive by the comment, but he could see Harry and George both smirking at him and he wondered how it was they both knew. Perhaps it was the pinkening of his own ears at his dad's words as he held Hermione's hand and thought about the last time they made love. Cackling silently with laughter, George turned away, practically beside himself. "Staying in a Muggle hotel and flying in an aeroplane!" His dad continued excitedly, thankfully causing Ron to turn his attention away from his brother. "Did you learn how they stay up?" he pressed and Ron could foresee many nights out in his dad's garage telling him everything about skateboards, television sets, and room service.
"And your parents are well, Hermione?" his mum inquired then, her eyes shining brightly.
"They're...adjusting," Hermione spoke carefully. Ron stroked the back of her hand with his thumb, knowing just getting away with him to return to the Burrow had required a large amount of convincing.
"Well, as soon as they're adjusted, you must have them over for dinner." There was nothing disingenuous about the invitation and Hermione smiled back graciously, but Ron couldn't help but wonder if her parents would ever really be adjusted. "And you'll be staying tonight? I was just making a roast. Should only be an hour longer."
"Thank you, but I - I really must get back to my parents." Her words reminded Ron how little he would actually be seeing her in the next few weeks. Her parents were shaky, at best, about letting her Apparate here with him and he doubted many visits would follow in the next month.
"Yes, of course. Understandable." His mum nodded her head over and over, unable to keep her hands from smoothing down the hair on Ron's head, as if in disbelief that he was home at last. They all stood around facing each other for several awkward moments then and it was his father who caught on first and began shuffling backward toward the house, clearly hesitant to leave but wanting to grant him and Hermione a moment of privacy.
"Yes, well, we'll uh - let you say goodbye then," he stammered.
Goodbye. It would be strange to say it to somebody whose side he'd hardly left for the better part of the last year. Somebody he'd spent most of the last month sharing absolutely everything with. From meals to sleep to so much more, she'd practically become a part of him.
"But you'll come inside, Ron?" his mum asked hopefully.
"Yeah, yeah, there's just something I've gotta do first." He glanced behind the orchard to the buckthorn bush he knew was there, but couldn't see. It was George who seemed to catch on first that the thing he had to do wasn't just saying goodbye to Hermione.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Hermione inquired, turning to face him. "I told my mum and dad I'd be more than just a few minutes."
"I'm fine," Ron dismissed and seeing Hermione's disbelieving look he modified his words. "I'll be fine."
"I can come," she insisted again.
"No," he stated firmly and then, of all things, he gave a small smile. "I want to do this alone."
She looked at him and smiled back then in understanding. He wanted to be alone because he could do it alone now. He didn't need her kisses to distract him or her soft hand in his to hold him up. He could face this reality alone. They'd propped each other up for weeks and now he was ready to stand on his own. Because he wasn't that person anymore, the one who depended on her for every smile and laugh.
"You're sure?" He'd been staring so intently into her eyes he didn't even realise how her hands had moved. They rested on his waist now in an intimate manner, as if she were holding him steady. She wobbled slightly and he wondered then if perhaps it was the other way around.
"I love you," he assured, hardly caring that his entire family could hear him. He could hear his mom give a whimpering sort of sound that he thought was good and his sister snort derisively. "But go be with your mum and dad. They're the ones who need you now."
It felt good to say out loud. He didn't need her anymore. He loved her with every fibre of his being, but he could stand alone. He could make it through the day tomorrow without having to feel her lips on his.
"I promise. I'll be okay." He laughed, knowing how wary she was and he wondered then, as the smile was slow to form on her face, if perhaps she wasn't there yet. Because she'd still trembled in her sleep on the horrible thirteen hour flight and the bandage was back on her forearm and her mother had seen both signs that indicated her daughter had been through more in the last year than she'd yet let on. Ron felt Hermione's fingers tighten their grip on him, digging into his hips in a desperate way he hoped George didn't see. "I'll see you in a few days," he assured and he wrapped her in a hug then, fighting through the trepidation that a few days would turn into a few weeks. "We're going to be fine," he whispered and she hugged him again then, in a manner so raw he knew his family could see it. There were demons in Australia, he knew they now realised, demons they both had to fight and a lot more at stake than simply finding her parents.
Now one final battle remained.
Capturing her lips in his softly, hoping it wouldn't be too long before he felt them again, he turned from her only when her arms finally loosened their grip around him. Then he began the long walk Hermione had pleaded with him to make four Fridays ago. She was watching him, he knew. His whole family was watching as he put one step in front of the other and walked around the side of the Burrow and through the garden to the orchard. He kept walking, past the two trees that always served as goalposts until he reached the empty expanse of green in front of the great buckthorn bush.
The gravestone came into view then and even though his feet slowed Ron kept moving forward. He could feel the guilt that he'd struggled with all these weeks finally lift from his shoulders as he continued walking. Letters appeared in the stone and the letters formed words until he was staring at his brother's name.
It took several minutes before the hot tears slid down. The sheer frankness of it, seeing the inscription and the date and the earth that was still somewhat fresh even after a month.
And he knew then he'd never win the battle. He'd never truly win any of them. He'd probably always have nightmares. They might come few and far between, but they'd still occur.
Hermione's scars might fade one day, but the real wound wouldn't ever really heal. And the reality was his family would probably grieve forever. They would never get over the loss of Fred. Eventually, they would learn to live with it. Maybe they were already starting to heal, but they would all rebuild around the loss. His family, Hermione, her parents, they were all changed by the events of the last year. They all had to learn how to live again.
He'd be whole again one day, he knew. He could see a life with Hermione as vividly as he'd ever seen anything in his life before, but he'd never be the same. And he was okay with that.
He didn't want to be the same.