Hermione watched as Oliver shut the door in front of her. She looked at it for a moment, unsure of what to do, before she turned around and headed down the building's stairs. She stepped out the front door. The brisk night air rushed around her, tossing her hair and slipping in through the openings of her coat, making her shiver. She looked around, and saw an empty bench in the park across the street. She and Oliver had sat there many times, sometimes for a picnic, sometimes just for some fresh air. She quickly crossed the empty street and sat down, her body giving a little shudder as the icy iron froze her legs through her trousers. She put a warming spell on herself and, after a look around, put some other protective spells on as well, so no one would notice or bother her. She needed some time alone right now.
As she sat there, slowly warming up and looking out on the dark, sloping outlines of the park and the few visitors still in it, everything seemed to swarm up on her just as it had on Oliver's couch. What was she going to do? What was anyone supposed to do in a situation like this – when your whole worldview, the way you looked at people in your life, the way you looked at yourself, had shifted so utterly in one night? She could go home. George's face swam before her eyes and she could feel her eyes start to prickle again despite how puffy and sore they felt. No, going back to the flat was definitely out. She couldn't deal with him so soon after everything. The Burrow? Hermione gave a hollow little chuckle. Dealing with Molly Weasley would be ten times worse than dealing with George. She'd take one look at Hermione's swollen eyes and red nose and immediately start worrying. Hermione dear, what's wrong? Are you hurt? Was it Oliver? Or was it George? Did you two have a domestic? Here, sit down, I'll make you a cuppa. And then of course, she would bother Mr. Weasley to somehow fix whatever had happened, or get on a head of steam and go off to seek revenge herself, leaving Hermione with an uncomfortable Mr. Weasley, who'd pat her on the hand awkwardly and say something sweet but unhelpful like I'm sure it will all sort itself out. These things do happen. Terribly sorry though.
These things didn't 'just happen,' though. How often did your boyfriend break up with you because his best friend was in love with you? Rarely. But how often did he break up with you because he realized you were in love with someone else, even before you did? Hardly ever.
Hermione buried her face in her hands. She heard some drunken singing and looked up, startled. A grubby man started walking towards her, a bottle of some amber liquid "hidden" by a paper sack clutched in his hands. Hermione tensed, silently hoping her precautions would work. The man moved to sit down on the bench, but when he got half a meter away, he muttered something about "need to go see Kenny about that thing" and walked away. Hermione let out her breath and shook her head. Immediately, George's voice popped into her head.
Yeah, he needs to go see Kenny. Let's hope Kenny is the name of his shower, or at least his toothbrush. That stench would probably make trolls go "Oh Merlin, what is that?" Well, trolls can't talk. So they'd probably go AAAAUUUURRRGGGUUUURRRRRRRAAA AAHHHHH.
Hermione burst into laughter that quickly turned into crying. She couldn't do this. She wanted to be able to handle this rationally, to figure out what the hell to do and then go forth with a numbered list of meticulously thought out steps. She wanted to "Hermione it out," as Oliver would always say. ("Did you just turn me into a verb?" she had asked, laughing. "Yes, and it works," Oliver had said. "Don't you think?") But she couldn't. There was no way of going about this like she would any other problem. She wanted to be able to charge through and make decisions and stake claims, but all she felt like doing was curling up in a ball and crying until she was empty. She brushed her hand across her cheeks in a futile effort to stem the flow of tears. In a sudden flurry of activity, she stood up and spun on the spot, disappearing with a crack!
She landed on the back porch of the small house. All the lights in the house were off, save for one she could see though the master bedroom's light curtains. She let out a breath of relief and knocked on the back door, just loud enough to be heard without waking anyone else up. She saw the light in the window that was swaying in the air move down and rest, and heard footsteps approaching from inside. Hermione dried her cheeks and put a smile on her face. The door opened and as they locked eyes, Hermione burst into tears again. Arms opened up immediately and Hermione rushed into them without a word.
"Oh sweetheart! Come here. Are you alright? What happened?"
Hermione tucked herself into the embrace, comforted by the familiar sensation of a hand stroking her hair and the smell of lavender. She sobbed, her whole body shaking as she just clung on, desperately needing the contact, the reassurance. The hand on her hair left as she was pulled into the house and the door was shut. The warmth of the house enveloped them, the faint smell of cinnamon and apples floating through the air.
"Shh, it's okay, sweetheart. It'll all be okay."
"C-can I st-stay over?" Hermione gasped out between hiccups from crying.
"Always. As long as you need, darling. How about I make us a cup of tea and I'll get you your favorite blanket and we'll just talk when you're ready. How about that?"
Hermione nodded several times but clung on, hugging as tightly as she could. Hermione knew that sometimes, when everything is going to hell, when your whole life if flipped upside down and you have no idea how to carry on, the best solution is the simplest – sometimes you just need a hug from your mum.
"So you're sure you haven't heard from her?"
"I already told you, no. But I'm sure she's fine, wherever she is. She's a big girl, she can handle herself," said Ginny.
"I know she can. That's not my worry. I'm just worried about her. She hadn't gone this long before without letting me know what she's doing or that she's alright." He knew he sounded shaky but at this point he was far past caring.
"George, I'm sure she's fine. And I will let you know if we hear anything. And I'll relay the message to Ron and your parents as well," said Harry in a soothing tone, cutting in before better-half could say anything.
George smiled gratefully. "Thank you so much, Harry. I really appreciate it." Harry nodded and George nodded back before pulling his head out of the flames. He sat back on his heels, worrying the cuticle of his thumb with his teeth, thinking.
If Hermione hadn't contacted her two best friends, he was completely out of ideas of how to find out where she was. It had been three days since he had seen her, and their last meeting had been brief at that. Hermione had passed him as she grabbed some tea to go before she rushed off to work. She had ruffled his hair genially and flashed him a smile and a "G'Morning," before vanishing. Actually, if he counted that first afternoon/evening as a day, they were just going on four days missing. The first night he was thought she was maybe late at work or spending the night over at Oliver's (he desperately hoped it was the former; he was still pretty sure she and Oliver hadn't gone to that step in the relationship yet, but after everything that had happened, he hated the idea of that possibility even more now). But that next day, he had sent an owl to her office that came back with no reply. He had then sent an owl to her assistant, who reported that he hadn't seen her since the night before, when she left a little early. It made George feel slightly better that he was not the only one worried, as Jonathan was now on board trying to find her, as the Prophet's running had fallen on his rather unprepared shoulders in the wake of her absence. He had thought of asking Oliver, but it felt wrong after their last conversation. He felt like he was asking Oliver of too much already without having even asked him to break up the relationship. Butting in when she might just be with him? George just couldn't bring himself to do it. George sank onto the couch, his fingers carding through his hair nervously.
Four days. Four days of no words, no presence, no assurance that she wasn't lying dead in a ditch somewhere. He ignored Ginny's assurance that Hermione could take care of herself. Of course she could, but that didn't stop his mind from playing through all the worst-case-scenarios. Was she hurt? Was her wand broken? Had something worse happened to her? He couldn't even deal with the possibility. It was just too much to allow his mind to focus on, but it prevailed nonetheless, showing him one horrid image after another. He scrubbed his face with his hands, groaning slightly, hoping that if he pressed on his closed eyelids enough, the images would just fade away into blackness filled with brightly colored squiggles and shapes.
He heard the turn of the bolts in the door and the creak of the door opening. Before any coherent thought went though his brain, he was on his feet and across the room. He didn't even look to see if it was actually Hermione; he knew somehow that it would be. She had barely shut the door behind her when he wrapped his arms around her tightly. He could feel the tension in his shoulders warring, not sure whether to loosen because she was finally back or tighten because he still didn't know what was wrong. Hermione stood stiff in his arms for a moment before she relented and hugged him back, her arms looping around his waist, unable to do anything else as he was holding her shoulders so tightly.
"I was so worried," he said, the words tripping over each other, so anxious to get out and express themselves. "Four days. No letter. No news. Four bloody days! I was so worried. What if something had happened to you and you couldn't tell me? Merlin, don't you ever do that again, Granger! Not a word to anyone! What the bloody hell were you thinking? God, don't ever do that again." He held her close to his chest until he felt her start to pull back to talk. They stood a little ways apart, mirroring each other with crossed arms, as if each was trying to protect themselves. "What the hell, Hermione?"
Hermione fidgeted, her eyes flicking between his and the floor. "I had to get away for a few days." She hesitated, but then continued. "Oliver broke up with me."
George's worried anger immediately turned off as sympathy rose up in him. He might be in love with her and be glad she was not dating someone else now, but it didn't make the breakup any less painful, and he knew that. "Oh, I'm so sorry, 'Mione."
"Actually," replied Hermione with a small, sad smile, her arms still around her like a shield and a blanket all at the same time, "it was the most beautiful and loving breakup I'd ever experienced."
George had no idea how to process this bit of information. He was thoroughly confused by that so he decided to bypass it to what he deemed the more important information. "So you were with him?" he said, his words trailing off at the end.
"No," she said quietly. "I spent some time with my family. I needed to get away from everything, everyone. I had to figure things out."
George felt a glimmer of hope faintly stirring in his chest. "Like what?"
Hermione smiled slightly. "Like you."
"I thought you had me all figured out," he said with a smile.
"I thought I did too." Hermione smiled and rubbed her face with her hand, finally resting her cheek in her cupped hand as she looked at him in exasperation. "George Weasley, you are infuriating."
George blinked. This is not what he had been hoping for. She was smiling though, one of her now-trademark smiles that he got at least once a day from her, that smile that said Honestly, what am I going to do with you? You are absolutely ridiculous.
"You are infuriating, and you can't control your mood swings, especially your anger, and I'm always fixing your broken knuckles from you punching walls like a caveman, and you tried to throw my cat across a room, and you made the first couple months living here an absolute hell, and you tried to kill my ex-boyfriend, and you scared away Rockwell for me, and you took me in against your will when I got kicked out of my flat, and you're an absolute child half of the time, and you can't cook to save your life, and you seem to be unable to wear trousers and a shirt at the same time when you're inside the flat, and I couldn't stand you and somehow you've become one of my closest friends, even though I want to throttle you half the time regardless, and…and I…"
She faltered, the constant stream of words suddenly cut off as her mouth moved uselessly, unable to get her the words she needed to say. He looked at her expression, torn between distress and a reluctant smile, her brow furrowed and her arms wrapped around her like a straight jacket, and he smiled as realization hit him.
"I know," he said quietly. "I know. Me too."
Her bright smile was all the confirmation he needed. He stepped forward, closing the gap between them. He cupped her face gently in his hands and their eyes met for a moment before he ducked his head to kiss her softly on the lips. Hermione wrapped her arms around him and went up onto her toes as she kissed back. After a few moments, they both smiled into the kiss, effectively breaking it.
"You too?" George asked quietly, trying to hide his lingering nervousness.
Hermione smiled at him, luminous against the dim backdrop of the flat. "Me too."
Clink clink clink clink clink!
Mrs. Weasley tapped her wand against the table, the crystalline sound reverberating in the air and catching everyone's attention. She cleared her throat and smiled at the group.
"Thank you all for coming today. We are so thankful you are here to celebrate the engagement of George and Hermione. We have all been waiting for this day for quite a long time. I know I have." A murmur of laughter rippled through the crowd. "I also want to thank my almost-daughter-in-law Hermione for letting me throw this party, as she was originally resistant about having an engagement party at all." Mrs. Weasley gave a teasing wink to Hermione, who was standing a few paces away. Hermione flushed red, playing with a loose curl in a way that clearly showed that she wished her hair was down so she could hide behind it. "So I hope everyone enjoys themselves. To George and Hermione!" Mrs. Weasley raised her glass and everyone else followed suit, chiming To George and Hermione!
George laughed as Hermione's blush started spreading down her neck. Everyone had now broken off into groups, but Mrs. Weasley had demanded they stay together for at least half the party so people would be able to congratulate them. George wrapped an arm around Hermione's waist and leaned forward to whisper into her ear.
"It's not so bad, now is it? Now that the embarrassing bit is over, we can just have fun. And if you're truly uncomfortable, just get sloshed." Hermione shot him a thoroughly disapproving look and he laughed. "Oh stop it – it's all our friends here. You know Mum has been waiting on tenterhooks for this. I thought she was going to have a litter of kittens when we finally told her the news."
"I know, I know. Plus, she just loved organizing these things. I just-, it's a lot of people just for an engagement," murmured Hermione.
"Ah well, that's Mum's style. Ah, look lively – another greeter."
A family walked up to where they were standing, the man's face blocked by a baby's body as he was readjusted in his father's arms. They finally reached the couple, who beamed.
"Oliver!" Hermione cried happily. "I'm so glad you came!" She moved forward and gave him a hug around the baby, who was babbling and gurgling happily. "And Freya!" Hermione's attention moved to a curvy, shorter woman with wavy, jet black hair, tons of freckles, and an infectious smile.
"Hermione!" Freya cried happily, hugging the bride-to-be tightly. "Crivvens, I'm so glad to see you two finally getting married."
"Yeah, it's taken you lot long enough," Oliver teased.
"You're not the first to tell us that," replied George with a laugh as Oliver passed off the baby to Hermione, whose voice immediately went up an octave as she said Hello, Hamish. How's my favorite little Scot?
"I think it's fair game," said Oliver with a grin. "In the time it took for you two to finally get engaged, most everyone else got engaged, married, and started families. Just look at your sister."
George waved a hand as if to brush away this comment. "Oh come off it. She's got Teddy and she adopted Sirius before she even had James. That's not a fair comparison."
They all laughed. Hermione started to bounce lightly, eliciting a delighted squeal from baby Hamish, who had his father's dark eyes and his mother's dark hair even at nine months old. George watched Hermione, her entire being lit up and her eyes never straying as she played with the baby.
"You know, Hermione, you're awfully good at this," said Freya with a wicked grin. "Have you thought about kids for you two yet?"
Hermione froze and looked over. Her nervous expression melted away as she saw Freya's teasing smile. The Woods' laughed.
"Don't scare her off, Freya," said George. "It took me five years for her to finally say yes. I can't have her spooking and running off before I can drag her down the aisle." George laughed and dodged a swat from his fiancée.
"Oh shut it," laughed Hermione.
"It definitely took you long enough," said Oliver, taking his son back from Hermione.
"Well," said George, "we had to make sure she wasn't just in it for my dashing good looks and roguish charm."
"Yeah, it certainly wasn't that, I can assure you," replied Hermione dryly.
Hermione laughed as George grabbed from around the waist, pretending to manhandle her.
"We're so happy for you two," said Oliver with a grin. "We wanted to give you our best before we leave. We have to bring Hamish to Freya's parents before we head off to my game in Switzerland."
"Oh, well best of luck!" said Hermione, giving the couple big hugs.
While Hermione and Freya were busy talking, Oliver leaned in to George and spoke quietly. "Well done, mate."
George grinned. "You as well. Man, I can't wait for that," he said as he looked over at Hermione putting a big kiss on Hamish's chubby cheek.
"Trust me, mate," said Oliver, looking over at the two women hugging and talking, "it's all worth the wait."
At that moment, Hermione glanced over at George and flashed him a bright smile and a wink.
Oliver was right. It had all been worth the wait.