A/N: Hmm don't really have anything to say for once. Though this story did finally break the 100 alert mark, which is pretty cool. So thanks you guys.
This chapter is dedicated to King's Ransom for the lovely little chat we had after the last chapter.
And thanks to my beta superfan24 for doing a wonderful job with this chapter like always despite the craziness in her own life.
Chapter 21: The Biggest Joke
1 March, 1999
Ron woke up and looked at the watch on his bedside table. He'd been nineteen for exactly six hours and twenty-three minutes but he didn't feel any different than when he'd woken up the previous morning.
Not that he'd really expected to feel different. After a wizard's seventeenth birthday there really wasn't much to look forward to. Last year's really hadn't been anything special since they'd still been out looking for Horcruxes: Harry had still been reeling from what he'd learned about Dumbledore in Skeeter's book and was totally obsessed with the Hallows, and Hermione had only just forgiven him for leaving so their relationship had still been on rocky ground. He supposed next year would be something; at least he wouldn't be a teenager anymore. And he could start voting for elected officials like the Wizengamot and Minister of Magic at twenty-one, though he didn't necessarily find that prospect particularly exciting. But nineteen didn't mean anything, except to remind him that he was another year older.
He didn't know what to make of the last year, really. Riddle had been defeated and they'd won the war, but he'd lost Fred, along with Dobby, Lupin and Tonks. And in a way he'd lost George and his mum as well. He'd finally gotten together with Hermione, but in the end he'd lost her, too. All in all, not really a great year, he thought, and he didn't hold much hope for the next one either.
The door to his room opened and Harry walked in. "Hey mate, happy birthday," he said, tossing Ron a small present.
"Cheers," Ron said as it landed on the foot of his bed. He didn't expect much in the way of presents anymore; after seventeen his family didn't really celebrate birthdays, since they couldn't really afford to. And all his brothers had already moved out and gotten jobs at this point in their lives. Meanwhile, here he was, still living at the Burrow. "You're up early," he said as Harry took a seat.
"Gotta head in to work. Dawlish thinks we have a new lead on the Lestranges and wants every Auror not working a case already to check it out. He's got me and Neville teamed up with that Auror who's been teaching at Hogwarts again."
"How is Neville?" Ron asked, remembering what Luna had said at the Ball.
"Not sure," Harry said honestly. "Doesn't say much these days, just works like a loon. Spends more time in the Auror Office than I do."
Five years ago, if someone had told Ron that he'd be jealous of Neville Longbottom, he would've laughed in their face. But now he couldn't help wishing that it was him going out on missions with Harry, working beside his best mate every day like he'd dreamed of ever since fourth year. Growing apart and losing touch with Harry and Hermione had been something Ron had always been afraid of back in school. Both of them were so brilliant, though in totally different ways. He'd always known they'd been meant to do big things. After last year, after he'd left them and come back and been miraculously forgiven he'd been sure that nothing would ever separate the three of them; he'd felt like he'd finally earned the right to stand next to them as their friend.
But as it turned out that hadn't mattered. He'd ended up at the shop and now he and Harry were both so busy they rarely saw one-another these days. Often Harry's assignments kept him away from the Burrow for days at a time, especially since they'd started tracking the Lestrange brothers. And even when Harry did make it home for dinner, Ron was so busy trying to get the new shop ready that they barely had the chance to say hello to each other in passing. Even on the rare nights they were both home, they were usually so relieved to have a breather that they barely had the energy to play a game of chess or go for a fly.
And of course, he and Hermione were even worse. He'd told her he wanted to try and be friends again, but that was easier said than done, especially with her still at Hogwarts. And who knew where she'd end up after she finished. He didn't even know what career she was considering; though he had a good idea 'joke shop clerk' wasn't one of her top prospects.
Something in his expression must've revealed his thoughts. "Speaking of Neville, how are you and Hermione?"
"'Speaking of Neville'…nice segue mate," Ron snorted.
Harry shrugged. "Nice vocabulary. 'Segue.' What girl are you trying to impress?"
"Prat," Ron mumbled, though both boys grinned. Sometimes Ron wished he could find a girl like Harry. No-one seemed to read him better, was able to understand him better than Harry. Other than the whole mess with Hermione and the Triwizard Tournament, they'd never had a misunderstanding. And even those hadn't really been misunderstandings. He'd just been hurt, thinking that Harry hadn't wanted to include him when he'd entered the tournament. And he'd never really thought Harry fancied their other best mate; it had just been Hermione's feelings he'd been unsure of, and Harry had been the innocent bystander who'd taken the brunt of Ron's anger and frustration.
"Seriously though, you never told me how Valentine's Day went. I'm guessing it wasn't pretty."
"Try disaster. Makes your date with Cho fifth year look like a dream-date by comparison," he said, unable to resist the chance to remind Harry. ""Guess I have you to thank for that since it was your cloak that let her and Ginny sneak out."
"Hey, I just gave the cloak to Ginny. It was out of my hands after that," Harry said, raising his hands defensively.
"You're a terrible liar, mate."
"Failed my last Occlumency test actually," Harry said and they both laughed again. "You guys looked alright at the match last week though, at least until after Ginny got hurt."
He was fishing, and Ron knew Harry well enough that this wasn't something he was just going to let go even if he wasn't going to come right out and speak his mind. "I told her I just wanted to be friends," Ron said very quickly, as if he hoped by talking fast Harry wouldn't catch what he'd said.
Harry's eyes widened, obviously having heard Ron perfectly. "Is that even possible with you two?"
Ron let out a sickening laugh. He'd been wondering the same thing. "Dunno."
"Did you mean it?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Dunno. I've never understood you two. But I thought you would've worked things out by now. I mean it's been months."
"This isn't really something we can just forget about and move on. Well, I can't. I'm sure she'd like to."
"Did you ever read those letters she sent you?"
"Yeah," Ron said, trying to sound nonchalant. He had, finally, after their talk on Valentine's Day. And they'd done a much better job of clearing things up than what she'd told him in-person. They'd confirmed some of the things Hermione had told him in the Shrieking Shack, but reading about how much she'd missed him while knowing what's she'd been doing with Nathan was bittersweet. It didn't really changed anything: one kiss or one-thousand, drunken shag or not, it didn't really matter, right? In fact, they'd only served to confirm his theory that Hermione would never be completely satisfied with him and strengthened his resolve never to get involved with her again.
He thought it would make him feel better, but it actually just made things a bit worse. While she'd admitted to fancying the tosser, it was clear that he hadn't been anything more than a rebound, someone she'd found comfort in the same way he had with Lavender. Nathan wasn't the guy of her dreams whom she'd planned to marry and have a million curly-haired children with very toothy grins with or anything. No, she'd tossed aside what she and Ron had for a short little fling. And if he believed her letter, most of it had been miserable for her anyway.
Serves her right, he thought halfheartedly. Actually he supposed it had helped in some ways. After reading the letter he'd been more understanding of her mindset while in Australia, or at least better than she could've expected; she'd been rejected, or thought she had. And then a guy came along and swept her away by reminding her of how great she was and how much more she deserved than a prat of a boyfriend who didn't keep his promises and how easily she'd probably been taken in by it all. That's what had happened with him and Lavender, after all. He hadn't known Hermione would be hurt by his actions, had never thought that she'd care, at least not until he'd found her crying on Harry's shoulder in that empty classroom. If he looked at things from her perspective, maybe she really had believed he wouldn't be hurt by what she'd done in Australia either.
What he still didn't understand after reading them was why she'd wanted to start things up with him again after she came back, let alone how she thought things with them could ever work out with her keeping this huge secret. And it didn't help that reading what she'd written about Nathan had only served to paint an even clearer of the two of them together in his mind, a vision of naked, sweaty limbs locked in an embrace of sickening passion and desire. It was enough to make him throw up…as well as put a few more dents in his bedroom's walls and break a few bones.
"Anything I should know?"
Ron looked at Harry, the sickening thoughts vanishing as he was pulled back to the present. A giant part of him wanted to tell his best mate the whole story. It was eating him up inside to walk around with such a weight on his soul, almost like wearing the bloody locket all over again. Ginny and Hermione were obviously friends again if she'd given Hermione the cloak and it would be nice to have someone in his camp for once.
But this wasn't really about sides. He didn't want battle lines drawn up, with his friends and family having to choose between the two of them. And even if he had, he wasn't sure if they'd pick his side anyway. He wasn't completely blameless after all.
"Nah, it's fine," he said, trying to sound convincing. "We'll work it out. Just need a bit more time is all."
Harry watched him for a moment then nodded. "Well, you going to open it before I leave?" he asked, nodding to the present.
Ron picked it up and ripped open the wrappings to find a small box inside. "What's this?" Ron asked, opening it and finding a small, silver key inside.
"A basilisk egg," Harry said, rolling his eyes. "What's it look like? It's a key."
"Yeah but to what? What's it open?"
"Well, nothing actually. It symbolic more than anything."
"Oh, great present Harry. One for the ages. No, really, I don't think I can even accept this," he said sarcastically.
"Do you want me to explain or not?" said Harry smugly.
"Fine," said Ron, crossing his arms and pouting. "So what's the deal with this symbolic key?"
"Well I was…sorta…thinking I might move out." Harry smiled sheepishly.
"What?" Ron exclaimed, caught completely off-guard.
"I mean I love it here, really," Harry said, looking around Ron's room with a rather dreamy expression on his face that made Ron want to laugh. "But I can't impose on your family forever, can I?"
"Sure you can," said Ron. "Mum and Dad don't mind. They'd probably kick me out before you."
"Yeah, but I don't want to. And I shouldn't. I mean it's not like I….can't afford it," he said awkwardly, knowing gold would probably always be a touchy subject between the two friends. Ron nodded.
"So you've got yourself a place then?"
"No, not yet. I haven't really had time to start looking or anything. I haven't told anyone else yet, not even Ginny."
It irked Ron a bit that Harry might've told Ginny before him, but he knew that was just the way things were now. He was the best mate and Ginny was the girlfriend, and he was just going to have to accept that sometimes she came first, things Harry could tell her that he couldn't tell him. He understood; after all he wasn't telling Harry the whole story with Hermione, now was he?
"Well, uh, thanks, I guess. So's this supposed to mean I can come over and raid your ice box any time I want? Or do you just want me to come over and water your plants when you go on holiday?" he said laughing.
"Actually I was sort of hoping you'd want to live with me." For the second time Ron's mouth fell open in astonishment. Harry shifted uncomfortably. "Look, I just feel like we haven't…spent a lot of time…together lately. So I thought maybe…if you wanted to…."
Ron looked down at the key in his hands, wishing he could get the dust out of his eye. "Harry, I—"
"You can think about it. Like I said, I haven't even started looking. And I know with your mum and all…it's still not really a good time right now. But George is starting to get out a bit more. And I just…I thought…."
"Sure mate," Ron said, looking up at Harry and noticed his eyes were a tad shiny as well in the soft light.
"Right. Well I should probably go," he said, standing.
"You want a bite before you go? I could fix you something?" Ron hurried to offer, clambering out of bed.
Harry shook his head. "I'll be alright."
"Sure. Hey Harry?" Harry turned. "Thanks."
They exchanged half-smiles and went their separate ways.
13 March, 1999
"Oi, out of the way you lot!" Ron shouted to a bunch of third years, hoisting a crate of Canned Canaries over their heads and wishing he'd had the sense to just levitate it rather than try and carry the thing. It was the new shop's second day open and it was a madhouse. The store was packed wall-to-wall with third, fourth and fifth years who'd never gotten the chance to visit Hogsmeade back when Zonko's had been in business and seemed to be trying to buy up the entire store.
It wasn't really a surprise: there were only so many times you could visit the Three Broomsticks or Honeydukes or the Shrieking Shack, so a new shop opening was bound to be a big deal for the students. It was something he'd counted on actually and he was just thankful they'd managed to get everything ready in time, but his and Verity's overtime had paid off in the end.
Verity had actually had the idea to open the shop the day before the Hogsmeade visit. It had given locals who lived in the village the chance to check out the store when they might've been put off by having to deal with hoards of rambunctious Hogwarts' students who'd spent the last two months cooped up during winter. And it had turned out to be a nice way to ease into things and prepare for the real test today.
Harry had even requested the day off to come and help, which Ron was truly grateful for, even if he suspected a bit of an ulterior motive. After all, Ginny would be around at some point.
"Ow," exclaimed a fourth year Hufflepuff girl as Ron accidentally knocked into her.
"Sorry," Ron said, setting the crate down and helping her up. Blimey, they have to be getting shorter, he thought as the girl barely cleared his waist. There's no way we were ever such midgets. The girl blushed, embarrassed as he released her hand and quickly ran off. "Barmy kid," Ron muttered to himself as he started unpacking the crate.
The door chimed and he felt his eyes drawn to it as they'd been all morning. But unlike all the other times so far, it really was her walking through the door.
Of course he'd known she'd come by at some point. He just didn't know if he wanted her to or not. He wasn't sure if things between them would be friendly or if he needed to have a Shield Charm ready in case of another canary attack.
Ron watched her look around and he ducked to escape her notice before she spotted Harry and went over to talk to him. Using some shelves for cover, he moved closer to eavesdrop on their conversation. Conveniently, Hermione was practically shouting to be heard over the clamoring customers running around the store.
"Ginny's coming by later. She just had to drop a letter off at the post office," Hermione explained after they'd finished embracing. "I'm going to have my hands full with all the trouble this lot is going to cause, aren't I?"
Harry grinned. "Well you probably have it too easy reviewing for N.E.W.T.s this year anyway, so dealing with a little mischief might help make things a bit more challenging for you. I mean it's not like you have me and Ron around to distract you: no-one to try and keep alive or mysteries to solve or secret defense leagues to run."
"I never thought I'd miss it, but…" Hermione broke off before composing herself. "This really is brilliant. I'm really glad it was ready in-time for the Hogsmeade visit."
"Ron's been working really hard," Harry explained. "But it's paid off as you can see."
"Is he around?" Hermione asked, lowering her voice so that Ron had to strain to hear, not daring to move any closer.
"Should be here somewhere," Harry said as Hermione looked around. "Are you two okay?" he asked, lowering his voice.
"Ron hasn't told you?" Harry shook his head. "Or Ginny?"
"Believe it or not, Ginny doesn't tell me everything you two talk about," he said wryly.
"I know, I just thought that maybe…" She turned back to Harry. "Ron's not exactly happy with me right now."
"Should he be?" Harry asked, sounding torn between his discomfort and concern.
"No, he shouldn't. I just…"
Ron felt a tap on his shoulder. "How much is this?" a Slytherin sixth year asked, holding up a bag of Instant Darkness Powder.
Ron cringed as he stood up, realizing that Harry and Hermione had both turned in the direction of the voice so close to them. "One Galleon, seven Sickles," he barked, angry the little snake had gotten him caught.
The boy turned around and left quickly at Ron's angry expression and Ron sighed before turning to his friends.
"Uh, hey," he said lamely, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Ron," Hermione said, sounding flustered.
"What were you doing back there?" Harry asked, half amused, half pityingly.
"Inventory," Ron lied. "Just checking to make sure we weren't out of the Snackboxes."
"Right," said Harry. "Well, I'll just…"
"Why don't you go find Ginny?" Hermione offered. "Take her for a coffee or something?"
"Yeah," said Ron. "And bring some back for the rest of us. We'll probably need it."
"Sure," said Harry, not moving, clearly unsure of how he felt about being dismissed like this, and wondering if it was a good idea to leave his two friends alone again.
"You need some gold?" Ron asked, digging in his pockets.
"I've got some," Harry said. "Well…I'll see you later, Hermione?"
She nodded and offered him a forced smile.
"Ron can we talk?" she asked, turning to him the minute Harry was gone.
Ron panicked. "Uh, it's kinda swamped in here."
"Yes I can see. And I don't want to take you away from your important customers. I promise it'll only be a minute."
She sounded strange and he couldn't tell if she was being sincere or if she was mocking him. But he relented and took her back to the office, hoping Eddie, the bloke he'd hired to help out with the new shop, was up to handling things alone for a few minutes.
"Where's Verity?" Hermione asked sharply the moment Ron shut the door, giving them some privacy. "I didn't see her out there."
"At the Diagon Alley shop. She never listens to me anyway, and I thought she'd enjoy being in-charge of the place for once."
Hermione looked surprised. "Oh, I thought you'd want her around."
"Huh?" Ron asked, hearing the venom in her voice and deciding it was best to act thick.
"Well I just got the impression she is one of your best employees, so I assumed you'd want her by your side to make things went smoothly today. I mean you trust her and she's obviously dedicated enough to put in overtime during romantic holidays." Her eyes were narrowed, almost challenging him. "Unless there's some other reason for it."
"Nope, that's it," he lied, hating the fact that Hermione could read him as easily as one of her books.
She looked at him, disbelief apparent in her face. "So she wasn't the girl you were talking about?"
"What girl?" Ron asked, utterly failing to sound innocent.
"The one you…fancy," she said, struggling to get her mouth around the word.
"She has a boyfriend," Ron explained with relief.
She looked at him for a moment. "So did I."
"I'm not the type of person to muck up something like that. And I don't think she is either."
"But I am," Hermione said, voicing the implication in Ron's words. "You haven't denied it's her you were thinking of."
"It's fine," she said, snappishly before looking regretful. "Sorry. I mean obviously I don't have the right…I just wish…" She composed herself again. "I just came to tell you how wonderful the shop looks. Fred would be really proud of you."
"Thanks," Ron said, confused by her change in subject. But apparently that wasn't all.
"And I wanted you to know that I'm not going to let her win."
Hermione straightened up, doing her best to appear strong though it was so obvious to Ron she was so fragile that a strong gust of wind could break her façade. "You were right. All this time, we've never gotten things right. Even when we were together we…I found a way to muck it up. But there's always been one of us trying to fight for it, fight for us. And since you've made it clear you're giving up, it's my turn to be the one to try and hold on to what I know we should be. Because even if you do…fancy Verity, or whoever, I can tell you it's not going to work."
Who does she think she is? Ron thought indignantly, though he couldn't help but feel himself heating up when he saw the fiery resolve in her eyes, silently cursing his body for betraying him. "You're sure, are you?" Ron said daringly.
She nodded. "Yes. It's never been people like Krum or McLaggen or Lavender or Nathan or Verity getting in the way of us. They have nothing to do with us. Well, I suppose McLaggen did," Hermione clarified, looking thoughtful, "since I just wanted to make you jealous. But not the others. I didn't want them because I thought you weren't good enough or because I thought I could do better. I did it because I'm an idiot. Why did I need to wait for you to ask me to the Yule Ball? I could've asked you instead, instead of getting upset when you didn't notice me. Or I could've accepted your terrible offer when you finally did get around to asking me instead of punishing you and going with Viktor just to prove a point, to show you that I deserved more than a pity invite, to be more than a second thought or your last resort. And I could've talked to you or written to you when I was in Australia instead of finding someone else to make me feel better. I mean I should've known it would never work. You're the one who makes me miserable and you're the only one who can make it better.
"And you're the same. With Lavender or Verity or whoever. You can act like you're over this, but then how else do you explain all these months? How do you explain what happened between us the night of the ball, when you kissed my cheek that day by the lake?" As she spoke, she touched her cheek in the exact spot he'd kissed all those months ago.
"We're idiots, both of us. I never needed Viktor or Nathan to help me realize you're the one I want. I knew that before I ever met either of them. I just let myself get confused, I let myself doubt: you, me… us." She bit her lip and Ron knew she was trying to hold back tears as she continued. "I'm just so used to having all the answers. And you have always been there, believing in me, trusting me. You had me convinced sometimes that I really did know everything.
"But you're the one thing I've never been able to understand, Ron. And I've tried so hard. Whether your actions made me want to pull my hair out or snog you senseless, it was something inexplicable. The problem was I treated you like some problem where the answer kept eluding me. But you were never the problem; you're the answer, you always have been and I've just been too thick to notice. Or maybe I did and just didn't understand what that meant."
"Ever since I was little I wanted to be perfect. I've tried to be perfect for so long I can't even remember where or how it first started. But I can remember when I stopped wanting to be that perfect girl and started wanting to be the perfect girl for you."
She blushed again and Ron looked at her skeptically, and she quickly amended her statement. "I mean, I still wanted to do well, but at some point your opinion became the one that mattered most, even more than my own. That's how I know I love you, and how I know that this," she waved her fingers back and forth between them, "isn't over just because you say it is. If there's one thing I learned from this mess, it's that you can't just will-away your feelings. They don't disappear because you're angry or hurt or because the boy you love can be so thick he makes you want to pull your hair out."
She smiled at him, but Ron was so stunned by her words and the lips that issued them that he failed to smile back. "So if you want another turn to be the idiot, that's fine. I'll hate myself when I see it or hear about it and I'll try to hate you for putting me through it again. But I'll love you a thousand times more than I could ever hate you. And I think deep down you feel the same. You said so yourself: you said you can't hate me, even though you want to and we both know I deserve it. And I'm not going to let you forget that. So when you're finished working through whatever you need to do and you take me back, I can say 'I told you so' and you can call me a know-it-all and we can bicker and laugh and kiss and be the way we're meant to."
Ron noticed they'd somehow moved closer while she'd spoken, but he hadn't been aware of it. If he reached out he could touch her face, pull her to him and bicker and laugh and kiss right then and there. And when she leaned in he thought she really was going to do just that, and he knew he wouldn't protest, much as felt like he should. But she only pecked his cheek before taking a step back and swiping away a few stray tears that had somehow managed to escape her eyes.
Hermione sniffed. "Well, that's all. I'll let you get back to work. I need to get back anyway." She opened the door to the office before turning back to look at him one last time. "Oh. And happy birthday, Ron."
Then she left, leaving Ron to watch her go, mouth gaping, wondering if that really was the same girl from a month ago. And I thought Harry's present was a good one, he thought, touching his cheek softly, his skin still burning where her lips had touched him.
Ron would never know for sure how he managed to make it through the rest of the day after that. He was so distracted he barely even noticed when Harry returned with Ginny in-tow and at the register he completely forgot to charge one Hufflepuff for the biting earrings he'd purchased for his sister. He couldn't help it; he was consumed with thoughts of Hermione. He'd imagined their first encounter since the Quidditch match playing out a hundred different ways, but Hermione had still managed to find a way to surprise him and he had no idea what to make of her. She'd just seemed so confident, so sure of what she was saying that for a moment she'd almost had him convinced that he should forget everything that had gone wrong between them.
He still wasn't sure why he'd even mentioned anything about him fancying another girl in the first place. Of course Verity had been the girl he'd had in mind when he said it. Hermione's hostility toward his attractive female coworker on Valentine's Day had been rather obvious, and he'd guessed it stemmed from more than her little joke about house-elves. And Verity really was someone he could see himself with. She was cool, she was fun, had a wicked sense of humor, and was rather clever in her own way. They got on great and he loved that she didn't take shite from anyone, himself included. She even liked Quidditch, though she wasn't a Cannons fan. But hey, no one's perfect, Ron admitted.
And she was drop-dead sexy. She had a face that made men double-take as she passed and a figure that looked good whether she wore a low-cut top made for clubbing or the plain starched Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes uniform. If she had a few drops of Veela blood in her she could probably even give Fleur a run for her gold.
Things had been a bit awkward between them after their near-kiss at Percy's engagement party, but as time passed without either of them mentioning it things went back to normal. Looking back, he realized the tension between them had dissipated after the New Year's Ball. The Prophet had done a huge write-up about the Order of Merlin ceremony and had made a great fuss about the guests of honor—himself, Harry and Hermione—and whom they'd taken as their dates. The press had made a fuss over Harry and Ginny's supposedly sudden reconciliation and the gossip columns had been busy ever since trying to predict how long their rekindled romance would last. Ron almost wished he could find a way to place a bet on it or something; he reckoned he could make a bundle with most of the public giving them a few months tops. Of course he'd never be able to collect considering 'forever' was a long ways off.
But the talk of Harry and Ginny had been nothing compared to him and Hermione. Everyone was speculating on whether they'd only gone as friends or something more, if the Chosen One had only started seeing Ginny again to get back at his best mate for stealing his girl, if the trio's friendship would be torn apart by romance, and how tragic it was that the good-hearted but naïve Ron Weasley had allowed such a fickle mistress as Miss Granger sink her claws into him. Thankfully the press had finally moved on to other more-pressing gossip since neither couple had appeared in public since.
Ron knew a part of the reason he felt drawn to Verity was the fact that she wasn't tied to memories of his past. She'd known the twins, but they never talked about Fred or George, which Ron found a bit peculiar but was ultimately grateful for. She didn't remind him of Harry or Hermione or their times together—good or bad. She was his friend, just his, and it had been a long time since he'd had someone all to himself. Since…well, since before Hermione came along and he'd had to start sharing Harry. Of course, Verity did have a boyfriend, but strangely enough, he never seemed to be around much, especially lately, though she mentioned him often enough that Ron knew they were still together.
And yet there were times that Ron was almost sure she fancied him, at least a little, as if she was only waiting to see if he did something about it.
He sighed. Yes, he truly believed he could end up with someone like her and be perfectly happy. The question was, would that happy ending even be possible in a world where he'd already met Hermione Granger?
Things were finally slowing down; it seemed like most Hogwarts students had been through the shop at least twice already and it was nearly time for them to head back inside for supper. So he was a bit surprised to hear the bell on the shop door ring. He looked up, half hoping it'd be Hermione back for more even as his head warned him what a disaster that would be. But the person standing in the door way was even more surprising and, unbelievably, even more exciting.
"George," Ron said, the name coming out like a gasp as he felt the wind rush out of him. He didn't say anything else, afraid of spooking his brother and scaring him off with unwanted questions or comments.
George looked around uncertainly, as if he didn't really think he should be there before looking to Ron. "I went by the shop and… Verity said you'd be here."
Ron felt panic rise inside him. "Are you alright? Is everything okay at home? Is it Mum?"
George didn't answer, merely looking down at his shoes and kicking at the floor. Even after everything it was still strange for Ron to see him like this, without his old flare and slight swagger and enough life inside him to draw the whole world's attention.
"George, what's wrong?" Ron asked again.
"I just wanted to see how things were going with the shop," he admitted, not meeting Ron's eyes.
"What?" Ron asked. George had shown absolutely zero interest in the joke shop since it reopened, ignoring all of Ron's gentle requests to come see its progress, maybe even pass judgment on the new products he'd developed. It'd be worth it to have George take the mickey out of him if it meant he was back to being the old, fun-loving George.
"If you're busy, I can come back some other…don't want to be in the way."
"No!" shouted Ron, desperate to keep George there longer. "I mean it's your shop, so how could you be in the way?"
"I didn't even know about this place."
Ron looked guilty. He had purposely not told George about it. Besides his brother's obvious indifference, he'd worried it might upset George. Getting the shop up and running again had been one thing; Ron had merely been putting things back to the way they were supposed to be. But the Hogsmeade branch was different; he'd done it without Fred or George, accomplished something they'd wanted to do together and would never have the chance to. And despite Hermione's reassurance that Fred would be proud of him, he doubted George would feel the same.
"Sorry I didn't tell you. I…I didn't use any of the shop's gold. I took the loan out in my name, so if you don't like it I can change the name. I mean if you don't want it tied to your store—"
"No!" George said adamantly, startling Ron. "It's fine. It's…it's brilliant, Ron." The tentative smile that came over George's face was enough to make Ron grin from ear-to-ear. He'd been happy to get a laugh out of George at the Ball, and had been pleased to see him continue on the path to recovery, but this was more than he could've hoped for. George still continued to go out drinking most nights, but he usually returned at a decent hour, or at least before dawn. And had started taking his meals with the rest of the family, but his laugh was still absent at all times. Their dad had advised everyone to just go about things as normal and let George continue to work things out at his own pace. Apparently, that had been sound advice.
"Would you like a tour?" Ron asked hopefully.
"Yeah, I think I would," George said, his tight smile relaxing, but not disappearing from his face.
1 April, 1999
Ron felt himself being shaken roughly, pulling him out of a rather wonderful dream about Hermione—a Hermione with a tail to be exact, like she'd had back in second year. And she'd been showing him just what it could do when he felt someone slap his face lightly.
"Ow! Gerroff me," he cried, batting the hand away.
"Shhh. You'll wake the whole house if you're not quiet little brother."
"George?" Ron asked, recognizing the voice.
"Got it in one. I'm impressed. You must be taking powdered dragon claw or something. Strange, I always thought that was a load of dung but I guess there's some truth to it."
Ron groaned. It was far too early for George's ribbing.
Over the last three weeks George's attitude had changed remarkably. Before, he'd been making steady progress since the ball. But since his visit to the shop, George was acting like a completely new person. Or rather, like an old one—himself to be precise. He'd actually seemed quite impressed with the place, even getting quite a kick out of the Canned Canaries once Ron explained how he'd come up with the idea. And he'd started coming in to the shop a few days every week. He never stayed long, and rarely did any real work, as if he was afraid messing about with the jokes would recall painful memories of Fred, but he was smiling and laughing again, even making jokes like this on occasion when he was in a particularly good mood. Ron had no idea what had caused this turnabout, but he wasn't one to look a gift-thestral in the mouth, so he'd accepted the new George without question, secretly praying he was back for good.
"Now, now. No going back to sleep ickle Ronniekins. You can sleep when you're dead. We have important business."
Ron opened his eyes again, giving up on sleep, at least for the time being, and smiled. George's comment was so much like his own to Harry all those months ago, back when Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes had reopened.
"Here," said George, throwing some clothes at Ron which landed on his head. "Now hurry up. No dawdling," he said, doing his well-practiced imitation of their mum.
"Where are we going?" Ron said, trying to pull his jeans on without standing up.
"And ruin the surprise? Come one. I thought you were supposed to be the adventurous one in the family"
"That's Charlie," Ron said. "Dragons and all, remember?"
"Seems I recall you having a run-in with a dragon or two yourself, little brother. And three-headed dogs and basilisks and Dementors and Merlin knows what else. Oh, and I think some giant spiders, too, right?"
"Fine, fine," Ron grumbled, shuddering at the memory of his trip into Aragog's lair, happily remembering the vile thing was now dead.
Fifteen minutes later they were walking toward the Apparition boundary. It was just after sun-up and the countryside was covered in eerie fog, though strangely it felt more soothing than disquieting. "Now will you tell me why you dragged me out of bed at this unholy hour?"
"Sorry," George said, looking surprisingly sincere. "Interrupted a good dream, did I?"
Ron's head filled with the image of Hermione wrapping her tail around his cock leaving her hands free to fondle his…"Yes," Ron stated, not meeting George's eyes, though he knew his burning ears had probably given him away.
"No worries. We've got a shop full of Daydream Charms haven't we?" he said, clapping Ron on the shoulder. "Now, be a good boy and take Georgie's hand."
Ron rolled his eyes but did as instructed and a moment later felt the familiar twisting and compression of Apparition. As soon as he was steady on his feet, he looked around, instantly recognizing where George had taken him even though he'd only been there once before.
"George?" Ron asked hesitantly. But George didn't respond. Gone was his smile and carefree attitude and he strode through the plots in determination, a grimace etched on his face. Ron followed in silence. He didn't know why George had wanted to come, or why he'd brought him along, but he wasn't going to leave George's side. Not now, not here in this place.
George came to a stop a few feet away from a rather simple headstone, adorned with nothing more than a name, two dates and two simple words that captured the essence of Fred Weasley's tragically short life. Ron fidgeted, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he stood a few feet behind his brother, unsure if he was really invited to share in the moment or only there to bear witness to it.
When George finally spoke, his voice was cracked and hoarse, and his words came out more like a groan than actual speech. "Today's my first birthday."
Ron was confused. He didn't understand. George was twenty-one today, not one. "George, uh, are you sure you didn't hit your head or something? You're not making any sense," he said cautiously.
"It's my first birthday," he said again, his voice trembling slightly. "The first one that's just mine and not…not ours." And it finally sunk in what George was getting at.
Ron had never really understood why the twins never complained growing up. He'd always resented his hand-me-downs, everything from his first broom to his first wand, his robes and books and toys, even Scabbers. He'd hated that none of it had ever belonged just to him. But some small part of him had understood that the twins had an even worse time of it; not only did they get passed Bill and Charlie and Percy's old things in-turn, but they'd had to share them with each other. But it was more than that. They'd had to share a room, even after he'd gotten one to himself after Bill moved out. They'd had to share birthdays and presents because their parents didn't see the need to get two of everything when they always asked for the same thing. They'd even had to share their accomplishments, like when they'd made the Quidditch team in their second year, or the success of the joke shop. Ron might have had five older brother to try and live up to, but Fred and George had been forced to share their entire lives with someone else, never having anything just belong to George, or just to Fred.
He'd believed they secretly hated it, hiding their resentment the same way he did, or at least tried to most of the time. But now he wasn't so sure that's how they'd felt. Perhaps it hadn't been a curse, but a blessing. They'd each had a ready-made best friend. And so what if they'd had to share their things? In exchange they'd had someone to share all their dreams with, all their fears and hopes and troubles and laughs. Hadn't George told him at the ball how jealous he was of Ron's friendship with Harry and Hermione? Hadn't he said that he'd never felt the need to find another friend since he already had Fred? That he'd thought he'd always have Fred to be both his audience and entertainment?
Ron looked at George. There would be times, Ron knew, that people would look at George in the future and wish he was Fred. Not that they'd want the two of them two switch places or anything; it was just…if he was Fred, it would mean he wasn't buried in a box somewhere. They could imagine that George was just in the next room over or something, that they could have both of them alive again, even if they could never see them together. Or they would look at him and be reminded that Fred was gone, and wasn't coming back, maybe even hate George a little for being the one to survive.
But he would never be Fred. He was George. And looking at him, Ron was painfully aware of how he wasn't looking at Fred, and it had nothing to do with George's missing ear. He couldn't see the lines in George's face that would outline his frown the way he had in Fred's. It was strange, because he'd only seen Fred truly upset once in his entire life, but had seen George's misery on a daily basis for the last eleven months. George's sorrows didn't seem strange or unnatural in his expression. The pain in his eyes fit him. It was almost like he'd been born to suffer like this, like he wasn't supposed to be happy-go-lucky and carefree. He just couldn't be bothered with it while he'd had Fred around to keep him smiling. But with him gone, there was nothing to stop George from revealing this entirely alien side of himself. And Ron wondered sickly if George wouldn't be better fit for the life of an undertaker than the owner of a successful joke shop.
Now, every time George laughed or smiled or cracked a joke, it would cost him something. He'd noticed it, in the past few weeks, how sometimes George would cut-off his words mid sentence. If you didn't know him, you'd think he'd simply lost his train of thought. But Ron did know him, knew he was waiting for Fred to finish the thought for him, the way they always had, each one sharing the other's burdens
"Hey Gred. It's Forge. I'd ask how you're doing but you'd probably give me an earful and I don't really have the storage anymore," he joked feebly. Oh, Ron's here too. Dunno why he came, but he insisted. Practically dragged me here, too, come to think of it. Think he needed to bring along a witness in to tell Mum in case you turned his teddy into a spider again.
"He's got the shop running," George continued, "in top form again. Better than ever. Well, I think so. I've tried to have a look at the books, but you know I'm rubbish with numbers. We both are. That was our motto wasn't it? 'When in doubt, add some more.' I mean how else would we have found out that by adding six salamanders instead of five to a pepper-up potion made the whole thing explode? Could've done without that same lesson when it came to the Snackboxes though. I'm still convinced it was all the extra gurdyroot we added that caused those boils. Remember? And how you had to convince Stacy Rockers that they weren't contagious and that you hadn't caught something when you shagged that Hufflepuff sixth year? What was her name? Casey something? Or was it Cassidy?
"Anyway, It's April Fools Freddie, but I haven't got a single prank ready. Well I did slip Percy's hand into a glass of water so he'd piss the bed. Remember? Verity taught us that one. Dad was right: muggles do alright without magic.
"I guess I just don't see the point. If we did things right, no-one ever knew it was us. And what's the point of going through all the effort without someone to appreciate our fine efforts?
"I dunno Fred. I'm not sure if the shop's what I want anymore. It's not really the same without…without you."
Ron listened as George rambled on, talking about everything and nothing at the same time. He desperately wanted to comfort George, to tell his brother what everyone else had been telling him since he started working at the shop: that Fred would want them to be happy, would be glad to know that his dream had lived on after he'd gone, that he would never want George to spend his life in regret and misery But as much as Ron wanted to be the one to tell George that, he knew Fred's opinion was the one that truly mattered, and there was no sense in trying to pretend otherwise. So he waited there by George's side, listening to his brother say all the things he'd never had to put to words before.
"I wish you could see Percy, Freddy. He's worse than ever. Got no-one to keep him from getting too big for his britches and put him in his place. I know, I know. But what do you want me to do? And Mum…" George's playful tone turned yellow. "You're lucky you can't see her. Maybe…maybe I could put on one of your jumpers and convince her you were just taking the mickey out of all of us, off on holiday in the Galapagos or something. Think that might be the only thing that'd help her.
"I'd do it too. I would, if I knew I wouldn't have to take it off again at some point, make her lose you again. I know-I know I couldn't…"
Ron reached out, but his arms suddenly didn't seem long enough to reach George, like he was somewhere else, forever caught halfway between here and…wherever Fred was now. He could only hope that George would turn around and come back to their side. It wasn't his time to join Fred, not yet. But he wasn't quite ready to leave him either. And until he was, Ron would stand in that graveyard, seeing for the first—and last—time, just what his brothers truly meant to each other.
A/N: This chapter's title comes from lyrics in the song "Absent Friend" by Bark Psychosis off their album Hex.
As I said at the beginning, I really don't have much to say about this chapter, but I hope you guys liked it. I'll be very interested in seeing your reviews like always.