This couldn't be happening.
No. It simply couldn't be. Hermione refused to believe it.
It was true that she and Ron hadn't been dating, exactly, and that she had been too busy with her work to pay him any real attention for almost a year, but still—
She began pacing her office, as was her habit when she faced any sort of dilemma. She was Hermione Granger, damn it, and she could solve any problem, given sufficient thought. With enough pacing, the answer would come.
But the answer did not come, and she finally sat back down in her chair and held her head in her hands. It had never felt quite so heavy. Had she been wrong in thinking, all this time, that she and Ron were meant to be? That the rift between them was inconsequential, something easily mended? That, in spite of everything, they would eventually end up together one day?
She shook the thought aside. She had waited too long, perhaps, to reconcile. With everything that she was trying to accomplish at the Ministry, there had simply been no time for anything else—relationships included. But now—now she would make time. That had been her mistake—not letting him know how she really felt. Now, she would make her feelings known.
She wouldn't let this happen.
"Hermione, is that you? Oh, I'm so glad you could make it!" exclaimed Parvati, making her way across the room to greet her. She was followed closely by Ginny, who wore a very thin smile. "I thought you might be too busy, what with your hectic work schedule and all—"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Hermione, as Parvati embraced her. "Of course I wouldn't miss your birthday."
"It wouldn't be the first birthday you've missed," Ginny said reprovingly.
"You're forgetting that Parvati was my roommate for seven years at Hogwarts. This isn't just any old birthday."
Parvati beamed, and Hermione felt the slightest twinge of guilt—she had only come to find Ron. "I think I'll go say hi to Harry. I'll see you girls in a bit."
As it happened, Ron was conveniently alone. He was standing by himself in front of Padma's childhood room, swirling a glass of Firewhiskey in one hand as he stared down into it.
"What are you doing alone up here?"
He looked up, startled, and then smiled wistfully. "Hermione. I was just doing some thinking."
"How unlike you."
He chuckled, and she took a hesitant step towards him. "How are you, Hermione?"
Ron nodded. "As usual."
"How've you been?"
"I've been great. The shop's doing really well—"
"So I've heard. I just ran into George the other day."
"Yeah, he mentioned it, actually. He said you looked good."
There was a pause. Ron eyed her carefully, with an odd expression on his face. She knew this was the time to say something, but the words were caught in her chest.
"What's wrong?" he suddenly asked.
"Can we talk?"
He put his arm around her waist and guided her into the room behind him. The gesture felt intimate and familiar, as though nothing had changed between them. Maybe nothing has, she could not resist thinking as she leaned into his grasp.
He shut the door and moved to sit beside her on Padma's bed. "What is it?"
She took a deep breath. "Where's Lavender?" she asked, and the ghost of a smile on his face evaporated completely. She exhaled. "So it's true, then."
"What about us, Ron?"
"Don't make this any harder—"
"I never thought things were over between us."
"Over?" Ron stared at her as though dumbfounded. "Hermione, they never started."
He ran a hand through his hair and went on, looking extremely frustrated. "I mean, I thought something was finally happening with us after the war, but then you got so busy with your work, and—you could hardly call what we had a relationship."
"Well, at least we were working in the same building until you—"
"And that's another thing," he interrupted. "You were so unhappy when I quit my job to work with George. You barely spoke to me for months afterwards."
"I know. I was too hard on you. But there was still important work to be done at the Ministry, and I thought you were—"
"—taking the easy way out," he finished grimly. "Blowing off my responsibility as an Auror. I know. You've told me a million times."
"I didn't even know you were dating her again," she said miserably.
"Hermione, when was the last time we've even seen each other? The fact is, we know nothing about each other's lives anymore—because we hardly ever talk. You practically live at the Ministry these days."
There was no denying the truth of what he said, and yet she couldn't help wondering: what did it matter how often they spoke? They were Ron and Hermione. Hadn't everyone always assumed they were meant to end up with each other? How many times had Harry said he'd seen it coming all along?
She broke the silence. "Still," she argued, "how long can you possibly have been seeing her if no one even told me that you were back together?"
"It's been a few months—"
"A few months!"
"I've known her since school. You know that."
"How can this happen so soon?" she cried. "How can you get engaged to her after only a few months, when I've been your best friend for nearly ten years and—"
Hermione choked and let her question die unfinished.
"I'm sorry," Ron said quietly. "I should have told you straight away. I shouldn't have let you find out from someone else."
"Ron," she said, mustering up all the strength that she could, "I'm sorry. I've been busy lately—so terribly busy—and I know I haven't paid you the attention that you deserve. But I never, ever thought that our story was over. I've never wanted to be with anyone but you."
"Hermione," he pleaded, but she went on.
"Can you really tell me that you don't feel anything for me anymore? That after everything we've been through, you don't still love me?"
"Of course I love you, Hermione. I'll always love you. But—"
"Then call off the wedding," she said desperately. "There's still time."
"—Lavender's right for me." Ron gave a heavy sigh. "Things were always so hard with us, weren't they? We fought all the time, and we never agreed on anything. But Lavender just gets me. She understood why I wanted to work at George's shop, why I couldn't handle the stress at the Ministry anymore. Why I needed to relax. And you, you're different—I mean, you're not like me, you've got different priorities, and you're incredible, but—well, Lavender's just a better match for me, is all. Please try to understand."
Hermione suddenly felt as though her chest might burst. Remembering the time she had saved Lavender's life during the Battle of Hogwarts, she felt—for the briefest of moments—a dark pang of regret.
The black thought vanished from her mind as quickly as it had formed. Lavender was not the villain.
"She's your type, isn't she?" she asked coldly. "Blonde and vacuous?"
"I should have known better. You were stupid enough to go out with her at school; why should things be any different now?"
"She's sweet, and fun, and supportive; and being with her is… easy."
"You're an idiot, Ronald," she shouted, rising suddenly from Padma's bed. "I always knew you were a moron, but I never imagined that you were so insecure that you couldn't handle being with a witch who has more than two digits in her I.Q. You're a bastard for leading me on the way you did, letting me think that things weren't finished between us—and you're a fool to marry Lavender Brown, of all the bloody witches you could have proposed to! You're the stupidest person I've ever known!"
Ron rose angrily to face her. "If you feel that way, it's a good thing we're not together."
"You're a despicable human being. I don't know what I ever saw in you!"
"Then you won't mind if I leave," he said, walking briskly to the door and slamming it behind him as he exited.
Hermione stared at the door, furious. Tears welled in her eyes as she realized that, for perhaps the first time in her life, she felt truly helpless. Plunged into a deep pool of despair, the likes of which she had never known before, she could do nothing but resign herself to her fate and drown. How could Ron do this to her again? Caught in the throes of frustration, she picked up the closest object nearby—a ceramic figurine of a unicorn—and aimed to throw it where she'd last seen the back of Ron's head.
"Granger, that's not even yours."
"Do you really think it's fair to take out your frustration on Patil's things?"
Hermione didn't need to turn around to recognize the owner of the voice behind her. To her mortification, she already knew who it was before she whirled around and stared, aghast, at a very amused Draco Malfoy.
He was sitting in the far corner of the bedroom, lounging on the chair by Padma's vanity table and appearing far too entertained as he smiled smugly at her. Horrified, Hermione observed that he was somewhat obscured by the thick lilac curtains hanging nearby, but she was still bewildered as to how neither she nor Ron had noticed his presence. Surely he didn't know how to cast a spell as advanced as the Disillusionment Charm?
"I have to say, Granger, I think this might be the first time we've ever been in complete agreement about something. You see, I also think that Weasley's the stupidest person I've ever known."
"What are you doing here, Malfoy?"
"Well, I was trying to smoke in peace, but I ended up enjoying quite the spectacle instead."
"How dare you eavesdrop on such a private conversation?"
"Excuse me," he said, bristling with mock indignation, "but I think it's hardly eavesdropping if I was here first. It was actually very rude of the two of you to intrude on my privacy."
"I cannot believe you just sat there and listened while—"
"Oh, believe me, Granger." A slow, devious smile spread across his lips. "You would have listened, too."
Too humiliated and upset to think, she turned and headed for the door, but Malfoy called after her.
"It's for the best, you know. It was always a mystery to me what someone like you could possibly want with someone as dense as the Weasel."
Hermione paused to look back at him. It occurred to her that this was the first time they'd ever spoken alone.
"You're the most insufferable witch I've ever met," he said with a smirk, "and Weasley can barely handle a Pygmy Puff. You really thought he'd be man enough to put up with you?"
"I'm not interested in your analysis of—"
"I'm surprised he was even able to keep up in conversation," he went on, his eyes gleaming mischievously. "Or maybe you preferred it that way, having a pet baboon to sit and take up space while you did all the talking. You always did blabber up a storm in class, like you were afraid of the silence that might ensue if you shut up for even one second—addicted to the sound of your own voice, by the looks of it—"
"Go to hell, Malfoy!"
"I did enjoy your impassioned shouting at him, though. Didn't know you had it in you." He cocked his head to the side, looking appraisingly at her. "Then again, I can't imagine a smart witch like you spending that much time with Weasley and not wanting to scream at him. I suppose it's about time you got it out. Must have been stressful holding all that in."
"At least he's not a foul, disgusting pig of a creature who can't be bothered to respect other people's personal privacy!"
"Defending him already? What happened to 'idiot' and 'despicable human being?'"
"I think those terms apply much better to you," she spat, but he appeared unfazed, grinning broadly at her as she stormed out of the room.
"That's a shame, Granger. Just three minutes ago it seemed we were on the same page!"
She could not leave the party immediately. Her bruised ego wouldn't allow it. So she stood and smiled and made small talk, doing her best to avoid Ron and feeling numb all the while. Finally, she escaped to the balcony with a glass of champagne and struggled not to cry as she stared out into the London sky.
How had it come to this? She felt as though she were back in sixth year at Hogwarts, sobbing alone in an empty classroom. As far as she'd mistakenly thought that Ron had come since then, he had somehow stayed exactly the same—he was still that same insensitive boy, tearing her fragile dreams to shreds as he carelessly cast her aside for another girl. The same girl. How many times could he break her heart over Lavender?
She was not able to wallow in her misery long before George joined her, looking concerned. "You all right, Hermione?"
She nodded wearily, still looking off into the distance. She knew she should try to make conversation, but the hours of pretending to be fine had taken their toll on her.
"You seem tired," he said, moving closer. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, George," she managed to reply.
"Listen, Hermione, I've been meaning to ask you something." He inhaled sharply. "Would you like to go to dinner with me sometime?"
It took her a moment to process his question. But when she finally turned to gape at him, forgetting her fatigue, her surprised eyes searching his hopeful ones—she suddenly realized that, with the possible exception of Ginny, Ron's family had never known about their involvement.
Her stomach dropped like a stone. The thought that it had all meant so little—that her relationship with Ron had not been a foregone conclusion, as she had so incorrectly assumed—only served to worsen her pain.
"I know it seems out of the blue," George added hurriedly. "But I've always thought you were special—even back when we were at Hogwarts and I couldn't express it because you were just one of my baby brother's friends." He smiled, and she stared determinedly down at the street below, attempting to ignore the ache that was growing inside of her. "What do you say?"
"I don't know," she stammered. "This is all very sudden."
"Yeah, but we've always gotten along, haven't we?"
When she brought herself to glance at him again, she could see the nervousness concealed behind the easygoing confidence that had always been part of George's charm. Had he always looked at her like that? It seemed so obvious now. Perhaps she had been so focused on Ron—and the idea of George as Ron's brother—that she had never noticed how utterly taken he was with her. "It's just dinner," he went on. "No harm in giving it a shot, is there?"
Hermione averted her gaze. She was pondering the kindest way to rebuff George's advances when she suddenly spotted Ron on the street below, standing in front of the Patils' house and waving at someone. Her eyes wandered across the street and focused on Lavender, who appeared to have just Apparated there.
In her sudden onslaught of panic—oh God, they were going to come upstairs and she would have to face them together, as a couple—she completely forgot that George was standing at her side, still patiently waiting for a response to his invitation. It was only as she turned to flee that she remembered she had left his offer unanswered.
"Oh!" she said, nearly crashing into him. "Right. Um,"—a quick scan of the street confirmed that Ron and Lavender had entered and were on their way up to the party—"I would, er, I would love to go to dinner with you. Yes. Dinner."
"Really?" George broke into a huge grin. "You would?"
"Yes. Yes, absolutely."
"That's great, Hermione, I really—"
"I'll see you there then," she interrupted awkwardly, plotting her getaway. "At dinner, I mean. Goodbye. Thank you. Yes."
And with that graceful end to the conversation, she hastily retreated from the balcony.
ETA: All credit for the gorgeous "book cover" goes to the lovely and talented 2firstnames!