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A/N: Yes, yet another Ron-centric story set the summer after The Battle of Hogwarts. I can't help myself... my love for maturing!Ron knows no bounds. The last moment between Ron and Hermione was inspired by a request from Chocoron- I hope you're reading, and I hope you approve! Characters by JKR, title by Dashboard Confessional.
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And I am flawed
But I am cleaning up so well
I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself
-Vindicated, Dashboard Confessional
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Hours after the sunlight had faded, there was a knock on Ginny's door. She was surprised to find her brother on the other side.
"I'm sorry," Ron said, immediately, as soon as he caught sight of her. "I understand if you need more time to process all that. I still can't wrap my head around it most days, to be honest, but I need you to know that I'm sorry, and if it makes you feel any better I'm never going to forgive myself for leaving him either." He stared at the floor and rubbed his eyes, his entire body trembling.
It took her a moment to process his apology. Her mind was still reeling from earlier that day, when Harry had sat her down to tell her all the secrets he had been keeping from her. She had listened intently as he explained everything he know - starting with the story of Merope Gaunt and Tom Riddle Sr., and ending with the final confrontation between Harry and the monster who once was Tom Marvolo Riddle in what remained of the Great Hall. She had thanked him upon the conclusion of his tale, knowing what it took to retell the story, but her mouth was too dry and her eyes were too wet to say anything else. She had spent the rest of the afternoon in bed with her eyes wide open, afraid to blink for the words Diary and Horcrux seemed to be permanently etched onto the backs of her eyelids.
She had been so focused on the role she had unwittingly played in Harry's story, she had barely had time to consider the even bigger part her brother had filled. She hadn't yet found words to respond to his apology when Ron spoke again.
"I mean it, Ginny," he insisted. "I'm going to spend the rest of my life making it up to him... to both of them. It is by far the worst thing I've ever done in my life, and there's no excuse for it-"
"I'll forgive you on one condition," Ginny interrupted, unable to listen to his pleading or witness the haunted look in his eyes. She knew that look well; she had seen it every time she looked in the mirror for many months.
"Anything," he said, without hesitation.
"You have to forgive me petrifying Hermione," she replied, her voice embarrassingly hoarse.
"That wasn't you," he insisted immediately, obviously confused. "That was Tom Riddle and his diary."
"The horcrux, you mean?" she asked. He stared at her, and she was sure something bigger than both of them had passed between them in that very moment. He shivered in what she assumed was realization that the two of them had more in common now than they ever had before.
"You were eleven and you had no idea what it was," he murmured. "I was seventeen and-"
"And you were terrified, and hungry, and injured, and sexually frustrated-"
"Okay," he said, hands up in surrender, cheeks blazing in embarrassment. "I forgive you," he hissed.
"I forgive me too," she replied, her voice sounding much like it used to before everything went wrong. "Oh, and you as well," she continued when his eyes narrowed. She smiled wider, unable to resist touching her own face in wonder as the unused muscles ached in protest. Ron smiled too, and reached out to rub her shoulder affectionately.
"You should go to Harry," he said, although he looked conflicted about it. "He's worried about how you'll feel about him, now that you know the whole truth."
"He's an idiot," she replied. Ron chuckled.
"Well, blokes tend to be idiots about women, don't they?"
She would never tell him, but his use of the word women instead of girls meant infinitely more than any heartfelt apology.
- . - . - . - . - . -
"You need to lend me some money," his brother said from the other side of the closed door.
It was rude, yes, but it wasn't How are you?, or Are you coming for dinner tonight?, or Don't you think Fred would want you to move on?, so he let him in anyway.
"I don't need much," Ron continued as he entered the filthy flat. "Just enough for lunch... uh, lunch for two. I'll pay you back as soon as I can find a job, I promise."
Ron stared at his feet as he spoke, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. George must have let the silence stretch on for too long, because Ron started speaking yet again.
"I know it's stupid, but... well, Mum asked me this morning if Hermione and I are dating. And I said yes, cause we sort of are, but we're not really because we haven't been on a date. I mean, I haven't taken her on a date, cause I can't, cause I don't have a single knut in my pocket. And I really need to take her somewhere, before she comes to her senses and realizes there are a million other blokes out there who want to be with her and can take her out places and leaves me for one of them." Ron was pacing now, and speaking so quickly that George would not have been surprised if he passed out for lack of breathing. He almost chuckled at the thought.
"Why me?"was all George said in response. Ron finally took his eyes off the floor to meet his brother's, and blinked once. twice. three times.
"I figured you were the only person who wouldn't ask questions. Although I suppose that's moot now that I've gone and told you the whole story anyway."
George nodded and crossed the room, not bothering to avoid the dirty clothes, take-away wrappers and unanswered letters that littered his floor. He opened the top drawer of the corner desk, and pulled out a magically sealed pouch. With a flick of his wand and a carefully chosen word he opened it and pulled out a handful of gold galleons.
"I don't need that much," Ron insisted, embarrassed. "I don't know when I'll be able to pay that back."
George wanted to say You don't need anything but her and she needs nothing but you, but you both deserve this and much more. Instead, he said, "It's not a loan. It's an advance."
"Take a look around. The shop looks twice as bad as this place." Ron wrinkled his nose as his eyes darted around the grubby room. "I'm going to need help cleaning it up before I reopen it. You in?"
"Why me?" Ron asked.
"You don't ask questions," George said, extending his right hand before repeating "are you in?"
Ron hesitated barely a moment before he took George's hand and shook it strongly and surely.
- . - . - . - . - . -
Percy shifted out of nervousness, and hated himself for it. What kind of man had to stave off anxiety to sit next to his own brother?
A coward sitting next to a hero, a voice in his head whispered.
Or, he supposed, the kind of man who listens to nonexistent disembodied voices.
"Haven't seen you in a while," Ron said, breaking the silence. Percy gulped down the lump in his throat before he replied.
"It's only been a week," he insisted.
"That's a while," Ron said with a shrug. Percy's heartbeat quickened. If a week was a while, what did Ron think of his two-year self-imposed exile?
Best not to ask that question.
"Things have been busy at the Ministry," Percy said, finally. "I don't think anyone anticipated starting over to be as difficult as it is." Ron grunted in what Percy figured was dry disbelief. "What have you been up to?"
"Helping George, mostly," Ron replied. "He asked for my help at the shop. I reckon he could run it by himself with just a hired hand or two, but says he'd rather have me there. Claims redheads are good for business these days."
Percy almost smiled at the thought. Harry Potter had taken to crediting the Weasleys with nearly everything the Ministry had praised him for. Once the press got its hands on many of his statements (something Percy's office was still investigating), redheads everywhere had begun to claim familial ties with the new media darlings. He imagined George's business was probably benefiting from witches eager for ginger-haired attention.
"Any thought of what you'll do once the shop is up and running?" Percy asked, conversationally.
It was Ron's turn to shift uncomfortably.
"Haven't thought about it," he mumbled.
"Well, what was your plan before... everything?" Percy asked. Ron laughed, coldly.
"I can't remember a before," he replied. Percy knit his eyebrows together in confusion.
"Surely you thought about the future while you were at Hogwarts. What were your goals then?"
"Harry needed to defeat Voldemort," Ron replied calmly, taking no notice of Percy's childish flinching. "I needed to help." His tone suggested that the conversation was over, but Percy couldn't help pushing him.
"And you accomplished that brilliantly," he flattered his brother. "But you must have had a career goal or two for when that was completed."
Ron chuckled darkly once again. Percy's heart dropped in sudden realization as his brother's eyes met his own.
"You didn't think you'd make it," he whispered, as if the words themselves had left Ron's eyes and flown out of his brother's mouth. "You planned on dying for them."
"I planned on Harry and Hermione finding a way to kill the bastard," he said quietly, dropping his eyes to the ground. "All I needed to do was make sure they stayed alive long enough to do it."
Percy blinked, rapidly, his eyes welling up at his little brother's words. He thought of his 17-year-old self's goals, none of which had involved the success of others. Ron caught him furiously wiping his wet eyes and he sighed.
"I didn't intend to get myself killed, Perce. There were just other things a little higher on my list than 'live long enough to have a career.'"
Percy didn't answer him, because he didn't know how to say I'm sorry the world did this to you, or I am so lucky to call you my brother, or Thank Merlin you refused to listen to me when we were growing up without sounding like an arse.
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"How's George?" Charlie asked his brother as he passed him a pint.
"So the drink's not free after all, huh?" Ron asked with a smile.
"'Course it is," Charlie answered. "I was just making conversation." Ron raised his eyebrows, silently disagreeing, and neither brother spoke for a while.
"He's all right," Ron said finally.
"You spend a lot of time together," Charlie replied.
"He's my brother," Ron challenged.
"He isn't spending much time with his other brothers," Charlie countered.
Ron was silent for a moment, and Charlie willed himself not to look quite as lost as he felt. Fred was gone and George was shutting him out; he didn't want to lose Ron as well. After a moment of what seemed like serious contemplation, Ron sighed heavily and began to speak.
"He loves you, Charlie," he said confidently. Charlie wondered briefly when Ron had developed the ability to talk about love without stuttering and blushing, but he had little time for thinking before Ron continued. "He's just having a hard time. He knows you mean well, but one minute you're trying to act like Fred and the next you're treating him like he's broken-"
"He is broken," Charlie rasped, his fist clenching his drink so tightly he feared it might shatter. He suddenly felt as if this brotherly outing was a terrible idea. He didn't need to be lectured about how to deal with people by his most volatile brother.
"He's not," Ron insisted. Charlie managed to look his brother in the eye and almost gasped at the intensity he found there. For a moment, he was having a pint with soon-to-be-Auror Weasley instead of little Ronnie. "He's not," Ron repeated, quieter now, staring down at the bar again.
"What is he, then?" Charlie whispered, desperately, instantly trusting this new side of his younger brother that he just met and begging him to help him to understand.
"It doesn't break you," Ron mumbled, tracing his finger around the rim of his pint glass absently. "It just... it changes you. And you can't go back to who you were before, even if..." he trailed off and shook his head, as if the action would clear it.
Charlie had the sinking suspicion that Ron wasn't talking about George anymore. He was about to interject when Ron looked up, more sure and confident than Charlie had ever seen him before, and continued speaking.
"He's still George. He's just a different version of himself, and he has trouble being whoever he's becoming when the rest of the family goes from treating him like they want him to be exactly the same as he was before to treating him like he died that day too. He knows you're all going through it too and that you're trying, but some days he just can't," Ron finished with a shrug.
He gulped down half his drink for something to do, and Charlie copied him.
"He told you all that?" he asked, finally.
"No," Ron said, with an exhale that might have been a laugh in another time and place. "I just kind of know how he feels."
Ron stared beyond his older brother, seeing something that Charlie was sure no one else could. He was reminded, not for the first time that summer, that his younger siblings had been through horrors he would never understand. Charlie wanted to ask Ron a million questions about the years of his life he had missed, but the words caught in his throat.
Suddenly Ron's expression completely changed, and Charlie would have bet every galleon he had that one of two very specific people must have walked through the door that Ron could see over his left shoulder. When the crowd at the Leaky erupted with shouts of praise, Charlie narrowed that bet down to one.
Ron laughed and raised a long arm in the air. "Oy, Harry!" he shouted from their shadowy corner of the bar, his freckled limb waving lazily. Charlie turned around to watch the scene unfold behind him. Above the din Harry somehow heard his friend perfectly, and his green eyes smiled with relief. Charlie finished his pint and fished payment out of his pocket.
"Where're you going?" Ron asked, as Harry weaved his way toward them.
"You stay here and catch up with Harry. Merlin knows you two have been busy. I'll head down to the shop and finish your afternoon shift. I'm heading back to Romania soon, and I'd like to make things right with George before I do."
Ron smiled at him, and Charlie turned to leave. As Charlie passed Harry on his way out, he clapped him on the shoulder, silently thanking him for being Ron's brother when he himself was unable to be there.
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Bill decided that partaking in what was essentially a double date with his youngest brother was only a little strange. The girls were laughing at something neither he nor Ron understood, and even though he missed the joke he smiled at the sound. Hermione's honest chuckle somehow fit easily with Fleur's ethereal giggle as the two headed toward the kitchen to clean, leaving he and Ron in Shell Cottage's small sitting room.
Ron watched them go, his eyes lingering longer than necessary on the darker haired girl. Bill watched him with a grin. When Ron realized he had been caught staring he blushed slightly and shrugged. Bill smiled wider.
"She's good for you," Bill said.
"Always has been," Ron replied.
"Oh, I don't know about that. For a while there she drove you completely mental. I did receive a letter once that's sole subject was what an insufferable know-it-all Hermione was," Bill said, fondly remembering Ron's early years at Hogwarts. Ron laughed.
"Yeah, well, I've gotten used to being wrong since then."
"Oh yes, I'm sure that's the reason you don't find her quite so difficult to put up with anymore," Bill said with a smile.
"Something like that," Ron replied with a grin that could only be described as mischievous. Bill couldn't help but think that the twins would be proud of the look on Ron's face. Bill's smile must have faltered at the thought of his deceased brother, for Ron's expression fell as well and the moment was over.
"I'm happy for you," Bill said, grasping at what was left of their earlier mindless conversation.
"Thanks," Ron mumbled uncomfortably. "I mean, really. A lot of it is thanks to you."
"What did I do?"
"The time I spent here- in the winter and the spring- well, it helped me make sense of things." Bill's throat tightened at the emotion behind his youngest brother's words.
"You grew up, is all," Bill answered, his voice embarrassingly strained. "No need to thank me for that." He clapped Ron on the shoulder in what was meant to be a disarming manly display of affection, but ended up far too tender to ease their discomfort.
"Well, you set a good example," Ron said, insisting on giving Bill credit that he wasn't sure he deserved. For better or worse, their significant others chose that particular moment to return from the kitchen with tea and biscuits.
"What sort of examples are you setting, Mon Cheri?" Fleur asked, setting the tea tray on the table and kissing Bill on his scarred cheek.
"It's nothing-" Bill began, but Ron interrupted him.
"Just how to trick a girl who's better looking and smarter than you into putting up with you anyway," Ron said with a smirk. Fleur giggled effusively at his words.
"'Ermione, when did Ronald become such a charmer?" she asked.
"Must have been when we were in the kitchen," Hermione replied, settling herself next to Ron on the sofa and fixing him with a suspicious look.
"Well, he did learn from the best," Bill said, joining in on the joke.
Hermione looked unconvinced, but amused regardless. The girls quickly turned the conversation toward whatever they had been discussing previously, which allowed Bill a moment to catch Ron's eye and give him what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
Ron smiled back, rubbing his hand up and down Hermione's arm absently. She reached over and put a hand over his to still him, and Ron intertwined their fingers. Hermione's conversation with Fleur never wavered, but her entire expression changed as soon as Ron's hand grasped at her own. As Bill reached for his wife's hand in turn, he had never been more sure that they were all going to be all right.
And a lot of it was thanks to Ron.
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The game practically created itself one night earlier that summer. She claimed chess was boring her, and proposed that they do something else. He proposed that they make chess more interesting.
The rules came easy after that. When you capture one of your opponent's pieces, he or she needs to share something about him or herself the other doesn't know. He thought it had helped them through the awkwardness that is starting a relationship with someone he'd known since he was a dirt-nosed 11-year-old.
He suggested they play the game one last time before she left for Hogwarts the following morning. Well, really he had suggested they play strip chess, knowing she would refuse but agree to play their version of the game as a comprise; it worked.
So they sat on the floor of his attic bedroom, door cracked as per his mother's rules and battered old chess board between them. His heart hammered and his palms sweat as he made his move.
"Knight to E4," he croaked. He kept his eyes on the board, even when he felt her gaze on him.
"What are you playing at?" she asked, finally, after several moments of contemplating his move.
"Chess," he said with a shrug. He looked up then to meet her eyes. He swore he could see her mind moving, trying to figure out if she had missed something somewhere, if his move really was what it appeared to be.
"Queen to E4," she said finally, and they both watched as the white queen destroyed the black knight. She flinched at the impact, then spoke again. "Go on then," she whispered. "What is it that you want to tell me?"
If not for his nerves, he would have grinned at her brilliance.
"Harry lied to you," he said, "the night I came back. The locket did a lot more than scream before we destroyed it." He gulped audibly and rubbed the back of his neck with a shaky hand.
"I thought it might have," she responded. He hoped she couldn't tell just how nervous he was, but he knew that hope was futile when she continued speaking. "You don't have to tell me this if you don't want to," she said, but he shook his head.
"I want to," he insisted, "I'm just afraid of what you're going to think of me when I'm through." She placed her hand over his, and squeezed lightly before replying.
"I think the world of you," she promised, "and this isn't going to change that."
His heart soared at her words, and he somehow found the courage to tell her everything. He repeated, verbatim, the words the Horcrux had uttered that night, for unfortunately they were forever burned into his memory. He described, in detail, the Harry and Hermione-esque figures that had emerged from the locket, and what they had said and done to torture him. He explained his desperate thoughts as he raised Gryffindor's sword; how he realized that even if everything the object had said was true he would still destroy it because Harry told him to, and he owed his best friend at least that much.
He was furiously wiping embarrassing tears from his freckled face by the time he finished his story with "I'm not making excuses. I just thought you deserved to know."
Whatever he had been expecting her reaction to be, it certainly wasn't a punch to the shoulder.
"I guess I deserve that," he admitted, rubbing the spot where her fist had struck him.
"You certainly do," she said with an indignant sort of sniffle. "After everything we'd been through, how could you ever have believed that I wanted Harry?"
"Oh, I don't know," he said sarcastically, hand still on the bruise that was undoubtedly forming on his shoulder. "It's not as if you two are the hero and heroine of the wizarding world or anything."
"You're an idiot," she chided. "If I had been any more obvious about my feelings for you-"
"I might have actually believed that you had them?"
His eyes met hers and they both blinked once and then twice before they burst out laughing. He was still chuckling when her gasps for air turned into sobs. He reached for her as soon as he realized, overturning the chess set between them.
"Shh," he whispered into her hair, gathering her in his lap. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. I just wanted you to know that I didn't leave because I didn't care about you. I left because I didn't think you cared about me. And I know that that's rubbish now, so you don't have to worry about me ever leaving again... even if I'm working in London and you're up at Hogwarts." He knew she understood what he was trying to say by the look in her eyes. He pulled her closer in relief, and she answered his confession without words.