For Better

a/n: this is what happens when thesecondshelf grows up and starts talking about settling down. Please excuse me while I project any and all anxieties onto Hermione for the next 1400 words or so.

"Good afternoon, Miss Granger," Harry says in his best Ministry official voice as he approaches her desk. "I have strict orders from your annoying boyfriend and his even more annoying owl to remove you from this room immediately and make sure you get some lunch." He takes an elaborate bow and flashes her a Witch-Weekly quality smile. She doesn't look up from her desk.

He takes a few steps closer to see what sort of paperwork could hold her attention better than his spectacular entrance. Instead of paperwork, he spies an object.

A ring, to be exact.

A Gryffindor-gold ring, with an appropriately Gryffindor-red ruby affixed to it.

"Hermione?" he whispers, moving ever closer. "Is that what I think it is?"

For a moment, she doesn't answer him. He considers repeating himself, but before he can make that decision she replies.

"That depends on what you think it is, I suppose."

"It's about time!" he says with a laugh. He stops short when he realizes she isn't laughing with him. She isn't even smiling. "Is everything all right?" he asks, not quite sure how he'd respond if her answer is 'no'.

"Fine," she replies, finally picking up the object holding her attention. She holds it between her right thumb and forefinger. He pulls a nearby chair over to join her as she stares at it.

"Is there something wrong with the ring?" he asks, growing more confused by the minute. "Does it not fit?"

"It fits," she says softly, and she places it on her left ring finger to prove it. He's not quite sure when he became such a sap, but he grins widely at the sight of a ring on his best friend's finger.

He can't help but notice, though, that he's still the only one smiling.

"It fits," she repeats, "but... well, it looks strange."

"Strange?" he asks, not quite sure what she means.

"Strange," she affirms. "I mean, it's beautiful... it's just strange that I'm the one wearing it, isn't it?"

"You think Ron should have proposed to someone else?"

"Well no, not exactly," she says, but she stops when he was sure she was going to continue.

"You've lost me, Hermione," he admits, not for the first or the last time. "I have no idea what we are talking about."

"I don't know what you're talking about," she huffs, waving her newly bejeweled left hand, "but I'm talking about how strange it feels to be engaged. Wasn't it strange for you?"

He stops and thinks for a moment about all the ways his life had changed since he had proposed to (and subsequently married) Ginevra Weasley - but before he can reply, she continues speaking in that rushed way she always does when she's nervous about what she has to say.

"It's just..." she starts, stopping to take a breath and a moment to think. "Getting engaged is something a well-adjusted adult does, isn't it?" she asks him.

"Most of the time," he agrees. "I mean, they let a few maladjusted ones through on occasion, I'm sure, but I'd like to think the majority of us settled-down folks are the respectable sort." She smiles at his poor excuse for a joke. He smiles back.

"Exactly," she says. "I guess I just have a hard time putting myself into that group most days." Harry laughs.

"You've been the well-adjusted adult in the group since that first Halloween," he says, glad to see her smile in response.

"Well, it's difficult to be more immature than the two of you!" she snaps, feigning annoyance. "I'm not explaining myself well."

"There's a first time for everything," he teases.

She glares at him then, and suddenly she is not a 23-year-old war hero and Ministry employee; she is an 12-year-old girl with a huge head of hair and an even larger brain, trying desperately to explain something to a boy who just couldn't put the pieces together.

And in that moment, he understands. And she can tell - he knows she can by the look that has replaced that signature Hermione glare - and the words come easily.

"There were times in my life when I imagined growing up to be a normal adult with a normal adult job and friends and maybe even a ... fiancé." She blushes and stumbles over the last word. "And there were times in my life," she continues, "that I thought I'd really like to marry Ron Weasley. I just never pictured them both happening. By the time I admitted to myself that all that aggravation was actually poorly disguised affection..."

She trails off. He shakes his head slightly to indicate that she doesn't need to continue, for he knows what she was going to say.

By time she admitted to herself that she loved him, she never imagined that Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger would get their happy ending.

Harry makes a vague motion with his hands to indicate he wants to answer her, but he can't force the words out. His eyes begin to sting and his heart clenches and his throat tightens.

"Hermione," he says finally, his voice sounding very little like his own. He doesn't know quite what he means to say next, and he finds himself unable to continue.

"He hates how warm I keep my place in the winter," she says, suddenly. "He jokes about how I must be a cold-blooded snake in disguise. But really, it's just that I can't bear to wake up cold. If I do, sometimes I forget what year it is and I think I'm back in that winter... and how can I possibly explain that to him?"

Harry shivers involuntarily, for he knows the cold all too well himself, and he finishes her thought for her: "It wasn't nearly as cold when he was there."

"Actually, it was colder. I mapped our trip when I was back at school for my 7th year. I checked the weather forecasts, muggle and magical. The temperatures were much higher in January and February than they were in November and December."

Harry laughs, knowing instantly that as contradictory at their statements were, both he and Hermione were correct. He can tell she knows it too, but the impossibility of it bothers her more. He teases her, silently, she answers him with a look, and he believes, not for the first time, that there are aspects of magic that the wizarding world has yet to understand.

Hermione moves her left hand to wipe her damp eyes, and he sees an entire future reflected in ruby red.

"You're going to look gorgeous in white," Harry says, taking her hand to really examine her new accessory.

"She looks gorgeous in everything," says a voice from the door - a voice that the two of them would recognize anywhere.

"Oi! Why didn't you tell me?" Harry asks, standing to greet Ron with a stereotypical manly embrace.

"Wanted to tell you in person, of course," he replies. Ron starts to pull away, but Harry tightens his grip across Ron's back, holding onto the taller man for a moment longer than necessary. "I was hoping to meet you here, actually, but something exploded in aisle 4 and I had trouble finding the door," he finishes, as Harry finally releases him.

"Sorry I didn't wait for you to tell him - he caught me with the ring," Hermione apologizes.

"No harm done," Ron insists, waving her off with a smile and a kiss. "Did you mention that we'd like him to join us for lunch?"

"Not yet," she replies.

"Well, no time like the present - will you do the honors?" Ron bows gallantly toward his future bride. She laughs and turns toward Harry, and takes both his hands in her own.

"Harry, would please join us for lunch? We'd like to treat our best man to a nice meal - that is, if you'll agree to be our best man."

Hermione grins ear to ear as she speaks, looking decidedly more comfortable with the bauble on her left ring finger now that the man who gave it to her has an arm wrapped around her waist.

"Shouldn't he be asking me to be his best man?" Harry asks, gesturing towards his best friend.

"Well I would, mate," Ron answers, "if I wanted you to be my best man. For better or for worse, I don't get to keep you all to myself."

Harry pretends to think the offer over, then replies: "I'll agree, on one condition - next time you say 'for better or for worse,' make sure you're looking at her," Harry says, with a nod of the head toward Hermione.

"I think I can handle that," Ron says with a laugh.

"I think you can handle anything," Harry replies.

But he looks at Hermione when he says it.