Ron knew he wouldn’t sleep tonight. He never did. This day rolled around once a year, and not once had he slept. Unless you counted the time he got so drunk that he passed out, but since he hadn’t even been able to pass out until nearly four in the morning, Ron didn’t count it.
It was the same every year. This was the tenth, but it would be the same on the eleventh, and the twentieth, and the hundredth.
He got quietly out of the bed, trying not to wake Hermione. She was tired; this was a long day for everyone. He slipped on his dressing gown and padded toward the bedroom door, sparing his wife one more resentful look. It was all so easy for her. She decided to move on, and so she did, because Merlin knew that once Hermione made a well-reasoned, logical decision, it would happen. She never seemed to have to wrestle against this pressing darkness that overwhelmed him once a year, not to mention at the other odd moments that took him by surprise.
The house was quiet right now, for once. He crossed through the living room and sat down in the window seat where he could look out into the back garden. He pressed his head against the cool glass of the window and sighed. It felt nice, soothing somehow. He closed his eyes and just let himself sense everything: the smooth coolness of the windowpane, the enveloping darkness, the unnatural silence. The absence, the heavy pressing absence of someone who should have been there. He thought about Harry, wondered if it had ever felt good to him to press his scar against a cool sheet of glass, to ease the ache.
He had never asked.
He curled up his long legs under him and leaned back in the window seat. He’d had to kick off a toy broomstick and a trick wand, but that wasn’t unusual. There was barely a surface in the house that wasn’t taken over by toys, crayons, hair ribbons, or odd shoes and socks. It drove Hermione spare, she was always yelling that if they’d just put things in their proper places they’d be able to find them the next time they went looking.
He wrapped his dressing gown closer around him. Hermione hadn’t yelled much today, but he had been bad company. He had been moody and brooding all week; he knew it, and he was sorry about it, but he couldn’t do anything about it. The memories were so dark and heavy on him. He’d snapped at the girls, he’d been impatient and sullen with Hermione, he had barely spoken to his parents. The darker his mood had gotten, the more determinedly cheerful Hermione had become, and he wondered how she could be happy today, of all days. That had made him resentful, which had made his mood worse.
And then there was the trip out to the cemetery. Ron took a deep breath, then pressed his long fingers into the bridge of his nose. Why did he let them talk him into that, every single damn year? The whole damn family had to go, and they made such a production of it. Why did he let Hermione give their daughters flowers to put on the grave, why did he let Fred and George tell them the story time after time, tell it as though it were some goddamn fairy tale, as though glory and memory and sacrifice were adequate exchanges for friendship and life?
A sob hitched in his chest, and he took another deep breath to try to control it. He didn’t quite manage, and it came out a shuddering exhalation that shook his upper body. He hated today. He hated hated hated hated hated this stupid stupid day. Clenching his fist against the pain he lashed out and punched the stone wall in front of him. Then he swore, because it hurt, but he was darkly glad, too, because it took his mind away from the ache inside.
As he put his throbbing knuckles into his mouth to suck on them, he heard a sound somewhere to his right, just a slight scuffing of a footstep on a rug. He dropped his bruised hand and peered into the darkness.
He could barely see the top of a strawberry blonde head on the other side of the couch. One of the girls was up. He sighed guiltily; he hoped he she hadn’t seen him punching the wall.
“Janie?” he said in a low voice.
“Daddy?” came the anxious voice back. “Where are you?”
“I’m in the window, sweetheart,” he answered quietly. “Why don’t you come over here?”
He smiled faintly as he heard her little feet shuffle toward him. After a moment in which several toys got kicked or stepped on, Janie came to stand in front of him, arms raised over her head, blankie dangling from one small hand. He reached down and picked her up easily, then took the blanket and wrapped it around her slender little body. With a sense of what he might have had to describe as desperation, he held her to him and snuggled her up in his arms.
God, he loved these girls. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, squeezing his eyes shut against the wave of love and grief and gratitude and bitterness that washed over him. Nothing made him feel the awe of being a father more than cuddling a sleepy child. But it didn’t keep out the other pain...it didn’t bring Harry back.
He drew Janie even closer to him, having some idea that if he could bring her close enough, his love for her could shut out the still-sharp grief he felt for Harry. Harry would have loved this girl. She was his quietest child, mystical, almost like Luna in some ways. Harry would have loved how she and Luna talked about fairies and elves and spirits—not to mention all the things that only Luna and Janie knew about—as though they were in the room, as though very many of those things lived in either of their houses. And Janie could see into people; she always knew just the question that needed to be asked. Harry would have loved that Luna was Janie’s godmother, since the two of them had souls that were exactly the same.
Another one of those sobs gasped out of him, and he clenched his jaw against it, telling himself he didn’t want to disturb Janie. There was so much he wanted to tell Harry through the years, so much he wanted to do side by side with him. Harry should have been his best man at his wedding, but he wasn’t. Charlie had been his best man instead, and nobody had said anything, but they all knew who should have been standing there. Harry should have at least as many kids with Ginny as Ron had with Hermione, but he didn’t. The pureblood Potter line died out on that day.
“Daddy?” Janie’s voice was drowsy, but her eyes were wide open as she looked at him.
“Yeah?” he asked, clenching his stomach muscles against the next sob and stroking Janie’s hair.
“Why are you sad?”
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” he whispered, pressing her head back down to his shoulder. “Go to sleep.”
He should have known she’d ignore him. She was a peaceful and biddable child, more than the other girls, but she was as stubborn as any of them in her own way. Her head popped back up and she gave him a disconcertingly direct look, her brown eyes shining in the moonlight.
“Is it because Uncle Harry died?”
Ron stared at her. Janie simply gazed up at him, her brown eyes dark and serious. Then Janie’s eyes began to fill with tears, and to his dismay, so did Ron’s. When the first tear spilled down Janie’s cheek, Ron felt one overflow his own eyes and drop down his own face. For a heartbeat, he simply looked at her, tense and still. More tears flowed from Janie’s eyes, and more flowed from Ron’s, then another sob rumbled up from deep in his gut, and before he knew what was happening, he was grasping his daughter to his chest and weeping like he hadn’t wept in ten years.
Janie wept, too, her arms wrapped around her father’s neck, her tears soaking the collar of his dressing gown. Ron pressed her close to him, and for once let himself feel, deep down, what he had lost. The sobs continued to wrack both of them, until he was gasping for breath and his stomach muscles burned and his throat ached.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he murmured into Janie’s hair, when he finally had breath enough to speak. His nose was running, and he sniffed, then reached a hand into his pocket for a handkerchief. He spared a moment of wry gratitude; Hermione had put that in there for him. He never would have thought of it himself.
He blew his nose on the cloth, then tapped it with his wand to clean it, and used it to gently dry Janie’s eyes. “Feel better now?”
Janie nodded. “Yeah, but will you tell me about Uncle Harry?”
“Oh,” Ron hesitated. But somehow he felt stronger, he felt like maybe he could talk about him. While he considered it, his eyes raked over the clock over the fireplace, and he winced.
“Yeah, I will tell you about Uncle—Uncle Harry,” he said, his voice catching a bit. He took a deep breath and began to feel calm, the warmth from his daughter’s body as soothing now as the cool glass of the window had been earlier. “But not tonight, all right? You have to go back to sleep.”
“Just tell me one thing, Daddy?” Janie wheedled, giving him her best how-can-you-resist-me smile, which was only slightly marred by the yawn that followed it.
“One thing about Harry?” Ron asked, raising an eyebrow. Janie nodded.
Ron thought. One thing about Harry...one thing that wouldn’t take all night to explain. One thing that wouldn’t scare a child or make her cry again. One thing about Harry....
“He was my best friend,” Ron whispered hoarsely. “Harry and Mummy and Daddy were the three best friends that ever lived.”
“Is Mummy sad, too?” Janie asked. “Because Uncle Harry died?”
Ron frowned. “Yeah, I’m sure she is.”
God, he was an idiot. He was an inconsiderate, thoughtless clod and she should make him sleep on the couch forever. Of course Hermione was sad that Harry died. He had been so stupid.
“Come on, sweetheart,” he said, standing with Janie in his arms. Suddenly he wanted to be back in bed with Hermione more than anything. He stepped over a half a train track and a doll’s headless body, then walked up the stairs to the small bedroom Janie shared with her younger sister.
Janie was already sleepy again, and she snuggled down into the mattress as Ron laid her gently in the bed. He covered her with her quilt and bent to kiss her.
“Janie,” he whispered against her forehead, “you have a good heart. Uncle Harry would have loved you.”
Janie smiled faintly but did not open her eyes, and after a moment her regular breathing told Ron she was asleep. He stood straight again and crossed the room to lean into the crib and check on Ginevra, whose little bottom was sticking up in the air. He gently turned her over onto her back, then covered her up, knowing full well she’d have turned over again as soon as he left the room. The Healers could say what they wanted about proper sleeping positions, but little Ginevra was as stubborn as her namesake and preferred to sleep on her stomach, knees drawn up, bottom in the air.
He groped his way down the dark hallway and opened the door to the room shared by his older daughters. Lily, the eldest, slept quietly, with her perfectly arranged blankets drawn up to the curve of her shoulder, her neat auburn hair lying smoothly on the pillow; Ron doubted she moved all night. Molly, on the other hand, was sprawled out, her head down by the footboard, her covers in a heap on the floor, and a mass of wild orange-red hair covering her face. Ron shook his head, lifted the skinny leg that was hanging off the side and put it back on the mattress. For the time being, anyway. He didn’t even bother to turn her so that her head was at the proper end; he just picked up her blanket and flung it over her slender body.
He kissed both girls and left their room, shutting their door quietly behind him. He entered his and Hermione’s bedroom in the dark, flung his dressing gown over the chair. Hermione was asleep, curled up in a tight ball, her face turned away from his side of the bed. He slid under the covers and moved closer to the center of the bed, and as he did so, she turned toward him and curled her body against his. He sighed deeply and gathered her to him, pressing a kiss on her head in much the same way he had done to Janie a little while before.
“Are you all right?” Hermione murmured against his bare shoulder.
“Yeah,” he whispered. It wasn’t exactly true, but it wasn’t entirely false, either.
“What did you and Janie talk about?” Hermione said quietly, still not opening her eyes.
Ron raised his eyebrows in surprise, then rolled his eyes; he should have known that none of the children could take a single step that was unknown to Hermione.
He hesitated, but it felt all right, somehow, to talk about it, here in the dark, with his other best friend lying next to him. “She asked me about Harry.”
He felt her eyes flutter open, her lashes tickling his skin. “Did she?” Hermione said. “What did you say?”
“She wanted me to tell her a story about Harry,” he said, “but I said it was too late.” He was gratified to feel Hermione’s nod of approval against his arm. “So she asked me to tell her one thing about him, and I said I would.”
“One thing?” Hermione asked, pulling away to prop her head on her hand.
“Yeah,” Ron chuckled wryly. “I guess that’s all she thought she could get away with before I made her go back to bed.”
“One thing...” Hermione mused.
“What would you have said?” Ron asked curiously, folding his arms behind his head and turning slightly to look at her.
“I don’t know,” Hermione said thoughtfully. “Did you tell her it was his birthday?”
Ron gave her an incredulous look in the darkness. “Are you kidding? Tell Janie that our best mate died on his eighteenth birthday? She’d cry over that one for days. As it was, we—”
He stopped, not quite ready to tell Hermione that he had let Janie get that upset. It wasn’t exactly his fault, but he wasn’t sure Hermione would see it that way.
Hermione looked at him for a moment, but let his incomplete sentence pass. “So what did you tell her?”
“I told her that he was my best friend,” he said. “I told her that Harry, Mummy and Daddy were the three best friends that ever lived.”
“Oh,” Hermione said, her voice hitching a little. “That’s...that’s lovely.”
Ron swallowed. He had to say this, but even after almost ten years of marriage, this sort of thing didn’t come easy to him. He looked fixedly at the ceiling.
“Hermione?” he said.
She glanced up at him. “Yes, Ron?”
“Janie asked me if you were sad, too,” he said, “because Uncle Harry died.”
He waited, not quite sure how to go on, hoping maybe she’d say something to get him off the hook. She didn’t. He could feel her watching him in the darkness, and wished she wouldn’t.
“I said I thought you probably were,” Ron said, “but then I realized that I don’t actually know.”
She waited. He sighed. She was going to make him go all the way, as though she couldn’t read his mind, as though she didn’t know exactly what he was getting at.
“Er...because I never actually asked.” He turned toward her, but she was staring at his chest, not his face. “I’m sorry. I’ve been a prat. I’ve been really thoughtless and selfish and—”
“Yes,” she agreed softly, but with that hint of steel in her voice. “Yes, you have. And I am sad about Harry, Ron. I’m always sad about Harry.” Her voice hissed at him like air coming out of a tire. She hadn’t moved, but her fist was clenched in the sheet. “I can hardly get through July thirty-first year after year. It breaks my heart every time.”
She didn’t sound heartbroken, he thought resentfully. She sounded angry. Apparently she wasn’t quite ready to accept his apology.
“I didn’t realize that,” he said softly. “I’m sor—”
“You didn’t realize it?” she snapped, though still keeping her voice down. The last thing they needed was for one of the girls to come in now, wanting to get into bed with them. “No, I suppose you didn’t, did you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said, starting to get irritated. He wished he had kept his mouth shut.
Hermione flung herself back on her pillow and crossed her arms over her chest, so that they both lay staring up at the ceiling. “Well, let’s see...” she said in that falsely sweet tone of voice that he hated. “On the first anniversary, you sat around drinking Firewhisky all day, until by the time we were to meet your parents at the cemetery, you were so drunk you could hardly stand up.”
“Damn, Hermione,” he scowled. “It was the first one, I was nineteen years old. I had no idea how to handle it. I just couldn’t deal—”
“I was nineteen, too,” Hermione said starkly. “I’d’ve loved to have drunk myself into a stupor that day, but I couldn’t, because I was pregnant with Lily. And you were so pissed you weren’t any help to me at all.”
An uncomfortable mixture of resentment and guilt was churning in his gut. He hadn’t thought of any of that. He’d just been so overwhelmed with grief that he’d done the only thing he could think of to dull it.
“You’ve been holding on to that for a long time,” Ron snapped at her. “Been saving up all these years?”
“Yes,” Hermione said. “I have. I’ve never had a chance to say anything, and it still bothers me.”
Ron snorted. “Obviously. You remember every goddamn detail. Nobody told me that a married man wouldn’t have to remember his mistakes—hell, there’s no use in both of us remembering the same thing, is there?”
“Fine,” she snapped. “I thought you wanted to know how I felt. Apparently you only wanted to make yourself feel better.” She turned back over onto her side, yanked the covers over her body and curled up again in that tight little ball. Ron glared at her back then turned his face resolutely back toward the ceiling.
They lay in seething silence. He could tell she wasn’t asleep; her back was rigid and her breathing was still much too fast.
“That was a long time ago, Hermione,” he finally said through his clenched jaw. “You know I haven’t done that since then.”
“No,” she said.
“But you just bounce around here all happy and cheerful, like nothing’s wrong, like it doesn’t even affect you!” he exploded in a violent whisper. “How am I supposed to know you’re upset?”
Hermione sat up and whipped around to face him again. “I have to be cheerful for the girls! You’re so wrapped up in yourself, in your feelings, that I have to balance you out, I have to be as happy for them as you are miserable. How do you think they’d feel if both of us walked around angry and bad-tempered and oblivious to everything but our own pain? It would scare them to death!”
“I just thought you were handling it better than me,” Ron said.
“You just thought you loved him more than I did,” Hermione corrected bitterly.
“Well, you never seemed that upset!” Ron bit out in exasperation.
“Well, that shows what you know!” Hermione shot back. “There’s not a day that goes by, Ron, when I don’t wish he was here to share this with us. There’s not a family gathering where I don’t set him a place at the table, then cry when I realize what I’ve done. There’s not a time I’ve been pregnant when I haven’t grieved for his children, the ones that Ginny won’t ever carry. I just...you’re not...”
Hermione drew in a great shuddering gasp. Ron’s head whipped around to look at her. “Hermione?”
“I’m sorry, I—” She choked, and brought her hands up to her mouth. Her shoulders jerked and she as she leaned forward a high-pitched wail escaped from her throat. Ron watched in alarm as tears found their way through Hermione’s tightly shut eyes. Her whole upper body was shaking with the force of the feelings she’d held in for so long...feelings he’d made her hold in.
“Oh, God, Hermione, I’m so sorry...”
He reached for her across the bed, but she turned away from him. Flinging the covers off she ran into the bathroom, and he heard the sound of her knees hitting the floor a split second before he heard the wet splattering of vomit hitting the toilet bowl. She was still crying, too; the sounds of her sobbing and throwing up made him wonder if she’d choke on something.
Slowly Ron pulled away his own covers and padded toward the bathroom, grabbing his wand and lighting a candle on his way. Hermione lay curled in a ball on the floor, wracked with weeping, her fists beating against the tiles. Ron glanced briefly at his own hand, where he had hit the wall earlier, and dropped to his knees beside his wife.
He reached for her shoulders and pulled her up, toward him. “Here, sweetheart. Come here...”
She had been taking care of him for ten years. Far longer than that, really; she always took care of him and Harry when they were at school, too. She sat up and made to turn into his arms, but at the last second made a dive for the toilet again. Ron knelt up next to her and pulled her hair back while she was sick. He would take care of her now. How could he ever have thought she didn’t care as much about Harry as he did? Her grief was making her physically ill.
After several minutes of retching and heaving, Hermione collapsed into Ron’s arms, shaking and sobbing. He reached up to the sink and managed to fill a cup of water for her one-handed. She took it gratefully and drank, then pressed the cool side of the cup against her forehead.
Ron unfolded his legs and leaned back against the bathroom door. He gathered her close, stroking her hair and pressing his lips to the top of her head.
“I’m so sorry, Hermione,” he said. “I’ve been so stupid.”
“No,” she mumbled against his shoulder. “You were grieving. You didn’t mean to be thoughtless.” She sighed, her breath fluttering across his skin. “You’re so strong, Ron, even when you’re hurting. You don’t sit around crying like I do. Sometimes I feel like I don’t do anything but cry, even after all this time.”
“That’s not true,” Ron said, shaking his head. “You’re much stronger than I am. You were so upset it was making you sick, but you didn’t walk around being a total prat to the people you love.”
“No, I didn’t,” Hermione agreed with a small smile.
“Anyway,” Ron said, clearing his throat. “I did...you know, cry.”
“Yeah,” he said, feeling his ears burning. “Tonight, while I was sitting downstairs. Janie came down and cried with me.”
Hermione reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “She’s a good girl. I think she may have gifts of Empathy. I’m glad you finally cried.” She was silent for a few minutes, one finger connecting the dots between the freckles on his chest. “Erm...Ron?”
Ron squeezed her. “Yeah?”
“I wasn’t sick because I was so upset about Harry.”
He looked down at her. “You weren’t?”
“Erm...no,” she smiled. “I was sick because...because I’m pregnant again.”
Ron stared at her. “You are?”
She nodded. “I know it’s not the best day to tell you, but, well, we were here...”
Ron drew in a deep breath. “You know, Hermione, I think you’re wrong. I think it’s a great day to tell me.”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I do. It’s just the sort of thing Harry would have liked, and it’s—” he broke off, swallowed hard. “It’s just the sort of thing he gave his life for, isn’t it?”
Hermione nodded in understanding. “Yes, I see what you mean. So that life could go on, and so that it could be good again. Yes, I think you’re right. I think he would like it very much.”
“Come on, let’s get back into bed,” he said after a moment. He stood with Hermione in his arms and carried her carefully back into their big bed. He climbed in next to her and pulled her into his arms with some idea of making love to her before she fell asleep. But just as he lowered his head to kiss her, he heard the telltale shuffling of little feet.
Ron turned and looked over his shoulder. There was Lily, with baby Ginevra in her arms. “Ginny woke up and we couldn’t get back to sleep,” she said.
Ron turned back and exchanged glances with Hermione. Hermione smiled and held out her arms, and the two girls climbed into the bed between their parents. They had just settled in when the mattress dipped and Molly climbed right up the middle and lay down between her sisters.
“Should we go get Janie?” Hermione asked drowsily. “She’ll feel left out if she’s the only one—”
But a little voice cut her off. “Mummy? Can I get in, too?”
“Of course,” said Hermione, holding up the blankets so that Janie could crawl under.
Ron was pushed to the very edge of the bed, but tonight he didn’t mind. His long arms reached across the bed to wrap around at least two of his girls. By the light of the single candle, he could see that Hermione’s arms were around the other two.
Harry would like this. This was exactly what Harry would want them to be doing for his birthday, exactly what he’d died for.
“Hermione?” Rom murmured, slightly amazed that he seemed to be drifting to sleep tonight.