"The time between meeting, And finally leaving, Is sometimes called falling in love."
(Lisa Loeb, Falling in Love)
A/N: Thanks to Majick and Sherry for all their help with this chapter. Much love and gratitude!
"Pass the chips, will you?"
"Get them yourself," said Seamus irritably. "I'm watching the game!"
Some things never change, thought Hermione in amusement, coming through the front door. Dean's flat was properly decked out in party décor, a living room full of snacks, drinks, and lots of men. She pecked Ron - who was standing behind her - on the cheek and said, "I'll just nip these into the kitchen before I go, okay?"
Seamus snorted loudly. "You might as well stay, Hermione."
"Well, Parvati's decided to stay in the kitchen indefinitely," said Seamus, disgruntled. Hermione felt a flash of sympathy for him. This must be so hard on poor Seamus - his best friend getting married. Well, he would have to get over it sooner or later... Hermione had considered telling him not to come to the bachelor party, but that would be avoiding the problem. It was best to just get it over with - sort of like ripping a bandage off a healed wound quickly, instead of prolonging the pain.
"Harry! How have you been? We haven't seen you in AGES!" exclaimed a chorus of voices, as Hermione went into the kitchen.
"Hi, Neville," she said, as she passed him. He beamed at her.
Inside the kitchen, she found Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown sitting at the table, both of them carefully dressed up and pouring over what looked like stacks of paint chips and books full of wallpaper samples. Swathes of upholstering fabrics in every texture, colour and pattern possible littered the table, and much to Hermione's disbelief - there were notes stuck to the sides of Dean's pet dog, Meatball.
"Hello Parvati, Lavender," she said awkwardly. "What have you got there?"
"Hermione! Hi!" trilled Parvati, standing up abruptly and sending a stack of paint chips fluttering to the floor. She hurried over and gave Hermione a quick hug. "Oooh, you look tired!"
"Poor dear, she works so hard," said Lavender, coming up behind Parvati and quickly embracing Hermione as well. They both scanned her up and down, and she immediately felt self-conscious. She wondered nervously if she should have thrown on something a bit less casual, but it was only Dean's bachelor party, for goodness's sake! It wasn't as though she was planning to attend the wedding in slacks and a sweater.
"You ought to come shopping with us, Hermione," said Parvati warmly, "We'll take you to Emerald's spa - oh, she's wonderful with those hands, she'll take years off your face!"
Hermione stared at Parvati, not quite sure what she was hearing. Years? I'm twenty-two!
"What do you mean?" she asked slowly.
"Oh, you know - just a facial, maybe a mud bath - darling, you ought to take care of those circles - you look a fright like that!"
Hermione bristled. Of all the nerve -
"How's Ron?" asked Parvati brightly, glossing over the subject smoothly. Hermione couldn't believe her ears. Had Parvati just said she looked a 'fright like that'? Like what, exactly?! What was wrong with how she looked?
"Is he still taking you out for dinner? I hear the two of you used to live on takeout!" said Lavender, looking quite scandalized.
Not anymore, thought Hermione sadly. Ron hadn't taken her out to eat for ages now. First it had been the new season, and then it had been her abrupt trip away for work, and now it was Harry - they didn't have time to go stuff themselves silly on some cheap Muggle Chinese takeout anymore. She quite missed it, but Lavender and Parvati didn't have to know that.
"Well, Ron's quite busy these days, what with the Cannons almost making it into the finals..." she said, forcing herself to smile pleasantly at Parvati.
Parvati and Lavender exchanged knowing looks. Hermione felt a strong desire to throttle someone.
"Right," said Parvati, smiling brightly, "As long as you're sure. Just you keep tabs on him, now. There are a lot of girls who'd throw themselves at a Quidditch player."
"I will," said Hermione sweetly, although inside she was seething rather. "I trust Ron, actually." If you even know what that word means.
"Mmm-hmm," said Parvati vaguely, turning her attention back to her paint chips. "Greens, greens..."
"What about that?" murmured Lavender, pointing a perfectly manicured nail at one strip.
"What do you think of this, Hermione? Number #454667 ?" Parvati thrust the paint chip at Hermione, beaming as though she hadn't just insinuated that Hermione was incapable of keeping her man - the utter gall! However, before Hermione could muster up an appropriately witty and scathing reply that would render the little imp properly chastised, Parvati gave a loud squeal and turned to Lavender.
"Oooh, Lav, it comes in olive! Do you think it'll match the seat you bought me?"
"Let me see... hmmm, I think it might be a shade too light..."
Hermione gritted her teeth and muttered, "I'll just go and say goodnight to Ron now."
"Bye," said Parvati absently, waving a paint chip at her. She was fully absorbed in a book of carpet samples Lavender had dragged out from somewhere in the depths of house-decorating rubbish.
Hermione rolled her eyes and left the kitchen. Unfortunately, Ron was no where to be seen. The other boys were just setting up in the den - Harry was standing by the refreshment table, looking overwhelmed and put upon. Of course, everyone in the room had something to say to him or questions to ask: How was France? Did you meet any really 'harry' babes? Haw haw! Seamus, in particular, seemed determined to be the center of attention, and kept insisting that Harry swing by the studio one afternoon. He wanted to interview Harry for his next cutting-edge news piece - Harry was very long-winded and polite in reply:He said no. Hermione held back, nibbling on a sandwich, and sighed to herself. Seamus was being shameless again. She would have to talk to him about his behaviour - then again, it was Dean's bachelor party. Hermione couldn't blame him.
"West Ham's playing tonight!" said Dean excitedly, coming back into the den with a pack of Muggle beer. "It's a big game."
Seamus immediately launched into another long list of reasons why Harry should do the interview, but Dean cut into the discussion with a loud belch. The room burst into very loud, immature, male laughter. Hermione felt distinctly out of place. Where was Ron? She really wanted to leave right about now, especially if Dean was going to start another round of belching.
"Hi," said Harry, wandering over with a drink in his hand. Hermione noticed he had barely taken a sip from it. He'd never been one for alcohol, she thought, a bit fondly. Unlike Ron, who jumped at every Firewhiskey he could lay his hand on.
"Hello, Harry. Enjoying the party?"
"Aside from Seamus accosting me, yeah," said Harry, smiling wryly. "He's acting a bit strange, don't you think?"
If only you knew why. "Mmm, not so much. Seamus is naturally very outgoing. It comes with being in his field."
"Where's Parvati? Did she leave?"
"She's in the kitchen, looking at paint chips," said Hermione, vaguely upset at the memory of Parvati.
Harry peered at her, straightening his glasses, which had fallen askew. "Is something wrong, Hermione?"
"Hmmm?" She looked up, startled. She brushed a strand of frizzy brown hair back into the knot at the nape of her neck. "Oh... no, nothing's wrong."
Which, of course, meant everything was wrong, and Harry - having practically grown up with her - knew it. Hermione cringed. She was still obvious, after all these years. When it came to Ron, she was about as subtle as a brick hitting a glass window.
"You're upset," he said, taking her elbow gently and leading her into a corner.
How could she tell him? Hermione wasn't sure herself what was wrong. All she knew was seeing Parvati so happy and excited about her wedding had drawn out some negative emotions that she hadn't quite allowed herself to recognize were there. Had been there, for some time, if she was going to be completely honest.
"I'm just tired," said Hermione, faking a large yawn. "Really, Harry, I'm fine."
Harry looked unconvinced, but he dropped the subject.
"Some bachelor party, eh?" said Ron, coming up behind them with a grin on his face.
"You should hope it's not giving her ideas," said Harry, grinning and gesturing at Hermione with his drink. "Hermione, you're not planning on being at Ron's bachelor party, are you?"
Sometimes, despite his earlier display of surprising emotional perceptiveness, Harry could be as stunningly thick as a plank. Two planks.Nailed to a ship. Hermione resisted the urge to give him a good elbow in the chest.
Ron coughed and moved away from her, presumably to get something to eat from the refreshment table behind them. Hermione felt a pang of hurt and disappointment in her chest. It never failed to happen: whenever the subject of marriage or long term commitment was brought up - even in the form of a bachelor party! - Ron found some way to dodge it. They had talked about it, Hermione had tried to garner some sort of idea on what Ron felt about marriage, about them, but it had quickly become clear that Ron wasn't having any of it. This, she realised, was why Parvati's idle, careless comment in the kitchen had bothered her so much. Hermione wasn't sure if she could hold onto her man. Not when her man seemed determined to slip out of her fingers at any sign of permanent attachment.
And Ron, despite appearances, was one slippery bastard.
"Hey you - still here?"
Hermione snapped out of her trance - she'd been so lost in her thoughts that she'd forgotten that Harry and Ron were still there.
Harry frowned at her. "Are you working too hard?"
Before she could reply, Parvati Patil burst onto the scene, carrying plates of snacks. A loud cheer came up from the men gathered around the couch, and Parvati giggled as she doled out food, and sat in Dean's lap.
Ron snorted in amusement, much to Hermione's surprise. "That makes three women in this room," said Ron, taking a swig of his beer. He grinned down at her. "But only one that I like."
Harry made an exaggerated gagging noise, which earned him a loud smack on the arm.
"Ignore him, he's just jealous," said Ron, slipping a hand around Hermione's waist. "When are you going to get yourself a girlfriend, Harry?"
Harry blinked, and shrugged. "When she finds me, I suppose."
"You won't be found at this party, that's for sure. Only three women and two are taken." Ron smirked. "There's always Lavender, though," he added.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Please - Lavender only dates Muggle men. She claims Wizards are too fickle. Besides," she shot a look at Harry, thinking briefly of a certain redheaded witch currently at home writing a report about vibrating chairs, "Harry isn't interested at the moment, are you? He's going to find something to do, first."
"Something to do," repeated Ron, looking puzzled. "What do you mean? He's got plenty to do."
"I meant a job," said Hermione severely. "He can't expect to live off what his parents left him forever, can he?"
"Actually, I can," replied Harry cheerfully, taking a sip. "But you're right, I won't. And don't worry about the job - I've got it all figured out."
It was Hermione's turn to be puzzled. "Have you?" This was news to her. Harry hadn't mentioned anything about a job, and she was dreadfully curious. "What sort of job?"
"Oh, just something," said Harry, smiling brightly. "And I start soon, so you won't have to worry about my being bored, staying home all day."
Ron raised an eyebrow. "Worry? Who says we're worried? You're confusing us with Ginny."
Interesting, thought Hermione. Harry's expression went slightly peculiar at the mention of Ginny's name. It was a rather familiar expression, actually. One she thought she'd definitely seen before. She raised an eyebrow, but kept her mouth closed. Hermione had her own thoughts on the effect Harry's return had on Ginny, but she knew the both of them well enough to know that she ought to stay out of it. Particularly when she was having trouble keeping tabs on her own relationship - she had no right to go dabbling in someone else's.
"Ginny's been great," offered Harry slowly, and he took another gulp. The corners of Hermione's mouth twitched. Hmmm. Interesting, indeed. Perhaps she was more curious than she'd thought.
"Hasn't she?" said Hermione lightly, carefully gauging Harry's reaction. "She's spent so much time trying to get you adjusted. She's been so thoughtful, especially with your moving in with the two of them."
Ron's brow creased slightly. "Well, that's exactly the sort of thing Ginny would do. She's too nice for her own good."
Which was true. Something about the war had changed Ginny. Or, rather, the ending of the war had changed her. She was very nearly a different person. Less... outgoing, somehow, and more work conscious. Hermione sighed, remembering how Ginny had almost worked herself to the bone last Christmas, when a group of idiotic former Death Eaters had gathered together in London and gone on a vandalizing spree. As a result she'd ended up in bed for two weeks with a severe fever and exhaustion. Ginny worked too hard, even though she claimed to hate her boss. Even Dean, who was in the same department in the Ministry, had never fallen sick because of his job.
"Mum worries about her," continued Ron, sighing a little. "I worry about her - but nothing anyone says ever gets through that thick head."
Harry was listening intently, his glasses slipping once more. Hermione fought back the urge to laugh.
"A lot has happened since you left," she said thoughtfully, tapping her glass with a finger.
"Yeah," said Harry, taking a long sip of his drink.
The truth was, in all honestly, that Harry Potter hadn't known he would be away from Britain for so long.
He'd defeated Voldemort in early Mayof his seventh year... a memory which he didn't care to relive, not even in his head. There are some hurts that never fade, that only dilute with time - but they always remain intact, hidden there in the back of your mind, lurking and waiting for the chance to re-emerge.
There was no question that Voldemort wasn't dead. He'd killed too many, taken away too many lives - he was immortal, even if he was gone. The knowledge cut deeply through Harry, and it refused to let him find his peace. He left Hogwarts early and sought refuge at the Burrow, where Molly Weasley cared for him day in and day out like her own son. For a solid month he spoke very little and slept even less. Some said the trauma had spoiled his mind, some said he was still in shock. Many shook their heads and went back to their own lives, now free of Voldemort, now with the promise of better days. Harry Potter was constantly on their tongues, if not in their sight. It was little comfort to him, but he got better. He recovered, he ate, and he opened his curtains one morning and smiled at the sunshine. Molly cried, and Arthur celebrated with wine he'd bought on the way home from work.
Letters poured in more than ever that week - letters from friends, from Ron and Hermione, both of whom had been absolutely worried sick about him, he never responded to their owls, didn't he know how upset they'd been, he was so silly, and by the way, Hermione had got a record breaking number of N.E.W.T.S. (!!) Of course, Ron could have easily done better, but he was far too busy with Quidditch, and oh, Harry should have been there at the final match, they'd flattened Ravenclaw, 360 to 120, Ginny had been brilliant, did he know she'd managed to do a Wronski Feint???
Harry had laughed and the world had seemed a little more right again. But not quite - there was still something missing, something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Summer came and Ron, Hermione and Ginny came back to the Burrow. Everyone came back that summer. The house had been full to bursting, such that Harry didn't know where to put himself lest he be in someone else's space. It was a tiring experience, as much as he loved it.
Ginny was vibrant, as always, seeking him out at every turn, making sure he was included in every activity. When Ron and Hermione ran off for some private time she would find him and keep him company. He was distant, but she didn't seem to notice. Ginny was in her own little world of euphoria - her happiness was brilliant, uncontainable, infectious to all but Harry. His heart was heavy and he didn't know why.
And you said she couldn't handle it. Bet you're glad she came along - you knew she wouldn't let us get away without her anyway.
I didn't want her to get hurt, that's all.
It takes a lot more than that to hurt my sister, Harry.
It wasn't that Harry thought Ginny couldn't take care of herself. He knew very well how capable she was, and he was quite certain being on the receiving end of one of her Bat Bogey hexes wouldn't be pleasant. It was just... well, she was so small. She was sixteen, but she looked only fourteen, and he still remembered how little and fragile she'd seemed in the Chamber of Secrets, lying cold and still... Harry knew he wasn't the only one who felt this way about Ginny. Ron, too, felt the protective urge, and he had seen Neville try to punch Draco Malfoy for insulting her. Even Michael Corner had been reluctant to hex her in the Room of Requirement, and that was just a D.A. practice, for crying out loud. There was just something about this small redheaded girl that inspired hero-ship. Cheesy, but there it was.
She'd wanted to help him, and a part of him had dearly wanted to let her. But there was always something holding him back - the fact that she was his friend, the fact that he owed it to her family, her parents (who had given him so much without ever asking for anything in return) to keep her safe - it was the very least he could do. After all, why should she suffer for him? What had he ever done, what could justify her loyalty? They were friends, but not close friends, and there was always that little unspoken awkwardness that was the knowledge of her past crush on him. Sure, she'd given up on him, but whenever he saw Ginny talking to another boy, or flirting with Dean Thomas, he was reminded that she'd once felt that way about him. It wasn't so much that he missed it or wanted her to go back. He just couldn't understand it. How could someone like someone else to the point of unbearable shyness for years and then suddenly... stop?
Even he had had a reason to stop liking Cho. A multitude of them, actually, the most prominent of which seemed to be disillusionment. There were sides to Cho that he hadn't realised could be there before fifth year, and Harry had learned the hard way not to judge a book by its cover. Had Ginny discovered the same thing about him? Had she, too, seen new sides to Harry that had quelled her feelings? What had he done to cause her disillusionment? A small part of him wondered and wondered.
They settled into an easy, comfortable friendship. Quidditch, homework, chess, small shared smiles at the trivial laughs of everyday life. They bonded over extra practices (Ginny's broom had seemed to bring her no end of trouble those days) and mutual griping over how obvious Ron and Hermione were. She wasn't demanding. She didn't require him to express his feelings in return for hers. She told him she was there to talk if he wanted to, but he never did and that was okay. Sometimes he was in a bad mood and she learned not to push him when he was. Sometimes he was sad and she'd ask him what was wrong. If he told her she listened carefully and her eyes would focus with intense thought and she would say the right thing. He learned to value her advice.
Ron was unbearably smug for a while, when Harry and Ginny had first started to spend more time together. No matter how many times Harry told them that they were just friends, he wouldn't believe it. A rumour went around the school that they were going out, much to his annoyance. Ginny, on the other hand, didn't seem to care - thankfully. For some reason, that bothered Harry too. He'd expected her to show some sort of reaction - an indignant denial, perhaps, maybe a blush. But she acted oblivious to all of it, so Harry tried his best to ignore it all as well.
He overheard two Hufflepuffs in her year sniggering about what they'd like to do to her alone and ended up sending one of them to the Hospital Wing. Hermione took points off him, shaking her head, and Ron, after his initial outrage, smirked at him all through supper.
A Hogsmeade weekend rolled around and Harry assumed that she would go with him. After practice one evening she told him she was going with Dean before he had the chance to ask her where she'd like them to visit first.
I thought he was going with Parvati.
Oh, they broke up.
He avoided her for the rest of the week and sulked by himself. Hermione caught him at it in the library and sighed. By Friday he made up his mind and sought out Dean to make sure he understood how things were going to work. Dean obviously had not been expecting him.
It was all for the best, really. Ginny dating Dean meant she would be spending less time with Harry, which was in actuality a blessing in disguise (no matter how keenly Harry felt the loss). Anyone close to him was a target, and he didn't want to risk endangering Ginny's life just because he enjoyed her company. Absolutely not. He wouldn't be able to forgive himself if that happened.
Are you avoiding me?
Why would I do that?
The leaves turned orange early that year. He still remembered them being the same colour as the Weasleys' hair. Winter came and went in a blur his seventh year - death, death, death, it swirled around him, people were dying, dying, dying and he couldn't stop it, he couldn't breathe or eat or sleep because people keptdying and it wouldn't stop and no matter what he did people were dying still dying they kept dying and fighting and war and blood and it wouldn't stop he didn't know how to stop it he was supposed to no one could stop it why STOP DYING.
I don't know. I just know you are.
He knew he was being paranoid, he knew he was distancing everyone, and he didn't care. He was lonely and it hurt but he didn't care.
"Are you going to stop being my friend, too?" asked Ron at breakfast one morning, the repartee not quite reaching his eyes.
Harry wondered if Heroes were allowed to have friends. A hero is supposed to be selfless and courageous and always ready to take care of other people. A hero isn't supposed to have friends so they can die. A herodoesn't let his friends die.
"We know what you're trying to do, Harry," said Hermione.
"It's not going to work," said Ron.
Of course, they were right. It didn't work. Ginny fell off her broom and Ron got hexed and Hermione was pushed off a tower, but it still didn't work. Dumbledore was wounded and McGonagall nearly died and yet it didn't work. Seamus quit school to fight and Neville's grandmother wouldn't let him but he did anyway. Harry couldn't do anything. Hope seemed to dangle on a string, so dangerously taut and fragile, with the weight of so many pulling it down Harry was half-certain that they would all plummet to their deaths even before Voldemort got to them.
But he was wrong.
So he did win, and he was a hero after all, who didn't let his friends die. It wasn't his doing, really - they'd been lucky. Luckier than he could ever bring himself to believe.
And no matter how hard he tried to move on, he couldn't forget the fact that they'd merely been lucky.
And that's why Harry Potter had to leave.
"Hermione, you're not leaving already?" asked Harry, pushing his glasses up. He sighed inwardly, and decided he really needed to get a new pair.
A loud, rousing cheer from the sofa broke into their conversation quite nicely. Ron, Hermione and Harry looked up, to see Dean and Seamus hugging each other and cheering hoarsely. Neville was grinning, and the men from the Ministry (Dean's colleagues) were all chinking beer bottles and looking very happy.
"I actually do have work to finish," Hermione said, setting her drink down.
"Stay for a little bit longer," urged Harry. "We've only been here for a little under an hour... you can spare a few more minutes, can't you?"
"Yeah, we may as well join the party," said Ron. He threw a wry glance at Lavender, who had finally come down from the bathroom. "Now that all the women have arrived."
He was proved wrong, however, by the arrival of yet another woman.
"Claire!" squealed Parvati, beaming widely between giggles as Dean tickled her stomach. Seamus, who was seated next to them on the sofa, looked quite upset and revolted.
"Hey, I know her -" said Ron, lowering his drink. "She's the mediwitch that stitched my stomach closed after I fell off my broom last year."
"That must have hurt," said Harry, suddenly reminded of another incident involving a Weasley falling off a broomstick.
"No, I quite enjoy having my foot broken in two different places," quipped Ron cheerfully. "Don't we all? Come on, Harry, here's your chance! A fourth woman!"
Harry tipped his eyes to the ceiling, and Hermione frowned slightly. He raised an eyebrow at her. Hermione was behaving rather oddly tonight.
"Harry! Harry, come over here -" shrilled Parvati, beckoning enthusiastically at him. His first instinct was to run in the opposite direction, but he steeled himself and walked over, trying to smile.
"Oh, Harry, you have got to meet Claire," gushed Parvati, seizing him by the arm when he was within reach. "Claire, this is the Harry Potter! Isn't he dashing?"
Harry looked politely bewildered, but he allowed himself to be introduced to Claire Koumoullou, a tallish, dirty-blondish, nondescript woman with nothing particularly striking about her except for her warm smile. She fairly exuded nice-ness, and Harry found it difficult to feel anything but a mild indifference to the woman.
"Harry's been seeing the world for the last three years," said Parvati, every bit the loud, boisterous hostess. "He's a traveler! Isn't that so exciting? Oh, I know! Harry, you ought to tell Claire all about your vacation in Greece! Claire is part Greek, aren't you, dear?"
Claire nodded, looking very friendly. Ron was smiling and nodding as well, nudging Harry every now and then with a playful elbow. Hermione frowned again.
"Excuse me," she said, removing Ron's arm from around her waist. "I really should be going."
"Er - bye, Hermione," said Harry, staring after her.
Ron didn't even look up from telling Parvati how he knew Claire. Hermione looked like she'd been slapped, but said nothing about it and hurried out into the hall. Harry, however, knew this could be the start of what he had come to liken to a hurricane.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, he thought, shaking his head. Ron was still quite oblivious and cheerfully thanking Claire for 'saving his life".
Harry coughed and deliberately nudged Ron with his elbow. Ron looked at him in puzzlement, and he pointedly glanced at the doorway to the hall. It took a few seconds for Ron to realise that Hermione was gone.
"Shit, did she leave?"
"Yeah," said Harry, resisting the urge to smirk.
"I'll be right back," said Ron.
Parvati didn't even notice him leave; she was far too busy telling Claire how marvelous she thought Harry was. This struck Harry as extremely amusing.
"Actually, didn't you say you were planning to go to France this summer? Harry, you've been to France, haven't you? You can help Claire plan her itinerary!"
"Er - yes. If you want," said Harry awkwardly. "Though I must confess I'm not exactly the right person to be asking about France. I was only there briefly."
"Rubbish," said Parvati dismissively, waving her hand at him - Harry nearly grinned. She'd only done it about six times since they'd started talking. Her diamond ring was dazzling, alright. "You're just being modest. Harry's always had a very good sense of direction," she added, quite bizarrely. Good sense of direction?
"He played Quidditch, you see," said Parvati, as though it explained everything. Claire nodded, still looking friendly, and Harry stifled the urge to laugh. "He's so very well rounded, just like you are, Claire. I expect you two will get along fabulously!"
Alright, enough of this. Harry hadn't come to this party to be set up with someone he barely knew. Claire was a nice woman, he was sure, but she wasn't really his type. Besides, he wasn't really looking for - well, for romance at the moment - there were other things he needed to sort out first, before he got around to that sort of thing. He'd only returned to Britain for a week, after all. Not to mention Ginny had said she would take him on tour of the Ministry of Magic.
"Excuse me," he said politely, gesturing at his empty cup. "I just need to get another drink..."
Parvati beamed at him, and Claire smiled vaguely. He smiled back, a bit forced, and made his way past them to the kitchen.
"Is that what this is all about?" He heard Ron's voice say in tones of disbelief as he passed by the door, "You think I'm afraid of commitment?"
Harry rounded back to the door again, and peered through the crack.
"Yes," Hermione was saying, staring at Ron levelly.
Oh no, thought Harry. They were standing about threefeet apart, in their familiar battle stance, clearly in the middle of what could become a flaming row. Harry was uncannily reminded of the Yule ball. Only, this time they were both adult wizards, who were both armed with wands and could do magic at whim. He briefly considered breaking in and stopping the bloodbath before it began, but was distracted by Ron's next outburst.
"Well," Ron sputtered incredulously, "I'm not!"
"Yes, you are," she snapped, losing her temper. Hermione was shaking with anger by this point. Harry paused, torn between guilt at eavesdropping on his friends, and a nagging sensation that something wasn't right. "You clearly don't want the same things that I do from this relationship, Ron! You keep trying to avoid the subject! Typical - why listen to Hermione, right? All that matters is what you want! And it's certainly not commitment, that's for sure!"
"That's not true!" he said, flabbergasted. "Hermione -"
"It IS true!" she shrieked. "I've asked you before - what you're planning for the future, and it's never us. It's always you playing Quidditch, you buying a house, you!"
"What the hell is going on in the hall?" snapped Seamus from the couch, even though his eyes never left the screen.
"Er - nothing," said Harry hastily. Seamus grunted in reply.
Ron's jaw had dropped open, and he looked shocked.
"But..." Ron swallowed, hard. "Hermione, I thought... you understood - you said you didn't mind... we said we'd wait until we both got our careers in line... why..."
Hermione regarded him wearily. "Maybe I'm tired of waiting," she said finally.
Ron's face contorted almost immediately in a sort of semi-grimace. Harry grimaced along with him. Honestly, sometimes Hermione could be so utterly thick. Didn't she see how much Ron cared?
"Goodnight," she said, turning away, but Harry saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes.
"Wait, Hermione - don't go -" Ron grabbed her by the elbow, and pulled her back.
"Why?" she snapped, her temper breaking. "So you can convince me that I'm being silly? That we don't need commitment when you can just come over to my flat every night and... and... treat me like your personal -" Hermione stammered, casting around for words strong enough to describe her disdain. It gave her a wrenching streak of pleasure to see the look of utter torment that passed over his face. "- like your personal slave! I'm sick of being constantly on call for your every whim and desire, especially those sweaty ones that you think I have all the time, even though I don't, Ron Weasley, and it wouldn't hurt you to learn the meaning of the phrase 'erogenous zone' because it's not just lips, tits and in!"
Harry quickly turned his surprised snort into a loud, hacking cough.
Well, that certainly caught everyone's attention. Neville and Seamus both turned around. Parvati's mouth had fallen slightly open, and Dean looked utterly bewildered. One of the men from the Ministry snorted.
"You're completely... I can't believe you - you can't honestly..." Ron said, dumbfounded. He shook his head, and closed his eyes. "Oh God, Hermione, you are so off base -"
"Yes, it's always me, isn't it?" said Hermione furiously. "I'm sorry, Ron! I'm sorry I want you to commit, I should have realised what an utterly ridiculous, unimaginable, impossible, ludicrous, absurd, preposterous thing to think - that you might actually want to marry me someday! Clearly you're just in this for other benefits!"
Ron gaped at her. "I'm not in this just for sex!"
They stared at one another for a tense, agonizing minute. Hermione breathed deeply, and dropped her gaze first.
"Forget it," she said, clenching her jaw. "I know you don't want to do it. I'll just go."
"You're just going to leave? You've brought all of this up and now you're going to leave?"
"What am I supposed to do, Ron? Wait around for a man who clearly doesn't want what I want in a relationship? I don't know if I can do that. I need to know whether or not you're serious, you commitment-phobic prat, I can't take this any longer-"
"Fine," Ron shouted furiously, the ferociousness of his tone stopping her short in mid-sentence. He reached into his pocket, his face a bright, angry red. "You know what? FINE! I was waiting for a better time, but -"
"But what?" interrupted Hermione tersely, tears welling up in her eyes.
Harry swore under his breath. He knew Ron was up to something - he'd been acting oddly all day (all week, really), and when Harry had knocked on his friend's bedroom door that afternoon, the door had swung open and Ron had hastily slipped something into his pocket. Something that had flashed rather brightly for a brief fraction of a second - Merlin, he's going to do it. He really is.
"Nevermind," she whispered, blinking rapidly. "Forget I said anything."
Ron shook his head, his face still flushed with anger. "Hermione -"
"Forget it, Ron... I think I'll just go home..."
"HERMIONE! WILL YOU LISTEN TO ME?" Ron shouted, grabbing her by both arms. "FOR ONE MINUTE OF YOUR LIFE, WILL YOU JUST PLEASE SHUT UP AND LISTEN?"
There was the sound of someone dropping a bowl, and the noise of chips scattering on the floor. Harry didn't need to turn around to know that everyone in the living room was now gathered around the door behind him.
"Thank you," he said sarcastically, literally panting - he was breathing so hard. Hermione flinched at the sound of his voice. "Don't interrupt me -" he said warningly, taking a step back. He squared his shoulders, and looked her in the eye, taking a final deep breath before he launched into a quick speech. "I'm not being evasive on purpose. I love you, Hermione, and I do want to commit to you. I do want to, do you understand that? I'm not trying to run away from it because I'm not ready. I AM ready. I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
ALL RIGHT! Thought Harry, mentally punching the air.
"Don't say anything," he continued, stepping forward, taking one of her hands in his. "Not yet... let me finish, I don't think I can work up the nerve again." Hermione's mouth was slightly open, and she clamped it shut, at a loss for words. Ron swallowed hard, and for the first time that night, he looked nervous. "I... I..."
He closed his eyes and sighed. "Shit, this is hard..."
"What is?" she asked, softly, uncertainly. "Ron?"
Go on, urged Harry, gripping the door frame in anticipation. He couldn't believe this was happening - and at Dean's bachelor party, of all places! A part of Harry was proud of his best friends, another part was horrendously exasperated. Finally, finally, finally.
Ron blinked a few times, paced the hall, and came back around to face her. "Hermione..."
"Ron, I can't hear -"
"DAMNIT, HERMIONE -- WILL YOU MARRY ME?"
The entire flat went very, very quiet again, except for the sound of someone getting a penalty on the telly. Hermione looked as though her heart had stopped beating, and there seemed to be a severe lack of oxygen in the hall. Someone behind Harry gave a small gasp, but no one really noticed because they were all solely preoccupied with the man in front of them, down on one knee, his face furiously red. A small velvet box sat, lost in his vast palm, and a brilliantly blue sapphire twinkled at Hermione. She gawked at him, speechless with shock.
A very long silence passed. Someone on the telly scored.
"Oh crap -" said Seamus loudly, tearing his eyes away from Hermione to peer at the screen over his shoulder.
"Shut up!" murmured someone else.
"West Ham just scored, you git -"
"Why isn't she saying anything?" muttered Lavender furiously.
She jumped at the sound of her name. Seamus glared at her over Dean's shoulder. The entirety of the participants of the bachelor party were crammed into the doorway - their faces peering out at her from behind the partially opened door. Someone stumbled and grabbed the back of Harry's head to steady themselves. Harry winced.
A loud cheer came from the telly. Seamus groaned loudly. "Say yes already!"
Ron went decidedly maroon and stumbled to his feet. He looked horribly, horribly embarrassed, and - oh hell - rejected. Harry groaned deeply. He couldn't look.
Seamus made a loud, impatient noise. "Oh, for the love of -" He pushed the door open, shoved Harry out of the way ("Hey - ow!") and stormed into the hall. Seamus glared at them both, pushed Ron back down onto his knees, and yanked the ring from the box. Then he turned to Hermione, slipped the ring on her finger, and stomped away, muttering, "Honestly! Have you people any sense?! There's a game on!"
There was a stunned silence. Harry blinked, leaning against the doorframe, and pushed his glasses up to rest on his nose again.
Ron and Hermione stared at each other. Ron stood up slowly, wincing as he straightened his knee - Seamus had pushed him down rather forcefully and Ron had banged it hard on the floor. He looked at her hesitantly.
They both paused.
("Oh. My. God," mouthed Parvati to Lavender, excitedly.)
"Yes," blurted Hermione, coming to her senses. "Please, Ron - yes."