Ron, Harry, Ginny, Hermione, and Mrs. Weasley sat around a small, outdoor round table at the Café de Lune. The café was a small but fairly nice and well thought of French café down the Muggle road from the Leaky Cauldron.
“So, how have you been these days, Hermione?” Ron’s mother asked forcedly, in a voice that was entirely not her heart speaking.
“Oh, not too bad,” Hermione replied, without much feeling to it. Ron was at her side, staring intently at her. Ginny and Harry were holding hands under the table at her other. It was rather concerning that this situation would have been entirely too normal several years prior, yet now was almost uncomfortable.
“That’s good…” Molly responded, trailing off.
The quintet ate in silence for several minutes until Ron, needing to break the heavy quiet, spoke. “So, Harry, how are things coming in the Field Division?”
“Well, the new trainees aren’t half bad. Certainly better than last year’s bunch, and considering how good that group turned out I would say this year looks promising. Colin’s decided Field Duty isn’t for him, and he’s working on training them. Dennis is among the new ones this year; I’m sure it’s interesting from a training perspective to have brother teaching brother.”
“Wow, Dennis is just coming through training? I mean, I know the program was lengthened and made much more complete, but he left school years ago.”
“Oh, didn’t you know? Dennis went through Healer training first, but later decided it wasn’t for him. He decided to train to be an Auror and maybe become a field medic later.”
“That makes sense,” Ron said, nodding. “So, Hermione, tell us. Why were you working in a diner? And where on earth have you been for the past ten years?”
Hermione blushed crimson at the first comment and gave a half-hearted smile to the second. “Well… I’ve been in New York City…”
“As in America?” Ginny asked rhetorically, “That’s bloody cool!”
“Ginny!” Mrs. Weasley reprimanded, simply on pure instinct. Some things never changed.
“Well, I was working on the Ministry School Board during my time there. However, when the former Minister, Chelsea Montgomery, came out of retirement, I was fired. A sequence of events, and no real decision or path ahead of me, made me decide to come back here. I needed a job and…” She trailed off once more.
Everyone waited. Waited for her to continue. Waited for her to reveal what had been an issue for years. They all waited for answers.
“And I didn’t want to run into any of you…” she finished quietly.
“But why, Hermione?” Ron asked, a look of hurt on his face, “Why did you leave us? Why did you put us through that, on top of everything else we were going through?”
“I needed time, Ron! Don’t you see? The war had taken so much from me… when it took my parents as well, I had to go. I couldn’t just stay and not do anything about it!”
“Not do anything about it? Hermione, the war was over by then. Voldemort was gone!”
“He may have been gone, but all of us mistakenly didn’t realize the full picture. Yes, Voldemort was the prime cause, but even with him gone, we were not saved. There were still hundreds of Death Eaters out there trying their hardest to get revenge on all of us!”
“That may be true, but that is why we spent every day and every night searching for them. That is why we decided to go into the Auror Division. That is why we can never stop fighting.” Ron ended his short, but powerful speech. Staring her straight in the eye, he spoke. “When you left, you caused more damage to this family than the Death Eaters ever could. Because, you…” he paused, “you left by choice.”
Hermione sat in her small flat, her head empty of all thought. Ron had made an impact on her; she had always thought she had made the right choice. Hermione had doubts about everything else… but never about this. The one thing she had always thought she had done right was taking the time. Now, she was starting to regret.
She had left that day leaving nothing and everything. She had nothing but her own needs, her own uneasiness, and her own scars so fresh in her mind. She never thought about the scars reopened to everyone else. If you had told her that she was going to do that a year in advance, she would have called up St. Mungo’s personally to book a room with Lockhart. She never would have though it possible to leave her friends’ sides. The war really did change everything.
It changed everyone more than they wished to admit.
When she had left that day, so long ago, both Harry and Ron had been at Auror training in the field and were scheduled to remain gone for two more weeks. Ginny had been at training as well, but she wasn’t quite to the point where she had to go away. Hermione had been researching jobs in her flat, for though she had enjoyed her occupation at the lower levels in International Magical Cooperation in the Ministry, she had had offers for many things in higher positions; therefore, she was researching them to scout her best options.
Hermione set the Ministry Guidebook aside and sunk down into a kitchen chair with a sigh, cradling her aching head in her hands. Gods she missed Ron. She missed Harry too, of course, but not as much as Ron. Hermione’s breath caught in her throat as she realized the extent of her thoughts. Her parents had been buried only three weeks ago, and she was sitting here, missing Ron. What was wrong with her? Death Eaters still roamed free, people were still dying daily. Yet the first thing on her mind was her boyfriend?
How similar she was feeling now. Sitting in the kitchen of a lonely flat, thinking of Ron. Thinking of her parents.
Inhaling deeply, Hermione stood up, and walked shakily over to the Floo, which for security reasons was connected to only four places – Harry and Ron's flat, the Burrow, her parents’ house, and Hogwarts. Throwing a small handful of Floo powder into the fireplace, Hermione spoke.
“Three-oh-five-four Glenwood Street, Birmingham.” With a roar of green flames, and quite a bit of misplaced ash, Hermione was spinning off to the house of her youth.
Hermione shuddered at the memory of the house’s appearance. Picture frames were smashed to pieces, broken glass from decorative ornaments and the like had littered the floor. Scorch marks from dodged and not quite properly aimed spells beset the walls, a painful reminder of the truth. She wondered what had happened to the house. It had been left to her, or so the Weasleys had informed her via letter. They sent her letters nearly daily for the first few weeks. She had opened and read then, but she had never responded. She treasured them, still had them somewhere, but eventually they had stopped coming with such regularity, and after a year or so, stopped coming at all. She should have known they would stop sending them if she never replied, but she simply couldn’t bring herself to do it. She couldn’t respond… she had to forget about what had gone on…
She shook her head briskly to try and leave the thought behind, but to no avail, it stayed firmly where it was. Ron had been everything to her back then, he always had, but especially then. He was always there for her, always ready with a loving hug of comfort. They wept together when it was a shared loss, and when it was one of her own he would ease her pain with silent love, for they didn’t need words.
Hermione stood up suddenly and pulled out her wand, catching herself at the last minute that she couldn’t Apparate directly to the Burrow; they would surely have the wards up. She sighed and adjusted, Apparating to the village of Ottery St. Catchpole instead.
She arrived in the alley with a pop, thankful that she had remembered where to go, and thankful that it was still there. A quick glance around told her that she was comfortingly alone and right where she should have been. The sweet scent of the bakery was wafting down from a small grate above, and Hermione had to fight to keep the memories of that very corner at bay. Many a time had she and Ron met in that very place, considered by themselves a “halfway point,” but really it was an excuse to stay away from the Burrow and catch some time alone.
Hermione took a deep breath and walked into the streets with her head bent against the cold winds. There was a light snow falling, with the promise of more in the heavy clouds. The light slush that had accumulated on the streets and sidewalks was becoming increasingly brown, while the powder sprinkled atop the trees stayed crystalline. There was by no means a crowd on the streets, not compared to New York, but with the approaching holidays everyone was out to shop. With the snowy atmosphere adding to the feeling of returning home, Hermione’s thoughts were flowing through her head at fifty miles per hour. What should have been faint remembrances of Hogwarts snowball fights and nighttimes by the fire were playing themselves out in her mind as if they were just yesterday. How she wished they truly could be, how she wished that she would wake up one morning and it would be the beginning of her seventh year all over again.
As impossible as it seemed, Hermione couldn’t help but dwell on what she would do differently if that were the case. She would be nicer to Ron, first of all. She had been far too harsh on him about his schoolwork. She would have told her parents that she loved them far more often. She would have been braver in the final battle; come to that, she would have been braver throughout the entire war. She would never have let Ron go outside by himself that fateful night in their sixth year… she would have made sure they never had got to him. For that was one event that he had never recovered from.
Without realizing it, her feet had brought her right up to the door of the Burrow. Why exactly she was here, she didn’t quite know. She felt like she needed to talk to Ron, but why had she not gone to his flat? She wasn’t sure, but something had told her to come here. She could hear the family laughing and talking inside. They were having a family dinner. I shouldn’t be here… she thought to herself pessimistically. I have no right to just barge in on their lives like this… She spun quickly around and made to leave silently when suddenly the door opened behind her. She gasped and looked back.
“Why, Hermione! Nice of you to join us!” Fred moved behind her, ushering her in with or without her consent.
“Ay, nice to see you again!”
“Been too bloody long!”
“Well it’s about time.” All came at her from Bill, Charlie, and Percy, each in a different direction.
Her sweeping gaze instantly spotted Harry and Ginny curled up together in front of the fire, engaged in a conversation with Charlie about the upcoming professional Quidditch season. Bill and Ron were at the kitchen table, burying their thoughts in a lighthearted, but intense, game of chess. Percy seemed to have been discussing some serious matter with their father, while Molly busied herself overdoing herself in her baking once more. Fred had remained at her side. She instantly noticed the absence of George, but decided it was not an appropriate time to mention it.
Her eyes glanced across once more, but before they could resume their gaze at her suddenly very interesting ice-caked boots, they locked with Ron's. Hermione instantly felt weak at the knees as the icy blue penetrated every barrier she put in its way. He had always worn his heart on his sleeve, whether intentionally or not. His eyes especially had always been such pools of raw emotion. It was one of the things she so loved about him… one of the many things she just adored. His eyes now, however, had steel covering over them. They saw straight through her, but she couldn’t hope to look back. She averted her gaze without surmising anything about what he was thinking.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted your evening…” Hermione said quickly, making to turn around and exit once more, but a hand on her arm stopped her. In the brief moment it had taken her to turn around, Ron had appeared at her side. He turned her around slowly, and gazed deep into her eyes.
“Don’t go…” he said slowly. She couldn’t tell for sure, but she thought she detected a hint of longing in his voice. “Please stay, Hermione. You don’t have anyone to meet tonight for dinner, do you?”
“No…” she said slowly, slightly flustered at the question, as he knew quite well she wouldn’t.
“It’s settled then; you’ll eat with us,” he said seriously, guiding her to the table. “Would you care for a game of chess?”
“What? But we were still playing!” Bill protested.
“Good point,” Ron said, sitting down. He moved his queen slightly to the left. “Checkmate. Hermione, now would you care for a game of chess?”
She giggled slightly and took Bill’s quickly vacated seat as he sulked over to the fireplace with the others. “Sure.”
The first five moves were made in complete silence, finally becoming a sort of silent challenge between them to speak first. Finally Ron consented to the unspoken dare.
“So…” He trailed off, searching for words. “How are you?”
“I’m all right,” she replied. “And yourself?”
The conversation continued as such, rather forced the entire time. Every few minutes one or the other of them would make a weak attempt at humor, just to break the monotony of it all, but other than that they were robotic in their movements. Finally, Ron simply couldn’t stand it anymore.
“What is wrong here? Can’t we just act… normal or something? All this tension is killing me!”
Hermione broke into a grin at that point. That was the Ron she had always known, showing himself at last. “You’re telling me…”
“Hey… D’you want to get out of here? I dunno, my parents decided they didn’t see us enough anymore and planned a day where we could all be off work and be together… but it’s been really boring so far, and I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if we took off for a little while, as long as we were back in time for dinner.”
“As long as you don’t think they would mind…”
“Naw, let’s go,” he said as he handed her jacket to her, simultaneously sliding his on.
Ron led her to the door and held it for her; he placed a hand lightly on her waist as she walked through.
* * *
They walked in silence for a few minutes, standing uncomfortably over a meter apart. Hermione was torn, because as much as she wanted to move closer, even if not in a romantic way, just as a friend, she wasn’t sure what he might think of such an action. She settled for moving two centimeters or so closer; she figured it wasn’t enough for him to even notice never mind think through – it was Ron after all.
“So… Where are we going?” Hermione asked him a moment later.
“Not sure…” he said absentmindedly, as if going through a mental debate. “Where do you want to go?” he added a moment later, as if suddenly realizing that he was the one who lived there, after all.
“I don’t care…” Their eyes met for a brief moment, nearly causing Hermione to stumble from the sheer power of it all. It felt like a vibe suddenly coursed through her and ignited a spark in her heart- a candle, which had long been out.
He turned away and looked down quickly, watching his feet as they continued their walk down the grassy slopes nearing town. “So… Er… Let’s go… to the train. There’s a nice train that makes a ring around town, and you can see some… nice… erm… trees… and stuff…”
Hermione smiled to herself. “Yes… That…” She swallowed. “That sounds quite nice.”
They slowly made their way to the train station where they found a train boarding at that time. Quickly buying their tickets for a pound each, they boarded and set off to search for an empty compartment.
Hermione briskly walked down the hall, her head snapping back and forth as she glanced into each compartment without slowing her pace. Behind her, Ron was forced to utilize his long legs and work to keep up.
“Geez, Hermione, where’s the fire?”
“I just want to get a compartment with a good view.”
“It’s a train. It moves. All of them will have good views,” he said tactfully.
“But if they are full, we won’t be able to see out the window,” she replied, sounding as if this should be completely obvious. She vaguely wondered where Ron would sit, at her side, or across from her, but tried not to dwell on it – for she would find out soon enough.
Finally they found an empty compartment nearing the end of the train, and Hermione immediately slipped inside, taking a seat by the window. Ron took a seat at her side, safely ten or fifteen centimeters away. After just a moment, they felt the train begin to move slowly, and a voice came over the loudspeakers placed above the door and window.
“Good afternoon, passengers. I am Henry Clyde, your conductor this afternoon. I would like to ask at this time that everyone be seated, thank you.” There was a click as the microphone turned off, and sure enough, moments later the train began to move with a rumble.
“So you’ve taken this ride before I presume?” Hermione said, more because she was desperate for conversation than that she actually cared.
“Mmm… A time or two…” he said absentmindedly, seeming quite interested with his hands.
Wow, how she loved his hands. They were… shapely. Masculine, but had that bit of Ron. He had two small freckles, slightly darker than the rest of his freckles on the knuckle of his pinky, on both sides. She recalled the time, so long ago, when she had discovered those freckles.
“I told you we shouldn’t sneak out! Honestly, we are prefects, Ron, we are supposed to be setting an example for the younger students. How good of examples would we be if we got caught hiding in a broom closet from Filch?”
“We wouldn’t get caught if you would just shut up…” he said through gritted teeth.
“But-“ she started, only to lose her voice to the hand that suddenly found its way over her mouth. “Grroff m’mth,” she mumbled through his palm.
“No. You’ll only get us caught,” he said in a loud whisper, quickly stopping as footsteps filled their ears.
Even Hermione knew that this was when they were supposed to shut up. She stopped trying to talk and instead looked at Ron's hand, as if willing it to get off. She didn’t mind it, really, but she did have a reputation to hold. His pinky was right under her nose, and her eyes swept along the lines of his fingers, memorizing each and every crease they held. Her eyes stopped at the twin freckles, one atop his knuckle, the other to the side of it…
“Oh, what? Sorry, I wasn’t really paying atten-“
He chuckled, “I said we can probably go now.”
She noticed his hand had left its place over her mouth, only to reside on her waist, pulling her closer to him…
“Hermione,” Ron said, looking at her with the traces of a grin pulling at the corners of his mouth.
“I don’t particularly care about the impact that the Romans had on the construction of trains in Northern Europe.”
“Oh but it’s so fascinating. I mean, honestly, the way they-”
Suddenly her voice was muffled by Ron's lips, which had descended upon her own without warning. She pulled away, looking down into her lap uncertainly.
“I’m sorry… I… Erm… I shouldn’t have. I… I just… I’m sorry.”
She caught his eye, and dared him not to look away. He accepted, and their eyes melted together. “Don’t be sorry.” And at that moment, she leaned in and kissed him. Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered why she had pulled away the first time. She decided to blame it on the shock of it, and leave it at that. For the rest of the train ride, she didn’t think about the scenery all too much.