Hermione Granger had grown to dread the winter. The season seemed almost to have a grudge against her.
She hadn't always felt that way. As a little girl, winter had been a magical time for her in the only sense of the word magic she had then known. She had loved the fact that sometimes there was snow (luckily, more often where she lived than elsewhere in the town); had enjoyed the thrill of seeing what was behind each new door of her Advent calendars (which she obediently waited to open day by day); and there had been joyous family Christmases with her parents (presents, and crackers, and Christmas pudding, and the Queen's Speech at three o'clock).
Things had been rather different once she'd discovered that magic could be a word with more than just a metaphorical meaning.
In the years since taking her first steps inside the halls of Hogwarts, she'd spent the winter away from her parents more often than not. She'd never considered that they might have been deeply hurt that their only child wasn't at home for Christmas ... well, no, that wasn't actually true. She'd tried to ignore that consideration, dismiss it from her mind, because for the first time in her life she had found friends true, close friends of her own age in Ron and Harry, and like many a teenager before her, she had put her friends first.
Yes, part of that had been that they needed her, to help them fight in a war but not all. She couldn't tell herself that it was and make it seem convincing. She'd simply wanted to be with Ron and Harry rather than her family in those seven winters. And yet... every winter had brought problems, often huge problems, with her relationships with those two friends, with results varying from mild disappointment to crushing misery.
And since she was being honest with herself, actually, it wasn't so much 'Ron and Harry'... well, it had been at first. But as time went by, increasingly she'd wanted to be with Ron in particular.
She glanced at the next seat, which contained her what was he exactly now? Friend? Boyfriend? Something in between and ill-defined? Ron was evidently attempting to look unconcerned at the fact that he was travelling by plane, but his hands were in a telltale death grip on the armrests. Hermione smiled affectionately and slipped her arm into his; he gave her a weak smile in return, and relaxed slightly.
They'd had a good long talk in the wake of the Battle of Hogwarts, one that tried to deal with the feelings they had while stepping carefully around all the things that had gone wrong for them over the years, and somehow Hermione wasn't quite sure how it had ended in an agreement to take things slowly, carefully, now they weren't fighting a war any more and had time to do so.
As the jumbo jet touched down at Sydney airport, and next to her Ron breathed an only half-hidden sigh of relief that he no longer had to trust his safety to Muggle transport that he didn't understand, Hermione glanced out of the window and shivered inside.
She and Ron had just crossed the world together but in doing so they had travelled from summer to winter in less than a day.
A winter of discontent
Twelve years old, and the first winter since she'd discovered the wizarding world.
It was also the first time she'd been back home since becoming part of that world, and Hermione was delighted to see her parents again. She'd felt mild regret at not being able to keep looking for clues to who Flamel was, but then again the preceding few months had been her first time away from her parents and although learning magic had been exhilarating, and running around with friends fun, she still missed her Mum and Dad.
There were still presents (although her parents clearly weren't sure what to get her now), and crackers (the ones Ron and Harry would have to pull were doubtless much more spectacular), and Christmas pudding (with a 50p piece in it, and would the one at Hogwarts have a Sickle?), and the Queen's Speech at three o'clock (she didn't know if Dumbledore made a speech at Christmas as well, but if so it would probably be a lot funnier).
Her reactions to the news of what Harry and Ron had been up to were thoroughly mixed. She was astounded and fascinated by Harry's Invisibility Cloak, of course; she was horrified by the way he'd used it to break rules, of course; but nevertheless, she was disappointed and frustrated that they hadn't found anything! Well ... except for that mysterious Mirror, another fascinating object she would have loved to have had the chance to see, especially given Professor Dumbledore's explanation of it. What would she have seen in it?
Mixed into her feelings among everything else was just a slight ... an unacknowledged ... well, a certain jealousy that her friends had been having an adventure without her.
A new spin
Times changed, of course. She'd certainly been part of her friends' adventures for the past few years, the kinds of adventures she was profoundly glad were finally over. Her deepest, most heartfelt desire for the last year had been to see the war over, Voldemort finished, and Ron and Harry and herself safe and somehow, miraculously, despite everything else that had happened, it had come to pass. Hermione wondered idly if she might actually be the person Dumbledore had talked about who could look in the Mirror of Erised and see themselves exactly as they were.
"How do we get to where we're staying?" Ron asked her in an urgent whisper as they left the airport. "Is there anything like the Knight Bus in Australia?"
Hermione smiled. "We're supposed to be keeping a low profile, Ron. Let's do things the Muggle way and take a taxi."
Well, to be fair, there would have been more to her Mirror vision ... in it, she and Ron would probably have been wrapped around each other. Her feelings for the boy ... no, the man at her side had come a very long way indeed from that first winter. As indeed had his. And at long last, they had time and opportunity to explore them.
The hotel was smart and modern, and Ron very wisely left all the arrangements at the desk to her, rather than risk betraying his ignorance of such everyday matters as credit card payments. His reaction when Hermione whispered the equivalent sum in British Galleons in his ear was merely a raise of the eyebrows and a slightly uncomfortable expression, followed by a shrug and a wry grin. It made her want to kiss him right there in the lobby because the money for their trip had come largely from the Potter vault, at Harry's absolute insistence, and she knew that was something Ron would not have been able to accept at this time last year.
"What's the plan, then?" he asked as soon as they'd settled into their rooms, and Hermione had directed her clothes from the suitcases to the wardrobe with a few flicks of her wand. "Did they leave a forwarding address at the, er, consulate?"
Hermione shook her head sadly. "No ... I'm afraid one of the suggestions I planted when I Confunded them was to stay away from contacting anyone from Britain." She sat back on the bed and thought. "I suppose the best place to start, really, would be to look through all the telephone directories?"
Ron evidently had no idea what 'telephone directories' were, but he nodded obligingly. "And where do we find them, then?"
She thought about it for a moment and tried not to laugh at the obvious answer. "Um, I doubt the hotel has a complete set for the whole of Australia, so shall we go to ... the library?"
At that, Ron threw his head back and did laugh, in a way that she suddenly realised he hadn't done since the Battle or more precisely, since Fred had been killed in front of them. She'd missed it so much it was good to hear it return, at least briefly. "Do you think they'll be here in Sydney?"
"I hope so." That was why she'd chosen to start here, the vague feeling that Sydney was the kind of place her parents would gravitate towards, with the Opera House so near, and the Olympics coming up ... Although of course she'd had to consider the grim possibility of her parents enjoying them with no thought of a daughter still fighting a war by 2000, or who had not survived it to retrieve them.
Hermione's library skills had not deserted her. Unfortunately, by the time they'd found the directories and ploughed through them, their list contained no fewer than four possible 'W. Wilkins' in the city itself, and two more in the surrounding state, not to mention a couple of dozen more in other parts of the country.
It was clearly going to be a long day checking them out.
On the other hand, they were together, and it would be another little adventure.
A winter of distress
Thirteen years old, and this time, they would all be having an adventure together!
Staying at Hogwarts for the holidays the only thing to do. Of course, it meant that she wouldn't get to see her parents this Christmas, which was a shame, but it was only a few months since she'd seen them and they wrote every week. And it was important that she stay a chance to find out what, if anything, Malfoy was up to, perhaps even to solve the mystery of the Chamber!
She was still frantically checking and rechecking the Polyjuice Potion when Harry and Ron dashed into Moaning Myrtle's bathroom carrying handfuls of hair, and with slightly unflattering looks of surprise that her plan had worked. Of course it had worked! She was very proud of her plan, and as long as the boys didn't mess it up, she'd covered everything!
Then when fur sprouted all over her and a tail began to jut out of the back of her robes, she sobbed in realisation that the one thing she hadn't considered had made everything go wrong.
Madam Pomfrey bless the woman! was willing to let her hide away while her appearance changed back into a normal human. And there was at least one small compensation in the get-well-soon card from Professor Lockhart. She'd found herself being oddly affected by her wonderful, brave, handsome teacher this year. It was all a bit unsettling ... but it was definitely a bit of a thrill too.
Still ... it wasn't much fun being stuck in here all alone but for her books, all the while listening to everyone else enjoying themselves in the snow outside. And now that the holidays were nearly over and she couldn't go home even if she wanted to, she found that she was actually missing her parents, and blinked back tears.
A new idea
The following day turned out to be a long and frustrating one.
Hermione sat by the phone in her hotel room and worked steadily through the list of Wilkinses; each time she dialled a number, her heart leapt into her mouth as she wondered if this one would be the call where she recognised the answering voice. But every time she dialled, there was either crushing disappointment as the call was answered in an Australian accent (in one case even telling her she had an old number), or an empty feeling when the call wasn't answered at all.
Ron had pulled up a chair and had been watching her in sympathy. "No luck?" he asked as she slammed down the phone in frustration after yet another fruitless call and made a note on her list.
"No," she answered despondently.
"How many didn't answer?"
"Three. We could go round and look for them, but ..." She could feel herself having to blink back tears pricking at her eyes again. "I wanted to find them today. I miss them, Ron. I sort of drifted away from them every winter, and I never did realise how much I really missed them until I left. Does that make sense?"
Ron's jaw clenched. "Yeah. I miss Fred. I used to want him and George to stay away from me, but now ... I just wish he'd come through the door and start taking the piss out of me again."
"Oh, Ron!" Hermione felt awful. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to be heartless ..." She reached out for his hand and squeezed it, and he gripped it tightly.
"I know you didn't." He managed a forced smile. "Could have been worse, I could have lost Mum and Dad too, so I know what you mean. And at least I didn't have to be the one who ..." He trailed off and waved his free hand vaguely at the list of Wilkinses. "Sorry. I didn't mean to be heartless."
"I know you didn't. I did do the right thing, didn't I?" she added, craving reassurance, craving approval. "I thought it was the right thing to do at the time!"
"Course you did. None of us knew what Voldemort would do or how long it might take, did we?" His grip on her hand was now so tight it was almost painful, but she matched it with her own. "Best thing you could do. Did you, er ..." Ron hesitated, and his ears turned a familiar cerise colour in embarrassment. "I mean, you did tell them what you were going to do?"
"Sort of." The tears were beginning to flow now, and she couldn't seem to stop them. "I told them a bit about the war, and that they had to go away under a false name because of the danger, and that I could cast spells that would fake the paperwork and help them blend into their new identity ... I just didn't t-tell them I wouldn't be c-coming with them ... and t-that they'd ... f-forget me."
Ron's arms were around her and she leaned into them, suddenly sobbing bitterly. A certain dampness in her hair suggested that his eyes were forming the occasional tear as well. "I used to ignore them every winter to run around with you and Harry," she said in a very small voice. "And now they might be anywhere in Australia doing anything, and oh no " a sudden horrible thought struck her " they might not even be in the phone book, we were ex-directory at home, I could have been wasting my time making all those calls ..."
"Wait a moment." Ron sounded thoughtful. "Look, don't take this the wrong way, but ... your mum and dad weren't rich, exactly, were they?" Hermione looked up in surprise, and Ron shrugged uncomfortably. "I mean, I know they were reasonably well off, but not so they wouldn't need to work, yeah? They'd have to have a way to advertise that they were denters, wouldn't they?"
Hermione looked at him in amazement. It was a totally obvious point and, once again, one she'd overlooked. "Yes, of course! Just a minute ..." With shaking hands she picked up the phone and dialled the number for the reception desk. "Yes ... Yellow Pages ... Dentists, that's right ... is there a Wilkins listed?" She listened for a moment, then turned to Ron in glee, and this time the tears she blinked back were ones of relief. "Ron? They are. Right here in Sydney."
A winter of disunion
Fourteen years old, and by now fully immersed in her new world.
She put her name down to stay at Hogwarts again because of course she and Ron had to support Harry. And it wasn't lying to Mum and Dad really, she did actually want to use the library, what with all the extra subjects she was taking. Her parents wanted her to do well, they'd understand. And this winter at Hogwarts couldn't be as bad as last year's!
She was right about that, at any rate.
It was worse. Much, much worse.
Telling McGonagall about the Firebolt was the only thing she could do. She definitely thought it was the right thing to do at the time. Even Harry and Ron had to be able to see she was right. Then why did it feel, in those awful next few weeks when they weren't talking to her, like the most horrid mistake she'd ever made in her life?
She didn't know how she would have got through that winter if it hadn't been for Hagrid, a comforting and supportive presence, like ... like a parent, really, when her own parents were far away, and when she couldn't even bring herself to tell them in her letters home about her misery at being on bad terms with her friends. Because being without Harry and Ron felt just like she'd lost contact with family.
Separation from both was just beginning to make her realise that Harry and Ron were becoming the most important people in her life.
She remembered her parents and dutifully shook off the feeling of guilt as much as she could.
The relief when Harry and Ron made up with her over Buckbeak's hearing was so profound that she couldn't help herself; she broke down in front of them, hugging Ron, who had been colder to her even than Harry, and it had hurt so much. She clung to him so hard it was like she never wanted to let him go. It felt incongruously comfortable.
A new development
Hermione approached the premises of the Sydney dental practice with trepidation, again keeping a tight grip on Ron's hand; she felt a sense of disquiet, a first inkling of trouble, when she saw that there was no name 'Wilkins' on the plate outside, and shivered as she reached up and pressed the bell. Sydney in winter was chilly, if not actually cold, with a depressing more-or-less continuous rain which the hotel clerk had told them with gloomy relish was quite common for the time of year.
Whoever was on the reception desk didn't speak, instead merely pressing the button to let them in.
Hermione approached the desk fighting to keep a quiver from appearing in her voice. "Hello, I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm looking for Mr and Mrs Wilkins ..."
"Oh, did you know them in England?" The receptionist was breezy and cheerful, and Hermione felt a sudden thrill of anticipation as she realised that this woman must know her parents! They had obviously come to the right place.
"Yes, a little bit. They, er, lived in the same street as me when I was growing up. I saw they were in the phone book and decided it was only polite to drop by and visit. Do you think I could possibly say hello to them the next time they have a break in the appointment schedule? I don't mind waiting."
The receptionist chuckled and shook her head. "You'll be waiting a long time then."
"They sold up and moved on a few months ago. Itchy feet, they said. I suppose the phone's still in their name in the old book."
"Oh!" Hermione felt crushed; her head dropped before she could stop it. Next to her, Ron groaned.
"I've got a forwarding address if you want it? Surgery with a house backing onto it, they said."
"What? Yes!" Hermione looked up again eagerly. "Er, yes, I would, um, like it. Where is it?"
The receptionist seemed surprised by her enthusiasm, but nevertheless rummaged in a drawer and brought out a small notepad, from which she copied down an address and number. "Here you are."
Hermione looked, and when she saw that the address was in Melbourne she could have cried.
"How far away is it?" asked Ron as soon as they were back at the hotel again. "Can we get there with one Apparition?"
"Yes ... no ... wait a minute." Hermione bit her lip. "No, we'd better not. I never bothered with the paperwork to get a licence here, and Ron, with everything going on last year you didn't ever pass your Apparition test anyway, did you? If we went off course we could be in real trouble with the Australian wizarding authorities."
"Right. Another flight in one of those ... things, then?" He sounded apprehensive at the prospect, as if Hermione had just suggested that they have another go at breaking into Gringotts.
"Yes. Oh Ron, they're perfectly safe, honestly! It's just..." She bit her lip and struggled not to cry again. "That receptionist clearly knew who they were. I thought I'd found them. I should have known it wouldn't be that e-easy " the tears were coming now despite all her attempts to choke them back " it's not like I haven't been d-disappointed before just when I t-thought everything was w-working out and Merlin's pants why do I keep c-CRYING like this?"
Ron didn't say anything, but after a moment's discomfited hesitation he scooped her up and held her while she sobbed. "Doesn't matter," he said thickly. "It's all over now, isn't it?" She looked up at him in surprise and she could see that he too looked rather pale. "We've been on the run for the last sodding year, not knowing if we were coming back, then that ... battle ..." His grip tightened; he too seemed to be seeking reassurance from physical closeness. "I was scared too, Hermione." It sounded as if he didn't like to admit that. "We've both lost people. I suppose I'd be crushed if I thought I'd found Mum and Dad and I hadn't."
Hermione nodded, and then it seemed to hit them both at the same time that the hug had brought their bodies into rather intimate contact. She could feel Ron's strong arms holding her against him, and instinctively she moved to press herself into him still more closely. He glanced nervously at her, then leaned down and then, suddenly, they were kissing; both of them pouring everything into it everything she felt, everything she'd wanted to do for so long, and this time there was no Harry to interrupt them ...
For a glorious couple of minutes their kiss was all she thought of, urgent, almost frantic, but then Ron disengaged himself. "Well. I've been wanting to do that ever since we left." His voice was uneven and seemed almost apologetic. He grinned, and added quickly, with a complete change of pace, "I suppose we'd better book the tickets then."
"Oh! Yes, I suppose we should." Hermione was flustered; she didn't quite know how to handle this sudden unexpected flare-up of feelings. "I ... I'll ring the Qantas office now, then." Ron gave her another kiss this time just a soft peck on the cheek, although it still sent a shiver through her and excused himself for a moment with a vague comment about packing his stuff while she made the call.
Really, she would have preferred that kiss to lead to settling something more definite between them this 'taking things slowly' approach undoubtedly had its frustrations but although their later goodnight kiss was longer and deeper than before, Ron eventually pulled away with a rueful look and said they'd better get some sleep.
A winter of disagreement
Fifteen years old, and never been kissed.
In a way, she had to hand it to Malfoy he'd helped her get her teeth shrunk, something her parents would never have allowed. Intellectually, she knew it was stupid, but ... now, for the first time, she felt noticeable in a way she never had before as a girl, not just as a student, or as an honorary boy. And with the announcement of the Yule Ball, for the first time she really wanted to be noticed. Not like Fleur Delacour (the mere thought made her scowl) or even Cho Chang, popular as always but noticed for one night, at least.
She assumed that she would go with either Ron or Harry well actually, not Harry. It would be unwise to add any more fuel to the flames of stupid speculation kindled by Rita Skeeter's article. It was then that she suddenly realised (a most disquieting sensation for someone who loved both her friends) that she felt far more pleased at the prospect of going with Ron anyway.
If, of course, he actually realised that she was a girl.
His casual comments about trolls blindsided her and left her hurt and fuming and then, once she'd stormed up to her room and thrown her books on the bed, suddenly bitterly, hollowly disappointed. Was that what he thought of her? Was that what everyone thought of her?
No. Gloriously, unexpectedly, it wasn't.
Viktor's shy, awkward approach was equally blindsiding, but so flattering that she said yes before she had time to think and then discovered to her surprise as she saw more of him that she actually found him attractive. Oh, not in quite the way that Lockhart or Diggory affected her, a flush of heat that sent a tingle through her body but with a sort of growing fondness that she sometimes felt for ... other boys.
The kisses they shared were sweet but exciting, a little tentative on both their parts, even though it was clear that Viktor wasn't quite as inexperienced as she was. He was the first boy no, man to really notice her as a girl. And that wonders would never cease! seemed to have the effect of making Ron notice too. It was just a little too late for her original Ball plans, a little too crude for her to be sure it showed any real interest, and a little too scary for her to want to do more than push the thought to the back of her mind as something to be considered at a suitable later date.
Wintertime hadn't given up on its penchant for hurt, but maybe this time it was easing off.
A new journey
They flew down to Melbourne the next day.
Ron's attitude was still an exasperating mixture of affection and reserve, and Hermione wasn't sure why he was blowing hot and cold unless it was simply their agreement to proceed with due caution, which was beginning to look like the stupidest suggestion ever. Once she would have thought he was unsure about his feelings, or about hers, but surely not now, not after all they'd been through?
Perhaps he was hurting because of Fred more than he let on? Well, she was sure he was, but that didn't seem to be it he was dealing with that in his own way.
Maybe he didn't want to interfere with her search for her parents? That might be it, which was good of him, although she could do with some comfort and reassurance at the moment.
Of course, it was entirely likely that it was simply his discomfort at the idea of flying without a broom. He clearly hadn't inherited his father's fascination for aeroplanes. Children didn't have to be like their parents.
Did they have anything left in common but the ties of blood?
Hermione surreptitiously drew her wand and cast a non-verbal Muffliato, and as Ron turned to her in surprise, she forced herself to ask him the question that had been on her mind ever since they had first boarded the plane at Heathrow. "Do you think they'll want to see me again when I lift the spell?"
"What?" The question did at least manage to startle Ron out of his nervousness. "Are you mental? You're their daughter, of course they will!"
"A daughter who made them forget about her," she said miserably. "Will they wish I'd never bothered to remind them?"
Ron goggled. "You don't forget about your family," he answered, in a brusque tone that suggested she'd taken leave of her senses.
"I did, didn't I?" she said in a small voice.
"I forgot about them, didn't I?" To her annoyance and embarrassment, her eyes were beginning to tear up yet again. "All those Christmas holidays when I could have gone home and seen them, and I didn't, because I put you and Harry first! I just took them for granted, but they weren't exactly happy Christmases, were they? Winter just isn't my ... lucky season!" she added, knowing it sounded childish and stupid but somehow not caring.
Ron chuckled, and she scowled. "So that's what's been bugging you, is it? I was wondering what it was. I've been trying to keep my distance, not put my foot in it, you know, and let you work it out in your own time."
"You have?" she asked, crestfallen that she'd been so obvious but suddenly oddly pleased that she'd only been imagining problems between them.
"Yeah. And I did the same, didn't I?" he added with difficulty. "I spent loads of time away from The Burrow."
"Not as much time as me. I didn't treat them with any respect, Ron! Every time they tried to arrange something for us all to do together as a family, I didn't do it! I'd be studying or running off to Grimmauld Place I... I... I just began to t-think of them only as " she swallowed " M-Muggles!"
Ron looked at Hermione helplessly, then, as best he could while hampered by the narrow seats, put an arm around her and pulled her close, stroking her hair. He didn't attempt to say anything, for which she was grateful. There really wasn't much that could be said; but it was comforting that he realised that and kept quiet.
A winter of disruption
Sixteen years old, and beginning to make waves.
When her parents wrote to tell her that they'd arranged for them all to go skiing, just like they had when she was eleven, she was half-pleased, half-disappointed it was nice to see her parents, of course, but skiing really didn't interest her, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid talking about everything that was going on in her world.
Not to mention everything she was doing in her world it was hard to know what to say to parents who understood 'prefect' but not 'High Inquisitor' or 'Ministry Decree' or 'Death Eaters'.
She realised she had almost been expecting something to go wrong as soon as the colder weather set in, which was just silly, So when she came down for breakfast on the last day of term at Hogwarts, it was with a light heart. There was finally some progress with Harry and Cho. Ginny was getting over Harry. As for Ron ... his reaction to her letter to Viktor had been offensive, but ... well, interesting. Viktor was a nice man and she wanted to let him down gently, but six months separation had shown her that her feelings for him didn't go beyond affection.
Her feelings for Ron ... were much more confusing. And far more terrifying to contemplate.
She made a mental note of the dates of the Hogsmeade weekends.
Then Dumbledore took her aside and explained what had happened the previous night, and it was clear that this winter wasn't going to be easy going either. Of course, she immediately told him that she'd go to Grimmauld Place trying to ignore the shaming realisation that she wanted to be there anyway, in the thick of things rather than stuck halfway up a mountain in Switzerland with her parents and with all of her thoughts turned to what was happening in Britain. Ron and Harry needed her. Surely Mum and Dad would understand if she told them?
Not that she could tell them. She paid a flying visit to her home and put on the best face she could by explaining that she was staying for the exams; her parents hid their disappointment well, but still the situation was awkward enough that she was glad to get away again, while trying not to think too much about how hurt they really were.
She had hopes that this winter, as with the last, would turn into something better, provide something to warm her heart. She remembered all too well the misery of a winter spent apart from her friends; it was doubtless foolish to wonder, dangerous to take chances with that friendship, but still with a Hogsmeade visit on Valentine's Day, and Harry otherwise engaged with Cho, she and Ron would surely be alone together. You never knew whether something might happen of its own accord ...
Oh no, of course not. That would have been too easy. She managed to conceal her bitter disappointment at the news that Angelina ... bloody Johnson would be dragging Ron off to practise Quidditch.
With Umbridge watching the post, she couldn't even write and tell her Mum about it. Wasn't that what daughters were supposed to be able to do?
A new setback
In Melbourne it was the same routine as before, another long day. Check out of the airport, check into the hotel. Find a taxi, give the driver the address that the receptionist in Sydney had provided. Hope against hope that it was right. Try to suppress the feelings of utter terror about the outcome of the meeting. The weather turned out to be extremely variable throughout the day, which the hotel clerk told them was how Melbourne winters always were. In an odd way, she didn't mind. It felt like coming home, somehow.
"Do you want me to wait?" asked the taxi driver as they got out. Hermione hesitated, but Ron nudged her and pointed to a brass sign on the door, on which the names Wendell Wilkins and Monica Wilkins were freshly engraved. Her heart leapt.
"No thanks." Her excitement was building second by second now, and she simply bundled a sheaf of dollars into the man's hands. "Keep the change!" She exchanged glances with Ron who looked almost as nervous as she did, but gave her an encouraging nod and rang the bell.
There was no answer. She rang it again, hopping from foot to foot impatiently. There was still no sound from inside the house.
"Let's have a look in the windows," suggested Ron. They walked around the house once; with a horrible sinking feeling, Hermione realised that it was empty.
"Hey! You two! What are you doing?"
They turned, startled. A man was standing watching them with an expression of intense suspicion on his face.
"That's not your dad, is it?" muttered Ron.
"Australian accent!" she hissed, and turned to the man with a bright smile she was far from feeling. "We were looking for the Wilkinses are you a neighbour?" At his suspicious nod, she added, "We said we'd drop by if ever we came over from England, but they seem to be out do you know what time they'll be back tonight?"
This little speech seemed to mollify the man perhaps it was simply her English accent that made the story sound plausible. "They won't be back tonight. They went up to Mount Buller for a weekend break."
"Oh!" Hermione's stomach knotted. "Yes, they did go skiing sometimes."
"Said they hadn't been for a couple of years but they used to like it when they went before. Just the two of them."
Hermione was quite glad that Ron was holding her hand, because otherwise she might have folded at that reminder of wiped memories. "When will they be back?" she asked with difficulty.
The man shrugged. "Monday morning, I reckon. Do you want me to tell them you were here?"
"Yes ... yes, please. Tell them that ... oh, just say the Mortons were here. It's been a long time, they might not be expecting us."
Ron waited until they had walked a little way down the street and out of sight of the house before asking the obvious question. "The Mortons?"
"They're our next-door neighbours at home. Were." Hermione forced a shaky smile. "I thought of saying 'Ron and Hermione', but that name won't mean anything to them, will it?"
Ron hesitated for a moment, then put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "It will soon."
"Thank you, Ron!" She reached in her purse, and with sudden horror realised that she'd given the taxi driver far more money than she'd realised. "Oh great. We're down to our last ten dollars in hand. Winter strikes again!" She bit her lip; that was one silly hang-up she really should have kept to herself.
"What?" said Ron, laughing. "Winter's not a problem, is it?"
Hermione flushed, then looked around and came to a sudden decision. She pulled a surprised Ron behind a parked van which hid them from onlookers, and took out her wand. "No. Hold my arm tight."
"Damn the Australian Apparition laws! Let's just not get caught. I'm going to take us both straight back to the hotel."
He chuckled. "All right. You know, it's great when your girlfriend " he paused for an awkward moment as if he might have assumed too much, then continued " is willing to take a chance and break the rules."
A winter of discord
Seventeen years old, and an adult in her own world.
Well, it was time to take an adult's decision. Spending the holidays at Ron's house (did her mum suspect the feelings Hermione had for her friend? She hadn't raised an objection when told her daughter was going, after a mere couple of weeks at home) had proven that Ron was as frustrating and yet as adorable as ever.
Not to mention as clueless as ever, because as autumn turned to winter he still hadn't made any move to change their friendship into something more, despite the fact that she was almost sure he had the same sort of feelings that she did. And as those feelings included both a flush of heat that sent a tingle through her body and the fondness that had always been there well, she could no longer pretend to herself that friendship would continue to be enough to satisfy them.
She would just have to be willing to take a chance and break the rules.
To her joy, the Slug Club meetings finally paid off when Slughorn announced his Christmas party. She didn't mean to tell Ron that she intended to invite him in quite the way she did, but still there was a sudden leaping hope when it became obvious that he really did want to go with her, a sort of tentative agreement between them that something might just might be about to happen. Hermione felt like punching the air in triumph.
Then came the slap in the face she'd come to expect of the season, of course. Why was Ron being so distant with her? Was he regretting opening up to her like that? The answer was a sudden and unexpected plunge into misery like icy water.
Every time Hermione saw Ron and Lavender kissing she felt her heart break a little bit more, and such jealousy swell within herthat it was choking, almost a physical creature clawing at her insides. She found herself trying to dull the pain with work, and more work, and even more work, but often too with thoughts of revenge she wanted to hurt Ron back, the way he'd hurt her, the way she'd let him hurt her because she couldn't, even now, not care about him.
When she got home for Christmas and unpacked her trunk with a wave of her wand and felt at peace for the first time in weeks, it suddenly dawned on her that this was the only Christmas she'd spent with Mum and Dad since first year. Hermione threw herself into the celebrations with a vengeance that left her parents confused but pleased. She made herself as joyous as she could under the circumstances; there were presents, and crackers, and Christmas pudding, and the Queen's Speech at whatever time they chose to show it, and although it was quiet and peaceful and very Muggle, it was all the more like balm for her soul because of that.
And then her mother took her aside before she went back and gave her some words of advice. Oh yes, she'd not only suspected but worked it out, and even if she couldn't offer Hermione counsel on her role in a war she had never been told about, it was still a comfort to have someone away from school to confide in.
And then came March the first ... and as winter turned into spring it threw one last terror her way. As she sat in the hospital wing in dread, watching Ron fighting for his life, there was nothing but bitter regret for the past few months and a determination that if no, no, not if, don't think that! when he pulled through, things would change.
A new experience
Hermione was working herself up into a state. She knew that. It didn't help though.
Ron was watching her anxiously. That didn't help either.
"What's the matter?" he asked eventually.
"What's the matter? We were so close today!" She began to pace her hotel room, fighting a desire to scream in frustration. "Twelve thousand miles and then we miss them by a few dozen! We could travel to them in an instant ..." As the thought hit her, she grabbed her wand from where it lay. "Ron, we could go there now and find them. That ski resort can't be very big ..."
Ron stood up, gently took the wand from her hand, and put it back on the dressing-table. "No we can't. You were right the first time about Apparition."
"Hermione," he said firmly, "if we're not sure where we're going, we might appear right on top of someone. We might end up in the desert, or halfway up a mountain. And there's no guarantee we'd find them there they might be travelling back for all we know!" He looked at her helplessly. "You're too keyed up. Try to relax a bit, eh?"
"Well, what do you expect?" she asked, glowering at him. "How can I not be keyed up? I want to see Mum and Dad! I remember the last time we were really together before I ... before I Confunded them, and they helped me through a really bad patch!" It took a second or two for Ron to work out when she meant and tense up at the realisation; she knew she was being unreasonable, and so didn't make more than a token protest when he sat on the edge of the bed and pulled her down to sit next to him.
"I know you miss them," he said pleadingly. "But there's no need to panic, is there?" His voice took on an odd, almost awed quality. "We won, Hermione. Harry won. We've got time now, haven't we? We've got the rest of our lives together!"
"I suppose so." Hermione shrugged; and then the import of what he'd just said hit her like a Body-Bind Curse. She sat frozen for a moment before looking up, startled. Ron's face had turned as deep a shade of cerise as she'd ever seen it, and quite evidently he'd said far more than he'd meant to say. She swallowed. "Ron?" she said quietly. "Does that ...do you really mean ... but you wanted to take it slowly!"
His mouth fell open. "Wait a minute you wanted to take it slowly!"
"Well, only because I thought you did ..."
"I said that because I didn't think you'd want to ..."
Hermione wanted to laugh at Ron's chagrined expression, at their latest attempt to make things difficult for themselves, at the sudden giddy implications for what he was thinking but somehow, she couldn't do it. The moment was too important. Perhaps it was time to take a chance again.
"Ron let's not have any more confusion about this." She steeled herself to keep her voice steady and meet his eyes. "If what you just said means what it sounds like, please tell me now."
Ron appeared to be struggling to overcome some Quaffle-sized obstruction to speech in his throat. His face was far from cerise now; indeed, it had almost turned green. "Yes, it means what it sounds like," he whispered after a few moments, with a note of terror. "I ... I ... I'm in love with you, all right? You must know that. I've been trying to work up the courage to say it for ages."
Hermione felt as if her heart was actually singing, and then suddenly, wonderfully, it was somehow the easiest, gladdest thing in the world to say what she wanted to say in return. "Oh Ron ... you should have known I'm in love with you. I have been for ages. You don't know how much I've wanted to hear you say that to me!"
"I was trying not to pressure you," he mumbled, but a huge grin was spreading across his face. "Take it slow. I didn't want to mess things up again and scare you off with how much I want you."
"Scare me off?" Hermione looked at him in wonder. "You could never scare me off by wanting me, Ron! Can't you see, it's like love is " for a moment, she struggled for words to express how thrilling she found the idea, before finding just the ones she wanted " an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired."
They fell quiet for a moment as their eyes met, and then their lips seemed to move together of their own accord, and then to Hermione's pleased astonishment Ron spun her round onto the bed so their bodies were pressed against each other. Their hands and lips were roaming with an insistence that seemed to move from mere desire to outright ardour too fast for conscious thought.
Hermione wasn't sure at which point she first realised where this was inevitably going if they let events take their natural course but to her surprise she found that she didn't care in the slightest, just so long as they arrived there very, very soon. She got her wish as clothes were unbuttoned and discarded without ceremony, kisses planted anywhere within reach of lips, in places that made Ron moan and Hermione gasp in delight, and limbs tangled and untangled again to the accompaniment of rueful laughter as they worked out how best to position themselves. And then, glorious intimacy, skin sliding against skin with urgency, the passion they'd ached to express for so long finally finding free rein.
Inevitably they were awkward at first, a bit rushed, clumsier than in her fantasies about this moment but it was exhilarating, because it was real. And after wanting this to happen for so long well, there was no way either of them were going to be satisfied to leave it at that. Not now that they had finally travelled into this new world together. By the time they were drifting into sleep, much later, arms and legs tightly wrapped around each other as if to defy any attempts to pull away, Hermione realised with a faint smile that surely she couldn't possibly be more relaxed.
A winter of disaster
Eighteen years old, and an adult in her parents' world.
She didn't feel like an adult in anyone's world, let alone one that the wizarding world could depend on to rescue it from its peril. In fact, she felt like a terrified eleven-year-old again, travelling into a new world full of magic that she didn't know and dreaded not being able to learn in time, a ball of tension and worry.
As the summer warmth faded and the winter cold began to bite, she realised that subconsciously she'd been dreading what might happen to them now. But she took comfort in the surety that whatever Voldemort and his Death Eaters could throw at them, at least this time she and Ron and Harry would meet it together, that the heartbreaking separation of the previous year was behind her.
She should have known that things wouldn't happen that way. Not with a Horcrux in their tent. Not in her least favourite season.
She watched Ron stalk away, she frantically chased after him in blind panic and dread, she watched him Disapparate and suddenly she couldn't bear it, not again. As she collapsed into a chair and the tears flowed, she felt crushed, abandoned, overwhelmed once again by his betrayal. She waited and waited the following morning, until they had to go, until the bitter realisation finally hit that he was gone and not coming back. She felt as if her heart was actually torn, and nothing she could do, no amount of thinking about their task, not even the dire straits that she and Harry found themselves in, could close up that bleeding wound.
He'd left them.
He'd left her.
I want my mum and dad! she thought many a time, in the privacy of her bunk, while she desperately tried to cry silently so Harry wouldn't hear. I want my mum and dad and I don't want to be here fighting a war without the man I ... but she couldn't bring herself to even think his name, let alone add the next word. And always she would get up again the next morning, and plough on through the nightmare, and hope against hope that she would somehow wake up to find it all better.
Then one night she did wake up and Ron was there, holding a sword and grinning at her as if he'd never been away as if what he'd done hadn't practically ran a sword through her heart, a strange blade that left her body untouched but sliced at her soul.
She wanted to hurt him back, the way he'd hurt her, they way she'd let him hurt her because she couldn't, even now, even in this extremity, not care about him so much it ached.
But with Ron back, even though she couldn't look at him without fury choking her, life in the tent suddenly seemed more complete. And as winter again turned into spring, it became increasingly clear that Ron had changed had, in fact, grown up into the man she had always wanted him to be and there was still that treacherous little hope that somehow, in some way, it would come out right for them.
A new beginning
When Hermione woke, it only took her a moment to remember the previous night and to smile at the very fond memory, but several seconds before she realised that she was no longer resting in Ron's arms.
It was silly, she knew it was silly, but she didn't dare open her eyes in case once again, he wasn't there ...
The voice cut short her moment of panic. Hermione opened her eyes; Ron was lying with his head propped up on his hand, elbow resting on the pillow, and looking at her with his lips quirked as if he couldn't quite dare let himself believe what his eyes were telling him he was seeing.
"Hi, yourself," she said, grinning. Now she was fully awake, she realised that his lower leg was in fact crossed over hers with a kind of easy intimacy that she marvelled at. "Thought you'd gone for a moment."
"Never again." The earnestness in his voice surprised her. "Not if I can help it, I mean, I know all sorts of stuff could happen but, well." He took a deep breath. "You and me, right? Together now, going to stay that way? If that's all right with you."
It was still awkward and incoherent and Hermione loved him for that. She sat up and kissed him, a kiss with which she tried to express both love and triumph. "That is more than all right with me."
It was odd, she thought, as they dressed and made their way downstairs to find another taxi, but she seemed to have lost most of her nervousness at the thought of meeting her parents again. After all, if things could go so much the way she wanted with Ron, why not with Mum and Dad? The weather when they stepped out of the hotel was cold bordering on icy, but she didn't really care she felt gloriously warm inside, as if wintertime could no longer hold any special fears for her. Indeed, as they rode through the morning traffic of Melbourne she found herself wondering about a new problem how on earth she was going to introduce Ron to her parents.
Unfortunately, the nerves returned in full force as soon as they reached the house.
There was a car parked outside; it hadn't been there before, and seemed only half-unpacked. Hermione rang the bell and tried to take deep breaths to calm herself, a tactic which hadn't got anywhere close to success by the time the door opened and a woman blinked at them in surprise.
"Can I help you?"
It was her Mum, looking tanned and well and safe, and Hermione choked up. Ron came to her rescue. "We're the Mortons from England er, well, sent by them actually. Can we come in for a minute?"
"Oh yes, the man next door mentioned that. Come in." The Melbourne weather had changed again, Hermione noted with some small detached part of her mind; it had become almost mild, but didn't match her mood any more now than it had earlier. Her mother had given no hint that she had any idea who Hermione was, and even though that was only to be expected it still left her feeling chilled. "Wendell? Frank got it wrong, it's not Eric and Jenny, it's a young couple. Apparently they asked them to call?"
Her Dad was in the living-room, balancing a pair of skis against the wall, and he too showed no signs of recognition. "Er hello. Are you related to the Mortons then?"
Hermione gathered herself. "No, not related to them. I, er, have something for you though." As her parents exchanged puzzled looks, she pulled out her wand which made their expressions even more mystified and braced herself to cast what seemed at that moment like the most important spell she would ever cast in her life.
She moved her wand in a sweeping motion. "Finite Incantatem!"
Her parents' eyes went blank for a few seconds, then they blinked, looked about them in shock, and gaped at her as one.
"Hermione?" cried Mum.
"What ... where are we ..." added Dad. Recognition of their surroundings seemed to dawn on him as his gaze roved around the room. "We've been here for the last year ... you weren't, what happened ... are you all right?"
"Yes!" She flung herself at them and hugged them so tightly that her arms soon became numb. Tears were streaming down her face again, but she didn't care any more. "Oh, I've missed you! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I didn't tell you what I was going to do, but it's all right now, you're safe, we're safe, I'll tell you all about it, please, please forgive me ..."
"Hermione." Her Dad's voice was firm, but he was smiling, albeit in an uncertain manner that suggested he would have a great number of questions to ask later. "You're our daughter. As long as you're all right ... well, the rest is details." He looked up and raised his eyebrows. "Is this your friend Ron? He's grown since we last saw him."
"Yes well, not so much friend, as ..."
"More?" asked her mother, with a knowing look.
Ron rested his hands on Hermione's shoulders; she could feel the slight tremor of nervousness there, but his voice was confident as he jokingly supplied an answer that she could be happy with.
"I'm the man in her life."
He bent down to kiss her cheek, and as he did so winter sunlight began to stream through the windows like a benediction from the season. Hermione found herself enfolded in the twin loves of Ron and her parents, her two worlds now one again, bathed in warmth without and within.
Notes: Written for the Checkmated challenge prompt: "Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired." (Robert Frost), which had to be incorporated as a line of dialogue, plus the colour "cerise" which had to be used in an 'obvious way'. The rules of the challenge said that the entire story had to be set in winter but not that it all had to be set in the same winter, or the Northern Hemisphere winter, which suggested a 'Hermione goes looking for her parents' story.
I'm sure the pattern of bad things happening in winter is purely a meta-effect as the books run summer to summer, winter tends to be the middle section where plot lines are complicating but it came in handy as a framing theme. :)