All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.
2 May 1998
Ron did not even think to be concerned about Harry disappearing, but that was why Hermione was the smart one and not him. She gave Ron a single concerned look before they both rushed down the stairs along the same path Harry took, but even with his long legs, Ron caught up too late to stop him from turning on the spot and Apparating away.
“How could he be so reckless?” Hermione yelled into the empty air.
Ron still had a hand out-stretched. He had been so close, and if the thought of Splinching didn’t send pain down the scar on his shoulder, he would have grabbed Harry’s shoulder.
“Should we go looking for him?” Neville asked, jogging over.
“Have you any idea where to look?” Hermione asked shrilly. Neville took a step back and ducked his head, looking like a scolded child. Hermione pinched the bridge of her nose, her eyes squeezed shut as she thought. After a deep breath, she muttered, “I’m sorry, Neville, that was rude of me. I’m sure Harry will come back soon enough. Come on, I’ll buy you a butterbeer.”
“So we’re not looking for him?” Ron asked with disbelief as Hermione started to walk back towards the Three Broomsticks. Ron kept his eyes on the spot where Harry had disappeared as if the grass would tell him where Harry was.
Hermione turned back around, coming closer to him so she could talk in a quiet voice. “We have no idea where he went, but I’m sure he’ll come back when he’s ready. I think he just needs some time alone, to find himself again, then he’ll turn up.”
“And if he gets killed in the mean time?” Ron didn’t know he feared this outcome till the words reached his ears, but then they hit him like a flying hippogriff. Hermione was smart, she had to have put together that Harry wanted something, someone, to fight, and hunting down a Death Eater would be the perfect plan for that.
But he could. “I’ve already lost one brother. I won’t lose another,” Ron said, turning away from Hermione and walking towards the spot where Harry had Apparated. Maybe if he turned in the exact same spot, he’d land in the same place.
The sound of his name broke through his blind determination, taking him back to the last time he had walked away from Hermione and she had called after him. It stopped him so fast he nearly tripped. He would not be the person the Horcrux had made him to be.
She hurried to stand in front of him, blocking his path but also looking into his eyes. Her lips quivered as she seemed to search for what to say. “There are a few places we can look.”
“I suppose it’s worth at least trying to find him,” she sighed.
Later on, it turned out not to be completely worth it. After Apparating to any place that popped into Hermione’s head - Godric’s Hallow, Malfoy Manor, the woods where the Snatchers had found them - Ron felt so nauseous he could no longer stand. Neville had left after only a few stops, needing to get home before his gran worried, but Ron and Hermione never separated. They’d checked every spot twice before Ron finally admitted Hermione was right and that Apparating all across Britain was no way to find Harry.
He sat down on the curb outside the Muggle pub that they had gone to after Bill and Fleur’s wedding, the last destination they could handle. He leaned forward to put his head between his knees, hoping that would stop his brain from spinning in his skull. “I’m never Apparating again,” he muttered as Hermione took a seat beside him and placed a hand on his back. She seemed to be faring better, her face a bit flushed but at least she could stand.
“Just one more time to Hogwarts,” she said. He groaned.
When he no longer felt like he would lose his lunch if he opened his eyes, Ron sat up so he could look out at the street. “I don’t want to go home,” he said after a long pause.
Hermione nodded, her hand rubbing circles into his back. “I understand,” she said before he even thought about how to explain how much he didn’t wanted to see the place that held so many memories or see his mother and father milling about for something else to do but think of Fred.
“I don’t want it to ever be tomorrow,” he added, thinking of the letter that his mother had left for him, letting him know that a private family funeral would be held tomorrow morning in the same graveyard that his Uncles Fabian and Gideon were buried in and that a larger gathering would happen at the Burrow later on. ‘A celebration of his life,’ the letter had said. He cringed at the idea of having to act celebratory at his brother’s funeral.
“You’re not going to accept Kingsley’s offer, are you?” he asked, desperate for a change in subject.
“No.” Hermione’s hand disappeared from his shoulder.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, it really is, but it’s just not for me.” She tucked her hands into her lap before continuing. “For you and Harry and Neville, it’s what you’ve always wanted, but I never wanted to be an Auror. I want to make changes in the Ministry, to revise laws and speak up for Muggle-borns like me. That’s where I belong.”
“But can’t you transfer?” Ron said, grabbing her hand as he searched for a way to bring her with him into the Auror department. “A year or two and you can switch to law, right?”
“I need to go back to school. I have to pass my N.E.W.T.’s or no one will take me seriously. And McGonagall could use my help restoring Hogwarts this summer; I discussed the matter with her this morning. Besides, I’m tired of the fighting and the dueling. I’m not even that good—“
“Bollocks, you’re amazing.”
“It’s not my strong point. I only got an E in my Defense Against the Dark Arts O.W.L.”
“So did I.”
“That’s not the point. The point is… I just can’t do it anymore.” She sighed and looked away, turning her gaze to the street. “I’d like a semi-peaceful life and I don’t want to hunt dark wizards anymore. I’m not sure I want you to be either.”
Ron hadn’t thought the question would do any harm, but Hermione suddenly burst into tears. A couple people who’d been ignoring them before now watched Hermione and sent accusatory glares at Ron. With both hands, he tried to wipe away her tears, but they streamed too quickly for him to keep up. “Hermione—“
She cut him off in a rush of words. “We just made it through this battle alive, which is a miracle, and we shouldn’t be risking that. There are still very dangerous wizards out there, they could still… they could still hurt you. I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore, but now I’m terrified again.”
“I’m coming back, okay? I promise.” As her tears slowed, he took one of his hands away from her face to grasped her hand. “Hell, we made it past Voldemort. I don’t think a couple of Death Eaters will be a problem.” He didn’t think that any of those words would help, but he felt relieved when her tears slowed.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked.
“Yes.” He didn’t know how to explain how grateful he was for the offer, so he didn’t try to. He knew it was a mix of having a future plan and having one that included something none of his brothers ever had. He’d never had much of a future planned, never bothering to look at job options, thinking he’d never live long enough to be concerned about such things. And now, here was a career path being handed to him, no decision-making needed. On top of that, it was as an Auror. He’d never considered that as an option before - his marks would never be good enough for that - and now that it was a feasible plan, he wanted it more than anything. He would be part of the Ministry, doing something brave and just. He could finally be the person he saw in the Mirror of Erised when he was eleven. He couldn’t put into words how much he wanted Hermione to see him as that person, someone to be proud of, someone worthy to be with her.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Hermione said, practically repeating herself. Was it really so important to her that he not do it? As important as he felt it was for her to take the offer?
“Hermione, I want to do this,” he said, noticing the distance that had crept up between them. Their shoulders were no longer pressed together and their hands were between their legs. Merlin, were they fighting?
“I thought I could be fine with this,” Hermione said quietly. “But Harry’s already gone off to do something stupid, and I don’t think any of us are in a state of mind to be making decisions that will affect the rest of our lives so soon after everything that’s happened. And, frankly, I’m scared for you.”
“And Harry? Neville?” The words were out before Ron could think about them. Dammit, was he really still worried about being inferior to his best friend? He supposed so because he kept going. “Are you going to try and stop them too?”
“It’s different with them!” She shut her mouth as a few passing people jerked their heads to look over at them again. She continued in a quieter voice, “I’m not dating either of them. I’m dating you, so yes, I’m a bit more concerned about you coming home than I am about them.”
“Well, don’t be concerned,” he grumbled, not having the will to say anything more that might cause a full-blown fight.
“Look,” Hermione said, seeming to want to try to make things right since neither of them were satisfied with the discussion. “I’m worried about all of you. How could I not be? And this has nothing to do with how well you can duel or defend yourself,” she added when he opened his mouth to interrupt. “I’ve fought alongside you, I know you are far from defenseless with a wand. But you are going back into a dangerous situation—”
“That’s the point!” Ron said, noticing his raised voice a moment too late. He waited for the strangers on the street to look away before continuing. “It’s exciting and dangerous and better than running back to Hogwarts to hide till it’s over.”
“Hide?” she asked, her voice low and more threatening than her yelling had been. He should have chosen his words more carefully. “Going back to the place we’ve spent the better part of six years to help rebuild it is hiding? Running away?”
“Not for you,” Ron said, loud in his desperation but no longer caring who looked at them. “You don’t have anything to run away from. You… you don’t have a dead brother.” He stood up from the curb and walked towards the alley that they had Apparated into. He thought about Apparating home to avoid this conversation, but he knew that doing so would only make him miss Fred more. He slumped against the wall and stared down at the floor.
Hermione walked towards him and stopped to stand just a few feet away, close enough that they could still talk privately but also giving him space. “Is that why you’re going?” she asked after a moment of silence.
He hesitated to admit it, continuing to stare at the ground. “I can’t go back. It’s not just that corridor that gets me, it’s everywhere. They… Fred… was a part of everything in Hogwarts: the common room, the Great Hall, the Quidditch fields. It was hard enough sixth year when they were no longer there, but somehow knowing I could just nip down to Diagon Alley to visit them made it different. There is no Hogwarts without them… him.” He hated how much he struggled to talk about Fred without bunching him into ‘them.’ “And I can’t just sit around the Burrow all summer,” he added. “That’d be worse.”
Hermione nodded, taking a few steps closer so their shoulders were brushing again. “Is that the only reason?”
“You make it sound like it’s a bad reason.”
“It’s not the best,” she admitted.
“But it’s why I need to do this,” he said, his voice firm and with no doubt. He knew there was no other way to make it through this Fred-less summer. “I overheard Professor McGonagall talking to Mum, you know, right after it happened,” he continued, feeling like he had to defend his reasoning since running away from grief didn’t sound like a sane or reasonable explanation. “None of us were in particularly good shape, but Mum lost her fight completely. I dunno what she was planning to do, probably nothing, but then Professor McGonagall told her she had to keep fighting, that we couldn’t win without her and that, after we won, she had to keep living. For him. For Fred. Then she did Bellatrix in, so I figure it must be pretty good advice.” He tried to smile and chuckle at his humor, but all he could manage was a grimace.
Hermione smiled up at him, though, a glint of happiness in her eyes that he knew was not in his own. “Those are wise words,” she said. She took his hands, giving them a squeeze. He looked up to see her reach a hand and wipe at his cheek. The action confused him until he realized his vision was a bit blurry and that his skin was moist with tears. “And a person has to be extraordinarily strong in order to live out those words, like you are.”
A wave of self-pride washed through him, and he felt his lips tug into a real smile. It faded quickly as he remembered he was also crying. “I don’t feel that strong.”
“Strength doesn’t mean it’s easy,” she said while shaking her head. “But to face the thing that hurts rather than deny it or ignore it or shut down because of it, to go on not ignoring it but accepting it, that’s strength.” Her hand drifted to his shoulder, rubbing it in comfort since she knew her words could only do so much. His eyes were far from dry, but the feel of her soft finger tips caressing his skin helped stop his eyes from leaking. She added, “I don’t think I’d be able to do it.”
“Sure you would,” he said, not hesitating a moment in his answer. “You’d be doing a lot better than me.”
“I wouldn’t.” She shook her head, her hand drifting away so Ron caught it in his own, holding on tight. “I’ve never lost anyone that close to me. It’s always just been me and my parents. My grandparents never spend a lot of time with us: one pair travels too much and the others are too old and too far away. My dad’s an only child and my mother’s older sister moved to France a long time ago, never married or had kids, so I don’t even have an extended family to worry over.” Ron couldn’t look away, taking in all this new information. How could he not know this stuff? They were best friends, dating now, and he had never thought to ask if she had any aunts or uncles. Ron wasn’t particularly close with his, so he never considered it a topic of conversation. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for little kid Hermione, all by herself, no one to spend time with. Ron had no idea what that was like. “I don’t know what I would do if my parents died. Definitely not become an Auror. I don’t think I’d even leave my room.”
“You’d probably be reading,” he teased, his free hand wandering up her arm, sliding over the sleeve of her shirt, and resting against her neck. He wasn’t sure what compelled him to do so, but it felt right.
Neither of them turned away from looking into each other’s eyes, the words for describing grief impossible to explain. It was silence. It was this. Being sad, being not okay, but being okay that with every passing second, living became easier and easier.
Although he never stopped staring into her dark brown eyes, he felt his thoughts drifting away towards tomorrow. There had to be something he could do to help him prepare for, not only Fred’s funeral, but the public brunch afterwards. He thought to ask Hermione, but he doubted she had read a book on this exact predictment: How To Attend Your Brother’s Public Funeral When You’re Borderline Famous And Have To Be Happy That The Worst Battle Of Your Life Is Over.
Hermione left him to his own mind, stepping forward to rest her head against his chest and holding his hand between them, against her heart. He dropped his arm over her shoulders, keeping her close but not quite holding her. He knew that if he let himself give into the embrace, he’d lose what little control he had over his emotions and start sobbing like a child. He rather not act like such a twat after she told him how strong he was. He’d rather not prove her wrong today, she’d see soon enough.
“Suppose we have to go back home sometime,” he said, contradicting his own words as he wrapped his other arm around her waist and held her to him. He felt her lips smile against his shirt as she bunched the fabric in her hand.
“We should go to Hogwarts first,” she mumbled, her words barely audible. “Let Professor McGonagall know we’re leaving. She’s probably worried now that we’ve been gone so long.”
Ron tried to ignore the sensations that rushed though him when her lips moved against his chest. It reminded him that they had yet to kiss that day. Well, he supposed that technically their chaste celebratory kiss at sunrise counted, but they’d slept since then so did it really? It might have sounded silly to some, but the last chapter in Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches (Step Thirteen: How To Be A Keeper and Keep Her) had a section about keeping relationships alive by kissing every day. Although he didn’t want to, he thought of Lavender and how their lack of snogging had led to the end of their relationship. It might have been the other way around, but the point was the same: he didn’t want anything like that to happen to him and Hermione.
Besides, he thought, he had yet to kiss her. Both previous times, she’d made the first move, and that was not a precedent he was content with.
“Just one thing before we go,” he said, pulling away just enough to properly bring her close again, leaning down to bring their lips together. Her hands wound around his neck, using the leverage to balance herself on her tip-toes and bring them closer than Ron thought possible. Every centimeter of her front was pressed against his, her hips against his thighs, his chest against her breasts. One hand vise-like around her waist and the other lost in her mane of curls, Ron wasn’t sure they would ever leave the dark alley, especially with Hermione’s hold on him. He thought she might be thinking the same as him: when they returned to the Burrow, moments like this would be rare. When would they next get a completely private moment? He planned on enjoying this one, to burn it into his memory, so he could recall these feelings when he was at the Ministry and she was at Hogwarts.
His back hit the wall of the of the alley at the same time his hand slid up the back of her shirt, mostly accidental. He didn’t know what was or wasn’t allowed with Hermione. With Lavender, everything had been okay, but Hermione was far from Lavender. She didn’t protest or hex him, so he guessed she was all right with the skin-to-skin contact. He felt his mind getting lost in the motion of her lips against his tongue — where the hell had she learned to kiss like that? — when the thought of Lavender pulled him out of the moment.
Lavender was dead. The only girlfriend he had ever had, the only other girl he had ever kissed, was dead. It wasn’t the most pleasant thought to have while kissing one’s current girlfriend.
He cursed into her mouth, causing her to take a step back and stare at him as if she’d accidentally stabbed him. “What’s wrong? Did I do something?”
“No, no, it wasn’t you,” he said quickly, finding his voice weak and his lips loose-feeling. He also noticed the ache in his neck of bending down and the stinging at the small of his back from rubbing against the rough concrete wall. “It’s just… I try to enjoy something and two seconds later, a dead person’s face is all I can think about.”
“I know what you mean,” she said, relaxing her hold around his neck but not letting go. He took her lead and kept his arms around her, his left hand still under her shirt, but it no longer carried a sexual charge up his arm and into his spine. Instead, the warm skin beneath his fingers was a comfort, an anchor to the moment.
“It’s supposed to get better though,” she said, leaning her head against his chest again so her frizzy hair stuck to his wet lips.
“Did you read that somewhere?” he asked with a tone of hopefulness. Maybe she would know exactly what to do.
“No,” she said. “It’s just what everyone else says, so maybe it’s true.”
Ron sighed. “I’d rather a statistic.”
Hermione chuckled, her bobbing shoulders feeling odd in his arms but left him wanting to make her laugh again. “I don’t have all the answers,” she said.
“You do most of the time.” He paused, looking up to see the sun high in the sky. After so many months of camping, he’d developed the skill of telling time just by the sun, or about so. He figured it was nearing three o’clock. They’d been searching for Harry for almost two hours. Both Mum and Professor McGonagall had to be wondering where the three of them had gotten off to, and now he would have to return without Harry.
A pang of failure shot through his chest. Only he could lose the Chosen One.
“Don’t know what I’m gonna tell Mum about Harry,” he mused.
“I don’t think we have to tell her the whole story,” Hermione suggested. “No need to worry her. Or Ginny.”
“Right.” He’d barely thought about Harry and Ginny and if they would get back together. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On one hand, he didn’t want her dating anyone, but on the other, if she had to date someone, why not the most decent guy Ron knew? “D’you think—“
“Yes,” Hermione said before he could finish. “Maybe not right away, but in time.”
“Yeah, sure.” He started untangling himself from Hermione, his entire body feeling colder without her so close. “I think my stomach’s settled enough to handle one more Apparition.”
“And a Floo.”
“Don’t remind me.”
Hermione held out her hand, and Ron hesitated a moment before taking it. The chaste touch seemed so much more intimate than any snogging, and he couldn’t quite explain why. Perhaps it was because they always seemed to hold hands when one of them needed a tangible tie to reality or because he’d never held hands with anyone besides his mum for an extended period of time. Whatever it was, a different sort of charge rushed through him when he took her hand in his own.
“We have to think of the exact same place,” she said as she took her wand out of her pocket. “Same place where we left?” He nodded at her suggestion. “And we have to turn at the exact same time. On the count of three.”
“Is that really necessary?” He felt like a child going on a Side-Along.
“I don’t want to risk any Splinching,” she said quietly, knowing the effect that word had on him.
“Okay, fine, on three.”
Hermione smiled, then counted. They disappeared with two simultaneous pops.
Chapter Endnotes: Let me know your thoughts on the chapter in a review :) Next chapter will be up soon. Another big thank you to Vicki, who suffered through a huge hardship and still managed to read over this chapter in record time. And a shoutout to Jenny for reviewing my first chapter!