They all thought that it would be over when Voldemort was defeated. Life would begin again without the threat of the Dark Lord or his followers. To coin a cliché, everything would be okay.
They should have known better.
It had been two weeks since, what the Daily Prophet coined, The Final Battle. Voldemort had been destroyed on a cold December night during a snowstorm. Harry Potter had won. Good had once again triumphed over evil. The Wizarding World was beginning to rebuild after the devastation of the past three years of heavy fighting. People were thankful to be alive. Deatheaters had been caught and sent to Azkaban to await trial, though many of Voldemort's supporters had died during the final days of the War when the battles became more frequent and loss of life became all too routine.
Parties had been thrown to celebrate Potter's victory. He and his friends were heroes and heroines to the majority of their peers, spoken of in hushed tones. Tales of their bravery, daring, and sheer courage were told to children before their bedtime. Those who had perished fighting for the light were honored with tributes in the papers, a period of silence during the celebrations, and perhaps a flower arrangement beside the gravestones or monument that had been erected in their memory.
In what appeared to be a small house in a small country village, the residents were not okay. It was a "safehouse", concealed from view, protected by a variety of wards that Hermione had discovered during her quest for knowledge the past decade. Following graduation from Hogwarts three years before, it had been located by Neville, becoming a home to the recent graduates who comprised Dumbledore's Army. Upon their graduation, Luna and Ginny had moved in also. During one point, two years ago, it had been a home for more than thirty former students. Now, there were only a dozen remaining.
On this cold wintry night, the house was calm, though not quiet. In the corner of the second floor, soft sobbing could be heard. Susan crying for Ernie, who had not survived the final battle. Two doors down, Greg was again under the influence of a sleeping draught, unable to fight the nightmares without magical aid, having killed his own father during the battle for what the man had done to Luna. She was curled up beside him, watching the candle that was always kept lit, unable to sleep when it was completely dark after her brief capture and torture by Deatheaters the previous year. Next to them was a room that would remain forever empty, the scent of peppermint and strawberries reminding any who walked past of Seamus and Lavender. Across the hall, Ginny slept fitfully, her mind on Neville, who was currently in St. Mungos recovering from his injuries.
In the corner room, three residence were awake, sitting in front of the fire. Two were staring at the flames silently while the third was watching them. Ron didn't need to be a mind reader to know what Hermione and Harry were thinking and feeling. They'd been best friends since he was eleven, lovers since he was seventeen. In the two weeks since Voldemort's defeat, he'd watched his lovers retreat inside themselves, putting up a wall between them and everything happening around them.
Hermione had to be strong. She was the mother to the odd group that lived here, many of whom looked to her for guidance. She was not allowed to break down and cry for those they had lost because the survivors needed her to be tough. Giving orders, making sure meals were eaten, insuring chores were taken care of, offering solace and a shoulder to cry on for everyone. If Hermione was still the bossy know-it-all, still the voice of reason and encouragement, then life would go on. If she strayed from that expected behavior, there was a chance that everyone else would fall apart so she withdrew in much the same way she had after her parents' deaths before seventh year.
As for Harry, he was in a similar position to Hermione, though he had to also worry about the world around them as well as the friends that had become their family over the last few years. While people looked to Hermione for guidance and familiarity in these days following the War, they looked to Harry for reassurance and hope. He had been unable to grieve for the loss of Snape, a man who had become a mentor and friend during the worst of the War. He couldn't visit his friends at St. Mungos or go shopping for milk without battling crowds who recognized him and wanted to touch the "Man Who Saved Us All". It had taken the use of an invisibility cloak to visit Neville, Remus, and the others.
Ron had been stupidly optimistic. He thought that winning would make everything okay again. It would be like it was before he'd gone off to Hogwarts or as it was during the moments of happiness they'd had since they were eleven. He had lost his father and his brother Percy in the years before the Final Battle but the rest of his family was alive, though some were at St. Mungos still. He had been able to grieve for the loss of his father and Percy without worry because he had always had Harry and Hermione.
They'd comforted him after his loss, giving him what he needed, making him feel loved. Being the forgotten member of their trio had more benefits than being looked up to, in his opinion. He had created strategies during the War, leading groups into battle, saving many and losing few. He was a hero and his name was in the papers, too, but it was different for him.
The others, they looked to him when they needed a smile, when they needed a laugh. He didn't have to be larger than life like Hermione or Harry. He could just be Ron and not worry about letting others know he was human. His place was in between his lovers, providing what neither of them could, which was a familial understanding, a stupid joke when tension was high, a shoulder if needed. If Hermione was their Mum and Harry was their Father, then he was definitely the protective big brother.
Even his own brothers had slipped into the same pattern, treating him as an equal instead of some silly kid. Some might resent being overlooked at times, but he didn't because his lovers never forgot him, never ignored him, never disregarded his worth. Harry and Hermione helped him learn who he was, waited patiently while he grew into the responsibility of being their lover and best friend in an atmosphere outside of Hogwarts, and he knew without a doubt that they needed him just as much, if not more, than he needed them.
Setting his glass of firewhiskey down, he stood from his chair and made his way to Hermione's side. He'd given them two weeks without doing anything, without speaking up to stop their self-destructive behavior, but it was time to be there for them in the only way he really knew how. Kneeling beside Hermione, Ron gave her a crooked smile when she looked away from the flames to meet his eyes. Moving his right hand along her cheek, he whispered, "It's time to let go, love."
"I can't," she said so softly he almost didn't hear.
"Yes, you can," he said a bit more forcefully. "You have to, Hermione. You're dying inside. I can see it. I remember what it was like, when the light went out of your eyes because you wouldn't let us in. I won't sit here and do nothing."
"Ron, quit being so dramatic," she scolded with a roll of her eyes. "I believe you may have been reading too many Muggle poetry books."
"It's not gonna work," he informed her quietly. "You didn't even cry when they buried McGonagall, Hermione! Please, just let it out. There's no one here except us. Let me be strong for you. For both of you."
"He's right." Harry's voice was solemn but gentle. He exchanged a look with Ron, letting the redhead know that he remembered when they had nearly lost her before they even had her. "In this room, it's just us. I'm so tired of pretending that it never happened. Moving on as if the last decade was simply over with that one battle. I destroyed Voldemort, sure, but at what cost? How many people had to die before I finally killed the bastard? And they think I should be going to parties and having a smashing time when people I love are dead or in the hospital. I can't...bloody hell, I can't keep pretending with you both the way I do with everyone else."
"I try to forget." Hermione sighed, her brown eyes sad as she took Ron's hand in hers. Reaching for Harry's, she gripped it as she closed her eyes. "Since it ended, I try not to think of Seamus and Lav. I hold Susan as she cries for Ernie and do not allow myself to recall sharing Head duties with him during our last year at school. There are times I swear they're all still here, you know? I smell that rose perfume of Lavender's or hear Seamus' laugh or think I hear Ernie's voice asking what's for dinner."
Ron pulled Hermione against him, hugging her tightly as she began to cry. Harry moved beside them, kneeling beside Ron, his arms going around them both as he rested his head on the redhead's shoulder. Moving into a more comfortable position, he pulled Hermione onto his lap, Harry sitting behind him with his legs spread as he pulled them both against his chest.
"I love you both so much." Harry spoke quietly, his arms tightening their embrace, his warm breath against Ron's neck. "I feel like a selfish bastard for being happy that we three survived. If anything happened to either of you, God, it would destroy me. I feel guilty for thinking only of myself and you after I killed him. Just knowing you both survived, it made it all worth it and I can't change that initial reaction nor would I want to if I had a chance. I lost people I cared about, friends and family, but having you here, in my arms, makes me so bloody lucky. I keep thinking they must know, that they can see my joy of surviving, of you two surviving, and think that I'm a horrible person."
"Then I'm horrible, too," Ron confessed, "because all I could think about when it as over was finding you both. I didn't even check on my family before I looked for you."
"Oh, we're all wretched, horrible people," Hermione declared through her tears. Looking back at them both, she gave them a tender smile. "I ran across the field looking for you without noticing anything else. When I found you both, I was so elated. It was only after that I realized how many had died."
"Do you feel better, love?" Ron asked her, his thumb brushing away a tear.
"Yes, I do," Harry spoke from behind him, his hand moving over Ron's arm as he held them both.
"He was asking me," she said snottily before sticking her tongue out at Harry. The smile faded as she caught Ron's eyes. "Is it always going to hurt like this?"
"I think so," he said thoughtfully. "We'll always remember the ones who didn't survive, but eventually we'll remember them without feeling so sad. We'll remember how Seamus surprised Lavender with her engagement ring in the pudding last Christmas and how we had to do the spell to get it out after she swallowed it. We'll remember Ernie's habit of writing everything down during the house meetings and quoting it back verbatim if anyone broke one of your rules. We'll remember McGonagall's stern look when she thought we were getting into mischief that always reminded us of a mean cat. We'll remember Dad's laugh and the way he hugged, as if he wanted to just hold you forever and never let go."
"You inherited his hug," Hermione whispered as she wiped the fresh tears from her eyes. "When you hug me, I feel so safe, as if nothing bad can ever happen."
"Remember that time during sixth year when Snape caught us stealing Potion supplies? We had my Dad's cloak and he kept trying to grab us but missed and finally fell on his arse. We started laughing and he glared but he didn't give us detention because I think he wanted to laugh too. That was when I realized he might not be so bad after all." Harry sighed, "Do you think he knew that I didn't hate him anymore? He taught me so much. I hope he knows that I cared."
"He knew." Ron turned and saw Harry's eyes shining beneath the spectacles on his face. Careful not to disturb Hermione, who was snuggled against his chest, her tears soaking his shirt, Ron found Harry's hand and squeezed, his thumb moving along the palm. "He died saving you, Harry. I think that's how he would have wanted to go if he had to die. Plus he got to live long enough to see you kill Voldemort."
"When did you get so smart?" Harry asked, flashing a slight smile before leaning forward and kissing Ron. The kiss was intense, needy, and Ron returned it with equal fervor.
When Harry pulled back from the kiss, Ron looked down and saw Hermione watching them. Her face was tear stained but she looked better than she had in weeks. Her eyes were alive again. "You're so beautiful."
She blushed at his sincere compliment, but she didn't reply. Instead, she raised her head and brushed her lips against his. The kiss was gentle, lasting only a few moments, but Ron knew it was a sign. They would get through this the way they had gotten through everything in the last decade: together. It was a sign that everything would be okay. Leaning back against Harry, holding Hermione tight, Ron smiled softly. Maybe there was something to clichés after all.