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How I Met Your Father

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James Sirius was quite sure he had never run this fast in all his sixteen years. He sprinted down the street, nearly skidding on the frosted sidewalks of Godric’s Hollow. His sides ached and there was a distinct burning sensation in his chest which could not be good, but still he ran as fast as he could. He was almost there. Now, he could spot the little cottage in the distance as he hurtled past a small, peaceful cemetery he’d visited every year since he was a little boy. Despite his haste, he paused for a second at a familiar spot — panting and out of breath.

“Hi Grandma, Grandpa. Can’t talk now, there’s an emergency. Be back soon. Okay, bye!”

Alright, so maybe it was a silly habit but he liked to talk to his Grandma Lily and Grandpa James every now and then. Big deal. Nobody needed to know that little detail — not even his siblings. Scratch that. Especially his siblings.

The thought of said siblings brought his current situation back to mind. James clutched the piece of tattered parchment in his fist and resumed course. Scorpius’ note hadn’t said much, but then again, neither did Scorpius. This is what he’d deigned to tell James in that little missive:

 

James,

We’ve got a situation. Come home now.

We need you.

Scorpius

 

The sneaky little blighter. He knew just what not to say to make James presume the worst. Now he wouldn’t be able to relax until he was sure the kids were alright. Angela hadn’t been very happy at being abandoned on their first actual date, but she was a sporting sort. James would make it up to her later. 

Finally, he was running up the small driveway and to the house.

It was calm. Frost lined the windows and a soft, welcoming light shone from inside. Snow drifted down gently, lining the rooftop and dotting the trees. The winter scene brought a certain sense of peace to his mind. It was soothing. Quiet and tranquil. 

Those were not phrases James usually associated with his family.

Whatever this was, he would bet his Firebolt 3000 that it was Not A Good Thing.

He padded down the driveway filled with a sense of foreboding. As usual, he had to jiggle the door a little to open it, but it gave way without protest. James stepped inside, padding down the familiar hall to the family room.

Scorpius was the first to spot him. “Thank Merlin!” he exclaimed in relief. He was sitting on the sofa with Al and Lily on either side. Lily waved at him and Al greeted him with a grin, beckoning him over.

“You made it!” he cheered. “We were wondering when you’d show up.”

James approached, frowning suspiciously. This didn’t look like an emergency. No, this looked like a set up.

He knew it!

“What’s going on?” he growled.

Scorpius blinked innocently. “Didn’t you get my note?” he asked.

“You said there was an emergency,” James informed him shortly.

“Did I?” Scorpius cocked his head and tapped his finger against his chin, frowning for added effect. “No, I believe I used the word ‘situation’. Completely different, don’t you know? But I see your point. What an unfortunate misunderstanding.” Lily stifled a giggle and Al coughed, apparently trying to hide a snort of laughter.

James was going to hex someone. Three someones, to be specific. “Seriously?” he spat indignantly. “What the hell, guys? I was on a date!”

“Family comes first,” Lily announced primly. “Besides, we didn’t want to do this without you.”

“Do what without me?” James demanded.

“In a word, suffer,” Al replied. His green eyes glinted as he regarded his older brother, his expression uncharacteristically grim.

James frowned, trying to make sense of this. “What are you...”

Oh.

Oh no. 

He trailed off and his eyes widened. Slowly but surely, he came to a very foreboding conclusion.

Oh for Godric’s sake, not this again!

“I’m leaving,” James blurted, shaking his head frantically and backing away. “I was never here. You never saw me!”

“Don’t you dare!” Scorpius snapped, getting up abruptly. Albus followed suit, advancing on his retreating sibling. “If we’re going to suffer, you’re going to suffer! That’s how it works!”

Oh, hell no.

“Good luck!” James yelped, making a run for it. He dodged Albus and made for the door. His hand was on the doorknob and he just a hair’s breadth from freedom when...

“James?”

Damn it.

James sighed in defeat and turned around. “Hi Dad,” he mumbled. Dad smiled welcomingly and ushered him over. James’ shoulders slumped and he trudged back, allowing his father to pull him into a half-hug.

So close.

“I thought you had a date tonight,” Dad said, ruffling his hair affectionately. James tried not to squirm away on general principle.

“I do, actually,” he replied, sensing an opportunity for escape. “So, I’ll just...”

“Call it off and stay here with the family,” Scorpius finished smoothly. He had managed to sidle over to the door, the sneak. He held James’ gaze meaningfully as he locked it. James scowled and made a mental note to get even later. Maybe hide the git’s hair potions...

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Dad said, leading him back inside. “I didn’t want to tell this story without you.”

James suppressed a groan and joined his siblings on the sofa, making sure to shove Al out of the way. His brother just grinned and sprawled on the other side, planting his legs on Scorpius’ lap. Lily curled into Al’s shoulder comfortably. Dad settled on his favourite armchair across from them, nursing a scotch. James wondered if he could angle for a small glass if he promised to sit tight for another one of these stories. He was almost of age. Then again, probably not. Father would hit the roof if he found out...

“This is a very special story,” Dad began, twirling the glass in his fingers. He always did that when he was getting ready for a nice, long talk. “This is the story of how I met your father.”

The atmosphere of the room shifted abruptly. James could almost sense the relief pouring in.

“Oh, we’ve heard that one,” Lily chirped.

“School rivals, Gryffindor versus Slytherin,” Albus added, edging away subtly. “Lots of duels and pranks and witty banter...”

“A dragon or two, overcoming differences,” Scorpius put in, taking his brother’s example and trying to make a break for it. “Great story, Dad. Positively riveting. So if you need us, we’ll be...”

“Hold it.”

The younger boys groaned and slumped back on the sofa. James hid a smirk. Amateurs. Dad never told the same story twice. They were always different. Always new. Always long.

Just so long.

“Your Father and I were together at school,” Dad agreed. “But that was just part of the story. This is the story of how it all came together. How I met him again.” He paused and smiled softly, his green eyes glinting in the firelight. “And how I fell in love with him.”

“Oh,” Scorpius muttered bleakly. “How...wonderful.”

“Yay,” Al deadpanned.

James smirked maliciously. “If I suffer, you suffer,” he stage whispered to them. Scorpius scowled and dug an elbow in his ribs.

“I want to hear it,” Lily protested, frowning at her brothers. “I like Daddy’s stories.”

“Of course you do,” Al grumbled. “You’re eleven.”

“They’re romantic!” Lily shrilled, pushing him angrily. James sighed and pulled her over before they could start scrapping. Lily stuck her tongue out at Al before snuggling into James’ shoulder. James grinned fondly and ruffled her hair. Oh alright, so maybe it wasn’t that bad.

“Okay Dad,” he conceded. “You got us. Tell the story. But do you think you can make it a fast one?”

Dad grinned in a manner that didn’t reassure him at all. “I’ll do my best,” he promised. “It all started twenty years ago. The war was over and I had just finished Hogwarts, ready to face the world with a bright and shiny new future. Of course, I wasn’t alone. I was sharing a flat with your Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione. It was the best time of our lives. We were young, drunk on our hope and dreams. It was a wonderful time to be alive...”

 

~*~*~*~*~Year 1~*~*~*~*~

 

“My life is over,” Harry mumbled, gazing despondently into the depths of his third beer. “I want to die. If you were my real friends, you would kill me now.”

Even the cheerful din and clamour of the Leaky Cauldron couldn’t drown out Ron’s groan of dismay. They were sitting in what all three of them thought of as ‘their booth’ now. A little island tucked away at the back, with Harry seated on one side and Ron and Hermione wedged in on the other. It was an old haunt — one that they had frequented ever since they’d all graduated from Hogwarts two years ago. It was a place they associated with cheap beer, good food and a lot of laughs.

All things considered, Harry had definitely seen better days here.

Hermione suppressed an eye roll and patted Harry’s shoulder in a placating manner. “So things didn’t work out with Gloria,” she said, in that practiced soothing manner of hers. “It’s hardly the end of the world, Harry.”

“Yes, it is,” Harry insisted moodily. “I loved her, Mione. She was perfect.”

“Um, no,” Ron declared firmly. “She supported the Holyhead Harpies.”

Hermione sighed and fixed her boyfriend with an exasperated expression. “Really, Ron?”

“There are boundaries, Mione.”

Well, Harry had to admit he made a good point. It was the Chudley Cannons or nothing as far as he was concerned. “Fine,” he conceded. “Besides that, she was perfect. And I’m never going to find another one like her.”

“And whose fault is that, my frumpy friend?”

Ron groaned again, and with good reason. Blaise Zabini ignored him as he strutted up to their table, adjusting the cuffs of his suit. Harry had to admit he could pull it off. Blaise was the only person he knew who could walk into the Leaky Cauldron in an Armani Classic and not get laughed right back out.

“Have you learnt nothing from me, Harry?” the man demanded as he took his seat. “What did I tell you? I’ll tell you what I told you. I told you to wear a suit. A suit, Harry! Just once when I say suit up, I’d like you to actually suit up.”

“I did that one time,” Harry protested half heartedly.

“That was a blazer,” Blaise retorted with an exaggerated shudder.

Ron threw his arms up in defeat. “Again, someone please explain it to me. Why do we hang out with this bloke?”

“Ah, allow me to elaborate on that,” Blaise replied smoothly. “You Weasley, may think of me as a guide, a prophet if you will...”

“No, I won’t.”

“You see, everything in life happens for a reason. It’s like my father always said. The universe works in strange and subtle ways but a wise man is one who makes it work for him.

Hermione frowned. “I thought your father always said never insult the person who handles your food.

“That was my first father, Granger. Try to keep up. Anyway as I was saying, I’m here to impart my wisdom, to guide you on your darkened paths and lead you to salvation. I, gentlemen, am here to teach you how to live. Except you Weasley, you’re shackled to this one.” He gestured disparagingly at Hermione who scowled and smacked his arm.

“We should go,” she announced, grabbing her purse. “Harry, we’ll see you back at the flat. Blaise, try to stay out of trouble. Seriously, don’t do anything stupid or dangerous or...oh, who am I kidding?” With that, she waved a goodbye, kissed Harry on the cheek and took her leave.

Blaise waved cheerfully as she left, dragging Ron behind her. “Ugh,” he shuddered, taking a large swig of beer — Harry’s beer. “I have to tell you, Harry. Those two give me the creeps. They’re practically married. It’s tragic, I tell you.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “I’m pretty sure love and commitment aren’t contagious. Your bachelorhood is safe, Blaise.”

“Thank Merlin,” Blaise retorted with a grimace. “Now let’s get you laid, shall we?”

Harry stiffened at once. It was times like this that he honestly wondered why he was friends with Blaise. Every single time they hung out together, something bad happened. Usually, to Harry.

“You know, it’s late,” he hedged, trying to sidle away. “And I’m still not really over Gloria yet. So…”

“For Salazar’s sake!” Blaise slammed the table with his fist, making Harry jump. His dark eyes glinted intensely as he glared. “This is exactly what I was talking about. Harry, I can’t let you waste away over some bint you shagged once! As your best friend…”

“Actually, Ron is my…”

“As your best friend, I have a responsibility. Now get up!” Harry groaned as Blaise grabbed his arm and pulled him over to the bar, evidently determined to see this through. Protest was pointless, and Harry knew it. Blaise had that grin again— the one that always preceded a bad hangover or a night in Auror custody, sometimes both. “We’re going to play a little game,” he announced cheerfully. “It’s called ‘Have you Met Harry’?”

“Blaise, please don’t…”

But Blaise was already making his way towards his victim. Harry barely caught a glance of her— a slim girl in a red cardigan. Her back was turned to them, and she hadn’t noticed Blaise’s stealthy approach yet. Bloody brilliant. Harry waited, absently wondering if the prat would get slapped or a face full of whatever she was drinking. If there was any justice in the world, it would be both. His eyes drifted back to the girl and he cocked his head, frowning as he looked her over again. Was there something familiar about her?  It looked like…

Then Blaise reached out and Harry’s eyes widened as he abruptly realised what it was.

Her hair.

Her red hair.

Blaise tapped her shoulder smartly and she turned around. Harry’s breath caught as familiar, brown eyes widened in surprise.

“Hi. Have you met Harry?” Blaise asked with a charming grin.

Ginny Weasley smiled back and tilted her head. “I think so,” she replied. Those brown eyes drifted to Harry, and he felt his world tilt ever so slightly. It was just like in the movies. When she looked at him and her smile widened, he could have sworn his heart skipped a beat.

“It’s nice to see you again, Harry,” Ginny said. She came over and put her arms around him, drawing him in for a friendly hug. Harry’s breath hitched and he wrapped an awkward arm around her.

Ginny. It was Ginny.

After all this time...

“Damn, I’m good,” Blaise declared, looking rather pleased with himself. He flashed Harry a parting grin and took off, leaving him alone with her. 

With Ginny Weasley.

Gods, it had been so long...

“I thought you were in America,” Harry said, pulling away. From what he had heard from Ron, she was working for the Wizarding Wireless Network over there. She had left right after Hogwarts. Just packed her bags and taken off with a cheerful wave and a promise to write often. She hadn’t even said goodbye.

“I just got back in town,” Ginny said with a laugh. “They gave me a position on the home front and well, here I am.”

“Here you are,” Harry whispered. He couldn’t really help the delighted grin broke out on his face.

Ginny was back. The woman of his dreams was back.

 

~*~*~*~*~Present Day~*~*~*~*~

 

“Okay, whoa. Hold on a minute,” Scorpius broke in. He looked a bit green. “Please tell me you didn’t...oh Merlin, not with Aunt Ginny. Tell me it’s a lie!”

Al looked rather unhappy with the prospect too. “I don’t think I like this story,” he mumbled fretfully.

“We’ve not even started yet,” Dad replied, waving them off impatiently. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes…”

 

~*~*~*~*~Year 1~*~*~*~*~

 

“She’s the one.” Harry sighed dreamily as he sprawled on the sofa in his flat. “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”

Ginny. Ginny Weasley. The girl with the soft, brown eyes and that killer smile. The girl he’d thought about almost constantly since Sixth Year. His very first love. They’d had a tentative summer romance before the war. Then things finally came around but Ginny left and Harry had let her go. He had tried his best to forget about her, painful though it was.

Now she was home again and he couldn’t help but think it was fate. It had to be. They were meant to be together.

His happy train of thought was promptly interrupted by Ron throwing a cushion in his face.

“Knock it off,” he ordered sternly. “This is exactly why I didn’t tell you she was coming back.”

Harry blinked at him. “What? Why?”

Ron sighed and ran a hassled hand through his hair. “Harry, you’re my best mate. I love you like a brother but let’s face it— you and Ginny? I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” Harry demanded, sitting up abruptly. “Is this one of those protective big brother things?”

“No, this is one of those get-your-head-out-of-your-arse things,” Ron countered. “You know Ginny. She’s all about the independence and her career. There’s not much else she thinks about. And then we have you…”

“Ron has a point,” Hermione agreed, joining them on the sofa. “I love Ginny but she’s not looking for anything serious. And you are. I’d pass on this one, Harry.”

“It’s easy for you to say,” Harry argued. “You two are practically married. You’re so bloody perfect for each other. It’s giving Blaise the willies.”

They exchanged fond smiles— the kind that only couples who are meant to be together ever share. Smiles of warmth and perfect understanding. Harry sighed. That was what he wanted. That, right there. Surely, Ginny did too? Who wouldn’t?

“It’s funny that we’re talking about marriage,” Ron spoke up suddenly. He cleared his throat and fumbled with his collar. “All this talk about commitment and taking the next step…”

“I know, it’s odd,” Hermione agreed. “Hey, does anyone want some curry takeaway?”

“The next step,” Ron continued. “You know, the big decision...”

“I could go for some curry,” Harry put in.

“Oh for the love of Godric, enough with the curry!” Ron snapped. “I’m trying to do something here, people!”

They shut up and exchanged puzzled looks. Hermione turned to Ron, her expression concerned. “Ron, what’s going on?” she asked softly.

“Okay,” Ron muttered, nodding firmly. “Okay, we’re doing this.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than them. Harry wondered what this was all about and if he should be worried. Ron cleared his throat one more time and got up...

...and then he went down on one knee and Hermione’s jaw dropped.

“Oh Merlin,” Harry blurted.

“Oh Merlin,” Hermione squeaked.

“Oh yeah,” Ron confirmed, pulling out a velvet box. His blue eyes were intense and his smile was hopeful as he gazed adoringly at his girlfriend. “Mione, you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Every day with you is one more day of me being the luckiest bloke in the world. I don’t ever want that to change. I’ve thought about this for a long time and I just couldn’t find the perfect way to tell you that I want to spend the rest of my life with you. But you’re here and that’s pretty damn perfect, as far as I’m concerned. So, this is me asking you to marry me. Think you can do me a solid here?”

Harry wasn’t sure when the world went right side up again but by the time he had regained his bearings, Hermione was sobbing and wrapped around Ron whispering yes over and over again. Harry’s heart surged and a grin broke out on his face.

Bloody hell.

Ron caught his eye and grinned back. “Mate, I did it! We’re getting married!” He looked like the happiest man in the world.

Harry laughed and crouched down to pull them both in a hug. His friends were finally getting married. Gods, it was about time! And he had been right here when Ron popped the question. He was so telling his kids this story someday…

“Congratulations,” he said fervently, still grinning like a loon. “This...this is brilliant! You guys are amazing together. Merlin, I’m so happy for...”

“Thank you, Harry,” Hermione cut in with a giddy laugh. Her brown eyes shone with such happiness that it made his heart soar. “But I think you should take off now.”

“What? Why…”

Hermione laughed and pulled Ron in for a firm kiss. “You really don’t want to stick around for what’s going to happen next,” she informed him with a mischievous wink.

Message received.

Harry chuckled and headed out. He could always join Blaise for a drink at the Leaky.

Or…

Harry grinned as he shut the door behind him. There was something else he could do. He pulled out his mobile and dialled Ginny’s number. Honestly, he was glad Blaise had finally convinced everyone to get one of these. Even if they had to put up with daily updates on Blaise’s barely censored blog, the convenience was worth it.

“Hey, Gin. It’s Harry. I was wondering...if you’re not busy tonight, do you want to get a drink?”

 

****

 

The days turned into weeks and with every passing moment, Harry was more and more certain that Ginny was the one for him. She had everything. She was smart and funny and just so damn beautiful. They were meeting almost every day now. She had her own place right across from the Alley and Harry often stopped by after a long day at Auror training. On other days, he would come home and find her at his flat, talking and laughing with Ron and Hermione and helping out with the wedding plans.

It just felt so right. So natural. Ginny had just walked right in and completed their little group. It was so easy and comfortable with her. Harry couldn’t imagine how they’d gotten along without her for so long.

Unfortunately, not everyone was that comfortable with changing dynamics.

“No!” Blaise screeched. Harry winced at the sheer volume. For a tall, suave bloke, Blaise could throw quite the tantrum. “No, no, a thousand times no! It’s Friday night, for Salazar’s sake! You’re not abandoning me for the third time in a row!”

“Blaise, come on,” Harry pleaded, straightening his shirt and grabbing a jacket. “Ginny and I really want to catch this film. Hey, why don’t you come with us?”

Blaise looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or whip out his wand. Harry edged behind the sofa, just in case.

“Let me run this by you again,” Blaise bit out. He rummaged in his pocket and whipped out two scraps of paper, brandishing them in Harry’s face with flourish. “In my hand, I have two tickets to Witch Weekly’s Annual Fundraiser for orphans or puppies or...orphaned puppies, something like that. Not important! What’s important is that it’s on a yacht. A yacht, Harry! A yacht full of hot, drunk supermodels looking to mingle with the rich and famous! And you’re going to bail on me to play Gobstones with Genevieve?”

“Actually, it’s Ginevra. And it’s a film. And yes.”

“Just….are you…lingerie models on a boat!

“I’m sorry, mate,” Harry offered with a rueful grin that didn’t appease Blaise at all.

“Fine,” he spat, stalking towards the door with his head held high. “Go then. Marry her, for all I care. Have four— no, ten little brats with awful hair and zero dress sense! And don’t come crying to me when you’re old and...and bald and you’ve never even seen a yacht because I won’t be there, Potter! Oh, you’ll never see me again, I promise you that! Goodbye, Worst Wingman Ever! It has not been a pleasure...”

“See you for drinks tomorrow at the Leaky?”

“Fine! But I’m still angry!”

Harry grinned as he slammed the door on his way out, upsetting a photo on the wall and knocking a sheaf of papers off the side table in the process. Blaise would be fine. He always bounced back. Harry shook his head and knelt to pick up the papers. Hermione would have a fit if he left them for her to pick up and...

Huh. This was weird.

Harry frowned as he scanned the official document. This was from The Ministry for Educational Affairs. In Brussels, apparently. What was this doing here? He shrugged and put it back in the folder, making a note to ask about it later.

For now, he had a film to catch. Ginny was waiting for him.

Harry left the flat with a proverbial spring in his step. Good things were coming. He could feel it.

 

****

Later that night…

 

“So, what was your favourite part?” Harry asked as they walked out of the theatre. It was chilly tonight. Harry shoved his hands in his pockets. He had offered his coat to Ginny earlier the evening but she had insisted she wasn’t cold.

Ginny hummed as she thought it over. “Oh, the part where the lights went on again and we were allowed to leave.” She laughed at Harry’s flabbergasted expression. “What? You liked it?”

“Well, yeah!” Harry blurted incredulously. She hadn’t liked it? “I mean, you can’t go wrong with the classics right? Boy meets girl, they fall in love, tragic misunderstanding and then happily ever after. Boom. Instant classic.”

“Really?” Ginny quipped dryly. She halted in the street and turned to him. Her brow creased a bit and Harry had the distinct impression that he was about to be tested.  “So the part where she gave up her dream job to be with the guy forever struck a chord with you?”

“Well…”

“Because the only thing I saw was a girl who traded everything she worked for her entire life as soon as it was in reach. All for a little house with a picket fence.”

“For someone she fell in love with!” Harry argued. Ginny laughed again and somehow, it was the most disheartening sound he had ever heard. “Come on,” he insisted. He wasn’t sure why but he really wanted her to see his side of it. “Is it that distasteful to you? Finding the right person? Finding love? Having a family?”

Ginny’s smile faded and she took his hand, squeezing gently. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean to sound so harsh. It’s just...Harry, I grew up in the little house with the picket fence. I lived all my life in that little house with seven brothers, all falling over each other. All I could ever think was — is this it? That’s all Mum ever did with her life and I guess it’s okay because she wanted it. But I just...I want more, you know? And now, I’m seeing you after all these years and it’s so complicated. You’re just...you’re looking at me like...‘let’s get married and have four kids and take them all to Quidditch practice’.”

“That’s not fair. I’d let them play Swivenhodge if they wanted to.”

Ginny squeezed his hand again, not even smiling at his sad little joke. “I’m sorry, Harry. I really like you, I’ve always liked you. But marriage? Kids? That’s not me. I’m just not looking for a relationship. The best I can handle right now is something casual.”

Harry sighed. A dull ache settled in his chest.“Well, that sucks. Because I don’t think I can do casual. Especially with you.”

“I know,” she replied with a sad little smile. “I’ll see myself home. Goodbye, Harry.”

Harry sighed as she Apparated away, leaving nothing but a faint trace of her perfume. His lips twitched in a sad little smile. Watching Ginny walk away from him again — it was just like old times.

Everything he wanted was so close, and yet so far away.

 

****

 

A week after that non date, Harry found himself back at the Leaky Cauldron with his friends — not to mention, the newest addition to their group. Nevertheless, it was business as usual.

“...and then I shagged her brains out,” Blaise finished. “True story.”

Harry suppressed a grin as Ron broke into a slow clap.

“Don’t you just love surprise endings?” Ginny added dryly.  

Blaise scowled at the resulting round of chuckling. “Have I mentioned I don’t like you very much?”

Ginny raised an eyebrow. Apparently, she sensed a challenge here. “See that girl over there by the bar?” she asked, gesturing subtly at her intended target. Harry followed the general direction until his gaze landed on an attractive blonde, sitting alone and sipping on a margarita.

“Oh, hello legs,” Blaise drawled, eyeing her approvingly.

“That’s the ticket,” Ginny agreed with a decisive nod. “Okay rookie, here’s how it’s going down. We’re going to go over there and act like a couple. You’re going to make calf eyes at me and ask me to move in with you. Make sure you lay it on thick. I’ll be playing the heartless bitch this evening. I’m going to tell you that I’m leaving you for your best friend, breaking your wee, little heart in a million pieces. I take off and you’re going to sit there looking all devastated. Soon enough, she’ll step in and be your shoulder to cry on. That’s when you get your game on.” She grinned smugly and took a sip of her beer. “Works every time.”

Stunned silence greeted her little speech. Harry, Ron and Hermione stared with alternate looks of shock and horror.

It was Ron who broke the flabbergasted silence with a groan. “Oh Merlin, now there’s two of them!”

Blaise just looked awed.

“The Evil Ex play,” he whispered, sounding almost reverent. Harry tried not to face-palm as Blaise grinned in sheer delight. “Simple. Yet effective! How did you know about...”

“I practically invented it.”

“Welcome to the family, Red,” Blaise declared cheerfully. Ginny winked at the rest of the group and made her way to the bar. Blaise turned to Harry. “If you don’t marry her, I will,” he hissed urgently. “That woman is the Best Wingman Ever!”

Harry shook his head as Blaise hurried off to join Ginny. And so fell the last card. Even Blaise was on board now, and that meant it was official. Ginny had become a permanent part of their lives. It had been such a wonderful thought up until last week. Except now, Harry wasn’t sure it was a good thing, given how he still felt about her. But there was nothing to be done about it. Ginny was here, she was staying and that was that. He would just have to deal with it. Besides, she was hardly the first woman who had walked away from him. He would be okay. This was for the best…

Ron interrupted his train of thought by getting up abruptly. “Well, as eager as I am to see how that works out, I’m heading out. Mum’s going spare with the wedding details and I promised I’d help her fix up the Burrow,” he told them. Hermione smiled but she didn’t offer to go with him. Instead she just squeezed his hand. “I’ll see you at home then,” she told him. Ron kissed her cheek affectionately, nodded at Harry and took off.

Harry waved a goodbye and turned back to Hermione. He frowned as he realised she looked a bit...off. Not only that, she was scraping away at the one of the bottle labels.

Uh oh.

Red flag, dead ahead. 

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked at once.

Hermione started and abandoned the bottle. “What...what do you mean?”

“Mione, I’ve known you for years. You only do that when you’re stressed out.”

Hermione frowned. Her eyes darted from him to the bottle. “I do not.”

“Really? Because when we were sitting for our NEWTS, I could have sworn you just had something against Butterbeer in general.” He chuckled at the memory of a younger Hermione surrounded by her Charms textbooks, Butterbeer bottles and a small mountain of label scraps. He reached out and squeezed her hand. “Come on, talk to me. What’s the problem?”

Hermione bit her lip and her grip tightened on the bottle. Now that he thought about it, she hadn’t said much all night. Okay, now Harry was starting to worry.

“Mione, what…”

“Do you think I’m making a mistake?”

For a second, he was just speechless. He wasn’t even sure what she was talking about.

“A mistake?”

Hermione nodded and bit her lip. “About this...the wedding, I mean.”

“The wedding?” Harry repeated. He was vaguely aware that his voice had gone up at least an octave. He gaped at there, not quite sure how to respond to that.

Where was this coming from?

Hermione nodded slowly and Harry launched into immediate, instinctive protest. “No! Of course not! I mean, it’s you and Ron. You two are meant to be together, you know? It’s...I can’t even...for Merlin’s sake, it’s you and Ron.

“I know,” Hermione mumbled. She sniffed and started her fretful scraping again. “I know that and I love him so much, Harry. I really do. But...but sometimes it just feels like that all I’ll ever be is one half of Hermione and Ron.There’s no...there’s no me anymore and that’s scaring me. I...I feel terrible for thinking it but…”

Harry shook his head helplessly. He didn’t know what to say. How long had she been feeling like this? Why the hell hadn’t he been informed about this? And just what was he supposed to say to her?

“Mione,” he tried finally, squeezing her hand for reassurance. “Where is all this coming from? I don’t understand why...” He trailed off as he remembered something.

The application form he had found the other day…. from Brussels.

“Oh, Merlin help me.” Harry slumped back in his chair.  He could hardly believe it. “You took a job in Brussels. You’re moving to Belgium!”

Hermione’s eyes widened. “You saw the form,” she whispered, half to herself.

Harry could only nod. He felt numb. “When were you going to tell me?” he demanded. And then an awful thought struck and his insides twisted. “Were you going to tell me? Were you going to tell Ron?

“Of course I was!” Hermione retorted sharply. “I just...I didn’t take it, Harry! I wasn’t going to! I just...I wanted to know if I was good enough, that’s all. And then they wrote back and said they wanted me to head the division and...”

“And what?” Harry demanded. “What...what happens now? Are you...you’re leaving?

“No! I mean...I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?!

“Harry, stop it! This is why I didn’t say anything. With the way you’re acting, I can only imagine what Ron’s reaction would be.” She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. Merlin, when had she started crying? When had this new job become something to cry about?

“Mione, you can’t do this now,” Harry protested. “You’re getting married in a few months. I thought you wanted this! We all did…”

“I do! Can’t I want other things too, Harry? What about my career? They used to call me the Brightest Witch of Our Age! And what am I doing with my life? Stuck in a low end position at the Ministry here — kindergarten regulations and primary school budgets. I can do so much more! Brussels wants me to start a whole new education program! I could do so much with an opportunity like that.”

“And what about Ron?” Harry asked quietly.

Hermione lifted her chin stubbornly. “He can come with me. We haven’t discussed it but…”

“Hermione, no. You know he can’t. He’s working really hard at the Games and Sports Department. His evaluations are coming up and if he leaves now, he’s not moving ahead. Do you really want him to give that up? He loves his job!”

“So, what do you suggest?” she snapped. “I should give up my dreams then? Why, Harry? Why is that fair?”

“It’s...not.”

Harry sighed heavily. The truth was that she was making a lot of sense. Well, not the running off to another country two months before her wedding...but the other things did have a ring of truth in them. She was smart and talented and bloody brilliant, Harry could personally vouch for that. But her superiors at the Ministry still looked at her as if she was a kid fresh out of Hogwarts. Hermione got stuck doing the gritwork and she had been passed over for a better position more times than he could count. But surely that wasn’t enough reason to give up everything else and move away? Things could change. She could get a better job right here! Why was she even thinking of leaving England? And Ron? And Harry, for that matter?

Why was she doing this now?

“I don’t want you to have to choose,” he told her finally. “But Mione, you don’t have to. You could stay here. Something better will come along, I know it will. Just...just think about it, please? Think about what you’re giving up. Is it really worth it?”

“You don’t understand,” Hermione replied tersely. “I know how this looks to you, Harry. You think I’m abandoning him, that I’m selfish for even thinking about this.”

Harry shook his head helplessly. “I don’t. I promise you, I don’t think that at all. But...I don’t want to lose you. Maybe that’s selfish, I don’t know. I guess...I guess I just want you to think about this all the way through. Please, promise me you’ll think about it carefully before making a decision.”

Apparently, he had said the wrong thing. Hermione set her jaw and got up. “It was just an application, Harry,” she said, packing up her things with shaky hands. “I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I just wanted to know if I was good enough. And...and it turns out that I am and I can’t do anything about it, because I have to stay here and do what’s right for Hermione and Ron. I can’t do this just for me because apparently that’s selfish. I get it, okay? It’s fine. It’s just one more thing I deserve that I can’t have. Business as usual.”

“Hermione, please. I’m just…”

“You know, sometimes I wish I was more like Ginny. She never has to choose. She just does what she wants, consequences be damned.”

 “But…”

“I have to go, Harry. I...I need to think about some things. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

And with that, she turned on her heel and left. Harry stared after her, wondering what the hell had just happened. His eyes drifted to the bar where Ginny was still busy colluding with Blaise. She turned for a second and smiled, favouring him with a mischievous wink. Harry just sat there and stared, trying to figure out how she had managed to complicate his life yet again, and without even trying, at that.

 

****

 

It turned out that things would get even more complicated for Harry in the near future.

He soon found out that Hermione’s little blow-out that night was just the tip of the iceberg. Within a span of two months, his life spiralled into complete chaos and the best part was, Harry had very little to do with any of it.

First, Ginny started dating Dean Thomas again. Apparently, they worked together at the WWN and had hit it off on being reacquainted. Dean was smart and handsome and apparently, they were ‘on the same wavelength’ about things like dating and romance. Harry didn’t mind the phrase so much as the way Ginny giggled whenever she brought it up. Apparently, it was some sort of inside joke that only people in the radio business ever got.

Hilarious, really. 

And then there was Blaise.

To be fair, he didn’t really do anything that he didn’t do on a regular basis anyway. Nevertheless, when he got held up at the International Portkey Office for trying to pick up women while posing as an Italian businessman, it was Harry who had to go bail him out. One of these days Blaise was going to get him suspended from Auror training, he just knew it. But at least the tosser had the decency to buy him a drink after dragging him out of bed at three in the morning.

That left Ron and Hermione. Frankly, Harry was starting to wish he had never found that damn form in the first place. Hermione was tense and quiet, and he was honestly astonished that Ron hadn’t picked up on her dark mood so far.  His best friend was still as cheerful and clueless as ever, so Harry suspected that Hermione hadn’t mentioned Brussels to him. He wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a very bad thing but he sure as hell wasn’t about to bring it up and find out.

All in all, Harry’s easy, quiet life had become strife with silent tension and there wasn’t much he could do about it. For once, he was actually grateful for Blaise’s sterling capacity to out-talk them all ten to one.

“All I’m say is if gay blokes start getting married, then the whole world's going to do it. See, that's how it works — they start something and six months later, everyone follows. Like manicures and gilded frames, for example. If they start tying the knot by the thousands, single life as we know it will die out. The menace must be stopped, people! Just think about how the family unit will be strengthened!”

Alright, so maybe grateful was a strong word.

Around their customary table at the Leaky Cauldron, those familiar with Blaise’s frequent lapses into a world of his own making remained calm and unruffled. Ron munched his way through another plate of french fries, Hermione leafed through a book and Ginny frowned as she fiddled with her mobile. Dean Thomas however, was staring at their eccentric Italian as if he’d just sprouted fangs.

“He means well,” Harry assured him. Then he paused to really think about it. “Actually, I’m not sure that’s true.”

Dean nodded politely, but he still gave Blaise another wary glance from the corner of his eye. Ginny smiled as she abandoned her phone and squeezed his arm. “Ready to go?” she asked.

“Yes, please,” Dean blurted in evident relief, standing up and offering her a hand.  Ginny rolled her eyes and got back on her feet without his polite assistance.

Of course.

“We’ll see you lot around,” she said, waving a goodbye as she left. Still, those brown eyes had lingered on Harry for a second. One more small smile just for him, and then she was gone.

Harry wished he could Apparate on the spot. He felt sick to the stomach, watching Ginny with someone else. He really didn’t think he could do this. Dean was nice but he couldn’t feel the way Harry did about her. How could he? It was Harry who thought about Ginny every time he found himself drifting off in the middle of a busy day. It was Harry who stopped in his tracks when she smiled at him. It was Harry who couldn’t stand to see her walking away with someone else.

And yet, it was Dean who was with Ginny.

Suddenly, he wanted to be alone— alone and maudlin on his sofa in his flat, with nothing to distract him from his misery. No Ron with his wedding plans. No Hermione with Merlin-knows-what going through her head. No Blaise with his never ending diatribes on the Hot Crazy Scale. Just him. Alone.

So he bid his friends a quiet goodbye and left without any further explanation. He shoved his hands in his pockets as he hurried down the street, making his way home. They could do without him for a night. Harry had his own problems to deal with…

“Harry! Wait up!”

Harry stopped halfway down the lonely street and turned around. He had to suppress a groan as Blaise hurtled over to him. “Glad I caught you,” he started off, not even pausing to catch his breath. “So, about what we’re doing tonight — I’m not giving anything away but I promise you, it’s going to be legen-wait for it…”

“No, Blaise.” Harry cut him off before he could throw that god-awful catchphrase out again. He really didn’t want to deal with whatever Blaise had planned for tonight. No girls, no parties and definitely no booze. All he wanted was to be alone for once. “Not tonight,” he added apologetically. “It’s just been...I just need to be alone, okay? We’ll go out some other time.”

“Oh.”

Harry groaned as Blaise’s face fell. Damn it. How could someone who shouldn’t be allowed to cross the threshold of a church on general principle pull off the perfect puppy eyes?

“Blaise, come on,” Harry pleaded. “I need sometime by myself. Just do me a solid here?”

Blaise considered that for a while. His dark eyes glinted with understanding and he cocked his head as he gave Harry’s request a rare moment of serious thought. Harry sighed in relief when he nodded slowly. “A solid, eh?” Blaise confirmed.

“Yes, thank you. I just…”

“Alright then. Since you asked nicely.”

Harry barely had a second to yelp in alarm as Blaise’s hand clamped around his arm. As he Apparated away to Merlin only knew where, Harry noted for a nanosecond that he was a bloody idiot for trusting a Slytherin — and this particular Slytherin, for that matter.

Then he was standing on...something about a hundred meters in the air. His vision cleared and he stared down at blazing lights and roaring traffic.

Harry screamed.

 

****

 

“I hate you,” Harry hissed, his voice almost deafened by the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. “I hate you, I hate you, God I hate you! If there was a record of how much it’s possible to hate another human being, I would have broken it ten times over just by thinking about how much I hate you!”

“Look, you can’t deny that the view is awesome.”

“The view? The view?! You know what else has a brilliant view of the city? The London Eye! The nice, slow London Eye with plate glass pods and general safety regulations! Have I mentioned that I hate you?”

“A couple times, yes.”

There was really no good way to phrase this.

Harry was sitting on the hour hand of Big Ben.

Let’s go over that again.

Harry was sitting on the hour hand of the Big Ben. The giant clock tower in London? Yes, that one. Harry was currently on the face of that giant clock, sitting on — or  more accurately, perched precariously on — the hour hand of the giant clock tower in the middle of London. Not inside the clock where all the nice tourists go to see the big bell and ooh and aah at the intricate workings and get a nice view of the Westminster Palace while they’re at it. Oh no, Harry was sitting on the outside, on the bleeding hour hand of the actual clock face as London traffic blazed below him and terrifyingly small cars flashed their miniature lights and tracked their way through the winding roads.

His only consolation was that it was exactly 3 AM so at the very least he wasn’t dead yet. One hour up or down and he would have been a smear on the side of the street.

Gods, he hated Blaise. He hated Blaise and he was going to kill him.

And then he was going to die.

“Careful,” Blaise announced from his seat right next to Harry. He kicked his legs out happily, apparently very much at ease with perching on a precarious time-telling device with a hundred sodding meters of nothing between him and certain death.“You really don’t want to fall from up here.”

Harry swallowed as his eyes remained glued to the traffic — an endless river of roaring cars and flashing lights.

Blaise made a valid point.

Oh Merlin. They were sitting on the sodding Big Ben.

Harry suppressed a strangled whimper, dug his hands into the aforementioned hour hand (that he was fucking sitting on, he really couldn’t say that enough) and tried his hardest to contain his nausea.

No.

No!

He may be perched precariously a hundred meters in the air but he wasn’t going to throw up and give Blaise the satisfaction of...well, he didn’t really know what Blaise wanted out of this yet, but he still wasn’t giving him the satisfaction!

A man had his dignity, after all.

Why did you bring me here?” Harry demanded, as his heart rate somehow miraculously slowed back to normal. “Why in Merlin’s name would you bring anyone here? And why am I friends with you?”

“Will you relax?” Blaise drawled nonchalantly. “You’re not going to fall. I put a Shielding Charm up. And a Notice Me Not Charm so the nosy Muggles will stay out of our hair.”

“Of course you did,” Harry snapped, not sure if he was relieved or outraged beyond belief that Blaise had actually planned this out. “Why am I not surprised? I’ll bet you do this all the time, you crazy fucking…”

“No, just the one time,” Blaise replied. “Draco and I did this right after graduation.”

Draco?

Harry stopped seething for a second as he processed that information.

Draco Malfoy?

Malfoy was here?

The Malfoy who provoked Buckbeak into attacking him? The Malfoy who dressed up as a Dementor to mess with Harry during a Quidditch Match? The Malfoy who had come back to Hogwarts after the war and left the country as soon as they graduated?

That Malfoy?

Yeah, okay. Harry was calling bullshit right there. “Like hell you did,” he sneered. “Malfoy would have thrown you from the sodding tower if you sprung this on him.”

“Actually, it was his idea. But you’re not all wrong — I did almost throw him off when he Apparated us here. It was a good thing he had that Shielding Charm up.”

Harry’s head was starting to spin and given his current situation, that was a decidedly bad thing. “You might want to start from the beginning,” he told Blaise.

Blaise was only too happy to oblige. “Like I said, it was right when Eighth Year ended. Now, I’m not really sure what that was like for you—  seeing that we didn’t really speak much at Hogwarts—  but things looked pretty dark for us ex-Slytherins. Honestly? I was pretty down that night. The future didn’t look so great anymore. Nobody trusted us, nobody liked us and nobody wanted us around.”

“But you weren’t even a…” Harry trailed off uncertainly. He had a feeling the phrase ‘Death Eater’ wouldn’t be very well received at the moment, especially if they were talking about Malfoy. “You were neutral during the war,” he amended.

Blaise shrugged. “Didn’t matter. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Slytherins were bad news. There was no place for us in the magical world anymore.”

“Blaise, come on. You know it’s not like that anymore…”

“May I please finish my story?”

Harry trailed off and nodded. Blaise looked like he needed to talk about this — which was weird because Blaise talked all the time and he never seemed to have trouble with it. But this time, Harry thought he needed someone to listen. Besides, what else was there to do? It wasn’t like he could just walk away. So Harry sat there next to his friend on the giant clock, letting him pour his heart out.

“So there we were after graduation,” Blaise continued, looking out into the distance as he spoke. “Just me and Draco. I don’t remember what I said exactly but I think I told him that I wished we could go back to being on top of the world for just one more night. Next thing I knew, I was here screaming like a little girl and the tosser was laughing his arse off.”

“Yeah, don’t you hate it when that happens?” Harry asked dryly. Blaise chuckled and despite himself, Harry grinned too. “Did you ever ask him why he tried to give you a heart attack?” he asked curiously.

Blaise grinned and shook his head. “At first I thought he was just being a wanker as per usual. But then he said something else and that...well, it stuck with me.” He was looking out at the horizon again, his eyes glinting in the dim light. “Look at all those people down there. Every single one of them has a story of their own. Most of them don’t even know it. You and I let others write our story, all our lives. But we’re the lucky ones because we’re holding the quill now. We get to make our own way. I’m going out there, Blaise. And I’m not coming back until I’ve got a story of my own. That, word for word is what he said to me right here, two years ago.”

He trailed off into silence, but Harry had nothing to say. Damn. Who would have thought that Malfoy could have come up with something that profound? Brave, actually. Really? Malfoy, of all people?

Seriously, you think you know a bloke…

“Where is he now?” Harry asked finally. He hadn’t really thought of Malfoy for a while. He had vanished right after Hogwarts. But now that they were talking about him, he had to admit he was curious.

Blaise shrugged. “I can’t say, really. We keep in touch but he pretty much goes where he wants. Last I heard he was in...Barcelona, I think? Brussels? I don’t know— something with a B.”

Harry considered that thoughtfully. “He sounds a bit like Ginny.”

Damn, if either one of them ever learnt that he had said that Harry, would be dead within the week. He grinned at the thought. It was still 3 AM on the dot and yet it felt like they’d been sitting here for hours. Either time really flew when one was having fun or Blaise had managed to stop Big Ben completely. Harry found he didn’t care too much. Malfoy’s words were still ringing in his head.

“It really is a gorgeous view,” he said softly. He sighed and leaned back, letting his legs dangle over the edge. The city was spread out before him in all her glory, sparkling and vibrant even at this godforsaken hour. Out in the distance, he could see the London Eye. Gods, it was beautiful. There was so much going on out there. All his problems seemed so small up here. “Is this why you brought me here?” he asked Blaise. “To tell me to write my own story?”

Blaise smirked. “Harry, do you remember what I told you the first time we met after Hogwarts?”

“How could I forget? You walked up to my table at the Leaky, sat yourself down and told me you were going to teach me how to live.” Harry chuckled and shook his head. “And then, you never left.”

“Exactly,” Blaise concurred, raising an arm in an elaborate gesture. “And this, my boy is Lesson One.”

Harry shook his head in bemusement, “You know, I don’t think I’ll ever understand you. I’ve known you for about ten years— give or take a couple— and we’ve been friends for two of them and you still manage to surprise me. I could have gone the rest of my life thinking of you as the crazy bloke who pulls a new girl every night. Then you go and do this.”

Blaise nodded slowly. “You know, sometimes it’s not about the girls. Or the partying. Or even the suits, Merlin forgive me. Sometimes, it’s just about being awesome.”

Harry had to admit, he did feel pretty awesome sitting up here. The world was a brilliant place, full of life and hope and stories waiting to be written. And for one night, he was on top of it. How many people could say they had done this? This, right here was a story — and a damn good one.

And hell, if Malfoy could go ahead and write his, why shouldn’t Harry?

Yes. It was time to pick up the quill.

“I should…”

“I know. Go on, get out of here. Tell her I said hi.”

And that right there was why he was friends with Blaise. Harry clapped his friend on the shoulder—a silent thank you that neither of them would ever admit to— and Apparated away.

 

****

 

A few minutes later, he was there. Harry swallowed nervously and took a few minutes to fortify himself. Now or never, he told himself firmly. With that cheerful thought, he raised his fist and knocked.

“Harry?”

Ginny blinked sleepily as she opened the door to her flat. Her hair was a mess, wayward strands tumbling down to her shoulders. Her eyes were puffy and her nightgown was all rumpled. Harry thought she’d never looked more beautiful.

“It’s four in the morning,” Ginny said incredulously. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Is Dean here?” Harry demanded. That was all he really wanted to know at the moment.

“Um, he...no. No, he’s not,” Ginny replied. Her gaze skittered to the door frame and she tucked a wayward curl behind her ear. She always did that when she was nervous. Harry had noticed. “He left. I don’t think that’s...well, maybe we’re better off as friends.”

“Thank Merlin,” Harry whispered. He took a step forward and his heart surged when Ginny didn’t move back. Her brown eyes were soft and questioning and they widened a fraction when he slipped an arm around her. Then he was kissing her. It was hesitant, and he wasn’t going to pretend that she didn’t try to back away at first. But then her slim hand curled into his shirt and her soft lips were moving under his own. Harry’s heart surged and he deepened the kiss. She gasped into his mouth, and he abruptly decided that he would never tire of hearing that sound.

This was it. Harry smiled deep into their first kiss. It was everything he had ever hoped for. In that moment, he just knew this was it for him. There would never be anyone but Ginny.

She was The One.

“Harry…”

Her breathy whisper brought him back. Ginny removed her hands and pushed him gently, backing away a bit. “I thought we talked about this,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Harry, I can’t…”

“I know,” Harry cut her off at once. He reached out and took her hands in his own, and she let him. “I know we did, Gin. But I have something to tell you and I’d really like you to listen.”

She nodded hesitantly and squeezed his arm. “I’m here, Harry. I’m listening.”

“I don’t want this to end here,” Harry blurted. “I know we want different things and I know that...you and me...well, us makes no sense at all. But I also know that I really, really like you. I like spending time with you, I like being with you. And I hate seeing you with someone else. I hate it, Ginny and I don’t want to stand around and have someone else write my story for me. I don’t want to look back twenty years down the line and wonder what went wrong with us, what happened to the girl with the brown eyes. I have to know, you understand?”

Ginny was staring at him now and her eyes were so wide and hopeful and questioning. Harry tightened his hold, drawing her closer. “I’ll take whatever you’ve got, Gin,” he promised. “We’ll do this whichever way you want. Just don’t walk away from me. Give us a chance, please?”

“And what if it doesn’t work out?” she asked softly. “What if we end up hating each other?”

“I could never hate you,” Harry smiled. “It’s you.

Ginny managed a choked little laugh. “I don’t think I could hate you either,” she said. Her hand crept up to trace his cheek and her lips met his in another sweet kiss. When she broke away, she was smiling.

“What?” Harry asked, stroking her cheek gently.

Ginny smiled and shook her head. “It’s just funny. Mum always said nothing good ever happens after 2 AM.”

Harry chuckled and leaned in for another kiss. “Well obviously, this is an exception.”

There was nothing bad about how this night had turned out. He finally had the girl of his dreams. Harry just knew that everything was going to be alright from now on.

 

****

 

He left Ginny and Apparated outside his flat, a happy grin still firmly in place. The lights were still on.

Wait, what?

Harry frowned and opened the door. “Ron? Mione? Are you guys up?”

He skidded to a halt as he saw Ron sitting on the sofa. He looked tired and he was staring blankly at the pile of wedding invitations they’d been working on yesterday— probably fretting about the wedding, poor blighter.

Harry grinned fondly and approached him. “Mate, you’re never going to believe what happened. I’ve had the craziest night. So, Blaise…”

Ron looked up at him and Harry’s words died in his throat. Ron’s eyes were red-rimmed and his face was pale and drawn. In the decade or so that he had known the bloke, Harry had never seen him look so wretched.

“Ron,” Harry blurted, hurrying over and putting a steady hand on his shoulder. “What’s wrong? Why are you…”

“She left.”

Harry’s world tilted off its axis. For the first time, he noticed the piece of parchment in Ron’s limp grasp. Hermione’s neat, precise writing was unmistakable.

She left.

“What?”

Harry swallowed and took the note from Ron’s limp fingers. His throat clenched painfully as he read it.

No. No, she couldn’t have. She said she would think about it...

“She left, Harry,” Ron stuttered. The tears built up in his eyes, finally spilling over. “She took off. There’s not going to be a wedding and...I don’t even think she’s coming back.”

Harry struggled to find words — to offer Ron comfort or reassurance or something, but nothing came. He couldn’t believe it. Hermione was gone. She had left and just...gone.

Ron broke down sobbing. His shoulders shook violently, as he cried. It was a painful, wretched sound— like he had just lost everything worth living for. Harry felt his own eyes well up in the face of Ron’s grief and tears tracked their way down his face. There was nothing he could do here. Nothing except be here. So Harry wrapped an arm around Ron, holding his friend as he cried into his shoulder. As the night dragged on, slowly and painfully, he remembered Ginny’s words from earlier. Despite himself, a bitter smile pulled at his lips.

So Molly was right, after all.

Nothing good ever happens after 2 AM.

 

~*~*~*~*~Present Day~*~*~*~*~

 

“Oh no,” Lily whimpered, staring at Harry with wide, teary eyes. The poor thing looked absolutely devastated.

James grinned and ruffled her hair fondly. “Come on, Lil,” he cajoled, pulling his baby sister into a comforting hug. “You know that story has a happy ending. We’ve got Hugo and Rosie to prove it.”

“But it’s so sad,” Lily sniffled in his shoulder. “Poor Uncle Ron! Aunt Mione shouldn’t have left like that.”

Scorpius frowned as he considered that. Evidently, he disagreed. “I don’t know. She probably wouldn’t have been happy if she stayed. Sometimes you have to see what’s out there.”

Al shifted uncomfortably. “I’m with Lily on this. That just sounds selfish to me.”

Scorpius opened his mouth to retort but Harry raised a hand. “There’s no right or wrong here,” he said firmly. “Sometimes people have to make hard choices. Your Aunt Hermione made hers and it was tough for all of us. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t understand why she did it at the time but when she came back, she knew what she wanted for certain. She was happier for it. And that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t gone away in the first place.”

“So she came back?” Lily asked hopefully. “Everything was okay again?”

Harry chuckled fondly. “Of course she did, darling. You just saw her yesterday, remember?”

“I still want to hear the story,” Lily mumbled, still looking rather unconvinced. “What made her come back if she wanted to leave so badly?”

Harry leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Of course, sweetheart. We’re not done yet. So, where was I? Oh, yes. So, about three months passed since your Aunt Hermione left for Brussels. Ron was having trouble moving on, of course and things looked pretty miserable for him. But Ginny and I were...well, let’s just say things had changed for us. A lot…”

 

~*~*~*~*~Year 2~*~*~*~*~

 

“I love you,” Harry whispered as he trailed kisses down Ginny’s neck. “I love you. Merlin, I love you so...”

The rest of his ardent declarations fell to the wayside as Ginny looped her arms around him, drawing him into a long, slow kiss. Harry sighed in contentment, enjoying the comfortable sensation of her lips against his and the taste of strawberries on his tongue. Would he ever get tired of this?

“You’ve made that very clear,” Ginny teased with a soft laugh. “I love you too, Harry.”

His heart surged at those simple words. It had taken three whole months of being together but somewhere in the middle of the dating and the dinners and the snogging, those three words had come about. First in hushed whispers and shy smiles— a secret just between the two of them. And then in public — an almost casual declaration of their feelings that felt so natural that they didn’t even think about it anymore.

So much had changed in these three months. His whole life had turned upside down. But with Ginny in his arms, maybe it wasn’t all bad...

“You’re thinking again,” Ginny smiled, nudging his shoulder. “Want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

Harry rested his chin on her head, stroking her hair gently. “I was just thinking about how great these last few months have been. I’m just...I’m really happy.”

“I am too,” Ginny replied. “I’ll admit I wasn’t sure we would work but...”

But they had. They were together and they loved each other and for once, Harry’s life was perfect. And he had a feeling that it would get better. Ginny had changed her mind about him, hadn’t she? She was just as happy with him as he was with her, he knew it. So maybe in due time, she would change her mind about all the other things too. Maybe, one day they could be more than just a couple. Maybe they could be married and have a family...

“And I am never going anywhere with you again, you tosser!”

Ginny jumped and Harry released his hold on her as a red-faced Ron came barrelling into the flat, followed by an unrepentant Blaise.

“You were talking about sweat!” Blaise protested, holding his hands up as if pleading for divine intervention. He looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. “What was I supposed to do? That poor girl looked fit to bolt.”

“What’s going on?” Harry asked before Ron could retaliate.

Ron turned to him, still scowling. “You know how I’m finally trying to move on after Hermione ran off and left my heart a pile of ashes scattered in the winds of despair?”

“Sure,” Harry obliged. From the corner of his eye, he caught Ginny rolling her eyes.

Ron either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He pointed accusingly at Blaise. “I was talking to a girl at the Leaky and he jumped in and got her owl address! It’s the third time this week!”

“Really?” Ginny sighed and fixed Blaise with an exasperated look. “Again? Blaise, why do you insist on taking him out if you’re just going to rack-jack him?”

“It was an impulse,” Blaise protested. “I said I was sorry.”

In Harry’s humble opinion, he didn’t look very sorry at all.

“Besides, it’s a sickness,” Blaise went on airily. “If you think about it, I’m the victim here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with that little crumpet from the Leaky. Ta, children!”

“My crumpet!” Ron snapped. “You took my crumpet!”

Blaise waved him a cheerful goodbye and Disapparated with a sharp crack, right before Ron’s well aimed cushion could connect with his face. As was practice, his departure left an awkward silence among the rest of the group. Ron groaned and slumped face-down on the sofa. Harry shared a weary look with Ginny and approached, giving him a brotherly pat on the shoulder.

“Come on, Ron. Blaise is just being...well, Blaise. At least you went out, right? That’s definitely a step up.”

Ron just sighed and rolled over. “It’s not about Blaise. Honestly, I’m glad he’s around. At least if the tosser’s out chatting up every girl in the bar, I don’t have to talk to them, you know?”

Ginny shook her head. “Ron, you know that’s not healthy. No one’s asking you to move on so soon, but the least you can do is meet some new people.”

“I don’t want new people,” Ron mumbled thickly. “I want...I want Hermione.”

Harry sighed and exchanged a helpless look with his girlfriend. He had been hoping that Ron would bounce back eventually. Ron was like that, he could roll with the punches. But this time around, it just wasn’t happening. Three months later and Ron was still going through the motions with a miserable look on his face and a Hermione shaped hole in his heart. Harry was at his wits end. They had tried everything — talking, nights out at the bar, old movies. In these three months, a set of unspoken agreements had surfaced in the group. Keep Ron occupied. Do not bring up the H word. Get him through this. But it just wasn’t working. Harry was at a total loss as to what to do or say anymore. There were times when he had to physically quell the ridiculously ironic impulse to find Hermione and ask her advice on how to handle this.

It was time to face facts.

She wasn’t there anymore. The sooner Ron got that into his head, the better it would be. For everyone.

This time, Ginny took the lead.

“Well, I’m sorry but she isn’t here,” she told him firmly. She marched over and grabbed Ron’s shoulders, giving him a stern look. “Now you listen to me. You’re my brother and I love you but so help me Merlin, if you don’t shape up and fast, I will call Mum and have her knock some sense into you. Are we clear?”

“But…”

“No. I know you’re hurting, and I’m sorry. But the truth is, Hermione made her choice and now you have the rest of your life to deal with. So I’m going to set you up with a nice girl from work. And you’re going to go out with her and have a nice evening. Okay?”

“I don’t know, Gin. It’s a bit soon and I’m…”

“That’s it. I’m calling Mum.”

“No!” Ron squawked in alarm, jumping up and nearly knocking Harry over. “I’ll go, I’ll go already!”

“Brilliant,” Ginny grinned, ruffling his hair fondly. “You’re going to be okay, Ronniekins. Trust me, she’s a good one.”

Ron sighed and offered a stilted nod. “I guess you’re right,” he mumbled. “Okay, what the hell? I’ll meet her.”

Harry could have cheered out loud. Instead he just smiled and squeezed Ron’s shoulder in a show of support. “Good on you, mate.”

Ron gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes but at least it was something.

“I’ll set it up,” Ginny promised, hoisting her bag on one shoulder. “You take care of yourself and for the love of Morgana, take a shower. I’m going to work.”

“I’ll walk with you,” Harry offered. “I should head out too…”

“D’you both have to go?” Ron whined, looking up at them with sad, blue eyes.

Harry groaned inwardly and halted. Ron sat up hopefully, looking so much like a sad Labrador that it wasn't even funny anymore. Harry sighed in defeat. “Do you want to stay in and watch a movie again?” he asked.

Ron nodded gratefully and moved over on the sofa. “I was thinking Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

Again? They’d watched it six times already. However, Harry knew better than to argue. Instead he gave Ron a bright smile and a reassuring nod before turning to Ginny. “We have got to get him laid,” he muttered.

Ginny grinned and kissed his cheek. “I’m on it.”

Harry watched her retreating back until the door shut. It was either that or Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Harry had had bloody enough of the latter.

 

****

 

A few hours later, Ginny was wrapping up the promised Floo call at her flat.

“Ron’s great,” she said for possibly the fourth time in ten minutes. “But you know that, of course. I keep forgetting you knew him at Hogwarts. So I’ll tell him to meet you at that new place in Diagon? This Saturday? Great, that’s great. Yes, I’m sure it’ll be wonderful. Alright, then. Bye.”

Well, that was that. Ginny picked herself off the Floor and dusted her hands off. One good deed called for glass of wine. She still had a few hours before work, despite what she’d told Harry. To tell the truth, she had just been eager to get away from Ron and his moping for a few hours. As fond as she was of her brother, he was tough to be around these days. Most of the time, she just wanted to smack him upside the head. Yes, Hermione was gone and she felt awful for him, but three months? That level of dependence just couldn’t be healthy.

Thank Merlin Harry wasn’t like that. In the beginning, Ginny had had her reservations, but she had to admit things had turned out better than expected. Harry hadn’t broached the subject of a long term relationship ever since that one night and she had a feeling he was finally getting where she was coming from. Of course she loved him — she had always loved him — but a girl needed excitement and adventure in her life. Maybe she could have those adventures with Harry. They could move to Tokyo or Paris…

Ginny smiled and poured herself a glass of wine. “It’ll be great,” she said happily. “We’ll travel, maybe spend a year on the road in Argentina or…”

“You’re moving to Argentina?”

Ginny shrieked in alarm and dropped the wine glass. It crashed and scattered in a hundred splintered pieces as she whirled around with wild, frantic eyes.

“Hermione?” Her voice was shrill and shaky.

Hermione dropped her bag to the floor and smiled tentatively. “Hi, Gin.”

 

****

 

A few days later...

 

Harry stared at his girlfriend blankly, not entirely sure that he was getting this right. “What do you mean Hermione’s back in town?”

“Exactly what I said, Harry,” Ginny mumbled, toying distractedly with her phone. It was yet another evening at the Leaky Cauldron and surprise surprise; Harry’s world had been turned upside down all over again. He was getting quite used to it. Still, thank Merlin for small mercies— at least Ron wasn’t here tonight. Apparently, he had gone out with Blaise last night and shockingly, things hadn’t ended very well. So, he was foregoing another evening out to stare blankly at the ceiling. Again.

Actually, maybe Hermione coming back wasn’t such an awful thing after all.

“So what does this mean?” Harry demanded urgently. “Is she staying? Are they getting back together? Are they still getting married? Can we burn Forgetting Sarah Marshall and scatter the ashes to the wind?”

Ginny shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. All I know is that she quit her job in Brussels and she’s getting her old job at the Ministry back. She didn’t say anything except that she needed a place to stay for a while. I told her she could crash at mine and…”

“But what about Ron? And…”

“Honest, Harry. I know as much as you do.”

Harry just glared. “Seriously?” he snapped. “She shows up after three months and that’s all she has to say for herself? What is that?”

Ginny frowned. “Come on, Harry. She’s back, isn’t she? Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too hard?”

“A little too hard?! She left us! She left Ron! You saw what it did to him…"

“Harry, she made a choice! She wanted to do what was right for her career. Why is that so wrong?”

“Well, it didn’t work out so great, did it? A job isn’t everything, Ginny! There are other things that matter.”

Ginny was glaring at him now. Her eyes held an unfamiliar, steely glint and she looked pretty riled up. It took a few seconds for comprehension to dawn but Harry suddenly realised that all of a sudden, they were fighting. This wasn’t about Ron and Hermione anymore.

Oh no.

He froze as Ginny opened her mouth to retort but the Fates must have smiled on him at that very moment, because Blaise swooped in, sliding into an empty chair beside them. “You kids are not going to believe how awesome last night was,” he announced smugly. “It was legen-wait for it-dary. Legendary!”

Harry could have kissed him.

And then Blaise started talking and he reconsidered it.

“So there I was with Weasley, and we’re trying to score him an eight, yeah? What the hell, she was a nine — I’m feeling generous. So anyway, it’s going great. She’s about to give him her Floo combination, everything’s awesome. But wait! Suddenly, Weasley gets an ‘urgent owl’ from the office and he had to take off. Long story short, we both put in some long hours last night. High five!”

Ginny face-palmed. “Seriously?” she whined. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

“No,” Harry moaned. “No high five! You have to stop doing that to Ron!”

Blaise waved him off. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game. If Weasley wants to be single, he has to learn the law of the jungle. I’m doing him a favour here.”

“Maybe you won’t have to for long,” Ginny muttered. Blaise raised an enquiring eyebrow in her direction and she shrugged. “Hermione’s back in town.”

Blaise’s eyes widened and his fists slammed on the table. “What?!”

“Hermione’s back,” Harry repeated. “Brussels didn’t work out and...well, that’s all we know.”

“And you’re just telling me this now?” Blaise hissed. He looked like he was going to have a seizure. Harry shrugged and patted his shoulder as he continued to gape, apparently still processing this.

Now, Harry had expected any number of reactions from Blaise. He had expected him to protest, and sulk and whine about how he was the only single, awesome person left in the middle of two boring couples again...you know, normal Blaise stuff. He had not expected Blaise to slump face fist on the table with an expression of absolute relief. “Oh thank god,” he whispered fervently. “Oh thank Merlin and Morgana and Circe, she’s finally back!

Harry blinked. Wait, what? He turned to Ginny, hoping for an explanation but she was doing her own share of rapid, confused blinking. “You’re happy about this?” she asked doubtfully.

“Are you kidding?” Blaise exclaimed. “I’m thrilled! Do you know how hard it’s been stealing girls night after night from Weasley? Trying to keep him from going home with some random bint? Merlin, I’m exhausted! I have pulled muscles no man should ever pull!”

Harry’s jaw dropped. Next to him, Ginny was clearly experiencing a similar reaction.

“Let me get this straight,” she said slowly. “You’ve been keeping him from finding someone else in the hope that Hermione would come back?”

Blaise scoffed. “Well, of course she was going to come back. What are you, thick? Those two are lost without each other! I just didn’t know when. So I had to keep Weasley from doing something stupid until she returned. And what do I get for being a good friend? Two whole months of near constant shagging!”

“My, how you’ve suffered,” Harry muttered flatly.

Blaise glowered at him. “Sometimes, a man just wants to read The Quibbler,” he stated firmly. “Tell anyone I said that and I’ll deny it. The point is I had to keep Weasley hanging until she came back. Now they can be together again and live happily ever after, and I can go back to being awesome and laughing at them for being a boring, almost married couple. Everything will go back to normal.”

Harry could only stare as he came to terms with Blaise’s latest declaration. “That’s brilliant,” he said finally. He squeezed Blaise’s shoulder gratefully. “You’re a good friend.”

“And a romantic at heart,” Ginny teased.

Blaise huffed and flopped back in his seat. “Speak of this again and I’ll tell Weasley what you two got up to on his kitchen counters the other day.” He rolled his eyes as Harry and Ginny exchanged smug grins. “So, Granger’s back. What happens now?”

Harry’s smile faded. What happens now? That was the question, wasn’t it?

Honestly? He didn’t have the faintest idea.

 

****

 

The door to the flat was unlocked. For a second, Hermione hovered outside, wondering if she should knock. It only seemed proper, especially given how things had turned out the last time she was here. The memory of that night sent a pang through her heart and she renewed her resolve. She was here to set things right. She was home. Ron would see that she meant to stay this time, that she considered this a place she belonged. She would have to show him that. It would work out. It had to.

So she opened the door and stepped in. The comforting familiarity of the place hit her all at once, making her eyes prickle. It was all still here, like she had never left at all. The table with one too many quill scratches from months of making grocery lists, the photographs waving cheerfully at her from the walls, the ratty, old sofa holding the place of honour in the living room...

It was all here. Merlin, she had missed it.

“Harry? Is that you?”

Hermione’s eyes widened and her throat clenched painfully.

Ron.

If someone had told her a few years ago that just hearing his voice again would make her want to break down and cry with relief, she would have laughed in their face. Not her. Never her. She was Hermione Jean Granger. She was the smart one, the sensible one. She would never be thegirl who broke down sobbing at the mere thought of seeing Ron again. 

She had never been so wrong in her life.

“Blaise? If that’s you, get out of here right now,” Ron went on, entering the room. He didn’t have a shirt on and he was still occupied with towelling his wet hair off. He hadn’t even noticed her yet. “Seriously, I’m still pissed with you about last night. Does the word ‘dibs’ mean nothing to you? You…”

Hermione couldn’t help the strangled sob that left her throat.

Ron’s head snapped up. He froze. His eyes widened and he dropped the towel.

“Mione,” he whispered.

And cool, collected, always logical Hermione promptly forgot herself and ran straight into his arms. Ron staggered as she connected with him, stumbling on the sofa with her in tow. She didn’t care. He was here. He was still here and he was the same and she had come so close to losing him without even realising it...Hermione tightened her hold and buried her face in his chest, still bawling her eyes out like a four year old.

“Shh,” Ron whispered, once he had a handle on the situation. Strong, hesitant arms crept up to hold her carefully, cradling her against his broad chest. “Calm down, Mione. It’s okay, yeah? Everything’s going to be fine, I promise.”

He held her until the tears stopped, whispering gentle reassurances and stroking her tangled hair. When she finally disentangled herself, she was blushing scarlet and puffy eyed. God, she probably looked awful…

“Here, have a seat,” Ron said finally, prying her off gently and depositing her on the sofa. “I’ll get you some water.” His eyes lingered on her a second too long, but then he cleared his throat and headed off to the kitchen.

Ten minutes later, neither had broken the silence. Hermione sipped at her water while Ron sat at the other end of the sofa, fiddling awkwardly with the towel.

“How was Brussels?”

His question broke the silence, startling her. She tucked a brown curl behind her ear, trying to calm her frazzled nerves a bit. “The project was brilliant,” she murmured. “I learned a lot.”

Ron’s mouth twisted slightly. “You always were one for learning, Mione.”

“It was everything I imagined,” she replied softly. “And...and it was all wrong.”

He looked at her again and the sight of those earnest blue eyes made her want to break down and cry again. She reached out for his hand, cradling it in her fingers. “I hated everything about it.” The words were spilling now, urgent and frantic. She had to make him understand. “It was brilliant and rewarding and the perfect step for my career and all I could think about was how much I’d given up for it. How much I missed you, how much I missed us. It just wasn’t worth it. Not one little bit.”

Ron said nothing for a while. “What does that mean?” he asked finally.

“It means exactly what I said,” she whispered, her voice breaking slightly.

“Yeah?” Ron laughed shakily and got up, pacing the length of the room. “Call me crazy, Mione but that’s not what past experience tells me. You said you’d marry me, remember? You said you’d be with me and...and we’d have a life together. And then you went away. You left.”

“It was a mistake, Ron,” she insisted desperately. “I made a mistake, okay? I came back to...to tell you that I need you and I love you and I was us to be together. I want us back! Can’t we...can’t we just go back to the way things were?”

The question hung in the silence.

“You don’t know how long I’ve waited to hear you say that,” Ron said softly. Hermione’s heart surged with hope as he sat next to her again and took her hand.

“Do you remember what you said when you left?” he asked.

“I…”

“You said you needed to find yourself. I didn’t understand what you meant then. Maybe I still don’t. But...I think you were right. I was in your way and you were in mine.”

“Ron, no! That’s not true. It’s not...”

“It is,” Ron cut in. He was talking over her protests now, seemingly determined to get the words out before he could reconsider. “The truth is, I was scared when you left. I was scared that I would never be happy again, that you’d taken a part of me with you. I can’t...I can’t be scared anymore, Mione. I want to be okay again. I want to know I can make it if you’re not there someday.”

“But you don’t have to,” she said fervently. Her hands tightened around his, the grip almost painful. “Don’t you see? We’ll be together again, Ron.”

“And if you leave again?” he asked. “What am I going to do then? No Mione, I’m sorry. I just...I can’t be this way anymore. I guess I need to find myself too.”

His hand slipped out of hers, gently but firmly.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. The words seemed to be tearing him up inside, but he said it anyway. “I’m really sorry, Mione. But we’re done. It’s over.”

 

****

 

A few hours later, Hermione had left for Ginny’s place in tears, but Ron’s flat was far from empty.

“No!” Ginny shrieked indignantly. She reached over the table to whack her idiot brother on the head. Ron yelped painfully and rubbed his head, but it really didn’t do much to appease her. “Bad Ron! Bad! Shame on you!”

“Oh, stop it,” Blaise chided. “He’s not a dog.” That being said, he deftly rolled up his latest issue of the Quibbler and smacked Ron in the face with it.

“For Merlin’s sake!” Ron yelped, rubbing his nose and scowling at them. “Will you lot stop that?”

Harry just scrubbed at his hair, looking tired and bewildered. “Why would you do something like this?” he asked helplessly. “Seriously, I can’t even… just why?

Ron shrugged and flicked his wand, Banishing the plates to the kitchen. “It was the right thing to do,” he said firmly. “We’re just not good for each other.”

Blaise stared at him flatly for all of three minutes. Finally, he shook his head and got up. “That’s it. I’m out. If I stay here any longer, I might strangle him and my lawyer says I can’t do that anymore.”

Ginny shook her head in exasperation as he Disapparated without another word. “I just don’t understand,” she insisted. “You’ve been pining for three months. She comes back and you blow it. Merlin, Ron! Pick a side, will you?”

Ron huffed. “You know, of all people I expect you to understand,” he informed her. “You’re the one who goes on and on about independence and all that. I have to learn to get along without her. We talked about it and...well, she agrees.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Harry protested. “You’re both miserable, and it’s so bloody awkward. I mean, look at us. We’re all here at the flat and Hermione’s living with Ginny and...and this is so stupid! Explain to me how we’re supposed to hang out together if you can’t even be in the same room as each other?”

Why couldn’t the world just make sense again?

But Ron was adamant. He just dusted his hands off and turned to them with a too bright smile. “It’s fine, I promise,” he insisted. “Hermione and I both agreed that it’s for the best. We’re still friends and nothing is going to change with the group.”

“But…” Ginny began.

She trailed off as Ron shook his head firmly. “Guys, it’s over. Things happen. We’re just trying to get along and it would be brilliant if we could have out friends and family supporting us through it. Trust me, you’ll see. We’re even having lunch at the Burrow tomorrow, just like every Sunday— all of us! It’ll be fine. It’ll be just...you know, fine.”

With that he headed for the kitchen, whistling an inappropriately bright and cheery tune and leaving Harry and Ginny to stare helplessly after him.

 

****

Sunday, at the Burrow...

 

“This is not fine,” Blaise mumbled belligerently. “This is the exact opposite of fine. This isn’t even on the same continent as fine. You know where fine is? Not here, that’s where fine is…”

“Blaise, keep it down,” Harry groaned, elbowing him in the ribs. “I’ve got my own stuff to deal with, okay?” Across the small living room of the Burrow, he caught Charlie’s eye again and cringed as the older man cracked his knuckles.

Blaise cocked his head at the display and frowned. “I thought they liked you here,” he commented. Charlie narrowed his eyes and Blaise favoured him with a bright grin and a thumbs up as Harry fiddled uncomfortably with his collar.

“They do,” he mumbled. “But you try being the bloke dating a girl with seven older brothers. I’m surprised I haven’t been given the Shovel Talk three times over.” It was true. Three months ago, he had been greeted with high fives and thumping on the back and shouted requests for a quick game of Quidditch. Now, it seemed like he had a giant, red bulls-eye tacked to his back. Hopefully, this whole over-protective big brother thing would blow over soon.

“Ooh, the Shovel Talk.” George halted in his tracks and nodded decisively. “Thanks for reminding me, Harry. We’ll see you outside in ten.”

Then again, maybe not.

Blaise snickered as Harry groaned and George sauntered off whistling. “Hey, look on the bright side,” Blaise said, clapping his shoulder. “At least you’re doing better than Granger.”

Harry’s eyes travelled to a whole new section of the Burrow— and really, it still amazed how such a small house could accommodate these many people— to where Molly was busy fussing over Hermione.

“And you’re quite sure you’re alright, dear?” Molly asked again. “I know it’s been a rough time and all and you say you’re doing fine, but are you? Are you, really?

Even from this distance, Harry could see Hermione’s smile waver just a bit.

“I promise I’m doing just fine, Molly,” she replied politely. “It’s good of you to have me over after...well, everything." 

“Nonsense, dear! You’re still family. Even if you did break my little boy’s heart and left him in the dust like an old toy that lost its string...”

“Hermione, there you are!” Ginny chirped as she barrelled out of nowhere. She grabbed hold of Hermione’s arm decisively and led her to safety. “Mind if I borrow her for a second, Mum? 'Kay, thanks, bye!”

Harry heaved a sigh of relief as Ginny shepherded Hermione over to them. Seriously, that girl was a godsend. Worth the Shovel Talk ten times over.

“And that’s why you never let Mum corner you on the way to the loo,” she told Hermione.

“It’s fine, Gin,” Hermione replied with another tight smile. Harry was getting really tired of that word. Ginny rolled her eyes and turned to him and Blaise, quirking an eyebrow as she took in their miserable expressions. “And what’s got your wand in a knot?”

“Your brothers,” Harry replied promptly. “I’m seriously concerned that that having my wand in a knot is going to have a very literal connotation once this is over.”

Ginny grinned and kissed his cheek. “Don’t worry about the boys. I can handle them. Mum’s the real problem.”

“You don’t say?” Hermione retorted dryly.

“Just make sure you don’t get cornered again,” Ginny told her firmly. “And Harry, try not to sit next to me during lunch. It’ll just encourage Mum to break out the when are you making it official questions. I really don’t need another marriage lecture this week.”

Harry plastered on a cheerful smile and nodded, trying to ignore the slight bristle of irritation. Really? Now he couldn’t even sit next to his girlfriend for fear of the dreaded M word?

“But I wouldn’t worry much,” Ginny went on blithely. “She’ll probably have her eyes on Ron and his date so…”

“Wait,” Hermione cut in.

Ginny trailed off as the silence descended— a very ominous, utterly stifling silence. Harry stared at her in sheer dumbfounded horror. He had misheard. He must have. There was no possible way she had just said that...

“Ron’s bringing a date?” Hermione had started wringing her hands. Her voice was distinctly shrill and off kilter. “Here? Now?

Ginny’s eyes widened in the wake of her massive faux pas. “The girl I set him up with when you were away,” she managed. “Didn’t I tell you? Oh gods, tell me I told you!”

“You didn’t tell me,” Hermione replied blankly.

“Well, this is awkward,” Blaise put in helpfully.

Ginny was too horrified to bother with him. “Mione, I’m so sorry! It was when you were in Brussels and Ron was so miserable and I can’t believe I didn’t tell you! I’m…”

“Ginny, calm down,” Hermione soothed, patting her shoulder. “Ron and I are over, remember? He can date whoever he likes. Like I said, we’re…”

“Fine,” Harry muttered. “Yes, you mentioned that.”

Ginny still looked unsure. “You’re sure you’re okay?” she asked Hermione. “I mean, they’ll be here any second so if you want to bail I totally understand.”

“Ginny, it’s fi— it’s okay,” Hermione insisted. “Ron and I were always friends first. I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice girl and…”

She was interrupted as the door suddenly swung open.

“Hey, you lot!” Ron announced cheerily. “Not too late, are we?”

Blaise waved, Ginny smiled shakily and Harry swallowed.

Oh, this was going to be so awful.

Ron just grinned and hugged his mother, clapped Charlie and George on the back and accepted a bear hug from Bill. “I brought a guest over, Mum,” he said to Molly. “That’s okay, right?”

“The more the merrier, dear,” Molly replied happily, bustling over to fuss with his robes. “And where is this charming young lady?” Harry could have sworn she shot Hermione a particularly smug look as she said it.

So, so awful.

The girl stepped out from the shadows, and smiled pleasantly at the assembled company. Harry staggered in shock as he recognized her. Blaise choked on a sip of butterbeer and Hermione mumbled something that sounded a lot like oh, hell no.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you all,” Ron’s date spoke up, flicking her long blonde hair back. Her eyes drifted to Hermione for a second and that pearly smile widened just a fraction. From the corner of his eye, Harry noticed Hermione’s fists clenched. He turned to make sure she didn’t have a wand out but her expression was enough to make his insiders shrivel up a bit.

Oh, she looked murderous.

Harry swallowed audibly and pulled Ginny over. “What have you done?” he hissed at her.

“Why?” she whispered back. “What’s wrong with Lavender?”

 

**** 

A few days later, at the Leaky Cauldron...

 

“Crazy eyes,” Blaise announced decisively. His declaration elicited no further enquiries so naturally he took it as an invitation to continue. “Crazy Eyes is a well documented condition among the eighteen to twenty five year old female demographic— an indicator of future mental illness, if you will. Trust me Weasley, that bird is going to fly the coop. I mean sure, she’s hot now with the shiny hair and the blue eyes and a rack like…”

Hermione stabbed a potato with a fork.

“Blaise, you should stop talking now,” Ginny advised, edging away from Hermione just a bit.

Ron however, spoke up. “Lavender does not have the Crazy Eyes,” he announced firmly. “She’s a nice girl and we hit it off and everything’s great.”

Another potato met an untimely demise at Hermione’s hands. Harry winced and followed Ginny’s example. Someone had to talk some sense into Ron before he ended up on the business end of Hermione’s wrath. “Look, I know you two dated for a while in school but, how much do you know about her? How much do any of us know about her?”

“Oh, I think he knows enough,” Hermione piped up, smiling pleasantly. The glint in her eyes however, spoke of rage and destruction. “We know she’s high maintenance and uses far too many hair potions. Her favourite place in the whole wide world is Madame Puddifoot’s Tea Shop because it’s just so romantic. Oh, and she’s put on a few pounds since school. It must be all those visits to Madame sodding Puddifoot’s.”

The rest of the table stared as she went back to her steak. Ron blinked and Ginny cleared her throat uncomfortably.

“It’s nice that we can still hang out together without it being all awkward,” Blaise commented flatly. Harry kicked him under the table for good measure.

“Okay, fine,” Ron admitted. “So we’ve only been out a few times since the Burrow and maybe I don’t know much about what she’s been up to since school but that does not mean she has the Crazy Eyes.”

“You just can’t see it because you’ve been afflicted with Haven’t Been Laid in a While Blindness,” Blaise drawled. Ginny stifled a giggle and Hermione coughed delicately, hiding a smirk behind her hand.

“For the love of Godric!” Ron snapped, apparently exasperated. “Harry, please tell me you’re with me on this. You don’t think Lavender’s mental, right?”

“Oh sure, drag Harry into this,” Hermione belted back. “Wouldn’t want to change a thing from the last time you were dating her, would we?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ron demanded, turning on her.

“Oh come on, Ron!” she hissed, elbowing Ginny out of her way to lean forward on the table. “Lavender Brown? You can’t be serious! She’s a feather headed bird brain…”

“Is it just me or is the phrase 'feather headed bird brain' a bit redundant?” Blaise whispered to Harry. Harry didn’t even bother to kick him this time. It was all going to hell anyway.

“...and she made you miserable!” Hermione finished, waving an agitated hand about. “Don’t you remember anything from Hogwarts? Tell me Won Won, is that the kind of girl you want to be dating? Is that...”

“Well see, here’s the thing Hermione,” Ron snapped, standing up too. “I figure it’s a step up from the kind of girl who runs away to Brussels and leaves me a sobbing mess, and then falls back into my life without so much as an apology! It just seems to me that Lavender might actually have half a chance of, oh I don’t know, caring about me?”

“I did apologise, you arse!” Hermione shrilled. “I apologised a hundred times and…”

“Well, maybe it’s a little too late for that!” Ron spat back.

“Well, maybe it is!”

“Brilliant! Because I’m going out with Lavender tomorrow. Again!

“Fan-bloody-tastic! Have a great night! Just make sure you use small words!”

“Fine! I will!”

Harry was shoved face first in the table as Ron barrelled past him, storming out of the Leaky Cauldron. Hermione huffed and took off in the opposite direction.

“Well, that went well,” Ginny sighed.

“Just peachy,” Harry muttered.

“Not awkward at all,” Blaise put in. “Ooh, look! Pretty girl at three o’clock!!”

Harry shook his head as he all but clambered over the table for a better look.

Why? Why couldn’t the world just make sense again?

 

****

 

Later that night, Ron found himself walking Lavender home from Diagon Alley. By all accounts, their third date was a rousing success.

“I’m glad you decided to call me again,” she chirped, slipping her hand in his as they walked down the street. “I had a really nice time tonight.”

“I did too,” Ron replied with a strained smile. It had been a nice night, really. Dinner and dancing, you just couldn’t beat the classics. Lavender was nice and pretty and she laughed at all his jokes. It wasn’t her fault that Ron was distracted and out of sorts. It wasn’t her fault that her eyes were baby blue instead of the warm shade of brown he preferred. That she didn’t feel right in his arms and she didn’t huff in fond exasperation when he stepped on her toes. It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t bossy and brilliant and wonderful.

As much as he wanted to pretend that things were fine, the truth was that...that Hermione was still on his mind and he missed her. Gods, he missed her so much.

“It’s like nothing had changed,” Lavender went on happily. “Remember how much fun we had back in Sixth Year? Really, why did we ever stop seeing each other?”

He knew the answer to that all too well. Ron sighed and halted in the street, taking her hand. “Lavender,” he began uncertainly. “I had a great time tonight. Really, it was fantastic. You’re nice and we have fun and...you’re just really great. But I have to be honest with you. This isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Her eyes widened and Ron winced with guilt. “I’m just...I don’t want to lead you on,” he insisted desperately. “The truth is, I think I’m still a bit in love with my ex. I think I always will be and I’m just so sorry. Please tell me you understand?”

She was going to cry. Her eyes were wet and her lip was trembling and Merlin, Ron was a horrible person for doing this. But then she gave him a watery smile and squeezed his hand. “I understand,” she murmured. “You and Hermione — well, you have a real history together, don’t you? I doubt that I’d be able to compete with that. It’s okay, Ron. Sometimes, it’s not meant to be.”

She looped her arms around him and gave him a warm hug. Ron grinned in relief and patted her back gently. “Thank you for being so understanding,” he said fervently. “And again, I’m really sorry. No hard feelings, right?”

“None whatsoever,” she promised. “But, if it’s not too much trouble do you think I could come up to your flat and use your Floo? I just don’t want to walk back alone. It’s late and...”

“Of course,” Ron agreed at once. “Harry’s out for the night and the place is empty. It’s no bother.”

She squeezed his hand again and he led her up to the flat. Such a nice, reasonable girl, he thought to himself. Honestly, what were his friends thinking saying she had the Crazy Eyes or whatever? He opened the door and let her into the house.

“All yours,” he announced, gesturing to the Floo. “Just take whatever you need, yeah?”

Lavender waited until his back was turned before slipping a small vial out of her purse. Her eyes glinted and her lips stretched in a feline smile.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she purred as her wand slipped into her palm. “I plan to.”

 

****

Meanwhile, at Ginny’s flat...

 

“I told you she had the Crazy Eyes!”

Harry jumped and released Ginny abruptly, toppling her off the sofa in the process. The next second, the door burst open. Blaise blinked as if a bit surprised at his own fervour, and then he promptly barged in.

“Where’s Granger?” he demanded, looking around frantically. “I thought she was living here.”

“She went out,” Ginny grumbled, getting off the floor gingerly. “Some people have the basic courtesy not to interrupt other people’s date night, you see…”

“Yes, yes,” Blaise cut in, waving her off. “You’re in love, it’s adorable, I give it two more weeks tops, etcetera etcetera. Now cut the jibber jabber, I need to show you lot something.”

He pulled a vial from his pocket and tossed it at Harry.

“Amortentia?” Harry read with a frown. “Why do you have Love Po...”

He trailed off and his eyes widened in horror as realisation dawned. Horrible, ominous realisation.

Blaise had Love Potions.

Blaise had Love Potions.

Oh shite.

“Blaise,” Harry managed, trying to keep the completely justified note of panic out of his voice. “Please tell me I won’t have to arrest you for coercion.”

Blaise blinked in confusion, before letting his brow arch in an indignant scowl. “It’s not mine!” he snapped. “I don’t use Love Potions on women, you berk! That’s disgusting. And I’m insulted!”

“Then where did you get this?” Harry demanded, waving the vial in his face. “These are illegal! And dangerous! Do you have any idea what one drop can do to a person?”

“I do,” Blaise replied with a grim nod. “Apparently, so does Lavender Brown. I found that at her flat.”

Oh, Gods.

Harry flopped down on the sofa. His head was spinning. He was vaguely aware of Ginny mumbling oh Merlin, this is bad next to him. Based on the evidence, he was inclined to agree.

“Start from the beginning,” he ordered Blaise.

“Well— as I told you lot right at the beginning— Brown had an obvious case of the Crazy Eyes. I knew something was going to go down soon, I just wasn’t sure when or how. So I decided to collect some evidence. Her flat was the logical place to start so I snuck in when she was out…”

“You broke into someone’s home?” Ginny groaned, holding her head in her hands. “Blaise, that’s breaking and entering! Harry is going to have to arrest you and…”

Blaise waved her off. “I got a permit from the DMLE,” he replied, tossing an official Ministry document on to Harry’s lap. “We work with them sometimes on...delicate matters. My good friend, Head Auror McIntosh was very cooperative and...”

“My boss is your good friend?” Harry murmured faintly. How could he not have known this? Then again, it was Blaise. Now that Harry thought about it there was one question he had never thought to ask Blaise. “What exactly do you do for a living?”

“Please,” Blaise scoffed. “Focus, kids. I’m not done. So, I broke into Brown’s flat and found a freshly brewed cauldron chock full of that stuff.  I nicked a vial and got back here as fast as I could. Please tell me you see where I’m going with this.”

They did. Oh, they did.

“She’s going to dose Ron!” Harry cursed a blue streak and whipped out his wand, heading for the door on the double.

“I set my brother up with a psychopath!” Ginny groaned, following him.

“I’m a genius!” Blaise announced cheerfully. “I did so tell you she had the Crazy Eyes! Who’s the man? Blaise is the man, that’s who...”

“Blaise!”

“Oh, right. Saving Weasley’s virtue. That’s important too.”

Harry shook his head and grabbed Ginny’s hand, Disapparating at once and trusting Blaise to follow. He had no idea what he was going to find back at his flat, but for Ron’s sake he hoped it wasn’t too late.

 

****

 

Harry nearly tripped over Ginny as they Apparated outside the flat. Ginny squeaked in indignation and shoved him aside as she made a run for the door. Blaise ambled behind them nonchalantly, poking at his phone— presumably checking his Facebook updates or something.

“Why are we out here? You should have Apparated us inside!” Ginny snapped as she tried to wrench the door open. “And it’s locked!”

“Stupid wards,” Harry muttered, whipping out his wand. “Stand back, yeah? This could get rough.”

Ginny scrambled out of his way as he fired a Blasting Hex. Fortunately, the door didn’t quite explode although it did fly off its hinges. Harry winced at the crash and his grip tightened on his wand. He didn’t know how dangerous Lavender was, but she sure as hell wasn’t getting her hands on Ron.

The dust cleared as they entered cautiously, wands out and ready.

“Ron! Ron, where are you?”

“Lavender, I’m warning you! I know a mean Bat Bogey Hex and I’m not afraid to use it!”

“Ooh look, I just hit a hundred followers on my blog.”

“Blaise! Will you please just...”

“Harry?”

Ron’s voice brought the chaos to a screeching halt. Harry whirled around. Ron surfaced from behind the sofa, wide eyed and pale and shaky. 

“Ron?” Ginny’s voice was cautious. She approached slowly and extended a hand, intending to check him over. “Are you alright?”

Ron nodded dazedly. “More than alright,” he whispered. He smiled dreamily at her. “I’m in love.”

Harry’s heart plummeted at those words. They were too late. Damn it, this was all his fault! If he hadn’t been so caught up with Ginny, he would have been here and maybe he could have stopped this.

“Ron, listen to me,” he pleaded, approaching his befuddled friend. “You’ve been dosed with Amortentia. Remember that shite from Sixth Year? Romilda Vane? You need to focus, okay? You’re not in love with Lavender. We’re taking you to St Mungos right now and…”

“I’m not talking about Lavender.”

Harry shut up abruptly. Ron grinned and clapped his shoulder.

What?

“What?” Harry blurted. “But she dosed you with…”

“No, she didn’t.”

Harry’s eyes widened as Hermione stepped out from behind Ron, and dusted her hands off. “But not for lack of trying,” she finished disapprovingly. “Really Ron, I did warn you…”

Ron smiled and wrapped an arm around her. “I should have listened. You were right. You’re always right.”

Harry’s jaw dropped a few more inches, and he was vaguely aware that Ginny was gaping and even Blaise had abandoned his phone for a minute. Ron and Hermione just stood there side by side, looking far too pleased with themselves.

And then it hit him. They were together. In the same room. And they weren’t fighting. But what about...

“Where’s Lavender?” he asked, half expecting her to jump out from somewhere.

“Somewhere in Nova Scotia,” Hermione replied, looking simultaneously embarrassed and smug about it. “I wasn’t very picky with the Banishing Charms. I just wanted her as far away from Ron as possible.”

Harry’s head was starting to hurt. “Could someone please start from the beginning? What is Hermione even doing here?”

“Well,” Hermione began hesitantly. “After yesterday’s blowout at the Leaky Cauldron, it was clear to me that Ron wasn’t going to listen to reason. I still didn’t trust Lavender— and with good reason— but Ron was clearly going to see her again. So, when he was leaving after that little argument with me, I...sort of...I might have putatrackingspellonhim.”

“I’m sorry, you did what now?” Ginny blurted.

Hermione pursed her lips and crossed her arms defensively. “I put a Tracking Spell on Ron for his own protection.”

Blaise emitted a low whistle. “Granger, I’m impressed,” he drawled. “That is completely insane.”

“Oh, perfect,” Harry groaned. “Am I going to have to arrest her? Please tell me I don’t have to arrest her…”

“Nope,” Ron grinned. “I’m obviously not pressing charges and Lavender...well, she’s hardly in a position to take the moral high ground, don’t you think?”

“Don’t interrupt, Weasley,” Blaise admonished, waving him off. “I just know this is going to get better. Granger, do continue. So you took a little trip on the Loony Express, got off at Stalker Town, and then…?”

“I had to!” Hermione snapped. “She was clearly up to something and I was worried. And then the spell went off and when I tracked Ron down here, he was tied to a chair, screaming bloody murder and that crazy harpy was trying to dose him with Love Potions! So I...well, I reacted.”

“By reacted, she means she tackled Lavender to the ground,” Ron put in smugly. Blaise snickered and high-fived him. Hermione scowled but Ron just grinned. Now, that Harry thought about it, Hermione’s knuckles did seem a bit bruised.

“You lot should have been here,” Ron went on. He looked delighted. “It was magnificent. Lavender didn’t stand a chance. And then…"

“And then I Banished her,” Hermione cut in firmly.

“Oh no no no.” Seriously, Ron looked positively gleeful. “First you punched her in the nose, then you said— and I quote, ‘He’s mine, bitch’— and then you Banished her.”

Harry wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. “Tell me that didn’t happen,” he pleaded with Hermione. “Tell me you didn’t put a borderline legal Tracking Spell on Ron, you didn’t stalk and then subsequently attack his date and that you didn’t send her halfway across the world.”

“She can Portkey herself back just fine,” Hermione protested defensively. She crossed her arms and scowled. “And when you say it like that, I just sound mental!”

“You are mental,” Ron grinned, wrapping an arm around her again. “Absolutely, one hundred percent barking mad.”

Hermione glared at him and tried to squirm out of his grip. “See if I do you any favours again. Just you ask, Ronald Bilius Weas...”

“Apparently, I don’t have to,” Ron replied, pulling her close again. “You’re looking out for me anyway. Even when we’re not together, even when we’re not speaking to each other— you’re still there.”

Hermione trailed off and stopped struggling. “Of course I am,” she murmured. “I care about you, Ron. I always will. Even if...even if we’re not together anymore, you’ll still always be my best friend.”

“Oh, don’t I feel special,” Harry grumbled. Ginny laughed and patted his shoulder.

“Could everyone please just let us have our moment?” Ron snapped. He ignored the round of snickering his enquiry elicited and turned back to Hermione. His eyes softened as he regarded her. Hermione smiled back, her gaze hesitant but hopeful.

“You know,” Ron began. “For the smartest girl I’ve ever known, you really are quite mental. This stunt you pulled today? It’s not even in the top five. You’re the girl who took on a troll in the bathroom with us. And you set up that barmy society for house elves. And…”

“She went back in time with me to save Buckbeak,” Harry contributed.

“Her boggart was McGonagall telling her she failed every class,” Ginny added, trying to force down a giggle.

“Oh, and there was that time she punched Malfoy in the face,” Harry added.

Blaise stared blankly at them. “I think I need to re-evaluate how I go about selecting my friends,” he muttered, edging away from Hermione just a bit.

Hermione suppressed a smile and smacked Ron’s arm. “Look what you started. I don’t suppose you have a point to make?”

Ron cradled her face in his hands. “You’re absolutely mental. You have the craziest Crazy Eyes of any girl I’ve ever known and I am hopelessly in love with you.”

“I love you too,” Hermione whispered. “You’re everything I want, Ron. That’s never going to change. I know that now and...and I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you too, Mione. And I swear if you don’t tell me we can be together and live happily ever after, I’m going to lose it.”

Hermione laughed and leaned in. “Try and stop me,” she whispered as she kissed him.

They remained there, wrapped up in each other until the applause and cheering died down. Harry grinned and wrapped his arms around Ginny. She leaned into him and his smile widened. It was all right. After all the madness, everything was finally all right.

“Now there’s a happily ever after,” Ginny murmured softly.

“Maybe we’ll get there someday,” Harry whispered back, holding her close.

She lifted her head and smiled at him, brown eyes glinting in the light. “Maybe.”

“So that’s it then?” Blaise demanded petulantly. He looked rather sulky, all of a sudden. “I’m stuck between two boring couples again and no one to share my awesomeness with? Again?”

“Pretty much,” Harry conceded apologetically.

“Wonderful,” Blaise drawled. “A dream come true, really. Can we at least go back to the bar?”

Harry laughed and clapped his shoulder. “Where else?”

After all, if any day called for a round of Ogden’s Finest, this was it. A celebration was definitely in order.

 

****

 

An hour later, at the Leaky Cauldron, that’s exactly what they did.

“A toast!” Harry announced, raising his glass. “To Ron and Mione finally seeing sense.”

“And to Lavender for making it happen!” Ginny added.

“To Lavender!” the group chorused, before bursting into laughter. They clinked glasses and downed their drinks, and Harry smiled and joked and laughed with his friends. All his friends.

“Guys,” Blaise announced solemnly, as the din died down. “I’ve decided to seduce Lavender Brown.”

And here we go again.

“Bad idea,” Ginny declared.

“Awful idea,” Harry agreed.

“Not to mention impossible,” Hermione added. “Unless you plan to Portkey halfway across the world for a roll in the…”

“Challenge accepted!” Blaise declared. “To the International Portkey Office!” And with that ominous declaration he was gone, Disapparating with a crack.

“Honestly,” Hermione huffed, scowling at the now Blaise free spot at the table. “Did I say ‘challenge issued’? Did I say ‘challenge’ at all?”

“I’ve learnt not to question what goes on in Blaise’s head,” Harry grinned. “It’s probably for the best. Besides, he’ll be back soon enough.”

“In the meantime, I guess it’s just us boring old couples,” Ginny replied. She smiled and squeezed Harry’s hand. Harry’s heart clenched at the simple gesture.

“And we’re right back to where we started,” Hermione added with a laugh. “It’s hard to believe so much happened in the last few months, isn’t it?”

“Something always happens,” Harry retorted. “It’s us.

Hermione shook her head in amusement. “Sometimes I wonder why I ever bothered moving to another country for a change. Every day is an adventure with you lot.”

That brought another round of cheers and toasts. Only Ron remained thoughtfully silent through the chatter. “You know, we never really got down to discussing it,” he spoke up suddenly. “Mione, why did you decide to come back? Don’t get me wrong — I wouldn’t want it any other way — but I still wonder. What made you come back in such a rush?”

Hermione’s eyes widened a fraction. “Oh, yes. I suppose we didn’t...um, discuss it.” She shifted in her seat and tucked a wayward curl behind her ear.

Harry leaned forward, suddenly interested. “So what was it?” he asked, when Hermione hesitated.

“Well…”

 

~*~*~*~*~Hermione’s flashback: Brussels~*~*~*~*~

 

 She left the office in a hurry that day, eager to avoid the evening rush. Brussels was hardly what she would call ‘crowded’ for a city she had survived London, after all but for some reason, the Floo lines and Apparition points were always busy when she needed them the most.

The Ministry of Educational Affairs was a lot more streamlined than her old place of work. The hours she kept were absolutely mad. On the rare occasion when she left before nine, she found herself curled up on the sofa in her dingy little flat, reading a well thumbed normal or staring out the window at nothing in particular.

Alone. Always alone.

Sometimes she wondered where Ron was at that very moment. With Harry and Ginny at the Leaky, probably. Blaise would be trying to pick up some girl and Harry and Ron would be making bets on how long it would take for him to get a drink thrown in his face while Ginny shouted out unhelpful suggestions from the table.

The thought wrenched a small, shaky laugh from her lips and she shook it away resolutely, heading for the Floo. It was barely after four, but she couldn’t concentrate on the latest budget directives for the European Magical Education Commission. The stale air of the office cubicle was suffocating and she needed to leave. Now.

By the time she reached the Floo, she knew it was too late. The lines were much too long. It would take hours before the queues cleared up. Witches and wizards jostled each other and chatted cheerfully in French as they waited their turns to go home. Home. To their families and friends.

Hermione sighed and hefted her purse on her shoulder.

Plan B then.

She would never understand why the nearest exit was located right next to Brussels’ most famous attraction. At least the Ministry in England had had the good sense to use an innocuous phone booth. But then again, the tourists swarming Mannekin Pis never seemed to notice that people were emerging from a staircase right out of the ground. So she flicked her wrist, tapped her wand and cast the spell, revealing the narrow little staircase making its way up to civilisation.

The cold air hit her as soon as she was out and she shivered and pulled her coat around her shoulders. The crowd of tourists didn’t even bat an eye as she walked out of a hole in the ground. They just chattered happily and clicked pictures of the statue. Hermione elbowed her way through the crowd, trying to find a way out of the melee. A snowflake settled on her cheek and she blinked in surprise, batting it away. It was a touch early for snowfall. Had time gone by so soon?

She remembered the snow back home. Snowball fights with Harry, curling by the fireplace with Ron, Christmas mornings with Mum and Dad…

And now she was alone, in a strange city, going back to an flat she hated, with no one to talk to and she hated that everyone spoke French and why did they all have those bloody bicycles and…

...and she burst into tears.

One minute she was fine, and the next it all came crashing down. The tears flowed freely and Hermione collapsed on a bench, ignoring the perplexed, alarmed looks of people passing by. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore. Everything that did matter was back at home and she had left it. She had left Ron. How could she have been so stupid? He had probably forgotten her and moved on. He was probably perfectly happy while she broke down in the street like a sodding crazy person. And the worst of it was that it was all her fault and she just couldn’t stop crying and…

“Granger?”

At first, she either didn’t hear the voice. That was how hard she was crying. All she could think about was Ron and how desperately she missed him. How much she needed him, with his blue eyes and his warm smile and it all just made her cry harder.

The the voice returnedlouder this timeaccompanied by a sharp tap on her shoulder.

“Granger?! It is you! Right? What the... Merlin, will you stop wailing a second so I can find out?”

Hermione finally looked up. Through blurred, teary eyes she saw the last thing she had either expected or wanted, for that matter. In that moment, it was clear that the Fates were against her.

Because of all people, Draco Malfoy was staring down at her with an expression that had ‘if you’ve gone stark raving mad, please clap once’ written all over it.

Hermione stared. Malfoy stared back.

Malfoy. It was Malfoy.

“M-malfoy?” she managed.

“Good grief, what are you doing?” Malfoy demanded. His grey eyes were wide and disbelieving, and he shook his head a few times as if to affirm that she was actually there. “I know the beer’s overrated but you don’t have to cry about it.”

And that was all it took to set her off again. Hermione buried her face in her hands, and dissolved into a fresh bout of sobs. She was vaguely aware that Malfoy was gaping at her and she really should pull herself together, but she just couldn’t. Out of all the peopleliterally all the people in the world she could have run intoit just had to be sodding Malfoy. Malfoy who was still standing there, witnessing her having a fit in the middle of the street.

“Granger, stop it,” Malfoy demanded, sounding somewhat panicked now.

Hermione cried a bit harder, if only to spite him.

“Look, I hate to interrupt your little mental breakdown but you’re sort of becoming the next big tourist attraction in this town.”

“Will you...please...just go?” Hermione managed, trying to keep herself from just losing it and screaming at him. “Just leave, Malfoy!”

 A bout of silence. Then…

Fine,” Malfoy replied, inflecting a tone of bored disdain. “It was...interesting running into you again. Let’s never do this again sometime.”

She heard the tell-tale crunch of boots on gravel as he walked away. Finally, the footsteps faded. She was alone again. Hermione sniffed and wiped her eyes. She really needed to get back to her flat. It was bad enough that Malfoy had seen her in this state, but people were still staring and…

...and Malfoy was coming back.

Her breath hitched in her throat.

Malfoy was coming back.

Hermione stared as he turned around and marched over again. He scowled down at her, looking unhappy and put upon but his mouth was pressed in a thin, determined line. Finally, he withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket. 

“Here,” he grumbled, holding it out for her.

Hermione scowled and turned away. “I don’t need…”

“Yes, you do,” Malfoy snapped. “Just take the bloody thing because I’m not letting you use my sleeve.” He crossed his arms defensively, evidently shielding said sleeves. That’s when Hermione noticed he was wearing a shabby jacket and denims.

Right. So Malfoy was in Brussels and apparently, a Muggle now. Because life just wasn’t insane enough to begin with. She resisted the urge to just start bawling again. She was so bloody exhausted and she really couldn’t take this anymore.

But she could take the handkerchief. Maybe then, Malfoy would leave.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, plucking it from his fingers. “But you can really…”

He flopped down next to her. Right next to her. He actually had the gall to nudge her out of his way to make room on the bench.

“...go now,” she finished flatly.

Malfoy ignored her. He picked at his nails, kicked his legs out idly and basically made himself as comfortable as possible. Hermione decided to spend this happy quality time by trying to turn him to ashes with nothing but the sheer force of glare power.

Clearly, she needed to work more on her ash inducing glare because Malfoy just sat there, happy as the proverbial clam.

“So,” he said suddenly, breaking the  frosty silence. “Hi.”

“Hello, Malfoy,” she replied coldly. “What in Merlin’s name do you think you’re doing?”

“Oh, the usual,” Malfoy replied blithely. “Exploring new cultures, expanding my horizons, keeping crazy women company so they don’t go on a murderous rampage through the streets of Belgium. And yourself?”

Hermione had half a mind to punch him again, just because. But she was a grown up now, and that would hardly do. She could handle Malfoy just fine without resorting to violence. “I’m fine, thank you,” she replied primly.

“Yes, I noticed. Remind me to stay the hell away from you when you’re actually upset about something.”

“Why do you even care, Malfoy?” she snapped.

“I don’t. You just happen to be the most interesting thing that’s happened to me today.”

Being a grown up was overrated, Hermione decided. If anyone deserved a punch to the face (again), it was Malfoy.

Said Malfoy immediately confirmed this by abandoning his nail assessment and turning to her. His expression was curious and quite frankly, it offended her a little. “So Granger, surprise me. Why are you crying? In Belgium, no less?”

Hermione lifted her chin defiantly. “I can cry wherever I want. If I want to cry in Belgium, then I will cry in Belgium.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t cry in Belgium. I just asked why you were crying in Belgium.”

“It’s not your Belgium, Malfoy!” she snapped. “What are you doing here anyway?”

Malfoy sneered. For a split second, Hermione saw the boy she went to school with that foul, evil, loathsome little cockroach who had spared no opportunity to make her miserable. This was that same spoilt, entitled, awful boy. But then she looked again and she saw other things. The shabby jacket and worn out trainers. He was in dire need of a haircut, and coming from her that was saying something. Ink smudges on his fingers. And she couldn’t help but stare. He looked so...normal. So non-Malfoyish.

And that was another thinghe was still here. Keeping her company, keeping her from losing it again. Sure, he didn’t look particularly thrilled about it but...he was still here.

“What are you doing here, Malfoy?” she asked again. This time, she was genuinely curious.

Malfoy laughed and scrubbed a hand through his blond hair, mussing it up. “Alright, we’ll do this your way then. I’ll answer your questions, if you’ll answer mine.”

“Okay,” she replied hesitantly. What more did she have left to lose? He had already seen her crying, hadn’t he? “So, go on then. Why are you here? In Belgium, I mean?”

Malfoy hummed thoughtfully, considering the question. “Well, it’s a long, heart-warming story about personal growth and introspection but I’ll give you the footnotes. Basically, Father and I had a slight... let’s call it, difference of opinion. He thought that I should marry this nice, pretty girl called Astoria Greengrass and I thought I was gay. So, he gave me two choices. I could be bent or I could be a Malfoy. I picked one and apparently it was the wrong answer.”

“He kicked you out?” Hermione blurted.

Malfoy scowled at her. “I prefer the term ‘disinherited’,” he replied haughtily.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. Great. Now she felt bad. Malfoy clearly had it worse than her and she had just spent the last half hour snapping at him. “But you’re...alright?”

“Why, Granger,” Malfoy drawled. The smirk made a reappearance. “Don’t tell me you feel sorry for me.”

“I…”

“Please,” Malfoy scoffed. “At least I’m not sobbing in the street yet.”

Hermione glared at him. “Make that crack one more time and I promise you will be,” she threatened.

Malfoy just laughed. “Your turn, Granger. Go on, tell me all about it.”

Hermione froze. Was she really going to do this? Was she going to talk to Malfoy about how her life had fallen apart? Really? Malfoy? There had to be a less painful way to die of humiliation…

“Granger, come on. We made a deal. Where’s that Gryffindor courage I’ve heard so much about?”

Hermione took a deep breath. And then she talked. At first she hesitated, stopping every now and then to gauge Malfoy’s reaction. Nothing. No smirks or vicious grins or cruel taunts. Not even a chortle. He just sat there and listened intent grey eyes trained on her as she went on and on. By the time she was winding down, her throat was dry but the words were coming easily and Malfoy was still there, listening. It was quite possibly, the most surreal moment of her life.

“And that’s it,” she finished quietly. “I threw away everything I had for something I thought I wanted. And now it’s just...gone. And that...that’s why I’m crying in Belgium.”

“Ah,” Malfoy commented helpfully.

Hermione waited for him to follow that up with something, anything. It struck her that she really must be desperate If Malfoy’s opinion on her life had started mattering…

But, for whatever reason, it did matter. She wanted to know what he had to say. So she waited, and Malfoy still said nothing.

And then, the prat did the unthinkable. He nodded and got up, dusting his jeans off. “Well, this was fun, Granger. Take care and all that. Keep in touch. Actually on second thought, don’t. Oh, and try the waffles. They’re not half bad.”

Hermione’s jaw dropped as he started walking away. Really? Seriously?!

“Oi!”

Malfoy halted and turned around, looking at her enquiringly.

“Is that it?” Hermione snapped indignantly. “You badger me until I tell you my story and now you’re just walking away? What the hell, Malfoy?”

Malfoy shrugged and grinned shamelessly. “What can I say, Granger? I like stories.”

Hermione was started to see red. So, that’s what this was about? His bloody entertainment? Typical. Why had she expected anything else out of bloody Malfoy?

“You...you’re such an arse!” she hissed, pointing a vicious, accusing finger at him. “You’re supposed to say...I don’t know, something to help me!”

“Help you?” Malfoy belted back. He laughed again and she seriously considered pulling out her wand and hexing him, Muggles be damned. “Granger, you don’t need help. You know what you bloody well want. You just want me to tell you what it is. Well, I’m not going to. You’re a big girl. Write your own damn story.”

“But…” She faltered, racking her brains for a suitable retort. There wasn’t one. Her shoulder sagged in defeat. “What if I’m already at the end?”

Malfoy shrugged, but a slight smile pulled at his lips. For a second, he almost looked understanding.  “Then you find a new story. But at least finish this one first. There’s only one way to go, Granger. Ahead. I suggest you get started.”

He nodded his farewell, shoved his hands in his pockets and started walking away, leaving Hermione to stare after him. She watched him go and panic took over. In that moment, in this strange city, he was the only one left. Git though he may be, but Malfoy was a bit of home. She really didn’t want to lose that.

“Malfoy, get back here!”

He didn’t.

“It’s not that simple!” she called after him.

Malfoy kept walking.

“You think it is but it’s not, you know!”

He didn’t even turn around, the git. He really was going to leave her to figure this out for herself. Well, fine! But he was damn well going to give her some answers first! It was only fair.

“What about you?” she yelled after him. “Where’s your story headed, Malfoy?”

He turned around. He was grinning again, and she couldn’t help but note how young he looked. With his old jacket and snowflakes in his hair.

“I don’t know,” he called back. “Maybe I’ll join a band or something.”

Hermione laughed shakily. Of all the things she could be talking about right now…

“Let me guess. Lead singer?” She wouldn’t put it past him, the ruddy show off.

“Bass player,” Malfoy corrected. “See you, Granger. Say hi to the Weasel for me. Potter, too.”

And then he was gone, disappearing into the streets of Belgium. Had he even been there at all? Or had she just imagined him? The thought brought a bubble of laughter forth and she shook her head. No, not even in her worst moments would she go so far as to hallucinate about Malfoy. He had definitely there been for real with some pretty solid advice apparently. For the first time in weeks, Hermione smiled. She finally had a plan. She wasn’t lost anymore, and it was all thanks to a git she hadn’t seen in years.

And so, as she ran down the street to her flatbarely glancing at Mannekin Pis as she didshe made a promise to herself. Some day, she would track Malfoy down again and thank him. Maybe she’d even watch his band perform.

But that could wait.

Her story wasn’t over yet, and she was going to find her happy ending.