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the old men call me by my mother's name

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His mother's idea of a family: six brothers and one sister, a healthy life with lots of food and laughter. For a long time, until he meets Harry, Ron can't imagine that there's any other sort of family than this one, whose family dinners span from one to seven every Sunday, populated with a myriad of cousins, aunts, relatives, where it's okay to run in the stairs and play Quidditch in the garden even if you're going to ultimately get yelled at for it.

Like all children, his life is full of little disappointments: not finding the good crayon, having to wear his brothers' hand-me-downs, being forced to eat broccoli; but from a young age he realizes how lucky, how happy they all are, hidden in their little house with all their joy and family love. His parents sometimes talk, in hushed voices when they think all the children are asleep, of a war that happened not all that long ago. How fortunate we are, they say, and because they are practical people - his mother, at least - they soon move on to other subjects. But Ron knows, even then, that it's different for him.

He knows, and he doesn't notice it immediately; thinks, at first, that it's another impediment that goes with youth, where everything feels unstable, colors, body, friendships. Fred catches him drawing a pink house when he's five and tears the crayon out of his hand, screaming that it's girly, that he's a pussy; and even though he doesn't understand (how can a color be girly?), he files it in his mind as a thing not to do if he doesn't want to get mocked by his brothers. When he's seven he develops a quirk, he won't stop pulling on his arm, every other minute, like a clock. It unnerves his mother. She says, cut it out, Ronald, you look like you're trying to tear your arm off. He hadn't noticed; but he's careful not to do it after that, because he might have meant to, he's not sure.

When his sister is born, he sneaks into the nursery to gaze at her in her cradle. She looks like... she looks like any other baby, pink and ugly and wrinkled, but he can feel, stirring deep inside him, that she's different, too. It scares him - a deep, growling fear, like an animal, but he pushes it down, kisses her forehead and leaves the room.

*

For a while he's determined to hate her. What does he need her for? He has all his brothers, he has his mornings with them ribbing him with their elbows in the tiny, cramped bathroom, he has his afternoons with his trousers rolled up to his knees gnome-tossing in the garden, he has his evenings sitting in the kitchen peeling potatoes while his mother makes dinner. He just doesn't have time for her in his day: she doesn't fit, and besides, she looks all weird, with her wide wet eyes and her minuscule, overweight body. He's never been so determined to dislike someone in his life. He's usually a pretty-easy going guy, ask anyone at school. (Not girls, though, he doesn't hang out with girls. It makes you a sissy to hang out with girls. They have cooties. All in all: they're mysterious creatures, and it's safer not to come too close.)

But he doesn't hate her. In fact, he loves her: as she grows up she becomes his favorite sibling, with her insistence to play Quidditch with the boys and her strange moods, her long red hair that looks a little bit like Percy's before he left for school. Speaking of school, he's getting antsy, he wants to go: he's heard so many things about magical ceilings, stairs that move and hats that talk. And, in a deep, buried place inside of him he can't help but hope that this is it: this is where he'll finally belong. Keep smiling until you get there, and then the smile will become real one hundred percent of the time. He believes it, he really does.

On September 1st he's ecstatic, can't be contained. As they near Platform 9 3/4 his mother chides at him but can't stop smiling, Ginny is pouting, Fred and George are playing it cool. He wants to, but doesn't dare crush his sister in a hug, barely kisses his parents. That's not how they do it in the family, and besides, that's what school is: don't show fear. He was born in a brotherhood, after all. He knows that the minute he shows weakness they will be all over him, taunting and prodding. He pushes his overflowing cart, already forgetting the clumsy dark-haired boy with the bulky owl-cage his mother pushed alongside him to cross the barrier.

He finds his first friend - and, though he doesn't know it yet, his best friend - almost accidentally, like stumbling.

"Anyone sitting there?" he asks. "Everywhere else is full."

Harry Potter raises his limpid green eyes to him, surprised. Ron smiles; winningly, or so he hopes.

*

School is a whirlwind: Gryffindor, but that was a given, and then all the wonders he was promised, ceilings, stairs, dorms, Hermione Granger, a girl - imagine that! - with a brain that awes him as much as it scares him, Harry Potter (the one with the scar, from all the papers, from that war), one or two Slytherin nuisances he was warned about by his brothers, and, well, a lot of schoolwork. A lot.

He immerses himself in all of it, a little bit like dunking your head underneath the water in the bath and holding your breath. He doesn't think of it like that, of course, but that's what it is: holding his breath, letting the whirlwind deploy around him and hoping he changes in the process. He has friends now, he has a life, he belongs to the real world, the world of school and friendship and magic. Shouldn't that be enough?

His body answers before him: no. It isn't. The itch doesn't go away. But Ron - Ron isn't the type of guy who gives in. He keeps smiling. There's no reason to worry, he tells himself. It'll get right, in time. It'll slot into place. Isn't that how life is supposed to work?

*

Boys like girls. For about a week, in kindergarten, Ron was persuaded otherwise; but the others - his brothers, his friends, his parents - soon relieved him of that prejudice. No, they said, laughing like it was such an easy mistake to make. You don't understand. Boys don't like boys, girls don't like girls. Boys like girls. That's how it is. And, because they wanted to make sure everything was well in place in his head, they added: you see, boys are boys, and girls are girls. There's only one way they mix. You understand, don't you? And Ron - Ron, who's never been a good student, who's never understood things easily - nodded. Yes, he said. Of course. I understand. And he pushed that thing, that idea that wanted to be thought, to be seen, to be said, he pushed it back over the edge, where it had threatened to spill into being. Woah, he thought with sick pride. Close save.

Boys like girls, and girls... girls are a mystery. Ron watches them with confusion and envy - though he'll never admit to the latter -, the way they speak quietly, curl their hair, move in ways he could never move, even if he tried his hardest (he knows). Hermione is part of their clique, too, even though she doesn't look it - sometimes she'll indulge in whispers with them, toss her hair back, and even, rarely, bat her eyelashes at some particularly pretty second year. But Ron can see that she's trying, too, and she's his friend, she's one of his best friends, right after Harry. So it makes sense that he chooses her. He fastens his affection on her, all the way back during their first year in Hogwarts, and he thinks, good. Good. Safe.

And he gets what he was hoping for, in a way. He falls in love with her. He falls in love with her and the day he realizes that (it's like a lightbulb went on, honestly - he knows what lightbulbs are because his father treated all of them to a four-hour lecture on that Muggle thing called electricity) he hopes again, maybe that's it, what he was missing. Maybe that's all he needed. Someone to love, and Hermione is perfect for that, precious, beautiful, smart, funny, understanding. He waits for the empty cavity under his chest to fill, for the space between his flesh and his skin to replenish. He waits to feel whole.

But he doesn't.

*

So the years pass, and honestly, it's not like there's much time for self-discovery, between the Basilik, You-Know-Who being back in business, Ron's best friend having to prevent the apocalypse and his other best friend studying like a maniac - and helping them, of course, both with the studying and the world-saving. When he's at Hogwarts, Ron can't lock himself into a bathroom and panic (which is probably for the better, he isn't exactly eager for Moaning Myrtle to know all about his inner turmoil) and the Burrow has never been the ideal place for intimate questioning either. Ron holds it in. With all this tragedy, something as pesky and unimportant as an identity crisis is bound to disappear, right?

Right?

Meanwhile, Ron notices things about himself, things he doesn't talk about to anyone (who would he talk to?). For one, he doesn't jerk off. It's fine, not all the guys do it, and those who don't, him included, are expert at talking about it as if they did. But still, he wonders: he's a teenager, he wants things, Merlin, he wants people, but he just... can't. When he looks down in the morning and he sees his cock, red and flushed and erect, slightly curved to the left, he doesn't feel eager to put his hand on it. Instead, he feels dirty. He deals with it: he takes a cold shower, he thinks about Snape, that always does the trick. It doesn't upset his generous appetite, and by breakfast he's always ready to ingest as much food as humanly possible. Still. The nausea settles down in his stomach, under his diaphragm, and swerves, like it doesn't ever want Ron to forget that it's there.

He notices things: he doesn't like the feel of stubble on his chin or hair on his legs, he finds his jaw too square, sometimes he wants to stand up, cross the classroom and sit next to Padma and Parvati, ask them what they're talking about; he wonders what it would feel like to be a Metamorphmagus the first time he hears of them, like a knee-jerk reaction; out of all feminine features, he likes breasts the most, sometimes he can't stop looking, long enough to be told off and yelled at. But that doesn't mean anything.

And even if it did, what, exactly, would it mean? He learned his lesson a long time ago. Boys are boys, girls are girls. And Ron, Ron makes a good boy. He's tall, sturdy, manly, not like some of those long-haired Slytherins he sometimes mistakes for girls when they slink in the dark corridors with their robes floating behind them. He plays Quidditch. He loves Hermione, with a little too much intensity and adoration for a boy his age, but that's what constant brushes with death do to you. He shaves; he doesn't jerk off, granted, but apart from that, he's pretty much the poster boy for healthy, honest masculinity.

So why is it, then - why is it he can't believe it, not for one second?

*

When Ron is in fourth year, he catches Luna kissing one of the Beauxbatons girls. He's on his way to the Great Hall, minding his own business, when there it is: Luna, pressed nonchalantly against the wall, her hand curled around some blond girl's jaw. There's no way to misconstrue it, that's probably the worst part - Ron would be more than happy to do just that, misunderstand and be on his way, sweep it all under the rug, forget. He's good at that. He's been sweeping a lot of things lately: his growing discomfort about his body, his love for Hermione, his fear of death. What's a little illicit kissing in a hallway?

But he can't. Ron's that kind of guy: when it's right in front of his eyes, it's real. Which isn't always the best course of action in a magical world, but whatever. The Beauxbatons girl's blue cape is pushed over her shoulders and her arms are bare, very white. She looks really into the kissing, Ron remarks dazedly, just as Luna's eyelashes flutter open, and she sees him. Ron's first instinct is to run, but he's rooted to the spot. He spares a moment in his humiliation - he's probably never turned more red - to be grateful that that never happened in the countless life-or-death situations he's been in the past few years.

Luna, bless her, doesn't scream. In fact, she doesn't do anything to indicate that Ron watching her and her... whatever she is like a creeper is alarming her. She pulls away from the kiss, brushes the girl's cheek with her knuckles, and after squeezing her arm and whispering a few words Ron can't hear, take a step back to let the girl free from their embrace. Luna and Ron both watch as the blue cape and blond hair flow to the very end of the hallway and disappear into the darkness. Then Luna turns towards him.

She cocks her head. "Hello, Ronald."

Ron gets a few shades redder. "What are you doing?"

Her head tilt, if possible, deepens; she frowns. "What do you mean? Are you -" an horrified expression paints itself on her face, "can you not see? I heard, you know, that some plants can cause that, I think there are some in the park, but you should be fine with -"

"Luna. You were -"

Her mouth forms an o. A pretty o. She looks kissed, and she looks kissable. Ron is relieved to find that seeing her kiss a girl doesn't make him less attracted to girls. Then he gets a headache just thinking that.

He grits his teeth. She won't say it. "Kissing a girl."

"Julie."

"What?"

"Her name. It's Julie."

Ron shakes his head. "Why?"

Luna puts both palms on her temples and draws the hair that was sticking up backwards. She produces a neon green hair tie from her robe pocket and ties it in a loose ponytail. It doesn't look very clean, for some reason, probably because she's Luna Lovegood. "Why not?"

"Girls aren't supposed to be kissing girls."

Luna smiles. "You-Know-Who wasn't supposed to come back. And yet. If things only happened because they're supposed to, Ron, life wouldn't be very interesting." Her eyes get a faraway look. "And it is, isn't it? Interesting, I mean. Besides," she smiles again, her teeth blindingly white, "kissing girls is fun. I like it."

She leaves after that, following in the tracks of the blue cape. Her last sentence floats behind her like some sort of omen.

A few seconds later she reappears at the corner of the hallway, takes Ron's hand and tugs him towards the Great Hall, laughing.

She squeezes his hand. "It's going to be fine," she says as her hair slips out of the tie and spills on her shoulders.

Ron isn't sure who she's saying it for, herself or him, but he squeezes back anyway. His mother's the one who taught him that, and after her his friends: there's no harm in believing.

*

It's not that it gets easier, after that, or less confusing. It doesn't. But the world has new boundaries, is wider and more prone to changing in Ron's eyes. Yes, his parents believe some things, his friends believe some things - but does that make them true? It's a lesson everyone has to learn, at some point or another: you've got to make your own beliefs. For Ron it goes slowly, like making a potion: he blunders his way through it, he makes mistake and he keeps his mouth shut, because he might not be the smartest kid in the bunch, he's smart enough to understand prejudice; sometimes he's lost and sometimes he thinks he's found the key. He grows up.

In sixth year he steals some of Hermione's Polyjuice potion and a bunch of hairs from her hairbrush. He feels guilty about it almost instantly, sick to his stomach; but he goes through with it, because he's been planning this for months and because his curiosity overrides both the guilt and the fear. Walking in the corridors he wishes very hard for somewhere safe, somewhere with a sink and a couch. (When Harry told him about the Mirror of Erised, dread filled his veins like ice, pervading, insistent. It kept him awake for a month, a recurring nightmare that he wouldn't see anything, or someone that didn't look like him, with longer hair and smaller feet.) When the door appears he sighs in relief, and for a brief moment he wishes Luna were here, or Hermione, someone who knows what they're doing.

The room welcomes him with almost physical warmth, a sense of calm enveloping him like a blanket. He mixes the potion quickly and efficiently. When he adds Hermione's hair the liquid turns bright red, then the color dulls, settling to a tamer orange. Ron can't help but smile, even though his stomach feels like it's knotted up in all the ways possible. He dunks a cup into the portable cauldron, squeezes his eyes shut, and drinks. It's... not pleasant. It was never pleasant, he knew what to expect, more or less: but the truth is that with this kind of potion you never know what to expect. His insides feel like they're melting. Ron goes through it as silently as possible, even though no one can hear him. By the end of it he's splayed on the wooden floor, dazed, his entire body hurting. His... body?

He knows his body. Tall, lanky, red-headed: not only does it define him, who he is, but it's also a badge of honor or of shame, depending on his interlocutor. Impossible to miss it, he's one of the infamous Weasleys. Everything betrays him. And he could say, he could say that he doesn't like that, being so easily identifiable, but it's not what it is. The truth is, he hates his body. It's as simple as that. For years it was quiet, simmering, a calm and almost rational dislike; but lately, as he changed, it changed with him. Now that the war is real, now that it kills and slaughters and spills real blood from real veins, Ron's body has become real too. It's an embarrassment. It's a mistake. Ron hates all of it, with burning, adolescent hatred: his feet, too large, his hands, incapable, his cock, Merlin help him, his chest, too broad, his neck, too thick, his lips, too flat.

But now he gets up on his feet, peering into the full-length mirror in front of him, and the person he sees is... not him. In his place stands Hermione, the girl he knows and loves; when he reaches a hand the hand in the mirror reaches too, towards him, as though Hermione wanted to hold him, help him maybe. It's not perfect. It'll never be perfect, not like this, because this is still someone else, but it's still something he wants where he wants it, and if Ron squints he can imagine that his hair is red and there are a few freckles scattered on his nose, right where he knows they hide. He'd look like Ginny only less pretty, wider and more prone to accidents; he'd look like himself, only right.

He stays in the Room of Requirement for a few hours. He hasn't taken enough of the Polyjuice to last him too long, so it wears off easily; when he feels the process starting he turns away from the mirror, gets his clothes back on (he'll never tell Hermione that, that he knew her body before she undressed in front of him for the first time when they were nineteen). He waits for a little while, his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

When he finally makes it out, he runs all the way to the Gryffindor common room, grabs Harry by the elbow, tears Hermione's book out of her hands and yells that they're going to swim in the lake. His heart is pounding in his chest. What the hell, right? You haven't lived until you've almost been eaten by the Giant Squid, no matter how much Hermione protests.

*

He does talk to Luna again, even though they're not friends, not really. They hang out together once in a while with the whole gang, and Luna is on the right side when it comes to, you know, fighting evil, but she's strange and largely incomprehensible and the truth is, Ron has enough incomprehensible things to deal with without adding a girl-kissing blond maverick on top of it.

So he can't say he's elated to see her when he sneaks into the Prefect's bathroom in someone else's body (not Hermione, he doesn't do that anymore, too weird; mostly they're strangers, people whose hair he collects on coats) and finds her already there, her body covered with bubbles, thank Merlin. He flushes beet red.

"Hello," says Luna, an interrogative tilt to her voice. "You're... Ophelia, right?"

Ron has no idea. She could be named Ophelia. He thinks about it for a few seconds, standing slack-jawed like an idiot stuck in the doorframe, then decides keeping up the act is more trouble than it's worth. Besides, if bad comes to worse, he has blackmail material on her, right?

"Even if your name isn't Ophelia, you should come in," Luna says. "Someone might see you." Her smile quirks up her lips and puts stars in her eyes. It's pretty, but still can't rival Hermione's. "And I think you're not supposed to be here."

"Neither are you," Ron says, knee-jerk.

Luna cocks her head. "That's true." She shifts a little in the water; her hair seems to be stuck in a crest shape, modeled with soap and water like Ron used to do when he was eight and liked to pretend he was one of the Weird Sisters.

"It's me," Ron says dumbly. "Ron. I mean, it's me, Ron. Weasley."

"I know who Ron Weasley is. Why are you in this body?"

It'd be too long to explain, Ron feels like saying. He sighs. "I don't know. Can I... ?"

He realizes as soon as he asks how awkward that might be, but he doesn't take it back. Luna thinks about it for a while, pouting a little, then nods. Ron undresses as quickly as he can, strangely self-conscious for a body that isn't even his. He keeps his underwear on - black lace, stolen from his sister's room on holiday. He feels guilty about it, but you know, she's dating his best friend. Whatever. Besides, it's not like it's the chief thing he has to feel guilty for, it's not even in the top ten.

"Oh," Luna says when Ron puts one foot in the pleasantly hot water (it smells flowery, like jasmine), and if she's figured something out, Ron can't see what. Surely she can't know... ? "Are you trying to be a centaur?"

Ron chokes a little, feels his eyebrows shoot up. "I'm - what?"

Luna shakes her head impatiently, as though he's a moron for not understanding. "A centaur. My mum used to say, 'If it walks like a centaur and talks like a centaur, then it's a centaur.' But then," she frowns, "after she died, I realized that she didn't have enough time to tell me the rest: sometimes it's a centaur, it just doesn't look like one. But it feels like a centaur, so it's a centaur. So," she squints a little, raises her cupped hands filled with bubbles and blows, scattering them all over Ron's face, then smiles at him through the white snow, "are you?"

Ron swallows. Luna waits.

Eventually Ron just... gives in. It's not a big thing, not something you can see; just a construction that collapses inside, something he hadn't even realized was there, that he'd built to protect himself against discovery, abuse, questions. A house of cards.

He gives Luna a crooked smile. "Yeah," he says.

It feels so good, saying it, so true and liberating and big, but Luna only nods and grabs his hand underwater. It feels a little weird, because because she's a girl and, well, Luna - but she holds on, and mostly it's comfortable, like finally getting over a childhood fear of darkness.

It lasts a few moments, the air thick with emotion (though Ron will never, ever say that, to anyone), then Luna makes a disapproving face. It's a little exaggerated; Ron wants to laugh, and in the shiny tap he catches his reflection, pretty and snub-nosed, wrinkle her eyes in an effort not to.

"You shouldn't steal people's bodies, you know."

Ron ducks his head. "I know. I just..."

"Feel like you don't have any other choice. Still." She pushes herself down into the water; Ron watches as she slowly disappears, an island eaten up by some mythological disaster. She holds her breath - he counts, a habit the long hours spent preparing Harry for the Triwizard Tournament left behind. At twenty-seven, she reappears.

"You can use mine, if you want," she says quietly, almost disinterestedly. "I don't mind."

For a moment - it's rare enough to be noticeable -Ron doesn't know what to say. He could. He could; Luna is pretty and he knows her, he wouldn't make mistakes, say hello to the wrong people, there would be no fashion faux-pas or awkward encounters. But she's also Luna.

"Thanks, but no," he shakes his head. "I'll manage."

Luna shrugs. "Okay."

Later, Ron will realize that Luna might not have been the best person to have as a confident. He'll realize that there were other people in Hogwarts, people who could have helped him, opened the way for him, answered some of the myriad of questions that were whirring in his mind, people who aren't a slightly eccentric teenager who might or might not be bisexual and who, on the whole, doesn't care much about his problems. But for now he's Ron Weasley, he's seventeen and he has no idea that there are people like her, or even, Merlin forbid, like him. Who's messed-up like that, anyway?

"Thanks," he says.

She shoots up in the water, laughing for no discernible reason. Ron shields his eyes, but not before he sees, well, her, the soft roundness of her small breasts, her long white legs, the sharp V of at the base of her stomach.

"It's fine," she says, touching his fingers with her wet hands. Behind them he hears the rustle of a towel unfolding. "It's just a body."

Ron swallows; his laugh is thick, probably difficult to believe if she were paying attention. "Yeah. You're right."

Just a body. That, too, rings in his ears long after she leaves. Who knew Luna Lovegood had a talent for inspirational phrases, huh?

*

Life is different in the forest. They were always friends, the best of them, the Golden Trio, but this makes it different, tighter somehow, because how can you not be when all you hear for days on end is the crackle of the leaves and each other's voices? He comes to know their heartbeats as though they were his own, hammering in the silence when they stand on their guard, mindful of possible attackers: Hermione's, tight and compact, a brittle strum that goes taptaptaptaptap; and Harry's, looser, more effusive, the boom. boom of people who've always known they might die at any moment. Sometimes he wonders what they hear, and if it bears the mark of who - what - he is. If it does, they don't talk about it.

Here some of the things that used to be so important don't matter. There is no dress-code, no agonizing over asking a girl out (which he did, Ron did it - not so different after all), no wondering what this morning's breakfast is going to be. It hadn't been that way for a while when they left, but it doesn't matter: in Ron's memories the school is still pristine, an upstanding example of the values of camaraderie and hiding. He's not blaming anyone, it's just the way it is - well, was. But here... here they sleep crammed in a tent, they spend hours pouring over old magic, books written in languages only Hermione can understand; one after the other, they wear a Salazar Slytherin's locket, which contains a seventh or Voldemort's soul. In the forest there is no one to glare at them when they say his name.

And yes, it's terrifying. Never, not in a million years, would he have imagined when he got into that train that he would end up here, knee-deep in the mud with his mismatched body, his best friend and the girl he's not-so-secretly in love with, trying to find a way for the world not to end too soon. He was still stuck on the magical ceiling at the time. It's scary, and they might all die soon, and the locket's glowing evil is always radiating around them. There are mosquitoes, swamps, black magic, people searching for them who won't hesitate to use Unforgivables. And yet... yet there's something else, too. It's glowing softly, a lightning bug trapped in a glass jar. Hope.

Because life, life is different in the forest, and Ron might not be a genius but he can see how much they've grown since they met for the first time six years ago. On one hand you have a tiny red-head, a shy legend and a prissy Know-it-All; on the other you have them as they are now. Heroes.

"Do you think we'll survive this?" he asks Hermione one night, as they're rounding up wood for the fire.

He watches her move as she ponders over her answer: her back straight, only the slight girlish curve of her shoulders she never quite lost, her small hands, bent knees as she crouches down. Her whole body is imbued with purpose, the precise idea of where she is going and why. Sometimes he envies her that kind of certainty.

"I'm not sure," she says. When she looks up at him her eyes are dark with intent. "I hope so. But even if we don't... we'll have tried, you know? Besides, I believe in Harry."

I believe in you, Ron feels like saying. She touches his hand, lightly; he feels like she burned right through the skin, bared everything about that patch of skin that is true, that isn't a mistake of nature.

Harry calls him from the tent and he walks away, the locket swinging over the dips of his throat. Maybe he can make it after all. In the forest everything seems possible: they'll defeat the Dark Lord; Ron will get his due, whatever that is; and his friends will still be standing with him when they emerge from the darkness, saved and maybe even triumphant.

*

The war is over, and there is no time for selfishness. After the final battle and the first round of celebrations - crowds huddled around tall fires, pretending they haven't lost anything by winning -, the corpses, lined up with their heads to the wall, are rounded up and taken care of. They make piles: to be burned, to be buried, to be sent back to their relatives. It's the most harrowing job Ron has ever done: in the peeking dawn, staring into the faces of people who he used to know is like walking beside an army of ghosts, and Ron's had enough of armies. Still. It's their job, and they do it. Hermione's arm, entwined with his, and Harry's hold around his shoulders get him through the night. Life trudges slowly, weighed down by grief; and yet goes too fast for Ron to stop, to ask them to sit down and listen to him. What would he say? Listen to me, I'm not who you think I am? He is. He doesn't want them to think otherwise.

Besides, now that they've all gotten back their destinies, which they'd put on hold, expecting, despite the hope, for them to be cut short by the clawed hand of evil, skirting round the plan feels ungrateful. They only have one life - don't they owe it to the dead to live it well, to live it right? No time for straying; it'll be the usual garland of weddings, family dinners and 2.5 children, as per the Weasley tradition. People will ask him, later: why didn't you split right then? For some the end of the war meant an unencumbered horizon cleared by the expectation of death, and he'll have trouble explaining that it didn't, for him. How do you run away from victory? The equilibrium of peace and precarious happiness is much too fragile to break. Or maybe he's just a coward. Maybe his planned future was just less daunting than the perspective of tearing himself apart to build her from the ground up.

Their final year at Hogwarts feels strange, suspended in a sort of daze. No one quite dares believe that there will no more disasters; there are those who keep their heads down and lay low, hoping that the next war will bypass them, and those who play life like the next minute might be the last. You never know, right? They look happy but desperate, and the Golden Trio are their heroes. Harry, Ron and Hermione thank them and wish for escape. It finally comes in the form of their OWLs (as expected, Hermione gets all Os, the highest score of their promotion), and they move to London over the summer. There's enough carrying boxes in the crushing heat and regenerating trips to the local pub for Ron to almost forget that nothing's changing, that the fire exit he'd hoped for when he left school isn't there. Oh well. He's been hiding for so long; he can take a few more decades.

Luna comes up to him before they leave, hand in hand with her new boyfriend, Sven, a worryingly tall Swedish transfer from Hufflepuff.

"You're leaving," she says.

Ron smiles a little awkwardly, pointing to the carriages. "Yup. You... too?"

Luna gives her bag - which is dragon-shaped, nice to see that some things never change - to Sven with a smile. "Can you take this to the carriage, please?" He nods and scurries off.

Luna threads her arm with Ron's; they start walking, quickly falling into step.

"Everyone sees them now," Luna says softly, pointing to the horses. They don't look nearly as menacing now, gently grazing the summer-dry grass.

"I guess. Did you want...?"

"I'm glad we won the war, you know," Luna cuts him off. "If it got really bad we would have had to use Snorkbacks, and you know how they are..." she looks up at Ron as though she expects him to agree, and he nods dumbly, out of habit. "Doesn't mean everything's over, though."

Ron nods again, for lack of something to say. From the other side of the park, Sven waves widely, his face lighting up like the sun when Luna smiles back at him.

"I'm going now," she says sweetly. "You know, Ronald, I've always liked you. I guess I should have given you this before, huh?" She tilts her head. "Oh well."

Then she presses a scrap of paper in his hand and runs away, her yellow dress flowing around her thighs like a corolla. Yeah, Ron thinks: some things really never change.

*

Ron doesn't actually look it until months later. He busies himself with figuring out how to live with no one to do his laundry (Hermione has to teach him the bajillion spells for it, including the one to separate colors and whites), navigating the murky waters of first-time sex (it feels like an out-of-body experience, to be honest, but Ron ignores that and focuses on Hermione) and surviving the paparazzi's unhealthy involvement in his and his friends' private lives. ("Guess it comes with being a hero!" Rita Skeeter says shrilly after she monopolizes his and Hermione's living-room for an entire afternoon as they give their one and only interview about 'coming back to life', whatever that means.)

But then things die down, the press finds something more interesting to focus on (his sister, as it turns out: the Quidditch season promises to be exciting, with her as the new Holyhead Harpies Seeker), Hermione starts her internship at St Mungo's, and Ron... Ron is left with his boxes, wondering if he ever decided something for himself. Instead of growing up, Ron feels like he's receding inside his skin, polishing the last mechanisms on the automaton until it can stand on its own, pretending to be a real boy. Then again, he can't really complain, can he? They won a bloody war, for Merlin's sake; they meet every Friday night for drinks, he's a national celebrity, and his girlfriend is a genius. Never mind, then, that they don't know about the nightmares Harry has every night, never mind that George flinches every time he sees a set of twins. If there's sadness left - and there is, gallons of it, no matter what Page Six says -, it's Ron's job to take care of it. He's the clown, after all. He's the glue. Glue doesn't have problems.

He waits as long as humanly possible before signing up for the Auror Program, but in the end he thinks about how to explain why he doesn't want to go and he panics, makes Harry show him the way (the Aurors either bow their heads to them or glare with barely-contained jealousy, sneering unsubtly through pursed lips) and signs his name on the dotted line. There. He turns to Harry and for a second he imagines saying it: Here, now we can fight a little more – don't you think we've done enough fighting for a lifetime? But he knows. This is all Harry's ever been, a warrior. He saved all their lives, it's the least Ron can do to play along.

With all the warnings doled out by each and every family member he didn't even know he had, Ron was prepared for hardship, break-ups and frenetic job hunts; what he didn't expect was for it to be this easy. When he turns twenty-two he stares at his cake for a full minute, trying to retrace his steps: when did those years pass, what did he do? Panic builds in his chest, but before it can explode, someone shoves a shot of FireWhiskey in his hand and there he is, back to being caught in the whirlwind. Hermione threads her arms around his neck and pushes herself up on her toes to kiss him, her face split in a wide, blind smile. She's happy. It ought to be enough for the both of them.

In the end it's two years later when he unearths that scrap of paper. It's a grey afternoon in November, and Ron is alone in the apartment. It hasn't been all that rare lately, what with Hermione's intern exams coming up and Harry and Ginny painstakingly breaking up. Ron wants to offer his support, but having to move Ginny's boxes out of their house makes him alternately want to punch Harry in the face for putting that look on her face and throw his hands up, demanding to know what exactly happened, how they could let it get that bad. They can't do that - they just can't.

So he's in the bathroom that afternoon, sadder than he's felt for years. It's raining outside and he feels heavy, like his skin is itching from the inside. He doesn't really realize that he's drifting towards Hermione's end of the sink; when he ends up standing in front of her array of creams and beauty products, he thinks, maybe it's a sign. He reaches a hand forward hesitantly. It's been years since he hasn't used Polyjuice, for fear and lack of opportunity, but that doesn't mean he hasn't missed it. Hermione doesn't use a lot of make-up; most of her products are for her hair, since no charm can make it less voluminous, especially in this type of weather. It's been a recurring topic of conversation between her and Harry since they met. Ron smiles, despite himself. He plucks a tube of lipstick from the sink. It feels like lead in his palm, heavier than it actually is, a loaded gun. Ron doesn't dare raise his eyes to the mirror.

See, Ron isn't slim. Ron isn't pretty. Ron isn't quiet. For a long time, those things weren't a problem. But now - now Ron finally looks up and the person he sees in the mirror isn't him, it's as plain as that. He knows that guy: he's loyal and uncomplicated, he loves his mother and his girlfriend; he's a nice guy who used to be famous back in the day, when it was still in to defeat Dark Lords with your friends. There's no reason to hate him, but Ron does - he hates him more than he's ever hated anyone, with an all-consuming, passionate hatred. It's strange, because Ron doesn't usually feel like that, intensely, irrationally. Sure, he has his dislikes, his petty hatreds - who doesn't? - but he's not that guy. Unless he is. He peers at himself, searching in every feature, wondering, when did you change so much? and then he realizes he didn't change, merely grew up, just not into the person he expected. His hand is shaking when he uncaps the lipstick. It's stupid, he thinks. I've known this for years. I just haven't wanted to put a name on it.

The lipstick is unsatisfying. The color is nice, a light coral, slightly shimmering, but on his broad, stubbly face it looks ridiculous, and it takes all he has not to just wipe his mouth on his sleeve and forget about the whole thing.

"Coral's not your color, mate," he says to his reflection, his voice hoarse.

The woman in the mirror tilts her head - you think?

After that it's like a whirlwind. Ron takes out his wand and Hermione's book of spells to do his hair, and after several bad experiences with baldness and surprise colorings (though Ron can't guarantee he won't try that shade of periwinkle again) he finally manages an okay ponytail, with bangs on either side of his head, making it look a little bit narrower. He gets rid of the stubble, mascara isn't that hard once you get the hang of it, and Hermione's selection of blushes is restricted enough that Ron isn't in too over his head. He makes use of her twiddles, too, trusting the time-honored Seamus-patented Eyebrow Charm to get them back to their proper state. Hermione's clothes wouldn't fit him even if he used black magic, and to be honest, Ron is a little relieved. It's one thing to steal someone's body, and it's another stripping down in you and your girlfriend's bedroom and putting on one of her dresses. Besides, the mirror isn't full-length, so it shouldn't be too jarring.

It is. Ron didn't expect to look like a girl, but he didn't expect to look like that, either. He's seen some of those people, of course, he's not a complete philistine (Hermione's vocabulary is definitely rubbing off on him), but before today he'd never made the connection between them and him. They're... they're strange, misfits, people who belong in their corner of the world with their choices and their extravagance. Ron doesn't wish them ill - he's just not like that. He's a normal bloke who's having doubts. It's got nothing to do with them. He's not like that. Besides, those people are all queer, and Ron isn't queer. He loves Hermione. He loves having sex with her - sometimes, in certain positions, but he loves it.

That thought is enough to start up the panic that had been lying low while he was focused on more practical activities. It's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you're trying to separate your eyelashes - who knew mascara was so sticky -, but now... now Ron is looking at a strange creature in the mirror, a creature that has his big teeth and his Adam's apple but someone else's haircut (or maybe it's the other way around); someone who's not male or female, who looks lost and grotesque, one of Luna's peculiar monsters, harmless, imaginary. Ron feels his throat start to close up.

"Shit." And he's clawing at his cheeks, trying to find his wand under all the cotton pads, get that hair off his head, get that -- he should never had started this. He knows - he knows that dwelling on that part of him isn't a good idea. He had as good as buried it, he had been doing such a good job - why now? Is a grey afternoon all it takes for that creature to come rearing its ugly head?

That line of thinking is how he ends up sitting on the bathroom floor, his head in his hands, his eyes brimming with tears. He's not weak, he's never been weak, so why this? Why did he have to be the one with that - that thing inside of him? It's not fair.

The scrap of paper is right where he'd left it three years ago, shoved under a bunch of mismatched socks he only ever wears for Halloween. It's rumpled and slightly yellowed, but the words are still clear, Luna's loopy handwriting taunting him when he unfolds it with shaking hands:

Gender Identity Clinic
179-183 Fulham Palace Road

The is are dotted with flowers. Ron breathes in shakily, huffing out a laugh.

*

His first visit to the clinic is two months later. Ron goes out of curiosity and despondency; no matter what he tries to pretend, he's exhausted, tired of fighting, and people are starting to notice. Just last week Hermione looked surprised when he turned down going to one of Ginny's games, and his supervisors at work, not to mention Harry, have been on his back since the beginning of the year. Even Ginny, distracted as she is by heartbreak, told him he looked like shit at their weekly breakfast at the Gobbler, and she looks almost as bad as him. Ron never thought he'd say that one day, but there's a moment when you have to admit defeat.

The knot of nervousness doesn't relax throughout the whole meeting, his hands are clammy and he keeps looking around him, expecting to see someone he knows, but the people are gentle and patient. When he leaves his head is full of new lingo and he has at least a dozen pamphlets in his bag, not counting the mind-boggling information about magic surgery when it comes to this kind of things. At the word 'surgery' he'd recoiled, alarmed, but the woman - "Call me Rosiana" - had touched his arm and quieted him down, said it took time to come to terms with being transgender. Not that he is. Well, maybe.

He doesn't tell her about what he did back in Hogwarts, about Hermione or even about that incident with the make-up, but for some reason he feels safer with her than he has for a very long time. On his way out the door he smiles at one of the teenagers who's sitting in the waiting room, flicking boredly through a magazine. It's only when he's outside that he realizes how big her hands were, how thick her lips. He stops on the pavement, rocking back on his heels. Maybe he can figure this out, after all. For once, he's the one who feels better with a handful of books to make things clearer. Yeah, definitely rubbing off on him.

*

First he only goes to the clinic once a week, to talk to his advisor, then he starts stopping by whenever he has a free moment just to see the people. Ron's always been tactile: books are good, and he devours the pamphlets faster than he ever did any Quidditch magazine, but what he really needs is to talk, to get to know those men and women who all seem to be bound to each other by some sort of invisible thread. There's Michelle, the teenager from his first visit, who's already halfway through her transition even though she's only sixteen; Tatiana, the transvestite receptionist whose night job is performing at the nearby club, Leather and Lace; Jojo, the painter who divorced his husband when he found out he was a man at forty-three; and a smattering of others, all different, all fascinating, all eager to be understood. Ron takes to spending entire afternoons in the waiting room to talk to them, watching the steady streams of people go in and out of the offices, sometimes crying, sometimes with wide smiles on their faces, sometimes like he imagines he looked the first time he came, head bent, looking confused and ashamed.

He becomes used to it: half of his life is back there, at the flat, with Hermione and their cat and his job; and the other half is here. He starts thinking about how he dresses when he goes there, and though he hasn't yet gathered the courage to pass the door in a dress, the idea doesn't seem half as impossible as it did a few months ago. It could work, he thinks at night, when he's looking at the ceiling, his arm wound around Hermione's waist, her head pillowed against his chest. It could work. I could do it. They don't need to know.

But they do need to know. It starts with a conversation with Michelle one Monday afternoon. She's been sneaking glances at her phone since the beginning of their conversation, until Ron finally decides to call her out on it.

"Waiting for something?"

She blushes a dark crimson. "Yeah. I met someone."

"... someone?" Those kind of questions are always awkward for him, because there's no real way to know if the 'someone' in question is a girl, a boy, or like her. Or... something else. Ron knows full well he hasn't seen the half of it.

Michelle rolls her eyes. "No, it's not a giant mutant snake." He blushes, but she only smirks. "You're such a moron. It's a guy."

"Does he... know?"

She laughs, quirks an eyebrow. "Kinda obvious, don't you think?"

It's not, not really, at least not for Ron. He says as much; she smiles at him, and he can see that she's not convinced, but happy nonetheless. He listens to her blabber a little about her mystery guy, who's apparently six foot five, named Evan, and in Slytherin (Michelle laughs at him when he wrinkles his nose in automatic distaste). By the time she's done the sky is taking on sulfurous shades and the waiting room is slowly emptying out; Michelle is leaning against Ron's shoulder.

She yawns, righting herself. "Why are you being so weird about this, anyway?"

The question is largely disinterested, but it acts on Ron like an electric shock. "What do you mean, weird?"

"You know. Shady. Maybe it's just because you're old, but every time you come here you act like you're a secret agent or something." She smirks. "It's funny, it's just... I don't know. Odd."

Ron scratches the back of his neck, unsure of how to respond. Once again it's the tiredness that wins out. "My friends don't know," he says in a sigh.

"What? Why?"

"You know why."

She shrugs. "I guess. It's the twenty-first century, dude. It's not like you got..." she stops halfway through, looks up at him as though she were suddenly seeing him in a new light, "no way. You're still with that girl Granger?"

They never made a big issue of his celebrity, since he started coming here. At first he was worried, put on big hoodies and ridiculous sunglasses from Fred and George's old store, but he soon understood that they're a community, and their first rule, direct quote from Tatiana, is: "We don't out each other." Doctor Mortimer put it a little more elegantly: "We respect each other, Ron. Understanding one's sexuality and gender is a process, and rushing it never yields good results." He nodded. He always nods when Doctor Mortimer talks, it's like a Pavlovian reflex or something. Point is: there were a few remarks about him being the Ron Weasley, but it died down as soon as they understood he wanted to keep this quiet. And apparently they all assumed he and Hermione were broken up. It makes sense, in a way: they've always kept low profile since that last interview with Skeeter, don't really go out much either. They're more of a couch-and-take-out type of couple.

"Hermione. Her name is Hermione."

"I know her name is Hermione. I'm sixteen, not dumb. You guys were all Longbottom talked about during my entire first year, it was so boring." She slaps her magazine closed. "You didn't tell her?"

"What am I supposed to say? 'Hey, by the way, Hermione, I think I'm a woman'? Come on. You know it's not that easy."

Michelle screws up her mouth in a strange sort of pout. "So... what? You're just going to wait? Or you're not going to tell her at all?"

Ron opens his mouth to say: It's easier that way. It will only make her unhappy. I'm doing them a favor, but the words stay stuck in his throat. For the first time he realizes how much like excuses they sound. Probably because they are. His shoulders slump.

"I don't know. I don't know what to do."

Michelle regards him, closes her eyes. Her eyelids are painted over with golden eyeshadow, she looks pretty and young, slightly strange, maybe, but confident, sure of herself. She puts a hand on his shoulder.

"Get yourself together already," she says, not unkindly but not exactly kindly either. Then, in a whisper: "You'll be okay, girl."

That night Ron starts referring to himself as 'she' in his head, starts acknowledging that that feminine voice isn't someone else's. It's not everything, but it's a start. The pamphlet on SRS in her bag, she gives Michelle a kiss on the cheek and leaves the center. Everything is going to be okay, she tells herself. It has to.

*

There's this feeling that builds up, that she can't shake: she can't wait. At first it's diffuse, but it quickly becomes physically painful to go to the clinic every week and watch people go through their changes, emerge from every session strengthened, closer every time to who they're supposed to be. Ron's never been a patient woman, and this is unbearable, hiding something that important from people she loves so much. The guilt eats away at her.

The day she decides to tell Hermione she takes the afternoon off to make dinner. She gets that from her mother, the belief, probably unfounded, that food makes everything better. Unfortunately, neither she nor Hermione are great cooks, and though she toils away at it for the most part of four hours, she ends up ordering from the nearest take-out place. She makes sure they include Hermione's favorite dessert, tiramisù. Better put all the chances on her side, right?

As she waits, she looks around her. The flat isn't all that big, but they never needed big, and they've done a great job at decorating it: walls painted with clear, light-absorbing colors, yellow in the kitchen, lime green in the bedroom and a tamer off-white shade in the living-room, with a smattering of lamps that ooze soft orange light; now that's it's almost winter, they've taken out the thick woolen carpets Molly gave them last Christmas. The rest is a mixture of Ron's untidiness and Hermione's almost compulsive cleanliness: piles of books, parchments, quills, and after the afternoon's culinary experiments, a few culinary utensils streaked with burn marks. The Grangers bought a TV for them when they moved in, which both Ron and Arthur have been obsessed with ever since; every time he and Molly visit they plop down on the couch and try to understand what exactly that baseball sport is all about. It's not that different from Quidditch - if you squint.

Eventually, though, she has to sit down and think about what Hermione will say. She knows what she would have said, no longer than a few months ago - something along the lines of 'What', 'This is insane' and 'Get out of my house'. Fortunately Hermione has always been the smart one out of the two of them, and Ron won't lie, she's counting on that. She'll consider this rationally, like she does everything, and they'll... they'll figure something out. Sure, it'll change things, but love conquers all, right? Truth is, Ron can't imagine losing her. Just thinking it makes panic start to bubble in her chest, and faced with the choice of either going through with the transition or staying with Hermione, she's honestly not sure which one she would choose. She might be the Golden Trio's anchor, but Hermione is hers. It's as simple as that. She doesn't work without her, and it's not going to change anytime soon.

The key makes a metallic noise when it turns in the lock. Ron shoots up on her feet. She has a fleeting thought for how she looks, what Hermione will see when she tells her, but she shoves it at the back of her mind before she loses all ability to speak.

Hermione walks in. She looks beautiful, even after a long and probably exhausting day of work. In the new light of precariousness Ron notices how much she changed since they met: she remembers the tiny, tenacious, bushy-haired girl that joined them in the Hogwarts Express that first day; now that she's older she looks even wiser than she did back then, her features shining from the inside out, her hair an abundant, shiny mass on her shoulders, her walk strong and purposeful. A giddy sort of hope nestles right under Ron's heart: maybe they can do this. Maybe this won't be as hard as she thought, after all.

"Hey," Hermione says when she spots her in the middle of the living-room, a deer caught in the headlights. She gives a slightly concerned smile. "Is everything alright?"

Ron shakes both the wonder and the worry off her shoulders. "Sure."

She crosses the room in two long strides, slips a hand in Hermione's hair to cradle the nape of her neck and kisses her, more forcefully than a welcome home kiss would warrant. Hermione melts into it, humming against her lips.

When she pulls away she takes a step back to take off her shoes and put her bag down, then threads her arms around Ron's middle and presses her cheek to her heart. Ron wonders: can she hear how hard it's beating?

"What was that for?" Hermione asks.

Ron strokes her back, playing with the tips of her hair, anxious to enjoy it as long as she can. "Nothing," she lies. "I'm just happy to see you. I made dinner."

Hermione quirks an eyebrow.

"Okay, fine," Ron smiles. "I ordered dinner. It's the sentiment that counts, right?"

"Sure."

They sit at the table. Hermione smiles at the setting, even remarks on the lone candle Ron unearthed from the pile of house-warming gifts they haven't had the time to go through yet. They've been sitting in the small cupboard for almost three years now, and in a sad way it reminds Ron of her own self, lying around waiting to be dusted up and put to use. You don't really realize how easy it is to forget yourself until it rears its cobwebbed head, demanding to be taken care of. But - there they are now.

They eat quickly and without much conversation. It doesn't bother Ron; their silence is always companionable, and she's never imagined that there wouldn't be a morning after to go over whatever's new at breakfast, picking off each other's plate (well, more like, Ron picking off Hermione's plate). She thinks about forcing it, but Hermione is obviously exhausted, and it's not like she doesn't have a heavy topic for dessert. She could hold it off, but it would only be an excuse - and besides, the restlessness is real, present and hungry. Better get it out. Maybe she'll feel better then.

Hermione is halfway through her tiramisù when Ron finally speaks up.

"Mione, we have to talk about something."

Hermione tears her eyes away from her dessert, and Ron has to physically hold herself back from reaching out and wiping the chocolate dust from her upper lip. "Well, that sounds ominous."

Ron has been going over ways to broach the subject for most of the afternoon, but all of a sudden all the clever oratory techniques and metaphors are gone, her mind is blank, there's only one thing left, fear. Pure, unadulterated terror. What if Hermione reacts badly? What if she doesn't understand? She's a doctor, she should understand. But what if she doesn't? What if she wants to break up? What will Ron do then? She swallows thickly. Hermione is still looking at her, eyebrows arched, curious.

"You remember that chick Pansy introduced us to a while ago, um, Leila?"

Yes, they've been hanging out with Slytherins. It's not that strange, really. Ron was the first to oppose it, but she soon realized that in the real world what house you used to belong to didn't make much of a difference. Of course there's always the war hanging between them, but Pansy and Blaise have actually become good friends with the whole Gryffindor clan - who would've thought? They even said they would bring Draco to one of their pub nights at some point, but apparently he's become something of a recluse since the war. Ron can't blame him. The world seemed daunting to him after the Battle too, and she was on the winning side; she can't imagine what it must have been like for the Malfoy heir.

Hermione scrunches her nose, thinking. "I think so... the potion-maker, right?"

"You remember she was..."

Hermione furrows her brows, sighs, disappointed. "Transgender, yes, Ronald, I remember. You know, I can't believe after everything that happened you can't be more tolerant, you can't possibly expect me to ask Pansy not to bring her again, I -"

Ron swallows again, feeling the sudden urge to laugh. But they know each other so well; how could this have -

"It's not that, Mione. I have no problem with Leila. In fact -"

She can almost see Hermione's synapses fire. "Oh. Is it someone we know? Blaise? No, he would've told us. Luna? It's not - it's not Harry, isn't it? I did think he was acting strange the other day..."

Ron interrupts her, "It's me, Mione."

She stops talking abruptly, drops her spoon. In the silence the noise of metal on wood rings loudly, almost sadistically. "I'm sorry, I - what? Since when?"

Ron ducks her head. She knew this was going to be hard, it's just... now she feels tired. She can't even fully explain it to herself, how is she supposed to explain it to her?

"A long time. I couldn't... put a name on it for years. But I got – someone gave me advice, I went to that clinic, talked to a few people."

Hermione wipes her eyes, but she's not crying. She looks shocked. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I am." She's not. She's not sure, but you've got to say it at some point, right? Fake it 'till you make it, Michelle says that sometimes. Ron sags forward, dragged down by the weight of the revelation: now she could tell Hermione about Luna, Michelle, the clinic, everything.

But for once Hermione's articulateness has deserted her. "I - this is - I don't know what to say. Are you thinking about -"

"I haven't started anything. I've been going to the clinic for a while now, Doctor Mortimer - my therapist - thinks I'm ready to start the estrogen and anti-androgen treatment."

"Wait. How long have you been going there? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't know how you'd react." I still don't know, she doesn't say.

"I don't know either, Ron. I - can I still call you Ron?"

Ron bites her lip, feels tears springing to her eyes. "Yes, I - think I'm going to keep the name. You know. Make it easier. Look, Hermione, I love you. You know that, right?"

Despite her visible distress, Hermione blushes like she does every time Ron tells her that.

"I don't want to lose you. I know this is... it's a surprise, and it's strange, but -"

"It's not strange. I mean, it's not, it's just... you. I'd never have thought..."

"Me neither. It took me years to come to terms with it, Mione, but it's who I am. I just want to be okay. With you, with myself, with everyone."

God, she's almost talking like a grown-up. Those therapy sessions might be worth the money Ron has been paying for them, after all.

"I have to think about this," Hermione says, and yes, it breaks Ron's heart, the way she says it, frail and unsure and slightly broken, but at least - at least she's not running.

She reins in the anguish, nods. Grown-up. "Okay. Do you want me..." she jerks her head in direction of the couch.

Hermione hesitates then, after a while, gives a slow, slightly shaky nod. "If you don't mind."

Ron tries to swallow back the tears. It doesn't quite work. "It's fine. I'll... ask me if you want to know anything, okay? I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I..."

"We'll talk about this tomorrow," Hermione says. She's pale now, she looks harried; all the brilliance she held within her when she crossed the door a mere hour ago seems to have melted right off her bones. Ron wishes she could get it back and give it to her, golden in her cupped palms, like an offering.

"Tomorrow," she agrees.

For the first time in three years, they don't clear the table before going to sleep. The bedroom door closes softly, but with a firmness that makes Ron's stomach turn. She tosses and turn until the early dawn, only falling asleep as the skies turn a stark orange, exhaustion finally wining her over.

*

The way Hermione holds her hand now feels less like she's reassuring Ron than herself, but Ron can't blame her for that. She holds it right back; in every one of her gestures she tries to infuse a sense of don't leave me, I can't do this without you. She probably could, but the evidence is there: everything she's done without Hermione has been riddled with mistakes, every time she gets out of her sight she becomes a lesser version of herself, more cowardly, dumber, slower.

She didn't leave right after that night like Ron'd been afraid of. Now she knows she never would've, even if she'd wanted to leave her - she's not that kind of woman - but at the time the fear was poignant and deep-seated, a perpetual nausea at the bottom of her stomach until she dropped into sleep like a penny in a well. When she woke up there was a blanket over her shoulders, and the apartment smelled like Earl Grey and toast. Hermione was sitting in the kitchen, her features pulled, slumped. She saw Ron and lifted her head up like it was made of lead; still, she smiled.

"You're up," she said.

Ron nodded. Once again she felt huge and awkward-footed. She caught a slice of toast and crammed it into her mouth, and Hermione laughed.

"Ron," she said once Ron had gone through half the loaf of bread and a few cups of tea, "I love you. This is..." she sighed, "this is unexpected, but we're together." She looked up at Ron, as though expecting confirmation, assurance that yes, they were together. Ron gave it dutifully. "So... you'll just have to tell me. I don't know how to do this."

"I don't know either," Ron said, ingenuous without meaning to be. "I've only been at the clinic for a few months, y'know. Sheila - Doctor Mortimer, that is -, she says transition is different from everyone, physically and mentally." She was quoting her, actually, or maybe the pamphlet - when she was nervous or confused that cold technicality was the only thing that could soothe her. "So..."

Hermione took her hands in hers. "We'll just have to do it together, then."

Ron ducked her head. "This is my thing, Mione. You don't have to -"

"I want to." But she was shaking, of course she was shaking. Ron didn't even want to imagine how far the tendrils of the consequences of this reached, and what they touched. "I love you."

"I love you too."

Well, after all, isn't that what they bet their whole war on? Love is enough; love is divine; amor vincit omnia and all that crap Ron believes in, why wouldn't she?

There was a silence, and then: "What about..." she gestured to herself; more accurately, her body. Always got in the way, didn't it?

Hermione shook her head. Ron could see she didn't want to think about it, was keeping this particular beehive for later, but she couldn't blame her for that either. There were so many questions attached to this too, were they ever going to have sex again, and did that mean Hermione was a lesbian, and besides that, were they the same people who loved each other before. Probably not. But they weren't that different either. Ron's head hurt.

"We'll figure it out," Hermione said, with the winning confidence Ron remembered strikingly from the war, when there was no hope left at all and Hermione took on herself the burden of believing for all of them. She's good at that.

Ron smiled.

So now here they are, two weeks later. It's not easy: Hermione slips over her pronouns and they're both awkward around their friends, who'll probably ask to know what exactly is going on soon; but they went to the clinic and Hermione sat through the meeting with Doctor Mortimer. She's a doctor: all the technical details appealed to her, calmed her, made it easier for her to see it in terms of flesh and bones instead of love and souls and difficult things like that. They picked up Ron's first prescription together, too. It's a while on hormones before any surgery, but Ron is grateful for that. Some of the people at the clinic describe it as cutting you into the right shape, but Ron can't help but be afraid: what if they get something wrong? What if it doesn't feel right afterwards, just like it doesn't feel right now? What if she was wrong?

At night they sleep absurdly close, not minding the heat or the uncomfortable positions. It's as though they were trying to embrace deeper, not two bodies but two skeletons instead, their bones pressed against each other, white-hot like ivory in the sun, something about love being true like this over everything else. It's a little naïve, but who cares.

*

Coming out to her friends goes more easily than planned. Ron hasn't stopped working because she needs the money for all the treatments (there are so many things: pills and clothes and gear, visits to the therapist, sometimes Ron can't help but think it's like getting AIDS and having to swallow a plateful of colored pills every morning for twenty years just to be able to walk), but in a few weeks the changes will start showing and she'll have to say something not only to her friends but also to her coworkers, and the press won't be long after that. (They've mostly grown bored of the Golden Trio by now, occupied with other scandals, Ginny, the Malfoys retreating into the countryside, but Ron is pretty sure this kind of news will make front page of the Prophet eventually.) Besides, the sempiternal jeans-and-robes uniform is starting to feel constricting. She wears real clothes at the apartment and the Clinic, but Ron won't lie, she can't wait for the first time she wears high heels in public ("God, you'll be two heads taller than everyone," Hermione sighs; they look at each other and laugh), gets caught in the cobbles like everyone.

She has little hope to ever not have people turn on her in the street and that terrifies her, too, even though she tries not to think about: what people will say, what they'll write and what insults, exactly, they'll throw at her face. The knowledge that she's flung a few of them herself, indiscriminately, at people who probably didn't deserve them, only serves to scare her more and makes her stomach churn. At least now she can tell Hermione about her fears, and if there's something Hermione is good at (but who is she kidding, Hermione is good at everything) it's comforting people. She makes Ron tea, kisses her eyelids, repeats, like a mantra, that she'll be okay; in return Ron listens to her silences and the things she doesn't say, the times when she looks ahead of herself, her eyes blank, and doubt radiates through every pore of her.

(In the middle of all this Hermione says, one morning as they're getting ready to leave for the clinic (today Ron'll introduce her to her new friends): "At least 'you' isn't a problem."

Ron turns around. Quick like lightning, she catches her reflection in the mirror, and forces herself to look. Not bad. Tomorrow it'll be better. She has to shave twice as much now, sometimes several times a day. "What?"

Hermione gives her a distracted smile. "Sorry, I just... pronouns. Linguistics. It was just thinking that 'you' isn't gendered. Either way, 'you' is still 'you'." She ducks her head a little, stubbornly, like she isn't sure if what she's saying is offensive but won't take it back either way.

"Oh, okay," Ron says, playing it off as one of those jokes she doesn't fully get. She's still the same person. She goes along with things. She doesn't like conflict - not more than necessary, anyway.

But she gets it, of course she gets it: it means that when Hermione says 'I love you' she still feels like she's saying the same thing, to the same man.

They told her it would take time. That, or break.)

They round up the whole gang at the Gobbler one Friday afternoon. Ron's nervous. She was sure when she invited them but she's lost her nerve now, her hands clammy, her complexion even paler than usual. She says she's not sure she wants to go and Hermione smoothes her hands along her arms, says it'll be okay, it'll be fine, they've been through worse. Ron thinks about saying, not really; in the end she doesn't. Optimism, right? She's the happy one. She can do this.

They choose her clothes carefully, jeans and a close-fitting shirt, just enough to stroke the edge, to make the eye wander - wonder. Hermione takes a few steps back and regards her, her face unreadable.

"So?" Ron asks nervously. "Is it okay?"

Hermione nods, and then, belatedly, raises her head to smile. "It's great. You're..." she searches for words; Ron can see her bypassing 'beautiful', 'gorgeous', even 'cute,' all of which sound too feminine and altogether too strange, "you're great." It's weak, but she's Hermione Granger - they never changed their names -; she can pull it off.

The others are already sitting at their usual table when they get to the pub a few minutes late, in the back with their faces half-obscured, laughing, huge pints of lager in front of them. While Hermione gets them drinks Ron stops to look at them from a safe distance, friends old and new alike: Harry, a friendship so deeply rooted in herself it would take archeologists to dig it out; Neville, the little boy turned hero; Seamus, the joker; Luna, the eccentric, drifting in and out of their lives with her travels; and the new additions, Pansy, snarky and coldly ambitious, with her secret kindness; Blaise, larger than life, and Theodore - who could explain Theodore? All three former Slytherins, but the new world doesn't discriminate - or at least, they don't. Ron is counting on that.

Hermione's hand at the small of her back. A wave of affection rises in Ron's throat, threatens to choke her up; she really is trying.

"Let's go," she says gently.

"Sure."

Ron takes her hand and squeezes, hard enough that it probably hurts. If Hermione minds, she doesn't say it. When they arrive at the table, she puts the glasses down and they squeeze into the booth, forcing everyone to shift. There are pats on the back, kisses, hugs; the lot of them make a racket, their chairs screeching on the wooden floor, they laugh, they cheer. The customers throw them irritated glances, but they don't care. The conversation goes smoothly for a while - so smoothly, in fact, that Ron starts thinking she could postpone her revelation, because she doesn't want to spoil that precious happiness. The thing is, this is one of the moments where the smoke haze and the low lights make everything a little more tolerable; and it's in moments like that she convinced herself she could go on without changing anything, that she could make it go away just by closing her eyes and hoping very hard that it would. But Hermione squeezes her hand under the table, and there's a short lull in the conversation, so Ron - spurred by her two beers and courage she doesn't have - decides to go for it.

"Guys," she says. "I have to talk to you about something."

It doesn't go badly. If anything, they're surprised, as surprised as Hermione had been when Ron'd told her. At first when she broaches the subject they don't seem to see exactly where she's going with it, but she perseveres, and eventually their faces light up as they realize. They ask questions: Are you sure? When did you find out? So what do we call you? Do you have to go the hospital? and Ron answers them to the best of her ability; there are a few looks going from her to Hermione, but they hold hands on the table, to show that yes, they're still going strong, which is only half of a lie. Luna doesn't ask anything, she sits back in the booth and sips her... blueberry liquor, or whatever it is, smiling her little sibylline smile. Pansy looks nonplussed. When she started dating Padma she didn't even tell them, just showed up one evening with her on her arm and that was that. Ron sometimes wishes she could have her confidence.

Because she's still a coward, she tries to look Harry in the eye the least she can during the evening. The avoidance technique works for a while, but as they're leaving Harry grabs her sleeve and holds her back. He waves to the others - "We'll join you outside in a jiffy," with a smile, then pushes Ron back to the table. They sit. Ron doesn't say anything. She's not that good with pressure situations. If she were to say something, she would probably blurt out some terrible joke - usually Hermione is there to keep that from happening.

"How long has this been going on?"

Ron flinches at the 'this', even though she's ninety percent sure Harry didn't mean it in that way. She shrugs. "Look, it's complicated. I was never..."

"But you said you'd started taking stuff. For how long?"

"Oh, that. A few weeks."

Harry's face falls. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Surprised, then ashamed, Ron ducks her head. "I just didn't know how to tell you, I didn't know how you'd react..."

Now Harry looks really pissed, and it becomes increasingly obvious to Ron that maybe she didn't handle all this as well as she could've had. "But we see each other every day at work! You've just been lying, all this time?"

"Not lying, I just -"

"Bloody hell, we've... we've killed a Basilik together, Ron. We fought against Death Eaters. We fought the war and we won, we won against fucking Voldemort!" No, you did all that, Ron's inner sixteen-year-old shrieks, but she ignores it. "And you still don't trust me?"

"Of course I trust you."

"But not enough to tell me that you're a bloody woman?"

His voice, loud, explodes over the conversations, and a few people turn back to them, judgment written all over their features. Ron flinches and tries to make herself invisible.

"Fuck's sake, dial it down a notch," she hisses, feeling like her nerves are even rawer than usual, red and exposed.

As it turns out, it wasn't the thing to say. Harry's features twist, he throws a few quid on the table, torches the rest of his beer - it must be warm by now, Ron notices absently - and storms out. Ron drops her head into her hands.

Well. That went well.

*

Sometimes, before bed, Ron will lock the bathroom door behind her. Sitting with her legs crossed in front of the mirror, the face she's tried to familiarize herself with staring back at her (now she knows how to position herself so that the light hits her the right way, makes her creamier, softer), she'll tell herself: alright. This is what you know. You're twenty-two, and scared, and you're taking hormones. You won't change your name, you're not all that smart, you're not all that pretty. Her head is full of doctor words but she pushes them out, tries to clean herself out. Breathe, Ron. You're transgender. Yeah, it feels strange even saying it. Look how far she's come, though, right? It's just - usually she says other things, I'm a woman, I'm different. But you've got to be honest at some point, or at least that's how her mother raised her (not that she's been very honest with her mother, but that's another issue). But that's what she does every night: she sits in front of the mirror and she tries to formulate a battle plan. She feels a little guilty for not including Hermione, but the only person living in her skin is herself, that's been made abundantly clear.

When she's finished she gets on her feet, she washes her hands. She washes her hands a lot, these days; can't help the permanent feeling that something dirty is clinging to her skin. Then she plasters a smile onto her face, and she goes to bed. Hermione curls in as close as she dares, but still not as close as she used to. Ron can't help feeling, maybe I should do something, but the thought of it breaks her heart, so she just closes her eyes and forces herself to sleep.

The following year isn't easy. For some reason, Ron thought that now that her friends know, everything would magically become less difficult, but she realizes now that it was not only a vain hope, but a stupid one. Of course it's not going to get easier - why would it? At work no one but Harry, who still won't talk to her, knows the truth: they only think that she's changed her style, and though her colleagues rib her about her androgynous clothes, about being 'queer', Ron smiles and bears it. There are few things she feels less prone towards than climbing on a platform and telling everyone the truth. She bids her time; meanwhile she wears her heels and dresses at home and the office gets her clingy jeans and close-fitted shirts. They itch a little, but it's worth-it. Her whole body's been an ill-fitting set of clothes for too long.

The rest of her friends are more supportive, but the fact remains: this is something you have to do alone. Even Hermione is out of her bubble, on the other side of the mirror: Ron holds her hand, smiles and kisses her but keeps her words shut in, medication and measurements and things Hermione doesn't want to hear. It's easy to figure out: everyone's more or less comfortable with one gender or the other, but this, this straddling over the edge makes them nervous, antsy. Hermione, for all her kindness, wouldn't want to see Ron with her tapes and scales, anxious to find what has changed to the ounce, holding her breath in anticipation. Maybe she'll be fine in a few years, when Ron looks like she was supposed to be in the first place, a woman - maybe then she'll be able to look Ron in the eye. Until then Ron is still doing this alone.

The necessity to explain what exactly is going on with her at every corner and her uncomfortableness when it comes to attending any occasion in disguise, hidden behind a suit and tie, means she doesn't go out all that much anymore. At first Hermione, in a show of solidarity, stays home with her, but then she passes her intern exams and there's a party, and another, and another, and Hermione wasn't ever all that social but with her eighteen-hour days and the tense situation at home she starts accepting invitations more and more. She always apologizes, of course, and more often than not there's a chaste kiss by the door before she leaves, but she starts going. It's fine, though. Ron can take it. Sometimes the hormones make her happy and kinda fuzzy, but sometimes she's also irritable, incapable of finding the source of the pain. At those moments she's glad that Hermione's away.

The thing is... the thing is, it's all they talk about. And it's fair, in a way, because some days it's all Ron can think about, from the moment she wakes up without the boner she'd got so used to to her monologue in front of the mirror at night, cleaning her teeth so hard her gums bleed, hands shaking; but there are other things to life. There's work and friends and joy and sadness out there, Ron knows it, and sometimes the urge takes her to grab Hermione by the shoulders and shake her, ask that she stop talking about doses and appointments at the clinic and instead say something about the last book she's read. (Except that she knows, doesn't she? The last one was MtF: A Guide to Magic Transition; the one before that, a biography of St Mungo's founder). After a while Ron stops remembering that feeling she used to have just before she reached the door at night, that trepidation, the way she couldn't wait to hold Hermione in her arms and kiss her forehead and sink into the couch with her against her chest. It seems so far away.

It's a bit ironic, actually, because they're so good at it. Hermione is an enormously talented resident, and once she got past the surprise of Ron being, well, a living case, she rolled her metaphorical sleeves and went to work. During their weekly meeting with Doctor Mortimer she keeps her fingers threaded through Ron's, though she only ever looks forward, and absorbs the words long after Ron's reached her threshold. After the check-ups, measurements (thank Merlin for the magic tape, otherwise that would have take forever) and questionnaire, the usual reminders about the possible after-effects the hormones can have, Doctor Mortimer gives her a new prescription for Estradot and Aldactone, patch and pills respectively, so at least she'll feel a little less like a drug addict. After seven months she's gotten more or less used to not being able to predict the ways in which her body will change from one week to another: her lack of libido, the small, almost unnoticeable growth underneath her nipples, though she's the only one to see it, her changing moods. Little by little her waist thins, her skin soften, the grain smaller, tighter. After some shying away from it Hermione starts recording the changes for her, forbids Ron to botch it; their bathroom becomes the place where they spend the most time, Hermione kneeling on the tile with her syringes, her tapes, fingers poised over Ron's aureolas. It feels... it doesn't feel strange, because if it did, what wouldn't? After so much time she's used to it, they both are. The things Ron can't quite reconcile are her constant small thrills - I'm doing it, I'm getting closer - and her inability to stop Hermione from doing what she's so clearly doing, from putting that distance between them. Through her eyes Ron can see that she's sometimes barely human, nothing but another patient in need of guidance: sure, that Hermione is kind, and sweet, but she's not Ron's wife. (She remembers reading in the pamphlets about legal issues, you might have to get a divorce in that patient, slightly condescending voice all those pamphlets have, and thinking, at least that's not me. Now she's not so sure.)

It's eating at her, but there's nothing she can do about it and it's not like she doesn't have other problems to take care of, so she shoves it at the back of her mind. They have a conversation about Ron leaving her job or talking to her superiors (which might lead to the former, though Ron does have some influence in the Auror circles these days), and the next Monday Ron goes into the Head Auror's office with her fists clenched, nails digging into her palms. She avoids Harry's eyes. When she comes out she's shaken but marginally calmer, be it only because it's done, it's over. She reminds herself of what Doctor Mortimer said: not everyone is going to be okay with this, discrimination is still present in the Wizarding world, especially in the middle class, you'll have to face some tough sells, you have to know that. And her boss: you know, Weasley, the people who work here are regular blokes (there are three women in the whole division, which Ron had never noticed before she put all this into motion), I don't know how they're going to take to this, and his eyes on her, sweeping her from top to bottom, as though saying that her being transgender was a free pass for him to ogle her to his leisure. But Ron fought back, she said, Well, it's not everyday they'll get to work with someone who was instrumental in the victory against Voldemort (he flinched at the name), is it, sir? Besides, I'm sure Harry - Potter, that is, Harry Potter - will want to show his support and leave with me if you decide I'm not suited for this position after all. He paled, and Ron knew she'd won then, even though it was a gamble. Still, she's pretty sure that fight or no fight, Harry's loyalty would've prevailed. Right?

That night she comes home exhausted. The fact is, she's not very good at that, subtlety. She's not good at fighting dirty, either, she's more of a make-it-or-break-it kinda girl, who goes in with her fists first. It's funny (it's not; in fact, just thinking about it is giving her a headache), but she thinks that if she'd been born in the right body, she might have been a bit of a tomboy. She falls face-first on the bed and sleeps for twelve hours straight, right into the middle of Saturday. She slips out of bed, stopping at the corner of the kitchen to watch Hermione. She's drinking her morning tea, her hair in a messy ponytail, with her glasses on. She looks older than she did a few months ago, maybe all this work, maybe because it's winter and winter makes everybody looks tired, maybe for the obvious reason. She's wearing a tired grey jumper and all Ron can think is, she's beautiful. She's beautiful and I'm wasting all her happiness.

*

If there's two things Ron loves about adulthood, it's that a) she knows how to recognize Howlers and b) subsequently, she can avoid them. It's largely thanks to that skill that she's been able to avoid her parents for nearly a year, in fact. She feels guilty about it - she does; and even if she didn't, all the people nagging her about it would probably do the trick -, but on one hand, there's disappointing your parents by not going to lunch twice a week, and on the other there's telling them that their darling son is a transgender. They've always been open-minded, but this is in another league, Ron is well-placed to know that. She was the first to make disparaging comments about fairies when she was in Hogwarts, and she didn't ever think twice about it.

So, yeah. She's been avoiding them. And Charlie, and George, and Bill. And Harry, even though they made up (finally - Ron didn't realize how much she missed her best friend until they finally got over the awkwardness and spent a night at Harry's flat drinking butterbeer and watching Quidditch). She's begged off all the holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. She can tell, through the grapevine, that her parents are going crazy, and even though they haven't showed up at the flat yet (there's been more than one overheard conversation about 'giving the kids their independence, Molly, they're adults now, you know'), it's bound to happen one of these days. But... but Ron also knows that they're buried at the Burrow most of the time now that her dad's retired, and that's when they're not on holiday; if they lived in the city they would've heard about it by now - even though Ron hasn't made any headlines, thank Merlin -, be it only by being part of the rumor mill that encompasses every single Ministry employee and their relatives. It's a bit of a miracle that they don't know already, and maybe it's a sign, maybe it isn't, but either way, Ron just... can't.

That is, until she does. Well, it's more of a fake it 'till you make it, really, but her second semester is almost at an end and Ron can't contain her giddiness. It means... a lot of things. It means that she's in this, for one, really in this, that all this work wasn't just a test run. It means that she can start considering surgery. It means that she's making headway, it means the first anniversary of 'her', it means that Hermione hasn't left her, that she still has a job and friends and a family who love her, that the casualties haven't been all that drastic thus far. Focus on the positive, right? So when her mother sends her yet another invitation for a family meal, she writes back, not much, not even a whole letter, just, We'll be there at seven.

When she tells Hermione she looks startled, then she laughs. "As if a Weasley dinner ever started at seven," she says, and Ron just has to kiss her.

So they go. Hermione puts on an off-the-shoulder green dress that makes her look effortlessly beautiful and Ron agonizes in front of her closet for half an hour before deciding on one of her most androgynous ensembles, tight trousers and a blouse that makes her look thinner and bustier than she actually is. They'll be able to tell that something's changed, but Ron knows that if they want to be blind, they will. Her palms are clammy, slippery on the Portkey - their apartment is too modern to have a fireplace -, but Hermione is holding onto her arm; turning back now isn't a possibility. When they arrive in the middle of the yard, it's like stepping into an anthill: everybody is running around, a blur of red hair, folding chairs, colored kitchenware overflowing with food.

"Ronald," says Molly as she materializes in front of them, her hair in disarray, "you look thin. Hermione, my dear, what have you been feeding him during all this time? You should know you can't trust men with this kind of thing." She points her finger straight at Ron's chest. "We have things to talk about, you and I." And she turns on her heels, already yelling at Bill to stop what he's doing and come help her in the kitchen.

Hermione laughs weakly. "Well. That went well, don't you think?" Ron can't do anything else but nod dumbly. Eventually, after having been commandeered to help bring the food outside, they find a place at the big table that has been set in the garden. Their shoulders are mashed together from lack of space, but Ron can't help but smile: whatever happens, this is her family, and she feels good among their good-naturedness and the simplicity of their hospitality, plentiful cooking, undiscriminating warmth.

"Enjoy," says Molly from her place at the head of the table, and with a twist of her wand, the salad bowls start to levitate, ready to fill everyone's plates.

There's really no way to make a speech this early into the evening, Ron reasons with herself. Even if she wanted to, no one would pay attention to her, too busy with their food and their conversations. It's only later, when a hush descends on the table, halting her conversation with Fleur - still as beautiful and intimidating as she used to be, even pregnant -, that she realizes that might not have been the best strategy.

"What's going on?" she asks Hermione at her right.

Hermione shrugs. "No idea."

"Well," Molly's voice, suddenly sharp, rises from the other end of the table, "that's just preposterous."

Ron calls to Bill, "What happened?"

Bill makes a face. "Apparently Ginny's bisexual, at least that's what she just told Mom. Can you believe it?"

It's like a punch to the stomach. It's not that it's surprising, Ginny being bi; if asked, Ron could probably have predicted it - after all, she does read the paper, and Ginny's figured in there with such-and-such female athletes often enough for it to be more than a phase. But suddenly Ron feels like something's collapsing inside her, like all the preparation she put into this day, choosing her clothes and her words and repeating them a thousand times over in her head were for nothing - she won't tell them today, not after this, one crisis at a time is enough to handle for the Weasley clan. And there's also the reaction: of course she didn't expect acceptance and support from the get-go, but if this is her mother's reaction to Ginny being bisexual, what will she say to... Hermione's hand squeezes hers under the table.

"You okay?" she asks softly, her eyes concerned.

Ron's throat feels constricted. "I'm fine," she lies. "We should go soon."

But she can't help paying attention at what's going on at the head of the table: Ginny, her face red, half-yelling; Molly with her pursed lips, stubborn, and Arthur at the side, looking bemused and slightly saddened by the whole thing. From what she can gather amid the crunching noises (as Percy serenely remarks, "If we stopped eating every time there's a family crisis, we would probably starve") and the various interjections, most of the children are behind Ginny, but Molly 'doesn't see the point of it'.

"There's no point, mum," says Ginny, a little forcefully. "I just like girls as much as I like boys, that's all."

"What about children? Don't you want to have children?"

If she closes her eyes, Ron can imagine Molly asking her the exact question: what's the point? What about children? Her eyes swell with tears, but she blinks a few times to chase them away.

"I don't know if I want to have children, but that's - there are lots of ways to have children now, mum. There's - adoption and - how different is it from us and Harry? Just think about it."

Everyone's eyes turn to Harry, who blushes and looks down at his food. Even after all these years, he's never quite become comfortable with being the center of attention.

Molly's lips are still tight, but she relents a little, ducks her head. "I don't know, darling. It's just... it's just a lot to deal with, is all. Do you have - do you have someone, is that why you're telling us now?"

"No. I'm telling you because it's the truth, and you're my family. There's no one right now, and next time I do have someone, it might be a man, or it might be a woman, I don't know. I just thought I should tell you."

Silence falls on the table again, not wholly comfortable, but not uncomfortable either. Little by little everyone resumes eating and the conversations start back up. The itch Ron felt to leave fades gradually, leaving behind only a faint unease, disappointment mixed with sick relief. Hermione doesn't let go of her hand all evening, there are a few more remarks on how thin she is, she should eat more meat, the city isn't doing right by her, sweetie; Ron keeps her mouth shut and smiles through it. When it's time to leave Molly wraps her in a tight embrace and doesn't let go for a long time. When she finally does, it's only so that Arthur can take her by the shoulders and tell her gravely, "Come back soon, your mother's driving me crazy," a smile floating on his strangely melancholy mouth.

By the time they roll back into their flat Ron is exhausted and Hermione is still holding her hand. She lets go halfway into the living-room. "You want tea?"

Ron nods wordlessly. She hangs her head down, all the exhaustion she's been holding back dumping onto her shoulders all of a sudden. Slumped into the couch, she takes off her shoes, massages her ankles. She watches as Hermione prepares a tray, two mugs, sugar. They take their tea exactly the same, they learned early into their relationship: virgin with one teaspoon of sugar and a squirt of lemon once in a while. None of them like milk.

"Next time," Hermione says as she puts the tray on the coffee table. She sits next to Ron, their thighs touching.

"Next time," Ron repeats.

*

There's a next time. It comes a few weeks later, after everyone's had time to digest the news of Ginny being bisexual, and it happens after a week of Ron going to the clinic every day with the certainty that she's going to start the procedure for surgery and failing. There's a fear, at the pit of her stomach, that she can't name or even really acknowledge: she knows she's ready, she knows she wants it, she wants it so bad, but she can't. In the end she decides to put all the chances on her side, put her affairs in order, or try to. She talks about it with Jojo, who tells her that he hesitated for nearly a year before taking that final step, even after having had top surgery. Ron probably won't need to: if she continues on that track she'll have decent breasts, somewhat small; but for now she's not considering breast implants. The vaginoplasty will be expensive, even with the more-than-acceptable money Ron makes at the Auror office and her royalties from the war proceeds; and after that there's the Facial feminization surgery, since Ron is too masculine-looking to hope to pass for a woman without some alterations. Fortunately, the facial surgery is both less expensive and less invasive than the other one, since it mostly consists of spells, the tricky part being, of course, making them permanent. Still, Hermione says that St Mungo's has one of the best plastic surgeons in the country, and Ron trusts her.

She'll do this, she will: so she gathers her courage and she dresses up again, she goes back to the Burrow with Hermione's hand in hers and the words poised on her lips. This time she doesn't wait: she says it before they're even seated at the table, her eyes trained on her mother's face, because something she learned from her is that you look someone in the face when you're telling them something like that. Molly takes a step back, her hands clamped on her heart; she closes her eyes and for a few seconds Ron holds her breath, isn't sure what she'll do if her mother asks her to leave and never come back.

But she doesn't. It takes a while, but eventually she asks Ron to sit in front of her and she makes her explain, step by step, detail by detail, exactly what she means, who she is, what the repercussions will be; and they talk for a long time, sat in a close huddle, Hermione curled like a comma into Ron's body, Arthur's arms strong around his wife's shoulders. Molly never quite regains her color that afternoon, but she doesn't chase Ron out of the house either, and if Ron has learnt something through this whole hurdle it's to take everything she can get, every scrap, every victory as small as it is. She answers every question she's asked and she talks, she talks so much that by the end of the afternoon her voice is hoarse, she's all out of explanations. When she asks them to address her as 'she' Molly squeezes her eyes shut, and for a second Ron is worried that they've met the limit, all that she can take. Molly stands up, starts walking in the living-room a little obsessively, sometimes glancing at the clock as though to remind herself to relativize, that no one is dead or missing.

"I'll try," she says eventually, when she sits down again. "I'll do my best." Arthur nods at her shoulder.

There's more: more talking and more silences left for deglutition, more pauses to make tea, more hands taken and released. When the time to go comes Ron feels thoroughly empty, as though she'd taken everything she had inside her and poured it on her parent's dinner table for them to examine. Hermione leans against her shoulder, sleepy, her arms loosely knit around Ron's middle.

"We'll see you soon, right?" Molly asks, holding onto Ron's hands. "Dress however you want, but don't you disappear on us again." Ron gives her a small smile and promises.

After that afternoon the news spread slowly but surely, through the ranks of close and removed family, sneaking into their houses all over the country, the back pages of a few national newspapers. Ron's co-workers treat her strangely for a while until Ron rounds them up and makes a formal announcement, her hands shaking where she's hiding them behind her desk. She wonders idly if that's what the Ridikkulus spell would show her today, those ranks of expectant faces, ready to judge her if she says the wrong word.

She goes back to the clinic but despite her resolutions, she can't make herself go ahead with the surgery. In the end, with Hermione's help, she decides having the facial surgery first is a better idea. They've got the funds, the surgery can be done right there in London and is altogether less life-changing. Which doesn't mean that it's less stressful: Ron's never been a big fan of hospitals and the whole thing is giving her the creeps. But on the other side of the hospital gowns and the truly horrendous food there's the face she wants, the face she needs; a face she'll recognize when she wakes up and be able to say: "That's me." That's worth any fear she can have.

It takes a few meetings with their Gringotts advisor, the surgeon and Doctor Mortimer to decide what exactly they're going to do, but eventually they agree on three procedures that can be done concurrently, to lift her eyebrows, narrow her jaw and make her Adam's apple less prominent. Ron does her best to follow the surgeon's explanations: apparently they're going to magically melt the bones of her jaw and remodel them, and the rest will involve a few scalpels and a lot more Charms than Ron is comfortable with. She nods at it all, pretending she understands half of it, even though she doesn't; but Hermione's great at repeating the whole thing in regular English back at the flat, she's been doing it since school, after all. Ron focuses on smiling winningly and pretending like she's not completely panicking.

Once again, her family and friends prove to be the best she could have wished for. Though Molly refuses to have anyone explain to her in detail what it is they're going to do, she holds onto Ron's hand like a lifeline, surrounded by the close cluster of her children and their friends. Harry stands at Ron's head, holding Hermione's hand; when it's time to take the Sleeping Potion Ron watches all their faces slowly disappear, Pansy and Padma, her brothers, Luna, flicking through the last edition of The Quibbler, Neville and Seamus, their heads bent together, even Blaise, looking as though he'd rather be anywhere but here. She smiles weakly, then lets herself slip.

When she wakes up her face is bandaged and she feels fuzzy, like her head is filled with cotton. Through the slits of her open eyes she spots Ginny, sleeping in a chair, and her father. His fingers are closed over her palm.

"Hey," she says softly.

"Hello," says Arthur. "How do you feel?"

"Okay. Where are the others?"

"They went home. Your mother is sleeping," he points to somewhere near the ground, and Ron sees the end of a futon, "and I think Harry and Hermione went out to to the cafeteria to get coffee. Do you want me to get them?"

"No, I'm fine. Thanks."

"Okay," Arthur says. "Good." He slides his glasses back up on his nose and opens Luna's left-behind Quibbler on his lap. His presence is warm, reassuring, and Ron falls into a doze, her head falling onto her own shoulder.

She has to stay for another full day in St Mungo's so the doctors can monitor her recovery, and she spends most of it sleeping. Several people drop in throughout the day, and her parents finally go back home; Hermione and Harry both stay the entire time, speaking in hushed tones near the window in Ron's room. When they finally discharge her the surgeon, egged on by Hermione, overwhelms her with warnings and advice to take care of herself: she can't take the bandages off for another full day, she has to follow all of Hermione's instructions; he even gives her a pamphlet, which Ron looks at for a full minute before getting a piercing headache.

It's a long time to wait, even though most of it is spent sleeping. When she's finally allowed to take the bandages off Ron's throat feels thick, like she can't swallow. Her brain is milling with questions: what if they did it wrong? What if she doesn't recognize herself? What if she's not who she wanted to be? What if - what if?

"Go on," Hermione prompts her gently; Ron gets an irrational urge to tell her to leave, let her deal with this on her own. "Take them off."

She does. Her face is still red, a little swollen, but the changes are evident: her eyebrows are higher, thinner; her jaw finer and more defined, slanting upwards like Ron has admired so many times on so many women; and her Adam's apple is almost invisible, merely a bump on the smooth skin. Her eyes well up with tears. Hermione's still somewhere in the room, but Ron can't see anything but that face in the mirror, her face: she gets the stupid urge to reach her fingers and see if the reflection reaches back, if this is really her, who she is now. The truth is... the truth is, she can't believe it.

It's not that it's perfect - it's not. And it's not that she recognized herself instantly - she didn't. It's still strange to take off the bandages after twenty-five years and see someone else than you're used to in the mirror, it's strange and it's jarring, it's frightening. But in the lines of that new jaw Ron can see her future; she can see herself and who she wants to be, and she can see a victory, something achieved, something won. Tears clog her vision. She swallows them down.

She turns around. "What do you think?" she asks Hermione, her voice raw.

Hermione looks taken aback for a second, as though she didn't expect the question. Ron watches her eyes flit over her features, the jaw, the mouth, the eyes; watches her try to decide on a word, and be overwhelmed by emotion, even though she couldn't say which. Eventually she reaches forward and takes Ron's hand in hers. Her voice is broken when she finally says: "I think you're pretty," and for the first time in her life, Ron agrees.

*

There is cruelty. There are people who don't understand, who don't want to understand; people who turn back on her in the street and spit insults, people who used to be her friends who recoil when she goes to shake their hand; there are hating letters in the claws of the owls tapping at their window in the morning, there are newspapers who call her unnatural, who call her a monster. Ron knew it was coming but that doesn't make it any easier: each murmured word of disgust is a direct blow to the stomach. It's so easy to shrink back into self-doubt, and the wheel is so easily spurred into motion: maybe this is all a mistake, maybe they're wrong, maybe I really am a monster. Hermione reassures her, but Ron feels angry and disappointed at herself for still letting it get to her. Her worst fear is for Hermione to become what she's becoming, a nurse more than a friend or a lover; which is maybe why she's the one to initiate that conversation.

It's a sleepy gray Sunday, the rain falling in ropes outside the window, clogging the horizon; mist is surrounding their apartment building, as though to shield them from anything coming from the outside, keep them safe in the womb-like warmth of their home. They're watching The Great British Bake-Off - Ron wouldn't admit it under torture, but getting that television is the best thing she's ever done -, Ron touching her face every so often to check if her new features are still there. She can't shake the habit.

"Hey, Mione," she says without really thinking.

"Mm," says Hermione from where she's leaning on Ron's ribs, her voice resounding in Ron's chest.

Ron twists her fingers in Hermione's hair. It always gets frizzier than usual when the weather is like this, bunching in small curls. Hermione hates it, but Ron finds it endearing.

"Can you stop reading for a minute? I want to talk to you about something."

Hermione closes the British Magic Medical Journal, keeping her page with her finger. "What is it?"

"I talked to Doctor Mortimer last week."

"What do you mean? Did we have a meeting? I thought -"

Ron represses a movement of annoyance. "No, I just - wanted to talk to her about some things. You know. Measurements, stuff about the surgery... anyway. We talked about SRS."

A wrinkle creases Hermione's forehead. "I thought you wanted to wait. You said you weren't ready..."

"I know. I know what I said, but I just thought - doesn't hurt to talk about it, you know? Anyway, she said she knew a surgeon in Manchester."

"Manchester? There are great surgeons right here, Ron. St Mungo's is one of the best facilities in the country, it's ranked first for this kind of procedure, you know that. Why would you want to go to Manchester? Not to mention I'd have to take a leave of absence and you know I can't do that right now, I'm in the middle of my residency."

There's no way this isn't going to hurt, and Ron has always been a big believer in ripping the band-aid, so: "I thought I'd go alone."

"What?"

"I thought I'd go alone."

Hurt flashes on Hermione's face, sharp and potent. She shrinks away from Ron's body. They've been together for so long: over the years Hermione has let her walls down and shown Ron everything that's vulnerable and real about her, miles away from her level-headed, cold-blooded library rat persona, and now Ron can't help but feel like she's betrayed all that trust with one simple sentence.

"Listen - listen to me, Mione," she says, taking Hermione's hands in hers. Hermione doesn't protest. "I know this isn't what we talked about, but I hate feeling like I'm stealing your life. This is my fight -," the words clog her throat, she's never been good at talking, not like her, "you don't deserve to waste your life taking care of me. I love you, you know that, I love you more - more than anything, but I have to do this on my own."

Hermione blinks. "So what does this mean? Are you breaking up with me?"

"No. I'm just - no. It's just a pause, that's all. A break."

"You know as well as I do -," Hermione starts, but she can't finish.

"Not us. We're stronger than that. I'll go to Manchester -"

"You can't go alone."

"Gin said she'd come with me. She wants to take a break from Quidditch anyway, before next season."

"So that's it, you have everything prepared?" Hermione gets on her feet, the journal slipping from her fingers. She'll lose her page, Ron thinks haplessly. "You don't even need my opinion, if I want to stay, to help you, that doesn't matter?"

"It does, I -"

"No, you know what -" she looks like she might embark on an angry tirade, but in the end she's still Hermione: she takes a breath, smoothes her skirt down on her thighs, squeezes her eyes closed. "Are you sure this is what you need? Supporting you is -"

"It's robbing you of your life. I don't want to be responsible for that."

"You aren't!"

"Yes. This is what I need. I'll be back soon, Mione. We can talk then."

Hermione's lip quivers, and it takes all Ron has not to step forward and wrap her in her arms, kiss her forehead, tell her that everything's going to be okay, no matter what. "When is soon?" she asks eventually, when she's controlled her breathing.

"I -" she could lie. She could. "Six months. A year at most."

"A year."

"It's a heavy surgery. And after that... I'll have to get used to it, you know."

Hermione's eyes are clear, but she's crying. "What do you mean, get used to it?" The question is there, crystal clear: are you doing this because you want to sleep with other people?

"No. It's not - that, I swear. I just mean, live with it. Get used to being a woman, full-time, not just a work in progress, not just -" this, a half-finished construction, a constant effort to look outside like she feels inside.

Hermione sits on the edge of the couch. Suddenly she looks small, a woman made up entirely of sleepless nights, of sorrow and regret and everything Ron swore she'd keep her away from. The guilt eats at her, nagging her to take the words back, link her hands with Hermione's and tell her this was all a joke, a bad joke, let's never speak of it again. But she doesn't.

"I don't want to hurt you," she says eventually.

Hermione's knuckles are white from wringing her hands. She never used to do that, before. During the war she was always brave, chin up and assured answers, even when she was afraid; and the hardest moments at the hospital only ever gave her purple-circled eyes and slightly shaky shoulders, but her mouth was strong, her will unbending. Knowing that she's the only one capable to hurt her like that is the worst feeling Ron could ever have imagined.

"Too late," Hermione says softly.

They don't talk more that evening. They eat in silence; when they go to sleep Hermione curls away from Ron in the bed, asleep as soon as her back touches the mattress. In the morning Ron finds her arms empty, the familiar embrace closed around air.

It doesn't get easier with time. Ron takes a leave from work, starts organizing her trip, having frequent meetings with Doctor Mortimer, getting her certificates ready. She gets the procedure explained to her in detail, with a promise that the surgeon will go over it with her again. Hermione insists on attending a few times, the most important meetings: she keeps quiet, her hands folded on her lap, and doesn't stay around to make conversation with the clinic regulars once it's over.

"What's going on?" Michelle asks once, only half interested.

"Nothing."

Michelle rolls her eyes. "Obviously something, otherwise she wouldn't be leaving like her ass is on fire and you wouldn't have those stupid moony eyes. Dish."

Despite her sadness, Ron can't help a bark of laughter. "Okay, fine. We're... taking a break."

Michelle quirks an eyebrow. "You, or her?"

"It's more complicated than that," Ron sighs. "I can't keep dragging her behind me, it's not fair. I've got to figure out my life first, and then - it's not what she signed up for, that's all."

"Isn't it, though? I mean, obviously it's not my problem, but it goes 'in sickness and in health, for richer blah blah blah', doesn't it?"

"That's different."

"Is it? She doesn't look all that happy you 'let her go', or whatever you call it, Miss Savior."

"She will. She'll be happy she doesn't have to spend weeks at my bedside before the operation."

Michelle shrugs. "If you say so. You've got someone with you, though, right?"

"My sister."

Ginny's been great about the whole thing, really: even though she obviously doesn't think Ron and Hermione breaking up is a good solution either, at least she keeps her mouth shut about it most of the time. Ron figures it's because of the gigantic mess that her and Harry were, and she was the one to say how stupid that was first. Everyone has to make their own mistakes, right?

She offers Hermione to move out to Gin's before she leaves, but Hermione tells her she doesn't have to. Even though they're more silent than usual, and sometimes recoil from simple affectionate touches, it's still a relief to be near each other. Hermione does her best not to ask about the transition, and their conversations are a parody of what they used to be in those first years before Ron started, idle chit-chat about the hospital and the Auror department, their friends, their families, the books they're reading. It's... nice - as nice as it can e, under the circumstances, and that's really all Ron can wish for right now.

Eventually the time comes when she has to go. She prepares a suitcase in the evening, trying to ignore Hermione's eyes that sometimes snap to her, pained, then cut away; in the morning she's up at dawn. Ginny and her have decided they'll take the picturesque route, and since Ginny got her license last year in an effort to please one of her Muggle girlfriends, she'll drive them. Ginny said it'd give them time to talk, and it's true; they haven't done that much since they left school, too busy with their respective lives.

"So you're really going," Hermione says softly, sitting at the breakfast table.

"I am," Ron says. "When I come back I'll stay at Gin's for a while," she swallows thickly, "maybe get my own place, we'll see how it goes. Okay?"

Hermione blinks back tears. "Okay. Good luck. I love you."

"I don't need luck," Ron says, a poor smile quirking at the edge of her mouth.

Hermione laughs wetly. "Right. Well... I've asked around, Doctor Black is really talented. You'll be in good hands."

"That's better." That's more like you.

They kiss, once for the road, just a short press of lips, the almost perfunctory kiss of people who've been in love forever and couldn't imagine parting. For a flashing second before she remembers her reasons Ron wonders if what she's doing is stupid, a sacrifice without head or tails. She takes away the taste of Earl Grey and menthol.

"I'll see you," she says.

Hermione tilts her head, her eyes like honey. "Yes. You will."

After Ron closes the door behind her, she takes a deep breath. Right then, she thinks, half-exhilaration and half-sorrow, on with the show.

*

The trip from London from Manchester takes them a little more than four hours. They don't talk much; Ginny puts music on and focuses on driving, and Ron dozes quietly, her forehead pressed against the window. Eventually the music transitions into the buzz of the news and she falls asleep, dreamless. When she wakes up they're entering the old town, just past the tangled roads that lead into the city. Ron yawns.

"Sleep well?" Ginny asks, smiling distractedly in her direction. Ron nods.

For the next half-hour she mans the maps. The entryway to the wizarding part of the city is situated in an old, abandoned factory, but the only times both of them have been here was with people, and the sense of orientation definitely doesn't run in the family. They park the car not far from the factory, then Ron watches as Ginny does the necessary ministrations to get them to the other side. It's late afternoon; though not quite milling with activity, the street is busy, bustling with robed people talking animatedly, miniature pets, flying quills. It occurs to Ron that it's already the beginning of the school year, and the memories of those first trips to Diagon Alley with her parents and Harry assail her.

Ginny takes her arm. "You okay?"

"Fine. I was just..."

"Remembering?"

Ron hides a smile. Trust Ginny to know what she's thinking about at all times. They might have their disagreements, but they understand each other, whether they want to or not. "Yeah."

Ginny laughs. "Yeah, me too. Don't know if I would go back, though." Ron hears what she isn't saying: those years had their fair share of horrors, of wars, of doubts. "Let's find that hotel."

The hotel, smack in the middle of the wizarding quarter, turns out to be an inconspicuous place, with a wide, well-lit terrace and a manager who throws Ron an intrigued, not entirely unkind look as they register. Their room is clean, though somewhat small. As Ginny reasons, they won't spend a lot of time there anyway. Ron's appointment with Doctor Black is tomorrow, and the surgery is the day after. She didn't want to lose any time - why would she, when this is her last step to being who she was born to be?

They get dinner in the hotel restaurant, then spend a few hours in the main street, arm in arm, observing the gaudily lit storefronts and the laughing restaurant patrons. Though Ron doesn't say it - just because she's a woman doesn't mean she's suddenly more expansive when it comes to her feelings -, it feels good to spend time with her little sister. She's still her favorite sibling, ill-timed coming out set aside; with all her quirks and sometimes questionable romantic decisions, intriguing and vivacious, she makes Ron want to take her under her wing and never let her go.

She clears her throat. "So."

Ginny laughs again. "Just get it over with. What do you want to ask me? Am I dating anyone? Yes, as it turns out."

Ron feigns outrage. "I just wanted to ask you how you were!"

"My ass," Ginny says. She shrugs. "Anyway, it's a girl from the team."

"Isn't that forbidden?"

"I guess. You've not read about it in the papers yet, though, have you?"

Ron would like to say that she doesn't read anything about her sister's love life in the papers, but that would be a lie.

"Then we're good at keeping a secret." Ginny pokes at her tight lips. "Oh, come on, it's not that bad. It's not like I'm dating a former Slytherin," she mockingly sneers at the name, "or anything, am I?"

"I just don't want you to get hurt. Sportspeople..."

"I'm sportspeople, Ron. I'll be fine."

Ron concedes the point to her; it's not like she's going to make her change her mind, anyway, and Molly did have a point when she taught them that there were mistakes everyone had to make at least once. They keep walking down the street, occasionally pointing to things that catch their eye, the high spire of a building in the horizon, illuminated by the festive fall lights, a woman dressed in eccentric garb, an owl chasing after a little boy on a broom, a letter encased between its claws.

"I meant to ask you," Ginny says after a while, a little hesitantly.

"What?"

"Why don't you change your name? Ron isn't - I don't know. It's not a girl's name?"

Ron shrugs. "It's my name."

She wishes she could explain more, that she had the words, but really it's all she thinks about it: it's her name, and she wouldn't let it go, not for anything. It's kept with her since childhood, throughout her long adolescence, the war, the friendships and hatreds that traversed all those years. Letting it go now... it would feel like betrayal. And besides: besides, there's no other name that feels as much hers as this one. She's always going to be a freak: if she's lucky, she'll pass for a woman in some places, someday, and then she'll just be 'that chick with the weird name'. It's not really a hassle, compared to all the rest.

"It's my name," she repeats. "It's me."

Ginny nods; they leave it at that.

*

The next morning Ron wakes up two hours before her alarm is set to ring. She hoists herself up on her elbows, blinking, detailing the darkened room, the dawn barely peeking at the edge of the curtains. The soft contours of Ginny's body, wrapped in the sheets, slowly appear. Ron sighs. Her body feels heavy, as if it knew what the day meant for her, for it - as if it were as afraid as Ron is, apprehensive to head into that hospital and face whatever is to come. Ron's had the procedure explained to her thousands of times - she probably could narrate it in detail - and yet she feels like she knows nothing about it, like her brain is woefully empty, unprepared.

After taking her meds, she dresses silently, careful not to wake Ginny up. The door shuts behind her with a muffled sound. The hotel is silent, most people still sleeping in their rooms. Through the corridor windows, the expanse of the sky is visible, pink and orange mixing in a surprising concoction, like one of Ron's potions from her school days, messed-up beyond saving. At the hotel restaurant, desert if for the harried-looking waiter, she orders a hot chocolate with cinnamon. Sometimes reverting to childhood remedies is the best way to cure homesickness.

She stays in the restaurant until the sun finally comes up, sipping her chocolate and diverting herself with the Daily Prophet. The moving comic dances before her eyes, but she can't read, her brain occupied with a thousand disparate thoughts, all terrifying in their own way. Ginny finally joins her around nine thirty, sitting opposite her with a small smile and no blame for leaving the room without leaving a note. She takes Ron's hand over the table, squeezes it minutely before letting go.

"It's going to be okay, sis," she says. The nickname warms Ron's heart.

They might have done other things that day, but to be honest Ron would be hard pressed to remember them. When it's time to go to the hospital, she's dressed and ready half an hour in advance, and doesn't even retort anything when Ginny laughs at her, saying that no Weasley has ever seen to be early for anything. An owl taps its beak on their hotel window, quickly followed by a smattering of other birds; when Ron opens the letters, her friends' and family's handwritings jump up to her and she smiles, somewhat quieted. Hermione's soft, neat, You don't need luck. carries her up the stairs of the big building, if not without fear, with a remarkable lack of outward freaking out.

The hospital is... well, it's a hospital. After all the times she's visited St Mungo's in the past few years, it's become something else to Ron: the place where Hermione works, where so many of her relatives and friends escaped death, where she had to watch Neville come back from his visit to his parents. This is different. This place is at once bland and smelling of chemicals and the place where, if everything goes well, Ron's life is going to change. For a moment she thinks that she'd like to be more cynical not to place as much hope in this one day, but that's not how she was raised. In her family, hope is the only currency.

She's so wrapped up in her thoughts that she doesn't notice that they've arrived to Doctor Black's office. Ginny's hand tightening on her arm clues her in though, and she shakes her head sharply. "Right."

She balls her fist, knocks at the door, just under the blocky plaque, Dr Black, Healer.

The door opens, only to reveal no other than Draco bloody Malfoy. Ron gapes.

The silence must last longer than her confused brain registers, at least enough to become embarrassing; Ginny clears her throat next to her.

"Draco," she says, her voice high-pitched, "um, hi? Didn't know you worked here. We must've made a mistake... we're searching for Doctor Black."

"That's me," Draco says, unblinking - but Ron can see he's surprised too.

She laughs, without meaning to. "Of course that's you," she says. Then: "You changed your name."

"You didn't."

Ginny looks between the two of them, looking as though she's getting more uncomfortable by the minute. Ron can relate. "Um, I'm going to... you'll be okay, right? I'll be -" she points behind her, though there is nothing but the hospital bustle.

Draco regards her coldly, the corner of his lip quirking in what could be a smile. "That would be preferable, thank you."

They both watch as she walks down the corridor in long, hurried strides, unsure of what comes next. Eventually Draco - Doctor Black - retreats into his office, holding the door open for Ron. "Please come in."

Ron sits down. She looks around her: there's no trace of what defined their school years, no Slytherin green, no pureblood coat of arms, nothing, only a picture of Narcissa Malfoy tilted in Draco's direction on the desk, Lucius obscured at the edge of the frame. Ron fidgets with the hem of her top, her fingers working without conscious thought. When she notices it, she stops, bites her lip instead. Truth is, she doesn't really know how to feel: it's been a long time since she hasn't hated the former Slytherins for that reason only, and most of the people who she used to be so ferociously opposed to in school are now close friends. On the other hand, Draco's been MIA for almost ten years now, and he must've known that Ron was his patient, if he got her file - he could've contacted her, made things right, but he didn't.

"You don't have to have me as your surgeon, if you don't want to," is what he opens with.

Ron shrugs, ill-at-ease. "Doctor Mortimer said you're the best. I want the best."

"She's right," Draco says, pride showing in his suddenly bright eyes. "Still, I apologize for not making this situation easier."

"Why didn't you?" The old insults, still ingrained in her after all those years of disuse, hover on the tip of her tongue, but she doesn't say them. Not only doesn't she mean them any more, but they would feel out of place in a setting like this, official and so important.

Draco shrugs. "As you know, I haven't been in touch with this... part of my life for years. I wasn't particularly eager to reconnect." Ron can understand that, even though she hasn't made that decision herself - probably couldn't have, even if she'd tried -: the wish to forget, to make everything that happened before, when they were still children, null and void, so that they can live normal adult lives. But she'll always be Ron Weasley, no matter how hard she tries: she can only go around it, polish the edges of her silhouette, make herself as different as she can while still remaining the same, one indispensable element of the Golden Trio. Maybe that, too, is part of the reason why she doesn't want to change her name; maybe she's accepted it. She nods.

"If you don't have any outstanding concerns, we can go ahead with the surgery tomorrow as planned. We'll check you in tonight, monitor your levels and proceed with the surgery tomorrow morning. I'll come in a bit early to explain the procedure - though I trust Doctor Mortimer filled you in on most of it?" Ron nods again. "Good. Then -"

He stands up behind his desk, extending a hand for Ron to shake. For the first time since she came into the room, Ron remarks that his demeanor with her is anything but normal - changed, of course, since they were at school, cordial and almost neutral, if not friendly, but nothing that betrays either disgust or bemusement at Ron's new identity, the dress, the shoes, everything.

They quickly go over the rest of the formalities, and Draco gives her the name of the nurse whose charge she will be in until the surgery. She thanks him; then, with a hand on doorknob: "Why are you doing this?"

Draco's eyes cut to her again, sharp. "What?"

"This. Medicine. Helping people." She can't resist a dig, that falls familiarly on her tongue. "Didn't used to be your speciality."

Draco shrugs. "We've all changed." When he answers, he seems to be looking somewhere beyond Ron, through the door and at something she can't guess at. "I suppose I just thought that my family's been responsible for enough death as it is; might as well be remembered for something else." He blinks. "Was that all?"

Ron nods wordlessly. She closes the door softly behind her, her heart hammering, but feeling strangely satisfied.

*

She spends most of the night awake, sitting up in her bed, trying not to think of all the ways the operation could go wrong. Ginny wanted to stay and sleep on a folding cot, but Ron convinced her to go back to the hotel and get a last good night's sleep before all the patient care. Now she's glad for it, a little selfishly: she doesn't know if she could've dealt with anything else than the overwhelming quietness of the room, screams resounding faintly beyond the glass, throughout the hospital.

It's three AM when someone slips into the darkened room. Ron perks up, curious.

"Weasley?" Draco's voice resounds, uncertain. "What are you doing still awake?"

Ron switches on her bedside lamp. "Can't sleep."

In the meager light, Draco's contours are ever sharper than usual, his high cheekbones lined with shadows. He looks exhausted; Ron is familiar with the look, has seen it more than once on Hermione's face over the years.

"You should; tomorrow's going to be a harrowing day."

Ron shrugs, gives a quick laugh. "Yeah, that's the reason."

Draco tilts his head, as though to say he can understand. He hovers at the edge of Ron's bed. "Do you mind if I..?"

Though slightly overwhelmed with the strangeness of the situation, Ron nods. "Long day?"

"Twelve-hour surgery."

They sit in silence for a while, Ron dozing slightly and Draco half-sitting at the edge of the bed, looking down at his hands blankly. It's strangely comfortable, actually, for what it is, but at this point Ron isn't really surprised by anything anymore.

"When did you hear," she asks after a while, "about me?"

"About a year ago," Draco says. Ron waits for him to elaborate, but he doesn't.

"Weren't you surprised?"

Draco sighs. "You know, Weasley, you see all kinds here. And I'm a doctor, it's what I do. I've seen a lot of our old classmates, people I knew and people I didn't, with all sorts of ailments. You grow... used to it, after a while. You learn not to judge."

"Who'd have thought," Ron says, but it's quiet, without bite. Draco tilts his head, maybe in agreement.

"I didn't see Granger."

Ron swallows. "She's not here. We're... taking a break. I didn't want her to have to take this on. It's my thing, you know?" She doesn't know why she's telling all this to Draco Malfoy, of all people, but it feels good, like a weight lifted off her heart.

"I always thought you and her would be together forever," Draco remarks idly. "One of those couples who get married right out of school and then live happily ever after."

Ron is surprised to learn he even thought about them, period, but she doesn't say it.

"What about you? You're married?" She might have heard something about it over the years, but if she has, her brain hasn't judged it important enough to remember. Suddenly she wishes she'd paid a little more attention when Blaise and Pansy were talking at the back of the Gobbler, conversations from which familiar words surfaced, but which Ron never really tried to be involved in.

A smile breaks out on Draco's face. "Yes. My wife... Astoria Greengrass, maybe you remember her?" Ron doesn't; the name invokes a Daphne Greengrass and a vague image of dark hair and green eyes, but that's about it. "Anyway, she's pregnant."

Ron thinks about laughing, but doesn't – it could misconstrued, and now that she's stricken a tentative truce with Malfoy, that's the last thing she needs. "Congratulations, mate."

"Thanks."

There's a silence, during which Ron imagines they both reflect over their respective lives, their surprising twists and turns; if Ron had been asked about their futures when she was still in school, this is probably the last thing she would have predicted.

"You're nervous about the surgery?"

Ron nods with a quirked grin, who wouldn't?

"You shouldn't be. I'm a really good surgeon, you know." When Ron laughs, he arches his eyebrow in a parody of his younger self. "I really am! Look," he glances quickly down at his watch, "I have a little time, so how about we go over it right now, okay? If it'll make you feel better. Maybe you can even get a few hours' sleep before we head into the OR."

"What about you?"

Draco smiles ruefully. "I'll be fine. This isn't my first rodeo." The phrase startles a chuckle out of Ron.

Ron hesitates for a moment, then, "Sure. Why not." It can't hurt, she reasons with herself.

So that's how they end up sitting cross-legged, face to face on Ron's hospital bed, Draco explaining that she can't eat anything in the morning, because they need her system to be clean before the surgery; then they give her the Sleeping Potion and after that it's "five hours of fun, if there's no complications". Ron recoils at the word, but Draco explains that they happen rarely, and when they do, they're almost always minor. "Then," says Draco, getting more animated, though he still speaks like a statue, without using his hands, "we use magic to tear the skin off your penis and plaster it to create the sides of your new vagina." At Ron's horrified face: "Don't worry, there's no pain. After that we have to go in, which means we align the nerves manually and then use Charms to reconnect them together in their new positions. A lot of it is really technical – the important part, for you, is that when you wake up you have to wait at least a day before getting the bandages off, the same thing, I think, than with FFS, and even after that there are a few weeks where it's really critical to have your post-surgical vagina monitored as often as possible, preferably here." Ron nods. Draco shrugs. "That's about it, really: in short, you'll go to sleep, I'll do my thing, and then when you wake up you'll have a brand new vagina. Voilà."

This time, Ron can't help but laugh. "I'm sorry, this just feels... this just feels so surreal, you talking about my vagina."

Draco looks a little bemused for a second, as though he couldn't see what about it, exactly, was funny; but then he joins, and for a few moments they're laughing, bent over, their arms touching, and the whole thing eases the knot in Ron's stomach, not all the way, but enough she can finally breathe around it.

When they finally quiet down Draco touches her forearm, a quick, reassuring touch. "Tomorrow you'll be a new woman," he says, slowly and seriously. Ron looks up at him.

Eventually Draco clears his throat. "I have to go now," he says. "Surgery in half-an-hour, then I've got my post-ops to take care of. This was..." he lets his sentence trail off. "Try to get some sleep, Weasley."

For the first time the name in his mouth feels oddly formal. "You can call me Ron," Ron says.

Draco tilts his head again, as though he were considering it. "I will," he says softly, and then the door closes behind him, and it doesn't take more than a few minutes before Ron's eyelid begin to droop and she falls into a deep, reparative sleep.

*

When she wakes up she's immediately launched into the bustling atmosphere of the hospital, nurses busy around her, Ginny holding her hand over the covers. It's barely an hour, enough time to affectionately refuse the chocolate Ginny bought her at the hospital store and take the obligatory shower and pass on the hospital gown before Draco waltzes into the room, followed by his flock of interns, tired eyes sharp over his thin smile.

"Weas – Ron," he says brightly, "how are we feeling today?"

Nauseous, Ron thinks, but she couldn't say whether with fear or with excitement, and in the end she goes for, "Nervous."

"Well, at least you slept a little." He smiles at her; Ginny's eyes travel between the two of them, intrigued, but she doesn't say anything. Draco turns to the nurses. "Is she ready?" The nurse, Marie, nods.

After that it's a whirlwind. First they make her climb on a stretched, then they force the potion down her throat; Ron barely has time to squeeze Ginny's hand and reassure her that everything has to be okay, that she doesn't have to worry, before she starts feeling a little woozy and the doors of the OR close behind her. Then they're alone: Ron on the operating table and, shortly after, Draco and his team, all clothed in sickly green blouses, caps and glasses, their squeaky-clean wands gleaming sharply in their hands.

Ron gives a nervous laugh. Four years, and she's still afraid, at every step.

"You were never really good at Charms," she says just before she finally sinks, a lightning strike of remembrance from days that seem so distant they could belong in a book.

Draco quirks an eyebrow. It's funny: when he stands there, with his big green blouse and his cold smile, he almost looks friendly. Something unclenches in Ron.

"I am now," Draco says. "Goodnight, Weasley."

Then the edges of the world blur, and Ron blacks out.

*

Ron is nervous. She's used to it, it's been her daily routine for a while now – though for a year it's calmed down somewhat – but still, she's fingering the hem of her skirt impatiently, her fingers knitting a complicated network. What if she doesn't show up? What if it's too late? What if... what if. But no, Ron said she would stop with her empty hypotheses, they're no use to anyone. She will show up. She's Hermione Granger; she always shows up.

And she does, about ten minutes later. She drops in the chair opposite Ron, her cheeks pleasantly red, her hair in disarray. She gives an embarrassed smile. "Sorry, there was traffic," she says.

Ron busies herself with getting them drinks – tea for Hermione, a beer for her – to hide her emotion and anxiety. It's not the first time since the surgery that she sees Hermione – Hermione wouldn't have let that stand – but it is the first they're as pointedly alone, with the clear intent to work out where their marriage stands and what direction they want to go into.

"You look beautiful," Hermione says. She's trying for offhand, Ron can see it, but her cheeks color nonetheless; Ron preens a little at the compliment. It's not like she didn't agonize for an hour in front of her closet trying to decided what to wear, after all.

"Thank you. You do too."

They smile at each across the table for a while, and for a second Ron can't imagine why they ever separated in the first place; but in the end she's the first to snap at of it, eyes flitting back down to her drink.

"So, uh," Hermione says, "how do you... feel?"

Ron smiles at the corner of her mouth. Those questions are always a bit uncomfortable, but it's not like there's any way to talk about that surgery and its results without getting alarmingly intimate. Besides, she's happy with the results. She's happy, actually – end of. It's pretty new.

"I'm great. I'm better than great, actually. But enough talk about me. How is the residency going?"

"Almost finished. Doctor Black is scheduled to visit the hospital to operate on one of my patients in a few weeks, actually."

After Ron came back from Manchester, they both laughed over the coincidence of this fortuitous reunion, and its happy results; since then Ron kept in contact with Draco. Their letters, though scarce because of Draco's demanding work and Ron's effort to build herself a life she'll feel wholly comfortable in, are getting more and more friendly; Ron's even met Draco's wife and his son-to-be when she went to dinner at his house after being discharged after the surgery, a surprising and spontaneous invitation on Draco's part.

"Yeah? How do you think it's going to go?"

Hermione puts on her professional face, but she's smiling underneath. "Doctor Black and I are both consummate professionals," she singes. "Seriously, I think it's going to be strange, but if he's that way with you, I don't see why it wouldn't go well. Though I can't promise we'll be instant friends, but I think Pansy and Padma are planning to swing by to catch a glimpse of him. She says he replies to her letters once every three months." Ron tilts her head; nothing surprising there. "It's still... I don't know, it's still weird, that whole thing. That he operated on you, you know... but the world is like that, I suppose."

At no other time would that statement have rung truer to Ron's ears than now, with the budding spring exploding around them, couples leaning across tables to kiss, the clear blue sky outside and the perspective of a possible reconciliation in the future. The world, like the Muggle god, works in mysterious ways; but for once, instead of feeling bitter against them, Ron reflects that she'd never have imagined that after all these trials her life would still be filled with such a sense of hope. It doesn't mean everything's going to be okay, or easy – but making her body what it was meant to be was a big step, and now Ron feels like she's standing on firmer ground, with more chances of success.

She gathers her courage. "So," she says brightly, "do you think maybe you'd want to go back to my flat for tea? We can talk more there."

Hermione smiles, sweet and more beautiful than Ron ever remembers seeing her. "Yes," she says softly, and she links her fingers with Ron's next to the teapot, "yes, I'd like that very much."