The Sugar Quill
Author: Athena Arena (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Never Go Back  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

Dis: The universe of Harry Potter belongs to JK Rowling, and is used here without her permission. I acknowledge that I have no rights to any cannon characters, settings or events mentioned. I have no intention and no desire to make profit from this piece, as the credit deserves to go to JK Rowling as she invented them and thus owns all rights to them. Not me. Got it? Good. I have quoted music lyrics form the following sources: 'Walking Away' by Craig David, available on his Album 'Born to do it' and from 'One of God's Better People' by Robbie Williams, from his Album 'Life thu A Lens'. This piece contains lines from various Shakespeare Plays and I fully acknowledge that I did not write them. Finally, The poetry quotes and fic title are owned by Carol Ann Duffy, from the poem 'Never Go Back' which can be found in her prize winning collection 'Mean Time' published by Anvil Press Poetry. Phew. What a disclaimer.

All this is dedicated to the people who live in my town. You'll know where I mean once you read the fic. Take heed from Hermione's experience: There is a world off the island. Don't spend your life ignoring it. Saying that, enjoy!

 

***

Outside, the street tear litter in their thin hands,
... God, this is an awful place... Baby,
what you owe this place is unpayable
in the only currency you have. So drink up. Shut up,
then get them in again. Again. And never go back.

Extracts from 'Never Go Back' -- Carol Ann Duffy

 

It had been five years since she'd killed him. Five years of torment, of self-denial, of misery and of nothing. Five years since she'd turned her back on the world she loved and simply walked away, unable to bear the pain it held and the looks on everyone else's faces as she saw in their eyes the truth. He was gone. And there was nothing she could do to turn the clock back. She knew she could never go back.

The British seaside wasn't so bad. There were times even in the height of winter when it was nothing but utterly beautiful. That day the air was still and the water flat, like a translucent sheet of glass that glided over its many layers as it edged into shore, the only ripples caused when it lapped gently against the sand. The tide was out, so she found herself treading the high tide mark and the debris it left in it's wake: the sea weed, the shells, the litter and muck of the north sea intermingling with the tangle of nature that lay at her feet. The filth intertwined with the foam. A seagull cried, its call echoing across the bay, and with that sound, Hermione Granger felt like crying too.

She was twenty-three. Twenty three. In her mind, that amazing, unmatched mind, she'd left her home at the age of eleven and ventured into a brave new world that now she'd never dreamed would take her back. She'd done too much against that. Seven years she'd spent within the safety of its walls, learning, absorbing, watching and waiting for the inevitable. She'd barely gone home after that; reality feeling alien to her eyes. Her holidays were then spent at the school or with close and treasured friends, now gone ...

It wasn't often that it got to her, this self-imposed isolation. The southern resort was always deserted, it seemed to her, just as isolated as she was, stuck out on a limb from the rest of the world in the most eastern point of England. At least for today the arctic winds were kept at bay. Locals occasionally said that there wasn't a high piece of land between there and the Russian Urals; the winds of Siberia prone to sweeping down across the town and not taking any prisoners. On that winter's day, its impending arrival almost swept the town of life itself. She'd seen that too much in one lifetime.

'It's you...'

The voice that interrupted her thoughts sent shivers down her spine. It wasn't him. It couldn't be him. He was the last person she'd expect to run into on a British beach in the middle of winter; the occasional blaring cheerful tunes of the arcade machines along the sea front providing a soundtrack that just didn't fit the picture. Of course she didn't hear it. It was the substance of her wishful imagination, wanting something back that simply didn't belong to her. After all that had happen, she didn't deserve it. And that was why she didn't run around. But she flinched. The voice continued.

'I knew it was you,' he said, the sound of the tones edging ever closer. 'I could see you from the station, up the top of the hill. Who else but you would walk along the beach in the middle of winter, Hermione?' the man with the voice sighed and turned to look out to sea. 'Who else but our Hermione?'

She still didn't answer, but instead observed the silent course of a freight ship on the final part of its voyage to the Thames, tip-toeing across the horizon as if it were suspended above it. The final stretch, the last straight before home. Wherever it happened to be. For herself, she didn't know. He spoke again.

'Hermione?'

And this time she turned. With a sudden gust of wind from across the sea, her face was engulfed with a sea of mahogany curls, now claimed from her teenaged frizz into something more manageable even in the British winter. For a moment she was blinded, but it didn't matter. She knew who owned the voice, even of it was a little deeper than she remembered it. But she still felt the compulsion to push her hair from her face and observe who was addressing her. And if she hadn't known it already in her heart, she wouldn't have believed her eyes.

He had grown, if that were possible, but in a more subtle and dignified way than she would have thought. It was almost as if he'd finally grown into his body, the proportions just so, and his frame sitting comfortably on his shoulders. He was now broad enough to match his giant-like hands that seemed able to hold the world and his aunt in their palms. She'd always liked his hands. But over all this, it was his face that made him who she knew. The freckles were faded considerably, replaced with a pale complexion that seemed even more so in the light of the late afternoon, a face that had seen more darkness than Hermione would liked to have imagined. His nose was still slightly elongated, but along his jaw-line there was a faint line of stubble where the evening shadow was creeping in, making the boy into the man who stood before her on the sand. But the flaming red hair was still there. She hadn't expected anything else.

'Come on,' said Ron Weasley, giving the sad looking woman a weak but warming smile. 'I'll buy you a coffee.'

***

It was a short walk into town and down to the waterfront café. They entered Mario's from the high street behind, ordered their drinks and took them to the upstairs gallery. The sun now began to say its goodbyes to the day as it sunk behind the floating horizon, a sight that seemed to hold the world in a delicate balance and shade them in a golden glow. They hadn't said a word for the whole walk up there, past the Clock Tower and a small set of gardens, down the litter-ridden high street and carefully into the coffee shop. He could see her avoiding his eye. He guessed she didn't want to imagine what was lingering there.

Ron just felt completely numb. He didn't know if it was just the cold of the winter's day or something different entirely. He just felt as if he's swallowed a lump of ice that was failing to melt in the pit of his stomach, churning away the rest of the day as it became entangled with a network of nerves. He shivered. A combination of both, maybe. He couldn't say. He was never very good with his inner workings. He needed to keep an open mind. He couldn't afford for it to be clouded now, not after all of this. Not after all it had taken him to get there.

She was still unmistakably Hermione, right down to the way she held her cappuccino and sipped it delicately enough to leave the foam on top intact. Perfection. He'd never been one for the fancy drinks, so he sipped slowly and deliberately from his filtered coffee and enjoying the warmth as it spread across his lips. He observed her over the rim of his cup. She certainly controlled her hair more these days, the mass of curls that were currently lying luxuriously upon her shoulders falling in un-frizzed ringlets that seemed more natural than styled. She was paler than he'd remembered, looking washed out by whatever it was she was doing in that town and in desperate need of a hug. She had pulled her tailored jacket tightly round herself, protecting her frame from the weather and everything else while the cinnamon eyes looked dully on. He didn't like that. That wasn't the Hermione he knew.

'How did you know I was here?' she asked suddenly, still fixing her eyes at some point outside the window they sat parallel to, somewhere beyond the shore line. 'How did you know where to find me?'

'I have contacts,' he answered shortly, putting his cup down on the tabletop. He even smiled at her sudden interest. 'It took me a while, but I got there in the end. And as I said, I saw you on the beach.' He took out piece of paper from his pocket, which seemed well worn and looked at. It had an address on it. 'I don't really need this any more.'

Hermione picked it up from the table and read it with a frown. 'Wouldn't have been much use,' she said with a sigh, 'I moved out of there three months ago.'

'Oh, right.'

Silence engulfed them again as Ron stirred his coffee absently, Hermione taking another sip of her own. They both felt suddenly awkward. They knew what was sitting between them, creating this gulf that neither of them felt ready to bridge only five minutes after a five year absence. Hermione knew she'd never be ready. She just hoped Ron wouldn't bring it up.

'So,' he coughed politely, still failing to catch her eye. 'What are you doing down here exactly?'

'Teaching,' she said with a shrug as she sensed him suddenly tense up. 'Don't look so surprised, Ron. You can't say you didn't see it coming.'

'Where?'

'One of the local comprehensives. The money is good.'

'The money?'

'It's all I need.'

He had to restrain himself from laughing out loud as he raised a questioning eyebrow. 'Nothing else?'

'Nothing else.'

He looked at her with a child-like frown and took another sip from his coffee, an awkward silence yet again settling in. She looked like she was existing in a different world, completely distant to him and the coffee cup. The silence said a lot more than anything else in the meeting. She sighed.

'So what are you up to? Anything good?'

He looked just as pessimistic as she did. 'The Ministry. Started off in law enforcement, did a stint in recruitment, but somehow ended up in Muggle artefacts.'

She smiled, the expression giving what Ron thought was a minuscule sparkle of the old Hermione away before it disappeared. She looked grey again. 'Like your dad?'

'Like my Dad.' He placed his cup down again and rubbed his face. 'He was a good man.'

'Was?' she questioned briefly, but then realised what he was implying. She cast her mind back beyond the fog to recall the kind-hearted face of Mr Weasley and blanched. 'Oh Ron, I'm sorry. When?'

'Last year. Attack on the Ministry, isolated incident. Some dark wizards just up for the old days. Their arses are rotting in Azkaban now. There was nothing anyone could have done.'

'I'm so, so sorry...'

'You said that.'

Ron's expression didn't change but Hermione still felt a pang of guilt settle in her chest. Guilt for whatever it was she hadn't done, despite the bluntness of Ron's words. Whatever she wasn't there for. Whatever, yet again, she hadn't been able to prevent. She finished her cappuccino and placed it back firmly on the table, not holding anything back.

'Why are you really here, Ron?' she said irritably, in quiet, dangerous tones. 'What do you really want?'

'To see you,' he said simply, finishing his own drink. 'To talk. It's been five years...'

She bent down to pick up her bag. 'And why do you suppose that is?'

'Hermione, just hear me out,' he said with a tinge of desperation in his voice, seeing that she was making to leave. 'There are things we need to talk about. Things to sort out. There's too much unfinished business. We've left it hanging for so long...'

She was now on her feet and rummaging through her purse and placed a couple of pound coins on the table to pay for her drink. 'Maybe I like it that way. Maybe it suits me.' She looked down at him with those cinnamon eyes that sparkled with a fresh outrage. 'What is there left to talk about?'

She left the question hanging, then turned and prepared to depart. She hadn't taken two steps before he answered.

'Harry.'

She froze, but didn't turn back. As soon as the sound of the name entered the air, Ron regretted it. But it was the only way to make her listen, the only way to get her attention. The only way to make her stay. Instead, gradually, painfully, she rounded on him with her face as pale as ever and an object in her hand, the tip pointing at Ron. Her hand seemed steady, but that didn't fool him. He knew she was shaking all over. She gripped her wand tightly as the colour fled from her lips.

'Ron...' she said in more of a dangerous whisper than before. 'Leave it alone.'

He shook his head and made to rise from the table. 'No. We need to talk about it. You need to know...'

'What?' she hissed, anger seething from her teeth, 'How I killed him? I think I'm perfectly aware of that...'

'But you...'

'I don't want to hear it, Ron.' She lowered her wand. 'Just go.'

He had no choice to obey. He rose slowly to his feet, slung his coat over his arm and gave her one last, withering look. She was staring out to sea again. As he passed, he made to reach out for her shoulder but she pulled away sharply, taking a quick intake of breath as if she'd plunged herself into the ice. It was as if she liked the cold. He swallowed.

'I'll see you later.'

She made no reply, but as she heard his footsteps depart down the stairs of the café and the door shut with a slam, she let out an anguished sob. And for the first time in what felt like years, she knew what someone else was feeling too.

***

'He's coming,' he said, 'It's tonight.'

The friends had gathered in the Gryffindor common room, deserted in the quickly fading light as most of the school seemed to relax in the dormitories above. They were blissfully ignorant of the horror about to come. The accumulation of seven years work, for both them and the enemy. They'd spent a lifetime and a half preparing for this moment, and it was to arrive tonight. Voldemort's last stand.

Harry looked over to Hermione, covering up the anxiety in his face with a pathetic attempt at a smile. 'Is it ready?'

She sighed, 'Ready as it'll ever be...'

But she failed to conceal her worry too, her doubt and outright panic. She felt as if there wasn't an ounce of warmth left in her body, like she was being slowly eaten away. She knew that Harry didn't have to go through all this, that it was simply a choice he had to make. And Harry, brave noble Harry, would never have let himself say no. It was as if he owed the world a debt and would spend an entire lifetime paying it back.

Voldemort was coming. The school had been laid siege to for nearly three months now, the Dark Lord gathering his hoards of Death Eaters old and new around him on the outskirts of the grounds, the Ministry being too late in its reaction and losing the giants to the enemy too. The temptation had proved too much. Even in the darkening light, Hermione could make out the fires of Voldemort's forces beyond the forbidden forest, sparks and smoke rising high into the air with more velocity tonight that she'd ever witnessed before. Harry was right. This certainly wasn't a drill. Tonight was to be the big push.

Except they had a plan, prepared for every possibility. They'd always had a plan, the three of them: Harry, Hermione and Ron, always together, no question of anything else.

***

But Ron wasn't going to give up that easily. He found a small bed and breakfast to stay in a couple of streets up from the front, a grotty little place that only had one room spare as the rest were occupied by wide-eyed asylum seekers. He had contemplated taking up residence in the television lounge but decided against it as he almost interrupted a heated discussion in what sounded like their native tongue. He merely retired to his room down the hall and quietly shut the door.

Sitting down and kicking off his shoes, Ron felt as if he'd been walking for weeks and days. He didn't know why he just didn't apparate down from London instead of facing the horror that was the south east train line, the one that brought the hoards of commuters and city rats out to their escape in the suburbs everyday, nine and five. Not that there was much down here. It truly was the end of the line. But as least, he supposed, it was quiet. Tranquil, even, once you blotted out the noiseless rumble of the arcades and the seagull song drifted faintly away. The sound of commercialism. Whatever it was Hermione saw in the place, it wasn't obvious in the outset.

Hermione. After months of searching, he'd found her, standing alone on the beach without anything else in the world apart from the thoughts inside her mind. His throat had tightened at the thought and the sight. He'd missed her. Somehow after Hogwarts, he'd always pictured the three of them, himself, Harry and Hermione, all sticking together for the greater good of the world, all training to be Aurors and essential do-gooders. Hermione with the brains, Harry with the magical brawn and himself to fill up all the gaps between. It had been perfect. But it wasn't to be.

'What am I doing here?' he wondered aloud to nobody in particular. He rubbed his face wearily at the distance he had come, both on the train and beyond, and cursed himself for wanting to be seventeen again. Was he simply trying to recapture his youth, trying to put all the pieces of that puzzle together to help him settle into adulthood with everything complete? One last piece of innocence the dark had prevented him experiencing? Was that what this was all about? He couldn't say. He didn't want to say. He was just keeping a promise, said in a breathless gasp what felt like a thousand years ago. He was merely keeping his word to a friend. A word that by today's events had come five years to late.

He couldn't stand to be awake anymore. Pulling his shirt over his head without removing any of the buttons, he cast the item into the corner and stared at it where it fell, the folds of the material cascading into a crumpled heap up against the bathroom door. It was soon to be joined by the rest of his garments as he sought refuge in the warmth of the empty, artificial bed. But no sleep was to arrive until the early hours of the day.

***

She had been working on it for weeks, and now it was finished. She siphered off the precious liquid into the smallest of vials and sealed it, tapping it once with her wand to make sure a single drop would not escape. It couldn't escape. They were depending on it.

Hermione was easily the best of all three of them at Potions. In fact she was the best in the school, with the possible exception of Draco Malfoy. But although no one would ever admit it, Hermione had her suspicions that he got more than a helping hand from Professor Snape on occasion. But that didn't matter. Simple child's play. They were playing with life and death now.

'Harry...' she said slowly, holding the vial up to the light and tapping it softly with her finger. 'I don't think this is such a good idea...'

Harry Potter, standing next to her in the empty toilet cubical that had been their makeshift lab since the second year, looked at her sternly. 'I trust you Hermione.'

'I only want you to drink it if you don't have any other choice,' she replied, attempting to be stern but finding her voice to be shaky and emotion ridden. 'It really should be a last resort, a back up in case... in case...' she couldn't bring herself to say it, because despite her fear she couldn't comprehend it happening. Not to them. Not to Harry. They'd got this far together and they'd get through it together. There wasn't any other choice. But she did. 'In case the worse should happen.'

'I trust you...' he said again.

And how those words would haunt her.

***

Hermione had stormed out of the café, walked briskly up the road and didn't even stop for breath until she was on the next bus out of there, moving away from the town's central square and continuing up towards the hill. The wind had quickly got up, she hadn't noticed. The day was finally darkening as the glorious winter day was giving way to the gloomy, raining night. It was there she faltered. She could feel tears beginning to prick the corners of her eyes as she examined her now wand-less hand, the instrument back to gathering dust in her handbag as the limb turned pale and white. She was shaking. She bit her lip.

The old lady sitting opposite her, a tweed knee length coat brought right up under her chin where it was fastened with a flowered scarf that also covered her head looked at her, concerned. The crow's feet at the corner of her eyes became even more wrinkled in anxiety and Hermione brush away a tear, embarrassed and ashamed. She didn't like seeing the innocent cry.

'Are you all right dear?' she croaked, holding out her hand. 'You look like you've seen a ghost.'

Hermione nodded numbly but ignored the woman's gesture, the old lady pulling back her limb but not allowing her eyes to leave Hermione's face. The smell of cats wafted around the woman. Hermione sighed and gulped solemnly. 'I suppose I have.'

The old lady frowned for a moment, Hermione taking literally a colloquial expression. She sat back a little in surprise and sighed herself, accepting. 'A shock for the system, eh?'

'You could say that.'

Then the woman left her alone, eventually getting off the bus at the next stop but leaving the distinct smell of feline creatures behind. Hermione watched the streets go by, road after road, what felt like a hundred set of traffic lights and zebra crossings as she passed through another heavy shopping area. The street was full of little enterprises and even smaller shops, catering for everything the main high street didn't supply. Or want to supply. This was the dead end, and this was where she lived.

Rain had begun to fall by the time she'd got off the bus. Thunderous clouds had suddenly come rolling off the North Sea, darkening Turner's skyscape in an instant as it was driven down in vertical sheets, drenching everything in sight. She didn't even speed up her pace. She had, for some strange reason, got off the bus a few stops early and opted to walk through the rain, allowing it to drench her skin and soak into her hair as if to cleanse it of what had just passed. The walk from the bus stop took a good five minutes, and she didn't even do up the coat. She just needed the excuse. She needed to be cold, wet, hungry and alone to simply justify her want, her overriding need. The essentiality of her tears. She needed the excuse to cry.

As she unlocked her front door and walked slowly up the stairs to her room, she saw the first flash of lightning outside beyond the dark. It was only after the closed the door of her room that she allowed her sob to be muffled by the storm. Because she knew the flood, once unleashed, was highly unlikely to stop. She missed Harry. She missed the magic. She missed them all, the school, her friends and her gift. And Ron. And Ron.

***

The redheaded stranger was someone you could never shake off. He'd done a stint in magical law enforcement in his time, in the Aurors office before it was scaled down to domestic disturbances and its responsibilities passed to the international body. Its existence after Voldemort had been proved unnecessary. He'd missed that. His department shifts hadn't exactly been boring; Magical Recruitment, Games and Sports - even Muggle Artefacts had its upsides - he had never felt quite as content as he'd been with the Aurors. There was always dark to fight against in the world, whether it was evil cloaked wizards wielding weapons of death, or simply a cloud that hung over the scene and threaten to engulf them forever, he felt the urge to fight it. And he knew he owed all that to Harry.

He swallowed a little as he drove along the main road, the car he had hired for the week as opposed to Apparating over unfamiliar territory glided along the top road like a dream. The extra enchantments were certainly helping. He sighed. Getting more like Dad every day.

But Harry had been something else entirely. A friend. The best friend he'd ever had. His own family was huge, there was no doubt about that, but before you went to Hogwarts it was generally all you knew. Magical children were educated at home, no primary schools set up for their care and the only other option being ordinary Muggle education. Just one flash of Fred and George with the toilet seat was enough to erase that possibility. Friends made at Hogwarts were generally friends for life, and Harry had been exactly that. From that first moment on the train, they were comrades; when the previously polarised boys drew together to face this brave new world head on. The best times they'd had: fake wand fighting in Transfiguration, making up their divination charts, laughing. The bad along side too, tackled with as much muster as anything else before them: Basilisks, Boggarts, Dementors and death. They had faced them all by the tender age of seventeen. And survived. He supposed he should have guessed that their luck would soon run out.

He reached the roundabout at the end of the national speed limit road and immediately saw where he was heading. A typical 1960's building, occasionally brightened up with a nice looking shrubbery or a lick of paint on the drainpipes that crawled over its skin like an exterior skeleton. It beckoned him forward with colourful welcome signs, and he quickly turned into the car park of the place and pulled the car to a halt. He sighed again and rubbed his face, muttering why he was doing this. He felt a jolt in his stomach as he remembered. For her.

He sat in the car for a good few minutes, not a creature stirring in the grounds apart from the odd pupil rushing here and there on messages and errands. This school was as far from Hogwarts as he could possibly comprehend: The dirty brown uniformed bricks chipped with wear and tear, not age, jaunted out at every angle in the misshapen bundle of buildings that surrounded him. He could see imitation modern art, done by the students, and hanging by a widow, a vague copy of an abstract artist that was quite endearing in its childish quality. He smiled and became almost wishful for old Sir Cadogan. With that in mind, he finally found the energy to move, got out the car, slammed the door behind him and started walking to the door.

He had no idea where he was going in the school. Of course he knew Hermione worked there: his previous detective work had seen to that. In fact the private investigator wanted to make the first contact, but Ron found himself instantly saying no. He'd had enough of replying on other people, and this was something he wanted to do by himself. He should have done it years ago. It was a promise, one he wished he'd completed years before and could feel a fresh surge of guilt in his stomach at the failure to complete the dying wish of his true best friend. He just hadn't been able to face it, and now knew he'd been a fool.

Luckily as he reached the door, an older girl was coming out, her prefect badge firmly attached to her school uniform and standing out in brilliance against the regulation black. She looked a little tired, burdened down with books and folders but smiled at him nonetheless, the emotion lighting up her face against the otherwise dreary day.

'Are you lost?' she said, seeing the baffled expression on Ron's face at the thought of trying to find Hermione in such a complex. He looked around for a second and then finally decided his move.

'Yes, yes, I suppose I am,' he said, stuttering a little. 'You couldn't by any chance show me where Miss Granger's classroom is, could you?'

The girl frowned a little, thinking for a minute before the name finally clicked. 'Oh yeah, sorry, she doesn't teach any of my subjects. Can't stand science, I'm all humanities... Have you signed in?' Ron nodded, not really taking notice of the question as she beckoned him to follow. 'This way.'

He followed the girl silently, walking carefully behind as she tried in vain to prevent her ankle length coat from trailing in the winter mud, as dry and dusty as it was once they entered another modernised block. He sighed and shook his head. It was as if the place attracted dust, was in love with dust, beckoned it from all corners of the globe to settle on its floors and cover the ground with its dirt and grime. They were even leaving footprints. Argus Filch would have thrown a fit.

They quietly ascended the stairs and emerged on another dusty corridor, battered lockers lining the walls with the doors of classroom visible beside them, each little window frame holding its own story. They stopped outside what looked like a science lab and the prefect bid her farewells, muttering something about needing to be in History and stalking back down the stairs, her coat swishing out behind her. Ron watched her go for a minute, looking out the stairwell window as she walked to the other side of the school and slipped quietly out of sight. He could hear a voice beyond.

'Right everybody, could I have some quiet please?...'

He didn't want to go in just yet. He didn't feel ready. Yet as he leaned in towards the glass fronted window he suddenly found his hand reaching for the doorknob and turning it silently, his feet almost gliding without his control into the room. She hadn't noticed.

'Have you finished those questions?' Hermione now asked her class, getting a few muffled grunts in return. She still failed to notice the new presence in the back row of her class. The rebels sitting there had given the stranger, who had crept into the room and sat among their number, a sideways glance but little more acknowledgement than that. Ron was glad. He hadn't found his voice yet, for he was watching Hermione.

Her desk was slightly raised at the front of the room, with a sink to one side and a pile of marking on the other. The chaos was organised into perfect piles here there and everywhere as she pulled a few sheets towards her. She'd tied her hair up, Ron noticed, something she'd hardly ever done in Hogwarts. Her curls were pulled tightly in a twist on the back of her head and secured by a few selected pins, a pencil sticking through the main of the knot to hold it all together as a few strands still straggled on the shoulders of her lab coat. She'd even taken to wearing glasses, the gold rimmed specks perching at the end of her nose causing her to have to look down at everything and everyone as if she was scrutinising them on the spot. Strict yet approachable. Ron inwardly sighed. McGonagall had always been her role model.

'So,' she said, finishing the title on the whiteboard behind her with a flourish whilst still expertly ignoring the back row. 'What do we understand by the term 'element'?'

A hand of a dark-haired girl in the front row instantly rose into the air. Hermione nodded at her.

'It's a basic pure chemical that can be joined to others to form compounds. They are all listed in the periodic table with gaps for the ones that haven't been discovered yet.'

'Very good, Natalie,' Hermione genuinely smiled. 'A little more than I asked for, but never mind. An element has its own kind of atom and unique character. Some react more than others when put with other elements and form compounds. But that's tomorrow's lesson.'

A few people laughed at poor little Natalie for being ahead of the game: most of what she was saying sailing straight over their heads. Hermione alone had them captivated now and they'd only follow under her steam. She continued.

'However, in medieval times it was believed you could change one element into another, especially lead into gold, one of the main aims of an ancient art called alchemy. They believed there was, and unsurprisingly failed to discover, a substance that could aid the transformation of matter in such a way, called the philo - '

She froze, for it was then she had glanced at the back row and locked eyes with the redheaded man in their presence. Her voice dried up in her throat, dry gulps coming out into the air as she tried to get the name out. The class merely looked at their teacher absently as Hermione's lesson came to a halt. She could see the disappointment in his eyes, those startlingly innocent eyes that had widened in amazement as she'd worked out the identity of Nicholas Flamel all those years ago, when they'd actually gone looking for the stone she knew darn well existed. Now they widened with pain, shock and dismay. With disappointment. And it hurt.

'The philo, the philos... the...' she gave up. 'Oh, it isn't on the syllabus, so the name doesn't matter. Look it up for homework.' She suddenly became quite skittish, shuffling more paper around her desk until she found the pile she wanted and passed it onto the front row. She may have been speaking to the class, but her eyes didn't leave Ron for a second as she spoke. 'Just read the relevant chapter in your textbooks and answer these questions. I want your parchments - I mean exercise books - in first thing Wednesday. Dismissed.'

'But Miss!' said Natalie from the front role, looking shocked. 'It's still ten minutes before the bell...'

'Oh don't complain,' hissed the boy sitting next to her. 'The ice maiden is melting. Just go!'

As the class rushed out in quick succession, Natalie gave Ron a long, scornful look for cutting off her lesson as she disappeared down the hall. Hermione strode after them, teacher planner in hand. Ron stood up slowly and also made for the door, shutting it quickly once the last child had departed as Hermione's pace suddenly quickened to dash through it and out of sight. But Ron was too fast and had stepped in the way.

'What the...' she stuttered before she walked head on into him, the contents of her folder flying everywhere like a scattering of paper snow across the ground. Ron's reflexes immediately compelled him to bend down and help his friend clear up the debris. His anger fizzing out for a second as he knelt down opposite her on the floor.

'Oh, Hermione, I'm sorry, I...'

But as he reached for her notebook, he froze. She watched him with her own eyes wide as his finger traced the writing on the cover, underlining her name with his touch, lingering on each letter. He tried to look her in the eye but she couldn't meet his gaze.

'Helene?' he croaked. 'Helene Granger? What is all this...?'

'This,' she muttered as she grabbed her notebook from him. 'Is none of your business. I told you to leave me alone...'

He grabbed her wrist. 'It is now. What are you trying to do? Live in denial?'

'No,' she snapped, 'I'm just trying to live.'

'Well, you're going about it in a pretty stupid way...'

'What do you...'

'Look at it this way, Hermione,' he said, spitting out her name as if it were poison on his tongue, 'Look at all this. You're denying yourself. You're denying your beliefs, what you know is real. What you are. I mean, Chemistry. Alchemy not real, is it? A fruitless quest?' he glared, his eyes alight with fire. 'So what was it that we were doing back in the first year then? Hunting for the Easter Bunny?' he laughed ironically. 'Wouldn't explain this then...'

He reached up with his empty hand and brushed back his hair to reveal a hairline scar along his temple, presumably where the chessman had struck him. She hadn't even realised it was there. Hermione gave a little gasp and attempted to reach out and touch it, but Ron batted her hand away and stood.

'Ron, I...'

'Don't,' Ron said quietly, closing his eyes and shaking his head. 'Just don't. But do you want to know the truth? You still have your wand in your pocket?'

She nodded numbly, beginning to feel tears in her eyes as she felt his disappointment cut through her like a knife. He sighed openly and reached the door, opening it into the now crowded corridor. He put his other hand into his pocket and produced a small piece of folded up parchment. He held it up to her and slowly she took it, both of them holding it for a second as she looked in his eyes fearfully. He stared openly right back before he let go of the parchment first.

'Then if you really believed all that crap you were telling the kids,' he said, stepping back, 'you would have memory charmed yourself a long time ago.'

Then he swept into the corridor and was soon swallowed up by the crowd.

It took Hermione a full minute to realise she was still crouched on the floor looking up to the space a moment ago Ron had occupied. And even then she didn't move. She bowed her head and examined all her scattered paperwork, her notebook in a separate space away from the rest that she now felt would be contaminated if anyone dared to infiltrate it. She felt a wreck, so she slumped down on the floor and desperately tried her best not to cry. The rug had been tugged.

'Helene?'

Quickly rubbing the tears away, she looked up briefly into the face of her head of department and continued to pick up the wreckage.

'Helene, are you all right? I mean I...'

'My name's not Helene,' she suddenly found herself saying in a whisper, the words flowing out of her mouth before she found the power to stop them. The head of department hadn't heard. She finally picked up her stuff, mumbled her apologies and looked down where the redhead had gone. She turned back to her boss, shaking the thoughts and the previous conversation from her head. 'I'm going to be late for my next lesson.'

She walked out.

***

Sitting in the staff room that lunch with a cup of cold tea, Hermione could feel the conversation just floating straight over her head. The yells and screams of the children outside were muffled to her in her daydream, her vision still blurred both by tears and memories of those disappointed eyes and the stories they held within their muddy depths. Her heart had given a most awful pang when she saw him, the class totally oblivious to the stranger in their midst and now spreading rumours that the chemistry chick was really beginning to lose it. Her tea had been made twenty minutes ago, but she had no intention of drinking it now. For all she could care, it could go to hell. She hurt.

Ron wasn't going to let her go. She knew that now. He had given her that look, the look of unwavering doubt and determination, knowing he wasn't helpless in the situation and so was not willing to give up until every avenue had been turned upside down and re-routed. It was the same look that Harry used to get once he had his mind set on something. Going after the Philosopher's Stone. Rescuing Ginny from the Chamber, she could imagine, although her petrified status at the time had prevented her knowing all the details. The look he held when he had pointed his wand at Sirius in the shack, before he knew the truth. She smiled to herself. Ron had stolen that look from his friend. It was as if a part of Harry lived on in them both, in their mannerisms and actions. She knew she wouldn't be anywhere near where she was if it hadn't been for the Boy who Lived who no one else in the room knew about. He would always be alive in their minds at least, but a small voice in her head would taunt her forever with the reason he was dead in the first place. It wasn't his fault. It was hers. But at least here she was safe. At least here she didn't have to be reminded of it everyday, Until today. Typically today. Today it had all come crashing down. Her sacred space was gone. But on the other hand, she couldn't say for sure if it was sacred in the first place.

She hadn't been able to stick around, after it had happened. After the dark had fallen, she found herself cast in the blackness of the night while others rejoiced in the brand new dawn. She'd been engulfed by it, the guilt. It hadn't had to be like that. She knew the grief would swallow her whole and she'd never emerge and breathe again unless she was totally free. So she'd run. She'd run off the platform just a week later and hadn't looked back since. A year in sixth form college. An accelerated degree. A PGCE and a job teaching a subject that went against everything else she knew was true. Ron was right. She didn't believe in it. But she didn't need to, surely? Chemistry was basic, solid fact. They'd proved it. All those men, Boyle, Lavoiser, Dalton. Their theories had been proved and reproved, the basis for chemical discoveries right now and for centuries to come. Magic wasn't real. It couldn't be real. But the pain was telling her something different, and she knew that would never go away. It was eating her from the inside, and she could feel the ceiling beginning to cave in. Denial. She tried her very best to blink the tears away but knew in the end they were unstoppable.

Seeing Ron once was bad enough. But to have him suddenly sitting in the back of her class, like a mirage of her past present and future, had been enough to churn her strongest of stomachs. For now she frowned a little as she realised she still held between her forefinger and thumb the parchment, old and tatty from the sweat of her clammy hand, but the writing unmistakable. She glanced around before she opened it, staring at the words it had etched onto its skin like a permanent tattoo in elegant, green ink. Why was it always green? Why not blue, black, hell, even red? Anything relatively normal? But no, it had to be green. As if to make it stand out, to make her take notice. But she was determined: She wouldn't. She couldn't. She had this life now, away from all that and the pain it carried with it. She was strong, independent and had a promising future ahead. What was it her college tutor had said? Strong management potential. She'd make senior staff in seven years, max. She'd always been ahead of the game. Except for that. The pain was the only thing she'd never been able to leave behind, and the only thing she longed to remove. She needed to find release.

She wasn't really aware of the conversation that was going on around her head as her colleagues sipped their lunchtime coffee. She wouldn't have noticed if the fire alarm had gone off in her ear and a bucket of water tipped over her head. No one around her notcied her either, and she hardly expected them to. They didn't notice either when she quietly stood up, put her cold tea to rest on the coffee table and quietly slid out of sight.

***

'I knew you'd come.'

Just a few hours later once the rain had taken up residence against the battered window pain, Ron had opened the door to her. She was soaking: He suspected she hadn't bothered with the bus, and even by the look of things she'd walked all the way from the town on the other side of the island. It was as if each and every step was a punishment she had to undertake for daring to receive his invitation. It didn't matter either way. She was there now. And that was all he cared about.

'Oh, come in, honestly! You must be freezing! You're totally soaked to the skin!' He stepped back to let her in, hearing her teeth chatter against the cold that had penetrated her skin as he made a dive for the radiator and the towel that was currently hanging there. He instantly took her coat and draped the towel over her shoulders. He gave her a friendly rub dry, attempting a vague and misty smile. She flinched.

'I'm here now.' She said quietly, still standing as Ron perched on the edge of his bed. 'I'm going to hear what you have to say, and them I'm going to leave.'

Ron raised a single eyebrow in contempt. 'You think?'

Hermione chose to ignore him and sighed. 'I came here to escape all this, Ron. I didn't ask you to come stomping back in with your size twelves to drag it all back up again. So I'm only here to hear your piece and the instant your finished, I'm gone. Understood?'

An icy silence fell between the two of them and refused to go away. Hermione refused to look up from her feet and Ron slowly drew in breath.

'You know?' he begun, slowly and doubtingly. 'I had a whole speech planned out. I'd worked it out, right down to the last syllable, and now it's completely gone form my head. Wiped. Typical. I'd been thinking about what I wanted to say all the way down here on the train. I don't know why I just didn't apparate. Wanted the time to think, I suppose. Funny that. All the magic in the world at my fingertips and I'm reduced to public transport for kicks. Who'd have thought it, eh?'

Hermione didn't answer, She'd moved across the room and now perched herself on the windowsill, staring out the window into the stormy after noon, the thunderous clouds yet again gathering over the grimy sea. He supposed it was time for the monologue.

'What happened to us all, Hermione? What happened to the dream team? Weren't we all supposed to have collected our NEWT results together, had our first legal drink down Diagon Alley before walking up to the Ministry for our Auror training? Whatever happened to all that?'

'Reality.' Was Hermione's short reply. 'Reality decided that wasn't going to be the case.'

Ron nodded solemnly. 'And was it the same reality that drove you to waste your years away in this fleapit?' Ron stood up and looked out the window, over Hermione's shoulder. 'I mean look at this place. Deserted. Boarded up houses, litter on the street. Half the kids you had in that lesson today looked like they didn't have a brain cell between them. Surely you're not happy here?'

Hermione yet again remained silent, but Ron could see her tense up. He continued in a quiet voice.

'You're not, are you?'

And as Hermione turned, Ron wasn't at all taken back to see the tears beginning to fall from her eyes.

'You know what people say about this place?' she replied in hushed tones, as if she'd been wanting to say this out loud for a while. 'They call it the cat flap of the A28. It's a dead end, water on three sides and only one route of escape. Not that people take it. It's got a real island mentality. You are born here, grow up here, go to school, college and university here. People even direct their careers to stay here, get a job with promotion and stay and raise their kids here. If you're not careful, you die here too. I teach kids who have never set foot beyond the bridge and only see the horizon with the water on it. It's safe, and it's secure. It doesn't hold any surprises. What you see is what you get.'

'And you like that?'

'It's what I need.'

'I don't believe you.'

Hermione now stood up and swung round on him with fire in her eyes. 'Oh, and I suppose you know it all, don't you? I suppose you've suddenly become Trelawney's apprentice, knowing every little thing that's going on in my mind, that's been going on for the past five years, yes? And I suppose you've suddenly got a bit bored one day in the office and thought, hey, let's stir up some ancient history and play the gallant hero, rescue Hermione the damsel in distress from the Muggle life she rather likes, thank you very much. Let's drag her back, kicking and screaming, to the place she's grown to hate. Tell me, am I right?'

Ron just blinked and looked down at his over-large hands. 'I know you.'

Hermione laughed rather cruelly. 'I don't think so.'

'Yes I do,' Ron said again, denying Hermione's spoken truth. 'This place is killing you from the inside out. Where's that sparkle, Hermione? Where's that age-old smile? It's been dimmed, dulled, dragged down further by the hopelessness of this place. Anyone with any sense would be trying to escape, but you - you're just too stubborn. Too stubborn to see the truth, even if it's staring you in the face. You don't belong here, Hermione; these simply aren't your people any more. You've seen too much, you know too much, it's like forcing yourself to be ignorant while the reality gnaws and destroys you. You don't want to be here - that is blindingly obvious. The ancient is far more established than the present for you, and it always will. You're still here because you think you've done something wrong - in the past. You are dictated by it, Hermione, and you are just trying too hard to cover it up. Just look at your lessons. Going off syllabus within the first few minutes, weren't you? Or was all that crap about the Philosopher's Stone just sweet-talking yourself further into denial? Determined to talk about it, to revel in the lies...'

'I don't know why I bother....'

Hermione was making for the door again, but Ron was standing firm. He leapt up and blocked her way.

'No, no you don't.' he said, swallowing hard as his voice verged on desperate tones. 'No, you're not walking out on me. You're going to listen to what I have to say, all of it. You're not going to move until I've uttered every last word. And after all that, if you still think you want to be here, then fine. Fine. I'll let you walk out that door and you'll never have to see my ugly mutt again for the rest of your life. Is that what you want?'

And it was this that Hermione didn't answer. And it was now, as she sat down on the end of the bed and Ron moved away from the door and knelt down softly beside her on the floor, that he moved in for the killer question.

'Hermione,' he felt himself whisper simply, basically, openly. 'Why did you go?'

And the answer was simple too, and spoken through fresh tears. 'Harry. It's my fault he died.'

Ron was now pacing the room, hands neatly folded into each other with his fingers interlaced beneath his chin, supporting his face by his thumbs. He bit down hard on his knuckles for an instant, trying to process exactly what Hermione was saying. It just didn't make any sense at all.

'I don't want to talk about it, Ron,' Hermione was saying tearfully, now lacking the energy or the motivation to move from the bed. 'That's why I'm here. I don't want to talk about it because I already know how this conversation is going to end. I'll tell you how I did it, how I killed him, then you'll look at me with disgust and ask me to leave like the rest. I'm a failure, Ron. Can't you just leave me to it?'

Ron shook his head, but continued to pace along the window. 'So you blame yourself for Harry's death. Big deal. Don't you think any of us feel the same? That we don't lay awake at night, thinking how things could have been different? What makes you think you have the monopoly on the guilt here, Hermione?'

'Because I really did have the chance to save him, and I blew it.'

'How?'

She took a deep breath and began.

***

The last day they'd been all together was, for June, unusually stormy. It was as if the sun had deliberately bowed its head at the prospects the evening unknowingly would bring. The NEWTs had been completed and they were merely weeks away from their results. In essence, their time at Hogwarts was almost over. The last two weeks of their seventh year was supposed to be the time of their lives. But when you've got Harry Potter as a friend, normality would never be the case.

It was the climax of the troubles. Just like Trelawney had said, the Dark Lord had risen 'More terrible than ever before.' For once the old bag had been right. Voldemort was everywhere, and now he was at Hogwarts. The community at Hogsmeade had been driven into virtual exile, Voldemort seizing it as the camp for his dark minions while preparing to embark on the unthinkable: A full-scale attack on Hogwarts. He wanted its infiltration, to hold it up for ransom. To make the young of the wizards and witches of the British Isles quiver and give in at the threat of the destruction of its youth. You take the magical school, you hold the community by its neck. And it was exactly what Dumbledore was already prepared to face.

The exams themselves had taken place in a relative lull of the chaos. Hermione could remember the smiling faces of her friends as they put down their quills on the last afternoon of the session; knowing all results were irrelevant now the world had become their oyster. Maybe the lull would last. Maybe the nightmare was over. But no matter what happened on the inside or the out, Hermione knew she didn't want to be anywhere else. She wanted to be in the thick of it, helping in any way she could. She was going to train as an Auror next year: Her teachers had said she had the extra brains to make her good, very good. She'd proved herself well enough. Ron and Harry never had to worry about her, because they knew she could certainly hold their own. But that didn't mean they didn't care.

In the late afternoon, they walked out along the lake. The teachers weren't worried about their presence outside the castle: the magical barriers that had been thrown up between the castle and Hogsmeade appeared to be holding well enough. The air had remained thick and extraordinarily heavy, the clouds overhead threatening to spill their loads onto their heads at any moment. But they didn't care for an instant what exactly was going on outside the castle walls. They were there, they were alive, and in their own minds at least, they were free.

Harry wasn't with them yet: He was just checking his Firebolt back into the Gryffindor shed in preparation for that weekend's match against Hufflepuff - yet another indication of a moment of normality that should never have been taken for granted. Ron and Hermione continued to the lakeshore walking slowly and carefully to the water's edge where they sat in silence. The clouds gave out a rumble. Ignoring it, they sat down, robes spread out behind them as they examined the water beyond.

'That's it, isn't it?' said Ron in sudden seriousness. He looked at Hermione with a strange apprehension on his face, as if he should be worried about her reaction. She inwardly smiled.

'I suppose...' she said quietly, with some consideration. 'No more high school.'

Ron now frowned in amusement. 'High school? Hermione, what are you on about?'

'Oh Ron,' she laughed quite openly with mirth. 'I've always said you should have taken Muggle Studies. Don't worry about it,' she lowered her voice again. 'It doesn't really matter.'

'I suppose not.'

As a silence fell between the two of them again, Hermione quickly realised there were few times when it was just her and Ron at Hogwarts. Sure, during the summer they'd met up without their third member, a few days absence normally covered by the scarred one's expected arrival. It was rare on an occasion like this to find herself alone with the young Weasley. She had to kick herself mentally to remind herself that none of them were very young anymore. Ron was now all of six foot, and Harry surprisingly not far off that mark: A growth spurt in the sixth year had seen him shoot up like a beanpole. Ron, however, seemed to have grown into himself with still enough left for manoeuvre. He still had his freckles, bless his cotton socks - still a sign underneath the tough exterior that he was a kid at heart. The kid was the real Ron behind the sarcasm that floated in his eyes. It was a part of Ron very few people knew. But she did. She knew it well.

Hermione began to watch him carefully: he was biting the inside of his lip, a habit he'd picked up since the days had grown dark, when he felt he had something to say. When he felt that the consequences weren't going to be good. She didn't like it when he did that. She could feel her own stomach begin to fill with nerves even though it could be as innocent suggestion as a sneak peak at her transfiguration notes. He stirred a little and finally drew breath to speak.

'Hermione,' he said as he began to exhale. It was also beginning to rain. 'I...'

But whatever it was Ron was about to say, it was immediately drowned out by the sound of the screaming siren. As Hermione jumped about a foot in the air, Ron merely rolled his eyes.

'Probably just a false alarm...' he begun to say, but he was soon interrupted by another voice.

'It's not.' Said Harry, now running up behind them. 'It's happening. It's now. Come on!'

The first roll of thunder roared.

***

They didn't dare question Harry on how he knew the alarm was genuine. It had been natural to assume a practise. Ever since their fifth year, when Voldemort had kicked off his reign of terror, Dumbledore had set the school up with everything possible against attack. The alarm system was simply one of them. The parents who sided with the Fudge-like thinkers at the Ministry had thought it all a bit of a joke. You-Know-Who, even if he were now back, would never dream of taking Hogwarts. He hadn't before, so why would he now? The idea had seemed preposterous. But the pupils for once ignored their parent's prejudice. They trusted Dumbledore with their lives, and they knew he was aware of his actions.

Being Prefects now, and having been for the past three years, Harry, Ron and Hermione all had extra rolls to play in the ritual. They were, the three of them, in charge of Gryffindor students: A fourth, Lavender Brown, had once been among their number, but she had been killed the previous summer when the darkness had truly taken hold. The Headmaster simply lacked the heart to find a replacement. The empty space among the prefect's number became a more effective reminder of exactly what they were fighting against. But still they had their responsibilities. Whilst the teachers locked and secured the grounds, they made sure everyone was located in their dormitories - not the common room, that was simply too open a target - registered, and informed of any events that concerned them. This they did religiously. But tonight seemed somewhat different.

The first years went in without the slightest hint at a grumble. Hermione observed they seemed as timid as the day Hagrid had met them off the train. She supposed the weather really hadn't helped. But perhaps it was the look in Harry's eyes: the green seeming to be more distinct than it ever was, glowing almost in the half-light as if ablaze with some untold truth. It was that which pushed Hermione to make a quick dive back into her Dormitory to find the sacred vial and bring it down to show her boys. It had felt like her entire life's work, bottled up in a single tube carefully sealed with a rubber stopper. Whatever it was, to her or to Harry, she felt as if she couldn't be without it tonight. As if it would have its uses.

She held it within the palm of her hand as she scuttled down the stairs again, only to reach the fifth stair from the end to have Ron's round eyes staring worriedly back up at her. His freckles had paled, and she could sense his hands were clammy from the way he kept on grasping them and intertwining his fingers. Little habits she'd always known. He stared hard.

'What's that?' he said, nodding towards the contents of her hand.

He considered the phrasing of her answer. She found for an instant she didn't want to blurt out who it was for, in case Ron took it in an entirely unintended way. Then it occurred to her that it was strange she cared about that sort of thing anymore. Strange that it seemed to matter. But on the other hand she didn't want to lie to Ron, because such a concept just sat so unsteadily in her stomach that she'd swear she was allergic. But now wasn't the time to avoid answers, because now was the time to reveal the truth.

'It's the Anima Protection potion.' She said quickly, looking at Ron for his reaction. 'For Harry, you know, just in case...'

And to her even stranger relief, he nodded.

***

She'd started brewing the potion almost immediately after Snape informed them of its existence. At the beginning of the seventh year during a lesson on medical potions, the greasy-haired one had made a passing reference to a potion of the last resort that had life preserving qualities, derived from its key ingredient of Phoenix tears. But he also mentioned with a snide look towards Harry (at Malfoy's usual amusement) that to try and harvest phoenix tears when a person was not in immediate danger was as futile as trying to get droplets of blood from a stone. In reply, Ron had transfigured Snape's favourite pebble paperweight into a puddle of the said bodily fluid and had got a week's detention as a result. Hermione shrugged it off with mirth. If they'd got to the seventh year without getting amusement at the expense of Snape, she knew the Marauders would be very disappointed.

But still she knew that at some point it could have its uses. Yet another item from the itinerary of Moste Potente Potions, she'd checked it out from the Library care of her Advanced Defence Against the Dark Arts pass that accompanied her course in that NEWT and set about in its production. Apparently upon ingestion, so she'd read, the potion gives out a temporary form of protection against any magical deed or attack, whether from spells or simple hospital infections. It was more generally used for those suffering from such horrific injuries that surgery became a necessity and so wand use ineffective. She'd made it, knowing full well that at the first sign of trouble, either of her two boys would attempt to throw themselves into the pit of it, and that was the last thing she wanted to happen. When you had a friend like Harry Potter, you always had to expect the worst.

She'd tried to keep it a secret at first, but Harry found out soon enough - Hermione suspected Moaning Myrtle had tipped him off, but she made no mention of this possibility. Ron seemed to know about it too, but also seemed to step back from this one, sensing the potion's priority. Hermione had felt a slight unease about Ron's refusal to be part of it, and she somehow suspected that he believed she'd never take this step for him. She'd explained that it wasn't necessarily the case, but he'd merely replied that he knew Harry would be more likely to need it than he thought he himself would. Hermione, grudgingly, had been forced to let it go. But she hadn't forgotten the look that flashed across Ron's eyes, as if he was seeing more into it that she realised. She didn't really think there was anything else to see. She was a friend merely helping another one out. But Ron had always been the one to overreact. She always liked him to be that way. At least someone would always react to her.

But as for now, the three of them had left the Gryffindor tower under the normal charge of the sixth year prefects and begun the well walked stroll towards the staff room for a briefing, to take account of the current situation and issue instructions back to their houses. In previous years such an occasion would have demanded the rare presence of Professor McGonagall in the tower, but in times of war the deputy Headmistress was needed elsewhere, and felt safe in the knowledge that her pupils were under this guard. She trusted them utterly and totally. In the meantime, they had to keep up their spirits.

Hermione would always marvel later how the three of them had kept up the pretence that everything was normal. They had all openly acknowledged that the inevitable was coming, so perhaps it was simply their way of focusing on exactly what was to come with the dawn. After all, they had spent the last seven years fighting the dark forces, so what would life hold for them if they were successful in orchestrating its downfall? Another thing Hermione marvelled at was how exactly they never really found out.

'I bet you anything they're having a party in the Slytherin Common room...' said Harry with a half joking scowl, considering the reaction of Hogwart's darkest house at the possibility of the uprising being real.

'They won't be by next week,' said Ron, giving his friend a wink. 'Quidditch final. Even that old fool Trelawney would be able to predict that we are going to utterly smash them into tiny little pieces and then feed them to that last blast ended skrewt.'

'Hagrid's still got one? Hermione laughed out loud, a little surprised by her own cheeriness and the fact that their favourite gamekeeper was still holding a fondness for an animal that could bite and sting you at the same time. Ron rolled back his sleeve and showed the burn mark on his forearm as undeniable evidence.

'Honestly,' she rolled her eyes. 'Doesn't that man ever learn?'

'He just wouldn't be Hagrid if he did,' said Harry rather philosophically. They all slowed down their walking pace for a moment, lost in their own thoughts as they gradually crept towards a similar subject, but it was Ron that spoke it first.

'I'm really going to miss this place,' he said quietly, gazing up at a passing tapestry of Uric the Oddball doing something unspeakable with a goat. Hermione slowly nodded in agreement, feeling downtrodden for an instant at the thought of leaving their beloved Hogwarts. A few more weeks and that would be it. 'It doesn't feel like seven years...'

'Time flies by when you're having fun...' said Harry with a smile.

'Or when you've got detention from Snape, or think a mass murderer is stalking you, or a bloomin' great big snake is screaming for your blood...'

Harry laughed, 'We get the idea Hermione. But no, I see Ron's point. Seven years, and it's been nothing. We've got our whole lives ahead of us and I just don't know where to start.'

'Oh come off it, Harry,' Ron laughed out loud, 'You mean you haven't had every Quidditch team from the Arrows to the Warriors head hunting your talent? You've got it made, mate!'

'I dunno,' Harry replied, kicking his heels, 'I can't play Quidditch forever, can I?'

'You know what we're going to end up doing?' said Hermione, looking squarely at her boys, 'You know what we can't simply avoid?'

'What?'

'Auror training.' She smiled and shrugged as it was Harry's turn to roll his eyes. 'Hey, just stating the inevitable...'

'You'll only go into it if you can spend ninety percent of your time with your head in a book...' Ron started, soon to be interrupted by a playful smack from Hermione, She sighed.

'It's hanging around with you two so much that suddenly made me little miss adventure. It's all your fault I'm not going to end up a librarian or something.'

'Hey, you're a Gryffindor.' Ron grinned with superiority 'You did that damage yourself...'

'Guys...'

It was the intensity of tones in Harry's voice that ceased the banter in its tracks, along with their progress to the staff room. They halted either side of him, Harry holding out his arms to prevent any further form of progress while he started intently at the wooden artefact cabinet that was one of many that lined this particular stretch of corridor. Ron and Hermione exchanged nervous looks. Ron shrugged at Hermione's silent question, and then went to open his mouth to demand of Harry an answer, but then the solution presented itself.

'Hello Harry.'

The rat that had scuttered out from beneath the cabinet in a flick of its tail had transformed effortlessly into its watery human form. The weight had quickly returned, it appeared. The eyes remained merely watery dots in the ample flesh of the face, the nose pointing out in relief with the essence of rat still clinging on. He stank of it; traitorous. After all it was the traitor that stood before them, the flicker of a malicious grin across his face enough to make the dream team pull out their wands and winch as he sniffled to attention. He was here to deliver his master's message, and for a minute Hermione wasn't sure if Harry was going to give him the chance.

'Wormtail...' he hissed, the words holding more snake-like quality that Hermione associated with Harry's Paseltongue abilities. She remembered him telling her once that he could only speak it if he thought a snake was there in front of him, someone to aim the words at. It disturbed her to think that this pathetic excuse of a man could drive Harry to that extreme. It meant he wasn't in control, and that was never a good thing.

'Oh, Harry,' said Wormtail in a sycophantic manner, 'I wasn't sure of you'd recognise me. The service of the Dark Lord has certainly benefited my health...' He patted his stomach merrily. Hermione saw Ron's eyes narrow. Pettigrew was just as much his enemy as he was Harry's. He was the one who'd looked after him for so long, and the thought of that was something that continued to eat away at him.

'Want do you want?' Ron spat, his voice trailing off as it mimicked the hissing of his friend . His wand was pointing directly at Pettigrew, who twirled his own magical instrument round his fat stubby fingers before passing it onto the palm of his metallic hand.

Hermione paid close attention to Pettigrew's unusual behaviour. He was cocky, almost, and it didn't suit him. He was taking full advantage of this most important of missions for the dark, the messenger who brought with him tidings of doom and death. His confidence was disturbing compared to the state she'd previously encountered him in. His glee made her feel physically sick.

'Merely keeping with convention, Mr Potter. I'm not here to blow you up or anything - ' at this Harry raised a slightly baffled eyebrow. 'That little pesky life debt thing means I can't even give you a little punch on the nose. But that is irrelevant in the context of what's going to happen, in, oh, the next 30 seconds?'

Pettigrew removed his wand, wiped away the sweaty fingerprints from its stem and raised it high above his head.

'Disenchantiem!'

The flames in the torches along the corridor flickered for an instant, but the spell appeared to have little effect beyond that. Nevertheless, Hermione now found herself holding onto the sleeve of Ron's school robes, clutching the material tightly between her fingers and screwing them up slightly in anxiety. She just couldn't guess Pettigrew's game, and by the look of things, neither could the boys. The corridor felt slightly odd, exposed almost. She could have sworn it was as if the walls had given themselves a little shake, almost adjusting themselves to a new situation. It was then that Pettigrew just couldn't contain his excitement.

'What did you do?' Harry asked quietly, menacingly, as Pettigrew shook with suppressed laugher. Harry raised his voice to a shuddering yell that echoed down the newly arranged corridor. 'What did you do?'

Pettigrew rolled up his sleeve and pressed two metallic fingers to the ugly green tattoo that was the dark mark. It glowed eerily in the half-light before fading back into his skin again. 'Merely completing my greatest moment, Harry. The one I'll truly be remembered for. Hogwarts was invincible, was it? Nothing in, nothing out? That's a blatant lie, isn't it? And the Dark Lord has just proved it. We broke the charms, Harry Potter. That was the last incantation. My master's darkness, just by being here, has weakened your defences, his spells working at it for weeks and eating away at your nest. And now, it just took the one of us to simply break through the wall and utter the disabling charm. Easy. My greatest moment. Such a shame that I doubt you three will live to actually recall it...'

Hermione's instant recall of Hogwarts, A History, suddenly flickered into action, but before she could open her mouth to question, Ron seemed to beat her to it. 'You've taken down the Apparation wards, haven't you?' he said, squaring up to Pettigrew. 'Don't go thinking that Dumbledore won't have noticed. Any change to the magical set up here and he is immediately alerted. A magical right of the headmaster, I believe, dating back to the mid 1200's. How do you know he hasn't simply already put the wards back up?'

If Hermione had had the proper time to think, she would have been taken back by Ron's sudden knowledge. But instead at that moment she couldn't even manage a weak attempt at a smile as she kept her eyes firmly fixed on Pettigrew.

'Because...' Pettigrew begun slyly as he took a single step back from them, 'I believe he and the teachers are a little preoccupied...'

A scream from the direction of the staff room beyond alerted Harry back to reality as the repercussions of Pettigrew's words sunk in. The darkness was coming, It had already arrived. Harry knew he had to face it 'Don't think I'm not prepared to kill you, Peter...'

'You won't, Harry,' Wormtail replied, Ron stepping forward defensively and reaching for his wand along with Harry. All eyes were spitting fire. 'You're a coward, just like your father.'

But before the three of them could curse Pettigrew into oblivion, he apparated out and the spells hit nothing but air. Hermione was suddenly aware she was shaking like a leaf, and the vial was still clutched in her hand. The familiar whistles of approaching Apparations were growing ever louder as the three of them exchanged glances of utter panic. Hermione quickly passed the vial over to Harry without either of them really noticing.

'This is it...' Harry whispered through his teeth. 'Keep your eyes open...'

And then the Death Eaters descended.

***

It was one of those moments in life where the speed time passed became irrelevant. In later years Hermione was able to recall every little detail as if it had passed over hours. The reality was that at the time it was the fastest five minutes she'd ever truly encountered. So much was happening, there was so much to suddenly take in. No time to think, merely act.

Death Eaters had apparated in front of them in the corridor, and elsewhere in the school by the subject of the screams. Hermione had simply prayed that the common rooms remained closed - the Apparation wards around the school were different from the ones on the houses, specifically for this reason. They'd managed to stun a couple before taking up the only option left - run. They were still heavily outnumbered, and until the teachers could alert the Ministry then little could be done about it. They just had to keep them all at bay. But for Hermione, it was as if the running had slowed right down as rebounding spells sent showers of sparks descending upon them. Occasionally an explosion of splintering wood would create a need to duck, or dive behind a convenient coat of armour that would provide a form of temporary shelter. Ron was right up there behind his best friend, watching his back and Hermione at the same time, although it was in perfect evidence that both Harry and Hermione could hold their own in a field of battle. But this was just Ron, typical Ron. He was the brother, the protective one.  

Hermione had effectively disarmed a few Death Eaters that had been approaching Harry from behind as they came to a halt at the bottom of the main staircase. Harry instantly turned on his heel to bind the Death Eater's limbs with snake-like ropes. Ron had thrown up his arm dramatically and Hermione could recall the shower of stars that she knew from the shield charm that Harry had learnt for the third task. Ron must have been reading up. It held. Hermione recalled screaming as the green blinding light of a killing curse had narrowly missed the shell, only the strength and will of the caster holding it up before as Ron collapsed under the effort of the onslaught. The rebounding Avada Kedavra had actually hit one of the attackers. His sudden descent into death had startled his comrades who dissapparated away to regroup for a counter attack. They suddenly had room to breathe.

Ron and Hermione sat on the bottom step of the staircase, catching their breath and preparing for the next onslaught. Ron was looking at her in the most peculiar way, she had thought, as if she was going to soon disappear from his sight forever. Ironic. Harry was crouched on the floor beside them, wheezing a little with his arm wrapped around his stomach after particularly nasty curse attack a few moments before up the stairs. He'd already given them a smile to say that no lasting damage had been done, and Hermione just knew this to be true: Harry was a lot stronger than his skinniness gave him credit for. It would take a lot more than take to knock him down.

It was strange to think that after all the talking, all the discussion, arguments and plots that had driven them all to this point, the last few moments together were spent in silence. They were young, and thought they had all the time in the world. Death was something that always happened to someone else, and somehow they seemed immune to it. The times Hermione had thought back to that moment were endless: Those minutes with hindsight were now filled to the brim with regret, the words she could have said lost in time as she looked from Harry to Ron whose faces showed very little else. Both were lost in their own thoughts, planning moves, planning words, neither to become a reality while Hermione watched her boys.  

Harry was looking blankly at the doors of the great hall, his eyes flicking from pillar to post as if planning a strategy for sanctuary. His eyes were burning a fire bright green, roaring wild behind his classical round glasses as they examined the scene with a wise man's sight. Harry knew the score: he'd been here many times before. He knew perfectly well what choices lay ahead, the branches in the road. He was just preparing in his way for the possibility of everyone. Nobody expects death and the sudden closure it brings. Hermione was always certain that Harry hadn't woken up that day convinced that he was to die. But for a moment, Harry seemed to see what was coming: his face relaxed into a minuscule pattern of peace, an outward sigh the only admittance that any divination skills had come into effect. All it took was a glance in Hermione's direction to know that Harry would never really go down. He was a fighter, and a single sight of that mischievous Potter grin was enough to settle her nerves.

But it was Ron's silence that seemed to stun Hermione more. Ron was always the one to hide behind his words, to use them to cover up any moment of doubt he held with a comment or a joke. But typically now, he was different. He was staring at his shoes, disturbingly flicked with blood of uncertain origin sustained en route to the hall, tainting with him the harshness of reality. He was thinking. Hermione knew him well enough to know when Ron was having a serious moment, when every action was to have an intention.

'Hermione,' he'd begun again, just like he had done on the lake. He looked at her earnestly, 'I...'

But he never got any further that that. Harry had suddenly bolted to his feet, wand raised out in front of his as if it could smell the danger in front of him, Hermione immediately straightened up, Ron leaping up by her side. 'Harry, what is it?'

'I don't know...' he said, 'I just don't know...'

But then they did. As if tearing the air to shreds, a green lightning bolt came crashing through the ceiling and ripped through the rock above their heads, striking the steps at their feet. Hermione was thrown back by the blast as the air filled with green light, falling rubble everywhere dividing the entrance hall in two. She couldn't remember screaming, just the noise that filled the hall. Air was rushing to fill an empty space, reality redefined as she found herself facing a wall of stone that hadn't been present before and the earth shattering sight of the floors towering up above.

'Ron?' she whispered tentatively, 'Harry?'

Nothing. Nothing except her own heavy breathing that was beginning to become irregular as panic seized her veins. She checked her pockets for her wand. Gone. She was shaking uncontrollably.

'Harry! Ron! Can you hear me?' she shouted now, her voice hanging on hysteria. Nothing.

But it was when the dust finally cleared that she saw the trail of blood. A thin stream of the substance snaked across the floor, as if the injured had been dragged away into the wall of rock beyond where it seemed to be cut off in it's prime. Her boys. Panic seized her voice and manifested itself in a scream she'd never imagined she'd been able to transmit, a soul destroying sound that she knew would be nothing compared to what was to come unless she did something to avoid it. She dived, landing hard on her battered knees and begun immediately scrabbling at the rock.

'Ron! Harry! I'm coming!'

***

Although in reality it only took minutes to break through the wall, it felt like an eternity. She couldn't be sure if either of them were dead or alive, but the possibility of the later became her driving force. She could never recall doing anything so manual, so mindless, as shuffling through the dust and dirt to break down the barrier to her friends. She had never done anything so worthwhile. She could hear voices as the wall gradually got thinner, her forehead drenched with sweat through the shifting of the rock, but she could think of nothing but what was beyond it. And the premature feeling of euphoria and relief as light suddenly shone through the gap was the greatest emotion she thought she would need to feel. She stuck her hand through the gap absently and desperately cried out again.

'Ron! Harry! I'm here! Are you there? Can you hear me? Can you...'

She felt herself being interrupted by a silence that was soon filled with a voice.

'We're here, Hermione, we're all right!'

Her hand was suddenly clasped in someone else's as another continued to shift away the rock. It held her fingers tightly, feeling the skin with its thumb as it ran a path over the back of her hand. She squeezed it back with warm relief until Harry and Ron finally came into view, both hauling her through the gap. Blood had dried up along the side of Ron's face, drowning out the freckles as it traced a path back up to his temple. She gasped.

'Oh, Ron, are you all right?'

'Fine,' he said, batting away her concerned hand. 'Just a bit of a bang on the head. Harry sorted me out, I'll be OK. You don't look it, though...'

It was her turn to brush aside concern. 'I'm perfectly fine,' she muttered. 'Just a little shaken up though... Harry?'

But Harry wasn't listening. He was already staring off in the direction of the Great Hall and the growing sounds from within it. And it was then that Hermione could see his resolution. These were to be her last moments with the Boy who Lived, the determined look upon his face clearly outlining his intentions. Hermione anxiously looked at Ron, who was leaning against the wall still, terribly winded by whatever fate had bestowed upon him. She could see his knees beginning to give way.

'Woah!' she cried as she caught his woozy form, managing to hold him upright despite her relative smallness. 'You're not going anywhere in this state, Ron. Come on.' She dragged up a weakened arm over her shoulder so she was able to hold him up. Ron smiled weakly in gratitude as Harry approached the two of them, looking them both squarely in the eyes.

'You're still going, aren't you?' Ron said, 'You're still going to give it a shot?'

Harry nodded solemnly as Hermione cottoned on.

'Harry!' she gasped, holding on to Ron tighter as if he would be the one to collapse with her dismay. 'You can't go in there alone! It's Voldemort! At least let me come with you, come on, I can help, I'm sure I can...'

'Hermione,' Harry said firmly, as if suddenly voicing something that had been on his mind for years. 'You've got to understand. This is my battle, and my battle alone. I'm Voldemort's weak spot. I've met him four or five times now, and he's always been the one who's come worse off. He's afraid of me, even if I don't think there is anything to be scared of. I'm his Achilles heel, the only shot we have. If I don't seize it now, we may never know what could have happened. I've got to try and take him down, or in the words of Oliver Wood, die trying.' Ron appreciated the joke, even thought the laugh was painful. Harry continued, addressing the two of them seriously. 'I know I didn't ask for this, but it's the deal I got. And really thinking about it, I wouldn't have wanted anything else. Anyway,' He opened his palm and passed Hermione the empty vial. 'I think luck is going to be on our side.'

Hermione sighed openly with relief. He'd taken it, he must have done. It was probably the only way he'd survived the rock fall, and anything else beyond. It was going to be all right. But that didn't necessarily mean that she was to be without worry. 'Harry' she stuttered,' do you really think...?'

'I'm not going to answer that.' He said shortly in reply.

Hermione bit down hard on her lip as she felt her eyes well up with tears. 'Just be careful, please. You don't know what he's going to do, you don't know what...'

'Shush,' he said, bringing her in for one final hug. 'Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen to me. We're going to get through this.'

'But what if you don't?'

Harry for the first time that night allowed his face to flash with anxiety. He bowed his head a little in reply and coughed. 'We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.'

'Good luck, man,' said Ron, patting Harry on the shoulder in a manly gesture of comfort, now leaning onto to Hermione for support. His quiet confidence slightly unnerved his companion as Harry nodded in acknowledgement. 'See you on the other side.'

Harry stared earnestly at Ron. 'And don't forget...'

'I won't.'

Ron glanced sideways at Hermione as he said this, and she managed to give them both a weak attempt at a smile. Harry looked at the cracked face of his watch and sighed. 'I've got to go. I've got to do this. Get Ron to the infirmary, and make sure everyone is safe up in the tower. Round up any stragglers, and lock yourself in there too. I don't want anyone to get in the way. And trust me, it'll be OK.'

'We trust you Harry.'

And he was gone. And that was the last time they saw their best friend alive.

***

'...And of course we all know what happened after that.' Ron said softly, mournfully, gazing down at Hermione whose voice had now grown hoarse and painfully silent. 'Harry went in, never to return. No one knew exactly what went on in there - we can only guess - apart from the fact that neither he or You-Know-Who came out alive.'

Hermione drew her knees up to her chest and continued to stare out to sea. 'I know, Ron. I found him.'

Ron grimaced. 'I never knew...'

'He was so pale...' Hermione continued in a quiet voice, oblivious to Ron's mutterings. 'You never saw it. I was the one who picked him up and brought his body out of there. I was the one who felt the lack of life in his limbs, and I knew straight away that I'd caused it. I killed him, Ron. I could smell it. I could smell the potion on his face, on his hands: He'd taken it, and it hadn't worked. I as good as killed him. You hadn't woken up in the infirmary by the time we got the news, but I knew I couldn't face it once you knew. The Boy who Lived was dead. And I did it.'

Once the words were said and done, the tracks of tears that were flowing down her face seemed to become a torrid current, her sobs made the worse by the fact they were silent. She didn't even shudder. It was as if she'd blocked up the emotion of it all for such a long time that crying was all she could do. She couldn't scream or wail at her anguish, but merely feel it eating away inside her heart. It was killing her from the inside out. Ron felt completely at a loss, sitting on the end of the bed while she wept at his feet, the utter emotion of telling her tale causing her to slip silently to the floor. The pathetic pleading look in her cinnamon eyes turned his stomach as he watched. It didn't suit her. It never would.

Slowly, ever so slowly, he raised his hand. He let it hang there for a moment, unsure where to let it rest, until of its own accord it found the very tips of her hair. It was so long now, so flowing and so free, she didn't notice him take the stands and stroke then gently between his fingertips, feeling the texture and what lay beyond. Eventually the hand trailed up further and attempted to stroke her paling cheek. But as soon as the cold contact was made, she flinched and pushed it away. The look in her eyes told it all. She didn't want him tainted.

'I failed him, Ron,' she said in a hoarse whisper, the idea exposed to the world on a rock that seemed prepared to take the brunt of what the ocean had to throw at it. 'The potion didn't work. He died. I had the power to save him, and I didn't. All those years led to nothing, all that study, time and energy and still I managed to fail. And it killed him, because at the end it just didn't help. I let everybody down Ron, absolutely everybody...'

They fell silent, the both of them, as the wind continued to rattle the windows in their frames. The harshness of the Russian winter was coming in on the eastern breeze, the wall of nothingness between the town and the Urals putting on it's best ever show for the most tragic of occasions. Ron even felt himself shudder, but that had nothing to do with the weather. Watching Hermione, dear sweet Hermione, the life flushed out of her skin with the effort of her secret and driven to a life she despised as much as the fall that had put her there. Her hair seemed dull and shrivelled, the perfectly controlled ringlets he'd previously been witnessed to beginning to unravel themselves with her plight. It was like a death in itself. The walking skeleton stood up.

'I let everybody down,' she said, her voice beginning to shake, 'and most of all, I let down myself. There is no punishment for self-betrayal than that you place upon yourself. My penance is here, and I'd be grateful if you'd leave me to it.' She nodded at him with as much firmness as she could muster, reaching now for the handle of the door. 'Goodbye.'

She looked at him for the longest time, her longest friend, her Ron. The boy she grew up with alongside Harry, the one who'd witnessed her greatest change and fall. The one who'd been there at every step of her journey into adulthood and watching her fall at the post. He knew her pains, her faults and her cause. He knew her determination. He knew her. He must have known her. And now Ron still knew somehow exactly what she was thinking, he could imagine it. He would understand, she would be telling herself silently in a muttered inward breath. He has to understand. He knows when I need to be right. When I should be right. When I'm wrong. I'm not wrong, she told herself with as much firmness as she'd told Ron. I deserve this, and I need to do it this way. There was no other way. To Ron, yet again, Hermione's eyes gave it all away. She was leaving. Now.

'You never let me down, Hermione.'

She paused, one foot out the door and drew in a shuddering breath. He gave out a little cough and continued before she could eve try to stop him

'Ron -'

'You saved my life.'

Hermione spun round on her ankle, her eyes full of that familiar wrath Ron had grown to miss so solemnly in his own form of isolation. The flare in her eyes, the colour rapidly returning to her cheeks as they flushed with unknown fury. For a minute, his Hermione had returned, he felt his heart begin to leap at the sudden emergence from hibernation. But all too soon reality took control, the features fading into a ghastly shade of white as she stuttered out a more timid reply.

'Don't do this to me,' she said in a voice so silent that only the mice could hear. 'Don't do this to me, or yourself. It's better this way, if I go...'

'If you go...' he now said, anger and an unsettled feeling of anguish settling itself in the base of his own gut. 'Then you're just denying yourself. You're denying a truth you don't know, because you've never stuck around long enough to find out. You saved my life, Hermione. Harry gave me his.'

She shook her head madly again, the defences of denial instantly rising. 'No, no, he couldn't have, he mustn't have, he...'

But one look at the expression on poor Ron's face was enough to change her mind. Hermione stared at him for the longest time as if she had never realised he'd been standing there before. It struck her again how old he looked, how certain of himself and mature. He was holding himself the way Charlie used to, and what had caught her the most about that particular sibling at the Burrow: no matter now many scars he carried, the mental and the physical, he would never deny anybody the truth. Charlie, along with Harry, Ron, and the rest of his peers, had been her pillars in the war. Pillars she didn't want to allow to carry her unworthy burden. But now she could see the motivation flashing in Ron's eyes. He didn't want to carry her burden: he wanted to lighten it. If he was telling the truth. She shook her head again.

'It can't be true...'

'It is.'

Hermione stepped away from the door and felt herself drift, aghast, towards the bed. She perched on the end of it just as Ron had when listening to her tale of woe. She wondered for a minute how he would ever attempt to make it better. Or even if she wanted him to. She didn't react when he knelt down beside her feet upon the floor and gently grasped her fingertips.

'You remember, you said, the explosion?' she nodded, not daring to look into young Weasley's freckled face. 'You remember Harry, holding me up, nearly unconscious, handing me over to you and telling you to take me up to Madam Pomfrey?'

She nodded numbly, feeling incredibly child-like as she bit down hard on her lip and looked at him. His eyes were wider than she'd ever seen them, gleaming in the dimness of the dusk. She hadn't anted to look, but she knew as soon as she did, she'd never be able to tear her eyes away. He glanced down for a minute to recompose himself and continued, while she straightened up to talk to him.

'How could I forget?' she whispered. 'It was the last time I saw Harry alive. It was the last time I ever spoke to him. He'd drunk the potion. He told me so. He gave me the empty vial and ran away to his doom. I put him there, Ron, I...'

'You're wrong.' He said firmly. He now knelt straight up himself, grasping both her shoulders with the hands he'd never grown into and forced her to gaze into his eyes. He didn't blink once the entire time he spoke. Neither did she. He was cracking. 'He didn't take it all. He only took a drop. The rest he'd given to me, to bring me back to life. He sacrificed himself for me, for you. Your potion saved me, Hermione. You saved me. It worked...'

Hermione was beginning to shake, but didn't attempt to move Ron's hand. Instead she shook her head ferociously. 'He took it, Ron, he told me he took it. How can you know what you saw? You were barely conscious at the time. He was wiping his face from it as he spoke. You're lying. Harry took the potion, and it didn't work. I'm the one to blame, here, Ron. Don't try and soften the blow. I'm the one who should bear the guilt, so you shouldn't be covering up for me, you...'

'Don't you think I feel it too?' Ron suddenly spat, feeling anger encroach on his veins. 'Don't you think I can smell the guilt? I smell it everyday. Whenever I look in the mirror, or even at my own hands. Whenever I use my magic, the guilt is there. It's everywhere, and I know that on one level, I'll never escape it. But on another, I know the truth. What you need to know, and what I've been wanting to tell you for years. It isn't your fault. It was fate's.'

Hermione, if she hadn't felt so ill and queasy, would have openly scoffed. Fate. Utter nonsense. Fate should never control your destiny, you decided that yourself. The idea of predetermined fate was too close to divination for her tastes. She needed control in her life and everyone else's. But it was the look on Ron's face, the look that said he was bearing his utmost soul, that meant she continued to listen.

'Hermione,' Ron continued in a whisper, his face frighteningly close to her own fragile features. 'I died that night. Literally, I was dead. No pulse, no breath, no heartbeat. The explosion, it killed me. One bump to my temple from a flying piece of rock and I was gone. It brought the old chess wound up in a flush and I died, from the rupture of the old blow. That's the scar. That's why you'd never noticed it before. But I saw Harry save me. For a moment, I was spirit. And they can hear the fates.'

Hermione took a single blink as she sat level with Ron on the bed. 'That's nonsense, and you know it. An old wife's tales. Everyone knows that Ghosts and Spirits are only created in circumstances when they need to be there for the living. We need the ghosts of the Hogwarts houses to safeguard the pupils in their beds. We needed Peeves for the entertainment. The Bloody Baron to keep an eye on the scoundrel. Ghosts have a purpose. Unsatisfied ends they need to resolve. And yours...'

'Was that my time just hadn't come.' He looked at her with even more fierceness as he moved himself towards her on the bed and to hold her face firmly in his hands. He was shaking. 'I could feel it. It was being whispered into every inch of my body as I floated gently away. I couldn't hear a thing. But I could see and that was enough. I was floating high above myself when Harry found me. Something up there was making me stay, suspending me above myself like that as if I was supposed to witness it. Harry brought out the vial and removed the cork. I wanted to scream at him to leave me alone, to take it himself and save you - the others - and that I was a lost cause. He shouldn't have wasted his time on me. I wasn't worth it. But of course I couldn't: Fate just didn't turn out that way. He bent over my body and prised open my mouth and poured the potion down my throat, and I was immediately drawn back into it, even before he'd disposed of all the contents. I told him to finish it himself, and when you turned up, he did.' He gazed into her eyes again and this time she couldn't turn herself away. 'You didn't fail anybody, Hermione. Nobody at all. Harry knew exactly what he was doing. He knew his time had come, I could see it. And he went the only way he knew how. Bringing the darkness down kicking and screaming.'

The tears had started again as Ron saw Hermione's eyes flicker all over his face, looking desperately for an alternative. They were barely inches apart now: he could feel her broken breath on his skin, coming in fits and bouts but smelling distinctly of her. And for the first time that night, the first in his life, he could feel a salty wetness of tears on the surface of his skin too. He couldn't tell if it was hers or it was his. It could have been both. She held tightly onto his upper arms, clinging on for dear sweet life as they bowed their heads in a joint form of grief, their foreheads slowly touching.

'I saved you?' she said in a barely believable whisper. 'The potion actually worked?'

Ron didn't even make an answer, words drying up instantly in the tightness of his throat. He didn't even make an effort to nod, but Hermione knew the exactness of his thought. But he soon drew in a shuddering breath.

'He died to save us both, Hermione. To save us all from the dark.' He closed his eyes heavily, then opened them to look deeply into hers. He smiled fondly. 'I owe you and him my life.'

She raised her tender fingers to his cheek, touching the skin where the freckles had once resided and she knew would once again. She smiled as he brought his own hand up to keep hers there as she spoke.

'As I probably owe you mine.'

And then he kissed her.

***

Ron, who a moment before had been floating quite peacefully above the scene before Harry's actions dragged him back into the land of the living, coughed and spluttered a little as he finally regained consciousness. He gasped like a person who'd been dragged out of the roaring torrents of a river and saved from its watery depths. He could feel the potion stinging on its way down, firing up his heart again as it jumped back into regular beat. He swallowed hard, eyes slowly coming back into focus, as he found himself looking up into Harry's face again that seemed to be unnecessarily smiling. He couldn't help but laugh out loud in return.

'What are you looking at, you daft git?' Ron whispered hoarsely, unsure of the location of his voice. Harry had grabbed his arm and tried to help him to his feet, but Ron felt so weak he could barely manage to stand up. Harry had to catch him as he wobbled and almost fell.

'Woah, woah!' Harry said in deep undertones, supporting Ron by his forearms. 'Take it easy mate...'

'I'm all right,' he replied. 'Just give me a minute.' He staggered over to lean against the wall. Frightfully aware of the crashes and cries of battle that seemed to be echoing from all around them. This was their moment of peace. Harry simply watched him, expectant, as if Ron was about to ask him something, while the glassy object squeezed tightly in the palm of his hand came into the field of Ron's vision. Ron rolled his eyes skyward as he placed a hand lightly over his chest. 'For Merlin's sake, Harry, you didn't...'

Harry opened his palm to reveal the potion vial, now nearly empty, merely a single drop left in its base. He nodded. 'I had to, Ron. You were out cold, and I couldn't leave you in that state. Blood was pouring from your temple - you're going to have a nasty scar there, only a bruise if you're lucky - so I tried to wake you up but nothing was working, and I couldn't get a pulse or...'

'That's because I was dead.'

Harry was slightly taken back by the bluntness. 'Oh, right.'

Ron sighed. 'But Harry, you're still a prat...'

'Why?'

'Because you've given me that potion but you're still going to run off and find him, aren't you? You're still going to try and be the hero?'

Harry took a slightly frightful step back and nodded again. 'I have to, Ron, I'm the only one who can stop him...'

But he didn't move any further because Ron had such a tight grip upon his forearm he wondered if he'd cut off the circulation. He was shaking his head firmly in resolution. Harry moved to try and pull his arm out of the grip. It wouldn't budge.

'I'm not going to let go until to finish that last drop.'

Harry looked down at the virtually empty vial. He stared at Ron in disbelief, and pushed the glass into the redhead's hand. 'That'll be no use to me now, Ron, there's nothing there. It won't work unless it's in its maximum quantity, and that's why you're still a bit woozy. You might as well finish it up, give you strength to get back to the Infirmary...'

'Not a chance, Harry, not a chance.' He handed it back over. 'If you don't take that potion, I might as well come up there with you. Who cares if it works or not? At least there is a chance, and it might buy you some time. Take it, or I'm coming too.'

Taking another step forward again, trying to play the strongman, Ron almost felt his knees give way again as Harry was forced to catch him. Placing him back against the upright wall while Ron regained some strength, Harry gently took the vial from his best friend's hand.

'I'll do it,' he said, 'But on one condition.'

'What?'

'You tell Hermione everything, Ron, don't hold anything back. I'll do this if you promise me that.'

'But I...'

Harry's eyes flashed emerald in outrage as he hissed. 'Ron, why do you think I gave you the potion, eh? Why do you think it saved you? If you knew you were dead, you weren't obviously ready to go. You hadn't died just yet. You have too much stuff to attend to down here, I think, Hermione being one of them. Everyone within fifty miles of the pair of you can see that. You can't keep on ignoring the inevitable. You've got to tell her, or this gets chucked. Promise me...'

There was a desperate scrambling from the rubble right behind them now as Harry whirled round wildly to greet it. A Death Eater, perhaps? He removed his wand for battle, but Ron recognised the tones of the gasping breath. She was screaming out their names. Hermione. She stuck her hand through the tiny gap in the wall.

'Promise me Ron?'

He closed his eyes. 'I promise.'

Harry opened the vial and drank as Ron seized Hermione's hand.

***

When he awoke with a start, that scene replaying in his mind over and over again, he thought that perhaps he was still dreaming. It wasn't the fact that his vision was a little hazy, or that he was unfamiliar with the room. It wasn't that the clocks said half past one, a time he hadn't seen since the days of his Auror placement, when the hour still held a dream like quality in the unreality of being awake for it. It wasn't anything in particular. Just the smell. That scent, the one that had been in his dreams and nightmares for as long as he could remember, and the pain it normally brought along with it. It was the fact it was there, and it was real. Hermione.

She lay asleep across the bed from him, as peaceful as he'd ever seen her, completely in ignorance of the squawking dawn seagulls outside that, in a place like this, never knew the true meaning of the sunrise. He supposed he wasn't used to it. But nevertheless, she lay merely an arm's length away her back turned towards him in the artificial light, streaming through the flimsy curtains from the street lamp outside. It was a vague orange glow that made her hair alive with gold. It became freckled, and the rain outside amplified the light in places as it attacked the window with vigour, the drumming sound now comforting. She was there, and that was all that mattered.

He wanted so much to touch her again, to touch that skin that seemed so pale and frightful. He wanted to bring the colour back to where it belonged. He wanted her to hold. But he didn't want to wake her while she seemed so still and at peace. Instead he shifted over to her and gently wrapped one arm round her stomach, holding it there, feeling it breathing steadily in and out like the guarantor of life itself as he rested his face into the back of her neck, wondering whether everything was real.

He stayed like that for a while, barely breathing, but merely concentrating on the small movements of the body beside him. She stirred a little, but nothing more. He quietly shifted back, not wishing to disturb her anymore. Instead he rose from the bed, threw on a tattered travelling dressing gown and walked over to the window to take a look outside. The rain merely formed droplets on the glass as the downpour had finally ceased, the winter seeing calm for an instant. Even the seagulls were silent. The roar of a passing car was drowned out by the noise of its wet tyres upon the road, quelling its passage to more tolerable levels and seeming at one with the rain. Ron sighed and looked at Hermione again. He knew he had to tell her.

Wasn't it the idea of that conversation that drove him here in the first place? Wasn't it that which needed to be explained? He had thought - in a typically teenage way - that when she left then it had all gone away, and that he wouldn't have to face the truth of it. Typical youthful foolishness. He knew now he was scared to face the truth of it, more than anything before in his life. As he pulled up a chair that was next to the table by the window, he could feel the knot if nerves that had newly settled in his stomach come into full and horrifying play. The same nerves he felt when he saw her standing alone on the beach, unchanged to his eyes despite the passing of the years. The same nerves that had settled when he'd woken up in the infirmary to find with best friend dead and Hermione fled. They'd all had a tough time of it. And the time was right to set that straight.

Digging round in the bag that he'd tucked out of the way under the chair, he brought out among a bundle of official leave-granting papers, his train tickets. He studied them intensely in the moonlight, running his finger over the letters. Eleven o'clock tomorrow, he was supposed to leave. A time limit, and he hated it. He didn't want to leave, not now, not yet. The night just wasn't enough. They needed to talk, they needed to listen. He still felt that he needed to explain. Feeling sleepy again, he stood up and crossed the room again and slipped quietly under the covers. They would talk in the morning. For now, he continued to merely watch until the lure of the dreams became too much.

When he woke again, she was gone. And the recruitment letter on the dresser with the official Ministry insignia that had been forgotten with the night now lay in tatters on the floor.

***

'Sorry I'm late...'

Hermione made a fanatic dash into her classroom to relieve the cover teacher who looked incredibly grateful for her much anticipated entrance. She could hardly blame him - this was the infamous 9B they were dealing with here. She shot her colleague a sympathetic smile.

'Thanks Gerald...' she smiled as he rolled his eyes towards the clock, 'It's just been one disaster after another this morning,'

'Anytime,' he mumbled before making a hasty exit. Typical art teacher, she thought. Wouldn't know a Bunsen burner if it started to singe off his nostril hairs. Hermione put down her bag and addressed the already working class.

'Sorry about that folks. Just continue with those worksheets until five to and then we'll cover them and the homework.'

And then she slumped in her seat. Natalie from the front row was giving her favourite teacher a quizzical look before turning back to balancing equations. The homework Hermione had set was already sitting on the desk in front of her - Gerald had gathered it up and placed it there for her marking delight, so at least for now she had something mindless to do. She just hoped no one noticed she hadn't changed her clothes. She just hoped that they didn't see her hands tremble. She just hoped they didn't look at her at all.

She pulled the homework towards her as a method of distraction and set about giving them the grades, but her mind kept drifting back to the piece of parchment that had brought her happiness crashing down. He'd been asleep - He didn't deserve a name now - and she'd found it on the dresser, beneath His tickets for the train. The letter was addressed to her, after all, in the name she'd thought she'd left behind, Hermione. She was utterly entitled to read it. She only needed to read it once before she knew exactly what she had to do. The truth of it all, the fakeness of last night had seeped into her veins and encroached on her like a poison, making her feel physically sick and wretched. Her dreams that night had been full of light and hope at what the dawn would bring, but now were a thunderous black. Now it had been confirmed that nothing in her life was ever genuine. And it was for that reason she knew for sure that she could never, ever go back.

Desperately, she wanted to talk to someone, anyone, about her hideous predicament, but could imagine the conversations as ridiculous - What's in the letter? A job offer? That's fantastic! Who with? The Ministry of Magic's research office within the Auror department? Hmm. Not a likely scenario. It wasn't so much that the world she'd abandoned out of horror at herself was beckoning her back with open arms. It wasn't so much that she had loyalties to her job, to the kids, to her colleagues at the school who knew nothing of her past, the faked years before her career. All through Hogwarts, she'd dreamed of such positions, such prestige, such an honour. Wasn't it Him that said 'You'll only go into it if you can spend ninety percent of your time with your head in a book...' and had been right. So right. If it had been delivered in any other way, in any other circumstance, she would have given it a moment's thought before dismissing it along with her dreams. That wasn't her world, she didn't deserve it. Just a few days earlier, she would have rejected it out right. But this morning, for an instant, it seemed to give her hope. Until she saw it, the obvious, that the job would be the only thing there.

He was just the recruiter. That was all He was. Hired by the Ministry just to get the job done. Hadn't He confirmed it, the first time they talked, up in Mario's, over the Cappuccino and the decaf? She had just been one on the list, a target, an aim, a number in a quota He had to fulfil within the month. It wasn't so much His employment that made her feel so rotten to the bone - after all, it was only a job. He could have come down and told her He was a Muggle politician and she would have spoken to him the same. No. It was when he let the lines between His job and His life merge - unprofessional to the extreme - that the pain for Hermione would begin. That was when she could feel the anger rising in her, the unfairness, the injustice. That was when she just felt like the pawn, the used one, good for nothing except the redhead's promotion. Wouldn't they be all pleased with him back in London once he dragged in their most infamous black sheep? He didn't care, just like the rest of them. She hurt, more than anything, more than she'd ever imagined. The fact that something she believed to be genuine turned out in her mind to be so false seemed to make the whole thing more unbearable.

He had used her just to get by on the job. That was the truth of it. Just like the letter said: 'The bearer, Mr Ronald Weasley, is to accompany you back to London if you choose to accept the offer'. Just like the voice in the back of her mind had constantly reminded her, everyday at Hogwarts and was rejoicing in reminding her again. He would lead her on, say He needed her for this that and the other, make her feel wanted, special, desired, tempt her, taunt her, make her believe that there was something else between them. They were adults now, so last night the trickery had taken an adult stance. He'd merely played the game with her to tempt her back to London. There couldn't be any genuine sentiment behind it, no feeling, no care, it was so utterly cold and cruel. He could have told her straight away, instead of making her think the unbelievable, that he really was here for her and her alone. He'd played on that weakness, he'd spent the evening searching them out. He'd lied to her, even if it could be classed as just an avoidance of the truth. He had caught her at an emotion low so she became putty in His oversized hands. He had played her for the fool her isolation had made her. He made her feel utterly sick.

Last night was a complete hoax, a myth, a bribe. She couldn't believe she'd fallen for it. He'd made out that he'd come all the way down to the coast simply for her - if there were lies there to start with, how could she go any further and trust him? Last night was probably full of lies too, even everything regarding Harry. Harry! She screwed her eyes up against the thought as the tears threatened to spill. That must have been a hoax, too. The truth remained - she'd killed him. But the tale had made so much sense, so logical - it had filled the gaps in her own knowledge, and the doubt she had held when it was only the empty vial Harry handed to her. Then there was the scar, His scar, along His temple, by the chess wound. It was a vulnerable area, and a blow hard enough to scar, her biology told her, could kill. It had in the madness made sense, and did in the cold light of day too. She'd realised that night that she'd never feel entirely blameless, but His words of comfort and reassurance had gone some way to lighten the burden. She knew she couldn't afford to let this distract her. She deserved to be here, this was her penance. Nothing He could say, even if the slimmest of doubts could confirm it as the truth, could change that. Lies, she told herself firmly, Just lies.

'Are you all right, Miss?'

Hermione scrambled for her reading glasses and placed them on the edge of her nose before the owner of the concerned voice came into focus. Becky, a quiet, clever little girl was peering back at her teacher, pen poised above her work but face crumpled in confused concern. Hermione snapped out of it for a minute.

'Yes, yes, I'm fine.'

'It's just...' Becky looked a little shame-faced at being so astute. 'You look as if you want to be somewhere else.'

Hermione looked startled at her pupil for a moment for reading her face that way, and then tutted. 'Just catching up with myself, that's all. Nearly finished the sheet?' Becky nodded, so Hermione pushed her on. 'Well, just read the textbook for five minutes while the rest of the class catch up.'

She had to get a grip on herself. Quarter to eleven. Ignore the clock, time doesn't do you any favours. She decided she had time to mark at least one homework, even if she was good for nothing else. This class had seemed to grow on her, despite their reputation elsewhere in the school. The kids respected her: the right about of youth on her side that was cemented by a fierce regime. In her classroom, her word was law. And the kids instantly seemed to know that.

Top of the pile, typically, was Natalie's. Hermione knew perfectly well that she'd have been the first to hand it in, but had rearranged the pile so that her teacher would mark it first. Occasionally Hermione had been tempted to pull out an assignment from the middle of the pile, just to irritate her. But there was something quite endearing about her eagerness that always made Hermione stop. A little like herself, she supposed. But she knew that person was lost.

Hermione pulled at her pen and marked. Everything seemed present and correct. Natalie was always extremely thorough despite the generalisations that science at this simple level could bring. So much like herself - a perfectionist against the odds. She even did the extra work, the little bits of extra reading Hermione would suggest at a drop of a hat, expecting no one to take up the offer. Natalie always would, and never fail to amaze her. Yet as Hermione turned the page to look at the extra-credit delights bestowed upon the paper, she felt her stomach drop.

Written out on the page in front of her was something that contradicted everything she had ever been taught at Hogwarts. Right from the start, she knew that all these Muggle theories were incorrect - the generalisations that Muggles made were laughed at softly by the wizarding kind, taking gentle amusement from the ignorance of their contemporaries rather like an adult would laugh at the innocence of a child. Never patronising, just knowing. Normally when Hermione found herself confronted with these contradictions she too would laugh to herself, not because of what she knew, but because of what she had to forget. This time, with everything that had gone on, she just couldn't go into denial. She knew Alchemy was real, despite what Natalie seemed to outline on the next three pages, denying the Philosopher's Stone the existence Hermione knew full well it had. It was as real as she stood there and breathed, and as real as the events of last night.

Ten to eleven. All she really wanted was more time. Time to consider what last night really meant, to her, to Him, to the world. She allowed her pen to dangle absently above the exercise book as she drifted off in thought. If it really was only the job he was there for, then what was the rest of the sorry incident about? The confession, the tears, the kiss? That had been the last thing on her mind as she lay crying at his feet, existing in the realm of the impossible. He was Ron, just Ron. That part of herself belonged in the past, something so lost and irretrievable that for it to resurface now just showed how far she hadn't come. She was suppose to be stronger than this, but with the feeling surging back into her bones as if it had never left it had been impossible to resist. And it had just complicated matters further. Harry had saved Him. But then the possibility had come. For her.

He had said it himself, He had died, and Harry brought him back - out of friendship, loyalty, disbelief - and against the odds, He had lived. Nine minutes. But why? The little voice in Hermione's head, the one that had pushed her away from the world she had once loved, was calling. It was this voice that always confirmed the worst case scenario, and seemed to work to hard for an optimistic life. Because Harry wanted to try and work against nature. To force out a feeling that wasn't there. He thought that without him, You and Ron stood a chance. Harry saved Him because he thought that possibly then, Ron had felt like you did. The old feeling is still there, and that's why you are weak. That's why that happened last night, because you wanted it to happen and it to mean much more than it did. You are easier to be played on than a pipe, and Ron knew all the stops. That was always your weakness, and why you deserve to be here.

As usual, the voice spoke sense. Eight minutes. But for an instant, she wanted to doubt it. She hated the pessimism of this place and of herself. A dull grey cloud seemed to float above this island, stealing hope from the depth of its core, ruling out the possibility that somewhere life was better. That there was a chance for escape. Hers, for instance, was standing at the railway station.

Seven minutes. There was still time. She could go down there, find out the truth, out the voices in her head to rest either way it would turn out - but no, that was ridiculous. She knew the truth, and it was merely her disproved optimism that seemed to tell her otherwise. She'd lost that, along with her innocence, the moment she'd seen Harry's corpse. She'd seen more blood by the time she was seventeen than most soldiers would see in a lifetime. For a moment the injustice of it all seemed to boil in her veins. She stared out absently across the room. It seized her like a silent fury, causing her hands to shake as the rattling of the glass chemical cabinets began to disturb the class, but not at all their teacher. She was lost, even when her fury had gripped her so much that the glass of the fire alarm shattered. It was only the shrill screaming of the fire bell that seemed to wake her from her trance.

She leapt awkwardly to her feet, staring around at the damage that had been done, what she'd done. She scolded herself silently. Hermione Granger never lost control.

'Leave your bags where they are!' she yelled over the din as the scraping of chairs signalled the rising of the class. 'Walk calmly to the exits and I will follow you down shortly. Hurry up!'

Six minutes. She never lost control. She could never lose control. As she did the final check of her classroom determined by the school's fire regulations. She contemplated the notion that among the chaos caused by herself, her absence was unlikely to be noticed. She could slip quietly away, get the confirmation needed for her own little piece of mind, and be back here before anyone knew it. But why should she have to? Since when were her actions so hinged upon whatever someone else said or did? She was in charge of her own destiny, she thought, but hadn't it been shaped by another? Divination was always a curse, she thought, closing her classroom door and watching the flow of students file past her for a minute. She wanted to lead her own life, and not be bound by things that were said in the past. The past. That thought sent a shiver down her spine as she realised what she'd just concocted. A contradiction?

Five minutes. Her time was nearly up. The time to chose had come, and she wasn't going to let it slip her by.

 

***

Ten minutes before his train was due in, Ron sat on a metal bench at the train station with his head in his hands and eyes fixed on his feet. Wondering yet again why he wasted good money on a return fare, he ran a weary hand through his hair and looked up and, seeing little to his pleasure, sought solace in his shoelaces again. He knew he could have apparated, just like he could on the journey down, but the train for an idiotic moment had just seemed the more proper way to go about it. A more fitting end to a tragic tale.

An old lady had perched herself at the other end of his bench, much to his personal annoyance. A flowered scarf was a tied neatly below her chin as she pulled her long tweed coat around herself against the bitter winter chill. The mild spell was at its end. She smelled alarmingly of cats, Ron noticed, giving her an acknowledging glance that she seemed to be taking as something more.

'Got something on your mind, dear?'

Ron looked at her, this outburst a little unexpected considering the isolationist feel to the situation. But he merely raised an eyebrow at the woman and looked back at his feet and sighed. 'Not any more.'

'Ah, don't worry, chuck,' she said, shifting down the bench and patting him gingerly on the knee before rising to her feet as a platform number was announced. 'I'm sure things will eventually work out.'

Ron's frowned deepened in a mystified way as the woman shuffled down the platform and crossed over to board the train that had appeared on the other side of the station. She waved merrily as it departed in the opposite direction, and all Ron felt compelled to do was give a little wave back. He supposed she had to pretend that she was leaving someone behind. People had to live for other people.

But that, he suddenly recalled with alarming coldness, was a pleasure he believed he'd never see. He'd blown it. Hermione wasn't coming back, and that she had proved with every scrap of parchment upon the floor. She wasn't meant to see that, it had nothing to do with anything at all. But he knew that without him to explain, it was something she'd never really believe. Hermione had spent her life being hurt, and would simply see the letter as an extension of that pattern. A mistake, bringing that letter with him was. A stupid, stupid mistake. He'd blown it. And for him it felt like the end of a very unfair world.

The previous night was in such a haze, he wondered if he'd imagined it. For that longest of moments, everything was perfect, and everything he'd ever wanted was exactly where it should have been. For life was just a series of moments. Moments linked together by memory and want, running into each other on a long linear line. It was only when it folded in on itself, the moments being relived, that the pain and confusion would start. He'd tried, he'd leapt into the dark with eyes firmly closed and failed to notice he was walking into a dead end. Maybe it had been all too much for her: the day, the night, the letter. But he'd known he'd meant every minute of it. If someone had told him when he'd got off the Hogwarts express that the girl with the bushy hair and the buckteeth would one day break his heart, he would have thought they were pulling his leg. The idea that today she'd have such a hold on him still, as if she was squeezing the very sinews of his heart, was something that he would have thought preposterous. No such luck now. She owned him, even if she wouldn't have him. He'd lost himself to her and knew it was something he'd never get back.

Five minutes before his train was due to arrive. Five minutes before he knew he had to let go. Five minutes, he thought, before everything that had made him Ron was going to be left in a dirty, grubby, greying Muggle town. Five minutes before he'd have to forget himself. Five minutes, and she was there.

'Ron?'

It was as if she'd appeared out of thin air, and by the fact she was now tucking her wand back in her shoulder bag, Ron supposed she indeed had. Four minutes. For what felt like a lifetime they simply stared at each other from opposite ends of the platform, back to where they'd once started out. Passing each other in that busy London station without a moment of acknowledgement, the strangers at eleven that they were. Oh, how things had changed. But simply he felt that things had gone full circle. Either the cycle would continue or it was to be here the circle stopped. This was to be the moment of decision. And for a moment Ron openly held his breath.

She walked towards him slowly and deliberately, her cinnamon eyes never leaving his face, as if she was looking for something of a sign. She stopped a few paces from him, and stared.

'What do you want, Ron?' she said, timid, almost afraid. Ron stared, his heart stopping in his throat.

'Hermione,' he said, trying to remain as calm as he possibly could, 'It's not what you think...'

'What am I supposed to think, then?' she said with rising anger. 'Why did you track me down?'

Ron said nothing. For a moment every little thing he'd planned the day before, everything before actions took over words, had evaporated. All that was left was him and a girl, standing on a train platform waiting for the other to make the next move. But Hermione had already interpreted his silence in a way only Hermione ever could.

'Yes, I saw that letter, and I already know your game. I just want to hear you say it.' She looked downtrodden for an instant, so much that Ron felt his stomach churn with her complete and utter sadness. She looked up with the corner of her mouth down turned. 'I always thought that time could change a person. It wasn't until today that I truly realised how much.'

Ron still couldn't find the words to speak. Her disappointment was slicing through him now like a sword swung high in battle, passing cleanly through an armour a naïve soldier always somehow trusted. She looked stronger than he knew she actually felt. She was almost spitting fire now, betrayal and hurt dancing across her eyes.

'I just want to hear you say it,' she hissed, the hurt on her face unmistakable. 'Go on.'

'Hermione,' he said softy, trying to calm her with the tones of his voice, 'Why are you here?'

She paused and blinked, thrown a little by the unexpected question, as if she wasn't totally sure of the answer herself. But she soon recovered, and wasn't going to let it break her stride. She stepped towards him, angry now, her whole body physically shaking with the effort of holding her emotions in check. 'Headhunting with a personal agenda. Manipulating people to simply make ends meet. I'm here to tell you that your little scheme isn't going to work. I'm not seventeen anymore, I don't fall for that sort of nonsense. You're not the Ron I know. Is that how low you'll go now? Is that the real you? A Ministry drone, making it personal, on the recruitment round for old time's sake just trying to get by on the job. Luring me away with promises of the world while receiving the backhand from your boss? That wasn't you Ron. That simply wasn't you. And if it is, then I'm glad I don't have to put up with it.'

'Hermione, it isn't like that...'

'No?' She laughed, then shook her head viscously while Ron pondered her opinion that an old time had existed. She continued to rave with menace, but she'd long ago lost the thread. She was just letting five years of pain and anger go now, and Ron knew it was wisest to let her do it. 'I don't even know what you're working on, Ron. There's nothing. Our paths parted a long time ago, and little can be done to put them together again. Bribes don't work, they're not genuine. You're as bad as those you work against - playing on weaknesses to simply get a result. Too late here, Ron, that boat has long ago hit the bottom. Too much has happened for the jigsaw to continue to fit. It's all gone, and we can never go back. Time doesn't fold, it moves on. '

Ron shook his head vigorously in return. 'You know that there is more to it. That letter is insignificant. It just gave me the excuse to make it official. I needed to tell you everything, about Harry, and...'

Hermione looked almost repulsed that Ron had dared to bring their significant other into it. 'Harry was my best friend too, in case you hadn't noticed. That is just totally irrelevant. Don't pretend you came down here for him, because you didn't. And if it wasn't for the letter, then nostalgia is just as bad. Harry's gone, and he'll never come back. If you think that somehow, through me, you'll be able to keep that flame burning, you're mistaken. I'm not him, I'm not like him. You only want to be close to me because it's the next best thing to your best friend. We were never best friends, were we? We could never be best friends. With us it was all or nothing. You only wanted me for the memories...'

'You spend your time being haunted by them too, Hermione, and that makes you no different from anyone else.'

She stared wildly at him for confronting her with the truth, but Ron could see in the watery depths of her eyes that already lost the thread. She was just saying all the things it had taken her five years to build up. Her lip trembled uncontrollably. 'Tell me Ron, because you definitely didn't last night - what is this all about?'

'The truth. Something that's long overdue. The reason Harry kept me alive, so I could explain...'

'But what do you mean?' she repeated again, her outstretched hands now shaking. 'What does it all mean? What are you trying to say to me?'

'What I'm trying to say,' he said, stepping closer and holding out his hand almost defensively, 'Is that if you believed that letter was the only reason I'm here, that I would really sink that low, then you wouldn't be standing where you are. If you really came all the way down here, skipped that excuse you call a job, even apparate just to make it, just to tell me where to stuff it, then you've changed more than is humanely possible. You are only here because deep down you know what I'm going to say. You know that I'll mean every word of it, and that the reason I'm here has nothing to do with the letter, or the Ministry job, or anything but you. You know me, Hermione, nobody else does. You just want to convince yourself that I have an ulterior motive for this so that you don't have to face up to the truth. And I do have an ulterior motive, I admit it. But it is as much for you as it is for myself. And I need to tell you the truth, whether you like it or not. Not just because it cost me my best friend's life, but because his sacrifice will be worthless if I don't do what I should have done years ago. I love you.'

He didn't know what reaction he was going to get, but it wasn't the one that he got. She didn't flinch; anger melting in her eyes merely for an instant before the flames erupted again. She looked ready to openly spit fire. 'And what makes you think that I believe you?'

'Because quite simply you know that it's true.' He could hear the train beginning to make its approach by the thunderous roar erupting beneath his feet. There was still time Three minutes. 'It's always been you, and you know that. Think about it, was there ever anyone else? And don't say it, because Fleur Delacour doesn't count. Of course it was a teenage infatuation at first, and I hated it. I denied it to my last breath. I spent two years with permanently bright red ears. But it was Harry that made me see the truth. He was the one gradually working me up towards the idea of all this, that you and I possibly had something. At times I think the normality of it was the only thing that kept him sane. And I've denied him that, because it was the last thing he ever asked me. To tell you how I felt, and not to leave it too late. So I think, in all fairness, you could say I failed him too.'

Hermione shook her head, the anger evaporating into disbelief. She knew it was entirely the wrong thing to say, but she simply couldn't help herself. 'When?'

Ron complied. 'When he revived me, there was a drop of the potion left. He wanted me to finish it, but I wouldn't. I said he should at least drink the last drop...'

'But it wouldn't have worked either way,' Hermione said in a stage whisper, timid of its content. 'The potion had to be in its full amount...'

'And that had been used on me, I know. The guilt was settling in already. But still I told Harry to take it. And you know what? He did. That is what happened as you were scrambling around behind the rock. Harry drank the last bit. But only on one condition: That I'd tell you that I love you. That I'd tell you straight away.'

'But that was a bit hard...' she almost smiled. 'You were virtually unconscious.'

'And when I woke up you were gone. You've done that to me twice, and that is twice too many. So what of you think I've been trying to do for the best five years of my life? Counting enchanted crockery? Every spare minute was spent looking for you, Hermione, Every single minute. I'd almost given up, but then there was all this. The letter came via me, because the Ministry knew that if anyone was still looking for Hermione Granger, it would be me. The whole world knew, except you. It gave me permission, a mandate to do it. And I don't regret that I did. So please, you've got to believe me, believe Harry, believe yourself.' He could see the train now. Two minutes. 'I love you, and you shouldn't have the pain of it all to yourself. You didn't kill Harry. He died to save us both, and it's that you should remember. We would have done it for him. And I know I should have done. Harry gave me a second chance, and I've spent five years of that chance just wasting it. I've grown up, we both have. Now it's time to make amends, so I'm here to say I love you. I always have and I always will. Come back to London, take the stupid job - not just for me, but for yourself. And I can't do any more than that.'

One minute. The train was pulling into the station; any speech momentarily drowned out by the roar of its engine as it pulled to a grinding halt. And she still stood there. Ron could see her swallow and shift her feet uncomfortably, then take a step back. The full extent of her reaction to the most vulnerable moment of his life, and it had passed. He'd lost her. He closed his eyes as any vague repair that had occurred to his heart with her optimistic reappearance was immediately reversed. She seemed perfectly prepared to walk away again.

'It's Harry, isn't it?' he said in a voice full of timid depression, like a child deprived of timeless youth. He suddenly felt his brain surging with realisation. Hermione was taking another step back along the platform, almost reeling. 'I can see it now. You loved him. You still do. And as long as you still remember, nothing else stands a chance.' He shrugged, looking away, returning one hand to his pocket as the other picked up his bag. The train had now opened its doors. 'I can't compete with the dead, Hermione. I guess I'll see you around.'

He put his bag onto the train first, not daring to look at her again as the guard blew his first whistle. People dismounted all around them. The platform flooded with commuters who failed to notice the scene of the bushy haired girl and the redheaded man standing on the edge of the world. People temporarily walked between them, ignoring them, through the door Ron was currently standing by, meaning that the sight of Hermione's paled and shocking face was lost for a moment in the crowd. Ron's heartbreak was hidden too. But the crowd disbursed, and they were both still there, and Ron placed one foot upon the step, ready to pull himself onboard. But it was the touch of an outstretched arm that stopped him. And he just couldn't face snatching it away.

'Hermione,' he whispered as he turned to meet her eye. 'Please...'

And then she reached up and slid her hand behind his neck and pulled him down to kiss her.

Ron was forced to fall back onto the platform again as Hermione's hand was joined by another, drawing him closer to her that for a moment he thought humanely possible. She simply tried to wrap herself round him as he pulled her in even more tightly round her waist, relief replacing his fear as he kissed her back almost hungrily, desperately, as if she'd slip out of his grasp if he held back for just an instant. He didn't dare draw breath. He could feel her hands clinging urgently to his face now, encasing his cheeks in her hands as if she held within them the Holy Grail itself. When at last they fell apart, he drew a shuddering breath.

'Hermione,' he began, 'I...'

'Shush,' she said, placing a finger over his lips and looking pleadingly into his eyes. Her voice was shaking as much as he was. 'Just listen, Ron, just listen. Harry was my friend. Harry was my brother. At times I felt so protective, I thought that Harry was almost my son. But he - he was never really you.'

Ron stared at her intently, daring not to believe it. 'What are you saying?'

'I'm saying that I believe you. I'm saying that I walked away because I killed Harry, and deep down I still believe that. I walked away because of the pain I caused, to everyone else and you. I walked away this morning because I realised what he'd truly done that day, I know that now, and I thought that it had been a wasted cause. I walked away because I thought he didn't need to die for the reason that was given. That he'd wasted his life on a cause I'd long given up on. He died because he believed there'd be an us. And until last night, Ron, I thought that was something that was simply never meant to be.'

He bit his lip and held her face tightly, just like she was holding his. He could hear every breath escape him as he pleaded her to continue.

'I love you, Ronald Weasley, and you know it. Harry knew I loved you - I told him everything, I'd confided in him as much as you had - and that's why I felt I had to walk away this morning. I thought last night was a hoax, a fantasy, something I'd wanted so much and for so long that you were simply playing on it. I saw the letter, addressed to me, and I read it and thought the worst of you. I'm sorry. You'd spent so much time breaking my heart at every step, that I'd knew I'd simply die if I tried to make it work against whatever it was that you felt, and last night simply added to my penance. I walked away because if Harry had died to save you, I thought he died in vain, because you would never love me back. The letter seemed to confirm it, the worst case scenario. And the reason I'm not walking away now,' she smiled a little, still looking relatively sober and serious with intent. 'Is because for once, I've been proved wrong.'

Ron smiled softy, one hand wafting through her hair as he deeply breathed her scent. 'So does that mean you're coming home? For the job? For me?'

She nodded weakly, 'Yes...'

'I always knew you would.'

And yet again he felt compelled to bend down and kiss her. They ignored the fact that the passengers in the carriage he was supposed to be embarking on were staring at the pair of them, or that an old lady sitting on the bench was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief and smiling. They even failed to notice that they were both solely responsible for putting the train five minutes behind its timetable. In the reality of it all, they didn't really care. They were happy, and that was an emotion both of them had been deprived of for far too much of their lives.

'You have witchcraft in your lips, Mr Weasley...' she smiled as they finally broke the embrace again.

'Hermione,' he sighed with exasperation. 'What on earth are you on about?'

She sighed. 'Shakespeare, you git. I told you to do Muggle Studies, but would you listen, no...'

He bent down to kiss her again, the now familiar warmth she hadn't realised could exist that would always arrive with his kiss spreading down her spine as they embraced. He was holding her so tight, with such relief oozing out of every pore of his body, she wondered if she would ever emerge from this alive. But then it occurred to her that for once, she truly didn't care. He was there, they were together, and that was all that mattered.

'Are you two catching this train or what?'

They broke apart for an instant to turn and regard the guard. He was standing there with whistle in hand, looking at the two of them attempting to feign annoyance but unable to avoid an inevitable smile. He looked at his watch and Ron laughed.

'Yes, yes we are.' He shrugged meekly like a little naughty schoolboy. 'Sorry.'

The guard laughed at them in return. 'Don't be sorry,' he said, 'Just get on!'

Ron took a step away and placed his other bag just inside the carriage door and prepared to embark. Taking Hermione's hand again as he stepped up into the train, she had just one more question to ask of him.

'Ron...' she said, puzzled but happily contented. 'How did you know I'd come and find you?'

'You're one of God's better people, Hermione.' He smiled, drawing her into the railway carriage to take the seat beside him, 'I knew you'd work it out.'

***

And all the way home you forget. Forget. Already
The fires and lights come on wherever you live.

Never Go Back -- Carol Ann Duffy

***

A/N: Total and utter fluff in the last bit, I know. Flames, although understandable, will be used to burn my study notes once my exams are over. And Hermione didn't skip her fare, she paid the guard when he came round on the train. Okeis? Good. Now review, s'il vous plait, I need cheering up, and all the luck in the world...

 

 

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