A/N: So, I always thought that I couldn't picture a world in which Ron goes back to Hogwarts after the Battle... but then, as I tend to do, I started to wonder if there would ever be a reason that he HAD to. And the this happened. So it's a bit AU, but compliant with the canon of the seven books. I hope you like it, hearing your feedback would mean the world to me!
Also, I have to give credit to Jack's Mannequin for the inspiration for the title.
And disclaimer, as always: I don't own Ron or Hermione or anyone or anything else that you might recognize here. I'm not JK Rowling.
"So I'll see you at the train station," Hermione whispered, tying her hair into a messy knot at the back of her head. Ron, lounging comfortably in his bed, his bare shoulders poking out above the navy blue duvet, looked like he had no intention of moving for several days. "You and Harry will be there at half ten, right?"
"Yeah," replied Ron, sitting up a bit and pulling her by the waist onto the bed beside him. "Course, you know my track record with being on time to King's Cross isn't great-"
"But you can't miss the train, that's why I'm telling you half-ten, in the hopes that you'll at least make it by five til."
"Well, now that I know that…" Ron grinned and wrapped his hands around hers, using them to bring her in for a light kiss. "Even if we did miss the train, we could just Apparate to Hogsmeade. Save us a lot of time, actually-"
"It's our last start-of-term train ride to Hogwarts," Hermione reminded him. "You can't miss it." She glanced down at the watch around his wrist. "And I really have to go."
Ron said nothing, instead laying a slow, soft kiss on her lips. "You know," he murmured into her mouth, dropping tiny kisses along her upper lip, "you wouldn't have to sneak around all the time if you'd just move in here with me and Harry."
"And you know I can't do that, my parents…" Hermione caught his lips fully with hers. "Would never let me…"
Arms securing around her waist, Ron fell back on the bed, drawing her on top of him as his lips landed on her neck. "Stay a while," he suggested. "It's still early…" His hand slid up the back of her shirt. "We could… y'know…"
"What?" Hermione said, affecting innocence. "Play chess? Knit jumpers?"
Ron chuckled against her neck and flipped them over, making the ancient bedsprings groan in protest. His lips peppered a trail of kisses up her jaw.
"I think you know I don't want to play chess." His tongue curled around her earlobe.
"The knitting, then?"
As he began to suck on the sensitive skin just below her ear, Hermione let out a long sigh of pleasure. If she was honest with herself, she found lounging around in bed with Ron - shirtless Ron, no less - to be a much preferable option to Apparating home before her parents awoke. If they caught her, and thus cottoned on to the fact that this has become a regular occurrence all summer, that most weekend nights had been spent between these sheets in various states of undress, she hated to consider what would come next. That they had been accepting of her return to Hogwarts was already akin to a miracle.
"I have to go," Hermione repeated ruefully. "I'll see you at the station in a few hours."
"Yeah, okay." Ron planted a kiss on her cheek as she crawled away from him and sat up. "I love you." His features seemed to soften as he spoke.
"I love you too." Their lips met again, quickly, and then Hermione stood, flashing Ron one last smile as she crept out of his room.
Why she was trying to be stealthy about it, she really didn't know; the only other person living here was Harry and he was certainly aware of how often she spent the night. Still, it was just past five in the morning, and it wouldn't do to go barreling down the stairs and causing a ruckus. Soon she reached the front step of Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place and turned determinedly on the spot. One instant of suffocation and darkness later, she stood in her childhood bedroom.
That her parents' home in London had gone virtually untouched in their absence had been of little comfort to Hermione. She had half-expected to come back to a wreck, to a demolished, overturned ruin, to some sign or hint or faintest whisper that the Death Eaters had come calling for her parents, but there was nothing. There were no signs that that the place had seen any magic since Hermione had modified her parents' memories and sent them away to Australia. And as she looked around the room, just as she'd left it all those months ago, the family pictures restored, the gnawing guilt and doubt crept back into the pit of her stomach.
Times had been desperate, she reminded herself as she knelt before the trunk at the foot of her bed. At the height of the war, people had acted out of fear, doing things they ordinarily wouldn't have dreamed of doing. Harry had split with Ginny to protect her, Muggleborns had gone on the run, Ron had even dressed up the family ghoul in pajamas to pose as him. Everyone was just trying to survive, to protect those they loved.
But those things were different, the little voice in the back of her head remarked as she checked through the stacks of freshly laundered robes. They had known that Voldemort would go after Harry's loved ones and that Harry would have stopped at nothing to save Ginny. They had known that Ron's truancy from Hogwarts would prompt an investigation. But she hadn't known, not really, not with absolute certainty, that Australia was the only safe place for her only family members. Maybe they could have stayed. Maybe she didn't have to tamper with their lives against their will. Maybe she could have explained beforehand, gotten their permission, helped them understand… but she hadn't. As usual, she'd seen only her way as the right way.
Figuring she may as well keep the charade up properly, Hermione crawled into her twin bed and hugged her pillow to her chest. Her parents had always liked Ron, in a "he's a nice boy with a nice family" sort of way, and they knew she and Ron were officially together now, but Hermione still wanted to keep her private time with him, well, private. She was eighteen, yes, but she didn't want her parents ruminating too long on exactly why she might want to stay the night at his house or just what they'd be doing. They'd already gotten a bit overprotective as it was.
After a quick catnap, Hermione showered and dressed in simple Muggle clothing, something that she could easily change out of on the train. Just as she was using her wand to dry off her hair, there came a soft knock on the other side of her bedroom door before it opened. Why even knock then? thought Hermione in annoyance as her parents appeared in the doorway.
"We're heading off to work, dear," said her mum, adjusting a pin keeping her low, elegant bun in place. "You'll be all right getting yourself to the train station?"
"Yes, mum, I'll be fine," replied Hermione. She'd gotten herself and Ron all the way to Australia on her own, hadn't she? And then it occurred to her, in another wave of guilt, that they hadn't seen her off at King's Cross Station since she was twelve years old. She had always been with the Weasleys, always too eager to reunite with her friends to spend the entire summer with her own family.
It was an awkward departure - there were hugs and well-wishes and promises made to write every single day and Hermione did her best to tamp down every unpleasant feeling that threatened to overtake her. She couldn't let herself feel this way about doing what she knew what right for her. She was going to back to Hogwarts; it was where she belonged.
Ron, standing over six feet tall with vibrant red hair, stood out everywhere he went, but Hermione was still quite shocked to see him grinning at her on the other side of the barrier to Platform 9 when she stepped through at exactly half past ten. Beside him stood Harry, whose typically untidy hair looked exceptionally bedraggled.
"You're early!" she exclaimed, dragging her trunk carelessly behind her as she hurried to greet him.
Ron shrugged and dipped his head to peck her cheek. "Always the-"
"Tone of surprise, we get it," Harry snapped. "Aren't you adorable. Can we just go find a compartment?"
Without waiting for an answer, he stalked off to the scarlet steam engine and yanked open the door. Hermione hurried after him, leaving Ron to tend to her trunk.
"Where's Ginny?" she asked, hoping this change of topic would spark a shift in mood for him.
"She'll be here," said Harry as Ron came clanging up the steps with his and Hermione's trunks. "She's coming from the Burrow, you know, because she tends to spend the night at her own house." Opening the door to the first empty compartment he came upon, Harry hoisted his trunk onto the rack above their heads and flung himself into a seat.
"Right," Hermione said meekly, sitting down across from him. "Sorry." It felt like an odd, trite thing to say, but how else could she respond?
"It's fine," he shrugged it off, fixing his eyes resolutely on the scene unfolding outside the window.
"You don't want to wait for her?"
"She knows I don't particularly like standing around on train platforms getting stared at."
"He's just annoyed," Ron chimed in as he lifted Hermione's trunk over his head, "because your mum can't charm your bedroom to keep you there at night like mine can do to Ginny."
Hermione felt her face flush as Ron shoved his trunk further back onto the rack and then joined her on the seat. Harry had never seemed to have a problem when Hermione snuck over at night to see Ron, but what if their privacy charms hadn't held out and he'd overheard something? It had to be a bit awkward, after all these years of friendship, to now play third wheel to them.
"Harry," Hermione began, unable to help herself, "does it bother you that-"
"Oh, she's here," Harry remarked, brightening a bit. As he scrambled out of the compartment to fetch her, Ron placed a hand on Hermione's thigh and gave it a light squeeze.
"He's fine," Ron assured her. "He's just still annoyed that Kingsley's bill didn't pass through the Wizengamot."
"That was over a month ago."
"I'm still kind of pissed about it too," Ron admitted, "but he's not allowed to make another attempt at it for three months, so… here we are. Making the best of it."
Almost immediately following the Battle of Hogwarts, newly appointed Minister of Magic Kingsley Shacklebolt had immediately sent several bills through the Wizengamot. One had dismantled the Muggleborn Registration Commission, one had reversed mandatory attendance at Hogwarts, and numerous others had made great strides toward restoring peace in the Wizarding community. One of them, which was of particular interest to Ron and Harry, would have passed a new law allowing wizards and witches who had adequate OWL marks to enter the Auror training program without NEWTs if said witches and wizards had fought the Dark arts under extraordinary circumstances. It would have allowed any student who fought in the battle to join the dreadfully understaffed department, but it had not garnered adequate votes from the Wizengamot and as such, Ron and Harry were, begrudgingly, returning for their NEWT year.
"I'm glad I'm here with you," Ron added, leaning in to gently kiss her lips.
"So am I." Since they were alone, she kissed him again. "I can't picture Hogwarts without you."
With a smile, Ron pressed his lips to hers, a low hum of contentment rolling out of his throat. For a moment, Hermione forgot where they were, forgot that they were on a train that was growing more crowded by the second, with students traipsing by-
"Oi," came Harry's voice through the compartment as the door slid open. "Don't I see enough of this at home?"
His tone, unlike before, was tinged with mirth as Ginny marched into the compartment and took the seat nearest the window.
"I told you they'd be like this," she said to Harry, rolling her eyes as he joined her on the bench. "Maybe it's good they didn't get together until this summer, can you imagine dealing with this all last year?"
"As if you lot are any better," Ron fired back.
The train rumbled to life, its whistle emitting a loud blast. As the three of them bickered, Hermione slipped her fingers into Ron's, linking them together. The mere presence of Ginny had boosted Harry's spirits, as was typical, and as the clock struck eleven and the train rolled out of the station, Hermione allowed herself to feel moderately optimistic about the year ahead. For the first time since she had met them exactly seven years ago, Harry was not a marked man, and that fact alone meant the school year would be remarkable.
In a half hour, she would have to visit the prefects compartment to lead the traditional start-of-term meeting as Head Girl, and sporadically throughout the trip, she would have to patrol the corridors, but for now she was content to sit, hand in hand with Ron, as she finally made her way back to school.
"They're so small," Ron commented in wonder. "We were not that small as first-years, there's just no way."
Hermione wasn't about to agree with him aloud - it wouldn't do as Head Girl - but she had to agree, as she looked down the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, that the newest students could easily have passed for preschoolers. They were so young, so pure, they hadn't been through any of the things that Hermione and Harry and Ron had during their first six years as students, and Hermione hoped they never had to.
It also didn't help their cause that they were all gawking blatantly at Harry, who was trying futilely to hide behind Ginny as he ate his steak and kidney pie. He had managed to avoid a great deal of scrutiny on the train, but his entrance into the school, as anticlimactic as he'd tried to make it, had been met with stares and whispers and a request for an autograph from a small young Gryffindor. "You defeat one Dark Lord and nobody'll leave you alone," he had muttered as he wedged himself between Ginny and Demelza Robins.
Up at the Head Table, Professor McGonagall sat in the Headmaster's chair, flanked on either side by Professor Flitwick and Professor Slughorn. The latter seemed determined to chat up Professor Sinistra, who looked like she found the pile of peas on her plate a great deal more interesting. Considering the way the past couple of years had gone, Hermione felt they should merely count their blessings that Harry hadn't been asked to fill the role.
"You know what?" Ginny decided as Harry tried to ignore two young boys pointing boldly at his scar. "Let's take this lot to go."
"What?" Harry asked in confusion, but Ginny was already waving her wand, floating chicken wings and mashed potatoes and treacle tart into a small box that she had conjured up.
"Professor McGonagall's already done her speech," said Ginny, "so we really don't need to sit here with everyone watching us - plus, Hermione, you know the password, right?"
"Yes, I do, but we can't just-"
"No, she's right," said Ron, levitating a pork chop into the box. "There's no point sitting around and letting everyone talk about us. Let's get out of here."
Under the table, Ginny discreetly passed the box of food to Harry and then gave an exaggerated yawn, stretching her arms out wide and knocking a fist into a flagon of pumpkin juice.
"Oh, no," she moaned dramatically as the bright orange liquid spread down the table. Cramming the box into his rucksack, Harry darted to the door with Ron following closely behind him. "Oh, what a mess," Ginny continued, moving to wipe up the spill and instead upending a tureen of sliced carrots. "Uh oh, you know what, I'm making it worse, why don't I just…"
And within seconds she was out of sight.
Five minutes later found Hermione approaching the Fat Lady's portrait on the seventh floor, where her boyfriend and her two best friends waited patiently for her.
"There she is," said Ron with a smile. "What took you so long?"
"Oh, I thought I'd actually help clean up that mess," she explained, shaking her head at a rather proud-looking Ginny. "Filibuster," she added to the Fat Lady, who swung open to allow them entry to the common room.
It was the same as it had always been, with squashy old furniture and wooden tables and a crackling fireplace. The group hesitated, drinking in the sight of the place, before Ron took Hermione by the hand and led her over to their usual sofa near the fire.
"We had our second kiss in here," Hermione commented quietly as they settled into the furniture. "Do you remember?"
"Yeah, of course I remember." Ron dropped his rucksack on the floor at their feet. "Actually, if I recall correctly, I think it was our second, and third… and fourth, and fifth and sixth-"
"Okay, point taken," Hermione laughed, accepting a plate from Ginny.
The memory felt simultaneously like it was from a different lifetime and like it had happened yesterday, finding Ron in the common room mere hours after the battle had ended. He had been gazing into the fire, still sweaty, still grimy from the battle, when Hermione had finally emerged from the girls' dormitory. She'd been drawn to him that day, a magnetism pulling her across the floor on bare feet to sit beside him. They hadn't needed words; everything about the way he had looked at her, tear tracks cutting through the soot and dirt and blood on his face, had said how much she meant to him. When they'd kissed, she hadn't minded that he tasted like smoke or that his fingernails were still dirty because he was here, safe, alive, and finally hers. They had stayed like that for what felt like hours, exchanging tender, almost tentative kisses, until Harry, as he was so prone to doing, had barged in and completely destroyed the moment.
"This was a good idea," Harry said around a sticky mouthful of treacle tart, jolting Hermione back to the present. "You're a genius, Gin."
"Award-winning actress is more like it," Ron quipped, causing Ginny to smirk and pat Harry affectionately on the leg. "You could always just get Kreacher to bring food up to your dorm if you really wanted to."
"And have rumors go around that I reckon I'm too important to eat with the rest of the school? No thanks." Harry crammed the crust of the tart into his mouth and leaned back on his palms. "I'm basically screwed either way."
"It'll die down," Hermione said reassuringly. "It's just that the last time most of these people saw you, you were - well-" It didn't quite need to be said aloud.
"Right," Harry nodded, looking suddenly sullen. "You know what, I'm going to bed. The sooner I wake up and it's tomorrow, the faster these ten months will go, right?"
When he received no response, he simply leaned over, kissed Ginny, and stood, giving them all a little wave as he made for the boys' staircase.
"He really does not want to be here at all," Ginny remarked as the sound of Harry's footsteps died out. "Not even a little bit."
Ron gave a little jerk of his head as if to agree with her. "We just have to do what we have to do."
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