Izzy here, with my fanfic, "Standing on the Stairs" a Harry Potter fanfic featuring Ron and Hermione, inspired by the first movie, when Harry gets out of the hospital wing and sees Ron and Hermione talking on top of the stairs, but still takes place in the book canon. They're all Rowlings(I refuse to acknowledge WB. They only have the movie rights)

Standing on the Stairs

By Izzy

June 1992

"How much longer, do you think, until Madam Pomfrey lets us visit?"

"I don't know."

Ron and Hermione spoke softly as they stood at the top of one of Hogwarts' many flights of stairs, one that was unusually sedate. After defeating Quirrel, Harry had been in the Hospital Wing, and nothing else was happening, except the Quidditch game. Neither had felt like going, since without a Seeker, Gryffindor was obviously doomed.

"Well, at least he's all right," said Hermione. "At least we're all all right."

"I'm glad of that," noted Ron.

"Know what I'm glad of?"


"That I'm friends with both of you. For one thing, if it wasn't for you, I don't know how I would have gotten through the days after we got caught sending Norbert off."

"If it wasn't for us," Ron reminded her, "you wouldn't been involved, so you wouldn’t have gotten caught in the first place."

"True," she admitted, "but if it wasn't for you, You-Know-Who would've come back, and I'd now be facing much worse then I've been through."

There was silence at that one. Ron, in the end, still found it hard to comprehend, that had they failed, You-Know-Who would have come back. He had kept his head by focusing on other things, such as the Devil's Snare. That'd been something to panic about too, but not nearly as much as You-Know-Who coming back.

When Hermione spoke again, her voice was softer still, as if she was afraid of even him hearing her. "I was terrified after the chess game, you know. I almost couldn't go on."

Ron laughed. "You're not saying I meant that much to you!"

Then he saw her face, and his laughter stopped. "You..." He was completely stunned.

"I never really had friends before you two," she said. "Everyone at school thought I was a know-it-all freak, especially after the incident with the desks-long story. I really have to thank that troll."

This last comment couldn't help but make Ron laugh again. "It's not funny!" she protested so forcefully that he hastily stifled it. “Though I guess the bit with the desks was. And I still think Ester deserved it.” She clutched the balustrade on this last remark, as if clinging to this belief.


“Ester Carroll. She was the teacher’s pet. His name was Mr. Humphrey. He was a complete and utter idiot, thought she was the best little girl in the world because she kissed up to him. She did all her homework too, but I don’t think she cared about actually learning. No, she just wanted good marks. Why else would she brag to me about her marks, and ignore me when I asked her about what she actually knew? And she called me stupid!” She was getting excited now, and in a way Ron hadn't seen in her before, though he didn't blame her.

Instead, he said sympathetically, “Sounds awful. So what happened?”

“There was a spelling test, she got full marks, and I got a question wrong. And she laughed at me. I had already been having a bad day. That’s why I think I got the question wrong in the first place. I’ve read since in Signs of Young Magic that when a child turns eight, their powers get much stronger, and they can direct them if they’re angry enough. I was eight. So as Ester sat there laughing, singing ‘Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!’, her desk first started moving under her, which caused her to stop and scream, and then leapt up like a horse and sent her flying halfway across the room. She landed on her arm and broke it in two places. Then she started screaming at me, and some of her friends joined in, and their desks all went crazy too. I did more than I meant to, but I was just so angry. Well, obviously, I didn’t really mean to anything at all, because I had no idea I could do it, but…well, it’s kind of the strange, the whole thing. Like on some level, I did know, even though I didn’t.”

“Wow!” Questions on what she meant to do aside(that probably couldn’t be easy on Muggle-borns), Ron was impressed. “The biggest thing I did when I was eight was ruin Fred and George’s chicken soup! Harry said something about breaking his cousin’s new radio...”

“Hmmmm,” Hermione suddenly grew thoughtful. “He’s really powerful, you know.”

“Of course he is!” said Ron. “He’s...well...you know...and twice now.”

“But not for the last time, I think.”

Ron’s mouth went dry. “What makes you think that?” he managed to ask.

“I don’t know, exactly. Just a feeling. I don’t think we’re at all done with You-Know-Who. I’ve read enough about him to know that if he tried to come back once, he’ll try to come back again. And, well, I think we can be pretty sure that if Harry’s at all capable of stopping him personally, he’s going to do so. You heard how he spoke.”

“Yeah,” said Ron. “That means we’ll have to help him.”

“And that means,” said Hermione, her tone suddenly becoming very serious, “that we have to remain friends with each other. No matter what kind of fights we get into, because you know we’ll get into them. We have to make sure that we’re still friends at the end of the day. Or at least at the end of the year. Like now.”

Ron nodded, stunned by how grave she’d suddenly turned, at least at first, but knowing she was right. “You know,” he said, “why don’t we do this every year then? Meet here, at the top of these stairs, and if there’s anything we want sorted with each other, anything we need to get off our chests, anything like that, we handle it here.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea.”

“Agreed then?” he held out his hand.

“Agreed.” They shook on it.

June 1993

“You know,” Ron observed as they climbed up the agreed flight of stairs, “when we decided on this, I suppose we didn’t consider that one of us might not be here to meet with the other.”

“I don’t think that was an issue here,” said Hermione. She was lagging behind a little; she’d been often low on energy since being revived. “They couldn’t have left us Petrified at the end of the year. Our parents would have gone into hysterics. I’m still not sure whether I’m going to tell mine or not. I’ve never lied to them before, but...”

“Oh,” Ron scoffed, “even if you’ve never actually lied to them, surely at some point you’ve just ‘forgotten’ to mention something?”

Then he saw the expression on Hermione’s face. “Never? Not even with our adventures at the end of last year? Or with, say, that story with the desks you told me?”

“I told them all about what we did, yes, though to be fair, I don’t think they really understood how dangerous that was, and I wasn’t even sure how to make them understand! As for the desks, I didn’t need to tell them about that one. The Headmistress had a discussion with them about it first. I was lucky not to be thrown out. Of course, they couldn’t prove I had done anything. It made sense that I was responsible, but they couldn’t figure out how I could’ve done it.”

“It can’t be that easy for Muggle-borns, can it?” Ron asked, remembering how he’d thought that the previous year. “And it couldn’t have been easy for Harry, either. Have the two of you ever talked about that?”

“No,” said Hermione. “Maybe we should.”

“Though, actually,” said Ron, “your parents aren’t all in the dark. I know yours expected you to stay here over Easter anyway, but Justin’s parents were expecting him home in December. I don’t know who talked to them, or what they said, but I’m pretty sure somebody did. You know, I wonder how the Clearwaters and Creeveys reacted.”

“I’m pretty sure Mr. Creevey didn’t expect his son home,” said Hermione. “I remember Ginny said Colin had begged his father to let him stay at Hogwarts because he loves it here so much.” At the thought of Ginny, she sank into silence.

"Do you really think she’s going to be all right?” Ron asked, though he didn’t know if she knew the answer to that any more than he did, but maybe she could give him some kind of reassurance.

Hermione remained silent for a couple of moments more. “I think it’s too early to tell,” she said. “I think she doesn’t remember much, though, which might be the deciding factor in her favour.”

“I hope so,” said Ron, and the words honestly felt weak; never in his life had he felt like this, had he felt this desperate worry combined with this complete helplessness, and saying he hoped his sister would be okay didn’t feel at all like enough.

He nearly jumped when her hand settled on his arm. “You saved her,” she said, very gently. “She’s alive and unhurt, and safe, thanks to you.”

“Yeah, I know,” he breathed. “But I’ve never in my life spent so much time being so frightened. Even last year, there wasn’t time to be. I think it’s better when we can face these things immediately and there isn’t time to think.”

“This may not be the last time this happens, though,” Hermione reminded him. “I’ve read that last time, when You-Know-Who was rising, things went really slowly. People disappearing, supposedly isolated violent incidents happening, no big attacks or anything like that until it was nearly 1978.”

“But if he did come back,” and Ron didn’t want to think about this being possible, but if they had to, “it would be different, wouldn’t it? I mean, he’d already have all his followers and everything.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I have no idea about these sorts of things.”

“Hermione not know something?” he tried to joke, but he couldn’t put his heart into it.

“There’s a lot no one knows,” she said. “But at least we know that we’re all all right for now.”

“Are you, though?” he asked. “Only you don’t seem quite well yet. And...” But he was too embarrassed, somehow, to ask if she was okay, emotionally; his worry for her there had been almost drowned out by his terror for Ginny, but it had been there, beneath the surface. If he understood everything right, she probably hadn’t experienced anything besides briefly seeing a pair of big eyes in a mirror, but still... “I...you seem tired all the time...”

“Madam Pomfrey told us our bodies atrophied a bit,” she said in her normal matter-of-fact tone, “though Penelope and I suffered the least there.” At his confused look, she sighed, and said, “It means our muscles became weak because we weren’t using them. Well, of course we weren’t; we were Petrified. Colin and Justin are having to do a whole workout routine every day, and Mrs. Norris probably won’t be back prowling the corridors until next year.”

“I’m sure nobody minds that.”

“Seriously, Ron, it’s not nothing for them. Ginny’s been helping Colin out a little. Though that worries me, actually, that she seems to feel guilty.”

“'Older and wiser wizards than she have been hoodwinked by...’” Ron started to repeat the words he’d heard Dumbledore say, but he wasn’t able to use that name, not the way the greatest wizard of their age could just drop it casually.

“But on the other hand,” Hermione mused, “she did steal the diary back. She shouldn’t have done that.”

“She should have come to someone for help,” said Ron.

“Exactly,” agreed Hermione. “I suppose she was afraid she’d be punished, but when she knew she was putting the school in danger...”

“Why didn’t she talk to one of us?” Ron finally voiced the question that had been driving him crazy. “Well, maybe she was scared of talking to Percy, but Fred and George and I...all right, Fred and George sometimes act like they...but they would have helped her out. I would have helped her out. We wouldn’t have let her be expelled or arrested or anything like that; why didn’t she *know* that? How could we have not let her know that? Or she could have written to mum and dad. They would have helped; she had to know they would have helped; I can’t believe she didn’t know that!”

“But she didn’t,” said Hermione. “I suppose Riddle must have worked on her, tried to convince her not to trust anyone else.”

“But if she knew he was a liar why did she believe him?!”

“I’ve read You-Know-Who was a very clever speaker,” said Hermione. “Even those who didn’t agree with what he spouted found themselves more subtly influenced. He could have easily convinced her he was right when he told her she couldn’t tell anyone, that they’d turn on her, even after she knew what he was. Remember he had months with which to poison her mind.

And now we have to unpoison it,” she suddenly declared. “You know what, Ron? You’re talking to the wrong witch right now. And yes, we agreed we’d have this talk, but this isn’t the year we need it. You know what you should do right now instead? You should get off these stairs, go back to Gryffindor Tower, find Ginny, and tell her what you just said to me. Because she needs to know it, and it seems she didn’t.”

“Well...” Ron froze. It was one thing to say all this to Hermione. It was another thing to actually sit his sister down and say it to her. Some part of him would not be convinced she wouldn’t just roll her eyes.

“Come on, what are you waiting for? This is your sister’s future safety and happiness we’re talking about.” And she had seized him by the arm and was dragging him down the stairs, grunting hard with her limited strength, but he found he had to let her without protest, because he saw her point.

June 1994

On his own, Ron would have delayed this one. He and Hermione had not yet really talked about Crookshanks and Scabbers, and that it turned out not only had Crookshanks not eaten him, but that he wasn’t even Scabbers, and Ron was still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he had kept, cared for, even loved he who had betrayed Harry’s parents to their deaths. He knew he owed Hermione an apology, but he just couldn’t deal with everything giving one would entail.

But Hermione, Ron had started to realize, had a very narrow view of right and wrong, and as far as she was concerned, their promise to meet on the stairs at the end of every year was not to be influenced by such things as having one’s feelings sent reeling due to discovering such a terrible truth. And so, as soon as Ron was out of the Hospital Wing, the first place they had to go to was those stairs.

Once there, however, she didn’t seem to know where to begin, and Ron was annoyed enough at being dragged there that he refused to. For a minute or so they just stood there, him trying not to look at her.

Then she finally said, “You loved Scabbers, didn’t you? When you thought he was just a rat.”

She was the last person one would expect to realize it, considering her earlier behavior. And yet now she was the first person to actually acknowledge it. Harry hadn’t mentioned the existence of any version of Peter Pettigrew at all, and Ron hadn’t been about to push him there. And even before then, when they’d all believed Crookshanks had eaten him, no one had said, “I’m sorry, Ron; I know he meant a lot to you,” or anything like that. It would have been a very girly thing to say, but now that this girl said it, Ron found himself realizing how badly he’d wanted to hear someone say it.

“I really was very angry,” she continued. “I mean, you’d accused my cat of murder, then pretty much condemned him without proof that there was even a murder going on, and then...” But she stopped, which was a good thing, because Ron’s anger had been rising up again, but now there was nothing to distract him from her looking close to tears.

“Then what? You’d better tell me, Hermione. You’d really better tell me.” If she was forcing him to do this, she better be ready to do it herself.

She could hear the warning in his voice, and she squeezed her eyes shut, took a moment to get a hold of herself, and gasped out, “This is going to sound really dramatic, Ron, but when you talked like that, I sort of felt like, well, like you cared more about Scabbers than you cared about me.”

She was trying not to look at him, and Hagrid’s words came back to Ron, “I thought you two’d value yer friend more’n broomsticks or rats.” It hadn’t really been like that to Ron; it hadn’t been a question of valuing or caring about anyone more or less. He’d known that immediately, though he hadn’t known just what it had been about. And it hadn’t mattered shortly afterwards, when any chance there’d been of his maybe being nicer to her had been done away with by her next action.

And he needed to ask her questions about that, questions, in fact, that might prove even more painful than this, but surely they could wait a moment or so. “It wasn’t that...” Then he had to stop, because it was hard to get this out. It was practically embarrassing, how much feeling he had about this.

“Did you really feel betrayed?” she asked, and Ron found himself thinking he positively loved her, because all he had to do was nod.

Her hands moved forward, almost as if she wanted to touch him, but she didn’t. “I don’t know what I could have done to stop the two of them, though,” she murmured. “I mean, especially now that we know the real reason Crookshanks went after him all the time. I couldn’t watch him every hour of the day.”

“You could have acted differently once...”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too.”

They let the silence sit for a moment or so, as Ron felt a burden lift. This had been a good idea, he thought, this meeting at the end of the year thing. Even if, unfortunately, there was another issue they had to discuss.

So he forced himself to say, “Hermione, there’s another thing I was really angry with you about, and it’s something we’ve really never talked about at all. When you threatened to tell McGonagall about the map, well, obviously you knew Harry went into Hogsmeade that day and you didn’t, but well, did you at any point mean it? Even knowing you could have gotten Harry expelled?”

“Well...” She looked more uncomfortable than Ron had ever seen her. “I don’t know. Do you really think they would have expelled Harry? When’s he’s Harry Potter, and they believed Sirius Black to be after him? They didn’t punish him at all for blowing up his Aunt, you know.”

“You have too much faith in teachers,” sighed Ron. “Back when we flew the car to Hogwarts, we were told we would be expelled if we broke any more rules, remember? Of course they let us off the time we saved the school, but, well, we’d just saved the school, and Harry wouldn’t have had that excuse that time. Maybe they wouldn’t have wanted to expel Harry, well, Snape would’ve wanted to but thankfully he doesn’t get to, but if they felt they had no choice...”

“There is always a choice.” There was anger in Hermione’s voice, but Ron didn’t think it was directed at him. “And it had been over a year. There were plenty of ways they could have punished him without ruining his life. You know, I’ve always been angry about the whole Decree for the so-called ‘Reasonable’ Restriction of Underage Sorcery ever since I found out how it’s enforced.”

“Huh?” What did that have to do with anything?

“After hearing about what happened with Harry and the house-elf Dobby, hearing that they keep tabs on Muggle households, I did a little research, and I really didn’t have to do much at all, and it turns out they’ve got no real way of enforcing it. They can tell what magic’s being performed where, and that’s it. Which means in a wizarding household, it’s unenforceable. They have that letter for your parents, of course, but what parent would snitch on their kid when the consequence would be that big? And I just bet a lot of parents ignore it. I’m sure Malfoy’s parents do. I’m sure he gets to do all the magic he wants during the summer, while we three have to be good little underage wizards and obey the rules.

But the real problem,” she continued, and her words were speeding up as her face flushed, her eyes aflame, and Ron thought he almost saw the air blow about her with her excitement, “the real problem is that it’s discriminatory to Muggle-borns. Or anyone who lives with Muggles, like Harry, or like Lavender, who lives with only her mother, you know, because her father died before she was born. It means while their pureblood classmates can continue to work magic over the summer, provided their parents don’t stop them, and I really do think your parents are the exception rather than the rule, Ron, Muggle-borns must wait. And that means the purebloods get more experienced, they probably learn their lessons quicker, and all in all they end up stronger than the Muggle-borns. And then they dare crow that we’re weaker because our blood made us that way!”

Ron had never, ever thought about the law in that kind of depth. Even these past few months when he’d been studying animal law and the appeals process, his head had mostly been overwhelmed with facts and legal arguments, not with any law’s deeper meaning and what it might really do. He’d known, of course, that there were once terrible laws that made things very hard for Muggle-borns, back in the 18th century when the prejudice against them had been the worst, but his biggest problem with that modern law was only that it was annoying being unable to do magic during the summer.

Now he was staring at Hermione, who to talk with this fury must have been thinking about this and stewing over it maybe ever since she’d first heard the story of Harry getting in trouble for Dobby’s Hover Charm. It was sort of like the way Percy sometimes ranted about things that displeased him, except somehow it was more solid, maybe because when Ron heard her he couldn’t help but think she was right. And there was a strength to her, of a kind Ron wasn’t sure he’d run into before, maybe in his mother a little bit.

It made something inside Ron...pull. As if he wanted something or other, or to say something, or to do something, but he didn’t know what he wanted to get or say or do.

He couldn’t figure it out, and meanwhile Hermione was starting to come out of it, look down a little thoughtfully, before she said, “When I made that threat...I don’t know if I was trying to convince myself I meant it or...but I don’t think I would have ever followed through. I really don’t.”

And that almost made Ron start, because he’d honestly forgotten about that, even though they’d been talking about it only two minutes ago. After hearing that speech, she could’ve given a much less forgivable answer than that and he might have still said, “That’s enough, then. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t really going to get one of us expelled.”

“Fair enough,” said Hermione. She leaned a little bit against the balustrade, and her throat flashed in such a way that Ron thought she was suppressing a yawn.

Of course she was tired, he thought. He wasn’t sure if he needed to ask anything about the Time-Turner, and about her not telling them about it, if only because he had the feeling Hermione would just repeat what she’d said already. He’d gotten the impression McGonagall had given one of her stronger lectures to her, and if that was true, as far was Ron was concerned, she need give no more explanation for obeying their Head of House. That woman was scary.

Which meant they’d talked about everything he could think of, and he thought Hermione was satisfied too, but she did then ask, “As a last question, are you going to tell Percy the truth about...”

“I haven’t even thought that far,” he commented. He tried to imagine sitting Percy down and trying to explain to him the truth about his old pet rat, and shook his head. “I don’t think I can. I’m not sure how he would react. I can’t even be dead certain he’d even remember who Scabbers was.”

“You’re kidding!” cried a shocked Hermione. “Of course he’ll remember! I can understand if you think the whole business is something we need to keep between the three of us and Dumbledore, but that’s not a good reason to not tell him at all!”

“Oh God,” sighed Ron. “How much could I dare tell him? That we helped free Buckbeak in defiance of the Ministry; he might tell the authorities to arrest us for that! That we let Sirius go-even if he believes me that we found out he’s innocent, he would probably say we should have arrested him anyway and left it to the judgment of the Ministry...”

“But,” Hermione protested, “But they would have just...”

“Yeah, but I don’t know if he’d believe that. Or if he did, he might even find a way to defend it, I don’t know...”

“You’re too harsh on your brother,” said Hermione. “You’re assuming too quickly he’d react the wrong way.”

“Believe me, Hermione,” was his grim response. “That is how he would react.”

Hermione sighed, and looked away. “So you won’t tell him, then.”

“No. I can’t.”

“Well, maybe it’s for the best,” she said. “It might be better for him to keep the happy memories.”

That seemed a weird way to describe it to Ron. Hermione seemed to find it incredible that Percy should not have had the same crazy affection for his pet that she did, but Ron could never in his life remember Percy behaving in any way as if he cared half as much for Scabbers. But that sort of felt like overkill to talk about now, when, in the relief that they’d pretty much covered everything at this point, Ron sort of felt like he’d been knocked out by that huge queen on McGonagall’s chess board again. Hopefully, he thought, they’d never again have another year like this one.

June 1995

Hermione had been a right idiot, Ron thought, as he trudged up the stairs, insisting on these yearly meetings and how they had to talk about things(she said it had been his idea, but he distinctly remembered those three years ago her exact words about making sure they were still friends at the end of the day or at least the year). But even a year ago, he honestly hadn’t thought there was going to be anything he literally could not tell her. Even with that whole thing with Crookshanks and Scabbers, it hadn’t been like his current dilemma.

He’d spent the entire morning trying to think up words to explain his behavior that year. But it was the first time he’d tried to figure it out himself, and suddenly discovered he didn’t understand it. Much as he hated to admit it, Hermione had been right to be angry at him behaving like he had at the Yule Ball, getting so upset at her and Krum getting so close when before he’d seen the two of them together like that he’d still be thinking about getting the bloke’s autograph. Of course, getting an autograph was one thing, strolling around and hanging in the library with him for days and days was another, but Harry had seemed okay with it-as Hermione had been sure to make Ron aware. Yet Ron could not shake the feeling that this was *wrong,* that Hermione shouldn’t be getting serious with this bloke like that, and that he just knew that.

He couldn’t tell Hermione that, though. She’d bust her nut. He had to think of something else to say.

But the closer Ron Weasley got to the landing, the more he started to feel something somewhere in the back of his head, maybe provoked by that comment she’d made the night of the Ball about how he should have asked her to go with him first. Initially all he could think was how was he supposed to know when someone he’d never talked to was going to ask her, just so he could beat them to it? But slowly, the weird thought had entered his mind, that maybe he should’ve. That maybe the real reason he’d been so mad at Krum taking her was because it meant she’d been away from them. That he probably would’ve had a lot more fun if it had been the three of them together, that she could’ve shown him and Harry how to have fun at a ball, because they hadn’t really known, but she’d seemed to.

But when he followed that line of through further, he suddenly got a sense of something else, some incomprehensible want he had when it came to Hermione, where he wasn’t sure what he wanted; all he could figure out about it was that thinking about it absolutely terrified him. So talking about all that was out too.

When they finally reached the top, he abruptly decided he wouldn’t bring it up, not unless she did, if only because he wasn’t sure even how he’d do so. After all, they kind of had more important things to worry about right now.

Though thinking about that terrified him too, but that made sense; that was something only a crazy bloke wouldn’t be terrified about. Or maybe some really smart young witch who didn’t have to be terrified, because she, unlike him, actually had some idea of just what they should do now.

So he asked that question first: “What do we do now?”

“Wait,” she said simply. “At this moment, I don’t think there’s much else we can do.”

Ron didn’t doubt her, but it was a hard thought to process, that all they really could do for days and days at least and probably even longer was sit around and wait to see what happened next. He thought he might’ve said something about that too, when they’d had to endure that back in second year, when of course she’d been out of it Petrified for the worst of it. She must’ve remembered, because she said, “I know it’s hard. This is just the thing a truly evil wizard *would* do, weaken us beforehand by giving our minds time to work. Remember it's what he did last time.”

“But not everyone’s doing that,” Ron mused. “I mean, Harry said something about Sirius going to get some sort of ‘old crowd’ or something...”

“Then we have to trust them,” said Hermione, then a moment later said herself, “You know, Ron, your eldest brothers, Bill and Charlie, it’s not impossible they might be able to tell you something about that. Even Percy.”

“How would they know?” asked Ron, confused. “I mean, I suppose ‘old crowd’ must mean some group that was fighting against You-Know-Who last time, but even Bill was still only a kid when he fell.”

That actually made Hermione roll her eyes at him. “Your parents, Ron!”

“You think they were involved?” It was weird to think about. Ron wasn’t exactly ashamed of his father, he was even proud of him in some ways, but he didn’t exactly seem to him to be the sort of wizard who could go heroically battling Death Eaters, or anyone else. He wasn’t sure, when he thought about it, if he’d ever even seen him do the kind of constant powerful spellwork he did know his mum to be capable of, but the thought of her, in her apron, going and fighting dark wizards seemed even more absurd.

“Well, actually,” said Hermione, “I think they must’ve been, because this summer I asked your mother why she’d had Ginny only a year after you, and she said she thought it had happened because she’d only breastfed you for three weeks, and then she said that hadn’t been by choice, but that she’d had to go somewhere, and, well, she really made it sound like she was doing something against You-Know-Who.”

While Ron was still trying to comprehend that, that his mother just after giving birth to him really had done that, gone out on some daring mission for Dumbledore, Hermione was continuing to talk. “And Percy was only five when You-Know-Who fell, so he probably wouldn’t remember much, but Bill was nine and Charlie seven. They probably remember something, maybe some people visiting, what they might have talked about, even if they might not have understood it at the time. It’s worth a try anyway.”

Ron could only nod to this; his mind was still reeling from the whole mother going off to fight Death Eaters thing. He wasn’t sure how present he’d be for the rest of this conversation.

Until Hermione changed the subject to, “I haven’t decided it completely yet, but I don’t think I’m going to Bulgaria.”

“Oh.” How relieving that felt was a little embarrassing.

“I mean,” she continued, sounding strangely hasty about it, “The circumstances have changed now, with You-Know-Who and everything. I feel like I should stay here. Who knows what will happen.”

“Yeah,” Ron was happy to agree.

“And for the record,” she continued, “I think Viktor and I really are just going to be friends. I mean, he’s over in Bulgaria and I’m over here and he’s just at the beginning of his career...and he doesn’t need to get involved with this whole thing with You-Know-Who-you know his grandfather was killed by Grindelwald?”

“Wow,” said Ron, who had never heard of such a thing; he doubted Krum had ever revealed that to the world. Though it made it pinch again, that he and Hermione had apparently gotten close enough that he’d told her something like that.

Especially when Hermione, after first concluding, “And he’s a celebrity, which would make him a big target if You-Know-Who wanted to make a point with...” she then changed her tone to one very insistent to add, “Not that there would be anything wrong with it if I had decided to go. He’s been a good friend.” But even then, he thought she emphasized the word friend at least a little.

That left him torn between more relief and anger again, as he said, “He did say to you he’d never felt over any girl before...”

She sighed, and said sadly, “I don’t know what to do about that, really. I mean, I like him, but I don’t even...” She drifted off. “I don’t want to hurt him, you know. He doesn’t deserve that. But what can I do?”

Now she sounded so sad Ron wanted to hug her or something. He didn’t know how she’d react if he tried that, though.

“He should be okay,” he tried. “Plenty of girls love him, right?”

“Do you really think that’s such a wonderful thing?” Hermione suddenly turned sharp and harsh again. “Think about it, Ron. Do you really think Harry likes it so much, getting attention from people for all the wrong reasons? You saw how he got pestered by girls who asked him to the Yule Ball without knowing a thing about him except that he was the famous Harry Potter. Would you have liked to spend the Yule Ball with such a silly idiot?”

Ron’s first thought was that it might have been better, but then he thought about Parvati and Padma, and how he really hadn’t known what to *say* to the latter, and been relieved when she’d gone off.

He was thinking about how he had enjoyed her attention more later, though, when he’d actually had something to talk about, when Hermione said, much more gently, “I know it might not seem that much of a burden to you, Ron, because you get less attention than you want. But I really do think getting more attention than you want is actually worse than that.”

“Look,” Ron said, not wanting to get disparaged for yet another thing, “I’m sorry for not talking to Harry like that; I know I was a being a big prat.”

“You should apologize to him about that, not me.” Hermione actually smiled a little as she said this. “But it’s all right. In all honesty, I thought he could’ve handled the whole thing better himself. You were both kind of idiots about it.”

“If you say he was,” said Ron. Harry hadn’t really been nice that evening by the fire after all(of course he’d probably been worse), though Ron didn’t know much about how else he’d been. The two of them had never talked about it, and despite Hermione’s point about apologies, Ron didn’t think they ever would. Harry seemed to be fine with things anyway, so it was all okay, he was sure.

“Yeah,” said Hermione, and she was smiling more, now, as she added, “actually, maybe you should both apologize to me for giving me such a headache.”

“Sorry for that, then,” said Ron, and he tried not to smile back, he really did, but it wasn’t happening, and then Hermione even giggled, only slightly, barely audible, but he still heard it, and that seemed to make something around them dance somehow. He must have been more relieved than he thought he would be, that must have been it, since he was getting the feeling they were done with the serious talk for this year.

June 1996

In the previous two years, the trip to the stairwell had been one of trepidation for Ron, trying to figure out what he was going to say. But when the time for it came for the first time after he’d finally figured out how he felt about Hermione, the dread set in almost the moment he woke up that morning. He’d thought there’d been things he couldn’t tell her the previous year. Now there *really* were. So they weren’t even settled on the landing yet before he asked, “How do we help Harry better?”

But Hermione only shook her head, “I don’t know any more about how you cope with losing family than you do. It’s not something talked about in most of my books.”

And it wasn’t something either of them had experienced either, and just the thought of it possibly happening to him made Ron’s heart shudder and draw into itself and insist No, it can’t, it can’t, IT WON’T. That his father nearly had been killed that year hadn’t changed his feelings on the matter one bit, just intensified them. It hurt bad enough that Percy had betrayed all of them the way that he had.

“Do you ever worry about your parents, left at home?” he found himself asking, another way, maybe, of keeping the conversation off the two of them.

“All the time,” said Hermione, so soft and faint he had to strain to hear. “Someone should do something for them.”

“You want for me to talk to dad about it?” asked Ron. “Now that the Ministry’s accepted You-Know-Who’s back,” he wasn’t using that name, she could not make him, “maybe they’ll be willing to do something.”

“I doubt it,” sighed Hermione, and he recognized a lot of anger in there, and was vividly brought back to a moment that had happened two years which felt like a lot longer ago. He knew now what he’d felt back then. “They can’t be bothered.”

Except this time he didn’t entirely agree with her. “That’s not completely true. I know sometimes during the first war the Ministry did help the Muggle relatives of some wizards. I wonder if maybe the Order helped them too,” he added after another moment’s thought. “Maybe we should talk to them instead.”

“I think I will talk to your father about it then,” said Hermione. “Thanks.”

“I can talk to him the night we get back home,” said Ron. “I mean, we’re going back the Burrow; mum wrote me and Ginny and said they think they can make it safe enough we can go there and bring Harry there later. Says Dumbledore will probably fetch him from the Dursleys at some point.”

“That’s certainly safe,” said Hermione. “And of course he has to go back to the Dursleys for a bit, doesn’t he?” She sighed heavily. “Not a good place for him to go, though. That’s not what he should have right now. He should have the company of people who love and care about him.”

Love and care about him. It felt strange to think about it that way. Ron found himself thinking he’d never really put his feelings for either of his best friends into words even in his head, even as he’d become aware that those feelings for one of them really weren’t just friendly.

Did Hermione care about him that much, he suddenly wondered. And how much did she care for Harry? It didn’t mean it was like that, he then told himself.

But then a truly terrifying question occurred to him. Even if it wasn’t like that, maybe, what if she still cared for him more than she cared for Ron?

He couldn’t deal with any of this. And meanwhile, Hermione was going on. “For the record,” she said, “I’m really, really sorry we missed that Quidditch game. I would’ve loved to see that.”

“It’s all right,” said Ron. “I really do understand completely.” And he did, that was true, but Hermione looked at him a little warily, and then he had to add, “But you thought you wouldn’t miss much because I was going to do badly again, didn’t you?”

"I am sorry, Ron...” started Hermione, but she was sounding argumentative rather than repentant.

“I suppose I can’t blame you,” Ron cut her off. “I would’ve thought the same thing. No, really,” he then added, because he wanted her to believe he really, honestly did not blame her, but it suddenly seemed hard to convey that. “I’m not ever going to really get mad at you about it. Besides, if you hadn’t, Grawp wouldn’t have saved your and Harry’s arses later, would he have?”

“No,” said Hermione, and then she smiled, and everything went from dangerous to all too good. It even remained so after her smile faded, and she said, “It’s strange, though. Hagrid being so *wrong* like that.”

“He’s been that before,” Ron had to remind her. He and Harry had learned in second year, after all, just how wrong Hagrid could sometimes be.

“I know, I know,” she said. “But it’s like I can’t look at him the way I used to. Everything’s different now.”

As she almost sighed this to herself, Ron wondered if he would ever be able to tell her just how right she was.

But maybe there were still some ways others could rely upon her longtime wisdom, as she continued, “Actually, returning to the subject of Harry, maybe we could work out a writing schedule so he can rely on hearing from one of us every other day or so?”

“Okay.” He was happy to have that kind of plan. “So I write first, the day after we go home, and then you write two days after that, and I write two days after that?”

She agreed to it, so that was all good, except now they fell silent again, and Ron was stuck trying to figure out what to say next.

So he was mostly relieved, and even flattered, yet part of him was maybe just a tiny little bit annoyed, when Hermione said, “How do you cheer him up so easily, Ron? You know, you’re much better at it than I am.”

Ron had noticed this, and even been a little proud of it, but hadn’t really thought about it very much. And now that he tried to, he was forced to say, “Dunno...it just kind of...happens.”

“Does it really?” she sighed. “Well, I admit there are some things you can do that I can’t as well.”

“Yeah, surprisingly.” Ron had to grin.

“It is, but it’s all right,” she grinned back. “I wouldn’t go into hysterics just because I’m not the best in the world at something.”

“I didn’t say you would,” Ron felt the need to say, but he was feeling lighter, having this kind of exchange with her. He’d always like this, feeling that he wasn’t always at risk of getting her mad every time he spoke after all, because there’d been times in his life it had really felt like he was.

“It would be useful if I could, of course,” said Hermione. “Harry needs all the kinds of help from all the kinds of people he can get, after all. You know, I wonder if maybe he shouldn’t be better friends with Ginny. I think she could do that for him; she’s so much like you.”

“You think so?” Ron asked, trying to hide his reaction to this one, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to talk with Hermione about his sister and Harry, because despite what Hermione had said earlier this year, he wasn’t sure she was really over him. He wasn’t even sure why he thought that, especially since she genuinely seemed to really like the boy she was dating (though Ron had seen less of him lately, he thought), just a feeling, really. And if she wasn’t, it didn’t seem that nice to ask that of her.

But Hermione was grinning, and saying, “Believe me, Ron, you two are much more alike that I think either of you like to admit. Or she would, anyway.”

That sounded kind of like an insult to him, but one made by his sister rather than Hermione, and it wasn’t the first time she’d said things like that, and five older brothers made Ron way to used to such things to be bothered by it. So he just said, “Well, maybe. We’d have to see how she feels about it.”

“Of course,” Hermione agreed. There was a pause, and then she said, “but speaking of friendships, since we’re supposed to be talking our own issues out up here, I will say I am going to keeping on writing with Viktor. Especially now, when you consider this is when wizards all have to be united with each other. We may even see each other occasionally, thought probably not that much, to be honest, if only because of the distance, and I don’t think I’m going to be doing much traveling soon, unless for some reason the three of us have to.”

Ron did understand that, and he found he didn’t really have it in him to be irked any longer. His irritation every time he heard about Viktor from Hermione had grown less in each instance, as seeing the two of them together felt more and more like an distant unpleasant memory, rather than something that had happened recently and might happen again. It felt like much more than a year and a half had passed since last year’s Yule Ball.

Especially as it occurred to him that maybe she might like to hear the news brought in a letter from Fred and George that had arrived two days ago, and he said, “You know, we’re actually all going to be seeing a lot more of Fleur Delacour too.”

“Well,” shrugged Hermione, “obviously, if she’s still dating your brother.”

“It might not be just dating,” he told her. “Fred and George wrote me that they don’t know anything more sure, and they heard this from Charlie, who doesn’t either, but they think the two of them might be really serious. As in, marriage serious.”

“Marriage? At her age?” Hermione didn’t seem at all upset by any of this, but perhaps a little surprised.

“My parents married at her age,” said Ron, who actually hadn’t thought about that. “Besides, we’re not sure.”

“Well, if they really want to, and they’re not rushing into it too much,” said Hermione, “You know what? I am actually very happy to hear about that. Because it will a very good thing towards what I’m talking about.” She did sound a little hesitant, though.

She looked over the railing, and said. “I think someone’s coming.”

“Are we done?” Ron blurted out, too fast. The thought of being able to get away without having had to talk about anything involving how he felt about her was way too much to resist.

“I suppose,” said Hermione, and for a moment, when he noted how quickly she too spoke, he wondered if she, crazily, was in the same boat as him, if she too had things she wasn’t ready to talk about with him. Then he wondered if, if so, those were the things he’d want them to be. One thing was for sure, he didn’t dare ask. He didn’t know if he’d ever dare ask.

June 1997

By the time the day for their scheduled conversation on the stairs finally came up, and also happened to be the day before Dumbledore’s funeral, Ron and Hermione had already been long talking, almost all the time when they weren’t with Harry and she wasn’t in the library. But it had all been about Harry, and about Dumbledore, and about Snape, and about horcruxes, and Hermione had confided to him she was planning to wipe her parents memories and send them to Australia for their own safety, and while they hardly needed to do that with his family(as if his mum would have ever even let him), they might have to take measures too regarding them.

And that was all perfectly fine with Ron, because he definitely did not want to ever talk about the two of them. He supposed the things he’d been trying to keep secret last year she’d pretty much figured out since, but now he’d been an idiot, and maybe she’d been an idiot too a bit(seriously, Cormac McLaggen?), but he’d been more of one, and he knew what she thought of him, didn’t even have to ask, and didn’t see anything he could say or do to make her think differently.

It was why the first thing he said was, “Forgive me?”

“Of course,” she said, sounding surprised he even needed to ask. But given what they now had to do, maybe she felt she simply couldn’t afford to be angry or disdainful of him even though she normally would be. It made him feel worse.

Maybe he should make clear to her he knew he’d done the wrong thing. “Look,” he said, “I know I shouldn’t have gone snogging Lavender like that.”

Hermione actually laughed for a moment, though it wasn’t the happiest of laughs. “You know she yelled at me for that,” she said. “The thing with the birds, I mean. Told me I’d had my chance and it wasn’t my right to be mad at you for dating her. Of course, I didn’t tell her what Ginny told me she’d said to you about me and Viktor.”

So she had known that. Ron had already figured she did; he’d known his sister was likely to tell her, and her anger and her setting birds on him made a lot more sense that way. What he still didn’t know was what to say to her about it.

So maybe it was just as well she didn’t give him the chance to before continuing. “I will admit, okay, Viktor and I did do some kissing. We didn’t do any more than that, mind you. But I don’t see why you have to get all mad about it, especially now. The same way Lavender said I didn’t have any right to get mad when the snogging’s happening, you really don’t have the right to get mad years after it stops. Believe me, it’s not like Viktor’s going to suddenly fly in here and start kissing me again. That’s long over.”

“I know,” Ron said, but being in this place again did remind him of something she’d said to him there two years. “But you said here, two years ago, that you didn’t...well, I can’t remember exactly what you said, but basically that you didn’t feel that way.”

“I knew that by then,” she said. “Maybe...” she sighed so softly, regretful, maybe, “maybe I knew from the start, deep down. But there was a time, early on, especially because I really was very angry at you right after the Ball, when I would’ve liked to. That was long over by the end of the year,” she added hastily. “But most of the kissing happened then.”

“I see,” said Ron. He actually didn’t understand entirely; he supposed in retrospect it had been caddish of him, but had never felt a need for his feelings towards Lavender to be anything other than what they had been. But he could accept it, at least when it didn’t feel like it mattered at all anymore, because it had been superseded. Because what worried him more was the fear that Hermione now wanted to feel that way about another person all together besides either him or Viktor Krum, if, in fact, she didn’t already.

It didn’t assuage his fears any, either, when Hermione next said, “At least we’re not likely to run into anymore Lavenders, or anymore Viktors, going around with Harry. Good thing, too; we can’t afford to argue with each other then.”

“I know,” said Ron. Of course he knew; it was kind of strange that with all the talk they’d had about how they were going with Harry whether he liked it or not, this was the first either of them were saying that particular bit out loud. It suddenly felt like a much more daunting task than it had two minutes ago. He really thought about it for the first time, to probably be in close quarters with Hermione(and Harry, but that was fine enough) most of the minutes of most of the days, to probably spend much of it wanting to kiss her, and some more of it wanting to yell at her no doubt, and to never, ever, ever be able to do either. Well, maybe there would be yelling every occasionally, but probably not as much as he’d want to, and when there’d be no kissing, which it seemed with every passing day was the one of the two of them he wanted more, he didn’t know if it would be enough to keep him from going crazy.

It might be okay, he thought, if she didn’t start kissing Harry. But if that happened, he honestly didn’t know what he would do.

But Hermione didn’t have any of those kinds of worries, of course. Yet she too had been lost in thought, as she said, “What we really have to do is we have to be grown-ups now. We’re at an age where it’s appropriate anyway, of course.”

Ron opened his mouth to agree, but somehow what came out was, “What does that mean, exactly?” because when he thought about it he didn’t know. Besides trying to avoid getting to riled up at her over silly things, which they’d already agreed against anyway. “Besides what we’ve talked about already,” he added when she opened her mouth to give the obvious response.

She had to think about it too, once he’d said that. “I think it means doing the responsible things,” she finally said. “The prudent things we know will be better to do in the long term, even when in the short term they’re really hard to do. Maybe...maybe being realistic about what we can accomplish sometimes.” She said that one like it was something she had to learn to do, and wasn’t too worried about him needing to learn. “Doing what we know is a good idea and will accomplish what we want to happen, even if feels like we’re giving up on our ideals.”

This, thought Ron, was probably the first time Hermione had ever talked about herself around him, even indirectly, as if she was anything less than always right. It brought a whole new rush of feeling to the surface, a tenderness so strong he didn’t know how he could ever have expressed it even had he thought she’d want him to. He wanted to reach in, he wanted to be a part of her doing this.

But she’d probably roll her eyes if he said that, and meanwhile it felt daring to say what else was on his mind: “We have to admit it when we’re wrong.”

Thankfully she agreed very quickly, “Yes, that’s a good one. Though then again,” she smiled, “you’ve just admitted you were wrong to snog Lavender, so congratulations, you’ve learned that one already.” And this was a smile they could share, Ron feeling an odd touch of shyness but mostly just good; as little as this from Hermione for him felt so good he kind of wished they could stand there smiling at each other for much, much longer than they probably could. That also meant he wasn’t going to take any risk of ruining it by asking if she felt she was wrong about anything in particular.

“So,” she said, “agreed on all that?”

“Agreed,” and they shook hands. Her hand was so warm, and he wished he could have held it so much longer.

May 1998

Ron had to admit, he was surprised when a couple of days after the final battle Hermione suggested, since by June they might still be in Australia or spending their days testifying at Ministry trials or something like that, that they have their yearly conversation a month early. He wasn’t sure if they really even needed it anymore.

For one thing, Voldemort was finally defeated, which meant Harry no longer needed their support they way he had before; all they had to be to him now was best friends, and that came naturally enough. For another, their relationship was now completely different. Since the final battle that had been a whirl to Ron. Holding hands with her right after the end of it, that they were going to be a they sinking in-at the same time Fred’s death had, and he really hadn’t been able to cope with two almost opposite feelings trying to overpower him at the same time. Then the following night when they’d snuck off to the Room of Requirement and had sex for the first time, and he still wasn’t quite believing they’d done that, that he’d been that close with Hermione and been with her like that. And it wasn’t like they even needed to have the conversation in a specific place, really, especially now, when they were going to be together even more than they’d been as friends.

But Hermione was insisting, and one thing Ron had finally figured out was there were times when he should argue with her, and times where he should just let her have her way, because it wasn’t worth it, and very often she knew best anyway. So off they went, to that landing that by now he had started developing a nervous reaction to even when going past it during the year, and when they got there his worst fears about the conversation were realized when she started, “Tell me why you left like that. Try to tell the truth. Think about it first.”

So Ron thought about it. He thought about how wearing the necklace had always made him feel like he couldn’t stand to stay in that tent with her and Harry another moment, especially when he’d been hungry. How it had gotten to the point that every time he looked at Harry he felt how inferior he was to him and she had to know Harry was the better man, and every time they had so much as looked at each other he’d been convinced they were about to go do more, even when he hadn’t been wearing the necklace. How she’d been so useful to Harry, and how with them wandering around without a plan he’d been useless, just another mouth to feed and he felt like too selfish a one too. How he’d thought he’d be of more use maybe helping his family out, until he’d started resenting Harry for pulling him here and then not even doing anything with him. How every night it had been either nightmares about his family being killed, or dreaming about a voice whispering in his ear about how pathetic and stupid he was and Harry and especially Hermione would be so much better off without him. And then when Harry had actually yelled at him to go, how easy it had been to do everything he’d then did.

He tried to pull it all together, though it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. For four months he’d tried to shut it all away, tried to forget every last bit of it happened, at least as much as had been possible when Hermione hadn’t been so ready to forget, though someday he might tell Harry how grateful he was he at least had seemed to forget it. He couldn’t even be sorry he’d done it all, not when he was aware that had he been back in the tent with Hermione that night, Harry would have drowned.

Finally, he said, “I believed, or at least convinced myself at the time, that is was for the best. I didn’t want to be there anymore, I didn’t think either you wanted me there anymore, I kept thinking of reasons you’d be better off without me anyway, and it just...happened.”

Hermione betrayed no emotion as she asked, “Why did you think we didn’t want you there anymore?”

That was another answer he had to think about, at least in how to put the reasons together. Hermione seemed willing enough to stand there and wait, though. So he forced himself to think about the details, which were disturbingly fuzzy now, a lingering after-effect of the necklace, maybe. “I wasn’t doing anything good, and everything bad, for one thing,” he said. “And I was convinced at the time you...well, maybe I didn’t think you hated me, exactly, but...”

He’d hoped for her to stay neutral, to ask more questions. He’d feared her getting angry. He hadn’t expected her to suddenly cry out “Oh, Ron!” and she nearly surged forward to hug him, but then seemed to stop herself at the last minute and just grab his hand instead. “You really thought that? Then?”

“Well, I deserved it!” burst for him before he thought about it.

“Well, yes, you did, but...” She shook her head, maybe embarrassed. But that was her, Ron couldn’t help but think, to just say that. Hey, he’d done worse, so he couldn’t comment. Even when she added, “And maybe I did after you left. But not before.”

“I know that now,” he said. “In fact, I knew it after I destroyed the necklace...” But there he had to stop again, as once again his head was filled with all the images he’d been struggling to forget most of all, those images of Harry and Hermione, and what they had said to him. He didn’t know if he’d ever be able to talk about that to anyone, her least of all. So he just said, “And Harry told me it wasn’t like that.” Someday, he supposed, he might tell her the details about what Harry had learned about his fears, and what he’d had to refute. But that was too much right now. “I suppose I really screwed it up by leaving then. That was stupid of me.”

“It was,” Hermione agreed, “but maybe we’ve all been a little stupid. That’s what we’re supposed to have these meetings for, right?”

“So are we going to have to have more of them?” Ron almost regretted asking it so quickly, but from Hermione’s smile, she didn’t seem to mind that much.

“We may have to come up with a new place and time,” she said. “Or maybe we can learn to talk more frequently about less; that might be easier.”

“Should we have talked about this earlier?” Ron asked her, and strangely, he wasn’t afraid of her response anymore. It might not be a nice response, but he no longer worried about it being a hostile one.

She shrugged. “Might have been nice to, but I suppose there was just too much going on then. That’s probably why we’ve always had to do it once a year. And we might have to do it again next year, because catching up on a year’s worth of schoolwork for me and Auror training if you and Harry really intend to do that is going to keep us both busy.”

And Ron supposed it was a little mental of him, but he found himself saying, “Okay. One last time next year, and then we see where we’re at then, agreed?”

“Agreed,” she said, and as they shook on it, he thought of that day nearly six years ago when they’d done this same exchange in this same spot. Back then they’d both barely been taller than the balustrade; that certainly was no longer the case. But even more than that, he remembered how different her smile had been back then, much more different then he’d realized before that moment. She had been smiling with her mouth closed, which she’d done a lot before she’d had her teeth changed, but even besides that, it hadn’t spread through her eyes and her entire face the way it did now. In fact, though she’d technically been making eye contact with him last time, she hadn’t steadily held his gaze the way she did now.

Was it, he wondered, simply that she’d developed more confidence in general in her life? Given how smart she’d always been, it might have seemed slightly ridiculous she’d ever lacked it, but Ron had seen enough over the seven years he’d known her to think she still might have, back then. Or maybe it was just that she was fully confident in her relationship with him now, that she knew exactly what she thought of him, and also that she was used to having close friends, the way he was very sure she hadn’t been back then.

Or maybe it was both. He hoped it was both. Just the thought that it might be either made him smile so wide seeing it made Hermione exclaim, “I didn’t expect you to be so happy at the thought of having another one of these meetings!”

“I don’t know if I’ll enjoy the meeting,” he said with equal honesty. “But I’m willing to do it.”

June 1999

Their final meeting by the stairs was also their most difficult to schedule. Ron, then in the thick of Auror training, had to talk to half a dozen people before getting a day’s leave to travel to Hogwarts, and Hermione meanwhile had her N.E.W.T.s, which until the end of he could barely manage any contact with her at all. But finally he got there about a week after she finally finished her exams, and the two of them even got to enjoy lunch together and catch up on unimportant news before they faced down that stairway.

When they were finally up on the landing, Ron found himself thinking he had exactly one question for her, but he wasn’t sure how she’d react if he asked it. So he waited, until she said, “I’ve been thinking of going into either the Department of Mysteries or the Department of Magical Law Enforcement.”

“I’m sure you’ll do great with either,” said Ron, “although I don’t know if I should be giving you advice about which.”

“Maybe not until I’ve talked to you more about that,” shrugged Hermione in her normal matter-of-fact way. “But either way, we need to take that into consideration when we decide where we’re going to live, at least eventually, though I suppose we’ll go back to the Burrow at first, and I do want us to have an idea about that as soon as possible. We don’t need to settle it, but if there’s anything you want to tell me about it, now’s the time.”

The main thing Ron had to talk about there was where he figured the Auror training would be taking him over the remaining two years. “I don’t know how much I’ll even be around,” he said honestly. “So far most of the training has taken place in or near London, so in theory we could get a place there. But that place we’ve been taken up to a couple of times Harry and I have written to you about, which I’m pretty sure is on the northern shore of Scotland, well, they’ve hinted we may spent long periods of time there in the future, especially during our second year of training.”

She nodded gravely, and added, “According to Andromeda, there were large periods of time during her second year of Auror training where she and Ted heard nothing from Tonks, and she said afterwards she basically wasn’t allowed to take time out of her training. If they’re still doing that, we need to have these kinds of meetings as soon after those time periods as can be managed. Or at least write really, really long letters to each other as soon as is allowed. Did Andromeda tell you how long those letters were?”

“All sorts of lengths,” shrugged Ron. “I think it depended on just how busy Tonks was at the time.”

“Fair enough,” Hermione considered. “What about the third year of training? That’s when they have you shadowing other Aurors, right?”

“It is,” said Ron. “And they of course base themselves in London, although sometimes they do spend lengths of time out in the field. But of course Harry and I will be doing that once we finish training too.”

“So we could probably move to London full time during your third year or right before,” said Hermione. Until then, I suppose we could divide our time between the Burrow and Grimmauld Place-or at least, I suppose I’ll be the one mostly doing that.”

She definitely sounded a little sad, more sad than she thought she ought to be, he thought, so he took her hand and said, “I’ve missed you, you know. Harry and me both. Sometimes...” he ought to be honest here, he reminded himself, “sometimes I wonder why you didn’t come train with us. You were always the best of us anyway; if you were up there with us right now, I’m sure you’d be outperforming us, and everyone else in training too. I’ve even heard one of our instructors lament multiple times that you didn’t.”

“I suppose...” She hesitated, then said. “I just don’t think it’s what I want. I suppose I should know what I want now, though, since I’m about to finish school.”

Ron couldn’t really imagine not wanting to be an Auror, but it wasn’t news that he and Hermione were very different people, and meanwhile, he didn’t want her worrying needlessly about that. “I’m sure you’ll figure that out very soon,” he told her. “You always do. You’ll have your choice about what you want to do anyway. You do know that.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she said, and the way she was smiling at him made him aware of how much she meant it, more than he honestly would’ve her to.

It caused a horrible thought to form, which without thinking he blurted out: “Did you really expect me to think otherwise?”

He regretted it for a split second, but Hermione then looked so thoughtful he figured it would be all right; she had gotten to the point where she didn’t mind if someone made her think, even if it was him.

Finally, she said, “This isn’t going to be easy. It should be. We’ve been through enough in life that spending the rest of our lives together, if the world was fair, would be easy. But…”

“You want that, though?” Ron had to ask. “Us spending the rest of our lives together? Like this, I mean.”

“Yes,” she said, strongly, aggressively. “And Ron, before we take that conversation any further, I want you to promise me we’ll do whatever it takes to make that work. If we have to stand up arguing all night and then talking seriously all night after that, we’ll do that. If we have to admit things to each other that we feel we’d rather die than admit, we’ll do that. Whatever it takes. I want to stay with you, Ron.” There were tears in her eyes when she held out her hand, and said, “I promise I’ll do all of that, Ron.”

“I promise too,” he said, without hesitation.

As they shook on it, he found himself thinking this wasn’t how he imagined her being when he’d fantasized about the moment that was about to come, but now was the time, no question.

So as soon as she let go of his hand, he got down on one knee, the way he’d heard Muggle men did it. “Will you..?” he started, and then his heart was stuck in his throat. That one question he’d wanted to ask her was one he couldn’t even finish. It was weird, because the way they’d just been talking, surely it wouldn’t make sense for her to say no. But he was kind of more terrified of her being angry at him for asking so quickly after all that.

But it turned out to be exactly the right thing to do, because she smiled, and said, “Of course I will.”

So their last time on the landing of that particular staircase ended with the two of them holding each other and just making out. For longer than they initially intended, when the stairs actually moved off and they had to wait close to half an hour for them to come back, but that was time they could make good use of, so that was fine.

Even though Ron did find himself thinking, when at last the stairs came back and they hurried down them, that figuratively speaking, he’d kind of just promised to go back to standing on the stairs and knowing they had to talk for the rest of his life, and to at least try to be honest, although given he’d already failed at that in the past, he was sure there would be times in the future he would fail at it too, and it would mean more work and pain later. But he knew beyond any doubt that it was worth it to be with this woman and spend his life with her, wherever she happened to be standing.