"Surprise," whispered Hermione.
The dormitory in Gryffindor Tower was dark and quiet. All those who had retired there were exhausted from the battle; but even with her injuries, with blackened clumps in her frizzy hair from near-miss curses, she could not bear to be banished to the girls' dormitories again, away from the two of them.
"Mngh," contributed Ron, rolling over sleepily.
"C'mon, then," said Harry quietly, peering vaguely into the darkness at her wavering outline. "There's room in front of me. Definitely a sleeping kind of night though."
Shedding her robes on the floor, she climbed carefully in, making an awkward attempt to corral her wayward hair around her shoulder, out of Harry's face.
"Mmm," he murmured, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her close. "I never thought burnt hair could smell so beautiful."
"Whsssat?" asked Ron, lifting himself up against Harry's other side to peer over at Hermione. "Oh right," he said, watching her snuggle down into the bed clothes. "Sleepnow," he concluded, leaving one arm draped over Harry like he'd forgotten it was there.
"Yes," said Hermione, although with a slight tone of regret, "I think Ron's right; it's time for sleep now."
Harry, who had not been sleeping and was not con.txted he could ever let himself fall asleep again after the experiences of the day, just held her close and buried his face in the comforting mass of her hair. He might not sleep, but he thought he could lay like this forever, anyway; feeling the slow breathing of his two best friends drifting into slumber next to him.
The morning came all too swiftly, with the scratching of a Ministry of Magic owl at the window.
Both Ron and Harry were fast asleep; Harry was more exhausted after the day's trials than he had been willing to admit, and Ron was always an expert at sleeping under any circumstances. Hermione considered ignoring the owl's.txtreasingly impatient attempts to push itself through the closed window; it was so safe and warm and pleasant here in Harry's bed. But she felt sorry for the creature - it wasn't its fault that its owner had sent it at some stupid hour of the morning, just after a hard night - and gently extracted herself from their embrace, slipping out of the bed and padding quietly over.
"There, there, it's okay," she said as she opened the latch and let the imperious-looking barn owl hop through and ruffle its feathers irritably at her, unhappy to be kept waiting.
She detached the message with its official seal and looked at the address; it was for Harry. For a moment she considered opening it herself, but the sharp-eyed owl fixed her with a beady glare and strongly implied that there would be unfortunate interactions between its beak and her hands if she was to do anything other than immediately convey the message to its rightful recipient.
So she headed back over to the bed and gently put a hand on Harry's shoulder.
"Wake up," she whispered. "There's post for you."
Harry surfaced gradually from a deep sleep, blinking sleepily at Hermione leaning over the bed, proffering some kind of paper thing towards him. He reached out and found his glasses on the bedside, slipped them on and shook his head slightly as the world came startlingly back into focus.
"Ministry of Magic?" he asked, recognising the official envelope. "Already?"
"I think they're expecting a reply, too," said Hermione softly, glancing at the owl that was stubbornly settling down on the inside windowsill.
"Ugh. Let's have a look, then." Without getting up, he tore the envelope open and began to read the hastily penned letter inside, tilting it so that Hermione could get a better view.
"Whss?" came the plaintive question from Ron, as the movement finally got through to him and made him consider coming back to the land of the wakeful.
"Letter for Harry," explained Hermione, not lifting her eyes from the page.
"Ooh, can we all have a peek?" asked Ron, levering himself up to look over Harry's side.
The letter was from Kingsley Shacklebolt, Temporary Minister for Magic. It was disappointingly short, really; after a line or so of obligatory hope that Harry and his friends were well, it invited Harry to Kingsley's office at his earliest convenience.
"Looks like you're the famous one still," said Ron, his sleepiness not entirely covering the slight trace of bitterness.
"Look," said Harry, "I don't want to go to some kind of Ministry of Magic meeting anyway. We'll just..."
"I know it's all very sudden," interrupted Hermione, "and you've been through a lot - probably more than any of us. But don't you see? It's going to be like this for the next few weeks - maybe even months - while everyone finds their feet and the dust settles. Everyone wants to know where they stand - who they can trust. If you send back some kind of refusal, Kingsley will assume you're actually the spoilt young man, awkward and useless, that a whole lot of people are going to be trying to paint you as."
"If you're so keen on the idea," replied Harry, "why don't you go instead?"
"Because that won't help your image, will it?" Hermione retorted.
"Look," said Ron, "look, guys, just stop arguing, okay?" Harry rolled onto his back to get a better look at the pair of them, and Hermione couldn't help but smile at Ron's ruffled hair, despite his sad, pleading expression. "Look," said Ron again, "I dunno... why don't we all go? Tell him that he can't just have one of us - it has to be all three?"
"That's an excellent idea!" declared Hermione, casting around for a quill and some paper. "Do you mind if I write the reply, Harry?"
"Second drawer," he said, closing his eyes again, "and no." He tensed his arms, relaxed them, felt the aches and pains rushing back into his body. "I'm not sure I could move if I wanted to, to tell the truth. You might have to carry me down to breakfast."
"Thank you for making it here on such short notice," said Kingsley, seated in the big Minister of Magic chair behind the imposing desk. At least he'd been thoughtful enough to transfigure the guest chairs into pleasant armchairs, rather than leaving them as the deliberately uncomfortable, wobbly wooden chairs that Pius Thicknesse had installed.
"Thanks for inviting us," replied Harry, even though it was clear he felt quite the opposite.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I pulled you all away from your well-earned rest, so soon after the fight," Kingsley continued. "Getting straight to the point - I need you. And I'm glad you all came together, because I was hoping to get to talk to each of you; and it's probably easier to just do it like this."
"Do what like this?" asked Ron, suspiciously; he even started to look like he might be sizing up potential exits. Hermione rolled her eyes and took his hand in hers, partly to reassure him and partly so that she could turn it into a firmer grip if he did decide to get freaked out by the whole situation and attempt to bolt. Although knowing Ron, he'd probably attempt to shove her towards the exit and stand in her defence, rather than running away himself.
"Now, now, calm down!" laughed Kingsley. "Ronald Weasley, if I was going to betray you, I've had some truly fantastic opportunities before now, I assure you. No, I've brought you here because I want to make you some very special job offers."
This got their attention. While it seemed.txtonceivable that they would not now all go on to have superb careers, a little sponsorship from the Minister of Magic couldn't hurt. Assuming Kingsley managed to retain the position, of course.
"One of the reforms I'm planning," Kingsley explained, "is to split the Aurors off into their own department." Hermione looked like she was about to raise some objection, so he raised his hands. "I know, I know," he said, "I know that it looks like favouring my old department, and that it's dangerous and I should be careful. But a lot of the difficulties that we had with Magical Law Enforcement were the wide-ranging powers that one position held - which meant that one subverted department head could do an awful lot of damage. With Aurors out of their chain of command, we actually manage to split the legislative and executive power of the Ministry properly, which I hear is quite popular nowadays."
"I wasn't going to say that," complained Hermione. "I'd assumed you'd thought of that already. But there are patterns to these things. The Ministry has to have seven departments. So whose department are you scrapping?"
"I'm not scrapping any of the departments," Kingsley maintained. "But Magical Games and Sport will end up in International and Domestic sections, under the Department of International Cooperation and the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes respectively - after all, it's only really when something goes wrong with the sport that we have to intervene, or when people aren't taking adequate precautions, which we should be doing more of with Accidents and Catastrophes anyway."
"So where do we come in?" asked Harry, in a voice that implied he was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Well, you see," said Kingsley, "there are now an awful lot of vacancies in the Departments, and I expect to see even more after we've finished cleaning house. And while some of the time we can track down the person who used to hold that position and offer them something similar, most of the higher-profile individuals valiantly attempted to take the fight to the enemy when they were deposed..."
"...and weren't as lucky as us," Ron finished for him.
"Exactly," said Kingsley, beaming proudly.
"So you want to get their shoes filled quickly," said Hermione, "and that means you're having to promote an awful lot of people, and have a lot of gaps to fill in the structure?"
"Not quite," replied Kingsley. "You see, for certain positions - positions of great power and responsibility - I really need, above all else, someone I can trust. Someone who I know is absolutely working for the best interests of the country as a whole - for people - not just for their own ambition or for the Ministry or something else. So, I invited Harry here today because I wanted to ask him to become the head of the new Department of Aurors."
"No!" exclaimed Harry. "I mean," he added quickly, when he saw the frozen daggers that Hermione was staring at him, "aren't there loads of Aurors still? Won't they resent a boy just out of school, if you stick me in charge of all of them?"
"That's just it," said Kingsley. "If I appointed any one of them, then they would be resentful; they'd assume that it was some kind of political statement, or I disliked them personally, or that I was questioning their competence - even the ones who would ordinarily rather die than be bound to what, I'm afraid, is mostly a desk job."
Harry considered mentioning that he wasn't exactly that keen on being shackled to a desk at the Ministry either, but he didn't want to disappoint Hermione again. She had stopped glaring at him and had that faraway calculating expression on her face, like she was trying to work out all the angles on this unexpected opportunity.
And hadn't he just said, yesterday, that he'd had "enough trouble for a lifetime"?
"I could pick some other kind of outsider," Kingsley continued, "but let's face it, I don't really want a career bureaucrat in the post. I have to work with them closely, and while I know a few trustworthy bureaucrats, I don't think it's possible that the Aurors would respect them. But you - you've more than proven yourself, and every Auror knows that. Even if they do think you're young and inexperienced, no-one's going to say that you don't know what it's like out there - that you can't understand the situations that they put themselves into, in the line of duty."
"So," said Harry. "Head of the Department of Aurors." It sounded quite good, actually. "When do I start?"
"That's the spirit!" laughed Kingsley. "We'll have you installed in your office by the end of the week! And," he continued, turning serious again, "as for you two, well. Hermione - I would love it if you would consider becoming the head of Magical Law Enforcement. I know you have the brains for it, and I need someone who will be firm enough to stand up to any shenanigans but also smart enough to know which battles to pick."
"And me?" Ron blurted out, excitedly. "What about me?"
"Ah, Ron," said Kingsley. "The third department I really need a hand with is Magical Accidents and Catastrophes. I know they're going to be hugely overworked clearing up the total mess that the Death Eaters made. I know you've got what it takes to stick to your guns, and meanwhile be friendly enough that no-one feels hard done by - and everyone can feel the loyalty just radiating off you in waves: I know you'll stick up for your staff when they need more resources, and when everyone's blaming them and there really wasn't anything that they could do."
"Cool," replied Ron, settling back in his chair and attempting to look sensible and official, in a kind of rumpled parody of his clean-cut brother Percy.
"I'm not sure about all this," Hermione finally contributed. "I mean. I can see what you're trying to do, and why you're trying to do it like this. But I think what you really need in the Head of Magical Law Enforcement is someone who, as you say, is smart - but also not quite so directly connected to you. You're going to need someone to deal with people who are going to be feeling confused, and hurt, to have lost a large chunk of their department - and in the case of the middle management, probably a large chunk of their power. You'll need someone who can sympathise with them."
"You've never seemed to have a problem with sympathy, for everyone who deserves any, in the past?" Kingsley asked her.
"No," she replied, "but it isn't about me. It's about whether they think that their department head is on their side - is capable of being at odds with you - is capable of standing up to you, if it comes to that. If they don't think that their head of department is a plausible co-conspirator, then the conspiracies against you will happen elsewhere, out of your reach."
"Hmm," said Kingsley, thoughtfully. "So what do you suggest?"
"Padma Patil," said Hermione, confidently. "She's got all of the 'brains' I've ever had, and more besides. She's still very obviously loyal - and you should believe that she is on the right side - she was an important part of Dumbledore's Army. But she's less high profile, and she doesn't have the personal loyalty to you in particular - she doesn't owe you one, any more than everyone does. And I think if you put it to her correctly, she'll bite your hand off for the chance."
Kingsley nodded, slowly. "You make a lot of sense," he admitted. "But what about you, then?"
"I want Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures," she said, just as decisively. "Right now I don't think I trust anyone else to get it right. I've been thinking about it for a long time, ever .txte I really looked into how we were treating house elves - and I know I've been a bit naive on the subject before, but I think that going through that phase has really given me a good all-round perspective on the matter."
"It's not all house elves, you know," Kingsley warned her. "There's plenty of magical creatures who really do need controlling..."
"Like the Dementors, you mean?" she interrupted. "I know the difference between creatures that are worth protecting, and creatures that... aren't. And I think anyone else is likely to get carried away with purges. What about the werewolves? And the giants? If we're not careful, they could all get tarred with the same brush, even though some of them have just recently proved that they can rise above the society that we force them to live in."
"All right, all right!" Kingsley threw his hands up in surrender. "I can see you've thought this through. And I can't say I had anyone really picked out for the position. I mean, I was..."
"You were planning to give it to whoever wanted it the most," Hermione finished for him, "and who you needed to earn some political capital with, because you didn't see it as important. I can see you have a lot to deal with, and I don't envy you your position in the slightest. But that just makes it even more important that someone is in a position to fight for the rights of those who would otherwise be overlooked, no?"
"You're right," Kingsley was forced to admit, although it was clear he didn't like it, even beneath his unbreakably affable demeanour. "So. We're all good?"
"I'm good," confirmed Ron.
"I guess I can get used to it," admitted Harry.
"Now I think it's time for a good lunch," said Hermione, "and another trip to the clinic for everyone, just to be sure."
The usual good-natured whining about medical attention spilled out into the corridor as the three of them got up and left the office, leaving Kingsley to his next urgent meeting. His energetic personality covered for much of it, but it was clear that he hadn't slept .txte the retaking of the Ministry and was unlikely to do so any time soon.
Ron was picking at his dinner so morosely that Hermione couldn't stand it any longer. She knew they were all tired from the constant demands of office, but this was above and beyond the call of normal tiredness.
"Spit it out, Ron," she said, in what she hoped was an encouraging voice. "We can see something's wrong when you make it that obvious."
"Sorry," muttered Ron, through half a mouthful of dinner. "I know we're all so busy, I didn't want to burden you, that's all."
"But that's what we're here for," Hermione insisted. "What have we got left, if we can't be here for each other?"
"That's just the thing, though, isn't it?" said Ron, mournfully. "You two are good at your jobs. And that's great. I mean, it's really great. I'm happy for you."
"But?" prompted Harry, feeling like he should at least attempt to contribute, although all he really wanted to do was eat dinner and get to sleep after another long day at work.
"But I'm not," explained Ron, unhappily. "I'm crap at my job. No, don't look at me like that. Really. I'm just plain no good at it. I know there's lots of things I'm good at, but being sat in an office isn't one. I swear half the department are running circles around me and the other half have just given up in disgust and they're working round me."
"I'm sure it's not that bad," tried Harry. "I mean, we all have off days."
"It's not just off days, though," complained Ron. "It's all the time. I mean, today I got it in the neck from the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad, who couldn't believe I'd let the Subcommittee on Muggle Uncursing have the sole use of the Oblivators this week; and I didn't even remember telling the Subcommittee they could, but there it was, on a memo that I swear someone must have slipped under another one on my desk, because I'd never seen it before in my life! And then the Magical Water Pollution Cleanup Team were on at me for letting the Invisibility Task Force use up some reagent that they needed. And it's all like this." He looked morosely at his plate. "I just don't think I'm cut out for all this politics stuff," he concluded.
"They're working around you okay, though?" Hermione asked. "Getting the job done?"
"Yeah," said Ron. "At least, I think so. How should I know? No-one tells me anything any more."
"Maybe even seeing you as a common enemy?" she continued.
"I guess," replied Ron, "although, I mean, I am to blame, right? If things screw up in my department, then it's my fault. That's what being department head... oh. Ohh." Ron dropped his fork; looked up accusingly at Hermione. "You knew, didn't you? You knew what that bastard Shacklebolt was doing!"
"I only really worked it out later," Hermione replied. "At first I thought it was because you'd come with us, so obviously he had to offer you something - it wouldn't be fair otherwise."
"And it was totally fair to trap me into this inevitable clusterfuck?" asked Ron angrily.
"Well, no," Hermione admitted. "No, it wasn't. But I can see why he did it."
Harry kept his head down and kept eating, hoping to stay out of this while it looked like it had an excellent chance of turning into a shouting match.
"Why didn't you tell me?" demanded Ron. "When you worked it all out?"
"It was working," replied Hermione, embarrassed. "I didn't want to..."
"Well, it wasn't working for me!" Ron shouted. He suddenly realised that he had raised his voice, and subsided a little. "Harry, did you know about this?" he demanded.
"Not a peep," Harry assured him. "I've been so busy setting up a new department and fighting all the turf wars over office space and moving out the Sports guys and refurbishing their offices, I've been lucky to have a moment to stop and breathe. You've been with us every time I've had a moment to catch up with Hermione - she literally can't have told me anything that you didn't hear too."
"Well, I guess that's something," said Ron, grumpily.
"Look," said Hermione. "We've all been through a lot recently. It's no walk in the palk for us either, believe me, Ron. Just yesterday I had to approve the installation of Boggarts and Pogrebins at Azkaban. Boggarts and Pogrebins! I mean, they're no Dementors, but..."
"Wait, what?" asked Harry, suddenly alert. "I thought you were totally opposed to using hope-draining creatures in prisons?"
"Yes, I was," said Hermione, impatiently. "But something's got to fill the hole we left, taking all the Dementors out - not that I regret that for a second, but - there are more Dark wizards than ever that need to be locked up, for everyone's safety, after what they did under Voldemort.
"And you can't recruit people to contain them, because people tend to be drawn in by a good story, tend to think that it could be them in there if they had been in a different position, even though the Ministry has been very careful to keep people unconvicted when there's a hint of actual remorse or redemption.
"I mean, Narcissa bloody Malfoy is out walking the streets, you'd think that would show what kind of standard Padma is holding the trials to, but no. So they've had to fall back on animals, again - you can't corrupt a Pogrebin, it's already as corrupt as it gets, it will do exactly what it does and nothing else."
It was clear she had been keeping that rant in for some time, and was glad to have it out.
Meanwhile, Ron had put his knife and fork back on his plate, and got up to leave the table, yawning theatrically.
"I think I'm going to get an early night," he told them. "See you soon, I expect."
"Where are you going?"
Ron paused by the door, knowing that Harry couldn't really see him over that distance. He thought about just continuing out, but he didn't want him to put his glasses on and give chase.
"Just need to get some air," he said, uncon.txtingly.
"Yeah," said Harry, "and I'm the queen of fucking England." He wriggled out of Hermione's clutches slightly, ready to snatch up his glasses and follow Ron if it was necessary. "Where are you really going?"
"Out," said Ron, irritably. "If I wanted to tell you, I wouldn't be going in the middle of the bloody night, would I?"
"But why?" asked Harry, swinging his legs round so that he was now sitting on the side of the huge four-poster bed that they shared. There were some perks of being Department Heads, anyway; they'd been able to completely renovate 12 Grimmauld Place, scrubbing out every last trace of dark magic and the sinister legacy of the Blacks and making it their own.
"Because," said Ron, defiantly. "Look. You're not my parents. I don't think... I don't think you'll approve of what I want to do. But I'm going to do it anyway. I've been so useless. The two of you are proper high-fliers, and, I mean, I don't think you shouldn't be, or anything. But like she said. There are things I'm good at. So I'm going to go and do one of them. You going to stop me?"
Harry considered picking up his glasses; picking up his wand; chasing after Ron. But really, would his friend - his love - thank him? Maybe it was time to start trusting him as much as he'd always said he did.
"No," said Harry. "But I wish you'd tell us."
"Tell you later," replied Ron, heading out of the door before Hermione woke up, or Harry changed his mind.
No-one questions the Head of the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes when he shows up in the middle of the night in full decontamination gear. Minerva, not long out of bed and still in her night-shirt, looked down her nose at him underneath her glasses, and he thought she was going to see the truth through his heavy face-shield - but she just shook her head, and looked surprisingly old and frail and tired.
He was well prepared with the story of why he'd come here alone, without a team; too dangerous, he said. Had to be someone directly connected. Harry would be better for it, but, well... and he stood there all hangdog and hopeful, and he could tell from the sympathy in her eyes that she knew exactly why he wouldn't let Harry do it.
So he rowed himself out across the lake in one of the first years' rowing boats, throwing the fish in at the right point to keep the ever-alert squid from reacting to his presence, heading across the deceptively placid water to the small island where the White Tomb lay, undisturbed .txte the first decontamination team had been over it for traces of Voldemort's magic.
He hadn't really come with a plan, but planning had never been his strong point, had it? Acting was his strong point - and he was acting now, wasn't he?
There were so many dangers, so many problems, so many catastrophes just waiting to happen, lurking under the surface of the world. Voldemort had set up an awful lot of dead man's switches, and his paranoid Death Eater followers even more. Sometimes, with the cautious methods of his Department, they didn't get caught or disarmed in time; all they were willing to do was go and clean up afterwards.
Sometimes, he guessed, all they could do.
But that was okay. After tonight, he would be able to do anything.
"How could you let him go like that?"
Hermione woke early to find Ron out of their bed. She'd assumed he'd just got an early morning after his early night, maybe gone into work early; something Harry hadn't corrected her on, which is why she was having to have this argument in his office, rather than over the breakfast table.
"How could I not?" asked Harry, trying to sound reasonable.
"You could have chased after him," she insisted. "Knocked him out, tied him up, whatever!"
"And that would have helped?" asked Harry. "We should have kept him captive? I'm sure that would really have helped with the whole inferiority complex thing..."
"At least he wouldn't be missing!" she exclaimed. "God, Harry, why can't you even be upset about it?"
"I am upset about it," Harry insisted, although he sounded more frustrated and distracted than upset. "But I'm not sure how being upset about it will do anyone any good. So I am getting on with my very busy day at work. At least, I was, until..."
"Can you even hear what you're saying?" she said, disbelievingly. "Have they been putting something in your coffee? Feeding you Heartless Bureaucrat pills?"
"No," he said, wearily. "I just..." He slumped back in his chair, defeated. "Fine," he said. "Yell at me. Whatever. It's my fault. It's always my fault."
"Now you're just being unfair," Hermione protested, reaching out automatically to tuck a strand of his wayward hair away. "You know pulling that face always makes me want to kiss it better."
A rueful smile crept back onto Harry's features. "Why don't you, then?" he asked, mischievously.
His aide Susan looked in, carefully, a couple of moments later; hoping that she had not been spotted, she quietly closed the door and walked away, already working out an excuse to cancel Harry's next meeting.
Despite the smart suit and sensible shoes that she always wore to the office now, Hermione practically vaulted the desk in order to hug Ron. He only just got the door closed behind him in time to avoid her embarrassingly catapulting the pair of them out into the corridor.
"Unf," replied Ron, winded. He eventually managed to shake off the accompanying kiss, and regain his breath. "Yeah..." i "Why did you disappear?" Hermione demanded, taking a step back in order to properly put her hands on her hips and glare at him. "I was worried sick! Especially when Harry said he'd saw you go - I was really mad at him..."
"Well, yeah," said Ron, awkwardly. This was not going at all like he had planned it.
"So?" asked Hermione, impatiently. "What were you doing?"
"I was looking for... this," Ron said, deciding that going for it was the better part of valour. He dropped to one knee, retrieved the box from his pocket, and presented it to her.
After the raid at Hogwarts, he had retrieved this little trinket from stores: he flicked it open and saw it begin to do its work. It had been locked away for good reason, and his heart twisted to see her confusion melt into a dewy-eyed look that she had never really favoured anything with, even when she was being particularly soppy over one of them.
"Oh," she said, breathlessly. "It's so beautiful."
The rose-gold ring was set with a single, huge diamond; but instead of being cut in a standard diamond pattern, it was cut into the shape of a miniature rose itself, with an enchantment that ensured it retained the same inner light as a properly cut gem.
It had been confiscated many years ago, and was kept as an example piece to familiarise decontamination squads with this particular kind of magical signature, and how it would feel for its victims, who they might well have to deal with in the course of their duties.
"I'm glad you like it," he said. "Hermione Granger. I've loved you .txte the day I set eyes on you. I know that I promised to share you with Harry. But..."
"But?" she said, her customary sharpness just about managing to cut through the enchantment, although not very strongly.
"We're adults now," Ron tried to explain. "We should be... thinking about... settling down. Children." This wasn't going as well as he had hoped at all. Why couldn't he just say it?
He couldn't just say it, because he was plagued by visions of the man he was betraying. He couldn't stop thinking about Harry. About his slightly curly black hair. About the patchwork of scars that he'd got in that final battle, that he refused to have smoothed away, that he insisted were part of him now. About his pale, milky skin. About the slight stubble he always had, around those lips... those perfect, surprisingly tender lips that he would probably never, if this worked, kiss again.
"There's nothing stopping us..." Hermione offered. "What's really got into you?" she asked, softly, the edge taken off her usual suspicious tone. "You're not usually like this."
"Hermione," he tried again, his throat gone dry. "I want you to. To give him up. To be mine. To only be mine. To marry me."
It sounded so.txtredibly fake as he choked it out, but he counted on the effect of the ring to cover all of that up.
"I..." said Hermione, stunned. "I mean," she said, "yes," she said, "how could I refuse you?" And he knew it was the magic talking, somewhat. "But we should, I mean, we're living in his house..."
"Just say it," he practically begged. His knees were beginning to hurt. This whole idea was beginning to seem like the most terrible plan he had ever come up with. "Say that... that I've won your heart. That he's lost it. That I've won."
"This isn't like you," she said, even though the haze of unconditional love. "You don't say that kind of thing." She picks up the ring, begins to play with it, absent-mindedly. "Of course you have my heart. You always have, you know that? But..."
There is an insistent ringing noise from her desk. She doesn't seem to quite be aware of it yet. But Ron gradually realises what it must be. Of course she would have wards up for this kind of thing. The ring was subtle enough to get past most of them, and the box had got it safely into the office - but there was some kind of failsafe on her desk, to remind her.
"Well, just," he said, scrambling to his feet, "just think about it, okay?"
Then he yanked open the door - expecting to see an armed response team already there, wands out - and when the corridor was still stubbornly empty, he fled down it as fast as he could, and did not look back.
Hermione stumbled back to her desk, caught in a cloud of blank.txtomprehension.
She had chased him out of the door, shouting "Wait!" and "Come back!", but fortunately for her, he had known exactly where the emergency disapparation breaks were located and had swiftly used one, leaving her standing there stunned and disoriented in the middle of the corridor, clutching the ring he had given her.
Making her way numbly back to her office, she put the ring down on her desk, and tried to work out where that.txtessant, distracting noise was coming from. It was some kind of magical device on her desk, which she knew was warning her about something, but she couldn't for the life of her remember what.
She should go and talk to Harry. Harry always knew what to do. Even when he didn't get it right, his attempting to find a solution and getting it wrong would inspire her to correct him, and then she would know what the right answer was.
Still absent-mindedly carrying the ring, she told her secretary to hold her next meeting, apologised for her erratic behaviour today, and headed up to Harry's office again.
"You again?" he smiled. "Not that I'm complaining, but..."
"Harry," she said, in such a confused and distant voice that he immediately started paying more attention to his surroundings. "I don't know what to do. Ron just came to see me..."
"Ron?" Harry asked, immediately. "Is he okay? He's alive, at least, then?"
"He ran away," she said vaguely, "and disapparated. But before that, he left me this. Gave me this, actually."
She waved the ring in Harry's general direction, although she found herself snatching it back, somehow reluctant to show him.
"Let me take a better look at that," said Harry, getting up from his desk and heading around the other side to meet her. She looked shy and defensive; her body language was all wrong.
Gently, he took her hand, and opened it up to reveal the rose-gold ring with its rose-cut crystal.
Harry's alarm system was dis.txttly less subtle than Hermione's. Klaxons immediately went off, deafening the pair of them, and his aide was on the scene immediately.
"Let me get it in this," said Susan Bones, who had grabbed a containment bag from her nearby kit of handy items for dealing with office emergencies, and she boldly plunged in and swept the ring out of their hands.
"No!" yelled Hermione, launching herself bodily at Susan, who deftly sidestepped the clumsy attack.
"Wait," said Harry, confused by the short burst of coercion he'd felt and the sudden silence of the klaxons once the thing was safely in Susan's bag. "No, wait!" he repeated as Hermione attempted to lunge at Susan again; catching her by the shoulders, he held her gently but firmly as she sagged, defeated, and started crying.
"I'll get this to Forensics, shall I?" asked Susan. "And cancel the response team."
Hermione shook herself, like a dog trying to shake off water, and said, more calmly, "No, I don't think that's a good idea. I promise I won't try to open it. But please leave it here?"
Susan looked up at Harry, who nodded.
Somewhat relieved, she dropped the bag on the floor quickly, as if it contained a live scorpion - or, more likely, something much more dangerous - and headed off to tell the response squad that everything was under control.
"What's all this about?" Harry asked, gently.
"He gave me that," Hermione said, stunned. "I... I didn't think he had it in him... and he was saying such things! Poisonous things..."
"Maybe he was under some kind of compulsion, too," Harry said, attempting to be reassuring, although he didn't find the idea very reassuring himself. He picked up the containment bag and peered through its semi-transparent surface. "What is it?"
"Some kind of... wedding ring," she said, in fascinated revulsion. "With a... ugh... a compulsion effect of some kind."
"And you say Ron presented this to you?" asked Harry, horrified, but also suspicious.
"Yes!" exclaimed Hermione, equally distressed. "And said... he wanted me to... I don't know, renounce you or something. To say that..." she looked at the floor, her face twisted in worry, "to say that he'd won, that you'd lost, like it was some kind of, I don't know... competition."
But Harry was looking even paler than before.
"Shit," he said.
Hermione's eyes asked the question for her - what is it now?
"He wants to defeat me," said Harry. "Don't you see? He must have got one of the Hallows... he wants to be the master of the Elder Wand."
"But that's in..." Hermione began, then she trailed off, unwilling to complete the thought.
"Do you think the Head of the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes has much trouble going anywhere he wants to?" Harry asked her.
"No," she said. "But... why?"
"He was feeling useless," said Harry. "And he knows what the Deathly Hallows can do. The Elder Wand - if you're the master of it... you can do anything. Pretty much literally. Anything."
"I wasn't expecting to see you home!" exclaimed Molly, as she opens the door to see Ron is the source of the apologetic knocking.
"Yeah," he said. "I wasn't expected to be home, either. But I needed.. some space, for a bit."
His mother looked concerned, but nothing like as concerned as she was about inviting him in, asking him if there was anything he needed, apologising for the state of the house, and starting another few ingredients dancing their way into the stewpot, all at once.
"Is everything all right with you and... your friends?" she eventually got around to asking.
"Um," said Ron. He couldn't lie to his mother, not outright. Maybe it had been a bad idea to come here, but he needed somewhere to get his head back together, and he couldn't think of a better place for that than home. "Not... not quite."
"You sit down," said Molly, "and tell your mother all about it."
So Ron found himself installed in a frequently patched armchair, with a steaming mug of hot chocolate, trying to think of what to say.
"It's just," he started, "they're so good at what they do. And I'm..." it's easy to look appropriately downcast, after everything that has happened today, "I'm just not."
"Oh, Ron," said Molly, "I'm sure you're excellent at what you do. Shacklebolt wouldn't have chosen you otherwise, would he?"
"That's just it," said Ron, getting into the swing of it. "He picked me because... because I'm rubbish. Because he knew my department would just walk all over me, and that's what he wanted - someone for them to, I dunno. To not get in the way too much. To be, ugh, what did she say? 'The common enemy'."
"Oh, my dear sweet boy," said Molly, scandalised. "I'm sure that's not true. Who's been telling you these lies?"
"Hermione," said Ron, flatly. He was finding it surprisingly hard not to tear up when thinking about her; not to confess everything, in order to start trying to make up for what he had done, to ease the horror he felt deep inside at that blank look he had caused to come into her eyes.
"Oh, Ronnie dearest," said Molly, sounding almost relieved. "You know that poor girl does too much thinking for her own good. She's probably made the whole thing up in her head - although I can't imagine why she would tell you about it."
"Well, she managed not to for a good long time," replied Ron bitterly. "Apparently she'd known for ages, but she wasn't telling me because it was working - because it was useful to have me acting like a chump and blaming myself for everything."
"It sounds like you're tired," diagnosed Molly, briskly. "Drink up, and we'll have a good dinner; Fred and George will be round tonight, and they're bound to have something that will cheer you up. Then you can have a good night's sleep and we can talk about this in the morning, if you like. Now, will you give me a hand laying the table?"
The pale grey moon shines through the skylight, onto the wand in his lap.
He could have gone about it a more conventional way. He still could. At this rate, maybe he was going to have to.
But as he looks at it in the cold light of the moon, he is no longer sure it is worth it.
It was the only solution, the obvious solution, when his blood was up. But now it is all going so wrong; and he does not think he will be able to banish the way she looked at him, until she looks at him again, and forgives him.
He knows that he has no right to be forgiven; that he has committed terrible crimes.
By rights, she should have him locked up. Stick him in Azkaban with the Boggarts and the Pogrebins, and forget about him.
The Elder Wand gleams pale in his lap, with all its tempting power, as he makes his choice.
Neither of them could sleep.
They had tried holding each other; they had started kissing, but it was clear that neither of them had their heart in it. Not after today. Not after Ron's inexplicable behaviour.
"We should go after him," Harry had insisted, repeatedly.
"We should wait until the morning," Hermione had countered, equally determinedly. "There's nothing sensible we can do at night that we can't do better in the daylight."
"He could be further away by then," Harry had said.
"He could be anywhere by now," Hermione had replied.
They had got back out of bed.
Harry made some hot chocolate, the conventional way, no stirring with wands - although the heating was done by magic, as he still couldn't get a conventional hob to work reliably in their presence.
Hermione set up the chess board, an elaborate magical set that Fred and George had bought them, with its fierce little pawns and gaily caparisoned knights.
And they had sipped their mugs of cocoa and morosely directed their respective chessman armies to slaughter each other, silently, into the depths of the night.
So they were both awake when they heard the knock on the door.
Together, they rushed to open it. Harry just about got there first, almost bowling over Hermione as he flung open the heavy wooden door to discover who was behind it; one hand already halfway to the wand in his belt, of course.
"I'm sorry," said a very bedraggled Ron, in an.txtredibly small and helpless voice. It was seriously raining outside, and he hadn't bothered with the simplest charm to keep it off him, feeling it was part of his penance.
"And so you should be," said Hermione, eyes flashing with anger. "What were you thinking?"
"Hermione," said Harry, wearily. "Let's not have this. Let's at least get you inside, Ron. It's chucking it down out there."
Reluctantly, Hermione stepped back, allowing Ron to step cautiously inside and stand shivering and dripping in the hallway as Harry closed the door.
Harry could see what she wanted to say to him in her eyes. She wanted to say, 'You weren't the one he mind-controlled!'. She wanted to say, 'Aren't you upset that he tried to supplant you?'.
But before she could say any of these things, he said, "The wand, Ron. Where is it?"
Ron looked startled. "How did you know about that?" he asked, ins.txttively, forgetting his abjection for a moment.
"It was pretty obvious," Harry told him. "And I... I understand, Ron. It's okay."
"No, it is not okay!" exclaimed Hermione. "I know about the Wand; I know it doesn't compel people like that. So you came up with that plan to..." She couldn't even say it; couldn't say anything for a moment, fists clenched by her side, consumed with righteous fury.
"I'm sorry," repeated Ron, looking dejectedly at his feet. "I know... that's not enough. But I... I don't know. I can't, there isn't, I mean, I'm not going to... stand here and defend myself. It was wrong. I did it anyway. I'm sorry."
Harry hovered awkwardly between them, not sure what to do. He desperately wanted to put a comforting hand on Ron's arm, tell him that it's all going to be okay. But he didn't want to look like he was taking Ron's side against Hermione, either.
"Why?" asked Hermione, with a pleading note creeping around the edges of her anger. "Why did you do it, Ron? What did you think you could possibly gain by... why did you even think of... how could you do that to me? Is that how little I..." and her voice caught for a moment. "How little I really mean to you? That I could be just a... pawn, a token..."
"Oh god," sniffled Ron, because the tears were rising in the back of his throat now too, however unworthy he felt to be crying them. "I've really screwed it up this time, haven't I?"
"Yes," said Hermione, coldly. "Yes, you have. But I still haven't heard an explanation?" There is a small rising tone of hope in the last word - as if she is still hoping for a way out, something that would let them go back to the life they had before.
"It's not that complicated, is it?" said Ron, wiping his very damp face on his similarly soaked sleeve. "You said that... ugh, no, I'm not going to start blaming you. It's all my fault. I felt useless. Like I wasn't worth anything. And so I... I thought of a way to fix that."
"The Elder Wand doesn't make you worthy," said Harry, almost more to himself than to the other two. "Only you can make yourself worthy. And the good thing is... you are already, just by being you. You just have to realise it."
"Fat lot of 'worthy' now, aren't I?" replied Ron, bitterly. "It was... it was the only thing I could think of that would make me any use. Instead of just sitting in the office, listening - listening to them tell me how it was too dangerous, how they'd go and clean up when it was over - when the muggles were all dead already..." he broke off for a moment to sniff, trying to keep the tears in, "I'd be able to go and fix it. I'd be useful again - and not just a 'useful idiot'..."
The anger and horror were slowly beginning to drain from Hermione's eyes. Ron turned to look at her directly, finally daring to raise his eyes from the floor.
"So you did it all for the helpless muggles?" she asked, with a note of skepticism competing with a note of wonder.
"Well," said Ron. "I guess. But. I did it... I won't claim I didn't do it for myself. And what I got out of the vault. That was properly... properly unforgivable stuff."
"Yes," she said, her voice hardening again. "Why did you do that?"
"I had to be its master, see?" he said, helplessly. "And to be the Elder Wand's master... you have to defeat the last owner. Usually by..."
"...by killing him," said Harry. "But you knew you didn't have to do that, because Grindlewald got it off that wand-maker by stunning him."
"Yeah," said Ron. "But I didn't think I could even do that, not reliably. Even if you weren't expecting it - you've got reflexes."
"So you decided to defeat him in a different way," said Hermione, icily. "Because instead of a person to you, I'm some kind of... competition."
"No!" protested Ron. "I mean... kind of. We're guys. It's natural to be a bit... competitive. I was hoping... I was hoping it would be enough..."
"And what about me?" asked Harry, finally letting his hurt show in his voice. "You would... I mean... I thought that you..."
Ron made a low, unhappy noise, like a wounded animal.
"I know," he said. "And... I guess I've never been good at saying it, but... I totally botched the whole thing, because I couldn't stop thinking about you. Even though I thought I could give Hermione the ring, and 'defeat' you... I couldn't stop thinking about how that would mean..."
Ron dropped to the ground, in the middle of the puddle he had made on the floor, but the tears that he'd been holding back wouldn't come.
"I've screwed it all up," he said. "You should just... you should call the... you should just arrest me, right now, and lock me away, and never think about me again. You should be happy, just you, without your stupid dead-weight screw-up trying to," he sniffed loudly, "trying to do something for once..."
Harry and Hermione looked at each other. Both of them had the same hopeless determination written across their faces. As much as Hermione was still.txtredibly hurt that he could even think of messing with her head; as much as Harry was still.txtredibly upset that he could even think of pushing him out of their relationship: they still loved him.
As one, they squatted down in front of Ron, and tried to catch his eye.
"Ron," said Harry. "We're still mad at you, and we probably will be for a while. You're right - you've done terrible things; you've screwed everything up. But that doesn't make you a screw-up. And we still..."
"...we still love you," Hermione choked out, almost unable to speak through her conflicting emotions. "And we'd never even think about handing you over to the authorities," she continued, getting stronger. "Really, Ron. After all we've been through? You think we'd have you locked up with the Death Eaters?"
Ron looked up from his abject misery.
"Really?" he asked, hopefully.
"Really," said Harry and Hermione, simultaneously.
Then they took one arm each and helped him up off the floor.