In the first few weeks, Ron and Hermione are never far apart. She's there at the funeral, tucked under Ron's arm, face pressed into his coat. He follows her to Australia, fingers linked with hers as she stands in front of her parents' new home. He’s there with her as she turns away, lowering her wand, and says only, "Not yet." Later, they're at Hogwarts, together, back-to-back, helping to rebuild.
No one says a word when they find a small flat together, six months out, in the middle of London. Even Molly Weasley, traditionalist that she is, only shrugs and smiles, a little sadly. No one talks about marriage.
Only Harry's there when they perform the ceremony.
Harry loves Ginny. He always has. He always will. They run away together, the two of them, afterward. They'd wanted to leave sooner, but there were people they cared about, and people that hated them, and it's only a year later, on a windy day in March, that they can look at each other and say "Now," and know they mean it. Hermione charms their bags, and she and Ron wave them off, and if Harry notices that Hermione's knuckles are white on Ron's sleeve, he doesn't say anything. He doesn't look back. Ginny's in front of him, her hair red-gold in the sunshine, and England is too small, too full, to hold him right now.
Life starts over. "It has to, I guess," says Ron, one morning, his fingers curled in Hermione’s hair. She starts classes. He starts training. They argue. They laugh. They learn that it is much better for Ron to make dinner, and for Hermione to pay the bills, and that they both want to check the wards before they go to bed at night, so they do it together.
They both wait for the owls that arrive like clockwork, every Thursday morning. It's habit now, the same way she knows what time to wake Ron, the same way he knows she likes a hot bath after a terrible day. The owl arrives, and they take the letter and read it through, Hermione on Ron's lap, sipping at steaming mugs of tea. They read it through, and then Hermione stands and pins it to the corkboard on the kitchen wall. When she turns back around, Ron is always behind her. The two of them stand in the kitchen, together, before he leans down and kisses her, and they go about the day.
They never stay in one place long. A few days -- maybe a week, but only rarely -- and then one of them will look at the other and propose a new destination. They might bicker a little -- Ginny has no love for snow, Harry thinks Vienna in February sounds lovely -- but there's always some compromise. After a few weeks, the routine is easy. Ginny packs, Harry pulls out the cloak and Floos ahead to arrange for their next lodgings. Then they walk to their favorite spot, take a last look, and Apparate.
It's eight months later, on a brilliant November night, looking up at the stars in the emptiness of the Chilean desert, a charm around them to keep out the cold, that Ginny turns to Harry and says, "I want to go home."
It's the middle of December, and bitterly cold, when the Thursday owl doesn't come.
They wait for an hour - for two - until it's nearly eight and the sun is well-risen. Hermione's hands are white around her mug. Ron's arm is tight around her waist. He feels her shudder on an indrawn breath, and doesn't clutch at her when she sets the tea down and stands. "I have an exam at ten," she says, and walks out into the hall. Ron takes the mugs and sets them next to the sink, then follows her out.
They are still there that evening when they arrive home, when Ron goes into the kitchen to get plates for the take-away Hermione's collected en route. She hears the noise he makes when he sees them, when he remembers the morning. He feels her hand take his, and lets her lead him into the bedroom. He can't tell, later, whether their faces are damp with sweat or tears.
The food is cold on the coffee table the next morning when Ginny rings their doorbell. No one notices.
He hadn't known what to write. He hadn't known what to say. Surely Ginny would have said enough. She'd promised she would tell them all he was fine.
They hadn't argued, not really. They were too careful of each other -- too well aware of the brittle edges and fault lines lacing them through. But he couldn't - he wasn't ready, not yet, and he didn't know if he ever would be. She was. Had been, apparently, for some time. "I want a home," she'd said, "a routine. A life."
"I know," he'd said. "I know." And he'd let her go.
"I want that too," he couldn't say. Not yet.
He thinks Christmas in Hawai'i sounds lovely.
Ginny stays a month. They all go to Arthur and Molly's for Christmas. Harry sends presents, but no letters. Questions crowd the room, unspoken, but no one gives them voice, and it's for the best, really. She stays a month, and starts talks with the Harpies, and starts training for the new season. Five days later, it's a Thursday morning, and there's an owl.
She walks in on the two of them in the kitchen, reading.
Ginny smiles, hugs them both, and leaves for work.
Six days later, she's found an apartment. When the next owl arrives, it's just Hermione and Ron and two mugs of tea in the kitchen on a rainy Thursday morning.
He goes to Tokyo. He goes to Montreal. He goes to New Orleans at Mardi Gras and to Rome for Easter. He falls into the same routine, and he writes an owl every Thursday at midnight, and on a Thursday morning in May, he realizes he wants to go home and doesn’t know how.
Ron makes it through training. He gets his first posting. Hermione finishes classes, starts her apprenticeship. It's been three years .txte the war ended, and they've found a routine, somehow. Hermione mentions it to Ron in passing one Thursday night, Harry's last letter still fresh in her mind, as she tugs on a t-shirt and brushes her hair before bed. "Oh," he says, and she watches his eyes go distant. So long, she thinks, and no time at all.
She doesn't realize she's crying until Ron's thumb brushes her cheek. "C'mon," he says, and drops a kiss on her hair. "Let's go check the wards."
They're just finishing up when they hear someone Apparate outside the flat's door. His hand finds hers. "They could've come silently," she murmurs, and feels his hand tighten.
Whoever it is rings the doorbell.
They look at each other, and Ron quirks a grin. "Suppose we'd better answer before old Mrs. Midgins starts complaining."
He pulls open the door, Hermione behind him, her wand at the ready, and Harry's there.
Some things never change. The bone-cracking nature of Hermione's hugs is one of them.
"Can't breathe," Harry manages, and she lets go, smiling -- just in time for Ron to replace her, thumping Harry's back.
He finally fends them off, and they end up on the floor, curled up in front of the Floo, demanding story after story until he pleads a dry throat and goes for a glass of water. It's nearly automatic - the glasses are where they've been .txte they first got the flat - and it's not till Harry’s cracking ice cubes from the tray that the corkboard on the wall catches his eye.
They're all there. All of his letters. Every one. He sets the glass down on the table.
"I had to extend the thing twice over," Hermione says from behind him.
Ron's beside her, his arm around her waist. "Don't make her do it again, mate," he says, but there's something serious underneath his grin. "She's that particular about keeping everything in order. Made me put it all back together twice, she did, before I'd done it properly."
They're just standing there, watching him, and the distance between them is nothing he knows how to cross.
"I -" Harry swallows. "I had to go," he says lamely.
"We know," Hermione answers. Her hands are holding each other very tightly, he notices.
"But you came back," Ron adds.
"Eventually," Harry says. "I can't promise I'll stay."
"Just for now," says Hermione, "is good enough."
Life keeps going. They both call in sick, that first day. It's a Friday, after all, "and they'll just think we're taking a dirty weekend," Ron adds. Hermione laughs up at him, and he kisses her on the nose, and they both notice that Harry looks away.
Monday arrives, despite their best efforts, and it's Hermione who puts her foot down. Ron and Harry are pouting at her from either side of the table. "I've got to go," she says. "I've got a major hearing in two weeks."
"That's ages away," Ron says, and she swats at his shoulder.
"Not long enough. And Phinbruster wants everything absolutely perfect." She stands and clears their mugs to the sink.
Ron sighs. "I suppose she's right," he admits to Harry. "Try not to pull the place down around you while we're gone, yeah?" He tosses Harry a key.
Harry rolls his eyes.
They leave together, and they catch each other glancing back at their door. "We'll see him tonight," Ron says, and she kisses him before she Apparates.
It's quiet when they leave that first day. It's quiet the second day, and the third. Harry's content enough at first. But by Thursday morning, he's itching for a change. So he goes out.
He means to be back by dinner time - he very nearly is. But wizarding London has changed in three years, and he gets lost in the differences - not literally, but certainly emotionally - and he feels a little hollowed out when he Apparates back to the apartment. He shifts the bags to his other hand, takes the key from his pocket, and opens the door.
Hermione and Ron are curled on the sofa, but they're up like a shot when he walks in. "Harry!" she says happily.
"I brought curry," he says, and Ron breaks into a grin.
"I'm starving," he says, and the room breaks down into the bustle of getting plates and glasses and laying the table.
Harry doesn't mention the way they'd been holding each other before they'd realized it was him. He doesn't mention he'd seen the sadness on their faces either. But the next day, he leaves and comes home late again. And the next. After a week, they're no longer quite so panicked, he thinks.
It's a month before he starts climbing the walls. Hermione's the first to notice it. "Go," she says over breakfast one Tuesday morning. "We understand."
"I'll write," he promises.
"Bloody corkboard," mutters Ron, and hugs Harry hard. "She's going to make my life a misery if you don't."
"I'll see you soon," Harry says.
Hermione kisses him on the cheek. "Just come back," she says. She and Ron leave for work. Harry packs. It's just past tea time when he looks around the quiet flat and Apparates.
The first owl arrives two days later.
She and Ron find their rhythm again. They have to. But it's harder this time. Every so often, when she's had a late night, or hasn't slept well, she'll pull down three mugs for tea in the morning instead of two. Every so often, when he's distracted, he'll order take-away for three. Every so often, tangled up in each other late at night, they'll still feel a hole. "I miss him," someone will whisper. "I know," someone will answer.
He's gone two months. He's in Dublin, sitting in a cafe early on a rainy Saturday morning, planning to leave for Singapore shortly when he realizes, apropos of nothing, that this is not what he wants. Harry leaves money for his bill and walks outside.
Two seconds later, he's outside the door of a London flat, pulling out the key he's had on a cord around his neck for the last eight weeks. He opens the door just as Hermione walks out of the kitchen, calling something to Ron.
He stays six weeks, this time.
It's hard to let go. Hermione knows they have to do this - knows that the fastest way to lose Harry is to keep grasping after him - and if she didn't, Ron would remind her. But it's hard, not knowing how long he'll stay, not knowing when he'll need to leave again. Knowing how hard it will be every time he goes.
She makes it almost two years. Twenty-one months, to be exact, .txte he first appeared at their door. Harry's been and gone enough that she's lost count. There's no rhyme or reason to his schedule - he's stayed as long as three months and as little as a week; he's been gone for two weeks and gone for two months.
She's a barrister in her own right, now. Ron's had his first promotion -- and his first field injury. They've all had arguments -- knock-down brawls, like they used to have at school. And Harry always comes back. It should be simple.
It's their anniversary -- Hermione's and Ron's. They haven't done anything special, not really. Ron had brought her flowers. Harry surprises them with the keys to a summer cottage. "I have the money," he says. "And you both work too hard."
"Ron hardly works," Hermione says tartly, grinning all the while.
"We'll all go," Ron replies.
"Um," Harry says, and no one breathes.
Hermione breaks the moment. "Be safe," she says, like she always does now. She stands. "We'll be here, when you're ready to come home." She kisses the top of his head and leaves.
He and Ron hear the bedroom door shut and look at each other. "You could come," Harry offers.
"You know we can't," Ron shrugs, awkward.
They sit in the quiet for a long time.
"We'll be here," Ron says eventually. "When you think you can stay."
"With you?" Harry tries not to sound bitter. "I can't stay here forever."
"Why not?" is all Ron says. "What if we want you to?"
"What if you don't, one day?"
"You can't know that." Harry stands sharply. Ron just watches. "You have lives. You have jobs. You'll want a family."
"We'll want you."
"What if you don't?"
"We always will." It's Hermione that answers this time. Harry turns to see her in the doorway, her eyes reddened, arms wrapped around herself.
Behind him, Ron stands. ""We always have."
"We do now," Hermione adds.
"It won't last," Harry says desperately. "I want it to. It never does."
"The funny thing," Ron says, settling a hand on his shoulder, "is that it sort of does."
"One day at a time," Hermione says, and takes his hand.
He wants to pull away. He wants to haul them both in tight. He wants - "Oh hell," Harry says, and gathers them in close. "I can always try."
There are no owls now on Thursday mornings. The corkboard is still in the kitchen, but it's mostly full of shopping lists and restaurant menus and pointed reminders about the ability of grown male wizards to do the dishes. Every so often, over tea in the morning, Harry will stop and look at it, and feel the same unease. Every so often, he looks out the window and wonders where he could have been today.
Every so often, Hermione and Ron stand and hold him close, her head on his chest and Ron's arm around his waist, and he puts the question aside for tomorrow.