The hands tracing Hermione's body were familiar—big and raspy, yet gentle, like the toucher was afraid he'd break her. She murmured softly as he leaned closer, "Ron".
"I won't stop loving you," he whispered.
"A lovely man," said Clothilde, pulling Hermione out of her dream. "He reminds me of my first husband, Roscoe."
"Is that why you helped him remember seeing her with Draco?" asked Finola, still annoyed. "One of them could have been hurt in that duel."
"A man's love needs to be tested," argued Clothilde. "We understood that in my day. We appreciated chivalry. I wish we could've seen the fight. That Weasley girl's description just wasn't enough."
"Hmph," chimed in Hester, "maybe we could have, if Jean hadn't urged Hermione to leave."
"There was nothing to be gained by her staying. We could all feel how torn she was," responded Jean.
"She was fine until the redhead came," pointed out Finola. "She and Draco were so happy. She was about to tell him that she was going back to Hogwarts to be with him, and Draco said that the awkward boy wouldn't remember what he saw."
"Awkward? He's not awkward. He's just very sincere, more so than anyone from Slytherin could ever be."
"And what's wrong with Slytherin?"
"Ladies, please," Hermione raised her voice over the spat of her witch ancestors, who had grown increasingly vocal to her, and were apparently at odds now about which one of her love interests they preferred. "You're not helping."
"What happened to ya, darlin'?," asked Finola. "You were so happy with Draco and he was so brave for ya."
"I know," Hermione said. "But I hadn't seen Ron in months and when I did, I saw him hurting. Draco said he wouldn't remember, but I couldn't know that for sure. I hate seeing Ron unhappy or hurt. It's devastating."
"You're right," Clothilde agreed. "It's wrong to cause such a man pain."
"But what about the pain you'd cause Draco?" Finola reminded her. "You're not bein' fair ta him if ya don't think about what it's like ta be with him like ya did for the other boy. It's wrong to forget how he made ya feel."
On her left side Hermione sensed feather-light fingertips, then kneading of her muscles and Draco's longer, leaner body over her. "Ah," she moaned, closing her eyes and leaning back.
Then on her right side was Ron again. She was sandwiched between them, the difference in their touch taunting and confusing her. "Stop!" she shouted, sitting up in bed. "Clearly, I'm not going to be able to make a choice that way. Just, please, let me sleep. I'll go see Ron tomorrow."
The witches retreated from her conscious mind, still sniping at each other, but giving her the peace for which she'd begged.
She woke the next morning better rested, but no more sure what she wanted. "Always the tone of surprise," she said, a phrase that had become a frequent endearment between her and Ron since they'd first exchanged it, with her questioning his ability to act heroically and his stunned reaction to her appearance at Bill and Fleur's wedding.
There were strengths that they easily recognized in each other—Ron's admiration of her great intelligence, and her deep regard for his commitment to family and friends—his steadfastness, that not even the mental torture of the Dark Lord could ultimately conquer.
In other areas they'd constantly surprised, as they'd explored each other romantically and dared one another to pursue their goals.
"Oh, Ron," she sighed, causing Clothilde to gloat and Finola to growl.
The other two witches stayed out of the contest of wills, Jean wanting Hermione to make her own decision and Hester hoping for a prolonged competition for her...that is, Herimone's...affections.
Ron had moved out of the Burrow and was sharing Harry's Grimmauld Place house. Hermione took a little from her stash of Floo Powder and called that destination, as she stood in her family's fireplace.
She arrived in the once formal drawing room-turned game room by the young men. Ron was engaged in an intense game of virtual quidditch. He tore off his magical goggles when he spotted her.
"Hi," she said, stepping out from the hearth and nervously twisting her wand in her hands.
"Hullo," he responded in his thick, low voice. His eyes followed her, watching her move and watching her think.
She stammered, as usual, under the blue-eyed stare. "Ummm, how's your hand?"
He lifted it dismissively. "It's fine."
"Good," she said, still held by his scrutiny. "Were you suspended?"
He shrugged and pulled down the corners of his mouth. "Only for a week and only because they had to. Some of the instructors were impressed with how I handled myself."
He gave a small, ironic smile. "Always the tone of surprise." He sat on the leather couch and motioned for her to sit as well. "So, yeah, most people think better of me now than they do of Malfoy...except for you."
She crouched on the edge of the chair across from him. "I don't think better of him, Ron, I think...differently of him."
He sighed and rolled his eyes. "What does that mean?"
Hermione stood and walked around, taking in the antique pinball machine and the half-room sized Wizard's Chess board. She stopped in front of a large screen television. "If I were as smart as everyone thinks I am," she said, "I'd force myself to live without either of you." She dropped her eyes. "But I've always been a bit stupid about love."
"Thank you," said Ron, rising and slowly walking toward her.
"No, I don't mean I'm stupid about who I've loved, just that my actions are sometimes...silly," she clarified, feeling again his penetrating gaze.
He snickered. "Like waiting years to tell me how you felt about me."
She frowned and raised her lash-heavy eyelids to him as he neared her. "You did the same thing."
He looked down on her with a smile. "Everyone knew how I felt about you, except you. Maybe you are a bit thick about love," he teased, lowering his head to kiss her.
Hermione didn't pull away from him and didn't respond. Her neutrality stopped him. Looking at the squiggly mouth he loved, he touched the side of her face. "When did you become so bloody beautiful? He became attracted when you became attractive. That's what he said. But to me, you've always been the only girl I've wanted."
"Ron," she said softly, her voice cracking a little.
He shrugged in resignation. "Well, you'll be a pretty couple. I can hear everyone now, saying, 'It's about time she got away from that pathetic Weasley sod." He looked away. "If he hurts you, he'll regret it."
She put her arms around his waist. He could feel her tears through his thin t-shirt. "I'll always love you, Ron. I wish you could still be my friend."
His embrace was half-hearted, as was his tone. "You ask too much, Hermione. It's been a long time since I could be satisfied with you as just a friend."
She moved her neck so her forehead was pressed against his chest. His shirt would bear the marks of the last tears she'd shed for him.
He sighed and led her back to the fireplace. "You should go now. I have some drinking to do."
"Be careful," she said, accepting the Floo Powder he pressed into her hand.
He gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Always."
Hermione silently gave her next destination and Ron watched as the woman he loved devolved into green vapor. He headed for the kitchen, then stopped and turned back into the room, put on his game goggles, and resumed his match as keeper, the epitome of vigilance and constancy.