Ron had no trouble spotting Charlie at the terminal. The flaming red hair of his older brother couldn't be missed. "Oi! Charlie!"
Charlie gave him a warm smile and a thump on the back. "It's good to see you Ron, how has your trip been?"
"It's been great. Mostly." Ron hesitated, he didn't want to jump right in about Hermione.
"You can tell me all about it when we get to my place. My roommates are all working so we'll have it to ourselves while you're here."
"Brilliant. Have you heard from mum and dad?" he couldn't help the worried tone his voice took.
"They're…managing. Bill and Fleur left a week ago. George and Percy are still at home for now. Mum says George is still….lost."
Charlie's voice was tinged with the grief that still hung over their family. Ron wondered how long it would be before things ever went back to normal, if they would ever go back to whatever "normal" would be in this new world.
Charlie's place was a small, three bedroom cottage perched high in the mountains. It had never surprised Ron that Charlie chose to work out here with dragons. He had always been the most adventurous of his brothers, though Ron had probably taken that title in the past few years. Ron chuckled to himself at the thought.
As they settled in for some tea they chatted idly about Charlie's work, Norbert, and the places Ron had been on holiday. He tried to mask the hurt in his voice when he mentioned Hermione, but Charlie had always been good at cottoning on when something was upsetting him.
"What's the part I'm missing here little bro? There's something bothering you." His brother gave him a sympathetic look. Ron hesitated, unsure of where to begin.
So he told his brother everything that happened while they had stayed in Vienna, his night out with Hermione and her breaking up with him. Charlie took in his story quietly and let the silence hang on the air when he finished, ensuring that Ron had fully spoken his piece.
"Well Ron, what do you think about it?"
Ron was unsure how to answer. He knew that it was his own responsibility and he had simply blew his chance one too many times, but admitting it felt like he was letting his family down all over again. It was the night he showed up at Bill and Fleur's all over again.
Charlie caught his eyes. "Ron, we all have to own up to what happens in our lives. It's part of being a man. You should know by now that nothing you could do changes the way your family feels about you, or Hermione for that matter. We love you no matter what."
"That's what Bill said." Ron mumbled.
"He was right then and he's right now. It shows strength of character to admit when you've made a mistake. Bill and I both were very proud of you for going to him and being honest about what happened."
Ron felt his face turning red. It wasn't often that he felt like his family was proud of him. He heaved a great sigh.
"I blew it Charlie. I could have had the girl of my dreams and I blew it." It felt so final now that he said it out loud. Ron felt his stomach turn to lead. Charlie looked sympathetically at his little brother.
"I thought she forgave you for that?"
"It wasn't just that." Every major fight Ron and Hermione had ever had went flashing through his mind, all the ugly things he had said and times he had walked away.
"I let her down so many times; it was just one time too many."
Ron sat and stared at his shoe laces. He felt completely numb. It was too surreal that he was sitting here with Charlie talking about himself and Hermione in the past tense.
He could feel Charlie's gaze still on him. There was no sound other than his deep and shaking breaths.
"I know it hurts Ron and unfortunately there's not a thing in the world I can say to make you feel better."
Charlie moved next to him and put his arm around his shoulders. Ron could feel the prickling behind his eyes and his chest start to shake.
"What am I supposed to do now?" He forced his head up to look his older brother in the face. Charlie had a pained expression, clearly empathizing with his younger brother.
"Well first of all, I don't think your friendship with Hermione is something to throw aside. So I think you're going to have to find a way to live within those boundaries in your relationship."
Charlie gave Ron a brotherly pat on the shoulder, "but ultimately this is your life. You have to decide for yourself how to deal with this new reality. Personally? I think the bond you have with Hermione is far too deep for you to even entertain the thought of losing her friendship. Even when she starts seeing other people."
That Charlie had said "when" and not "if" sent a shot of pain through Ron's heart. As to who that person might be, Ron couldn't stop himself from asking "Charlie, what if she starts going out with Harry?"
Charlie frowned, "Where is Harry at with Ginny?"
"I don't know." Ron answered truthfully, "All I know is that I can't think of anyone I know that's closer than Harry and Hermione."
He could see the cogs turning in Charlie's mind. "I think then that that's a possibility that you need to consider. Do you think Harry would do that? Knowing how much it might hurt your feelings?"
"I think…" Ron thought hard about his two best friends. He thought about how they had always maintained that they were nothing but platonic. He believed them, he truly did, but would they stay that way now? "I think that he might, but that he would talk to me about it before anything happened."
"And how would you feel about that? What would you tell him?"
Ron pictured himself and Harry at the Burrow, Harry telling him that he was in love with Hermione and wanted to know if Ron would be okay with them going out. It made his stomach churn.
His greatest fear had always been that Hermione preferred Harry to him. It was why he had always been so jealous of how close they were. The horrible image from the horcrux came to his mind.
But Ron had had his chance hadn't he? It wasn't Harry's fault that Ron didn't ask Hermione to the Yulee Ball or that Ron had dated Lavender out of spite. Pushing down again the sadness of Lavenders death that crept up at the thought of her, Ron had to admit to himself that Harry had never once done anything to interfere with his relationship to Hermione. Their relationship had failed strictly on their own terms.
He still loved Hermione and he loved Harry. Didn't they deserve to be happy? Did anyone in the world deserve that more than Harry? Even if being with Hermione was what made him happy?
"I would tell him that he's my best mate and…" Ron took a deep breath and shut his eyes, picturing looking into Harry's face. "...and if being with her is what makes him happy, then how could I possibly take that away from him?" He felt a solitary tear escape his eye and slide down his cheek. When he opened his eyes it was joined by two more.
Charlie's face held a grimace of pain, but he nodded his head approvingly. "You truly are a great man and a great friend. I couldn't be prouder of you. Mom and Dad would be very proud of you."
He took Ron into a tight hug. Ron finally stopped trying to hold it in and sobbed into Charlie's shoulder. Charlie had always been the one that he could go to and not worry about being ribbed or made fun of for crying. They stayed that way until Ron had no more tears to shed and his breathing had stopped coming in short gasps.
"You're going to be alright Ron, I promise. One day this will all be just a memory. As for Harry and Hermione, there's no sense in bothering yourself over something that you can't control and that frankly, doesn't exist right now." Ron could do more than nod his head in response.
"I tell you what little brother, let's get your mind of Hermione for a couple of days. Why don't we go on a hiking trip, just the two of us? I'll take you by our hunting camp and you can see the specimen we caught yesterday. Sound like a plan?"
Charlie was back to his usual cheerful and carefree self. Ron couldn't help but feel elated at the prospect of spending time with his brother. Personally, he had had his fill of dragons, but the company more than made up for it.
"Brilliant Charlie, positively brilliant."