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Chapter 15: XV.
It had been a long time, it seemed, since Hogwarts had seen the sun – or maybe it had been a long time since Ron had seen it in the sun. Missing a year of school was liable to bring on waves of nostalgia after all, it appeared, and it didn’t help that his most recent memories of the castle seemed to have been tainted with night and battle.
But now that the sun was high in its arc over the castle, he could see the life under the ruins: The lawn was starting to grow again, covering the scorched scars from the battles that had been fought on it; people were scattered about, using their wands to repair windows and re-affix stone ramparts and sills. At a distant point, other were clustered underneath the massive tree that stood beside the path leading to the lake, a makeshift meeting place and hospital wing for those that had been rescued from inside the castle after Voldemort’s defeat.
Ron leaned against the broad stone stretch of wall that rounded out one of the castle’s towers – Gryffindor Tower, in fact. The common room and dormitories stood at the very top. It felt like decades since he had been a student here, sleeping in those four-poster beds, studying (or, more often than not, not studying) in that common room. He had been forced to grow up quickly in their search for the Horcruxes; that was never more evident than it was now.
Charlie’s body had been recovered in the entrance hall; Harry’s, too, though Ron didn’t want to think about what Voldemort and his followers had done to it. There would be a massive memorial service later in the week for all who had fallen in the two battles. Fred would have enjoyed that; he and George had always enjoyed being the center of attention.
What Death Eaters remained had quickly been rounded up and carted off to the Ministry, under Kingsley’s extremely close and watchful eye. They would be held in high-security cells there before being tried by the Wizengamot, after which they would, no doubt, be carted off to Azkaban. All except for Lucius Malfoy, that is – Draco had done his part.
Ron wrinkled his nose. Well, he thought, a bit grudgingly, you can’t have everything.
But even as he thought it, someone rounded the corner, and he felt the corners of his mouth turn up into a smile before he could stop himself. Hermione, as though sensing him looking at her, turned her head in his direction, and grinned back, brushing a stray strand of bushy hair off her cheek.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she told him, and just the words, the fact that she had specifically been looking for him, were enough to send butterflies erupting through his stomach. Wordlessly, he stretched out his hand; she closed the space between them and took it, and then came to stand beside him, laying her head on his shoulder and closing her eyes. Ron breathed in the smell of her, and pressed his lips to the top of her head.
“You’re all right, Hermione?” he asked at last, when she still didn’t say anything after several minutes of just standing beside him. She nodded against his shoulder, but then looked up at him.
“I just keep thinking about Harry,” she admitted, swallowing hard, and Ron felt as though something had kicked him in the stomach. There hadn’t been too many free moment to grieve for his best friend in the past weeks – he had been much, much too busy for that – but the funny thing about the end of a war was how quickly the problems you had been running from could catch up to you.
But he didn’t say any of that. “What about them?” he asked instead, trying to force his voice to sound as normal as possible.
“Just… everything.” Hermione breathed out a long sigh and wiggled her fingers in Ron’s, though she didn’t let go of his hand. “I mean, he was one of my best friends in the entire world…you being the other one,” she informed Ron, as though he might have been worried, and he smiled down at her. “And now… I don’t know. He’s just gone.”
Ron nodded mutely, leaning his head back against the tower wall behind him. He knew exactly what she was feeling; it was difficult for him to comprehend, too. What were you supposed to say about the person who had entirely changed the course of your life, now that that person wasn’t there to see the rest of it unfold? And so he didn’t say anything.
“Have you seen Percy around?” he asked instead; if Hermione was surprised by the abrupt change in the direction of the conversation, she didn’t show it.
“He was with your dad and George down by the lake earlier, I think,” she said, gesturing in the indicated direction. And then, after a small pause, Hermione added, “He was very brave last night, stepping out like that.”
Ron nodded again. That had, arguably, been one of the evening’s larger surprises: Perfect Percy, standing up to the man in charge. But his youngest brother could guess at why he had done it. It was a way of apologizing for everything he had done in the past few years; it was a way of apologizing for not stopping the explosion that had killed Fred. Percy had always been bound by duty and obligations, and last night had been no different. Although he wouldn’t have believed it a year earlier, even to himself, Ron was proud of him.
Hermione and Ron fell silent again, their backs pressed against the tower wall, and watched the Order members hurrying to and from various points around the castle, busy hands helping make right the things that had been wrong. She wiggled her fingers in his again, and he looked down at her.
“What do we do now?” she asked, and he was pleased, in an absurd sort of way, to see a dark pink blush creeping high into her cheeks. It was a voluminous question, and he didn’t know if she was talking about only the two of them. Maybe she was thinking of the entire Order of the Phoenix. Maybe she meant the entire world.
“We keep going,” he found himself saying, instead of the dozen other half-formed phrases of wisdom his brain had already been in the process of formulating. “Harry’s not died in vain, has he? He’s secured us a whole other life. Our future.” He stressed the first word, hoping Hermione would understand what he meant. Now that he had her again, he would give his whole life to keep her by his side forever.
She understood. Delicately, with an uncharacteristic hesitance, Hermione raised herself up on her toes and pressed her lips to Ron’s. He wrapped his arms around her waist, responding in full, and almost dizzy with the prospect that he would get to do his every day for the rest of his natural life…
Hermione drew back, and laughed at the expression on Ron’s face; he realized that his mouth had curved into a rather stupid grin. “Come on,” she giggled, and tugged at his hand again. “We’re supposed to be helping.”
He let her lead him away from the sun-baked wall, over the lawn, towards the rest of the war’s victors. Ron’s hand was in Hermione’s, and it would always be there, and that, to him, was the best feeling in the world: Knowing that, from this day forward, they would be moving side by side.
A/N: I've been mentally counting down to the posting of this chapter for a long time, but it feels very different, now that I'm actually doing it. I think it's always going to be that way for me and my stories -- it's happened with the others I've posted like this, too. Maybe I just don't like endings! But I do, really, and especially when they end like this story did. I'm very pleased with this chapter; it felt like a fitting end to everything, after all.
And as has become customary, a few people need to be thanked in this note, because the story wouldn't exist without them! Firstly, and as always, for Sarah (Toujours Padfoot), because she is the greatest and kindest support system I could ever have wished for, listening to me think out loud, getting so enthusiastic over even the smallest things -- doing everything! For Mel (WitnesstoitAll), for inspiring bits through her reviews, and reviewing in the first place. For Ardeith, who is another invaluable support system and always makes my day. And for others: Ron The King, RosieQueen, EverDiggory, PhoenixPulse, George, and anyone else who's ever read, reviewed, or favorited this story. It's got this far because of all of you! And, of course, again thanks to Giola, who made the gorgeous banner.
Thank you so much, and I really hope you enjoyed reading Break Out as much as I did writing it. I hope to see you all back soon!