Second Chance

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Ron looked at the hastily scrawled address before staring at the café across the street. It looked expensive, elegant, and romantic. Harry knew better than to send him to this sort of place. Stuffing the parchment back in his pocket, he stayed where he was and considered his options. It would be so easy to simply go home, back to the familiar comfort of emptiness and cold. He could lose himself in memories; see her everywhere, hear her voice, relive every fight, tear, and silent glare. Of course, that was the reason Harry had insisted he do this tonight.

You need to get out of that house, Ron. It’s just one date, a friend of Ginny’s. Who knows? You might even have fun.

He’d forgotten what fun was over the last six months, and, if he were being completely honest, it had been far longer than that. After she left, he’d realized he couldn’t remember the last time he’d just relaxed and laughed. There were moments, flashes of images that came to mind, that reminded him they’d once been in love. He didn’t quite understand how things had fallen apart because he still loved her, still woke in the middle of the night reaching for her, still heard her voice nagging him to pick up his socks and put the seat of the toilet down. She was gone; no trace of her left in their, no, his home. Yet she was everywhere.

How could Harry expect him to just forget about the last eight years and move on as if it were nothing? But it wasn’t fair to blame Harry. He’d tried to help when it became obvious things were shattering at their feet, but it had been too late. By then, there had been too many fights, too many accusations, too many days when they’d both forgotten what it was like to love and laugh. It was easier to yell and sulk and avoid. She’d tried talking, tried forcing him to admit and acknowledge they were having problems, but pride had refused to let him accept partial blame, to accept he was fucking up.

Staring at the brightly lit café across the street, his thumb rubbed the shiny silver band that he still wore on his finger. She’d left him and he'd let her go, so tired by that point that he hadn’t even fought or argued or demanded she stay. He’d wanted to, wanted to force her to be with him because, without her, he wasn’t completely whole. In his mind, as he silently watched her packing all her things, he’d moved to her and wiped away the tears before apologizing for not being a better husband, for not being there when she needed him, for not being good enough. Instead, he’d ignored her to watch some silly Muggle sport on the telly, turning it up when she’d tried to speak to him, and drinking half a bottle of Firewhisky by the time she was whispering good-bye from the door.

Ron shook his head, determined not to fall into that ‘What If’ trap that had become far too common since she’d gone. What if he’d been home that night in October? What if he’d not been so determined to prove himself worthy that he’d worked fewer hours and been home with her more? What if he’d made love to her instead of simply fucking, taking, claiming those last few months before it had all gone wrong? What if he’d admitted how scared he had been and how emotions weren’t something he was good at talking about? What if he’d done a better job of appreciating what he had before it was gone?

Harry had tried to get them to talk. The first month or two, it had been a constant barrage of owls from his best friend asking him to find her, to see her, to talk to her. He’d finally given up, though, when he must have realized that Ron wasn’t going to do anything. She deserved more than him, but Harry wouldn’t understand because he wasn’t privy to all the details of their marriage. Ron had signed the papers when they arrived four months after she left, and that was that. Eight years of marriage, three years of dating beyond that, and nearly two decades of friendship gone in the matter of moments it took to write ‘Ronald B. Weasley’ on a piece of parchment full of words he didn’t understand.

Now he was standing on a dark corner freezing his bollocks off because he didn’t want to go meet Ginny’s friend despite Harry’s constant assurances that ‘she’s perfect for you’. He'd only agreed to this date to get his best friend to shut up. He also knew, though, that it was time to move on. She’d left him, after all, and he’d let her go. Who was it that said ‘if you love someone, set them free’? He rarely paid attention to vague quotes and things that didn’t quite make sense to him but that phrase was something he remembered in the days after she left. When he’d wanted to go find her, to search the world if he had to just to have her back in his arms so he could apologize for being a heartless bastard, he'd remembered all the months of tears and harsh words and how unhappy she’d become so he’d set her free.

Running long fingers through hair that had grown shaggy and unkempt since she was no longer around to cut it for him, he sighed. He was Ron Weasley, he reminded himself; happy, fun, always ready to tell a joke or laugh. Harry was right. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed or relaxed and just enjoyed himself. This date would be good for him. It was making an effort to stop losing himself in work to avoid the ghost of her at home. It was a step forward, wasn’t it? He’d never love anyone as much as he loved her, but that was good because love hurt and it made you fuck things up and hurt the person you cared about more than Quidditch and oxygen.

Pulling his coat tighter, he started across the street, practicing a smile that was friendly and used to be effortless. It was strained now, haunted, and he couldn't force it to reach his eyes. He missed the man he had been, and had to wonder if he was still there somewhere hidden beneath months of bitterness and regret, anger and loss. He wondered whether he’d ever be able to find him again, whether he even wanted to since that hadn’t been enough for her, he hadn’t been enough for her. He’d not given her everything, hadn’t given her all of him, but he’d taken her, taken everything she gave. Would things have been different, better, if he’d broken in her arms and let her see him?

She’d known all of his flaws, all his faults, and still she’d loved him. She’d chosen him when, really, she could have had her choice of so many. When she looked at him, back then, he’d felt stronger, smarter, more confident. He’d not been the youngest son of a poor family of overachievers whose brothers did everything better; he’d been her Ron. He could have flown to the moon and brought her back stars when she smiled at him. A touch of her hand on his cheek had made him feel significant, and her arms around him made all his fears and worries fade as he found sanctuary in her embrace. He’d been a better man when she loved him.

Ron stepped up onto the curb and took one more deep breath; significant or not, confident or not, he was going in. The café was bright and warm as he stepped inside, shaking snow from his coat as he removed his gloves and put them in his pocket. It was crowded so he stood in line, hoping he had enough galleons to pay for this place. Harry had offered to pay, but Ron wasn’t about to let someone else pay his way. He’d just go to the Burrow next week if he needed to cover what he’d be spending tonight.

The line was long and hardly moving. He absently stepped forward every few minutes and let his thoughts drift back once again. He didn’t really know when things had changed. When they were first married, it had been wonderful. They'd fought and fucked and talked and made love and everything was bloody amazing. Being married, being a husband, it had been second nature. All he'd wanted was to make her happy, to see her smile, and he’d been good at that, good at loving her. One day, though, he’d woken up and realized things hadn’t been that good in awhile. They both worked, were rarely home, hardly made love anymore, and when they talked, it wasn’t the same. He couldn’t explain it, but it was cold, reserved, as if they no longer knew who they were, individually or separately, and as if neither knew who the other had become.

The distance had just continued to grow, the fighting becoming more harsh and hurtful, like it had been when they were kids and stupidly insulted one another without realizing how much the words hurt, and there hadn’t been fucking to make the fighting better, hadn’t been rough caresses and bites and whispered apologies as they’d held one another spent and sated. And when he’d thought it couldn’t get worse, it had, and there had been more tears and accusations and stony silence.

But it had started to get better, after he’d pulled his head out of his arse and realized it didn’t have to be bad, that maybe this was that they needed. They’d still loved one another, after all, even with the fighting and tension. It hadn’t taken much for them to remember that love, to find it again, but it had been fleeting, a teasing of real happiness once again and a vision of what might be before it was taken from them. And that had been the end. Three months later, she’d left him and he hadn’t seen her since.

He shook his head, knowing now was not the time for memories, and looked at the host. He gave Harry’s name, knowing that was what the reservation was under. He was going to be a real great date, he thought dryly as he followed the snotty man around the tables. Just thinking about being with some other woman had reopened things he’d tried not to think about for months. How could he be with someone else when she was all he wanted? All he’d ever wanted? He didn’t care if she left him, if she never wanted to see him again, if they’d been divorced for two months, one week, and five days; she was still his wife in his heart and his mind and his soul. It was too soon.

“Here we are, Sir.”

Ron glanced at the table, ready to make apologies for being late and to make excuses of why he had to now leave, but the words froze on his tongue. She was staring at him, obviously as surprised as he was, and his first instinct was to turn and walk away. Instead, he gathered his strength and held out his hand. “Sorry I’m late. I’m Bilius, and you are?”

She dragged her bottom lip into her mouth as her gaze went from his face to his hand and back again. Finally, she hesitantly held out her hand, barely touching him as she shook his. “I’m Jane.”

He simply stood holding her hand until the host cleared his throat. Ron dropped her hand, blushing slightly as he sat down opposite her. “I’d just like a glass of water,” he told the host, never taking his gaze off her face. “I’ve stopped drinking alcohol.”

“Did you…did you drink a lot?” she asked quietly, her hands shaking as she fidgeted with her napkin and rearranged the table setting.

“I drank more than I should,” he finally said, looking at the flame of the candle as he licked his lips. “I reached a point where it was far easier to lose myself in a bottle of Firewhisky than deal with my life. It was stupid and cowardly, but I didn’t realize it until I lost someone who meant the world to me.”

“I’ve never been one for alcohol, myself. I can’t abide the taste, and it has a tendency to make people act differently, not like themselves.”

“Right. It turned me into a bitter, rude git. It wasn’t someone I wanted to be any longer.” Ron sighed, not sure whether he could do this. Even as he sat there trying to be casual and friendly, he was fighting the impulse to run away and hide or reach out and never let go. He twisted the band on his finger as he tried to think what to say next. This was awkward and uncomfortable, and he didn’t want it to end. “What do you do, Jane? I work for my brothers. They own a few stores and I manage one for them in Cambridge. Most successful store they have, actually. I’ve, uh, put in a lot of time and effort to make it that way. They’ve just given me the opportunity to buy into it, become part owner, so I’m working out details and paperwork and stuff and then it will actually be mine.”

“That’s wonderful, Ro-Bilius.” She shifted in her chair, her fingers nervously moving up and down the vase of flowers near her. “It’s nice they’re rewarding your extremely long hours and constant attention to the store. I’m sure you sacrificed other things to make it a success so I’m glad your efforts have paid off.” Before he could reply, she looked at him. “I imagine it makes you proud, to know you’ve managed to make it a success, so I’m pleased you’ve done something that gives you a feeling of accomplishment.”

“Pride,” he repeated slowly, unable to look away from her knowing gaze. “My wife, she always had this stubborn belief that I was better than I knew I was, and you’d have thought I was the bloody Minister of Magic instead of working for my brothers the way she talked about me and supported me. I wanted to make her proud of me, you know? To have enough money to buy her pretty things or fix the leak in the roof that always seemed to be right above her bookcase. I jumped at the chance to open a store for my brothers, and they, well, they didn’t want to give it to me because they thought I’d fuck it up. So I had to prove to them that I was able to do it and I wanted to prove to her, to my wife, that I deserved her. It’s rather funny that my obsession with making the store perfect helped drive her away.”

“My husband never thought he was good enough,” she said softly. “He had this inferiority complex that drove me insane. I know it probably came from having a family of overachievers, brothers that were excellent at certain things, and a sister who tended to do everything well. He’d see everything they did and feel insignificant; refused to acknowledge that he was special and just as good, if not better, than anyone else. For years, I tried helping him see that I loved him and that he was all I wanted, but he never did. It was always comparing himself to this brother or that friend and never understanding or seeing the things he did well. It got to be too much eventually. I couldn’t keep telling him the same things over and over so I finally stopped trying. It hurt to love him so much and to see him constantly trying to prove himself to people who already knew he was worthy.”

“Maybe,” his voice cracked so he took a long drink of water before trying again. “Maybe he was scared that you’d wake up one day and realize you’d been wrong, that he really was just a stubborn prat who didn’t deserve you.”

“More often than not, I was the one who didn’t deserve him,” she whispered before taking a drink of her tea and looking away. “He had this habit of seeing me as some sort of Goddess or something. I was on a pedestal in his mind, I think. I didn’t want to be worshipped or seen as perfect and smart and beautiful, because I’m not really any of those things. I just wanted him to love me; to look at me and see the good and the bad and still want me. There was passion when we fought, anger when we disagreed, and love when we stopped long enough to sit still. I thought it was enough. I thought loving him as much as I did made up for the fact that he didn’t really seem to love himself that much. I thought he’d stop treating me like I was some superior being and realize I was just a woman who made mistakes and lived and breathed just like everyone else.”

“To him, you are a Goddess.” He sighed and looked at the flame again. “My wife is the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. She’s so brilliant and sexy and gorgeous and willing to do anything to help those around her. She’s got a temper and is opinionated and bitchy and doesn’t take shite from anyone least of all me. She spent years dealing with prejudice when she came into this world, my world, and was so strong and brave. To me, she’s so much…God, I can’t explain how she makes me feel because I’m horrid at emotions and the like, but I tried to show her how I felt, I tried to be enough for her. We fought like cats and dogs over the silliest things, but it was us, just who we were. I loved our fights because I knew she still cared, still wanted me. Then the fights got worse, they changed, and neither of us seemed to be able to stop what was happening.”

“I got pregnant,” she suddenly said, her voice barely a whisper. “It was the worst thing that could ever have happened. By that point, we hardly saw one another, both working as much as possible, probably to avoid being home and the fights and silence that was no longer comfortable. My husband wasn’t happy at all. You see, he comes from a large family and never particularly wanted children. I was an only child and always imagined I’d like to have children, but we agreed we wouldn’t until we were established and ready. I didn’t mean for it to happen, especially not when we were having trouble in our marriage, but we adapted to the idea of being parents. I was actually becoming excited about being a mother, about having a family with the man I’d loved since I was a teen, and things got better between us. It wasn’t having the baby; it was just being at a place where we were able to talk again.”

Ron flinched as she mentioned being pregnant, his fingers twisting his wedding band even more. Guilt and shame pressed down on him as he looked anywhere but her. He wanted her to stop talking, didn’t want to hear what she was going to say, wanted to believe for a little while longer that he was just Bilius and Ron was someone else.

She took another drink of her tea before she began straightening her silverware in a methodical way that drove him crazy, lining the handles up evenly and arranging them from longest to shortest. “I lost the baby and it all went to Hell.” She sighed softly, her hands shaking as she drew in a ragged breath. “It was my fault, you see? I was late for dinner with his sister and our best friend. I’d stayed too long at work, focused on a new potion ingredient that seemed to have potential to be helpful, and I was walking too fast when I was going down the stairs. I tripped and fell. It hurt and there was blood and I had to crawl to the floo to call his mum because no one else was home. By the time I got to the hospital, it was too late. I had a miscarriage, lost the baby, and I lost him. Every time he looked at me, I could see it in his eyes. He blamed me. And, really, he should because it was my fault.”

“Oh God,” he muttered hoarsely, staring at her as he put down his glass and reached for her hand. “It wasn’t your fault! If anything, it was my…it was his fault for not being there when you needed him. He promised you when you got married that he’d always protect you, always keep you safe, and he was too busy doing inventory after he’d already been off work for hours to be there to help. He never blamed you; he blamed himself.”

“Why would he do that?” she asked as her fingers unconsciously entwined with his. “Why didn’t he tell me he felt responsible? Instead, he refused to look at me, to talk to me, to touch me. He stayed gone all the time and, when he was home, all he did was drink and fight. It was like it never happened. The baby was gone and forgotten, like he never cared. All I wanted was for him to hold me, to let me cry and to tell me he still loved me even if I’d lost our baby. To tell me it wasn’t my fault.”

“He was a stupid arse,” Ron whispered as he leaned over the table. He brushed his thumb beneath her eye, noting the dark circles against pale skin, wiping away her tears. “He didn’t know what to do, what to say, and he was too bloody scared and guilty to do anything. So he did the only he could do that might make you happy: he set you free.”

“Why didn’t you come after me, Ron? I thought, I mean, we’d fought since we met and, even when it was horrid and cold between us, I knew you loved me. It’s why I stayed, why I tried to make it work when I felt us drifting apart. After the baby, I no longer felt…I couldn’t tell you loved me anymore and I had to leave, couldn’t stay if we were making one another miserable. I hoped you’d fight for me, that you’d be stubborn and brash and all the things I love about you.”

“I’ve never stopped loving you, Hermione,” he said sincerely, his voice thick and stammering as he tried to say things to her as Ron to Hermione instead of Bilius to Jane. “I thought you’d be better off without me, be happy again. You stopped smiling and I didn’t know what to do to make you smile again. I don’t know what happened, what went wrong, but I’ve loved you since Neville knocked his pudding into your lap during third year and you laughed instead of getting angry like most girls would’ve and I realized then that you weren’t just Hermione, weren’t just the annoying swot that made me want to scream for so many reasons, weren’t like other girls because you were special. Took me a few years to figure all that out but that’s when I realized it.”

Instead of replying, she raised from her chair and leaned across the table to brush a gentle kiss against the corner of his lips, her soft fingers brushing his fringe from his forehead. “You need a haircut,” she told him softly. She brushed another kiss against his cheek before sitting back down. “I never stopped either. I tried. I told myself it would be easier if I didn’t love you, if I just moved on. But, well, I couldn’t not love you. It would be like forgetting how to breathe or how to read. Ginny forced me to go out tonight to meet some friend of Harry’s and I was dreading it because I’m not ready to move on, I’m not ready to give up on what we had once and might have again.”

“Harry told me I was meeting some friend of Ginny’s, someone he thought was perfect for me. He’s become a bloody good liar because I never had any idea, didn’t know it was you,” Ron confessed softly, leaning his face against her palm, not wanting her to let go ever again.

“Ron, where do we go from here?” she asked finally. “It can’t be the same. I can’t live like that again. I love you, but I’m not sure loving you is enough. It was, even before the baby, we’d grown apart and there were times I felt as if we were strangers instead of husband and wife. We lost our friendship somewhere, lost the things that made us work, and it became too much fighting and disagreeing. Would it be any different now or would we fall back into that same trap? Because, if it’s the latter, I can’t do it, can’t love you and hate you and just drift through life. We both deserve better than that.”

“I don’t know, Hermione,” he admitted. “I thought I’d buggered everything up forever until tonight, when I looked at you and knew in my gut and my heart that I’m not really me without you. Life, it’s empty and cold and bitter, incomplete. I need you to be whole, to feel love and warmth. I can’t promise I won’t fuck up because, well, I tend to do that a lot. I never blamed you for the baby, love. It was a horrible accident, something neither of us could control, and I’m sorry if you’ve thought all these months that I thought it was your fault.”

“I love you, Ron. Even if we can’t work this out, I’ll never stop loving you.”

“I’ll always be yours, love,” he whispered before brushing a kiss against her palm. His grip on her hand tightened and he closed his eyes, dampness on his cheeks as he simply enjoyed the warmth of her hand against his face. When he opened his eyes, he smiled hesitantly. “Why don’t we take each day as it comes? You’re right. We’d stopped being friends so I think we should try to get that back. I miss your friendship as much as I miss you loving me and making love and you nagging me. Maybe it will be better than anything we ever had before or maybe…maybe we’re just meant to be friends now.”

“We’ve changed. We’re not bickering children anymore or newlyweds in love with love or distant spouses who no longer understand one another,” Hermione said softly. “I’d like to try again, to see if we can be friends and possibly more. I miss you, Ron. I think your plan sounds wonderful. We’ll become friends again and maybe, uh, date when or if we feel ready. It will be a second chance for us, won’t it?”

“Yes, it will. We’ve been given a second chance, thank God.” Ron leaned over and kissed her tenderly before he rested his forehead against hers. He looked down at their joined hands and smiled gently when he saw she was still wearing her wedding band too. Without releasing her hand, he sat back and simply looked at her. He didn’t know what he’d done to earn a second chance but, as he watched her smile shyly and tuck a curl behind her ear, he knew he was the luckiest git in the world.

The End