Hermione had asked for the morning off so she could pick up Rose at King's Cross, but her wish had not been granted. Instead, she was confined to sitting behind her desk in the office, having nothing to do because all her clients had children at Hogwarts. She was therefore looking forward to lunchtime, when Ron would bring both Rose and Hugo around at her office.
It was a little past noon when she heard the door to her department open. She flung open the door to her office and ran into Polly's space; Ron was standing by the entrance, carrying Hugo, his other arm around his daughter.
Hermione kneeled down and held her arms wide for Rose, who in turn jumped into them. She was still wearing her Hogwarts uniform, looking proud and pleased at having accomplished her first year of wizarding school. She had only just turned twelve.
'You look so grown up,' said Hermione admiringly.
'Don't I?' answered Rose, beaming. 'Albus says that I still look like a child, but then James just tells him to stuff it. Oh, Mum, I've got so many things to tell you!'
Hermione was grateful that her daughter was in a talkative mood, for she had no desire to meet Ron's gaze, which she felt sure was on her. Hugo was resting his head on his father's shoulder, looking sleepily at his surroundings.
'- and Professor Longbottom - that's what we've got to call him, Mum, isn't it strange? - showed us all these plants from everywhere and the greenhouses are just enourmous -' giggled Rose. 'Wake up, Hugo! Oh, he's gone and fallen asleep again, Mum -'
'Come on, darling,' said Hermione and took Rose's hand, leading the family into her office. 'I've got tea, orange juice and coffee in my office. Now I know you'll take orange juice, I'll take tea, and Daddy will probably want some coffee.'
'Better give it to Hugo, he's been sleepy since I came off the Express.'
Hermione smiled and reached for some mugs in a drawer. Her office was spacious, with a large desk and a comfy couch; Ron laid his son down here and covered him with his jacket, then accepted the cup of coffee from Hermione with unspoken gratitude. Rose sipped her juice merrily and chatted on.
'Excuse me, Hermione -'
Polly walked into the office, looking harrassed, then stopped as she caught sight of the family.
'Oh, I'm sorry -'
Rose jumped down from her mother's desk and ran into the secretary's arms. Polly had known Rose since she was born, and Rose had frequently been under her care during Hermione's hectic meetings.
'Rose, sweetie - back from Hogwarts, then? Have you learned lots?'
'Lots and lots - you simply can't imagine -'
'I bet I can't, pumpkin, and you'll have to tell me all about it, but first I just need a word with your Mum. Hermione -' she said, returning to her business manner, 'your one o' clock is here.'
Sighing resolutely, knowing there was no way of escape, Hermione nodded.
'Go on, show him in.'
Draco Malfoy walked in the room, but not in the same way as he had done the first time; today, he was with a handsome young boy the same age as Rose, looking quite exactly like his father. Malfoy was holding his son, Scorpius, by the shoulder, and steering him inside the office.
'I'm sorry, Granger, I -'
He started as he caught sight of the family. Ron slowly stood up and folded his arms. He had little reason to do anything agressive against Malfoy since the end of the War, and even less in front of the children; theirs was an unspoken agreement, much like the one Hermione thought she had - that nothing need be said.
'Am I interrupting?'
'Yes,' said Ron forcibly.
'Ron!' hissed Hermione. 'No, come on in.'
'What are you doing here?' persisted Ron. Malfoy raised his eyebrows.
'I'm a client, Weasley.'
'Oh yeah? What's your excuse for bothering my wife?'
Malfoy's eyebrows were raised so high that they were in danger of disappearing into his hair.
'I don't believe that's any of your business, Weasley.'
Ron turned to Hermione, looking for an explanation, but Hermione merely shook her head, feeling utterly hopeless.
'Ron, it's... His file is confidential.'
Ron's face flushed; he turned away from his wife and walked over to Hugo. Rose was gazing at the adults. Nothing had passed unnoticed. Her small eyes now settled on Scorpius.
'I told you not to call me that!'
Scorpius had crossed his arms and looked most annoyed as Rose made a face. Malfoy exchanged an amused glance with Hermione.
'So you know eachother, do you?' she asked.
'Mum, this foul little creature put a dozen dead flobberworms in the girls' dormitory!'
'They weren't dead when I put them in there!' said Scorpius defensively. 'Your smelly feet probably killed them!'
'Easy now, Scorpius,' said Malfoy calmly, restraining his son. Hermione was confused.
'How could you get in the Gryffindor common room?' she asked. Scorpius seemed nonplussed by the question.
'Pretty easy, isn't it? Just tell the Fat Lady the password.'
'But you're not -'
'My son is in Gryffindor, Granger,' drawled Malfoy, and Hermione gazed at him in surprise. Apparently Ron had too, for he turned around and walked over to Hermione, putting a protective arm around his daughter as he did so.
'Her name's Weasley now,' he said slowly, deliberately, emphasizing the name.
'Whatever, Weasel King,' Malfoy said angrily, and Ron made a furious movement towards him, but Hermione held him back.
'Ron, could you take the kids into Polly's office, please? Now?' Ron glanced at her, looking almost disappointed, as if she had chosen Malfoy over him. He took Rose by the hand and nodded at Scorpius who, after a glance towards his father, followed Ron out of the office. The only people left were Malfoy, Hermione and a sleeping Hugo.
'Charming bloke,' said Malfoy, sitting down. Hermione leaned against her desk, frowning.
'Surely you haven't come all the way just to talk about my husband?'
Malfoy looked up, observing Hermione.
'Your husband?' he said softly. 'Are you sure about that?'
With a furious gesture, Hermione plunged her hand in her pocket for her wand, but suddenly Malfoy was holding her wrist and she was forced to let go of it, letting it fall to the floor.
'Last night was personal,' she said angrily.
'You're damn right it was,' said Malfoy intensely. 'You're just going to pretend you never said all that stuff? That you're still a happy family? You know you were speaking the truth.'
'Shut it, Malfoy. How dare you bring it up again. It doesn't exactly invite further confidences.'
'I'm sorry,' said Malfoy, and he seemed sincere. 'You confused me, Granger.'
'Let go of my wrist.'
Malfoy obeyed, and Hermione picked up her wand and stowed it back in her pocket.
'What's the point of this visit? We've already found grounds for the divorce.'
'I wanted you to meet Scorpius,' said Malfoy a little uncomfortably. 'So you could... So you could deem for yourself what's worth fighting for.'
Hermione sighed and walked over to her door, opening it and signalling Malfoy to get out.
'I know what's worth fighting for, Malfoy,' she said, as stood up. 'Believe me, I know.'
The children went to bed early that night. Hugo was immensely happy at being back in his room, and Rose had been talking so much that she was exhausted, and fell asleep the moment she was tucked in. Hermione made coffee and took it into the living room, where Ron was waiting.
'So...' he finally said. 'How were your two weeks?'
Ron managed a small smile as he took his wife's hand and kissed it.
'I'm not ready to have a life without you, Hermione. I've known you since I was Rose's age.'
Hermione leaned against him. He was wearing a clean, soft, brown sweater and its soapy smell was comforting to her. He put his arms protectively around her.
'We've got to try,' Hermione said. 'It's going to be so hard, but...'
'It'll be worth it,' added Ron. 'I so want you - us - to be happy. I'll do whatever it takes. I'll get another job if you want. I'll go back to the Auror Department - I'll do anything, Hermione, but... but you've got to make sacrifices as well.'
'Of course,' whispered Hermione, and tears filled her eyes as she heard Ron's words. As long as he would give up the jokeshop, then there was a good chance that things would go back to normal... 'I'll cut down my hours.'
Ron smiled, and suddenly they were both laughing. There was hope.
Ron informed George of his wish to quit the jokeshop the next day, and went to see Harry about getting his old job as an Auror back. Both Harry and George were kind and accommodating, accepting his wishes gracefully. In truth, George was a little relieved that Ron was respecting Hermione more; he had sensed that there was trouble in their marriage, and couldn't help feeling that he was partially to blame. Harry had no trouble in rehiring his best friend, and it felt like good old times when they were training to become Aurors. Ron even came home early to host the longly awaited dinner party with Hermione, who confided in Ginny that they had been close to separation.
'But hopefully that's behind us now,' she said, as she poured milk, flour and sugar into a bowl. 'We're both moving forward. Thank Merlin that he left Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.'
'He doesn't miss it?' asked Ginny, who was sitting on a stool, watching Hermione work.
'I don't know,' said Hermione worriedly. 'I don't think so. He hasn't said anything about it to me. We'd probably just fight if he did.'
'Ron's not that deep,' exclaimed Ginny, and Hermione laughed. 'If he doesn't say it, then he doesn't feel it.'
Hermione bit her lip as she reached for a knife. When was the last time Ron had said that he was in love with her? She knew that he loved her... but was he actually still in love with her?
'How's my brilliant wife doing?' said Harry loudly, as he walked over to the two women and put his arms around Ginny. Ginny giggled. 'Just as I expected; letting poor Hermione do all the work.'
'You know I can't cook,' Ginny said, pinching Harry's cheek. Harry grinned and kissed her.
'That's one thing I've never forgiven Molly for. Not passing on her cooking skills to her only daughter.'
Ginny slapped Harry's arm playfully.
'A woman should never learn how to cook,' explained Ginny, 'and if she does, she shouldn't admit it.'
Harry laughed again, then kissed his wife once more. Hermione watched the tender scene almost with jealousy. There were clearly no problems in their marriage.
'Don't listen to this nut,' said Harry to Hermione. 'D'you need any help?'
'No, I think it's all done, actually. Where's Ron?'
'Upstairs, playing with the kids. We've confiscated Rose and Al's wands - they just can't understand that they're not allowed to use them outside Hogwarts.'
'Albus is exactly like his old man,' said Ginny affectionately.
As she leaned forward, about to kiss Harry again, Hermione yelled upstairs:
'Ron! Kids! Dinner!'
The remainder of the dinner party was not much fun. Ginny and Harry were clearly the happiest couple in their world; Ron and Hermione sat, as though in shadow, comparing this behaviour with their own, feeling oddly like spectators in a performance. Albus and Rose talked about Hogwarts, while James merely gobbled his food down ravenously. Hugo and Lily chatted in loud voices that drowned out the adults' little conversation. Only at the end of the evening, when their guests had gone home, did Hermione stop smiling and pretending to be happy. Hugo had been put to bed hours ago, but Rose, after lively conversation about Quidditch with Albus, was in a troublemaking mood.
'Mum, can I go outside on my broomstick?'
'No,' said Hermione grumpily. Rose turned to her father with puppydog eyes.
'Daddy, can't I -'
'Rose, I said NO, now go to bed!'
But Rose would not listen. Ron looked at Hermione hesitantly, who gave him a warning glance which he did not pick up; one nod was sufficient, and then Rose was outside, flying in semi-darkness. Hermione looked daggers at her husband.
'I said no, Ron,' she exclaimed. 'How d'you want her to learn discipline and respect if you don't agree with me?'
'What, having a child forces me to agree with you?'
'We've got responsibilities, Ron! And we've got to side with one another to teach our children to listen to us!'
Ron's cheeks were blazing red with anger; Hermine's hands were balled into fists. All the tension and the jealousy she had felt that evening needed some sort of release, and Ron was standing right there, waiting for it.
'Are you trying to tell me I'm a bad parent?' he yelled.
'I'm telling you that if you go on like this, I'll have no authority as a mother!'
'Rose just came back from Hogwarts, give her some bloody time to relax and play and be a normal kid!'
'What the hell is that supposed to mean?'
'It means that you've got this entire family on a pedestal, and anyone who fails your expectations gets punished! I'm not going to let my Rosie go through that, not after I went through it -'
'After you went through it? You?'
'Come on, there's always competition between us, always - and you can't ever let me win -'
'That's bull, Ron!'
'Then let Rose play! Let her breathe! Don't do to her what you do to everyone!'
'Trying to turn her into some sort of over-intelligent, genius freak -'
Ron stopped talking. Both he and Hermione had heard it; a high-pitched scream coming from their garden, followed by a sickening thump. Hermione grabbed her wand and ran out of the house, Ron at her heels. She felt panic rising in her stomach, up her throat, fighting to get out - if something had happened to Rose - if anything had happened - she would never forgive Ron, never -
'Rosie? ROSIE!' yelled Ron hysterically, as they reached the garden. He looked around wildly.
'Daddy,' sobbed a small voice, 'I'm over here!'
Hermione and Ron fought their way through a hedge over to their daughter, who was lying on her back, holding her right arm at an awkward position and crying. Half the skin had been scraped off her knee and it was bleeding profusely. Ron dropped his wand and fell on all fours; Hermione did likewise.
'Rosie, Rosie,' said Ron, and he stroked his daughter's hair, 'are you all right? What happened?'
'I rammed the wall,' sobbed Rose, 'and fell off the broom. I didn't see it, it was too dark.'
Hermione threw Ron a dirty look which he refused to answer.
'Let me see your arm, sweetheart.'
The moment Hermione touched it, Rose wailed in pain. Hermione didn't dare do anything about it; panic still invading every corner of her mind, she stood up.
'We've got to take her to St. Mungo's,' she whispered to Ron. Ron bit his lip, but nodded, and a few moments later, he was carrying Rose in his arms.
Hermione's shriek was a panicked one; Rose had fainted in his arms. Pale and sickened, Ron picked up the pace and they ran back to the house.
Hermione woke Hugo up and made him pull on a jacket. There was a hurried discussion about how to get to the hospital; Side-Along Apparition would be too painful for Rose, but Hugo was too young to take the Floo Network. It was finally decided that Ron should go with Rose by Floopowder, and Hermione would Apparate with Hugo.
St Mungo's was, as always, crowded. Hermione and Hugo Apparated just outside it and rushed inside the cool glass. It comforted Hermione a little to see several other people with far worse gruesome injuries being healed in a second by wandering Healers, but she was worried to death nonetheless. Panic was still rising in her, an uncomfortable bile in her throat throbbing, guilt overcoming her in great waves. She made her way to the reception, where a curly, blonde-haired witch was chewing gum.
'I'm Hermione Weasley - I think my husband just checked in with my daughter? She fell off a broomstick and fainted - we're not quite sure -'
The gum-chewing witch scratched her nose and looked at the long list before her. She turned several pages so slowly that Hermione felt like she would explode.
'Can't you hurry up?' she said irritably. The witch raised her eyebrows and blew a bubble.
'Mummy,' giggled Hugo, 'Mummy, look at that man - he's got tentacles all over his face -'
'Not now, Hugo,' gasped Hermione. Floopowder did not take longer than Apparition; Ron had to be here with Rose.
'Weasley, Weasley...' said the witch, reaching for the bottom page. She dropped it on the floor. Hermione quite lost her temper.
'DAMN IT,' she yelled, and several patients looked up. Hermione was red with frustration, fury and, most of all, extreme worry. 'WHERE THE HELL IS MY DAUGHTER?'
There he was, standing right behind her, wearing the sunshine yellow robes that qualified him as a Healer, holding a chart in his hands and looking almost as worried as Hermione felt. She blinked. She hadn't heard him say her first name before, and in this moment of panic, it was a strange source of comfort. Draco Malfoy walked towards her.
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