Summer came and went quickly, as though it only had time to pay England a short visit that year; like a fleeting lover who moves on before you’ve barely had her, leaving you in solitude, yearning for more. Before anyone really knew it, the days were getting shorter again, the evenings chillier and the offices at the Ministry of Magic busier. In quite an uncharacteristic manner, it was a sighing and frowning Hermione who returned to her new job after her three week long summer holiday, only smiling back at her colleagues to be polite when they greeted her in the corridor outside her office.

It had been a strange few weeks for Hermione. She had spent them at her parents’ house, living in her old bedroom with Crookshanks sleeping at her feet every night. Every morning, she had woken up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and waffles, which she had enjoyed with her parents out on the porch on sunny days, or at the kitchen table inside when it rained.

The entire Granger family were having a break – Mr Granger and Hermine from their jobs, and Mrs Granger from her treatment. Over the last couple of months, Hermione had been over to her parents’ place at least every other day, but rarely had she felt like she had actually seen her mother – well she had, technically, but she barely recognised her. Mrs Granger’s once so lively, brown eyes had turned so empty and tired, her once bushy hair was replaced by a bald, white head which she always hid under an indigo scarf, and the hands that had once steadily sown loose buttons into cardigans, fixed holes in her husband’s socks or braided her little girl’s hair had become shaky and fragile, fingers bony and weak. But now, during her break from the aggressive treatment that seemed to be wearing her out even more than her actual sickness, Mrs Granger seemed like her old self again, laughing with her husband as he cooked them breakfast, and smiling over her book at her daughter across the table out on the sunny porch.

What made the time Hermione spent at home so strange, though, had little to do with the Grangers’ little trip back in time to when she still lived at home. No, the strange part was the fact that since packing her bag and walking out of her flat on the first Monday she had off from work, she hadn’t seen or spoken to Ron.

He had owled her once, asking about what she had really meant when she had told him she was spending her holiday at her parents’ house, and that she wanted to be alone with them. Did she not want him to contact her at all? He presumably interpreted her lack of response correctly, for he had left her alone after that.

Truth was, Hermione wasn’t just trying to get time alone with her mother while she still could; she was also delibaretly putting some distance between herself and her boyfriend. As much as Ron’s strange behaviour the last months still bothered her, she had no energy to spare for it, and so she had just wanted to push the whole problem, and Ron along with it, as far away as she possibly could. For three weeks, she barely even thought of it.

But as she walked through the Ministry on her first Monday back at work, Hermione couldn’t keep those thoughts away any longer; not as she stepped out of the fireplace and walked through the entrance hall without Ron’s familiar, straggling footsteps next to her, and not as she took the lift down stopping already to the second storey, where they’d both always get out, he'd kiss her cheek (and if anyone saw, blush) before turning right and heading for the Auror Office, while she turned left to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. There, at the spot where they parted ways each morning, his absence was almost tangible, and a big knot formed in Hermione’s stomach as she thought of running into him in the corridors during lunchtime, or coming back to their flat that night to face him.

As it turned out, Ron and Hermione’s paths didn’t cross at work that day, so it was still with that gigant knot in her abdomen that Hermione returned to their flat after work. She caught herself dragging her feet behind her as she climbed up the stairs, and took a minute to collect herself before finally unlocking the door and stepping into the hallway.

She tiptoed into the kitchen, listening carefully for sounds of life, but the flat was empty. Ron was still at work – or somewhere else, thought Hermione bitterly, somewhere he won’t tell me about when he gets back.

Just as she sank into one of the chairs at the kitchen table, marvelling at how clean and tidy Ron had kept their home while she had been away, she heard the door open though, and she flew back to her feet, dug her nails into her palms and waited for him to come.

Ron froze to ice as soon as he appeared in the doorway and saw her standing there. At first, as if by instinct, his lips curled into a smile, but it quickly faded, perhaps as he remembered the fact that they hadn’t talked in three whole weeks. His eyes stayed fixed on her as he walked furhter into the room, absently dropping his keys on the kitchen counter with a clinging sound. He looked as though he was scanning his brain for words good enough for their first talk in so long, and then, finally, he said:

“I wasn’t sure if you’d be home.”

Hermione shrugged. “I wasn’t either.”

“How… how has your holiday been? How’s your mum?”

“She’s better,” Hermione said. “This break from the treatment is really giving her a chance to catch her breath.”

“Good,” said Ron, and then they stood and stared at each other, neither one of them sure of what to say next.

As for Hermione, she knew exactly what she wanted to talk about. She had been waiting long enough to get some answers out of Ron, but how was she going to say it? How was she supposed to ask, when she was so utterly terrified of his answer?

“Hermione, look,” Ron began, but just then Hermione opened her mouth too and said:

“I won’t stay. Not unless you tell me everything that you have been hiding from me these last couple of months.”

Ron took a deep breath and nodded. “I’ll tell you. I just need you to come with me for it.”

“Come with you where?” Hermione demanded to know, ignoring the hand he was stretching out towards her. “Ron, if you’re having an affair, just tell me now and get it overwith.”

Ron froze to ice again, his jaw dropping to the floor as he met her eyes, a wrinkle forming on his forehead, just above his brows. “An affair? Hermione, what kind of person do you take me for?”

His reaction was so full of shock and honesty that Hermione couldn’t help but blush. “I’m sorry, I… I’ve been going crazy here, Ron. I’ve been trying to figure out a reasonable explanation but there doesn’t seem to be one…”

Now, Ron walked over to her, grabbed her hands rather harshly and pulled her to her feet. “I’d never do that,” he said, placing his arms around her waist. “I know I haven’t been fair to you, but I thought it would be better if you didn’t know. I’ve just been trying to protect you, I promise. Come with me to Harry and Ginny’s, and I will explain everything.”

At the Potters’ house, Ginny was just trying on her third outfit for the night, cursing inwardly over how she was tuning into someone who actually did that. Her hair was slightly wavy from her shower after Quidditch training that afternoon, so she didn’t bother to do anything else with it. Then, deciding that a pale face and tired eyes beat trying too hard, she left what little makeup she owned untouched and headed downstairs to find her husband at the stove, cooking with a little more enthusiasm than Ginny would have liked to see.

“Just don’t start whistling,” she told him with a grin, and he raised his eyebrow as he stirred the contents of the large pot on the stovetop. “That would be a bit too much.”

“I have to make up for your lack of excitement, don’t I?” Harry replied, grinning back at her and chuckling as she stretched her tongue out at him.

Truth was, Ginny hadn’t exactly been excited over their plans for the night, but at least it was better than the alternative – at least she wouldn’t have to go to their house and feel even more uncomfortable than she would in her own home. She was childishly content with having the homefield advantage.

Of course, she knew deep inside that she wasn’t really upset about Cho Chang coming over for dinner – just as Harry had pointed out to her a few weeks earlier, she didn’t have to worry about him choosing to leave her, because he didn’t want anyone else. Truth was, though, that it was easier to be angry with him for inviting his ex-girlfriend over than to address the real issue. She wasn’t really scared of losing him to some other girl; it was the fact that so many people wanted to take him away from her, to hurt him, to see him dead, that bothered her most. And she couldn’t yell at him for that.

She could, however, snort at the way he tried to flatten his hair after his shower, how he made her taste the sauce three times before he was satisfied with it, and mock him for his ridiculously good mood. And it was, in fact, making her feel a lot better.

At seven sharp, the doorbell rang. Ginny considered making a snide comment about Cho Chang’s absurd punctuality, but after deciding that being on time wasn’t exactly a bad thing, she left Harry to finish dinner and headed out into the hallway to open the door.

Cho looked gorgeous, of course – her thick, shiny hair was slightly curved at the ends, which just barely brushed against her slim shoulders when she took a step forwards to give Ginny a hug. She was dressed in a simple outfit – a deep blue blouse that made her pale skin look like porcelain, and a tight, black skirt. Even her nails looked perfect, painted in a baby pink colour with not one single crack in the nail polish.

“Ginny!” she said as the two young women let go of each other. “It’s lovely to see you again.”

“Yes, it is,” Ginny agreed, though she couldn’t remember having had an actual conversation with Cho before. “How are you?”

“Oh, really good, thanks,” Cho smiled. “This is my fiancé, Patrick.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Ginny as she turned towards her other guest.

Patrick, a Muggle, was tall, probably a whole head taller than Harry, and extremely handsome. His hair was short and chocolate brown, his jaws and cheekbones sharp, and his shoulders broad. He was elegantly dressed in dark grey pants and a white shirt, and the stubble on his cheeks was just enough to balance his look out and give him a little edge. Ginny couldn’t help but notice what a bright shade of blue his eyes were as he smiled and shook her hand.

“My pleasure,” he said, and Ginny felt relieved that he was so good-looking; it made Cho less of a threat. Even though she wasn’t really a threat to start with.

Once all polite frases and introductions had been dealt with, the two couples sat down at Harry and Ginny’s kitchen table, overlooking the fields on the other side of the road and the crops that were just on the verge to turn from green to yellow. The sun was setting, adding to and intensifying the golden tints of the window view, and the wind played at the treetops, moving the leaves, which had not yet started to change colour, slightly.

Cho and Harry talked about old friends and what they were doing now; Patrick and Harry talked about the amazing yet somewhat scary experience of being introcued to magic for the first time; and Cho and Patrick told their dinner hosts all about their wedding plans. Ginny was quieter than usual, but for the other three, the conversation flowed lightly and naturally, with no silence interrupting their chatting or laughter.

Suddenly, though, a loud bang interrupted Harry’s description of travelling with a Portkey for the first time, and seconds later, the front door was flung open. Ginny instinctively groped for her wand but realised she had left it upstairs about the same time as she realised that with all the protective spells that Harry, her father and Gawain Robards had cast over their house, this unexpected visitor could only be someone they knew. And indeed, only moments later Ron barged into the kitchen, dragging Hermione by the arm, the latter with a very confused look on her face.

“Ron!” said Harry. “What’s going on?”

“Is something wrong?” Ginny added.

“Don’t look at me,” said Hermione as she pulled her arm out of her boyfriend’s grip. “I have no idea why we’re here.”

“I think I do.”

Cho’s voice made everyone turn their head towards her, all of them looking even more confused than before. She wouldn’t have known, though, as her eyes were determinedly fixed on Ron, who nodded at her, shot Patrick a quick look and then turned to Hermione.

“I wanted Cho to be here when I told you,” he said. “I wrote to her a couple of months ago, because she was the only Healer I knew who had any sort of idea what cancer is. You see, her fiancé is a… what’s it called again, Pat?”

“I’m a surgeon,” Patrick said. “Which means I know a thing or two about cancer as well.”

“I just wanted to find a way to fix your mum,” Ron continued. “I… we thought that even if your muggle methods won’t work, maybe magic could. That if we combined Pat’s knowledge of cancer with Cho’s magical skills, maybe…”

“We’ve tried everything we could think of,” Cho said, standing up from her place at the table. “Nothing has worked so far, though. And if I understand it correctly, we’re…” She hesitated and lowered her head, as though she couldn’t bear to look at Hermione as she finished her sentence: “As I understand it, we’re running out of time.”

Hermione, her eyes suddenly gleaming with tears, turned her head from Cho’s sympathetic face towards Ron’s, which was streaked with worry. “You were… you were trying to find a cure for my mum?”

“Yeah,” he nodded, bending his head down as she reached for his hands. “I didn’t want to tell you because… because I didn’t want to give you false hope. In case it turned out it wouldn’t work.”

“Oh Ron!”

In the next moment, Hermione had taken a leap forwards and thrown her arms around his waist. Ron held her tightly, and she no longer knew how she had gone three weeks without feeling that certain pair of arms around her. She had heard Cho; she knew that their attempts had been all but successful so far. But although not even magic might be enough to stop her mother’s slow withering, knowing that Ron would hold her hand as they helplessly watched made the idea of continuing to breathe, even when her mother was dying, a little more imaginable.

It was two and a half weeks later, on an appropriately gloomy Thursday, that Mrs Granger broke the latest news to her daughter while making them both a cup of tea. Mr Granger and Ron were in the living room, having roughly the same conversation as Hermione and her mother.

“You know how I’ve been having a break from my treatment?” said Mrs Granger, and Hermione confirmed it even though it was a silly question; they were both well aware of the break. “I was back at the hospital the day before yesterday,” Mrs Granger continued as she placed two porcelain cups on the countertop.

Hermione swallowed. She knew her mother better than anyone, or perhaps better than anyone apart from her father, and she had no trouble picking up on the gravity in her voice. “And…?”

“We’re not going start it again,” Mrs Granger said.

Clinging to a small fragment of hope that still overshadowed the coming realization, Hermione asked: “So you’re going to try something different?”

Her heart had sunk into the very bottom of her chest already before Mrs Granger shook her head. “No, darling, we’re not. No more treatments – you know the toll it’s been taking on me. I have only felt like a ghost of myself most days.” She made a pause, walked around the kitchen counter and placed her hands on Hermione’s shoulders. “I suppose there comes a time when fighting to survive takes up so much energy there’s none left to use for the actual living.”

Cho’s words echoed in Hermione’s ears: As I understand it, we’re running out of time.

Yes, and quicker than anyone could have foreseen.

“I’d rather have a little time with you… and actually be with you, than get an extra couple months and just be a ghost in a hospital bed.”

Hermione bit the inside of her cheek as hard as she could before she dared to open her mouth, not wanting her voice to fail her as her mum’s grip around her shoulders tightened: “I understand, Mum.”

And she really did. But understanding, unfortunately, didn’t mean being okay.

A/N: To those of you who are sticking with me and this story this year of my life (which is crazy and adventurous and leaves little time for writing)... you are amazing. Thank you so much for still reading this, even though my updates are terribly slow lately. I appreciate it more than you know. And your reviews. I can't thank you enough for them. I will reply to every single one eventually, I promise, and I read every single one, often more than once. Again, thank you so much for your support and feedback and patience - I doubt this story would have come this far without you. I hope you liked this chapter and that Ron's secret wasn't what most of you imagined - please let me know in a review if you have a moment to spare! I'll see you again soon with the next chapter. Something big will happen. I hope you're as excited as I am.

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