Each breath left a wisp of fog in the air as the pure-blood and the Muggle-born walked towards the nearby lake. On the horizon, the tall conifers quietly beckoned them.
They traveled in silence for a long while, their eyes darting towards the many elderly women that watched them through their large bay windows. Hermione transfigured her jacket into a cloak and pulled it over her head. The neighborhood was full of curious witches that had to wonder why the Minister for Magic was so frequently visiting the man in black.
The cold air nipped at Hermione’s cheeks, so she pulled the hood of her cloak closer to her face. Beside her, Draco quickened his stride. His hands were buried deep in his pockets and though they had been walking for at least ten minutes, he had not looked at her—not even once.
“You’re mad at me,” she finally said.
He kept walking. “Mad isn’t the right word for it. I’m simply disappointed in your lack of foresight, Granger, especially when it comes to your own children. I would expect more from a world leader.”
If she had not known better, she would have thought he was making a joke. However, there was something acidic about his tone. “You once said I was only Minister because I’m a friend of Harry’s. Surely, you couldn’t have expected much of me.” She hoped to lighten the mood.
“I didn’t lie,” he pointed out, “but I would say that says more about the system than it does about you.”
More time passed and silence suffocated them once more. Draco thought that he knew the brunette well, but after she revealed the fate of her previous home, he was not so sure. The woman that he knew would have removed herself from the situation, immediately. The woman that he knew was not so weak.
Finally, as they reached the head of the deer trail, Hermione whispered, “I know I have to leave him. I’m not stupid, you know.”
He watched her intently. They were nearly to the lake. “I never said you were.” Perhaps, he was not the type to show it, but he was vaguely relieved.
Her feet carried her faster, only so she could glare at him. “But you thought it.”
“Well, you did go from a Malfoy to a Weasley,” he retorted with a smirk, halting in place. “Not exactly an upgrade, is it? I imagine he couldn’t afford groceries without your salary.”
Hermione rolled her eyes, but could not stifle a snigger.
The familiar sound of quacking ducks greeted them as the dead grass crunched beneath their toes. After making their way to the clearing, the strange duo plopped onto the ground and Hermione removed the hood of her cloak. As it usually did after being covered, her wild mane had become a tangled mess. Embarrassed, she casually tried to tame it with her fingers.
“It’s cold,” she murmured, ditching her efforts to fix her hair.
“Well, it is December, nearly January,” Draco reminded her. He turned to look at her and brushed a rogue lock from her face. “Speaking of—I still haven’t finished my Christmas shopping for Scorpius. Any book recommendations?”
She grinned. “Well, I have heard The Witches of the Wizengamot is quite a page-turner.”
“Ah, but he can borrow my signed copy,” he replied with a wink.
“Fair,” Hermione laughed. “Well, what kind of books does he like?”
“Long ones. Like the ones you read in school. Quite a little bookworm, that one.” He raised his eyebrows. “Nothing like his old man. Got that from his mother.”
“You read,” Hermione pointed out, lightly whacking his arm. “Whenever I needed a potion book from the library and it wasn’t in, you were the one that had checked it out.”
“Well, tell the whole world how much of a loser I was, why don’t you?” he joked. “Now, while the ducks judge me, do you actually have any ideas to share?”
She thought for a moment. “Has he read Most Macabre Monstrosities?”
Draco frowned. “What in the hell is that?”
“Think Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them but much darker. It will be hard to find—honestly, Knockturn Alley may be your best bet. I read about basilisks in that book in my second year.”
“Why do you assume my son would want a ‘darker’ version of anything?” he asked, bemusedly. “Are we making assumptions about Slytherins again?”
Hermione rolled her eyes. “Oh come off it, Draco. You know it was a good suggestion.”
She chewed on her lip. “Do you remember that book that you stole for me when we were kids?”
“The Healer’s Helpmate,” he said with a nod. “You were insistent on taking it. Something about a cure for nasty hangovers. But Madam Pince wouldn’t let you check it out because she thought you were too drunk to brew any healing potions.”
Laughing, Hermione agreed. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”
“Honestly, if you were anyone else, she probably would’ve been correct. You’d had quite a lot of firewhisky that afternoon,” he pointed out. “I’m pretty sure you matched me drink for drink.”
“Well, of course I was drunk! Do you think I’d let you steal a library book if I weren’t?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? I seemed to be quite the influence on you. I probably could’ve had you putting the Imperius Curse on Filch’s cat if I didn’t kiss you for a few days.”
Crimson in the face, Hermione shouted, “That’s not true!”
“I mean, you did call me a weasel when I wouldn’t touch you in that spot you like so much,” he noted, airily. His grey eyes were dancing with confidence. “I have a feeling you haven’t been touched there in a long while.”
“Draco,” she breathed, her face the deepest hue of red, “that’s hardly an appropriate thing to say.”
“And this is hardly an appropriate place to be with a man that once touched you in that spot."
She had nothing to say.
“That’s what I thought,” he retorted, dryly.
A gust of wind whistled between the trees. The water was choppy and grey as winter slowly took its toll on the small English village. Ducks loudly protested the sudden chill and as the soft whisper of ruffling feathers met her ears, Hermione felt cold fingers intertwine with hers. She turned to Draco and opened her mouth to object, yet she found herself unable to do so. Instead, she looked back upon the lake and gave his hand a telling squeeze.
“I’m insane, aren’t I?” The white noise was broken.
“I imagine so,” Draco agreed, “but why do you ask?”
“Gee, thanks,” she replied with a roll of her eyes. “But yes, I meant because of everything I told you earlier?”
He shrugged. “Most women would’ve left him as soon as he set fire to the house, but Granger being stubborn? Who’d have thunk?”
“It’s not that I’m being stubborn,” she muttered. “It’s that I need to be prepared for the blowback. The papers, our kids—”
“Oh, please. You know your kids need him gone just as much as you. And you wouldn’t be here with me if you thought you actually could fix it,” he continued. “We’ve been over this before, Granger. In all honesty, it’s getting a bit tiring.”
With a swift jerk of her hand, she crossed her arms. “It’s the holidays, Draco. It’s not exactly the best time to ask for divorce paperwork.”
“No one said you had to do it today.”
A mallard dipped into the water in search of floating insects. Hermione watched him intently, grinding her teeth together. Draco had a way of pushing her when she did not want to be pushed, and with the holidays quickly approaching, she wanted to avoid any uncomfortable discussions. She could sort out her issues with Ron once Christmas was over and her children were back in school.
“I already missed my one o’ clock, I imagine,” she grumbled, trying to decide how she was going to explain herself to Madelyn. She stood and transfigured the cloak back into her work attire. “I ought to be going.”
Draco quickly got to his feet. “You’ll be stopping by tomorrow, then?”
She bit her lip. “I don’t think you’ll see much of me until after the holidays are over. You know, I have the kids and all…”
“Sure.” His composure did not even quiver slightly.
Hermione gave him a sad smile and pressed her lips to his cheek. “Happy Christmas, Draco.”
Before he could respond, she had Disapparated.
Just as expected, Madelyn had given the Minister for Magic quite the earful when she arrived back at the office. In order to keep the peace, she mumbled a lie and put all of her energy into her workload for the rest of the day.
By the time that she Apparated home, she was absolutely beat. Draco’s words had piled on for weeks, and even as her darling children greeted her, she was distant. Balancing work, her emotions, and her secretive friendship with her favorite Malfoy was beginning to take its toll on her.
“Evening, Mum,” Rose welcomed her.
“Mum, we got so much food at the market.” Hugo was positively beaming at her. “Chicken, sausage, tomatoes, scones, potatoes, caramel tart, biscuits—”
“No bloody Cauldron Cakes, though,” Ron chimed, slipping into the living room. A glass of firewhisky and pumpkin juice was in his hand. He downed the entire elixir. “You’d think Mulfree would carry ‘em, wouldn’t you? But she still doesn’t! I’ll have to go all the way to bloody Diagon Alley. I’ve asked her over and over to stock the damn things—”
"Sorry to hear that, dear,” Hermione muttered, idly, cutting him off. “I’ll make dinner in a bit.”
Rose opened her mouth to protest, but her mother brushed by her and retreated to the bathroom. Hermione locked the door behind her and ran the faucet, eager to escape her responsibilities, even if only for a few moments. The water loudly trickled down the drain. She splashed some on her cheeks; it was coolly therapeutic as it touched her skin. Christmas was only days away and she had never been more stressed.
“Hermione?” Ron called through the door. He knocked. “Hermione, we’ve only eaten Chocolate Frogs and scones—”
“I’ll be out in a minute!” she snapped.
Taken aback, Ron stepped away from the door and stumbled into the living room. Hugo and Rose looked up at him, expectantly, but he simply shrugged and collapsed onto the sofa. With a quick call of “accio”, Ron had a bottle of firewhisky in his hand and he continued his drinking for the day.
Irate, Rose inhaled deeply and stormed to the bathroom door. She knocked hard. “Mum! Mum, open up!”
Hermione combed her fingers through her hair and closed her eyes. “Can it wait, darling? Just a few minutes.”
“No, it can’t wait!” Rose boomed. “Open the door!”
“Leave your mother alone, Rose!” Ron called from his spot on the sofa. He took a swig of Ogden’s. “She’s prob’ly just on her period or somethin’.”
Rose scowled. “Mum! Open up!”
Hermione sighed and turned off the faucet. She unlocked the door and cracked it, looking her daughter in the eyes. “I’ll come make dinner in just a moment, sweetie. Just give Mum a—”
“No,” Rose growled, pushing her way inside. She pressed her back to the door and locked it behind her. “We need to talk.”
It was not often that her daughter was so aggressive, at least not to her. Worry shook her to the core. “I’m listening.”
“Are you, though?” Rose spat, sitting on the toilet. Her professors urged her to sit like a lady, but she never did. Instead, she spread her legs and placed her hands on her knees. “Dad puked on a Muggle family’s dog today, Mum. He—puked—on—their—dog.”
Hermione leaned against the sink and closed her eyes. “Rosie, pumpkin, I’m sorry. I’ve been trying—”
“Trying what, Mum?” the teenager seethed, her fists balled. “You’ve barely even been here since we got home. The only food around here was eggs and Chocolate Frogs. You’ve left us here with—with him and he’s the drunkest we’ve ever seen him.”
“You can come into the office with me—”
“We’re not going into the bloody office!” Rose hissed. “He drank so much he tried to pay Muggles in Galleons and wizards in pounds. He yelled at Mrs. Mulfree for nearly twenty minutes because she didn’t know what Cauldron Cakes were. Then, as we were standing in line at the farmers’ market, he vomited on these poor Muggles’ Beagle. And you weren’t here to stop any of it.”
“What a mess,” Hermione mumbled, rubbing her temples. She looked her daughter square in the eye. “How are you so much more put-together than the rest of us?”
“Because I’m the one that has to take care of Hugo when you aren’t around. Somehow, Dad has been a better parent than you lately, and he can’t even stand up straight,” she whispered. “It all falls on me, Mum.” She blinked back tears. “All of it.”
“Oh, darling! Don’t cry!” Hermione cooed, hurrying to hold the girl that looked so much like her and Ron. She held her tightly, letting her sob into her shoulder as she apologized over and over. “You’re right. Shh. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m so, so, so sorry.”
Rose pulled away, shaking her head. She wiped her nose. “Sorry means nothing. What are you going to do about it?”
Hermione drew in a deep breath. She and Draco Malfoy had discussed that very thing over and over again. When Christmas came, she would finally ask the question she had been too proud to ask. “I have a plan, figgy-pie. Don’t you worry. Just a few more days and we’ll get this all taken care of.”
As she turned the page of Living with Legilimens, Hermione hummed lightly to herself. The overwhelming concern for her children’s emotions had slightly subsided after her conversation with Rose, and for the first time in a long time, she did not depend on Draco Malfoy for guidance. Her daughter had pushed her towards the decision that she knew she needed to make.
“You seem chipper,” Ron slurred. His eyes drooped, drunkenly, as his hands traveled under the covers. He trailed his fingers up her thigh. “It’s been a while, huh?”
She slapped his fingers away with her free hand. “And it’s going to stay that way.”
He frowned, tugging at her robe. “Oh c’mon! It’s been ages!”
“I’m reading, Ron,” she snarled, batting at his hand again.
An awkward silence filled the room, only interrupted by Hermione turning the pages of her book. Ron scratched his head. Dandruff fell from his flaming red hair and showered the duvet.
“You think you’ll ever want to do it with me again?” he whined. “It’s been at least a year.”
“Ron, quit. I’m reading.”
He groaned and lay down, rolling over so he was facing away from her. He took most of the blankets with him. “Right, I’m not all blond and handsome like bloody Malfoy,” he muttered.
Hermione slammed her book shut. “What was that?”
“You heard me.”
Enraged, Hermione swung her legs over her side of the bed and seized her book. She tucked it under her arm and grabbed her pillow and the only blanket that Ron hadn’t taken. He was too crass to sleep beside, even if it meant that she had to sleep on the sofa again.
Ron sat up and threw up his hands. “Oh, c’mon. Hermione—”
“If you still are so hot and bothered, the bathroom’s free,” she hissed. “There’s lotion in the cupboard under the sink.”
“Oh, come on, Hermione. You know I’d just do that if that’s what I really wanted,” he spat. “What’re you going to tell the kids about you sleepin’ on the couch?”
“That their father was being an absolute dunderhead.”
Before he could protest, she stormed out of their bedroom and slammed the door behind her. The walls shook from the force. It would just be another sleepless night.
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