It took several moments for Astoria to realize that she had misspoken, and several more for her to absorb the reactions that her words had produced around the table. By the time she had fully processed exactly what she had said, it was too late. Ron had already discarded his napkin and gotten to his feet, his face red with anger.
"Thank you for dinner," he said coldly. "You may send a bill for our portion of the meal to my wife's office at the Ministry, or to ninety-three Diagon Alley."
Utterly horrified, Astoria immediately opened her mouth to protest, to apologize, to beg him to sit back down, but no words came out. Draco intervened.
"Weasley, my wife spoke without thinking," he said sharply, looking Ron straight in the eye. "Please, don't leave on her account."
Ron glowered murderously at Draco. "I don't feel comfortable in this room. I wish to leave."
"Dad!" Rose looked close to tears. "Dad, please!"
"No, Rose. We're done here," he said harshly.
"No—no, no," Astoria pleaded in a strangled voice. "I'm so sorry—I didn't realize—it was an accident—"
"An accident?" Ron snarled, glaring down at Astoria with such revulsion that Astoria felt tears sting her eyes.
There was a scrape and scuffle as Draco sprung out of his chair and drew his wand. "Don't you dare speak to her like that," he hissed, raising his arm.
"Dad, no!" Scorpius cried.
Astoria gasped. "Draco—"
But she was cut off by a bright blaze of scarlet light, and suddenly, Draco's wand was hurtling through the air. Astoria swiveled around in her seat just in time to see Hermione Granger leap up and catch it in her free hand, her eyes flashing with anger.
"You will not hurt my husband again," she growled, glaring at Draco.
"Hermione—" Ron began weakly, looking torn between astonishment and elation.
"Sit down, Ron," she barked, and Ron—more out of shock, it seemed, than agreement—obeyed, retaking his seat. Hermione lifted her chin, considering Draco icily. "Listen to me closely—I am not sitting at this dinner table because I want to be here. I am not sitting at this table because I find you to be polite dinner company. I am sitting here for my daughter, and for my daughter only. But if you lay a single finger on my husband, I will leave and I will not look back."
Draco and Hermione stared at each other for several long moments. Then, very slowly, Draco lowered himself back into his seat without breaking his gaze, his jaw set and his eyes narrowed. Hermione closed her eyes, releasing a slow, deep breath. Then, she sat down as well, reaching forward and placing Draco's wand back on the table in front of him.
There was a long, pregnant silence.
Then— "I need to use the restroom—I'm sorry," Rose whispered. And without so much as a backward glance at any of her family members, Rose jumped up and hurried from the room. The door slammed shut behind her, echoing loudly in the unnaturally hushed atmosphere.
There was another stunned pause.
"I should go make sure she's all right," Hermione said quietly, pushing her chair back.
"Actually, Mum—can I?"
Astoria looked around, surprised. Hugo, who had been very still and quiet during this entire ordeal, had already gotten to his feet. His expression was stony.
Hermione blinked. "Hugo, I—don't think—"
"I've got this, Mum," he said firmly. He looked at his father, who glanced at his wife, shrugging. Then, Hugo turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
The silence was now deafening. Astoria felt the weight in her chest tighten further with each passing second. Scorpius was staring down at his lap, refusing to look at either of his parents. Hermione was frowning in the direction of the door, through which both of her children had just disappeared. And Ron, his ears still a deep shade of red, was glaring at Draco. Swallowing, Astoria turned to look at her husband, startled to find that his eyes were already on her.
There was a tense, burning moment as their gazes met. Astoria pressed her lips together.
Draco blinked once, slowly. Then, clearing his throat, he turned and faced Ron.
"I seem to recall that you are something of a chess player," he said smoothly, reaching into an inner pocket of his dress robes and withdrawing a miniature chessboard.
Ron's eyebrows furrowed as he stared at the chess set. "How would you know that?"
Draco raised an eyebrow. "Was the fact that you were awarded fifty house points for your skill an accident?" he asked coolly.
Ron's expression cleared—but only slightly. He continued to glare warily as Draco set the chessboard down on the table between them and tapped it once with his wand, enlarging it. Scorpius glanced between Ron and his father, his mouth open.
"This isn't good," Hermione said in a low voice.
Astoria turned to her left. "Why not?" she whispered.
Hermione shook her head. "Look at their faces. This isn't a game—it's a duel."
Astoria turned back to look at Draco, and with a jolt, she realized that Hermione was right. There was a very real, very terrifying hostility in his eyes. Astoria glanced at Ron. Draco's bitterness and determination was reflected on his face.
The dull ache in Astoria's chest deepened.
She turned to Hermione, stomach turning. "Hermione, I'm—"
"Don't apologize," Hermione said shortly, without meeting her gaze. "I don't need to hear it."
Hermione waited the space of a few heartbeats before speaking again.
"Would you do it?" she asked Astoria quietly, her eyes on Ron, as he arranged his chess pieces on his side of the board, his lips set in a thin line. "If you were in my position, would you have agreed to this dinner?"
Rose clutched either side of the bathroom sink tightly, her eyes burning painfully with the effort to restrain the howl of mingled guilt and misery that was building in the back of her throat. She would not cry, she would not cry, she would not cry…Rose squeezed her eyes shut, hunching over the sink and taking several slow, deep breaths.
When, at last, she had managed to somewhat slow her breathing, she looked up again and stared at her reflection in the restroom's enormous, spotless mirror. Her bright blue eyes seemed to glow in the dim lighting. Rose swallowed heavily. Those were her father's eyes—her favorite feature. Apart from the reddish-brown of her flyaway curls and her tall, rail-thin stature, Rose most closely resembled her mother. But her eyes…her eyes were completely her father's. And Rose had been so unspeakably proud, at five years old, when she had first become aware of the likeness.
The knot of guilt in the pit of Rose's stomach gave another almighty lurch, and Rose groaned softly, burying her face in her hands. What had she done? She had never seen so much hatred in those eyes—her father's anger had been truly frightening. And her mother's, too. Hermione Granger rarely lost control, but when she did, it scared Rose more than anything else in the world. And suddenly, Rose felt a fresh wave of remorse overwhelm her, beating her down. What kind of a daughter was she? What kind of a monster was she, to think that this arrangement—this relationship—could work?
Inexplicably, Rose thought of Scorpius, the first—the only—man she had ever loved, of his soft hands, of his warm embrace, the feel of his lips on hers—of the blazing look in his dark eyes as he knelt down in front of her and asked her to marry him at the top of the Piazzale Michelangelo, as the sun slipped behind the horizon, bathing the city of Florence in a magical, red-gold glow…
Rose blinked, and the memory seemed to take root somewhere in her chest, warming her from the inside-out. A tiny bit of the leaden guilt in her gut dissolved.
But then, she remembered the look on her father's face and her stomach twisted into a knot once more.
Gritting her teeth, Rose stepped away from the sink and pushed open the bathroom door, stumbling headlong into her brother.
"Hugo?" Rose tripped backwards, eyes wide.
Hugo folded his arms across his chest and glared at his sister. "Were you ever planning on telling me?" he asked coldly.
Rose blinked. "What—?"
"Don't play stupid with me, Rose," Hugo snapped, his anger bubbling dangerously. "I want to know what the hell happened at Malfoy Manor, and what the hell Mum meant by 'You will not hurt my husband again.'"
Rose's face went pale. "Hugo, I can't—"
Hugo's fury exploded. Swearing loudly, he took a menacing step towards his sister, who stiffened, but stood her ground.
"I hope to hell he's worth it, Rose," Hugo spat, his blood boiling. "I hope to hell he's worth whatever you're putting Mum and Dad through."
"Hugo!" Rose's face had turned completely white. She jerked away from him, as though burned.
And in one, staggering moment, Hugo felt his anger disappear, quickly replaced by the gnawing, all-too-familiar shame that always followed the realization that he had gone too far.
He cursed again, softly this time. "Rose," he said quietly. "I didn't mean that."
Rose didn't respond immediately. Gazing blankly at a spot somewhere above Hugo's shoulder, she slumped backwards into the wall and sunk to the floor.
Then— "Yes, you did," she said numbly. "You meant every word."
Hugo stared at her.
Very hesitantly, he crossed the hallway and dropped down to his knees next to her, watching her carefully. "Rose—"
"I love him."
Hugo closed his eyes, releasing a breath. "Rose, I—"
"And I feel awful enough about everything already—I didn't need you, of all people, to make me feel worse—"
"Rose, I get it," Hugo said loudly, seizing Rose's hand. She stopped talking.
There was a silence, as Hugo and Rose gazed at each other.
"I can't let him go," Rose whispered. "I'm—I—I can't. I can't break up with him."
Hugo felt his ears grow hot and his face flood with color. This was not his territory. Where was Lily? Oh, Merlin, where was Lily? "Right," Hugo said uncomfortably. "So…don't."
Rose's expression filled with a mixture of exasperation and incredulity. "Hugo, you just said—!"
"I said that he better be worth it," Hugo interrupted shortly. "And clearly, he is."
Rose stared at him, looking stunned. Hugo, feeling suddenly very embarrassed, averted his gaze from hers. There was another very long, heavy silence. Then, suddenly, Hugo heard a sniffle, and he looked up. Rose was blinking very rapidly.
Hugo rolled his eyes. "For Godric's sake," he groaned, throwing an arm around his sister and pulling her into a hug. "You're such a big baby."
"Oh, shut up, you horrible little hinkypunk," Rose squeaked, her voice muffled against his shoulder, as she hugged him back tightly.
"Little?" Hugo laughed, tackling Rose into a sudden headlock and mussing her hair, much to her displeasure. "I'm seven inches taller than you!"
Rose managed to slip out of her brother's grip and leap to her feet. Giggling, she dodged out of the way just in time, as Hugo lunged towards her and tried to seize her ankle. "That's because you're a gigantic freak!" she shrieked, as Hugo bounded to his feet and began chasing her down the corridor.
"Say that again!" Hugo cried, laughing loudly as he dashed after his sister, steadily gaining on her. Rose was tall, but at six-foot-three, Hugo was much taller. "Say that again, I dare you!"
Throwing an impish look over her shoulder, Rose suddenly ducked down a different, dimly lit corridor. Hugo came to a screeching halt in his tracks, turned left, and bolted down the new hallway after her. He could see her disheveled, auburn braid—almost completely loose of its golden ribbon, now—bobbing up and down a few yards ahead of him. Grinning, Hugo picked up his pace, gathering speed—
Hugo toppled backwards, arms splayed, and landed hard on the cold, stone floor of the corridor. Rubbing his back, which was jolting with pain, Hugo shook his head, utterly bewildered. Rose—who had stopped dead in her tracks, causing Hugo to run into her—was walking dazedly towards the large, gilded set of double doors at the end of the hall, as though hypnotized.
Hugo blinked. "Rose?" he called.
Rose didn't respond. Instead, she continued to glide towards the open doors, her eyes wide and glassy. For a brief moment, she paused outside the doors. Then, slowly, she drifted inside, and Hugo felt a thrill of panic. Jumping to his feet and ignoring the twinge of pain in his back, he hurried down the remainder of the corridors and stumbled in through the double doors.
"Rose—?" he came to an abrupt halt and gasped. "Wow."
They were standing at the threshold of an enormous, breathtaking hall, of which every single surface seemed to glimmer and gleam. The slick, shining floors looked like molten gold, and seven colossal, outrageously tall pillars supported the high-vaulted ceiling. And the ceiling—the ceiling was the most magnificent part, of all. Every inch of it was covered with artwork—vibrant, colorful murals—of witches and wizards, house elves and centaurs, goblins, dragons, unicorns…Hugo gazed, open-mouthed, at a gorgeous painting of a pair of witches holding hands and skipping around in a circle in the middle of a grassy meadow, as a shower of silver sparks fell upon them.
"It's like the Sistine Chapel," Rose whispered, her eyes wide with wonder as she stared up at the ceiling. "Only a thousand times more beautiful."
Hugo looked at his sister and had to repress the urge to snort with laughter at the sight of her expression. Rose had always been a proper sap when it came to art.
"Excusez-moi! Zis eez private property! You must book a tour!"
Hugo and Rose swiveled around. Hervé, their short, round, balding waiter, was standing at the door, frowning reproachfully. At the sight of Hugo's and Rose's faces, however, his expression went blank. Then, slowly, a beaming smile began to spread across his face.
"Madam Granger-Weasley!" he exclaimed, bouncing forward excitedly. "Eef I 'ad known zat you weeshed to see ze banquet hall, I would 'ave taken you 'ere myself!"
Rose stared at Hervé, plainly unnerved by this unanticipated change in his disposition. Hugo frowned.
"Do you like eet, Madam?" Hervé puffed proudly, gesturing around at the pristine, glistening walls. "Eez eet all to your sateesfaction?"
"I-I—" Rose shook her head, looking dumbstruck. "It's gorgeous, but…but why are you asking me?"
Hervé gave a tiny, squeaky laugh. "Madam, surely you must know zat ze bride's opinion eez ze most eemportant of all!"
Rose gaped at him. "B-bride?"
Hervé stared at her in a way that made it clear that he was very fearful for her sanity. "Oui, Madam," he said, very slowly. "You and Master Malfoy are to be married soon, non? Meester Draco Malfoy 'as already put down ze initial deposit for ze banquet hall. 'E 'as promeesed to pay ze rest, once ze date 'as been confirmed."
Hermione stared at the chessboard. It was a stalemate. She knew it was. And if she—a woman with no exceptional knowledge or skill in the game—could tell that the match was tied, then she was absolutely positive that both Ron and Malfoy were fully aware of the fact.
And yet, neither man was showing any indication of offering of a draw. Instead, they were both staring at the board with immense concentration.
Hermione rubbed her temples, closing her eyes.
Suddenly, the door to the private dining room burst open. Hermione jumped, looking around. Rose and Hugo had sprinted into the room; Rose's hair was disheveled and sweaty, but her face was positively glowing with excitement. Hermione gaped at her.
She watched, nonplussed, as Scorpius abandoned his scrutiny of the chessboard and got to his feet. She watched as Rose gave a cry of exhilaration and threw her arms around his neck. She watched as Hugo bent down and muttered something in his father's ear. She watched Ron stiffen in his seat and look up at Malfoy in astonishment.
Hermione glanced at Astoria; she looked as perplexed as Hermione felt.
"I would like to offer a draw."
Hermione gasped, snapping her gaze back onto her husband. Ron, his jaw clenched as though he had just been force-fed something unpleasant, had extended a hand across the chessboard.
"I accept," said Malfoy immediately, reaching forward.
They shook hands, and between the two men, Hermione saw a stiff, unsaid agreement pass. And suddenly, Hermione felt a warm, fierce rush of affection for her husband—Ron, who always put his family before himself, whose children's happiness meant more to him than anything in the world…
Hermione glanced at Malfoy. He was clearing up his chess pieces, his eyes on Scorpius, who was watching Rose whisper animatedly with an enchanted expression on his face.
Hermione started, turning to her right. Astoria had spoken for the first time in a very long while.
"What?" Hermione frowned.
"That's my answer to your question," Astoria whispered, gazing across the table at her son. "Yes, I would do it." She paused, swallowing. "For Scorpius."
Hermione turned slowly away from Astoria and looked at her daughter. Rose's face was flushed with happiness and her eyes—her blue eyes, Ron's eyes—were sparkling, as she spoke to Scorpius.
At last, Hermione looked away from her daughter and caught her husband's gaze. For a moment, they simply stared at one another. Then, Ron gave a small, almost imperceptible nod of acknowledgement, and Hermione reached out and took his hand in hers, squeezing it tightly.
PHEW. ALL DONE. :D
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