Author's Note: Thank you to everyone who took the time to leave me an encouraging review in the first chapter. I'm actually astounded that so many people were actually interested in this story at all! It means a great deal to me to have so many supportive people out there cheering me on in this difficult time of life. It's getting better.
So, just a reminder because this chapter starts to deal with some of the uglier aspects of marriages/relationships. My characters are always pretty flawed human beings… you know, just like us. If you're not familiar with my writing, you should understand that no one is ever perfect in my stories. No one. (Especially not Hermione.) And considering this is dealing with a topic that I'm all-too-familiar with, trust me, it gets ugly. Doesn't mean that people are bad. Just means they're human and far from perfect. And again, this is NOT a Weasley-bashing story. There are plenty of those out there in the world, so please don't use this story as a way to get all of your anti-Weasley anger out. Ron is the character I identify with the most, so it can be hurtful to hear what a "piece of shit" he is. We all have our moments when we are found lacking.
She was completely humiliated, unable to understand what had even happened in the dark stairwell. As she made her way to the safety of her empty office, Hermione wished for nothing more than to have the ground beneath her feet open up and swallow her whole. Had she actually allowed Cormac McLaggen to not only see her cry but comfort her as well? Of all of the people who could have possibly witnessed that mortifying moment, why did it have to be him?
Many years had passed since she last saw her office at such a late hour. Ron didn't like when she worked too much. He used to say that he was a selfish man, but he wanted her home with him. Back in those halcyon days of her brand-new marriage, they both had trouble walking away from the other. Now, it seemed that they each breathed easier without the other one near.
The tears that had begun when she was alone with the cretin began to flow again. Knowing that she needed to let out the emotions she was feeling before she exploded, she laid her head down on her desk. Truthfully, she hated to cry. Always had. The act made her feel weak, made her feel like she was still the first year alone with the troll crying about not having any friends. Or the third year crying because none of her friends wanted to speak to her. Or even the terrified fugitive Muggle-born on the run with Undesirable Number One without a clue what they were going to do next or if they'd even be alive to do it
Crying always had such a negative connotation. Even though everyone cried from time to time, if she actually gave in to the act when she felt like it, she ran the risk of being considered mentally unstable or deranged. Why was she expected to keep her emotions hidden or 'under control' just to be considered a strong and capable woman? It had never made any sense at all. She might have known it was okay to give in to the emotion, but she felt guilty every second that passed.
When her eyes burned dry and not another tear could be squeezed from them, Hermione sat back up straight in her chair. What was she going to do next? Did Ron mean it when he told her he wanted a divorce? A glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe he was only voicing his concerns and there was a chance that they could work it out began to take root. They could go back to counseling. It had helped a little the last time they tried.
Or it had just delayed the inevitable. Angry with herself for even entertaining such a depressing notion, Hermione shook her head and rose to her feet. She had done her running away and crying. Now she needed to go home and see what could be done to save her marriage. She wasn't going to just give it up without a fight. Once she was satisfied that all traces of tears were gone from her face, she tightened her bathrobe and headed straight for the door.
There was a very real fear that she would run back into McLaggen on the way out. He had to have been curious about what he witnessed and was unwittingly made a part of. She hoped that she could slip out of the building without anyone seeing her. Too many questions would be asked. It was bad enough that there had already been one witness to her shame. Any more and she might have to come up with some sort of plausible excuse. She refused to admit there were any problems with her marriage until she was absolutely certain they existed. Avoiding any chance that she might be asked what had her so upset that night was her best option to keep from blurting out something she couldn't take back.
No one crossed her path in the empty lift. The Atrium was silent. She was grateful for small favors all the way back to the flat she had purchased with her husband four years earlier when they were still hoping they were going to finally be able to expand their little family. One more heartbreaking disappointment in a long line of countless others.
The time was half past one in the morning when she boldly pushed open the front door. If Ron was at least half as upset by their earlier argument as she was, she expected him to still be sitting up waiting anxiously for her return. Neither of them cared much for arguing late at night, but they usually tried to live by the advice so many had given them over the years to never go to bed angry. Sometimes they were successful, usually they weren't. Not giving much thought to the amount of noise she was making, Hermione stepped inside her flat, surprised to find that not even a single lamp had been left on.
Ron wasn't waiting. Either he had left home after she did or he was in bed. She didn't understand why he wasn't sitting on the sofa waiting for her to come back. When they had massive rows in the past, she always sat up and waited for him when he stormed out to get some fresh air or to have time to calm himself down. Where was he?
She directed her steps to the bedroom they shared hoping that maybe he was waiting up for her in bed. He started the discussion about the ugly D-word when she was in bed. Perhaps that was where he wished to continue it. Only moments down the corridor, Hermione saw something she had never seen before - the door to their rarely-used guest bedroom was closed. Gently turning the doorknob that had an obnoxious tendency to squeak at the wrong time, she didn't even have to open it all the way to hear the familiar sound of her husband snoring in his sleep.
Never, not a single time in their entire marriage had either of them slept in the guest bedroom after an argument. Never. Even when their issues were far from resolved before they had to go to sleep in preparation for the next day they still slept in the same bed. It certainly made for some uncomfortable, restless nights, but they were still lying next to each other, still at least behaving like they wished to be together. Moving into the guest room felt so final. So real.
Unable to allow herself the chance to process the very clear message he was sending, Hermione closed the bedroom door and returned to the living room. She thought she was done crying for the night. Clearly, she was wrong. She moved into the dark kitchen to sit down at the familiar table. Even as she sat in her office crying she never imagined he was serious. This is what they had always done. While she would never claim that their relationship was always terribly healthy, this was normal for them. They would argue about something ridiculous. One or both of them would say something hurtful. They would separate to their individual corners to calm down and lick their wounds. No matter how ugly the fight, they always apologized and made up. Their relationship, their friendship, their marriage was worth too much to just toss aside like rubbish. Had everything changed when she wasn't paying attention? Where did they make the decision to move in a direction they couldn't come back from?
She fought the onslaught of tears that threatened to consume her being. What good was it to keep crying? It wasn't a solution to anything. All it did was make her feel even more dreadful than she already did. For someone who always liked to have a solution or at least an idea of a solution, she felt lost. Some Know-It-All she was.
A tap at the kitchen window startled her out of her increasingly depressive thoughts. It was too late for regular post owls and far too early for the morning edition of the Daily Prophet to be delivered. She rose to her feet to open the window to the poor creature hovering outside. The owl hopped onto the inside windowsill to wait for Hermione to untie the message from its leg. Rewarded with an owl treat, it should have flown off into the night, but it remained rooted firmly to the spot. Whomever sent the bird must have insisted that it wait for an answer.
Emergency messages sent in the middle of the night usually arrived by Floo or patronus. Seeing her husband's name scrawled on the outside of the parchment, her prodigious curiosity got the better of her. Though it was undoubtedly a complete invasion of privacy and something she prided herself on never doing, Hermione broke the seal on the missive and unrolled it.
Did you talk to her yet?
Hermione's stomach sank. Only six words, but they told her all she needed to know. Or rather, they finally confirmed what she had suspected weeks earlier. Something subtle had changed in her husband. It wasn't enough that just anyone would notice. She had known him since they were both eleven years old. He had been in an odd mood for a very long time. One second he would be combative, irritable, itching to fight. The next he would be sullen and want to be left alone. And then, without any warning or seeming reason at all, he would be laughing and smiling and back to his usual joking, funny, lovable self. She had been worried about him, afraid that the stress from his job at the shop was beginning to get to him.
And then there had been the moments he would seem distant, slip away for a few minutes, and then return as if nothing was wrong. She'd asked him a few times about the owls he received at random times. He brushed it all off as simply being work-related. But sometimes they came late at night when the shop had been closed for hours. She tried to ignore what her gut was telling her to no avail. Part of her always knew that he would stick it out in their marriage for as long as he could until another option he liked better presented itself.
The worst part of it all was, if she was being completely and brutally honest with herself, she couldn't exactly blame him. Not that she was excusing any inappropriate behavior. Infidelity was wrong, full stop. They each made vows almost eight years earlier to forsake all others. Still, a nagging thought in the back of her mind kept reminding her that she hadn't exactly been the easiest of people to live with. They had many problems and she was just as complicit. She kept her secrets and outright lied to him on more occasions than she was comfortable with.
There had been times she was tempted to seek comfort in another's arms. A year earlier when she'd crossed paths with Viktor Krum again at a Quidditch event her husband forced her to attend, there had been some harmless flirting that quickly entered very dangerous territory. Sensing she was unhappy with Ron, Viktor quietly suggested they meet up again in private. A few follow-up owls with the same suggestion had been difficult to say 'no' to. She was more than a little tempted. It almost happened. Only a last-minute case of nerves kept her out of the Diagon Alley hotel he was staying. She was certainly not innocent either.
But, she couldn't blame Ron for seeking companionship outside their marriage. She was almost as guilty and understood all too well how easy it could all be. Neither one of them had been happy for a long time. Two years earlier they tiptoed around the discussion of divorce. Though he hadn't come right out and asked her for one, he did give her an ultimatum. She would go to counseling with him or they would end their marriage right then. As angry as she'd been in that moment, she almost left him. Honestly, she still wasn't entirely sure why she didn't.
She didn't recognize the handwriting. All she could tell was that it was decidedly feminine. Was this the source of Ron's sudden changes in mood? She wanted all of the details and none at the same time. Perhaps what was the most surprising to her was that she wasn't angry. Far from it. Hurt, certainly, but not angry. She had been suspecting there might be someone else for a while. Weeks at least. Possibly longer. When she was having her own inappropriate dalliance with Viktor did Ron suspect? There hadn't been anything physical beyond one kiss to the lips that had hardly lasted more than a second or two but held promises of much more to come. Still, it didn't really matter. She had been as secretive about her owls as he had been. Her moods probably varied as quickly as his during those weeks too.
Staring down at the parchment, considering storming into the guest room and making her husband explain the contents, Hermione made an impulsive decision. Grabbing a quill from a nearby table, she scribbled out her own response underneath the simple question. Years of correcting Ron's homework had given her a special set of skills. She could replicate his writing and Harry's any time she wished.
Yes, we talked. It did not go well.
She wasn't sure why she was willingly engaging the other woman. Maybe she was trying to do whatever she could to reclaim any small amount of power she might still possess. Reattaching the letter to the owl, she stood in front of the window watching the bird disappear back into the night sky. Tempted to stay there until another message arrived, all of the exhaustion and fatigue from the events of the evening came crashing down at once. Leaving the window open in case the bird returned at some point, she forced herself to return to their empty bedroom. If there was anything left of their relationship to salvage, it could be done later when she'd had the opportunity to sleep.
Somehow, Hermione was able to shut her overactive brain off enough to catch a few hours of sleep. What little she had was not nearly enough. Every ounce of her felt heavy and exhausted. How was she supposed to go about her daily life pretending like her world wasn't falling apart? With her newfound knowledge of Ron's secretive correspondence, she wasn't event sure how she going to face her husband.
Tapping in to the reserves of her strength, reminding herself that there was nothing she couldn't do if she was determined enough, she set both of her feet on the floor. Her eyes caught the two rings lying on her nightstand. For the better part of a decade, she was in the habit of getting out of bed, reaching for the rings she wore every day without fail, and slipping them on her finger. Was she allowed to wear them when the man who gave them to her wanted to end the very thing they represented? She didn't feel right about wearing them when everything about their situation was still so unsettled.
It felt strange to exit her bedroom fully clothed and ready for the day with her hand so empty. Would everyone notice right away that they were missing? If anyone asked what would she say? She could lie and tell them they were at the jeweler and make some joke about being a free woman until they came back cleaned or repaired. When she had them resized a few years earlier, she and Ron both made that terrible joke. Or should she just be honest? When did someone announce their divorce or their separation? Had anyone ever thought to compile all of these awkward questions into a book so the poor souls going through a similar situation knew what to do next?
Needing copious amounts of caffeine to even think about making it through what was sure to be a painfully uncomfortable day, Hermione went straight for the kitchen. The owl was back on the windowsill. And perhaps most surprising of all, her husband was seated at the table with the parchment in his hands. He was never up before she was. Unsure what to say, she said nothing. Simply went about the task of brewing some coffee. Tea wasn't strong enough for the hell that awaited her.
Assuming that whomever he was corresponding with continued their discussion on the same roll of parchment, it only made sense that Ron was already aware that his wife was aware. Was he going to say something? Deny it? Try to make it sound harmless? His silence was disconcerting. She kept expecting him to say something, say anything. Even when her coffee was finished he hadn't spoken a word or moved from his spot. His eyes were focused on the note he held in his hands, almost like he was trying to ignore the fact she was there at all.
Hermione couldn't bear to be in the room with him for another moment. Neither of them had said so much as 'good morning' to the other. Leaving the coffee without taking a single sip, she rushed out of the kitchen and out the front door. The difficult conversations they needed to have would wait for later.
She arrived at the Ministry frazzled and wishing to be anywhere else. A large crush of officials and visitors trying to enter the building annoyed her further. On an ordinary day she would have already been inside at her desk sifting through that day's never-ending paperwork. Her late hours made her oversleep. She never overslept.
Instead of going immediately to her office, Hermione headed for the Ministry canteen. With no caffeine in her system, the day was going to only get worse. She didn't waste a moment picking up an empty cup. Completely oblivious to everyone and anything else around her, she reached for the steaming pot of coffee at the same time as another caffeine-deprived person.
"I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention."
She looked up to see the face connected with the hand holding the coffee. Smirking, Cormac McLaggen seemed to have a bad habit of showing up exactly where she didn't want to see him. He found their accidental meeting amusing. Groaning softly to herself, she considered dropping the empty cup and trying to make it though the day without any help.
"You seem to have a habit of popping up exactly where I am, Granger. Is this a plan on your part?"
Her face morphed into an annoyed scowl that only made him laugh. She hated the sound. Why was he making it his purpose in life to frustrate her? The curse of bad fortune must have been following her around. First with Ron's hurtful statement and then actually being in the same space as McLaggen twice in less than twelve hours. What deity had she angered to deserve this?
"Hardly, McLaggen. If I'd known you were anywhere near here, I wouldn't be here."
Either entirely unconvinced or still enjoying their interactions, the wizard filled her cup with a smile. As soon as the liquid was near the top, she muttered her thanks and rushed to the elderly witch collecting money. Before she could hand over the knuts requested, McLaggen was paying for both of them.
"That's not necessary. I can pay for myself."
"Come on. No shame in accepting a cup of coffee from an old friend. Care to sit at one of those tables over there and catch up?"
She wasn't sure if he was being serious or not. It had always been difficult to read the overly confident man. Even when they were younger. Spending even one more second with him was threatening to bring her to the edge of her patience. After everything that had happened in the last several hours, she didn't need the additional annoyance and complication of being with someone she still loathed. She scoffed and he laughed. Keeping her wand in her pocket and a curse off of her lips was proving to be very difficult.
"I think it's customary for a witch to at least sit a few minutes with a wizard who buys her a drink."
"I'm married, McLaggen."
His eyes flicked down to her bare left hand. Though he didn't say a word in response before she exited the canteen as quickly as she could, Hermione got the impression that he was aware that there was more to the story. It didn't matter. She would just have to keep as far away from him as physically possible from then on. The Ministry was a massive building. She could go months at a time without seeing friends that worked in other departments.
Only when her steps crossed over the threshold of the small office she shared with the only other member of her division did she calm down. So far her plan to remain as inconspicuous as possible wasn't going well.
"Are you all right, Hermione? You're never late."
All she could do was sigh in response to her assistant's question. Rose knew her well enough to know not to press the issue any further. Instead, she offered Hermione a bright smile and turned her attention back to the pile of parchment on her desk. They had been the only members of the House-Elf Post-Freedom Career Development Office for the past four years. For reasons Hermione still struggled to understand, no one else in the Ministry thought the work they did was important enough to warrant more employees. There were days that the two women had more work than they knew what to do with.
Rose Zeller had been a Hufflepuff several years behind Hermione. When the horrid cow Umbridge was reigning in the castle as the High Inquisitor or whatever rubbish title she'd granted herself, little Rosie had been in her first year trying desperately to learn how to pass through the year unnoticed. The daughter of Tiberius Zeller, Head of the Department of Magical Accidents and Catastrophes, she had had many opportunities to move to a more exciting division within the Ministry, but each time her influential father informed her of a new position, she politely declined. Determined to only further her career through the merits of her own hard work instead of her father had been one of the traits Hermione admired most about her.
She was a pretty girl, if a bit shy. With dark brown hair and eyes to match, Rose didn't seem terribly interested in much about life beyond what happened in their office. In all of the years that they had known each other, Hermione was certain that she'd never heard of the younger witch ever going out on a single date. More than a few times her supervisor tried to suggest successful, quality wizards that she might like. She'd even put a couple of witches in her path. Each time Rose would blush and smile but never go further than that.
That morning, when her world seemed to be crashing down around her, Hermione envied the younger witch's innocence and seeming freedom. Maybe she didn't have anyone special in her life, but at least she didn't have to worry that she was giving her heart and the best years of her life away to someone who didn't even appreciate them, to someone who was sending late night owls to some random person and demanding the dissolution of a marriage they had fought so hard to keep together. She didn't have to worry about how her life was going to change because it wasn't.
Overpowering waves of envy and pure jealousy rolled over Hermione. She loved the woman and hated herself for thinking anything uncharitable about her for even a moment. Setting the cup of coffee that McLaggen purchased for her on top of her desk with enough force that some of the hot liquid splashed over the side, she sat down to finally begin her day. Work always kept her mind occupied.
Except for that day. No matter how many times she read a form, she couldn't make sense of it. Her mind kept wandering to replays of the night before and to worries about what was going to become of her future. What was she going to do next? What had she done to make her marriage crumble? Silent tears rolled out of her eyes. She wasn't even aware she was crying until she heard the sniffles with her own ears. Rose was kind enough to pretend like she didn't hear or see what was happening, but she was no fool. Sitting still at the desk and allowing her mind to wander was the worst idea she'd had. She would get nothing done.
Instead of remaining there at risk of completely breaking down in front of someone she would have to confess to, she made a decision. She made an excuse to Rose about not feeling well and needing to go home. The sweet woman didn't question her further. Only nodded her head and wished her a speedy recovery. After she gathered her belongings, Hermione crossed the Level to the office of the Head of the Beast Division, her direct supervisor.
Kenneth Towler was a fellow Gryffindor who had the misfortune of sharing a dorm room with the Weasley twins for seven years. Though she had never had any problems with the wizard both in school and after, the twins made him a frequent mark for their pranks, including a memorable incident with Fred putting Bulbadox powder in his pajamas when they were in fifth year. As far as she was aware, he didn't hold any ill feelings towards the brothers.
"I need to take the rest of the week off for a family emergency."
Towler furrowed his brow at the odd request. It wasn't like her to ask for time off from work. If anything, he was frequently required to force her to take a vacation every now and then. He gestured to the chair across from his desk, but she refused. She wasn't sure she was going to be able to make it through this short meeting without bursting into tears. The sooner she could make it out of the Ministry, the better.
"Is everything all right, Hermione?"
"Yes." The word came out in a short tone before she could stop herself. Sighing, she opted for the honesty route. He deserved to know a bit more than she was telling him. "No, not really, Kenneth. I think it will be all right, but I need a few days."
"Of course. Take all of the time you need. I know you well enough to know that you wouldn't do this if it wasn't important."
She appreciated his candor. An attempt to give the man a reassuring smile fell flat. Hermione headed for the lifts. After a quick stop at her flat to pack a bag, she needed to get somewhere private where she could think. Maybe a few days apart would make it easier for her to have the discussion with Ron she didn't want to have. Or maybe if she was lucky, he would realize how much he missed her during the time apart and rescind his demand for a divorce. A girl could hope.