Chapter 1: Something to Hold On To
Ron slumped on the sofa, long legs stretched out in front of him. He clutched his Chudley Cannons jersey in his hands and twisted it as though he wanted to wring the life out of it. That, along with the scowl on his face, left no doubt as to his mood.
"Hello!" Hermione spotted her husband the moment she closed the front door behind her. She quickly shrugged out of her robe and hung it on a clothes tree there in the foyer, then headed directly down the hall towards the kitchen. "I'll have dinner going in a flash. How was practice? I didn't think you'd be home yet. Did you finish early? Are you playing on Sunday, or can we still do dinner with my parents?"
Question piled up on top of question, and Ron left them hanging there in the air, unanswered. Finally, Hermione poked her head around the corner of the kitchen door.
"Ronald? Did you hear me?"
"Of course I heard you, Hermione."
"Is everything all right?"
"No?" She'd been about to return to her meal preparations when his answer stopped her.
"What is it?" Hermione crossed the dining room to join her husband in the lounge.
"I've been dropped from the team," Ron said quietly.
"Oh, Ron, I'm so sorry. But we rather expected that to happen this year, didn't we?" At thirty, a good Quidditch player was just entering the twilight of his or her career, while a mediocre Quidditch player – such as Ron Weasley – was already at the end of the line. He had managed to land a starting position only two years out of twelve, spending the rest of the time as the perennial back-up player. Without Hermione's Ministry job in the Department of International Magical Cooperation, they never would have managed.
"Yeah. Of course, we also expected that I was at the top of the list for the coaching position."
Hermione felt a growing uneasiness. "They didn't say anything about the coaching job?" she probed carefully.
"Oh, they said something about it, all right. Said they'd hired Jack LaChance for it. And that they'd lured Douglas from the Nottingham Knights to fill the scouting vacancy. And Denny Pitts from the Tornadoes for the Player Development slot." Thus far, Ron had yet to meet Hermione's eyes. Now he gazed directly at her, his face a mask of anger. "Where does that leave me, you may ask? Out on my arse in the cold, apparently."
"Oh, Ron…" Hermione sank into an armchair, her hands clasped. "What are you going to do?"
"Bloody nothing, it would seem." Ron scowled at the toes of his trainers. "Work for my rich, entrepreneur brothers, I suppose."
Hermione said nothing. More than once over the last several years, Fred and George had tried to coax Ron into giving up Quidditch and managing their string of novelty stores. Privately, Hermione thought that the twins had a better grasp of her husband's Quidditch talents and future prospects than Ron himself, and that they were gently providing him with a dignified way out. But Ron had dismissed their each and every offer out of hand: he had pinned his hopes on a life in sports, wanting to move from player to coach to manager and possibly, some day, to owner.
"I'm sure something will work out," Hermione ventured finally.
Ron didn't even bother to look up. "Yeah," he muttered.
Six Months Later
"I'm so sorry, Hermione." Molly Weasley genuinely meant it, to judge from her defeated posture to the tone of her voice. "I can't say I'm surprised, though. It's been apparent for a long time that you and Ron weren't happy."
"It's just so utterly stupid, Molly." Hermione fought back tears. "We're not together any more, even when we're physically in the same room. It's as though he went east and I went west, and neither of us was even aware that it was happening."
"I know. Perhaps it would have been different if you'd had children…" Molly's voice trailed off as if she sensed that this was dangerous ground upon which to tread. "Well," she continued, her eyes watery now, "people do grow apart. Let's hope some time away from each other will do the trick."
Hermione wanted to tell her that the separation would, in all likelihood, not do the trick, but it was pointless. Molly Weasley thrived on hope; it was what had kept the woman going through two Wizarding Wars and their aftermath.
"I hope so," she said with as much conviction as she could muster.
"Well, that's it, then." Molly glanced at the sack of food Hermione clutched in her hands. "That should do you for at least four days. I'll bring another bag on Friday."
Hermione had to laugh at that. "I'm not likely to starve, Molly. I can cook, you know."
"I know you can, dear." There was the tiniest hint of doubt in Molly's tone, suggesting that Hermione's culinary skills fell far short of her own, even after ten years of the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship. "Still, it's difficult to cook only for oneself."
"Of course." Hermione wondered when was the last time that Molly had cooked for anything less than a horde of people.
"I'll be off, then. See you later, dear." Molly pulled her daughter-in-law to her, and with a quick peck on the cheek, was gone.
Hermione closed the front door of the flat, just as the loud crack from the hall affirmed Molly's departure. She looked down at the sack of food in her arms and sighed. It was good of Molly to remember her this way. Another woman might have taken the news that her son and his wife had separated with much less sympathy and a considerable amount of ire. But not only had Molly been quite decent about it, she was also the only one who had seen the breach coming. Even before Ron or I saw it, Hermione thought sadly. But wasn't that often the case? That the people most intimately involved were the last to know?
It was the blow to Ron's ego – the end of his Quidditch career – that had started the entire mess, Hermione thought now, as she dumped Molly's food donation onto the kitchen table. And strangely enough, it was the natural generosity of his family that had aggravated things beyond the breaking point.
Fred and George immediately offered Ron a position. To say that the twins had made a success of their joke shops was an understatement; they could easily afford to take on Ron at a decent wage without appearing to be giving him a handout. But Ron resisted, determined to find a job on his own.
Arthur encouraged him to apply at the Ministry, hinting that he could probably guarantee him a job. Ron could only picture a work environment where he would always be known as 'Arthur's son', or – worse yet – 'Hermione's husband'. The fact that he would be hired into a position ranking far below his wife, and earning considerably less, didn't help.
Ron finally found work at Quality Quidditch Supplies. The salary was less than stellar, but it managed to provide him with a few perceived shreds of dignity. It wasn't that he had been a horrible Quidditch player, he told Hermione one rainy night, it was simply that his skills were so hideously undistinguished. In a way, it was worse than failing outright. She remembered then what Harry had told her once: that Ron had constantly battled to live up to the accomplishments of his older brothers, falling short more often than not. Even little sister Ginny outshone him by doing nothing more than snagging The Boy Who Lived for her husband.
Hermione slumped into a kitchen chair and stared miserably at the wall. She could barely remember a time when she hadn't adored Ron Weasley. It extended all the way back to a certain Halloween and a particular mountain troll, and she knew for a fact that Ron's infatuation with her could be dated to their third year at school. Once they had finally acknowledged their mutual attraction – something which had caused much eye-rolling, since everyone at Hogwarts knew about it but the parties involved – it was obvious that the two of them were meant to be together.
They had married two years to the day after Voldemort was defeated. It was a fairy tale wedding: certainly more than she'd ever dreamed of, for who could have imagined that bushy-haired-but-brilliant Hermione Granger would make such a beautiful bride? Hermione was certain that day that happiness was hers on a platter, the just reward for helping to liberate the wizarding world from the terror that was Lord Voldemort - as it was Harry's reward when he and Ginny Weasley were wed several weeks later.
Those early years of marriage were happy ones: Ron pursuing his Quidditch dreams, while she began steadily climbing the ladder of success at the Ministry. But then came the first hitch, when their attempts to start a family never came to fruition. Initially, Hermione wanted to wait, then Ron had wanted to wait, and by the time they decided that the Time Was Right, the babies never came. When five years had gone by and Hermione had yet to become pregnant, she and Ron became the unwilling recipients of all sorts of advice from well-meaning friends and family – Molly, in particular.
"You two just need to relax," she told them with calm assurance. "It's the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps you need a holiday."
But the holiday in France failed to produce anything but bills. Hermione went to St. Mungo's for a fertility evaluation and was given a clean bill of health. She fully expected that Ron would be eager to be tested next, and was stunned when he refused outright ("It can't be me. Look at the rest of my family. Just relax, like Mum said.").
Yet no matter how much they relaxed, the Weasleys remained childless. It seemed to Hermione that she and Ron were stuck in an endless cycle: Ron always hoping to improve his game, always looking toward next season, while she spent her days toiling away at the Ministry. And then came Ron's release from the Cannons, and an oppressive despair which affected the both of them.
It was Ron who, after months of depression and endless advice from his family, finally announced yesterday that he'd reached his limit and needed some time alone. That in itself didn't surprise Hermione; what stunned her was when he told her that the 'time alone' excluded her, as well.
"But I'm your wife," she mumbled, hurt beyond measure. "Don't you need me to be with you?"
"I just can't think straight, Hermione." Ron's eyes were moist, and his voice cracked in a way she hadn't heard since second year. "It's not just you, it's everybody. I'm always trying to measure up to someone's expectations, and yours are just as hard to reach as anyone else's."
"Expectations?" she repeated weakly, not believing what she'd heard. "I don't have some grand expectations of you."
"Well, maybe that's part of the problem. You don't have them because you think I can't measure up anyway."
"What?" Anger replaced shock and grief. "That's ridiculous, Ron!"
"Perhaps. But I need to see what I can do without a constant audience."
"Where will you go?" Hermione asked tearfully.
"For now, I'm going to move into the rooms above Fred and George's Diagon Alley shop," Ron told her, indicating the place where his brothers had stayed while first launching their enterprise some fourteen years earlier. "See? I can't even move out of the damned house without help from my family, but I'll start looking for a flat of my own soon."
And that had been that. Within the hour, Ron had packed his bags and left. Hermione stayed up most of the night, wracked with guilt as she tried to discern what part she'd played in the whole mess. Had she not been loving enough? Supportive enough? She couldn't even bring herself to entertain the notion of another woman; the mere thought made her ill.
"Bloody stupid, idiotic prat," Harry muttered when Hermione told him about it that morning. "I can't believe he did this. And no, there's no one else – at least, I never had any suspicions whatsoever on that account. With Ron, I always know if he's trying to cover something up."
Hermione was minimally relieved by Harry's reassurances, but it still did nothing to assuage the guilt. And now, tonight, she was looking at what would be another few hours of troubled sleep. She decided that she would take a Sleeping Draught if she was unable to doze off within a reasonable period of time, but first she would try other things.
After soaking in a hot bath until her skin wrinkled and sweat broke out on her forehead, Hermione pulled on her nightgown and hunted for something to read. She stood in front of her bookshelves, her hand hovering here and there over possible titles. It wasn't until she spotted Hogwarts: A History and felt the flood of warm, happy memories that came with the well-worn book that she knew she'd found her bedtime reading material.
Hermione fixed herself a cup of herbal tea, then curled up in bed and began to read.