Prompt: "Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while."The Princess Bride

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Lover's Crossroads

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Every year, the tradition had been to go to Hermione's parents' house and help decorate their Christmas tree. Her mother would open up the box of ornaments and tear up at the memories. There were several made from cutouts of construction paper in red and green, bent and torn over the years, faded from sunlight and age. Others were painted, crudely done with too-big brushes on small plastic balls, Father Christmases with white smudges for beards and snowmen with orange blobs for carrot noses. Some were store-bought and represented monumental moments in time: Hermione's first Christmas, first Christmas in the new house.

Hermione always looked at them and smiled, knowing that they had their own first ornaments at home, knowing that this year, they'd add a new first – a first Christmas for their youngest daughter, Madelyn, who was born in July.

Once the tree was decorated, they made hot cocoa and ate sugary biscuits cut out in the shapes of snowflakes and stockings. This night, the rain began to fall outside, large droplets of water running down the window panes, visible under the lights strung around the tree. As the rain slid down the glass, they left tracks that winked red and blue and green as the lights flashed.

"Mummy, can I've nuther one? Daddy said t'ask you."

Hermione had just closed the door to the guest bedroom, a room that was directly off the lounge in her parents' house. Madelyn, with only the smallest patch of brown hair on her head, had fallen asleep in Ron's arms. When Abigail, Ron and Hermione's eldest, was born five years ago, Mr. Granger went through the attic, box after box and trunk after trunk until he found, hidden in a corner, the crib they'd used when Hermione was a baby. A few tweaks of magic and the crib stood strong; it held each of the three grandchildren in turn when they spent the night at the Grangers'. It stood in the guestroom and Madelyn was snuggled in tightly underneath two blankets.

"Another what?"

"Biscuit!"

Hermione ruffled the bright ginger hair of her three-year-old son and said, "Only this once, but it has to be a small one. You don't want to rot your teeth!"

Just like his father, Euan rolled his eyes, and scurried back into the kitchen. Hermione hesitated for a moment, listening for any sign that Madelyn might have woken up when she put her down in the crib. Nothing but silence filled the lounge and Hermione made her way into the kitchen. She sat down next to Ron at the table and immediately felt his hand on her thigh, giving it a small squeeze. A moment when he did not touch her in some way felt like a moment wasted.

"What's that on the table?" she asked.

Ron picked up what looked like two twigs held together by a string. "It's my wand. Euan broke it."

Hermione flashed her son a look and he sunk down in his chair, stuffing the rest of his biscuit in his mouth.

"I have to stop by Diagon Alley tomorrow so why don't you come with me and find a new one? I have to do some Christmas shopping."

Euan and Abigail both perked up at hearing those emphasized words. They knew exactly what Christmas shopping was.

Their children were Ron and Hermione's lives. They'd worked out part-time schedules with both their departments at the Ministry so neither of them would work at the same time, providing them with a way for one of them to always be with the children. Sometimes tension and stress would fill Hermione's veins, tightening her muscles, and stiffening her neck, but ultimately, the bright smiles of her children when she Apparated home made the stress dissipate and was forgotten.

Abigail was the oldest, at five years. She tried her best to read spell books, but the concepts were beyond her. For her birthday she'd asked for history books about Hogwarts and magical Britain and she cried out in delight when she found her parents' names, along with the names of Uncle Harry and Auntie Gin, under the chapter titled, Fall of Evil in Britain: The Defeat of Lord Voldemort. The book was written for children, with large print and pictures, but knowing her parents were in a book was enough to fill Abigail with a sense of pride.

Euan was next. A more appropriate name would have been Gred or Forge, for he was a troublemaker, a schemer, and while he thought his toothy grin could get him anything he wanted, it was only a smile that worked on his grandparents. He wanted to play Quidditch just like Uncle Harry, but Hermione put her foot down and refused to let any three-year-old of hers on a broomstick. When he was five, they would discuss the matter.

The still-soft expanse of skin about Hermione's stomach was a daily reminder of their third and last child, Madelyn. It was difficult to tell what kind of girl she would grow up to be. She was quiet and laughed softly when Ron tickled her feet. She didn't cry; she didn't fuss. She was so unlike either of her parents that they often wondered where exactly she came from.

Sitting around the kitchen table, Hermione had never felt more content. Her children, their children, their beautiful faces looking at the Christmas biscuits with watery mouths. In no time at all, Madelyn would join them, crumbs sticking to her chin as she smiled through icing-coated teeth. This was the best of times.

Hermione's father told jokes, Euan tried to convince them to let him have yet another biscuit, and Abigail retold what she'd read in her history books for the eleventh time that evening. The hour began to grow late, but Hermione knew her children wouldn't want to leave their grandparents, especially not on a night where the rain outside threatened to turn into snow.

"Hey," whispered Ron, "what d'you think about having them all stay at your parents tonight? There's an early Christmas present in our bedroom. . . ."

"Oh? Is it the kind that needs to be unwrapped?"

"Only if you want to put a bow on me." Ron winked and Hermione felt like giggling. With the first two children, getting their sexual lives back on track had taken several months, but with Madelyn, they had been ready, and ready quick, falling into a routine that mimicked the physical relationship they'd had when they were newlyweds.

Before Hermione could answer, a sharp shrill rang out, causing everyone to jump out of their seats.

"The fire detector!" cried Mr. Granger, opening the door to the lounge. The kitchen filled with black smoke. "It's the tree on fire! How'd we not smell it?"

"Mum! Dad! Grab Euan and Abigail and go! I'm going to try to stop the fire."

Hermione ran into the living room and raised her wand, yelling the incantation for water. The fire was too big and her spell wasn't working quickly enough. Next to her, Ron yelled, "I'm going to get Madelyn!"

"No!" Hermione yelled back. "Get outside! I can't stop the fire! GO!" Before Ron could protest, Hermione Disapparated.

Inside the small bedroom, their infant was crying and coughing, breathing in streams of smoke that seeped in from underneath the door. Hermione shrugged out of her cardigan, dropping her wand in the process, and threw it over Madelyn, careful to keep it loose so that the baby could breathe, but hoping it would act like a filter against the smoke.

Hermione closed her eyes and readied herself to Side-Along with her youngest daughter, but the door to the bedroom had already begun to be eaten away by fire. The smoke was unbearable, suffocating her. She couldn't breathe; she couldn't think; her mind was beginning to fade, her lungs filling up, her chest feeling as though it was burning right along with the fire. Her eyes searched the room for her wand, but if it hadn't burned yet, she couldn't find it.

In a last bit of consciousness, Hermione lowered herself onto the carpet, easing the cardigan down just enough to take one last look at the eyes of her daughter before covering the baby with her body, using herself as a shield. Her awareness was waning, but she was awake just enough to feel someone rip her away from Madelyn. She wanted to fight, she wanted to keep her baby in her arms, to protect her, to keep her safe, but she had no drive left. Her body was limp and useless and her eyes only saw the black of nothingness.

What seemed like moments later, someone coughed out a cry and Hermione opened her eyes. She was outside her parents' house, men in thick fireproof jackets, shooting jets of water into the house, killing the fire. Sitting up quickly and turning around, her eyes sought out the source of the cry – Ron.

He had fallen to his knees on the pavement, coughing. It was odd for him to be doing that since he hadn't been engulfed by the smoke. As he choked, tears fell from his eyes and fell into the puddles of stagnant water already on the pavement; it had stopped raining.

"She's not dead," he muttered. "Don't tell me – don't touch me!"

The Muggle paramedic standing near Ron ripped his hand away from his shoulder at the acidity of his words. He stumbled backwards and looked towards Hermione's parents for help. Hermione stood up, swallowing back her tears. Her mother was holding Madelyn, who was crying and wiggling as another medic looked at her. A few meters away, Hermione's father was crouched down, his arms around his other two grandchildren, both of them crying into his button-down shirt.

"Ron!" Hermione yelled. "Ron, what's going on? I'm right here!"

Her husband ignored her and Hermione looked at her children. They seemed to be all right, scared and staining their faces with tears, but all right. Ron stood and walked towards her, blinking unnaturally fast. He stopped mere inches in front of her and shut his eyes tight, his face scrunching up until his resolve broke and new tears fell down his face. In all her life, Hermione had never seen such tears. Normally, her heart would have skipped beats and her breath would have been caught in the middle of her throat if she saw Ron like this, but confusion, uncertainty, and fear overtook all other emotions.

Ron coughed and choked on his own sobs, stepping around Hermione to double over and vomit in the front garden of the house across the street from the Grangers'. When he was done, instead of standing, he turned his body around, his knees back on the pavement. His hand shook as it reached out.

"Why won't you look at me!" Hermione screamed. "What's wrong with—"

Her world stopped turning in that moment, the axis broken, as Ron's hand rested on top of a bumpy white sheet on the road. Ron retracted his hand and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. With a deep breath, he reached out again and pulled on the sheet, just enough to look at what was underneath.

Dark, unseeing eyes stared up at Hermione, eyes that were like glass, like a doll's. Ron's fingers fluttered against them, pushing the eyelids down, closing them so that they could blink for the final time.

"You can't do this to me," he whispered. "You can't leave me. You can't leave us."

Hermione tried to swallow, but she had no saliva in her mouth. She tried to cry, but she had no tears. She had no breath, she had no heartbeat, she had nothing. She was nothing. And her eyes had just been closed by her husband.

"You're my life. What am I supposed to do without you? I can't survive without . . . Hermione, I just need you to be . . ." Ron shut his eyes again and kissed her still-warm mouth briefly, knotting her hair around his fingers.

It didn't make any sense. She was here, right here, watching Ron, hearing him whisper things – but the body he crouched over was hers. The fire, the smoke had killed her. Left her as a lifeless body in the street while medics took care of her parents and children, while firefighters took care of the house.

"Why didn't you listen to me? For once in your goddamn life you could have listened! Could've let me go get Madelyn!" Ron choked again. "I didn't mean that. I'm not angry. I'm not. I'm – oh, God, Hermione . . . oh God. I love you, I love you, I love you. Don't do this to me. Don't be – don't be – oh God. Don't be dead. Please . . . please . . . please . . ."

Hermione felt herself slowly fading away as the realization that she was dead entered her mind. She watched her children as they cried, knowing she would never comfort them again. Watched her mother cradle Madelyn, knowing the last time she had held her in her arms had passed. Watched Ron as he continued to whisper "please" as though it was a prayer to a god he'd never before called upon.

And then they were all gone before her eyes, vanished as though by magic, and Hermione felt whatever was left of her – her soul, perhaps – fall asleep.

XXXXXXX

She knew for a good hour that she could open her eyes, but she didn't want to. Fear like she had never experienced before filled her, oozing into her brain, causing her to feel confused and so very alone. When she finally did open her eyes and look around, she saw that she was lying in a courtyard. There were stone benches and grass and a large wrought-iron gate behind her.

Her ears were filled with silence, and even though the grass moved as if there was wind, she neither felt nor heard anything. Whatever, wherever this place was, Hermione was the only one there. Her children had taken up parts of her heart and knowing she was never going to see them again left it in pieces. There was an ache in her arms from where she longed to hug them one more time. Her fingers itched to brush the hair away from Euan's eyes, to underline words as she read aloud from books to Abigail, and to curl around the tiny fist of Madelyn as she drifted off to sleep.

The part of her heart that was reserved for Ron didn't hurt any worse than it hurt for her children, but it did throb in a different way. She would miss his mouth and his hands as they roamed her body, learning new things about her every time they joined together, even when they both thought there was nothing else to know. She knew he would miss her in the same way, the way she blew in his ear when telling him secrets, the way she tugged on his hair when she wanted him to bend down and kiss her.

In the distance, she heard words, only a few, but the voice was familiar.

I'm staying here with you tonight. . . . Don't tell me to go home, Harry knows I'm here. . . . Ron – I'm staying! Go to sleep. Go hug your children. Tell them goodnight.

Hermione recognized the voice: it belonged to Ginny. Wanting desperately to get to that voice, Hermione searched through the courtyard, being careful to stay as quiet as possible so she might be able to hear where the voice was coming from. She searched for what seemed like hours, but the voice still loomed all around her. Ginny's voice was joined by others – Harry, Ron, and her parents. She wanted to hear her children, but was grateful she couldn't; she didn't think she could stand to hear their small voices asking for her when she knew she'd never come for them.

Perhaps the voices were coming from the other side of that wrought-iron gate. She walked over there, her hands undoing the latch, but the gate wouldn't open. She pushed and pulled and kicked it, but it remained locked. Sinking down into the grass in front of the gate, Hermione buried her face in her hands, not understanding any of this.

"You can't get through until you're ready."

Hermione looked up sharply. Behind the gate stood a man in black robes with shoulder-length black hair. He was young, no more than twenty, and very handsome. She recognized him at once.

"Sirius? What? You look so . . ."

"Young?" offered Sirius. "I suppose I do. I heard you yelling from this side. Is the gate locked?"

"Yes."

"You'll be able to open it when you're ready."

"What does that mean?"

"There's something keeping you on that side, from crossing over."

Hermione tried to take in a deep breath, but she had no breath to breathe. "I wasn't ready to leave my family," she confessed. "How long will I be here?"

"On that side? It's hard to tell. I was ready for death. I welcomed it, actually. I have all my friends, except for Remus, over here. If you're not ready to let go, then you won't be able to come here."

"I hear voices, but I can't see anyone."

"Oh, that." Sirius rubbed his chin in thought. "Yeah, I don't know. I think you'll have to keep looking. You can watch them. Your family, I mean."

"Can I go back?"

"Go back where? You're dead."

Hermione resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I'm beginning to realize that, thank you."

"If you go back, you'll be a ghost and trapped there forever."

"I don't want to be trapped."

"Keep looking. You'll find them eventually. Don't waste your time watching them. It's better on this side." Sirius tried to offer her a reassuring smile, but it didn't make Hermione feel any better. "I'm going back. . . . If you need anything, you can yell again. Someone will probably hear you."

Hermione nodded, feeling more wretched than before. Not only was she dead, but her soul wasn't ready to cross over. She was stuck in this limbo all alone, without her children and without Ron. She looked around the courtyard again, but didn't see anything different. When she turned back to ask Sirius another question, he was gone. The voices rang out again; this time they were voices of her children, like a beautiful hymn, filling up her thirsty ears.

I'll never forget Mummy. . . . She always made my toy soldiers march around the room.

She read me books and didn't even skip over the chapters where her name was in them. She was a heroine, you know. . . .

Hermione ran around the courtyard, trying to listen. Suddenly she noticed something that hadn't caught her eye before: a fountain. The voices were coming from the fountain. It was devoid of water and Hermione noticed a small rock had been jammed into the drain. She lifted the rock and the fountain slowly spurted water, coming to life once again. As the water fell from the top of the fountain and filled the basin, images began to form in the ripples. Her children – her beautiful, beautiful children.

"I'll put them to bed," said Harry, looking tired and taking Madelyn from Ron's arms. The kitchen they had all been sitting in looked like the Burrow and Hermione saw her three children and Harry and Ginny's one, a girl named Caroline, a year older than Abigail. Harry ushered them all upstairs, leaving Ginny and Ron alone in the room.

"It's been two months," said Ginny, reaching across the table and taking Ron's hands. Hermione was struck by how thin his fingers looked, his knuckles protruding like large pebbles under his skin.

"I know."

"They need you, Ron. Madelyn doesn't know why you're not playful and fun anymore. You don't want her growing up thinking you blame her because Hermione wanted to save her. Euan and Abigail see you so sad and they don't understand either. They want to be happy, I know they do, but with you not happy they don't know that they're allowed to be. You want to be happy, but you're not allowing yourself to be."

"I don't want to forget her. I've never actually loved anyone else."

Ginny smiled and nodded. "I know. I loved her, too. She was my best friend, really, she was. But as sad as it makes me feel that she's gone, I know that life has to go on. I want to help you, Ron, I really do. And I've a proposal to make."

"All right." Ron swallowed; Hermione watched his Adam's apple bob and she could remember kissing the hollow underneath it when she undressed him.

"Harry got that promotion and he's head of the Auror Department. We've enough money I don't really have to work and Mum's been getting rather tired lately, hasn't she? Watching Caroline and your three when you're at work. You're going to need to work fulltime, aren't you?"

Ron nodded.

"I want to take care of your kids, of Abby and Euan and Madelyn. You don't have to pay me. I want you to go back to work and not be stressed about paying for your house and saving up for Hogwarts for the kids. I know you don't want to dip into the school fund for poor kids and you won't have to. Let me watch them during the day while you work, all right? I love them and they're my nieces and nephew anyway."

"I don't think I could accept. . . ."

"You'll have to. I'm insisting. I've already talked it over with Harry. They can come to our house sometimes and I can take Caroline to yours some days, too. Let me do this for you. You need less stress, Ron, and you need to start getting back into life."

"I had a life. I don't want a new one."

"Well, you've got a new one and I don't really think you can do anything about it."

Ron nodded. "All right."

"You accept?"

Ron nodded again. "Thank you."

"I love you, Ron. And I loved her, too. No one will miss her as much as you do, but I don't think she'd want you unhappy either."

"Do you think she's watching us?"

"Maybe. If she is, she'd feel rather rotten that you're so bloody miserable. Cheer up. Your kids need you to be happy. I haven't seen Abby or Euan smile in two months."

"I know. You're right. Merlin, you're right. Okay, all right. I know I have to snap out of it. I'll try, Gin, I really will. Thanks."

Ginny smiled released Ron's hands.

Hermione watched him leave the kitchen and walk up the stairs. All the doors to all the bedrooms were closed. Ron walked up to his old bedroom and carefully stepped through the door. Hermione saw a small crib inside, next to Ron's childhood bed. He put the side of it down and carefully placed his hand on top of Madelyn's head, running his fingers over the soft down of hair.

"They told me it was a miracle you lived," he choked out. "You don't understand this, but I'm glad you're here, even though it means your mum is gone." Ron wiped at his eyes with his free hand. "You're my miracle, d'you understand? And I'll love you and it's not your fault."

Ron bent down and placed a kiss on top of Madelyn's head. She sighed and squirmed under her blankets, but she didn't open her eyes. He put the side of her crib back up and toed out of his shoes. He all but fell on his old bed and fell asleep.

It was hard, listening to her loved ones talk about her like that, in the past tense. She knew she was gone, but Hermione hated to accept it. She wanted her kids; she wanted Ron. But some things could never be again.

XXXXXXX

Time had new meaning. Before, it would take years to see the milestones of her children and family, but now those years felt shorter. She was able to watch Madelyn grow. The small bit of brown hair grew curly and longer. Ron kept it cut short, about her shoulders, and had to ask Ginny to tie it back for it was as unruly as Hermione's had been. On her first birthday in July, she took her first steps, having already spoken her first words a couple months before. She called Abigail "Abbiguh" and Euan "Eu-Ee." Ginny became "Gi-gi" and Harry, "Ha-ha." Her nicknames for her family stuck over the years and in turn, they called her Maddie. All except for Ron, who called her Miracle. She always giggled when he did this, not yet understanding the meaning. There must have been a closer bond between Ron and Madelyn, for she spoke a child's language that he understood better than anyone else.

Euan grew tall and his hair turned a dark shade of red. His nose was long, his mouth small, and his frame very square, even as a child. He laughed and pulled pranks on his siblings. In the back garden, he'd pick up sticks and fashion them into wands, even though they held no magic. He wanted to play Quidditch, but since Hermione wasn't around to nag about the breaking of necks if he fell, Ron took over that job and was very hesitant to let Euan practice. Once you're in Hogwarts, he'd say, then one of us will teach you how to play. He hadn't any patience and could barely sit still long enough for Ron to try and teach him how to read. Luckily, he had Abigail to thank, for she used her stern-voice and taught Euan the alphabet.

Abigail looked exactly like Ron, but had the demeanor of Hermione. She loved to read, loved to teach, and loved to boss her little brother and sister around. Whenever Ginny came over to watch the kids, she'd always ask her to plait her hair because she didn't like the way it fell into her eyes when she was trying to read. She was patient with Madelyn and didn't try to correct her when she called her "Abbiguh." To watch her grow was like Hermione watching her own self grow. When Abigail got her Hogwarts letter, she made her father take her to Diagon Alley immediately to buy her books. She sat down in her room and read each of them, cover to cover, reciting the important facts aloud, just as Hermione had done when she was eleven. Mum would be proud of me, she said. I'm going to be Head Girl, just like her.

When Ron took Abigail to King's Cross, Euan and Madelyn wanted to go, too. They traveled with Harry, Ginny, and Caroline, who was going to be in her second year.

Euan was eight and already taking note of the train and asking Ron all about school and barely holding his contentment at going home to owl the twins about naughty pranks he could pull inside the Hogwarts Express. Madelyn was six and still wanted to be held by Ron, sad to see her sister go off to school. They all waved goodbye as Abigail boarded the train.

Hermione watched her pull her trunk through the corridor, noting at how small her daughter was compared to the sixth- and seventh-years who pushed their way past her, trying to find compartments with their friends. Abigail slid one of the doors opened and smiled tentatively at the boy who was already seated inside. They knew each other well enough, seen one another a few times at various dinners and holiday parties.

"May I sit?" asked Abigail. When the boy with sandy brown hair nodded, Abigail stowed her trunk away and closed the compartment door. "You've a bit of dirt," she told him, pointing to his cheek, "just there."

That's when Hermione knew that Theodore Lupin and her eldest daughter were done for, but that knowledge came with a smile.

The night Abigail boarded the train, Ron put their other two children to bed and slipped into their old room. He undressed and put on his pajamas and for the first time since her death, laid down on Hermione's side of the bed. Holding the pillow in his arms, he breathed in, as though perhaps some of her scent remained behind, even after almost six years.

"Abigail's gone," he said quietly, the side of his mouth against the pillow. "Can you hear me?"

Yes, Hermione wanted to shout, but she just kept watching through the fountain.

"I miss her already. . . . She's just as clever as you, but not nearly as brave. I think she'll be in Ravenclaw. I'm sure she's writing an owl already. D'you think Mum and Dad missed us when we left for school? I don't miss her as much as I miss you. It hasn't got any easier. . . . It's been six years. Ginny wants me to date again, but I can't. Not yet. All my energy is on our kids and I don't want to change that, but . . . I'm lonely. I don't think I've ever really said that before, but I am. Harry and Ginny try, but it's not the same. You know, I can't even say your name out loud without . . ."

Hermione didn't hear what Ron was going to say. He cleared his throat and buried his head further into her old pillow.

XXXXXXX

She tried the gate frequently, but it was always locked. She never saw anyone else pass through the courtyard, which her curious mind found odd. Surely there were others who wanted to get through the gate and surely there were others who were also stuck. It wasn't possible that the gate was only locked for her and no one else, was it? After much thought, Hermione concluded that if anyone who wanted to see her came into the courtyard, she would see them. Those who passed through who were unknown to her didn't matter; she was far too focused on watching her family, on watching Ron.

Hermione really loved to sit and watch her daughter at Hogwarts. Her hand was always the first in the air to answer a question and the professors who had had Hermione as a student noted how Abigail was just like her. As much as it warmed Hermione's heart to know that her daughter was trying so hard for her, it seemed to also warm Abigail's that everyone thought she was just like her mum.

Her other children grew happy and healthy and their home was filled with laughter. Ron had reverted to his old self, playing with his children and making sure they never went a day without one of his huge hugs. Euan had finally worn him down and Ron agreed to buy him a practice broom for his tenth birthday in November. He rode it nearly every day and couldn't wait to show Abigail when she came home for the holidays that year as a second-year. Madelyn didn't like Quidditch and told Euan so every chance she got, but Hermione didn't miss how she would hide and watch her brother fly from her bedroom window. Ron also noticed. He laughed and told her that she was so observant that she would make the perfect Seeker and if she asked nicely enough, he was sure Uncle Harry would teach her.

It was that immediate January that her family suffered another tragedy. Christmas was full of laughter, presents, and snow. The ground was white and her children threw snowballs at each other. The snow fluttered from the sky and kissed their hair and eyelashes, leaving soft trails in specks of white. With a few hushed whispers, their children ganged up on Ron and attacked him with several snowballs. He laughed right along with them and chased them around the back garden while her parents watched from the sidelines, sipping on mugs of hot cocoa.

After the New Year, only a day before Abigail was set to take the Hogwarts Express back to school, Mr. and Mrs. Granger were back in their own home when Hermione's father clutched his left arm and fell over. The ambulance came, but it ended up being of no use.

Hermione ripped herself away from the fountain, wanting to cry, wanting to feel those suffocating sobs that came with tragedy, but nothing came. She wanted to be able to lash out at someone, to scream out the injustices in the world. Her father was still relatively young. He was only in his late sixties. Muggles lived far longer than that!

"Hermione?"

She turned and the sadness she'd just felt washed away in a flood of relief.

"Daddy!"

Like Sirius, her father looked different, younger. His hair was void of all the gray and his wrinkles were smooth. She wondered why this happened, why her father and Sirius had appeared so much younger, though while Sirius appeared to be about twenty, her father looked to be in his thirties. Perhaps when one dies, they turned into the age they loved most. Hermione wondered what she looked like; there weren't any mirrors anywhere.

Her father threw his arms around her, hugging her tightly, but Hermione didn't have any physical feeling, so if she hadn't kept her eyes open she wouldn't have known her father was even hugging her. It didn't matter; having her father there felt wonderful. She had missed having a familiar face around.

"I thought we'd never see you again."

"I miss you," said Hermione, "and Mum."

"We missed you, too. Your children have really helped to pass the time. They're wonderful."

"I know," said Hermione, "I've been watching them. Do you want to watch with me?"

Mr. Granger smiled and nodded.

XXXXXXX

Hermione always knew that she had married the most brilliant man in the world. He affirmed it by inviting her mother to move into their house. Ron had always got on with her parents, always joked with her father and helped her mother in the kitchen, but there had always been a sense that they were her parents and not his. It was different with Mrs. Weasley, who Hermione had also ended up calling "Mum" after she and Ron were married. She'd been enveloped into the Weasley family, but it hadn't been the same with Ron and her family. Part of it, Hermione knew, was because there was such a culture difference between wizards and Muggles. So her heart almost broke with happiness when Ron made up a room for her mother to come and stay.

She and her father tried the gate, but it remained locked for the both of them. Her father moved aside and let Hermione watch her children, but she knew he liked watching the Weasley household because her mother was there, playing chess with Madelyn and cards with Euan. She read them stories from Muggle storybooks and baked biscuits with their help. Ginny still came over to watch Euan and Madelyn some, but mostly Mrs. Granger babysat for them, allowing Ginny to go back to work part-time.

Harry was given another promotion, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. This also put him on the Wizengamot and opened up the position of Head of the Auror Department, which Ron immediately filled. He'd been in charge of his unit for a few years and this promotion, while welcomed, was not particularly surprising. It didn't matter; Hermione was immensely proud and wished she had the tears in her eyes to cry happily. She wanted to be there so he could come home and tell her, so they could open a bottle of wine and slip into their room to celebrate.

The next September, over a year later, Euan boarded the train along with his older sister. Mrs. Granger said goodbye to him at the car and waved as Ron took the children into the station. They stood on the platform, waiting for the train. Euan was a ball of excitement, bouncing around, unable to control himself. He kept talking about all the things he wanted to learn and all the Quidditch games he was going to see. He talked of flying lessons and learning how to be a more proper Beater.

Abigail was quiet. She'd turned fourteen in August and became ever more contemplative, even more engrossed in her books. Hermione watched her, fearing that perhaps she wouldn't be able to find friends, but her fears were proved wrong. Abigail didn't have many friends, but she did have three who she always sat in class with, always ate lunch with, always studied in the library with. Two of them were girls, one from a Muggle family and the other who was pureblood. They were also in Ravenclaw, which Ron had accurately predicted. Her fourth friend was Theodore Lupin.

Hermione liked to watch them, remembering her own days of first, pure love. Everything was so innocent, so confused. The two of them were fourteen now, but hadn't even kissed yet. Hermione suspected that Theodore only hung around the other two girls because Abigail was there. He always sat next to her at meals and at the library and once, on the very last day of school third year, he held her hand.

When her children boarded the Hogwarts Express, Abigail immediately found the compartment Theodore was sitting in. Euan, on the other hand, searched the train and found two of the most mischievous-looking boys imaginable. Hermione could already see the countless letters that would have to be written home about the pranks they would pull.

Madelyn was now nine and very lonely without her siblings. There were times that year when Ron would have to work late on a case, but she refused to go to sleep until he came home. She'd stay awake until midnight or later, refusing to close her eyes until that distinctive sound he made when he Apparated filtered through the air. She'd fling off her blankets and go bounding down the stairs and jump into his arms. He'dsmile and kiss her forehead. There were times when Hermione thought he looked so exhausted he could pass right out, but he still held Madelyn and walked with her up the stairs. He'd cover her up and sit on the edge of the bed. The room was only lit by a magical candle which served as a nightlight and the light from the flame danced over the walls and the blankets.

"Miracle," Ron would say, still using that old nickname for him, "you don't need me here to go to sleep, do you? Your grandmother's here."

"I know," Madelyn would reply. And every time she would add, "But I have to make sure you're coming home."

"I'm always coming home."

"You don't know that."

And Ron's smile would turn watery and sad, as though remembering what happened almost a decade ago. He'd kiss her forehead again and say, "Good night, Miracle," before shutting her door and letting her fall asleep.

XXXXXXX

Everything was very normal and expected. In a hurried rush, Theodore Lupin kissed Abigail before they parted ways for the Christmas holidays. Once the second term of the school year began, they were even more inseparable than before, though they hadn't shared a second kiss. Ron had received thirteen owls with the official Hogwarts seal; all the letters explained in detail the mad (although brilliant, Ron had admitted to Mrs. Granger) pranks Euan had pulled. There were disappearing toilet seats and somehow, the portrait in front of the Slytherin common room had been charmed deaf so that he could not hear the password spoken by any of the students. Ron owled Fred and George to tell them about it and they were both extremely impressed.

"I refuse to let you give Euan the map," Ron told Harry when they went out for a drink at the Three Broomsticks in March. They met Neville, who now taught Herbology at Hogwarts, and shared a bottle of firewhisky, celebrating Ron turning forty-three.

"You didn't give it to Caroline?" asked Neville, who had been introduced to the map during their seventh year.

Harry laughed. "No way. She's not a troublemaker. She'd have no use for it. Euan needs the map, Ron. Think of all the parchment the Headmistress is wasting by having to write you? You could be saving hundreds of trees by the time Euan's done with Hogwarts."

"If you give him that ruddy map, I don't want to know about it."

"What about Lupin's kids?" asked Neville. "He created the map, didn't he?"

"Lupin's kids are all out of Hogwarts, aren't they?" asked Ron. "No, Theo's still there."

"Yeah, it's probably a bad idea to give the map to him," commented Neville. "It would only give him and Abigail directions to secret passages where they could snog. . . . Though, they're both really respons—"

Ron slammed his glass against the table. "Did you say snog and my daughter's name in the same sentence?"

Hermione giggled. Ron was so protective. It was very sweet.

"Er," said Neville, clearing his throat. "No."

"Neville."

"Rumor around the professors is that – yes. They're dating. We think. Poppy saw them holding hands and Victoria Vector swears she saw Abigail kiss Theo before one of the Quidditch matches. He's on the Ravenclaw team, you know."

Ron groaned. "It's starting isn't it? Boyfriends and all that? I know what those boys are thinking. If I find out Abby's doing any of the things I used to do with her mother – or with Lavender, too – while I was still at Hogwarts, she's coming straight home."

Harry and Neville both laughed.

"Ginny told me Caroline had a boyfriend at the beginning of the term. She's only a fifth-year and I told Ginny I couldn't hear about it. I didn't want to know. There were far too many happy hours by the lake with your sister for me to be comfortable with Caroline having a boyfriend."

"It was one of the Boot kids, I think," mused Neville. "Don't quote me on that. They went to Hogsmeade one Saturday. I saw them sharing a butterbeer. I really wish I didn't know who any of these kids' parents are. He's not in Gryffindor like Caroline, though. I think he's a . . . Hufflepuff, maybe."

"A Hufflepuff?" roared Ron, laughing deeply. Hermione smiled; it was so good to see Ron having a good time. She really wished he'd let himself go and just be happy without her. She truly didn't want him miserable.

"It's probably better not to be informed," said Ron decisively. "Abby's my little girl. She's not allowed to do things with boys. I suppose that Lupin and Tonks' son is better than a Malfoy, though."

"Malfoy's kids go to Durmstrang," said Neville. "Believe me, I asked around. I didn't fancy teaching them if they're anything like Malfoy."

Ron and Harry laughed.

"Say, Ron? When are you going to get a girlfriend?"

Ron glanced at Neville before looking down into his glass. "I don't think I am."

"Really?"

"I don't want one." Ron shrugged. "I still miss her. In our bathroom, we always had two bars of soap because I hated smelling like flowers and fruit all the bloody time and when I take a shower now, I always end up picking up her soap by accident."

"You haven't got rid of it?" asked Harry.

"No. . . . It was brand new that day. She'd only used it once, that morning. You can still smell it when the shower gets steamy. I haven't touched her clothes in the wardrobe either and all of her books are really dusty on the shelf, but I haven't gone through those either."

"I didn't realize," said Harry. "I'll come help you pack her things. Or Ginny can help."

"No," said Ron, "I'll do it one day. Look, I know she's dead and I know she's been dead for over eight years. I've let her go. I'm really happy with the kids and the Auror Department's been really good to me—"

"Yeah, because your boss is your best mate."

Ron grinned at Harry and nodded. "That's true."

"We all miss her, Ron," said Neville quietly.

"Ginny wants me to date again, but not yet. I'd rather look after Madelyn right now. Maybe when they're all at Hogwarts, then I'll find a witch, but I'm not depressed. Life is good, life is fine."

Hermione turned away from the fountain. She'd hadn't meant for her death to put Ron's life at a standstill. She didn't want him to be lonely. He was allowed to date, anything to make him happy. Other than the conversation about missing her, Ron's birthday seemed to be a success. He laughed and got tipsy with his mates. He Disapparated from the bar and went straight home. After he changed into pajamas, he crept into Madelyn's room, thinking she might actually be asleep. When he pushed her door open, she sat up in bed and held her arms out to him.

"I had to make sure you were coming home," she said.

"I always come home."

"Mummy didn't."

"You don't remember that."

Madelyn rubbed the fatigue from her eyes and shook her head. "I dream about it."

"You dream about the stories Abby's told you of Mum."

"No, I think they're real memories 'cause I'm a baby in them. Night, Daddy."

"Goodnight, Miracle." He kissed her head before leaving her room.

XXXXXXX

Exactly one month later, Hermione's mother walked through the courtyard. She hugged Hermione first before embracing her husband; their hug lasted for what seemed like hours. When they pulled apart, they kissed briefly, which Hermione found odd, seeing as how they couldn't feel physical contact; they had no real bodies.

They stayed with Hermione for a little while, watched Madelyn turn eleven and start her first year at Hogwarts. By this time, Abigail was sixteen and in her sixth year, Euan thirteen and in his third. Once Madelyn boarded the train, small and scared, Hermione's parents turned and walked through the wrought-iron gate and out of sight.

Madelyn was Sorted into Gryffindor, just like her brother, and Hermione watched her for a little while. She was popular and immediately made many friends.

It was in that year, in October, that Ron asked Ginny and Harry to come over to help him pack up some of Hermione's things. Ginny folded her clothes neatly in a box, charmed to have no bottom. Ron wouldn't let her take Hermione's old school uniform, her wedding robes, or her pair of red pajamas that he always loved seeing her in. Harry packed up her books, but Ron asked him to put them in the attic. One day Abigail would want them and he would gladly give them to her, but for now it was best that they were out of sight.

Hermione noticed that her entire existence was summed up into three boxes – clothes, books, and miscellaneous. Three boxes and she was gone from her own house. Part of her was angry. That was her house; those were her things. But it needed to be done. Ron needed to fully accept that she was gone, dead, and never coming back. He needed to do this to move on with his life.

When Harry and Ginny left, Hermione watched as Ron opened the wardrobe and fingered her old school tie. He sat down on their bed and opened up the drawer in the bedside table. His fingers pulled out a picture, one that Hermione recognized immediately. It was a candid shot from when they were dancing at their wedding reception, only minutes before they would leave to go to an exotic beach for their honeymoon. Something splashed over her photographed face and she knew that Ron was crying.

His tears were silent, but they were there, flowing freely down his face. It felt as though someone had reached into her chest and twisted her heart around with their cold, bony hands. It was pain like she could barely remember ever feeling. The tragedy of her death still having to sink in for Ron, his pain, his sadness, and her own disgust with herself for not wanting Ron to move on.

I do want him to move on! she told herself. I do! He needs to be happy! I want him happy!

And that was true, she did want him happy, but she also didn't want to be forgotten.

Ron wiped his eyes and put the photograph back into the drawer and closed it.

XXXXXXX

The combination of packing Hermione's things and all three of their children at school must have sparked something in Ron. For several months, a woman named Noelle had been flirting with Ron. Her hair was blonde and her accent American. She was quite a bit younger than Ron, barely even thirty. Harry and Ginny both encouraged it.

Hermione smirked when she heard the words, I always get a drink after work at the bar Après Travail, and scoffed when Ron asked if he could join her. Their date was awkward and Ron drank more than he usually did. He was shy and awkward, like he had been when he was younger. Surely the same insecurities didn't remain, but he'd only ever had two girlfriends: Lavender and Hermione.

She couldn't stand to watch them for too long and was relieved when Ron went home alone. He took a shower and rinsed the smell of alcohol and smoke off his body. When he climbed into bed, he placed a hand on Hermione's pillow and whispered I'm sorry into the air, his voice soft and sad.

For two months Ron spent time with Noelle. It took that long for Hermione to be glad for Ron, to feel relief when he went out with her. The smile he gave Noelle was different than the smiles he'd given her, but his laughter was genuine and he seemed less lonely and less sad. That was important and Hermione knew that. It was hard to take, but Ron always came home alone and said kind words to her pillow before he went to sleep. He stopped apologizing, but still made mention of missing her, of still loving her no matter what.

The time came for Ron to further his relationship with Noelle. She invited him to her flat and he went. He kissed her mouth and undid her shirt. As she led him to her bed, he stopped her and shook his head.

"I can't," he whispered.

"Why not?"

"I haven't . . . with another woman . . . since my wife died. . . ."

Noelle smiled and cupped Ron's cheek in her hand. "It's all right."

"You'd be my second," he said, looking from the floor to her face. "I hadn't with another woman before my wife, either."

"Oh," said Noelle, and Hermione could tell that his words felt intense, that she was contemplating the exact meaning of this. "It's all right," she replied after a time. "I can help you. I'm not looking to get married and I don't like children. Let this be a learning experience."

"I have children. Three of them."

Noelle smiled again. "I know. They're yours and I don't want them to be mine."

Hermione was grateful for this. Ron needed a witch who would give him companionship, but he didn't need someone to tangle up his heart so soon, not when this was the first woman he'd been with in eleven years.

She stopped watching when Ron allowed Noelle to take him into her bedroom. Instead she focused on her children.

Abigail was a prefect and in the running for Head Girl. Her OWL results over the summer had been better than Hermione's, all O's without a single E. She still spent her time with her three friends, but there wasn't any doubt any longer whether she and Theodore were a couple. They kissed frequently and held hands constantly. Abigail had even written his name between hearts on pieces of parchment along with Abigail Meriwether Lupin and Mrs. Abigail Lupin.

Euan had his eye on a girl and even asked her to Hogsmeade. She giggled and accepted and Hermione groaned at the prospect of her thirteen-year-old son having a girlfriend. Euan did look out for Madelyn, though. She was popular and very pretty – so pretty in fact that many of her fellow first-years stuttered and blushed and dropped their books whenever she was around.

Hermione watched her children more closely, as Ron began to spend increasing amounts of time at Noelle's flat. Their relationship came to an end in March, right after Ron's forty-fifth birthday. Noelle had grown tired of always having to play hostess and Ron said he had no intention of inviting her over to his house; his bed was still the same bed he'd shared with Hermione and it wouldn't be right for another witch to join him there.

Throughout all the owls between Ron and their children, he never once mentioned Noelle. Their children came home for the summer, full of stories about school and professors and examinations. Euan's stories included tales of detentions and attempts to get past the Whomping Willow. Madelyn told of her friends and how she longed to go to Hogsmeade. Abigail was only concerned with the arrival of owls to see whether she was appointed Head Girl.

The children all left for school again in September. Abigail was Head Girl and Theodore Head Boy and Hermione couldn't imagine a more perfect match in all the world. With the children gone, Ron began to date again. It was all very casual and he didn't sleep with any of them. Hermione was grateful that he was happy, or as happy as he could be. When his laughter hit her ears it went straight to her chest and lifted her entire body. She would give up watching her family for good if it meant Ron and her children could be happy for the rest of their lives.

Abigail left Hogwarts and found a job at Flourish and Blotts publishing house. She edited textbooks and was secretly working on a new defense book of her own. There was a vacant flat in the block of flats where Theodore lived and she moved in, one floor above his. Hermione was glad Ron was unaware of how much time they spent in one another's flats, though she was proud that her eldest daughter's virginity remained intact.

It was about the time Euan readied himself to leave Hogwarts that Hermione realized Ron's latest witch wasn't a passing phase. Her name was Cora and she was clever. She was younger than he was, but only by a few years. She'd never been married and had no children. She was lovely and clever and campaigned for werewolf rights. In honesty, she was rather perfect for Ron. It worried Hermione that when Ron was with Cora his smile was not the same smile he gave to her. It was warm and loving, but it just wasn't the same.

The month Abigail turned twenty-one, Cora asked Ron what he thought about marriage. He had obviously been in favor of it at one point in time, having been married to Hermione for twelve years before she died. His voice faltered when he answered and he seemed unsure of what to say. Hermione had to look away; she didn't want to hear Ron whisper reassurances of love to a woman who was not her. In her heart, she did hope that this witch could keep Ron from being lonely and help him live a happy life until it was time for him to join her in the courtyard.

XXXXXXX

Two days before Madelyn was to leave for her final year at Hogwarts, Ron had his children over for dinner. Euan had signed a contract with one of the professional Quidditch teams as a Beater and had moved out. Ron wanted his children at home when they could still all have a meal together before Madelyn left for school.

"There's something I want to ask you lot," he said when all their plates were clear and only the juice from the vegetables and meat remained. "You're all of age so you're officially adults and your opinion is very important. You've all met Cora. . . ."

Hermione didn't miss the way Madelyn rolled her eyes at the mention of Ron's girlfriend.

"She's mentioned wanting to get married."

"Have you asked her?"

Ron looked at Abigail and shook his head. "No. I didn't know what I thought about it. I still don't, really."

"She's good-looking for an old person."

"Well thank you for that, Euan," said Ron humorlessly. Hermione laughed because to a nineteen-year-old, being fifty would be extremely old.

"You can't!" cried Madelyn, her eyes huge and watery. "What about Mum?"

"Mum's gone," said Abigail. "She's been gone for a while."

"I know that, I'm not an imbecile."

"You don't like Cora?" asked Ron, surprised. Everybody liked Cora. She'd certainly charmed her way into Harry and Ginny's good graces and they were extremely hard to please.

"No, I don't like Cora," snapped Madelyn. "What about Mum? Don't you still love her? I don't need a new mum."

"No one's giving you a new mum, Miracle," said Ron, looking thoroughly confused. "If we got married, you'd be out of Hogwarts. She wouldn't dream of trying to be your mother."

"Good, because I don't need one."

"You're acting like a spoiled brat," said Abigail. "I think you're jealous of Cora. You've always been Dad's favorite and now you think he likes Cora better than you."

Ron choked on his water and coughed as he set his glass back on the table. "Now see here—"

"I'm not a spoiled brat! And don't you think it's unfair to Mum? It's not like they got divorced or anything!"

"Right!" cried Abigail. "They didn't get divorced. Mum's dead. She died almost seventeen years ago. Why are you even so upset? You don't remember her."

"I know I don't," said Madelyn quietly. "I don't remember her because I was a baby and it's my fault she's dead."

"Oh, bloody hell," sighed Ron. "It's not your fault she died. It's no one's fault she died. I'm sure any of us could find a way to blame ourselves. I could blame me for not insisting she go outside while I saved you from the guestroom."

"It could be my fault," added Euan, "for breaking Dad's wand so he couldn't be any help."

"It could be my fault, too," said Abigail. "I didn't stop you from breaking Dad's wand."

"See?" Ron said to Madelyn. "It's no one's fault. And furthermore," he added, looking at Abigail, "I don't have favorites."

"I don't have a special nickname like Madelyn has," challenged Abigail.

"I gave her a nickname because she doesn't remember your mum. I gave her extra attention when she was little because you two at least had memories of her."

Euan nodded. "I have a couple, but not many."

"I have a lot," confessed Abigail.

"Fine, I'm not your favorite, but, Daddy, I don't want you marrying Cora."

"Dad has a right to be happy," said Euan. "I wouldn't mind a girlfriend myself, actually."

"I do want you happy, Daddy," said Madelyn, "but if you're lonely, can't you go play cards with Uncle Harry or something? I won't mention another word about Cora if you can honestly say that you love her as much as you loved Mum. You don't have to love her more, but if you love her just as much."

"Where is this coming from?" asked Ron.

"You always said Mum was the love of your life. You said being with her was like breathing. It was natural and easy and you never thought you could live without her."

"It's because of you three," said Ron honestly. "If it hadn't been for you, I don't know what I would've done. You gave me reason to live and I've never regretted that once. And I did love your mum very much. I still do and I still miss her."

"I think you should still marry Cora," said Abigail. "Aunt Ginny said she's never seen you quite so happy since Mum passed. Caroline said she likes your new smile. If you want to marry Cora, you should. I want to see you happy, Dad, and sometimes I don't think you are."

"I don't care either way," said Euan. "I loved Mum, too, but Cora's nice and she already comes to a lot of my Quidditch games. She's not so bad, Maddie."

Madelyn sighed. "If you love her just as much as you love Mum," she repeated.

"I don't think . . ." Ron began. He cleared his throat and took a long drink from his water glass. "I don't think that's possible. She's been gone for almost seventeen years and I still love her."

Hermione laughed. She wasn't sure where the laughter came from, but she let out it with a smile on her face. It was wonderful to hear Ron say he loved her, even after all this time.

Madelyn went off to Hogwarts for her final year. She didn't seem as happy as she usually was at school, surrounded by friends and boyfriends. By Christmas she was on boyfriend number four and Hermione wanted to send her a Howler, to tell her not to be so frivolous with love and boys' hearts. She wanted to give her daughter advice, to tell her that NEWTs were more important than she realized and that boys would be there to date even after school was over. Madelyn always did the breaking-up and Hermione had to wonder why. Why wasn't she allowing herself to date someone for more than a month or two? She was getting a reputation for being a tease and Hermione didn't like it one bit.

There was a cold smack of realization during the Christmas holidays. Hermione felt it inside her skin as though she'd just dipped into a pool of ice. Madelyn was afraid of the boys just as she had been afraid that Ron was never coming home again. It was strange, since Madelyn didn't remember her mother, but the closer Hermione looked, the more her youngest daughter reeked of fear. If only she could tell her that not everyone is going to die right away; if only she could make Maddie understand.

Other adjustments were made over that holiday. Normally all the Weasleys went to the Burrow on Christmas Day, all seven children, wives and Harry, and the children. Christmas Eve was a time for each of the seven Weasleys to spend time with their respective families. Abigail asked Ron if Theodore and his family could join them for dinner on Christmas Eve. He agreed, of course, which brought Remus, Tonks, and their two older boys along with Theo. There was a noticeable lack of Cora, which no one mentioned. While watching Madelyn at Hogwarts, Euan play Quidditch, and Abigail finish up writing her textbook, Hermione knew she must have missed an inevitable breakup between Ron and Cora.

The announcement was made over pudding; Abigail and Theodore were engaged. The want inside of Hermione to reach out and hug her daughter, to embrace the boy who would soon be part of her family was overwhelming. It knocked her backwards and she sank against the grass, unable to look in the fountain any longer. She missed her family in ways they'd never begun to imagine. Right before she stopped watching, Hermione was sure she'd seen a tear form in Ron's eyes as he looked at their eldest daughter talk of plans to get married.

XXXXXXX

The engagement lasted three years. During that time, Madelyn left Hogwarts and got a job working at Fred and George's store in Dublin. Hermione was skeptical of her daughter not having a solid job, but Madelyn seemed content. Staying in Dublin offered her no end to a trail of Irish boyfriends, the latest being the son of none other than Seamus Finnigan. Her eldest daughter was marrying a Lupin and now her youngest was infatuated with a Finnigan. She briefly wondered what offspring of a former classmate her son would soon find.

James Finnigan was quite a bit older than Madelyn, by nearly ten years, having been born to a Muggle only a few years after they all left Hogwarts. He was invited as Madelyn's guest to Abigail's wedding, but a week before, Madelyn broke off their relationship. It was the longest Madelyn had ever dated one boy – man – before and Hermione could tell that her daughter was in love. She couldn't begin to fathom why she would break up with a wizard who so obviously loved her in return.

The wedding was beautiful. Abigail's bridesmaids wore red and carried pink flowers. It was Valentine's Day, an appropriate day for a wedding. Madelyn was up there, by the altar, but she didn't look happy for her sister. Instead, her face was drawn and serious, her jaw set and her lips pressed tightly together.

Afterwards, she sat at a table by herself, watching the guests dance. Tonks was her real self that night, her hair still brown, but marked with a few streaks of gray. Lupin was all gray, but he was also already in his seventies, but his face looked much younger; Tonks had helped to keep him young. Theodore's brothers were their, dancing with their dates, and Euan looked particularly happy to mingle amongst the single witches.

A familiar body sat down next to Madelyn at the vacant table. She turned and looked at him, holding his gaze for nearly a minute before looking away, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I thought you might want someone to dance with."

"James, what're you doing here?"

"Wondering why you pushed me away."

"I didn't want a boyfriend any more."

"Oh, a boyfriend? I'd never heard you call me that before."

"Sorry. You should probably go before someone sees you here. They all know I uninvited you."

James tucked one of Madelyn's brown curls behind her ear. "They'll have to Banish me, then. I know you love me."

"Shut up."

"Don't push me away. I'm not like those pansies you usually date. I'm old enough to know what I want – and I want you."

"You don't get it. I don't want to date you."

Hermione groaned. What was wrong with her daughter? "Stop it!" she cried out, knowing full well Madelyn couldn't hear her.

"They all die," said Madelyn.

"Who dies?"

"People I'm close to."

"Any of your boyfriends ever die?"

"Not yet."

"Well . . . ?"

Madelyn shook her head. "You don't understand. My grandparents died and my mum died."

"You don't even remember your mum."

"That's what everyone keeps saying!" cried Madelyn. "But I have dreams. And I don't know if they're based on the stories I've heard of what happened that night or if I actually remember, but the dreams are awful. My mum died a very violent sort of death and my dad was miserable for years. He tried to smile and laugh, but I heard him when I was a child. He cried at night. A grown wizard and he cried."

"I'm sure he missed your mum."

"My grandmother died two years after my grandfather passed. From a broken heart. She took care of me while Dad worked. My Aunt Ginny used to watch after us, but my grandmother moved in and watched us a lot. Euan and Abby were at school so I was with her that last year and she was miserable without Granddad."

"So what?"

"So what's the point if everyone just dies?"

James leaned over and kissed Madelyn's mouth very softly. "That is the point. If people didn't die then we wouldn't have to try so hard to make life meaningful."

"You'll just die too."

"Maybe you'll die first," said James, "and I'll get to be miserable, but I'd rather be miserable knowing I had you than be miserable never knowing what it was like."

"I don't think . . ."

"What?"

"I don't think I can."

"I'll help you."

Madelyn nodded. "All right. If you help me."

James kissed her again and stood up to lead her to the dance floor.

XXXXXXX

A year and a half later, on Christmas day, Abigail and Theodore had their first baby. It was a girl and she looked exactly like all of Hermione's baby pictures. Euan came home from his European Quidditch Tour to see the new little one. Madelyn took off work for a week to hold the baby while the parents got some sleep. I want one just like you, she would coo to the child as she rocked it in an old rocking chair.

Ron was proud and had a nice array of photographs of his first grandchild. Harry laughed at Ron and called him "Grandpa" whenever they went out, which was rather hypocritical, said Ron, seeing as how Harry's daughter already had two-year-old twins.

He liked taking care of his first granddaughter, but seemed tired whenever Abigail Floo'ed by to pick her up. He called her Giggles, for that's all she did, though everyone knew it was because he had a hard time speaking her god-given name aloud. Abigail had wanted to give her a strong name, a name that had meaning, but Ron could not bring himself to call anyone else, "Hermione Jane."

XXXXXXX

Three years after Hermione Jane was born, Euan met a French girl named Cliodne. Watching through the fountain, Hermione had a hard time not rolling her eyes at the prospect of having another Frenchwoman enter the Weasley family. Cliodne was nice and very pretty. Blonde and thin with curves that could only have been grown from an Enhancement Cream. She and Euan both were twenty-eight and shared the same November birth date. Hermione was expecting him to ask to marry her at any time.

James Finnigan had somehow been able to convince Madelyn to stay with him and they seemed very happy, though Hermione did wonder how long it would be before they too got married. After five years of a relationship, one did begin to wonder when an engagement would be coming about.

It was brilliant, though, watching her children find love and happiness. On the other hand, it was painful to watch Ron. He went home to an empty house after work. He made himself dinner for one and ate it before taking a shower and heading to bed. His fingers clutched at Hermione's pillow and he seemed to miss her even more now than he ever had when she first died. He said goodnight to her before he fell asleep, something he hadn't done while he was with Cora.

In March, Ron turned fifty-nine. In April, Euan announced his engagement to Cliodne. In May, Abigail and Theodore had another baby girl, this one named Agatha.

It was also in May when the senior Aurors in the Auror Department went on a raid, arresting seven Dark wizards rumored to have murdered over fifty witches and wizards. Ron had given up fieldwork many years before, but he still interrogated suspects and served on the Wizengamot along with Harry. On that day in May, Hermione watched as Ron sat down at a table across from one of the Dark wizards. The look in his eye reminded Hermione of the crazed look Sirius had had in his Wanted posters plastered all over the country. The look was unsettling and Hermione wanted to warn Ron that something terrible was about to happen.

As it was, the Dark wizard took something out of his pocket. Whatever it was, it was invisible and he threw it with all his force at Ron. At that moment, Hermione was sure Ron was going to die.

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Outside hospital room 419, Ginny Potter stood with Harry, holding his hand, as she spoke with a Healer.

"No, no," she said, shaking her head, "I'm his closest relative. No, his wife is dead. What's going on with him?"

"It was poison," said the Healer.

"Don't you have an antidote?" asked Harry.

The Healer nodded. "Of course, but by the time we gave it to him—"

"Is he going to die?" Ginny asked, looking quite frightened.

"Yes. The antidote wasn't given in time and there is still poison in his body. It'll eventually eat away at him."

"How long?" whispered Ginny.

"A day . . . a week . . . a month . . . or a year . . . but it's up to him."

The Healer turned and left to attend to other patients. Ginny let go of Harry's hand and asked him to wait outside while she went to talk to her brother. Inside the hospital room, Ron looked old and alone. Even in sleep, sadness was drawn in the wrinkles across his face; the lines next to his mouth were more from crying frowns than smiling laughter. Ron looked so much older than only fifty-nine, the skin of his face stretched over bone like a piece of parchment that had been crumpled up and hastily smoothed back down.

"Ron?" said Ginny softly. "Ron?"

He opened his eyes; they were lifeless gray instead of vivid blue.

"How're you feeling?"

"They told you I was dying, didn't they?"

"Oh, Ron," whispered Ginny. "Yes."

"I welcome it," he replied and closed his eyes.

"Don't say that."

"I've nothing here. I just want to go see Hermione."

"I know you're lonely, but what about your kids?"

"They're grown; they don't need me to take care of them anymore."

"Ron, open your eyes. There, look at me. They'll always need you. Euan's getting married in less than a month. Don't you want to see him do that? Cliodne's a lovely girl."

"She reminds you of Fleur."

"Well, yes."

"You hate Fleur."

"Hate is a strong word. She turned out to be faithful and a good mother."

Ron closed his eyes again.

"Madelyn's been with James for five years. Don't you think they'll be getting married soon? She's your Miracle. . . . Maybe you should wait and walk her down the aisle. She loves you very much."

Tears leaked out of the corners of Ron's eyes. "I can't."

Ginny eyed the rows of pain-suppressing potions next to Ron's hospital bed. "Why can't you? You haven't been miserable all this time, have you? Your children – wasn't it amazing watching them grow up?"

"The first two or three years were miserable," said Ron quietly, "and then they got loads better. When Madelyn left for Hogwarts I covered up feeling lonely and horrible by dating around. I couldn't stay with Cora, not when I wasn't in love with her. I could never – just never – love anyone like I love her and it's made me mad."

"You're not mad, Ron, you're human. I love you. You're my favorite brother. Try to stay around for your kids, all right? And I think you're lying. You might've been lonely, but you haven't been miserable. You're feeling sorry for yourself now and letting it affect how you're viewing the last several years of your life."

"Thanks for cheering me up."

Ginny sighed. "I'm sorry. That was thoughtless. Really, Ron, it hasn't been all miserable, has it? Tell me it hasn't."

"It hasn't."

"Are you placating me?"

Ron opened his eyes and shook his head. "I miss her, but I haven't always wanted to die. I love the kids and I'm really proud of them. And Giggles really brightens my days, y'know? But right now, it seems easier to die."

"Don't," threatened Ginny. "Just wait."

Ron coughed and grimaced, clutching his side.

"Do you need a Healer? More pain potions?"

When Ron nodded, Ginny quickly got up and ran the room to fetch a Healer.

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The potions became an addiction, but Hermione suspected it was a much-needed one. The pain showed across Ron's face whenever he moved, whenever he breathed and whenever his feet touched the ground. If he chewed too hard his body tensed; if he coughed too deeply, his hands would fly up and grab at his chest. It was painful for Hermione as well to watch her husband in physical misery when he'd spent too much time in emotional pain as well.

Ginny might have been harsh that day in the hospital, but Hermione felt she had spoken the truth. Ron hadn't always been miserable. Their children were the lights of their worlds. They had made his life worth everything.

Euan and Cliodne married in June. Madelyn attended the ceremony, only days away from her twenty-sixth birthday and wearing a new ring on her left hand. She had wanted a spring wedding, but Ginny had told her she wasn't sure if Ron would last that long. It pained Hermione to see the look of horror on Madelyn's face and for a moment, Hermione feared her youngest daughter would call off her own wedding.

But she didn't. Instead she broke her contract on the flat she was letting in Dublin to move back home with Ron. She said it was so she could save money, but it was really so that her father wouldn't be lonely the last months of his life.

Hermione hadn't watched Ron be so happy in a long time. Madelyn transferred from the newly retired twins' Dublin location to the one in Diagon Alley. They had put her in charge of packaging and all the artwork for their advertisements. She brought her work home with her and showed it all to Ron, getting his input and using some of his ideas.

Never once did Madelyn act as though she was living back at home out of pity. She enjoyed her father and they always did have a special bond that the older two didn't have with him – and that bond was there no matter how much Ron protested he didn't have a favorite.

"Daddy," she said one day after work, "they're driving me mad."

"Who is?"

"Fred and George! They say they're retired and are going to will their stores to me, but they won't let me make any decisions!"

Ron smiled and nodded. "They're stubborn. They're always going to be like that."

"Daddy? Does it bother you that I'm working at a joke shop?"

"Why would it?"

"I don't want you disappointed in me. I think you like James, but he's so much older than I am."

"There's hardly a happier couple than Lupin and Tonks, yeah?" Ron put his arm around Madelyn. "And Lupin's at least twelve years older than her. I could never be disappointed in you. I'm afraid you'd be disappointed in me."

"In you? Why?"

"Because I haven't been the happiest father. We were all very happy once, when your mum was alive. We had our rows, but whatever we fought about never seemed as important as you lot were. Your mum was closer to Euan and Abigail than I was. She did the whole breastfeeding thing for the first few months and she spent more time with them than I did. But you were all mine. Euan has a fancy job doing Quidditch and Abigail writes textbooks, but you're doing what you like, right? I could never be disappointed in you for being happy."

"I'm sorry I was such a snot when you wanted to marry Cora. I should never have tried to keep you from being happy."

"That's all right. What's done is done and it made me realize I could never marry someone when I'm still in love with someone else."

"Even after all these years?"

Ron nodded. "She's the love of my life. There's no one else for me."

"I hope it's like that with James. Though, I hope if I go first, he doesn't live a miserable life."

"You think I've been miserable? Watching you kids grow up has been the most amazing experience in my life. Miracle, I'd never give that up. Never. Not for all the women in the world."

"All the women?"

"It's not even a question."

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In January, Madelyn married James. It was a small wedding, nothing as garish as Euan's or as elaborate as Abigail's. Everything was simple and quiet. Towards the end, when it was time for everyone to leave, Madelyn went up to her father and hugged him tightly, her hands linking together behind his back. It was as though she knew this would be the last goodbye.

"I love you, Daddy," she whispered in his ear. "I hope I can love James as much as you loved Mum."

"Miracle, I love you, too."

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"You're my favorite person in the world. If I have a son, I'm naming him after you, though I doubt anyone could be as great as you."

"Don't say that. I think your son will be brilliant."

She said goodbye, though it took her several minutes to finally let go of him and leave the reception as the new Mrs. Finnigan.

Ron said goodbye to Ginny and Harry next and the look in both their eyes made Hermione suspect they both knew this also was it. Harry hugged Ron, something they never really did, even after almost fifty years of friendship.

When he went home, Ron took out the photograph of Hermione and him on their own wedding day. His finger traced over her as he looked at it, unmoving as was the nature of Muggle pictures. He put it back in the drawer and lay down on their bed.

He didn't wake up.

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Hermione anxiously waited in the courtyard. She looked all around her until she saw him. A patch of ginger hair appearing in the distance, walking closer to her. He was young, too, just as she was, just as everyone who came through the courtyard was. He looked about twenty-two, the age they were married.

"Hermione?" he whispered.

She desperately wanted the ability to cry and suddenly, for the first time in twenty-seven years, she found that she could. Tears stained her cheeks as she threw her arms around Ron and she felt – she physically felt his fingers dig into her hips, his cheek in her hair.

"Oh my God," he said, "oh my God."

"I've been watching you," she blurted, pulling away from him just enough to look up into his blue, full-of-life eyes. "And the kids. I've seen everything."

"Everything?" repeated Ron. "You saw . . . ?"

"I saw Noelle and Cora and the few other witches you dated, but I never watched when you did those things."

"That's good," said Ron quietly. "I never really could be with them . . . without, y'know, thinking of you. I didn't mean to do it, but – Hermione, Hermione, it's so good to see you."

"I've been waiting for you," she said.

"Really?"

She nodded. "See that gate? I can't open it, but I think it's because you weren't here to open it with me. I need you here like I needed you there."

"I never ever stopped loving you."

"I know. I never stopped loving you either."

"Funny thing, death," said Ron.

"How so?"

"It just is. I mean . . . Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while."

"You think that's what we have?" asked Hermione. "True love?"

"We have whatever the best kind of love there is," answered Ron. "I missed you."

Before Hermione could reply, Ron kissed her. His mouth was warm and soft. Hermione felt the kiss all over her; she was warm; she was tingly. Best part of all, she felt it as though she had a real body again.

"I missed you, too," said Hermione. She took Ron's hand and led him over to the gate. "Do you think we can open it?"

"We can try. What's on the other side?"

"I don't know," answered Hermione honestly. "Wait, do you want to watch the children? You can see them through the fountain."

"Do you think they need watching any more?"

Hermione shook her head. "I've a feeling they're going to be perfect."

"Then let's open it."

Their hands entwined, Ron and Hermione undid the latch and pushed. Soundlessly, it opened and they walked together away from the courtyard, the gate closing behind them as they disappeared.

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The End

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