I just wanted to take a moment to thank you all for sticking with me. You are far more gracious than you should be. Life unfortunately get's in the way and I don't have as much time to write as I wish I did. But I'm much better now than I have been. I like my new job, which means I'm in a better mental state. And my back is doing better. More goodness. But anyway, it's finally done and I really hope you all like it. I have to say I am so worried. But it's past time.
Thank you all, I love you.
Chapter Thirty-Two: Times Up
For one moment the desperate plea in Harry's voice made Hermione falter and nearly stop. She almost turned - almost waited for Harry to catch her up - almost waited for him to wrap his arms around her - almost… but she didn't. As much as she wanted to be back in the comfort and safety of Harry's arms, she couldn't allow herself that luxury. She knew Harry loved her and supported her unconditionally, which made it far too easy to hope … and hope was a very dangerous slope to be climbing. One wrong step and she could fall back into that pit of despair.
Her entire body quivered as she struggled to keep the memory of the Dementors' touch from running her over. She could feel it there, lurking on the perimeters of her mind. The only thing keeping it at bay was the knowledge of her freedom and that her plan had worked. Ron and Blake were reunited. That sweet little girl was safe. If only her mind could convince her heart it was all worth it in the end.
Hermione could feel herself start to sink as the knowledge of what she'd lost pricked away at her conviction. She was only saved by Harry calling her name again, drawing her back to the task at hand. She needed to get out of there. All too soon the reporters would discoverer where she'd gone and then she would never get away.
Harry called her name again and a wizard walking alongside her glanced in her direction. She saw his eyes narrow for a moment in concentration before he reeled back slightly when he recognized her. Hermione ducked her head and pushed forward, humiliation solidifying her decision. She shouldered between two wizards with graying beards, muttering an incomprehensible apology as she passed.
"Hermione." She ignored Harry's plea, quickening her step and turning sideways to slip through a knot of witches numerous enough to block the hall, making it impossible for her to go around. She assumed from the lateness of the hour and the direction they walked that they all were making their way toward the atrium on their way home. Hermione didn't know if she should be thankful for the hour or not. While it might be easy to get lost in a crowd, there would be far less people to run into and recognize her if the halls were empty. Hopefully luck would be on her side and she could get lost in the crowd, allowing her to steal out of the ministry without being noticed.
"Hermione." It was Parker who called after her this time. The timber in his voice rang easily off the sleek tiled walls, drawing the attention of several ministry employees. Heads turned and eyes searched faces. She could tell the moment a younger wizard with warm chestnut hair spotted her. His eyes scrunched for a moment, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing, and then his mouth dropped. He reached for his friend's arm, nodded his head toward her and his mouth formed the words. 'Hermione Granger.' Hermione cursed as the others in the hall began to cotton on. An older witch pointed at her and she could feel the blood pool in her cheeks, heating the skin to a dark red. And the group of witches she had passed put their heads together, their eyes trained on her. She didn't know if it was just her imagination, but she could swear the murmurs coming from their knot took on a harsher edge.
Ducking her head to hide her face, she pushed past a witch and wizard who stopped to stare.
Parker called her name again and she stumbled. He sounded closer. Much closer. Too close. She tried to run but the soles of her shoes were so full of grime from the prison that they slipped easily on the smooth tile. "Hermione, stop. Damn it. Would you please excuse me?" His voice was sharp with annoyance. He and Harry must have followed her direct path because when she glanced back over her shoulder they were both right behind her.
"Hermione," Harry lunged and his fingers circled her wrist, pulling her to a sharp stop.
The tenuous control Hermione had keeping her demons at bay snapped when her brain recognized the firm, cool bands around her wrists as manacles. A hysterically cry tore from her lungs in full force. She whirled around, the terrifying noise still pouring from her mouth, yanking violently at her trapped wrist like a wild animal caught in a snare. "Let me go." She flailed manically, her voice cracking with panic. "Let me go." Her breath shortened into shallow puffs, increasing her anxiety as it began to deny her brain oxygen. "Let me go!"
Harry stared at her for just a moment before he dropped her hand, lifting both of his into the air as he stepped back. Hermione scuttled away, instinctively putting her back against the wall while she clutched her right hand protectively to her chest. Her eyes fell closed. She'd over reacted. She rubbed tenderly at her wrist while she fought to control her breath.
When she finally lifted her eyes to look at Harry they glistened brightly with unshed tears. "Harry," she chocked on her friend's name. "Harry, I'm sorry…I…" She lowered her eyes in shame, unable to bear looking at him. "I," She blinked and a tear slid down her cheek.
Glaring at the people who stopped to stare, warning them with his eyes that they better get moving, Parker put himself between them and Hermione, using his body to block their view while trying to maintain what he hoped was a comfortable distance. He waited until the last person moved on, still whispering, before he ducked his head and lowered his voice, "Hermione," his eyes were narrowed with concern. "Why did you run? Couldn't you hear us calling?"
Hermione opened her mouth but couldn't find the right words. She tried again, but could only shake her head.
Harry tentatively took back the step he had put between them, watching for a change in her body language that would warn him he was too close. "Are you alright?"
"What a stupid question." Parker scowled. "Of course she's not alright." He flung a hand in her direction. "Look at her. She's trembling."
Hermione looked down at herself and saw to her horror that he was right. Her body was shaking. Why hadn't she noticed? Fingers tightening into curls, she forced her body to straighten. She wouldn't let them see her cower. Any of them. She wouldn't give them the satisfaction. She lifted a hand to scrape hair back out of her eyes but found the task nearly impossible. Her hands refused to cooperate and stop shaking and her hair clung to her fingers as she scrapped it back, separating into stringy tangles. She desperately needed to bathe.
Hermione extracted her fingers and forced her back away from the wall. "No, I'm fine." The quiver in her voice belayed the lie. "Really."
Parker's eyes narrowed as he looked her over, starting at her scuffed shoes, the rumpled, unclean slacks and blouse and finally the stretched, hollow paler of her skin. His lips thinned into a hard line. "Hermione," his eyes softened, "You are most definitely not fine. When was the last time you looked in a mirror? You look terrible."
"Parker," Harry snapped.
"When was the last time you ate?" He continued as though Harry hadn't spoken. "Or slept?"
"Parker," Harry grabbed his arm and turned him, "that's enough."
"What?" Parker jerked his arm free. "I'm just trying to make a point."
Harry said something in response, but Hermione didn't hear him. Her head was tipped forward, looking down at what she was wearing. She held the fabric away from her skin, pinched between two fingers. Parker was right. She did look like hell. She probably smelled worse. Not that she could really tell the difference anymore. For a moment she feared the smell of the prison would be permanently etched into her brain, but truth be told it hardly mattered. Like the other prisoners she learned to ignore the smell long ago. It was either that or go mad from the stench.
Hermione shook her head to clear it. She put up both hands between the two men, signaling them to stop. "Okay, I'm not fine. Clearly." She closed her hands into fists so they wouldn't see the tremble in her fingers." Can we settle for better then I could be?"
Not waiting for a response or to see if either man followed, Hermione turned on her heal and continued on the path she'd been on before they'd stopped her. She kept close to the wall, the back of her right hand skimming along the cold, black marble. She lifted her head and gazed up into the shadows of the familiar tilled ceiling. How many times had she walked these very halls? How many proceedings had she been a part of in the very room she'd just fled? She should feel right at home and comfortable in this space. But she didn't. She couldn't. The halls felt alien and foreboding. And big. They felt so terribly big. The wall at the end of the hallway felt unnaturally far away and the ceiling felt too high. The walls should be closer, the ceiling lower. And the people walking the halls, they set her nerves on edge. It took all of her concentration not to jump every time a door opened or a person exited their office.
"Hermione," She heard the quick fall of Harry's step on the gleaming tiles as he hurried to catch her up. She felt instant gratitude for his presences. A human escort was something familiar. Something she understood and expected. "Where are you going?"
Hermione shook her head, stumbling forward as she tried to pick up her speed. "I need…" she bit painfully at her bottom lip, looking widely around. "Harry, I need to get out of here. I need…"
Her toe caught on the edge of a tile and her body lurched forward out of her control. Two pairs of hands caught her at the elbows and pulled her back to her feet before she'd landed. Harry released her the moment she was steady on her feet and with tentative care stepped in front of her, hands placed carefully on the upper part of her arms. "Are you all right?" Hermione nodded. "Are you hurt?" She shook her head. Satisfied Harry retook his place beside her, resting his hand uncertainly on the small of her back. When she didn't flinch away he relaxed and let it sit more firmly. "Right," He looked quickly around them, his eyes meeting Parker's. The other man nodded. "Let's go."
"Wait," Hermione dug in her heals, the filthy rubber doing little to stop her progress on the brightly waxed tile. "Where are you taking me?" She nearly stumbled again but the two men were there to steady her. "Will you two stop that?" She flung her arms back, knocking their hands away. She turned to face them, tilting her chin up in what she hoped was a determined angle. "I'm not so far gone that I can't manage to walk on my own. And I don't need an escort." She prayed they didn't see the lie for what it was. "I can take care of myself. And furthermore, before I do anything or go anywhere I need to stop in the Auror office to retrieve my wand. I'm not leaving without it."
Both men, perhaps without realizing it, reached for their own wands, needing the physical connection with the familiar wood, unconsciously affected by the idea of having it taken from them.
Hermione's eyes lingered on the pocket where Parker's wand lay hidden, an ache filling her chest with want of her own. There was no way to describe the agony that had ripped through her when they took her wand away, knowing there was a chance she would never see it again. That in all likeliness it would be snapped, rendering it useless. In a sick way it was like watching them take away her dearest friend, a part of her, an extension of her own body, and being utterly helpless to do anything to stop it. Her breath quickened at the memory, and her heart thumped erratically against her chest.
But she was free now and there was nothing stopping her from marching into that office and getting her wand back. Her heart soared momentarily at the thought. She was so close, the tips of her fingers fairly tingled with the magic waiting to escape and do her bidding. She couldn't stand another moment of this agony. How had Hagrid survived so long without his wand? How had he survived the majority of his life without that simple comfort?
Hermione took off again, this time at quicker pace.
"Hermione," Parker sounded exasperated as he sprinted after her, Harry on his heels. "Would you wait for us, please?"
"It's alright," she waved them off. "I'm really fine. You go ahead."
"No," Harry fell into step beside her. "You're not fine and I'm coming with you."
"So am I."
Hermione turned the corner and spotted the lifts. Her heart leapt, but with joy this time. Freedom was just a few short rides on the lift away. "That isn't necessary." She said absently. "I can find my own way."
"Hermione," Harry rushed to put himself ahead of her again. He put up his hands to stop her and she slid to a halt on the smooth floor. He placed both hands on her shoulders to steady her. "Hermione," he waited for her to lift her chin and meet his gaze. "It is necessary." His fingers tensed around her shoulders. "Whether or not you need to be with me right now, I need to be with you." His head tipped forward, hiding his eyes. He opened his mouth and shut it. He opened it again, "I…" He finally looked at her, and the tears that gathered there magnified the pain behind the bright green orbs. "I was so…scared…that I wouldn't," he swallowed. "What if…" He took a few shallow breaths. "You understand that you almost lost, don't you?"
Hermione flinched at the words, not wanting to acknowledge them. "Yes Harry," her tongue darted out to wet her dry lips. "I do."
"So if you try I think you can understand why I'm not really willing to let you go off on your own just yet." He lifted his hand and rested his fingers carefully against the frail skin of her cheek. "I really didn't understand just how close we were to..." His fingers tensed. "I feel like such an idiot. I thought…"
Hermione placed her hand on top of Harry's, holding it there against her skin. "You're not the only one, Harry." She spoke the words so quietly he had to lean forward to hear them. "I was conceited enough to think my celebrity would protect me too. It's all right. You did everything right."
"You did everything you could. You got me out of maximum security and,"
"But I didn't." Harry pulled his hand away. "By the time I heard and went to Kingsley he'd already been informed and took care of it."
Hermione's eyes rounded in surprise. They left Harry's to look over his shoulder at Parker who stood just behind. Understanding the unspoken question he shook his head. "I couldn't get a meeting with Shakelbolt. I don't have that kind of influence."
"Then who… Would… would, a…"
"Ron?" Parker sneered. "No. He made it perfectly clear when Thomas Peel came to us that he had no intention of helping you. The bloody prick."
Hermione closed her eyes as fresh pain she didn't know she could feel anymore washed over her. "No." She shook her head, opening her eyes to look back at Parker. "Don't say that. Ron had no reason to help me."
"He had every reason to help you."
"You don't know what I said to him."
"I don't care what you said to him."
"He still should have helped you, Hermione." When her eyes met Harry's she saw they were bright with indignant fury. "It's called common decency?"
"Harry," she released his name on a haggard breath. "I'm sure Ro… I'm sure he did what was right for him. But it doesn't really matter." She took another breath. "You got Blake home safe. That's what this was all about."
Hermione placed her hand on Harry's chest, staring at the place between her thumb and index finger. She focused there as she drew another breath, grappling with her unraveling emotions and conflicting desires. "You should go back, Harry." She gave him a slight shove. "Ron will be wondering where you are."
He paused for a moment before he placed his hand over hers. "If you don't mind, I think I'll go with you instead."
Hermione couldn't look at him, not willing to risk him seeing the longing in her eyes. "What about Ginny?" She pulled her fingers from beneath his hand and subconsciously touched her cheek, remembering the last time she'd seen her friend. "I don't think she'd approve…"
Harry shook his head. "You have it wrong. Ginny feels terrible about what happened. She told me…"
Hermione shook her head. "She was right to be angry. I made her a promise and I broke it."
"Hermione, stop it." Harry took her by both arms and shook her slightly. "Stop it. Stop apologizing. Just stop. You don't need to apologize for this. Ever. Do you understand?"
"Stop." his voice rose in anger. "This isn't you. This isn't the Hermione Granger I know. This is not the girl who unapologetically punched Malfoy in the mouth. And who stole a condemned Hippogriff. And who set Sirius Black free. Or who broke into the Department of Mysteries. Or…"
"I got it." Hermione cut him off. "I understand what you're trying to say, but…"
"No buts. No more self pity. And no more apologizing. We have more important things to worry about right now."
"Yeah," the pair turned, both realizing at the same moment that they'd forgotten Parker's presences. "Like the mob from the court room heading this way." He jabbed his thumb over his right shoulder.
Harry turned around and Hermione leaned around Parker to better see, both taking in the increase of sound and the bright flashes of media bulbs that bounced off the smooth tile walls.
"Perhaps we should take this reunion to a more private location?" he suggested.
Hermione wanted to stop both of the men from going with her. She wanted to tell them to go back to Ron and the family. They would be celebrating tonight and Harry and Parker should both be a part of that celebration. But she couldn't bring herself to do it. As much as she didn't want them to witness her pain and humiliation, she needed them. She needed their strength and she needed their love, most especially their love, right now. It helped keep the bad memories at bay.
"Parker," Hermione reached for his hand, and sighed with relief when he took it. "You're…"
Parker squeezed her hand, quieting her. "I'm not going anywhere, Hermione. Ron will be just fine without me for a few hours. You though," he cupped her face with his free hand, his lips turning down as his eyes racked over her. "You don't look like you'll be fine." Parker's eyes continued to scrutinize her, sorrow washing his features with every new detail he observed. "Ron's an idiot if he can't see what you've done for him."
Hermione tried to jerk her face away, but his fingers held her tight. Tears sprung to her eyes in heavy pools. She didn't want to think about him. Not now. Not when the sounds of the crowd was growing louder around them. She expected they would be upon them any second and she was not ready to see Ron or the red haired woman who'd rushed to his side. The woman who'd caused his face to light up like the sun when he smiled at her. Her lips trembled, muddling the words as they came out, making them almost incomprehensible. "We should go."
Parker must have seen the flash of pain in her eyes. He looked back over her shoulder as he released her face, seeming to understand. He repositioned her hand in his, making it easier to twine his fingers between hers. Harry reached for her other hand. Turning quickly, the three of them hurried the length of the hall, not stopping until they were standing in front of the lifts. Harry pressed the call button. To their great relief, a grate clanked open and Harry, Hermione and Parker rushed inside. Harry pressed the button for the floor the Auror department was located on and the lift lurched into motion.
Ron couldn't stand it. Not for one moment longer. Oh, things were fine on the surface. Everyone had patted him on the back and congratulated him on Blake's safe return. And he knew they meant it of course. Blake had been passed around for a good three hours, everyone taking their chance to welcome her home. It was obvious she had been missed. But even their joy at her return could not lessen the tight knot in the pit of his stomach. Every time he looked at his watch or glanced toward the door or scanned the room for his missing best friends, the knot grew worse.
Ron frowned as he turned away from the door. He knew what was keeping Harry. There was only one thing that could keep him from this impromptu celebration. Whatever they were doing Ron couldn't help but fear that it would not bode well for him. Nothing they did together these days bode well for him. His scowl deepened as he again overheard one well-wisher ask another where Hermione Granger was hiding herself.
Most of the people crowding his family home had come under the impression that the celebration would be a dual one. For him and Blake as well as for Hermione. These people, most of them anyway, were her friends too. People they knew from Hogwarts and the Ministry. Witches and wizards had turned out in droves, so much that there hadn't been enough room in the house and had eventually spilled out into the back garden. It was insanity.
The main floor of the house was hot and crowded and the noise level was defining. He would have left long ago but his mother had claimed Blake a short while ago after working like a mad woman to make sure her guests were comfortable and Ron had the feeling she would not be giving her up any time soon.
Desperate though for a moment alone away from all the chaos and well wishes and good cheer, Ron had reluctantly sought escape. He ducked to his left when no one was looking and slipped up the stairs, hoping as he rounded the corner, that no one had seen his retreat.
He climbed until he disappeared behind the spiraling stairs, turned when he reached the second landing, and fell into a heap of long arms and legs. The noise of the crowd climbed the stairs after him, but was dampened by every twist and turn of the house, softening it until it was only a dull roar, easy to ignore like the crashing waves on a distant beach. Periodically someone laughed, but the raise in volume went mostly unnoticed.
Ron sagged forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He was exhausted. If he had to tell just one more person how happy he was that Blake was home… Of course he was happy Blake was home. What kind of idiot asked a man if he was happy his child was home? It was like asking him if he was happy he could breath. Of course he was happy. This only compounded the stress he already felt from watching his daughter be handed around from one person to the next like a Quaffel, terrified that the next pair of empty hands was going to be the one to try and snatch her away again. He didn't know how much more of it he could stand. The fact that Blake was safe with his mother for a good long while was the only thing that let Ron relax his guard long enough to step away. Nothing would happen to Blake on Molly Weasley's watch. But still, he was exhausted. What he really wanted to do, what he should do, was go downstairs, retrieve Blake, and go home. But what if Hermione was there waiting for him? His body tensed at the thought. He was not ready for that conversation. But even as he dreaded the inevitable argument, a worse scenario niggled at the back of his brain too terrible to even contemplate.
Sighing so that his shoulders sagged, Ron rolled his head to the right and looked out the landing window into the back garden, scanning it for signs of his best friends. Still no Harry. Still no Parker. His shoulders hunched as he looked away from the window.
Jealousy swelled under his breast despite his best attempt to keep it at bay. Selfishly, he wanted everyone he cared for there. Which only held doubly true for his best friends. Even now, despite everything that had happened, Harry's betrayal and…well… just everything else, his celebration didn't feel complete without them.
Sighing, Ron thrust his fingers through his hair, scratching agitatedly at his scalp. He sucked in a slow breath as his thoughts once again landed on the person he'd been trying so hard not to think about all evening. Hermione.
The image of her sitting in that courtroom chair, a grotesque shadow of the person he knew, swam in front of his eyes. Tight bands seemed to strap around his chest. It was hard to see anyone that way, but Hermione… The bands seemed to tighten with every breath, making it harder and harder to breath.
Ron shifted his eyes away from the happy scene outside, blocking out the image of his family and friends celebrating below. His thoughts were already spinning out of his control again. He shook his head manically, trying to rain them back before it was too late. He wasn't ready to go there. Not yet. His emotions were too conflicted. Yes, they needed to talk. He knew that. There was so much he needed to say to her. But he wasn't good with words and he needed to know what he was going to say so he didn't say something stupid he was going to regret later. It would have been nice to know what she was thinking, to have some idea what she was going to say to him so that he could prepare. However life didn't work that way. There wasn't a script written that could help him through this minefield. And they couldn't continue to go on like this. It was too hard. Too painful… They needed to settle things once and for all…no matter the outcome…so that they could both move on and live… their lives…whatever that might entail.
Ron let out a shaky breath as he rubbed at his chest, trying to ease the ache. He'd put off thinking about this, about her, for as long as he could, focusing instead on the much easier joy and relief of Blake's return. But time was quickly running out. He couldn't avoid Hermione forever. The time for stalling had passed and he had to make a decision.
His stomach turned over. It wasn't fair. He wasn't ready for this. He wasn't ready to pretend like everything was all right again. It wasn't. Yes Blake was home. Yes she was safe. Yes, a large hole in his heart had been mended. But it hadn't healed everything. Not even close. There were still pieces missing. Harry helping Hermione hide Blake from him still ached like a knife wound. And Hermione… How did he even begin to put those pieces back together?
Overwhelmed, Ron dropped his head into his hands, his fingers weaving through his hair. He had no idea what he was going to do or what he was going to say. But most of all, how the hell was he even supposed to begin the conversation when he didn't know where in the bloody hell it was going to end? How was he suppose to anticipate what she was thinking when he couldn't figure out his own mind? Everything was still so jumbled and there were pieces missing…
Making a sound of disgust Ron turned his head once more towards the window, resting his brow against the cool glass and sighing as the chill drew some of the pain out of his aching head.
After several minutes Ron opened his eyes and looked down at the crowd enjoying the cool night air of the back garden. His team had gathered around a fire that one of them had undoubtedly built. Gwen sat at the head of the circle, arms gesturing frantically and face contorting as she regaled her comrades with one of her many amusing stories.
Outside the firelight a few of his siblings had gathered. They were easily recognizable, even in the dark, by the fiery crop of hair that set them apart. Not a single one of them had asked the question, the one he knew was on all their minds. What was going on between him and Hermione?
He assumed most of the family believed he and Hermione were only on minimal speaking terms. That they'd only made a sort of truce for the sake of Blake's custody hearing. He also assumed they believed that truce had ended when Hermione lost the case. He supposed in a way they weren't that far off. How could they think any differently when none of them knew the truth of what had really happened between them over the past few months? No one knew, except of course, for Fred and Ginny, who were, for probably the first time in family history, actually keeping what they knew to themselves.
They were both outside now, speaking with Bill, Charlie and Cat. He could tell from where he was sitting, high above the crowd, that they were both very anxious. He wasn't entirely certain what Fred had to be anxious about, but he thought he had a fairly good idea what was troubling Ginny. If the way her eyes kept darting around when she thought no one was watching was any indication, she was very nervous over what was happening with Hermione and eager for Harry to arrive and fill her in.
Not for the first time that evening Ron was wondering just how much she had known. She was, after all, one of Hermione's best friends. If Hermione were going to tell anyone of her plans, Ginny would have been one of the people at the top of her list. But once again, like he always did when the thought came into his head, he dismissed it. He couldn't imagine that she had known. Ginny was a terrible liar to anyone who knew her and could recognize her tells for what they were. And when she was worked up whatever skills she might have possessed went to hell. The indignation and fury she'd had on his behalf was real. She could not have pretended with him because he knew her too well. But that look was gone now. Somewhere in the time between when he had last seen her and now, Ginny appeared to have forgiven Hermione. And now that she was certain both he and Blake would be all right, her concern had shifted.
It was Charlie's turn to speak. He was probably telling the group about one of the times a dragon had escaped the reserve and eaten an entire herd of sheep and the ridiculous story the Ministry had to concoct to cover it up. But Ginny didn't appear to be listening. Her head was slowly turning, scanning the garden from one end to the other in search of Harry. Ron knew the instant she spotted him. The way she carried herself changed immediately, like she'd become suddenly lighter. In an instant she was across the garden, Fred following at her heels.
Harry opened his arms and Ginny threw herself into them. He scooped her up, hugging her tight to his body. The joy and relief on Harry's face was so profound Ron could read it from where he sat on the stairs. Harry tucked his face into her neck and Ron meant to look away and give them privacy, but before he could Harry pulled back and said something. Ginny must have asked him a question. He stared at her a moment then shook his head, almost imperceptibly. Then he spoke and Ginny dropped her arms from his shoulders. He continued to speak and what he said must have upset her because she stepped back. Harry took a step towards her, still speaking. Ginny must not have liked it because she took another step, maintaining the distance between them.
Ron couldn't help but wondered what Harry was telling them. Whatever it was it couldn't be good. Ginny looked really upset. She looked on the verge of tears. Ron put his hand on the step, ready to use it to lever himself up and go down there when she made a slashing motion with her hand, cutting Harry off, and rushed into the house. Harry and Fred exchanged a few words then Harry followed her inside.
Ron stood then. Any moment now Ginny would be rushing the stairs and Harry would be following her. There weren't many places but the upper stories right now to have a private conversation and Ron did not want to be there when the two had theirs.
Ron sighed, his stomach once again turning over into knots. It was time. He'd understood when Harry hadn't immediately come to the Burrow after the trial that he had been with Hermione. What they had done over the past several hours he couldn't begin to imagine. A part of him had thought Harry might try and convince her to come here. He hadn't. Now that Harry was here there were no more excuses to keep him from going home. Hermione was waiting for him and there was no more time left to think and plan and know what exactly he was going to say when he saw her.
For a moment, just one moment, Ron considered staying the night. His mother wouldn't mind. She would welcome it. He knew already it would be a struggle to get Blake from her arms. He could let his mother have her way and his world would remain fully intact for one more night… But his conversation with Bernie was still fresh in his memory. He refused to be a coward anymore. It was time to go home.
Ron took the first step but stopped at the sound of a light tread and the slight wheezing of someone climbing the stairs. Instead of the angry sister he'd been expecting his father rounded the corner, slightly out of breath and holding his daughter. "Dad?"
"Ron?" Arthur looked up at his son, a smile playing across his lips. "I thought I might find you up here." He took the last few steps and offered the sleeping child to her father. When Blake was secure in Ron's arms Arthur sat, smoothing what was left of his red hair so it lay back straight on his head. "Why don't you sit with me for a bit?" He patted the empty space on the step Ron had occupied.
"I thought Ginny and Harry would be…"
Arthur waved his hand. "They cleared the kitchen a few minutes ago. I imagine behind the silencing charms it's quite an exciting conversation they're having. Now come, sit."
"I was just about to…"
"Go home? Yes. I thought as much. Please Ron. I've been hoping to speak with you all evening and I think this might be the only chance we'll have."
Ron looked one last time down the stairs knowing he should go, but took the offered excuse instead and sat. A few more minutes wouldn't hurt and it might give him a little more time to get his mind straight.
They sat for a moment in silence, Arthur rubbing his knees, Ron shifting uncomfortably as he repositioned Blake.
"I have to tell you Ron, I'm more than surprised you're still here." He looked at his son out of the corner of his eyes. "I thought you would have left hours ago so you and Hermione could celebrate in privacy."
Ron stiffened, shock coursing through his body. "What are you… Why would Hermione and I…"
"For Merlin's sake, Ron." Arthur laughed. "I've known you you're entire life. And despite what you and your siblings think, I am not completely unobservant."
Arthur put up a hand to silence him. "Never the less, I think I understand what is going on."
"You couldn't possibly…"
"You think so?" Arthur asked. "So you and Hermione haven't been seeing each other in secret?"
Ron's mouth dropped before he had a chance to stop it.
"Hmmm, as I thought." He leaned forward, clasping his hands over his knees. "I also suspect a great deal of your actions over the past five years have been a result of your relationship with her as well. Am I right?"
Ron shook his head in disbelief, "How did you…?"
"Please Ronald. I would need to have been blind not to see the way you looked at her while you were in school. And the depth of your bitterness towards her over the past five years could only be caused by a bad experience with love." Arthur leaned back so he could place a hand on his shoulder. "You were so sad and jaded, son." His fingers squeezed comfortingly. "I wanted so bad to fix things for you. But I couldn't. You're not a little boy any more. You had to fix it yourself."
Ron turned his face away, a failed attempt to hide the deep red that seeped into his pale skin and the rush of moisture to his eyes.
Arthur squeezed his shoulder one last time before he removed his hand. "You don't need to tell me what happened five years ago. It's not important. What I do want to know is why you're here, sitting alone on the steps, when you should be off with Hermione. I thought you two would be celebrating your victory."
"It's not our victory." The bitter words were out before he realized he was going to say them. Ron cringed, cursing himself for not keeping quiet, but there was no judgment in his father's eyes, only understanding and the desire to help. Deciding he had nothing to lose he said, "I had nothing to do with it, dad. She did this all on her own. I would never have done something so stupid as..."
"Of course you would have."
Ron jerked his head around to face his father. "Wha… No. I wouldn't have. I would never…"
"Ronald, you can lie to me, but don't lie to yourself. If roles were reversed and you were in Hermione's position you would have done the exact same thing."
Arthur narrowed his eyes at his son. "You're telling me that if Hermione had a child," something flashed across Ron's face and Arthur amended, "if Sirius James of Bryony were in danger, and Harry and Ginny couldn't do anything to protect them at the risk of going to prison, you're telling me you wouldn't take those children and hide them away somewhere until it was safe to bring them home?"
"Not without telling Harry and Ginny first."
"Is that what this is about?" Arthur leaned forward. "Hermione didn't tell you she was going to take Blake before she did it?"
Ron tried to hold back the words but they rushed out of him angry and bitter and hurt. "I would have told her. I wouldn't have made her suffer, for weeks, not knowing if her child was safe. I would never have made her suffer the agony of not knowing if her child was even alive. You don't know how much sleep I've lost, how many hours I've spent agonizing, how hard I pushed my team, how much trouble I am in at work. She could have saved me so much pain if she had just trusted me with the truth. She should have trusted me enough to know I would never betray her."
Arthur nodded slowly, deep in thought. "Perhaps you're right. Perhaps Hermione should have informed you of her intentions."
Ron nodded, satisfied.
"Perhaps she didn't trust you enough to know the truth. Only you can answer that question. You know her better than I do."
"Exactly." Ron sat back, wrapping his arm more securely around Blake.
"But I can't help but wonder…" Arthur looked at Ron from the corner of his eye, "if perhaps you're not looking at this from the wrong perspective?"
Ron raised a skeptical brow.
"Perhaps you should stop asking yourself why Hermione didn't trust you enough to tell you the truth and start asking yourself what truth Hermione trusted you enough to know. And maybe," Arthur shrugged, "she didn't tell you certain things because she knows how good an Auror you are and thought you would figure them out on you own."
Ron stared open mouthed at his father. His words sounded inside Ron's brain, voicing many of the fears he was too scared to acknowledge himself.
Sensing the turmoil he'd ignited inside his son Arthur smiled sadly before he patted his knee and rose to his feet. "Go home, Ron. Talk to Hermione. You'll hate yourself if you don't."
Ron watched his father's back as he retreated down the steps. When he disappeared around the bend in the stairs Ron climbed to his feet as well. He stood there unmoving for a minute, aware only of the gentle rise and fall of Blake's chest against his. Shaking his head he took the first step. He was soon rounding the corner and heading down the next flight.
He stopped when he reached the end of the staircase. He'd expected the house to be packed but there were only a few people left, mostly family. He hadn't even noticed anyone leave. His mother was busy tidying the sitting room and through the window he could see his older brothers clearing the garden with the help of a few Alpha members.
"Ronnie," Molly stopped cleaning when she saw him standing there. "I thought you'd gone home. I'm afraid the party ended rather quickly." Her eyes darted to the closed kitchen door then back to him. "It's late and quite quiet now. Why don't you and Blake spend the night? Most of the children are already asleep upstairs. You and Blake will be right at home."
"I would mum," Ron looked anxiously toward the front door, "but Blake and I need to go home."
"If you're sure?" he could hear the disappointment in her voice.
"I'll walk you out then." Molly set aside the plates and glasses she'd gathered and joined Ron, walking with him to the front door. "Here," she pulled a worn wrap from a peg on the wall. He recognized it immediately as one of her favorites. She wrapped the soft fabric around Blake, tucking it in tight to cut out the cold. "My sweet girl." She murmured leaning in to kiss the crown of Blake's head.
"We'll be back tomorrow."
A door banged suddenly open in the quiet house, disturbing Blake in her slumber. "Ron," Harry strode angrily from the kitchen. "You and I need to talk."
"Harry," Molly hastened to hush him. "Blake is sleeping."
Harry strode past her, ignoring her. "How could you?"
Ron bristled under Harry's accusing gaze, and Blake, reacting to the tension in the air, fussed unhappily against Ron's chest. "I have no idea what you're talking about, but you have no right to question me on anything right now."
"You left Hermione to rot in prison."
Ron's eyes narrowed in confusion. "I'm sorry, but were we not in the same court room today when I refused to press charges and demanded they release her? Or did I just imagine you and Fred making up a ridiculous story about purchasing magical spit?"
"And why did you do that? Was it because of the guilt you felt when you refused to help her weeks ago when Thomas Peel came to you and told you Oldham put her in Maximum Security? How could you turn your back on her after all that she's done for you?"
"You have no idea what you're talking about." Ron turned away from his friend. "And I'm not having this conversation with you right now."
"You left her in Maximum Security?" The words were chocked when they came out of Ginny's mouth. "Ron,"
He turned back around, mouth opened to defend himself, but stopped when he saw the mixture of horror and disappointment on the faces of his family. "I see you've already made up your mind and nothing I can say is going to make any difference. So,"
He turned towards the door.
"How could you leave her to the Dementors?" Ginny flew at him, angry tears running down her face. "You let them destroy her. Did you even see her today?" Ginny wanted to strike him, but stopped herself for Blake's sake. "Did you even look at her? It's no wonder she's left. I would leave you too."
Ginny fled the room, taking the stairs several at a time. Ron watched until she disappeared only then registering her parting remarks. "Leave me too?" He turned until he faced Harry. "What did she mean, leave me too?"
"Do you even love her, Ron?" He took a step back. "Because if you don't, just let her go." He turned and followed Ginny up the stairs.
"Ronny," Molly stared at Ron bewildered. "What are they talking about?"
"Nothing, mum." Ron leaned down and pressed a kiss to her cheek. "I'll bring Blake around tomorrow."
Ron turned when he was on the other side of the front door. "It was a great party, mum. Thank you.
Molly smiled at him. "Well, we had reason to celebrate, didn't we?"
"We did." Ron agreed. "Good night."
He pulled the door closed behind him before he stepped off the front stoop and hurried down the gravel drive. When he reached the end he stuck out his wand hand and the air exploded with sound as the purple Knight Bus popped into the street. Blake squirmed again, opening her eyes momentarily, but she readjusted and fell back into deep slumber immediately. "It'll be nice when you're old enough to use the floo." Ron remarked as they walked to the back of the bus and the man waiting to take their fare.
Ron paid and stepped on. He moved down the isle, the man moving closely behind him, urging him on until they came to an empty seat. The moment Ron was seated the bus lurched and the air exploded. They were speeding down an empty city street now, quiet storefronts whizzing past the windows. A sharp turn and they were stopping. An old man wearing a purple hat stepped off.
Ron settled into his seat, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. A quick inventory of the passengers as he entered revealed that the bus was nearly empty. There was a group of young wizards up on the third floor singing a bar song at the top of their lungs, clearly already deep into their cups. They stumbled off at the next stop. After them was a witch and her three small children, all more than half asleep. They climbed off in front of a small country home. The next three stops had one person getting off at each and finally it was his turn.
The Knight Bus jumped through space one last time, reappearing on the dirt lane that led to his home. It rumbled along for a time, kicking up dirt and dust, than screamed to stop a short walk away from his property.
Ron sat there a moment, his breath coming in slow, shallow pants. His very skin crawled with dread as he stared through the darkness at his house. Time was up.
Taking care not to jostle his daughter, how she managed to sleep through an entire Knight Bus ride without waking was beyond him, he climbed to his feet. The steward waited for them at the exit.
As Ron maneuvered past him the man nodded, tipping his hat. "Have a good evening, Mr Weasley." He said as Ron stepped down.
Ron turned to thank him but the bus was already rolling away. He watched as it rumbled to the end of the rode and jumped to its next location. He watched the empty lane for a minute more, not waiting for anything, just staring. His mind was racing wildly and he couldn't bring himself to focus on any one thought.
Blake shifted against his chest. The wrap had come loose exposing one of her arms. As he adjusted the fabric so it covered her, his fingers grazed her exposed skin and it felt cool to his touch. Ron turned to his house. He couldn't stand out here all night, not with Blake in his arms. He needed to put her down for the night. Then he and Hermione could have it out and… That was just the way it was going to have to be.
Ron hurried down the lane as quickly as he could manage without bouncing Blake. His eyes scanned the house as he approached. It felt…off. Not right. His steps slowed as he approached the house, then came to a stop all together. His spine tingled uncomfortably. It took a moment of staring to realize that none of the lights were on. Possibilities he refused to acknowledge crowded the perimeter of his brain. His mind, honed from years of Auror training, was busy analyzing the situation while his hand drew his wand.
Ron approached the house slower this time. His senses continued to scream at him that something didn't feel right. He looked down at his daughter and debated leaving her outside, but in the end shifted her in his arms so that he could use his body to shield her if the need arose. He didn't think it would. He didn't sense danger. Just…wrongness.
Slowly he climbed the steps, wand held at the ready, and unlocked the door. He let the door swing open until it collided with the wall. "Hermione?" His voice echoed faintly in the darkness. He stood there a moment staring into the consuming blackness before casting a revealing spell. The house was empty. She wasn't there.
Something inside Ron shifted in that moment. From the beginning he'd known things were going to end badly. He'd been preparing himself for an epic battle of words that left them both broken and hurt and forever jaded. He'd been so focused on what he would say that might prevent that outcome from happening that he'd never considered the possibility that it wouldn't happen at all. It was incomprehensible to him.
Ron stared into the darkness a few moments more before his mind told his body to go in out of the cold. Ron shut the door behind him and the house became black as pitch. He threw a lumos into the air and the ball of light drifted toward the ceiling where it hovered, illuminating the foyer with its soft light.
Ron's eyes fell closed, blocking out what his subconscious already understood. He turned slowly to his right, his eyes still shut. He hesitated a moment, drawing in several deep breaths, then opened them. A sharp heavy weight settled in the pit of his stomach. The pegs that had only this morning been overflowing with traveling cloaks looked bare and empty with only four of his cloaks remaining. And the mountain of shoes that normally sat in the corner was reduced to half its size.
Ron turned his head to the left. "Hermione?" He called into the empty house though he already knew he wouldn't hear an answer. Of its own accord his body moved. He could go upstairs and search the closets and dressers for her missing clothes, but he needn't go that far. Instead he stopped at the door to his study. He watched his hand like it wasn't his, reach for the handle of the door and turn it. The lock clicked open. The heavy wood swung easily on the hinges. All the air escaped Ron's lungs in a painful gust.
The bookcases stared back at him, bare and empty, like the eerie smile of a jack-o-lantern with jagged teeth. The books Hermione had so painstakingly organized and lovingly placed on the shelves, they were all gone. She was gone. Ron stumbled back a step. With one swift action she'd made it painfully clear what she'd decided. There would be no discussion. No airing of grievances for either of them. They were over. Done. And she was gone. Just gone from his life like she'd never been a part of it. How could he have been so stupid as to believe she'd be here waiting? Of course she wasn't here waiting. Of course she'd used the time he'd been occupied to come into his home and pack her things and leave. A clean easy break. That's how she liked it. No confrontation.
Ron had to bite back the roar building in his throat. He reached for the handle of the door and pulled it shut with enough force to crack the molding. Blake jerked awake in his arms. She looked up at him through startled eyes and when she opened her mouth her cries pierced the air and speared him straight through the chest. The band around his already throbbing heart synched tighter.
"Blake, I'm sorry." He cradled her head while he murmured soothingly to her. "I'm so sorry." His eyes filled with tears, knowing he was apologizing for far more than simply waking her. He closed his eyes as he leaned against the wall and lowered himself to the floor. "It will be all right, Blake, I promise. You and I are going to be just fine. We don't need anyone, do we?" Ron turned his head and rested his cheek against her black curls." You and I will be just fine on our own. We don't need her." He let his eyes drift closed. "We don't need anyone. Right? You and I. That's all we need."
Hermione didn't know what was worse, not seeing her parents for months, or living with them and not being able to say anything to them. It wasn't that she didn't want to talk… Of course she wanted to talk to them. They were her parents. She just didn't know what to say. Not anymore than they knew what to say to her.
She blinked to clear her tears and the woman staring at her from across the room blinked back. She forced her throat to swallow past the hard lump caught in it. Even now, though she'd been staring at her reflection for hours, she could hardly recognize herself in the woman staring back. Those gaunt cheeks couldn't be hers. Those lifeless, muddy eyes certainly belonged to someone else. It was no wonder her parents hadn't recognized her when she'd shown up on their front door two nights ago. She couldn't imagine what kind of shock it had been for them. The look of horror on their faces when they realized the decrepit woman, covered in filth, standing on their doorstep was their only daughter haunted her. She could still see the way the hurt had settled into the deep lines of their faces as she, Harry and Parker explained what had brought her home. Her lips trembled as she wondered what had hurt them more, that she had been in prison or that she had kept it from them. And now… she had no idea what to say to them. Probably no more than they knew what to say to her. What did you say to someone who had admittedly committed a serious crime?
Not that they hadn't tried. Her father had been at her door not fifteen minutes ago asking her if she wanted to come down. A program he remembered as one of her favorites was playing on the television. Half hour before that it was to see if she wanted to join them for dinner. Two hours before that, if she wanted tea. They were trying and she loved them all the more for it… but she didn't want to come down. She didn't want to leave her room. She wanted to stay tucked safe in the close security and shadows of these four walls and wallow in her own misery a little longer.
She blinked slowly, but the image in the mirror didn't change. She ran her tongue over her lips to wet them. She really should eat. It would only do her good to consume some calories. She might even feel better. Happier. Her stomach turned at the thought. Maybe she would try again later.
Hermione closed her eyes, determined to slip into a few minutes of oblivious sleep, only to have her solitude disturbed by the jarring chimes of the front bell.
For a fleeting moment Hermione wondered who might be at the door, but lost interest just as quickly. She had been up nearly the entire night for the past two, waiting, playing out fantasies in her mind of Ron coming after her, all the while trying to ignore the unfamiliar sights and sounds that surrounded her. She could still hardly believe he'd come to the hearing. It felt like a dream. A wonderful, blissful dream she still half expected to wake up from at any moment. She'd tried to fathom out what his motivations had been. She desperately wanted to believe he still loved her. That he had come to the hearing to save her. But then she remembered the red haired woman and she was forced to conclude that he'd done it for Harry, or maybe even Fred. But it most certainly had not been for her. And that was the reason he hadn't come.
Not that she expected him to. She'd done a very good job of making certain he never would. Was it any wonder he'd sought comfort in the arms of a beautiful woman?
Hermione curled her body into a tight protective ball. No, whoever was at the front door was there for her parents. And if by that slim chance it would be for her it would be Harry, or possibly Parker. But it most certainly would not be Ron.
With a growl Hermione hoisted herself up with one arm and pounded her fist into the pillow with the other, angry at herself for her own thoughts. What was wrong with her? She'd lost Ron before and hadn't fallen apart. She'd gone on with her life. She'd made friends and had a job and enjoyed what life had to offer. She collapsed back onto the pillow, closing her eyes. So why couldn't she do that now? Why couldn't she just move on and forget all the terrible things that had happened?
Soft treads interrupted her thoughts and announced the approach of her mother. She recognized them as they were much lighter than her fathers. They came to a stop on the other side of her door. Her mother paused a moment, Hermione imagined it was to prepare herself, before she knocked on the door. "Hermione," she waited, as if for a response. "Hermione, there's someone here to see you."
Hermione exhaled slowly. She turned onto her other side, putting her back to the mirror, and burrowed her face deep into her pillow. "Tell Harry I'm sleeping."
Much to Hermione's surprise the steps didn't retreat. Instead the door opened and the light from the hallway sliced through the darkness and flooded her face. She threw up a hand to block the light, and blinked threw it to see her mother standing in the doorway. She crossed her arms over her chest while frowning sadly at Hermione. "It's isn't Harry." She moved away from the door to stand at the foot of Hermione's bed. "Minerva McGonagall is here to see you." She waited a moment, as Hermione turned onto her back and propped herself up with her elbows. "Should I send her away?"
Hermione used her hands to push herself up until she was sitting. "Professor McGonagall? What does she want?" She pushed a knot of curls out of her face.
"I don't know, Hermione." Her mother shook her head. "I didn't ask. I did, howver, tell her you would be down in a few minutes." Her eyes slid over Hermione's rumpled pajamas, her face and to her hair, a deep frown creasing her face, ageing her. "Perhaps you should take those few minutes to bathe and put on fresh clothes." When Hermione didn't immediately move her mother clapped her hands. "Now, Hermione."
Reacting to a deeply ingrained instinct, Hermione immediately threw her covers off and rolled out of her bed and onto her feet. She was halfway to her closet before she realized she wasn't a child anymore and didn't need to jump to obey her mother. Suddenly indignant she considered climbing back into bed to prove that point, but gave up the idea, recognizing the immaturity in the desire. Besides, Professor McGonagall was waiting and it was rude to keep her.
Hermione collected the first clean pair of slacks and a sweater she found and brought them to the shower. After three rinses she could run her fingers through her hair and used a fourth for good measure. She scrubbed every inch of her body until her skin tingled and brushed her teeth until the bad taste was gone.
She quickly ran a towel over her body and used her wand to evaporate most of the moisture from her hair. Her fingers tingled as the magic surged through her hand and out the shaft of wood. She moaned, relishing the flow of magic.
Satisfied her hair was dry enough; Hermione pulled it back in a low pony before donning her clothes. Not bothered by the remainder of her appearance, she tossed the wet towels and dirty clothes in the hamper.
Hermione made her way down the hall but stopped at the top of the stairs. She looked down over the banister into the foyer, into all that open space, than back into the comforting enclosure of the narrow hall. Her body locked down, unable to make herself go any further. It was too much. Too big. She wanted to go back the way she'd come and sneak into her room, climb into her bed, and ignore the world. That would be so much easier. So much safer. But she knew she couldn't do that. McGonagall had come all this way to see her… Hermione tried to move, tried to life her foot but she was frozen with panic.
And what was Professor McGonagall doing here anyway? In her house? Waiting for her? And so soon after the trial? It didn't make any sense. Nothing good could come from this meeting, she was certain.
Hermione caught her lip between her teeth while turning her head away. She'd always looked up to Professor McGonagall. Admired her more than almost any other of her teachers. She didn't know if she could bear to see the disappointment in the eyes of the woman she'd worked her entire school career to gain the approval of.
She'd almost decided to turn back around and retreat to her room but stopped in the end because of her mother. Hermione knew she would not hesitate in coming up after her if she took too long. Wanting to spare herself the humiliation of being summoned like a small child she took a breath, lifted her right foot, and placed it gingerly on the first step. She thought the first step would be the hardest. She was wrong. Each step that followed grew harder and harder as she got further and further away from the comfort of the narrow hallway. Her anxiety grew as the room seemed to expand around her. She paused halfway down the stairs, fingers curled painfully tight into the banister, unable to continue.
She sank into a deep crouch on the step, covering her face as hot tears slid down her raw skin. Shame seeped through her body, mating with her dread until it crippled her. What was wrong with her? She shouldn't be like this. She shouldn't be so afraid all the time. She'd never let her fear have this kind of control over her before. But she didn't know how to stop it. She didn't think she could. The tears came hot and fast drenching her hands and falling onto the front of her shirt.
Her head whipped up so fast a sharp pain shot down the side of her neck. She gapped for a moment before she dashed her sleeve across her eyes and rose shakily to her feet. "Professor." She tugged anxiously at the hem of her sweater while she stepped down one stair. "Professor, I…" She struggled for a moment to find the words to explain herself but in the end gave up and settle for "Good evening, Professor."
Minerva McGonagall stared shrewdly at Hermione, her lips turned down in the corner. Not in disapproval, but in sadness. "Ms Granger," she nodded. "How lovely to see you again."
Hermione forced her legs to move and made her way down the stairs to stand in front of the older witch. She lifted her trembling hand to offer the old teacher, but had to swallow past the hard lump in her throat before she had the air to speak. "And you, Professor McGonagall."
McGonagall extended her own hand. When Hermione made to release her grasp, McGonagall's fingers held steady. Her astute eyes narrowed, taking in all of Hermione's appearance. Her lips pursed as the inspection continued, though her eyes seemed to soften in the corner. Hermione shifted uncomfortably, wrapping a strand of hair around her finger before catching herself and tucking it safely behind her ear.
McGonagall sighed as she released her hand. "They're a terrible blight on the wizading world, aren't they, Ms Granger?"
"What are, Professor?"
"Dementors." Her lips set in a resolute line. "I never thought I'd see the day you would become one of their victims."
Not knowing how to respond Hermione released the woman's hand and this time she let go. She took a step back, feeling more comfortable with more space between them. She took a breath in an attempt to calm her frayed nerves. She motioned to the room McGonagall had come from. "Would you like to sit?"
"Melvin," her mother's voice came from the room behind McGonagall. "Why don't you help me in the kitchen?" Seconds letter her parents crowded the doorway. They waited for Professor McGonagall to enter before they slipped into the hall. When they drew abreast with their daughter, her mother put her hand on Hermione's back and gave her a gentle nudge into the room.
McGonagall had already retaken her seat and was waiting expectantly for Hermione to come and join her. "Please, Ms Granger. We have much to discuss."
Hermione took several awkward steps. "I'm sorry, Professor. I'm afraid I don't understand why you're here. I mean," she took a step towards the sofa, "Why would you be here?... To see me of all people?"
"Please, Ms Granger." Minerva motioned to an empty seat. "Sit."
Reacting to the expectation on McGonagall's face, Hermione hurried to take the seat. This time, however, when she recognized that she'd once more jumped to do an adult's bidding she didn't scold herself. She doubted anyone who had ever had Minerva McGonagall for a teacher would be able to disobey an order, indirect or not.
When Hermione was sitting McGonagall took up her coffee. "How are you, Ms Granger?" She took a sip, grimaced, and cast a warming charm until steam rose off the dark brown surface.
Hermione shifted in her seat, wishing she had a cup of coffee as well, not to drink, but to occupy her hands. Hermione's tongue darted out to wet her lips. "You came all this way to ask me how I am?" Her eyes met McGonagall's for a moment before looking away. "Wouldn't it have been quicker to send an owl?"
McGonagall's lips twitched. "I see your stay in Azkaban has not completely altered your personality. You do look like you need several straight meals though. When was the last time you ate?"
Hermione sat back, brows furrowed. "I don't know." Her head quivered. "I haven't really felt up for…"
"I can wait while you find…"
"Professor McGonagall," Hermione had to look away again. "Why are you here?"
Under other circumstances McGonagall's surprised face would have been comical. She certainly wasn't accustomed to being interrupted. But Hermione was no longer a child, and seeming to acknowledge that, McGonagall continued without comment. "Very well." She replaced her coffee on the table. "I'm getting old, Ms Granger." Hermione opened her mouth to object but McGonagall threw up a hand to halt her, the look on her face warning her not to interrupt. "I'm getting old, and managing the duties of the Headmistress while giving the appropriate attention to my Transfiguration classes has become increasingly difficult." She sighed. "I'm afraid I can't do it anymore."
Hermione shook her head, her mouth hanging slightly open. "I'm sorry? I still don't understand. What has this to do with me?"
"I came here today in hope of persuading you to accept a teaching position at Hogwarts."
Time screamed to a stop for one moment before Hermione's eyes bugged out of her face. She gapped noiselessly. When the words came, after a minute of stunned silence, they were a laugh. "Excuse me?"
"I'd like you to come back to Hogwarts and teach." Minerva said, ignoring the nearly insulting manner in which the question was asked. "I've put off finding a replacement for too long now. It's time. I thought we'd start by having you take on the first through fourth years. I'll continue teaching the O.W.L trough N.E.W.T students. I don't think I could give up teaching all together. Not just yet."
Hermione continued to stare at McGonagall, her mouth still hanging open. Her lips moved soundlessly for a moment before she managed. "I don't understand." Her head shook. "Why?"
"Why what, Ms Granger?"
"Why what? Why are you here - asking me - to come and be a teacher at Hogwarts?" She clasped her hands in front of her, rubbing circles into her palm with her thumb. "It's absurd. You certainly cannot be unaware of what's…"
McGonagall lifted her voice to be heard. "I know all about the trial, Ms Granger."
Hermione fell silent.
"How could I not? The press certainly made sure it was well covered."
"If you know… then I'm even more confused. Why would you ask me? You have to know I'm guilty. That I got off on a technicality."
"That" McGonagall leaned forward, "is precisely the reason I am offering you the position. Ms Granger. Hermione," she abandoned all formality and placed a hand on the young witch's arm, "That was a very brave thing you did. Unbelievably stupid, and careless," Hermione couldn't help but snort in agreement, "But brave none the less. And most importantly, it was the right thing. There's no telling what would have become of that child if she'd been left under the care of those despicable…" her nostrils flared. "It frightens me to think what could have happened. And I believe…no, I know, Professor Dumbledore would have been very proud of you as well."
Hermione lowered her face to hide both the flush of pleasure that turned her cheeks red and the rush of tears that pooled behind her eyes.
"Which is exactly why I want you teaching at Hogwarts. You're a bright, highly capable witch. I believe the students of Hogwarts would learn a great deal and benefit from having you around. But also, you have proven you will go to great lengths to protect a child. These are qualities I deem highly important when I interview a perspective teacher."
Hermione bit her bottom lip to staunch her excitement. A job. At Hogwarts. Never would she have imagined this was the reason McGonagall sought her out today. Teaching at Hogwarts? Before this very moment she'd never considered the possibility… but now that it had been offered to her…she wanted it. Desperately. Any job would have been a blessing, a wonderful distraction from the tormenting thoughts that still swam around in her brain. But teaching? And at Hogwarts? That beautiful school where, no matter how many times her life was in peril, she still felt safe. The place where she had been the happiest. She wanted to jump at the chance, to say yes before McGonagall realized the mistake she was making, and retract the offer. But she couldn't in good conscience accept.
Hermione drew a deep breath, garnishing her strength. "That's very kind of you to offer Professor…" she needed another breath, "but I don't think the parents will want me near their children. And I don't blame them. Who in their right mind would let a known kidnapper near their child?"
McGonagall frowned at her. "That's sounds like an excuse, Ms Granger. If you don't want the position simply say so."
"That's not it." Hermione hastened to assure. "You have no idea how much I want to say yes."
McGonagall arched a brow.
"Do you honestly believe the parents will allow it? That the school board will?"
"I've already discussed it with the school board and the faculty."
"I've kidnapped a child once before, after all." She rushed on as if McGonagall hadn't spoken. "Who's to say I won't do it again?"
Hermione didn't answer. She couldn't. Not truthfully.
"If the need arose." McGonagall answered for her knowingly. "If it meant protecting a child. Which is why I believe the parents would be happy to have you teaching their children. Not only are you brilliant, you are kind and understanding and the students would only benefit from having you as a teacher. And if that wasn't reason enough, the vast majority of the wizarding community sees your actions as nothing short of heroic. You're a hero, Hermione. And everyone knows that."
Hermione lowered her face to hide the tears she couldn't stop from sliding down her cheeks. "Why are you being so kind to me?"
"And why wouldn't I be kind to you?" McGonagall reached for her hand and squeezed it comfortingly. "Need I remind you that you were not found guilty of anything? What's more, you did a great kindness for Mr Weasley. And what it comes down to, Ms Granger, is that you're in need of a job. A chance to get back on your feet. I'm offering it to you. I want you to come and join our staff. In fact, I insist you do." McGonagall rose to her feet, as if the matter were settled. She looked down at Hermione as she tugged her robes neatly into place. "I will be expecting you Wednesday morning. I realize that doesn't give you much time to put your affairs in order, but school waits for no one."
"But, I haven't said yes."
"You will. Wednesday morning, Ms Granger."
And she was gone before Hermione had the presence of mind to walk her to the door or to even thank her. Here someone was kind enough to give her a second chance and she'd failed in the most basic nicety of saying thank you.
"Hermione?" she looked up to see her parents standing framed in the doorway. Her mother took another step into the room. "What did she want, dear?"
Hermione blinked. It took her a moment to process the question. "She… She came to offer me a job."
Her mother and father looked at each other quickly, their eyes catching.
"That's wonderful, darling." Her father took her hand as he sat in the seat next to her. "But what about your job at the Ministry?"
Hermione picked absently at the cuticle of her right thumb.
"Hermione," he took her other hand, clasping it tight between both of his large warm ones. "You're going to have to tell us what happened someday."
Her lips trembled. "Yes daddy, but not today. I'm…"
He squeezed her fingers. "When you're ready."
The cushions sank as Hermione's mother took a seat on her free side. She slowly ran her fingers through Hermione's hair, careful not to pull hard when they caught. "I hadn't realized you'd applied for a new position."
Hermione tipped her head, eyes closed, giving her mother better access to her hair. "I hadn't." Her breath evened and slowed as her mother continued to run her fingers through the damp strands. She wanted to lay her head down on her mother's lap as she had as a child, and luxuriate in the comforting pull.
The small family was quiet for several minutes as they each grappled with the repercussions of their situation. Knowing that she was the cause of her family's pain weighed heavily on Hermione. She was ashamed to admit that not once in the process of planning Blake's rescue, trying to find a solution that would cause the least damage to the people she loved, has she taken her parents and their feelings into account. What kind of daughter was she?
She looked between her parents, first her mother and then her father. It killed her that they weren't talking. That no matter how they tried, they weren't entirely comfortable in each other's presences. She was as much a stranger to them as they were to her, and it killed her inside. Before she'd left for Hogwarts, back when she was a little girl of eleven, she'd confided everything in her parents. Everything. And now there was nothing but this silence. This inability of hers to just tell them what she had done to herself. It ate at her heart like a virus.
"When will you be leaving?"
Hermione started at the sound of her mother's voice. "Mum," she turned so that her whole body faced her mother. "I haven't accepted."
Her mother's soft, cold hand came to rest on Hermione's cheek, the thumb rubbing across the bone to wipe away the trace of tears. "But you will."
"Why is everyone so sure I…"
"Because, Hermione," her dad smiled. "We all know you don't do well being idle. You need purpose in your life. I think you've been without purpose for too long now. You and I both know you're going to accept that job. And you should." Hermione met his eyes. He didn't need to say anything more. She knew he understood. After all of this, the years of separation and the current disappointment, he still understood. They both did.
"Mum, dad," her voice quivered, "I'm sorry I…"
"You don't need to say anything, Hermione." Her mother soothed, pulling her into her arms.
"No," Hermione pulled back. "I do. I need to tell you how sorry I am for staying away so long. And I don't just mean Spain and… and…I've been gone a very long time. Since I began Hogwarts, and…" her head hung, her chin nearly rubbing the flat of her chest. "I'm sorry."
"Hermione," Melvin waited for her to lift her head and meet his gaze. "You don't have to apologize for having your own life. That's what every parent wants for their child. And we understand about the war and your part in it."
"But maybe," her mother said slowly, taking care to try and hide her longing but failing, "maybe you could come home for a visit more often."
Hermione nodded. "I can do that."
"Good." This time when her mother pulled Hermione into her arms she didn't protest. She laid her head on her mother's shoulder and closed her eyes. "And when you're ready," she said in a lower voice. "We'll talk about everything that happened and you can explain it to us. Because I really want to understand."
"Alright then, that's enough for now." Her mother pulled back until Hermione was held at arm's length. "Now. Tell us about this job you've been offered."
"Professor McGonagall wants me to take over teaching Transfiguration to the younger years."
"Which means you'll be moving into the castle."
Hermione turned to look at her father. "I hadn't thought about that, but I suppose. Yes."
"Where are your things? I didn't see you or Harry or that other young man,"
"Yes Parker. I didn't see any boxes come in with you. Just a few bags. That can't be all you have."
"Er," Hermione brushed her hair back off her face. "All my things are at Parkers. I knew there wouldn't be room here… and I wanted everything in one place. "
"I could help you collect them."
"No." Hermione shook her head. "That's alright. Most everything is in boxes. And it would be easier if Harry and Parker just helped me. It would be complicated enough trying to get you to Parker's flat. Trying to get you to Hogwarts, that would be impossible."
Her father nodded, disappointed, but understanding.
Hermione slowly detangled from her mother's arms and stood. "I think I'll go write Harry and Parker now. Let them know what's going on."