SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT READ DEATHLY HALLOWS, DO NOT READ.
A/N: Ten years after Deathly Hallows; our heroes are 28 years old. Hermione's wandering train of thought while washing the dishes.
My mother always told me when I was small that "there may be several Mr. Right's before THE Mr. Right finds you." And I had a few people before Ron who could have been right, had the circumstances been different. Viktor was sweet, but a bit simple...and I never told anyone, but during that stupid little thing with Cormac McLaggen in sixth year, he turned out to be less of a breasts-person and more of a penis-person. That little fling ended when I found a stack of homosexual pornography hidden under his bed. Irritating bully and not interested in girls...not so much the Mr. Right I was hoping for.
Everybody saw it coming a painfully long time in advance...if they had made bets on when it would happen, they'd have grown bored waiting for us to get our act together. Maybe they did make bets. I suppose that's what teenagers do. Well, I don't believe in gambling. It's a silly habit. Whoever thought up the concept of betting your own hard-earned money on outcomes of activities that are usually left up to pure chance was an idiot. It was probably someone like George. Speaking of, I should visit his shop...haven't been in a while. I heard he has a new batch of excellent cursebreaking items in; really should check that out. Ugh...even after all these years, it's still painful to think about the shop and poor George running it all by himself. I don't know how he manages without his other half. Fred...
But I digress.
It's what all the fairy tales say—opposites attract. 'Squabbling and bickering means love.' If two people fight all the time, it MUST signify that they are deeply involved in a love-hate relationship with each other, meaning in simple terms that they fight because they love each other but don't want to admit it. And so, listening to the whispers of others and the shouts of my inner hopeless romantic, I fell blindly, madly in love with the boy I was meant to be with.
Classic story. The hero and his two sidekicks—the comic relief and the smart one—who eventually end up together. The hero has his own heroine to ride off into the sunset with; the beautiful, strong, sassy one. Who could resist her? Who could resist him? The sidekicks can, that's who. The sidekicks get together because they've shared so many experiences and they have the love-hate thing going on and the audience loves it...and also because they can't get the hero or the heroine. Believe me, if the smart girl had a shot in hell with the hero, by god she'd take it. But that's not how the story goes.
And so I landed myself with my fellow sidekick, who'd conveniently been in love with me for years, and I have been very happy with him. I love Ron. I do. He's been my friend for most of my life, and my lover for more than half the time I've known him. He is the best husband and father I could ask for. Loving, caring, fun; always ready with that dimpled, freckly smile. His flaming red hair is a welcome sight to sore eyes at the end of each day, though it's a nightmare to wash. It's so thick. And he refuses to cut it. He's beginning to resemble Bill, though not as dashing (if I can really call any Weasley dashing).
I am happy...
Sometimes it's hard. With Ron and his constant jabbering about Quidditch and 'the good old days' and pestering me about vacations and wanting this and that...it's just constant. I wouldn't be so irritated by it if there was a "Thank you for making me dinner, Hermione, it was lovely" once in a while. All I get is "Oi, 'Mione, pass the applesauce," at the end of every meal. Him and his applesauce. It's becoming a ridiculous obsession; he's going to make himself sick one of these days, I swear.
Who would have thought that I'd end up a housewife? I don't even have a job. If someone had told me fifteen years ago that this is how I'd spend my evenings—washing dishes and reminiscing—I'd have laughed in their face and told them to bugger off. A housewife. Cleaning dishes. Ron never helps with the dishes. He cooks occasionally, and thinks that it makes up for never helping with the dishes. The dishes are so much worse than cooking. He'd know if he ever did them. Of course, he'd simply wave his wand and never lift a finger; but sometimes with magic, you just don't get all the spots out. There's something about a physical touch that really gets them clean, and so the Muggle way turns out to be the best way.
I wash dishes in my own home for a living. I'm married, I have a two-year-old kid and one more on the way, and I'm only twenty-eight years old. Sometimes I think about my life—really think about it—and I get so depressed that I just want to say 'to hell with the world' and off myself. But I could never do that to Rose and Master Yet-Unnamed. I can't believe how quickly Rose is growing up. I'd like to say she's the spitting image of Ron, but she looks more like me in face shape. She has the most gorgeous auburn-brown hair, and Ron's Weasley-blue eyes. She's all bright smiles and laughter.
I actually only discovered I'm pregnant again last week. I've started planning how to surprise everyone with the news, as I have nothing better to do all day. I've always wondered how Molly keeps herself occupied all the time...there's only so much mindless cleaning I can do in a day. I guess I'm used to it by now after seven years, give or take. I tried to be a Healer after Hogwarts; I went through the required three years of training, and worked at St. Mungo's for one. Ron and I got married the week I graduated from med school. I can't remember ever being as happy as I was that week, before or after. Actually, defeating Voldemort was right up there. But excluding that...nothing. Except maybe Rose being born. Merlin, do I ever love her. There's a bond between a mother and her child that no other love in life can compare to.
Anyway, I worked at St. Mungo's for a year, but it was just too hard. It reminded me vividly of everything having to do with the war—and I'd get nightmares of things like if I'd known how to do all this, maybe Fred wouldn't have died...maybe I could have saved Remus or Tonks...it was horrible. I worked until I couldn't anymore, and when I went off on leave for a vacation, I just...decided not to go back. I wanted to always be there for any children I'd have. My parents both worked full time when I was growing up, and I was pretty much raised by the nanny they hired to take care of me. I'm not saying they were bad parents—not at all, I love them to death—but I wanted to physically be there for mine in the way that I never really got from my mother. The hours at St. Mungo's were too long anyway. Much as I missed Healing, I think it was the right decision. Perhaps when Rose and Baby are both at Hogwarts I'll start working again. Then I'd have something to do with my time. Something to take my mind off the growing problem I've been avoiding for the past few years.
Dishes are done. I can hear Ron taking her up to bed now. He'll engage her in a tickle fight, then read her a story, tuck her in and kiss her goodnight. I'll go up in a minute. He loves their bedtime ritual. I glance over my shoulder at the doorway to the living room and sigh. The room's a mess, no doubt from an enthusiastic session of reading Ron's books on Quidditch. Rose inherited her father's passion for the game, even at her age, and she's been learning the beginning details of playing it from her uncle. Watching the two of them out on the little mini-pitch makes my heart swell. When they come in after a 'rousing match' of one-on-one, which Harry makes sure my daughter always wins, I can't help but think how identical their grins are. If I look in the light just right, I can even see shades of green in her eyes that match her godfather's exactly. Harry and Rosie. They get along very well, despite the fact that my daughter is two and Harry's my age.
He was so happy when he found out that Ron and I were having a baby at the same time he and Ginny were. Just ecstatic. His oldest, three years old now, is named after his father. James is irrepressible and mischievous like his namesake. And Albus just turned two, the same age as Rosie. The three cousins are growing up practically joined at the hip. I love James and Albus to pieces. Their parents are raising them well. Harry wants to spoil them both rotten, of course, but Ginny won't hear of it. Something about "They'll wear hand-me-downs until they're sixteen, just like I did!" I can't help chuckling at the memory.
Me, Harry and Ron...we're all grown up now. To think we were once running all over Europe, saving the world, when we were only seventeen...goes to show you there's life after Voldemort. I ended up just where I expected to be. Maybe not entirely—I certainly didn't predict being a stay-at-home mother. But here I am.
I shouldn't say 'ended up'. I'm only twenty-eight; I still have my whole life ahead of me. I can't wait to watch my children grow up and become adults, start lives of their own...have families...be happy.
I do hope they both find all the happiness they deserve. I've made mistakes in my life that if I could go back and change, I might. It's a difficult subject, because if I changed things, I may not have had Rose and Baby. Well, I haven't had Baby yet, but I know he or she's coming. My darlings. I would keep everything in my life just the way it is, for them; I can't imagine my life without Rose. Nevermind the fact that perhaps I might have been happier in the long run—I love my babies, born and unborn, and wouldn't give them up for the world. Never. Not even to fix my...situation.
I look up, startled out of my thoughts as Ron appears in the doorway to the kitchen. I smile warmly and hold out my arms. He comes forward and dutifully embraces me, saying into my hair, "You had that look on your face again." I sigh. He is observational beyond what he used to be.
"I'm just thinking about how much I love you and Rosie."
"You looked sad."
I feel tears spring unbidden to my eyes at his innocent words, and blink them away before letting go. I give him a smile. "Love isn't sad. Love is wonderful. Now, it's time for bed—I'll be up later, unless you want me to say goodnight now and not disturb you?" He nods and I push my chair in.
I walk with him up to our room—Rose has Ginny's old room from when she was young; the Burrow hasn't changed much since then—and sit on the side of the bed as he changes into pajamas and tells me all about the new broom polishing kit he got from Harry. I smile and nod, making a note to myself to thank him for it. He'll probably drop by sometime on Saturday; I'll do it then. He's so thoughtful. How does he always know when Ron starts complaining about his brooms? Must use Legilimency...I know Ron would never voice his grievances aloud, because then Harry might never give them to him. Ron gets all of Harry's old Quidditch brooms whenever Harry gets a new one.
When he slips into bed and I lean down to kiss his forehead, he whispers, "Are you sure you're okay, Hermione?"
"Yes, dear. I'm very happy." It's not a lie—I couldn't possibly ask for more than what I have, and our child is my pride and joy. My heart feels like it's going to burst with love every time I look at her. He smiles tiredly, satisfied for now, and closes his eyes. "Goodnight," I whisper.
I blow out the light and walk quietly out of the room, shutting the door behind me so gently that I don't even hear the latch click. I head back down to the kitchen and sit at the table by myself, feeling on the verge of tears again.
It's a horrible thing to know that you're in love with someone who's not your husband.
This isn't Hogwarts anymore. I can't just tell Ron I'm sorry and leave. He's the father of my child, soon to be children. I've been married to him for seven years. He's one of my best mates, besides. And I do love him in my own way...just...not the way a wife should love her husband. I feel fourteen again, worrying about troubles of the heart, and yet at the same time...I feel so old. Ancient. Helpless. Resigned. Like the genie in the lamp. I hate putting it like that; like I'm trapped and want out, but...I don't know.
"You looked sad."
"Love's not sad. Love is wonderful."
My heart breaks every time I lie to him. In order to protect my family from what I've got myself into, though...anything would be better than seeing anyone I love go through such a long, slow, painful heartbreak. Or find out that I am.
Listen to me. I sound like Margaret whatsherface—that dreadful Canadian author. Atwood. Her work is so depressing even I can't get through one of her books without wanting to kill her. I have to get my mind out of this rut. Right, Hermione, distract yourself; you're good at it. The dishes may be done, but the kitchen could use a little tidy-up. Muggle style. Ron will kill me if he sees me cleaning without a wand. 'It's so simple! Just say a few words and wave your wand and it's done—I don't see any point in doing it the long way. You're a witch, act like it!' He doesn't understand that I don't do it out of habit, but out of necessity. If there was nothing to be done around the house then I'd have nothing to occupy myself with...I can't start work again, I have nine years left before Rose goes off to Hogwarts. And another eleven, I suppose, until Baby does. They need me at home. As much as I love them and will love raising them, it will be good for me to go back to working full time, if only because I can throw myself into it without thinking of aught else.
Ridiculousness. I'm suddenly tired; my eyes are drooping. Ron probably spilt some light Sleeping Draught; I bet he forgot to give some to Rose. Clumsy man. That stuff evaporates so fast. And once it gets into the air, everyone in the house is a bit affected by it. For the last month or so, he's been putting a drop or two in Rosie's warm milk every night before bed. She has a nightmare problem. It started when she lost her favourite stuffed toy—Bubba, a plushy giraffe we got her for her first birthday—and hasn't gotten better since. I have a feeling the toy's up at Harry and Ginny's cottage...she lost it around the time we all went up there for a weekend. Maybe I'll Apparate up there and have a look around tomorrow while Rose is over at her friend Marcel's house. They get together for play-dates every once in a while; Marcel lives on Harry and Ginny's street, and is a year older than Rose. She's a darling little thing. A bit on the wild side—her parents don't discipline her very much—but very bright, that child.
There's a sound from behind me. A key in the lock of the kitchen door. As I turn around to see who it is, the door opens and Harry steps in, old overnight case in hand and a sleeping three-year-old in the other arm. The boy's thumb is stuck firmly in his mouth, a habit Ginny has been trying to break him of. Harry grins guiltily at me and waves after putting down his trunk. I sigh and plant my hands on my hips, giving him one of my infamous looks. "What did you do now?"
"It was just one set of robes!" he exclaims defensively, and I laugh, then remember to be quiet so as not to wake up James. "Ginny went up in flames about it—I don't see why he can't have one nice set of robes..."
"One would be fine. He's only three and this is what, the tenth set you've bought him?"
"Third!" he insists, turning slightly red. "You sound like Ginny now."
I bite my tongue on a retort. The last thing I want to sound like is his wife when she's throwing one of her fits. "Well, your room's ready as always."
"Rosie asleep?" I nod. He grins at me again and heads up the stairs with his bag and his elder son, tiptoeing around the places he knows creak the loudest. The Burrow is such a rickety old house, but you can't deny it has character. The ghoul in the attic has even calmed down over the years. Harry's going up to the room on the second floor that Ron and I keep furnished with a bed, dresser, lamp, and some of Harry's things. He and Ginny fight constantly about everything you can think of—her fiery Weasley temper hasn't mellowed with age—and every so often she kicks him out of their house and he comes to stay with us for a day or two until she calms down. It's all in good fun, most of the time; even she laughs about it, and lord knows the rest of us do. It's become such a regular occurrence that we gave him his own key and stopped bothering to remind Harry to pack all his things when he does go back; it's nice for him to have his own possessions already set up in his home-away-from-home. James finds it especially hilarious—he knows that whenever his daddy splurges on something for him, his mum will boot him out for a while, and the little devil delights in teasing him about it upon his returns. Ginny never takes the things back to the stores, for all the stink she puts up about Harry buying them. I think she secretly likes that her son has luxuries that she never did. Doesn't stop her from nagging him for it.
I shake my head, smiling as I go back to cleaning. They have such a funny relationship. It reminds me of Ron and me in the beginning—always fighting about every little thing. We don't anymore. That was always our signature thing—constant bickering—but over years of marriage we've both eased up, and I can't even remember the last time we actually had a serious argument. The only thing we really disagree about is the damn dishes that he never helps with. Wanker.
So Harry brought James with him this time. Good that his son will see that Harry and Ginny aren't really fighting; he'll get to experience his father's side of the argument for once. I wonder if Ginny knows Harry took James. I hope she does. I'll owl her in the morning to let her know they both arrived alright, and if he told her, it'll be nice for her to know her son's fine; if she doesn't know, this will be a diplomatic and innocent way of telling her. I know it's all in fun but I do worry sometimes. It's what I do.
Footsteps on the stairs behind me. I glance over my shoulder, dust cloth in hand, and am surprised to see Harry coming down into the kitchen instead of Ron. "Smells like Sleeping Draught up there," he says, waving a hand in front of his nose. I was right, then; Ron must have spilled it. "Rose is still having nightmares, I take it?"
I nod. "She can't go two nights without one now."
"Poor thing..." he trails off, and I see deep sympathy in his eyes. I remember how he used to get terrible nightmares back in Hogwarts, and when he was growing up. Of course he sympathizes with her; he knows what it's like. "Maybe I'll talk to her about it," he offers, reading my mind. "If I tell her about mine, that she's not the only one who gets them, maybe she'll feel better. D'you think?"
I smile gratefully, tiredly. "That would be wonderful. Thank you." She adores him anyway; this will make her feel even closer to him. All my children will grow up loving him. Sometimes I wonder if Rose does more than she loves her father, but her face when he comes home at the end of the day reassures me. I can offer no such comfort for myself. I thought for so long that I could redevelop things between me and Ron, but any spark once there is long gone. And now it's been seven years, and we have Rose plus the baby he doesn't know about yet. There's nothing I can do about it—nothing I want to do about it, either. Perhaps we aren't the best matched couple, but it's not as though we don't get along at all. Ron's great. Just not The One for me.
The One for me is behind me, sitting his currently homeless ass down on my kitchen table.
I've got to stop moping like this, especially when he's in the house. Much less the same room. I can feel his eyes on my back. Please look away. I'll drop something, and enough things get broken in this household without me adding to it. There; it's safe to turn around. I do so. He's staring idly at the Weasley clock, modified so many years ago when Fred died, then again when I married Ron, and a third time when Rose was born. This isn't counting the additions of Harry, James and Albus. All of the hands are pointing towards Home except Harry's, which is hovering over Vacation. I smile absently to myself; 'vacation' isn't the word I would use. But now something needs to break the silence before I make a fool of myself. "Did you see Ron while you were upstairs?" I ask, not a trace of a tremor in my voice. He shakes his head, and I sigh. "He probably inhaled too much Draught. I'll go see if he's alright."
"I'll come with," Harry offers, and I close my eyes briefly before nodding and flashing him another grateful smile. "You might need help dragging him to your bedroom if he's conked out on Rosie's floor."
He's right. It won't be the first time it's happened, either, which is the pathetic thing. We tiptoe up the stairs to the third floor and into Rose's room...and sure enough, there's Ron, out cold on her flower-shaped rug. I gather up the shards of glass that used to be a vial and put them in the trash. Both of us suppressing laughter—Rose is sleeping, after all—we each pick up two limbs and proceed to drag my husband down the hall and into our room, where Harry hoists him up onto the bed and goes back downstairs as I get Ron under the sheets and comfortable.
When I come back into the kitchen, dusting my hands off on my apron, Harry looks up and tilts his head at me. "You reminded me of Molly just there, with that apron on and all." I pause, not knowing what to think. I flush a little. I can't tell if it's a compliment or not—is he saying I look old and motherly, or warm and...oh, bother. I can never tell with Harry. He just sits there looking at me oddly, and I stand here at the bottom of the stairs, fiddling with my skirt. There's a loose thread. I shouldn't pull it, but I do. It gives easily, leaving a horizontal run on the material. Pressing the end that's still attached, I rip the thread off and toss it into the nearest trash can. Harry has been carefully watching me do this the whole while. I've had enough of this silliness. I meet his eyes for a brief second, and they are friendly but thoughtful behind the warmth. I walk past him into the kitchen and start straightening the various Muggle appliances that Ron and I have charmed to work with magic instead of electricity. Arthur comes over whenever he can to tinker with everything here; he hasn't lost his fascination with Muggle things, and he's still convinced that it's called 'ecklecticy'.
There's only so much I can do in the already-spotless kitchen. As I turn around to find something else to busy myself with, I notice the strange look on Harry's face as he watches me. It's a bit vacant, as though he's forgotten what he's looking at but has slipped into an absent state and can't tear his eyes away. Sure enough, as I meet his gaze, he blinks and straightens a bit, looking more focused. "Is there anything I can help with?" he asks, always eager to please. I shake my head. That's one thing I love about him. He never has to do any work around his own house—Kreacher takes care of all that—and so whenever he comes over here, he tries to make up for it by doing every chore he can.
"Are you sure?"
I blink, remembering Harry's here. I was lost in my thoughts for a moment there. "Well, there's not much to do, really; I spend my time cleaning and cleaning and cleaning again, so there's never much cleaning to do at the end of the day."
"You should relax more."
I agree, but then who would clean? Certainly not Ron, he's usually the one who makes the messes. "What else can I fill my time with?"
"I dunno. Anything. I only asked because you look like you're trying to keep busy."
Maybe that's where my husband got his observational skills from; lessons from Harry. He is far shrewder than I give him credit for. "No, no...just making sure there's nothing left to be done." I have to acknowledge my own words, and I sit down at the table across from Harry. He leans forward on one elbow and draws circles on the wood with a calloused finger. He really should wear gloves when he plays Quidditch. I wonder when his next game is. He plays for England in the international league. He actually made our country's team good, which is a marvel in itself, and his salary is sky-high. I still think sports stars shouldn't be paid so much, but that's not up to me to decide, I suppose...and besides, I wouldn't want to deprive Harry of the means to spoil his kids. Then he'd never have any fun. That's when he's happiest, I think; when he's alone with James, Albus and Rose, teaching them the fine art of Quidditch on the little pitch out back, and making the three cousins feel like they're kings and queen of the world.
"You always seem busy when I come over, but you never really do anything."
I freeze, breath caught in my throat. What business is it of his that I feign constant activity? I need to work. I need to be occupied. I need to be always doing something, because if I don't, I'll just stop moving and stare blindly out a window and picture myself walking into my bedroom and seeing him lying there waiting for me instead of Ron. Imagine myself running my hands through that thick tangle of black hair. Stand there and wish and close my eyes and never want to open them again. And I can't lose myself in dreams, because my child—children—need me here. So I busy my hands and pretend it doesn't matter.
I swallow with difficulty. For some reason it is particularly hard to concentrate on remaining calm tonight. "Sure I do things; I clean."
"Yes, but there's only so much cleaning you can do; I mean...there's more to life than picking up after other people."
"Perhaps, but it's not for me."
We are both silent for a long time. The unspoken words between us spiral and stretch into the still air, and neither of us know what to say. Then Harry, looking down at the table, speaks.
"I never thought you'd be a housewife." What is this, Legilimency night? "I thought you'd always be busy—really busy, not fake-busy—doing everything you could think of, running one charity organization or another and being a Healer and volunteering at the local library and still managing to find time to hang out with me and Ron, and raise whatever children you had at the same time. I...I think you're...wasted, being idle like this. The world needs more Hermione's, and you're spending your best years doing...nothing. No offense. Do you know what I mean?"
I stare at him in open-mouthed surprise. I hadn't had Harry pegged to be so insightful. I can feel my heart rising up into my mouth, words wanting to spill out in a rush that's been held back for years, arms tensing to reach out across the table and seize his hand, but I restrain myself. As usual. Closing my mouth, I manage a shaky smile and nod. "I...yes. Like I'm puttering around my house wasting my days away as life goes by...it's a scary thought."
I feel a connection with him that wasn't there before, and it warms me. He knows how I feel. Not only that, but he openly acknowledges it. I glance over at him, and instinctively I know he hasn't talked to Ginny about this, just as I haven't talked to Ron. There are some things you don't tell your partner that you tell your best friend. That's what Harry is—my best friend. Nothing more. Never has been, never will be. No matter how much I've wanted...or how long I've sat by and smiled as he...or watched the rain fall, wishing I could run around outside in it with my face turned up to the sky and drown in it... in the downpour of bittersweet musical pitter-patter on the roof tiles...
I am shaken out of my reverie by a touch on my hand. Those impossibly green eyes are boring into my plain brown ones. "You don't have to watch it go by." His thumb makes circles on my skin. I can't breathe at all, nor can I look away and break the hold of his gaze. It seems like we are caught in a loose spellthread outside the normal weave of time. I am unable to stop myself leaning forward the tiniest bit across the table, and I could be mistaken, but it looks as though he is too. There is an insurmountable degree of tension in the room. I still cannot look away. I wish I could; then I could get up and go anywhere else.
Just as I think I'm about to scream, there is a creak on the stairs. It immediately shatters the intensity between Harry and me. I stand up, turning towards the stairs, trying to hide my hands in the folds of my apron so as not to reveal how terribly they are shaking. Two small slippered feet come into view, and then a yawning three-year-old boy. "Daddy," my nephew begins sleepily, and smiles beatifically. "I wanna snack."
"Don't ask me, I'm not in charge here," Harry says with a grin. James turns his eyes to me. I must still look frazzled beyond belief—I know I still feel it—because his tired smile falters and his eyes fill up with questions. I consciously smooth my features and attempt to smile back, but can't quite manage it. I must try words instead.
"Come hug your aunt."
He obediently does so, and is pulled up onto my lap, burying his face in my apron. I look between the two of them and an unwanted thought crosses my mind—like father, like son—and my throat closes up as I imagine James's hair lighter brown, and his eyes darker like mine...
I wish he was my son.
Not just because he's Harry's son—the boy's mischievous streak makes him irresistible to me. I know, I know...unlike me...but it's really not. It may have been an inconceivable thought fifteen, twenty years ago, but since the war, I've lost that trademark strict adherence to rules. Rose is so far a good girl, but with James as an example and Harry as her uncle, always getting kicked out of his own house by his wife...I know she'll grow up with at least a few impish tendencies.
James looks up at me and asks in his best cute-puppy voice, "C'n I have a snack?"
"What do you say?" I reply, and he attempts to roll his eyes like he's seen his father do countless times at his mother.
"Please c'n I have a snack?"
I nod and he squeaks in delight, then slides off my lap and runs over to the cupboard that he knows from past experience holds various dry cereals. As he assembles a snack for himself, getting milk out from the refrigerator, I stand up and open a cupboard above the counter to get a bowl for him. James thanks me and pours out the cereal, getting a spoon out of a drawer and sitting down at the table to eat. I put the materials away with a flick of my wand—the time for cleaning like a Muggle is over—and sit back down where I was before, across from Harry. James is sitting at the end without an eye for either of us, just shoveling food into his mouth.
I smile fondly and think of Rose. I stand again—up and down, up and down; I must look so restless—and go over to the sink where there's a picture of her on her first time on a broom. She's laughing uproariously as Ron and Harry slowly take their hands away, leaving her to fly on her own without them to steady her. Sometimes I think Harry's more her father than Ron is. It's not true; Ron has been just as big a part in raising her as I have. Well, that's not true either...but though Harry is her favourite uncle, he's not her father. He's not her father. I've told myself that at least twice a day since she was born. And I've spent ten years of my life telling myself to stop wanting what I can't have. I turn around and lean forward against the sink, bracing myself so I won't collapse. The stars outside seem blurry. Stupid.
I notice it's grown silent behind me. They were talking until now. Then I hear my nephew's quiet voice. "Sometimes she gets like this when you c—"
"I distinctly remember you getting put to bed already," I say, turning back around to face him with an I-caught-you grin on my face. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He grins guiltily back and nods, getting the picture. He slides off the seat and waves goodnight, then scampers back upstairs to his room. It is silent for a few seconds before Harry decides to speak.
"When I come over?"
I squeeze my eyes shut, then look at him and try to laugh. "Kids. I don't know what he—"
"It's okay to tell me, Hermione."
I break off mid-sentence and choke. He can see the distress on my face. "Accio bowl." James's empty bowl zooms towards me, and I spin back around to face the sink, placing it carefully in the basin to mask my trembling hands. Shaking again. I look out the window above it, breathing fast and shallow breaths, and wonder if this will be the night my life finally falls apart. I've kept it so carefully together for a whole decade, so meticulous about my facial expressions and demeanor, and it's all going to go to hell because I can't control myself for one evening. I hear him get up and come around the table to stand behind me. He doesn't touch me, thank god. I don't know what I'd do if he did. Faint, probably. Very Hermione-like. I almost burst into hysterical laughter, but don't. I can feel how close he is. I see his reflection in the windowpane, staring worriedly at me. I can't escape this time. I can't hide behind Ron or my daughter. All up to me.
"Are you alright?"
"Nnh—yes. I'm fine." Keep calm. I almost slip on the floor because of the weight I'm pressing myself down with. I feel rooted to the spot. What's so bad about the situation? I can handle this. All I have to do is tell him I'm tired and had a stressful day, then make up something that could have happened. Easy. Stupid.
There is an awkward silence, and then he takes a tiny step forward. "You're not fine. Since when do you lie to me?"
Breaking point is imminent. I'm going to whirl around in a second and either kiss him or punch him in the gut, anything to stop this torture. "I'm not lying. I'm just married."
WHAT? WHY DID I SAY THAT? I'M GOING TO KILL MYSELF.
"Hermione, what are you talking about?"
Goodbye, perfect life.
I do whirl around now, and look desperately up into his eyes while pressing myself back up against the sink. "Nothing! Nevermind! Please go away; I can't deal with this right now!" I plead silently for him to understand.
"Can't deal with this, or with me?"
"This! With this! Just—something happened today—I'm stressed, and tired—" I grasp at straws, trying to reel in and pull a story together to save myself. He takes another step toward me and I shrink away from him, near tears. Please, Harry. Please go away.
And now suddenly he's pulling me into his arms, tucking my head in under his chin, and holding me as my body shudders, wracked with stifled sobs. I love you. I can't hold back anymore. After so many years of smiling when I want to die, I can't. I want to buck up and put on another silly face—I'm being ridiculously angsty, and if I was any of my friends, I wouldn't want to be around me. I'd tell myself to look around at my life and see how perfect it is. I have no reason to be so upset—I should be thankful for what I have, which is a lot. Just one thing missing.
I shove him away so that I can glare angrily up into his alarmed green eyes. "NOTHING. Nothing I can do anything about, anyway. Because everything is so damned perfect, I can't fix the one thing that's not."
"What is wrong?" He looks like he wants to hug me again, so I put up a hand and place it firmly on his chest to keep him an arm's length away.
"Stop trying to comfort me. I can deal with this on my own. I have been for—however long, it doesn't matter, all that matters is that you please leave me alone so I can calm down and we can go on and pretend this didn't happen."
"You're not making any sense. What didn't happen?" he asks, very confused now. I suppose I'm not making much sense. But it doesn't matter—better that way. Now he won't know. If I just play up the crazy, maybe he'll think I've got heatstroke or some such thing and whisk me off to St. Mungo's for a checkup, and then I can blame everything on being ill and nothing will have to change.
"I—I'm not feeling well," I begin, but he surprises me and folds his arms across his chest, frowning.
"Don't start with me, Hermione. I know you inside and out." I blush furiously, thinking No you don't. "What? See that, right there—you won't even look at me. What did James say—you sometimes get like this when I come over? Did I do something wrong...?"
"No!" I wail, and I finally do look up at him now. "You did everything right. You always have. That's...that's the problem."
He looks confused for a second, and then he lifts an eyebrow as I gasp, covering my mouth with one hand. My eyes must say it all. I imagine I love you is written all over my face. Everything is deathly silent except for my heavy breathing. I cannot believe I just said what I did. I want to sink into the floor and disappear and die; I see the immense disbelief in his features and find myself wanting to kiss away the confusion. That would clear him up on what I mean, that's for sure; and it might give me one moment of respite after all these years of tense restraint.
"You..." he can't manage more before choking off, his voice thick. I note to myself again that I want to die. My child is upstairs. My husband is upstairs. And all I can think about is how much I want them to be anywhere else...or for me to be anywhere else. This is not the way I pictured this happening. I used to daydream that if I ever told him how I feel, it would be while we were walking out in the wilderness somewhere, reminiscing about when we were younger, and he would say something that hinted that he was unhappy with Ginny and loved someone else, and I would tell him I loved him and he would exclaim that he loved me too, and I would fall into his arms and we'd have mad passionate sex in a mossy glade somewhere deep in the woods. I never thought he'd find out in my kitchen, with my whole family and part of his asleep upstairs. I guess nothing in life goes exactly the way you plan. Not that I planned to tell him; it was a hypothetical situation until now.
"Harry..." I breathe, voice all choked up with rawness and emotion. He looks like he doesn't know what to do. I don't blame him. I don't know what to do either. "I'm sorry. I should never have—"
"What? Should never have told me?"
"But you—you—" He can't get the words out any more than I can. Maybe he hasn't figured it out. "You have...feelings? For m—isn't that—isn't that what you—" He breaks off. I close my eyes. Well, my life just went out the window.
"I'm sorry," I whisper again. He glares at me.
"Sorry for what?"
"Everything," I whisper miserably, and he digs his hand into his hair in frustration or confusion or anger, probably all three. "I'm so sorry," I try again, desperately attempting to reconcile this stupidly stressful conversation. "I'm sorry—I should—can't we just pretend this never—"
"How long?" he asks, and I hesitate before answering. Should I just say it's been a month and downplay it, or...no. He deserves the truth. I've come this far.
"Since the end of the war."
I see the shock resonate across his face, and he stumbles back against the table, gripping the solid wood for support. Again, I don't blame him. I'd be shocked and horrified too if my best friend suddenly up and told me they'd had feelings for me for the past ten or eleven years. I don't know what to do. I want to kill myself. This is possibly the worst thing I've done, ever. I may have just ruined the lives of all the people closest to me. It all depends on his reaction now.
He's looking at me now. Studying me. Putting pieces together. Suddenly anger flashes across his face and he says, "So...what about Ron? You just never—he was what, a convenient shag until I lost interest in Ginny?"
He all but physically slapped me in the face. I recoil as though he did. My chest hurts...I didn't think he would be so...scathing...I hope I'm not having a heart attack...wouldn't be surprised if I am, though...I can't believe it. "That is possibly the worst thing you have ever said to me."
"Well?" He still expects me to answer seriously. I take a deep breath and answer seriously, deliberately.
"Ron was not a convenient shag. He was right for me at the time. I loved him. I love him—just—not the way it should be. He was...he was there. He loved me, and it was supposed to happen. Everyone knew it. Even I—I was already half fallen for him until that—that last year, during the search for the Horcruxes, and then...things...changed."
Harry's eyes flash again. I bite back a sob at how wrong this has gone. "You can't tell me this, Hermione! I—I'm married! You're married, for god's sake, to my best—our best friend! What do you expect me to—"
"I don't expect anything," I hurry to say, as my eyes fill up with tears at last. "Nothing. I didn't even—I never meant to tell you at all—it's just tonight, my head's all—I'm so sorry, Harry, please don't hate me—"
"Hate you?" he says, and his mouth falls open a little in genuine disbelief. "Hate you? You?"
I close my eyes and take in a steadying breath. I will not let the tears fall. "Look. Please. I'm asking you as your friend, to just let this go and pretend I never—"
He's looking at the general area of my knees now, deep in thought. He puts up a hand to stop me continuing to speak. "What I don't understand," he begins, voice calm and low, "is why you never...did anything about it. During that year with the Horcruxes, especially. You never told anyone, you never—"
"You were happy."
He frowns. "I wasn't with—"
"Anyone could see you still wanted to be with her. And sure enough, right after everything was over, up she ran and when I saw how happy you were...I couldn't mess that up," I tell him simply. The truth feels like morphine on a broken leg. A rush of cool relief. "Besides, I'd already all but promised myself to Ron at that point. And I did have feelings for him. It just—"
Harry stops me again with a finger in the air, then lowers it and slowly raises his head to let his gaze meet mine. "Ten years?"
I nod once.
"Without one word."
I nod again, once.
"That's more than a third of our lives. And half the time we've known each other."
I nod a third time and wonder if he's turned me into a bobble-head doll. I feel oddly serene now, even though I should be crying or screaming and begging forgiveness. I remind myself strangely of Luna Lovegood in her prime. I have the feeling we're going to get interrupted again by James or Ron, just as we're in the middle of this. It would be nice to be rescued, but then again, no; this is good to get off my chest. I think I'll feel much better once it's all over. It's not the end of the world, all things considered. Famous last words, Hermione.
"I wish you'd said something."
He picks awkwardly at a loose sliver of wood poking out from the edge of the table. I don't want to be looking at him, afraid of what I might see, but I can't help it. My eyes are glued to his. He isn't looking away either. A daydream flashes briefly across the front of my mind—he steps forward and seizes me in his arms and kisses me. No, not just kisses me—ravishes my mouth with his tongue. I'm living an erotica novel in my head...I am so glad he can't see what I'm thinking. The urge to giggle at my own absurdity comes over me and I can't help wondering if perhaps a trip to St. Mungo's isn't such a bad idea after all.
I am suddenly overcome with a wave of tiredness. I can't deal with this anymore. "I never thought you'd find out this way. Here, now; it sounds so ridiculous and childish. I'm sorry I put you through this; if you can find it in your heart to forgive me, and sort of...pretend this never happened...I would be grateful."
He looks incredulously at me. I don't blame him. He must think I'm out of my mind.
I clear my throat and straighten up, brushing imaginary dust off my apron. "I have to go to bed. I hope there's still another vial of Draught in the bathroom, or else I'll never get to sl—"
He kisses me.
For the first few seconds I couldn't move if I wanted to. It's everything I've wanted, but I still manage to gently push him away and close my eyes. My heart must be breaking the sound barrier with the speed of its thudding in my chest. Like a hummingbird's wings. But I can't do it to them. I know how awful it would be if the kids ever found out. Or our respective spouses.
His soothing fingers in my hair. I press my fingers to his chest, curl them around the surface above his heart. I want to hear his voice, husky in the stillness. I don't open my eyes, and shake my head.
"No. It was too late ten years ago, it's too late now." I hate being a mother for a second, and forcibly picture my child's face in my head to remind myself that I love her.
I sigh, my hands still on his chest. "I waited for you to say my name like that for god knows how long. I don't care how stupid that sounds. But it was too late for us the second you saw Ginny that day."
He nods after a moment, bitterly acknowledging the truth of it. Now I look up at him. I'm shocked to see tears glinting in the corners of his eyes—he never cries. Ever. It only makes me love him that much more. I know what I have to do, though. And this is when I make the decision to tell him what I found out a week ago. I haven't said a word to anyone else yet; I've been trying to figure out a good way to announce the news. I lift a finger and wipe away a salty drop that leaked out and started rolling down his cheek.
His eyes go round and big as saucers. "Are you serious?"
I nod. I've been doing a lot of that lately. "It's a boy, I know it is. Mother's instinct. I want to name him Harry...though it might get confusing with two of you around...maybe just something starting with an H."
He looks down at me, moved. I don't know that he's moved, I suppose, but he looks it. Another tear escapes and he quickly brushes it away, rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses. I tell him things silently with my gaze, and he seems to understand. I want the baby to be his.
"Hermione...we could have—"
"I know." I don't want to hear him say it. That would make it worse. Everything; we could have been everything. But instead he enveloped a fire-haired girl in his arms when she ran to him, ashen-faced both, her relieved and overjoyed smile brighter than the sun, as I watched from less than a foot away, arms around him but feeling almost rejected, a funny feeling beginning to stir in my chest. No one was more thankful to see him alive than I was. But I didn't run fast enough. I got there a precious second too late. Look now at what it cost me. I'm going make sure all of my offspring are in TOP shape all their lives; you never know when you might need to run just a little faster.
"I would have been everything for you that you wanted me to be." He means it, and says it seriously.
"I know." And I do.