Hermione sighed and checked the kettle one more time. He was late again. Now she would have to find a way to keep the stew warm while preserving the tenderness of the meat bits.
Why did I marry him? She thought to herself, pushing few stray strands of hair from her face. Was it because she felt sorry for him, that apparently no other girl would want him? Or was it because she felt this was the closest she could ever get to the only man she'd ever loved – Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived?
Ever since she had embraced him in the Potions room during the quest for the Sorcerer's Stone, she knew her heart would belong to no other. Krum, McLaggen, even Ron, in a sense – they had all been childish attempts at catching his attention, ways to incite jealousy within his heart. Late at night, while Ron snored and snorted away on his side of the bed, she would warm her heart with treasured memories of Harry – the way he had looked at her as if seeing a goddess on Earth when she had descended the steps to the Yule Ball, the way he'd gently held her steady as they rode Buckbeak to help Sirius gain his freedom.
She would then cry and curse herself bitterly for not telling him of her love during those precious months when they were alone together seeking the Horcruxes, when night after night they had sought comfort in the other's embraces, and slept in each others' arms. She had finally garnered the courage to speak of her love, to finally find words that could describe the love towards him that poured out of every inch of her being like golden water – only for that filthy coward to return for God-Knows-What reason. She still would smile with satisfaction when she thought of the beating she had brought down on him, the rain of blows for ruining the delicate, perfect balance between Harry and her, and wished she could deliver the same beating on him now. But she knew, of course, that whatever abuse she hurled on him, he would in turn hurl tenfold on the children.
She checked the kettle again, and sampled a touch of the meat. Still fairly tender.
She turned. Little Rose, just eight years old, stood in the kitchen doorway. Hermione realized with increased frustration that she was still in her playclothes, and that her face was still dirty from playing outside. Ron wouldn't like that.
"When is Daddy coming home?"
"I'm not sure dear."
"Oh." Her voice was small, unenthusiastic about the prospect of his return.
There was a brief pause, then Hermione said, "Now, Rosie dear, go back upstairs and get dressed properly for dinner. You know Daddy likes you nice and clean."
Rose sighed, clearly unhappy at the prospect of having to do anything for her father, and went back upstairs. Hermione turned back to the stew.
She tasted the sauce this time to make sure it was still warm, and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The kitchen of their cramped London apartment always seemed to overheat every time she put something on the stove for longer than ten minutes. She had pushed Ron – gently, as always – for a newer, bigger apartment, but Ron simply roared at her, calling her a stuck-up pig with her fancy airs while he slaved day and night at the Auror office, and that by God, she would be satisfied with what she had. She had bit her tongue and said no more that day, but she knew that with an Auror's salary they could afford an apartment ten times bigger, if Ron didn't drink and whore it away.
The whores. Oh yes, she knew about the whores, and every night when he came to bed, grinning his wolfish grin, she would lie back and pray that he had not brought back whatever foul disease lay between those women's legs. So far the secret tests she had done on herself showed she was clean, but there was always that one chance…
The drinking as well was something she had hoped to pray away as well. Each night as he sat at the head of the table (for he would sit nowhere else), he had to have his tot of gin beside him. It was always empty long before the meal had finished, which given the speed at which Ron shoveled food into his mouth said something. But that was just the beginning. There were always the three or four beers while he sat in his underwear listening to the latest commentary on the Chudley Cannons over the radio, and of course the nightcap to prepare him for his nightly enjoyment. Hermione had often considered sneaking a nightcap herself, to dull the inevitable pain of their intimacy, but Ron kept a jealous watch over his bottles and could tell if so much as a mouthful had been removed. Furthermore, the sight of Ron, slumped over in his easy chair in a drunken stupor, was enough to make the thought of touching alcohol loathsome to her.
After checking the stew one more time, she turned from the stove to set the table. She remembered how, in the days when she was young and still could use Muggle technology (Ron had forbidden her to use so much as a telephone; she could hardly hazard a guess as to why, but lately few of his commands made any sense), she found a list online purporting to be from a Home Economics textbook from 1950's America. It described in loving detail everything a woman must do to prepare for her husband's arrival at home – set the table and make sure the entire house was clean, dress herself and her children up neat as pins to create an aura of overall neatness and cheer, avoid discussing troubles at home so as not to disturb his mind. When she had first read it she had laughed out loud, convinced it was a hoax because no woman, no matter how weak-willed she was, could be that much of a doormat. Now of course she understood why – understood how a husband could use more than blows to manipulate his wife into compliance.
When she had first threatened to leave him, Ron begged her to stay, proclaiming he would die without her (now that she thought about it, he probably would have died without her – he was so incompetent at cooking and cleaning that he would no doubt have starved to death in that apartment, or have been buried alive under mountains of filth). She cursed her tenderness for believing him and staying, hoping that this signaled him turning over a new leaf. But only a week had passed before he punched her in the gut for failing to entirely get the stain out of some rug, even though he knew at the time she was pregnant with Hugo. Rose had watched from the hallway, eyes wide with terror, and Hermione could do nothing but weep salty, bitter tears for not protecting her daughter from the horrors of her father. When Hugo was six months old she was finally ready to leave him again – only for him to point out, slyly, that wizarding laws granted custody of the children to the father in divorces initiated by witches, since any witch who wanted to leave her husband was clearly incapable of being a good mother. At first she couldn't – wouldn't – believe him, but the next day he had most kindly brought her a wizard law book, and helpfully pointed out the court case which set the precedent, and the law which encoded the foul idea.
That was only the beginning of the new torments he had in store for her. Before the children, Ron had just contented himself with heaping abuse on Hermione – hurling blow after blow on her face and body, twisting her arms behind her until they threatened to break, and carrying her, limp and weeping, to the bed to show her who "the man of the house was." But the birth of the children had reawakened her Gryffindor bravery – she would not let her children (for indeed they were her children, body and soul, with no scrap of attachment to the evil she found herself bonded too). When Ron realized she would no longer bow to his demands, he instead threatened to turn his abuse on the children. She scoffed at him, thinking he would never dare hurt his own flesh and blood. But the day she had come home from grocery shopping to find Ron in his chair with a beer in hand and a smile on his face, while Rose lay on the carpet softly sobbing, nursing a black eye, was the day she realized that there was no low he wouldn't stoop to control her, no yank too powerful on the invisible chain around her neck.
She gave a quick sweep around the apartment – toys and games were put away (Ron almost never played with the children, instead leaving them entirely to Hermione's care. Isolated from his habits, she had been able to raise Rose and Hugo into veritable angels – indeed they were the only bright spots in her life), not a speck of dust anywhere – all was quite well. She turned off the radio tuned to her favorite classical music station in anticipation of Ron, who never could appreciate the subtle variations inherent in the form – he merely declared it all boring trash that put him to sleep.
Hermione chewed her lip in frustration as she thought of the countless performances and concerts she had missed because Ron refused to go – or was too cheap to find a baby sitter. She had even told him once, when Yo-Yo Ma had come to give a performance of Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, that he didn't have to come, he could just let her go by herself and stay with the kids at home. He replied with a roar, as he slammed her against the living room wall, that this was his home and by God if he didn't want her to go to a concert she wouldn't be going to one. As she looked in his eyes, trembling at his rage, she realized the true meaning behind his words – this wasn't about her liking classical music or him disliking it. This was about his power over her – his power to tell her what she could do, where she could go.
Something began to whistle in the kitchen, and her blood ran cold. She dashed back in to find the stew about ready to boil over. With a flick of her wand she turned the stove off and levitated the bubbling stew to the sink, hoping that she could still save some of it before –
The door slammed in the hallway. Her husband was home.