Hermione wearily pressed her wand to the intercom button for flat seventeen, shifting her heavy bag into a more comfortable position. She enjoyed census collecting, she really did, but it was a Saturday, she was tired because she'd been up half the night looking after Hugo, who had a vomiting bug, and all she wanted to do was curl up on the sofa with Ron, who had a rare weekend off. Her feet ached dreadfully, and Ron gave the best foot rubs.
The intercom crackled into life, the little metal box shifting into the shape of a face. 'Who is it?' the little metallic lips asked, in a shaky yet forceful voice. 'I don't want to buy any bloody view-charmed windows or help save the sodding crups.'
'Mrs Aldwinkle, my name is Hermione, I'm here to discuss the Wizarding census with you,' Hermione said, mentally stealing herself for another crotchety old lady. 'I won't take too much of your time, but Wizarding law requires you to complete the census or be fined, and I'd like to help you avoid that.'
'Well, you'd better come up then, hadn't you?' There was a click as the external door lock opened, and the intercom turned back into its regular Muggle guise.
Hermione pulled the door open and headed into the building, wrinkling her nose at the smell of boiled cabbage that greeted her. The lobby wasn't too bad, considering the state of some of the places she'd seen recently – the grey carpet was clean, the cream walls scuff and graffiti-free, and a cheese plant stood in the corner by the post boxes. It was certainly better than cracked lino and obscene messages spray-painted across the walls.
She decided to take the stairs rather than the lifts, despite her tired feet; in an effort to get at least a little exercise in her day, she'd fallen into the habit of using the stairs at the ministry rather than the lift, and it was a routine she couldn't shake.
As she reached the first floor, she passed a tall Muggle woman, who was muttering to herself about missing flats as she typed on her 'phone. This particular block of flats was both Muggle and Magical, the two existing side by side with only the latter being aware of the former. Flats six to nine, and thirteen and seventeen were Wizarding residences, hidden beneath a layer of Muggle-repelling charms, and the Muggle woman must have had some magical blood in her ancestry for her to even be aware of the missing numbers.
Flat seventeen was on the second floor, and Hermione took a moment to catch her breath before rapping her knuckles on the door, searching through her pocket with her other hand to find her ID.
'Who is it?'
Stifling a sigh, Hermione held her ID up to the fish-eye viewer set into the door. 'I'm Hermione Granger, Mrs Aldwinkle. I'm here to talk to you about the census.'
The door opened, and several cats fled the flat to wind themselves around Hermione's ankles as a little old lady looked Hermione over from head to toe. 'So, you're an actual Hermione rather than one of these silly girls who changed their names to sound special. You wear the name like you were born into it.' She gave a little nod. 'Come in then, girl, and have a cup of tea whilst we sort this silly census out.'
Hermione carefully stepped over the cats and wiped her feet on the doormat before following Mrs Aldwinkle inside. 'Do you have your census form, Mrs Aldwinkle? I have spares if you need one.'
'It's under the cat basket,' Mrs Aldwinkle replied, lowering herself into an old, faded wing back chair. 'Be a dear and get it for me, would you?'
Hermione saw the corner of a bright purple envelope sticking out from underneath the rattan cat basket, and crouched down to pull it out. 'This really won't take long,' she said, handing the envelope to Mrs Aldwinkle. 'Five minutes, that's all.'
Mrs Aldwinkle handed the envelope back. 'I can't see well enough to fill it out,' she said, as she pointed her wand in the direction of the small kitchenette at the back of the room. 'Tea, dear?'
'No thank …' Hermione cut off as a cup was pressed into her hand. 'Thank you.' She set the cup down, and took a quill out of her bag. 'I can fill it out for you, that's not a problem. Question one is "Who usually lives here?"'
'Just me. And the cats, of course - '
'Pets don't …' Hermione began, but Mrs Aldwinkle carried on.
' – Harry, Ron and Hermione.'
Hermione, who'd chosen that moment to take a sip of tea, choked and had no choice but to spit the tea back into her cup. 'Excuse me?' she spluttered. 'What did you say their names are?'
The cats, who'd obviously heard their names, came over to paw at her robes. One had glossy black fur and a serious little face; one was a lanky, battle-scarred ginger tom; and the other was a long-haired cat with impossibly bushy brown fur.
'Wizarding kind owes you and your young men, girl – what else would I call them?' Mrs Aldwinkle leaned forwards and made kissing noises at the cats. Harry and Hermione ignored her, but Ron swaggered over and jumped up into her lap. 'There's a good boy, Ron. Rub his tummy, and he's all yours. He's always been my favourite, I do love a ginger.'
Hermione had to duck her head and pretend to search through her bag as the overwhelming urge to break into hysterical giggles overcame her. She was thirty-one years old for goodness sake, and a mother.
Sufficiently composed, Hermione pressed on with the rest of the questionnaire, with no further diversions until they reached the marital status question. 'What's your legal marital status, Mrs Aldwinkle?'
'Widowed,' Mrs Aldwinkle said. 'Widowed for far longer than I was married. Hubert died, oh, seventy years ago, when he was twenty three.' Her lip trembled, the façade of tough old lady momentarily cracking.
Hermione couldn't bring herself to just ignore the woman's obvious distress. 'I'm sorry, Mrs Aldwinkle. You must have been awfully young yourself.'
'Twenty two and pregnant. It was war, girl – Grindlewald put paid to young Wizarding men, and Hitler did the same for young Muggles. My Hubert was an Auror, he died for his country.'
The name suddenly clicked. 'Hubert Aldwinkle. He fought alongside Dumbledore, didn't he? He was killed protecting a Muggle village in France.'
Mrs Aldwinkle nodded. 'He got the Order of Merlin second class for that. Not that he could appreciate it, of course. A useless trinket on a mantelpiece, that's all it is. No compensation for losing my Hubert. We used to go out dancing, with the Muggles. My grandparents were Muggleborn and so were his, and we felt comfortable in both worlds. Things were a lot more integrated then, before Grindlewald set the pureblood movement in motion. The Muggles didn't know about us, but many of us knew how to live and work alongside them without revealing ourselves.' She picked up her tea, and the cup rattled in the saucer before she composed herself. 'Anyway, enough of that, you have better things to do than listen to me go on. Carry on with your questions.'
Health, religion, ethnicity, profession - the questions were answered quickly and succinctly, and Hermione was soon rolling up the census and placing it inside her bag. Curiosity got the better of her, and she asked the question that had been nagging her since hearing about Mr Aldwinkle. 'Mrs Aldwinkle, do you have any family? You mentioned that you were pregnant …'
'My daughter died in the first Wizarding war - she was killed in an attack on the Ministry. I have my grand-son and his wife though, and his children – his oldest is about to have a baby.' Mrs Aldwinkle pushed up out of her chair and took a picture down from the mantelpiece, running her fingers across the frame in an unexpectedly tender gesture. 'You've actually met him, but I don't suppose you'd remember.'
She handed the frame to Hermione, who gasped. 'Reg Cattermole – of course I remember!' Reg smiled up at Hermione from the photo, older now, grey showing in his moustache and hair, but he still had the same sweet smile and gentle eyes that she remembered from over a decade ago. He had his arm around his wife, Mary, who waved at Hermione. 'We went to see Reg and Mary after it was all finished, because we thought they deserved an explanation. They got caught up in our plans, and it could have gone so badly wrong. They could have been hurt.'
Mrs Aldwinkle placed her hand on top of Hermione's, gripping it tightly. 'You saved them. If the three of you hadn't done what you did, Mary would have died that day, or been left worse than dead, and Reg would have been left to bring their children up alone, if he hadn't died trying to save her that is.'
'Ron worried so much about them,' Hermione said, as she placed the photo back on the mantelpiece. 'One of the first things he did when he had the chance was to track them down. He felt responsible for them both.'
'He's a good man, your Ron,' said Mrs Aldwinkle, and how could Hermione argue with the plain truth?
Mrs Aldwinkle stayed in the forefront of Hermione's thoughts for the rest of the afternoon, the somewhat prickly yet endearing little old lady who had lost so much to two separate Wizarding conflicts, and came close to losing even more in a third, when Hermione herself had lost very little other than her innocence. Who owed whom?
When she arrived home, it was after seven and she was completely worn out. She let herself in, and placed the completed censuses in a charmed box that transported them directly to the census office at the Ministry, before hooking her bag over the end of the banister and heading into the living room.
Ron was sprawled across the floor, Rose standing next to him twisting bobbles into his hair, and Hugo sitting astride his backside, looking at a book. Hermione watched the three of them for a moment, her love for them so strong that it felt like a physical ache in her chest.
'Hello, love. Long day?' Ron gently pulled Rose's hands out of his hair, and managed to twist around underneath Hugo and shift him onto the floor before standing up to greet his wife. 'You alright?'
She slipped her arms around her lovely husband, resting her head against his chest and listening to his heart beating. 'Thank you,' she whispered, and he pushed her back a little to look at her, with his hair standing out in stubby little bunches around his face, dark pink lip gloss smeared across his mouth, and blue eye shadow smudged across his eyelids, and she couldn't possibly love him more than she did in that very moment.
'Thank you for what?' he said, confused.
'Everything,' she said, going up on tiptoe and pulling him down into a kiss that tasted like strawberry lip gloss. 'I love you,' she breathed against his lips, loathe to put any distance between them. 'I love you so much.' There was so much that she wanted to say - don't leave me, I couldn't live without you - that she couldn't put into words for fear of scaring him, but she needed him to know how much she loved him.
He kissed her again, harder, deeper this time, the kind of kiss that usually led to more, only the children were in the room, but she didn't care, he was making her head spin and her heart pound and her skin tingle, and she needed him, needed him as much as oxygen and food and water.
She retained enough presence of mind to gasp 'Ron, the children,' and he looked at her, steady and intense.
'I'll put the kids to bed while you have a bath.' He leaned down to whisper in her ear. 'Save room for me,' he said huskily, his breath warm against the side of her face, and she clutched at his t-shirt before using the same hand to push him away.
She cuddled and kissed the children goodnight, and Ron led them from the room, leaving her to pull herself together.
She wanted to always be able to tick the 'married' box on her census.