They enter the pub from a blustery street, blowing in with a gust of icy cold air. She immediately moves to smooth her locks, and he shakes his windblown hair out of his eyes. Even in the noisy exuberance of the half-sloshed crowd, he sees them right away. They are in their usual booth, one tucked back into the corner, sitting on the side that faces the door. The light in the pub is golden and honey-rich, and it glints off of her hair like caramel.
Neither of the two in the booth has noticed their arrival. She is looking to the right and down, away from her companion. Her jaw is tight, and her face is pale, her brows and lashes like inky streaks on her face.
She is angry. He can tell by her thin lips, by the way her face moves, brittle and compressed, as she speaks without looking at him. Her husband is hunched forward, elbows sprawled across the table, his red hair gilded as he bends his head, trying to look at her. When he finally lifts his gaze heavenward in utter annoyance, his face is a glowing scarlet.
"Looks like they're at it again." His wife's voice is a dry drawl, playfully mocking. He looks down at the dark sleeve of his coat, to see her slender fingers, tipped by delicately painted nails, resting there. Her hair is burnished copper, and she flashes a smile to someone in the crowd that he doesn't see. He remembers how that smile used to affect him, used to make him feel light-headed, as if he were flying without a broomstick.
It has been a long time since Ginny has taken his breath away.
He tells himself that it is the pungent aroma of alcohol that burns his nose, rather than irritation with his wife. But people have started to notice their presence, and he hastily threads them through the clusters of witches and wizards toward the booth in the back. His peripheral vision picks up a camera flash.
"Hello, you lot," he manages to say in a mostly cheery way, as they slide into the booth across from Hermione and Ron, who have been so twisted into knots of their own making that they have missed the entire approach. Both of them instantly try to pretend that they weren't arguing. Hermione's smile is plastic, and does not reach her eyes, as she flickers them upward briefly to acknowledge his presence.
Ron nods at him and tries to smile. He is less successful than his wife, but he has always been less able to capably wear a mask. He looks very tired, once the brilliant color has faded from his face and ears.
"How's it going?" Ron asks, hesitantly, as if casting about for something natural to say. "Hear from the boys?"
"Al has Owled a few times, generally about his latest O. James Owled when they arrived at Hogwarts, but we haven't heard from him since." Ginny is all pride, but her beaming smile barely makes a ripple against the undercurrent of tension that Harry has noticed.
"Probably too busy getting into mischief to Owl anyone." Ron attempts joviality, and Harry manages to grin in response.
"They do have quite a legacy to live up to - minus the evil Dark wizard part, of course!" he jokes back.
"If I know the two of you, you're giving them tips," Hermione inserts, with a touch of her trademark asperity. "You won't believe what I've caught George trying to send Rose. I would think that both of you would have had enough trouble to last you a lifetime, but you're trying to have it vicariously through your children!"
"For the love of Merlin, Hermione," Ron puts in. "Give it a rest. You just aren't happy, unless you're harping on someone about something!" He takes a long quaff of his ale, and Harry watches the hurt flash briefly in Hermione's face. The remark wasn't exactly rude, but there is something in Ron's tone that concerns Harry… apathy toward his wife.
His eyes trip from Hermione's face to Ron's. He wonders how long they have been having trouble - and how much his two friends are concealing from him.
The waitress arrives to take their orders, bringing them both a tankard of ale as she does so. They order without too much interest - nobody seems to have much of an appetite anymore. They are here for the company, not the food.
Or they usually are anyway, Harry reflects. Tonight seems very stilted and awkward. He is all too conscious of the strikingly beautiful woman beside him, and he can tell from the Weasleys' tense posture that they'd rather be anywhere else. He knows that their friendship is something that he can always depend upon, but Hermione and Ron just look fatigued, weary as if they are at the end of some rope and tired of clutching it.
"Are you okay?" he blurts suddenly, directing the question at Hermione, and startling everyone at the table. Ginny sets her mug down on the table with too much force, and ale slops over the rim.
Hermione titters a high, false laugh of surprised bewilderment. Silly Harry!
"Of course, Harry, never been better. You've certainly got more than enough to deal with, without unnecessarily worrying over me." Her eyes seem to be pleading with him - please don't do this here, don't ask me here, I can't…
Ron is watching him intently, and Ginny is as rigid as a wire. Harry's eyes trip between the three of them, his gaze ricocheting uneasily. Why did I even say that?He wonders.
"It's just - I - I'm sorry, I guess I've overstepped," he mumbles, trying vainly to find a way in which to extricate himself. "You look tired."
It is true, and yet not true. She looks sad and pale, and there is a strain that seems to have been wrought into her bones, twisting and dwindling the forceful persona that he'd always known so well. It is as if the facade of domestic bliss is too much to continue to bear; she is staggering beneath the burden. There are shadowy circles beneath her eyes, like smudgy fingerprints, and yet she smiles at him.
"As if you could ever overstep, Harry," she teases him. "My God, how long have we known each other?" The glint is back, but she cannot hide what she is trying to hide - not from him. "Work has been a bit crazy, but I'm holding up fairly well." She holds her hand up as if taking an oath, well knowing his penchant for over-protectiveness. "I promise."
Her smile hits him in the gut, looking a little more real this time, and for some odd reason, he feels like he has missed a step on one of Hogwarts' moving staircases. Ron still seems sullen, but as the refills of ale keep coming, he is able to carry on a reasonably civil conversation about Rose and Hugo, and they move on to the topic of some mad second cousin of distant Weasley ilk.
Ginny and Ron become animated enough in this discussion that Harry sees Hermione's face wilt again a bit, as if she's realized it is safe to drop her guard for a moment. He knows that a whispered hiss across the table will immediately draw the attention of their respective spouses, so he reaches out with one foot instead.
He doesn't want to kick her, so he moves slowly, finally feeling her foot, and sliding his ankle slowly past hers. She has on low heels, and he can tell by the slick way their lower legs brush that she is wearing nylons.
She jerks her gaze up to him, startled, and her fork clatters noisily onto her plate. She stammers a little, as Ron and Ginny glance over at the noise with moderate curiosity, and her fingers are trembling as she tries to pick up her fork. She is trying to be nonchalant. Ron is distracted by the approach of the waitress, and decides to order dessert.
Harry is a little concerned that he has upset her somehow, and he is not exactly sure why his nudging her under the table should have garnered such a response. There are two brilliant spots of color in her cheeks.
Now he's embarrassed her.
All he wanted to do was make sure she was okay.
I'm fine, Harry. He hears it ringing in his head softly, and it is his turn to be surprised. She obviously knows exactly what he'd been trying to do. He risks focusing on her face again,
Are you sure?
Her gaze drops again; for a long moment, she appears intensely interested in her shepherd's pie, and he thinks it is because she doesn't want to lie to him. He watches her for a moment, covertly, and then he gets a mental image of a favorite cafe of hers, with a question of
Lunch, tomorrow? floating in his mind.
He is left with one immediate thought: she has just invited him to lunch, in response to a question of how she is doing, which means that she is, in fact, not fine. Then there is also the fact that she obviously does not want to discuss anything about it in front of Ron.
He can feel the worried concern radiating out of his face, and he knows she can see it too. She is silently pleading with him to drop the subject, and he has never been able to refuse her anything, so he does.
Ron is still conversing with his sister, and Harry wonders at the walls that seem to crisscross their little booth. He remembers a simpler time, longs for the light-hearted laughter that used to punctuate one of these gatherings. He wonders if it has always been a cover for something else, something deeper and more painful.
Ron asks about the new Snitches. Firebolt has expanded their line, and these are supposed to be faster and fifty per cent more maneuverable.
She eats her shepherd's pie, and listens politely to the conversation, but it occurs to Harry that she has never before seemed so isolated from them all.
When he arrives at Gisele's the next day, she is already there, seated at a small table that is jauntily covered in a checked cloth, at the rear of the cafe. Her menu is closed, and a steaming cup of tea sits in a saucer before her.
"Hey there," he greets her, trying to sound cavalier as always. His stomach is in knots though, and he is so afraid of what she is going to tell him, and wondering how he's going to react to her. You're crazy, he thinks to himself, as if he'd ever have trouble thinking of Hermione platonically.
"Hi yourself," she responds with a quiet smile, and she seems to be taking her cue from him on how to behave.
He hesitates for a fraction of a second before perching uneasily on the dining chair, and giving his drink order to the waitress hovering nearby.
"So…" he says, drawing out the lone syllable, wondering how to bring up the topic, wondering what topic it is that they're meant to be discussing, sans Weasleys. "What was going on last night?" he finally asks, deciding to throw down the gauntlet and have done.
She doesn't beat around the bush - but then she never has.
"Ron and I are getting a divorce."
His jaw swings open as if on a hinge. He has sucked in one great noisy gasp, and there appears to be no air left in the entire cafe. He cannot possibly have heard her correctly.
"W - what?" he finally stammers.
She lifts her shoulders and watches the steam curl up from her tea. You heard me, her gesture seems to say.
The silence is penetrating, deafening, smothering. For some reason, he thinks of his foot sliding past hers underneath a table.
"And you - you knew this last - last night? And you didn't say anything?" He winces as his voice comes out so incredulously that it cracks.
"What was I supposed to say? `Hi, how are the children? By the way, I'm divorcing your brother-in-law and your other best friend.'" Her voice is sarcastic, but then it softens. "It's been coming for quite some time, but I didn't know how to tell you."
"I'm just - I'm just shocked is all. I - I had no idea that - I thought you - " The guilt tears at him; she had been hurting, and he had been so wrapped up in his own sorry mess that he hadn't even noticed that anything was wrong. And now, even now, she is still watching out for him. He flounders for a moment, and finally says, "When did things get so bad?"
"I'm not even really sure," she admits with a watery smile. "How pathetic is that? It's been dismal for so long that I just got used to it. After - after the war, I thought we'd just come through something traumatic, and it - it would take time for everything to settle down properly, and then … then things were okay for awhile. But you and Ginny had James, and - and Ron started pressuring for children, and - and I don't - I didn't not want children, but he - he - he should know that I'm not Molly Weasley, but I think he has always expected me to want to be…
"The children were enough of a distraction for awhile, but…" she shakes her head, grimacing at the thought of calling her children `distractions'. "Now that Rose is off at school, and Hugo will be soon… there's just this empty, empty house, and when we're not fighting, we're just silent, and - and I think I bore him, Harry. He wants to go out, and I want to stay in, and - and just be, but that's not enough for him. We both get so angry, and we say things we don't really mean, but - but how can it be good when I know that every interaction I have with my husband is going to end in screaming and name-calling and tears?"
She reaches the end of her composure, and dabs tears away with a serviette, looking slightly embarrassed and more than slightly guilty that she has unleashed all that upon him. For a moment, he is dumbfounded, trying to figure out how Ron can treat Hermione that way - when he would have hexed anyone else who did.
"So - so you're leaving him then?" he asks.
"He's moving out," she says. Her fingers dance nervously around the delicate handle of her cup.
"So he knows?"
"It's been the only topic of conversation between us for the last nine days. He - he isn't happy, but he understands… I think."
"Why now?" he wonders. "You've been with him for over nineteen years. Did something happen?"
She takes a quick sip of her tea, and he thinks it is to keep from answering right away. He notices with surprise that the waitress has brought his coffee, but he has no idea when she did so.
Hermione is looking teary again, and Harry is fearful, a knot tightening slowly in his stomach.
"Did - did Ron - did he do something to you?" he says slowly.
"It's not important, Harry," she inserts quickly, as if to ward him off.
"Like hell it's not," he retorts. "Because if he - " he hesitates, trying to reconcile what Hermione is telling him with his own perception of enthusiastic, easygoing Ron.
"There - there have been other women…" she tells him slowly, and ludicrously, he is almost relieved, having been worried that Ron had hit her. His world has been so rocked off its axis by her announcement that he no longer knows what would or wouldn't be ridiculous. "Two that I know of, and - and maybe more…"
Harry puts his hands on the edge of the table, as if to push off of it and rise, but Hermione places a placating hand on his. Her skin is smooth and warm, where she has been holding her teacup.
"How could he - ?"
How could he hurt you? How could he lie to you? How could he throw away the best thing that ever happened to him? The thoughts careen through his mind so quickly that he isn't sure which one should be given voice first.
"He's - he's not like you, Harry. He's - he's always been insecure, never able to - to rest in my love, like you could with Ginny. He - "
"I can't believe you're defending him," Harry snorts.
"I'm divorcing him. That's hardly a defense," she replies icily.
"Aren't you angry at all?" He is curious. "I'd like to hex him into next week just for upsetting you." Upsetting you… he allows himself a sardonic smile at the inadequacy of the word.
"I was angry…at first," she muses. "I felt betrayed, rejected - still do, a little. I've wondered why I wasn't good enough, what I'd done wrong." She buries her face in her hands, for a moment, sighing, and then clasps her fingers together in front of her chin. "He says that I'm always picking at him, that he can't ever do anything right, that I can't ever let anything go, and he - he just wanted to - to feel … like `a man again'." A small sob escapes her lips, but she represses the ones that want to follow. "And then I think that I've - perhaps I've been emasculating my husband the entire time we've been married, and I didn't even know I was doing it - and he - he found what he needed somewhere else, because he couldn't find it with me."
He watches her for a moment.
"None of that excuses him, Hermione," he says. "He chose you; he married you. He should - he - " He can't put his finger on what exactly Ron should do, but he knows that Ron shouldn't be making Hermione feel this way.
"We're not like you and Ginny, Harry." It is almost as if she is pleading with him to understand. "We never have been. It was always about the - the clash… whether in love or dissent. You and Ginny seem so steady, so settled, so … in sync with each other. Even in the good times, Ron and I never had that."
Harry laughs into his coffee, and he is surprised at how bitter it sounds.
"Ginny and I…" he snorts, and then stops, not wanting to say more. This is supposed to be Hermione's time; he is here for her, to support her and listen to her.
But it is too late. She pounces on his words and tone and bitter laugh with mongoose-bright eyes.
Hermione is staring at him. He figures that it is in much the same way that he gaped at her when she told him of the divorce. Rather than being completely bewildered, though, a faint shadow of understanding glimmers in her dark eyes. She says nothing, but sips her tea without removing her gaze from him. She is waiting for him to elaborate, so he does.
"The whole bloody thing is plastic," he repeats, a kind of impassioned fervor warming his tone. A swatch of dark hair falls across his forehead as he leans forward, trying to make her see what he sees, understand what he experiences. "Cardboard cut-outs… shiny, happy people… Inferi…"
Hermione's lips part in horror.
"Harry…" she breathes.
"To all appearances, there isn't a bloody thing wrong. She's this dazzling bit of arm candy whenever I need her to be. She waves and smiles and loves every minute of the attention. She's never failed to make me look better than I actually am. She knows exactly how I take my coffee and what kind of sheets I like to sleep on, and she never forgets an appointment or an engagement. The house is always immaculate, meals are fabulous, parties are a roaring success… but it's like she's this lovely…attendant, who's somehow forgotten that I'm a person, not a name. Sometimes we've exchanged barely five words in five days. It doesn't appear to bother her at all - and when I bring it up - when I bring anything up as a point of contention, she - she laughs, and says, `Harry, darling…' and changes the subject." He mocks Ginny with air quotes and an over-exaggerated society sneer.
"There's nothing real there. I've found myself searching her eyes for some flicker of affection or attraction, a remnant of the way she used to look at me once, but it's just…"
"Plastic," she finishes for him.
"Yeah," he whispers on an exhalation.
They sit in companionable enough silence for a long while, as their beverages grow cold, forgotten. Hermione watches a succession of emotions parade across Harry's face and wonders if he is thinking the same things that she is: the children, how they will be affected by decisions made in a world where they largely have no control, what their friends and families think, and - above all - how they have fallen to this, they who were once the epitome of young, happy, ambitious, courageous success, the pinnacle of rising wizarding potential.
She knows that they had been happy once: all four of them. How and when had they lost it? Why hadn't they noticed that it was gone?
He drags his gaze up to meet hers again, and when she reaches across the table to sympathetically touch his hand, she has the feeling that she is reaching through the bars of a cell. Crazy, she thinks with self-reproach.
"I just…" he sighs, but cannot finish.
"I know." She wants him to understand that she feels as hollow and breakable as he does, though maybe for different reasons. She doesn't give voice to the trite hope that they will weather this, as they have weathered so many hardships before.
She removes her fingertips from the back of his hand. His gaze is still far away, the green in his eyes looking like the bleakness of a distant moor.
His image wavers and shimmers before her, as she blinks back tears.
A/N: Moving some of my completed works over here from Portkey for the first time. Hope you enjoy.
Hope you enjoy.
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