Condoms. Ron knew of this particular muggle invention. It wasn't like wizards had known about anti-conception potions and spells for ages. After the dark ages, when there were precious few witches and wizards left in the world, there had been little need for it; having kids to help work around the house was actually quite wanted. It was well into the renaissance, when the magical communities in the world had started to flower and prosper that birth control became an issue. Condoms (which were used by muggles for ages) quickly became the norm, until some wizard in France discovered the first of the anti-conception potions.
Finding out Hermione had bought them left Ron shocked. Hermione? Condoms? She bought condoms?
"I knew you were going to act like that…" she said, getting up from the bed and moving towards the green bag she had left at the doorway. She fished out a plastic bag and took a small box from it. She tossed it across the room to Ron, who was still in enough shock that he just barely managed to catch it. He looked at it.
"Durex?" he asked.
"It's a muggle brand," she said, "I wasn't entirely sure which pack to buy, so I just got the regular version."
"They come in different versions?" Ron asked, feeling a bit sheepish for having to ask Hermione about it. She turned a deep shade pink and muttered something about sizes, textures, and flavours.
"Yeah," she said, "For when a girl – you know, for when she –" Hermione sputtered a bit, then pointed at her mouth.
Feeling immensely stupid, Ron suppressed any further questions. He was the bloke of the two of them, so he felt that he should have known those answers. It felt odd that Hermione – bookish, sweet Hermione – would be the one to have to explain these things to him. He got up, sitting himself on the edge of the bed, the pack of condoms still in his hands. There were actually quite a few questions he wanted to ask, and though he desperately sought to find something to say (anything at all, really) he couldn't come up with anything.
Hermione sat down next to him. Neither of them said anything. Ron fidgeted with the pack of condoms, feeling more sheepish than ever. Here they were, two adult wizards, having defeated impossible odds, and having survived the front line of a wizarding war, and both of them were at a loss for words. He tore his eyes off the pack of condoms and focussed them on Hermione. When he did, she looked up at him. They eyes met, and Ron offered her a small grin, which was met by Hermione closing her eyes and resting her head against his shoulder.
"It might be best to leave this in your care," he said after a little while, "For safekeeping."
"That might be wise, yes."
"If you're ready to use them, just tell me."
"I will," she said, packing them away in the pocket of her sweater, "I'm not ready yet, but when I am, I'll let you know."
"How will you know?"
"Know what?" she asked, her head still pressed against his shoulder.
"If you are ready." he answered, "How will you know?"
"How do you know when you are in love?" she replied.
"I don't know. I guess you just.. feel it. You just.. know."
"Well, I guess you just answered your own question," she replied, looking up at him, "I don't feel ready for that last step, but I'll know when I do."
They sat in silence for a while. Ron enjoyed sitting there, Hermione pressed closely against him, her soft body warm against his. He had noticed that she breathed faster than him. If he slowed his breath a little, he could time them to be exactly twice as slow as hers.
"In the meantime, though," Hermione said, "Is there anything you would like to do?"
She ran her hand suggestively across his leg, and Ron was amazed at the apparent ease with which she now suggested sex. It was only a couple of weeks after they had first gotten together, and though Ron knew he shouldn't feel embarrassed about talking with Hermione about sex it nevertheless still felt very awkward. He had spent a good three years of his life convincing first himself, and then the rest of the world that he didn't feel attracted to her. It had become a second nature to him; if anybody mentioned Hermione, try not to think or say just how much you like her.
It was that conditioning that was making him feel uncomfortable, and he was very happy that Hermione at least seemed less affected by it.
"Hermione, there are about a million things I would like to do right now, and none of them involve you wearing your clothes."
"If I'm not going to wear any clothes," Hermione said, "Than neither are you…"
"I'll match you one-for-one," he quipped, feeling the familiar tingle between his legs that indicated a growing readiness.
"Deal," Hermione said, taking off her sweater and top. Ron matched her by taking off both his sweater and his tee. He was left bare-chested, while Hermione still wore her bra.
"Hey, no fair!" he said, "You're wearing more clothes than I am!"
"You proposed to match me one-for-one," she replied, "I didn't have anything to do with it." She reached behind her back and unhooked her bra. It slipped from her shoulders and fell onto the growing pile of their clothes.
"Well," he said, "I guess that technically I've already undressed my bra by never putting it on."
Hermione eyed him critically, but her look of scepticism was ruined by a grin she could not keep back. "Very well," she said, "But don't think I'll be that easy on you next time."
"Next time?" he said, as he watched her unlace her boots. He kicked off his own, the trainers clattering to the floor next to the bed in a decidedly unceremonious way. Hermione bit her bottom lip. Instead of answering him, she took her socks off.
Ron quickly followed. He had seen her bare feet before, so he wasn't really surprised at how small they were. Disproportionate to the rest of her body, Hermione's feet were barely a size 3.5. They were exquisitely formed, delicate with high arches and small, round toes. They were wide though, which had prompted him one summer evening in the common room to refer to them as little frog's feet.
He slipped out of his own socks, Tossing them to Hermione who dumped them brusquely on the floor, feigning revulsion.
There she was, Hermione, he beautiful girlfriend, sitting opposite him in little more than just a pair of jeans and some knickers. Her breasts kept drawing his eyes, which she had clearly noticed, but didn't seem to be inclined to put a stop to. He had never seen her wear less.
When she unbuttoned her jeans, Ron moved to do the same. He had read about moments like these in his book, and he avidly recalled how it warned about making her feel at ease. The book had been very clear (She sets the pace. Not you. She. She sets it. If you try to force her, you will lose her.) so it seemed prudent not to tempt fate too much by deviating from the chosen path. It had helped him so far, it was probably right about this too. Hermione unbuttoned her pants and Ron caught a view of a pair of white knickers. Hermione hesitated for a moment, but Ron didn't. Yanking his denim yeans down, he freed his ankles from the pipes, leaving him in just his boxers.
If he had felt nervous before, it was naught compared to how he felt now. The boxers he was wearing were new and they fitted him well. His erection, growing at an alarming rate now that Hermione was wearing so very little, was clearly visible in his trunks. Damn. I hope she doesn't feel forced to take her pants off too.
Hermione was starting to get a little pink-faced, which normally indicated that she was feeling a little embarrassed. He was thinking about putting his pants back on, wondering if Hermione would feel less embarrassed if he did, when she slowly slid out of her own pants. Where Ron had fought his pants to get them off as soon as possible, she worked delicately, pulling on the ends to get them off properly. She straightened them out a little, then folded them up.
Ron spent that time looking at her. It was a physical impossibility to keep his eyes away from her now, her legs drawing his eyes as much as her breasts did. The white cotton of her knickers also worked magnetically to his eyes, but he could not keep his eyes on them for long without feeling like a complete tosser.
Hermione folded her legs in front of her. Her calm demeanour was ruined by her complexion, which had gone from pale, to very visibly flushed. Ron wondered what was going through her mind. He decided to just ask her.
"I've never felt this exposed before."
"Neither have I," he replied, "It feels like I'm in one of those dreams where you wake up late for class and for some reason, you can't find any clothes. So you head out into the corridors, because the first period is about to begin, and you're holding a stuffed Gryffindor lion in front of your privates, and you arrive only to find that it is actually recess, and everyone is in the Great Hall eating, and as you stumble in you hope that nobody notices, but everyone looks up from their plates and points and laughs, and the teachers –"
"Did I ever mention you have a very vivid imagination, Ron?" Hermione cut in. Ron closed his mouth, wishing he had not discarded both his socks, so he could use one to stuff his mouth with. Hermione was grinning. The colour that had flooded her cheeks was gone now, though one of her arms was lingering half-forgotten between resting on her legs and covering her breasts.
"It's cute though," she admitted, "Was I ever mocking you in the Great Hall?"
"You were always laughing the loudest," he said.
"I would never be that cruel."
"No, I was just kidding. You would be sitting with the Slytherins. Draco and you would be snogging far too much to take note of my entrance…"
Hermione pulled a pillow from behind her and threw it at Ron, who let it bump harmlessly against his head. Taking hold of it, he added: "Besides, you were both naked too, so I guess you would not have minded my general unclothedness."
Hermione looked about herself for more ammunitions, and when it became apparent that there were no other pillows for her to throw, she attempted to snatch the one she had just thrown from Ron's hands. He pulled it away quickly, then tossed it away behind his back, leaving her without ammo. Settling one hand on her hip and pointing at him direly with the other, Hermione warned him, struggling to keep from laughing. "You take that back, Ronald Weasley. You take that back right now."
"You didn't seem to mind it during my dream, unfortunately," he told her, "Quite the opposite. I believe you called him 'my sweet ferretty prince' at the time. In the rare occasion that you came up for air, obviously…"
That last bit pushed her over the edge. Letting out a heart-felt bellow of laughter that was altogether completely unlike the normally very reserved Hermione, she lunged at him, grabbing one of his wrists with both her hands and, well, trying something. He wasn't quite sure because she was hardly any match for him. She seemed to try and wrestle him for a moment, but Ron was quite a bit stronger than her so she quickly changed tactics. Heaving forward hard, she pitched him over. Ron lost his balance. Hermione let go of him, but Ron's hands were too well-trained at quidditch for that. He clasped his hand around her delicate wrist, pulling her along with him.
Together, they tumbled out of bed, partly landing onto the heap of clothes, and partly landing on the floor. Ron fell flat on his back, not necessarily knocking the wind out of him, but leaving him short of breath anyways. Hermione had tumbled down forward, half her legs still on the bed, while her head and torso were pressed on top of him. She had ended up half to the side, and her face, bearing an impish grin, was somewhere near his midriff. Her bum, he noticed, hung up from the bed.
"Enjoying ourselves? Are you seventeen going on seven now?" he asked. Hermione pushed herself up, but instead of getting off of him, she slid down from the bed completely, her body pressing against his. When Ron grimaced, she shot him a troubled look. He reached beneath him and extracted one of his trainers from below his back. Much better!
For a moment, he wondered at what had just happened. There they were, sitting on the bed as two scared teenagers, and here they were, on the floor, Hermione on top of him, the feeling of her breasts against his body as noticeable as the erection in his boxer probably was to hers. Her hands reached out and pulled his head closer, until their lips met.
Even though his back ached from the fall, even though Hermione's elbow was painfully pushing into his ribs, and even though the ground was quite cold, Ron could not recall ever having felt this at ease with Hermione. Their tumble from the bed seemed to have broken the tension between them at this new, wholly unknown experience, and he felt more connected to her than ever.
After a couple of minutes of kissing and fondling, Ron realized that Hermione was starting to strain herself. She was keeping most of her weight off of him, and her arms were trembling slightly from the effort.
"You can just relax, Hermione," he said, "I'll hardly notice you on top of me."
"Ron, I weigh nearly eight stones now. I don't want you to be uncomfortable."
"Why don't we climb back onto bed?" he offered, "Then, the worst thing that could happen is you pressing me into the mattress."
She grinned, and got up. Ron got up too, and sat down on the bed. He made to lay down, but Hermione stopped him. "Ron, wait," she said, moving in front of him. Seated in front of her, Hermione's breasts were right in front of him. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him into a tight embrace. "I love you, Ron," she said, "I really do."
"I know," he said, closing his eyes and listening to Hermione's heartbeat. Like her breathing, it too was faster than his own. "I love you too." His eyes closed, Ron released a deep breath he hadn't realized he was holding. Pressed against her chest, Ron felt a calm and serenity that he had not felt in over a year. Things were going to be all right. They had found Hermione's parents and were going to remove the memory charm. They had survived.
Hermione shivered. He looked up to find her covered in goose-pimples. "Cold?" he asked, and she nodded in agreement. Ron pulled the sheets back. Hermione quickly stepped into bed. He moved in beside her.
The bed was made a single, but it was wider than his bed at home, so they fit next to each other easily. Hermione looked at him. "Are you still matching me one-on-one?"
"If you want me to."
She took hold of the sides of her knickers. Ron hooked his thumbs below the waistband of his boxers. They didn't count to three, but still acted simultaneously. Hermione pulled her knees up to one side, and her knickers slid fluidly down to her ankles. Ron shoved his boxer down till it had passed his knees, then used the toes of one foot to drag the boxer down all the way. The sheets were still covering them, but Ron felt exposed none the less. "What now?" he asked.
"I don't know," Hermione said sheepishly, "I'm as much a fish out of the water as you are."
"What if I do this –" he took hold of her hand gingerly "– and guide you a little?"
He slowly moved her hand towards his crotch, which was by now completely erect. Hermione bit her lower lip. She seemed to be both nervous and terrified, but she did not pull away. He could feel her fingers sliding softly over his stomach, lower and lower, until they brushed the tip of his penis. Hermione breathed in sharply, her hand drawing back a little. A second later though, her hand moved forward again, as she wrapped her fingers around it.
She was clearly inexperienced. Though she had grasped him, it was as if she was afraid it would break; he could hardly tell she held him. Her hand had stopped moving altogether. It was as if she knew what went where, but not what to do with it.
Ron took her hand softly in his, and motioned her into a slow stroke. "Swish and flick", he said, and Hermione chuckled when he did.
"Only you can ruin a moment like this by making me think of your eleven-year-old self," she said, though the moment was hardly ruined. Hermione continued stoking him, and though it ranked among one of the worst hand jobs in his life (all of the others were his) it was sending waves of pleasure up with an intensity that he had never felt before.
She slowed down a little and raised a bit of the covers. It was barely enough to show half of his chest. Ron took hold of the covers and pulled them down further, exposing not just his own naked body, but also Hermione's. He took a glance at her, his eyes drawn magnetically to the curly brown hairs that were visible at the spot just above where her legs joined. Then, his eyes swerved to the highly enjoyable sight of Hermione's hand gently moving up and down. For a moment, Ron realized that this situation, him and Hermione naked on a bed, which he had dreamt of for years, was actually happening. It was more than enough to push him over the edge.
Some time later, Ron lay against Hermione, holding her tight and kissing her forehead. Though his orgasm had shocked her, Hermione claimed to be unfazed, and she had wiped it away from his stomach with a tissue, depositing it in the toilet. She had returned quickly, rushing back under the covers where she curled up against him. Her legs were hooked around his, and she kept her face pressed against his chest. They were both still naked, and Ron gently rubbed her thigh. He felt immensely satisfied.
"How do you feel?" he asked, "Are you happy?"
"I am," she said, pressing her body closer to his, "I'm feeling nervous."
"About being naked around me?"
"No," she said, "About my parents."
Ron groaned. How could he have forgotten that? Here I am, enjoying a nice little vacation with my girlfriend, just relaxing in a bed after getting beaten off, while she's going through an emotional rollercoaster. Nice, Weasley, real nice..
"You know I'll be there for you, right?" he asked, "I will be beside you every step of the way. No more departures, no more temper tantrums, no more foolish mistakes."
"I might not always be the most… bright person you have ever met –" She stirred in protest, but he silenced her by gently placing his hand on her stomach "– I don't always know how to say the right words, or act accordingly. But I mean well. I will be there for you, Hermione. Now and in the future."
Hermione looked up. A slight smile played on her lips. "For a guy so utterly convinced of his own faults, you do know what to say to make a girl feel special." She kissed the tip of his nose, then reluctantly got up from the bed. Ron took the opportunity to inspect her rear without her noticing.
"Bernstein will be here in fifteen minutes. We should get ready," she said, "You know how punctual he is."
Ron stretched out completely, then propped his head up with his arms. "Don't worry, fifteen minutes is plenty of time."
Bernstein was there at exactly the agreed time. The man was as punctual as a watch. Curse him! Ron thought, as he scrambled to open the door. Ron hadn't anticipated that Hermione would be tending to her make-up, which had become smudged after all the cuddling and kissing they had done in the past hour. That left him to pack her bag, which apparently needed to be filled with half a dozen items Ron would not have thought they needed. Two packs of tissues, their wands, a picture of Hermione and her parents, still in its frame, Hermione listed the items they needed, and Ron had crammed everything into the bag (except of course for the picture, which was handled with a certain amount of respect).
When they had heard Bernstein arrive, Hermione was still in the bathroom, and Ron jumped to open the door. They had agreed that it would be poor form to be found as unprepared as before, so when Ron threw open the door less than two seconds after he had knocked, that came as a bit of a surprise.
"Whoa there!" Bernstein said, "Eager to get going?"
"Well" Ron sputtered, "It's been almost a year since she last saw them. We don't want to wait any longer than necessary."
Bernstein peeked into the room behind Ron. He heard Hermione exiting the bathroom. When he turned to look at her, he saw her pick up her bag, and walk up to them.
"Let's go," she said, "Time for magic."
She seemed a lot more confident than she had been half an hour ago, but Ron decided not to mention it. If Bernstein was at all surprised by her cheerful disposition and powerful stride, he managed to hide it well. He walked ahead of them, talking about the traffic.
Driving over to her parents's house was a lot faster than Ron had anticipated. Hermione had taken out a sheaf of paper with a couple of sentences on it, and had asked Ron to memorize them. They were quite easy, and he could recite them from memory within a few minutes. Hermione told him those sentences were an integral part of the modification she had made to her parents's memories. Every time they would have thought of her, whenever something reminded them of her, their minds would default to one of those sentences.
"I'm going to spend the first bit of our visit prodding their minds with questions that have something to do with me. Nothing direct, just questions like: 'do you have any children?', or 'were your old neighbours any interesting?' That should get them to say these quotes. If they only repeat a few of them, I'll know my spell is weakened."
"What if they don't repeat any of them?"
"Then the spell is broken. In that case, they either don't remember me at all, or don't want to remember me."
Bernstein was navigating the busy afternoon rush hour traffic, so he didn't notice how Hermione suddenly fell silent and tearful. Ron grabbed her hand and squeezed it softly. She looked at him for a moment, then nodded. She swallowed hard.
"I think my mum won't repeat many of them. I hope she is okay."
"If she's anything like you, then I'm sure she is, love."
They arrived at the house sooner than Ron would have liked. Hermione's disposition was still a lot less confident than it had been at the hotel. Ron opened the car door and Hermione reluctantly followed him out. She made no move towards the house, and stood as though petrified. Again, he took her hand, and squeezed it gently. She took a cautious step forward, then another. Ron gently nudged her on, as she seemed to have to force out every step she took. Then, suddenly, they were standing at the front door. Ron rang the doorbell twice.
After half a minute, the door opened. Hermione's father stood in the doorway, his face alive with emotions. He seemed hesitant.
"Ah, yes, you two," he said, "I – err – I'm not entirely sure anymore if this is such a good idea."
Hermione didn't respond. She seemed to be stunned.
"Oh, I assure you," Ron replied forcefully, "We will be on our way very soon. No trouble at all!"
"Well," her father said doubtingly. He looked to be in conflict with himself.
Ron pushed on. He had seen sales people at the Burrow before. They would always pester his mum with household items they guaranteed she wouldn't want to be without, or complicated charms that would keep her property safe as can be. They would push on even if his mum said no, and would eventually wear her down. They would be offered tea, and his father would have to cancel any contracts the next evening. The memory brought a smile to his face.
"Really, I'm quite interested in seeing your wife's artwork."
Hermione's father still seemed unsure, but when he turned to find her looking at him with a slight smile, he seemed to come to a decision.
"Very well, come in. My wife is in the kitchen preparing dinner."
Ron inwardly whooped in joy, balling his fists in victory. Hermione stepped over the threshold of the house, and Ron followed her. He looked back to see Bernstein sitting against the side of the car. He nodded to Ron, as if to say: "I'm here if you need me."
The front door led to a large hallway. The ceiling was so high that he could see the landing of the next floor, which looked down on the hallway with an ornate balustrade. The floor was covered in a dark flagstone that seemed as ancient as those at Hogwarts. The walls were covered with paintings. The quality of the paintings varied greatly. Some of them were very crude; clearly depicting a girl with brown, curly hair, but hardly recognisable. The eyes were too big, or the nose too small. Others were more detailed. There were more nuances visible, like a bit of shadow under the nose, or a smoother transition between two colours of paint.
There were also paintings of different styles. Ron had never been interested in the different types of painting, but he clearly saw that some paintings were almost photorealistic, while others were abstract. A painting of unicorn in a dark forest hung behind the coat rack, and upon closer inspection, Ron found out that it was made up out of hundreds upon thousands of little dots of paint, everyone a different colour.
He was more interested in the paintings than he should be, he realized. The task at hand was finding out about the charm's remaining power, and cancelling the effects. He mentally kicked himself for getting side-tracked so easily.
He looked toward Hermione. She had removed her coat, and her eyes seemed to be drawn towards the paintings uncontrollably. One painting in particular was drawing her eyes. She looked at it at least once every three seconds. It was a very large painting, perhaps six by four feet. It looked eerily like Hermione. Ron wondered if he had photographs of her that were as detailed as that painting was.
"Well," her father said, "Let's get this over with."
He led them through a doorway into a sitting room, which connected to the kitchen through a door with glass panels in it. The smell of fresh cooking wafted in from there, and through the windows of the door Ron could see the back of Hermione's mother.
"I haven't told her you would come yet," her father said, "I was actually not sure if I would go through with this."
"We're here now," Ron said, "I'm sure we will be nothing of an inconvenience."
His voice apparently carried over to the kitchen, and Hermione's mother turned her head. She was still chopping some celery, and kept her eyes on the knife.
"Who's that, Wendell?" she asked.
"Some guests. I met them at the clinic. They wanted to see your paintings."
Hermione's mother stopped chopping and turned to regard them fully. She looked older than she had on the picture Hermione had of her, but he couldn't quite pinpoint why. Her eyes fell on him first, and he could see that there was some form of recognition in them. When she looked at Hermione, they widened.
Ron was afraid that she might react badly. For whatever reason, he had always depicted this moment with Hermione's mother regarding them with cold indifference; the way two strangers did. He had feared that Hermione would find that indifference hard to process. He had not expected her to be as she was now; startled, and clearly on guard. Her hand was hovering over the knife she had just put down.
"Who are you?" she asked, not unfriendly, but certainly not amiable either, "Where are you from? What are you doing in our house?"
Hermione seemed as startled as her mother. Her eyes were glassy and her face was pale. She looked like a deer caught in headlights.
"My girlfriend and I are visiting Australia, and she wanted a quick check of her teeth. Your husband told us you were a gifted painter." Mr. Granger had not exactly used the word gifted, but Ron thought a slight bit of flattery might come over well. It always worked for Harry. "I'm an art-lover myself, and I asked to see some of your work."
Mrs. Granger gave her husband a firm look. He wilted under it. She was apparently not pleased with her husband's invitation. She turned her attention back to Ron.
"I wouldn't really call it art," she said, taking off her apron. She handed it to Mr. Granger. "Art requires a lot more quality."
Hermione seemed to be recovering from her initial shock. She tore her eyes off her mother, and turned to her father. "Why don't we finish the preparations for dinner," she suggested, "So Ronald and your wife can continue talking about art and painting." Mr. Granger smiled at her, and handed her a ladle.
Ron and Mrs. Granger walked into another room, and Ron followed her. He hoped that she would not go too deeply into art related subjects; he knew next to nothing about it. They were heading for the glass porch they had seen her mother in when they had just arrived in Brisbane. There were paintings everywhere. On the floor, stacked against the far wall of the porch was a large number of paintings. She's been productive!
Hermione seemed to be staring at him from all sides. There were large paintings of her, showing her in cardigans or tees, but also very small paintings, which captured a single detail, like an ear, or her nose. Ron reached out and took a stack of heavy papers from their resting place on the radiator. There were crude drawings of legs and arms on one of them, and another held literally fifty faces, all pressed close together. They were made with a dark material he didn't immediately recognise.
"Those are just some charcoal sketches. Studies I made of the human anatomy."
"They are good," he said, not really sure if they were, but hoping the compliment would come over well, "Very lifelike."
Hermione's mother was thumbing through the many paintings that were stacked against the wall. She lifted up one of them. "What are your opinions about this one?"
Ron eyed it critically for a moment. It was another picture of Hermione, this one showing her on a bed, reading. Ron first thought was that it wasn't very good. The proportions looked to be off, which made her have very large hands, and her head was a little oblong. Feigning a critical assessment, Ron tried to buy some time. He hardly knew what to say. Should he say something about the colours? Or about the imagery? What did two art experts say to each other?
In the end he settled with: "I like the scene," hoping it would be vague enough, without sounding inept. Hermione's mother nodded and studied the picture herself.
"What about the layering?" she asked, "Do you like it?"
Layering? Ron thought, What layering? The painting is as flat as a board! He wondered what Harry would say. Probably something witty and smart. He would probably ask her a question in return, Ron thought, So he wouldn't have to answer hers. Several replies crossed his mind, but he felt that not answering her question would be a wrong move. Mrs. Granger was seemingly testing him. Why was she showing him this painting in particular. It wasn't very good, from what he gathered. Also, looked to be discarded among a range of other paintings, all lined against the wall with their image away from the room.
The more he thought about it, the more Ron became convinced that this was a test. A trick question. If she had liked the painting herself, would she not have hung it on the wall somewhere? Knowing that gaining Hermione's mother's trust was of the utmost importance, Ron weighed his options. Should he tell her that he didn't like it?
"I don't think this painting is your best," he said, not really answering her question, but also not afraid to show that he had an opinion about it. "I liked the one behind the coat rack better."
Hermione's mother looked mildly amused. She regarded the painting herself.
"Yes," she said, "I guess you are right. The painting behind the coat rack is the unicorn I believe."
Ron nodded. Let her do the talking.
"It was an artistic side-step. I'm not very skilled with pointillism, but I guess it came out nice."
She pointed at a picture on the wall, and started talking about the use of pastel colours and imagery. Ron smiled inwardly. Apparently, he had passed the test. Hermione's mother was asking him for his opinion about the painting, but mostly in closed questions Ron could simply answer by agreeing with her.
Hermione's mum was talking about another small portrait that looked to be Hermione's mouth and jawline, when Ron decided to ask the inevitable.
"Mrs. Wendell, these paintings look startlingly much like my girlfriend, don't you agree?"
Breaking off mid-sentence, Mrs. Granger looked as if she was on pause. She reached for her chest, and for half a moment, Ron thought she might have had a heart-attack. Then, she calmly looked at him.
"Yes," she said, "I noticed that too."
"Can you tell me why you've painted this image so often?"
It was clear that Mrs. Granger was not quite ready to talk to him about it. She glanced through the open door in the direction of the kitchen. From where she stood, she had a clear line of sight at presumably her husband and Hermione's back as they worked in the kitchen. For a while, she seemed like she was reluctant to speak, and Ron was considering a change of subject when she suddenly spoke.
"I see her in my dreams. I see her at a train station, heading off somewhere. I see her as a little girl, baking sand cakes at the playground. I dream of being in a cabin in France, tired from skiing and squeezed with my husband and her on a sofa meant for two. We are drinking hot cocoa and she has a chocolate moustache I don't mention because it looks utterly adorable."
"I see her when I stand in line at the supermarket, closing my eyes in frustration at how the girl behind the till is so slow, and the air-conditioning is not able to combat the heat. I see her then, standing in front of my, her eyes filled with tears over the affection of a boy. We talk until it is dark outside, and my husband as long retreated to bed."
"She is there, behind me, when I sit alone in this porch, except when I turn my head, she isn't there after all. Just the image of her in my head. I can smell her. I can almost feel her hand on my shoulder."
Ron glanced around. There was a large painting of what he now recognised as platform nine and three quarters. There was billowing smoke everywhere, and half covered in that smoke was the figure of a girl with a heavy backpack. She was walking away from them, but her head was turned as if to glance over her shoulder. Another painting showed a small family sitting in a cabin, on a sofa that was indeed much too small for them. There was a fire burning in a small fireplace. The husband was reading a book, while both daughter and mother were engrossed in conversation. Both paintings were lifelike. Ron doubted if a professional painter could have made the image so lifelike.
Hermione's mother turned to him.
"I don't remember having had a child. I don't recall any birthdays or school outings. I have no recollection of giving birth. But I know. I know I had a daughter. I know her name was Hermione."
Ron was at a loss for words. How far had the memory spell unravelled. What had it caused in Hermione's mother? She looked half-mad, her eyes telling a story of infinite sadness. Should he tell her she was right? Should he drop the subject altogether and ignore the pleading look she was giving him? She seemed to hope that he would confirm her suspicions.
"Is that why you left the UK?" he finally asked, not cutting off the conversation, but hopefully steering it somewhere less painful and more productive. He still needed to know how far the spell had deteriorated. He obviously knew the answer before she replied.
"No," she said, composing herself a little, "No, we had other reasons for that."
"May I ask which?"
"Sure," she said, increasingly more collected than before, "We had a lifelong wish to head over here." The first item on the list. The memory charm is still in place. "We also had nothing to tie us down." Another one!
"Not many people can afford a move like yours," Ron said, steering her in the direction of two other possible replies.
"My husband says we also left because we wanted to do something with the money we had saved over the years. Something about it not going to waste. Bollocks if you ask me, it wasn't like we were rich…"
One of the programmed replies was indeed that they wanted to put their savings to good use. It had obviously failed. It was good to know her father was still convinced though.
"Wasn't it hard to sell your dental clinic and start something new here?"
It was a simple reply, but not the one Ron was after. He spent another five minutes prodding her with questions about the past year, hoping to hear any other programmed responses, but none came. Hermione's mother was close to breaking the charm on her own.
Ron asked a couple of perfunctory questions about the paintings, which she seemed to reply with equal routine. Her mother was talking about a painting of a little girl on the beach of Dunkirk, when Hermione called out that dinner was being served. Hermione's mother eyed him smartly, then made a gesture as if to say "help yourself". He turned to the dining room, Hermione's mother following him closely.
Ron entered the dining room to find the table already set. They had obviously used the fine silverware, and the expensive dinner plates. There was a big candlestick in the centre of the table, on which burned a single thick candle. It was bright blue. Hermione smiled when she saw his reaction, but when her eyes moved to her mother, it fell. Ron walked up to her, wanting to console her, but she snapped out of it herself.
"No Ron," she said, ushering him back, "You sit here, next to me. This is your place, mum."
From the kitchen, there was an audible gasp.