In those faint, faraway seconds, as she saw Ron's pale face framed with his bright red hair, Hermione suddenly felt as if she had been taken back in time to the day they had met. It was the most curious feeling she had ever experienced, as her arms began to shake and the nerves in her shoulders tingled. And then the seconds were over, she had returned to her senses, to the awful reality of her being caught - it was all over.
'Hermione - Malfoy,' Ron said calmly, and he did not seem at all surprised to find them there. Hermione let go of Draco's hand.
'Ron, what are you -'
'I think that's rather obvious, isn't it?'
Ron had raised his eyebrows. Draco, who had not breathed a word so far, was looking a little abashed.
'We need to talk,' Ron finally quietly said after an awful pause.
'Of - of course,' stuttered Hermione. Malfoy looked from one to the other, helpless. Perhaps he wanted to say something, perhaps he didn't know what. He caught Hermione's eye, but she shook her head very lightly. Frowning, he finally turned a key in the lock of his door and opened it, disappearing into the appartment.
'There's a coffeeshop across the street,' Ron continued, disregarding Malfoy. 'Will you come with me?'
It did not occur to Hermione to refuse. Dread and guilt were weighing her down. The worst part about the whole affair was Ron's serenity, as if he had known all the time. As they walked down the stairs, she eyed him closely. There were purple shadows under his eyes, telling her he had not slept for a long time, and his clothes were wrinkled and dirty. Hermione's hand grazed his shortly, wanting to comfort him, but he did not return the gesture.
'Two coffees, please,' Ron said shortly to the waitress, as they sat down in the coffee shop a few minutes later. The waitress smiled and walked off. Silence engulfed the married couple.
Hermione was desperately looking at her husband, but he did not seem to want to look at her. He waited until their coffees had been served, then, after a sip, sighed.
'Hermione, I've got a question, and I think you owe it to me to answer it honestly.'
Hermione gulped. Her hands were very cold and she warmed them against the lukewarm cup.
'Have you... Have you slept with him?'
'No,' Hermione answered instantly. Ron sighed again, but did not doubt her sincerity. She felt she needed to elaborate. 'Ron, I... I don't commit adultery.'
He looked up and there was such despair in his eyes that she cringed, hating herself.
'Hermione,' he said quietly. The sound of her name on his lips was both endearingly and dreadfully familiar. 'The moment you started thinking of him more than of me is the moment you committed adultery. But I don't want to argue about that... We've argued enough.'
She gulped, her face flushed.
'How did you know?'
'Rose.' Hermione felt, if possible, even worse. 'We found Yaxley. I went to the Burrow - Mum sent me a letter saying that's where you'd be - and Rosie told me that you had gone to work and... and she said she thought there might be something between you and Malfoy. Poor little cricket.'
'Oh Merlin,' Hermione whispered, pressing her forehead against the palms of her hands as tears prickled her eyes. 'What the hell
kind of mother am I...'
Ron reached out and took one of her shaking hands, squeezing it reassuringly, perhaps trying to tell her that she wasn't a bad parent, but it only made her feel worse - she did not deserve this, she did not deserve his forgiveness or his comfort or the dreadful coffee he had paid for her in a coffeeshop outside Malfoy's appartment. Outside a place with a man whom she had been ready to give herself to. Another man than the one she had promised to spend her life with.
'The next thing I want to know,' he continued, slowly, deliberately, 'is if you plan on leaving me.'
She looked back up at him, her eyes now shining with tears. She really had not considered this question; she had never wanted a divorce. Separation had always been in the back of her mind, but there was something so final about divorce... all the cases she took, all those clients who paid her to end their marriage... It could never be her. She gazed back up at Ron. The look he was giving her wasn't an angry one, but a patient one.
'I - I d-don't know,' she stammered. 'No, I... We have children, Ron -'
'They'd be better off with separated parents than with parents who fight all the time. Don't drag them in this, Hermione. This is your
'Don't make me choose, Ron, please
don't make me choose -'
'Listen, Hermione,' Ron said, as her voice grew increasingly hysterical, 'I love you. I've always
loved you, and that won't change now, not even if you decide to leave me and move in with Malfoy.' He sighed. 'I don't want a divorce. I don't want a life without you. But I want you to be happy. And if you think that your chances are better with him, then... then you know what to do.'
Tears ran down her face and blotched her make-up, but she didn't care. She took Ron's hand. His wedding ring was polished and shiny.
'I love wearing this ring,' she murmured. He kissed the palm of her hand.
'What should I do? Tell me. Should I leave you alone?' he asked.
She looked down at her coffee, which had now gone cold. Images seemed to flash before her, images of their marriage and of how proud Molly and Arthur had been; of Hugo's birth and Ron's glowing face; of the time Rose got her acceptance letter to Hogwarts - she and Ron had been up at dawn just to greet the owl who delivered it; when Ron got his driver's license and tried to convince Hermione that he had done it honestly; the way that Ron made the most perfect hot chocolate... And then the images vanished, and all that was left was Ron's pale face, staring at her fearfully.
She shook her head in response to his question. She didn't need more time; everything was awfully clear to her.
She rapped her knuckles against his door twice and did not have long to wait before he opened it. Draco had changed clothes since Ron had greeted them in the hallway; his hair was no longer wet and his face was dry, but stony. She leaned against the doorway.
'Hello stranger,' she said, mustering up half a smile at the sound of the clichéd greeting.
'Hello, Granger.' He let a few seconds pass as he watched Hermione's impassive face. 'I guess he made you choose, then?'
She paused, then nodded. Draco folded his arms and surveyed her. He thought he already knew her choice.
'Please tell me I'm the winner.'
Her silence was a confirmation of what he had feared. He managed to force a humorless laugh, then leaned, like her, against the doorway. She eyed him worriedly.
'Well, that's life, I guess,' he said, trying not to sound as bitter as he felt. 'You win some, you lose some.'
Hermione still didn't say anything. He could not help loving her, he thought, she was so damn beautiful. He wondered if she was beautiful because he loved her or if he loved her because she was beautiful. Before he had met her, he would probably have said the latter. He was superficial. He knew it.
Draco looked at every curve of her face, making sure that they were engraved in his memory for the next lonely years ahead: the roundness of her lips, the soft turn of her cheek, the spiralling depth of her eyes. He suddenly forced himself to look away, aware that he had been staring.
'It will be hard, you know.'
'I never expected it to be easy.'
'I never expected to fall in love with you.'
She seemed teary, but a gulp and the tears had gone.
Make it easier for me, Draco,' she whispered. 'Let me know that you'll be all right.'
'I'll be all right.' He paused. 'But I'll never be whole.'
They stared at each other, lost in thoughts, in recent memories, in days that were blurs of passion, hatred and tension. His fingers were itching to touch her skin and to hold her in his arms and the thought of her leaving him, forever, to be with another man, was intolerable. But he pulled himself together. It was her choice. It was her life.
'Never mind, Granger. I'll be -'
His last words got muffled, for she had thrown herself into his arms with a cry of despair. He automatically placed his arms around her, his grip so strong that it seemed he would never let go. He breathed in the scent of her perfume, his face buried in her soft hair, wondering if he would ever feel again.
'Tell me you love me, Hermione,' he whispered into her neck. She didn't answer. 'Please... I need to hear you say it.'
She let go of him and pulled her head away from his. She placed both of her hands firmly on his cheeks. Their eyes locked, their gaze so intense that both had difficulty breathing, aware that they were creating a memory both would feast on for years to come, she finally murmured:
'I love you - I love you - I love
He held her close, but did not move, taking in this image to keep for the rest of his life. Making up his mind to say it, he drew her closer to him still.
'When you say you love both me and Ron,' he whispered, his eyes boring into hers, 'just remember: I love you back.'
She let go of him and backed away, her expression both stony and confused, and he understood.
Things were back to normal now. They had never existed. She was his attorney. He was her client.
Pulling himself together and taking hold of the door, Draco uttered his last words before closing it.
'I'll see you at the hearing, then, Granger.'
It was not a surprise to Percy Weasley or to any other member of the Wizengamot that Hermione Granger Weasley made an excellent presentation on behalf of what everyone believed to be her archenemy. That she could keep her personal, hateful feelings towards the old Death Eater to herself was extraordinary and impressing beyond all consideration. With her gentle smile, her confidence and her occasional glance towards the man shunned from society, she managed to convince them that Draco had everything in his favour; a large estate sold, the money going directly to Scorpius' trust fund; a wizarding place in a wizarding world and wonderful abilities as a father.
Henrietta Malfoy - now Bennet again - had hired Michael Corner, the same Michael Corner Hermione had been to school with, and though he was efficient, he was not convincing. It was very rare that the jury voted unanimously, but they did so in this case, all in favour for Draco Malfoy, who finally won custody over his beloved son.
Hermione packed her briefcase half-heartedly, smiling with graceful serenity as Percy and a few other admiring Wizengamot members congratulated her, but her eyes were really on Draco, who was talking in a low voice to a tear-streaked Henrietta. This would be the last time she and Draco would speak, Hermione had promised herself and Ron, and the sad, hollow feeling in her chest she had felt for the past days wouldn't go away. She smiled a goodbye at Percy, then walked out to the corridor. A few moments later, Draco emerged from the courtroom, and together, they entered the elevator that was to take them to their final farewell place.
'Thank you, Hermione,' Draco said, breaking the silence. She smiled at him, her insides warming up as she saw his eyes full of gratitude. 'You've...' He shook his head, unable to find the words. 'I don't know what I would have done without you.'
'I hope Henrietta took it all right.'
Draco fidgeted a little with his tie.
'I, um, I told her we could share custody.' Hermione raised her eyebrows. 'It doesn't seem fair that... Well, the kid needs a mother too.'
Hermione smiled even wider. After all this time, he had learned how to share.
'I'm proud of you,' she said in a low voice, trying not to sound condescending.
'Thanks,' he sighed, forcing himself to look elsewhere but in the eyes of the woman he loved. There was so much he wanted to tell her. And yet, the things that he wanted her to know were so inconsequential that it hardly seemed sane to mention them... How he loved the way she always smoothed her skirt when she stood up... How he adored the small wrinkles that appeared around her eyes when she was tired... Her voice, her gorgeous voice, which possessed that rare quality of making him feel capable of doing anything, anywhere, at any time. 'I've - I've decided I'm going to take a year off and travel. I need some time to think. Greece sounds pretty nice.'
The elevator came to a dreadful halt and they stepped automatically, but unwillingly, out of it. Hermione could see Ron waiting by one of the many fireplaces, Floo Powder by his side. She sighed and outstretched a hand, trying to ignore the goosebumps on the back of her neck as Draco shook it.
'Goodbye Malfoy,' she said. Draco kept watching her, drinking her in, taking as much pleasure as possible in what would probably be the last time he'd see her.
'Goodbye Granger. Take care.'
'Have a good trip,' she whispered. She lingered for what seemed like a nanosecond, and then she had turned around and was walking towards her husband, who was waiting patiently for her, as was a husband's duty, ready to take her home to her children who would greet her joyfully. Perhaps Ron had become a better man, thought Draco, now that he had realised what he had been so close to losing.
And for a short moment, he felt happy for her - she would have a good life.
She didn't need him. Ron was there.
A/N: It is with excitement and a little nostalgia (both appropriate feelings, I should think) that I update this story with its last chapter. Disappointment, relief, understanding and disbelief are sure to be among your impressions of this ending, but I think Hermione staying with Ron is what is most realistic and true of her - at least until her children have grown up. I WILL be posting the alternate ending (as I'm sure some of you are despising this one by now) or, if you'd rather, the epilogue. As the epilogue/alternate ending is rather short, I'll probably be posting the chapters that were cut with it.
I haven't got an incredible lot of feedback about the sequel - I can tell you that it involves 17 year olds Scorpius/Rose, Asteria Greengrass and a wedding. Interested? If so, please let me know!
So. More than 12 000 reads. 208 adds to favorites lists. More reviews than I could expect. How can I thank you all enough? This story was never meant to be anything flashy or adventurous: I like to think of it as an observation of new love, married life, fear of the unexpected and courage of facing the inevitable.
Thank you, thank you, thank you all very much.
Until next time.