"Oh, Hugo, he's gorgeous," Hermione breathes in a half-whisper, hand to her chest, as her son's new boyfriend rounds the corner to the café lavatory and out of sight. "When I first saw him, my heart went pitter-pat!"
"Mum!" Hugo protests, laughing in spite of himself. His grin is enormous and she sees in his face the almost unbearable excitement of the first few weeks of love.
Seeing her little boy look that way for the first time, all grown up and sitting at a scratched-up little café table with a cup of coffee in his hands, the springtime sun through the windows making a big checkerboard of light around them... Tears threaten behind her eyes, and she has to clear her throat.
"I couldn't be happier for you," she says, leaning over to rub his arm. "This is one of those moments, as a parent, when it feels all worthwhile."
A flicker of startled emotion crosses Hugo's face, as though he has been waiting years for his mother to say that. Quickly he recovers, and jokes, "You mean you're glad you didn't give up after the first couple of nappy changes?"
Hermione laughs. "Very glad."
"So, who is this bloke?" Ron asks as he throws his shirt in the general direction of the laundry basket.
"Sam Thomas," Hermione answers, snatching it out of the air and putting it actually in the basket, where it wouldn't have landed otherwise. "Dean and Marianne's son."
Ron squints at an inner memory. "Tall. Glasses."
Standing on one foot to take off a sock, Ron asks, "Has he got a job?"
He asks it in the exact same tone of dubious judgement, Hermione notes with pleasure, that he takes when enquiring about Rose's boyfriends. "He works at a bookshop, I gathered," she replies.
Ron grunts in reluctant assent, as though he supposes that's good enough. "Is Hugo happy?"
"Happy?" Hermione pauses to consider. "I'd call it more like ecstatic."
Ron rolls his eyes. "Kids. He'll learn someday — first loves never last." He looks at her, deadpan, with just the hint of a smile glimmering at the corners of his eyes.
"Of course," she says, grinning, and slides her arms round his waist to pull him into a kiss.
That night, lying in the dark and listening to Ron breathe, Hermione is bothered by a memory.
It's just a foolish childhood thing, nothing objectively terrible — certainly nothing compared to what the three of them would go through later — but one of those stark moments of early hurt that inscribes itself on a person's mind and stays there long after it no longer matters.
It was in fourth year, and Lavender and Parvati were gossipping away as they liked to do before bed. Some kind of adolescent giggling about a Ravenclaw girl who'd supposedly asked another girl to the ball, according to rumour.
Hermione doesn't remember most of the conversation, but she remembers an awful, nervous, twisty feeling growing in her stomach as she listened to their mockery. And in the course of trying to redirect them (a little junior Prefect, even then), she said this:
"Well, I expect every girl thinks about other girls sometimes."
The two of them stopped and stared at her. Lavender laughed uncomfortably, seemingly unsure if Hermione was joking, and glanced to Parvati for a cue.
"Erm... I don't know about that, Hermione," Parvati said, looking at her sidelong as though Hermione were the maddest, stupidest, smallest person in the world.
Anything that was said after that is mercifully lost. But now, nearly forty years later, Hermione lies in her own bed in her own house beside her own husband, and the contempt in the eyes of two fourteen-year-old girls pierces her heart like a dagger.
She's never told anyone about this. Surely no-one else remembers it, and nothing even happened.
The shame of it, though, is that she actually had thought that every girl thinks about other girls sometimes. She had simply assumed that straight was normal, and that she was normal, so whatever feelings she had must be what people meant by straight.
Even when she thought about girls — even when she touched herself thinking of them. Even when she spent all of third year not admitting who she fancied, because it was Professor Vector. Even when she felt a flush of arousal at a glimpse of Parvati's soft, puffy nipples when she changed her shirt.
Everybody told Hermione she was smart, but that look on Parvati's face told her she wasn't really that smart after all.
When her weekly lunch with Hugo rolls around, Hermione is exhausted, but still isn't planning to say anything.
"No offense, Mum, but you look a right mess," he says, brows knit in concern.
"Oh, I just haven't been sleeping well," she says, brushing her hair out of her face as though that will make a difference. She hangs her purse on the back of the restaurant chair, sits down across from him, and busies herself with the menu. "It's nothing, really. How are you and Sam doing?"
Hugo hesitates; she doesn't make eye contact, not wanting to see how ineffective her brush-off has been. At last he says, "We've been good. We had dinner at his parents' last night."
"And that went well?" She offers a strained, polite smile to the waitress who brings them glasses of ice water.
"Oh, yeah, they're great. Sam's been out to them for ages, I guess, and it's never been a problem."
Hermione hides a twinge of amusement at the idea of someone in his early twenties having done anything 'for ages'. "That doesn't surprise me. Dean's a lovely person." She glances round and lowers her voice a bit, though the clatter of plates and hum of conversation should stymie any eavesdroppers. "I don't know his wife well, but I think she's Muggle-born too. They tend to be a bit more open-minded. Not to say that others can't be... but as a general tendency."
Hugo nods. "Seems we still lag behind in some ways— Oh, I'll have the soup, thanks." The waitress has reappeared.
"The same," says Hermione, handing over their menus. "Yes, well... Things still aren't perfect in either culture." She makes sure the waitress is out of earshot before continuing. "Though they've come an awfully long way since I was your age. I remember when equal marriage rights weren't even thought of, not even under Muggle law."
He takes a sip of water and gives a sage nod. "When dinosaurs roamed the Earth."
"Yes, that's right," she says, unable to keep from laughing. "Poor old Stegosaurus, having to live in the closet."
"And it'd be a tight fit, for him," Hugo returns, laughing too. "But really... I get what you're saying. I do feel lucky. It wasn't the easiest thing, telling you and Dad, but it must have been worse before. Did you know anybody at all who was gay, when you were growing up?"
She looks at him in startlement, for a moment feeling like she's been 'read' somehow, that he knows what she's been lying awake at night thinking about. But his face shows only innocent curiosity.
"Er... No. Nobody who told me, at least. I mean, there were rumours, at times."
"That would have made it really difficult for me," Hugo says, crossing his arms on the tabletop and looking at her seriously. "Not knowing anybody who wasn't straight. It's hard to imagine what it would be like, feeling I was the only one."
When he says that, it feels like a heavy book falling down with a whump. Information. Revelation. For the first time, it strikes her that when she felt alone, perhaps in her silence, other people felt alone, too.
It's that, as well as the fact that she's exhausted. Between those two things, she says quietly: "I used to feel that way."
His water glass pauses halfway to his mouth. "Sorry?"
"I mean, not like you," she adds quickly, feeling like she's put her foot in her mouth. "It was nothing like that, but sometimes I've had... crushes on girls, and such." She tries to laugh like it's just something silly, but Hugo's wide-eyed gaze doesn't seem to take it that way.
"Oh, you mean you're— you're bi?"
"Am I?" Her voice comes out almost pleading. She hates that it's so hard to just say yes, to allow herself to be that. To deserve the name.
"Well, it sounded like that's where you were going with that. I mean, of course it's fine if you are, I just didn't know."
"But it's just something I feel, not... I've never had a..." She swallows before managing to say, "A girlfriend."
Hugo blinks, then shakes his head, confused. "Does that matter? I mean, I'm fairly sure I was still gay before I had a boyfriend."
In the ringing echo of that simply stated truth, the soup arrives.
"Sorry if I was out of line, Mum," Hugo says, trying to catch her eye as she stares into her bowl, stirring the soup morosely. "I didn't mean to tell you what you are or aren't. I just thought that was what you were saying."
"No, you're not out of line," she sighs. She lets her spoon clink down and rubs her forehead, frustrated with herself. "I didn't mean to spring this on you, it's just something that's nagged at me for... a long time, if I'm being honest."
"It's okay," Hugo assures her. "You've always been there for me when I needed to talk. I wasn't always smart enough to listen to you, granted, but..." They share a rueful smile. "...I really don't mind returning the favour. This soup is delicious, by the way. You should actually eat some."
She does, and somehow it makes talking a little easier. At least it gives her something to do in the pauses.
"I think I always liked men and women," she says, which is easier than using the word Hugo used, the one she isn't sure she can ever apply to herself. "I used to think everybody did. I don't know why. But when I found out that wasn't true, I suppose I just tried to convince myself I was completely straight. Because I do like men," she insists, realising as she says it that this is part of why it's hard to say. She's afraid no-one will believe she likes both. "I love your father. It seemed easier to just leave it at that."
"Judging by your face right now, I'm going to guess it wasn't actually easy."
Breathing a bitter laugh, she shakes her head. "No. But I don't know what to do about it."
"I may be biased," Hugo says, pointing at her with his spoon, "but you could come out."
"Isn't it a bit late, at my age?"
Hugo considers. "I thought that too, about myself. I thought I'd wasted a lot of time, like — what if I'd come out earlier? I wouldn't have had to worry about it for so long. Maybe I'd have had a boyfriend in school, or at least not have to wait until I was twenty-four." He says it confidentially, as though twenty-four is embarrassingly old. It makes Hermione feel ancient. "But you can't go back, right? Only forward."
She shakes her head in disbelief. "How is it possible that I have a son old enough to give me sound advice?"
"Well, first you have a kid," he answers, professor-like in his explanation. "Then you manage not to kill him for a couple of decades, and there you are."
The next day is Sunday. She has come to cherish these quiet week-ends since the kids have gone, letting a sunny day float lazily past their living room windows without feeling obligated to Get Out And Do Things. She sits back-to-back on the sofa with Ron, she reading a book, and he the sport section of the newspaper. Peaceful. Comfortable.
In moments like this, it's easy to convince herself she doesn't need to tell him. Everything is perfect — why stir things up now? But then she remembers lying awake again last night, and she knows she's waited too long already, and can't do it to herself one more day.
Can't go back. Only forward.
"I had an interesting conversation with Hugo yesterday," she starts, closing her book around her fingertip.
Ron turns the page of his newspaper. "Oh?"
"It made me realise something about myself. Or rather, made me realise something I should have said."
She can feel his back tense up against hers. He turns round and sets the newspaper aside, feet on the floor.
"What's this about?"
She turns round too; her heart is thundering in her chest, and she knows it must show on her face, much as she is trying to act calm. "It's nothing bad."
Ron gives her that look with his chin dropped nearly to his chest, eyes asking, Really? You're really pulling that on me?
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't make it more of a big deal than it is," she says, painfully aware of how much she's already done that. "All I wanted to say is that..." She finds herself going out of breath, every part of her body on high alert. "...all my life — and I should have told you this earlier — I've been attracted to women." She cringes at how it sounds when it comes out, how paltry and irrelevant.
Ron says nothing at first. He looks blank. Then, a shadow seems to pass behind his eyes: a deep sadness like none she has seen in all the years she's known him.
"So... this is it, then?"
"It?" she echoes, confused.
"You're leaving," Ron says hollowly.
It comes from nowhere, and Hermione is so shocked that she actually gasps aloud. "What? No! No, God, no."
"But you just said..."
"I'm attracted to women and men," she says, still unable to call it anything else. "That's what I meant. I've always been this way, it's just... taken me a long time to work it out." Understatement, she thinks.
"But if you're bringing it up now, after all this time, there must be someone."
She shakes her head. "There isn't anyone. I want you."
"You want me and...?"
His sadness is fading into confusion, frustration. "Then why are you telling me? If you want to stay with me, then why even tell me you're attracted to someone else?"
"I'm not attracted to someone else, I just..." She shuts her eyes for a moment, draws a deep breath. She hates going round in circles like this. "All right, maybe I'm explaining this badly."
He snorts a humourless laugh. "No kidding!"
"Look, if you and I had never met, I would have fallen in love with someone else, right?"
"I suppose," he says, sounding unenthused at the idea.
"All I am saying," she says, each word crisp and sharp-edged, "is that if that had happened, the other person I would have fallen in love with could have been either a man or a woman."
"Have you been in love with a woman before?"
"Then how can you know that you could be?"
Ron's words are neither angry nor cruel, but they cut her to the core and release a flood of doubts like water from a burst dam, coming down on her in a suffocating roar. She can't answer his question because she doesn't know the answer herself. And in that moment she just wants to let him win: to give up and admit she was wrong, and to never talk or think or know about this again.
Her hands are in tight fists, held stiffly in her lap, and tears are sliding down her cheeks. "Why are you making this so difficult?"
"Because I don't understand," he says, and somehow, somewhere in the middle of it, his frustration turns to something far more vulnerable and honest, and by the end of the sentence, his eyes are full of fear. "I don't understand what you want to do."
"I want to be able to tell people." Her voice is breaking, her words coming now from the rawest places of her heart. "Even if I decide not to tell anybody, I want to have the choice. I don't want to feel like I have to hide, or like parts of me don't matter."
He looks at her in astonishment, as though seeing her for the first time. "I don't want you to feel like that either."
"Then I guess we've got some common ground," she says with a dry sob, and then he puts his arms around her, and she puts her arms around him, and they hold each other in their quiet house, with sparrows twittering in the oak tree outside.
The next week-end, Hermione and Hugo turn their lunch date into a walk in Regent's Park. The height of the rose garden is still a few weeks away, so the paths are less crowded and the air less cloyingly sweet. But it's still beautiful.
"You and Dad are like..." Hugo gazes up at the miraculously cloudless sky, and for an instant he looks so exactly like a mixture of herself and Ron that it takes her breath away. "You're opposites in some ways. But sometimes opposites can be a perfect fit."
"There's really no such thing as a perfect relationship," she reminds him, though just now, as they wander among the half-blooming beds, the flower stalks curved achingly towards the sunlight, the idea of perfection feels pleasantly real.
"Oh, I know," Hugo says, in the careless way of a boy who doesn't yet know at all. After a minute, he continues: "I hope me and Sam last for a long time, like you and Dad have. But even if we don't, I'm still glad for what we've got right now."
"That's a good way to look at it." She doesn't want to see her son's first real love become his first real heartbreak, but she'll be there for him when it happens. If it happens — perhaps he'll get it right the first time, after all.
Some people do.
"I'm going to talk to Rose tonight," she says, the flowers reminding her. "I want her to know. Then Harry and Ginny, probably. I wonder if it's the hardest with people you know the best. There's more at stake."
"And they might be embarrassed that they didn't work it out on their own," Hugo points out. "One of my mates had that, bad."
She sighs. "Does it get easier?"
"Oh, yeah. You have to practise a lot, though. Hullo," he says suddenly, and sticks out his hand. "I'm Hugo, and I'm gay."
She lets out a startled laugh, finding herself delighted by this strange and wonderful human being that she and Ron have made. "Hullo," she says, and shakes her son's hand. "I'm Hermione, and I'm, erm... I'm bisexual, I think."
"Nice to meet you," Hugo says with a grin, his eyes shining with pride.