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And They Didn't Live Happily Ever After

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Chapter Twenty-Eight
“Bright Lights, Big Bookstore"

 

Disclaimer: No money is being made from this story, JK Rowling owns all concepts and characters.

 

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Hermione woke to the sound of the Floo in the living room roaring to life at seven in the morning. Groaning, she rolled over and clung tighter to the blankets, burying her head deeper into the bedclothes in order to ignore the fact her husband had returned, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.

 

'The prodigal husband returns.'

 

Hoping she did a good job of pretending to be asleep, she listened to Ron creep into the bedroom, past the bed, and straight to the bathroom. When she heard the taps for the shower turn on, Mrs. Weasley figured since she was up, she might as well be in the kitchen when Ron emerged freshly showered, all evidence of last night's activities rinsed down the drain.

 

Pigwidgeon was waiting on his perch with a note for Hermione from her parents, inviting her and Ron over for Sunday dinner next week. The letter mentioned that they would be welcome to show up anytime after one o'clock, and dinner would be at about five.

 

Opening up the cupboard, Hermione remembered she hadn’t had time the day before to go shopping for food at the farmers’ market. Fortunately, there was enough to make some eggs and toast for breakfast. By the time the eggs were ready, Ron was ambling into the kitchen.

 

"Morning," he greeted his wife perfunctorily.

 

"Morning." The sound of the spatula scrapping the cast iron skillet filled the silence. "Eggs?"

 

"Sure, why not?"

 

Ron grabbed a plate and walked over to the cooker, and stood next to Hermione. She heaped a large pile of scrambled eggs onto his plate and added a few slices of toast, before dishing up her own breakfast. Just then the teakettle whistled.

 

"Tea?" Hermione asked blandly.

 

"Got any coffee?"

 

"No, I need to pick some up."

 

"None for me, then," he declined.

 

Hermione sat down next to her husband, and both began to eat in the same awkward silence that had pervaded their lives for the past week.

 

"I owled my parents about coming to dinner next Sunday. They said to come over at one, dinner at five," she informed Ron.

 

"Oh."

 

Ron ate his eggs without looking at his wife.

 

"Shall I owl them back that we'll be there?" Hermione asked, hoping she wouldn't have to explain to her parents why Ron couldn't come, but hoping he might decline.

 

"Sure."

 

They went back to not speaking; only the sounds of the masticating of food and the sipping of tea could be heard.

 

Once Ron was almost done eating, Hermione mentioned, "I went to Gringotts yesterday." She paused. "I saw quite a bit more money there than I expected. Did you get a pay increase or a bonus?"

 

Ron finally looked at his wife, his face placid and detached. "Yeah, been meaning to tell you that. Coach decided to give me the position of starting Keeper permanently. When the season ends in November, we're going to renegotiate my contract so that I'm paid full salary, plus perks. In the meantime, there is a bit of an increase, plus a bonus for every game we win." There was no enthusiasm with his statement, no joy in relaying the news that he had longed to be able to tell her for years.

 

Hermione smiled weakly at him, mustering as much happiness for him as she could, but found it faltering. "Congratulations, Ron. I guess you were right, you finally made starting Keeper. You just had to hold onto your dream long enough." It was as close to an apology for her years of nagging as it ever was going to get.

 

"Yeah. I guess I was right," he said with what sounded like defeat in his voice. "You can buy yourself some new clothes now. You deserve them," he said with no feeling.

 

"Ginny and I went shopping yesterday. I've been saving money with making my own lunches and scrimped enough for a new robe." She ended the sentence on an up note, trying to sound cheerful, but failing miserably. "Ginny wanted to buy me an early birthday present, so she bought me another one," Hermione finished, her tone more quiet and reserved.

 

"Oh." Ron looked neither pleased nor displeased.

 

Ron picked up his dish and took it to the sink. He almost placed it in the sink to be washed later, then stopped. Reaching for the dish soap, he washed his plate and set it on the drainboard to dry.

 

As he was walking out the kitchen, Hermione whispered, "Thanks."

 

He stopped dead in his tracks as she spoke her gratitude. Without looking at her, he nodded his head and then continued walking out of the kitchen.

 

Hermione wasn't sure why she thanked him. It could have been for the simple gesture of washing his plate; it could have been for agreeing to dinner at her parents. Maybe it was the fact that it was the most civil conversation they'd had in a while and Ron didn't start fighting with her again. Whatever the reason, it still took all of her strength to say it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Severus dragged his arse out of bed sometime after lunch. He had spent most of the night writing out his report on the latest round of testing he and Draco had conducted from their day at the spa. He did not come home until the sky was lightening with delicate pre-dawn hues of periwinkle, cornflower blue and palest orchid. Draco still needed to get back to him on some things, and Severus always waited forty-eight hours before turning in his final report to Miss Brown, changing it when necessary if Mr. Malfoy had any delayed allergic reactions to the formulas. Mr. Malfoy would be turning in his own report to Severus to add to the final scroll on Monday morning.

 

As the Potions master stumbled into his bathroom, he stared at his reflection with bleary eyes. Dark stubble mottled his complexion. "You're not twenty-one years old, Severus," he said to himself before scrubbing his face and eyes with his hands in an attempt to clear the last of the sleep from his mind. "Hell, you're not even thirty-five years old anymore," Severus added more somberly.

 

During the second rise of the Dark Lord, Severus had been required to not only teach, but to spy for both his former master and the Headmaster. There were days that went on for more than twenty-four hours. The Hogwarts Potions master would teach classes all day long, correct papers, and supervise detentions, only to be called by his former dark master to some gathering of his "loyal" followers at night. By the time Crucios had been dished out, orders given, hems of robes kissed, and everyone had genuflected in reverence, it was time to go complete their missions of terror and thuggery. They would go all night, and Severus would drag himself back to Hogwarts before dawn with just enough time to clean up and make it to breakfast, only to start his day once again. There were some weeks where Severus lived on nothing but Pepperup Potion and Invigoration Draughts.

 

While wearing his Death Eater robes, Severus would do as little as possible yet still doing his best to appear as a faithful servant and enforcer of Voldemort's rule. Most of this was accomplished by doing nothing more than standing around while others did the dirty work, as he handed out a snide remark here and there. There were things he did do when his fellow Death Eaters were not watching, like placing a Portkey in the hands of an unseen cowering child, and placing a Disillusionment Charm on the unconscious form of an injured Muggle-born so they would be passed over and ignored until the attackers were gone and the Aurors arrived. They were little things that could never be traced back to him nor seen by the others.

 

Still, it had given him some self-satisfied warmth to know he saved some lives out there, even though they would never know it was Severus Snape. Those that were conscious would no doubt still be wondering why they had received a momentary bit of mercy from some tall dark figure in a black robe who had struck fear in their hearts. The Aurors never recorded any of this; while they did not know the identity of this softhearted Death Eater, they knew there could be Ministry informers reading their reports.

 

Splashing some cold water on his face helped revive Severus a little this morning. He just didn't have the stamina of staying up all night long anymore. He didn't need to do it anymore, and his body let him know just how displeased it was being denied a good night's rest in a soft warm bed, or at least taken off his comfortable schedule.

 

Still growling a little to himself as he tried to wake up, Severus shuffled into the kitchen for a cup of tea and some toast, his hand still rubbing his face and scratching at his facial growth. A lone hank of hair defied gravity and stood up at an odd angle.

 

As he plopped down into his chair at the table, he mumbled to himself, "Why did you have to spend all night working when it could have waited until today or tomorrow?"

 

The wizard knew exactly why he spent most of the night at Lovely Lavender’s, working industriously until the break of dawn. It kept his mind busy and away from thoughts that rattled him to the core.

 

"I am not falling for her," he grumbled into his tea. "I refuse to fall for my own lies."

 

At that moment, Severus' subconscious mind wondered what Albus and Minerva would have said, if they were still alive to visit him.

 

'My, my. Look who decided to join the land of the living,' Minerva castigated Severus crisply.

 

"You should talk, Minerva. Don't you have a ghost mouse to go chase or something? Don't choke on the tail," the bedraggled wizard muttered at the apparition of Minerva sitting across the table.

 

'Severus, my dear boy, we are just concerned. You look rather tired,' the transparent Headmaster observed.

 

"I should be, after staying up all night," Severus retorted.

 

'And just why were you up all night long?' Albus prodded him further.

 

Severus growled into his tea and glared at his old mentor sitting next to him. "You're in my head. You obviously know the reason why."

 

'Yes, yes. I tend to agree with young Malfoy on this one. I think you are becoming rather attached to Hermione.' Albus straightened himself in his chair and popped some unknown confection into his mouth.

 

"That's just conjecture. I think you are just believing the rather convincing front I am projecting."

 

'That may be, but even with the rather kind and flattering things you say to Hermione during her visits, are they not liberally infused with truth?' the white-haired vision pointed out. 'Truth that you trust her, that you are glad to see her and enjoy your talks?'

 

Severus put his head down on the table and wrapped his arms around his head in partial defeat.

 

'Hermione rather reminds me of Gabrielle,' Minerva noted.

 

Leaping up out of his chair with a sudden rush of adrenaline, Severus roared, "DON'T YOU DARE EVER SPEAK HER NAME!" The infuriated wizard grabbed his mug of tea and smashed it against the wall. The visions of Albus and Minerva winced ever so slightly. He placed his hands on either side of his head and shut his eyes, willing the visions of Albus and Minerva to disappear and the conversation to end. "HERMIONE IS NOT HER! HERMIONE COULD NEVER REPLACE HER!" he screamed. Overwrought, he slumped back into his chair and willed himself not to cry. "I will not cry, I will not cry, I am dead inside, I cannot allow another inside my heart ever again. Never, never…" he ground out, talking to himself, his eyes still shut tight.

 

'We are not saying Hermione ever could replace your wife,' Minerva amended, rising to place a gentle translucent hand upon Severus’ back as he gazed blankly at the wet tea stains dripping down the wall. 'What Albus and I are suggesting it that it is time for you to move on and accept the fact that you have atoned for her and your unborn child's death.'

 

Severus gritted his teeth, feeling the tears come against his will.

 

'Perhaps it is time for you to allow yourself to feel once more, Severus. There is nothing weak about feeling strongly for someone,' she added.

 

"No, I will not. There is no point," the raven-haired man said with resignation, blinking back the tears. "She is married to that Weasley boy. When I leave, she will remain here with her oaf of a husband while I seek out a new life, free of this tyranny that I am subjugated under. Maybe in several years’ time when I no longer feel the sting of their death and the guilt it brings, even after all these years, then maybe I will think about letting another witch into my life, but I will not love her. I cannot love again. It broke me once to have it taken from me in such a way, I don’t think I could stand losing another."

 

'Maybe Hermione is the one to let you feel again. It has been years, Severus,' Albus reminded the Slytherin wizard. 'There is no dark wizard anymore to take the ones we love away from us. Everyone is safe now, in no small part due to all the sacrifices you made. Perhaps you deserve the reward of someone in your life, even if it is for a short while. It may not be love, but I think she is willing to offer you friendship.'

 

"And where will the friendship end? It is often under the guise of friendship that we slip so easily and unnoticed into love," the weary younger wizard reflected aloud.

 

'Yes, but even you have admitted, Severus, that you were not in love with your wife. But you did love her,' the vision of Dumbledore remarked.

 

"I could have fallen in love with Gabrielle, given enough time." Severus sniffed and pretended not to notice the few tears that escaped.

 

'Don't deny what your heart wants, Severus. You may not have the luxury of time to enjoy it with Hermione, but you didn't have the luxury of time in the end with your wife either. Seize the chance, and let your heart do what it will. Remember that love is the most powerful thing in the universe. There is no regret in the experience of love, only when we deny ourselves the ability to love,' the wise memory of Albus sagely told him.

 

"And when love is used as a weapon against us? What then?" Severus asked, feeling the long forgotten physical pang of weighty regret in his chest. "We have a choice between two roads, both leading to hell. I've taken one path before. If Moody or Fudge discovers anything, it could be just like facing The Dark Lord and Lucius all over again, only this time Hermione would be caught in the middle."

 

The apparition of Minerva moved back to her seat across from Severus. 'You're quite a bit older now, Severus. You are very careful, and we have the greatest faith that it will all come out well in the end and no one will get hurt. Do you forget that Ginny and Lavender are there to help you and Draco as well? What of them? Are you not concerned that they will be used against you and Draco?'

 

"Ginny is coming with us, and Lavender is quite cunning herself. No doubt she will not get caught, and if she does, she has a way out," the living wizard rationalized.

 

'Severus, you have planned it so that Hermione will not be placed in harm's way, especially if the Ministry pieces together how you will get away. So don't let any unfounded fears and old scars stop you from allowing yourself to enjoy your friendship with Hermione,' the old Gryffindor witch assured Severus.

 

"Please," Severus pleaded. "Can we just drop the subject? I am not falling in love with Hermione. I never will," he insisted. But somehow a part of his heart was already falling for her against his will.

 

Hermione did remind him of his wife in some ways. It was Hermione's curious brown eyes on that first day in class during her first year that evoked old memories of his wife. They both had that same insatiable quest for knowledge, and that damned belief that all the answers to life could be found in a book. It was this certain air of righteous know-it-all common sense that had made his wife Gabrielle think she could start talking to the other Death Eater wives, trying to convince them to talk to their husbands about the fallacies of pure-blood propaganda. It was this attitude about proof and knowledge, with no regard to how the blindly zealous mind worked, that led to her death. Logic and fact did not always conquer socialized prejudice and ingrained hate.

 

There were no dark wizards now out there who would kill Hermione based on her beliefs, but forces were already affecting her life. Calpurnia Fudge was one. One witch held Hermione's present and future in her hands, and though she was not killing Hermione, she was, in a sense, destroying her spirit by keeping Hermione's hopes and aspirations squashed.

 

Severus was even more exhausted now than when he woke up. It was with greater frequency that his mind kept drifting back to Gabrielle. The last time he felt this strongly towards another witch, she had been his wife. Some selfish part of Severus wanted to allow himself the luxury of letting himself wallow in the warm and fuzzy feelings of a growing friendship with Hermione. But the logical part of Severus' mind wanted to allow it to go no further, knowing there would be pieces to pick up afterwards once he left England and she was finally gone from his life.

 

The selfish little boy inside of him that cried for affection demanded that the adult Severus let him have this one thing, if anything, to keep him happy with good memories of warmth and tenderness he had been denied for years. The adult part of Severus did not want to stop the friendship that was blooming between Hermione and him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Hermione had just put the clothes into the laundry cauldron in the kitchen and was letting them soak before going back to wash and spot-treat them. As she passed through the living room to the bedroom to fetch her lingerie for hand-washing in the sink, Ron cleared his throat.

 

"Um… I was thinking… that… maybe…" Ron began, trying to find the right words to break the awkwardness between them. He set his Quidditch magazine down and rose from the couch to walk over towards his wife. "Well, maybe we need a little romance in our lives. That with the war and all, we never… erm… had a chance to really date and such, like most girls want to be… you know… taken out to nice places… and..."

 

Ron let out a huge breath through puckered lips and ran his hand through his rangy red locks, his eyes darted about nervously, never fixing themselves on Hermione. "What I mean to say is, maybe we should try a little harder… the both of us. Maybe go on some dates and things, to… erm… God! I had this all worked out in my head and now I can't get it out!" he shouted with exasperation at the floor.

 

Ron started pacing about as he continued while Hermione stood rooted to the spot, unable to respond to her husband's sudden nervousness and desire to work things out.

 

"I made a reservation for our anniversary next month at the Grand Royal Supper Club," he blurted out.

 

Ron finally looked into his wife's eyes and waited for her response.

 

Hermione stood there dumbstruck. For as long as she could remember, she took care of all the arrangements when they went out for special occasions or anniversaries, even her own birthday. And now Ron, who had been rather cold towards her during the past week, had made plans for their anniversary that she hadn't even begun to think about. His hopeful and nervous eyes were searching for signs of gratitude or something she couldn't name.

 

Knowing she was expected to respond and say something, Hermione stammered, "Ah… thanks!" She swallowed. "That was very thoughtful of you," she added with uncertainty. There was a pause before she remembered she should probably smile back at her husband for such a considerate gesture.

 

'Wow, the Grand Royal Supper Club?' Hermione thought to herself.

 

The Grand Royal Supper Club was a very posh and elegant dinner and dancing establishment, with a reputation for entertaining the well-heeled and well-financed slice of wizarding society.

 

Upon realizing that dancing was a feature of the supper club, Hermione meekly asked, whilst hoping Ron wouldn't find offense, "Erm… don't they have dancing there?"

 

She remembered how Ron had avoided dancing at the Hogwarts Yule Ball and how he only did the requisite first dance with her at their wedding, including stepping on her toes and dropping her when he dipped her. Hermione wondered if they would be sitting the whole evening at the Grand Royal, or if she could hope that her husband would dance with her… willingly.

 

Ron licked his lips before answering evasively, "Well, um, I kind of... have been taking lessons recently. Rufus' wife has been teaching me a few steps recently."

 

"Oh." Hermione smiled to herself. 'He's making an effort. Maybe there is hope.' "What sort of dancing do they have?" she asked. The witch had heard of the club by reputation and word of mouth, but she didn’t personally know anyone that had gone there.

 

"Foxtrot, swing and tango… or so they told me when I made the reservation," Ron admitted, trying to sound casual about it.

 

"Oh." Hermione sought to find something to say to fill the uncomfortable silence. "How was it that you were able to get a reservation? I've heard it's hard to get in."

 

Ron gave her a quirky smile. "Being a rising Quidditch star has afforded me a few perks beyond a few extra Galleons. Speaking of which, you should buy something really nice for yourself to wear, something special and breathtaking. Don't worry about the price, you deserve a nice fancy dress. You can even wear it at the next Ministry ball, if you're worried about not being able to wear it anyplace else."

 

Hermione felt only a little guilty for having bought herself a new robe, but the thought of buying something so frivolous as an evening dress that she could only wear but a few times a year made her feel uneasy. Still, Ron wanted to spoil her a little, and she couldn’t help but feel a little happy that he was trying so hard to make up for the past. Besides, she was tired of wearing the sensible and dowdy dress she had worn for the past two years at the Ministry functions, while most of the other witches wore something much more feminine and alluring.

 

"Thank you," she breathed. "Ginny will love any excuse to take me shopping again."

 

Ron smiled at the mention of his sister. "Yeah, I'm sure Ginny and you will have fun."

 

There seemed to be nothing else for them to talk about, and they both stood there shifting from one foot to another. To Hermione's relief, the buzzer in the kitchen went off.

 

"Oh! That's the laundry, I'd better get it," the witch said, thankful for an excuse to find a reason to walk away from the tense and uncomfortable conversation. Before she walked away, Hermione stood up onto her tiptoes and gave her husband a brief kiss on the cheek. "Thanks," she whispered.

 

"Yeah," Ron breathed in response, before walking back to the couch and his Quidditch magazine.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

All the laundry had been hung and dried, and pressing charms had been cast. Hermione had just finished putting all the clothes away with a modified packing charm. It wasn't time to start dinner yet, and she dreaded the thought of sitting in the living room with Ron. Yes, his effort to do something romantic regarding their anniversary next month was quite welcome, but it still didn't dissipate the uneasy and clumsy atmosphere between them.

 

The few cumbersome conversations they did have that day were painful and forced. As Hermione was sitting on the bed, she wondered what she could do to continue avoiding Ron the rest of the day until dinnertime, when they could both dine in silence, using the excuse of eating to be relieved of talking.

 

The sound of the Floo in the living room roared to life.

 

"Hermione?" Ginny's voice could be heard all the way to the bedroom.

 

Upon hearing Ron's sister, Hermione rushed out to the living room. "I'm right here," she called out in response as she entered the room.

 

"Oh good, you're here." Ginny's head turned to look over Hermione's shoulder. "Hi, Ron!" she said cheerfully.

 

"'Ay there, Gin," Ron greeted his sister with a jerk of his head from the kitchen doorway.

 

"Mind if I borrow your wife for a bit? I need her help planning Harry's birthday party," the red-headed witch explained, giving Hermione an exaggeratedly comical wink.

 

"Sure. Give Harry my best. Tell him to owl me any time he wants to get tickets to a game."

 

"Will do, Ron," Ginny answered as her brother went back into the kitchen.

 

"You want me to come over," Hermione asked, hopeful for any reason to get out of the flat.

 

"We can talk over the Floo if it's too much bother, or if you're in the middle of something," Ginny said, not wishing to impose on her friend.

 

"No," Hermione replied a bit hastily. "No bother. Just let me get my cloak, and I'll pop on over in a tick."

 

"See you then," Ginny replied before the flames died out.

 

Hermione bolted for the bedroom to get her cloak, calling out to Ron, "I'm going over for a bit. I'll be back later."

 

Hearing some sort of acknowledgment from her husband, who was still lingering in the kitchen, she grabbed a cloak and Apparated to the Potters’ from the bedroom.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Once she was at Number Twelve Grimmauld Place, Hermione let out a huge sigh of relief. The oppressive tension at home was finally gone, and she could relax.

 

Ginny walked through the kitchen door and greeted her friend. "Well, that was quick," she commented while wiping her wet hands on a tea towel.

 

"Is Harry home?" Hermione asked, looking about.

 

"He's out for a bit, running a few errands. He probably won't be back until close to dinnertime, knowing him," Ginny said with a carefree shrug.

 

"Omph!" Hermione groaned, as she plopped into a chair. "I'm so glad you Flooed. I don't think I could have stood another minute in that flat with him."

 

"That good, eh?" Ginny looked at her with raised eyebrows.

 

"Well…" Hermione paused to gather her thoughts. "At least he wasn't being snide this morning." She sighed and rubbed her eyes a few times. "My parents owled back to come over next Sunday for dinner, and Ron agreed."

 

"Well, that's good," Ginny remarked hopefully.

 

"Yes, but it was incredibly awkward and tense when I mentioned it over breakfast. Then later on Ron tells me he made reservations at the Grand Royal Supper Club for our anniversary," the older witch said with little enthusiasm.

 

"Oh! He got you a reservation? Jammy cow!" Ginny squealed. "I've been wanting to go, but Harry doesn't want to go because there's dancing. You know how Harry is when it comes to dancing," she said with envy. "Wait a minute… Ron doesn't dance."

 

"I know," Hermione muttered darkly. "But he says Rufus' wife, Rogina, is giving him lessons. I just hope she teaches him not to step on my toes again. I swear, after my wedding I promised myself I'd never wear sandals again."

 

"Ron wants to dance?" Ginny questioned, disbelieving Hermione's statement.

 

"He made the reservation, so he must want to… make amends, or something. He said with the war and everything, we never got a chance to date properly and he never got to take me out much and romance me, in so many words." Hermione shrugged at the notion, but her brow furrowed as she continued. "Maybe this is the turning point in our relationship where things start to get better. Still, it was just very uncomfortable for both of us. I just couldn't wait to get out of there, and then you Flooed."

 

Ginny rubbed Hermione's shoulder in a sympathetic manner. "I know, it's rough," the younger witch said, sounding a lot like Hermione's mother. "These hurt feelings and awkwardness will take time to get over. But he is trying."

 

Hermione nodded, lost in thought.

 

"How about I get us some tea before we start on Harry's party?" the redhead offered.

 

"That would be lovely." The brunette smiled at her friend's considerate gesture.

 

As Ginny was in the kitchen making a fresh pot of tea, Hermione's thoughts went back to dancing. It really was sweet that Ron was making an effort to patch things up, taking dancing lessons and making the reservations. Then she thought on Ginny and her little confession about her secret belly dancing lessons. Hermione had wondered during the past day why Ginny had brought it up and told her. She had felt almost obligated to share some secret of her own in return for the information. Why did Ginny tell Hermione? It was as if Hermione was this great vessel of secrets, and for each one she took, she almost felt the need to share one of her own.

 

The few secrets Mrs. Weasley did have, she kept locked up and hidden in her "escape box." Not even Harry or Ron knew about her special box, nor would they ever. Dark Wizards rose and fell throughout history, and – knowing the long life span of wizards – Hermione figured it would be best to keep this one secret to herself. The only other secret Hermione had was Calleo. Lavender knew about Hermione's visits with him, but Lavender could also be counted on to be discreet. Ginny would be discreet too, but Hermione doubted Ron’s sister would look kindly upon her sister-in-law seeing such a man behind her brother's back.

 

'Dancing… Ron wants to take me dancing.' It seemed so out of character for Ron. Then the thought struck her. 'Oh, bugger!' Hermione remembered how to waltz from some lessons years ago for the Yule Ball, but she had forgotten how to do the Foxtrot. And she had never learned how to dance swing or do the tango.

 

Hermione audibly groaned, putting her hands in her face just as Ginny returned from the kitchen.

 

"What's the matter this time?" Ginny asked lightly as she set the tea tray down.

 

"I don't know how to dance," came Hermione's anguished reply through her fingers.

 

"You know how to dance."

 

"The waltz." The older witch glared at Ginny, making a point that it was the only dance she remembered.

 

Ginny gave a rather small "Oh" in reply, looking a bit sheepish.

 

"Do you know how to foxtrot, swing or tango?" Hermione asked, looking pleadingly to her friend.

 

"Sorry, I'm a bit rusty." Then she added brightly, "But I can show you how to roll a Galleon along your stomach if you want to learn how to belly dance."

 

Hermione rolled her eyes. "No, I don't think that would go over very well at the Grand Royal Supper Club. However, that might go over very well at Harry's party though," she added on a side note with a sly smirk.

 

The younger witch folded her arms and resolutely said, "No."

 

"Aw, come on. Why not?"

 

"Because it doesn't fit in with the cowboys-and-Indians theme Harry wants for his party," Ginny reasoned. "That's why I need your help. You're Muggle-born, and your parents went to America for a while during the war. Can you help me get together a cowboys-and-Indians themed party together? We're going to do it as a sleepover with tipis in the garden. There'll be barbecue and… and… what else do cowboys eat? I was thinking of roasting half a side of buffalo in the garden on a spit. And what exactly is barbecue?"

 

"You can eat buffalo?" Hermione asked, stunned at the thought of half a ton of wild animal roasting in Harry and Ginny's back yard.

 

"Sure! You can order up to a whole side of one from Abattoir and Haunches. Considering the fact that we might have up to seventy-five people, we might need all that meat." Ginny poured some tea for Hermione and handed it to her with a splash of cream. "So I was thinking you could help me. We could go to a Muggle bookstore. I could buy a few books on cowboy-type food, Indian décor, and things like that. Do you think you could owl your parents about what they could suggest, as they actually were in America?"

 

"Well, I'll be seeing them next Sunday," Hermione replied. "Is that soon enough?"

 

"I guess so. I should be able to work out any charms in time for the party and buy whatever I need. You think we could go to a bookstore today? It'll give me some time to get some ideas." Ginny looked at Hermione expectantly, hoping she'd say yes.

 

It had been quite a while since Hermione had ventured into Muggle London, but she did know of a couple of bookstores that were fairly large and might carry what Ginny wanted.

 

"I don't see why not. You're going to need some Muggle money," Hermione pointed out.

 

"At least the goblins at Gringotts work on Sunday," the younger witch said. "I should have exchanged some yesterday while we were there."

 

"We should get going, as the stores tend to close early on Sunday," Hermione noted.

 

After finishing their tea, both witches Flooed over to the Leaky Cauldron. Once money had been changed, they set out into Muggle London.

 

As they stepped out into the afternoon air, Hermione breathed deeply and looked around. Since the end of the war, she had been venturing with less frequency into Muggle London, sequestering herself within the secret culture of the wizarding world. A few people seemed to be talking to themselves, until Hermione realized they were talking on their mobile phones, which had special tiny ear and mouthpieces connected to their equally tiny phones. She never remembered mobile phones being so minuscule.

 

Posters for movies with actors she no longer recognized were plastered on walls, and the clothing that young people her age were wearing seemed almost as odd as wizard clothing did when she had first ventured down Diagon Alley as a child. It almost shocked her to see girls wearing jeans so low that the cracks of their arses could be plainly seen. They reminded her of photographs of her mother as a university student in the early seventies, wearing low-slung bell bottoms and peasant shirts while holding up her hand in a peace symbol. But these current pants were studded with rhinestones, and the sheer peasant blouses were so see-though that you could tell what color bras they were wearing, or that they had tank tops on that didn't bother to come halfway down their stomachs. Hermione shook her head at the latest fashion trends, especially when she had a clear view of some bird's arse crack.

 

It seemed like the Muggle world was changing so rapidly to Hermione. New gadgets that she had no clue of what they did were in people's hands, and cars that drove by looked more like something out of a science fiction fantasy movie than what she had ridden in as a child. Music blared from shops they passed by with a style of music Hermione could find no melody to, and lyrics that seemed to be shouted rather than sung. The glare of fluorescent lights inside the stores looked harsh and made everyone's skin look green and pasty.

 

Hermione's feet kept moving and she kept up the light banter with Ginny, but all the while she was stunned at how the Muggle world suddenly seemed so foreign and strange to her now.

 

'Is this what the Muggle world looks like to those who are not Muggle-born?' she pondered. 'All plastic and loud, glaring and strange?'

 

She was brought back from her reverie when they reached a large multi-storied bookstore on a busy street.

 

"My word," Ginny breathed. "You could fit twenty Flourish & Blotts stores in here," she remarked with awe.

 

Looking about the store, Mrs. Weasley remembered weekends when her parents would bring her to the local mega-bookstore as a child, and she would spend the entire day browsing books, begging her parents to buy all the ones that caught her interest. Though her parents were never one to deny her books, they did set a limit to the number they would buy her each visit.

 

Hermione steered Ginny over towards the cookbook section in order to find some authentic western barbecue books, while the older witch went in search for books about Indians.

 

As the brunette witch meandered through the isles, reverently running her fingertips lightly along the glossy spines, a voice brought her back to the present. "May I help you? Do you need any help finding anything?" Hermione's head snapped to look at the young man standing behind her.

 

He was a tall fellow with a willowy frame, overly pale skin, dull and brittle hair dyed black within an inch of its life, and black-painted fingernails. He wore the requisite store uniform with a friendly name badge, but the bright primary color shirt and neatly pressed pants looked mismatched to the young man's appearance and several facial piercings.

 

"Erm, yes. I'm looking for books on cowboys and red Indians. Actually, something along the line of red Indian decorative arts," Hermione clarified, trying not to stare at a row of alternating rings and spikes protruding from the young man's brow. 'I had no idea you could even pierce that part of the body.'

 

"Ah. Well, actually, they don't like to call themselves Indians. It's ‘Native Americans.’ This way." The store clerk showed Hermione to a bookshelf full of Native and Folk arts books from different regions of the world.

 

Hermione did her best not to be startled by the flash of metal from the clerk's tongue piercing.

 

After an hour or so, Hermione had a few books that depicted Native American arts and crafts, along with an encyclopedia of tribes that she had found in the culture section. She set out to find Ginny and see if she was ready to go to the checkout. Hermione really didn't want to go, but she knew if she started looking at books for herself, she wouldn't be home in time to cook dinner for Ron; if he was hungry enough, she might come home to find him eating the couch.

 

As she passed the mythology section, Hermione heard a familiar laugh, followed by some sniggering and a cackle. Peering down the aisle, Hermione found Ginny on the floor with a few books, turning a page before busting into stifled giggles once more.

 

"What's so funny?" the older witch asked, walking up to Ginny.

 

Ginny looked up and burst into a fresh batch of tittering. After she thumbed back a few pages, she held up an illustration for Hermione to scrutinize. "Who does that look like?" the redhead asked, trying not to burst into laughter once more.

 

Plucking the book from Ginny's hand, Hermione looked at it closer. It was a picture of a very beautiful male youth with fine platinum blond hair that fell down to his waist, and angular refined facial features. He was dressed in a pair of tights, a bejeweled tunic, and soft leather boots, while holding a bow and quiver of arrow standing amid an enchanted forest. It was upon second glance that Hermione noticed the pointed ears.

 

Ginny spoke up. "Muggles think that looks like an elf?" She started laughing harder, having a difficult time talking at the same time. "Oh, just wait. I have to buy this book. He'll be mortified to know he looks like what Muggles think passes as an elf."

 

The so-called elf looked exactly like Malfoy, except for the ears. Upon realization, Hermione found it quite funny herself and started laughing until the implications of Ginny's statement sank in.

 

She stopped laughing and asked Ginny in a serious tone, "You're still seeing Malfoy?"

 

The laughter died on Ginny's lips.

 

Hermione swore under her breath at her uncensored question. The two witches had been having such a lovely afternoon, and now it would be marred with talk of Malfoy and Ginny's infidelity.

 

Jutting her chin up challengingly, the younger witch said, "So what if I am?"

 

Squinting her eyes shut, Hermione hoped their argument would not get loud in such a public venue. After taking a few calming breaths, Hermione slid down next to Ginny and looked at her square in the eye.

 

"What about counseling? I know it's rough right now, but you yourself said these hurt feelings and awkwardness take time to get over," Hermione pointed out. "Don't you want this to work between you and Harry? How can you be serious about this when you're still seeing Malfoy?"

 

"You just don't understand," Ginny declared in her own defense. Meeting Hermione's eyes, she spoke slowly. "Draco is the friend that Harry never could be to me. Just because I'm married to Harry doesn't mean he understands me. There is a connection between Draco and me that defies logic. It cannot be willingly severed because it is inconvenient. He's a part of me, but I guess you wouldn't understand that, would you?"

 

Hermione looked away from Ginny's gaze. She had been having just these sorts of feeling towards Calleo recently. The connection between them was undeniable, not only physically, but also intellectually. It was with Calleo that she had first confessed her hesitant thoughts about marrying Ron, and her agreement to be his wife out of fear of living as a lonely spinster. All things large and small that she was too afraid of sharing with Ginny and Harry out of fearing their judgment, she had shared with Calleo. And last night while at the Three Broomsticks, she had no desire to express her thoughts on the play with Ron at all, but rather wished Calleo were with her in order to discuss the play. Lately, whenever anything interesting, upsetting or humorous happened in Hermione's life, she wondered what Calleo would say. Mrs. Weasley felt no urge to share with her husband, as Ron had shown little interest in anything his wife had to say for quite some time.

 

Forcing herself to lie, the older witch replied, "No." Hermione started nervously playing with the small scar on her left hand, fixing her gaze of the smooth raised ridge of mended flesh that puckered around the edges. "But I do see your point," she conceded. "I just wish you weren't seeing…" Hermione stood up and looked around before casting a quick Silencing Charm and sitting back down. You never knew when another witch or wizard might be around. "I just wish you weren't seeing Malfoy."

 

Ginny glared at Hermione with accusing eyes, and the brunette felt as if she was being laid bare with her friend's stare. Hermione didn't know why she should feel guilty with the way Ginny was looking at her, as if she knew her visits with Calleo. She knew Calleo would never breech their confidence by telling Draco about her visits to him. There was no way for Ginny to know anything, but it still didn't stop the unsettling feeling in her gut that she was being hypocritical. If somehow Ginny did find out about her visits to Calleo, would Hermione stop seeing him if her friend asked? She doubted it.

 

They sat there for a moment before Ginny rose, picking up all the books she had selected, including the Muggle mythology one with the pictures of fair and comely elves.

 

"I'm ready to pay for these," Mrs. Potter announced in a chilly tone.

 

Hermione followed with the short stack of books she had selected for her friend. Once bought and bagged, the two witches walked quickly back to the Leaky Cauldron, their footsteps and the sounds of the city replaced by any conversation they might have had if Hermione hadn't confronted Ginny.

 

Once inside the Leaky Cauldron, each witch Flooed back to their respective homes after tentatively agreeing to meet for their usual Wednesday lunch.