Hermione gingerly lowered herself into the bath. The water was so hot it felt almost cold against her skin, but she hardly noticed the tell-tale prickling. She just wanted to deaden the emptiness she felt inside.
The flesh on her lower abdomen was loose and saggy. A mediwitch had attempted to tone it up, to restore her belly to its pre-pregnancy tautness, but Hermione had snatched the wand from the woman's hand before she'd finished the spell and nearly snapped it. "Leave it," she'd said.
She ached all over, though the worst of it was between her legs, her breasts, and her lower back. For such a tiny thing brought forth after such an abbreviated labor, her daughter hadn't been painless to deliver. First the Healers had given Hermione a potion to arrest the contractions, then, when it quickly became obvious the labor was too far gone, they gave her another potion to accelerate delivery in the hopes of rescuing the baby as soon as she made her appearance. Yet Hermione had known long before then that it was hopeless. As illogical as it seemed, she'd known from the moment the first contraction hit that something was terribly wrong.
After nearly twelve years of trying and nearly seven months of pure bliss, all she had to show for it was a string of failures, a tender perineum, a sagging belly and a feeling of emptiness she knew could never be filled.
She thought she'd cried herself out last night, after Ron had left and the Healer had examined her still distended, empty uterus one last time. Clearly she hadn't, for fresh tears spilled out of her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
"Hermione?" came Ron's worried voice from the other side of the closed door. "Are you okay?" The door rattled in its frame and the knob creaked as he tried to turn it. "Hermione, open the door, please."
His concern only made the tears flow more freely, but she managed to pick up her wand and unlock the door with a nonverbal command. Though she knew her naked body was nothing new to him, the loose folds across her abdomen made her feel self-conscious, so she pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tightly.
"I'm all right," she said as she wiped a hand across her cheeks and sniffled.
He lowered the toilet lid and sat down to study her. "Bollocks."
She smiled in spite of herself. "Language," she chided him gently.
He pursed his lips and she tensed, waiting for his smart retort, but he surprised her by blowing his breath out with a great heave of his shoulders. He then knelt on the floor beside the bath, picked up the washcloth she'd draped over the edge, and began to soap her shoulders in large circles. She realized how tightly knotted the muscles in her neck and back must be as his touch, tender at first, grew more firm, and closed her eyes and tried to relax.
Unfortunately, behind the curtain of her closed eyelids her overactive brain assaulted her thoughts with images of her dead child, perfectly formed, yet so tiny, so blue, and so cold. When the mediwitch had handed over the still form, carefully swaddled in a blanket, Hermione had instinctively brought it up to her breast. Only at the last second had she remembered that this child could no longer take nourishment from her.
The dam burst with a gush of sobs. Ron, heedless of the water that drenched his shirt and trousers, scooped her up in his strong, capable arms and held her tightly, his deep voice crooning words of comfort as he carried her away.
* * * * *
When Hermione awoke she found herself snugly bundled in their bed and twilight sifting in through the curtains. She vaguely remembered Ron drying her off and dressing her in knickers and a nightdress made whisper-soft by years of washings before tucking her in. He'd lain beside her for a while, his arm pulling her against him as she shuddered and sobbed while his fingers worked through the knots in her hair. As wakefulness descended upon her, however, she realized that he'd been gone for a while; his side of the bed was cool and unmussed.
She rolled over with a groan. On top of the aches and tenderness left over from yesterday's ordeal, she also had a terrible headache from crying herself to sleep. Ron seemed to have anticipated this however, for he had left a glass of water and two tablets of Igraine's Migraine Malady Cure on the bedside table. As she sat up to take the medicine, Hermione saw that he had also slipped a note under the glass.
Got called in to work. Shouldn't be gone long. Don't exert yourself.
Hermione tossed the tablets to the back of her throat and washed them down with several swallows of water, grimacing at the taste of boiled cabbage the pills had been laced with, and then pulled on her dressing gown. As she made her way downstairs, she found it necessary to grip the banister rail tightly, because her headache made her dizzy and also because she was still weak. Walking downstairs pulled her aggrieved muscles in directions they'd rather not go.
A light had been left on in the kitchen. Under the faint glow of a Warming Charm sat a plate of food and, beside it, another note:
Mum sent over an owl with a couple of pot pies to tide us over for the next few days. There's more in the fridge if you want it. I'll be home soon as I can.
Although food was the last thing on her mind, Hermione knew Ron would fuss if he came home and found it uneaten, so she removed the Warming Charm and sat down to eat a few half-hearted bites. She was just about to Banish the rest to the rubbish bin when she heard the roar of flames in the hearth.
"Hello? Is anyone there?"
She didn't recognize the voice right away. Curious to see who was calling at this hour, she knotted the sash of her dressing gown and went into the sitting room.
The head of Anthony Goldstein, one of her law partners, sat surrounded by flames in her fireplace. "Hermione!" he exclaimed when he saw her. "I didn't expect to see you up. I hope I haven't disturbed you."
"Not at all," she said as she gingerly sat on the settee. "Is something the matter?"
"D'you mind if I come in?" he asked. "Seeing as you're up and about, I have something for you."
"Of course," she said, her curiosity mounting.
His head disappeared momentarily, only to be replaced by all of him as he stepped out of the fireplace and into her sitting room. He had a large bouquet of flowers in one hand and an accordion file in the other. "Terribly sorry to disturb you like this," he said, handing her the bouquet. "They're from me and Dad. I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Thank you," she said, using the motion of turning to set them on the table behind the settee to school her features to hide her whirling emotions. She hoped he didn't notice her wince or hear her sharp gasp as the movement pulled at her muscles. "Tell Reuben thank you as well. Now, what's so urgent you're willing to risk Ron's wrath?"
He pulled a face as he took a seat opposite her and snapped off the elastic band around the accordion file. "I feel absolutely terrible about this, coming here tonight, after what you've just been through," he said. "I know my timing is dreadful. But we got this new client yesterday --"
Hermione sat up, her interest piqued despite her melancholy and fatigue. "What sort of case?"
Anthony grinned and took out a sheaf of parchment. "The sort that you can sink your teeth into," he said. "A house-elf is petitioning for manumission on grounds of cruelty and mistreatment."
"Really?" She automatically reached for the bundle. "Who is it -- is it one of the elves we've been working on?"
"No. That's what makes it all so astounding. This one came to use from a family we didn't even know had any house-elves in its employ."
"Hm." She tried scrutinizing the text on the top sheet, but the words swam before her eyes. "I'm afraid I'm not in much condition to look at these tonight, but --"
Anthony jumped to his feet. "Oh, naturally! I didn't mean to imply you had to right away --"
"So there's no rush?"
"Not as yet, no. The elf -- Fleeble -- says her family is on holiday in Morocco for another month."
Hermione smiled and laid the parchment on the settee next to her. "Good, that gives us ample time to build a case. I really appreciate your bringing this to me tonight, Anthony. I'll be certain to get started on this first thing in the morning."
"I know how passionate you've always been about elf rights. When Fleeble came in this morning, it was all I could do not to send you an owl then and there."
"Ron would have flayed you alive if you had."
"So would've my dad. I had to wait until he left work before coming over here."
Hermione was about to comment when she heard a pop and Ron's familiar tread on the porch. "Oh, dear," she murmured.
Anthony turned just in time to see Ron enter through the kitchen door. Ron froze on the threshold, his gaze shifting back and forth between Hermione and Anthony. Hermione could see how Ron's knuckles had turned white as he gripped the doorknob.
Finally, Ron spoke. "What brings you here, Goldstein?"
Caught off guard, Anthony stammered, "Er... Ah... Y'see..."
"Anthony brought some flowers from him and his father," Hermione said. She took the bouquet from behind her and held it out to Ron for his inspection. "Aren't they lovely?"
"Beautiful," Ron said, his gaze never leaving Anthony. "But it's late, and my wife has been through a terrible nightmare. I think you should go now."
Hermione suppressed a sigh as Anthony hurriedly gathered up his things. "Right, yes of course, so terribly sorry," he said. He made a movement towards the parchment he'd handed to her earlier, but she shook her head and stuffed them behind the cushion she was leaning against. "By the way," he added, glancing nervously at Ron, "Dad says not to come back until you're ready. Take as much time as you need."
"Thank you, Anthony. I really appreciate that. Give Reuben my best."
"Will do." He turned to Ron and seemed about to extend his hand, and then apparently thought better of it when he saw Ron's glower. Instead he muttered, "Good night," took a pinch of Floo powder from the bowl on the mantel and, in a burst of green flames, disappeared.
The flames had just died down when Ron said, "Let's see them."
"See what, Ron?"
"I saw you hide some parchment behind that cushion. Hand them over."
Hermione folded her arms across her chest. "I'll do no such thing."
He sighed. "Hermione, I know you. The Healer said you need time to regain your strength, and I intend to see that you take it."
"How much strength could it possibly take to read a few forms?"
"Don't be so thick," he said. She spluttered as he continued, "It's not just about physical strength and you know it. What… happened took a toll on your emotional and mental strength as well."
"Are you suggesting I'm mental now?"
The muscles in his cheek jumped as he clenched his jaw. "If you refuse to give yourself time to get over this, then, yes, you are mental."
"'This'?" she cried. "Listen to you, Ron! You can't even name 'it'! Our baby died yesterday! If I'm such an emotional cripple, then why am I the only one who can speak of it out loud? For Merlin's sake, we've been trying for nearly twelve years to have a baby, and what do we have to show for it? Nothing!"
"Hermione..." Ron groaned. His voice quavered. "Don't try to tell me that you're all of a sudden recovered. I know --"
"You know nothing. You have no idea --"
"How can I have lived with you -- loved you -- all these years and not know what it's done to you? You're not the only one who's been hurt by this --"
"There you go again with your damn useless euphemisms."
"Bloody hell, would you stop trying to change the subject?"
"You stop trying to avoid the truth."
His eyes narrowed and grew flinty. "You're a fine one to talk, sneaking around behind my back."
"I wasn't sneaking!"
"You tried to hide the fact that you're working, when you should be resting."
She heaved a sigh and looked up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly to stop the tears from coming. "I don't want to rest. It's too quiet. I need to keep my mind occupied." She looked pleadingly at Ron. "I'll go mad, just sitting around here all day."
He slowly sank down on the settee next to her and took her hand, cradling it between both of his. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I wouldn't have left you alone today if it hadn't been urgent."
She squeezed his fingers. "I know. You can't afford to take too much time off work, anyway. Since I haven't been able to work as much, we need the money."
"Would it help if you had someone to keep you company? Mum, perhaps, or maybe Ginny?"
Sometimes she wondered if Ron was truly that thick, or if it was all a front. Sometimes his perceptiveness took her by surprise. Sadly, this was not one of those times. "Your mother, who successfully gave birth to and raised seven children, or your sister, who is currently bursting with her eighth child? No, I don't think that would be such a good idea."
His face was red. "Sorry. What about Tonks? Or your own mum?"
Hermione shook her head. "No. Honestly, Ron, anyone who came here would fall all over themselves trying not to bring up any 'risky' subjects, and I just don't think I can handle that. I'd go round the bend within a matter of hours."
She scooted closer to him to rest her head on his chest. His heartbeat, sure and steady, soothed her. "I just want to know why this had to happen to us." She felt a tear trickle down her cheek, but made no move to wipe it away. "We tried everything." She sighed. "It's so unfair."
She felt his lips brush against the top of her head. "I know, love."
"The Healer said we shouldn't try again. That there's too great a risk."
He swallowed; when he spoke, his voice was raspy. "I know."
"This was our last chance."
His arms wrapped tightly around her. "I know."
* * * * *
Weeks went by. Slowly Hermione's abdomen regained its tone, though she retained a few pale pink stretch marks as a physical reminder of how close she'd come to being a mother. The tenderness in her breasts and between her legs faded, but not until after she'd had to grapple with the humiliation of her milk coming in the very day her parents decided to visit, forcing her to hide her chest and run from the room as large damp spots appeared.
The emptiness, however, hadn't gone away. She suspected it, too, might eventually fade, or she might simply get used to having it around.
Ginny went into labor on her own birthday. At first everyone assumed this would be another routine delivery -- after seven children, no one expected any surprises -- but when twenty-four hours passed with no results, Harry and the attending mediwitch agreed this was far from ordinary, and that emergency procedures were in order. Another day passed before Lucy was finally born at St. Mungo's.
Harry came very close to losing them both.
Before Hermione had come home from St. Mungo's, Ron had sealed the door to the nursery. Neither one of them had dared enter it. The day after Lucy was born, however, Hermione steeled her nerves and broke the seal.
There was a thin film of dust covering the tops of the furniture, but otherwise everything was as she remembered it. Looking at the empty cradle, the rocking chair she'd never sat in to nurse, the nappies stacked neatly on the changing table, awakened the emptiness with a sharp stab and she swayed, overcome with vertiginous sadness. She grabbed the doorknob and forced her composure back into place, determined to see this through. As soon as she felt as ready as she was ever going to, she entered the room.
Last night she'd lain awake in bed for over an hour after Ron had dropped off to sleep. He was exhausted, after keeping vigil with Harry while the Healers worked to save Ginny and Lucy, and now his snores filled the darkness, keeping her company. Hermione listened to him, occasionally jarring him with her elbow when his breathing got too congested, and wondered what he would have done if she had died, but their daughter had lived. Would he have let his grief get the best of him, wallowing in sadness while someone else was left with the responsibility of raising their child, or would he have found a way to soldier on? He'd told her when he came home that night that Harry had been beside himself with worry. She wondered, had Ron been in the same state the night their daughter had died?
In the darkness, as Ron's snoring finally evened out into slow, deep breathing, she wondered, what if Ginny had died?
These questions came back to her as she opened the dresser drawers and began taking out baby clothes and laying them neatly on top. She'd decided this morning, after Ron had left for work, to give Harry and Ginny all the clothes, nappies, and other nursery items she and Ron had amassed. She knew they had plenty, having already been through this seven times, and that replacing worn items with new ones would not strain their budget, but Hermione, ever practical, hated the idea of leaving these things to go to waste. Harry and Ginny could use them, and might need some of them; Hermione and Ron never would. It had taken her until past lunch to work up the courage to enter the nursery, but now she was here, and she would box up these things and have Ron take them over this weekend. Maybe, if she was up to it, she would go too; no doubt the house would be in utter chaos with Ginny in hospital and Harry a wreck. Maybe she'd cook a meal to take over.
She was so focused on packing the clothes she never heard Ron call her name when he came in, several hours later; she didn't even realize he was home until she heard his voice right behind her.
"What are you doing?"
She jumped in surprise. "Oh!" she squeaked. "Is it that late in the day already? I didn't hear you come in."
He leaned against the door frame with his arms crossed over his chest. "Are you telling me I missed an opportunity to slip a Tickling Jinx on you?"
Her eyes widened. "You wouldn't dare. I see that!" she added hastily when he saw his hand creep towards his wand.
His hand returned to a more neutral location. "Wouldn't be any fun anyway, jinxing you when you're ready for it."
"You only say that because you know I'm faster on the draw."
He raised an eyebrow. "Is that a challenge? Ah, never mind," he continued, coming in the room and squatting down near where she sat on the floor, surrounded by piles of clothes, blankets and nappies. "I'm more interested in finding out what you're doing in here."
She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and then swept her arm across the piles. "I thought Harry and Ginny could use this."
Ron stared at her in silence for a moment, his gaze so intense she felt compelled to look away. Then he swooped in, cupping his hands around her face, and kissed her until she was breathless. When he finally pulled away it was all she could do not to fall over. "I love you, d'you know that?" he said softly.
Hermione's fingers touched her lips. It had been so long since Ron had last kissed her with such passion. Not since before the baby died. She'd hadn't realized she'd been missing his kisses until just now.
She also remembered she had an appointment with the Healer in the morning. It had been nearly two months....
Suddenly she realized Ron was speaking to her. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
He chuckled. "Maybe I should kiss you like that more often, eh?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "Loads more often."
This surprised him so much he fell on his bum with a loud thump. His cheeks were pink, but he recovered quickly. "I'll have to see what I can do," he said, clearing his throat. "But first I have some news for you."
"Yeah. D'you know Agrippina Comstock?"
"Isn't she head of the Department for Creatures' Rights?"
"Yeah, she is. Or was, rather."
"Was? What do you mean?"
"She retired today. Eloped with a goblin."
Hermione's jaw dropped so fast it hurt. "She eloped with a goblin?" she asked, rubbing her cheek.
Ron nodded. "Over the weekend, apparently. Her assistant received an owl this morning. Anyway, the real news -- the good news -- is that your name is at the top of the short list of people to replace her."
Hermione thought, if her jaw kept dropping like this, she'd need to have hinges installed. "M-Me? But I-I've never worked for the Ministry before! Don't they usually prefer to promote from within?"
"Usually, yeah. But you've established yourself as someone who actually believes in creatures' rights. The heads of the werewolf, goblin and giant panels are all pushing for you to get the job."
"Oh," Hermione said. She felt tears at the corners of her eyes and looked up at Ron. "Oh, my."
"I think you should do it," he said. "There's no better witch or wizard, no one who is as determined as you are." He took her hand from where it lay in her lap and held it between both of his, just like he had that night nearly two months ago. Just as she had then, she squeezed her fingers around his, finding strength and reassurance in his touch.
"I remember what you said the day after you came home from hospital, about needing to stay occupied," Ron said. "You need more than that, Hermione. You need... you need to be a mum. But we're going to have to find another way. This will give you a chance to do that, to be a mum to all the centaurs and house-elves and giants and yetis and all the other creatures who need someone to stand up for them."
"Oh, Ron," she said. "I love you so much." She launched herself at him then, knocking him over as she planted sloppy kisses all over his face.
"Hey!" he shouted, laughing as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her down on top of him. "Since when did my wife turn into Fang?"
"Do you really think I can do this?" she asked him, folding her hands on his chest and resting her chin on them.
"I think you'd be brilliant at it."
She felt her cheeks grow warm. "I've committed myself to Fleeble's case, though. I can't just abandon her."
He shrugged. "It'll take several weeks before the Minister makes a formal decision, and after that, I don't see why you can't just transfer her case to your office."
"You're right. It would be the perfect starting place to demonstrate that we mean business." The grin slowly creeping across his face made her pause. "What?"
"'We'," he said. "You said 'we'. You're already talking as though the job is yours." His arms tightened around her.
She leaned forward to kiss him on the tip of his nose. "Have I told you what a wonderful man you are?"
His grin widened. "A few times. Wouldn't mind hearing it again, though."
"You're incorrigible," Hermione said, shaking her head. She pushed her hands against Ron's chest to leverage herself off of him.
"Where are you going?"
"It's getting late and I'm hungry. I'd like to get some more of these things boxed up too," she said as she got to her feet. A fresh wave of emptiness washed over her, throwing her slightly off-balance, and she took a sharp breath.
"Hermione?" Ron had sat up and was looking at her with a worried _expression on his face. "Are you okay? You look pale."
"I'm fine. Just... stood up too quickly."
He got to his feet and came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "Y'know," he said, rubbing his chin on the top of her head, "I had an idea. D'you reckon some of Harry and Ginny's lot might like to come stay here every now and then?"
She craned her head to look up at him. "I don't get your meaning."
"Well, they've got a full house, and now with the new baby, and Ginny having to stay off her feet for a while, maybe we could take one or two of the younger ones off their hands for a few days. We could clear out this stuff and set up the room with a couple of cots, bookshelves, a few toys...." He looked down at her. "What d'you say?"
Hermione leaned back against Ron and draped her arms over his. "It would be nice to hear children's voices around here. We'd have to move quickly, though, if we're to be of any help to Harry and Ginny. We'll have to childproof everything, since Dickie and Owain are still so little."
A chuckle rumbled through his chest and he squeezed her. "That's my girl. I knew once I gave you a scheme you'd run with it. What d'you say we have a bite to eat -- we'll splurge and go into town -- and then I'll help you finish boxing these clothes. We can take them over tomorrow morning and tell Harry the plan."
"Oh! I almost forgot." She turned around in his embrace so that she was facing him. "I have an appointment with the Healer tomorrow morning. If all goes well, he'll clear us for... well...." The warmth in her cheeks embarrassed her almost as much as her uncharacteristic shyness; she was hardly a newlywed!
Ron's wicked, throaty laugh made her blush even harder. "Does this mean I can stop wanking in the shower now?" he asked.
"Hey, have some pity on a bloke. I've missed you."
She looked up into his eyes, so blue they reminded her of late autumn mornings, and the Aegean Sea, and freshly-bloomed periwinkle, and knew that, as long as he loved her, she could hold the emptiness at bay. Standing on her toes, she brought her lips close to his. "I've missed you, too."