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“Well, it’s hardly any warmer in here!” Ronald remarks, too loud and jolly by far.  Harry smiles awkwardly, and fixes his attention on the task of brushing the snow out of little Lily’s hair.  The girl submits to this paternal effort with bad grace: she’s spotted Crookshanks, and is desperate to chase after the aged tom.  Hermione hopes, silently but with considerable asperity, that Crooks gives her a claw or two.

It’s wishful thinking.  Crooks can barely walk anymore, let alone defend himself from grabby children.  And with his ailing heart, he shouldn’t be made to flee a motivated aggressor.  She sets her tea back down on the counter, and scoops her fluffy orange monster up into her arms.  He rewards this rescue in his usual way, bumping his head up against her chin before settling against her chest.  Lily’s forlorn cry of “Kitty!” interrupts the tightness that’s forming at the back of her throat.

“Kitty needs a nap, Lily.” She means it to come across as kindly yet stern, but reckons she’s probably managed only the latter.  Maybe she’ll make it up the stairs before there are any waterworks.  Having a uterus doesn’t mean she’s equipped to deal with the repellant little things.  Harry wanted ‘em, Harry can cope with them.  Auntie Hermie has much better things to do with her time.

She deposits Crooks in his basket near her desk, and resets the locking charm.  As she sinks into her chair, she tangles her fingers in her curls until the tension between her shoulder blades migrates to her scalp.

It’s not really Harry’s children that are the problem.  Except that it is.

He cannot possibly fail to realise that his offspring have become an arsenal mobilized upon a domestic battleground.  Ginny is certainly aware of the subtext – or at least, she can’t charitably conceive of any other reason for conspicuous absence from the combat zone.  She can, of course, uncharitably conceive of half a dozen.

She pushes the thoughts away, displacing them with a sheaf of revisions.  This is a fight she has some hope of winning.  Not that she’s at all motivated towards that particular end – her reviewers’ suggestions are, for the most part, grounded, well-reasoned, and respectfully argued.  The editorial office has done extremely well by her work, this time.  She suspects a familiar hand of pulling some strings on her behalf, and thinks she ought to find some nicely understated trinket to send on to Amsterdam when she posts the rest of the holiday parcels.  She doesn’t know Tibs well enough to pick a book, but a fountain pen can hardly be taken amiss.  His notes consistently betray that he prefers them to quills; there are never any of the mid-word halts that you see with quillwork, where someone has stopped to re-dip the nib.

She taps her own pen thoughtfully against her lip while contemplating how to rephrase the introduction’s second paragraph.  Holkiss (it has to be Holkiss, this was his exact point eight issues ago) hasn’t quite grasped why she’s insisting upon including the new toxicological assay.  If she can make it more obvious, somehow, that the secondary metabolites generated under low pH are neither likely to be formed, nor actually deleterious in circumneutral conditions… She isn’t, after all, suggesting that anyone drink this thing.  There are much better ways of accessing cytoplasm than via intestinal villi.  Perhaps that’s the answer: remind them upfront that she’s talking about injectables.  A simple citation to her last paper is apparently much too subtle; best to spell it out in plain text.

This conceptual dragon slain, she reaches for her tea.  Which is, naturally, sitting abandoned on the kitchen counter, two storeys beneath her. 

She pokes her head into the stairwell, past the bounds of the silencing spell.  The children’s screams seem to be effected by cheerful romping.  If they’ve torn the curtains down again, she’ll certainly have some choice words for Harry.  Ronald’s transparent ploy to warm her to the joys of parenting would have marginally more hope of success had he picked some other -- well-behaved -- children as demonstrational exhibits.  She hopes no one is expecting her to fix tea for the lot of them tonight.

No, thank goodness, it appears Ronald has risen to the occasion.  He’s stirring a pot of soup on the stovetop, while Harry constructs sandwiches.  Bless them, they almost pass as functional adults, and about time.  If she’s lucky, she can snag her cup and slink back up to the attic before anyone is the wiser.

It sounds as though Harry has been apologizing for something the children have done.  She decides she’d really rather not know.  If she doesn’t hear about it, she won’t be compelled to fix it. Hear no evil, see no evil.  She hesitates on the landing, as Ronald responds.

“Yeah, well.  It’s nice, actually, having them underfoot; I like being Uncle Ron.  I always thought I’d have some of my own, you know?”

“You’re still trying, though, aren’t you?”

“I have no idea.”  His voice is completely flat.

“What do you mean, you’re either doing it or—”

“Well, no, actually. I mean we are, we do.  Just… I don’t know if I believe her anymore.”

Harry is slow in responding. “What, you think she might be taking contraceptives? Ron, that’s… she wouldn’t do that to you, go behind your back.  Would she?” 

“Hell, Harry.  I just don’t know.  It’s like living with a stranger, has been for ages.”

“Come on.  It’s Hermione.  We’ve known her since we were eleven.”

“Yeah, I guess.  She’s just… dunno, different since we lost the baby.”

“Have you tried talking to her about that?  You guys went through a rough patch, there in the beginning.  And it changes people, they say.”

“When?” He scoffs, “When would I talk to her, she’s always buried in those fucking books.  It’s like it didn’t even bother her.  Just ‘Oops, oh well, let’s get on with the next thing.’ I sometimes wonder…”

“It was almost five months along, though, wasn’t it?  Has she been to St Mungo’s, maybe something happened.”

“She said she went, said everything was fine up there.”

“Then, you know, maybe it’s just bad timing.  It happens.  Gin and I had a bloody schedule.”

“Harry.  That’s my sister.”  His tone is only mock-aggrieved.

“All I’m saying is—”

“I hear you.  It’s just, how likely is it?  I mean, here we are, very first time, right off the starting line, and then just nothing?  For years?”  He sighs, and stirs the soup again.  His shoulders are creeping up to his ears, in what even she recognizes as a miserable, defensive hunch.  “I thought we were perfect, I thought…  It kills me that I don’t even really trust her anymore.  I wanted to give her everything, and she won’t let me.”

His plaintive words are a knife, twisting hard in her gut.  She abandons the notion of retrieving her tea, and retreats to the safety of revisions.

He turns in early.  It’s not even 9 o’clock when she looks out her little window and notices that the house’s lights aren’t glowing across the unexpected snowdrifts anymore.  She caps her biro, and resolves to fix things, if she can.

She crawls into bed nude.  He’s not sleeping; she can tell by the pitch of his breathing.  She places a hand on his hip, and presses her lips against his bare shoulder as she curls a finger beneath the flannel waistband of his pajama bottoms.  “Did you have a good afternoon with Harry and the kids?  It looked like you were having a snowball fight.”

“Yeah, they’re great kids.  Full of energy.  Jamie will be a chaser, for sure, good arm on that boy.”  Despite his words, his voice lacks any real enthusiasm, and he hasn’t made any effort to help her with his bottoms. 

“I should have come out.  I could use more exercise.”  She abandons his waistband, to trace instead the line of hair trending down from his navel.  She can’t make her intentions any clearer, and he’s not stupid.

Indeed not.  “Exercise, eh?”  There’s some genuine warmth in his voice, and she thinks he might be leering a bit.  Good, things are moving in the right direction.

“Mmm.  All sweating and hot and panting.  Burn some of those extra calories.”

He laughs, another good sign.  Even better, he kicks off his bottoms and drawers.

She stretches back into the pillows as he buries his face in her breasts, and his hand in her quim.  It doesn’t take her long to find her fantasy lover behind closed eyes.  She imagines one long finger tracing her collarbone, soft breath caressing her face as he leans close, not-kissing, not-touching, just observing her reactions.  She opens her legs further, mechanically; she’s so intent upon the imagined sensation of a fall of fine hair tickling her neck and the angle of her jaw as he leans ever closer, that she barely notices her husband’s penetration.

And then, abruptly, his weight is gone, and so are half the bedcovers.

“It’s just no good, Hermione.  I’m tired of doing this with you.”

“Tired of having sex?”

“Like this, yeah.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been into it, but right now you’re just lying there and thinking of England or goddamn potions or something.  I can’t do this anymore.”

“I…” His unexpected rejection hurts more than she’d ever thought it might. “Ronald, Ron, I’m sorry.  I really am, I’m not very good at this—”

“You can learn anything else, Hermione.  Why not this?  Surely we’ve practised enough.”  His voice has taken a nasty edge.

She reaches out, fumbles to hold his hand beneath the quilts, and prepares to lie for all she’s worth, “I wasn’t disinterested, not at all.  I was just enjoying so much how you make me feel.  Just falling into those sensations, it’s marvellous.”  Too much?  She squeezes his hand, rubs the calloused pad of his thumb.  “Maybe another night, hey?”

He pulls her into an embrace, tucking her head against his shoulder in answer.  “Yeah, I guess maybe I’m just not in the mood.”

Are they okay, then?  She isn’t sure.  She makes a conscious effort to relax her shoulders, to lay comfortably in his arms.  After long minutes of this, she makes another bid for their version of normalcy. “I was thinking of going out to the shops tomorrow.  To finish up with the presents, I mean.  Did you want to come with?”

“I guess so, I need to find something for Mum anyway.”

“Aren’t we just getting her something from the both of us?”

“Well, yeah of course, but she likes when I pick her out something special.  Something just from me.”

“Fair enough.  I was thinking Diagon Alley, maybe?  We could make a day of it, have lunch.”

“Sounds good.  Not the Leaky, though.”

She laughs gently.  It’s a long-standing joke that Neville helps out in the kitchen.  “No, certainly not.  I saw the inside of Neville’s actual cauldron too many times to chance it.”

She realizes her error immediately – she’s made reference to potions.  Ronald unwraps his arms from her, and stretches out on his side of the bed.  A moment later, he leans over and kisses her cheek, perhaps in apology.  “Goodnight, Hermione.”  He’s trying, mostly.  They both are.

And she hates this.