After the war ended Molly Weasley took to her bed and wept hysterically for two solid weeks.
“None of us died, you see.” Ron glanced sheepishly at Hermione, who had to strain to catch his words over the wails emanating from his mother’s bedroom.
“Yes,” she answered, eyes on their special clock. The hands representing each Weasley all pointed to the same thing: Lucky.
Voldemort was dead, that was the most important thing. Harry had killed him, as he’d been destined to since he was barely a year old. It was perhaps fitting that the final battle took place at Hogwarts on what should have been his graduation day.
It was uncertain now if anyone would ever graduate from Hogwarts again. The castle lay in smoldering ruins. The Great Hall was open to the sky; the long tables burned brightly orange through the harsh gray smoke. The Astronomy Tower was blessedly reduced to rubble.
When Harry had emerged from what was left of Gryffindor Tower—alone—and collapsed face down on the grass, wounded but most certainly alive, the Order realized they’d won. Counting the bodies, they’d told themselves they’d got off remarkably lightly.
Wave after wave of destruction had devastated Wizarding Europe in the final months of the war. Refugees were still converging on magical London—itself greatly damaged—with more coming every day.
They honored the fallen of the Battle of Hogwarts as best they could—state funerals were hard to manage when the state itself barely existed anymore: Susan Bones, Michael Corner, Hestia Jones, Nymphadora Tonks. It was hard to keep track of all the hastily arranged memorials. It seemed they would never stop.
And then, somehow, there was only one left.
Hermione smoothed the pleats of her black dress robes and glanced backward in the mirror to make sure her stockings were not laddered.
“You look very nice, dear,” said the mirror. “Somber.”
“He wouldn’t have liked it.” Hermione frowned.
“One must be appropriate,” replied the mirror, a note of sympathy in its motherly voice.
“Must one?” she asked distantly, kicking off her high heels.
Hermione could hear the mirror clucking in the background—something about traditions, and precedents, and things that were not done—as she dove back into her wardrobe, but she paid no attention. Mirrors were always judgmental; it was their job, after all.
Ah, that was better. Her hand closed over a light cotton frock. He’d have liked that color.
Her eyes suddenly flooded. She yanked the dress out, causing several papers to dislodge from atop the wardrobe and flutter chaotically to the floor. Hermione cursed, then forced herself to calm, wiping the tears away. She’d never get through the day like this. She bent to gather the papers.
It was a brochure and pages of a university catalog. St. Brigid’s College, Oxford, the glossy pamphlet proclaimed. Britain’s Foremost Wizarding College. She stared at the picture—a group of fresh-faced wizards and witches studying on a grassy square. One glanced quickly up at her and waved before diving back into his book.
This had seemed so important months ago when she’d gone out of her way in the midst of a Horcrux hunt, just to take a side-trip to Oxford for an application. She’d felt a sense of belonging as she’d stood in that vividly green quadrangle and watched the bustling students—some of them Muggles taking a shortcut who didn’t even realize their fellow undergraduates were magical. She’d breathed the college air and touched the stones of the college walls—nearly as ancient as Hogwarts—and vowed that this was where she’d be when the war ended. Truth be told, she’d always wanted to come to Oxford, even as a little girl, before she knew she was a witch.
Witches and wizards didn’t usually seek higher education. Hogwarts prepared them for most careers, and then there were apprenticeships and so forth, but one could never learn enough, and at St. Brigid’s she could be at the vanguard of the exciting research being done there. She already had a wonderful idea for a project combining Arithmancy and Muggle fractal geometry.
That all seemed silly now. What could any school teach her, after all the funerals, after the blood she’d seen, and the blood she’d spilled? What did it matter?
She shook her head to rid her senses of the smells of old books and freshly cut grass. Changing clothes quickly, she glanced once more in the mirror, ignoring its disapproving tuts.
She wore a light green summer frock now, with bare legs. It was the color of the greenhouses, the color of Herbology. People might look askance at her, but she didn’t care. She was wearing it for Neville. She felt sure he would have approved.
Taking a deep breath, she made sure she was calm, and threw a handful of Floo powder into the fire. “The Leaky Cauldron,” she said.
Harry had a two-room suite. At least two rooms, maybe it went back even further. There was no way to tell, because Harry was currently behind the door of what was presumably the bedroom, not coming out as Ginny knocked on it crossly and Ron sat on a couch in the sitting room, looking unhappy.
“You need to come, Harry,” Ginny was saying, straining to keep her voice kind, as Hermione entered the room. “You haven’t been to any of the funerals, and I really think that Neville would want you there.”
There was no answer. “Ron.” She turned to her brother.
“Yeah, mate. You’ll feel better,” he called halfheartedly.
From the door, Hermione took in the scene and sighed. “Let me try.”
She walked to the bedroom door and tapped softly. “Harry, it’s me.”
Nothing happened. Hermione was just turning away when the door finally opened a crack. There was blackness on the other side, no sign of Harry. She stepped through, ignoring Ginny’s hurt expression.
This was the first time she’d been in the room where Harry’d been staying since the war ended. It was small and gloomy and run-down, which Hermione supposed was the point. He could have stayed at the Burrow, or with her, or at least in a nicer hotel, but almost as soon as the smoke had cleared from the final battle, he’d removed himself here and had rarely come out.
He sat now on the unmade bed, looking down. Old copies of the Daily Prophet and dirty clothes littered the floor—clearly he refused to let the house-elves in as well. Hermione said nothing, merely began tidying up.
He watched her though his hair for several moments; until she was almost done. “Neville would understand,” he said finally.
“Yes,” she said, coming to sit beside him on the bed. “He would.”
“I want to come, Hermione. I just—” He broke off, still looking down.
“It’s all right, Harry.” She took his hand.
He finally looked up. The intensity in his eyes staggered her. “You don’t understand.”
She took his other hand, holding them both in her lap. “Then explain it to me.”
He paused and seemed to want to speak. “You might feel better,” she said, “if you told someone what happened that day. With Volde—”
“Tell them,” Harry said loudly, then paused in surprise at his own volume and continued more quietly. “Tell them I can’t come. Tell them I’m ill.” He looked at her pleadingly.
She took in his sunken eyes and pale skin. It wasn’t far from the truth.
“All right.” She smiled, standing. “Get some sleep. Try to eat something. Would you like me to come back later with—”
“No!” He paused. “No. I’m okay, Hermione. Really.” He even managed a smile.
It went against every fiber of her nature, but she would give him his privacy, if that’s what he needed. There were no spells cast on him; he was under no curse—they’d made sure of that at St. Mungo’s. Hermione might have been a curious person, but she was also a practical one, and she knew that pressuring Harry when he wasn’t ready would be worse than useless.
She just wished she wasn’t the one who had to explain that to the others.
Hermione wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. She’d expected the other mourners to be uncomfortable in their heavy dress robes in the summer sun, but someone had cast a Cooling Charm, and now she was the one dressed for the wrong climate. They’d got much better at staging funerals.
The sundress had no place to conceal a wand, so she couldn’t use magic to warm herself. But her gooseflesh was a good distraction. She didn’t want to pay attention; she’d been to enough of these. She was all cried out, and she’d already said good-bye to Neville as best she could. As Harry had said, he would understand.
She sat between Ron and Ginny, trying not to listen while a small fuzzy-haired wizard spoke of “honor” and “courage” and “loyalty.” Trying not to remember Neville’s face as he lay unmoving on the ground less than a quarter mile from where she now sat on an uncomfortable chair near the shore of the Hogwarts lake. After Dumbledore’s death, this had become the resting place for the honored war dead, the tradition sprouting nearly overnight while seeming before long as if it had always been that way. If Hogwarts ever did reopen, the lake would be a vastly different experience for the students.
She was up front, though she would have preferred the anonymity of the back rows, and she looked now across the aisle to where Frank and Alice Longbottom sat with Neville’s grandmother. Neville’s father must have once been a strong, imposing man—he was so thin now he looked breakable. He sat very still, holding his wife’s hand with a puzzled expression. Alice looked like a Muggle angel, with her unlined face and halo of white hair glowing in the sun. She smiled to herself and glanced around frequently, gazing at her surroundings in wonder.
Neville’s grandmother sat tall and proud. Hermione supposed Neville was finally enough of a hero for her and tried not to hate her for it. When they’d arrived, she had stared with unmistakable disapproval at Hermione’s green dress, but Alice Longbottom had smiled at it in delight, and Hermione knew it had been the right choice.
The fuzzy-haired wizard was now going on about “Gryffindor tradition,” and Hermione could not stand it one second longer. She stood, ignoring Ron’s whispered question, and made her way down the row and out of the seats as discreetly as she could.
She walked until she no longer heard the service ringing in her ears, then stopped in the shade of a beech tree. She leaned against its trunk, slightly in front of the crowd now, still close enough to pick out faces. She could even see the pattern of Gryffindor lions that dotted the crimson velvet covering Neville. Covering Neville’s body, she reminded herself firmly. He was not here.
There was Luna, nearly translucent in the bright sun. Her father had been killed over the winter in a Death Eater raid on the Quibbler offices. “He wanted to be a ghost for my sake,” she’d told Hermione solemnly, not long after it happened. “But I told him he’d be happier if he passed on.” Then she’d leaned in closer, as if sharing a secret. “I nearly asked him to stay. Would that have been selfish, do you think?”
There was Professor Sprout, seated alongside Professor McGonagall. Tears dripped copiously down Sprout’s round face. McGonagall had mastered a stoic look; she’d had plenty of practice lately. Remus, grim-faced and determined, sat with Kingsley Shacklebolt. She’d heard that Kingsley wanted to be Minister of Magic now that Scrimgeour had been tossed out on his ear.
She was wondering vaguely if she cared about that and deciding on the whole rather not when she heard a voice behind her.
She knew who it was without turning around. “Shouldn’t you be in Azkaban?”
“Is that fair?” Draco Malfoy stepped around the beech’s trunk, joining her.
“No.” She sighed. “Probably not.”
He was on their side now, if there still were any sides. After Dumbledore’s death, Snape had kept him hidden from the Death Eaters for close to four months—until Lucius Malfoy escaped from Azkaban, and Draco ran off to join him. He’d come to the Order two months ago, after Lucius had killed Snape when he’d tried single-handedly to remove Draco from Death Eater headquarters.
Dumbledore’s final message had been discovered by then, and it was known Snape had been acting under his orders. It was easy to forgive a dead man. Draco Malfoy was a far grayer issue. He had been acting for himself, both in the aborted attempt on Dumbledore’s life, and now, seeking asylum.
They had reluctantly taken him in, keeping him for weeks in magical restraints. He’d swallowed gallons of Veritaserum before he’d finally managed to convince those among the Order that mattered of his sincerity.
It had been Draco who’d known where to find Voldemort, who’d told them he would be at Hogwarts, and when. The Dark Lord needed to make another Horcrux, Draco had explained, and he’d learned the plan. Through what devious means, Hermione didn’t know, but the information had proved good.
Now that the war was over, what to do with Draco was again a problem. He’d been instrumental in defeating Voldemort, but he’d also tried to kill Dumbledore, and had been a Death Eater for nearly six months. Could you throw a war hero in Azkaban? Could you let Dumbledore’s would-be killer go free?
“I have a hearing next week,” he said, startling her out of her reverie.
“Wizengamot. Or what’s left of it.”
“Oh,” she said, turning back to the funeral.
“Will you come visit me in Azkaban, Hermione?”
She stared at him. He was actually smiling at her.
“Gladly,” she replied coldly, then winced inwardly as an expression that looked almost like hurt ghosted across his features. Well, what did he expect, talking to her as if they were friends, here at Neville’s funeral? Flirting with her, almost. She shivered. The Cooling Charm extended rather far, it seemed.
He pointed his wand at her. “Thermio.”
She felt instantly warmer. “Thank you. Draco—”
“Yes?” he asked, when she didn’t continue.
She looked at him. His change of heart had apparently been sincere—the Veritaserum had proved that—and she couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him. Most of his former friends were in Azkaban, and Lucius Malfoy was dead by his own wand, choosing suicide this time over captivity. His mother was in hiding somewhere, in case any stray Death Eater sympathizers got ideas about revenge.
Snape’s death had changed Draco; Hermione believed that. But even the life-altering event of watching his real father kill his surrogate father couldn’t transform who he really was—his essential inner Draco-ness. He was still the boy she remembered from Hogwarts, no matter which side of the war he had found expedient in the end. She didn’t hate him anymore, she supposed, but that was as far as she was prepared to go.
We are not friends. I do not want you in my life. She was gathering herself to say the words when she saw a lone figure watching the funeral from across the lake.
Harry. She wondered if she should go to him.
“Yes?” Draco asked again, a note of demanding slipping into his voice that caused Hermione to look up sharply. She didn’t answer.
When she looked back for Harry, he had gone.
The summer, somehow, went on. The days followed one another in the usual sequence, and if you missed absent friends—if you caught yourself wondering what Tonks was up to, or thinking Parvati’s Ravenclaw sister would enjoy this book on magical theory—well, you ignored the sudden hollow feeling and were all the more grateful for the friends you did have.
All the Weasleys were fine, and if Ron was still amazingly dating Lavender, Hermione found to her honest surprise she really did not care. Harry was making progress; he’d agreed to have lunch with her one day in an open-air Diagon Alley café, and it had been nearly an hour before he’d begun to look nervous, before she’d seen small beads of sweat dot his upper lip.
Because one had to pass the time, she got a temporary job in the Ministry’s new Displaced Wizards Office. She found to her surprise that magical bureaucracies generated as much red tape as Muggle ones. Remus Lupin, who was now desperately interested in wizard politics of all things, found her the position. Hermione supposed she shouldn’t be surprised by Remus’s passion; she’d always seen him as a reformer.
She spent her time at a small desk in a large room facing an endless parade of refugees needing housing. She wasn’t even at the old Ministry Offices; they were still being rebuilt after the Candlemas Eve Raids had destroyed so much of magical London. Muggles thought it had been an earthquake.
The Displaced Wizards Office was located behind an unremarkable door in the back of the pet department at Harrods. Even with Disillusionment Charms, one or two Muggles a week wandered in looking for cockatoos or bunny rabbits and had to be Obliviated. Once a small sticky boy had come in wanting a ferret. Hermione thought this might be a wonderful way to solve the Draco problem, but kept her opinions to herself.
Toward the end of July, she heard Draco Malfoy was not going to Azkaban after all, and made an attempt to be charitable and feel glad. Instead she felt nothing, but that was typical these days.
And then the air was cooler and autumn was coming, a fact she felt vaguely surprised by. If life had been normal, it would have been time to return to Hogwarts. But then if life had been normal, she would have graduated.
She wondered if life would ever be normal again.
“We’ll need your decision soon, Miss Granger.”
“St. Brigid’s, Hermione.” Dr. Jackson smiled. “Trying to out-absent-mind the absent-minded professor?”
He’d taken her to the library. That really was not fair. She ran her hand along a row of thick leather-bound texts and felt the magic crackle up through her fingertips. She’d thought the library at Hogwarts was heaven. The one at St. Brigid’s was at least twice its size.
“This is where you’re meant to tell me I’m not an absent-minded professor.”
“Is that the Merrivale Codex?” She felt her jaw drop and quickly shut her mouth, feeling silly.
“Only known copy,” he replied. “We’re very anxious you should enroll here. We’ve been following your academic career for some time, you know.”
Oh. Well, that was... flattering, she supposed. Yes, definitely flattering here at St. Brigid’s. This was where nearly all the innovations in theory and spellcasting in the last thousand years had originated.
“We’re not quite up to strength after the recent... difficulties, I’m afraid. We only have a few places. But we’re quite determined you shall have one of them.”
He was looking at her so hopefully that she almost hated to turn him down. She found herself looking for excuses. “I never actually finished Hogwarts, you know.”
“We can grant you a wartime exemption.” He leaned back against a bookcase. “Well, Hermione?”
She took a breath. “I don’t—”
“Don’t answer.” He held up a hand. “If the answer is going to be no. We can give you one week before we need a final decision.”
She should just turn him down right here and now, she thought, staring at his gray hair and pale face, and then past him at all the lovely books. She took a breath.
“I just don’t think—” She stopped at his dismayed look. “With everything that’s happened, until I got your Owl, I’d forgotten I’d even applied.”
That’s a lie. Why did I say that? She frowned inwardly.
He smiled at her, looking deep into her eyes. “One week.”
“I’ve done it.”
She’d been working on the case of an Austrian family of displaced wizards—larger, even, than the Weasley family. She’d just decided that she had to break them up; there just wasn’t a large enough available residence even with Expansion Charms, and it took her a moment to look up from her paperwork.
Remus was standing there, smiling over her desk, happier than she’d seen him in months. “It’s perfect for you,” he said. “And me.” He grabbed one of her hands impulsively and squeezed it.
He was looking at her with such warm intensity and hope that for a wild instant the idea ran through her head that he wanted her to take Tonks’s place. She felt instantly guilty at the thought, then ridiculous, before being overtaken by the hollow feeling that always came upon her when she was reminded of someone who was dead.
“Well, Hermione?” He let go of her hand. “Don’t you want to hear the news?”
“Of course.” She mustered a smile. He pulled the chair that was usually sat in by the refugees around to her side of the desk and leaned in conspiratorially, unmindful of her fellow workers staring curiously from their own desks. Remus Lupin was an Important Person in the Ministry now that Shacklebolt was Acting Minister, and likely to become even more so.
“Kingsley’s agreed to my ideas about reorganization.”
“Congratulations,” said Hermione, affecting a heartiness she did not feel. She looked closely at Remus. The war had changed everyone, but him perhaps most of all. His hair was more gray than anything else now, and he looked dangerously thin. The monthly transformations were taking a terrible toll—without Snape there was no Wolfsbane, and in this freshly post-war world, no new source was yet available. The war deaths weighed heavily on him; his naturally slightly stoop-shouldered posture had become chronic and pronounced.
He looked at her now with the bright fire in his eyes she had lately grown used to seeing, and which was perhaps the most disturbing change of all. It meant that he could not be reached or reasoned with, that he would not stop until all the world’s problems had been solved. That inner fire was dangerous—it would burn him up. She suspected he knew it.
“The Displaced Wizards Office is being made permanent and its powers expanded,” he said. “It’s to be called the Department of Recovery.”
He paused, seeming to want her to say something. “Oh,” she said, wondering why she was expected to care.
“I’m to head it. And,” he said, smiling, “you’re to be my second-in-command.”
Hermione felt her stomach drop. No. This was a temporary job. She had no intentions of becoming anyone’s second-in-anything.
“I’m—not qualified.” Her mind raced, looking for a way out.
“Nonsense.” He smiled at her. “You’ve learned the ropes here. And I still remember the cleverest witch of her year, and the girl who cared so passionately about those in need.”
Damn S.P.E.W. “But—”
“We can do great things. Make sure everyone’s voice is counted. Bring the werewolves into the fold, and the other marginalized beings too. It won’t be easy, but—” He broke off at the sight of her face and laid a hand on her shoulder. “This isn’t a time to be thinking of ourselves, Hermione. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“You could find someone else—” She knew he wouldn’t hear her.
“I need you.” And there it was again. The fire.
A loud squawk heralded the arrival of an inter-office owl, who flapped quickly by and dropped a scroll onto Remus’s lap. He read it quickly, standing.
“Don’t worry,” he said in a voice she was sure was meant to be reassuring. “This won’t be happening right away. We’ll have at least a week to plan.”
He squeezed her hand once more and was off. She sank back into her chair and closed her eyes.
Well, that was the end of St. Brigid’s. She’d been intending to turn them down anyway, she really had, but now she suddenly realized she desperately wanted to enroll. I just want what I can’t have, she told herself, trying to smile wryly at her own perversity. But ever since the Great Ron-Lavender Snogfest of 1997, she’d attempted to always be brutally honest with herself, and she didn’t want to start lying now.
The truth was she badly wanted to complete her education at Oxford among the brightest witches and wizards of her generation. There was so much she wanted to do, so much she still had to learn. On her way out of the college, Dr. Jackson had slipped her a copy of A Brief History of St. Brigid’s, and she hadn’t even got past the first thousand pages without yearning for lecture halls and college squares, for ancient libraries and college dons.
But Remus was right. This wasn’t a time to be thinking of herself. And she was terribly qualified to assist him. She’d be awfully good at it. Knowing that somehow made it worse. She propped her elbows on the desk, leaning into her hands.
She heard someone sit down in the chair normally reserved for displaced wizards.
“Appointments mornings only,” she said without looking up. “Come back tomorrow.”
“I’d rather not if it’s all the same to you.”
No. Not now.
She looked up. “I don’t have time for this, Draco. If you want to torment me, you’ll have to get in line. The witch out front will give you an appointment.”
“You wound me.” He let his mouth give what she thought of as the Draco Pout. And when had she started categorizing his expressions? “I am here for your professional services.”
I am a professional, she reminded herself, and was thus able to keep from rolling her eyes.
“I am a Displaced Wizard,” he announced.
“Are you?” she asked mildly, leaning back in her chair.
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” he replied, his face moving on to the Draco Smirk.
“Well,” she said, gathering the paperwork for her Austrian wizards. “This has been very entertaining, but I have work to do, and—”
“You really don’t know what my sentence was, do you? From the Wizengamot.” He looked at her with genuine curiosity.
“It may surprise you,” she replied, still reading over her paperwork, “that I am not actually breathlessly following the Adventures of Draco Malfoy, ex-Death Eater.”
“They didn’t send me to Azkaban.”
“Yes. As demonstrated by your unwanted presence here.” She gave up and put her paperwork aside. “Fine. What did they sentence you to? Wizarding Service? Picking up debris from the major broom routes? Sunday afternoons in the Retired Wizards Home?”
“They’ve taken away my magic.”
He had the gall to smile at her shocked face. “For a year. I’ve been sentenced to live as a Muggle.”
He leaned back impressively. Hermione stared. Then laughed.
“It’s not funny,” he said in a miffed tone.
“You’ll survive a year,” she said in between giggles. “Oh. That’s brilliant. Thank you for coming by, Draco. I needed cheering up.”
She stood and made to usher him out. He didn’t move.
“As I say, I am displaced. Place me. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
She sighed, sitting down. “I find homes for wizards whose lives have been torn apart by the war. Not for spoiled brats who need to take their punishment. Stay at Malfoy Manor.”
“Incinerated. Same time as Voldemort. His bereft followers were expected to throw themselves on the burning pyre, I gather. Bit dramatic. Brilliant magic, though.”
“Stay with friends.” He tilted his head, giving her his I-Could-Make-a-Scathing-Comment-But-It’s-All-Too-Easy expression.
“Right.” She leaned back. “Your friends are in Azkaban. Well, it must have been nearly two months since you were sentenced—”
“Nine weeks.” He nodded helpfully.
“Where have you been staying since then?”
“Right then. Which one?”
“The Ritz?” She choked.
“Yes.” He nodded. “The Wizengamot suspended my Gringotts’ privileges and gave me a little Muggle money to start off with.”
“And you went to the Ritz.”
“I had no desire to cook and clean for myself like a barbarian, so I found the place Muggles go when they feel the same way. Rather clever of me, I thought.”
“But the Ritz is the swankiest hotel in London.”
“Yes,” he said. Hermione was sure he was slowing his words for her benefit. “That’s why I went there.”
“But you couldn’t afford it. Not on whatever the Ministry gave you.”
“Yes.” He nodded, watching her almost fondly. “Now you’ve grasped it.”
He waited expectantly, seeming disinclined to say anything further.
“And now I’m out of funds,” he said finally, shrugging. “So you’ll have to find me a place to live. Or get me more money,” he added with a thoughtful air.
“I can’t help you, Draco.”
“Nonsense. Of course you can.”
“There’s not enough housing for real refugees.”
“So you’re prepared to let me starve on the street?”
“I don’t think there’s much chance of that,” she replied, trying to ignore his expression of hurt and surprise. It was a face she’d only seen on him a very few times, the I-Can’t–Believe-I-Didn’t-Get-Exactly-What-I-Wanted look.
“Fine.” He stood. “When the Muggles find my shriveled corpse decaying in Piccadilly Circus, I shall make sure you are informed.”
“You’re just going to have to learn how to take care of yourself, Draco. Get a job.”
He froze mid-dramatic sweeping exit, and stared at her open-mouthed.
He closed his eyes in disbelief for a moment, then treated her to a penetrating stare.
“I expected more from you, Granger. If you didn’t want to help, you should have just said so. There was no call to get insulting.”
The effect of his grand exit was slightly marred by his having to detour around a pig-tailed girl carrying an enormous bowl of goldfish.
“Definitely not,” said the mirror with a clucking noise. “You’ll want to wear something sexier to see an ex-boyfriend.”
“He’s not an ex-boyfriend,” Hermione said, checking her teeth for signs of lunch. “And mind your own business.” She wondered if she had time to floss.
“Ron Weasley? That’s not what I heard.”
“A little hand-mirror I know at Hogwarts.”
“Mirrors gossip?” she asked. “No wait. I don’t want to know.”
“One keeps up with one’s friends,” the mirror answered, sniffing.
Hermione sighed and rooted around under her bed for her left shoe. The day she’d rented the tiny flat, the mirror had taken one look at her and said, not unkindly, “That blouse has seen better days.” She’d been so glad to finally find a place she could afford, she’d ignored it.
If nothing else, she was glad of a place to live, when so many others had to crowd together, and some had nowhere at all. If it came with a toilet that flushed at odd hours for no discernable reason—Hermione suspected a disgruntled miniature water nymph—and a rather overbearing mirror that was unfortunately built-in, well... she could grin and bear it. Well, bear it at any rate.
She was used to her tiny space now, and liked it in its own way. Its three small rooms connected in a straight line with open doorways—first a little kitchen, then a not-much-larger sitting room, and last a bedroom so small the bed filled it almost completely. The flat had come furnished, and she hadn’t yet felt like personalizing it, but she would some day. Perhaps.
She found her shoe and slipped it on, stopping for one last mirror-check.
“Don’t blame me,” said the mirror, “when you can’t get your ex to notice you.”
“I won’t,” she called on her way out the door.
She’d wanted to get to the Burrow before Harry, but as she walked into the crowded kitchen, she found him standing nervously by the fireplace with Charlie Weasley pressing a glass of firewhisky into his hand. He drank it quickly. Charlie, who still had the bottle, looked surprised but poured him another before moving on to refill Fred and George’s glasses, studiously ignoring Molly’s disapproving glare.
It was a family party. Bill stood over Fleur—now obviously showing her pregnancy, Hermione noticed—as she sat at the large wooden table. All the Weasleys were there except Percy, who had come to a tentative reconciliation with his family and moved to Australia just after the war’s end.
Hermione smiled at Lavender, who smiled dazzlingly back from where she stood across the room with her hand on Ron’s arm. She and Harry were the only non-Weasleys present. The last thing Hermione felt in the mood for was a family gathering, where they would ask her all about her plans, and about her job at the Ministry, but both Ron and Ginny had Floo’d her at the office that afternoon particularly asking her to be there. She hadn’t wanted to leave Harry on his own either, on one of his rare expeditions out of the Leaky Cauldron. Looking around the warm, crowded room, she thought that on his own was rather the wrong way to put it.
He glanced up now, seeing her for the first time, and the look of relief on his face was so tangible that she immediately joined him at the fireplace and covered the hand that was tapping slightly on the mantelpiece with her own. He gave her a grateful smile. She was trying to think of some way to ask how he was without seeming overly concerned, when Molly Weasley spoke up.
“Well. Now that we’re finally all here,” she said looking pointedly at Hermione, “someone has something important to say. Fred, that isn’t pumpkin juice.” She grabbed his glass of firewhisky. “You’ve had enough.”
“I’m George.” He made a swipe for the glass.
“Even so,” she replied, capturing the other twin’s drink as well.
Hermione looked at the crowd. No one seemed inclined to make an announcement. Finally she saw Lavender nudge Ron.
He stepped forward and glanced quickly at Hermione and Harry. She instantly knew what was coming, and had just enough time to probe her own feelings before he spoke.
“Er—” Ron’s shoulders looked unnaturally stiff. “Lavender and I are... engaged.” He looked again at Hermione.
A shocked silence overtook the room. Now they were all staring at Hermione. Well, what was she supposed to do?
Ginny, however, had never taken her eyes off her brother. She stared at the couple now in open-mouthed dismay. “What, are you pregnant too?”
Just as Lavender was turning very pink and starting to frown at the lack of Weasley joy, Charlie clapped his younger brother on the back with a hearty, “Congratulations.” This was taken as a cue for all the other Weasley men to do the same. Molly gave Lavender a warm hug, and after a moment, Ginny shrugged and joined her. Lavender returned the hugs effusively, basking in the attention, and their side of the room turned into a loud and happy free-for-all.
Hermione stood very still, trying to decide what she was feeling. This is a very bad idea, flashed quickly through her head. She grasped onto that thought and nodded inwardly to herself. Yes, it was a bad idea, but it had nothing to do with her. She was vastly relieved her misgivings seemed to have little to do with jealousy.
She noticed Harry looking worriedly at her and squeezed his hand. She tried to give him a reassuring look, but the worry didn’t fade. “I’m fine,” she whispered, right into his ear, but she wasn’t sure he heard.
Lavender’s canary-eating grin lasted all the way through dinner, and Hermione was relieved, at least, that she wouldn’t have to answer any well-meant questions about her own future. Instead, Molly, Lavender, and Fleur kept up a steady stream of happy chatter about wedding plans—Lavender seemed to want hundreds of fairies in the decorations, but Fleur said the latest trend was toward sophisticated minimalism, and Molly was sure her own wedding dress could be enchanted to fit the bride.
Harry, seated across from Hermione, never spoke unless directly addressed, and even then his replies weren’t more than a few words. Ginny watched him constantly, biting her lip. Ron ate slowly and kept shooting Hermione unhappy looks all through dinner. Oh no, she thought at him, hard. You just keep me out of this. This is your doing. He was going to try to corner her at some point and speak to her privately, she just knew it. She didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was.
She was thinking of ways to avoid Ron—a headache? a quick Invisibility Charm?—when she heard a crash. She looked quickly over—Harry had upset a pitcher of pumpkin juice. Lavender squealed and jumped up to avoid the flowing orange mess. Charlie followed at almost the same time, laughing, and soon the entire party was standing.
Fred regarded the table approvingly. “Well done, Harry. I was getting fed up with wedding talk myself.”
Harry’s sheepish return smile looked genuine, but Hermione noticed it didn’t reach his eyes, and saw that his left hand had started shaking.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m feeling that well,” he said quietly.
“What’s the matter, dear?” asked Molly as she Summoned a wash towel.
“Just a headache,” he replied with a wan smile. “But I think I probably ought to be going home now, if you don’t mind.”
He ignored the chorus of protests, and Hermione’s offer to see him home, assuring them he could Floo from upstairs. He left with what Hermione was sure was meant to be a reassuring smile, and an open invitation for a game of pick-up Quidditch from the twins.
Hermione wanted to leave herself, rather desperately, but someone was making a toast; then there was the brotherly teasing of Lavender, and the discussion of bridesmaid dresses—on the subject of which Hermione, to her horror, found herself being consulted. But Harry’s departure had left the room full of uneasy glances, and the party soon broke up.
She said her good-byes as rapidly as possible, wanting to make a quick exit before she could be cornered by Ron, luckily still busy with Lavender. She was walking up the basement stairs, congratulating herself on a clean escape, when she felt her arm grabbed from behind.
Ginny put one finger to her lips, dug her fingers into Hermione’s bicep, and dragged her up the stairs and into Molly’s sewing room. She shut the door and leaned back against it. And Hermione very definitely didn’t want to talk about Ron to Ginny, either. She was just about to say so when the red-haired girl began to speak urgently.
“What?” Hermione asked, startled.
“Harry. Fix him.”
“I don’t think he’s broken.”
“Come off it, Hermione. You’ve seen him. He can barely put two words together without looking like he sat on a Skrewt.”
“He’s been through a lot—”
“Yes. And he won’t talk to me about it. But he will to you.”
“What makes you think—”
The other girl made an impatient gesture. “You can get him to talk to you, we both know you can.”
“Ginny,” she said, starting to feel angry, but attempting a pleasant tone, “I don’t know what you think I can do.”
“You can fix him. He’s suffering, and it’s been far too long, and you know you can.”
She raised a hand against Hermione’s protests.
“I don’t want to argue about this,” she said, opening the door. “Fix him.”
She walked out without a backward glance.
Hermione could distinctly hear voices coming from her sitting room. Ron’s come, she thought instantly. He must have Apparated ahead of her while she was talking to Ginny.
Damn, she thought fuzzily, sitting on her bed in the dark, waiting for her head to clear after her own Apparition. He’d better not want to complain to me about Lavender. It could, of course, be something far worse than that, but she refused to even consider the possibility.
It wasn’t Ron’s voice, though, she realized. Harry?
“Yes,” the voice was saying lazily. “She never had much fashion sense at Hogwarts, either.”
Oh, that was it. She jumped off her bed, wincing at the post-Apparition headache, and dashed into the next room.
Draco was lounging in front of her mirror, apparently getting very chummy with it.
“She’s not unattractive exactly,” the mirror was saying.
“Hard to put your finger on it, isn’t it?” Draco nodded.
“Malfoy!” Hermione shouted, aggravating her headache.
He didn’t even have the grace to jump, just swiveled around, looking polite.
“What,” she said in a quieter voice, “do you think you’re doing here?”
“I thought I made it clear,” he said patiently, and even through her rapidly blurring vision, Hermione could see he had on his You-Haven’t-Any-Breeding-So-An-Exception-Can-Be-Made-For-You face, “I have no place to stay.”
She leaned her head against the wall, hoping words would come to her.
“And since you did say you’d help if you could, I thought I’d give you the opportunity.”
“I never said I’d help you if I could.”
“No?” he asked. “I must have just assumed that’s what you meant.”
She wanted to find the devastating phrase that would reduce him to quivering jelly—that would send him scurrying out her door with his tail between his legs. “Get out,” was all she could manage.
“Is that nice?” he asked.
“Merlin, I hope not,” she said through closed teeth. “Get out.”
“Now, now,” he murmured. “It’s late. We’re both tired. We can talk about this in the morning.”
“Draco—” She sighed with exasperation, and suddenly her knees buckled. She sat down hard on her only chair and closed her eyes for a moment, hoping that it was perhaps all some strange delusion.
She opened them again to find Draco pressing a glass of water into her hand. His expression was new to her. It looked like concern, but Hermione decided to classify it into the Draco-Wants-Something subgroup. And she was really thinking entirely too much about his face.
“You’ve had a hard night. Drink this.” He made helpful drinking motions with his hand. “Your mirror was just telling me how you had to face the Weasel.”
“Get out. Get out. Get out!” She drummed her feet on the floor. She was becoming hysterical. Hermione felt she deserved a bit of a time-out from sanity, after her last few days, but this would not do. Not in front of Draco.
She forced herself to breathe slowly and accepted the water. “How did you get in here?”
“Ah,” he said, the concerned look fading. “Your sophisticated magical protection system needs a bit of a tune-up. You’re not warded against Muggles. Which,” he said with a shudder, “I temporarily am.”
“There was a lock.”
“Oh,” he said, looking down with what might have been embarrassment. “That.”
Hermione decided she didn’t want to know. “Malfoy—Draco. You can’t stay here. First off, there’s not enough room.”
“Do an Expansion Charm.”
”I’ve done an Expansion Charm.”
“Oh,” he said, glancing around the tiny flat. “Well, I’m willing to overlook the details.”
“Generous of you.”
“Yes,” he replied. “So I’ll take the bedroom, then?”
She closed her eyes again. Counted to ten. And back. In Arithmantic figures.
It didn’t help. “You really have no place to go?”
When she opened her eyes, his expression looked too much like pity at her unfortunate mental shortcomings for her to want to hear what he had to say.
“Fine,” she said quickly. “You can have the sitting room. For one night. When I come back from work tomorrow, I want you gone. Understand?”
“Perfectly.” He nodded. “Just one thing.”
“Yes?” she asked, sighing.
“Where is the sitting room?” He looked around, searching for another room beyond the miniscule chamber with its one creaky chair.
“You’re in it.”
The war is over and everyone wants something from Hermione. But that's nothing new; she can handle it. Really.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Hermione’s head hurt. More than usual. She’d struck it hard against her desk in the Displaced Wizards Office when she’d taken an abrupt, unexpected, and supremely brief nap. She was sure she was getting a bruise.
It was all Draco’s fault.
The night before she’d tossed him a pillow and let him make his way as best he could in the miniature sitting room. Lying in her own bed, she heard him attempt to settle into her lone seat—a rather uneasy easy chair, with pointy inner springs that resisted all charms and insisted on becoming pointy outer springs. She could have told him that wasn’t going to work.
She didn’t, though, and instead spent a few moments listening to him curse and squirm around the painful coils, before she cast a Silencing Charm. He would eventually wind up on the rug, she knew. It was really the only choice.
She thought about him lying there in the dark. Her apartment was so small he wasn’t more than a few feet away, even though they were in separate rooms. At the moment, she would have been breathtakingly glad of a bedroom door, and she’d wondered briefly about the feasibility of a Construction Spell. She could hear him breathing despite the Silencing Charm.
No. That was in her imagination as was, clearly, the shiver that went through her body, leaving gooseflesh.
This was ridiculous. She grabbed her wand and whispered, “Protego.” That ought to do it. If Draco got any funny ideas during the night, he’d run smack into a magical barrier.
That should’ve been enough to enable her to sleep. Why wasn’t it?
Just when she’d thought she’d never fall asleep again, she must have, because she was suddenly awakened by an angry male voice.
“Bloody Merlin’s tit!” the voice roared.
She had a moment of blinding panic, followed by a moment of blinding rage. She quickly undid the barrier spell and jumped into the sitting room. “Lumos!”
Draco was sprawled on the floor against the wall, where he’d been knocked back by the shield. He clutched his nose with both hands.
“That’s it, Malfoy—”
He cut her off with a wail of pain. “You broke my nose!”
“What do you think you—”
“I was trying to get to your toilet, you daft bint. Your virtue is perfectly safe with me. Ooowwww,” he moaned again.
Hermione felt instantly flooded with guilt, which was a completely ridiculous reaction as Draco deserved everything he got. She cast a quick healing spell anyway.
Draco slowly removed his hands from his face and probed his nose carefully with his index fingers. He glared up at her.
“Would you be so kind as to allow me to use your facilities now?”
She stepped aside from the doorway, giving him an unobstructed path. It was completely unfair that she should be mortified nearly to death in her own flat in the middle of the night.
“Thank you.” And that was an easy expression to recognize—the Draco Death Glare. “And perhaps you might see your way clear to a blanket, if that isn’t too much to ask.”
They hadn’t said a word to each other the rest of the night. Hermione didn’t sleep again.
She was paying for it today. She’d even been snappy with a young French couple who hadn’t done anything worse than have their lives turned upside-down by Voldemort.
After all they’d been through, the couple was still so obviously in love, so supportive and devoted, that Hermione wanted to scratch their eyes out, or at least knock off their ridiculous berets. Recognizing her own sleep-deprivation, she had managed to restrain these impulses to the occasional scowl. She did not want to see happy couples in love. Not after dealing with Ron and Lavender. And Draco, her mind added.
Draco? Where had that thought come from? She really needed a nap.
She wasn’t fated to get one. Remus had come round just after she’d assigned her French couple to a council house near Covent Garden. He’d taken her to lunch, then spent the rest of the afternoon talking at her about the Department of Recovery. “Putting her in the picture,” he’d called it, and when had Remus become a bureaucrat?
When she finally trudged home two hours late, she wanted nothing but a hot bath and uninterrupted peaceful oblivion, but she knew she’d have Draco to deal with. He had promised faithfully to be gone by the time she returned home from work, but Hermione had an idea what the faithful promises of Draco Malfoy were worth when weighed against the opportunity to torment her.
No, he’d still be there, smug and insufferable as ever. If only life as a Muggle could teach him some humility. But that was as likely as a Chizpurfle changing its spots. Well, she’d just have to kick him out, firmly this time.
“Alohomora,” she said to her door, and walked inside.
She’d planned out what to say to him. It wasn’t a bad speech—resolute, but not unsympathetic—and full of helpful advice like the need to stand on one’s own two feet.
But it needed an audience, and Hermione found to her great surprise that Draco was not there. Unable to believe he’d actually left, Hermione walked the two strides to her bedroom. Draco was not there either. A quick glance showed the loo was empty.
Hermione sat down hard on her bed and considered this. Draco was gone. Now she wouldn’t be able to give her speech. And it was a good speech. And that was the only reason she was disappointed.
“Ooowww,” came a wail from somewhere near her kitchen. Her stomach jumped with something she didn’t want to examine too closely, but which felt an awful lot like relief. And while, yes, the prospect of a Malfoy in pain was enough to brighten anyone’s day, she had better make sure he had not cut off a hand with a kitchen knife.
She put on her firmest face and strode to the kitchen. Draco was backed into a corner glaring malevolently at the Muggle-style gas stove she’d had specially installed when she moved into the flat.
“It burned me,” he said in a voice filled with such outraged shock that she had to laugh.
He turned the glare on her. “I asked it very nicely to make me dinner, and then I spun its knobby things, and it burned me.”
Hermione watched him suck at his finger, and then rip it from his mouth with another moan of pain. Draco, she recited in her mind, The Muggle world is not so bad. There are places you can go that will help you get on your feet. The time will pass.
“You can stay here with me,” she said. He looked up quickly. “For a few days. Until you can get settled somewhere.”
And there was the unadorned Draco Smile. So rare it was almost painful to look at.
“And you’ll have to learn a few things.” He was staring at his finger now, watching the burn redden. She sighed. “Beginning with how to feed yourself, I suppose.”
“So the Weasel is getting married.” He looked thoughtful.
“This is the fruit and vegetable aisle,” she said with a general wave. She handed him a bunch of grapes and pointedly watched until he placed it in the shopping trolley.
“And to that thing he had stuck to his face all sixth year. Well, well.” He shook his head, managing to sound amazingly like her mirror.
“Broccoli,” she said.
“I think not.” He returned it to the counter. “Of course you’re far better off.”
“I shouldn’t have told you.” Why had she told him?
“Probably not.” He looked around. “Where’s the pumpkin juice?”
“Still in the pumpkin.”
He picked one up and regarded it speculatively. He placed it to one ear and shook it, frowning. Hermione sighed and grabbed it out of his hands, adding it to the trolley.
“Weasley is a moron.”
“Draco. Shopping. Pay attention so you’ll be able to do it on your own.” She deliberated, then put in some lettuce. Perhaps Draco could learn to make a salad without injuring himself or her kitchen.
“Moron,” he said. “Goes without saying, of course. Though saying it’s rather fun. Weasley is a mor-on.” He savored the last word, letting it spill slowly from his lips.
“Choosing that ridiculous piece of fluff when he could’ve had you.”
“He couldn’t have had me,” she replied evenly, trying not to feel pleased.
“No?” And she did not notice the light that came into his face.
“No,” she answered. “Come on. Now it’s time to learn how to pay.”
The next evening she showed him the tube. She let him pick their destination, and was surprised by his choice of Whitechapel until he told her that Jack the Ripper had actually been a mad wizard named Ryder Chinceworthy who was rumored to be a Malfoy cousin.
“Ah,” she said.
The day after that she moved into her own office in the renovated section of the Ministry of Magic. She had the sign-maker charm “Hermione Granger” on the door in gold-leaf, but changed it to mother-of-pearl after he’d left. She experimented with emerald slivers, and sapphire, but in the end settled for black paint.
When she got home, she discovered that Draco had apparently spent the day experimenting with Muggle toiletries and then let the tub overflow, leaving lime green bubble bath scum everywhere, and completely ruining the carpet. She decided it was time to acquaint him with Muggle-style cleaning.
“A mop?” he asked, fingering it distastefully.
“Yes,” she said and left him to it.
To his credit, she only heard him attempt Scourgify three times.
The next night she told him she had to go out and left him a London Times, conveniently opened to the Employment Section.
“I’m meant to be fixing you right now.” Hermione frowned. She hadn’t wanted to say that.
“I didn’t think I was broken,” replied Harry, taking another swig of his firewhisky.
“That’s what I told Ginny!” Hermione stared at her own empty glass. Harry refilled it. Harry was nice. He wasn’t broken.
“Ginny?” he asked, frowning.
Ginny. What was that about Ginny? Oh yes. Ginny wanted her to fix Harry. Ginny had Owled her twice at the Ministry, as a matter of fact, and had threatened to make the next one a Howler. Ginny was not nice.
“Howler,” she told Harry, who nodded as if he understood.
She’d arrived at the Leaky Cauldron to find Harry downstairs among people. Good, she’d thought, until she realized that he was downstairs at the bar, and what he was doing among people was drinking. Still, he’d smiled at her happily and seemed genuinely glad to see her.
She was there to fix him, or at least see him so Ginny would leave her alone. But he’d insisted that if she was going to stay with him, she would have to let him buy her a drink. Then another.
That had seemed like a bad idea at the time, she remembered vaguely. Why was that again?
“Whoops.” The glass nearly slipped from her fingers
“Whoops,” Harry said.
Thinking gave her a pain right between her eyes and made the room spin a little, so she gave up. Harry was smiling, really smiling, and she was having the most fun she’d had in months. The first fun she’d had in months. Harry was a genius. She should tell him.
“You’re very smart,” she said.
“No, that’s you.”
“No, honestly, Harry. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
And he smiled again, and anything that made Harry happy these days had to be a good idea.
The bartender had closed the bar, and made them go upstairs, but that was okay because Harry still had the bottle of firewhisky, and he was still smiling.
Harry’s hotel suite wasn’t so bad, really. The sofa was big and fluffy, and you could put your feet up on it and lean back and watch Harry’s happy face in the almost-dark.
“Remus gave me a door with my name on it,” she said. “Did anyone ever give you a door with your name on it?”
“No,” he said. “Do you have it with you?”
“It’s a door, Harry. It’s at the Ministry. He wants me to be his assistant.”
“I don’t want to be.”
“It’s hardly ever about what you want, Hermione.”
He hadn’t stopped smiling, and he poured her another drink. But she suddenly knew he wasn’t feeling happy, or better. Not at all.
“Harry,” she said.
She bit her lip. “Nothing.”
She should have talked about the Ministry or Quidditch or just been quiet. But she felt reckless and unable to stop, like someone else was speaking.
She touched his hand. “Wouldn’t you like to talk to me?”
“We are talking.” He was still smiling, but there was a brittle warning in his voice.
“Please, Hermione. Drop it.” His hand was in a fist on the sofa, and she could see tiny drops of sweat on his forehead.
Then he met her eyes and all at once the smile was gone completely. He looked suddenly younger, and stricken, and she couldn’t bear to see the anguish in his face.
She scooted forward and wrapped her arms around him. “Please, Harry, I know you’ll feel better if you talk about it.”
Did she know that? But she felt helpless and disconnected. She would’ve done anything, tried anything, to get rid of that haunted look on his face.
“What do you want to know?” he asked in a dull voice that didn’t sound like his.
This had been a very bad idea. “Nothing.” She tried to back away. He held her in the embrace, gripping her tightly. “Whatever you want to tell me,” she said.
“About Voldemort. About what happened at Hogwarts.”
“Yes,” she whispered. He was crushing her. She felt tears prick her eyes.
“Why should I tell you?”
“Don’t then, Harry.” He was hurting her, and she could feel tears on her cheeks, but they weren’t from the pain. “Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to.”
“I was the Horcrux.”
And he wasn’t holding her any more. She felt cold, and empty, and she was hearing things.
“No,” she said.
“Yes.” He gave a short laugh. “I was the last Horcrux.”
“No, Harry. The snake—”
“It was never the snake.” He smiled terribly. She was suddenly made of frost. “It was always me. My whole life, since I was a baby, I had a piece of Voldemort’s soul inside of me.”
“No, Harry.” But she knew it was true.
“Yes. He murdered my parents, and then he used me. I kept him alive all this time.”
She reached a hand to him. He rose, backing to the wall. He wasn’t looking at her any more, and she didn’t know if that was better or worse.
“It hurt when I killed him. Something in me died too.”
“He was inside of me, Hermione. He laughed when he died. What do you think of that?” Harry laughed again; it was the worst sound she’d ever heard.
She went to him, grasped his hands. “It doesn’t matter. He’s gone now.”
“You don’t know that.” His voice was bitter now, and shaking.
“Voldemort’s gone. His soul is gone.”
“He used me.”
“Yes. And now he’s gone.”
“He was inside me and he died. Does that mean I died?”
“Harry, Harry.” She put her arms around him again and let her tears spill on his face. She was talking, but she couldn’t feel herself doing it, murmuring, “He’s gone, he’s gone,” over and over.
“Hermione.” His voice was ice. “Leave.”
She pulled away. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. She felt hollow and unreal.
“Go,” he said. “Don’t come back.”
“I don’t want you here. I don’t want to see you.”
He walked into the bedroom. He didn’t look at her again. After a moment, she went.
Her head was full of Billywigs. They were skating on her brain.
She tried to sit up, decided it was a bad idea, and sank back into her pillow.
Oh, for—Couldn’t Draco go five minutes as a Muggle without injuring himself?
She slowly opened her eyes. They seemed to work all right. The light was searing, but it was still a good first step.
She heard a crash and staggered out of her bedroom. The Billywigs had changed to jump rope now, and were surprisingly heavy. Pound, pound, pound.
The kitchen was a disaster. Draco had been attempting scrambled eggs, apparently, or perhaps dry cereal, who could tell? Broken eggshells littered her counter. Egg innards were smeared everywhere; a few had even made it into a bowl.
He was standing in the midst of the chaos, clutching one hand. How had this so quickly become such a familiar scene? She sighed.
In his other hand he still held one of her biggest, sharpest knives. Sweet Merlin. Had he been making eggs with a knife?
She really did not want to hear the story, but he must have noticed her astonished look, because he made his I-Do-Not-Have-To-Explain-Myself-To-You-But-Clearly-This-Is-All-Your-Fault face and pointed with the knife to a mostly-intact egg. “Well, how else are you supposed to open those things?”
He’d cut his thumb, she noticed. She supposed she should be grateful he hadn’t slit a wrist.
“Draco.” She rolled her eyes. The Billywigs took that as their cue to switch to tennis and ping around her skull. “Put down the knife.”
She went to the loo to fetch a plaster, and took the time while she was there to brush her teeth and try to rid her mouth of the feeling that something had died in it. Let Draco bleed for a minute.
“I’m hungry,” he called from the kitchen. “And I’m injured.”
She’d been rinsing, but suddenly another round with the toothbrush seemed like a good idea.
“Granger,” his voice came again. “I am bleeding to death.”
She sighed and went back to the kitchen. Feeling incapable of speech, she grabbed his wrist and stuck his hand under the cold tap, ignoring his moans of pain. Baby.
She stuck the plaster on his thumb and smoothed it down. He was standing very close to her, and there was really no reason to keep holding his hand. She should let it go and step back. She would in a minute.
He stared down at the plaster. “What’s this?”
“That’s the way Muggles do it,” she answered, stepping back finally.
He poked at it dubiously. “Primitive.”
She stared at the mess and considered making him clean it. But that would mean showing him how and listening to him complain. With the state her head was in, she couldn’t face the idea and did a quick Cleaning Charm instead.
Draco looked around wistfully. “Can’t even feel the magic anymore.” His eyes settled on her.
She looked down at herself and flushed. She’d Apparated straight to her bedroom last night and managed to undress herself, barely. She’d pulled on the nearest thing, a short t-shirt as it happened, and had fallen asleep instantly—or passed out, if you wanted to look at it that way.
She still had on last night’s smeared makeup, and the shirt gave quite a good view of her pink knickers. Draco was not one to pass up an opportunity to humiliate her. She waited.
But the expected Leer of Superiority did not come. Instead she got Disapproving Sneer. “Big night?” he asked.
Harry. She’d been so busy feeling ill that she’d nearly forgotten. A cold lump settled in her stomach. How could she have been so stupid? Well, he’d forgive her. He had to. He just needed some time. She no longer cared if Draco saw her in her underwear.
“How is Potter?” And there was the leer. Up and down her body, with a lick of his lips for good measure. “Impressing the girls with his heroism?”
“Something like that,” she replied quietly.
She was going to be late for the Ministry. She had to pretend to care for Remus’s sake. No, for Remus’s sake she had to actually care. Her stomach felt queasy.
She walked to her bedroom, surprised to find Draco following her.
“I don’t want to—”
“You got an Owl last night,” he said, tossing her a parchment.
It fluttered to the floor behind her, which meant she would have to turn around and bend over to get it. Had he done that on purpose? Probably not; he hadn’t shown himself to be terribly coordinated these last few days.
He rolled his eyes at her hesitation. “Oxford needs your answer in three days.”
“You read it?”
“You can’t be surprised.”
“I suppose not.” She opened her wardrobe. “I have to get dressed now.”
“Why haven’t you told them you’re going?”
“Because I’m not.”
“Nonsense. Of course you are. St. Brigid’s was made for your type.”
If she’d had the energy, she’d have wondered if that was an insult.
“Now isn’t the time to think of ourselves. I don’t expect you to understand that.”
“Now is the perfect time to think of ourselves. You let the werewolf drag you along on his do-gooder mission of doom, you won’t be fit to help anyone soon.”
“The wizarding world—”
“Go to Oxford. Invent new magic. Figure out how to stop the next Voldemort. That’s how you help the wizarding world.”
“Remus needs me.”
“Lupin’s in love with his guilt. No reason to let him pull you under too.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I bet you wanted to go to Oxford before you knew what Hogwarts was.”
It was completely unfair that Draco Malfoy, of all people, was the person who could see through her. If she ever met the Gods of Irony, she would give them a stern talking-to.
“Tell me this. Do you want to go to St. Brigid’s?”
No, she was itching to say. But she looked into his eyes and her mouth refused to form the word. “Yes,” she said. “Terribly, but—”
“No buts.” There was a strange look in his eyes. It didn’t fit in her catalog of Draco expressions.
“You don’t understand.”
“You? I understand you perfectly.”
He took a half-step forward. She wasn’t sure if she should get ready for a kiss or a slap.
Then he stopped.
“And I understand I’m hungry. You were so busy playing house with Potter last night—never thought that meant I wouldn’t get dinner, did you? I’m famished.” He plucked at his shirt. “Skin and bones, that’s what I am.”
“Oh for—You’re going to have to learn to feed yourself, Draco.”
He looked genuinely surprised. “Why? I’ve got you.”
If only she had a door to slam.
She was beginning to get an idea of how things would be at the Ministry. Meetings all morning—Remus making sure her opinion was heard when Shacklebolt and the others would just as soon she stayed silent. Cases in the afternoon. She would be seeing the VIPs now—magical ambassadors, foreign princesses.
Around noon, Ginny Floo’d her desperately demanding to know what she had done to Harry—he’d checked out of the Leaky Cauldron.
Hermione felt her stomach drop to the floor, but she was slightly cheered to learn upon inquiries that the Leaky Cauldron expected him back in a week. She felt even better when her new position allowed her to tell the reception-witch she would not be accepting any more Floos from Ginny Weasley.
When the reception-witch Inter-office Owled her to ask if she could put Ron Weasley through, she gritted her teeth and decided she might as well face him. He asked her to dinner rather haltingly, and she was going to turn him down until she realized that that would mean Draco would have to fend for himself. Draco needed to be taught a lesson; there was only a slight chance of his actually starving.
Dinner had gone well. They’d discussed Harry, of course. She didn’t tell him what Harry had said to her, and he didn’t press, but it was good to hear his unshakeable faith that Harry would be like his old self again. He just needed time.
He’d told her about his apprenticeship at the Daily Prophet—just Conjuring tea for the reporters for now but he had hopes of landing the Quidditch beat in time.
He’d been politely curious about the Ministry, and he’d agreed that it was a far more important thing to do than St. Brigid’s—the last thing Hermione needed was more school.
They’d managed to avoid the subject of Lavender entirely, and by the time he’d asked her to take a walk in the wizarding corner of Hyde Park, things were beginning to seem almost normal between them.
The moon was full and the city lights weren’t visible from the path. Hermione began to relax for the first time all day. Harry would be all right, and she was doing the honorable thing in choosing the Ministry over university, and Draco was stupid. She was so sure of the last that she let Ron put his arm around her shoulders as they walked. They were the oldest of friends, there couldn’t possibly be any objection, and it felt good.
It felt wonderful, actually. His arm was warm and solidly heavy in just the right way. When he looked down at her, she smiled.
And suddenly they weren’t walking any more, and he was pulling her closer and kissing her hair and her forehead, and she’d been playing with fire. She couldn’t even pretend she hadn’t known.
“Hermione,” Ron was saying, “Hermione.” His lips were hot against her ear and the side of her neck. His hands were moving on her back.
She could just let it happen. It would be so easy. Would be something they’d been building to for years
“What about Lavender?” she asked.
She felt him wince. “It’s always been you, Hermione. I’ve been so stupid.”
He kissed her chin, her cheek, her mouth. She allowed it for a moment.
“I’ve always known we’d be together someday.” He pulled her closer. “I don’t know what I was waiting for.”
“But now you’re ready?”
“Yes,” he murmured into her lips.
“Ron.” She pulled her head back. “I haven’t been waiting for you.”
He leaned forward to recapture her lips. She gently shrugged off his embrace.
“Was I meant to just be here when you were finally ready?”
“Well... yeah.” He looked staggered. “I mean, no. It’s not like—”
“If you wanted me, you needed to say something long ago.”
“No. You don’t understand.” His face was puzzled. “I love you, Hermione. I’ll break it off with Lavender. It’ll be okay.”
“Ron, I’m sorry.” And she really was, suddenly. He’d been counting on her, she realized. “Do what you like about Lavender. But I’m not an option.”
“When did we start all this? Fourth year? Fifth? Can’t we just forget about it? Can’t we be friends the way we used to be?”
She desperately wanted one thing to be steady. One thing she could hold on to—could keep the way it had been before the war.
“Please, Ron,” she said quietly. “I miss you. Can’t we go back?”
His face was a mask of hurt confusion. She wondered what he’d been seeing when he’d looked at her, all these years.
“No, Hermione,” he said finally. “I don’t think we can.”
“Harry’s in Hogsmeade,” Remus said from the door.
He stepped all the way into her office. “I suspect he’s gone to see the ruins of Hogwarts.”
“What?” she asked. “How do you know?”
He smiled. “The Ministry has access to rather advanced locator magic. Ginny Weasley asked me to find him. She says you haven’t been returning her Floos.”
“Oh,” she said. “No.”
“She was rather insistent that you should go talk to him.”
Does she want me to drive him completely round the bend? “Did you tell her where he was?”
“No. But if you’d like, I could perhaps need a report on the progress of Hogwarts’ reconstruction? It could require a personal visit.”
“Harry needs some time on his own.”
“All right,” he said. “Though I don’t like the idea of Harry poking around the rubble by himself reliving bad memories. Or good ones, for that matter. Sure you won’t go? You might do him some good.”
He doesn’t need me. If he’s at Hogwarts, he’s gone to see Dumbledore.
She thought of telling Remus this, but instead just said, “No.”
So instead of seeing Harry at Hogwarts, it was war orphans and a new orphanage Kingsley was dedicating.
There were so many children, dark and fair, tall and short. She saw Harry’s haunted eyes in each one.
Kingsley stayed twenty minutes—time enough for pictures—and Remus perhaps an hour, and she had to leave with him because there was a meeting with the Turkish ambassador that could not be missed. And she sat there all afternoon while they negotiated—something, and didn’t hear a word.
It was still light out when she went to Oxford.
“Dr. Jackson, I’m sorry, I can’t accept your generous offer.”
It was on her lips; she’d practiced saying it three times, and she could run through it without a hitch. But when she put one hand up, ready to knock on Dr. Jackson’s office door, she suddenly couldn’t breathe.
Her stupid body actually started shaking and she was sure she’d gone pale. She had to get out of there before a concerned don could come be helpful all over her.
She stumbled out to the quadrangle and dropped on a bench. Deep breaths, here in the open air. Breathe in, breathe out. She felt clammy and fuzzy-headed, and she’d been through a war, damn it, and had always kept her cool. She refused to lose her mind at Oxford.
That was better. She could get some air in her lungs now, and when she looked at her hand, the shaking was barely noticeable. If she could just sit here for a minute, she’d be able to move again. She wanted to check her face in the little mirror she kept in her bag, but didn’t dare. It was supposed to be non-magical, but she didn’t trust the mirror at her flat not to have corrupted it somehow.
St. Brigid’s was so beautiful. The grass here was brilliantly green, even though non-magical Oxford’s lawns were beginning to dull in the autumn chill. The ancient walls—magically-infused limestone, A Brief History of St. Brigid’s had informed her—glowed orange in the last of the fading sun. There were few people around, since the term hadn’t started yet, and it was so easy to want this. So easy to close her eyes and see herself walking these paths.
She felt her heart lurch and her breathing speed, and she opened her eyes, hating herself and feeling ridiculous all at the same time. None of this was too much for her. Hermione Granger had faced a Basilisk as a child and fought a war as a teenager. She was the practical one. The one people turned to when they needed something. She could be depended upon.
She couldn’t lose control now. And why would she? Because Remus—and by extension her world—needed her at the Ministry? And Ron needed her to be something she never had been? And Harry—well, she wished she knew what Harry needed.
And Draco. Draco needed her for everything, seemingly.
She was perfectly capable of handling herself. She always had been. If everyone wanted something from her—well, that was nothing new. If her heart was beating fast, and her insides had a horrible empty feeling—it was nothing she had to give in to. It would go away in time.
She Apparated a few streets from her flat so she would have time to think on her walk home. The hollow feeling was still with her.
She hadn’t been able to give Dr. Jackson her answer, but she was able to control herself now, and she would Owl him from the flat.
She didn’t know what to do about Ron or Harry yet—or if she could do anything. Perhaps they had all changed too much. Perhaps the trio was over.
But Draco, she knew what to do there. He’d have to move out, there was nothing else for it. She felt a surprising twist in her stomach at the thought. She’d grown used to having him around. In a way she even enjoyed it. But she couldn’t do everything for him. He had to stand on his own—there were too many other people she had to take care of. Including herself, she supposed.
Even now he was probably making a shambles of her kitchen with no edible results. Or maybe he was just standing in the middle of her sitting room, arms folded, waiting for her to feed him.
She’d reached her building. Up the stairs and in her door, and then she’d have to tell him. The hollow feeling had spread all the way to her fingertips now, but that couldn’t be helped.
“Alohomora,” she whispered and walked in.
Her kitchen was in the same state she’d left it that morning, which meant that Draco had not even attempted food, and would no doubt start complaining of hunger pangs any moment.
Her muscles had tensed, she realized, waiting for it, but he was lounging in the easy chair reading a newspaper, and barely looked up.
“Draco,” she said, and it was somehow the thing she wanted to say least in the world.
He looked up sharply. And that was definitely concern she saw flash across his face before he replaced it with a carefully neutral expression.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Have you been turning down Oxford then?”
“No,” she said. His face broke into a genuine smile, and she didn’t have the heart to add, Not yet.
He got up and moved to her, but she took a step back.
“Draco. I have to tell you something.” You have to leave. Soon. Tonight, maybe.
She could say this to him. She’d been coward enough for one day already. She took a breath.
Well, perhaps she could tell him over dinner. After all, he had to eat, and he’d never be able to manage it on his own.
She was exhausted. The second to the last thing she felt like doing was cooking, but the very last thing was telling him he had to leave, so it seemed a fair compromise.
And why couldn’t he take care of himself? It was so stupid. Yes, he’d never had to lift a finger for himself, but the world can change, and he’d been in a war, too. Six billion people in the world were Muggles, and most of them managed all right. Why was he so ridiculous over food and cleaning and work and money and any of the other thousand little decisions Muggles had to make each day? Why couldn’t he even try? Why was he making her kick him out—which was somehow ridiculously, absurdly, impossibly filling her with hollowness?
Everybody else needed so much from her. She wanted so much for him to be different than the others. She hadn’t realized how much until now.
“I had a big day, too,” he said.
“Did you?” She could barely stand any more, she was so insubstantially hollow.
“Yes,” he said. “I learned how to use the telephone.”
Well, that was more than some wizards managed, she supposed.
“I better make dinner.” She dreaded going into her kitchen. It felt too much like a last meal.
There was a banging at the door. Hermione jumped. She never had visitors.
“And,” Draco said, “I learned how to order pizza.”
She’d seen the Draco Pride face before, of course, but this was the first time she’d seen it without any malice at all.
He opened the door and paid the delivery boy. Paid! With the right denominations of Muggle money, like he’d been doing it his whole life. And took the pizza and closed the door.
He turned back to her, brandishing the box. She felt frozen. His smile faded at the look on her face.
“I knew you were going to have a hard day.” His expression was confused. “So I thought I could do something for you. Hermione?”
It was as if all her blood started suddenly rushing through her body. She felt her entire body tremble.
“Hermione?” He was alarmed now.
She couldn’t speak. He dropped the box on the floor and was at her side in two strides. He took her in his arms. She burst into tears.
“Hermione. Sweetheart.” There was no mistaking the panic in his voice. “Hermione, love, what is it? It’s all right. It’s just pizza,” he said desperately.
She gave a great hiccup of a coughing laugh, which made him clutch agitatedly at her shoulders. She couldn’t stop sobbing. Draco drew her closer, and said, “Sweetheart,” over and over in an urgent voice. And then he was pressing hot kisses everywhere he could reach. His lips were wet with her tears.
Her self-control had been an illusion, apparently, because it was all gone now. Everything she hadn’t let herself feel for months was coming out through her tears. She was powerless to stop it.
After a moment she stopped trying to control her trembling sobs. It hadn’t been any use, anyway. She couldn’t form words, couldn’t tell Draco what was wrong, and more importantly, what wasn’t.
But she could move her mouth so that his searching lips met hers. And she could kiss him deeply, even as the tears never stopped flowing down her face.
He returned the kiss eagerly, pulling her even closer and letting his hands touch everywhere they could. And she still couldn’t speak to tell him she was all right, she was just having some sort of time-delayed emotional crisis, but that it felt good. So she put every bit of reassurance she had into her kiss. He seemed to understand.
The hollow feeling had finally gone away. Replaced by a sense of—not fullness, but somehow wholeness. She felt real in a way she hadn’t since before the war and was staggered by the revelation. She’d have to tell Draco when she could speak again.
Later. She’d tell him later. He licked her neck. Now they had more important things to do.
“Weasley did what?” Draco started to struggle up off the picnic blanket. “I’ll kill him.”
“Relax.” Hermione pushed him gently back down. “I’m only trying to explain why Ron and Lavender aren’t engaged anymore.”
“But she’s still dating him?” He reached into the basket, evidently deciding to take a chicken leg instead of getting upset.
She nodded. He shook his head in wonder. “Dating Weasley. Woman’s a saint. Or an idiot. Possibly both.”
She would never tell him, but privately she couldn’t help agreeing. She thought back to the dinner she’d had with Ron, Lavender, and Harry the night before at Harry’s new Hogsmeade cottage.
Ron had been strained at first, but he was speaking to her and even joking. Lavender had asked Hermione about her plans and made several insightful comments, which Ron seemed to actually listen to. He’s finally given up on me, Hermione realized. They all had to be better for that.
Harry was proud of his little house and spoke enthusiastically about the repairs he intended to make. She watched him carefully all night, until he grew annoyed at her attentiveness, and never once did she see his hands shake. They stayed late into the night, talking and laughing, and halfway through the evening, it suddenly occurred to Hermione that the war was over, that this was life.
She’d wanted to take Draco to Harry’s dinner party, but he’d rolled his eyes and announced that he would have to refuse, thank Merlin, because he was working. He’d enjoyed her expression of gape-mouthed shock until she kissed the smug smile off his face and then told her he’d found work in a SoHo art gallery where the management was sure his aristocratic air and good looks would be an invaluable asset in selling overpriced paintings to Muggles with too much money.
Hermione allowed herself to lean back for a moment with her hands off the blanket, feeling the warmth of the quadrangle lawn. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the sun on her face, and breathed in the smell of the grass. She opened her eyes to see other undergraduates taking advantage of an unusually warm fall day to do the same thing—the quadrangle seemed to be full of students. They were reading or picnicking—a few were even catching and releasing a Snitch, though none of them with Harry’s style. She saw Dr. Jackson across the square and happily returned his wave before she reached out for the heavy book that lay at her side.
Draco leaned in for a kiss. She pushed him away, gestured to the book now open on her lap, Modern Advanced Arithmantic Derivations. “You know I only agreed to this if you’d let me study.”
“Your classes don’t even begin until this afternoon. What could you possibly have to study?”
She just looked at him. He laughed. “Fine. I give up.”
He lay back on the grass and studied the sky. “I wonder how the werewolf is getting along without you. The Ministry doesn’t seem to have crumbled.”
“Fine, yes, Draco,” she said without looking up from her book. “You are the smartest most intelligent wizard in the history of wizardkind, and I shall never again question your advice. Happy?”
The way he said “Yes” made her look up from her book. She smiled down at him fondly. “Of course, Remus does still need an assistant. I suppose you could always-—”
He pulled one wrist, and she found herself sprawled on top of him. He took advantage of his position to kiss her thoroughly.
“Draco,” she said when she could gather her breath, “I am actually at my university now. I’d like to maintain some decorum.”
“Do a Concealment Spell,” he whispered into her ear.
She laughed. “St. Brigid’s has had a thousand years of undergraduates. They’re warded against that.”
“Well then,” he said smiling and pulling her into another kiss. “I guess you’ll just have to suffer the embarrassment.”
A/N: Originally for Shiv5468 at the Hot Summer Nights DMHGficexchange who requested: Post-defeat of Voldemort, everyone is trying to get their lives back in order. Hermione is working for the Ministry and Draco needs her help.
St. Brigid is the patron saint of scholars. She was possibly originally a Celtic pagan goddess of fire whose manifestations included song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge, before early Christians adapted her legend for their use. Alternately she was an Irish princess who converted to Christianity in 468. Thanks to kendas for naming the college!