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 older than a year. 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."
A/N: Concluded in Part Two. Reviews are loved and given a good home.