A/N: This story was written for KeladryLupin for the Summer 2007 SS/HG Exchange. It is completely written and I will post it over the next couple of weeks. :)
Thanks go out to my alpha and beta readers while I was working on this project. JuneW, DeeMichelle, Subversa, Cocoachristy, Minuet99 & Ferporcel. They are a wonderful group of friends and I appreciate the correcting, advice and hand-holding from each of them.
Chapter 1: I Still Believe
Hermione fought the urge to look at her watch for what had to be the hundredth time this evening. Not that the time mattered at this point; it was now a matter of completing her task. There was no way she'd be allowed to leave before she was finished, regardless of the plan.
She grabbed the next pan from the slowly dwindling stack. Casting a quick charm on the brush, she put her wand back in her pocket and grabbed the brush as fresh soap bubbles began to form.
And she scrubbed.
She'd been at this now for at least four hours and she was quite certain her mentor had assigned it with the sole intent of forcing Hermione to stay late, yet again. Hermione had the feeling that she should have the words "house-elf" tattooed across her forehead. It made her want nothing more than to renew her campaign for S.P.E.W.
Ron would never forgive her if she did such a thing, however.
Hermione rinsed the pan and set it with the ever growing stack of clean ones before grabbing the next. This time, however, she couldn't resist the urge to check her watch: 8.15. Officially, she'd been off-duty at seven, and judging by the stack of soiled bedpans she had left to scour, she had another forty-five minutes to go.
If this had been one of her twelve-hour shifts, she wouldn't be nearly as cranky or exhausted as she was now. No, her mentor had seen fit to assign such a tedious and menial task at the end of a thirty-six hour shift.
This was one of the things that wasn't mentioned in the pamphlet she'd read about becoming a Healer. She hadn't expected the training to be easy. No, Hermione Granger had been through a war, after all. Not only had she been through a war, but she'd been on the front lines. It was in preparation for that war that she had learned basic First Aid and Healing charms and discovered her love for the art of Healing. She had also seen many things in the war that had given her experience to put her heads above her present classmates in the Healer Training Program.
She felt she had come into this career choice with her eyes wide open. That hadn't made the decision any easier for her to make. Following the war, she, Ron and Harry had all been promised positions in the Auror Training Program. After several weeks of agonising over the choice, Hermione had ultimately decided not to accept the position with her two friends.
Several things had factored into her refusal, but at the time, she had decided that she'd spent more time than she had ever wanted chasing down Dark wizards. She certainly had no desire to make a career out of it. Not to mention that she thought it would be a bad idea to go through the same three-year training course – and then work in the same profession – as her boyfriend.
The three friends had agreed to take a year off before making any formal decisions about their careers, however. During that year, Hermione had convinced them to sit their N.E.W.T.s so they would have other options available to them. The Aurors had extended the invitation based on their performance and past marks in school and had been willing to accept them without their N.E.W.T.s. Both Harry and Ron had whinged incessantly when she'd told them her plan and given them schedules for self-study and revision.
In the end, they had all sat their N.E.W.T.s, and only Ron had joined the Aurors. Harry had gone to work for the Ministry in their Magical Games and Sports Division, while Hermione had signed on to become a Healer.
Now, six years later, Harry and Ginny were married. They spent most of their time travelling abroad in his job for the Ministry, and Hermione usually only saw them on holidays.
She and Ron had dissolved their relationship after two years of trying to make it work. Although she partly blamed their hectic schedules, it had ultimately been their different interests and their personalities that had caused them to grow apart. Ron was now working as an Auror as he'd always dreamed, and ironically, was presently dating the Muggle receptionist from Hermione's parents' surgery. The couple had met at the Grangers' Christmas party the year before and had been seeing each other ever since.
And Hermione… well, Hermione was just starting her seventh year of the eight-year training program to become a Healer. The program at St. Mungo's was intense, more so than she'd even anticipated. The first five years were nothing but classroom instruction, followed by the three-year apprenticeship. The first year of apprenticeship had been a general overview of the entire hospital, covering everything from basic Spell Damage to midwifery.
Tonight, looking at the remaining soiled bedpans, she groaned. What was she doing here, cleaning bedpans by hand? This year she was supposed to deal with the more complicated aspects of the job. Dealing with the harder to treat cases, the brewing and experimentation of medicinal potions and Dark curses. It was still an overview of the varying fields, but she was to delve into each aspect deeper so that she could decide which field she wished to specialise in for her final year of training.
So far this year, Hermione had learned very little about which field she'd like to specialise in. All she knew for certain was that she hated cleaning bedpans, and if possible, she would like to avoid any long-term care wards.
Like Hogwarts, the new year for St. Mungo's trainees began on the 1st of September. Today it was only the 10th of October – barely six weeks from the start of her new apprenticeship – and she was already looking forward to the end of the program year. For her, that time would come at the end of July.
When the group of Healers-in-Training had gathered in the fifth floor tea room on the 1st of September, they had each been assigned one Healer to shadow for the duration of the program year. Each participating Healer was respected and skilled as a general practitioner, and would take the time to teach the more intense aspects of Healing beyond the basics which the group of apprentices currently possessed. Hermione had been assigned Healer Sedgwick.
Three days after starting work with Healer Sedgwick, Hermione had found herself flipping through the obituaries in the Daily Prophet to see if Professor Snape had suddenly died. He hadn't, of course, but that didn't stop her from wondering what evil soul was presently possessing the Healer that, before this year, she had heard only good things about. It was only because Hermione was certain that things would soon improve that Hermione had yet to lodge a complaint; surely, Healer Sedgwick's past positive history with apprentices meant something.
Surely, there was a logical reason that Hermione was still cleaning bedpans while her fellow trainees had gone home over an hour ago...
A door slammed behind her, causing Hermione to jump and drop the bedpan she had just finished rinsing.
"Miss Granger," Healer Sedgwick looked down her stubby nose and said in an admonishing tone, "aren't you finished yet? Unlike you, I do not wish to spend all night here. And, as I'm sure you are aware, I cannot leave until you do. I am quite tired, and I would like very much if I could get some rest before I have to return."
Oh, yes, Hermione was positive that the Healer was tired. They were on hour thirty-eight of a thirty-six hour shift. Then again, Healer Sedgwick had been able to sleep while Hermione spent the night watching over an aged wizard who constantly tried to get out of bed and fiddled with everything within his grasp. The man hadn't tired and fallen asleep until five o'clock this morning, only an hour before Hermione had to be ready for morning rounds.
It was through gritted teeth that she finally answered, "I'm working as fast as I can, and since you insisted that the bedpans had to manually scrubbed, I've had to see to each one myself. Otherwise I would've cast a charm on the lot of them and been done hours ago."
Healer Sedgwick focussed her beady little eyes at the stacks of bedpans and inspected the one nearest to her. "That I did say. We had to cordon off an entire floor. There was an epidemic at Hogwarts this last week that infected the house-elves. I was previously informed of your sympathy towards their plight, so I didn't think that you would mind assisting. The virus doesn't pass on to witches, but wizards can also be infected. It is passed through the excrement. It's impervious to charms and must be scrubbed clean. Surely you didn't think that just because you were a witch that you would never have to do manual labour?"
"I know plenty about manual labour. Was anyone at Hogwarts affect by the disease?"
"One professor, but he only suffered minimally. No long-term effects. The matron there did a fair enough job of containing the virus to the house-elves, but the infected elves needed to be quarantined so they were moved here. They were lucky."
Hermione nodded as she grabbed the second-to-the-last dirty pan, curious about who'd been infected, but choosing to keep her questions to herself; when dealing with this woman had proven to be a safer strategy. She knew that Healer Sedgwick was talking about the House-Elf Flu. (Leave it to wizards to constantly name viruses after those whom they blamed for it.) It was a terrible virus for house-elves and wizards, but affected them very differently. For house-elves, it affected their intestinal tract, wrecking havoc. For wizards, it caused headaches, breathing difficulties and memory loss. It made Hermione thankful she was a woman, although there were equally dangerous illnesses out there that only affected witches.
In a frustrated huff, Healer Sedgwick Conjured a second brush, grabbed the last pan and began scrubbing. "I wish to leave. Unlike you, I would prefer to get home and get some sleep. I have to be back to work on Sunday."
Hermione fought the urge snap back at the woman. She wanted nothing more than to get home and get to sleep. Hermione only had to work the occasional Sunday and thankfully it was not the one this weekend. However, she did have other work at nine o'clock tomorrow morning.
It was by sheer force of will that Hermione was able to drag herself out of bed before nine the following morning. Just as she always did, she'd showered when she stumbled into the flat the night before. So, all she had to do this morning was drag on a clean set of robes, run the brush through her hair (for all the good it did) and try to wake up her brain with an quick infusion of caffeine.
"Good morning," greeted the all too perky voice of her roommate, Heidi Davies.
Hermione mumbled back a half-hearted greeting as she prepared a second cup of tea and with a wave of her wand shielded the cup to prevent spillage. Her roommate truly was much too perky and alert in the mornings, especially the mornings on which Hermione felt as if she were hung-over. Heidi, too, was currently going through the apprenticeship program at St. Mungo's, and they'd been in the program together since the beginning. Heidi had been two years behind Hermione at Hogwarts and was the younger sister to Roger Davies.
"I'm running late," Hermione said as she grabbed her cloak and put it on.
"Oh, you have some post here," Heidi said, running over with a small handful of envelopes.
"I'll read them when I get home."
"You haven't been home since Thursday morning, Hermione. One is from your mum — I can't miss the smell of her perfume for anything — and another had a return address from Norway, I believe."
"All right, I'll take them." She could read them during lunch if the shop wasn't too busy. Although it was Saturday, and Saturdays were notoriously busy. The enticement of a letter from Harry and Ginny was too much to pass up, however. It had been several weeks since she'd last heard from either of them. Hermione took the stack of post from the blonde woman, shoved them into the pocket of her cloak, muttered a hasty goodbye and darted out the door.
At precisely 9.03, she arrived at number 93, Diagon Alley: Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes.
She was three minutes late! Knowing that she was more disappointed in herself than her employers would be, she heaved a heavy sigh before she opened the door and made her way inside. The redhead standing behind the cash register grinned at her as she weaved her way to the backroom to hang up her things. When she returned to the front, she carried her teacup with her and set it under the counter.
"Good morning, George," she said.
"You look like you've had a rough night."
"Try a rough couple of rough nights."
He smiled warmly at her and Hermione went to work. She began her shift the same way she usually did, by going through the aisles and restocking all of the items in the store. She helped children find the Pygmy Puffs, and she sold Skiving Snackboxes.
This obviously wasn't her dream job, by any stretch of the imagination, but it did pay the bills. She had been grateful last year when her apprenticeship at St. Mungo's had begun paying a minimal salary. It hadn't been much, but it had been enough that, added to her wages from the Weasley twins, she'd been able to finally move out of her parents' house. Of course, she'd also had to take Heidi as a roommate.
Living in London wasn't cheap.
Her hospital salary was enough to pay her half of the monthly rent and utilities. The monies she received from working for the Weasleys covered food and miscellaneous expenses. There wasn't much left over for extras.
The benefit was that Fred and George were easy to work for. For one thing, they'd matured… well, they'd matured some. Her schedule was flexible, and the pay was good. When the store was slow, she helped them in the backroom on the development of new products.
The greatest advantage, however, was the fact that unless she was helping Fred or George in the backroom with a new product, she didn't have to think. She had to be there, help keep the store clean, keep the shelves stocked, point to where items were located and occasionally be called upon to count out change. And counting out change she could do in her sleep. This morning, after two days of not being able to sleep and still being forced to keep her mind sharp and her wits about her, Hermione Granger relished the mind-numbing work.
As was typical for a Saturday in Diagon Alley, the Weasley shop was a bustle of activity. It wasn't until about three o'clock when a lull hit the shop and Hermione could finally take a break and sit.
"How is Fred doing?" she asked George as he pulled up a stool to sit next to her in the backroom. They could see the front of the store from here if anyone came in, but they were blessedly screened from any patrons who came calling.
"Much better, thanks to you. We don't know how to thank you, Hermione."
"I was just doing my job." She took a bite of an apple and stared out at the empty shop while she chewed.
George began to fidget on his stool, although it took a few moments for Hermione to finally notice.
"We just wanted to… uh… make sure that," he said as he looked behind him to ensure that no one had come in without him noticing, "that… you know… you hadn't…"
Hermione raised an eyebrow, giving him a look of disapproval. "That I haven't turned you in?"
And then she waited while her employer looked at her anxiously, a pleading look in his eyes.
"No, I haven't, George. Your secret is safe with me."
An exhaled sigh of relief met her ears.
Last Tuesday she'd been awakened by the sound of George yelling through her Floo to come quickly to the shop. She'd done so, only to find that while Fred and George had been working on a new product; they'd made a miscalculation and a cauldron had exploded. Fred was covered in what turned out to be a highly hazardous byproduct. Hermione had worked quickly in both containment and healing. As a result, both twins were now safe.
However, whenever such an accident occurred, and especially when an outside source is called in to help, the newly formed Department of Magical Experimentation and Dangerous Potions must be called in to assess the scene. All wizards and witches working on experiments are supposed to file papers with the Department to seek out permission and to have their work approved before proceeding. The intent of the law was to decrease the number of accidents.
Fred and George had already been fined three times for not filing for an Experimentation Permit. If they were caught again, their shops could be forcibly closed by the Ministry for up to thirty days, pending a hearing.
"But, you both owe me."
George emphatically nodded. "Actually, we were discussing that, and we'd like to repay you."
Hermione waited for the other shoe to drop. She could tell by the enthusiastic nod of George's head and the glint in his eyes that the twins had something up their sleeves.
"We think you need a good shag, Hermione."
Hermione choked on the pumpkin juice she had just taken a sip of and sprayed it all over the desk in front of her. "Excuse me?"
"You need a good shag," George said again. "Well, likely more than just one shag. But don't worry though; we weren't thinking one of us."
"Oh, well, that's good," Hermione muttered in disbelief as she cleaned up the mess on the desk.
"Didn't you used to date Krum? We thought he might be good for you."
"Viktor? Erm, yes, I did. I've not seen him in ages because he's still living in Bulgaria."
George got a big smile on his face. "He just signed a contract to play for the Wimbourne Wasps. He moved to England last month."
"Really? And what exactly do you propose I do, hmm? Walk up to him and say, 'Oh, Viktor, I've missed you terribly. Would you mind shagging me silly for a moment? Thanks.' For some reason I don't think that will go over all that well. We really were only just friends. Besides, I doubt there is ever any occasion where I would see him."
"Well, we'll think on it. If worst comes to worst, we'll just make certain that you're at the New Year's Eve Masquerade Ball."
"The one that the Ministry is hosting New Year's Eve at the Great Ballroom. It will be the event of the century. They've not hosted anything like this in years."
Hermione rolled her eyes.
"Don't you read your mail? Of course they're inviting all of the heroes of the war."
"Oh!" Hermione jumped up and grabbed the stack of letters from the pocket of her cloak. Sure enough, one of them was addressed to Miss Hermione Granger, with the return address from the Ministry of Magic. She broke the wax seal and revealed an invitation to a masquerade ball, just as George had said. As she read the details, Hermione made some quick mental calculations and shook her head.
"There is no way I'll be able to go."
"I can guarantee you that I will have to work New Year's Eve at St. Mungo's. It's one of those 'perks' that comes along with being an apprentice. We work our schedule regardless of the date on the calendar. It's a Friday night, and I'll be coming off of my long shift. You've seen me after one of those shifts at St. Mungo's. I'd never be able to manage a ball after work."
"Oh, sure you could. At least you won't have to worry about working here the next morning. The shop will be closed New Year's Day.
"We'll help you figure out something; you have over two months to work on it. Besides, it's the perfect opportunity to meet someone. You have no social life, Hermione."
Hermione snorted. "You're starting to sound like your sister."
George wrinkled his nose at the analogy. Hermione knew that it was always a sure way to silence one of the twins… that or compare them to Molly.
Just then there was a ringing of a bell from the front of the store, so Hermione stood up from her chair.
"No," George told her. "Finish your lunch and read your letters; I'll get it. But we're not finished here, yet."
Hermione rolled her eyes at his parting remark. Maybe George was right. She'd been thinking for quite some time that she was ready to try dating again. There had to be someone out there for her… she just didn't have the time right now to try to find someone. And some small part of her still believed in the overly-romanticized idea of destiny and love.
Shaking her head and squashing her insignificant beliefs, Hermione picked up the envelope from Norway and settled down to catch up on the latest news from Harry and Ginny.