THIS IS A PRE-LAST BOOK 2-CHAPTER STORY. I just wanted to post it before the book was out (tonight, tonight! I can't wait), one-shot format, but I couldn't find a beta, and my English is Very Poor (so please don't flame for that reason). I thought that if I posted it split into two parts, I might find someone willing to help… thanks a lot for your time if you read it! Reviews appreciated. And, of course, not mine.

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Hermione took a turn around the (now) gnome-free garden, silently enjoying the solitude. The Burrow was packed as usual and being an only child, she felt she could very well do with a break. Harry and Ginny where having another one of their talks back in the girls' bedroom (she wasn't sure why they had broken up, they were "talking" so much more those days) and she had figured out that a walk outside would be nice. The night was great, perhaps the slightest bit chilly, but the cold breeze kept her awake to enjoy the moonlight.

Suddenly an unexpected sound startled her. She thought it might have been Molly sobbing back in the kitchen. She didn't mean to eavesdrop, but she heard someone she didn't recognize– a man; Arthur, most likely - talking to her in a muffled voice.

She entered the house quietly, unwilling to be discovered there and, with the intention of granting Molly her privacy, she sneaked upstairs. She opened the door to Bill's old bedroom - which remained unused yet, given that it was the smallest one- hoping to be able to hide away from the house's various emotional maelstroms, just to find herself staring at the room's rightful owner, who stared right back.

"Bill!" she exclaimed, surprised.

The older of Ron's brothers was sitting on his desk, writing furiously, and seemed as surprised as she was.

"Hermione?" he asked, narrowing his eyes against the light "hey, what's up?"

"I'm sorry… I didn't think you would be here" she apologized. "We weren't expecting you for another couple of weeks." She suddenly realized he should have been on his honeymoon. "Is everything OK?"

"Yes, yes" he sighted tiredly, gathering his papers and putting them away.

Fleur, Hermione thought alarmed. Something bad had happened to her. She hoped not. If it had, she should be feeling very guilty, and she could bet Ginny would, too. For a number of different, now unimportant, reasons they had both imagined the worst kind of fates for the part-Veela creature.

"Is… is Fleur alright?"

"I think so" he got up and leant on the table, rubbing his neck. "I might as well tell you, I guess. You will probably hear it tomorrow anyway. Fleur and I got our marriage annulled by the Wizengamot"

"What?!" she said, fully entering the room. "But… why would they do such a thing?"

Upon reflection, she though it wasn't very tactful to ask - just a bit too late. But she wondered. Why would the Wizengamot annul their marriage? The only reason she could possibly conjure up for such cruelty was his current condition as a part-werewolf. Still, animagus could marry, and Bill didn't fully transform. She realized she was obviously lost in thought, and very likely staring rudely, and she colored up.

But Bill was smiling, although sadly.

"Because we asked them to" he said, eventually.

"You what?" she immediately put her hand to her mouth.

She didn't understand a word. Much to Ginny's and her chagrin, Bill and Fleur were a perfect couple. Handsome, intelligent, adventurous, and well-off, the kind of couple you would expect to find in the glossy cover of Witch Weekly.

"We thought it might be better" he said, looking at her.

"But… you just…"

"Married? I know… I wish we had realized somewhat earlier." He said, managing at once to imbue his words with dark humor and the slightest trace of bitterness.

What was there to realize? Perhaps Fleur was presumptuous, but she had been caring while Bill had been at the hospital, surprising everyone. As much as she embodied many things Hermione half despised, half envied, one had to admire her determination. And Bill… he had been the only one good enough to see that part of the half-veela. And, damn, he was Bill. He was funny, and handsome, and everything around him just seemed always so casual, so easy. He always said the right thing in the right moment, made the right, swift, graceful move, said the wittiest thing that saved the moment. Hermione didn't much like being around him because she felt a bit clumsy, a bit embarrassed about her bushy hair and her bookish manners and absolute lack of social grace, and despite that, he always seemed to make everybody around him, even her, seem funnier, cleverer, more interesting with his sole presence.

"I am a bit worried about mum" he said, his tone giving a try to nonchalance, not quite failing, not quite succeeding. She came back to reality with a jolt, flustered; it was a confidence of sorts, and they had never been friends, let alone confidants. But again, she guessed it was just convenient. Except for Harry, currently otherwise occupied, she was the only non-Weasley person in the house, and thus, less likely to judge him.

"She will be alright. She is a strong woman" Hermione said tentatively. "Who would have thought she would come to care so much for Fleur" she added, and then regretted it, willing the ground to open under her feet. She seriously considered that Ron's lack of tact was finally rubbing off on her, but Bill didn't seem to mind.

"She isn't taking this as well as I expected. I don't think it is about Fleur… I think she is just worried about me. You know, getting bitter, or ending up alone or that sort of thing. First Percy, then the attack and now this… I think it might be too much for her."

"She will get over it. In your father's words, you don't raise Fred and George without learning some survival tips." She smiled, and he smiled back. "How are you?" she asked, cautiously, conscious that she was moving into unstable, foreign ground.

He smiled, apparently remembering it was his youngest brother's friend he was talking to.

"You'd better get some sleep" he said, looking at the clock.

Hermione was about to turn toward the door- she knew when she was being dismissed- but still, she couldn't get herself to leave "You sure you are ok, Bill?"

Bill shrugged.

"I will be"

Hermione didn't know what to do, a feeling uncommon for her. She knew she should touch him in a reassuring way (that was what Psychology books said, anyway), but she was too far away, and too embarrassed to even try. She felt as clumsy as probably Harry had once felt around Cho Chang.

"I just thought we could make it work" he whispered.

"Sometimes you cannot. It might have been lucky that you realized so early" she said, going closer to him and sitting by his side. "Was Fleur ok?"

"She wrote yesterday saying that she had arrived to France safely" Bill said quietly. "Although it wasn't the nicest letter."

"It wasn't?" she managed.

He shook his head.

"That kind of bothers me. How could I be so daft as to marry someone I can stop being a friend to?" for the first time, he looked really upset.

"It happens all the time, Bill" she consoled. "I dated someone who later tried to kill me" she spilled before she could help it.

Bill stared at her, aghast.

"You… what? Krum?"

She let out a quiet laugh and nodded. She had no idea why she had chosen to tell him that; she hadn't exactly shared that tidbit of information with the guys just yet, but she felt happy she had thought of it. Bill looked distracted, and positively less miserable. He was, however, looking pretty serious, slightly murderous even- just like she thought a protective older brother would look if said older brother had violent red hair- and it felt very nice.

"That's water way under the bridge, now" she said, truthfully. "It makes a nice bedtime story, though" she said, and then thought of the possible interpretations- or misinterpretations- of her words and looked away

"Then you have to tell it to me"

"Maybe another time"

"Where did my brother found you, anyway?" he asked affectionately.

She blushed violently, which she wished had gone unnoticed in the dim light, rejoicing in not being a Weasley and therefore being able to blush without people noticing from ten miles away.

"If you have to know, crying under a sink, covered in troll's snot"

Bill arched his eyebrow, inquisitively.

"Forget it" Hermione said. "What are you going to do now? I mean, if you don't mind me asking" she added quickly.

He smiled broadly.

"I think I will go back to Egypt. It's real fun, and I haven't been able to spend as much time there as I would have wanted, Fleur working here and all"

"It must be a very exciting job" Hermione daydreamed, enviously. She could almost see it, breaking codes and curses and traveling to exotic places…

"It's not all adventure, you know. Preparation requires some heavy reading"

They looked at each other and both exploded in laugher.

"S..sorry" panted Bill. "I forgot who I was talking to"

She wasn't offended; she knew the Weasleys considered her a bookworm, but she didn't mind it coming from them. Plus, it was nice hearing Bill laugh. And, to be truthful, to have been the cause of it.

"I still think it would be exciting"

"You didn't always, huh?"

She grinned, and shook her head.

"But I also seriously considered dedicating my life to something named S.P.E.W"

Bill laughed. Hermione's brush with House Elves liberation had not ended up nicely, as the elves had not appreciated her efforts to set them free, and the girl had luckily put and end to her battle just before it turned into a more literal sort of fight.

"What do you plan on doing now you have graduated?" he asked.

Hermione stared morosely at the wall.

"I don't know"

"You don't know?"

"Is it so surprising?" she said, bitterly. "Everybody seems to know what I should do. Professor McGonagall thinks I should apprentice. My parents want me to go to university, muggle or magic. I have already sent some applications to a few of them. Ron wants me to go into Auror training with Harry and him…"

"And what do you want to do?"

"I wish I knew"

"You could try my job for a while, if you wanted" he said carefully. "I would be glad to recommend you. Merlin, Gringotts would be honored to have you, they haven't seen someone with your credentials since the goblins were allies to the elves"

She blushed at his last comment, and her eyes glowed excitedly.

"Would you?"

"Damn yes" he said, surprised. "Why wouldn't I?"

"I don't know" she shrugged.

He let himself fall on his back, staring at the ceiling.

"I wish things weren't so complicated." He said. He groaned a bit. "I'm sorry, I just don't know why I am telling you all this. I guess I haven't had much chance to tell anybody. Seeing that everybody warned me against the wedding and all" he added, sarcastically "and you make a much better listener than any of those fat headed brothers of mine"

She shook her head, reassuring him that he hadn't bothered her.

"It is definitely better than listening to Harry's and Ginny's endless conversations" she said.

"Or lingering on the corridors where Ron can find you" he laughed.

Ron's attentions towards her had become so obvious over the last few months that they were the matter of jokes and teasing for the whole family, even Arthur. Ron was the only one who didn't seem to take the hints, and avoiding him was growing more and more stressful for her.

She felt heat rise to her cheeks and looked around, trying not to think of Ron. For the first time, she noticed Bill's unopened trunk on the floor and the calendar on the wall, a big red cross marking the full moon. He followed her gaze and smiled.

"I guess I am one of the few guys who can argue he is in 'that time of the month'" he joked.

Hermione laughed.

"Is it… painful?"

He shook his head.

"Not as painful as you would expect. After all, my form doesn't change. My senses are more aware, and I become… restless. I am slightly… wilder, I would say. And I get really hungry for a good steak" he grinned.

The clock startled them both.

"It is getting late" she said, not wanting to intrude more than strictly necessary.

"It is" Bill said, looking at her intently, as if trying to find something.

"What?" asked Hermione.

"Nothing"

"No, tell me"

"I… some other time. Good night, Hermione. And thanks."

She smiled, and nodded.

"Goodnight"

She left, closing the door after herself, and hurried to her room, praying that Ginny and Harry had finished whatever conversation they had been engaged on, and that Ron wouldn't find her before she got there. The stairs felt more of an effort than ever; perhaps because of the oppressive feeling that had just nested in her chest, something she couldn't quite identify, a never-acknowledged, long-denied burden she just dismissed. Whatever it was, it had better remain buried deep. She walked slowly upstairs, and listened through the door. Only Ginny's regular breathing. Good. She entered, and knocked out as soon as her head touched the pillow, allowing herself no time to think.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Bill left the house that very morning; he had decided to go back to work immediately, and they needed him back in London. Mrs. Weasley informed them of what had happened over breakfast. Her eyes were slightly puffy, but she seemed to be on a good mood. The news exploded around the table, and Mrs. Weasley had to reprimand the twins and Ginny for a number of comments, most of them including words that sounded something similar to "freaking" and "ruddy" and "Phlegm". But soon enough, the daily routine took over the shocked siblings.

"Fred, George, clean up that mess right away" Molly commanded, apparently back to her old self. "Ron, will you let Hermione breathe for five minutes? Ginny, now that Harry is not here I am going to tell you this just once, and you better listen to me; I want no closed doors when you two are inside a room on your own. Understood, young lady?"

"But mum!" she protested as she strode out of the room, silenced by her mother.

Hermione remained behind, as she usually did, to help cleaning the table. After all, she was a guest and they were feeding her and everything, and Molly always had so much to do.

"No need to help, Hermione" she said, smiling at her. "Just go with the others."

"I don't mind"

"I know you don't, love." The woman said, humming some tune under her breath.

She was about to leave, when Molly added:

"And dear, thanks for talking to Bill. It did him good"

Hermione didn't quite know what to say, and blushed profusely. She was blushing a lot, these days.

"It was… nice"

Molly just smiled.

- - - - - - - - - - -

Four days later, Hermione was lying on her bed with a book between her hands when she heard rushed footsteps and Bill's excited voice calling her.

"Hermione!"

He was breathless when she opened the door, the book still in her hand.

He waved some papers in front of her, grinning like a kid on Christmas morning.

"What is that?" she took the papers curiously, while he watched her face.

She dropped the book, and opened her mouth, but couldn't think of a thing to say.

Bill seemed a bit worried.

"And…?" he asked.

"Oh, Bill!" she exclaimed, looking ecstatic with happiness. "Thank you! Thank you so much!" without thinking, she flung herself into his arms and hugged him happily before any of them knew what she was doing. He stiffened a little bit, but hugged her back, still smiling. "Thank you!!!"

She jumped down the stairs happily.

"I am going to Africa!" she told Ginny excitedly. Her friend stared at her.

"What are you talking about?"

"I am going to Africa! On probation! As a curse-breaker!"

Ginny looked from her friend to her brother, who had descended the stairs and was leaning on his right arm over the handrail.

"Was this your idea?" she asked.

"Hm" he said, noncommittally

"You two are crazy, if you ask me" she shook her head. "As if there weren't enough risks here. I cannot believe someone would willingly undertake any more. But again, who am I to say a thing"

"Oh, come on, Ginny! This is great! And it will only be for four days"

"When are you leaving?"

Hermione stared at the paper.

"We are leaving next week" Bill answered for her.

Both girls gaped at him.

"You are coming, too?" Hermione asked.

"I am just taking you there"

"Oh. Good" said Hermione, and grinned happily again. "I can't believe I am going to Africa"

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Molly wasn't all that happy when she learnt the news.

"Seriously, Bill, I don't understand why you had to put those ideas in her head. She was all happy here studying"

Hermione though it was fair; still, at some primary level, she felt she didn't want to be just "Hermione the Bookworm" anymore.

"I asked him to, Mrs. Weasley. And it will be only for four days! I will just be shadowing a senior curse breaker" she actually sounded a bit disappointed, Bill thought, trying to hide his amusement.

"Honestly, Bill, I cannot understand why you won't at least go with her."

At that, he seemed to grow uneasy.

"I am taking her there, mum. That's all I can do"

"But the goblins always let you choose your destination. They would let you go, if you wanted to"

"I…"

"Come on, Bill. I don't want her in Africa on her own. I am sure her parents won't approve, either"

"Alright, alright, I'll talk to Mr. Grisly and fix it" the redhead shook his mane of hair. There was no defeating Molly Weasley.

"I will come for you Sunday night, Hermione" he told the girl.

"Ok. Bill… thank you again" Here eyes were shining madly, and he thought it was very nice to have been able to make somebody so happy with such a small thing.

"You are welcome" he said, and left feeling remarkably more cheerful than he had for a while.

- - - - - - - - - -

On Sunday morning, Hermione's heart was beating wildly. She didn't think she could wait until the evening, and by the time Bill was supposed to come and pick her up, she had checked the clock so many times that Molly had forced a cup of tea into her shaky hands. At last, the hand that wore Bill's name on the family clock changed to "traveling", and he apparated into the living room.

"Are you all packed?" was his greeting.

She nodded, nervously, and pointed to her small trunk.

"Is that all you are taking?" he said, used to Fleur and Ginny carrying several trunks with them whenever they traveled.

She blushed.

"I wasn't sure it was a good idea to carry too much luggage." She said, eyeing Bill's, which was limited to one, muggle, backpack. "I diminished most things, anyway"

"Did you include the potions I listed?"

"Has anybody ever told you how much like your mum you sound?"

He had to laugh at that.

"Let's go, then"

He kissed his mother goodbye, and punched weakly a furious looking Ron.

"You better bring her back in one piece" Ginny said.

"Hey, come on, everybody. Can't you just wave us off as a normal family?" Bill joked. Still, his smile didn't reach his eyes. The farewell reminded him a bit of another farewell not long ago, and it had been Fleur standing by his side then. He felt guilt crawl up his stomach again.

He still seemed preoccupied when they apparated in a small, dirty alley near King's Cross station. Hermione watched him as they made their way to the station, but said nothing.

The station was packed; Bill took Hermione's hand and directed her among the crowd until they reached a brick wall. He looked around, and Hermione looked at him partly amused.

"You've got to be kidding"

He shook her head, grinning broadly.

They stepped into the wall, which dissolved magically around them, and right into platform 13 ¼.

The Southern Pride was ready to leave. Bill moved their trunks up to an empty compartment, and held the door open for her.

"A train ride? Why can't we just apparate?"

"African laws" Bill explained.

"Oh." Should have known that one. "Does the train go underwater?"

"Actually" Bill said "it goes through the water." Watching the expression on her face, he smiled. "It is going to be a long trip. Just make yourself as comfortable as you can, and try to enjoy it"