The game was comparatively long. Hermione was accustomed to the usual Hogwarts game, where Harry was likely to cut the match short for fear of being hexed, jinxed or maimed by a well-meaning house-elf and the stakes weren't as high as the Quidditch World Cup. Even so, it was nearly dawn before the Snitch was caught by the Aussie Seeker and they were able to Floo back to the boys' hotel.
"We're in real trouble," Harry commented around a yawn. "According to the newspaper, the football match didn't even go into overtime."
"That is a problem," Hermione said.
"I know my Mum would have our heads if we turned up this late," Ron mused. "How open-minded are your parents?"
He was speaking of the people who hadn't batted an eyelash at her spending the summers with a houseful of teenage wizards and Ginny.
"Fairly open-minded," she answered. "And Mum will probably assume that it's not her place to set my curfew. I'll have to just say that we lost track of time catching up after we got back."
"That sounds fair enough," Harry agreed. "Want to stop over here for some breakfast?"
"As long as we can smuggle it back to the room, sure."
The witch in charge of the kitchens took one look at their team colors, exhausted expressions and stumbling gaits and announced that she would send up eggs, bacon and her own brew of the Stimulating Solution.
Not wanting to make the entire trip about her predicament, Hermione proposed a game of Exploding Snap. Harry flattened them both in the first hand, Hermione took the next two rounds and Ron vengefully made a comeback around the time that the kindly witch arrived with breakfast.
"How's…" Hermione was about to narrow her question down to Ron's parents, but decided that it would be better to ask an open-ended question and press for details later. "What news from home?"
Ron caught the meaning and grimaced. "Mum's doing all right and Dad has enough sense to know when she needs him to work late and when he needs to skive off the last few hours of work," he commented. "They recruited four new people for his department just after things ended. Mum is trying to help everyone at once and cooking everything that's ever grown, mooed or clucked for fifty kilometers around."
"What about Neville?" she pressed. "I thought you were going to bring him."
"He couldn't," Harry sighed. "Kingsley's keeping the new recruits awfully busy."
"I'm surprised you're not one of them," Hermione answered.
"If he wants me in the Auror Department permanently, he need only say the word," Harry agreed, "but right now it's more of a summer internship."
It went without saying that the 'summer internship' was more of a formality than anything. Harry hadn't stayed at Hogwarts long enough to sit his NEWTs and Kingsley's request for him to work with the Aurors almost as soon as the dust had settled meant that the interim Minister of Magic hadn't cared one whit about his exam scores. He wasn't the only one who would have a say, though, and for now, Harry was more of a junior member of the Department than a new recruit. Neville wasn't any better, but he'd at least turned up at King's Cross for his seventh year.
"Well, they'd better make up their mind soon," Ron added. "You don't want to be another one-year wonder in the Defense Against the Dark Arts post."
Harry nodded. "I'd say we'll invite Neville along next time, but I hope you won't be staying here long."
"I'm fully prepared to stay in Australia until I've completed university," Hermione announced archly.
"But yes, I hope I won't stay here long as well."
"Good," Ron responded firmly. "Crookshanks is pining and Ginny and Luna keep asking after you."
"I'll send you back with letters for all of them," Hermione promised.
"Which reminds me…"
Harry rummaged in his rucksack for a while before producing several thick packets of papers. "From Flitwick," he announced, handing one over. "From Edison at the Ministry…"
"He's in the Accidental Magical Reversal Squad," Hermione explained. "I don't think he'll be much help, since this wasn't accidental at all, but he's eager to help."
"From Hagrid and Grawp," Harry continued. "And from the girls."
The post from Hagrid and his half-brother was particularly odd, since Hagrid had introduced Grawp to the concept of mail while they were gone. There were several pages of letters that were slightly incoherent at best because Hagrid taking dictation from a bilingual giant was something to behold and then Grawp had signed a poster-sized piece of paper with his own name. She could only imagine the size of the crayon required for him to write. She would have to read through the others' letters later.
"So, what's so complicated about all of this, anyway?" Ron asked casually as he loaded a plate with food. "They're not like Lockhart or the Longbottoms, are they?"
"No," Hermione said hastily. "But I couldn't just modify their memories, could I? It had to be complex enough that Death Eaters couldn't Imperius someone like Edison and get through the spell. Think of it like writing on a wall," Hermione added when Ron looked perplexed. "You can paper over it or apply some paint, but there's still a chance that it might be unconvered. It's better to lock it behind a door and put an Imperturbable Charm on it."
"But Voldemort knew how to break through memory charms," Harry recalled. "I heard him say so in our fourth year."
"That's for a simple Obliviate," Hermione said. "He could have gotten through if he applied himself personally to the problem, but I don't think a Mudblood like me rated that much attention, no matter who my best friend was. Tracking down my parents when Harry Potter was on the run would have been a low priority even if he had bothered to go looking for them."
She had heard stories, though. There were countless stories of anti-Muggle attacks that had been carried out while Thicknesse was in power and too many of them had happened in her area. While none of them had been carried out in her estate, there was a good chance that the Death Eaters and Voldemort sympathizers had been trying to scare her parents out of hiding.
"But couldn't someone have tried Finite Incantatem?" Ron pressed.
"Tonks helped me find a charm that protected them from that," Hermione said. "It's not as complex as the Fidelius Charm, but in order to lift the enchantments, a witch or wizard would have heard the instructions directly from me or Tonks."
They were silent for a long minute. Ron and Harry had even stopped chewing so that the only noises in the room were the hiss of the Breeze Charm that served as air conditioning and their breathing. Finally, Harry set down his fork and fixed her with a mirthless look.
"You expected Tonks to outlive you," he said quietly.
"I never doubted it," Hermione replied, her throat thick. "I sort of took it for granted that no matter what happened to me, there would be others to carry on the fight. Remus and Tonks, you and Ron…"
His expression became unreadable, but he suddenly looked much older than his seventeen years. "I always figured that it might be me who died first," he said.
At some point during their travels, she suspected that all of them had considered that possibility. They had known beyond a shadow of a doubt that Voldemort would have to fall, but Hermione had thought too many times of who might perish before that happened. She had wondered how many friends she could stand to lose before she would wish for death herself.
"I always figured we would stand between him and you," Ron added.
For a moment, she remembered the thirteen-year-old boy who had stood up to a mass murderer named Sirius Black and declared that Black would have to go through both of them to get to Harry. She had agreed immediately with that declaration of loyalty then and she had been willing to keep that promise when it came to Voldemort.
"Enough of that," Harry said abruptly. "It's too early in the day to think like that."
"I'm sorry," she said genuinely. "I've been frustrated."
"You'll get through to them," Harry said confidently. "I feel like they're trying to fight against the charm already and that's got to be a good sign."
"What's next, then?" Ron asked. "You must have those instructions written down around here."
"I have the charms written down," Hermione said. "I didn't want a steb-by-step guide to interrogating my Mum laying around. So now I have to figure out the best way to strip away the charms."
"We're here until Sunday," Ron interjected. "Put us in front of a stack of books and we're bound to find something by then."
"No," she insisted. "This is supposed to be a vacation."
"We're here to bring you cheer," Harry said as stalwartly as his friend. "If it takes half the Hogwarts library to do that, I don't mind one bit."