A/N: I'm getting better at uploading at reasonable(ish) times. I hope you enjoy the chapter. Beta'd by Lament of Meow.
Disclaimer: Just playing in Rowling's sandbox.
Smoke wafted from the small cauldron on the worktable where Hermione stood, winding its tendrils into her curls and causing them to be more bushy and unruly than usual. She regretted not tying back her hair before she started, but lacked the energy to stop what she was doing long enough to fish a hair tie out of her pocket. The potion in front of her threw off a sudden burst of white light and she blinked away her blindness before jabbing her wand at the liquid. It grew dull again, almost meekly, and she sighed in irritation.
Harry's birthday celebration had been two weeks ago and they had already celebrated Ginny's a couple of days previous. She had another two and a half weeks before the Hogwarts Express departed for Hogsmeade, and she still had not made up her mind if she wanted to be on it when it left. Soon after every one had gone home following Harry's party, the younger Weasleys, Harry and Hermione had remained outside to discuss Kingley's proposal. Ron and Harry had decided almost immediately that they would be starting the training in September, but Ginny was a bit more hesitant and Hermione was completely divided.
She threw a few half-hearted diagnostic spells at the cauldron and jumped when the potion let out a soft scream. Hermione shook her head, calmed her pounding heart and glared at the innocuous-looking potion before paying more attention to her work. It wouldn't do to let any singular error in George's potion slip past her and potentially injure a future customer, not that he made many mistakes in his Potioneering. Had he given more than a passing thought at his O.W.L. exams, he might have qualified for N.E.W.T. level Potions, even by Professor Snape's standards. Hermione sighed as her thoughts brushed past her old Potions Master. She had no fond memories of his classes—apart from making a name for lions in a den of snakes—but she couldn't help but feel sorry he hadn't lived to see the world that for so long he had sacrificed so much.
"Knut for your thoughts." Fred's voice broke through her grim reflections and she jumped again. He sat at the foot of the stairs, legs spread before him with his back against the wall, like he had been reclining there for hours rather than just a few minutes. She started to stir the cauldron feverishly, as if she had just been busy rejuvenating the ingredients before she had noticed his presence in the basement workshop.
"Oh—just—things." She stopped stirring abruptly after the potion let out an evil chuckle.
Fred stood to inspect the cauldron curiously, "Unexpected but interesting. How long has it been doing that?"
Hermione frowned, "That's the first time, I think." She attempted to brush her hair out of her face with the back of her hand. "Although, it did scream a little a minute or two ago."
Fred raised his eyebrows, "If I didn't know any better, I'd say the great, brainy Goddess divine is distracted."
"You have an Amaranth branch in your hair."
This gave Hermione pause. "I thought it looked fetching?"
"And that it does, but who in Merlin's name are you trying to impress?" He stepped forward to remove the plant gently from the tangle behind her ear. Hermione merely sighed in response and tilted her head to give him better access. "You're worrying about Kingsley's offer, aren't you?"
"Of course I am!" Hermione's reservation crumbled and she finally relinquished the conflict she had been nurturing for fourteen days, "What on Earth am I supposed to do? I'd always thought I would be attending Hogwarts for seven years and taking N.E.W.T.s and stressing over post-graduation plans with Harry, Ron and Ginny. Now Harry and Ron and even Neville are going to start training in September, and they never even gave a second thought as to whether or not I even want to be an Auror—which I'm not even sure I do—and if I don't go I'm afraid they'll think I've abandoned them. It's ridiculous! None of this was supposed to happen. The war was supposed to end, my parents were supposed to be safe and happy and we were all supposed to go back to Hogwarts for one last year of normalcy before having to really—grow up." Hermione paused, slightly out of breath. She avoided looking at the man next to her, opting instead for resting her eyes on the crinkled leaves of the plant that he had painstakingly removed and set on the table.
"Hermione." Fred's voice was quiet, but when she looked up at his face he was smirking. "I would've thought that after two weeks of deliberation you might come up with some solution."
She frowned. "I told you I can't—"
"Aren't you supposed to be the smartest witch of your age?"
A line appeared between her eyebrows as she felt the stirrings of irritation. "I can't deci—" Fred stepped into her personal space, his hands suddenly on her waist.
"And you can't make a simple decision?" She was drawing a blank, hyper aware of the pressure of his hands above her hips and the extreme closeness of him. The spicy scent of Fred filled the air and she felt slightly dizzy. Hermione felt his fingers move and she let out a distracted sort of giggle.
"I was hoping you were ticklish," Fred confessed, his smirk turning into a wicked grin as his fingers began to move rapidly over her ribs and waist.
"Fred, stop!" Hermione shrieked, laughing uncontrollably at the sensation. She attempted to escape, but accidentally edged herself into a corner of the room where escape was impossible.
"What do you want, Hermione?" Tears tracked their ways down her cheeks as she thought frantically back to where exactly she'd left her wand. Once she got it back there would be hell to pay for Fred Weasley.
"I WANT TO GO BACK TO HOGWARTS!" His deft fingers ceased their movement at her outburst and she attempted to catch her breath. Wiping her tears away, Hermione felt, along with extreme annoyance at her companion, an equally powerful sensation of serenity. She wanted Hogwarts. She wanted to learn, and she didn't think she would ever want to stop. All it took to reach her resolution was a semblance of adversity, a force any Gryffindor worth their colors would respond to with defiance and conviction—a fact that Fred, a member of a large family of scarlet and gold, would know something about.
"There!" Fred exclaimed, wrapping an arm about her shoulders companionably. "That wasn't so difficult, was it?" He looked at her face, her expression caught between amusement and murderous intent. Hermione glanced away and at the cauldron, moving forward as if to inspect it. When she turned to face him again, her wand was in her hand, a look of purpose in her eyes.
Fred turned tail and ran, dodging jets of multi-colored light as she threw whatever spells came to mind at him. He laughed madly as he took two or three steps at a time up to the first level of the shop. A look back at her almost gave him pause; a bright smile split her features, the expression giving light to every curve of her face.
The influx of owls at breakfast reminded them all strongly of mornings at Hogwarts. Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny and Mrs. Weasley stared as one owl after another flew in through the open window and landed willy-nilly amongst bowls of cereal, piles of toast and plates of kippers and eggs.
There were eight letters in total, and Molly had to search for a solid five minutes in one of the kitchen cabinets for extra owl treats. The birds gulped them down impatiently and took off again, like a well-trained, feathery fleet, and they all grabbed for the letters at the same time.
"This one's for you, Ron."
"Mum, you've got two from Bill and Charlie."
"Harry, that's mine you've got."
After a brief minute of confusion, silence reigned over the kitchen as they each perused their respective correspondence. Hermione's letters were both differently packaged. The green cursive on the front and the Hogwarts seal on the back indicated the contents of one letter, but the other was on lighter paper with familiar, tidy script across the front.
She saved the latter for when she was alone; reading any correspondence from her parents after such a long separation was likely to make her cry, and she didn't relish bursting into tears so early in the morning. Running her hands over the familiar green ink, she noticed that Professor McGonagall's neat writing was absent and in its place was Professor Sprout's haphazard loopy scrawl. She knew the Transfiguration Professor had taken over as Headmistress, but no one had told her who had taken the position of Deputy. Hermione didn't know Professor Sprout as well as Neville perhaps, but she was certain that the benefit of both women's tenures as school officials would be incalculable.
She opened the letter hurriedly, scanning the official transcription before looking at the two pages behind. One listed the supplies she would require for her most difficult year at Hogwarts while the other was—
"They appointed me Head Girl!" Hermione's shout made everyone at the table jump. She upended the envelope and watched a shiny silver badge fall onto the table with a loud clank.
"Congratulations, dear!" Molly was the first to recover and gave the young woman a hug. "We'll have to make a special dinner for you. What would you like?"
Hermione was slightly breathless as she responded, "Don't trouble yourself, Mrs. Weasley. Anything you make is a work of genius."
While Molly blushed and protested, her daughter let out a loud crow. "I made Quidditch Captain!"
Hermione looked at her friend's ecstatic expression, pleased beyond belief. "That's wonderful, Ginny."
Harry took a break from staring at Hermione to kiss Ginny in congratulations. Molly looked away politely, undoubtedly pleased as punch at her daughter's choice in men.
Hermione finally looked at Harry and Ron, who had been staring at her since her announcement. "What?"
"You got your Hogwarts letter," Ron stated rather stupidly. He held up his own correspondence. "And you didn't get your Auror training instructions."
"Aren't you going with us?" Harry clarified.
Hermione felt a pang of panic, and it must have showed. Both men's expressions made her think of a pair of sad puppies she had seen in a London pet shop window when she was a child.
"Oh, stop it!" Ginny scolded both of them, smacking the appendage nearest to her. Harry rubbed his arm, a rueful expression taking root on his features.
"Stop what?" Ron demanded. "She was supposed to start Auror training with us!"
"I never said that." Hermione glared at Ron, irritation replacing her guilt. "You didn't even ask if I wanted to go! As usual, you just assumed I would follow wherever you two lead without question. And here I was, worried I would upset your delicate sensibilities by choosing education over a life of danger when you obviously won't do me the courtesy of asking what I want to do." Hermione refrained from raising her voice—this was Mrs. Weasley's kitchen after all—but every syllable she spoke strained with repressed fury. She stood up and stared Ron down. "Fred was right. I should be thinking about what I want for a change." They all stared as she fled the kitchen, heading towards her temporary room. Harry looked appropriately repentant, and Ginny rubbed his shoulder sympathetically.
"What does Fred have to do with anything?" Ron demanded, red-faced and angry. Ginny sighed as her mother glared pointedly at him. Trust Ron to unflinchingly focus on the irrelevant aspects of an unpleasant conversation to avoid responsibility.
"That's beside the point, Ronald Weasley. I cannot believe neither of you asked Hermione if she wanted to be an Auror. Did we neglect to teach you some consideration growing up? When she's cooled down I want you to apologize, really apologize. You too, Harry. You're a sweet boy, but sometimes I don't know where your head is."
"Mum!" Ginny gasped, absolutely shocked. She had never before heard her mother utter a single cross word to Harry. She studied her boyfriend's face. He looked similarly taken aback but she could see the beginnings of a smile in the movements of his mouth.
"You're right, Mrs. Weasley. We should have asked," Harry admitted. "When she comes down we'll say we're sorry. Come on Ron." He pulled his best friend up by the collar, and Ron smartly held his tongue until he was out of earshot of his mother.
Molly sighed as she watched her youngest son exit the kitchen, his face still slightly maroon. She always regretted that he had inherited her temper as much as her tendency to freckle in the sun and her inability to keep from broadcasting her emotions to anyone with working vision. She looked at the table full of half-eaten breakfast food and decided a second cuppa would do wonders.
Without hesitation, Ginny started to clear the contents of the table, vanishing stray bits of food and levitating dirty dishes into the kitchen sink. Being able to do magic outside of school was a blessing.
She looked out the kitchen window where she could see Ron's figure pacing back and forth in the distance, saying something both emphatic and soundless to a patiently listening Harry. She thought about his question, asked in completely casual thoughtlessness, and smiled grimly through the window.
Hermione threw herself onto the bed, still fuming at the look on their faces. She just knew that they would take it this way. What did they expect? That they would be the Golden Trio forever? What did they think would happen after they all graduated? The parchment of her Hogwarts letter chafed her fingers as she rubbed its surface distractedly; she tossed it away and it fell heavily onto the silver badge with HG etched into its surface. Hermione Granger. Head Girl.
She sat up and looked at the letter with her mother's writing on the front. Her heart felt like it was constricting and she had to breathe deeply before picking it up and opening it quickly.
My Dearest Hermione,
Your father and I thought we should write to inform you of our arrival back in England. We had a lovely time at the conference in New Hampshire and only wish you could have been there. It's been so long since we last spoke, and we want you to know we miss you terribly.
The office has reopened and we were wondering if you would like to come back home and play receptionist like you used to. We are well aware that you typically start the school term on the first of September, but that still leaves us a small amount of time to forgive and forget. It's something your father and I have grown accustomed to, and we feel that if you returned, things could fall back into place as they were before your misguided actions.
We hope to hear from you soon.
The tears that travelled down Hermione's face were not just from sadness, as she had expected, but from anger as well. They were still treating her like an ill-behaved child rather than a woman who had made a decision during wartime to protect those she loved at all costs. If she were go to home and play receptionist and play the prodigal daughter would things ever really fall back into place? She didn't think they could. Now that half of the world saw her as a hero, now that she had seen people slaughtered in battle, she ceased to be childlike in any way. As much as she loved them, her parents had never seen destruction on the scale that she had and had never been so familiar with the face of death they could paint its contours in their dreams—as she had done on innumerable occasions. Her damnable pride refused to allow her to be patronized and questioned, even by her own parents.
Hermione spent several minutes thinking about how she should proceed. She was certain this was something that could never be resolved. There was no common ground to find between them, because she was every inch their daughter. They were all unquestionably right, unquestionably in control—Type A personalities showing in every clean line of their clothes, every spotless counter, every neat, perfectly-labeled category into which they placed their worlds.
She'd go mad.
No, the only thing to do would be to visit home for the remainder of the summer and escape as often as possible into the world where no one asked her to be something less than she was. She wouldn't play. But she would go back, if only for a little while.
A/N: Sorry for the grimness of the chapter, but it should be lighter of heart again soon. Reviews are love.