Hermione had taken over the kitchen table at the Burrow, much to Ron's dismay. Photographs from her trip to Australia spread over the entire surface of the table, the figures of her parents waving at her in quite a few of them. Others, of she and Ron posing in front of the Sydney Opera House pretending to play a digiridoo, of Ron running towards the camera with a shocked Hermione draped over his shoulder in a fireman's lift, also moved about in that way of magical photographs.
There were only one or two of Arthur Weasley, who had come along in case Hermione needed help in bringing her parents' memory back. "After all," Arthur had said, not without a touch of pride in his voice, "modifying Muggle memories is my specialty." In nearly all of Arthur's pictures, he was looking back at the camera through Doug Granger's old Polaroid, amazed at the Muggle contraption that spit out nonmoving pictures that had to dry before appearing. So, Hermione quit taking pictures of him.
She was shuffling the pictures back and forth, arranging them by date, then by people, then by date again. She wanted the photo album she planned on giving to her parents once they returned to England for good to be perfect. As she reorganized things once more, Hermione heard the soft smack of a photograph hitting the wood floor, and a distinct snort coming from Ron. He was trying to eat a bowl of oatmeal at one end of the table, having cleared only the exact space needed for the bowl. Every once in a while, Ron knocked a few of the pictures to the floor, to which Hermione would say, "Honestly Ron, please be careful."
"Honestly, Ron," she began again, but Ron, whose mouth was full to bursting with oatmeal, raised one long finger and mumbled, "Thtop, jus thtop, Mynee."
"What? I'm trying to make this perfect for Mum and Dad. They'll be back any day and I won't be ready," she said all in one breath. Ron looked at her sympathetically, then stared into his oatmeal. The pity Hermione saw there angered her. "And you," she said now, "you are impeding my progress!"
Ron cleared his throat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "All right then," he said softly, and put the bowl and spoon in the sink. "I'll be out degnoming if you need me," and stepped out the back door. Soon, the tiny voices of cursing gnomes could be heard as Ron flung them deep into the orchards and away from the vegetable gardens.
Hermione dropped her head to the table. Again and again, she tried to go over what had gone wrong with her spellwork. They'd found Monica and Wendell Wilkins easily enough. Their dental offices were in the phonebook. Hermione, Ron and Mr. Weasley had waited until the last of the patients had left, then apparated together into the Wilkins' office. Hermione cast the counterspell immediately, and her parents had looked at her with what appeared to be recognition at the time.
"Hermione?" Jane Granger had said, and blinked a few times as if she were seeing an apparition instead of her daughter.
"Mum!" Hermione had shouted and hugged both her parents at once, amid choruses of "Well done, 'Mione," from Ron and "That's the brightest witch of her age indeed," from Mr. Weasley.
But later that night, after a dinner of fried fish at the Granger's house, Doug and Jane had expressed no desire to return to England. "This is our home, dear," Jane Granger had said, and Doug Granger, little noting the stricken look on Hermione's face, said, "Well, luv, I simply can't leave Skeeter and Timbo now that we've got the Smiths on the run."
"His golf friends, dear," Jane had said by way of clarification, smiling at Hermione whose jaw had dropped open when her father began talking.
"G-g-golf?" Hermione asked.
"Yes, dear, it's very important to your father," Jane Granger said.
"B-but what about m-me?" Hermione had said, sounding five years old all of the sudden.
"I'll tell you what," Hermione's father said gently, patting her hand, "your mother and I will think it over." Hermione nodded and sniffed, and her mother said, "That's that then," as if anything at all had been settled, before clearing the dishes.
For his part, Ron had spent much of the dinner with his stomach in a knot and his fists clenched beneath the table. He wanted to throttle the Grangers, make them see that their indifference was hurting Hermione, a young woman who had been through enough in Ron's estimation. Of course, the Grangers were not themselves, and it was one of the things Ron reminded Hermione of over and over again—on the flight from Australia, back home at the Burrow, in the evenings when she'd sneak into his room for a heated snog before returning to the bedroom she shared with Ginny.
The degnoming went quickly. Too quickly, Ron thought. He'd hoped the little buggers would have put up more of a fight so that he would have an excuse to stay out of Hermione's way for a while. Her hopes had been so high after the war was won. On the flight to Australia she'd gone on and on about spending more time with her parents and telling them everything, everything she had left out in the years since she'd started Hogwarts. Half listening, Ron was rehearsing his own little speech to Mr. Granger, explaining that things between himself and Hermione had, well, changed. Grown. Ron had hoped Doug Granger wouldn't be too cross about their relationship having evolved without his knowledge. Ron was especially nervous about describing their months together in the woods while hunting for Horcruxes. While their relationship was wholly platonic then, Ron knew that a young woman alone with two blokes in the woods for months at a time didn't look right. But Ron had nothing to fear regarding Doug Granger. Once Hermione lifted the spell, the Grangers were told everything, but they didn't seem to have any feelings attached to any of it. When Ron had tried to explain how he felt about Hermione, Mr. Granger had said, "That's fine son, just fine. Do you golf?" At that moment, Ron would have traded Mr. Granger for a bellowing, overprotective father in an instant.
Ron held onto the last gnome for a long while, killing time. The little beast turned and bit his finger viciously, and Ron kicked him far into the distance. Ron turned back towards the Burrow, resigned to facing his angry, despondent girlfriend again. But once inside, Hermione was nowhere to be found. She had left the photographs all over the kitchen table. Ron guessed she'd gone back to Ginny's room. He stared at the moving images laid out before him. Those first few days, before they had found the Grangers, had been amazing. The weight of war, and of the horrible funerals that followed, seemed to have lifted a bit, and Ron and Hermione were closer than ever before. Ron often caught his father staring at them with a funny smile on his face, as if he were remembering himself and his Molly at that age. At the end of their first day in Sydney, Mr. Weasley had pulled Ron aside and said, "Be a gentleman always, yes?" and then had left Ron alone with Hermione while he went to explore Muggle Sydney on his own. At that moment, Ron saw himself saying the same words to his own son someday, and he shook his head at the sudden revelation of his commitment to the feisty, bushy haired girl he loved.
Ron must have been wearing a frown at the moment when Harry walked into the kitchen. "All right there, mate?" Harry asked softly, and Ron snapped out of his reverie.
"Oh, yeah. Just cleaning up after 'Mione here. A right slob that one," he said.
"Hardly," was Harry's response, and he started gathering pictures.
"Hang on, 'Mione's got some kind of method here. It's mental, really, the way she's been working on this thing." Ron started piling up the pictures in small stacks.
"Not so much," Harry replied, mimicking Ron's movements. "The photo album of my parents got me through some rough patches."
"Her parents aren't dead, Harry," Ron said, and instantly regretted it. "Sorry, mate. I just mean there's still a chance, you know. There's still hope, that their, um feelings about her will, you know, come back. Yeah?"
"I just want things to be right for her, Harry." Ron did not look at Harry when he said this.
"I know," Harry said, thinking of Ginny. They worked in silence after that, piling up pictures. They were nearly done when George Weasley arrived, barreling into the kitchen and dropping a huge, canvas bag in the center of the table, sending the photo piles flying.
"Bloody hell, George!" Ron yelled, and threw up his hands.
"What IS that?" Harry asked and started opening the bag.
"Yours," George said, and went rummaging through the pantry in search of a snack. He found a pumpkin pasty and shoved into his mouth. "Yourfs, Ronth's, and Herminee's," he said, his mouth full to bursting. He swallowed loudly and turned from the pantry. George was slowly putting on the weight he'd lost during the war. Who knew that a Weasley appetite could suffer under nervous tension? George still wasn't the same young man he'd been before losing his twin, but his hunger for his mum's baking had come back.
Ron had bent down to pick up pictures from the floor, and he was scowling as he did so. "Sorry 'bout that, Ronnie," George said, pointing at the mess, and meant it. Ron's scowl faded. George went on talking as he helped Ron clean up. "They're letters for you lot. I was at the owl post office in Diagon Alley, getting some deliveries in order for the shop, and the wizard in charge asked if I wouldn't mind bringing these to you. So, there you are. Your fan mail."
"Fan mail?" Harry and Ron both said at once. Ron quickly put Hermione's pictures into one teetering pile, and dove into the sack. With Harry's help, they soon had most of it emptied.
"This'll cheer her up," Ron said, and called for Hermione.
Ginny's room was warm and colorful, but it belied the tension that had come over the occupants there. Hermione sat at Ginny's desk, her head in her arms. Ginny stood behind her.
"You're parents aren't dead," Ginny reminded Hermione. They'd all lost friends and family in the war. Teddy Lupin had lost everything. And George still hadn't smiled since the last battle. "You're family's alive, Hermione. Alive." Ginny's hand was on Hermione's shoulder, and she rubbed the spot, wishing she could alleviate some of her friend's pain.
Hermione laughed, and the sound was cold and bitter. "Yeah, alive. So are Neville's parents."
"That's not fair," Ginny said. "You can't compare the two cases. There's no hope for the Longbottoms. Your parents will get better. Dad said so himself. He's seen it happen a thousand times when Muggle memories are modified. It's just…slow."
Hermione sniffed into her pillow, and when she felt Ginny's hands rest on her hair and give her a small pat, she cried in earnest. She wanted her mum's caress, her dad's bear hugs, she wanted to hear them say, "We love you, Hermione," like they used to. Imagining a life without those things made her feel sick, and caused a tightening in her chest that suffocated her. She knew she was being insufferable to the Weasleys and to Harry. One minute she seemed herself again, reading, laughing at Ron's jokes, tickling the back of his neck until his ears turned red from her touch, eating Molly's cooking with gusto. But other days were harder. And this morning, when Hermione picked up a letter at the Muggle post office from her mother, one explaining why they'd decided to stay in Australia, how lovely the winter weather was there, and wondering if Hermione might like to come visit some time next winter, Hermione felt something snap in her. She'd convince them, she'd change their minds through sheer will, she'd make a photo album to move her mother to love her again, she'd move to Australia and impose herself upon them until they got over it.
"You haven't told Ron about your mum's letter," Ginny said softly, and Hermione shook her head. "Tell him soon, yeah?"
Hermione sat up and wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt. "I'm sorry Gin. I've been a real prat," to which Ginny shook her head vigorously. "I have," Hermione insisted. "I just need to be patient. Your dad's right. They'll come around," she said, not really believing it.
Suddenly, the girls heard several whoops from downstairs, and Ron's voice calling, "'Mione! Get down here! Letters!"
"Oh, Merlin," Hermione said, "I can't handle any more letters today." Ginny gave her one last hug, and then both headed for the stairs.
Ron lifted Hermione off the staircase before she had a chance to reach the bottom step. "Look at it all!" he yelled, before putting her down. She stood unsteadily, confused as to why Harry was surrounded by boxes filled with new robes and candies, and why a thick stack of letters sat on his lap. The contents of the bag had been reduced, and as Ron and Harry had gone through it, the items expanded so that the kitchen was full. It reminded them both of Hermione's magical purse, the one that had been so useful during the Horcrux hunt, but neither of them mentioned it. The less they talked about the war, the better they all felt.
As for Harry, the piles of letters reminded him of his first contact with the magical world, when Dumbledore sent nearly a thousand Hogwarts letters to the Dursleys, and had nearly driven his uncle around the bend. Harry could not contain his smile, and Ginny soon joined him as they tore into packages from wizarding shops wanting to "sponsor" the boy who lived and his friends who lived, too.
"Hermione, these are for you!" Harry pointed at letters and packages at his feet.
"Merlin above," Hermione whispered and felt Ron kiss the top of her head.
"Shall we?" Ron asked, gesturing towards Hermione's pile of correspondence. She smiled for the first time that day, and began looking through the letters. There were many, many letters of gratitude from everyday witches and wizards. A few of the letters were from children, hand drawn cards with pictures of Hermione, bushy haired and wand-in-hand. Hermione couldn't help but smile at the crude, heartfelt things. There were two proposals for marriage. She'd felt Ron tense as he read the letters over her shoulder, then knew he'd relaxed when she threw them in the pile among the rest, paying them no special attention.
"Oi, you two, look at this one," Harry said, lifting a thick package with the Ministry insignia on the cover. Ron and Hermione looked through their piles and found similar packages. Inside were official letters from nearly every department in the Ministry, offering the trio jobs with generous salaries. Ron and Harry both read the letter from the Auror department at the same time quietly, then read them aloud, too, unable to contain their joy.
"And look," Harry said, reading from his letter, "'In light of your experience, and in deference to the service you have rendered the wizarding world, Great Britain, and the cause of good, your admission into the Auror training academy is guaranteed, without N.E.W.T. examinations.'"
George whistled, long and low at that particular bit of information. Ron looked up at his older brother, his brow wrinkled in thought. He'd promised his mum and dad that he'd join George at the shop, for a little while at least, and he'd already begun helping George restock and develop new products. Ron knew he wasn't as good as Fred at either business or product development. He also knew that brothers didn't leave one another in the lurch just because something better came up.
Ron held up a chocolate frog from one of the packages. He eyed it carefully without opening it. "Go ahead, brother," George said. "The packages were all scanned for curses and poisons at the owlpost."
"Even so," Hermione said, and put her hand on Ron's. He looked at the chocolate with longing, but was glad for Hermione's caution nevertheless.
"Forget the chocolate, mate," Harry said. "This is what we've always wanted!" He sat down to reread the Auror letter again. Ron watched him for a moment, wondering what it would be like to hear about Harry's Auror training while he lived the life of a shop clerk. Ron shook his head to clear it, and turned his attention to Hermione.
"What about you, love? See anything you want to do for the rest of your life?"
Hermione looked up at Ron and stared at him for a beat too long. He blushed, thinking of his question, and Hermione looked away.
"Mind in the gutter much, Hermione?" Ginny asked, and giggled.
"Honestly, Ginny," Hermione said, as haughtily as she could muster. Ron laughed. He loved it when Hermione went all prim and proper because he'd finally learned to see through it. The propriety and formality she prided herself on hid a great deal of passion. That spontaneous kiss outside the Room of Requirement during the war was proof of that.
Ron held up a few of her letters and waved them in front of her nose. "Anything catch your eye?" he asked.
"No, not yet. Of course, it's all very flattering but I'd like to…" Hermione trailed off then as she caught sight of a familiar letter in Ron's hand. She snatched it at once.
"Wha…?" Ron asked, trying to see what had caught Hermione's attention. She opened the envelope quickly and read the letter inside, her lips moving as she read.
"Who's it from?" Ron demanded, hoping against hope that it wasn't from Krum.
"Hogwarts," Hermione answered at last. "You must have one too. It's our supply list for seventh year."
"Seventh year?" Harry looked up at last from his Auror letter. "No need."
"Exactly," Ron said, repeating Harry's sentiment. "The world's at our feet, Hermione. Why would we want to go away to Hogwarts for a whole year when we don't need to?"
Hermione sighed, and suddenly, the happy mood in the room was diminished by the sadness in that sound. "Ron," Hermione began, her voice choked with emotion. "My mum wrote earlier. She and dad aren't coming back."
"They'll come round, 'Mione, you'll see. They'll be back to…"
"Maybe," Hermione conceded. "But that might not happen for ages. Without them, Ron, I've no home. Hogwarts is all I have."
"Bollocks, Hermione!" Ron shouted, standing and scattering letters. "The Burrow is your home, too! And Harry's!" The volume of his voice took them all by surprise. It seemed sudden, uncalled for. But it had taken Ron only a moment to imagine a year without Hermione, and it recalled the feeling he'd had when he'd left her and Harry in the forest. It was a sinking, frightening sensation and he railed against it the only way he knew how—by losing his temper.
"I haven't decided yet, Ronald," Hermione said, her own ire rising.
"You have," Ron said, pouting and sitting down again. "I can see it. You've got that determined look on your face." Hermione was quiet for a moment. She never imagined her face betrayed her thoughts, and was surprised that Ron would notice such a thing.
"It's only a year," she whispered. She jumped when Ron stood up and brushed past her. He stomped up the stairs, and every thunk of his feet rattled in her ears.
Harry reached over then and took hold of Hermione's hand. "He's mad about you, not at you. You must understand that."
Hermione couldn't meet Harry's eyes just then. She felt shaky and as placeless as smoke. She felt as if any decision now was a bad one. Hermione wanted to finish Hogwarts. And she wanted to be with Ron, too. But neither decision left her feeling whole. "I need to, need to go h-home," she said at last, and felt her eyes fill with tears.
"Your parents' house?" Ginny asked, and Hermione nodded.
"Are you sure that's safe? All by yourself?" Harry asked.
"The war is over. The house should be secure. I just need to think, that's all, and here in the Burrow," she said, wincing when she heard Ron slam the door to his bedroom. "It's difficult here," she finished, lamely.
"We'll go with you," Ginny said. "Whenever you'd like."
"Thanks," Hermione said just as another door slammed shut above. "Now, please."
"What do you mean you took her home?" Ron asked Harry later that evening. When he'd emerged from his room, he'd found the Burrow empty and figured that everyone had gone for a short walk to give him time to vent upstairs, alone. When Harry and Ginny appeared in the fireplace without Hermione, his heart thrashed against his ribs.
"She wanted to go home, that's all. It's safe. We checked it out." Harry held his hands up.
"She's there? All alone?" Ron asked, pointing at the fireplace as if Hermione were stuck inside.
"Not in there, you great git," Ginny said, her hands on her hips. Ron glared at her, his breath coming fast now, but Ginny was not ready to back down. "You were mean this afternoon, Ron. Hermione's having a tough enough time as it is. You don't see Harry going around the twist because I have to go back to Hogwarts in the fall."
Tired, Ron plopped down onto a chair that creaked beneath him. "So you're going too?"
"Of course I'm going. Mum would kill me if I dropped out."
Ron nodded and pressed his lips together. "She wants what's best for you, Gin," he said at last, and he knew that was exactly the kind of sentiment he should have felt about Hermione's desire to pursue her education. But the truth was, he couldn't bring himself to it. When he allowed himself to think of a year without her, he felt a hollow ache in his stomach, as if he hadn't eaten all day, and a pain erupted in his throat, like one felt when on the verge of tears. Presumably, it might help matters if he explained all of this to Hermione, or even to Harry or Ginny, but Ron did not want to burden them with his fear of being left behind. The moment his mum and dad suggested he help George at the shop, and the look of gratitude in George's eyes when Ron agreed to it, brought on a private torture for Ron Weasley. He knew, in that instant, that Harry and Hermione would move on to bigger things, to lives befitting war heroes, and he, who had never liked school, who had no particular talent save for a wicked chess game and a good sense of humor, would be stuck filling in Fred's shoes and never quite doing it properly.
"Oh, Ron," Ginny whispered, relenting to the sight of him, so forlorn in his seat, as if someone had just explained to him that he'd eaten his last meal. She hugged him hard, and he patted her back softly.
"S'okay, Gin," he said.
"What's okay?" Molly Weasley asked as she came bustling into the kitchen, her arms full of groceries, and a line of brown bags brimming over with more food floated behind her.
"Nothing," Ron said.
"Hermione," Ginny and Harry said together.
"Ah." Molly settled the bags down onto various surfaces—the kitchen table, the counters, even some on the floor. She gave Ginny a significant look, and motioned up the stairs. Ginny smiled and pulled Harry along with her, who stumbled and sputtered something about dinner before taking Molly's hint.
Ron watched them go, and knew he was in for a lecture. So he was surprised when his mother said, "Let's make sandwiches, Ronnie. Tomato and mushroom sounds good." Ron stood up slowly and joined his mum at the counter. He worked methodically when it came to food, and cut perfect slices of tomato and arranged them on the bread carefully.
"How many are we making?" Ron asked.
"Just two. The others can fend for themselves."
"D'you want cheese on yours, mum?"
"Oh, that's not for me. That's for Hermione. This one here is for you. Shall I slice it on the diagonal?"
Ron tapped the butter knife on the counter, measuring his words carefully. If this were Ginny, he'd tell her to sod off, but as it was his mother, Ron decided on another avenue. "She's left the Burrow, mum. I don't reckon she'd fancy a picnic with me at the moment."
Molly finished Ron's sandwich with an elegant turn of her wand. It wrapped itself in brown paper and tied itself off with a string. Then she wiped her hands on a dishtowel. "That girl loves you, son. Don't let her go that easily."
"She's the one letting go. D'you know she's going back to Hogwarts?"
"Good for her."
Ron was quiet. He'd wanted to say, "And shite for me," but caught himself. "What about me?" he managed to ask, and knew he sounded pathetic.
"You? The bravest of all my sons?" Molly said, and Ron heard tears in her voice. "If I had known you'd put your life on the line for your friends for your six years at Hogwarts, I might have homeschooled you!" Ron laughed a bit, and it encouraged Molly to go on. "You, Ronald, are doing the right thing by George now, and George will do right by you. As soon as the shop is on its feet, he wants you out. He's said so often."
"Not to me he hasn't," Ron mumbled.
"You know George, dear. Anything to take the mickey. He's proud of you, you know."
"What about Hermione?"
"She'll only be away a year," Molly said. "And besides, George is thinking of buying out Zonko's in Hogsmeade. If the sale goes through, you'd be nearby every day. And once business picks up, he'll be able to hire more help, and you will be free to follow your heart." Ron considered the option. If he were staying in Hogsmeade, he'd see Hermione on every Hogsmeade weekend, and besides that, she knew the secret exits out of school. Ron had a dreamy smile on his face suddenly, and Molly poked him in the ribs. "Get on with you," she said, and shoved the sandwiches into his arms, along with a thermos of hot chocolate.
Ron fumbled with the items and kissed his mother on the cheek. "Cheers, mum," he said, and backed into the fireplace. "The Granger's!" he shouted and disappeared in green flames.
Harry and Ginny had checked every room, every closet and every chink in every wall of the Granger home before leaving Hermione there. She'd been longing for solitude the minute she got back from Australia. Ron's presence was both comfort and torture. She couldn't bear to be away from him, and yet she knew that his obligations to his family and to George specifically, and her own need to fix what had gone wrong with hers, would separate them.
Hermione had been mustering all the reasons why she felt she needed to return to Hogwarts in preparation for her inevitable return to the Burrow. Hogwarts had the best library in all of the British wizarding world. If there was a way to reverse the memory spell she had cast on her parents the answer might be in one of the books. Furthermore, the combined expertise of the Hogwarts faculty would be an asset in her investigations. Hermione felt she didn't know nearly enough about Arithmancy or Runes or healing potions, and didn't want to learn on the job in the Ministry. However, as she gathered her reasons, they fell apart again. She'd never negotiated the halls of Hogwarts without Harry and Ron. How would she face the onslaught of questions about her time hunting Horcruxes? Would the teachers treat her differently? Could she handle walking past Dumbledore's grave every day, or Snape's for that matter? There would be Ginny, yes, and possibly Neville, to help ease it all, but without Ron, would she feel as bereft every day as she felt right now?
Hermione curled up in her father's wingchair, and cried into her knees. She cried loudly, sobbing in a way she hadn't done since she was a little girl, and in a way she'd wanted to for a long time. There really wasn't any privacy in the Burrow, and even when they were out in the woods, on that night when Ron had left them, she'd held back, ashamed in front of Harry. Now, she let go completely, and wept for her parents, for the ones they'd lost in the war, for Ron's Auror dreams dashed so soon, and for the year ahead of her, so lonely without him.
This was how her parents found her: a tight little ball of bushy hair from which emanated the most mournful cries they'd ever heard. Her mother wrapped her arms around her, crying too, saying, "Hermione, we're back, we've remembered. Oh love, we're so sorry." Vaguely, Hermione could hear her father saying something like that too. At first, she thought she'd gone around the bend. Another horrifying thought chased that one—what if they are dead? What if these are ghosts? But soon enough, she understood that they'd returned.
"Your letter," Hermione mumbled.
"I sent that a week ago, love," her mother cooed into her hair, "But last night we both woke with a start, and we remembered everything and felt everything we weren't feeling before. Good God, we were so scared and missed you so much. We took the first flights to England." Jane Granger rocked her daughter a while as the sobs died down.
"Are you hurt, Hermione?" her father asked, but she could not form a sentence yet.
"Ron. We've had a row," was all she could manage, though, of course, that wasn't the whole truth of her sadness.
It was then that the fireplace came to life in slick, green flames. Ron burst out, holding sandwiches he'd crushed against his chest, and the thermos under his arm. "Mione!" he shouted, and was soon met by a pair of strong hands against his chest, pushing him hard. Ron fell onto the floor with a thud, and their dinner tumbled out of his arms.
"If you've hurt my daughter you loathsome, rotter…"
"Daddy!" Hermione shouted at once and took hold of her father's arm. "Sorry, Ron," she said, and looked at him. Her face was shiny with tears and her eyes were swollen.
"Mione, you've been crying," Ron said, and tried to stand.
"Not another move," Doug Granger yelled, and Hermione had to restrain him again.
"Daddy, listen to me. Ronald has done nothing wrong. The effects of the spell wearing off are just heightening your emotions. Well, I think that's what it must be. Calm down." Hermione used the tone of voice she often reserved for soothing arguments between others, namely Ron and Ginny.
"You mean, they're back?" Ron asked and looked at the Grangers in surprise.
"We're back," Jane Granger answered, and helped Ron to his feet.
Ron couldn't help but smile. "I knew you'd gotten that spell right, Hermione. It just took some time. Blimey, you two gave us a scare," he said to the Grangers, and bent down to pick up the crushed sandwiches. "I've only got the two of them, but I can go without." He handed the mushy things to Mrs. Granger and smiled lopsidedly. Hermione released her father, who did seem more at ease now, and tugged on Ron's left arm. He lifted it a bit, and Hermione tucked in underneath, wrapping her arms around his chest.
Jane Granger cleared her throat, and made towards their suitcases near the front door. "Help me unpack, dear," she said to her husband, and the two left Hermione and Ron in the living room.
"Listen," they both said to each other at once, then "You first," simultaneously again. Ron laughed. "I'll go," he said. "I'm not cross about you going to Hogwarts. It's just," here he paused and Hermione watched as his cheeks took on a red blush. "It's just that with you at Hogwarts and Harry doing the Auror thing, well, I'll be on my own for the first time, and anyhow, I'll miss you something awful, and, well…" Here he stopped, his ears having turned color, too.
As for Hermione, the reasons she'd been piling up for returning to school abandoned her just then. "I can stay, Ron. My parents are well again. I don't need to finish school."
"Bloody hell, Hermione, that's not what I came here to ask of you!" Ron blurted then, the realization and the words coming at once. If she'd said such a thing earlier in the day, he would have taken her up on her offer. But the sight of her swollen eyes had struck Ron that instant. He passed a warm hand over her cheek, and when she closed her eyes, he rolled his thumb over one of the lids. "Your eyes are swollen," he said, and she lowered her face from his view. Ron cleared his throat. "I've made you cry too many times. Your dad's right. I am a rotter." Hermione shook her head and held him tighter.
In his head, Ron was tallying up the times he'd been the cause of her tears, from his nasty comments first year about Hermione not having friends, to the Lavender fiasco, and that horrible moment in the woods. Now this. He felt like crying himself, suddenly. "No more of this," he said, his voice a little high. "You are finishing Hogwarts, just like you wanted. And I'll visit as often as I can."
Hermione looked up at him and felt a lightness she hadn't felt for what seemed like years. Even the joy of Voldemort's defeat hadn't felt this good, as there were dead to be buried and a world to rebuild. But this was an utter unburdening, and in Ron's blue eyes she thought she saw something like a long river that went on and on along peaceful shores.
"You'll visit," she said, "on every Hogsmeade weekend."
"Every one, no matter what George says." Ron pressed Hermione close to his body when an idea struck him. "You and I can give that Shrieking Shack something to really shriek about," he whispered and watched as her ears turned as red as his.