In a simple, but cheerfully painted yellow kitchen, a petite brunette was methodically tidying up after her small family's evening dinner. To the casual observer, nothing would seem remotely amiss with her behavior. What was taking place inside the modest, two-story home would appear to be just another average scene of British domesticity that was played out nightly in every house up and down the quiet street just outside London. Looking upon her, one would never suspect the slight, unassuming girl was in actuality a capable witch who had spent the last year engaged in the resistance and ultimate destruction of a malicious band of power hungry witches and wizards bent on destroying the magical world she had become a part of at the tender age of ten.
While other Muggle girls her age were studying, partying and planning out their futures, this particular girl was researching and practicing curses and counter curses in a desperate attempt to protect herself and the people she loved. It would be difficult for the casual observer to believe that this slight young woman, who bore the unusual name of an ancient Greek princess, had been pivotal in the defeat of one of the greatest threats to the wizarding and non-wizarding worlds alike.
She paused in her work momentarily to impatiently secure her mass of soft brown curls behind her head in a loose knot and proceeded to wipe the last dinner plate, looking mournfully down at her water wrinkled fingers. Even though she was of legal age in the wizarding world and could now use magic when and where she pleased, barring any activities that would result in exposing her abilities to Muggles, she had elected to clean up the small kitchen by non-magical means. Her parents continued to be a bit jittery regarding magic and she had no desire to make them ill at ease in their own home. Looking down scornfully at her dishwater hands, she decided she would once again have to try and convince her parents to get a dishwasher, especially if they didn't feel comfortable with magic in the house. She smiled thinking this must be why Mrs. Weasley has such nice hands, she never had to get them wet cleaning up after all those kids running about the burrow. She quickly dismissed all thoughts of the Burrow, as they would undoubtedly conjure up images of the final harrowing evening she had spent there. She didn't care to think about that night right now. So instead she quickly looked around for any overlooked dishes to distract her.
She found it odd and slightly disconcerting to be doing something as mundane as washing dishes after all that had happened over the past couple of years. After so many years of planning and fighting Voldemort and his followers, the cloud of fear they had all lived under had abruptly ended with his final and resounding defeat. The few surviving death eaters that had temporarily eluded capture had since been rounded up and imprisoned and were no longer a conceivable threat to anyone. Those few collaborators and sympathizers that had, after careful scrutiny, been decreed to have been under the imperious curse and therefore not responsible for their actions, were paroled and everything was slowly returning to normal.
After the resounding fall of the death eaters, Hermione had returned home to be with her parents following the rather ugly incident with Ron during her brief stay at the Weasley's, only to find another battle was taking place in her own normally happy home. The cancer that was ravaging her mother was an invisible, but no less insidious monster than the one Hermione had faced. Finding her mother gaunt and bedridden upon her return home, and her father distraught and exhausted from caring for her, had been heartbreaking. She had spent several weeks in absolute denial before she had broken down and admitted to herself that her mother was slowly slipping away and no amount of pretending otherwise was going to change that cold fact. The guilt of not being there for them when they needed her the most, not even being aware of what was happening to her own mother, was overwhelming. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves and struggled to push the disturbing thoughts of death from her thoughts as she carried a tray to her mother's room. She found her staring out the window adjacent to her bed without any discernible expression.
"Hi mum. It's time for your medicine and I brought you some hot chocolate."
Her mother smiled up at her only child weakly.
"Thank you sweetie. Its' good having you home again. I'm glad you finally graduated. Your father and I have missed you terribly."
Hermione smiled ruefully at the idea of her simply 'graduating'. She had told her parents nothing of what had transpired in the wizarding world and had no intention of worrying them with any of it now. Her mother needed all her strength and being informed of how much danger her daughter had been in would hardly be conducive to building her strength up. She had decided some time ago that it was best to just let them believe that she'd simply been away at school studying, like all the 'normal' Muggle teens in her neighborhood.
"Sit with me. I want to talk with you."
Hermione pulled the sofa chair, normally occupied by her father, closer to her bed and sat cross legged in front of her.
"So, tell me, how are things with your young man, Ron isn't it?"
The question caught Hermione off guard. She'd forgotten in her last hastily written letter, composed only days after the final battle, that she had written of Ron and her being together. She supposed that technically they were, for all of two weeks anyway.
The unexpected question caused the rather disturbing incident that had occurred shortly after their arrival at the Weasley's to replay in her mind, and she felt the same sick chill now that she had experienced then. As soon as they had 'officially' become a couple Ron's behavior towards her had begun to change dramatically. He was the same goofy Ron around his family and other friends, but when they were alone he instantly became increasingly petulant and domineering towards her. She had been confused by this inexplicable change, but had not been overly alarmed by it until the night of his 18th birthday when she realized she'd made a serious error in judgment.
Hermione had been perplexed when he led her away from the party taking place downstairs and into his room, casting a silencing charm as they entered, but had simply assumed he wanted to tell her something without being overheard. Her heart froze in her chest when he turned to her and rather crudely asked her if it wasn't about time that they shagged and demanded sex for his birthday present. They had been together only two weeks and she was not yet ready for sex when he had so suddenly just outright demanded it from her, as though it was his right now that they were dating. Up to that point in her life, the only physical experience she had with the opposite sex was passionate kisses and gentle caresses from a then 18-year-old Viktor Krum during the first year they spent together at Hogwarts, when she was just shy of 16. She had fond memories of those intimate moments shared at the edge of the Black Lake, but what Ron wanted from her was far more demanding and frightening than what Viktor been granted.
She had felt hurt when Ron responded with anger at her gentle refusal and she found herself momentarily stunned when, instead of accepting her refusal, he forced a fierce, painful kiss upon her, as he pushed her down hard on his bed, coldly commanding her to stop acting like a childish little girl. She trembled at the vivid memory of how he had angrily told her that she was his girlfriend now and she needed to start behaving like she knew it, and start handling his needs like a real girlfriend would. She had been downright terrified during the few brief moments he struggled with her for dominance, before she was finally able to push away from his groping and insistent hands. Only when he released one of her wrists in an attempt to unbutton her jeans, was she able to knock him off balance and scurry out of his room. His angry, obscenity-laden curses that followed her out still sounded clearly in her head. The thought that Ron would think it was acceptable to force himself on her when she wasn't ready, had frightened her badly. She had known a few girls back at the academy who had relationships that turned abusive, but she would never have believed Ron capable of such monstrous behavior. Now she realized that those girls had probably thought the exact same thing. Frightened and ashamed, she had quickly thrown her few belongings into her leather travel bag and had left the burrow to return home that same night, never to return.
She looked down at her mother who was patiently waiting with a curious and slightly hopeful expression for details regarding her relationship, and knew she couldn't burden her with such an unpleasant truth. She forced a smile on her face.
"Oh, we're not really together anymore Mum."
Her mother's smile faltered.
"Why? What happened? You seemed so happy about it in your letter."
"Nothing all that terrible mum. We were just too different that's all, argued a lot. He was too selfish, I was too bossy. Not a good combination."
"Maybe you can work things out. Relationships take work Hermione."
"It just wasn't meant to be Mum. I hear he's dating one of my old roommates now anyway. You remember Parvati I wrote you about a while back?"
"The Indian girl? The one who only cared about boys and clothes?"
Hermione cringed slightly remembering how enamored with boys and fashion Parvati had been. She had been quite full of herself back then, almost as though she believed she was as perfect as the Hindu goddess she was named after. She wondered if she was still as arrogant and how she felt about Ron's dating expectations.
"Did I write that? Well, I'm sure she's a lot more mature now. Maybe. Anyway they seem to be a couple now. So, that's that."
"Well, you are still very young sweetie. You'll find the right man for you one day."
Hermione doubted that sentiment immensely, but kept quiet so as not to disillusion her mother, who had always been a true romantic at heart. Hermione, however, was a realist who relied on facts, not sentiment in her judgments. She had long ago accepted several facts about herself that precluded the likelihood of ever having a man fall in love with her. After a hard appraisal, she recognized that she could be a bit bossy and impatient. She also knew she was not terribly pretty or fashionable like most girls her age. She preferred to read and study than shop or go out on dates. Not that she'd had a lot of offers in that arena. Due to her obvious deviation from the standards typically sought by the opposite sex, she had accepted the fact that the likelihood of her catching a man's interest was slim to none. Although, she often comforted herself with the fact that there had been one boy, or more accurately, one man, who had shown an interest, despite her faults. The memory of the large man with the thick Slavic accent that had given her her very first kiss and had looked at her with such open adoration in his dark, gentle eyes never failed to soothe her spirits.
As her mother began to get drowsy, she smiled softly as she allowed herself the luxury of once again replaying in her mind the one time she had discovered what is was like to have someone be attracted to her, how it had felt to spend time with someone who liked her just as she was, unkempt curls, analytic mind and all. She closed her eyes for a moment and could see the sweet, attractive Durmstrang champion who had inexplicably looked past the other pretty, flashier girls who would have given anything for a chance to be with him, to zero in on a plain and bookish Hermione Granger. For a long time, she had tried to ascertain why Viktor Krum, international Quidditch star of all people, had been interested in her when no one else was, but her practical mind had never come up with a satisfactory answer to that anomaly. She mulled it over for the millionth time since they met, until the medications took full effect and her mother drifted off to sleep next to her.
Once she was sure her mother was peacefully sleeping, Hermione carried her tray back downstairs and headed into the study to check on her father before she turned in for the night. She walked up behind him unnoticed, as he was engrossed in a small array of paperwork spread out on the study's large oak desk. She leaned over and read over his shoulder, prepared to tease him once more for his meticulous record keeping that she knew she had inherited from him right along with his practical mindset. The amusement slipped from her face as she realized the papers he was gravely sifting through were actually bills and overdue notices.
He jumped slightly at her voice so close behind him.
"Hermione. I didn't hear you come in."
"Dad, what's all this?"
"Oh, just some bills."
She reached out and took one as he tried to slide them out of sight into the top drawer.
"Dad, these are all overdue."
He took the paper from her and gently squeezed her hand, as he slipped the bill into the drawer with the others.
"It's nothing to worry about honey. Things have gotten a little tight lately that's all."
Hermione silently berated herself for not grasping her family's current situation sooner. How could she be so naive? With neither of them working there was obviously no money coming into the house. Probably not for months now. How could she be so stupid not to have realized it before?
"Dad, how are you paying for all this and Mum's treatments with neither of you working?"
"We have savings, love. Not much, but we're getting by. Now stop frowning, you are too young to worry about such unpleasant matters. Why don't you get out of this house for a while. Go and visit your friends maybe."
"Trying to get rid of me?"
"Of course not. You're being back has made your mother and I very happy Hermione. But that doesn't mean you should be stuck here with us old folks day and night."
"I'm fine right here. Its nice being home. I want to be here. Good night Dad."
"Good night, Hermione. Sleep well."
She kissed him goodnight, having once more carefully avoided having to explain to him why she didn't go out more often, or at all for that matter. The simple truth was, she had nowhere to go. The handful of people she had allowed herself to get close to, were now occupied with starting careers, families, dating and otherwise rebuilding their lives, lives she really wasn't a major part of anymore. Everyone else seemed so sure what they wanted to do in life, while Hermione was still uncertain and carefully weighing her options. She had almost settled on accepting Professor McGonagall's offer of research assistant and had been starting to look forward to a quiet peaceful existence for a change. She had received numerous offers since the fall of Voldemort, some more lucrative, albeit flashy and, in her opinion, pointless than others. Everyone had tried to get her to accept the offer of auror training with Ron and Harry or an entry level ministry position and couldn't fathom why she would prefer a "lowly" research job, as Ron had called it, instead of something with the potential for advancement and continued glory.
After seeing the stack of unpaid bills in her parents study, she now realized that her coveted quiet and simple research position she was poised to accept was simply out of the question if more lucrative offers were on the table. What mattered now was financial practicality, or more bluntly, money. She needed money, as much as she could get, if she was going to take care of her family. If that meant she would have to accept one of the ministry's offers, so be it. Having made the decision to forego the simple path she craved in exchange for her family's security and well being, she headed upstairs to bed.
As Hermione was getting ready for bed she thought once more about her fathers unintentionally cutting comment about getting out and seeing her friends more. His words had made her keenly aware of how achingly lonely she really was. But with Harry off training to be an auror and Ginny on her way to becoming a healer at St. Mungos, they had little time for her now. The only other really close friend she had, or thought she had, was Ron, and she hoped never to have to lay eyes on him again.
When Ginny and Harry weren't working they were paired off somewhere, usually at the Burrow where, still unbeknownst to the two of them, Hermione would never be setting foot again. Harry, now completely taken with the youngest of the Weasley clan had easily melded into the chaotic household. Not wanting to detract from their newfound happiness, she had kept her reason for leaving so abruptly to herself. She had told Harry only that things weren't working out with Ron and she missed her parents. She didn't regret coming home and she loved being here with her parents after being away for so long, but she also missed being able to talk to someone without having to carefully censor her words. She could not talk to her parents about so many parts of her life and she missed having someone to confide in, someone to share her thoughts and fears with.
She was slipping her earrings off absently when her eye landed on the beautiful wooden keepsake box on her dresser. She ran her hand over the soft wood admiring its intricate design, remembering how she had received it as a birthday gift just last year, before everything went to hell. She found it difficult to fathom that it had only been a year ago when Viktor's owl, rumpled and fatigued, had startled her by unexpectedly appearing outside her window over summer break, carrying the small package.
It seemed like a lifetime ago when she and Viktor, who she realized now was her first real romantic interest, even though she hadn't recognized it as such at the time, had written to each other on an almost daily basis. Viktor had quickly engaged another owl in addition to his own to handle the frequency of their correspondence. They had quietly exchanged letters ever since the ill-fated tournament, right up until she had taken off with Harry and Ron a year ago. She had shared things in those letters that she had never spoken of to anyone else, not even Ginny, for fear of being ridiculed. Only to Viktor had she ever confessed her childish fear of the dark and how she had found the pitch black dorms frightening, as she had always been able to leave a light on at home. Only to Viktor had she told how she worried about her parents thinking she was a freak, due to her turning out to be a witch and how she still couldn't share much about the wizarding world with them, as it seemed to cause uncomfortable silences and nervous glances. It had been most definitely only with Viktor that she had been able to voice her dread of the daily encounters with Malfoy and his cronies, even though she pretended not to be bothered by them to everyone else. She had told him all of these secrets, secure in the knowledge that he would never make fun of her or make her feel stupid for voicing them like Ron often did.
Viktor in turn had confided in her as well. He had told her about his disdain for his mother's family and their pureblood rhetoric and how disappointed they had been in her choice of husband, as his father did not share their disgusting views. He told her how he always felt panicky upon entering the packed stadiums for games and having people staring at him with daunting expectations, and how he dreaded PR events, where he was always having to fend off screaming groupies. They had shared so much about themselves in their two years of parchment exchange. Having to sever that one emotional lifeline had been difficult and painful. She had always meant to resume that connection once everything had settled down, but so many things had intervened to keep that from happening.
Standing alone in her bedroom, the memories of how close they had been not so very long ago, elicited an overwhelming urge to reestablish that relationship. She knew she was being foolish. If he had wanted to renew his friendship with her she would have heard from him long before now. There were many things she didn't like about herself, but the one thing she took pride in was the fact that she definitely wasn't stupid. She had seen the article about his engagement a few months ago, soon after arriving at the Burrow. The moving image of the woman who stood proudly next to him looking disdainfully down at the people around her had shown her to be absolutely divine, with dark eyes, dark hair, olive skin, obviously some Bulgarian beauty who had stolen his heart. She was the kind of woman you would expect to see on a famous Quidditch star's arm.
In her final letter to him, she had explained how she would be out of touch for a while and had promised to write to him as soon as she could, but by the time things had settled, that engagement announcement had been published. She had been reading about how the Bulgarian team had qualified for the World Cup semifinals, when the social interest sidebar caught her eye and she discovered he was to be married. She felt it would be pointless to keep her promise after reading that announcement. She wasn't jealous exactly, she just felt silly writing to him after that. He'd moved on, he had found someone else to share his thoughts with, someone beautiful and confident. Why would he want to hear from her when he had an obviously more compatible woman in his life now?
She brushed out her unruly curls, and gently pushing a purring orange ball of fluff who was currently kneading holes in her pillow aside, curled up under the covers. She lay there for a long time, mentally flip-flopping between following her head or her heart. After carefully weighing the pros and cons of potentially humiliating herself by writing to a man who probably looked back on their relationship as nothing more than an adolescent fling, or worse, a simple pen pal who helped occupy his time, she finally surrendered and admitted to herself that she wanted to write to him, regardless of the potential humiliation factor. After all, it wasn't like she had never embarrassed herself around him before. She had constantly stumbled over her words and said the most asinine things that first year they spent together at Hogwarts. Either the language barrier precluded him from noticing or he simply overlooked her incompetence at basic social interaction. She suspected it was the latter of the two, as his English was quite good and he had always been incredibly kind to her. She looked at the blank parchment on her night stand as she gave herself a mental pep talk in hopes of bolstering her courage.
'Why not Hermione? Where's the harm?'
After all, he had always seemed to enjoy hearing from her and he was the one who initiated the whole letter writing thing in the first place when he surreptitiously slipped his address into her hand before he boarded his ship and headed back to Durmstrang so many years ago.
'What would be the harm in seeing if he still cares for me or not? Engaged men can still have friends can't they?'
Overwhelming loneliness and the frustration of unresolved loose ends in her life tipped the scale in her calculations in favor of writing to him, and she snatched the blank parchment she had been agonizing over for hours from the night stand and began to hastily put words to parchment before she had time to consider just how stupid and presumptuous she was being and changed her mind.
I know you were probably not expecting to hear from me after all this time. I am sorry for not writing to you sooner like I promised I would in my last letter. So many things have happened and some much time has passed since I last heard from you, that I wasn't sure you would care to hear from me at this point in your life.
I saw several articles about you in the British papers over the past few months. Congratulations on making it to the World Cup finals this year. Harry has procured several tickets to the London semifinal. Perhaps I will see you there. Congratulations also on your engagement. The article did not provide your fiancee's name but she is very beautiful. I am very happy for you. With Quidditch finals and an upcoming wedding I know you are very busy, so I will understand if you do not have time to respond. Just wanted you to know that I hadn't forgotten my promise.
Without chancing rereading her words and losing her nerve, she immediately rolled the parchment, secured it with string and sent it on its way with Falon, the sweet brown owl she had recently procured who fetched her the weekly wizarding news and delivered occasional letters to Harry and Ginny, and sometimes to Professor McGonagall as well.
She leaned out the window slightly to watch him take flight and soar off into the darkness, praying she wouldn't regret her decision in the light of day.