Disclaimer: The characters, history and universe utilized here are borrowed from JK Rowling et al; my writing is solely for enjoyment and no profit is made or copyright infringement intended.


Chapter 18


"I'm fine," she said tightly, gripping the sheets so tightly that her knuckles were turning white.

"Nightmare?" asked a groggy George.

"Yes," Hermione admitted, images of a gruesome scene of smashed cars and Bellatrix laughing flashing before her eyes. George sat up and she did the same, so he looped one long, comforting arm around her.

"You up for a bit? Want some tea? A massage? A good shag?" he asked.

"No, to the latter two. Thanks for the offer though. I expect I'm up for a bit. You should go back to sleep," she said softly, feeling vaguely angry with herself for waking him.

"Nah, it's fine. I was having an old recurring dream I used to get in school, about Madam Hooch flying around the dungeons while Snape brewed a love potion. No need to get back to it, I know how it ends," George said.

"And how is that?" Hermione asked, but more listlessly than had been her wont.

"One nightmare is enough for the night. If I tell you, you'll only lose your ability to sleep for weeks," George said in a cheerful tone, more cheerful than he quite felt at three am. Hermione's nightmares had been getting worse; they'd neither of them had an uninterrupted night of sleep in a week between their individual horror shows. "Right. Chamomile and spearmint, then?"

"I suppose," Hermione sighed. "No, I'll come with you." She got out of bed, reaching for her dressing gown.

George followed her out of the room, down the hall to the lounge. She curled up in the corner of the couch as he set the kettle to heat. That done, he returned to her.

"You want to tell me?" he asked gently.

"No," she said curtly.

"Right then," he said, and there was a pause. Then from seemingly nowhere, he spoke again. "Did I ever tell you about our first week at Hogwarts?"

"Just about your Sorting," Hermione said, a bit of surprise coloring her voice.

"Ah, then I should tell you about how we set a record for detentions in the first week. Truly, it was an amazing spectacle," he said with a smile, settling in and telling her a ridiculous tale about increasingly outrageous dares between Fred and George that neither were willing to refuse on principle, most of which caught quite negative attention from their head of house.

George stood to make tea when the kettle sounded off and Hermione chuckled, and called to him, "What finally made you stop then?"

"Oh, Mum did. McGonagall finally wrote to her, and she sent a Howler threatening to come up and give us both a smacking in the middle of the Common Room if either of us got one more detention before the Christmas hols. Course, by that point we were fairly well bored in detention anyway, and homework was starting to pile up, so we stopped and began refining our techniques so as not to get caught." George nearly snickered as he handed Hermione a mug filled with tea and settled in beside her again.

"How well did that work?" she asked with some amusement.

"You'll note we spent very little time in detention really, though most of our pranks were in fact credited to us," George said with a satisfied smile on his face.

Hermione raised an eyebrow and said, "But I thought you were in detention a fair amount of my fourth year."

"Ah, no. We just put it out that we were, so there were no questions about where we were when were off developing more products. Angelina and Alicia and Lee would get a bit suspicious if we were just gone for a long time."

"I see," Hermione said, draining her mug.

"Any time, Hermione. So, another cup of tea or are you ready to try sleep again?"

"Back to bed, I think. I appreciate you sitting with me though. And I appreciate the distraction." She gave him a half-smile.

"You sure about that shag, then?" George asked in a teasing sort of voice. "I know that can be a fabulous sort of distraction."

"Horny bugger, aren't you?" Hermione said repressively.

"Not at all, I'm just particularly thorough in my research," George said earnestly, but seemed unable to fully contain a smile.

"What research is that, then?" Hermione asked with an air of long-suffering that was belied by the gentle smile spreading across her face.

"Didn't you know that orgasms are supposed to be the best relaxant available?" Now George couldn't hide his cheekiness.

"Right. Well, we may as well test this theory of yours then," Hermione said, her tone indifferent. However, she stopped on her way back to the bedroom to kiss George on the cheek.

They both, eventually, slept more soundly that night.


Hermione could feel tension setting into her shoulders. She was alone in the workroom, George having been needed on the shop floor after Clara had owled to say she'd come down with dragon pox after watching her niece for the weekend. Dragon pox! Of all things for an adult witch to catch! But since Hermione had never been exposed, and since they weren't about to expose the young children who formed the basis of their in-shop customers at this point of the year, George pulled on his magenta robes with as much good nature as he could muster.

Which left her alone in the workroom. Since her resolve to move forward from her father's death, she'd made a deliberate effort to spend as little time alone as possible. Time alone meant time to think and no outside distraction from her thoughts, which broke free when she was by herself, swirling dark as ever, still filled with guilt and reproach. Hermione did her best to ignore them, to push them aside and focus instead on a demanding potion, but it was harder than she'd imagined.

Given the necessity of time off between steps, or of waiting a precise amount of time before or after adding an ingredient, she couldn't stay constantly busy. Now she better understood why George chose to pack fireworks when he was in such a mood. Constant business, that was a better way to go than potion brewing. Now she was watching a clock tick down the required one-hundred-and-forty-nine seconds before she could add the reduction of hellebore syrup with rosehips. It was a dangerous thing, because the potion was volatile right now, and wouldn't stabilize until she added the reduction, which meant that she couldn't afford any drain on her concentration. And yet, she could feel her thoughts slipping sideways into remembrance and doubt as the clock ticked before her.

Definitely, tomorrow, she would be baking. That at least was less dangerous, would prove less costly if she did slip up and ruin a batch, and would allow her ample directions to keep her busy during baking times. Maybe she'd give the flat a thorough scrubbing, or reorganize the kitchen drawers or something. She was so focused on what she would do the following day to keep busy that she very nearly missed her window to add the syrup. Only a gurgling sound as the potion came near to over-heating pulled her from her determined reverie.

Muttering under her breath, she averted disaster as she began adding the reduction in a carefully, controlled manner, stirring three times clockwise and once anti-clockwise with every seven drops to ensure the reduction was fully mixed with the burbling potion. She had just finished the addition and was reaching for the powdered cattails to sprinkle in for binding stability when she realized the potion was not the crimson color it ought to have been, but a mockingly cheerful shade of canary yellow.

Hermione quelled the panic that rose up inside her, and reached for the syrup she'd added. It was, in fact syrup of hellebore, but not the reduction mixed with rosehips they typically used in their hair-color-changing potions, but instead a more potent variety of reduction of hellebore, this one mixed with belladonna. She now had no idea how stable the potion was or how it would react to any other ingredients being added.

The tension that had been building flashed up into a moment of pure fury at herself. Of course she would botch this potion, she was too distracted to do it properly, and anyway, hadn't she effectively proven that she over-estimated her own abilities? That was at the root of all her ignored thoughts about her parents anyway, wasn't it then? She'd been arrogant enough to assume that she knew best for them and then to send them off with no means of retrieving them later, and thus had sent her father off to die. Naturally, if she were capable of such a mistake, she would be likely to bugger up a potion that utilized some of the more rare or exotic ingredients they purchased and be left with a potentially unstable mess that was bubbling merrily away before her.

She wanted to shout, to hurl the potion at the wall, to hit something, she felt so angry over this stupid lapse of attention (over what she'd done to her parents, a voice whispered in her head). It took nearly all of Hermione's considerable control to grip the worktable before her, and her knuckles were white with the tightness of the grip, as if she could hold on to sanity if she focused on the table. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she did her best to ignore them. For Merlin's sake, this was stupid! Pointless! She was not going to wallow in her father's death. She was not going to give into self-indulgent displays of mourning.

Hermione took a deep breath, and then another, and forced down the anger that had momentarily overwhelmed her, and cleared her throat. She called for George, hoping he'd be near enough to hear her, as she didn't want to leave a potentially volatile potion untended.

She was in luck, because he popped his head in almost immediately, looking a bit flustered. "Yes, love? Everything all right?" Hermione didn't notice her death-grip on the table, but George did, frowning to himself over it.

A forced smile appeared on Hermione's face. "Sorry to be a bother, but I've gone and buggered this up. I was making hair changing potions, but added the wrong reduction of hellebore, and I'm not entirely certain about what I've created here and wanted to be careful not to do something that might cause havoc."

George relaxed a shade, remembering how cross Hermione had been after turning herself yellow with a botched brew, and strode over to observe the brew, which was still a cheerfully bubbling yellow, looking rather like a Welsh rarebit, he thought.

He poked gently at it with a stirrer, noting its consistency and response to stimulus, and asked where she'd deviated from the recipe and how. She explained the steps, and showed him the bottle, and was surprised to see him grin. He lowered the flame on the cauldron, and then summoned a jar of what looked like abandoned hermit crab shells.

"Try smashing two of these to bits and then adding them in quickly," he said, concentrating. "I expect that with this and possibly a bit of swans' down, we'll come very near a hair-loss potion. It'll want testing, of course, but if it works it could be a nice little invention. If nothing else, it's something to test, anyway, innit?"

Hermione closed her eyes in relief. "Right. The belladonna will be weakened by the swans down. Thank you. I wasn't thinking clearly."

"Well, when you've got a potion you're afraid could explode if you try to vanish it, it's harder to think on your feet. I'll be getting back then. You going to be ok?"

Hermione nearly laughed mirthlessly at that question, so similar to the taunts in her own head as it was, but managed to only smile grimly. "Yes, I'm fine, George. Thanks."

He studied her for a moment, hesitated, but finally kissed her on the forehead and returned to the shop. Alone again, Hermione sagged against the table. She wondered how long she could continue this way. Logically, she knew that it would pass, it would become easier. She lived with the proof of that, but it was precisely the fact that she knew how far from his old self George still was that ate at her. Hermione knew logically that George would never be the same, no matter how well he became, and in her current low spirits, she felt only the overwhelming sense of how long and hard it was to return to a place of relative contentment or peace. Pretending she was anywhere near that was exhausting to her, and yet she couldn't bring herself to do anything else.


Three days passed and Hermione's patience seemed to pass with them. She hid in the workroom, but even that wasn't enough to keep her temper from rising. Sleep had become elusive, her nightmares occurring with even greater frequency than George's, and for the first time, Hermione spent a night in her own bedroom. She had hoped it would help her sleep; instead, she'd stayed up feeling guilty whenever the image of George's face, eyes flashing with hurt, popped into her head. Giving it up as a bad job after five hours of tossing and turning and dozing, she crept back into their bed early in the morning. The relief that emanated from George when he sighed and pulled her into his embrace gnawed at her, no less than the relief she felt at being held close to him again.

But the two hours of sleep that morning weren't enough, the strain of trying to ignore the grief she was feeling was too great. Everything irritated her, it seemed as if the universe were conspiring against her to remind her that she was not counted amongst the happy and carefree. Clara had still not returned to work, and while Juliana had taken more hours, George was still called on frequently to help, meaning that the workroom door seemed to be staying open more often than it was closed.

Snatches of conversations and sounds filtered through to her, which she tried to ignore, attempting to focus instead on packaging the varieties of prank biscuits she'd baked two days before. Still, various bits floated in and Hermione caught herself gritting her teeth to keep from shouting at customers who seemed wrapped up in things that were mostly petty. At times, she wondered if she was going a bit loony, if sleep deprivation was taking its toll. Hermione had always been snappish when under stress, but there were moments she daydreamed about real violence, anything to relieve the churning anger that built inside her.

And then it happened. She heard the sound of a deep male voice, and it struck her as unusual. This time of day, it was mostly young men skulking about or witches with smaller children. Curious, she lowered the flame on the forgetfulness potion she was brewing and glass stirrer in hand, stepped over to the door to see what was happening. Hermione watched as a man who appeared to be the father to a young girl in pigtails indulged his daughter in her delight and enthusiasm for the shop's products.

"Look, Daddy!" came a laughing squeal. "There are sweets that make you change into animals! Do you think they have any elephants?"

"I don't know, sweetheart. Wouldn't an elephant be too big? If you turned into an elephant, our house would fall down," the father said, consideringly, hiding a smile. All his attention was focused on the little girl. "Maybe you should look for something smaller."

"Oooooh, I could be a lion!" she exclaimed.

"Lions can be very frightening," he said with mock terror. "What if you wanted to eat me? I see you could be a rabbit. How about that?"

"Then I'd hop away, Daddy," she said seriously, scrunching up her face.

"Oh, that won't work at all. You'll hop away and I'll never see you again. That would make me so sad," he said, solemnly shaking his head.

Hermione didn't hear the little girl's response, because she'd started shaking, and her ears had filled with a roaring sound. The glass stirrer slipped from her fingers as she turned away from the scene in the shop, but she barely noticed the tinkling that indicated the stirrer had broken. She felt tears building, the pressure forming behind her eyes, but at the same time, the rage was there too, the feelings of anger and sadness that had plagued her since the beginning flashed through her, resentment that her father would never look at her with that sort of love and pride again. Without giving it much thought, Hermione realized she desperately wanted to smash something, to pound something into tiny pieces, to find some outlet for this fury that seemed to be constantly with her.

She let out a half-gasp of laughter as she realized that there was nothing nearby but the packing crate filled with empty potions phials waiting to be filled. A crazy idea took hold of her, and she picked up one of the phials and with no more thought than that, threw it swiftly at the back wall, feeling a grim feeling of satisfaction when it shattered. She picked up the next one and threw it as well, and felt better when it shattered as well. After the third phial, George came to see what was going on, looking wary.

"Isn't it obvious?" she asked with an acid tone in response to his inquiry, then throwing another phial as hard as she possibly could throw it, watching impassively as it exploded against the wall.

"Right," George said slowly, watching her carefully. "I'm all for mayhem, but maybe now isn't the best time."

"I don't think I really give a shite," she said harshly.

"Hermione, maybe -" George started to say, but Hermione cut him off.

"NO!" she shouted, making him jump slightly. "No, I bloody don't want to talk or to take a nap or to go somewhere or do anything else. I want to stand here and smash every fucking piece of glass I can."

George blinked at her, and then shrugged, and leaned back against his workstation, away from her. "All right. Go ahead."

"FINE," she yelled, seizing another phial and throwing it. Then another. She didn't stop to look at George, just kept grabbing phials and flinging them as hard as she could against the wall. It wasn't until she was panting and sweating and pushing her hair back out of her eyes that it occurred to her that the crate had contained only about twenty or so phials, while she must have smashed more than fifty.

"Would you like for me to continue conjuring them? Or do you think you're done for a bit?" George asked mildly. There was no judgment in his face or his tone, but Hermione suddenly felt very ashamed of herself. Without warning, a sob hiccuped it's way out of her, to her horror; and she couldn't seem to stop herself from releasing great heaving sobs that left her breathless. George moved as if to wrap his arms around her, but she turned her back to him, and wrapped her arms around herself, and cried in the ugly way she hadn't done since she first heard about her father.

After a few minutes, Hermione sank to the floor, and rocked a bit, fat tears still coursing down her cheeks. The sobs were reduced to hiccups, then whimpers, and finally Hermione fell silent. Only then did she realize George was crouched next to her. She looked at him with great sadness, and obvious fear of reproach, and guilt.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, her throat feeling raw and raspy, her lips a bit chapped.

"No need to apologize, I've been expecting something for a week or so. I hope it helped a bit," he said calmly. "Can I touch you now?"

She nodded wearily, closing her eyes. "Expecting this?" she asked, as he settled beside her and pulled her into his chest.

"Yeah, a bit. I think it's probably normal. You've been going about acting as if nothing had changed or you weren't sad. Your temper has gotten more volatile. For me, I went on a three day drinking binge. You apparently felt more outwardly destructive," came the wry explanation.

There was silence. Hermione's entire frame was drooping, she felt completely wrung out and tired. Resting against George was safe, peaceful. She knew already that she would probably feel mortified when she was less exhausted, but she was indifferent to that just now, really.

"Love, you've tried very hard to be strong, and I know it. But it's not good to bottle up everything you're feeling. And you are still sad and angry about your father dying. Better to face up to that and get on with it than to push it down until you get the point you can't ignore it," George said in a quiet tone.

"I don't want you to have to deal with this," she said in a small voice. "You've enough to be getting on with."

George gave a half-sigh, half- laugh. "Oh, love, I'm your partner, remember? It's not dealing with anything to be here for you when you are in pain. It's sort of what I agreed to. You were here for me with a lot less reason to be."

"You needed me," she said helplessly.

"And you don't need me? I wish you wouldn't be so afraid to feel any of this around me," George said quietly.

"I just . . . I don't want to burden you," she said.

George rested his chin on top of her head. "Hermione, I'm not going to break if you share your grief with me. I won't think less of you. And I need for you to share everything with me if we are going to work."

"I'm sorry," she said again, though George knew she wasn't apologizing for her breakdown this time.

"I know," he said softly. "Right. I'm going to clean this up, and then I'm putting you to bed."

Hermione stirred, and made a noise of protest.

"Hermione, sweets, you're more than a bit exhausted. Let me take care of this, and then I'll take care of you." He kissed her cheek, and helped her to stand up, holding her steady as she swayed a bit. He led her carefully to the stairs up to the flat, and urged her to sit down and wait for him there. Moments later, he'd carefully amassed all the broken glass and then vanished it. He stuck his head out of the workroom and said they'd be unavailable for a short time, and then returned to Hermione.

The force of her tantrum seemed to have purged her of her rage, which in turn seemed to have drained her completely of energy. Not that she'd slept well in weeks, or, despite George's best efforts, eaten particularly well. She was sitting on the step, leaning against the wall to keep herself upright. George helped her stand up, then scooped her up in his arms and carried her upstairs. She was already half-asleep when George set her on the bed. He helped her remove her shoes and her jeans and jumper and then tucked her into bed, kissing her forehead. Hermione was fast asleep.


George had to make quite the effort to be even half the cheerful bloke he pretended to be these days. He wasn't morose, exactly, but he felt tired and a little sad that Hermione struggled so hard to hide her feelings from him. At least that was over; he rather thought so anyway. She was still sleeping when Lee appeared just as the shop was closing.

"Hullo, Weasley. Thought you might be up for a drink or two," Lee said blithely as Verity waved at her boss and his friend and left.

"Can't, but thanks. Hermione's asleep upstairs, don't want to leave her alone after this afternoon," George replied tiredly.

Lee followed George into the workroom, frowning. "What happened? And don't tell me you've not got something around here, mate, I won't believe you."

George smiled grimly, then summoned a bottle of firewhiskey from a box underneath his workstation and conjured two glasses. "She had quite an eppy. Smashed about sixty-five potions phials against the back wall here, one at a time. Still not entirely sure what set her off, but 's not surprising, really. Been refusing to admit anything's wrong and I know from painfully personal experience one can't keep that up forever."

"Right you are. She's asleep, you said?" Lee asked, swallowing his drink expertly.

"Fairly well exhausted her, not that it would take much these days. I think she'll be a bit better for it now. It was rather a strain trying to hide it all from me," George answered, a trace of resentment evident.

Lee shook his head. "Trying to take care of you still, innit she? Remember how she was in school, mate? Never could admit when something may have been a bit too much. Our fifth year, when she took all those classes nearly did her in, remember?"

"Yeah, I remember vaguely. Most of that year centered around her damn cat and Ron thinking her cat had eaten Scabbers. You know, there's an idea," George said slowly.

Lee quirked an eyebrow at his friend. "Oh no. I recognize that look, and it rarely precedes anything good. What are you thinking about, Georgie?"

"I'm thinking that I should get her a new cat. I'm sure she misses that hideous old thing and it would be something a lot less complicated than me to look after. Might make her feel better."

For a moment Lee stared at his best friend. "But you hate cats," he finally said, a bit of wonder in his voice. "Oh, George, you're in love with Granger."

"Yeah, I am. What of it?" George asked, a bit belligerently.

"Have you mentioned that bit to Hermione yet?"

"Er, no. Not as such. She told me not to do, not until I knew what it meant. And right now, well, doesn't seem quite the time, given everything that's going on."

"Has she told you? She's head over heels for you, you great lump, even if she hasn't quite worked it out yet."

George fidgeted with his glass before looking up at Lee with hooded eyes. "She's not said anything. But again, she's been rather preoccupied. Do you really think she's, you know?"

Lee chuckled. "Yeah, I do mate. Dunno why the pair of you are so shy about it. You've practically told off your family and her best friend for each other, which ought to have been an indication, don't you think?"

"Right, yeah. So I'm a bit dense. Not like we've really been together all that long though, is it?" George mumbled, making Lee laugh out loud.

"Tell yourself whatever you like, George." They were interrupted by a sleepy voice and rumpled hair from the top of the stairs.

"George? Who's with you? Lee?" Hermione began to slowly make her way downstairs, still looking tired.

"Hey love, maybe you should go back to bed. Didn't disturb you, did we? Lee stopped by for a drink," George said, hastening to the stairs to meet her.

"No, didn't disturb me, just woke up, that's all. I didn't really eat lunch, so I ought to eat dinner. I'm so tired I doubt I'll be up late. I hate to ask, but -" Hermione was interrupted by Lee.

"How about I go grab something? You're in no condition to cook, Granger, and Georgie looks nearly as done in as you." Lee tossed back the remainder of his drink, and refuse the galleons George tried to give him. "You think you can eat something substantial, Hermione? Look as if you might blow away with a strong wind."

She gave him a wan smile. "I've not been eating much, but I'm hungry now. Whatever you bring back will be fine."

"A curry then? Or Italian takeaway?" he asked. Both George and Hermione shrugged. "Right, whatever I come across first then. I'll floo in from the Leaky. Cheers."

"Come on, Hermione, back upstairs and resting," George ordered with a smile.

"Yes, sir," muttered Hermione, but she allowed him to usher her into the flat, and settled on the sofa with a sigh.

George retrieved two butterbeers and sat next to her. She accepted it from him, but didn't meet his eyes. So he reached out and tipped her chin up with a one long finger, and raised an eyebrow at her.

"Just feeling a bit mortified," she said.

"About what? That's no worse than how you found me. A damned sight better, actually, I'd say," he said mildly.

"Maybe, but George, I feel awful."

George regarded her for a moment. He remembered, vaguely, some embarrassment, but it was overlaid with indifference and aching. There was no right thing to say, not really, that would make her feel better, he reckoned, so her opted for the truth.

"Love, I do not think less of you for being as human as the rest of us," George said in a light tone, but with a serious expression Hermione recognized. "I know it's hard for you, but I appreciate it about you, you know."

His words seemed to startle with Hermione, who blinked once and then leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her lips to him. It seemed as if it had been ages since she had initiated physical contact between them, though she hadn't shied away from it or failed to reciprocate it. This small gesture from her made him want to sigh in relief. For the first time, George felt a tension he'd been only somewhat aware of dissolve. She still wanted to be here, still wanted to be with him. He might be forgiven for the enthusiasm with which he responded that kiss.

Things had progressed to a state of undress, though fortunately not indecency, when Lee returned with the food. He cleared his throat loudly, leaning against the doorframe, takeout bags dangling from his hands. George groaned softly, and Hermione smiled a genuine smile and chuckled, summoning her shirt and slipping it back on with only red-tinged cheeks.

"I'm so pleased to see you are doing better, Hermione. Also that blue really is a fine color in a bra for you." Lee accompanied his words with a lecherous leer, and a wink.

"Shut it, Jordan," George said, but without acrimony. "What did you turn up?"

"Chinese. I have a variety, and a fair amount is mild enough for someone who hasn't had a big appetite of late," Lee leveled a more severe look at Hermione.

"Thanks, mate. It's appreciated, even if the timing isn't," George said, rising from the sofa to gather plates and utensils. Lee laid out the food and Hermione sniffed appreciatively.

"That smells good," she said, a faint tone of surprise evident.

"Been awhile since that's happened?" Lee asked, knowingly. She nodded, looking down. "Well, then I'm glad I found something to tempt you. C'mon, Granger, come sit down and I'll regale you with tales from our second year that George would probably rather never be shared."

George actually turned around to glare at his best mate. "You wouldn't," he said warningly.

"Wouldn't I?" Lee smirked.

"If you do, I'll tell her about your third year and -" George said, crossing his arms and looking down at Lee.

"Oi, you play dirty, mate! Is he dirty like that in bed, Granger?"

Hermione snorted. "Oh no, no bedroom talk, Jordan. I'm not encouraging your filthy mind." Almost without noticing, Hermione had started eating food, looking genuinely satisfied, the strained or indifferent expression George had grown accustomed to at meal-times finally absent.

"I know," George said, finally seating himself and pulling a carton of lo mein towards him, "tell her about that time we managed to sneak into the Hufflepuff common room and turn everything red and gold."

Lee laughed loudly. "That was a good one. So, our first year was Charlie Weasley's last year, and there was actually a decent Hufflepuff team. Slytherin was always in the lead for the House Cup, but they were out of it in Quidditch because their Keeper was so bad. Ravenclaw were training a new seeker, so they weren't fantastic either, and Gryffindor was to play Hufflepuff last. Gryffindor had won both games and Hufflepuff were down one, but had had a blowout against the Slytherins, so the points were really close. . ."

Hermione listened avidly as Lee spun out the story of three overeager first years and an incredible Quidditch match that was barely won by Charlie Weasley's fantastic catch of the Snitch. His voice was so mellifluous that it was easy to get caught up in the story he told and Hermione was surprised to see her plate had emptied during the tale.

It was the most she'd eaten in some time. It was also the most engrossed she had been in something outside her own thoughts in at least a week. George was laughing with Lee and interjecting his own commentary at intervals, but his watchful eyes were focused on Hermione, and she was aware of his gaze. Every time she met his eyes, his smile grew a bit wider. By the end of the story, Hermione was laughing nearly as hard as George, while Lee explained how they managed to sneak back into the Common Room without being spotted, despite an indignant Professor Sprout demanding that the whole of Gryffindor Tower be questioned about the incident. She had apparently taken exception to the Hufflepuff banners being charmed so that whenever the Gryffindor Lion appeared, the Badger would curl up in a ball and tremble.

It felt good to laugh, and when George's hand crept across the table and secured hers in his grasp, she nearly beamed at him. The pleasure on his face, mingled with relief, and the absence of the consuming rage she'd felt, were enough to make her content. It may be fleeting, she considered silently, but it was still a firm step in the right direction.


A/N: My apologies for the long delay, this chapter was troublesome, and went through a couple of versions. I hope it's worth the wait. As always, I love to hear your feedback, and welcome questions if you have them. Hope everyone is well – cheers.