In the long months it takes for the dust of the war to settle, Hermione Granger takes a job at Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour, and the wizarding world reels. Even Rita Skeeter takes pity on her, in a fashion—the article in the Prophet has more actual facts in it than the rest of Skeeter's work combined, despite a headline that reads "WAR HEROINE IRREPARABLY DAMAGED: IS THE POTTER-GRANGER ROMANCE DOOMED?"
Of course, the factual part is short, a few narrow paragraphs eclipsed by columns of wild speculation. But the story is simple. Captured and cursed to the limit of endurance by Bellatrix Lestrange and Voldemort himself, Hermione Granger is no longer the brightest witch of her age.
Hermione's Healer is a tall, quiet woman named Habbett, with excellent posture and curling grey hair. She is one of St. Mungo's best, and she treats Hermione with efficiency and kindness. Still, she hasn't allowed Hermione visitors in the month she's been living unassisted in the flat Harry bought her. It's something technical about triggers and memory loops and possible relapse, and no one argues.
But the first day Healer Habbett judges Hermione stable enough to meet her, Ginny Apparates right into Fortescue's with an unapologetic crack, startling a boy too young for Hogwarts into dropping his cone. Ginny rescues it with a spell that makes it sprout tiny chocolate wings, and the boy's eyes go round as saucers.
It's the look on Hermione's face that makes Ginny stop abruptly, swallowing hard against a sudden lump in her throat. Hermione is smiling at the cone, now trying unsuccessfully to flutter out of the boy's hand. But while Ginny might have expected Hermione Granger's academic appreciation of a newly improvised spell, this Hermione's delight is the same as the boy's, childlike and fascinated. Her brown eyes sparkle, and her cheeks are flushed, and she has never looked lovelier, but something about it breaks Ginny's heart.
An enormous amount of stubborn Gryffindor courage goes into Ginny's next steps, bringing her to the counter and within range to grab Hermione's hand and say, "I'm Ginny Weasley." It takes a long moment for Hermione's look of simple confusion to clear, but when it does, she shakes Ginny's hand. Just like that, they are friends again.
Emboldened by Ginny's example, the rest of the former Gryffindors trickle in over the next few days and introduce themselves to Hermione for the second time. She smiles prettily and makes friends with them all (in many cases, more easily than the first time).
Harry and Ron are nearly the last to come in, and only because of Ginny's relentless prodding. For all their Gryffindor heart, seeing her like this shakes them. Both would rather be hunting down Hermione's one surviving attacker with the Aurors than actually facing their friend. They're hoping for a glimmer of recognition, but the knowledge that it won't come is clear in the shuffle of feet and the nervous glancing at the menu above Hermione's head.
Hermione doesn't surprise them. She smiles at them like all the others, and they shake her hand like all the others, and she accepts their silent offer of friendship with an ease and simplicity that seems so strange in the body of passionate, opinionated Hermione. They're struck by the beauty the uncharacteristic softness lends to her familiar face.
This bizarre gauntlet of her old-new friends brings more customers into the shop, and Florean Fortescue continues to be glad he let Minerva McGonagall convince him to hire, for a simple service job, a girl who once was Hogwarts' most promising student. Hermione will never solve another riddle, brew another complex potion, or invent another spell. But she is warm and friendly, with an easy manner and a slow smile; the children adore her and their parents admire her, even as they murmur sadly over what she has lost.
The papers begin to leave Hermione alone. There is no news for the Rita Skeeters of the wizarding world to spin into sensationalist tripe. There is no conspiracy for the Quibbler to unearth. She is merely quiet, ordinary, soft-spoken Hermione, a hundred lifetimes removed from the fiery, controversial, brilliant Hermione that the papers would have loved.
Time settles into a sensible routine again, with Hermione staying most days at the shop and her many friends falling into an unconscious rotation. One or two of them stop by each day to buy an ice-cream and greet her, once in a while lingering to watch her frown in concentration over the number of scoops in a sundae or entertain herself with the magical toppings. Aside from Harry, Ginny, and Ron, most don't stay long.
Fortescue lets her test his newest creations and observes her thoughtfully, occasionally stepping closer to adjust a charm or add a flavor. She grows fond of the sprinkles charmed to light up your mouth from the inside, and at least once a day Hermione puts them on her tongue and shows them to whoever is there. Ron takes to sharing them with her, puffing out his glowing cheeks and making her laugh. Harry smiles a little pensively as he sits beside them, sometimes complimenting her on her choice of colours. Ginny only touches her briefly on the arm and doesn't speak.
One day, two of the most bitterly competitive Ravenclaws from their year at Hogwarts come in to order, perfectly polite. But the cruel glint of triumph in their eyes as they eat their ice-creams and whisper to each other—the triumph of having finally and completely conquered an intellectual rival—is obvious from across the room. When they leave, Harry doesn't stop Ron from following them out and jinxing them both in the alley behind the shop.
Ron is ready, then, when a man in a Death Eater's mask smashes through the door the very next day and moves to curse Hermione, the Avada Kedavra on his lips. Hermione's mouth falls into a perplexed O, her wand hanging uselessly from her back pocket, but Ron doesn't hesitate. "Expelliarmus!" he bellows, with such conviction that the man is lifted bodily and hurled backward through the splintered door-frame. When the Aurors arrive, they flip up the mask to reveal a Ministry junior secretary long suspected of being a Voldemort sympathiser.
Ron only spares a moment to look mildly impressed with himself, as if he hadn't been at all sure he'd gotten the spell right. He nods gravely to each of the Aurors, accepts without fanfare their respectful nods in return, and goes back inside. In the ruined doorway, he and Ginny put their arms around Hermione, holding her like they might lose her yet.
The next week, Harry and Ron take up permanent posts at a corner table. Their wands are laid casually at hand, but they are guardians, and everyone in the shop knows it. Fortescue doesn't say much to them, but he does give them both free sundaes every day they're there, which they rightly take for approval.
Spring turns to summer, and the days pass without further incident. The Aurors are more careful now than ever before, and each day finds Death Eaters and their sympathisers passing through Azkaban's gates for the last time. Still, a few—the most skilled, the most dangerous—remain at large. Alecto Carrow. Augustus Rookwood. Bellatrix Lestrange.
It's this last who has Harry and Ron on edge. She may be mad, but she's cruel and clever, and to all knowledge, she's vanished. The Aurors are getting frustrated, and there's talk of giving up the search. But for the boys, capturing Bellatrix has been a priority from the beginning, ever since Hermione was recovered from the dungeon of Malfoy Manor. They don't discuss it, but Ron and Harry both have dreams about her eyes that day, more lifeless than they've ever seen.
As time wears on, their moods turn steadily towards "hex first and ask later", so Draco Malfoy is very lucky that Harry and Ron have both gone to get shepherd's pies from the Leaky Cauldron when he decides, on his first day back in England since he and his mother fled the aftermath of the Battle of Hogwarts, to burst into the shop with wand in hand and make straight for Hermione. He slams his hands on the counter, leans so far forward that Hermione stumbles back, and shouts directly in her face, "What the hell happened to you?"
"Malfoy!" Ginny says, moving to drag him away. He shakes her off like one might a particularly large insect and spreads his hands flat on the counter. He doesn't move back a centimeter.
"Granger," he says, more levelly. "What is wrong with you? What did my bitch of an aunt do?"
Hermione's lovely face creases in bewilderment, and Ginny snaps, "Malfoy, you insensitive git! You've upset her."
Malfoy doesn't look apologetic in the slightest; he does look like he's about to bang on the counter again and shout his question for the third time. Ginny forestalls him by punching him in the shoulder hard enough to make him wince.
"Shut up, Malfoy. And sit down," Ginny adds, steering Hermione gently to a chair. "I think we need to talk."