"Can't say I've ever been too fond of beginnings, myself. Messy little things.
Give me a good ending any time. You know where you are with an ending."
Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones 1996
"Hi Mum, hi Dad," Hermione called from the open front door to Grimmauld Place.
Her parents startled, standing on the pavement and staring uncertainly at the terrace of houses. Then they saw through the privacy wards that Hermione had temporarily parted and hurried up the steps to join her.
"I can't get used to that, you know," Linda Granger said. "One moment there's no house there at all, the next minute..."
"The next minute, house. And daughter. Happy birthday, Hermbles." Alan Granger kissed Hermione's cheek, then held her out at arm's length and looked critically at her. "You look very beautiful and very grown up. I don't approve in the slightest."
Hermione laughed, and tried not to smooth at the rather-too-figure-hugging black dress she'd been loaned for this soirée. Truth be told, she was self-conscious about wearing it; she'd never enjoyed dresses. "About an hour ago I'd decided I had nothing to wear and was going to plump for joggers, sweatshirt and slippers."
"That would have been better," her dad said. "Oh! The Magic Roundabout slippers with Zebedee?"
"She grew out of those about ten years ago, Alan," her mother chided. "Hermione, darling, if you're throwing a wardrobe hissy-fit before a party, that means you're an entirely normal, fully-functioning woman. Your father will get over the fact that you've moved beyond knee-socks–"
"Don't count on it," her father said, as he hung up his raincoat on the hooks in the hallway. He skirted past the troll-leg umbrella stand with a mild grimace. "And I'm really not sure about all this-this piling up your hair in elegant..." He twirled his finger at Hermione's head. "What do you call that, anyway?"
"Um – I tend to call it my hair," Hermione said.
"It's an updo," her mum informed them. "Reverse tuck. Very nice, dear. Who helped with that?"
"Fleur did. Ron's sister-in-law. She's good at that stuff. Much better than me, anyway." And since at this point Hermione was already sick and tired of discussing her appearance, she changed the subject. "Come and meet people!"
She led them through to the dining room. She and Harry had spent the last week doing a fair bit of cleaning and refurbishing. Magic made such projects so much easier. The dining table no longer dominated the room to the extent that it was hard to even sidle around it. Instead, its dimensions had been narrowed and it was pushed up against the wall. All the shelves and dressers had been removed. The heirloom china and crystal had been moved to more sensible dinnerware cabinets in the back room on the ground floor. The dining room was now panelled in attractive mahogany. A few of Grimmauld Place's magical portraits had been risked on display: the ones most likely to be well-behaved. (Their subjects had been admonished that if they refused to be cordial then they'd be taken straight back to the attic, with its strong acoustic containment charm and only each other to scream at. So far, so good, on that score.)
Spread over the dining table were linen cloths. At one end, a large pot of rather good chilli – Hermione and Ron had been Chief Tasters throughout the afternoon as it had simmered – stood ready to be dished up in bowls with the guest's choice of either rice or tortilla chips (or both, Ron had suggested, since tortilla chips made excellent cutlery when eating a bowl of chilli and rice, and such an approach would save on the washing-up, so it wasn't as if it could be called greedy, but rather helpful and practical). Alongside the chilli pot were two Pyrex dishes of roasted vegetable lasagne. There were at least three vegetarians attending the bash tonight, and possibly other attendees who weren't enamoured of spicy food, though Hermione still suspected she and Harry would be eating vegetable lasagne for most of the coming week. (Which was fine. She'd tasted that too. It was excellent. For a man whose potions skills were at best average, Harry was turning into a cracking cook. Much to Molly Weasley's annoyance, Hermione suspected.)
The rest of the table was filled with party favourites, many courtesy of the Weasley household, the rest courtesy of the local Tesco. Harry had been brought up as Muggle as Hermione, and they'd both agreed that you could not possibly have a birthday party without bowls and bowls (and more bowls) of crisps, sausages on cocktail sticks, cheese and pineapple (also on cocktail sticks), and mini-pizzas. Not to mention the pink blancmange in a rabbit mould and the Rice Krispie cakes and the trifle...although the pudding course was in the kitchen for now.
And if such things were all a bit juvenile, Hermione had reached the point in her burgeoning adulthood where she didn't really care. Harry, after all, had never been given a lavish birthday party when he'd been of an age to really appreciate one. When he'd turned eighteen, he hadn't wanted to do more than take Ginny out for a meal; most likely he'd had one eye on September and her return to Hogwarts. So Hermione had decided to indulge Harry's inner eight year old on this occasion. (It wasn't difficult. Actually it was a convenient excuse. Rice Krispie cakes were fabulous things, and she thought more adults really ought to embrace that fact.)
"Right then. If it has red hair, it's probably a Weasley," she said to her parents as they followed her into the room looking a bit overwhelmed. Understandably. They hadn't really been to any major gatherings before, and now Hermione came to think of it, most witches and wizards tended to be a tad eccentric in their appearance. "Since I think of the Weasleys as extended family, that means they're your extended family too. You know Ron's dad, Arthur, of course," she said, as Arthur Weasley yelped in delight and immediately pulled himself away from a group that contained Septima Vector, Xenophilius Lovegood, and Lysander Crocus from the Muggle-Worthy Excuse office.
Arthur glided through the gathering crowd. He led with his right arm which seemed to be anticipating a handshake and, thus, was already thrust out at right angles to his body: he looked sort of like a congenial (and fabulously ginger) Dalek. "Hermione's mum and Hermione's dad!" Arthur called. He was grasping and shaking before her parents even knew what was going on. "How marvellous to see you both! Marvellous! Now come and have some of these Cheesy-What-Is-Its and tell me all about this new wee!-mail thing that Hermione mentioned. It sounds remarkable."
Hermione grinned as Arthur tugged them in the direction of a crisp bowl. "I'll get you both some drinks!" she called after them.
"The Rotfang Conspiracy is still active, of course," Xenophilius Lovegood advised Hermione. "But low key. Low, low key. Like all conspiracies, it has decided that discretion – for now – is the better part of valour."
Hermione nodded solemnly. "I've always liked that description of running away."
"It is a good one," Xenophilius agreed.
She sipped her fruit punch. It was more potent than she would normally have made it, and about half as potent as Ron had wanted. (He'd been cross when he'd snuck into the kitchen earlier and tried to add more peach schnapps, and the schnapps had taken one look at the punchbowl and then flowed back up into the bottle. That had been a useful little charm she'd designed.)
"Anyway," Xenophilius went on, "Luna was wrong. Back in her fifth year, was it? When Harry took her to Professor Slughorn's party and she warned him off becoming an Auror."
"She told you about that?"
"Oh yes. Yes, she told me that one." He tilted his head, considering. "She doesn't tell me everything. That would not be normal at all for a seventeen year old girl."
Hermione coached her face into a neutral smile of interest. It was hard not to grin widely, however, to hear her friend Luna being described as normal. Luna's refusal to live her life according to society's idea of 'conventional' was one of her most wonderful personality traits.
"Yes, Luna was a little short-sighted, there," Xenophilius added.
Hermione huffed in disbelief. "I think Luna is one of the least short-sighted people I know!"
"Oh, perhaps. Perhaps. But the point is, we will never overcome the Rotfang Conspiracy if we steer the likes of Harry and Ron away from a career in the Auror Department. Seems to me the best way to oust the Rotfangers is to surround them with good-hearted Aurors, resistant to their agenda."
"Hmm. Like immunisation against a virus," Hermione suggested. Not that she really bought in to the idea that the Ministry was under threat from a combination of dark magic and gum disease, but the nature of the conspiracy didn't really matter, did it? Agendas had always existed, embedded deep in various sections of the Ministry, and there was a strong likelihood that many were rotten to the core and needed a jolly good ousting.
Xenophilius frowned in thought and asked Hermione, "A virus? How's that?"
"Oh. Yes. Well, you immunise as much of the nearby population as you can. Then an infected individual can wander about and the virus can't spread. Like the Muggles did with smallpox."
"Oh yes. Yes. I see what you mean. Good analogy!" Xenophilius smiled the same beatific smile that Hermione had so often seen on his daughter's face. "Secret cults do function rather like viruses, don't they?"
"I think the Auror Department will be better off with Harry and Ron in it," Hermione said. "They're only a month into their apprenticeships and yet they're both already...I don't know. Sort of different. Well – not different-different. But their perspective seems to be shifting."
"The way they see things. The possibilities they sense."
Xenophilius nodded sagely. "Might be Prangle-Scamps. It's well known that the Ministry is full of them."
Hermione looked at The Quibbler's editor askance. "I haven't heard Luna mention those before. Are they like Wrackspurts?"
"Oh no." He shook his head. "Quite different. Wrackspurts lead to an absence of focus. I would imagine that in law enforcement such a thing might be potentially hazardous. Fortunately, Prangle-Scamps are benign creatures. Quite invisible, naturally."
"Naturally," she said, with what she hoped was an absence-of-eye-roll.
"But their modus operandi tends to involve drawing attention to often overlooked detail. The kind of detail that offers insight. Probably rather useful at any scene of criminal activity."
Hermione nodded slowly. She had learned, over a long acquaintance with Luna Lovegood, to simply go with the more absurd claims regarding invisible creatures that might or might not be real. "Prangle-Scamps," she said.
"Hmm. Not widely recognised. Of course, they're far too clever to draw attention to themselves."
She found herself considering the possibility: invisible creatures that drew attention to overlooked details. A misplaced item of furniture; a scratch on the floor or the door; an absence on a shelf where a keepsake had once been placed. She had to fight hard not to tut-tut at herself after a moment.
It seemed a long time ago now – especially given everything that had happened – but on the first occasion when Hermione had met Xenophilius Lovegood he had told her about his daughter's assessment of her: that she was intelligent but narrow-minded. The notion had stung. Hermione had been resentful about it for some time, right up until the moment she'd forced herself to examine it as a potential truth rather than an insult, because the undeniable fact of the matter was that Luna simply did not insult people. There wasn't a vindictive bone in her body.
Once Hermione had accepted that Luna might have a point, she'd realised that refusing to embrace less tangible possibilities might even restrict her understanding of the world. Hermione had not been any less sceptical about the existence of Wrackspurts or Nargles, but she had decided not to dismiss, out of hand, any theory that failed to fit with her own sphere of knowledge. For if she accepted that her sphere of knowledge was expanding all the time, then it made sense that there would always be things she didn't yet know.
Like the shark that needed to keep swimming in order to stay alive, Hermione knew that she constantly needed to learn new things. Knowledge; awareness; understanding: all this was her oxygen.
Xenophilius Lovegood watched her kindly, even as these thoughts raced through her mind. She smiled at him. (She had, of course, long forgiven him for the terrible things he'd been forced to do following Luna's capture by Death Eaters.)
"Perhaps," she suggested, "Muggles occasionally find themselves in the company of Prangle-Scamps as well? It would explain the likes of Sherlock Holmes."
Xenophilius looked pensive. Then, gently, as if concerned he might be undermining a precious delusion, he said, "I was under the impression that Sherlock Holmes was not real."
Hermione chuckled at that. She couldn't help it; the irony was too delicious. "You've read Conan Doyle?" she asked, before her amusement caused offence.
"Oh, no. But I've heard of this Holmes character."
"Well you're quite right. He is a fictional character. But for the writer to write him, the idea had to come from somewhere."
"Ah. Yes. Yes, I see! It's worth looking into. Can we speak to this Doyle person?"
"I'm afraid not. He died quite some time ago."
Hermione decided to move the subject on from Prangle-Scamps and their possible influence on Arthur Conan Doyle before things got too quagmired.
"Have you heard from Luna since she went back to Hogwarts?" Hermione asked.
"She writes twice a week," Xenophilius told her. "All is well."
"After everything that happened there," she mused, "Luna has more courage than I. I couldn't go back."
Xenophilius patted Hermione's shoulder. "Nobody blames you at all for that, my dear. But Luna? Ahh, Luna is so interested in everything, she never takes the time to be afraid. That's where her courage lies. As her father, it's one of the things that worries me the most." He sighed, the sound heavy with memory. "There's a lot to be said for knowing when to be scared."
Hermione blinked as she looked at Xenophilius's slightly cross-eyed face. His expression was kind, concerned, and just a touch world-weary. Like the rest of them, he'd been to hell and back this year. She didn't know what she could say to make him feel better.
Hagrid chose that moment to clomp up to them. "Now then, Hermione," he boomed. "Monster Munch. These ain' real eyes, is they? I don' approve of that. Monsters is people too."
"They're made of corn," Hermione replied, smiling.
"Ah. Like Three-Toed Kingwarts," Xenophilius said wisely.
Hagrid's heavy brow creased hard. "Now I haven' heard o' them. Why haven' I heard o' them?"
Hermione said, "Would you excuse me, gentlemen?" and left them to their discussion.
Michael said, "So has Harry forgiven me for dating Ginny yet?"
"Why do you ask?" Hermione replied. "Has he been snippy with you?"
"Oh, no. Just feels like it's sort of, I don't know, the erumpent in the room. Every time we do the pleasantries thing."
Hermione glanced around the dining room. Harry was engrossed in a discussion with Bill Weasley and her own mum. "Pretty sure there's nothing to forgive," she said. "But it was a bit weird. How you and Harry ended up interested in the same girls, I mean. For a while back there, anyway."
"Good taste?" Michael said with a shrug.
Hermione gave a smile. "Do you still speak to Cho?"
"Oh yeah. Time to time. I mean, we broke up after she graduated. We said it wouldn't be sensible, one of us in school and one of us not." Michael winced. "I mean, I'm not saying no one could ever make it work, like, you know, Harry and Ginny are doing. Just – it wasn't for us. Me and Cho."
Hermione nodded. "Shame, though. Seemed as if you and Cho were good together."
"We were." He blushed a bit. "If she wanted to try again I'd probably jump at the chance, to be honest, but she said after the battle that she needed some time to sort herself out. Career and stuff, you know?"
Michael lifted a hand to the back of his head and fiddled with his hair. "I think she always thought I was a bit young," he confided. "I mean, I'm like you – one of the oldest in our year. I'm nineteen next month. Cho's only three and a half months older than me. But at school it always felt like more. You know?"
"Maybe you'll sort yourselves out," Hermione said, trying to console. "It's been a hell of a couple of years. Hard to factor in all the more ordinary stuff, like relationships."
Michael nodded agreement. "So what about you then?" he asked. "Nothing on the horizon since you split with Ron?"
She almost rebuked him for the personal nature of the question, but the fact that she'd been talking to him about his own love-life for the last few minutes made that a bit unfair. And Michael was a sweet enough bloke. Prone to sulks and mood-swings, as seemed to befit his Byronesque features, but a good heart.
"I think," she said, "I can definitively state that I will be Hermione without a plus one for the foreseeable." Because as much as she liked and trusted her Ravenclaw friend, she was not about to divulge anything else she might be feeling.
"Terry will be gutted," Michael said with a sigh, looking round the room. Hermione looked with him, and they spotted Terry Boot chatting to Constance Underwood from St Mungo's. "He's always had a thing for you."
"Terry?" Hermione blinked at this rather surprising news. "Good grief, I thought he had more sense."
Michael shot her an appraising look. "Huh. Either you're genuinely unaware that you're good-looking," he said, "or you're better at false modesty than any Gryffindor has a right to be." He leaned in. "Go on. Give a bloke a chance. Which is it? I need to get better at understanding the way women's minds work."
Hermione snorted so hard she almost inhaled her punch. "Okay – one? Women are not all the same. Two? False modesty doesn't work all that well when, seconds later, the person professing false modesty claims it as such." She paused while Michael laughed and then had to cough into his sleeve. "Thirdly, and finally? I am aware that I'm presentable enough. Takes a lot of work to make me anything approaching elegant, but it can be done. My comment about Terry, however, was nothing to do with what I think I look like."
"Ah. So you think he should have 'more sense' because of your personality?"
"Probably. Possibly. I'm hard bloody work, truth be told. I like to be left alone when I've got stuff to do. I am not a socialiser – you wouldn't believe how much effort Harry and Ron had to put in to make me agree to this party. I overthink things to the point of absurdity – sometimes I get so bogged down in the minutiae I miss the obvious, which means I can upset people without meaning to. I'm trying to train myself out of that one, but recognising the fault is only the first step, isn't it? And to cap it all, I'm still recovering from what happened earlier in the year. I get nightmares and dark days and moments when I want to lash out. Sometimes I think I'm an accident waiting to happen. So to be quite honest with you, Terry would do very well to direct his attention elsewhere."
Michael arched a delicate eyebrow. "So you're attractive and intelligent and you're striving for self-awareness and improvement? You know what? Forget Terry. Want to have dinner with me?"
Hermione rolled her eyes. "I'll sit at a table and eat with you, any time you like. We can talk Charms or Potions or Arithmancy till the cows come home. But friendship only."
"Friendship only," Michael agreed with a grin, and offered a hand to shake on the notion. Hermione shook. Then he got a glint in his eye and looked over at the other end of the dining room. "So, um, is Ron actually with that tall brunette with the rather nice–"
"Careful," Hermione warned.
"Nice earrings, I was going to say," Michael added mildly.
She shrugged. "I think so. He hasn't introduced me yet. I think he's worried I'll throw a wobbler."
"That's not it," Michael said. "He's worried that you won't."
"At least part of him wants you to be pining for him."
"Don't be daft!"
"Not being daft. He wants you to pine, and the minute he introduces his new girlfriend and you're all nice and welcoming and friendly? He has to let go of the fantasy that you still cry yourself to sleep over how much you're missing him."
She bristled. "Ron isn't stupid. Lots of people have made that mistake about him."
"Not saying he is. Honest. He knows the whole thing is ridiculous. But he's still a bloke, and he still wants the girl he loved to be pining." Michael sighed. "We all do. It's how we're wired. In this, each and every bloke on the planet is exactly the same."
"I'd better go and introduce myself, then," Hermione said. "Get the whole thing over and done with, so he can move on."
"Um – this is Mariana," Ron said, high points of colour on his cheeks.
Hermione refrained from saying, 'Oh, like the trench?' She thought that this demonstrated how very mature, polite and totally over her thing with Ronald Weasley she was.
Instead she said, "Hello there. Lovely to meet you!" She offered a hand, which Mariana shook looking nervous and uncertain. Ron wasn't helping with all the blushing and the fidgeting, so Hermione added, "I'm the ex. Not much of an ex, I'll admit, but still."
"Yes. Right. Um," said Mariana.
"Hermione!" complained Ron.
"Better to be up front about these things," she said with a shrug. "So what do you do, Mariana?"
"I'm training to be an Auror, with Ron and Harry," Mariana said.
Ah. Hermione realised that she should have seen that one coming. Wasn't as if the boys were meeting lots of other people outside of their apprenticeships, was it? And Mariana had the shoulders of a Quidditch Beater and the stance of a dueller. Plus she was very good-looking. And Michael had been right: those were nice earrings.
"All right, you lot?" Harry said as he wandered over and offered up a plate of cocktail sausages. Ron grabbed three. Mariana grabbed the same number and chomped happily. Harry didn't even blink, but just grinned at the group.
And there it was.
Hermione was, she realised, jealous. Horribly, stomach-creasingly jealous. But not in the way Ron might have imagined. Harry and Ron had found a new third to complete the Golden Trio as they made their way through Auror training, and Hermione now stood apart. The Golden Fraction indeed.
"Ron said you were working at the Ministry," Mariana said once the sausages had been devoured. She was making friendly, inclusive conversation, because damn it, this new girl, this interloper, this replacement, she didn't even have the basic, common decency to be a bit of a cow, did she?
Hermione plastered a smile on her face. "Oh. Yes. Just helping out part-time with the Muggle-Worthy Excuse Committee. I've, er, got a bit of 'previous' with Muggles." She tried to smile, emphasising the joke she'd made, but Mariana just nodded and looked politely interested. Perhaps Magical Law Enforcement didn't use the cop-show language of Prime Suspect or The Bill.
"Of course, she's fitting that in with her fourteen NEWTs," Ron said.
"Fourteen?" Mariana repeated, eyes wide.
"Six," Hermione corrected, rolling her eyes at Ron. "I had to drop Herbology when I decided not to go back to Hogwarts. But I've already passed two of them, so I might take on History of Magic as well, bring the total back up to seven." She gave an awkward shrug. "I've done most of the reading for that, anyway, so I could probably manage it. But it feels like a bit of a cheat. You know. Since I haven't been to any lessons since fifth year."
Harry tut-tutted. "You never did get your head around what cheating actually is, did you?"
"I should hope not," Hermione said primly. "I save my nefarious leanings for things that actually matter. You know. Dark hexes, bank robberies, actual bodily harm on the odd Slytherin."
Mariana looked alarmed. Harry snorted. Ron grinned widely and said, "Honestly, Mari, I've seen Hermione punch. She's nearly as good as you!"
Wonderful. Hermione had not just been replaced, she had been superseded. She tried to think of something amiable to say, something that wouldn't make her want to growl it through her teeth. At that moment, however, the sound of the doorbell charm distantly rang through the open door to the hallway. Hermione thanked whatever gods were listening and excused herself from the group.
The golden leftover. The golden third wheel. The golden whatever went to answer the door.
"Oh," she said.
"Good evening," said Severus Snape.
A pause. Snape's eyes flicked up to take in her hairstyle and then wandered down to look at the neckline of her dress before darting back up to stare determinedly at a point that seemed to be just above her left eye.
"Won't you come in?" she invited, remembering herself.
"Thank you, but no."
"All right then." Hermione frowned for a moment, then she shrugged and stepped outside and pulled the door to. "We'll do the party out here."
"I did not come here to attend a party," Snape said. "I am not generally given to celebration."
"You don't say," she deadpanned.
Snape sighed, as if the whole situation was the most frightful bother. "I was advised that you would be inconsolable if I failed to show my face."
She raised a brow, glanced over her shoulder at the bright window into the dining room at the front of the house. "Harry talks a lot of nonsense. And you should know better."
"He does, and I do," Snape said. He dug in a voluminous overcoat pocket and produced a small rectangular item. "Here." He thrust it at her.
"A birthday present?"
"Call it additional reading."
She took the object. It was wrapped in plain brown paper. "Because you don't have special relationships with your students."
"I most certainly do not."
They looked at each other a moment.
"Is it Hoppleberry's study on magical invertebrates?" she enquired.
"Yes," said Snape. "It appears I have become predictable."
"It appears you know me about a thousand times better than anyone else who brought me a birthday present this evening. Um – additional reading, I mean. Not a birthday present; not at all. Nothing special. Nope."
The corner of his mouth threatened to twitch, then he sighed. "I would have owled it to you, but there is something else I must say. This seemed as good an opportunity as any."
"Oh. All right then."
Snape looked down at his shoes. Behind him, Muggles trundled along the pavement unaware that they were passing beside a magical privacy ward that kept the entire property, top step included, from their notice. Hermione waited.
Snape drew back his shoulders and raised his black gaze to hers, and he said, "I have been photographed by the Prophet. In the company of a witch. I should imagine some kind of speculative article will appear in Monday's edition."
Hermione made herself breathe a couple of times before she said, "I see." She waited for the explanation. When one was not forthcoming, she said, cautiously, "Your personal life is, of course, your own business."
"Mine and, it would appear, the Prophet's."
Which meant that Snape was, indeed, having a personal life. He was having one right now: him and some floozy. Hermione swallowed a lump in her throat.
"And now mine as well," she muttered.
Snape looked down at the step on which he stood. "This was an error."
This was the error? This? How about tarting around with strange and no doubt incredibly sexy and flirtatious and charming witches? How about that being the error?
"I can't imagine why you'd think that," she said. She wasn't even sure if she was being sarcastic or not.
Snape sniffed. "This is not the kind of conversation a teacher should have with his student."
"Perhaps not. But relationships aren't monochrome, are they? We can't just pretend that this summer never happened."
"Nor should we pretend it meant something that it did not."
She narrowed her eyes. "I don't believe I am pretending any such thing."
They studied each other for long seconds. It was definitely, Hermione thought, more of a glare than a gaze.
Snape looked away first. He tut-tutted and said, "Yes, well, there it is. I thought it might be better for you to learn of the story from me rather than by reading about it in the gutter press. If I was mistaken, so be it." He turned his back abruptly and made to walk down the steps.
Hermione swallowed the emotion that was welling up in her throat. She said, "Severus." He froze, and he didn't look back, but he didn't correct her form of address. "I miss you," she said.
"You spend eight hours a week in my company."
"I miss you," she told his resolutely turned back. He wasn't going to give an inch in this. He was a teacher, she the student, and his personal life was his own business. The best she could hope to achieve, now, was to ensure he did not leave Grimmauld Place wincing at the childish jealousies of a teenage girl. "But I suppose if I can't play Boggle with you then learning potions isn't a bad second choice."
His head went back a bit, as though he had lifted his chin. "You are doing well enough, thus far."
"Thank you." She sighed. "Thank you for my pres-...my additional reading."
"Not at all."
"You'd be very welcome to come inside for some sausages on sticks. Or trifle." She glanced at the warm and welcoming light of the dining room window. "There's three teachers in there already. No one even blinks, these days, when the know-it-all parties with the faculty."
His shoulders moved, just enough that she could notice. Maybe it was a laugh, maybe another sigh. Then he said, "Happy birthday, Hermione," and trotted down the steps. He walked away in the direction of the Holloway Road without a single look back.
Hermione sagged against the stonework by the front door and thought some dark thoughts. This evening had taken quite the turn. Harry and Ron had found a new third member of their Trio: one who was taller and prettier and stronger and punchier than Hermione. Meanwhile Severus Snape was wining and dining some new witch who was only too happy to flutter her lashes and flash her no-doubt ample cleavage at the heroic double-agent who had helped save the world from Voldemort, and who – unlike Harry Potter – was unquestionably single and fabulously eligible.
It served Hermione right, of course. Not so long ago she'd been congratulating herself on how her life had seemed to be coming together. Clearly she had jinxed it with thoughts like that. She wished, for a moment, that she really believed in Nargles and Wrackspurts and Prangle-Scamps. It'd be lovely to blame things on some kind of invisible external influence. A much nicer option than the obvious explanation: Hermione Granger was neither as necessary nor as desirable as she had hoped.
She wasn't going to cry. Obviously. She was nineteen. Maybe later she'd indulge this feeling of things slipping away, but for now she had a party to attend. Her party.
She let herself back in to the house and closed the door quietly. A deep breath and she was composed once more.
Her mother's face appeared around the doorway into the dining room. "Oh, there you are, darling!" she called. A brief moment as Linda Granger waited for her daughter to respond and Hermione Granger tried to grit her teeth against the hurting: a moment in which two women who knew each other very well communicated quickly and silently. Her mother opened her mouth to speak, forehead already creasing with concern, but then she looked over her shoulder at something.
A second later Linda Granger had stepped out into the hall, closely followed by Molly Weasley. Molly was in the process of saying something, but she stopped short.
In the pause that followed, Hermione's mother said, "Your rook?"
Hermione felt herself crumple, hated herself for it, felt unsophisticated and childish and oh so ridiculous. But before she even managed to punctuate the first silent sobs with a gasped, wheezy breath, her mother had her arm around Hermione's shoulder and Molly said, in her most no-nonsense voice:
"Right then. Upstairs to the drawing room and we'll get Hermione a bit of breathing space."