Hermione sat at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, waiting for Ron, Harry and Ginny to join her. It was early August, only a few days after Harry’s birthday, and their time on the rebuilding project was drawing to a close. In just under two weeks, they, and any other students still at the castle, would all return home to prepare for school – although it seemed incredible after the extraordinary events of the past year that there were things as mundane as shopping for school books to be done, and that in less than a month, they would simply be like any other 7th year students returning to do their NEWTS.
Looking up, Hermione couldn’t help but feel sad to see just a normal, wooden vaulted ceiling instead a bright summer sky. The enchantment that usually caused it to reflect the sky outside was still broken, and the only patch of blue visible was at the far end, above the teachers table, where the ceiling was still missing altogether. Professor Flitwick had cast an Umbrella charm to keep out any rain, but the continued good weather meant it had not been tested.
Repairs to the Great Hall had taken a very long time, since it had been the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting, and completing the repairs to the roof was the largest task still remaining before students could return to the school. Hermione had been working with Professor Flitwick on the roof that morning, and the Professor was confident that they could start repairs on the timber the following day.
Ron was next to arrive. He collapsed on the bench next to Hermione. “Bloody hell! That was tough – we’ve been clearing the greenhouses all morning, and those plants are vicious! My arms will never be the same again!” He presented his forearms for examination, which were criss-crossed with scratches. “And I’m starving!”
Ginny and Harry arrived together a little while later and sat down on the bench opposite. Hermione was pretty certain they had been working at opposite ends of the castle that morning. She noted that both seemed rather breathless and ruffled, and that Harry’s t-shirt appeared to have turned inside out since she had seen him at breakfast. Having failed in her attempt to raise a quizzical eyebrow, she settled for fixing Ginny with a knowing stare.
Ginny couldn’t help herself. She broke into a huge grin, and a pretty flush spread across her cheeks. Hermione pretended to examine Ron’s wounds solicitously, whilst really watching Harry and Ginny out of one eye. She saw Ginny’s shy smile, Harry kiss her cheek, and then how they held hands under the table. Hermione hadn’t thought they could appear any closer, but now they seemed almost like a single entity. In his quest for lunch and sympathy, Ron noticed nothing.
Lunch was platters of roast beef sandwiches followed by carrot cake, all of which was soon polished off. As they prepared to leave the hall, Hermione was wondering if she could invent an excuse for a few minutes alone with Ginny. She rather doubted it, since Harry clearly had much the same idea. However, they were both thwarted when a welcome and familiar voice boomed from just behind them
“Good afternoon, Hermione. Ron and Harry, it’s good to see you. I was hoping to find the three of you together. I need to talk to you. It’s…well, it’s rather important”
Kingsley Shacklebolt’s usually jovial face bore a much more serious expression.
“Please, join me in the Headmistress’s office. Good afternoon, Miss Weasley”
Ginny raised her eyebrows at being dismissed, but made no comment and headed back towards Ravenclaw tower to resume work on the staircase there. Ron, Harry and Hermione trotted after Kingsley.
For his part, Harry couldn’t help but remember all the times he’d been summoned to that office, and the dark and difficult times that such a summons had often heralded. He couldn’t help but be nervous.
When they arrived, they found Professor McGonagall behind her desk. “Ah! You found them easily enough then, Kingsley. Please everyone, do take a seat” The Professor waved her hand, and a pile of 4 books from the corner of her desk rose up floated towards them, and then sank until they were hovering just above the floor. They then expanded and changed shape in a rapid but controlled manner until they had become four comfortable, red leather armchairs.
“Old copies of Mr Lockhart’s autobiography that we found during the rebuilding of the DADA classroom. I can’t quite bring myself to burn any book, but I feel that sitting on them instead is an appropriate expression of my feelings.”
As they all took their seats, Shacklebolt and McGonagall looked at one another, as if deciding where to begin.
“What is it Minister? Professor? Is there a problem?” Hermione was worried.
Kingsley smiled at her “Oh yes, Miss Granger – but not in the way you might be imagining. You are aware, I know, that rebuilding effort with which you have been assisting is not confined to Hogwarts. It is not even confined to buildings. We are taking our entire community, our way of living, and putting it back together from the ground up. There is much to do.
“This enormous task is made all the more difficult given how many fine and talented people we lost during Voldemort’s revival. Many more made an allegiance to the Dark Lord that cannot now be forgiven even though the danger is passed. In short, the Ministry is seriously depleted. We simply don’t have enough people to do what must be done.
“And so I bring to you, with the knowledge and support of your Headmistress, an offer. Your exploits during your time hunting Horcruxes are well known. You survived on wits and magic for months. You faced and defeated not only the Dark Lord, but many of his most evil and fearsome associates. You located and destroyed some of the most powerful dark objects known to magic.
“What you did was, simply put, a job that many of this nation’s finest Aurors would have been proud of. And Aurors are in particularly short supply at the moment. We lost Mad Eye and Tonks, Remus, who would have joined us, and they are just a few names from many fine wizards no longer with us. The Auror department was among the most loyal to Dumbledore, and was the subject of Voldemort’s most vicious attacks on Ministry staff. My new role limits what I can do in the field. And yet, dark magic taints our world. It needs to be rooted out and destroyed. Dark wizards who did terrible things are hiding in our midst. We need to capture them and we lack the staff to do it.
“As a result, on behalf of the Auror department, I would like to offer you jobs. All of you.”
Harry’s eyes widened – a job as an Auror! Whatever he had been expecting when Kingsley had summoned them, it hadn’t been this!
Kingsley continued. “You may know that the usual career path for an Auror would require you to complete NEWTS and receive the highest grades, and then to undertake a further three years of extensive theoretical and field based training. It would be another four years in total before you could join us. However, we simply don’t have that much time. These unusual times call for unusual solutions, so Professor McGonagall and I have designed a special vocational training programme for you. It takes into account all that we know you have already learned and carefully fills that gaps, accelerating your training to qualification to two years. You would not return here for NEWTS, although you would attend for short periods of time to undertake specific academic classes. At other times, you would be undertaking practical training exercises in the field, and accompanying more senior Aurors on real fieldwork. Simple stuff to start with but quickly stretching you.
“This is not an offer I will be making elsewhere, nor do I make it lightly. But I believe that the three of you are extraordinarily talented, and I want to secure your gifts for the Ministry at the earliest possible opportunity.
“I am sure this will require some careful thought, so you need not commit yourselves immediately. The offer stands until the end of the week, after which I will require an answer.” He smiled broadly at them
Professor McGonagall leaned back in her chair, and regarded Harry, Ron and Hermione over the top of her spectacles, her fingers pressed together just below her chin.
“The three of you are, despite the early expectations of some of my colleagues, a real credit to Hogwarts. I am so very proud of all of you, and what Kingsley has offered you is truly a testament to your abilities. As much as I would be delighted to see all of you returning as full time students in September, remember this: The purpose of education is not to gain a cabinet full of awards and certificates. It is to learn the skills and knowledge that will support you throughout your entire adult life. I have no doubt that there is more we can teach you here, but I am in equally no doubt that Kingsley will provide you with an excellent education at the Ministry. Think about his offer carefully. Now, do you have any questions?”
Professor McGonagall knew them well enough that although she was speaking to all of them, as she said this last part, she was looking at Hermione.
“Well yes, Professor – I do. Just one or two.”
Ron and Harry, stunned as they were by what Kingsley had just told them, exchanged a wry look. However, as usual, it was a good job Hermione had been there to draw out the details. By the time they left the Headmistress’s office, they knew that their proposed programme of study at Hogwarts would include classes on specific Charms, Potions and Transfigurations. At the ministry, they would receive standard Auror training in either Concealment or Tracking, as well as advanced level counter measures against the Dark Arts. This would be reinforced with practical training that would be arranged nearer the time by the senior Auror to whom they would be assigned. They also knew that they would each be paid a generous training salary, which had caused Ron’s eyes in particular to widen in disbelief.
They had been in Professor McGonagall’s office for well over an hour before Kingsley left for the Ministry, and the headmistress dismissed them.
Harry’s head was spinning. Becoming an Auror had been his foremost ambition for years. There had been many times when he had truly thought he would never be able to make it happen, and now here it was, offered to him on a plate. He thought he would burst with excitement. Beside him, Ron was chattering happily.
“…so good to finally have a bit of cash of my own! If it had’ve been anyone else except McGonagall, I’d think it was a wind-up. Even Kingsley!” He turned to his girlfriend. “This is brilliant, isn’t it? I can’t wait!” He threw his arms around Hermione in a crushing bear hug.
Hermione briefly returned his embrace and then wriggled free. She pushed her hair back behind her ear. “Yes. Well. Certainly lots to think about. I need to get back to the Hall. Professor Flitwick will be wondering where I am.” And with that she was gone. She hadn’t actually looked Ron in the eye since leaving the office.
“You’d think she’d be a bit more excited, wouldn’t you?” Mused Ron.
Harry didn’t answer. A terrible thought had just occurred to him. How was he ever going to tell Ginny that they were to be parted again?
As it turned out, Harry wasn’t the only one worried about breaking the news. It was several days later, and Harry had just left the common room to head to the library in order to help Madam Pince wrangle some of the more obstinate books back into the restricted section when he met Hermione walking purposefully towards him along the corridor.
“Oh good!” She barked. “You can come with me. I need the moral support.” She caught Harry’s arm, spinning him back the way he’d come, and more or less dragging him along the corridor.
“Erm, Hermione? Where are we going? What’s going on?”
“To find Ron. I need you there. Otherwise I’m worried I’ll bottle it.”
And that seemed to be her last word on the matter. Seeing her slightly manic expression and the jittery way she moved as she walked, Harry thought better of pressing her on the subject.
Ron was still loitering in the common room. He was scheduled to be back working with Professor Sprout in the greenhouses that day, and in light of his experiences earlier in the week, was debating whether to put on his goal-keeper’s Quidditch pads to tackle the plants, despite the warm weather. Hermione marched straight up to him and launched into a speech that sounded as though she must have been practicing it for some time.
“I’m sorry Ron. I know you’ll be disappointed.” Hermione looked wretched and Harry knew she must be tearing herself apart. “But I’m going to turn down Kingsley’s offer and come back to Hogwarts for NEWTS in September. I’ve thought so hard and I simply don’t want to be an Auror. I never have! There are other things I want to do with my life, other ways I want to help the magical community, and I’ll need to do my NEWTS if I’m going to do any of them. So I’m sorry. But that’s what I’ve decided.” She swallowed hard, clearly dreading his response.
Ron shrugged, and started to struggle into his pads, not appearing to notice Hermione’s agitation.
“OK.” He said, breezily. Harry winced.
“OK. OK? I’ve been agonising about that for days, and all you can say is OK? Ronald Weasley, what’s the matter with you?”
“Well, I don’t really see the problem. You don’t want to be an Auror. I do. So I’ll go off and train with Harry, and we’ll see each other when I’m here for the classes, and in the holidays. Which will still be loads, and probably more than if we were both doing NEWTS. It’s fine.” He started to buckle the shoulder pads around his arms. “Makes sense really. I can’t imagine you not doing NEWTS, but I never really fancied it myself”.
Hermione looked anguished.
“But – aren’t you in the least bit upset?”
“No. Why would I be?” He studied her carefully for a few moments, looking puzzled. Finally, then the penny dropped – which took a while, because as much as Ron was considerably more mature these days, he was still fundamentally Ron Weasley. “Oh. Are you upset?”
Hermione just nodded.
“Right. Well… Erm… It’ll be fine. I promise. It won’t change anything.”
“But you’ll be off meeting so many new people. And some of them will be girls…”
Harry could see where this was heading. Seeing no immediate chance of escape, he settled for trying to blend in to the furniture.
“Yeah, but none of them will be you. I mean – you’re you, aren’t you? Why would I even look at any of them?”
“You mean it? Oh Ron!” She threw herself into his arms. While they were distracted, Harry took his chance to back quietly out of the portrait hole.
He was half way back towards the library when Ron caught up with him.
“I have known that girl for nearly seven years. She’s been my girlfriend for months. I still have no idea what’s going on inside her head.”
Harry grinned. “Yeah – I know that feeling!”
“Still, it’s all out in the open now. How did Ginny take it when you told her?” Harry stopped grinning. He didn’t look at Ron. Knowing it would be difficult to tell Ginny he wouldn’t be back at Hogwarts after all, he’d asked Ron and Hermione not to mention Kingsley’s offer to anyone until he had spoken to her. Trouble was, it was proving even tougher than he’d anticipated.
“Oh bloody hell, Harry! You mean you still haven’t told her? You promised you were going to speak to her two days ago!”
“I know, I know. It’s just… difficult to find the right moment.”
“Well get on with it! It’s hard enough for me and Hermione not to mention it as it is, and there’s no way we can keep it quiet once we get back to the Burrow next week. I know you really want to tell her yourself, but the longer you leave it, the more likely it is she’ll hear it from someone else, and the more hurt she’ll be. And as previously discussed, if you hurt my baby sister, I will be forced to kill you. Which I don’t want to have to do, because then I would have to do Auror training on my own.”
“OK, OK – I promise I’ll tell her tonight. Now can we drop the subject, please?”
Harry stalked on towards the library, thinking that Ron was going to have a far easier time persuading Professor Sprout’s venomous tentacula back into Greenhouse C this afternoon than he would this evening, explaining to Ginny that he would be leaving her yet again.
Ginny had been looking forward to her evening with Harry all day, knowing that their time together would be limited once they returned to the Burrow the following week. She had been very distracted, to the extent that she had confused Restorevio with Rictusempra, leading Professor Sinistra to suggest rather sharply that perhaps the Astronomy Tower would benefit more from the prescribed reinforcement charm than then being tickled to death.
She laughed at herself as she told Harry the story, as they lay on the blanket on their hidden beach, but she was still enthusiastic about how much she had learned that summer.
“In fact” said Ginny “I’ve learned so much this past few weeks that I’ve persuaded McGonagall that I don’t need to re-sit my 6th year after all. I’m going to go straight on to 7th year to do my NEWTS! It’ll be hard work because there will still be things to make up, but it’s such a relief!”
She grinned at him and then bent forward to draw him into a kiss. Harry knew he should tell her now, but couldn’t stop himself from responding enthusiastically. Then Ginny broke off and giggled.
“It’s just a shame neither of us are doing Divination. Trelawney’s so blind we could probably get away with doing this in class! Still, it’ll be brilliant to have so many classes together. I can’t wait! This time next week, we’ll be getting our book lists. I haven’t been looking forward to starting school again this much since I was eleven.”
And Harry knew he couldn’t avoid it any more. He was running out of time, and to deny it now would mean actually lying to her. He couldn’t face that.
“Ginny… There’s something I need to tell you. “
The shadows cast by the moonlight obscured his features, but she could tell he wasn’t looking at her. Suddenly, her mind took her back just over a year, to Dumbledore’s funeral. Harry telling her it was over, telling her they couldn’t be together. Her blood seemed to freeze in her veins.
“Harry? What is it?” Still he didn’t say anything. “Harry, please – you’re scaring me.”
Harry took a deep breath and steeled himself. Then he looked back towards her and saw the fear in her melting brown eyes. And he started to talk. Told Ginny about his amazing offer, the opportunity to pursue his dream career. About missing NEWTS, only attending Hogwarts for small parts of the year and about Ron and Hermione’s choices too. About how excited he was, but how scared he had been to tell her and shatter the plans they had been making for weeks now. And although it seemed to tear him in two to do it, he told her that he understood that it would be really difficult for her with them being apart. He talked until he couldn’t think of anything more to say. And then he stopped.
Ginny hadn’t moved. Not at all, the whole time. She was fighting the bile rising in her throat. When Harry was finally quiet, she looked down at her hands, and said in a small voice. “Oh. So that’s it?”
“I get it. You’ll have a high-flying Ministry career. You don’t want to be weighed down by a school-girl girlfriend.”
“What? Where did that come from?”
“Well, you are dumping me, aren’t you?”
“Dumping you? Who on Earth said anything about dumping you?”
“Well…You did, didn’t you? All that stuff about being scared to talk to me, about us being apart, about shattering our plans. It sounded pretty much like a dumping to me.”
“No! Oh god no! I’ve just been so worried about upsetting you, telling you we’d be apart for the second year running. And you deserve better than that. I wanted to give you the chance to back out”.
Ginny felt like her heart had started to beat again.
“Harry, I’ll never back out on you. Never.” She grabbed hold of his forearm, as if to reinforce her point. “Don’t you ever, ever forget that.”
“So – you’re not angry? About me not being here?”
“Well, I didn’t say that! I’m not really anything much at the moment, it’s such a lot to process. But I do wish you had told me straight away. And I won’t pretend I’m not disappointed that you won’t be here for most of next year. But I’d never hold you back, not from something that I know you want so much and there’s no way I’m letting you go again. We just have to work really hard at this. That’s all.”
“Think we can do that?”
“Harry, after everything we’ve been though already, I think we can do just about anything. Don’t doubt me, Harry. Promise me you won’t doubt me ever again.”
Harry thought that was the easiest promise he’d made in his entire life. Ginny hugged him tight, feeling relief flood through her. Harry just held her there, in his arms, for what seemed like hours, until it was time to head back to the Castle, wondering how the hell he got so lucky.