There had been times over the past year that Hermione had regretted her decision to come back and finish school. Hogwarts was shattered and strewn with debris from the war, and every corner she turned reminded her of someone she'd lost. The boys were off doing real work, which she helped with, but didn't join in fully--she'd offered, and Harry and Ron had said she'd be "dead useful" in tracking down the remaining Death Eaters, but Kingsley Shacklebolt himself had put his foot down, saying that, while Ron and Harry had the skills for the career they desired and would be spared the testing, Hermione had no interest in working for the Division permanently, and would be much more useful in the future if she took care to finish her education now. In effect, this left her doing a lot of forensic work at the castle--there were plenty of clues to find, and she, Ginny, and Luna never lacked for meaningful contributions to the cause--but navigating Hogwarts without Ron and Harry was surreal and lonely, even with the rest of Dumbledore's army there. She felt disconnected, like her brain was a balloon on a cut string. Nothing seemed right. Even her dormitory was wrong--neither Parvati nor Lavender had chosen to come back, and there were only seven floors in the tower, so her old dormitory had gone to skittish-looking first years, and she had moved in with Ginny and her friends. And why not? They were all seventh-years together.
Seventh year wasn't a time for getting to know an entirely new routine. Hermione found that she expected Lavender's endless supply of fan magazines and Parvati's fashion advice, and instead, she got Quidditch scores from Ginny (when they weren't working on the war aftermath), an obsession with cheesy adventure novels by Zoltan Burr from a girl called Bitty Rogan, cut-throat competition for marks from a Muggle-born girl with the unfortunate name of Hortense Gall, and nothing at all from a shy wallflower named Brisen Smout. There had been two others in the dormitory, but the family of one of them had run off to Belize for the war and ended up settling there (letters from Theresa--always shared--were half excitement at a new life, and half continued embarrassment that her non-Gryffindor family had chosen to "scarper"), and the other was on the too-long memorial list from the final battle (Hermione had taken Theresa's bed; Kabira's area was left reverently alone).
As a result of all this strangeness, and of the fact that people associated her with Harry and therefore treated her with a level of respect that bordered on insanity, Hermione found herself socializing on a rather regular basis with teachers instead of other students. She was barred from the staff room, of course, but fighting together had apparently steeled them into a strong group, and they met at Hagrid's hut, where Hermione and a handful of other students who'd been deeply involved in the war could meet with them. Hagrid was as he'd always been, and probably always would be, but she learned a lot about the others. Flitwick had a cutting sense of humor. Vector's hobby was rock collecting. Sinistra had a fine singing voice, and always knew what was going on in the world politically. Sprout was a great surprise--Hermione had always thought her rather unfocused and ditzy, but it turned out that outside of class, she knew everyone and understood a lot about how people related to one another. Even Trelawney wasn't entirely unpleasant, as long as she wasn't drunk. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the weird corners of wizarding history, and would often tell stories that had somehow missed the history books.
But it was McGonagall who was the real treasure of a friend, and Hermione actually regretted that they couldn't have been girls together. It had always been clear that McGonagall was quite intelligent, and more than one Gryffindor student had suspected that she was fierce and brave, in her proper way, but they'd had very few opportunities to enjoy her more cutting wit, and knew nothing of her as a person. They knew she liked Quidditch; they had no idea that she'd once seriously considered a career in the sport, and been disciplined on more than one occasion during her own student days for playing pranks on fans of the opposing teams. Other teachers talked about some lost love in her past, but she would say no more than that there had been such a person once, a long time ago... itself enough to make Hermione wonder what she'd been like then. She loved her students more dearly than any of them suspected, and could speak with great fondness of Gryffindors from all the years of her tenure at Hogwarts. She had a particular love for James Potter and Sirius Black ("And of course, poor Remus, who ought to be here with us"), but could recall details of so many others--including the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Gawain Robards, who'd finally started to join them by the end of the year--that Hermione thought she could probably write a book on Gryffindor House without needing to consult a single outside resource.
Hermione considered her a fine Headmistress, even though she quirkily refused the title and would only call herself "acting Headmistress," so when, on a rainy March evening at Hagrid's, she said, "Well, I've made up my mind--I'll be taking retirement at the end of the year," Hermione shouted, "You can't!" before even thinking about the propriety of telling McGonagall what she could or couldn't do. She smiled faintly and went on with the conversation, as though no objection had been raised, but when the hour grew late, she said, "Miss Granger, perhaps it's time to return to the castle. Will you walk up with me?"
Hermione nodded. She cast an umbrella charm around them, and McGonagall added a bit of warmth to it, and they walked together in its bubble.
"I've accumulated a lot of years in my life," McGonagall said as they passed the Whomping Willow. "I've spent a good portion of them here at Hogwarts."
"And you're tired of it," Hermione guessed.
"No. I just realized that there's a part of me that's afraid to leave it." McGonagall smiled. "I'm sure you can imagine how well I enjoy considering myself afraid."
"Everyone's afraid of things changing," Hermione said. "I know I am. Ron talks all the time about having a house and getting married, but then I think, 'No, I'm too young to talk about that! Just a kid!'"
McGonagall laughed. "I shall admit to having the same reaction at the thought of you marrying. But you ought to consider it. Mother Nature is, I'm afraid, rather unforgiving of long delays." She sighed, and Hermione wondered again about her lost love, but didn't ask. "I don't mean immediately, of course--you are quite young. But the years will begin to pass more quickly now. You don't want to glance over your shoulder someday and see them piled up behind you, with no idea how they all got there."
Hermione stopped. "Are you all right, Professor? Are you ill?"
"Oh, I'm quite healthy for my age," McGonagall said. "I anticipate a lot of years ahead of me. But I don't wish to spend them here at Hogwarts, watching the last traces of the world I knew being scrubbed away from it. I knew from the time Albus died that I meant to retire as soon as I was certain the school was safe. Now, I'm certain. Pomona Sprout has proved an able Deputy Headmistress, and the governors have approved her to take the post when I leave."
McGonagall sighed and started walking again. "I note that you're not spending time with the other students as much as you might, and that you avoid the damaged areas of the castle--"
"Of course I do! All I can think of when I see that collapsed corridor is poor Fred. I never got along well with the twins, but they always made me laugh despite myself and--"
"And the corridors are haunted for you. I imagine you also think of young Mr. Creevey whenever someone brings out a camera, or of Remus Lupin in Defense Against the Dark Arts."
"And Tonks," Hermione said. "I can't think of him without thinking of her, and she was my friend."
"Yes." McGonagall looked up at the castle. In the darkness, the wounds weren't as visible, but the slumped shape of some wings was still obvious and the Red Caps that scrurried across the lawn so often that Hermione cast hexes against them without even thinking about it now were constant reminders of the real damage to the wizarding world. McGonagall shook her head. "So many Gryffindors," she said. "So much blood from my House. Nights up in my office wondering if I could have done something differently to avoid this catastrophe."
"I know, Miss Granger. Nearly all of us do it. I'm sure Albus did as well. Could we have stopped Tom before he got powerful? Could we have spotted the trouble with Peter? Could we have done something about the poison spreading in--and from--Slytherin House? I can look back and imagine many things that we could have done. But of course, we wouldn't have, because we hadn't the knowledge of later events. We always respond to the last war." She sighed. "I simply don't care to spend my remaining years brooding in my office over events I cannot change. There's a world beyond Hogwarts. Beyond the war." She smiled. "An old friend once offered me the chance to escape it all with him. I quite rightly turned him down--there were more important matters to which I needed to attend. But those matters have come to an end, one way or another, and, rather belatedly, I plan to accept his challenge. I plan, Miss Granger, to see how well I live without every day being a fight about something."
They reached the door, and Hermione put her hand on the handle. "Where will you go?"
McGonagall smiled, and years dropped from her face. Hermione could imagine her as the daring young girl she had once been. She said, "Everywhere I can possibly reach."
The last little ficlit you did with James and Harry made me wonder if Harry ever played with his old Quidditch team again just for fun or what not. How about something along those lines?.
"I wish you'd re-think it," Oliver Wood said. "I doubt anyone would worry too much about propriety, if it meant seeing Harry Potter play Quidditch."
Across from him, Katie and Alicia nodded enthusiastically. Ron laughed. Angelina, who had been resting her head lightly on George's shoulder, perked up a bit and said, "I think it's a fine idea."
Harry shook his head. "I don't think so."
Oliver stared in disbelief. "Why not? You were always good enough to make the national team eventually, and I reckon Kingsley'd give you a season off. You've earned a season off!"
Ginny sat down between them. She was still drenched in sweat from the Harpies game that had just ended--a strong win--but neither of the men were put off by it. "He wants people paying attention to the national team, Wood," she said. "Not to Famous Harry Potter."
"Exactly," Harry said. "Though I wish they'd bloody knock it off with the Famous Harry Potter business. It's been two years!"
"Yes, two whole years since you saved the world," George said. "Why can't anyone just let it go?"
"Yes, it's so yesterday," Katie said, her voice dripping with mock disdain. "Really, they ought to think about more important things."
"The weather," Angelina suggested. "Or perhaps whether or not the Prime Minister's son was framed on those public drunkenness charges. Quite fishy, that."
"Oh, and what about the whole Celestina Warbeck business?" Alicia said. "Was she really sleeping with Fudge?"
"That's just disturbing," Ron said.
"But more interesting than me," Harry said.
Ginny nodded. "It's true. If people knew how dull you really are, they'd stop talking about you entirely. You should give interviews to everyone and tell them about your job... oh, wait, that's sort of interesting. Not that then. Your history? No... oh, wait, your love life...no, that's definitely not dull..."
He mussed her hair.
Ron looked up and smiled, and Harry wasn't surprised to find Hermione coming toward them when he looked over his shoulder. She was carrying a hamper full of food.
Ginny rubbed her hands. "Picnic. I'm starving!"
"Sorry," Hermione said, sitting down. "I'm afraid I come with news from your captain. You're supposed to run the reserves through a few moves." She pointed to the pitch, where the Harpies reserve team was waiting.
"Oh, bloody..." Ginny ground her teeth. "Don't eat everything!" she ordered, and stomped off.
Oliver laughed. "Wish I'd thought to grab her earlier."
"You had three Chasers," Alicia said.
"True. Good ones, too. We were always a good team. I'll bet we could have beaten some of the professional teams."
George smiled. "I'll bet we still could." He looked around. "Ron, I reckon Fred wouldn't mind if you were to take up a Beater's bat."
George looked at Oliver, who glanced over at the pitch and grinned widely. "A good point. And as a former reserve player, I have to say, a good scrimmage is better practice than a drill. I'm sure the fair Miss Weasley will agree."
Harry shook his head. "I don't even own a broom anymore."
"First, mate, you need to rectify that," Angelina said. "But for now, we're on a professional pitch. I reckon they've dozens of extras."
Oliver flicked his wand, and seven brooms came flying out of the Harpies' locker room. Harry caught one without thinking about it, and had to admit--it felt good to hold again.
George stood up first, followed by the girls. Oliver and Ron each took one of Harry's arms and pulled him up (he didn't really resist this, though some part of his mind protested that Quidditch was something in his past, and he shouldn't try to hold onto his childhood... he told that part of himself to shut up).
They walked together to the pitch, where Ginny was putting the reserves through a very dull drill. She looked at them quizzically.
Oliver bowed his head. "Gryffindor House challenges."
Ginny laughed, and Summoned the box of game balls. "Harpies, take your positions. Gryffindors... try to keep up." She winked.
Harry laughed, got onto the borrowed broom, and felt the old thrill run through him.
Ginny released the Golden Snitch.
The game was back on.