Actions

Work Header

In Loco Parentis

Chapter Text

For my Pseverus, with thanks for the trouble you took

Part One: Wannabe (September 1996)

If you want my future, forget my past

- Spice Girls

 

Diesel fumes and chip smells from Burger King; London voices and boot-heel clicks; girls in jeans and men in suits, men in jeans and girls in suits; her parents, waving.

Hermione Granger threw herself against a brick wall and made it all disappear.

Abracadabra!

Narrow, clean, coal-fire-smelling Platform 93/4, crowded with children in uniforms and coats and scarves, wrestling trunks and brooms and cat-carriers onto the Hogwarts Express. Hermione stood for a moment, gasping with relief that she was on time despite the London traffic her parents' car had crawled through, waiting for herself to change – the feeling in the pit of the stomach when a Transfiguration works – into her school-self. But then a whistle blew and she threw herself and her bags through the door of the nearest carriage, and she must have missed the moment, because as the train set off she was already balanced for its motion, already snatching a Hufflepuff scarf from the hands of a triumphantly-waving Ravenclaw second-year and returning it to its red-faced, tearful owner.

In the prefects' carriage, Fatima was in the middle of her head-girl speech. Hermione slid in, mouthing Sorry, found Ron and elbowed him and said Hi. Hi, Ron whispered back. Extra security, Fatima was saying, Ministry business, Death Eater resurgence, exercise vigilance, won't interfere with the running of the school. (Well, maybe: there's a first time for everything.) Slytherin short of prefects this term, Dumbledore hopes, inter-house co-operation. Hermione nudged Ron (what's that about?) and he shook his head (dunno). Only remains for me to say...

'Shall we go and find Harry?' asked Hermione as the meeting broke up into jostling and babble. 'Have you seen him yet?'

'No,' said Ron, 'he's back at Hogwarts already, didn't you know? He's been there most of the summer.'

'Oh,' said Hermione. 'No. I didn't know.' And what else has been happening this summer while I've been... Her mind stuttered, shuffling pictures from her summer in front of her. While I've been. Silence.

*

'Harry!' Hermione called. Harry looked over at her across the rows of tables and benches in the Great Hall: he smiled, but candlelight flashed off his glasses and made her blink.

'Hi,' she said, sliding in beside him, her five-years friend. There was something still about him, as if the rage that had driven him fast and hard through all of last year had gone into the darkness with Sirius and been lost; he looked bony and smudged and watchful. Seeing his face, she had her first news of the war in three months.

And there it was, the Transfiguration feeling.

She settled back into her bones, settling down on the bench beside him.

'How was your summer?' she asked.

Harry shrugged. 'Yours?'

Summer pictures shuffled, jammed, turned to black. Nothing. 'Nothing,' she said, then, recovering: 'I mean, nothing happened. Just – me among the Muggles for three months. I know how you must have felt last year, now. And I know the Prophet's come out on Dumbledore's side at last, after the Battle of the Ministry, but it's not like they can tell us anything, what with the Death Eater Act ... I wish you'd learn to write letters, Harry...'

'Wicked,' Ron interrupted, looking over at the Slytherin table. 'Malfoy's really not here. I had my hopes after what Fatima said, but I thought maybe he'd got a special train down or something. A special evil train... Hey, Crabbe and Goyle aren't here either. Nor's... Harry, where have all the Slytherins gone?'

'They're...', Harry started, then stopped, then said carefully: 'It's because of Voldemort. The Ministry's started... The Ministry thinks it's safer if the children of known Death Eaters are removed from Hogwarts.'

'They're really taking it seriously, then,' said Hermione, scanning the Slytherin table ('Oh, yes,' said Harry). It was half-empty: even a couple of faces she remembered from last year's first year were missing. What could twelve-year-olds be doing for Voldemort? she wondered, before she remembered how much she and Ron and Harry had done against Voldemort when they were twelve; and presumably the Dark Lord wouldn't have Dumbledore's scruples about protecting children (young people) from the worst of the war. She shivered slightly, wondering what Draco had really been, these past five years: more than a school bully and name-caller?

'So what's been happening?' she asked Harry, but by now all the new students had entered the hall and the Sorting Ceremony was beginning. Harry twisted his mouth apologetically and twisted his shoulders to watch.

The first student to be Sorted into Slytherin was Nerissa Lightsome, nearly halfway through the long line of children, and the applause from the Slytherin table was tentative, almost nervous. Hermione looked at Snape. He was clapping with his usual lack of enthusiasm, apparently not at all concerned about the decimation of his House; when the Hat pronounced the next student a Gryffindor, though, he laid his hands flat on the table beside his plate and lowered his gaze. It jolted Hermione when he looked up again and she saw that he was staring at Harry, his face at its most bitter. She went to nudge Harry, to alert him, but he knew; he was staring back at Snape, looking – something (angry? Hurt? Unguarded?); going slightly red. It only lasted a fraction of a second before Harry looked away. Hermione frowned at Harry – what was that about? – but he just rolled his eyes and shook his head, and she had to wait through the rest of the Sorting.

Snape only had to give his lukewarm welcome to Slytherin on two more occasions; the rest of the time his hands stayed flat on the table. But he didn't look in the direction of the Gryffindor table again.

And then the ceremony was over; food appeared, steaming and good-smelling, on their plates. Only the first-years gasped.

'So what's been going on?' Hermione demanded. Ron's mouth was full, but he nodded vigorously to indicate that he wanted to know too.

Harry thought for a moment. 'Mostly, the Ministry's taken over,' he said. 'As far as the Death Eaters go, anyway. The Ministry's leading a big investigation... the Wizengamot's been reconvened...'

'Harry,' Ron interrupted. 'We know all that from the Daily Prophet, even with the Death Eater Act. What's really going on? What's going on with—' he lowered his voice ostentatiously—'the Order of the Phoenix?'

'Oh,' Harry said. He went a bit red. 'I can't tell you.'

Hermione and Ron stared at him.

'What do you mean?' asked Ron. 'You always tell us!'

'Except when you don't,' said Hermione darkly, 'and that doesn't... well,' she added lamely, remembering Sirius, the chaos and the noise and the longer silence. 'You know.'

'Yeah, I do,' said Harry. 'But... there's a spell, when you join the Order. I mean I really can't tell you.'

'You've joined the Order?' Ron's voice went from a squawk to a whisper in the course of four words.

Harry nodded.

'Wow,' said Ron. 'You're not even of age yet, are you?'

'Um,' said Harry. 'Not really, but... the Ministry declared me of age this summer, so... It's, it was... Dumbledore thought it was safer.'

'Good,' said Hermione. She swallowed all her envy. 'It's about time Dumbledore accepted that you're in this whether you like it or not. I just—'

'What about us?' Ron interrupted/finished. 'What are we supposed to do while you're off hob-nobbing with the Order? Homework?'

'It wouldn't do you any harm, Ronald,' said Hermione automatically; Harry and Ron began to laugh, and it warmed the place in her that had taken cold from Harry's silences.

'It'll be okay,' said Harry, answering Ron's real question. 'I mean – You're still my best friends.'

'Shut up, you poof,' said Ron, pleased.

'Poof yourself,' said Harry.

*

All right Harry? All right Ron? All right Hermione?

Hermione and Ron and Harry were sitting in the very middle of the very back row of the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Ron was tipped back in his chair, eating a Chocolate Frog; Harry was doodling inky ferns/clouds on the edge of his parchment with the feathery tip of a split quill. Everyone who came in was nodding and smiling at them, and Hermione was nodding and smiling back, and, if she was honest with herself, basking. Top of the school (nearly); no exams to keep her up at night; no Inquisitors making cracks about Mudbloods; no-one getting at Harry for being delusional or fame-crazy or ill-omened, or at her for being a swot or a star-fucker or just plain weird. The school-world was finally in synch with the war-world, and they were the kings and queen of it. And about bloody time, she thought, leaning back in her seat, just as Cho Chang arrived: she went past Harry and Ron and Hermione, ignoring them entirely and loudly, and sat down next to Lisa Turpin, who seemed to be doing best-friend duty (where was Marietta Edgecombe?). She put a solicitous arm round Cho's shoulder and glared at Harry while Cho hid under her hair. Hermione glanced at Harry curiously – she'd never quite understood what had gone on between him and Cho last year – but he was oblivious, peacefully doodling.

'Do you know who's teaching us this year, Harry?' Ernie MacMillan asked, twisting round to see him from the row in front/below. Harry smiled and pushed his glasses up his nose, leaving an ink-smudge, and didn't say anything. Hermione tutted happily, tapped the smudge with the tip of her wand and said 'Scourgify'; Ron yawned enormously.

'As it happens, he does,' came Dumbledore's voice from the door: 'and now you can share in his happy condition, Mr MacMillan.' He walked to the front of the class and leaned on the lectern, smiling beatifically and giving the whispery buzz time to die down.

'Dumbledore?' Hermione said excitedly. 'But he hasn't taught in forty years!'

'At least we know he's not in league with Voldemort,' said Ron. 'Or a bitch from the Ministry, or a...'

Dumbledore coughed politely, and Ron shut up.

'As you all know,' said Dumbledore, 'Lord Voldemort has returned.' He paused for a reaction, but there wasn't one; he smiled briefly, and continued. 'While we must be optimistic – and we all hope and pray most fervently that by the time you leave Hogwarts in two years, Voldemort will be just a memory – we must not be blindly so. Of course all your studies, and your whole life here at Hogwarts, of which your studies are just a part, are important. But I venture to suggest that this, the NEWTs Defence Against the Dark Arts class, is one of the most important things happening in Hogwarts this year: not just in terms of your academic success or your future careers, but perhaps in terms of our community's whole future.'

'So, no pressure then,' said Ron audibly. There was a ripple of laughter, and Dumbledore smiled.

'Indeed, Mr Weasley. Well! Let that be the last I say on the matter. Take your textbooks out, please, and turn to page five hundred and twenty-two, the chapter on "Counter-Jinxes". Mr Potter, would you come up here and demonstrate the first defence, please?'

Harry jumped and put his quill down in a little spreading pool of ink. Hermione watched him walk to the front of the class, pale and serious and remote. Dumbledore saluted him gravely with his wand, and Harry saluted back, before Dumbledore cast the jinx – Torqueo! – and Harry deflected it: Salus!

'Very good, Mr Potter,' said Dumbledore courteously. He put his wand away and addressed the class. 'In casting this counter, two things are important: firstly, the shape described by the tip of the wand, which is an abbreviated pentagram, as I'm sure you've noticed; and secondly, the visualization of the shield, which will vary from wizard to wizard – and from witch to witch too, of course. Please get into pairs and try the sequence for yourselves.'

After the first attempt, three students (Ernie, Ron, and Hannah) were left in twists and coils from the Torqueo jinx. 'Very good,' said Dumbledore again, then: 'Mr Potter, perhaps you would work with Mr MacMillan and Miss Abbot, while I take Mr Weasley through the counter-jinx once more time? Mr Weasley?'

Harry nodded briefly; Ron pulled an alarmed face at Hermione and went off down the steps to the platform at the front of the class. Hermione spent the rest of the lesson practising with Padma. From time to time she looked over at Harry at work with Ernie and Hannah, demonstrating the wand movement or explaining something, brows drawn. She smiled; it was like Dumbledore's Army again, but for real this time. At last, for real.

*

After that, her Arithmancy class was... well, it was boring.

And she loved Arithmancy: the complexity of it, the objectivity. Like Potions (but even more so), there were actual reasons why certain things had certain effects, and you got the feeling that – when you knew more – you'd be able to create new spells and discover new laws for yourself, out of the theories, not just look for them in ever-more-obscure books, like you had to with Charms. It was the only one of her subjects that had ever made her feel sure that she was clever, really clever, not just brainy (hard-working, familiar with the cataloguing system in the school library).

But now she listened to Madam Vector summarizing the formulae they'd learned for OWLs, and her brain itched with boredom. Maybe she'd lost momentum because of not reading over the summer?

Boredom was scary. There was no way of knowing where your mind was going to take you when it began to wander. Hermione found herself, at the end of the class, with a headful of summer sounds and smells and feelings (her mother's silence, Pulp's Common People, the chemical smells in Emily Green's bedroom, a boy's lips on hers), and only the vaguest of ideas what homework she had.

*

Their first Potions class was on Tuesday, after lunch. Hermione had been in a prefects' meeting at the other end of the building (Ron had been at Quidditch practice, which took precedence for some reason Hermione couldn't fathom), so she only just got to the dungeons on time. She fell into a seat beside Ron (where was Harry?) and nodded breathlessly in reply to his 'Hello', hurrying to get her hair tied back before Snape came in.

He stood for a second or two at the lectern, looking round the silent class.

'Congratulations to all of you,' he began unexpectedly, 'on fulfilling the conditions for remaining in my Potions class for NEWT level, and achieving impressive, if in some cases—' he looked at Ron, then at Neville—'apparently inexplicable, results in your OWLs. Since several of our students, despite attaining excellent grades, are unfortunately absent for the moment—'

'Poor old Snape,' whispered Ron. 'Lost the only student who could stand the sight of his greasy face.'

'—five points from Gryffindor, Mr Weasley, for inattention. As I was saying, since our class is sadly diminished this term, perhaps we might not huddle at the back of the classroom like cut-rate conspirators? Mr Weasley? Miss Granger? Would you move to the front row, please, where I can keep my eye on you? The rest of you may begin immediately. The ingredients and instructions for today's Fate-Speaking Potion are on the board.'

'Here we go again,' said Ron bitterly, gathering his stuff.

'Oh well,' said Hermione, 'at least we don't have to listen to Draco laughing at his... well, they're not really jokes... Where's Harry, anyway?'

'Dunno,' said Ron, 'I haven't seen him since Transfigurations this morning.'

They collected their ingredients and their wickedly-sharp, not-to-be-removed-from-the-Potions-classroom, never-to-be-used-except-under-Professor-Snape's-supervision knives, and started work. Not even Ron made conversation while using one of those knives since Seamus had lost a finger last year: for the whole month it had taken to regrow Seamus had wiggled the small, baby-looking thing, with its gradually-forming nail, at everyone who'd come near him.

Hermione was slicing her mallowsweet roots into thin, pale rounds and listening to the ten different rhythms of ten busy knives, all echoing off the stone walls and bouncing into each other. She thought of her mother's kitchen, of the two of them chopping vegetables on either side of the hob; of the continuous sound of the two knives in the silence, as if they were having the conversation that she and her mother couldn't have.

Someone came in; she looked gratefully away from the summer, towards the door. It was Harry. He started heading for their rightful place in the back row before he spotted her and Ron in the front. He changed direction, looking puzzled, and dropped onto the bench next to Ron, where he sat for a few moments staring at Snape and doing nothing at all.

Snape didn't say anything.

Harry dropped his gaze and went to get his ingredients, and Hermione went back to her mixture, stirring three times widdershins, three times deosil, until it was thick, even, smooth and purple and she was bored, again, and the smells of her summer were beginning to float towards her through the purple smell of the potion. Looking for something to banish them, she checked Ron's cauldron, but he seemed to have got it right for once ('I don't need minding, Hermione!'); then she looked past him, at Harry.

Harry was fidgeting. He chased a single mallowsweet root round his board with the tip of his knife, then stabbed it and chucked it whole into his cauldron with a flick of his wrist; he stared at Snape, who was writing something at his high desk and didn't react. Curiosity burned through Hermione's boredom. This had to be Order business; for five years Snape had sharpened his tongue on Harry whenever the whim took him, and today Harry had given him plenty of excuses and Snape was staying quiet. Did Harry have some kind of hold over Snape? Or was it just that Snape knew why Harry was late and distracted? She tried to decode the situation from Snape's face: he looked at Harry from time to time – though never when Harry was looking at him – but then he looked at everyone from time to time. Including her. She jumped and blushed and looked down at the creamy mixture in her cauldron: still perfectly purple, perfectly smooth, perfectly dull.

'Very well,' came Snape's voice, 'that should be ample time. Turn off the heat, label your samples, and clear up your benches.'

'Well, that could have been worse,' said Ron as they left. 'I think I'm going to like this no-Slytherin arrangement, you know. As long as it doesn't leave Snape with too much time on his hands,' he added thoughtfully. 'Being Head of an empty House.'

Hermione smiled, and looked over at Harry, but he had gone still and quiet again; all the restlessness seemed to have left his body. It made her wonder harder than ever.

*

It was about nine (after dinner, supervising the little ones' homework, working on her own in the library) by the time Hermione got to the common room. A few of the younger Gryffindors were there, reading, talking, playing card games; Parvati and Lavender were in a corner, inexplicably doing fluffy white knitting. Harry had the sofa nearest the fire all to himself. He was lying flat on his back on it with his legs hooked over one of its arms, looking at the ceiling and doing nothing at all.

'Budge up,' said Hermione, swatting at one of Harry's feet. He swung his legs down and sat up, pushing his hair out of his eyes, so she could sit down beside him.

'What was going on in Potions today?' Hermione asked.

'In Potions?' Harry said, sounding honestly puzzled. 'Um... nothing.'

'Seriously, Harry. You were fifteen minutes late, and I think this was the first Potions lesson we've ever had where Snape didn't have a go at you.'

'Oh,' said Harry. He didn't say anything else.

'Why were you late, anyway? I never got a chance to ask you.'

Harry opened his mouth and his face froze for a few seconds. He shut his mouth again, looking faintly surprised.

'Huh,' he said. 'That must be how it works.'

'How what—oh! Something to do with the Order?' Hermione lowered her voice.

Harry shrugged. 'I,' he said, then stopped again.

*

After that, Harry started getting quieter.

The constant low noise of Harry-and-Ron conferring and confabulating, on which Hermione's homework had floated for five years, broke up into occasional exchanges, stopped altogether. When people spoke to him, he seemed to have to bring himself back from a long way away to answer; or he gave an apologetic smile or a shrug, and said nothing; so people started speaking to him less and less.

Everyone wanted to talk about him, though.

'What's wrong with Harry?' Parvati asked Hermione one night in the dormitory. She'd finished drying her hair and was plaiting it, sitting cross-legged on her bed. Her voice was hushed, dripping with concern, greedy; it annoyed Hermione.

'Nothing's wrong with him,' she said.

'I didn't mean it like that,' Parvati said. 'I didn't mean anything bad. I just meant – well, is he still... grieving? For his godfather? Do you think?'

'Or is it something to do with the war?' Lavender put her magazine down and sat up in bed. She looked anxious. 'Has something gone wrong? Do you know?'

'Why don't you ask him yourself?' Hermione said.

'Sorry,' said Lavender. 'I just thought you might know. Seeing he's your GBF, and everything.'

'My what?'

'Gay Best Friend,' said Lavender, opening her eyes wide.

'Oh... honestly,' said Hermione crossly. She drew the curtains round her bed. Muffled laughter from Parvati and Lavender.

Nobody wanted to talk to Harry, but everyone wanted to talk about him.

*

Hermione ruled a line at the end of her Defence essay on collective shield charms. She tried to look out of the library window and caught her reflection's eye instead: it was dark outside. Probably Quidditch practice would be over, then. So Ginny and Ron would be back; she could go up to the common room and talk to them.

One way or the other, Harry wouldn't be there. He was more like a painting than a student in the common room these days: he might be sitting by the fire, watching his fingers or the flames or the ceiling, answering when she spoke to him but somehow not quite part of the three-dimensional world of bickering and passing sweets and admiring Lavender's knitting or Ron's latest Quidditch injury. Or he might simply be somewhere else, doing whatever it was that had frozen him silent when she'd asked where he'd been, so many times that she didn't ask any more.

She didn't get up. She rolled her Defence essay up and put it neatly next to the roll of her Arithmancy calculations; she tidied the corners of the sheaf of Gryffindor students' Hogsmeade permission slips; she folded the carefully-copied-out rota for homework supervisions (complicated, this year, because of having to cover for missing Slytherin prefects). Her head was empty with boredom. Her head was full of dead ends and silences.

No loose ends for her to catch at. Everything solved and finished and tidy. Nothing left for her to do. Nothing between her and her Muggle summer.

*

Hermione is lying on the bed in her bedroom in her parents' house, kicking at the light cord so that it swings up to the ceiling. If she kicks it hard enough, the plastic toggle at the end bites into the polystyrene tiles there and leaves a little semi-circular scar.

The room is narrow and quiet, its smells coming singly and dull after the chaos of Lavender's hairspray and Parvati's perfumes and Sibyl Trelawney's incense drifting down from the Divination tower. The posters on the wall that she hasn't bothered to change in five years – a unicorn, the structure of DNA – are trivial and flat. The books by the bed that she's opened and skimmed and put down again, ditto. Children's books; Muggle books: E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Jill Murphy. McGonagall refused to let her take any books out of the school library over the summer ('You're good enough at working, Miss Granger; what you need to learn is how to stop').

Kick. Swing. Bite.

She's barely seen McGonagall that year: she'd been jealous/she'd been almost jealous/she'd been jealous when Harry told her about McGonagall's outburst during his Careers interview with Umbridge: 'He'll be an Auror if I have to train him myself!' Harry's accent, wavering from Edinburgh to Newcastle. That would have been her, back in third year, before she'd had to give up Divination. Not that she cares about Divination, it was just... that was the last time McGonagall had paid any attention to her, really.

Kick. Swing. Bite.

She'd never seen the Time-Turner again after Dumbledore took it off her to give to Harry.

The Coronation Street theme started downstairs. Hermione stopped kicking the light cord and lay back on the little bed, staring at the little flowered curtains drawn across the window. They matched the wallpaper. Something swelled in her and she felt breathless and desperate and crazy, wanting to break something, wanting to break out. It was like being in a submarine; her room small and airless and fragile against the huge pressures outside, that would crush her if she opened the door.

'Hermione?' her mum called up, and she felt numb with anger (why can't she leave me alone?) for a second before she swung her legs down off the bed, heavy with guilt, and opened the door and went downstairs, and wasn't crushed, of course. She wasn't even locked in a cupboard.

*

An owl and a first-year Gryffindor girl arrived at Hermione's table at almost the same moment. The first dropped a parcel beside her plate; the second hovered beside her chair, shuffling anxiously through the Muggle post – a sheaf of variously-sized envelopes and parcels – until Hermione saw her name flashing from a silver envelope. She took it out of the girl's hand, and raised a sixth-year eyebrow; the girl scurried away.

'Hey,' said Ron, 'that parcel's from my mum. Why's she sending you things?'

'Because she is a very thoughtful person,' said Hermione, unwrapping a long red-and-yellow scarf with a pocket in one end containing red-and-yellow mittens.

'Because she is a person with a lot of time on her hands, more like,' said Ron. He picked up one end of the scarf and looked at the tassels on it. 'Honestly.'

'Happy birthday, Hermione,' said Harry, and Hermione jumped. He'd spoken quietly, but these days he spoke so rarely at breakfast-time that, quite often, she almost forgot he was there at all.

'Thanks,' she said quickly.

'I completely forgot,' said Ron, eating an egg. 'Sorry. But I don't have much gold anyway. Tell you what, I'll buy you a drink tonight, at the Three Broomsticks. You don't have prefect duty, do you?'

'No,' said Hermione cautiously. 'But Dumbledore set us that essay on possible methods of detecting the Imperius charm, and...'

'Harry'll come,' Ron interrupted, ignoring her, 'won't you?'

'What?' said Harry.

'To the pub. For Hermione's birthday. Tonight.'

'Um. Okay. I might have to leave early, though.'

'Hot date?'

Harry snorted. 'I've got an occlumency class with Snape.'

Ron burst out laughing: a moment later, so did Harry.

*

Hermione had put on a pretty cobwebby top, and a bit of lipstick. But when Lavender had asked her where she was going, she'd suddenly felt fed up and rolled her eyes at herself in the mirror. She'd pulled the fancy top off over her head even while she was answering – 'The Three Broomsticks. With Harry and Ron' – and put on a t-shirt and her comfortable fawn jacket with the stain on the pocket instead.

Now she was sitting watching Ron draw circles on the table-top in spilled beer, listening to the change the noisy pub made in the quality of Harry's silence: it was heavy in the air around them, like a cloak of invisibility (there was Padma in the corner, not looking at them, and Ernie over by the bar, and no-one saying hello). Or like snow falling, and she and Ron trying to clear it away as it fell.

If Molly Weasley really does have enough time on her hands to knit, does that mean things are under control? But Harry couldn't talk about Order business. That complaint Fatima got about Slytherins being treated unfairly by prefects from other houses. But Harry wasn't a prefect.

'That new counter-jinx Dumbledore taught us today is really hard,' she tried. 'I don't think it's even on the NEWTs syllabus.'

'You didn't seem to have any trouble with it, Harry,' said Ron.

'Mm,' said Harry. 'Albus—' He stopped, closed his mouth. Silence began to pile up around the three of them again.

How was your birthday? (But Harry hated talking about the Dursleys.) What's Tonks been up to? (But Harry couldn't talk about Order business.) That fight Lavender and Dean had in the Gryffindor common room last week. (But Harry hadn't been there.) How's Lupin? (But that would remind Harry of Sirius.)

And anyway Harry couldn't talk about Order business.

Ron asked, 'I don't suppose you got to see any Quidditch over the summer, did you, Harry?'

'No,' said Harry, 'not really.'

'Fred and George took me to see the Cannons,' said Ron, 'playing Puddlemere United – d'you remember Oliver Wood's their Keeper now?'

Harry smiled vaguely and nodded.

'He did this amazing save – it looked like the Cannons' Chaser was going to go through the centre hoop, right? So then – hang on, so if these beer mats are the hoops, and this crisp is the Chaser, and this, um, this broccoli-flavoured Bertie Botts Bean is Oliver Wood, and this thing, I don't know what this is, I wonder why it was in my pocket, this is the Quaffle...'

Hermione tuned out and looked round the pub. She wanted, suddenly, fiercely, to be one of the Ravenclaws hunched over a big piece of parchment, studying or gaming, at the next table: not here, close enough to Harry Potter to be enveloped in his silence, in the hush of the war, but not close enough, not any more, and anyway, not allowed, to be unequivocally on the other side of that line. To be on the front line.

Ron's story and Harry's quiet monosyllables ran out again, and Hermione started to wonder what to say: but 'What did you get for your birthday, Hermione?' Harry asked.

'Nothing much,' she said. 'That scarf from Molly, and Ginny gave me a Weird Sisters album...'

'And I bought you a beer,' said Ron.

'And you bought me a beer,' she agreed. 'And Harry got me a book.'

'What did you get from your parents?' asked Harry.

'Oh,' said Hermione. 'Money. They just put a few extra Galleons in when I went to Diagon Alley for school stuff. They always...' and she ran into a silence of her own.

'I wish mine would give me money,' said Ron gloomily. 'There's a limit to how many jumpers I can wear at a time, and if they try and get me anything good they always get it wrong,' but Harry was looking at Hermione with a new kind of attention, as if something was happening in the interaction of his silence with hers, as if he was about to ask her something. Hermione got up.

'Does anyone want another drink?'

'Yes,' said Ron.

'No,' said Harry, 'I have to go, really. Sorry. Happy birthday, Hermione.' He touched her on the arm and started struggling into his coat, while Hermione went to the bar.

Without Harry between her and Ron, there was a small awkwardness between them instead.

'So,' Ron said, lifting his bottle to clink it with hers. 'Here's to your coming-of-age.'

'Oh yes,' said Hermione, startled. 'Of course. I forgot.'

'You forgot?'

'Well. Seventeen's not really a big deal for Muggles.'

'When do Muggles come of age?'

'Sixteen,' said Hermione, 'and eighteen.'

'Blimey,' said Ron. 'I don't know if our house would still be standing if all my brothers had had two coming-of-age parties. What did you do for your sixteenth, then?'

'Nothing, really,' said Hermione. 'Don't you remember? That awful Umbridge woman was mutilating Harry, and you were spending every spare minute practicing Quidditch and... no-one was really in the mood.'

'Oh, right,' said Ron. He was quiet for a moment, pulling the label off his beer-bottle. 'Hermione,' he said at last.

'What?'

'I'm sorry I forgot your birthday.'

'That's all right, Ron. I've got used to the idea that you're not really the cards-and-flowers type, funnily enough.'

'Do you really think I have the emotional range of a teaspoon?' He looked up at her from under his fringe, frowning a little. His face was suddenly without its usual elastic look, and she noticed for the first time that it wasn't round and babyish any more: it was long and cheekboned and quite good-looking, really.

'What?'

'Something you said ages ago. Doesn't matter.' He hesitated, swallowed. 'Hermione – I really am sorry.'

'I know. It's really all right.'

'I mean—' He put his bottle down and swallowed again. 'I mean, I like you, Hermione.'

Something in Hermione froze.

'Hmm,' she said cautiously.

'Like, really like you,' Ron said, and although she felt frozen in her half-smile and listening eyes there must have been something in her face, because he winced. 'Never mind,' he said.

'Ron—'

'Forget I said anything, Hermione, okay?' He took a long drink of his beer. 'What do you reckon to Ravenclaw's chances in the next match?'

Hermione smiled gratefully. 'You know I don't know anything about Quidditch, Ron.'

'Yeah,' said Ron, 'you've got about as much idea as a teaspoon.' He swallowed the rest of his beer. 'I'd better. I mean, I've got to, um.'

'It's all right, Ron,' said Hermione for what felt like the fiftieth time. 'I'll see you tomorrow.'

And then there she was on her own in the middle of the Three Broomsticks, with most of a bottle of beer to finish and a snowdrift of silence and invisibility around her.

What's going to happen to us? she thought. The three of us? And then: Some birthday this is. Some fucking birthday this is.

It was too early for there to be anyone else in the girls' dormitory when she got back, which was good, because one of the House Elves had left the silver envelope on her pillow and the sight of it made her burst into tears, and that made her hate herself, and between all of that it was quite a long time before she stopped sobbing.

When she did, she wiped her face, picked up the envelope, opened it and slid out the card inside. It had a pre-Raphaelite painting on the front: a tree in blossom, a woman in a see-through grey dress looking over her shoulder at a grey-faced, black-robed man lying on the grass. It had nothing to say to her. The kind of card you might send to someone you hardly knew.

She opened the card.

Darling Hermione, it said. Thinking about you on your birthday. Lots of love from Mum and Dad.

And with that she was crying again. No sixteenth party because wizards didn't celebrate it and she had no Muggle friends and she'd spent the summer before her sixteenth birthday clearing magical vermin out of Grimmauld Place; but no coming-of-age party, either, because her parents didn't know enough to send her more than fifteen empty words on a card and who else was there to organize it? Fifteen words, and a scarf, and her and her two – only two – friends making conversation in the local pub for an hour. She'd been to a better party in Muggle Clerkenwell that summer. (Drink and stars, and the heat and noise and crush of many people who knew each other, who were casual and easy with each other. And she'd had nothing to say to any of them: secret witch from a secret world in the middle of a secret war.)

She blew her nose. Really, it was ridiculous, the amount she was crying this week. She must be premenstrual. So it didn't matter, then, it was nothing. It was nothing, anyway: it was just fifteen empty words, and what else did she expect her parents to say? She'd been away at school for five years; she'd only spent one night at home in eighteen months until last summer; there was a war going on that they knew nothing about; and it was childish, anyway, it was just childish to want something more from her parents when she was seventeen years old. She wiped the tears away, but they kept coming.

She turned the card over, as if whatever it was she wanted might somehow be on the back of it. 'Edward Burne-Jones', it said. 'The Beguiling of Merlin.'

She stared at it.

So they were trying. And this was still the best they could do.

Hermione heard voices and footsteps on the stairs. People coming up to bed. She stuffed the card into the envelope and the envelope into her drawer, pulled her shoes and her t-shirt off, wrapped her dressing-gown around herself and picked up her sponge bag, so that the other girls would think she was going to the bathroom. And then she was out in the corridor, in jeans and a dressing-gown and carrying a sponge bag, and her mind ran her into another silence: she had no idea where she wanted to go. She wandered down towards the common room, and saw Ron coming out, and turned sharply round a corner, and found a staircase, and followed it; found a door, and opened it: and suddenly she was out on the roof, face to face with the moon, and something in her opened.

She shut the door and stepped forward, two steps, away from the solid bulk of the tower tall and dark behind her. She put her hands on the low stone balustrade and leaned forward, looking not down but out, into the dark sky, the hundreds and millions of stars, the ones she could name, the ones she couldn't.

'Hermione?'

She jumped.

'Sorry,' the voice added.

'Harry?'

Moonlight flashed off his glasses as he came to stand beside her, his hands bigger and squarer next to hers on the stone.

I thought you had an Occlumency class: but it sounded wrong – polite or stupid or accusing – and suddenly she just couldn't be bothered to say it. She looked out at the moon and the blackness and the stars again. Harry was just a faint warmth beside her.

'You don't get stars like this in London,' she said. 'The sky's not even black: it's orange, sort of a dirty orange, from the street lights. Light pollution.'

Harry didn't say anything for a bit. Then he said: 'Were you looking for me?'

'No,' said Hermione. She couldn't think of a way of saying what she had been doing, how she'd got there, so she let it go. It felt light.

They stood there in the emptiness for what felt like a long time before Harry moved a little closer, so that his shoulder bumped hers. She turned to look at him. He looked back at her, frowning a little. Then he took off his glasses, folded them, and put them down on the balustrade. He was still frowning as he touched her cheek with a fingertip. He kept his finger there, waiting.

Hermione looked at his face, at its pale and serious lines. The emptiness of the roof, the silence and the moonlight and the cold, the five years that shimmered between her and Harry, fizzed in her. She leaned in ever so little and they were kissing, and something in the back of her mind, alarmed, shouted That wasn't what I meant! She didn't want it. She ignored it. She followed the kiss deeper and deeper until she was wrapped in noisy warmth – Harry's body warm against her body, Harry's breath and her own heart noisy in her ears – and the silence and the moonlight and the little voice were somewhere else. Harry kissed and licked and half-bit at her mouth and gasped; Hermione kissed back, pulled away to catch her breath, caught it and kept kissing and lost it and caught it again. Her hands went up into Harry's hair; his hands were on her back, pulling her closer and finding places to touch with cupped palms or fingertips. Then his right hand moved down to her hip, hesitated, and changed direction, getting awkwardly trapped between them as his fingers scuttled up her ribs and under the lapel of her dressing-gown. He stroked her breast through her bra. Her nipple got hard under his fingers and something else happened, something tightened like a fist in her belly, and all the warmth and noise that had been a flush on the whole surface of her skin suddenly drained away and reorganized itself into a single need with three points: nipple/nipple/clitoris. She made a sound into Harry's mouth and shivered and pushed against him; he took half a step back and looked at her.

'Hermione,' he said, then he hesitated. He looked worried.

Hermione suddenly saw herself: a girl on a roof in October, wearing a dressing-gown, pressing against her best friend's erection.

'I don't,' said Harry. 'I mean, I—' He stopped, took a breath, changed direction. 'Is this all right?'

'Yes,' said Hermione, because she didn't want to have the conversation that they would have to have otherwise, the one that was full of feelings and questions and reasons: she just wanted to get back to the noise and the heat and the feeling of being bigger than herself. And anyway it was all right. She moved towards Harry and he seemed to be hesitating again, but then he pulled off his fleece and dropped it onto the ground and pulled her down onto it with him. They lay on their sides and kissed and touched each other until they were in a tangle of dressing-gown and fleece, and Harry's t-shirt was up under his arms, and one of his legs was between Hermione's, and she was shoving against it. There was cold coming up from the ground and an awkwardness of elbows and noses; but Hermione felt limitless. Starry. Claustromanic. There was nothing but this echo chamber, her body with Harry's body, amplifying each other's desires and sensations back and forth, resonating on the same note. But it felt so huge. Not as if she was trapped in the smallness of her life, but as if her life was everything. As if she could be so much herself that she wasn't trapped in herself any more: she could drop the bad daughter, Mudblood, flat-chested bookworm, like dead skins, like so much clutter round her feet, and they would burn away to nothing in this heat.

Harry's hand was undoing the button on her jeans, undoing the zip, folding the two sides back to show her tummy and the top of her knickers; she was pulling her tummy in and spreading her legs a little to let his hand slide down under her knickers. She felt sprawled, scribbled, like an advert for perfume or sex. Harry's fingers prodded at her, trying to find their way around; stalled as his wrist got stuck in the crotch of her jeans; skidded in wetness, tangled in hair, stalled again. He looked at her. 'Can I—?'

She nodded, expecting the question (did someone pass out a script to boys telling them exactly when they had to ask permission?), and raised her hips as Harry pulled her jeans down to her knees.

'You might as well—' she said, and kicked her legs all the way out of her jeans and her knickers together. Her bare skin goosebumped instantly. Harry, kneeling over her, ran his thumb up the wet seam of her cunt, and down again. She watched him: he was frowning a little, looking intently at what he was doing as his fingers opened her to the cold air, to his warm touches.

It made her breathless and shy, and she squirmed and tugged at him, pulling him down on her, pulling his face closer to hers. He studied her face and –misinterpreting her, perhaps, or not, perhaps; she didn't know – asked: 'Are you sure?'

Was she sure? Too late now, she thought, whatever your script says. It wasn't a choice between fucking Harry and not fucking Harry any more; given that choice, she might have answered something else. But now it was a choice between going all the way and coming this far out of her everyday self only to turn back at the last moment. Trying to find out what this was by following it as far as she could go; or walking away from whatever had changed between them without even finding a name for it, going back into silence without even being able to say I fucked Harry.

The end of the story, some sort of answer to some sort of question; or awkward silence and clumsy buttoning-up.

She'd read somewhere about a Muggle suicide note from the eighteenth century which only said: all that buttoning and unbuttoning. If it was a good enough reason for killing yourself, it was a good enough reason for fucking Harry.

'Yes,' she said, and waited, feeling the cold come and go on her skin, as Harry got his jeans off and manoeuvred himself round so that he was kneeling between her legs. He leaned over her knee and reached into his jeans pocket, then knelt back; she didn't quite know where to look (was she supposed to be watching?) as he tore the packet and put the condom on. His cock looked slightly squashed through the latex, and it gleamed a little.

Hermione bent her legs, feet flat on the ground, and tipped her hips forwards; Harry shifted his weight, putting one hand on the ground beside her head and balancing awkwardly as he used his other hand to guide his cock. It butted at her a few times, seemingly randomly, and she tried to shift to help Harry, but then he found the right place, slid in, rebalanced himself on both elbows, and held still. They rocked their hips together with small movements to lock themselves together as closely as they could; the sore, strange feel of Harry's cock in her remapped the desire-lines that ran through Hermione's body.

He was looking into her eyes; she looked back at him, wondering what he meant by this, when he'd thought of it, whether he loved her, whether she loved him, what was waiting for them on the other side of this. But his face was silver and composed and told her nothing.

He began to thrust; it was an oddly blunt feeling. His hip-bones bumped against hers; his cock crashed, again and again, through the liquid feeling in her groin, sometimes stirring up pleasure, sometimes not. She caught his rhythm, pushed back against him, lost it and caught it and lost it again.

'Hermione,' he said suddenly; then there was a flurry of thrusts – she didn't even try to keep up – and a shout, and he'd come.

He rolled off her, puffing a bit, using his left hand to pull his cock gently out of her cunt. She felt a sudden anxiety and propped herself up on her elbow to check, but it was okay, the condom was still on. Harry teased it off carefully, tied a knot in it, and threw it over the battlements. Then he lowered himself down beside Hermione and rested his hand on her. His face was so close to hers that its features didn't really make any sense.

'Sorry,' he said.

'That's— don't worry about it,' said Hermione. She felt buzzy and strange and complicated in her body, in a way that an orgasm seemed too simplistic to be able to solve. Not that it wouldn't have been nice.

'Harry,' she said, and stuttered into silence, wanting to ask six impossible questions at once: but Harry took it as a complete sentence. 'Hermione,' he said back, and smiled at her, twining the fingers of one hand into her hair. And perhaps that was the answer to all her questions, anyway: Harry, Hermione.

She smiled back at him, and for a while they didn't say anything. Then Harry shifted slightly and asked: 'Hermione?'

'Yes?'

'Was that your first time?'

'No,' she said. She could tell that he was about to say something else, so she added: 'Was it yours?'

'No,' he said absent-mindedly. Then he shook himself slightly, reached across her to where his blazer was lying on the ground and retrieved his glasses from its pocket. 'We should probably get back to the dorms,' he said.

'Oh,' said Hermione, then: 'Yes, probably.' She sat up and began untangling her knickers and her jeans: Harry was dressing efficiently, his back to her. Her mind was buzzing with half-finished sentences, her body was buzzing with half-finished wants. Also, she realized as she tied her dressing-gown cord, she was really hungry. So that when Harry tipped her chin up and kissed her goodbye at the bottom of the stairs, before turning left to the boys' dormitory and leaving her to turn right to the girls', she was thinking about the biscuits she had stashed in her tuck-box under the bed.

It wasn't until she was drifting off into sleep, crumbily and full of unfamiliar aches, that she remembered Ron's face in the Three Broomsticks. What's going to happen to us? she thought.

Five years of this shifting, triangular friendship. There was always something like love between each pair of them, but sometimes it was very simple, sometimes it was more complicated and prickly (two boys, one girl; two Muggle-raised, one pure-blood; two prefects, one Boy who Lived). Five years of the three of them, eavesdropping and blundering their way into more of Voldemort's unfinished business, always having to rely on each other. And then all of a sudden, on the day she came of age, she turned one of them down and fucked the other one. Poor Ron. Or poor Harry. Or poor her.

What's going to happen to us?

*

The rising-bell woke Hermione up four hours later. She felt horrible. She felt like a swelling.

She waited until she'd heard Lavender and Parvati go to the bathroom, come back, leave again, before she got out of bed: she was five minutes late to the Great Hall. The prefect on duty winked at her and let her in anyway, but by then all the cornflakes had gone.

She picked up a hot plate without enthusiasm – bright yellow scrambled eggs sitting in water, bacon starting to spot with congealed fat – and carried it over to the Gryffindor table, anxious, trying not to look at the food, wondering if she should sit with Ginny or Luna this morning; but Ginny wasn't there and Luna was reading and Ron and Harry had seen her already, so she sat down between the friend she'd turned down and the friend she'd fucked.

'Morning,' said Ron. Harry didn't say anything.

Hermione didn't dare look at him. She stared down at her plate, frozen (maybe he's waiting for me to say something, maybe he wants me to be his girlfriend, but he won't say so if I don't say anything; maybe he thinks I want to be his girlfriend and he doesn't want that, maybe I should keep quiet and wait for him to say something first), then speared two baked beans on her fork and put them in her mouth, but the taste got all mixed up with the strong smell of the bacon. She pushed the bacon to the side of her plate; it made her shudder. Ron noticed it.

'Typical,' he said loudly. 'Are you going vegetarian on us now, Hermione?'

Hermione opened her mouth to tell him to shut up, saw the strain on his face, remembered she had to be nice to him, shut it again.

'Free the House Elves! Free the pigs!' Ron was going on. 'What are you going to knit for them, Hermione? Ickle mittens for their trotters?'

Hermione tried to work out the rules for this; he was probably teasing her so clumsily because he wanted to make it clear that things were normal between them. So she should probably tell him to shut up, like she would if things were normal between them. But they weren't. So if she told him to shut up, he might think she was still pissed off with him about asking her out, if that was what he'd done, last night.

'Oh well,' said Ron, 'all the more for me.' He reached across the table, got Hermione's bacon onto his fork, and dunked it into the bright yolk of his fried egg. Hermione gagged; suddenly and shockingly there was nothing in her head but the need to disentangle her legs from the bench and get to the girls' toilets.

She was sick three times. Then she flushed the toilet and sat on the floor for a while, a bit shaky and clammy, leaning her head back into the sharp, cold corner and reading the graffiti on the door (Harry Potter is Gay [well, there's one controversy solved], DEAN THOMAS IS FIT, Virginity is like a balloon – one prick and its gone!!!, I hate this school, LAURA FANCIES PROFESSOR FLITWICK, Angharad P is a slag) before getting up and rinsing her mouth at the sink. She watched the water run down the plughole and thought about going to see Madam Pomfrey, which would get her out of having to interact with Harry or Ron for the rest of the day, but... the thought made her vaguely uneasy. She didn't want to.

A couple of Hufflepuff third-years came in. Hermione turned the tap off and went to Potions.

*

Hermione scrambled clumsily into her place between Ron and Harry in the front row. She got her legs tangled in her skirt as she swung them over the narrow bench; accidentally leaned her left hand on Ron's leg as she tried to straighten up; twisted and pulled away embarrassedly, and fell to the right in such a way that her right breast brushed against Harry's shoulder. She looked at him, horrified (did he think she'd done that on purpose?), then quickly looked away again, before she'd really taken in the expression on his face.

'Are you all right?' asked Ron. She nodded and swallowed and rummaged in her bag. Ron tutted.

'Stayed in the pub a bit longer last night, did you? Drinking on your own? And you a prefect, as well.' He looked at her anxiously, and she managed to smile.

It must have been the first time she'd ever been relieved to see Snape come into a room. He wrote the day's instructions on the board and retired, in heavy, bad-tempered, warning silence, to the small desk at the front of the room where his own cauldron was already simmering.

Hermione concentrated hard on slicing and stirring and adjusting the heat under her cauldron, her hands working as if by remote-control. As the lesson went on, though, the times when she had to pause, head lowered, and wait until the nausea subsided began to get fewer and farther apart. She began to become conscious again of Harry working beside her, of the precise distance of her elbow from his, of the times when she had to make small, ungainly adjustments to her movements to keep from touching him. Had she touched him so often, so casually, before? She thought she must have done. So where had all that sex come from, last night? She felt herself blush, thinking about it: blushed, and felt her belly and cunt rearrange themselves as her body remembered. She hastily added the last ingredient – a handful of willow-bark – to her cauldron, checked the next item on the instructions (simmer for ten minutes), and turned the heat down.

'Time,' said Snape. 'Please take a sample.'

Hermione jumped. She stared in a small panic at her burn-healing potion (still grey-brown-green and full of unsoftened slices of mandrake root and slips of willow-bark), then at her watch. How had she got twenty minutes behind in a one-hour class?

'What is it, Miss Granger?'

Oh, fuck off. 'I – haven't finished, sir.'

'Dear, dear,' said Snape. 'What a catastrophe. What an unlikely consequence of spending half my lesson having a little rest. Nevertheless, please hand in a sample of your work and prepare yourself to deal with the cataclysmic blow to your neurotic little world that an E will doubtless represent.'

Hermione bit her lip. She felt Harry quivering indignantly beside her, but he didn't say anything. Tears, ridiculously, came into her eyes as she bottled a sample of her potion. She shoved her way past Ron, banged the little flask down on Snape's desk, turned round on still-shaky legs, staggered, and half-fell against Cho Chang, who was coming up to hand her flask in. Cho, taken by surprise, shrieked and overbalanced, put out a hand to save herself, and knocked over Snape's cauldron, spilling viscous grey-white liquid.

'Careful!' said Snape sharply. 'Don't touch it!'

Hermione and Cho backed away from the puddle spreading from desk to floor. Snape turned his back on them, deliberately, and walked into the cupboard in the corner of the room. Cho glared at Hermione. Snape returned, holding a paper packet, from which he scattered rust-red powder carefully over the spilled potion. It hissed, steamed, and dried up in an instant, leaving nothing of itself behind: only then did he turn his attention to the two girls.

'Miss Chang,' he said, 'you may sit down.'

Cho went gratefully back to her seat, and Snape carried on: 'Miss Granger, you are of age, and if you decide that the best use of a Potions class is to catch up on your sleep, you are, of course, free to do just that: however, you are not free to sabotage my work. Please return here at the end of afternoon school, for a detention.'

Hermione clenched her teeth and swallowed the lump in her throat. She nodded, to show she'd heard, and went back to her seat.

'And that will be ten points from Gryffindor,' Snape added from behind her.

'That's ridiculous,' Ron said angrily as they left the classroom. 'No-one ever gives detention to sixth-years. And all you did was fall over. Snape is such a wanker.'

*

Hermione knocked on the Potions classroom door.

'Come,' said Snape briefly, and she went in. Snape was in the middle of decanting another batch of the white/grey potion from his cauldron into a large jar. She stood awkwardly by his desk, waiting for him to finish.

'Miss Granger,' he said, straightening up. 'What an unusual experience this must be for you.'

Hermione didn't say anything.

'I will not be here to supervise you, alas, but I would advise you nonetheless not to use this period for further catching-up on your sleep. I will expect to see another cauldron full of burn-healing potion, correctly made, waiting on my desk when I return. There's no need for you to wait with it, though,' he added as he went out through the door in a billow of robes; 'rest assured that I have no particular desire to see you again today.'

It felt weird at first, being on her own in the classroom. The small sounds she made as she carefully chopped and mixed sounded very loud. The silence and the emptiness of the big room made her nervous, as if, alone with herself, she was in the presence of someone unpredictable and not quite safe.

She added the last ingredient to the mixture in her cauldron, and yawned, and suddenly and vividly remembered the feel of Harry's mouth on her breasts, and noticed that she was on her own for the first time since fucking Harry. More, she could count on being on her own for at least an hour: no having to keep an eye on the door, like in the dormitory or the prefects' bathroom; no pictures on the walls; none of the ghosts ever came in here. There was room, and time, for her to let her mind be naked, without fear of being caught. So instead of crossing out the thought, as she realized she'd done a hundred times that day, she went, still a little guiltily, further into it.

Harry. Suddenly it named, not her skinny, angry, helpless friend, not even the place where her life opened into The War, but this bodiliness: this good soreness between her legs, this warmth in her skin, sweat prickling at her hairline, breathlessness; this feeling of her pores opening and breathing out a vapour, mixing with the steam from her cauldron, filling the whole room with sex.

She thought about fucking Harry and she wanted to do it again.

It startled her. He was her friend; she'd known him since she was eleven. Last night had been fast and half-dark and unplanned; surely, in the light of day, it would just be embarrassing to be naked and sweaty in front of Harry? To take all her fierce but vague late-night desires and put them into his hands? To come, in front of Harry? And then, what about Ron? What about their friendship? It was complicated, it was messy, it was impossible. But there it was, very clear and inescapable: she wanted to do it again. She wanted to do it more, in every way: longer, and in more ways, and less cautiously. She wanted to touch him in places she hadn't touched him last night; she wanted to put her mouth on his nipples, to run her hands over the curve of his arse, to push up against him as he pushed her back against a wall, to see his eyes widen and hear him shout.

Her potion boiled over.

She jumped and swore and went red. It was like someone had walked in on her after all. She felt oddly split, as though her body that moved quickly and deftly to take the cauldron off the heat and mop up was trailing another body, one still humming and dreaming and heavy with sex, like the viscous trail of colour and light that her wand made when she drew the protective circle for a shield charm.

Snape had left out enough of the ingredients for her to start again. She tipped the ruined potion away and, crossly, began chopping and stirring for the third time that day; then, when the ingredients were all added and the cauldron was simmering on a severely low heat, she took out her Arithmancy textbook and started working through some of the problems in the next chapter, making sure she looked up between problems to check the cauldron. She worked fiercely and doggedly, ignoring the ache in her belly and the sore, stretched muscles in her thighs; ignoring, harder and more severely, the little flashes of memory they made in her. Harry on the roof. Temporal skew equals the occulted product of the spatial distance and the magical intensity, expressed as numbers. The night of Emma's party, last summer, lying under the trees in the garden, the stars above, the distant music. Let magical intensity = m. Harry taking his glasses off and looking at her with a little frown.

The door creaked. She looked up, and there was Harry, real and present and now, with his glasses on. Her heart jumped.

'Hello,' she said, cautiously.

'What...' Harry began, then started again. 'I thought you'd be finished by now? It's been two hours.'

'So you came to find me?'

'Um... yeah,' said Harry. He was hovering in the doorway, half in the room, half out of it.

'I nearly have finished. Snape said I had to do that burn-healing potion again, and it boiled over the first time... You can come in,' she added. 'He's gone.'

Harry sat down on the desk beside her cauldron. 'Are you sure? Where?'

'He didn't say. He just went off. He told me just to leave this for him, so I don't think he's coming back here.' Hermione watched her hands fiddling with the mixing spoon, feeling shy. Harry's nearness prickled all up and down her arm.

'Anyway, it's done,' she said, and turned the heat off. 'So...' She had the words Do you love me? stuck in her head, like a stubborn pop song. She didn't even know why – the things she wanted to know were more complicated than that – but while the question was there, she couldn't think of anything else to say. She looked sideways at Harry. He was swinging his legs and looking thoughtful. She felt irritated: you came to find me; you can do the work.

He looked at her and took a breath and she thought he was going to say something, but instead he leaned across and kissed her on the mouth.

Oh, she thought. Okay.

 

*

Hermione stepped out of the shower and into her dressing-gown. The warmth on her skin, the drops of water running shiveringly down her spine from her wet hair, the daze of steam around her, reminded her of Harry's fingers on her, his mouth on hers. She drifted back to the dormitory, rubbing her hair with a towel, smiling; dropped the dressing-gown round her feet to celebrate having the room to herself for five minutes; then got hastily into her pyjamas, said 'Siccatum' to her hair, climbed into her bed, and pulled the curtains round it.

She turned the pages of her book (Wizard-Centaur Relations since the Middle Ages) back and forth – forward as her eyes reached the bottom of the right-hand page, back again as she looked at the next page and realized she hadn't taken anything in. She was thinking (or not really thinking, just buzzing in her body and humming in her mind) about sex, about Harry. And then Parvati and Lavender came in, bumping and giggling, turning their voices abruptly down to a stage whisper when they saw her curtains drawn: 'Hermione? Are you awake?'

'Mm,' said Hermione reluctantly.

'We just saw your GBF going down into the dungeons,' said Lavender.

'Snape'll eat him if he catches him,' said Parvati.

'But maybe that's the idea,' said Lavender, and they started giggling again.

'Oh for heaven's sake,' Hermione said. She stuck her head out through the crack in the curtains. 'Will you give it a rest, you two?'

'Oo,' said Parvati. 'Touched a nerve?'

'No,' said Hermione crossly. 'It's just childish, that's all. And anyway, not that it even matters, but actually Harry is not gay. Okay?'

'Oh really,' said Lavender, her face brightening. 'And how would you know, Hermione?'

Hermione, alarmed, felt herself going red. It's none of your business would give it away, and so would Because I just do and so would...

... and so had her silence, it seemed.

'So are you going out now?' asked Lavender, and 'When did this happen?' asked Parvati. They were sitting together on the edge of Lavender's bed, leaning forward eagerly, staring.

She'd fought thirteen adult Death Eaters last June at the Department of Mysteries; how could she feel surrounded by two sixteen-year-old girls?

'Nothing happened,' she said. 'Just because... Harry's just not gay, okay? That doesn't necessarily mean he's my boyfriend, you know.'

'Oh, absolutely,' said Lavender, nodding vigorously. 'Absolutely,' agreed Parvati. They pulled exaggerated we're-sorry faces and climbed, with noisy exaggerated silence, into bed, and pulled their curtains, and two minutes into the silent dark Parvati said 'Lavender?' and Lavender said 'What?' and Parvati said 'Have you heard, Harry Potter's going out with Hermione Granger?' and they both exploded with giggles and Hermione was astonished by just how angry it made her.

She turned over and thumped her pillow into place and stared open-eyed into the dark. I hate the girls' dormitory, she thought. I hate the way girls—and Lavender and Parvati's laughter shaded into Emma's, and she was back again in her Muggle summer.

*

That Emma Green, her mother had said. She went to boarding-school too, you know. I saw her mum in Sainsbury's today and she's home for the summer, too. You used to like her, didn't you? Why don't you give her a ring? I bet she'd be pleased to hear from you. And so here Hermione is, stiff and upright on the too-small chair in the corner of Emma Green's bedroom, trying to nod and smile and say yes and no in the right places, while her mind keeps sliding off the slick surface of the conversation, trying to pull her back to that morning's brief, not-very-informative Daily Prophet article on the Forty-Third Amendment to the Statute of Secrecy, what they're calling the Death Eater Act. And it is such hard work, anyway, to follow the conversation, to try and piece together the unfamiliar words and names with what she has gathered in two weeks of her parents' conversation, with the names and words on the posters on Emma's walls.

Maybe I should have done Muggle Studies after all, she thinks, remembering the textbook she'd read when she was picking her OWLs subjects. Across the parchment in her mind a quill writes sentences like: Muggle teenagers are passionately invested in music, clothing, anything that changes rapidly according to fashion. Time passes faster for Muggles. Five years for Muggles is a lifetime. Five years away is forever.

Emma, sprawled on the bed, sighs and rolls her eyes and throws a pillow at Hermione, on the chair; Nina and Fizzy, sitting/lying on the floor or against walls, giggle.

'What?' says Hermione. 'I'm sorry, I wasn't—'

'Omigod,' says Emma, 'you are sooooo dozy.'

She speaks, somehow, quickly and drawlingly all at once. Her English rises and falls and lilts like a foreign language, the sing-song tones of it closer to what Hermione hears drifting into her room from the television in the front room than to anything she hears at Hogwarts.

'I was listening to the music,' Hermione lies. The quill in her mind writes: Muggles compensate for the lack of the magical dimension in their sensory experience of the world by overstimulating their other senses; for example, they insist on carrying on conversations against ambient noise or what they call 'background music'.

'Pulp,' says Emma, 'aren't they brilliant?'

'Mmmm,' says Hermione, wondering whether it's the name of a band or of a genre. 'What were you saying?'

'I was asking you to my party, you dozy mare,' she says. 'On the last day of the holidays – your mum says you go back the same day as us, and she thinks it's a great idea, so you don't have any excuses!' She waves a finger mock-sternly at Hermione.

Oh, great. Hermione smiles weakly and falls back into silence, while Nina begins to tell a long story about an eighteenth birthday party she went to at Easter and just exactly how drunk she got.

*

Lavender and Parvati plonked their trays down on opposite sides of the table, sat down on opposite benches, and swept their long, straight, shiny hair back over opposite shoulders, mirroring each other; they smiled identically at Harry, winked identically at Hermione.

'Good morning, lovebirds!' said Lavender.

'What?' said Ron.

'Oh, romance has bloomed, Ron,' said Parvati, shaking salt onto her egg, looking sideways at Hermione.

'What are you girls on about?' Ron was looking at Harry, not smiling.

'Oh, sorry,' said Lavender, mock-solicitous. 'Have we got the wrong end of the stick after all? Only Hermione was saying she knew for a fact that those rumours about you and Harry weren't true, and when we asked her how she could be so sure, well...'

She pulled a pleasurably-shocked face; Parvati mirrored it, giggling. Ron was staring at Harry. Harry was staring at Hermione. Hermione felt sick.

'Are you two,' said Ron. His voice was shaking. He took a deep breath. 'Did you two,' he said.

We did, thought Hermione, cold inside. Are we?

'Ron,' said Harry, and then he was silent. Ron looked at him, at Lavender's joyfully aghast face, and went white.

'You,' he said to Hermione. 'And after I – you said... you let me think... why didn't you tell me?'

'Ron,' said Hermione, and then she ran out of what to say.

'I don't believe this,' Ron said. He shoved his plate away and started to scramble to his feet.

'Ron,' said Hermione again. 'Don't go. I—'

Harry put his hand on her arm and shook his head. 'Leave it,' he said quietly.

'Piss off,' said Ron. He turned his back on them and went down between the long lines of tables; by the time he got to the door, he was almost running, and the enjoyment had gone out of Lavender's face.

'I'm sorry,' she said, biting her lip. 'Hermione, I didn't realize...'

'Shut up,' said Hermione, and got up from the table, and went to the girls' toilets, and threw up.

*

Ron didn't speak to either of them all that day. He paired up with Ernie in Defense Against the Dark Arts; Neville covered for him on prefect patrol that evening; and when Hermione got back and came into the Gryffindor common room, he went out.

A little curious quiver went round the room, a hush and a tightening in the air. Hermione sat down, trying to look as if she wasn't being looked at, and pulled a book down at random from the shelf above the sofa. It was Magical Me; Gilderoy Lockhart smiled and pouted on the cover as if he weren't blank and lost in the mental ward at St Mungo's. She opened it anyway, then looked up as she registered that someone was hovering beside her, half-sitting on the sofa next to her. It was Parvati.

'Hermione,' said Parvati tentatively, 'we're really sorry. Honestly. Lavender was crying, before. We didn't mean to cause trouble between you and Ron and Harry, we were just...'

'Well, maybe you'll think before you start stirring it up next time,' Hermione snapped. 'I don't know why you and Lavender have to be so...'

'I know,' said Parvati, 'I'm sorry. But we really did think Harry was gay, and—'

'And that would make it all right, would it? And what is your problem with Harry, anyway? Just because he's got half a brain, and he's not going out with a new girl every week like Dean Thomas... what earthly reason do you have for thinking he's gay?'

'Cho Chang says he is,' said Parvati. 'Honestly, Hermione, I'm surprised no-one's told you. It's because everyone knows you're his friend. But last year, she says she kissed him once and he really freaked out and backed off straightaway, and...'

'She's got some fucking opinion of herself if she thinks someone has to be gay to not want to go out with her!' Hermione shouted. Heads turned and she went red. Parvati fidgeted.

'It's not just that, though... there's all sorts of things. He's always hanging round with Snape, and everyone knows Snape's definitely gay, and...'

'Parvati,' said Hermione as quietly as she could, 'you know perfectly well why Harry spends so much time with Snape. Your twin's in Ravenclaw, for God's sake! I can't believe you've got so little going on in your head that you have to make this stuff up.'

'And she says, she had a crush on him for years so she watched him a lot, and he was always looking at boys. Not just – you know, looking at them. And you know he never talks about fancying girls, and Ron's never gone out with anyone properly either, and...'

'Nor have I,' said Hermione.

'Well,' said Parvati, defiantly. 'Cho said she thought that was probably why the three of you were all friends, and nothing ever happened between the three of you. Because...'

'Because we're all gay?' said Hermione furiously. 'Well, now something has happened between the three of us. And if you must know, the reason Ron's so upset about me and Harry is because he asked me out last week, and I said no. Okay? So congratulations, now you know the truth, and all you had to do to find out was fuck up my life. Because God forbid you just ask.' She slammed the book shut and got to her feet. She was shaking.

'I'm sorry!' Parvati wailed.

'I don't care,' Hermione spat over her shoulder as she walked out of the room, away from Parvati, away from ten more faces all agog at the drama, and bumped into Harry on his way in.

He took hold of her shoulders, perhaps to look at her more closely, perhaps just to move her gently out of his way, but she burst into tears at the touch.

'Hermione?'

'I wouldn't go in there if I were you,' she said loudly. 'There's too many kids in there tonight.'

Harry pulled her out into the corridor and started walking somewhere, somewhere away from the common room; she followed him. 'What's going on?' he asked.

'Oh,' she said, sagging. 'Nothing. I just had a fight with Parvati. It's not that big a deal. I just – I was sort of storming out when you came in, so I don't want to go back in there.'

Harry laughed. 'Yeah,' he said, 'that's the problem with storming out. You have no idea how much time I spent last year hanging around in corridors feeling stupid.'

Hermione laughed and hiccupped and wiped her eyes; Harry smiled and put his arm around her and said, 'Hermione, look—' and she thought here it comes and then, just as they were passing the door to the prefects' bathroom, out came Ron, wet-haired, in a dressing-gown.

He stared at them. Harry's loose, comfortable arm around her shoulders suddenly turned tense and awkward, but he didn't take it away.

'I don't believe you two,' was all he said. 'Excuse me,' and he pushed past them and away.

Harry took his arm down. 'I'm going to go after him,' he said. 'Will you be...?' And he was gone.

I hate this school, thought Hermione, unexpectedly and very clearly.

 

*

Hermione woke up and rolled onto her back. She stared at the canopied ceiling above her and tried to imagine sitting up, opening the curtains, saying good morning icily to Lavender and Parvati or icily ignoring them, walking down to breakfast, sitting with Harry or Ron or Harry and Ron, then walking down to double Potions with them. She couldn't imagine any of it, so she rolled over and went back to sleep for half an hour.

When she got to the Potions classroom Harry was already there. She sat down beside him, and asked: 'Did you talk to Ron?'

Harry nodded, his mouth set.

'Oh,' said Hermione. 'Oh dear.'

Harry didn't say anything. Hermione fiddled with her quill, her textbooks, lining them up and rearranging them nervously on the desk, feeling the strange gap that Ron's absence left between her and Harry.

Ron arrived with thirty seconds to spare. He looked straight through Harry and Hermione, walked straight past them, went to sit half-way up the classroom next to Cho Chang. Harry was half-turned-round in his seat, glaring at Ron, opening his mouth to say something, when the bell rang and Snape blew in through the door in a gust of wind and a swirl of robes, and Harry shut up.

They started preparing the ingredients for a Draught of Living Death. Hermione was off-balance between Harry's silent anger and the emptiness where Ron usually sat. A bitter taste kept rising in her mouth, and she kept swallowing it down as she stirred and chopped and stirred.

Laughter coming from Ron and Cho distracted her, then bothered her, then made her look round. They were whispering together, looking slyly at Harry: beside Hermione, Harry tensed and turned and stared openly back at them. Ron opened his eyes wide and mouthed something at Harry that Hermione couldn't follow. Harry scowled and reached over, very deliberately, to take Hermione's hand. She winced and wondered what to do and looked down at the bench to see their hands linked like a fist on the bench and looked up to see Snape standing over the two of them, one eyebrow raised.

'How very touching,' he said. Harry jumped and turned his face up to Snape's. He didn't let go of Hermione's hand, and Hermione could feel him trembling slightly, his fingers tightening around hers.

'Are congratulations in order, Miss Granger? Mr Potter?'

'Yes, sir,' Ron and Cho chorused from the right-hand side of the classroom; 'It's none of your business, sir,' said Harry loudly over them.

'On the contrary,' said Snape sharply, 'if you choose to bring your adolescent flirtations—' Harry's mouth tightened— 'into my classes, I'd say that you are making it very much my business. Now perhaps you might be good enough, both of you, to abandon the attempt to concoct this very complicated draught one-handed? The Potions classroom is not the place for carrying on your love affairs.'

'I'll remember that, sir,' said Harry, and an unreadable look passed between them before Harry let go of Hermione's hand and went back to his potion, and Snape turned on his heel and billowed away to his own desk. Hermione felt jolted in his wake, like someone standing on the edge of a platform as a fast train passes on its way to somewhere else.

*

And then Hermione was going out with Harry. They walked to class together; they went into Hogsmeade together; they held hands in the common room sometimes; and sometimes, when Harry didn't have Order commitments and Hermione didn't have prefect duties, they went up onto the roofs, or found somewhere warm enough and private enough inside the school building, and they kissed and touched and did whatever the weather and the hardness of the floors and risk of passing ghosts or prefects or lost first-years would let them do.

It wasn't what Hermione had expected. It felt inevitable and notquiteright all at the same time, as if she had fallen out of her life into the school-world on the outside of it, the world where Hermione-and-Harry-and-Ron had made so little sense to anyone that the rumours which tried to explain them away had got more outlandish every year. And this couple-and-alienated-best-friend arrangement, she'd admit, made more sense, even to her, than the tricky balance of the last five years, the way the three of them had had to work to keep their triangle equilateral against the pull of Cho Chang and Viktor Krum, Rita Skeeter and the Daily Prophet, prefect badges, Quidditch teams, Voldemort. It simplified things, simplified them right down to the block capitals HP+HG written on the inside of the cubicle door in the girls' toilets by the Great Hall. She couldn't work out, though, if it was like Arithmancy, where simplifying an equation gave you a more elegant, more soluble version of the same thing; or if it was like the Muggle Studies textbook that had made her decide to drop the class before OWLs, where the Simplified Diagram of Muggle Class Structures on page 14 had simplified her working-class dentist mother right out of existence.

*

'Hermione?'

'What?' Since she and Harry had become an official couple, Lavender and Parvati had become officially friendly, including Hermione in their jokes, telling her bits of pointless gossip, offering to teach her to knit. It irritated Hermione, for some reason she couldn't quite define.

'Have you got a tampon?' Lavender mouthed it, as if it was thrillingly all-girls-together.

'Oh, bum,' said Parvati, 'that means I'm going to come on tomorrow, probably. Thanks a lot, Lavender.' She shoved her in a friendly way.

'Don't blame me,' said Lavender, shoving back. 'It's a deep feminine mystery, remember?' She put on a strange, strangled voice which was presumably supposed to be an imitation of Professor Trelawney, the day she'd talked about the cycles of the earth and the cycles of divination. Parvati dissolved into giggles.

Hermione rolled her eyes, her face safely hidden; she was rummaging in her bedside drawer. No tampons, though. She must have left them in her trunk (had she really not had a period since they got back to school? How many weeks ago)?

Maybe she'd just used them all and forgotten. 'Hang on,' she said, and lugged her trunk out from under the bed; but the box was there, all right, among all the other detritus she hadn't needed yet.

'There,' she said, throwing it to Lavender.

'Thanks,' said Lavender, looking at the box doubtfully. 'Is this a Muggle brand?'

'Oh, for God's sake,' said Hermione. 'They're tampons. They're made of cotton wool. They absorb blood. They obey the laws of physics. They don't need to be fucking magical.'

*

It was about ten o'clock. Harry and Hermione were in a small room off the north-west corridor on the third floor which Hermione had discovered the night before, wandering off-course on a late-night patrol of the empty school, drawing patterns on the walls with the light from her wand, thinking about Harry. Neither of them had any idea what the room was meant to be used for, but it wasn't on any of the direct routes between dormitories and bathrooms, and it was warm and empty, and the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling only alarmed Hermione when, from time to time, in the flicker of a candle, its shadow seemed to quaver and detach itself from the wall and come rushing towards them.

Harry was on his back in a rumpled nest of both their duvets, looking up at Hermione. Hermione was kneeling astride him, enjoying the feeling of his cock hardening against her through his jeans and her knickers; she was leaning forward over him, balanced with one hand on the curve of his shoulder, the other drawing patterns on his jawline, his throat, his lips. He caught her fingertip between his teeth and bit it gently. He was breathing hard, looking up at her, his face blind and empty with what could have been lust, or anger, or anything else: something about his expression caught at her.

'Harry,' she heard herself say suddenly. 'What is it? Are you all right? Do you—'

'I don't want to talk,' he said impatiently, wriggling his narrow shoulders to shrug her words away and to tip her off-balance so that, half-falling, she lay more solidly against and on him, her bra scratchy against his naked chest: his clever, thin fingers undid the catch and pulled impatiently at the fabric till she managed to slip it off her shoulders and drop it into the pile of their clothes. And then Harry's mouth, under hers, was inviting her teeth and her tongue to move in and on and between his lips, and his thin body was pushing up hard against hers, and that was enough of a conversation.

Harry gulped a mouthful of air and wrapped his arms close around her and carefully rocked his hips sideways, meaning get off me so I can get my jeans off; she swung her leg over him and knelt beside him as he pulled his trousers and pants and socks off all together in a tangle. She watched intently, breathlessly, loving the intimacy of the sight, as he dressed his cock in a condom, his fingers smoothing the latex over his own shaft; he looked up at her and smiled as if he knew what she was thinking. She stood up and thumbed her knickers down and there she was, naked in front of her best friend, but the nervousness was just another part of the excitement.

'Beautiful,' said Harry, then 'Come here.' He held his arms out and she lay down in them, on him. He held her close and gentle for a little while, stroking her back as if he was learning the contour of her shoulderblades, waist, hips, as if she wasn't to notice the head of his cock butting against her stomach; then she threw her legs around his hips and sat up, and felt suddenly scared in case she'd got it wrong, in case she was going to do something too big, too sexy, too desperate, too honest – something obscene – and scare him away. 'Like this?' she asked.

'Mm,' said Harry. 'Please.' He propped himself up on his elbows and frowned down at the complicated place where their hips met, as Hermione rose up and tried to sink down, got the angle wrong, tried again, got it wrong again, blushed and reached for Harry's cock. She steadied it, locking a fist around it, matched its tip to the opening of her cunt, then matched the angle of its shaft with the angle of her hips and settled down onto it until she was opened and stretched and filled and Harry was sweating and biting his lip under her.

'Is that...' she said and Harry nodded violently. The crocodile was throwing unpredictable patterns of shadow at him, so that his face was light, then dark, then light again. 'I'm just – I'm just trying not to move,' he said. 'You do it. I want you to do it.'

Hermione started moving, forward and back, concentrating. It wasn't quite like it sounded in the dog-eared books she'd read along with everyone else in the second year when they were being passed around all the girls' dorms in all the Houses: it wasn't instinctive, she wasn't being swept away on a mighty river of desire... Or part of it was instinctive, part of it swept her away and overwhelmed her: that was the part that gasped with Harry, struggled with him to keep the rhythm going when they found one that worked for both of them. That was the urgent part, the enormous hunger that just wanted to fling her limbs at Harry and grind and push and struggle and bite until it was satisfied; but that shapeless, furious demand could only be assuaged by movements that were precisely right. It – sex – was, startlingly, one of the most physically tricky things she'd done since she left primary school and regular gym classes. Keeping her balance; trying to find a comfortable position for her knees; working out what to do with her elbows while she rocked on Harry's cock, trying to ride out the times when he lost control and began to buck his hips under her, without losing the angle or the rhythm. And so, when she felt an orgasm beginning to build at the base of her stomach, there was something doubly satisfying about it: she smiled fiercely at Harry, baring her teeth, and he smiled back; and it meant We did it! We worked it out! and it echoed all the way back to their first year, to finding the way to the Philosopher's Stone together.

She shouted and lost her vision and came, and collapsed forward onto Harry's chest while he held her hips steady and thrust up into her, faster and faster and then three long, deliberate strokes and a whimper in her ear and all the tension leaving his body under her. They lay together for a few seconds, then Harry said 'Sorry – I have to...' and she said, 'Oh, yes...' and her legs made room for Harry's fingers to tug his softened cock out of her, keeping it in its condom. He turned his back on her for a moment, then lay back down and pressed against her, condomless and sticky, while she rummaged and found a corner of the duvets to pull over them.

She felt him smile against her neck. 'That's better,' he said.

'Mm,' she agreed.

He kissed her shoulder, then sighed, sat up, and started finding his clothes on the floor. She snuggled deeper into the duvet and watched him dress, feeling peacefully blank, rather wanting to be on her own with this feeling.

When he was dressed he leant over to kiss her forehead. 'I'll see you tomorrow, Hermione,' he said, and went out.

She pulled the covers more firmly over her and spent a few minutes enjoyably thinking about nothing at all; then, suddenly, she felt the duvet being tugged out from under her. She jumped and shrieked, then realized that Harry must be accio-ing it back to his dormitory, and got out of its way; it sailed self-importantly to the door, misted, and blurred through the wood and out.

Probably she'd better try and get back to her own dormitory before Lavender and Parvati, so she could accio her own duvet in privacy. She pulled her clothes on quickly, shivering, and hurried round the mazy staircases to her room.

Too late. Parvati was already in bed, reading, and Lavender was sitting on the windowsill painting her toenails. Hermione sat on her own bed with her back to both of them, swallowed her pride, and said 'Accio duvet.'

'Have you been out with Harry?' Parvati asked as the duvet bobbed into existence over Hermione's bed, shook itself out and laid itself softly down. Hermione glared at Parvati, trying to see what was behind the question, but she couldn't work it out. 'Yes,' she said crossly.

'How is he?' Lavender raised her head and Hermione saw that she was pink around the eyes and nose, as if she'd been crying.

'Fine,' said Hermione cautiously.

'Really?' said Lavender and Parvati together.

'Did he say anything about...' said Parvati, and trailed off.

'Only I got a letter from my mum today,' Lavender took over, 'and she said I wasn't to worry, but my dad's had to go away for a while. He's an Auror, and I wondered—'

Probably just doesn't know how to tell you that she's kicked him out, thought Hermione meanly. 'He didn't say anything,' she said, and Lavender's mouth trembled. 'I'm sorry, Lavender,' she added. 'I'm sure your dad's all right.'

'Really?' asked Lavender eagerly. As if Hermione knew.

'Really,' she said. Lavender smiled, her eyes filling with tears, and Hermione felt like a liar.

'I'm really tired,' she said, 'I'm sorry.' And she pulled the curtains around her bed and listened to the hushed, reverent voices of Lavender and Parvati wishing her goodnight, and thought back over Harry's words and touches – the way he'd looked at her, the tone of his voice, the distribution of his silences – to see if she could somehow divine from all those things whether Lavender's dad was going to be all right.

She might be fucking Harry, she realized, but really, she was just like everyone else: she was still watching him. Still in the dark, on the outside, waiting and watching, while the real story went on somewhere else.

And she'd thought – all summer, she'd thought – that when she got back to Hogwarts she'd be on the inside again, at last.

*

Hermione is the only person in the garden. Music and voices collide in the chilly end-of-August air. She shivers and sips her vodka-and-coke and watches the people in the front room. Through the big French windows, they look as if they're on the telly. She might as well have stayed in.

She didn't want to stay in, but she didn't want to come to the party, either. This is her compromise. She said hello to Emma Green, who was in the kitchen, busily laughing up at a floppy-haired blonde boy; got herself a drink (watching the girl in front of her to see how much vodka and how much Coke to put in what sort of plastic beaker); and came out here, where the incomprehensible Muggle mess of the party is reduced to a lit, moving backdrop, a semi-musical hubbub. Background music.

She finishes her drink, lies back and looks at the sky. She feels cold and a little drunk. She feels small and romantic and powerful: secret, lonely witch under the stars, keeping her distance, waiting for news of the secret war going on in the real world, in her real life; keeping her distance, keeping her silence, to protect all the laughing people behind the glass.

'I've brought you another drink,' says a voice.

'Oh,' says Hermione. She sits up and pulls a twig out of her hair.

'Here,' says the boy. He is squatting beside her, holding out another plastic beaker full of black fizz.

'Thanks.' Hermione looks at the boy consideringly, still feeling removed and spectatorish. (The stars. The trees in the lights from the house. The boy.) He is handsome in a way that reminds Hermione of an old-fashioned ventriloquist's dummy: black hair, thick, black eyebrows, red cheeks.

'Emma told me you were out here.'

'Oh.'

'I know how you feel,' he says.

It jolts Hermione, even though it can't be true. Do you? she catches herself thinking, almost desperately. Do you?

He waves at the French-window-screen. 'All those people. I don't like parties, either. Having to have the same bullshit conversation fifteen times an hour...' He interrupts himself. 'Are you drunk?'

'No,' says Hermione.

'That's a shame. I think I am, rather.' He pulls a face, then extends his fingertips, oddly limp, for her to shake. 'I'm Derek. I go to school with Emma's brother. You're Hermione. You go to school in Scotland – Gordonstoun, is it?'

'No,' says Hermione.

'Quite right,' he says. 'No point having the same bullshit conversation with you, when you've obviously come out here to avoid it.' He fumbles a cigarette out of a packet and offers her one.

'No,' says Hermione, again. He lights his own cigarette and stretches back on the grass, smoking. Hermione watches him; he turns his head to the side to look back at her.

And then, five minutes later, they are kissing. It makes Hermione feel small and powerful: small beside the largeness of the feelings it sets off in her; powerful because she is the place where all those feelings are happening. (That was the first time she'd felt it, she realized, now, remembering: the feeling that she could step out of her life, out of herself, into a place without words or thoughts. A place where she didn't have to second-guess herself, or know all the answers; a place where she could just want something, and get it. The feeling she was chasing all the time with Harry.)

Back on the grass, under the tree, with Derek, the whole surface of her skin is hot and not-exactly-itchy, as if she has just climbed out of the bath: and, as if she has just climbed out of the bath, there are paths over and through her body like silver drops of water gathering into trickles over her skin; paths that lead to her nipples, her armpits, the pit of her belly, the small of her back, between her legs. Derek's fingers follow the trails, make the feelings stronger, and she pulls him closer, cheers him on, kisses him harder, fumbles under his t-shirt for the heat and the smoothness of his skin. She helps him undo her trousers and follow the not-itching down to where it is most intense; he brushes the tips of his fingers through her pubic hair, over her clitoris, a little way inside her.

It feels brilliant. She didn't know. It is like discovering magic was: discovering that the odd things that happened to her weren't random disaster, but something she could control. Something she could do. It was like sailing a ship might be, making her as powerful as the forces the sails and the rudder control, as powerful as the sea and the wind; magic put her in control of something bigger than herself, something that was in control of her, at the same time. This is the same. This is a whole new capability, a whole new reality, and she wants to see what it is.

'Is this all right?' Derek asks. She nods, impatiently, and wriggles out of her jeans while Derek undoes his. The cold air prickles on her skin for a moment, and then he is back, kneeling between her legs, kissing her, putting her hand on his hard penis. She runs a finger up and down it, then curls her whole hand round it; feels the strange warmth, the boneless hardness, the aliveness of it. And then he is pulling it out of her hand, rocking back on his heels, unwrapping a condom and putting it on.

I'm going to have sex, she thinks incredulously. I thought you had to agonize for months over whether you were ready first.

Derek spends a little while manoeuvring, using his fingers and the head of his penis to find the right place, then pushes in, pauses, pushes in again (it hurts, but no more than any other unaccustomed use of her body's abilities), and starts moving inside her, fast and definite, in a way that rubs up against places she's never really been aware of before. That part doesn't last very long; he says 'Jesus!' and holds himself still for a moment and then pulls out out of her, a little awkwardly, and says 'Oh. Um...'

She raises her head to look at him, feeling heavy, as if her blood was thick. 'What?'

He shakes his head quickly, smiled, and said: 'In a minute.'

Then the pad of his finger is against her clitoris, shoving at it, working it in small circles, while her belly clenches tighter and tighter, like a fist, until, soon, something sharp and fierce happens to her. It washes over the garden, her body, the difference between them, washing them away, receding, leaving her surprised and shiny on the grass.

*

Morag MacDougal came over to her table and whispered 'Hermione?'

She jumped out of her thoughts, turning over the parchment she'd been scribbling dates and sums on (31 August + 266 days = 23 May: Taurus/Gemini cusp), sliding the Astrology textbook out of sight.

'Yes?'

'Could you cover for me in the prefects' room tonight? I thought I'd be able to finish this thing for Professor Vector, but I got distracted reading Fractal Curses for Dumbledore's essay, so now I know more than anyone needs to about the construction of viral jinxes and nothing at all about trigonometric scrying.' She gave Hermione a rueful smile: you know how it is.

Hermione stared down at her own unfinished homework. 'Of course,' she said: she might as well. Another hour wasn't going to make the difference she needed, between these vague doodles and real, finished work; between this mess in her head, in her body, and her real mind, her real life.

'Thanks,' said Morag and disappeared gratefully back to her desk.

Hermione slid the lid off her inkwell, dipped her quill, shook the excess ink off it, and stared into space. She found herself looking at the tower of books that walled Morag off from the rest of the library.

I wonder what would have happened to me if I'd told the Sorting Hat I wanted to be in Ravenclaw, she thought. If I'd met Cho or Anthony or Morag on the train on my first day, and liked the look of them, instead of getting some sort of crush on Angelina Johnson and a red-headed boy at the same time, and shouting 'Gryffindor, Gryffindor, Gryffindor' at the Hat.

I could have had a different life.

*

'Thanks, Hermione', said Mary Creevy, to whom Hermione had just explained the rules about practising Transfigurations on school property. She still sounded a bit tearful, but she managed to smile over her shoulder as she left the room, clutching the pillow which had been a marshmallow when she came in; and then, as soon as the door had shut, there was a knock on it.

'Come in,' said Hermione crossly, shutting her Arithmancy textbook for the fifth time in the last ten minutes.

The door opened ever-so-slightly, just enough for Nerissa Lightsome's head to appear round its edge.

'Oh,' she said, taken aback. 'I thought—' then, recovering her manners, 'Do you know where Morag McDonald is, please?'

'She's busy tonight,' said Hermione. 'What did you want her for? I'm covering for her tonight, so whatever it was, I'm sure I can help.'

'Oh...' Nerissa said. She was looking around the room as if still hoping that Morag would appear. 'No, it was...' Then she seemed to make her mind up. 'No. It wasn't anything, it doesn't matter.' And she turned to go.

'Nerissa,' said Hermione, puzzled, 'what's the matter? If you're in any trouble, you know you can tell me just as well as Morag, don't you?'

'But you're—' said Nerissa, and then she actually clapped a hand over her mouth.

Hermione got up. 'Come on,' she said, and took Nerissa gently by the arm to pull her into the room. 'Come and sit here.' She steered Nerissa into the billowy cushions of the sofa nearest the fire, put a (prefectly, chocolate) biscuit into her hand, and said: 'What is it, Nerissa?'

'Nothing,' said Nerissa fiercely, putting the biscuit down. 'It doesn't matter. Can I go now?'

'I can see you can't tell me,' said Hermione, 'but can you at least tell me why you can't tell me?'

Nerissa glared at her. 'Because you're a Gryffindor. And you're going out with Harry Potter.'

She hadn't heard Harry's name spoken with such venom since Dolores Umbridge had left. 'That doesn't mean—' she said, helplessly. 'I mean, do you think I won't help you because you're in Slytherin? What have people been saying to you? I mean, I know Harry and Draco had a feud – and I suppose I did punch Draco in the face that time, but—'

'Harry got Draco put in Azkaban,' said Nerissa furiously. 'Not just Draco. Gregory, and Vincent, and Pansy, and... everyone. Half the house.'

'What are you talking about?'

'Everyone knows,' said Nerissa. 'It's not safe to cross Harry Potter.'

Hermione got a grip on herself. 'Nerissa,' she said in her most prefectly voice, 'this is pure fiction. You must know that. Harry is not leading a conspiracy against the Slytherins. If Draco is in Azkaban – and I highly doubt that, for a start – then it's not because he called Harry names! Do you honestly think the Wizengamot would put a seventeen-year-old in prison if he wasn't involved in something really serious?'

Nerissa shrugged. Yes, she clearly meant. And Hermione suddenly went cold, remembering the weeks Hagrid had spent in Azkaban, without trial, for something he hadn't done... and Sirius, who couldn't have been more than twenty-one when Pettigrew had killed those people, and...

But that had been before, she told herself. When things had been out-of-control, when Fudge had been trying to cover things up or when the whole wizarding world was upside-down and crazy, just after Voldemort died, when no-one knew what was happening. Now that Dumbledore was in charge, now that it was all out in the open (well, apart from the Death Eater Act), they wouldn't... and anyway, Harry certainly couldn't have had anything to do with it.

She stared at Nerissa, whose face was going paler and paler as the anger drained out of it. She looked terrified. 'I shouldn't have—' she said. 'Really, Hermione, I'm sorry, I—'

She really thinks I'm going to get her put in that awful place, thought Hermione, horrified, for bad-mouthing my boyfriend. Not even my... my sort-of boyfriend. As if school feuds were the same as the War. What the fuck is going on?

'All right,' she said, 'you can go, if you want. But honestly, you don't have to—'

But Nerissa had already scrambled out of the sofa and out of the room, and someone else – Nick Jenkins, a third-year Hufflepuff – was already pushing through the door after her, complaining loudly.

'... and the thing is, I can't do my homework unless he puts the book back in the library, and it's not fair, because...'

Hermione took a deep breath and tried to listen, but inside her head Draco and Vincent and Daphne and Pansy and Millicent were looking out at her from separate small boxes, and it wasn't like seeing them get their come-uppance at all. They were as grey and desperate as Harry on the train in third year, and as silent as her in the kitchen in the summer, sitting across the table from her mum.

*

Harry pulled Hermione in tight against him, gave a wriggle-and-flip to get the duvet up over their shoulders, and started kissing her mouth, her jaw, her earlobe. He slid a hand down between their stomachs, working awkwardly to undo her belt buckle.

'Harry,' said Hermione, 'is Draco in Azkaban?'

Harry blinked and went still.

'All the Slytherins are saying he is. And that – and that you put him there.'

Harry rolled away a little and collected his glasses. He sat up, polishing them on a corner of the duvet cover.

'Do you think I'd do that?' he asked evenly.

'I don't know,' said Hermione. She sat up so that their eyes were on a level, but then she couldn't look at him anyway. 'I don't know, Harry. You haven't talked to me all year. I mean, we—' she gestured at the rumpled duvet, her shirt on the floor in a peaceable tangle with Harry's t-shirt – 'but I don't know what's going on, anything that's going on. Last year I was – I was in Dumbledore's Army and—' She ran out of words that she could say out loud. Last year I was important. Last year I was real. I left it all behind for one summer with the Muggles and when I came back I was – I wasn't...

Harry put his glasses back on. His hand lay empty on the duvet for a moment, then curled into a fist.

'You know I can't tell you,' he said. 'You know why. I can't, Hermione. So stop it. Just stop it.'

'That's not it,' said Hermione. It was hard to breathe and the words wouldn't come properly. 'It's not just Draco, or the Order, or... You haven't told me anything for a year. Longer. I mean, you – you fuck me, but are we even still friends, Harry?'

'Christ, Hermione,' said Harry. He was furious. 'Don't be so childish. It's not about being friends,' and there was so much scorn in his voice on that word. 'You're talking like I'm not letting you sit next to me in Herbology, or something! It's a spell! There's a war on!'

'Fine! Tell me something else. Tell me something that has nothing to do with the Order. Tell me...'

'Go on!' shouted Harry. 'Ask me! I'd love it. I'd love to see you think of something to ask me that has nothing to do with the war. It'd be the first time in five years, Hermione.'

Hermione's mind went blank.

'Go on,' Harry said again.

Do you love me? she thought. Do you love me? But she couldn't ask it. She opened her mouth, and closed it again, and the only thing she could find in her head when she looked at Harry, white and blazing, was Lavender's voice, and –

'Are you gay?' she asked suddenly.

It sounded ridiculous. For a split second she hoped that Harry would laugh, and they could step back from this edge they were balanced on. But he didn't laugh. He gasped, and said, almost in a whisper: 'What?'

Lavender said that Cho Chang said that... 'You heard me.'

'What – why?'

Hermione shrugged. 'It's got nothing to do with the Order, has it? So you can tell me.'

'But who—'

She stared at him, feeling suddenly afraid. He was white and scared, and she reached across to touch his face, but he flinched away.

'Yes,' he said, viciously. 'Okay? Yes. I am.'

'Oh,' she whispered, then: 'But—'

'So this is a waste of both our times, really, isn't it?' He grabbed his t-shirt up from the floor and pulled it on.

'But why...' said Hermione. Then she pulled at her hair, and said: 'Fine. Fuck off then. Just fuck off.' If this hadn't been real, either.

*

The next day was a Saturday. Hermione had spent most of it in the library, trying to do homework, and now it was nearly dinner time, and she'd barely got anything done: her mind was too noisy. Harry had been gone all day and all evening, doing... something, Order business, Hermione guessed, learning how to block his mind from Voldemort as strongly as he blocked it from everyone else, maybe. (Was she jealous of Voldemort, for being able to walk in and out of her boyfriend's mind? For being closer to Harry than she was? God, her life was fucked up.) She frowned and wiped the nib of her quill and shuffled through the pile of assignments in front of her: Arithmancy smelt of dust and Defence Against the Dark Arts smelt of loneliness and Potions smelt of the stinkweed they'd used this morning, a bitter nauseating smell that had seemed to fill the whole room, until she couldn't breathe, she couldn't see, she couldn't think. And suddenly now she felt sweat prickle at her hairline, and thought But what if... and thought But I really could be...

*

Back in the garden, under the stars, she pushes her hair out of her face and says: 'Thanks.'

Derek is zipping his jeans up, tucking his shirt in, combing his hair with his fingers. 'Any time,' he says; then, after a minute, 'Look, I need to tell you... The condom, it – I think it broke.'

Hermione, pulling the strap of her top back up, goes cold. 'Shit,' she says.

'Are you – using anything?'

'Using?'

'The Pill?'

'Oh,' says Hermione. 'No.'

'Ah,' says Derek. 'Perhaps you'd better see about getting the morning-after pill, then, when you get back to school?' He looks at her enquiringly. 'My friends,' he adds, 'my friends who are girls, that is, say it's just a question of popping in to the matron.'

'Right,' says Hermione absently. She pulls her jeans up and buttons them, as if that closed the matter.

*

All the next day, her mind kept circling it. Pregnant.

Pictures of herself: walking through Camberwell with a baby in a sling (a bit taller than she really was, her hair a bit neater than it usually was); sitting in the bookshop in Diagon Alley with the baby in a high chair beside her; reading with one hand, spooning baby-food with the other. Standing in a vague, messy kitchen which looked more like Molly Weasley's than her own mother's, holding the baby on one hip, drinking tea and talking to... (who? Not Derek, not Harry...)

I could call it something that both Muggles and wizards recognized, she thought. Something old-fashioned, like Ronald or Sibyl - some of those names are nice - but not downright odd, like Minerva or Albus.

If it doesn't have any magic, she thought, I could go back to the Muggle world. Go to university - there isn't one for wizards... I wonder how soon I could find out?

Everyone would say a baby would be the end of any choices for her. She knew that. But it felt like the beginning. She could feel her futures endlessly multiplying like the cells in an embryo dividing in two, four, eight, sixteen, on and on.

*

The next morning she was sitting on the floor in her usual cubicle in the girls' toilets nearest the Great Hall, exhausted, a bitter taste in her mouth, reading the graffiti: I hate this school, Cho Chang Is A Fag Hag!!, DT + LB 4EVA IDT INDT, McGonagall is a bitch, HERMIONE GRANGER IS PREGNANT.

For some reason, that was what finally made it real.

*

That whole day, Hermione panicked. It turned out that when there wasn't a battle or an exam to use the fear up on, she could go on being afraid indefinitely, in just the same sick, disembodied, precarious way that she had always thought was only endurable because it couldn't go on forever.

The day carried her forward despite herself. Transfigurations, Arithmancy. She worked carefully and precariously, and every now and again she noticed that she hadn't thought about the pregnancy for a while – a couple of minutes, five, ten – and noticing it dropped her back into the place outside school, outside time, outside this bright place where her hands kept on working. And now there weren't any pictures of a pretty actress playing Adult Hermione with a pretty baby, there were just the words writing themselves over and over in her mind: HERMIONE GRANGER IS PREGNANT. No more futures multiplying in her belly: just her, trapped in the vehicle of her stupid, stupid body, dawdling through these jammed streets while her future, whistling and shiny, left without her.

At lunch, she was a bit trembly with what must have been hunger, but she didn't feel hungry, and she couldn't eat. She watched her hands tearing a bread roll into crumbs, and watched Lavender and Parvati whispering together, their busy little round eyes going from her to Harry, magnificently sullen at Luna Lovegood's end of the table, to Ron, talking Quidditch with Neville at the other end.

'Are you all right?' they asked her. 'Hermione?'

'I'm fine,' she said – I'm pregnant. I really am. I'm pregnant – and they nodded understandingly and carried on talking together. They didn't seem to notice that she was barely there. No-one seemed to notice, that whole day. Astronomy, Charms, dinner (Harry not there, Ron over at the Ravenclaw table with Cho), common room, bed, and then at two in the morning Hermione got out of bed and went down to the library.

'Hmm?' said the painting on the library door, sleepily and disapprovingly. 'What are you – oh, it's you, Miss Granger. Well, you know where everything...' The end of the sentence disappeared in a yawn, and Miss Weatherstoke fell back to sleep.

'Lumos,' said Hermione, and followed the tiny lit circle cast by the tip of her wand through the thick, dusty library darkness, round the Charms section, the Potions section, the Muggle Studies case, the Care of Magical Creatures section, to Wizard Biology and Health. She knelt down, trailing her wand along the shelf, and reached a trembling hand towards the fat pink spine of Your Body, Your Baby, then paused. Something was tingling through her fingertip. She stuck the finger into her mouth and tasted it: the faint aluminium taste rang some sort of bell – something Dumbledore had said last week? The lesson on detecting Dark booby-traps – but it had been more specific than that...

A message-spell, she realized. Touching the book would trigger a message, probably to Madam Pomfrey. She waved her wand angrily at it, sketching out the figure for the most general cancel-spell, then advanced her finger towards its spine again, but her heart was throbbing so hard in her fingertip she had no idea whether she could feel the spell-field or not.

How dare they? she thought, and grabbed the book angrily off the shelf anyway.

'Congratulations, dear!' it said. She jumped, and dropped it. 'I see you're going to have a baby!' it went on. Its voice was warm and female. It sounded like Molly Weasley or Valerie Singleton. She supposed it was supposed to be motherly; it didn't sound in the slightest like her own mother.

'Shut up,' she muttered, stabbing at the pages randomly with her wand, trying to remember another cancel-spell; but the book seemed to have said all it wanted to say now (she only hoped it hadn't said it to Madam Pomfrey), so she fished it back up off the floor and took it to the nearest carrel. She hunched over it as jealously as if it were broad daylight and the Ravenclaws were queuing up for the only book in the library on Phoenician numerology the day before an Arithmancy exam.

... inch long... fingernails... Prenatal Squib Test ... unfortunate event... qualified healer... she slowed down... application to Ministry of Magic...

What?

But there it was.

In the unfortunate event that the foetus tests positive as Squib or can be proved to have other serious blood defects, an application must be made to the Ministry of Magic for permission to terminate the pregnancy. The application must be supported by two qualified healers with certification from St Mungo's, and with all appropriate documentation.

Oh God.

'Indexicorum,' Hermione whispered, and watched the words stand upright from the page and jostle a little, impatiently, waiting for an order-word. 'Hogwarts,' she said. The words began to seethe, then began to flow in ant-columns off the page until only two passages were left on the double spread. The word Hogwarts was printed in red in each.

'Married or betrothed Hogwarts students can expect the very best prenatal care from the excellent staff on the Hospital Wing'; then, below, in tiny letters, 'Applications to the Ministry of Magic may not be made directly by expectant mothers who are not yet of age or who are students at a wizarding school covered by the Convention for Wizard Parenting (Hogwarts, Beauxbatons or St Geraint's); such applications must be filed by someone who is both of full Witch or Wizard status and in loco parentis to the expectant mother (a parent, guardian or headmaster)'.

Hermione read it twice more in disbelief.

Dumbledore? she thought incredulously. I can only get an abortion if my baby's a Squib and if Dumbledore agrees to it?

'Accio Regulations,' she said, putting her hand up: the book made a satisfying thonk as it landed in the hollow of her palm. She leafed through it half-heartedly, on the off-chance that a new section on student pregnancies had appeared since she'd last read it (last year, five times, trying to find ways to stop Dolores Umbridge from cutting up Harry's arm)...

Oh.

It had.

Regulations Section CCLI, it said: This Section Visible Only To Students Who Have Come Of Age.

She skimmed the fine print – misuse of recreational herbs, expulsion; misuse of other proscribed herbs, expulsion; pregnancy in unmarried and unbetrothed students, immediate report to Madam Pomfrey, range of possible penalties including punitive expulsion (punitive expulsion?) ... then something about the juxtaposition (proscribed herbs/pregnant students) clicked in her mind.

'Magnificari,' she said, tapping the list of miscellaneous proscribed herbs. Gillyweed. Well, she knew what that was. Mandrake. Ditto. Mugwort.

'Accio Gerard's Herbal.'

 

Thock.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Used in anti-fatigue Potions and certain Dark spells, primarily by witches past maidenhood.

Well, that sounded hopeful. Hermione made a note.

At the end of half an hour she had a list of the five most likely-sounding herbs. She sent Gerard's, the Regulations and Your Body, Your Baby back to their shelves and set off for the Potions classroom. She felt ill with tiredness and rage; but if she hadn't managed to cancel the message-spell on that evil pink book, this might be her only chance to get to Snape's restricted stores before Madam Pomfrey found out about the pregnancy.

She stumbled a little on the uneven flagstones of the classroom and dropped her wand. It rolled away under a desk, making leggy shadows leap and flicker all round the room, then came to a stop facing into a corner, so that the line of light around the door to Snape's office stood out bright and clear.

Hermione stared at it stupidly. No, she thought. It's not fair. She had only this one chance, and Snape had to be pulling an all-nighter?

She went to retrieve her wand, to give herself a minute to think, and stuffed herself into the corner under the desk, whispering 'Nox!' in sudden fear, as she heard Snape's voice coming from his office, a low rumble; she couldn't make out the words. There was a brief silence, then another voice answered him.

It was Harry's.

'Amplificare,' she said, fumbling her wand up, and the voices became audible.

'...with Hermione.'

'Oh?' said Snape's voice, polite, bored. 'What a pity. I thought you made a lovely couple.'

'Shut up.'

'She's so terribly... suitable. A Gryffindor; a girl' (he breathed the word out, and in the silky sound of his voice Hermione could hear the rise of his eyebrow and the twist of his mouth); 'a teenager – she's a little older than you, of course—'

'Shut up.'

'—but really, very much your level. Such a lovely couple. An arrogant young Potter with a bright, headstrong, Muggle-born girlfriend. It quite took me back.'

'Back, sir?' said Harry. 'Wouldn't that mean you'd gone somewhere else first?'

The voices stopped then for a minute, and when Snape spoke again it was in quite a different tone.

'I assume you haven't come to me for relationship counselling, Potter. Shall we get on with it?'

There was the sound of a long, shaky breath, and neither of them spoke for a little while. Occlumency was a mainly silent magic, of course. Hermione looked at her watch: three-fifteen. While she was wondering whether she should wait them out, or just give up and go to bed and hope for the best, and what that crack about her being a girl had meant, and what on earth business it was of Snape's anyway, Harry's amplified gasp suddenly sounded in her ear.

She might have mistaken it for pain or shock, if she hadn't had sex with him the night before.

 

*

'Hermione?'

Hermione struggled up out of thick black sleep.

'Hermione, dear? Can you hear me?'

It was Madam Pomfrey's voice. Hermione blinked and swallowed and wondered why she felt so strongly that she didn't want to talk to Madam Pomfrey.

'Yes,' she said reluctantly, and opened her eyes, and remembered all of it at once, and Madam Pomfrey's kind, smiling face in the sunshine was the end of the world.

But all she said was: 'Lavender couldn't wake you. She was worried about you. How are you feeling?'

'All right,' said Hermione cautiously.

'There doesn't seem to be much wrong with you,' Madam Pomfrey went on, laying her hand on Hermione's forehead. 'Have you been over-working again? I thought you'd learned your lesson back in third year... Well, along to the hospital wing with you, and I'll keep an eye on you for the day.'

'Oh, no!'

Madam Pomfrey sighed. 'Miss Granger, one day off work is not going to do you any harm. Now come along.'

'Please,' said Hermione desperately. 'I'm not ill, honestly. It's just that...' she groped for an excuse. '... with all the Slytherins away, I've had a lot of extra prefect duties lately, and we have so much homework this year, and, well, and... I've just been getting to bed late.'

'And...?' Madam Pomfrey said, smiling indulgent disapproval. 'Honestly, you children. You think teachers don't notice anything, do you?'

Hermione stared at her.

'I do know about you and Harry, you know!'

Do you indeed, thought Hermione morbidly. Well, I wish you'd tell me, because I don't know a bloody thing about me or about Harry, let alone about me-and-Harry.

'A few late nights are normal at your age,' Madam Pomfrey was going on, 'but teenagers are very prone to fatigue, so do try not to overdo it, won't you?'

'I will,' promised Hermione, brightening, 'but perhaps an anti-fatigue Potion would help, too?' With extra Mugwort.

'Oh, no. I don't approve of those for young people. Just rest, plain and simple, that's what you need. Now you needn't come to the hospital wing if you don't want to, but you're to stay in bed until lunchtime, do you hear me?'

'I do,' said Hermione, settling back onto the pillows with exaggerated obedience. 'I will. I promise.'

The door closed behind Madam Pomfrey. Hermione closed her eyes in relief, and didn't wake till noon.

*

'I said widdershins, Longbottom, and... Miss Granger?'

Hermione jumped.

'Yes? Yes, sir?'

'Is there any reason why you should be paying more attention to my conversation with Mr Longbottom than to your own work?'

Snape pinned her with his gaze. She stared back at him, almost curiously: his baggy skin, the tired circles under his eyes, his messy hair, the actually-sort-of-sexy line of his mouth that she'd never really noticed before. He blinked in her silence, and lifted his hand to his hair as he turned away from her, snapping: 'Five points from Gryffindor, Miss Granger, and be assured that it will be ten if your Potion is not of a higher standard than I have seen from you so far this term.'

That rust-and-feathers voice. Hermione stared into her cauldron, hearing it as it had been last night, in rags and monosyllables: Yes. Like that. Harry. Harder. Fuck. Fuck me.

And Harry. Familiar sounds mixed with unfamiliar ones. Please. Oh, God. Now. Now. Severus, Severus, Severus...

She stirred her potion (widdershins) as her mind jumped and skipped from one image to the next, trying them out, trying them on, against the soundtrack from last night. Snape's stained, dextrous fingers (she risked a look up at his desk, where he was fiddling with a quill) on Harry's unwrapped cock. Harry's pale, smooth skin shining against the dull blackness of Snape's robes, against the dull, sallow tones of Snape's naked chest. Fire and bone and darkness swallowing up pale, pretty Harry, blotting him out. Snape bent over, Harry behind him? Or Snape standing, and Harry in front of him, kneeling? She remembered the precise, careful feel of Harry's mouth sucking on her clitoris, on her nipples, imagined him opening his mouth wider. Something stirred in the pit of her belly.

She bit her lip and stirred her potion and asked herself: What's wrong with you? Last week you were jealous of Voldemort; this week you're wishing you were Snape, so you could fuck your own boyfriend?

She frowned up at Snape behind his desk, trying to make sense of it, trying to fit him (bone and hair and sarcasm) together with Harry (silence and shine and fury). She stripped Snape in her mind, bent him over his own desk, put Harry behind him, sweating and gasping, but it didn't answer any of her questions. She stared at Snape's fingers, his mouth, the nine buttons leading down from his high collar to the place where his robes split away above his waist. Somewhere behind those buttons, under those robes, were the answers to the questions that she'd thought she'd find by fucking Harry, when all this started.

'Really, Miss Granger,' Snape drawled, 'if you have nothing better to look at than me then I can only offer my commiserations. Perhaps if you had come to class earlier, you would have been able to find a seat next to someone more ornamental than Miss Abbott?'

There was a ripple of uneasy laughter, and a scuffle a couple of rows behind her. She looked over her shoulder. Harry was on his feet, staring angrily at Snape.

'Leave her alone,' he said.

Snape turned towards him with elaborate slowness and raised an eyebrow. 'Mr Potter! How very chivalrous. However, I think I told you a week or so ago that the Potions classroom is not the place to conduct your love affairs – however much,' he added, sweeping his gaze across the distance between Harry and Hermione, 'they might be in need of remedial action.'

Harry opened his mouth angrily. Then he shut it again and sat back down. Snape swung back to Hermione.

'Ten points from Gryffindor for mannerless staring, Miss Granger, and if I find you gawping again it will be a detention. I know you sixth years think you are too old to be treated like schoolchildren—' he was looking at Harry, over her shoulder – 'but believe me, in many cases it is no less than entirely appropriate.'

*

Hermione was curled up on a sofa in the common room, looking into the fire. She'd politely declined Lavender's hushed, solicitous offer of a Butterbeer truffle, and now all the other girls were watching her sadly from a respectful distance. When Harry came in, the whole room hushed.

He looked at the faces looking at him, looked at Hermione, looked back at Lavender and Parvati, and said loudly: 'God, how do you people know?'

Lavender sniffed disapprovingly and went back to her knitting. Harry stalked past her, dropped into the empty sofa opposite Hermione, and opened a Transfigurations textbook. Hermione stopped breathing and wanted, hard, to be somewhere else, or to break this heavy silence. That made her furious with herself. She bit her lip and told herself fiercely that she wasn't going to move out of her comfortable huddle, and that she certainly didn't have anything to say to this strange, secretive boy with Harry's face.

Neville put his head round the door. 'Harry?' he said.

'Hmm?' Harry looked startled. Hermione looked away from him, back into the fire.
'You're wanted in Dumbledore's study,' Neville said. 'I think it's...' and he trailed off delicately.

'Oh,' said Harry. 'Okay.' Hermione heard him getting up and leaving. The door creaked shut behind him, and a split second later the whole common room was boiling with questions (Neville, did you see...? Wasn't that Professor Lupin's carriage out the front earlier, when...? Was it Dumbledore who...?)

She rolled over and watched the others for a moment. There was Lavender at the front of the crowd, her hand on Neville's arm, her voice higher and sharper than the rest. There was Colin Creevey, talking away to Romilda Vane. And there was Ron, sitting glumly and haughtily apart on the steps up to the boys' dormitory. Their eyes met and he looked quickly away, then quickly back, giving her a rueful grin: but she wasn't sure she was ready for what it might mean if she grinned back, and while she was thinking about it anger drained into his face and he got up and walked off.

*

On Wednesday, Hermione was covering Slytherin homework duty, counting the pre-OWLs students in and out of the room they used for prep. It was the first time she'd done it that term. Two fifth years, five fourth years, six third years, three second years, three first years... She'd almost got used to it over the term, but the sight of the nineteen children, scattered in twos and threes throughout the big, empty room, made her go cold. All those empty spaces.

'All right,' she said at half-past eight, 'time's up,' and the Slytherins filed past her. She tried to catch Nerissa Lightsome's eye as she went out – Nerissa, I've crossed Harry Potter too – but she just marched determinedly past Hermione, leaving her alone and flat and as invisible as ever. She packed up her own homework and drifted down the corridors, feeling like a ghost – a ghost in a Muggle house, she amended, seeing Nearly Headless Nick holding forth on his plan to defeat Voldemort to a gaggle of breathless Gryffindor first-years.

'Get along to bed,' she said to them as she passed, 'and you, Sir Nick, don't encourage them,' but he paid no attention to her.

Ignored by a ghost. Great.

She slammed into the Gryffindor common-room, and the first person she saw – of course – was Harry. She glared at him and he met her eyes for the first time that week.

She paused, startled, on the threshold. Harry half-stood up, holding out a hand towards her, and opened his mouth to speak; but he didn't say anything. He just frowned, and looked away, and sat back down.

'Well, fuck you too, then, Harry Potter,' she said, and the common room stirred and rustled and gasped. She marched straight through and up the stairs to the girls' dormitory.

*

That night was the first chance she'd had to get back to the Potions classroom, and there was a light under the door again. She sighed, hid under the desk, and cast the Amplifying charm.

'... absolutely no idea why you are talking to me about it.' There was a snap to Snape's voice that sounded like genuine anger, not the ornate, world-weary version of it he affected in class. 'Albus—'

'Oh, God, Severus, that's not the point! Don't you understand anything?'

A sigh. 'Potter, since, as you keep reminding me, I am not in fact in loco parentis to you, I don't really feel obligated to participate in this particular scene. Shall we take it as read that no-one understands you and—'

'Shut up, Severus. I mean it.'

A pause, then Harry's voice again.

'I know you can't do anything about it, okay? But I'm fucked off and – who else am I going to talk to, Severus? Tell me that. Who else? Lupin's in London and Hagrid's in Rumania and there are so many things Albus can't tell me, and if I want to—'

Silence.

'Harry?'

Harry's voice was hoarse and scared. 'I can't say it. You try it, Severus. Tell me what we talked about today.'

Silence, then Snape's voice, like a rusty gate shutting. 'You're right.'

Hermione went cold.

'There's someone here,' said Harry, then 'Immobilitso auditorem!' and she was paralyzed, watching, as the office door blazed open and Harry and Snape were framed in the doorway, back-to-back, wands out, a still from a film that she had no place in. Snape was in loose black trousers and a white shirt, half-unbuttoned; Harry was in jeans and a khaki t-shirt that Hermione had helped him choose in Hogsmeade market the previous weekend. He was nearly as tall as Snape now, Hermione noticed miserably.

'Who's there?' Harry shouted. Hermione looked up at him and stuttered and couldn't answer.

Carefully, still looking around him, Harry took a tiny silver ball out of his pocket and threw it into the air. 'Inveni auditorem,' he said, and the ball hovered for a moment then sailed, bobbing gracefully like a soap bubble on the air, straight towards Hermione. Snape followed its path with his wand. His face was cold and expressionless.

The bubble reached Hermione's knees and expanded into a trembling sphere of bright silver light. And there she was, illuminated, immobilized, sitting under a desk in the Potions classroom with Snape pointing his wand straight at her.

She saw him recognize her. His lip curled and he lowered his wand, which made it worse: teacher-and-pupil now, not a member of the Order of the Phoenix confronting a Death Eater spy.

'Hermione?' said Harry disbelievingly. He shoved his wand back into his jeans pocket, put his hand up to push his hair back.

She tried to nod, couldn't. 'Yes,' she said, then, idiotically, 'Hello.'

'What are you doing here?'

'Could you take this spell off me, Harry, please?'

'Sorry,' said Harry automatically, and retrieved his wand. 'Finite incantantem.'

'Could you answer Mr Potter's question, please?' Snape said over him.

Stealing Restricted herbs for an illegal abortion.

'I – I was following Harry,' she whispered. She looked at Harry and said: 'This afternoon – in the common-room – I thought you wanted to tell me something. And then—'

'Oh, do come out of there, you silly girl,' Snape interrupted her irritably.

She crawled out awkwardly from under the desk and stood up, feeling about twelve. 'I couldn't sleep,' she said to Harry. 'I was wandering about, and I saw you, and I followed you.'

'I did want to tell you something,' said Harry.

Oh, yeah? she thought. Was it about who else you'd been fucking all the time we were... but Harry was going on: 'But it's Order business, and...'

She stared at him, utterly surprised. Order business? He'd turned to Snape and, with an urgent hand laid on Snape's arm, was saying: 'Severus, I have to tell her.'

Snape glared at Harry's hand. Harry didn't take it away.

'Once again,' he said coldly, 'I have to ask you what you expect me to do about it. I am bound by the rules of the Order just as you are.'

'Exactly,' said Harry. 'So the two of us can enrol her.'

'Enrol—?' Snape stared at Harry in frank astonishment.

'It only takes two members of the Order to create another, right? And then I can tell her.'

'Don't be ridiculous, Potter.'

'Don't talk to me like that, Severus,' said Harry, and if the first name had ever been a mark of intimacy, it wasn't now.

Snape's mouth twisted. 'I appreciate,' he said with mock patience, 'that you may have reason to feel you have treated Miss Granger shabbily. But enrolling her in the Order of the Phoenix is not the way to make amends for a less-than-idyllic outcome to a schoolboy – and -girl,' he added, nodding with ironic courtesy to Hermione – 'dalliance.'

'I said don't talk to me like that,' said Harry. 'Either I'm an adult or I'm not. You can't have it both ways.' He dropped his hand from Snape's arm, took a step back, took a deep breath. 'I'm telling you that I have to do this. I owe it to Hermione. And I need your help, as another member of the Order, to do what I have to do. So it's up to you. You can help me, or you can send me to bed. But this is it. If you won't help me, if you make me do what you say because you're my teacher and I'm a schoolboy, then okay, that's your decision, that's what we'll be.'

Snape's eyes flicked to Hermione's, to see how much she knew, but she kept her face deadpan (Well, this is fucked-up). He looked back at Harry, and nodded.

And there was Hermione, in Snape's private office/secret lair behind the Potions classroom, touching the tip of her wand to Harry's and Snape's and swearing to be bound by the laws and oaths of the Order of the Phoenix.

'Coniuro,' they said all together, and lowered their wands. A strange, shivery feeling went through Hermione, prickling at the tips of her fingers and toes, and for some reason she tasted—

'Cherryade?' said Harry.

Hermione nodded.

'I'll make you some tea.' Harry went off to the far side of the room, where four or five cauldrons were lined up tidily on a bench, each over a burner. Leaving her, alarmingly, with Snape.

'Do sit down, Miss Granger,' he said. (Was that Snape being polite? It sounded exactly like Snape being sarcastic.) He indicated a narrow, shabby armchair near the fire, and Hermione sat down, tentatively. It was very uncomfortable.

'So... was that it?' she asked. 'I'm a member of the Order now?'

Snape nodded briefly. He wasn't looking at her, but at a patch of wall behind her right shoulder: she looked round the room, uneasily. A cupboard which she could tell from here was locked more fiercely than a simple Alohamora would be able to deal with. A desk, covered in piles of parchment. A couch with a tangle of blankets. Was that where they—? She looked away hurriedly, and saw – thank God – Harry pouring water from one of the cauldrons into a mug.

He came back over and handed the mug to Hermione, then perched on the edge of the couch.

'Okay,' said Hermione. 'What's all this about?'

Harry looked at Snape (whose face became, if anything, more closed), then back at Hermione. His eyes were serious.

'Albus told me today that you're going to be the key to the final battle.'

Hermione had thought she had no idea what to expect, but now she knew that at least it hadn't been that.

'Me?' Her voice squeaked. 'Why?'

Harry shrugged. 'Albus hasn't said.'

'What's going to happen?'

'He hasn't said that, either.'

'But – well, then, why didn't he want me to know about it?'

'Hasn't said,' said Harry.

'What has he said? Exactly, Harry.'

Harry frowned, remembering, and pushed the hair out of his eyes. 'He said he had information – no, Hermione, he didn't say what – reliable information, though, that led him to believe that you were going to be the key to the final battle.' He shrugged. 'That's all. Then he said you'd always been a good friend to me and I should, um, cherish your friendship.'

Snape raised an eyebrow. Harry glared at him.

'But,' said Hermione helplessly. 'Does he mean I'm going to be in the final battle? Or am I going to find something out? Or—' And what business is it of his if Harry and I split up?

'Albus is not the most forthcoming of leaders,' said Snape drily. 'I assure you, Miss Granger, you now know everything that we know.' He got up from where he was sitting and dusted his hands together. 'Now, since it is two in the morning, perhaps I might not be accused of abusing my teacherly authority if I suggest that we all go to bed, and any further questions can wait until the Order meeting tomorrow?'

'All right,' said Harry around a yawn. 'Come on, Hermione.' He held out a hand to help her up.

'Welcome to the Order, Miss Granger,' said Snape, 'and good night,' and the door of his office closed before she had to think of anything to say in reply.

*

Hermione was waiting in the corridor outside Dumbledore's study. There were an unknown number of the most powerful wizards in England on the other side of the door and she didn't dare cast the Amplifying Charm, so she was listening anxiously to the buzz and rumble of voices, to the pattern of speech and silence, and trying to read the tone of the meeting out of it.

Silence. Footsteps. The creak of the door.

Harry's face.

He rolled his eyes, gave her a half-smile, and said: 'It's okay, Hermione. Come in.'

And Hermione stepped into Dumbledore's study, into a meeting of the Order of the Phoenix.

There were only six wizards and witches already there: McGonagall, Dumbledore, Snape, Lupin, and two others she recognized from Grimmauld Place – Kingsley Shacklebolt and Hestia Jones. They were seated round a long, low table, cluttered with mugs and glasses, pieces of parchment and big grimoires, small artefact-looking things and – in front of Hestia Jones – a sleek, grey thing shaped like an opened book. Hermione blinked. She'd seen one of those before, that summer, at Emma's house: a laptop computer.

Hestia saw her looking and winked; Hermione smiled back, a bit shyly. She was standing at the foot of the table, not quite sure what to do, fidgeting from foot to foot, as Harry slid into his place beside Lupin.

'Do sit down,' said Dumbledore, and she fumbled her way onto a chair. Dumbledore cleared his throat, and said: 'And so we must welcome our newest member to the Order of the Phoenix: I believe you all know Hermione Granger, one of our ablest students here at Hogwarts, and formerly a tireless member of –' he twinkled – 'the organization known, I believe, as "Dumbledore's Army."'

Everyone smiled at her. She felt like an idiot.

'Hermione,' Dumbledore was going on, 'I owe you an apology. Two, in fact. I understand Severus and Harry have told you that it seems you are to play a crucial part in the coming confrontation with Lord Voldemort?'

She nodded.

'Then I must apologize for not having told you this myself; but I must also apologize that I will not, for the moment, give you any specific information on the matter. Please don't take it personally; I assure you that no-one in the Order, apart from myself, knows exactly what the pr—that is, exactly what I am basing this on. I do hope you will trust me when I say that I honestly believe that this is the safest way.'

Hermione nodded, and Dumbledore smiled at her. 'Well!' he said. 'That's that. Perhaps we might pass on to...'

And the rest of the meeting was more-or-less unintelligible. At first, Lupin made an effort to fill in the gaps in his courteous way (Charlie and Hagrid are in Romania, Hermione, tracking the Dementors together with the wizarding government there; Tonks is investigating a possible prophecy in Ireland), but he got drawn into an involved discussion of an arithmantic sequence that McGonagall had derived since the last meeting. Hermione concentrated and scribbled notes (Goblins? A'mantic sequence suggests full moon. Sthg about BLOOD [centaurs] [whose???] ) and tried to make sense of the situation from bits and pieces of information, casual references, implications, looks, tones of voice. After a while she gave up, and sat watching, doodling zig-zags on the corner of her parchment.

Dumbledore, at the head of the table, and Kingsley, half-way down the side opposite Hermione, were doing most of the talking; when the others said something it was as though they were intercepting the energy flowing between the two men. Lupin seemed to be mostly listening, asking questions to give someone a chance to clarify or expand on a point they'd made, which was about what Hermione would have expected from him; McGonagall, just as characteristically, kept quiet except when she had some fact to contribute or error to correct, which she did quickly and drily. Snape and Harry – well, she tried not to look at Snape and Harry too much, and in any case they didn't have much to say.

Hestia Jones, though, was the odd one out. She looked like a Muggle. There was a green streak in her short black hair, but it didn't look witchy; it looked like it had been bleached and dyed. She was wearing a green-and-orange t-shirt saying 'PULP'. And there was the laptop, which seemed to have her notes on it; she consulted it a few times in the course of the meeting, answering Dumbledore's questions.

'Right,' said Kingsley in a brisk, wrapping-up voice. Hermione stopped doodling. 'I have an appointment this evening, so I'm going to have to get back to London. Is there any other business? ... Very well then. You all know how to summon me.' He pushed his chair back, got up. 'Goodbye, Albus, all,' and swept out of the room.

'Indeed,' said Dumbledore, looking – for a moment – very slightly disconcerted. 'We all have work to do, and time is short, so perhaps – unless there are any questions—' his eyes went round the table, impersonal, impassive, meeting Hermione's only for a second – 'we might all do best to follow Kingsley's example. Hermione, do you have any questions about your task for this week?'

Shit. Hermione had no idea what he was talking about. She swallowed nervously and shook her head, thinking: it's okay, I can ask Harry. But as everyone began getting up from the table, Dumbledore beckoned to Harry: 'Mr Potter, if I might have a word with you in private?' And she had to leave the study with all her questions unanswered.

She paused in the corridor, fussing with her bag and wondering what to do next.

'Hello,' said someone from beside her. She looked up into Hestia Jones's pink and friendly face.

'You looked a bit lost there,' she said. 'Do you want to go for a coffee and talk about it?'

*

Hestia was standing on one foot on the narrow step at the front door of a narrow house in the middle of a terrace on the Hogwarts side of Hogsmeade, trying to unlock the door and talk to Hermione over her shoulder at the same time.

'It's really messy,' she said apologetically. 'I'd take you for a coffee – it's such a tiny house, I basically use Madam Puddifoot's as my front room, which has the added advantage that I don't have to tidy it up – but obviously I wouldn't be able to talk to you about Order business with other people there. Sorry.' She was through the door by now.

Hermione went carefully up the steps and in. The front door opened straight onto a small, square, bright-blue-painted living-room, just big enough for a sofa, an armchair, a fireplace (the fire was lit, and a cauldron was bubbling quietly on it), a little coffee-table, a couple of bookshelves and a television.

'Sit down,' said Hestia, shifting a pile of papers off the chair and onto the sofa. 'I'll make you a cup of tea.' She disappeared through a door; Hermione got a glimpse of a tiny kitchen and a big pile of washing-up.

'Do you want a hand?' she asked politely.

'No room,' Hestia shouted back. 'I won't be a second.'

Hermione hung over the arm of the sofa, looking at the books in the bookshelf: fat Muggle paperbacks next to Moste Potente Potions and Gerard's Herbal; Daniel Deronda next to a tatty-looking book with an animated, wizardly spine, called My Name Is Mud.

'Here you go,' said Hestia, passing her a mug of milky tea. 'Do you want sugar? I don't think I've got any,' she added.

'That's okay,' said Hermione, then, politely, 'I like your books.'

'Thanks.' Hestia smiled at her. She put her own mug down on the floor by the other chair and shifted the pile of papers off it onto the floor under the coffee table.

'Okay,' she said. 'Do you have any questions, or do you want me to start at the beginning?'

'Start at the beginning,' said Hermione, trying not to sound too desperate.

'Okay,' said Hestia again. She thought for a moment. 'The main thing, I guess, is that the Ministry's mostly taken over the stuff about the Death Eaters, and that's a whole nother story,' she added furiously, 'but I won't get into it now – though I could; the Order is exempt from the Secrecy Decree. So the Ministry's tracking down Death Eaters, and passing Extraordinary Imprisonment Decrees so they can imprison all kinds of people without even charging them...' – Draco? thought Hermione – 'which is real stable-door stuff, really, given that they let Lucius Bloody Malfoy escape in July and no-one has the first idea where he is. What we're mostly doing is collecting information about the magical side of things... you know, they say the Dark Arts, but Voldemort's not really an artist. He's sort of crude – I mean, everything he does leaves etheric tracks about a mile wide, and scatters prophecies and signs and portents and visions and whatnot all over the place. But he knows that, so he takes care to spread a lot of false information too – that's what all that stuff was about, last year, when he got into Harry Potter's dreams?'

Hermione nodded, to show she remembered.

'Anyway, so the biggest deal at the moment is that it looks like there's going to be a major confrontation, for real, on Hallowe'en. That's what we were mostly talking about today. We think that Voldemort is going to try and summon Harry to a village called Godric's Hollow – you know that's where Harry's parents...?' Hermione nodded again. 'Okay. It looks like this is going to be the next twist in the Voldemort-and-Harry story – their magic is still somehow all tangled up together.' Hestia talked with her hands; she was drawing complicated tangles in the air. 'So Voldemort needs to do one last something to Harry before he can come into his full powers.'

'Kill him?'

Hestia shrugged apologetically. 'We don't know. I think probably not, but that's just because it's not like he hasn't had a good few chances to kill Harry before now. I haven't been studying the prophecies or anything. Albus and Kingsley are the experts on Divination and prophetic magics, so this is mostly based on what they say.'

'So – what are we doing?'

'Getting ready,' said Hestia. 'Albus and Kingsley and Remus are working on the prophecies. Severus—' she stumbled slightly over the name, and Hermione looked up, but all she went on to say was '...is working with Harry on Occlumency, at least I bloody hope he is, after that unforgivable stuff-up last year. And Minerva and I are trying to track Voldemort's future echoes – it's mostly Arithmancy. That's what Albus was on about this afternoon?'

'Um,' said Hermione.

'Your task for the week?'

'I think I missed that bit,' Hermione confessed.

'Yeah, I thought you might have. Well, you're supposed to be working with me this week – Minerva says you're the top student in your year at Arithmancy?'

'Um,' said Hermione again.

'Cool. Have you done temporal calculus yet?'

'No.'

'Well, you will now,' said Hestia cheerfully. She leaned over towards the bookcases and rummaged through them, then threw a book to Hermione ('Nice catch!') Arithmancy For Divination, Hermione read.

'Borrow that,' she said, 'and come back tomorrow after school. Chapter Three's the one you want.'

Hermione leafed through the book for a moment, watching unintelligibly complicated diagrams draw themselves on the pages as she looked at them.

This was going to be fun.

*

Twenty-four hours, a crash course in temporal calculus, and a missed Potions class later, Hermione was back in Hestia's living-room. They were sitting next to each other on the sofa, frowning at the scribbled-over parchment that Hestia was holding.

'Okay,' said Hestia. She put her pen down and ruffled up her hair. 'I totally think that's it. Or - do you want to check it one more time?'

Hermione shook her head tiredly. 'Even if I did, I wouldn't be able to tell if it was right or not,' she said.

'We'd better not cast tonight, then. Can you come over tomorrow?'

'Yes,' said Hermione immediately. Then she remembered the three-foot essay she owed Dumbledore, and the prefect meeting, and her Transfigurations project; but she didn't take it back.

'Wicked.' Hestia got up and stretched. 'Do you want a cup of tea?'

'Yes, please.'

Hermione sat where she was, listening to Hestia clanking about in the kitchen and enjoying the numbness in her brain, the tingling in her limbs. It was a familiar, unfamiliar feeling. She'd worked herself to the point of exhaustion before, of course, many times – even before OWLs revision last year, there was the year the Time-Turner had given her an extra four hours in the working day but no more time for food or sleep, and her body's clock had been so definitively screwed up that she'd been exhausted all the time except for the strange, disembodied highs that descended on her once or twice a day.

This didn't feel like that, though. There was something new in it: this certainty that she'd come to the end of something, that she couldn't have worked any harder or longer or better. It was a nice feeling. Maybe, she thought, it was because this was a real thing that she was doing; not like a school essay on a made-up question taking a random slice out of an indefinite subject.

Or maybe, she thought as Hestia came back in with mugs, it was just because she didn't have any friends at school any more and she thought she might really like Hestia.

They drank tea in tired silence together for a minute or so, then: 'Shit,' said Hestia suddenly, looking at her watch. 'Is that – Hang on, I just need to put a tape in.' She rummaged among the stuff under the coffee table until she found the remote, then turned the TV on, muted, while she put in a tape and set the timer. Bluish-white light from the grainy image on the screen spilt over the piles of grimoires on the floor.

'Sorry about this,' she said over her shoulder. 'It's Brookside – I'm sort of addicted to it.'

'How do you—' Hermione stalled, and tried again. 'You're the only witch I know who has a telly.'

Hestia rolled her eyes. 'I know. It's fucking ridiculous, isn't it? Oh, Merlin, I can make sparks shoot out of a stick, clearly this means that I must never again know what is happening on EastEnders. And the reception here is terrible,' she added.

'So were you – are you—'

'Yeah,' said Hestia, 'I'm a Muggle.'

'But—?'

'Oh, okay,' said Hestia. She put her cup down and flapped her hands. 'Muggle-born. But that sounds so... Oh, I don't know. So grudging,' she added immediately, as if she did know. 'You know? I was born a Muggle but now I am a witch. I usually call myself a Mud, actually. I've got a badge which... Oh, it's on this t-shirt.' She pulled at the fabric of her top, showing Hermione the badge: MUD PRIDE, it said.

'Like in Mudblood, obviously. But also, like, my name is mud' – Hermione remembered the book she'd seen on Hestia's shelf – 'and like muddying the waters – you know, like it's not so simple – and also like earth. Because, you know, nothing grows without mud. And – I mean, haven't you noticed how fucked-up this is? There's what, about one in five Mud kids at Hogwarts? That's about the usual number. And how many adult wizards do you see who don't dress up like some kind of cross between BBC Shakespeare and the fifties and talk like they'd never even heard of...' she spluttered – 'I don't know, e-mail or Star Trek or – or Morrissey? And – I'm sorry,' she interrupted herself. 'You shouldn't get me started on this. Because of the rage.'

'Go on,' said Hermione. Something in this torrent of anger and sarcasm almost reminded her of Snape: Snape on fast-forward and with his switch turned from COLD to HOT, so that instead of chilling her, it gave her a warm, shiny, breathless feeling.

Hestia did a double-take. 'Really? Because I can, you know. For pretty much ever. There's the fertility laws and the Memory charms and the way they withhold medical magic from Muggles, and the way they never let Muds have any positions dealing with Muggles – it's calculated isolationism. I mean, who have they put in the Muggle Artefacts Department? Arthur Weasley!' She threw up her hands. 'He's been working there for thirty years and he still can't pronounce electricity! He can't work a fucking telephone! And he's one of the less rabidly separatist pure-bloods! It makes me despair, honestly.'

'But then – why do you live in the only all-wizard settlement in Britain?'

Hestia rubbed the back of her neck, looking a bit abashed. 'It's a long story,' she said. 'But, you know, nothing's that far away from anywhere else if you're a witch. As long as I walk out past the Hogsmeade boundary, I can Apparate to Edinburgh without much effort, if I need videotapes or anything. It's not like I'm completely cut off. Can you Apparate yet?' she added.

Hermione nodded, carefully, because her head was fizzing with all the things Hestia had said.

*

She was still feeling exhilarated when she got back to the common room. She threw herself down in a chair and opened her bag; looked at all her undone homework, looked at Harry, across the room; thought fuck it, and didn't drop her eyes again the way she usually did when she caught Harry's eye in the common room or Potions class or at breakfast. Instead, she closed her bag again and said 'Harry, I need to talk to you. Not here,' she added unnecessarily in the sudden hush.

'Okay,' said Harry.

They went up to the roofs. It was cold and clear, and the sky was distant and starry, with a half-moon caught in the clouds and the battlements of the Astronomy Tower.

Hermione looked at Harry, at the pale and serious lines of his moonlit face, then down at their hands side by side on the parapet. There was half an inch between her right little finger and his left little finger, and the distance between them was as vast and uncrossable as ever. It made her feel melancholy and wild.

'What did you want to talk about?' Harry asked.

Hermione's head was full. How could you fuck me and Snape at the same time? How could you fuck Snape? Do you love me even a little bit? What do you think of Hestia Jones? Isn't there anything you miss, about being a Muggle?

But what she said, for some reason, was 'Is Draco in Azkaban?'

'Yes,' said Harry.

'And the others? All of them?'

'Yes.'

'But that's terrible!'

'Oh, great,' said Harry angrily. 'Are you going to start knitting socks for Death Eaters, too?'

'They're not Death Eaters, for God's sake! Half the house? Most of them aren't even of age!'

'What, so they'll have to get a Portkey instead of Apparating when they want to kill me? Okay, fine, they must be harmless, then.'

'How do you know they're not?' Hermione shouted. 'Have they even been tried?'

'There's a war on,' said Harry. 'There's emergency legislation. Lucius Malfoy is on the run, and Draco might be able to—'

'Honestly, Harry, I'd have thought you had more sense than that! Don't you remember anything? What about Hagrid? What about Sirius?'

'Exactly,' said Harry viciously. 'Sirius is dead. That's what I remember. I remember watching Draco's father and all his friends killing my only – killing my godfather. How dare you? With your parents safe and sound in your nice house in Camberwell... How dare you tell me it's more important that everything gets done by the book than that— Who have you lost, Hermione?'

You, thought Hermione. I've lost you.

But she couldn't say it. They stared at each other for a moment before Harry turned and left.

*

Hermione, in a dip between two overgrown, heathery hummocks, ten yards from the Hogwarts road on the far side of Hogsmeade, took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

London. Trafalgar Square, where no-one would notice one more person appearing in the crowds, and she could walk up to the library on Charing Cross Road. She summoned it up carefully: the lions, the pigeons, the London noises, the London smells.

She couldn't believe it had never occurred to her before. Prefects had extended bounds, so there was nothing to stop her walking out past Hogsmeade town limits and Apparating to anywhere she liked.

The lions wobbled and dissolved, and suddenly she was seeing her parents' living-room, the fat sofa with the threadbare arm, the dreadful old lampshade dripping with fringe that her mum had been going to throw out, just as soon as she had time to get a new one, for the last ten years. No fireplace. Clean-laundry smell and central-heating warmth.

She blinked it away and tried to concentrate again, but she couldn't do it: every time she got Trafalgar Square clear enough, just as she was about to Step out into the blackness Between, Camberwell came swimming through. She'd never Apparated so far, or without supervision, and if she couldn't concentrate...

She bit her lip and remembered Hestia saying Edinburgh, not much effort, and summoned up the one clear memory she had of a family trip to Scotland, her last year of primary school, and Stepped before she could think about it any more. And there she was, in the noise and busyness and petrol-stink of a Muggle city, on the grass in the gardens beside the great, pointed, blackened, almost-wizardly, Scott monument.

And now all she had to do was figure out where to go to get an abortion.

She squared her shoulders, swallowed, and went up to a youngish woman in a woolly hat who was throwing a ball for a collie dog.

'Excuse me,' she said. 'Do you know where the library is?'

*

The smell of the waiting room made Hermione nervous and small and ten years old. She looked down at the three-years-old magazine on her lap, leafing through it, trying to find someone she'd heard of, or an article with more text than pictures on the page. There didn't seem to be anything to read in it. She should have brought a book.

Three years ago. Brandon Lee had just died during filming of The Crow, and Lenny Kravitz's marriage was on the rocks, and she had been... she had been nowhere, non-existent, Petrified. Lying on a bed in the hospital wing for the three black and dreamless weeks that were still a hole in her memory, that had made her so hungry for time and daylight that she'd jumped at the chance to live most of her days twice over the following year.

Schindler's List had won the Oscar for Best Picture. Oprah Winfrey had interviewed Michael Jackson, who had denied having any plastic surgery despite being a dead ringer for Voldemort.

Not that it said that. This whole big, busy, teeming world going on as if the Dark Lord hadn't risen again, as if she weren't going to be scrying for prophecies with Hestia next week, as if she were just a stupid pregnant teenager waiting in a dingy, doctor-smelling room with five other stupid pregnant teenagers. (And that boy over there.)

Which she supposed she was. She shut the magazine and stared at the wall.

'Hermione Granger,' said a distorted, electronic voice, and she thought for a wild moment about leaving, going back to Hogwarts, to her real life, letting all this happen. (Herself on a hillside, her hair whipped by the wind, facing an army of Death Eaters. Harry beside her, a wand in her hand, a baby in a sling on her back.)

Then she swung open the green door to the private rooms and went through it.

*

The thing she hadn't expected was that she wouldn't have to lie. There in the little green-painted room, sitting on the low, supposed-to-be-comfortable chair, watching the smiles and frowns on the nice, no-nonsense face of the woman, listening to the constant, familiar-unfamiliar hum of the electric lights, she told the truth about Derek, about her age, about wanting to do well at school, not wanting her parents to know, being sure she didn't want to have a baby, not having anyone to talk to about it.

It was just everything else she had to lie about; all the questions the woman asked to put her at her ease.

Yes, A-Levels.

Latin, Maths, History.

Yes, I hope so. Cambridge, but I don't know if I'll get in. Durham. Edinburgh. UCL.

I don't know yet. The civil service?

They were so nice to her, it made her want to cry.

*

All that week, back at school, the world was inside-out. She felt like she had at Emma's party, in the summer; like an emissary from the real world, full of secrets and knowledge. All these well-scrubbed children, uniformed and neat, streaming past her in the corridors: her prefectly voice slowing them down or changing their direction ('Don't run, Mildred Hubble. Eric! Eric Chant! Where's your tie?') while no-one had the slightest idea that next Monday she'd be swallowing two Mifepristone, and then next Wednesday, she'd be in a Muggle health clinic, having the pessary administered that would make her miscarry. In the privacy of your own home, they said, which made her laugh.

*

'Ready?' said Hestia.

Hermione nodded. They'd piled the furniture against one wall or shoved it into the kitchen; they'd nailed down a sheet of some tough black stuff that would take the inscription better, Hestia said, than her uneven floorboards, and need less cleaning-up afterwards.

'Okay, then,' said Hestia. 'Let's go.'

It was a different kind of casting from anything Hermione had done before. They'd devised the diagram the previous day, using the formulae they'd worked out before; if it worked, it should create a sort of acoustic dish, channeling the traces of Voldemort's fateline back from the future and trapping them in a tiny crystal sphere at the centre of the dish.

But it didn't work. Not properly.

By the time Hermione was halfway through drawing her half of the diagram, squatting on aching legs and barely daring to breathe in case her hand trembled as she painted the lines onto the tarpaulin, time was beginning to warp and to change. Voices muttered on the edge of her hearing, and she kept seeing things out of the corner of her eye. She found herself finishing the final line of her half while Hestia, visible on the other side of the room as if through thick, blurry glass, was getting up from hammering the last nail into place; then she was back at the beginning, nervously touching brush to floor for the very first time, while Hestia, more in focus and only a few seconds out of synch, set the crystal into position.

And then the crystal was shattering, and the room was a chaos of light and noise and smoke and faces and flying glass, and Hermione had no idea which were real and now and which were bits of Voldemort's future, escaping from the trap.

Father and son, said a cold, precise voice that Hermione had never heard before. Father and son. She saw Snape's face twisted with grief, felt a sharp, hot cut on her arm, heard Lucius Malfoy's voice say He is dead, and now nothing stands in our way, saw Harry raise his wand in a trembling hand...

Then it was over. She was in a huddle in the corner of the room; Hestia was laid out on the floor, her eyes closed.

It was a small room, so it only took one big step and then Hermione was there beside her, scared and hurting and shaking. But Hestia opened her eyes when she reached her, and gave a wobbly smile.

Hermione burst into tears.

'Oh, don't!' said Hestia, her voice wobbling. She struggled to sit up. 'You'll start me off, and then...' She put her hand over her mouth, took a deep breath.

'Whisky,' she said, and went off into the kitchen. Her left leg was bleeding. 'Whisky, chocolate, and a first-aid kit.'

The chocolate turned out to be hot and liquid, with a slug of whisky in it. By the time Hermione was halfway through the mug, she had nearly stopped shaking. She sat, wrapped in a too-big jumper, on a cushion that Hestia had retrieved from the pile of furniture, on the ragged, scorched remains of the tarpaulin, pressing a cloth to the cut on her arm; Hestia sat beside her, dabbing disinfectant onto her leg and saying 'Ow!' loudly from time to time.

She put the bottle of disinfectant down, took a long, heavy breath, and announced: 'Fuck.'

Hermione smiled.

'That was bad. I'm really sorry.' Hestia glanced at Hermione nervously.

'I'm okay,' said Hermione.

'Yeah,' said Hestia consideringly. 'You will be. But still, fuck. We don't get a second chance with this. That was it. That's all we're getting. Oh, I'm not going to enjoy telling Albus about this in the morning.'

'What happened?' said Hermione. Was it my fault? she meant. Was it because I'm worried about Monday?

Hestia shrugged. 'It just didn't work. It was always a bit risky, just two of us, and pretty young, trying to capture the future resonances of one of the most powerful wizards in the world. Even if he is an idiot... I would have liked Minerva to come in with us, but she's working on something else this week. Oh well. I got some bits and pieces, I suppose. Did you?'

'I saw,' said Hermione. Her voice broke, and she took a couple more swigs of chocolate before starting again. 'I saw Harry – he was raising his wand. And I heard Lucius Malfoy saying He's dead.'

'Tit,' said Hestia. 'Sorry. Go on. I got that too. And someone saying Father and son?'

Hermione nodded.

'And I saw Severus. That was it.'

Hermione nodded again.

Something in her face must have worried Hestia. 'Listen,' she said urgently, 'honestly, Hermione, don't worry about it. This stuff is always misleading. Really. Even if we'd got all of it, there's no sure way of reading future tracks, and if you've only got fragments, it's really dangerous to try and make guesses. I'm only going to tell Albus because he knows so much stuff that he hasn't told anyone else, and it might fit together with something he's got. But you mustn't worry. He could be anybody. There's no reason on earth to think it's Harry – that's what you think, isn't it?'

'Who else could it be?' Hermione burst out. 'Nothing stands in our way now, he said. Who else is there?'

Hestia shrugged. 'Dumbledore. Severus. Kingsley. Any of us, really. Well,' she added, 'any of the men.'

'But Snape looked—' Hermione bit her lip. 'Hestia,' she said urgently, 'what's going to happen on the thirty-first?'

'I don't know, love,' said Hestia.

'No, I didn't mean – I meant, what are we going to do, the Order? To protect Harry? Where's Harry going to be?'

Hestia looked steadily at her. 'He's going to be at Godric's Hollow,' she said.

'What? But – I thought you said that's where Voldemort was going to try and get him?'

Hestia nodded. 'Not alone,' she said quickly. 'He'll have back-up – the strongest wizards in the Order, as many as can be there.'

'But why—?'

Hestia held up her hands. 'Albus says there's no way round it – the prophecies are very clear, and there's no point trying to get out of them, so we might as well be there and ready. And after the Battle of the Ministry, no-one's going to cross Albus. And,' she hesitated, then went on: 'the thing is, Hermione, Harry really, really wants to do it. And – I mean, what's the alternative? We could just try and keep him out of the way, so Voldemort never gets his hands on him – but frankly our record on that front sucks. I mean, that's how his mum and dad died. You can see why he might be a bit keen to get to the confrontation.'

It kept repeating in Hermione's head all the way home, all the long night, every time she woke when she rolled onto her injured arm or when the covers dragged on it; what Hestia had said without knowing what she was saying.

That's where... that's how his mum and dad died. You can see why he might be a bit keen.

Harry in first year, pale and silent from sleepless night after sleepless night staring into the Mirror of Erised; his dead parents, his heart's desire, waving to him, talking to him, from just the other side of the glass. Harry in third year, watching himself surrounded by Dementors, watching himself dying, and still waiting for his dead father to come and save him. Harry at the Battle of the Ministry, throwing himself after Sirius, fighting Lupin to get away, to get through the ragged curtains in the archway. Harry, who was only happy when he was flying, high and fast and fearless.

Harry at Godric's Hollow, facing a seven-foot-tall, snake-faced horror; fluttering rags and tendrils of black mist reaching out, surrounding pale, pretty Harry, closing over him; Harry drowning at last in the silence he'd swum in all term, and glad to go. Harry smiling in the last glimmer of light before the darkness took him away.

She hadn't seen any of those things, but she didn't need to. She knew they were true, all of them.

*

'Harry,' she said at breakfast.

He glared at her. 'What?'

Don't go to Godric's Hollow. But of course it was Order business, and she couldn't say it; her tongue stuck in her mouth. More secrets. She coughed and swallowed, and Harry slammed to his feet and away from the Gryffindor table. She watched him walk away from her.

He's not mine, she thought. He's Snape's, he's Voldemort's, he's Dumbledore's, he's his dead parents'. He's not mine.

*

She'd told Professor Sinistra (knowing that Sinistra wouldn't check) that she had a prefects' meeting, and then she'd simply walked out of the school, down past Hogsmeade to the edge of open country, to the point where you could almost-see the shimmer of the great Disillusionment that protected Hogwarts on the far horizon, and Apparated into the carefully-memorized space behind the bins in the alley beside the clinic.

And then there she was, stepping up onto the couch, looking at the ceiling and floating out of her body. Fingers pushed briefly and impersonally into her vagina, feeling very strange, then 'All done,' said the doctor, smiling, and Hermione swung her legs down and sat up, trembly and disbelieving, wondering how she felt, how she would feel.

*

She felt the bleeding start, together with a crampy, gnawing feeling in her belly, as she was walking back to school from Hogsmeade.

Oh, she heard herself think almost before she realized what was happening, thank God.

*

Hermione was tucked up in her bed, with the curtains drawn, with a hot-water-bottle in the small of her back.

She hurt, and she was a bit dizzy and a bit sick, but it felt, somehow, like her body being on her side again. As if the pregnancy had been about to sweep her off into a future that she had no say over. Because, however pretty the pictures of her-with-a-baby had been (her in the market, at the library, at war, her baby always clean and cute and sleeping), they had all been, really, about cutting herself out of her own life.

Whereas this, this messy, painful, mistake and its messy, painful solution, this was hers. Hers in a way that a baby would never really have been; and that was what she'd really wanted, what her daydreams had been about. Not a baby, not really, but this feeling; not power, that was a Slytherin word (Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort, dark robes and Dark Arts, Bellatrix Lestrange's mad laughter), but... competence. Capability.

This was something secret that was all her own. Something that she had decided and done, all on her own, and no-one even knew about it. Working in Edinburgh Central library, the old, high rooms like Hogwarts, the shiny books and leaflets, doing research that wasn't for Harry, for once, that had nothing to do with the Dark Lord, with the war, the war, the war. Going to the clinic, where they had listened to her talk, all in one go, for longer than she could remember talking to anyone for years, and treated her like a grown-up. The difference between You have a legal right to confidentiality and the spell that choked her whenever she began to talk about anything that was Order business.

She shifted in the bed, moving the hot-water-bottle to her front.

That was all very well, but on the other hand, the co-codamol she'd taken was starting to wear off, and Lavender and Parvati would be back from afternoon school at any minute. Time for a quick trip to the hospital wing, then a long bath in the prefects' bathroom.

*

Madam Pomfrey looked up when Hermione knocked. Her white-winged hat, the thick parchment ledger on the candlelit desk where a computer would have been, looked suddenly anachronistic and strange.

She smiled at Hermione, shutting the ledger. 'Yes, dear?' she said. 'What can I do for you?'

'Period pain,' said Hermione. 'Could I get a—' but she trailed off, because Madam Pomfrey's face had frozen, and she was rising to her feet, trembling.

'What did you say?'

'Period pain,' said Hermione again, stammering a little over the words, and suddenly she remembered the message-spell on the little pink book that she might not have been able to cancel, and the words punitive expulsion and application for permission to terminate, and she went cold all over.

'Albus,' said Madam Pomfrey, turning towards the fire, and suddenly there was Dumbledore's head, in the flames. He blinked benignly.

'Poppy?'

'You asked me to tell you if there any problems arose with Miss Granger's pregnancy—'

'What?' said Hermione. 'That's none of your business!'

'We are in loco parentis to you, Miss Granger,' said Dumbledore.

'No, you're not! I'm of age! I have a legal right to—'

'Under Muggle law, perhaps.' His voice was very cold. 'While you remain a student at Hogwarts, however, you do not have full adult status under wizarding law. We remain responsible for you. So I think that this is very much our business, don't you?'

'No, I don't!' shouted Hermione, but Dumbledore was carrying on over her: 'Poppy, is there a problem?'

'Quite a serious one, I'd say,' said Madam Pomfrey. 'Miss Granger is no longer pregnant.'

A long silence. Dumbledore's face in the fire was very white and suddenly old.

'Are you quite sure?'

Madam Pomfrey came out from behind the desk and, unexpectedly, laid the flat of her hand against Hermione's tummy. Hermione twisted away, shaking, but Madam Pomfrey was already saying: 'I'm afraid so.'

In the fire, Dumbledore closed his eyes and lowered his head briefly. Then: 'Go to your dormitory, Miss Granger,' he said hoarsely. 'You will remain there or in the common room until the morning, when you will be taken to the Ministry of Magic for a legal hearing.'

There must have been a magical obligation in there, because Hermione went.

*

In the morning, Madam Pomfrey came to take her down to the great door, where there was a school carriage waiting for her.

'Are they going to tell my parents?' asked Hermione as they went down the staircase. Madam Pomfrey shook her head, and Hermione felt her heart drop, felt her whole body go heavy and stiff with misery. She blinked, surprised at herself, and a tear spilt out of her eye.

I want my mum, she thought. It was the first time she could remember thinking it since first year, and it hit her hard. I want my mum at the hearing. Her mum's straight back, her fierceness, her unembarrassable persistence. Even though she didn't know anything about wizarding law, and she'd be livid with Hermione for getting herself pregnant... or would she? Hermione couldn't really imagine it, she realized. She hadn't even started her period when she'd left home for Hogwarts, and since then there had never been room between herself and her parents, in the narrow space of Christmas fortnight or Easter week or the six weeks of summer – even when she'd gone home for the holidays, and she usually hadn't – for anger or hurt or unhappiness. All those things had had to go into silence, feeding it until now there was almost nothing else between her and her parents. She saw herself and her mother again, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, connected by nothing but the rhythm of their knives.

She was so far away that she stumbled on the last step. As she saved herself, she heard Harry's voice, saying her name. She turned to look at him.

He stood at the foot of the staircase opposite, breathing hard, his narrow shoulders rising and falling. The light coming through the front doors, which stood half-open onto the cold, clear morning, left half his face in shadow until he stepped forward, furious, and raised his wand.

'Harry?'

'Petrificus Totalus,' he said, and Madam Pomfrey fell all-of-a-piece to the floor.

'Harry, what are you doing? There's going to be a hearing! I can't just go on the run—'

He shook his head impatiently, shaking her off. 'That's not it,' he said. 'I want you to go to that hearing. I just wanted to talk to you first.' He pointed his wand at the doors, which boomed shut, and put it back in his pocket. He was still standing some distance away from her.

'I can't believe you would do this to me,' he said, 'you bitch.' He squeaked at the end, as if the word bore a physical weight too great for his voice to carry. Hermione gasped.

'Albus told me. There's a prophecy about Godric's Hollow, about father and son being there together. He didn't know what it meant until you touched that book and it told Madam Pomfrey that you were – you were pregnant. That's why you were crucial – you were going to be crucial in the battle. Because you were carrying my baby, my son. And you didn't tell me!'

He was crying.

Father and son, thought Hermione, going cold. But there was no way that...

'You didn't tell me, Hermione! I don't care about... about Godric's Hollow, I'm not going to... I don't care about that. But there could have been – my parents are dead, Sirius is dead, so many people are dead or going to die, and there could have been a baby. And now there's nothing. There'll be nothing left of me.'

'Harry,' whispered Hermione. 'You're not going to die.'

'Shut up, Hermione!' His face twisted; he turned and punched the wall, and sobbed: 'I hope they put you in Azkaban for this.'

'Harry,' said Hermione. 'It wasn't me.'

'What do you mean?'

'It can't have been me, in that prophecy. Because it wasn't your baby, Harry.'

'Don't be fucking stupid. Whose else's was it?'

'Derek Antrip's,' Hermione said defiantly.

'Who is Derek Antrip?'

'Someone I know. Someone I met in the summer. Someone you don't know anything about, Harry, because you don't know anything about my life!' Hermione was crying too now. We must look ridiculous, she thought, but when she looked at Harry, his eyes streaming, his nose pink, his mouth slack with weeping, she didn't feel mocking at all; she just felt pain.

'When did all this happen?'

'At...' Then Hermione interrupted herself. 'You know what, Harry? It is none of your business. At least I wasn't fucking Snape all the time we were supposed to be going out!'

Saying it ripped something open inside her, as if she hadn't realized till now how much it had hurt her. Harry was staring at her, open-mouthed, shocked out of tears but still pink-faced. He sniffed and wiped his sleeve across his nose and mouth.

'Why did you even... I don't understand, Harry,' she wailed. 'Did you fancy me even a little bit? Did you love me even a little bit? Because I love you so much, and you...'

'Finite Incantantem,' said Harry, and as Poppy Pomfrey rose to her feet, dazed and wondering, he ran out of the entrance hall.

Hermione didn't see him again until Hallowe'en.

*

The hearing was brief and formal; Hermione didn't recognize the three members of the Department of Blood and Heritage who heard the case. There was no-one there to represent Hermione; the evidence against her had been submitted in advance by Dumbledore and Madam Pomfrey.

She sat in the centre of the room, a Ministry wizard standing quietly behind her, while the three men from the Blood Department, sitting behind a table on a raised platform at the far end of the room, grave and formal in red-and-black robes, leafed through parchments and conferred quietly amongst themselves. Every now and again they would look over at her; once they nodded to the Ministry wizard, and he stepped forward to put a drop of Veritaserum on her tongue.

'Did you end your pregnancy deliberately, Miss Granger?' asked the oldest of the three.

'Yes,' said Hermione. 'I—'

'Thank you,' he said, and leaned back in his chair to talk to his colleagues again. Hermione fell silent. She could feel herself still bleeding.

Eventually, the same man cleared his throat, and she looked up.

'Miss Granger,' he said, 'you are guilty of terminating a pregnancy without permission, in contravention of the 1833 Statute for the Protection of Wizarding Heritage, and you will spend the next six months in Azkaban.'

'But—'

'As you are doubtless aware,' he went on, 'since your Headmaster tells us that you are an intelligent and well-informed young woman,' (his voice went dry and nasty on intelligent and well-informed, as though they were bad things to be), 'the maximum sentence laid down in wizarding law for a breach of the blood laws of this type is six weeks. You would in any case be receiving the maximum sentence, since this is a very serious offence at a time when falling birthrates are rendering the wizarding population ever more vulnerable. However, under the so-called Death Eater Act of 1996, it is possible to extend sentences where there are deemed to be implications in relation to the ongoing struggle against Lord Voldemort and his followers. The evidence we have received from Professor Dumbledore, which is not for discussion in open court under the Forty-Third Amendment to the Statute of Secrecy, has made it clear that there is indeed such a connection, and that in fact you have jeopardized the life of the Boy Who Lived.'

'I haven't,' said Hermione. 'It's not—'

'However,' the wizard continued as if Hermione weren't even there, 'because of your age, and your otherwise impeccable record, we have decided that it would not be appropriate to invoke the other possible punishment, and so the Sterilitas Potion will not be administered.' He waved his hand to the Ministry wizard, who took Hermione's elbow, and politely tugged at it until she stood up, thinking nothing. Thinking: I knew there'd be a potion.

*

The black-robed guards released Hermione and pushed her into the cell, still without speaking. They hadn't said anything all the way over; not when the boat had rocked and pitched like a comfortless child; not when she had stumbled over the rocks on the path from the shore, stumbled and toppled and they'd had to catch her because her hands were cuffed behind her back.

And there was Hermione in Azkaban.

The door shut behind them, and their footsteps diminishing down the corridor were the only sound. Hermione sat down on the narrow bed, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. There was a toilet, a basin, a small window, barred and too high to see out of. Cold struck up at her from the floor. Despair settled softly over her.

*

Next, nothing happened. For days.

It was boring.

Not the boredom of the start of term, the falling-away of her busy thoughts to let in memories and noise and fear; this was a long, empty boredom. Its featurelessness ground away at her mind. At first she tried to keep it at bay with small determined pastimes – history dates, lists of famous wizards, arithmantic formulae, exercises in the tiny cell – but the patient vastness of the boredom made everything else tiny and pointless.

She tried to tell herself that it was just Azkaban, taking away her happiness and her hope, but she couldn't shake the feeling that this was real and everything else – work, sex, children, war – was fake: a tinny, cartoon denial of the huge meaninglessness which was all that was left when you got right down to it.

After the first wakeful night, she slept a lot, but her dreams were as monotonous as her daytimes; she dreamed about standing in endless queues, taking endless exams, writing meaningless scribbles on endless scrolls of parchment, supervising endless prep. And in the daytimes nothing happened. She went on bleeding, and then she stopped. Meals appeared in the cell of their own accord, three times a day; scraps and plate vanished of their own accord, three times a day, and in between the food tasted of nothing. Even the tiny scrap of sky in the window remained an even, neutral grey.

And then one day – she thought she must have been there about five days –her door suddenly swung open.

She looked out into the corridor, cautiously. An arrow on the wall pointed to SHOWERS. She thought of warm water and suds and clean feelings, and followed the arrow down twisty passages and through the door marked WOMEN into a small locker-room full of thin, exhausted girls.

Girls she knew. Slytherin girls.

They raised tired heads as she entered, and all the faces that had been missing from Hogwarts for the past two months stared at her from blank and shadowed eyes. Hermione swallowed nervously, but one by one, the faces looked away indifferently, and the girls went back to what they were doing. They moved so slowly and so dully that there was near-total silence in the room. More than that, though, the air in the room felt as dull and dead as Hermione's solitary cell. It was as if the sad, grey boredom of Azkaban had simply wiped out the warm-and-cold currents of feeling and watching that a room full of people usually made. It felt like an empty room.

Hermione took a deep breath, but before she could open her mouth to scream her way out of the silence, it suddenly seemed overwhelmingly pointless. She breathed out quietly and quietly got undressed, watching the others to see where to put her clothes before padding naked into the shower room.

The room was stone and square. Cold, soapy, hairy water clogged the drain. The shower was lukewarm and feeble, and every part of Hermione that wasn't directly under the water instantly became freezing cold. She gave up on trying to rinse her tangled hair through and followed Daphne Greengrass out through the door at the far end.

It was another small locker-room, cold and quiet. Hermione hurried to pick up the little grey towel that materialized on a bench in front of her; she was trying to rub warmth into her limbs, looking at nothing-in-particular, at the patterns of shadow that the high, barred windows threw over walls, floor, benches, bodies, when her gaze snagged on something sharp and inhuman: a pattern of bars and hollows like the shadow of the windows, but not. Jutting ribs. A spine, diagramming each of its vertebrae separately and meticulously through stretched skin. Hollow thighs, hollow calves, knees like knots.

The girl half-turned towards Hermione, and Hermione saw her face, cheekbones and eye sockets outlined in shadow like a Death Eater mask. Recognition struck through the heavy armour of pointlessness and made her stagger: it was Marietta Edgcombe. Hermione sat down hard on the bench, seeing Marietta round and curly-haired and weeping in the Great Hall, pimples spelling out SNEAK across her face, red as a brand. I did that. She remembered the fear in Nerissa Lightsome's face, remembered Nerissa scrambling to get away from her, saw Marietta now, skin and bone, barely moving. I did this.

She climbed damply into the clean clothes that had appeared on the bench beside her and trudged out of the room, heavy as a wet towel with guilt, not crying. A new sign had appeared on the walls: VISITORS' ROOM, with an arrow.

Visitors?

She followed the arrows down more narrow passages, down a narrow flight of stairs, to a vaulted, torch-lit room. Guards were standing around the walls, their faces hidden behind veils. Columns divided the room into little join-the-dots cells, each with a few high-backed chairs in it, some empty, some occupied. A few people were still coming in through the doors at each corner of the room; they shuffled through the silence, found chairs to sit in, sat. Whatever the signs had said, there were no visitors here. Everyone was in grey Azkaban robes: Hermione recognized Lestrange from the Department of Mysteries, and Macnair sitting next to him, in a silent row with three older wizards she didn't know, all staring forward, like Muggles at a bus-stop. Their eyes went over her indifferently as she went past them; and then she crossed some invisible line into the far side of the room, and she was in a sluggish black-and-white photograph of the Slytherin common room. Draco Malfoy, Vincent Crabbe, Gregory Goyle, grey-skinned, grey-clothed, motionless apart from Vincent picking at a thread in his right sleeve, Draco biting a fingernail. Blaise Zabini, nearly as thin as Marietta, rocking backwards and forwards in his chair. Millicent Bulstrode, eyes wide open, tears pouring silently down her cheeks.

She felt cold and shaky. She looked at Malcolm Braddock, a second-year Slytherin, barely bigger than Nerissa Lightsome, and tried to think of twelve-year-old Ron fighting life-sized chess pieces, and twelve-year-old Harry fighting a basilisk, and all the times she'd had to sit and wait and hope that Harry wasn't dead. But Malcolm still just looked like a child.

She sat down in the nearest chair she could find with no-one next to it, and looked at the floor.

And then nothing happened. No-one came. Hours passed, silently, and then the guards began to herd them back to their cells, and they went.

*

The second week, misery and boredom worked together.

She stared at the wall, following every thought to its logical conclusion: the narrow limits of her knowledge were at the end of every list, the ways she'd failed were at the end of every memory. The deep-down knowledge that she wasn't good enough.

What was surprising about the feeling, though, was its familiarity. She frowned slightly, and wondered why an absence of happy feelings was supposed to stop people from doing any magic.

*

She was deep and numb and far away one day when the door opened and the SHOWERS sign appeared.

She walked to the showers, hefting her own body like an awkward parcel at every step; stood in blank gazes and lukewarm water; went heavily to the Visitors' Room, and sat, thinking of nothing, while nothing happened.

And then, for no reason that she could see, something happened. Voices. 'That girl,' Hermione heard, and 'Gryffindor'; 'Harry Potter' and 'Mudblood' and 'Muggle-born'. And then Draco was limping his old swagger over towards her.

'Hello, Granger,' he said, and she blinked at him, wondering. 'What are you doing here?'

The cold rim of the water glass against her teeth as she took the first two tablets. Harry's face in the Great Hall. Blood washing down the drain in the showers. The judge, in his scarlet robes, looking at her with calm disgust. She clenched and froze and stammered, but Draco hadn't even paused for an answer: 'I mean, you're a little out of place, don't you think? Now that Dumbledore is just using Azkaban to get all the real wizards out of his way, so that he and the Order of the Mudbloods can go on running things from behind a Fidelius Charm, you must be feeling even more out of place than usual.' He put on a sad face. 'Expecting any visitors, are you? Your mother, perhaps? If only it weren't that Muggles weren't allowed within five miles of Azkaban, you could get to see—'

Pictures of her mother in Hermione's mind: watching Coronation Street, rapt; opening the front door with her elbow while she talked on the phone in the hall; looking at Hermione, almost-speaking, turning away, silent.

She said, loudly, interrupting them: 'And what about your father, then? Now that he's got himself out, when's he coming for you?'

'Someone from the same species as you,' Draco spat, drowning her out. 'Phineas Black had it right. You people aren't even creatures, you should be classified as beasts. And people like your parents are the worst of the lot – Muggles with wizard offspring. They're mutants. They shouldn't exist. People like them are the reason pure-bloods are dying out.'

And so on, until the guards decided that visiting hours were over.

*

They'd taken her wand, but Arithmancy was wandless magic.

Hermione breathed in sadness, breathed out sadness, and began to draw the first line of the diagram on the stone floor of her cell, concentrating hard on not dropping the tiny, sharp metal shard she'd managed to twist off her plate and hide from the Disapparition spell. She hoped she'd remembered the formulae right. She hoped she'd kept track of the date all right – it had been harder than she'd thought, given that she'd only been in there for two weeks – and worked out correctly how to tell the time from the darkening shadows that fell in silent swags and cobwebs from her window.

She drew the last line, joining it neatly to the complicated central knot of the pattern, and sat back on her heels as the lines on the floor began to glow. The pattern rose into the air, spun itself into three dimensions, spun faster, spun into a silvery, oval blur, then cleared, like the car window when her mum put the heating on and chased the condensation away.

There it was. There was Godric's Hollow, tiny and silent and distant, hovering in the centre of her cell in Azkaban fortress. She'd done it.

There was no happiness in it. It was just that it seemed right that, in the end, her role in the final battle should be to watch.

What she saw was a little grey house, sharp and clear in the centre of the port, with trees and scrub and other houses blurring into the distance around it. In front of the house, tiny, black-robed, masked figures were forming into a line. They raised their wands and the colour drained out of half the scene, and Hermione realized that the port wasn't silent after all; what she'd thought was the silence of Azkaban roaring in her ears was the sound of the Death Eaters chanting. The Dark Mark drew itself in the sky with a crack and a flare, like lightning.

Opposite the Death Eaters was a small huddle of wizards: Dumbledore, Sturgis Podmore, McGonagall, Mad-Eye, Lupin, Snape, Hestia, Tonks, Kingsley Shacklebolt and Harry. Their chanting made a soft counterpoint to the rumble of the Death Eaters. The darkness in the sky didn't quite reach their side of the hollow, and the sun touched their robes with colour and light.

Voldemort – tall, maskless, with a terribly smooth, skull-like face – stepped forward out of the Death Eater line. 'Give him to me,' he said, and Harry stepped forward into the darkness.

'Give him to me,' said Voldemort again, and behind him his Death Eaters hissed. He raised his wand, pointing it at Harry's face. Harry shouted in pain and dropped to his knees; Snape made a move forward, and Lupin held him back, whispering something that Hermione couldn't hear.

Harry's scar began to blaze, and then to drip with light. The light pooled in the air beside him, beginning to take on a shape.

'James?' It was a ragged chorus from Dumbledore's line, Snape's voice the loudest.

'James Potter,' breathed Voldemort.

Harry and James wavered beside one another, almost identical in appearance except that James was translucent; Hermione could see bricks through his face.

'Father and son,' said Voldemort, transfixed. He raised his voice. 'I must admit, Albus, that when you first invoked the ancient magic of blood, I could not see my way past it. But I knew my way lay past it. Past Harry. And once I thought, I saw it all. You have made it all so easy for me, Albus.' He bowed mockingly to Dumbledore.

'Mysteries and light-tricks might impress Muggles, Tom,' said Dumbledore, 'but I'm a harder target.'

Voldemort ignored him. 'Your father was just as arrogant as you, boy,' he said conversationally. He was speaking to Harry, his eyes flickering urgently from Harry to the shadow beside him. Hermione, horrified, saw that Harry was beginning to fade as James took on more substance. She saw Dumbledore notice it too. The Order line began to chant faster, louder, lower.

'And so, when I killed him, when I defeated him, he simply couldn't accept it. Couldn't believe it. No-one had ever mentioned that possibility to him, that the golden James Potter might fail. So he stayed close to this plane. Just the other side of the curtain. And then Albus's blood-spell anchored him to you even more tightly.'

Hermione saw Lupin take out his wand. Voldemort paid no attention, but there was a little flutter in the Order line.

'Then,' Voldemort went on, 'he took care to surround you with people who had loved James – who saw James in you. And because there was plenty for your father to feed on – love, admiration, everything he'd fed on all his life – you see, there was no need for him ever to go further away.'

Harry was half-transparent now, and James half-solid, blinking and young in the sunlight: of course, he'd been only a little older than Harry was now when he'd died. Hermione could barely tell the difference between them.

Lupin stepped forward. Go on, thought Hermione desperately; but suddenly there was a black billowing and a hoarse shout (Expelliarmus!), and Lupin's wand was on the ground and he was staring at Snape. The chanting from the Order wizards stuttered, halted, started again, broke up into rags and fragments.

'And now there is no need for me to break the protection,' Voldemort said softly. 'Because, Harry, it will be your own father who destroys you. After sixteen years, there's barely enough of you left to resist him, even if you wanted to. And there are no prophecies about Lord Voldemort and James Potter, I think, Albus?' He smiled, and a snake-like tongue flicked from between his lips.

Hermione didn't see Dumbledore's reaction: she was watching Snape as he bent swiftly and picked up Lupin's wand.

'Severus?' Lupin whispered. 'What are you—'

All this time, Hermione thought, cold. All these years, and he saved Harry's life so many times, and – her mind skipped and flickered over all those nights in the Potions classroom – and he was just waiting for the right time.

'Don't be a fool, Remus,' Snape was saying. 'You loved James. Don't you see, anything you do will just—'

Lupin shook his head violently and stepped towards Snape.

'This is the place!' shouted Voldemort. 'This is the time!' He aimed his wand at James and took a breath.

And then three things happened at once.

Three figures broke the Death Eater line and closed round Voldemort from behind. Hermione heard him shout wildly as he vanished into a bulging knot of black robes and blue light.

Harry's silhouette, which was now barely more than a warping of the air in front of the house, began to flicker wildly, as James blinked and looked around, puzzled, pushing his hair back from his face.

And Snape threw Lupin's wand as far as he could into the shadow on the Death Eater side of the valley, and side-stepped Lupin neatly, and came to stand opposite the flicker that was Harry and the careless, beautiful boy that was James. He looked at the flicker and said: 'I love you, Harry Potter.'

Then he pointed his wand at the beautiful boy and said: 'Avada Kedavra, you bastard.'

There was a crack, a scream, and then a moment of absolute silence and absolute stillness. Then the three Death Eaters retreated slowly back to their line, leaving Voldemort's body stark and twisted on the ground.

'Lord Voldemort is dead,' someone said.

'He is dead,' Lucius Malfoy's voice responded from behind one of the masks, 'and now nothing stands in our way.'

The Death Eaters blurred into dirty mist and were gone. The sky lightened, and the sun poured down on Voldemort's ghastly white body, on the little huddle of wizards watching Harry, on Harry, solid again in the sunlight, staring at Snape. Between them, where James had fallen, there was nothing at all, not even a warping of the air or a stain on the grass.

*

Two days later, the guards came for Hermione. She assumed it was a trick all the time she was dressing, all the time the guards were leading her out of the fortress and down the rocky path and into the boat. It wasn't until they touched down on the Scottish coast, on the far side of the narrow channel, that she began hoping tentatively. When they took her to the Ministry, she began to believe it.

In Cornelius Fudge's office she sat on a farting leather seat and took the FREE PARDON scroll he handed her, ceremonially, together with her wand. She stuck them in her pocket and phased in and out of his apologies, picking out names (the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter, Lucius Malfoy, Professor Dumbledore) then losing the thread again, and then Fudge was standing up beside her chair, waiting, expecting something from her. She looked at him, trying to remember what he'd said.

'Sorry?'

'I don't mean to rush you,' said Fudge, smoothing the impatient look on his face into a fake-concerned, oh-poor-child expression, 'but the train will be leaving very soon, and... Ah, Kingsley,' he interrupted himself, as the door to his office opened and Kingsley Shacklebolt looked round it.

'Sorry to interrupt, Minister,' he said. 'The first convoys have all gone through. We're just waiting for you now, so that Madam Edgecombe can shut down the emergency Floo connection to Kings Cross.'

'Just so, just so,' said Fudge, fussing past Hermione. At the door he turned back towards her.

'Well?'

'Am I - where are we going?'

'Hogsmeade,' said Kingsley. 'For the celebrations.'

*

Hogsmeade was dark and crowded and crazy, and the sky kept lighting up. Hurrying through the back streets with Kingsley and Fudge, dodging other people hurrying in all directions, the noise of it, the shrieks and squeals when the sky cracked and blazed, reminded Hermione of nothing so much as the Death Eater invasion of the World Cup. She kept her head down, scurrying blindly after Kingsley.

The main square was thronged with rows and rows of people on all four sides, wands sparking and trailing light, House flags (for some reason) waving. There was an almighty crash and the sky lit up again, and everyone turned their faces up, sighing and laughing, as Hermione watched them. The light from the sky turned all the faces ashen and ghastly and dead, and by the time Hermione (shocky and stupid and slow) looked up, the fireworks had faded into a smudgy, smoky ghost, and by the time she looked down again, Kingsley and Fudge were taking Dumbledore's hand and climbing onto the small raised platform in the centre of the square, and she was on her own in the crowd.

Dumbledore stepped forward and raised his wand to speak, but he was drowned out by a huge wave of cheering from the crowd. He motioned gracefully for silence, and the cheers redoubled, and Hermione turned round and started pushing through the crowd to get away.

'Hermione?' said someone. Parvati, wrapped in her coat and her Gryffindor scarf, her wand in her left hand sending an exuberant stream of scarlet and golden bubbles into the air. And there was Padma beside her, and Lavender and Cho and Hannah, a whole gaggle of sixth-year girls, rosy and bouncing and joyful in the cold night.

'What are you...?' Parvati was going on, but Hermione had already elbowed her way past and through and away, into another part of the yelling, joyful crowd. She reached the lane which led from the main square towards the station and turned into it. It was empty, apart from a small group of wizards hurrying, hunched against the cold, towards the main square: she felt herself relax, striding out on the empty pavement, as the noise of the crowd began to become distant and quiet.

'Hermione?' said someone, again, suddenly. A man's voice. Familiar. She looked over nervously at the little cluster of wizards on the other side of the road and - oh fuck - saw that it was Arthur Weasley. With Molly and Charlie and Fred and George and Ron and Ginny.

'You're going the wrong way!' Arthur called, and she hesitated, and then all of a sudden she was caught up in a gang of Weasleys heading back to the main square, the boys whooping and bellowing and jostling one another, Ginny walking small and self-contained on the other side of her parents, not looking at Hermione, and Arthur taking Hermione's arm and chatting on to her as they walked. So glad to see you back and never believed it for a moment and Harry and –

'Is Harry all right?' Hermione interrupted, and there was a little pause, a little catch, before Arthur went on, determinedly cheerful: 'Of course! He's in the hospital wing at the moment, because he was... well, the battle wasn't an easy one for him, let's say... but Madam Pomfrey says he'll be as good as new, very soon. Don't you worry, Hermione,' and Ginny made a small indefinable noise, and then they were in the busy hush of the main square and Molly was shushing them to listen to Dumbledore.

'... one man who had the courage to defy the Dark Lord, the true hero of Godric's Hollow,' said Dumbledore, and stepped back, and there in the centre of Hogsmeade, the centre of the breathless crowd's attention, was Lucius Malfoy, smooth and perfect as ever.

'Thank you, Headmaster,' he said, 'but I can hardly take so much credit for an act which, in truth, barely makes amends for my former... mistakes. Let us rejoice indeed that Voldemort is dead, once and for all' (pause for cheering), 'but let us also remember that this is just the beginning. I hope that I showed this Hallowe'en night where my true loyalties lie. But let me say plainly, here and now, that here and now I reject, and I always will reject, any suggestion of a general amnesty for those Death Eaters who remain loyal to Voldemort, no matter who they are. Let them remain in Azkaban for ever.'

Draco. Hermione felt sick.

'Where's Snape?' she said to Arthur suddenly, raising her voice to be heard above the roar of cheers as Lucius stepped back and Cornelius Fudge came forward. 'Didn't he - I mean, wasn't he at Godric's Hollow too?'

'Yes,' said Arthur briefly, and Hermione felt something in him close off. He didn't tell her where Snape was now, and she didn't ask again.

*

Hogwarts was a shock: its shadowy instability, its massive unchangedness. The ceiling in the entrance hall out-of-sight high, the moving shadows opening and closing the space around her as the staircases, far above, turned through their complicated dances. The great solid door, the great solid stones, not caring at all whether Hermione Granger was there or gone or in Azkaban, or whether the war was over, or whether it was Harry or Voldemort who had won it.

She went slowly up the shifting staircases to the Gryffindor dormitories. The school must have been empty, with everyone still in Hogsmeade, but after Azkaban it was a chaos of noise: the thunks of the staircases meeting the walls, the Fat Lady snoring as they passed the Gryffindor tower, the newly-unfamiliar creaks and rattles of the pipes. And there she was in the sixth-year girls' dormitory, opening the curtains around her bed, climbing in, falling into blackness.

*

She woke up wholly and suddenly, to the sound of Parvati's noisy shushing.

'But she's—!' Lavender was saying.

Hermione huddled down in the fat, Hogwarts-smelling duvet and squeezed her eyes shut.

'Shhh,' Parvati said again, crossly.

'But shouldn't we—?'

'No. Shhh,' and there were scuffling footsteps and the sound of the door opening and closing.

Hermione waited a minute, then stirred cautiously and opened her eyes: they were really gone. She sat up, pushing her hair back, and there she was, at the very top of Gryffindor tower, in a small, quiet, half-dark, curtain-muffled room at the margin of the great noisy school. Rain made white noise on the windows, and outside the door forty kids jostled and called to each other on their way down to breakfast.

She waited. When the noise had died down and she could be pretty sure that everyone was in the Great Hall, she got out of bed and went down the corridor to the showers. She stayed under the hot water for a long time, not really thinking about anything, and when she came out her skin was warm and rosy and she smelt of apples and lime, and Azkaban was still cold and grey and silent in her.

Back in the dormitory, it took her a second to remember which set of drawers was hers. She was already out of the habit of sharing space, and the thought of it exhausted her: all the little rules, all the walls and curtains and invisible lines, all the silent agreements not to see and not to hear, that divided the castle into three hundred fragile, overlapping, only-ever-half-private spaces. She took out her clothes – sensible bra, sensible knickers, uniform shirt, Gryffindor tie, uniform jumper, uniform tights, uniform skirt – but she was too tired to put them on. She sat down on the bed, looking at nothing in particular, and mechanically started combing her wet hair.

*

When, eventually, she managed to leave the room, she found Nearly Headless Nick hovering in the corridor outside.

'Ah!' he said genially. 'There you are. Welcome back!'

'Thanks,' she said, and started to walk past him, but he said 'Er—' and she turned back.

'The Headmaster wants to see you,' he said.

*

'Rhubarb and custard,' said Hermione, and the door to Dumbledore's study irised open. She stepped in, feeling unreal, and there she was, and there was Dumbledore, behind his desk. He put down his quill and regarded her.

'Miss Granger,' he said.

She didn't say anything, and after a moment's pause he went on:

'I'm sure you are keen to get back to your lessons and your friends. I won't keep you long: I am leaving in a few minutes, to accept the official surrender of the Death Eaters on behalf of the Wizengamot. But before that I felt I owed you an explanation – and,' he looked away, his eyes full of pain, then straight at her, 'an apology.'

Something in Dumbledore's gaze made her very much not want to be there. White noise started in her ears. She forced herself to stand still, against the impulse to squirm, to run out of the room.

'Of course you know by now,' he said, 'that Voldemort is defeated. That the war is over. That Harry is safe – that we are all safe, for the first time since you became one of us.'

One of who? Hermione wondered carefully, not thinking about the war being over, about Lucius stepping forward, the Death Eaters closing in on the body knotted and suddenly small on the ground, the greasy stain on the air that was James, Harry's eyes meeting Snape's. The Order of the Phoenix? Gryffindor? Adults?

'This is a joyful day for the wizarding world.'

Oh. Wizards.

'And yet,' he said in a low voice, almost to himself, 'that victory came in a way – and at a price – I had not anticipated. You see, I made a terrible mistake, Miss Granger. I was misled by prophecy. I believed that at Godric's Hollow, history would repeat itself; that Voldemort would be defeated by the love of a parent for his child – by Harry's love for his child.'

That got through. The noise in her ears turned itself off and suddenly Hermione was right there, in the study, cold and sick and listening to every word.

But – for history to repeat itself, Harry would have to die.

'All the signs pointed to it. Yet I couldn't see how it could be so, until Madam Pomfrey told me that you had been looking at – well, at certain books in the Restricted Section – and that you and Harry were... involved. And then I thought I understood. I thought that you would be the key to Voldemort's downfall. How could I have known that...?'

Dumbledore faltered, rubbing his forehead, then gave a little shake of his head. 'Well, no matter. Voldemort is defeated, and you have returned to us. And I am deeply, deeply sorry for all that you have suffered from this tragic misunderstanding. I blame myself entirely for your ordeal.'

Entirely, thought Hermione, and then she stopped thinking.

'Go to your class now,' he said. 'And welcome back to Hogwarts, to the people who care about you.'

That seemed to be it. Hermione nodded carefully. 'Thank you, Headmaster,' she mumbled, and started to walk carefully towards the door.

'Oh – and Miss Granger?'

She turned back.

'Welcome back.' Dumbledore was smiling; his fingers twinkled, and a blur of silver at Hermione's left breast shaped itself into a prefect badge, neatly pinned to the blazer she had been wearing the morning she left for the Ministry and for Azkaban. She stared at it, not quite believing it.

'Thank you,' she said, again, numbly, and walked away.

*

Rain on the windows. The sound of wind in the Forest, and the nearer whish and thump of the Whomping Willow: pipes creaking, a door closing. Then, suddenly, footsteps and voices began again and Hermione jumped: breakfast must be over. And Lavender and Parvati were bound to need to just-pop-back to the dormitory to pick up something they'd forgotten before morning school.

She scrambled into her clothes and walked out of the room into the corridors, turning right and left as each seemed to take her further away from the sound of footsteps, grateful for the way the building opened up its hidden desert places for her, as if it knew what she needed. She kept walking until not only the audible noises, but the tingly feeling of habitation on the edge of her senses, had faded, and the corridors were empty and dead and peaceful as Azkaban.

She'd have to go to class in the end, probably. She wondered what day it was.

*

It was six minutes into second lesson: late enough to miss most of the settling-down, chatty start of class, but not so late that she'd draw too much attention to herself.

Hermione was walking towards the Arithmancy classroom when she saw someone coming towards her. Someone who might have been Ron. Her heart thumped at her and she ducked into the girls' toilets.

Sitting in the end cubicle, waiting, she fiddled with her shoelace and read the graffiti.

Harry Potter = The Boy Who Lived... to Suck Snape's Cock!! ← GROSS i know.

I hate this school, DT + LB 4EVA IDT INDT, Dean Thomas is a Mudblood bastard, WHO IS A BIGGER SLAG PLZ VOTE HERE: HERMIONE GRANGER IIIIIIII HARRY POTTER IIIIII boys can't be slags you idiot! ← SEXIST, Severus Snape is a peadophile, McGonagall 4 Cho Chang HA HA, HERMIONE GRANGER IS PREGNANT A BABY-KILLER.

*

Hermione slipped into the Arithmancy classroom and took a seat in the front row.

'Sorry I'm late, Professor,' she said when Professor Vector cast a sideways look at her from the blackboard.

Vector took a breath, frowned, hesitated, then said: 'Page 533, Miss Granger.'

'I don't have my textbook,' Hermione said. 'Sorry, Professor.'

Vector lifted her eyes past Hermione, to the raked benches where the rest of the class was sitting. 'Can any of you lend Miss Granger a textbook?'

There was silence.

'Anyone? Miss Chang, can you share with your neighbour, perhaps?'

'No,' said Cho distinctly. 'Sorry, Professor.'

'Very well,' said Professor Vector. There was a note of exasperation in her voice. 'Luckily, I have a spare, Miss Granger.' She took a battered copy of Mathemagics! from her own desk and put it in front of Hermione.

'Work through the problems entitled Fifth-dimensional geometry and Portkey trajectories, please. Hand them in to me at the end of the class.'

'I don't have a pen, either,' said Hermione. She felt a rustle behind her as the rest of the class prepared to refuse her again, but Professor Vector took a slim, dove's-feather quill from the pocket of her gown and handed it to her, saying: 'There's parchment at the front of the room if you want to accio it.'

'Thank you,' said Hermione. She opened her book, accio'd the parchment, and began to work through the examples.

They were easy.

*

At lunch, she went to sit with Luna Lovegood on the Ravenclaw table. Luna acknowledged her with a glance and an absent-minded smile, then went on reading the Quibbler ('Muggle Mind-Control Device Behind Malfoy's Change of Heart, Claims Source').

The food didn't taste of anything, which made eating hard work. Hermione quartered her plate and sliced, chewed, swallowed, one mouthful at a time, till most of it was gone.

Luna put down her newspaper and gave a sudden, tiny, yawn. She turned her disconcerting grey eyes on Hermione. 'How was Azkaban?' she asked.

'Cold,' said Hermione before she thought. She got up from the table and left the room, past Cho Chang's raised eyebrows, Lavender and Parvati's hopeful smiles from the Gryffindor table, the purple-and-golden names scrolling on the air behind the solemn, floating bowl of witch-fire (Bartemius Crouch 1920-1995, Cedric Diggory 1977- 1995, Broderick Bode, 1946-1996, Sirius Black, 1960-1996), out into the nowhere of the corridors.

Left, then right, up a staircase, through a door, until all of a sudden she was out in the cold air, on the roofs, face to face with the grey November sky, and for a moment it was as if she could just step out into that vast blankness and disappear. Then she blinked and staggered and stepped back, pressing her back against the stone of the tower.

'Hello,' said someone to her right. His voice was tentative.

Harry.

She turned and saw him. There he was.

Harry.

Thin and pale. Wrapped up warm, in a thick duffel coat, a scarf, a woolly hat. Older and younger than the last time she'd seen him. He looked at her and pushed his glasses up his nose.

The world came to life again. Her heart started to beat, and then to hurt. She started to cry.

'Hermione,' said Harry. He came towards her and tried to put his arms around her, but she pushed him away.

'... bastard...'

'Hermione,' he said again. He stood back. His arms were by his sides, empty.

'Are you all right?' she asked, crying harder. 'After... are you all right?'

He nodded. 'Yeah,' he said. 'I'm all right.'

She sniffed and rubbed her face and reached out for him with her other hand, laying her palm against his cheek. He put his hand over hers and held on to her fingers.

'I'm sorry,' he said.

Hermione sniffed again.

'I missed you,' he said. 'I wished you'd been there. I'm really sorry, Hermione. I'm an idiot.'

'I saw it,' she said. 'The battle. I opened a portal.'

'In... ?' But he couldn't say it. 'I thought...'

'In Azkaban, yes,' said Hermione. 'It's Arithmancy, you don't need a wand.'

'You saw it?'

'Yeah,' said Hermione.

Harry gave a bleak little smile. 'The last glorious struggle between Lord Voldemort and the Boy Who Lived.'

Hermione smiled back at him.

And there they were, on the top of the school, the grey vastness of the sky opening around them, the wind tugging at them, the tower at their backs, and Harry was all the warmth and all the colour in the world, and everything unsaid between them was just part of this bubble that joined them.

*

Harry had gone back to the hospital wing, and Hermione was going to the last class of the day.

She slipped into the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, sat down, and felt eighteen pairs of eyes on her back. She'd mistimed it: Dumbledore wasn't there yet. She stared down at the work surface in front of her.

'Welcome back, Hermione,' someone – Lavender? – said cautiously. Someone else giggled.

'Did you—' began a third voice, and then the door opened and there was not Dumbledore, but Snape. Snape, robed and buttoned and the same as ever.

There was a rustle and a murmur and a collective intake of breath, and then Ernie's voice raised itself out of the noise and declared: 'When I turn to the subject of Harry— ←'

He was singing. Other voices joined in, ragged at first, then strengthening as Snape did nothing but stand in the doorway:

'That's a horse from a different safari. He can box like a fox, he's as dumb as an ox, but it's Harry I'm planning to marry.'

Snape stalked to the front of the room and stood there, in the centre of the platform, looking steadily at the class with his very blankest face. And they kept singing, through two more verses, louder and louder.

When he flexes his muscles I flutter
Like a butterfly caught in a shutter
When he calls me his mate
I just disintegrate
Since the world first began
Never been such a man
As the Harry I'm planning to marry.

Snape lifted an eyebrow and waited a beat, to make sure they had finished; then, 'How very heartwarming,' he drawled. 'I'm... delighted that my marital happiness means so much to you all. Now please open your textbooks to page three hundred and twenty-nine—'

'Where are you going on your honeymoon, sir?' called Ernie from the back. Snape didn't seem to raise his voice, but it was clearly audible above the laughter and the wolf-whistles that followed.

'—five points from Hufflepuff, Mr MacMillan, don't think I am not grateful for your good wishes but this is a NEWTs class, not a hen party – page three hundred and twenty-nine, and be ready to explain what these Counter-Jinxes all have in common.'

That seemed to be all it took. The class sighed and rustled pages and coughed and settled down, and Hermione was still staring at Snape.

'Is it true?' she said.

Snape looked at her for the first time since he'd entered the room, and seemed to stammer. Then: 'Yes,' he said.

When, thought Hermione, and How, and Why? She stared down at her hands on the bench while Snape hesitated on the platform, and kept staring at them until he turned and went to his own desk. She didn't catch anyone's eye for the whole lesson, and when the bell rang she was ready: she picked up her bag and walked to the door.

'Ah,' said Snape, 'Miss Granger, you have not been dismissed. Perhaps you have forgotten the rules of this school during your absence?'

She turned and stared at him, not believing it.

'Please wait behind until the rest of the class has gone.'

She walked back to her place and stared at the bench until everyone had whispered-and-giggled their way past her out of the door. And then there she was, and there was Snape, uncharacteristically ill-at-ease, his fingers playing with the edge of his gown's wide sleeves.

'Welcome back,' he said at last.

'Thank you,' Hermione muttered.

Snape took a breath. 'I... thought you would have seen Harry by now.'

'I have,' she said. Her voice was still muttery and low – she sounded like a first-year, sullen with terror – but there didn't seem to be anything she could do about that. 'He didn't say anything about...'

'I see,' said Snape. 'Well, we are getting married next week.'

She didn't say anything.

'It was felt that that would be the best way to... regularize the situation.' Snape hesitated, then added: 'The only way, if Harry and I were both to be able to remain at Hogwarts.'

Stop calling him Harry, she thought painfully. Potter. You call him Potter.

'Okay,' she said idiotically. 'I mean – I see. Thanks,' she added.

He lifted an eyebrow – whatever for? – and lifted a shoulder, turning half-away from her, back to his desk, turning into her sardonic, remote teacher again.

'You may go now, if you like,' he said politely, and she scrambled her bag up from the seat beside her and went.

*

Hogwarts in November was as cold as Azkaban, but in a more painful, alive way. Breezes and ghosts scattered little shocks and patches of cold through the corridors in the uninhabited parts of the school, and outside, the wind took Hermione's breath away and filled her eyes with tears.

It was nearly midnight and she was chilled to the bone by the time she turned the final corner to the dormitory, but there was still a light under the door. Her heart sank.

You hadn't really expected Lavender and Parvati to go to bed, had you? On the night that you come back from Azkaban (baby-killer)?

She pushed the door open and blanked her face. Lavender and Parvati, sitting toe-to-toe on Parvati's bed like inverted bookends, looked up eagerly.

'Hermione!' said Lavender, then rearranged her face into seriousness. 'How are you?'

Short and sharp as a slap, unexpectedly, Hermione was hit by the wish that someone who actually cared about the answer would ask her that question, with so much warmth, with so much seriousness. It made her feel like crying. She swallowed and clenched a fist behind her back.

'Really tired, actually,' she said politely. 'I think I just need to crash, if you don't mind.'

'Oh,' said Lavender. 'But—'

'Oh, we don't mind,' said Parvati. There was something slightly nasty in her voice, and Hermione felt her stomach tighten and shield. But 'Goodnight, then,' was all that Parvati said, as Hermione slid in between the curtains of her bed and let herself rock into sleep on the becoming-familiar-again meaningless murmurs of the wind outside the window and of the muffled girl voices on the other side of the curtain.

*

And so Hermione was back at Hogwarts and the war was over and Voldemort was defeated and she wasn't pregnant any more, and if that didn't make her happy, what would?

That first week, she went to classes, she did prefect duty, she slept; in between she walked the corridors if it was sleeting or the grounds if it wasn't, or took long baths in the prefects' bathroom, or worked in the library. Sometimes she visited Harry in the hospital wing, and that was the best. In the dormitory and the common room there was a strange, watching, waiting silence around her.

The graffiti in the ground-floor girls' toilets came and went, but BABYKILLER stayed, and Hermione wondered if that was what was giving shape and weight to the silence in the dormitory and the common room.

Once she came into the dormitory and Parvati was saying sharply: 'I don't care, Lavender, I just don't think it's right.' She knew what they had been talking about from the tone of Lavender's sh! and the peculiar, defiant, uneasy look Parvati gave her. Once she'd been at lunch, sitting with Luna Lovegood at the Ravenclaw table, when a couple of fourth-year girls – girls she didn't even know – had started a conversation about Muggle teenage pregnancy statistics and Muggle-versus-wizard culture, never quite saying Mudblood girls are whores, keeping one delighted eye on her all the time. She'd been about to say something that time: she looked them in the eye, opened her mouth, and then suddenly something in the sight of those round and rosy schoolgirls, cheeks plump and eyes bright with malice, had summoned a flash-image of Marietta Edgecombe's bone-thin, ash-grey body. Hermione had choked on damp Azkaban air, and said nothing. It didn't matter anyway. Schoolgirls.

But the war was over now, so what was there that did matter?

And once she'd been sitting at the edge of a prefects' meeting, waiting for Fatima to arrive from her appointment with McGonagall, who was acting as head while Dumbledore was away, with the lists and numbers of students in school societies so they could start working out timetables for choir rehearsals/Quidditch practice/ Duelling Club/ Kitchen Witches, when Mandy Brocklehurst – who had never liked her anyway – leaned towards her and said, eyes wide and helpful: 'Hermione, is it true that in Muggle schools they have to have special classes explaining that sex can get you pregnant?'

'I don't know,' said Hermione. 'I haven't been in a Muggle school since I was ten.'

'Dean Thomas swears it's true, and his sister's in a Muggle school.'

'Oh, yes?' said Hermione, feeling the room begin to tense up around her.

'Do you think it would help our Muggle-born students to have classes like that? To explain to them? Seeing as apparently they don't know?'

Hermione took a deep breath, but before she could answer: 'Shut up, Mandy,' said Ron, tipping dangerously far back in his chair from the row in front to glare at her over his shoulder.

'I was only asking,' she said, injured.

'You were only being a bitch,' said Ron. 'Leave Hermione alone, all right? It's none of your business.'

'Sor-ry,' she muttered, and flounced to the other side of the room, with much scraping of chairs and casting of glances from under her long, straight, honey-blonde hair (did you see what he said to me?)

'Thanks,' said Hermione to Ron quietly.

'That's all right,' he said, tipping forward in his chair again, not looking at her.

'Does this mean—'

He turned around. 'No,' he said. 'We're not okay, Hermione.'

So that was that.

Hestia had sent a polite little card saying welcome back and you must come over, but it had none of the sharpness or the crackle of Hestia in person, and Hermione put it in a drawer and forgot about it. The only thing that was sharp or crackly or real was being with Harry, playing gin rummy on the end of his bed in the hospital wing, talking about nothing but knowing that they both felt it, the extra dimension, The War, which seemed for everyone else to have folded itself up like a theatre backdrop, to have packed itself away into History, leaving her and Harry there in the empty building like litter, like scraps so small as to have been overlooked.

So when he asked her to be a witness at his wedding to Snape, she said yes.

Chapter Text

Inhale, inhale, you're the victim

Come play my game

Exhale, exhale

- The Prodigy

The wedding was in a small, plain room about half-way up the Astronomy Tower: Hermione had never been in it before. It was little more than a circular cage of fretted pillars framing tall, thin windows, so that the room was full of pale November light and deep Hogwarts shadow.

'Welcome, friends,' the wizard at the front of the room began, and everyone hushed. Hermione, feeling overdressed and cold in the lilac dress she'd worn to the Yule Ball, got up from her seat and went to stand beside Harry under the odd little gold-and-red, silver-and-green canopy, as Professor Sinistra went to stand beside Snape. Harry was pale and serious and beautiful in his dress robes, his jaw set, his shoulders squared to the world.

'Okay?' Hermione whispered. He nodded.

'We are here to celebrate the union of Severus Snape and Harry Lilian Evans,' the officiant went on. Hermione watched the ripple that ran through the room, trying to work out who'd known about the name change (Don't you think 'Lilian' is a bit much, Harry? No.) and who hadn't: Lupin had known, she thought, and McGonagall. Hestia hadn't, and nor had Tonks; Kingsley probably hadn't, but it was hard to tell with him.

'The vows that Severus and Harry will make today constitute one of the Four Great Wizardly Oaths. They are the oaths that Blaise and Merlin made to one another at the dawn of our history. They represent a solemn and mystical bond, not just in earthly, but in magical law.'

Or, you know, they represent the best way to regularize the situation, thought Hermione. She glanced at Snape under her eyelashes, to see how he was taking this, how real it was to him (how real was it to her?), but, apart from the little green skull-cap pinned to his hair, he looked the same as he always did, wearing the same robes he always did: perhaps the blankness of his face was a little fiercer than usual, but that was all.

The officiant gestured with his wand and a wine-glass swam into existence between Harry and Snape. They took turns to drink from it, and then it passed to Hermione: she wetted her lips with the musty, thick taste of the wine and handed the glass on to Professor Sinistra as Harry and Snape turned to face one another and took out their wands.

'Coniungo,' they said in unison, and a stream of light – golden from Harry's wand, silver from Snape's, pure white where they met – flowed and sparked between them.

'Severus Snape, I bind you to me forever,' said Harry and bit his lip.

'Harry Lilian Evans,' said Snape, 'I bind you to me forever.' His voice was level and unsarcastic.

'Severus Snape and Harry Lilian Evans, you are bound for life under the Great Oaths of marriage,' said the officiant, and Hermione was shocked to feel her eyes fill with tears. She blinked and swallowed and tried not to sniff, and by the time her eyes were clear again, Snape and Harry were drinking from the second glass of wine, and the officiant was saying:

'May you taste in this wine the joy and comfort you have found in each other. May you strive towards the devotion of Jonathan and David, the life-sharing of Ruth and Naomi, the wisdom of Blaise and Merlin, and the commitment of Jacob and Rachel. May the time soon come when the voices of all lovers, the music of all friendships will rise up to be heard and celebrated in the gates of our cities. May the time soon come when we can all drink a full cup of joy.'

It hurt to look at them. Harry's face was shining – still serious, but shining – and there was something soft and unfamiliar about Snape.

Well, the war was over, and this was the happy ending. And she was at least standing near enough to the happy ending to warm herself on it.

And that was going to have to do.

Snape poised his foot over the wrapped glass, then stamped down. There was a tiny crunch, a pause, and then Sinistra's voice clear and small in the room – 'Mazel tov!' – and Snape, honest-to-goodness, smiled.

Then there was a babble of voices and a rising from the seats. People began to edge and crowd towards the canopy, while the officiant took Hermione and Sinistra off to one side to sign the marriage contract.

There was Snape's jagged signature, S. Snape, and Harry's unpracticed, round one, Harry Lilian Evans, and there was the space underneath that said: Witness.

So it's official now, thought Hermione giddily, and signed her name: Hermione Jane Granger. Witness.

Sinistra took the quill and the parchment, and Hermione turned to watch the congratulations: the canopy had vanished now, but the platform it had stood on was still there, so Harry and Snape were raised slightly above/in the centre of a little knot of people. She saw Lupin step up onto the platform and give Harry a quick, hard hug, saying something into his hair, something which made Harry blink and tighten his mouth and nod; and then, astonishingly, she saw Lupin put his arms round Snape for the briefest of moments before stepping back and saying: 'Congratulations, Severus. I wish you every happiness.'

'Thank you, Remus,' said Snape, looking dazed, and then Lupin was stepping off the platform and moving over to join Kingsley by the door, and Hestia and Tonks were stepping up, Hestia in dove-grey wizard's dress robes and Tonks in nearly-Muggle-style tweeds. Hestia was blushing fiercely.

'Congratulations, you two,' said Tonks. She hesitated, then seemed to decide that was enough; she nodded, put her hands in her pockets, and strolled off. 'Wotcher, Hermione,' she said, and they stood side by side watching Hestia talk to Snape.

'Mazel tov,' she said, 'is that right?' Snape nodded (Harry shrugged).

'It was a nice ceremony,' she added, then bolted off the platform, rushing nearly into Tonks's arms with an oh-God-I'm-an-idiot look on her face.

'There, there, Jones,' said Tonks, patting her.

'I need a drink,' said Hestia. 'Where's the reception?'

*

'The thing is,' said Tonks, as she and Hermione found themselves seats at a tiny table at the edge of the Lesser Hall, 'she had a crush on Snape for, oh, five years or something. All very romantic and unrequited and unattainable, on account of his advanced age and status, you see. And now—' she raised her voice slightly and it took on a teasing edge as Hestia returned to the table, hatchet-faced and carrying three big glasses of wine – 'he's marrying a student seven years younger than her.'

'Who even knew that he was Jewish?' demanded Hestia. 'Did you know, Hermione?'

She shook her head. 'Not until Harry started explaining to me about the ceremony.'

'I've seen him eating bacon at breakfast,' said Hestia darkly. 'I'm sure I have.' She drank half her wine in one swallow. 'Oh, and Tonks?' she added. 'Fuck off.'

'A really serious crush,' Tonks said to Hermione. 'I think it started in… was it second year, Jones? When those Gryffindors were bullying you, and he took your side?'

'Oh, Christ,' said Hestia, and put her head down on the table.

'Weren't you in Gryffindor?' asked Hermione. 'Were you a Ravenclaw?' Hestia cocked her head upwards, frowning.

'No,' she said, 'I was in Slytherin. I thought I'd told you that? Yeah, Snape's my old Head of House.'

'Slytherin? Really?'

Hestia sat up again. She shrugged. 'Slytherin is the house for people who like having power,' she said, 'and I never saw what was meant to be so bad about that. I mean, there's nothing inherently noble about going along with other people, is there? And that's what being powerless means. That's why I could never be – have been – a Death Eater,' she added thoughtfully.

'You could never have been a Death Eater because you're not evil,' said Tonks. Hestia ignored her.

'All that bowing and scraping and yes-my-Dark-Lord-of-Darkness-ing. I mean, I'm sure Lucius must get something out of it, but me personally, I'd rather be Minister for Magic.'

'Seriously?' said Hermione.

Hestia grimaced. 'Seriously,' she said. 'That's why I live in Hogsmeade – I'm going to stand as MP there in the election next year. It's sort of a tradition that the MP for Hogsmeade gets the position of Minister.'

Hermione stared at her, trying to imagine all that energy, all that awkward passion and half-finished enthusiasm behind a desk at the Ministry.

'And anyway,' Hestia went on, 'there's a few professional Gryffindors around who look pretty comfortable with power to me. Naming no names, but—' she coughed—'Dumbledore.'

'All right, love,' said Tonks, patting her arm. 'We don't hold it against you, do we, Hermione?'

'No,' said Hermione automatically. But she was watching Tonks' hand on Hestia's arm, replaying the way they insulted each other so casually, the way Hestia had rushed straight to Tonks, the way they moved together, hardly looking at one another.

Oh.

'But, oh, God, I'm so rude,' said Hestia. 'I'm sorry, Hermione, I just… it just threw me. How are you? I mean – I haven't seen you since we did the scrivination… how are you?'

Her eyes were on Hermione's face, warm and concerned. But her hand was over Tonks's, her fingers absent-mindedly drawing little patterns on Tonks's skin.

'I'm okay,' said Hermione stiffly.

'Really?' said Hestia. 'I was just in Azkaban once, years ago, visiting, and it was…' She shivered. 'I think it would take me a while to recover, if it was me.'

Hermione shrugged.

'Jones,' said Tonks mock-sternly. 'The girl doesn't want to talk about it in the middle of a wedding. Okay?'

'Okay.' Hestia's eyes, still on Hermione, were round and anxious. 'But, I mean, if you want to talk, or anything, send an owl. Please. I mean it. Or just come round – I'm usually in. Will you?'

'Sure,' said Hermione. She felt dull and flat and left-behind.

Hestia hesitated, then nodded briefly and decisively (that's that, then). Tonks took over the conversation: 'Did you know about Harry changing his name, Hermione?'

'Oh,' she said. 'Yes. He said he'd been carrying James Potter around for long enough, and he had to get rid of – him. It. Whichever.'

'Makes sense,' said Hestia. 'Though I thought Lilian was a bit much.'

Hermione smiled despite herself. 'Me too.'

'Oh, I don't know,' said Tonks, 'it sort of suits him.' She raised her glass. 'To Severus Snape and Harry Lilian Evans. May they be very happy together.'

Hestia groaned and put her head back on the table.

*

It was getting on towards evening by the time Hermione left the reception; it had been full dark for an hour or more. She walked down the well-known path towards Hagrid's cabin on the edge of the Forest until the lights and sounds from the castle had faded, and found a tree to sit under. She tipped her head back, looking up into the sky, seeing the frosty stars glittering between the black-on-black branches of the fir trees. She read the constellations' pattern as Professor Sinistra had taught her to do, those vast, far-away-and-long-ago, alignments and trajectories which, Sinistra said, patterned the lines of magical force, patterned therefore destinies and powers, rises and falls.

So it doesn't really matter, anyway.

On the edge of her hearing, something began to detach itself, something more patterned than the rustle of the branches or the hissing of the wind. She listened harder (this near the Forest, it was never a good idea to let noises get too close before identifying them), and it gradually turned into words, into a voice, distorted by weeping.

Harry's voice.

'… can't believe you would say that to me. On our fucking wedding day.'

'Harry.' Snape's voice was tense with patience. 'Please calm down. All I said was that we can revisit this arrangement when you leave Hogwarts. Or sooner, if you like. Whatever you like. You are not bound to me for life, just because Albus thinks the sixth-year dormitory is not an appropriate place for the hero of Godric's Hollow to be visited by his lover.'

'I can't believe you don't want to be married to me!' Sobbing.

Here we go again, thought Hermione numbly, wondering whether she could get away without being seen, whether it would be better to show herself now than be found, again, eavesdropping on Harry and Snape, on all that passion, that sound and fury. But by then their voices were beside her, and past her, and they'd paused a little way down the path.

'Lumos,' said Snape, and a little circle of silver light showed them to her. She was just outside the circle: if she moved now, they would definitely see her. She pressed herself back against her tree, back into shadow, and stayed where she was.

Harry was scrunched over himself, crying hard and openly, the lines of his body scribbled and twisted like a portrait of anguish; Snape was reserving himself a step or so away from Harry, looking inscrutably down at him, holding his wand steady and his mouth level.

'Harry,' said Snape again, but there he seemed to get stuck. He lifted his hand to touch Harry's hair. Harry twisted away from the touch.

'Well, do you?' he demanded. 'Do you want to be married to me? Or are you just doing it to keep Albus happy?'

Snape gave an elaborate shudder. 'Heaven forbid,' he murmured, but when Harry's tearstained glare didn't soften, he sighed and sagged.

'Of course I want to be married to you.' His voice was glassy. 'Harry, look at you. Look at me. Of course I—' He stopped, then started again. 'It's not that. It's you. You're sixteen years old, and—'

'I'm sixteen, so I don't know what I want? Is that it? If you think that, then why did you ever fuck me in the first place?'

Snape ran a hand through his hair. 'I am trying to be responsible,' he said. (Oh, he was hating this!) 'Our – the situation was… unusual from the start, but you are still – among other things – one of my students, and I have tried as hard as I could not to put any pressure on you. To make sure you knew, you can end this at any time, and there won't be any – reprisals.'

'What, like giving me a bad grade in Potions?' asked Harry. 'Like I even care.'

'Well,' murmured Snape.

'I can't believe you think I married you to get out of the dormitories,' said Harry and began crying again. 'I married you because I love you, you bastard.'

Snape seemed to sway slightly. The silver sphere of light around them dipped and wavered.

'I love you too,' he said. 'I wouldn't have married you if I didn't. But – Harry, honestly. I'm a middle-aged queen who hasn't been laid since the first fall of Voldemort, and you're the Boy who Lived.'

'Not any more,' said Harry. 'Not ever, really. He was just the carrier for a ghost, remember?' He had taken his glasses off to wipe them and he was looking up at Snape with green, unfocussed eyes.

'In any case. You're sixteen. You're beautiful. You're a war hero. You're famous. You're… in demand,' Snape added dryly. 'Your sickbed being visited day and night by teenage girls…'

'Oh, shut up,' said Harry. 'I told you, that's over.'

Snape raised a disbelieving eyebrow, but went on: 'Frankly, you're out of my league. Do you really want to be married to an ageing Potions teacher? No war, no spying missions, no Occlumency classes, no meeting in secret, no Order of the Phoenix? Just – living in three rooms in a minor public school in the middle of nowhere? Forever?'

'Yes,' said Harry.

Snape stuttered, and then Hermione didn't quite see how it happened, but they were in each other's arms, Harry on tiptoe the same height as Snape, and they were kissing.

Snape rocked back on his heels and stroked the tears from under Harry's eye with his thumb. He was smiling.

'You are an idiot boy,' he said.

'Yeah, I know,' said Harry. He went in for another kiss, but Snape dodged it.

'What?' said Harry.

'We are a married couple now,' said Snape. 'It hardly behoves us to go snogging in the Forest like a pair of, ah, teenagers. Let's go back to our three rooms, and do this in comfort.'

*

Hermione got into the Great Hall just as the owls were leaving and everyone was beginning to rustle through letters and parcels, laughing at some poor Hufflepuff second-year who'd got a Howler, cooing over the confetti of light and butterflies that poured out of a Ravenclaw fifth-year's birthday envelope. She slipped quietly into a seat at one end of the Gryffindor table and took out her book (Rebecca. She was reading randomly these days; Muggle fiction, books on advanced arithmancy, histories of the Death Eaters. None of it seemed to stay in her head, anyway).

She ate and turned pages, and didn't listen to any of the conversations going on around her. Breakfast was the worst time; Harry was usually there at lunch times, and sometimes at dinner, and his double status as school queer and Conquerer of the Dark Lord was like a pattern of interference in the room, like a field of invisibility wide enough to cover both of them up, but he was never there at breakfast.

She ate and turned pages and tuned out noise and only gradually became aware that someone was hovering by her elbow when the someone said something.

'What?' said Hermione, turning round. It was a first-year Creevey. She went pink to the tips of her ears and mutely held out an envelope to Hermione, who took it and jerked her head to say Go away. The Creevey fled.

Hermione looked at her mother's handwriting and her mind became absolutely blank. She opened the envelope mechanically. There were two letters, one from her mum and one from her dad. Dear Little My.

And suddenly she was remembering, as vividly as if she could smell it, being five years old and furious, furious, consumed with rage, because she wasn't allowed to wear her Wonder Woman outfit to school, and the way her dad had tried to coax her out of it (Come on, you wicked little Mymble, let's get you changed), and her trembling with anger and shouting I'm not a Mymble!

She didn't remember what had happened in the end. But she must have got to school, properly dressed and scrubbed and neat and tidy and quiet, because look at her now.

She put the letters back into the envelope and put them at the bottom of her bag.

*

'Hermione!' boomed Nearly Headless Nick. She jumped and turned. He was drifting towards her down the corridor.

'What is it?'

'Dumbledore wants to see you!' He beamed at her and started to drift off.

'I didn't know he was back,' she said, then, calling after Nick, 'What about? Do you know?'

'Haven't the foggiest, my dear,' he said cheerfully. 'But after you, I'm to send in Dean Thomas, and then Colin Creevey, and—'

'All the Muggle-borns?'

'Yes, I suppose so,' he said, as if it didn't matter. 'Off you go, then! Quickly!'

She went slowly up the stairs and knocked at the door; it irised open for her and she stepped through, and there was Dumbledore standing behind the desk and, sitting there, Lucius Malfoy, smiling benevolently down on her just as he did from the front page of the Daily Prophet nearly every day.

'Miss Granger,' he said politely. 'Do sit down.'

'What's going on?' said Hermione, not sitting down.

Lucius' smile became wistful. 'I can, of course, entirely understand your suspicion,' he said. 'The last time we met, the circumstances were less than propitious, after all.'

Glass shattering on marble all around in the Hall of Records. Harry's white and stricken face, days later.

'But I am here, with the blessing of your Headmaster' (Dumbledore nodded gravely) 'to try – if you and your friends will allow me – to make some small amends for the harm that I have done.' He paused, looking haunted, and Dumbledore's hand closed on his shoulder.

'It takes great courage, Miss Granger,' he said, 'to admit our mistakes – and even greater courage to try and make up for them. As you know, I have always considered Severus to be one of the bravest of the Order for just that reason: and Severus did not have to leave his own son behind when he left Voldemort's service, as Lucius has done.'

Lucius dropped his eyes, gracefully, in acknowledgement, then, as Dumbledore's hand gave his shoulder one last pat, he went on.

'As your headmaster so graciously says, I – together with a number of my former colleagues – have quite definitively left Voldemort's service. In fact, as you may already know, we openly ranged ourselves against him, alongside the Order of the Phoenix, at the Battle of Godric's Hollow.' He paused, waiting for Hermione to congratulate him. She didn't say anything.

'Do sit down, Miss Granger,' said Dumbledore. She sat down.

'Now,' said Lucius, 'the Ministry has asked us to take an active part in the Truth and Reconciliation process. It's as part of that process that I am visiting Hogwarts. Especially since such a heroic part in the recent struggle has been taken by young people, we want to make sure that integration of pure-blood wizards with those of other heritages happens as smoothly and successfully as possible, right from the start.'

'What do you want me to do?'

'Oh, nothing at all, in that sense,' said Lucius reassuringly. (In what sense? Hermione wondered.) 'Just to answer one or two questions, if you wouldn't mind?'

'All right,' said Hermione in a mutter, and Lucius licked his finger and turned over a sheet of paper in front of him.

'Thank you. Firstly, have you ever been the victim of bullying based on your blood status or heritage?'

'Your son used to call me a Mudblood on a daily basis, if that counts,' said Hermione, and Lucius's face tightened for a flash of a moment.

'Thank you,' he said, 'but that's not quite the sort of thing I meant. For instance, I understand you once punched – well, let us avoid names; one of your classmates – in the face. Was that kind of physical violence ever shown to you?'

'No,' said Hermione reluctantly.

Lucius gave an almost-inaudible 'I see,' and wrote something down on his paper. 'Secondly, then,' he went on, 'have you ever noticed favour being shown to pupils because of their blood status or heritage? Pure-bloods being given higher marks than Muggles or mixed-blood witches and wizards?'

'I hardly think that's likely, Lucius,' said Dumbledore jovially. 'Miss Granger is, of course, Muggle-born, and she has been carrying off the top marks in every class since she first arrived at Hogwarts.'

'Congratulations,' murmured Lucius. 'But – the second place, perhaps?'

Hermione shook her head.

'Good,' said Lucius, 'good. And finally, can you think of anything that might make your life, as a Muggle-born witch, easier here at Hogwarts?'

He looked at her smoothly, and her mind went blank. She shook her head again, and stood up. Lucius raised one eyebrow very slightly.

'I see we mustn't keep you,' he said, and stood up to shake her hand across the desk, pausing on the way to pluck a stray hair off her lapel. 'Allow me,' he said, and she suppressed a shudder at the brief, light touch of his finger.

'Thank you very much for your co-operation, Miss Granger,' said Dumbledore. 'I appreciate that it cannot be easy for you.'

'Thanks,' she said blindly and got out of the door, out and away, and immediately began to think: A telephone. Visits home. A bus to Edinburgh.

*

Hermione took hold of the heavy iron knocker, knocked (short, long, short-short), and waited until the knocker's iron eyes blinked at her.

'Visiting?'

'Harry P—Evans,' she said.

'Password?'

'Hutton.'

The door creaked open and she was in, in the staff tower at the south-west edge of the castle, where in all her years of bounds-breaking and eavesdropping and pilfering she had never been before. She climbed the dark, narrow, unmagical staircase to the third floor and found herself on a dark, narrow, unmagical landing with four doors. McGonagall to the right, Harry had said, Sinistra straight ahead, Sprout behind you, and we're on the left. Four dark, quiet doors behind which the teachers' lives went on, unimaginable in their banality. McGonagall, doing the washing-up. Snape, brushing his teeth.

Hermione, ridiculously, summoned her courage and knocked at the left-hand door. And there was Harry, framed in the doorway of Snape's rooms in the staff tower.

They hugged on the doorstep; the feel of Harry's thin body sent fierce, sudden memories through her and she blushed and stepped back quickly.

'Come through,' he said, leading her through a dim corridor into a kitchen. 'Severus has detentions to supervise tonight, so he won't be here for a while. Do you want a cup of tea?'

'Yes, please,' said Hermione. She sat down at a stool at a long, narrow table which ran all down the centre of the long, narrow room and watched Harry making tea; the little coaxing wiggle he gave the knob to light the burner under the kettle, the knowledge in his fingers as he found cups and teapot in one cabinet, opened another, full of tiny drawers, like a miniature version of the cupboard where Snape kept his private Potions stores, and spooned leaves from one of the drawers into the pot.

He really lives here now.

Harry slid a cup of tea across the table to her and sat down opposite her. They were inhabiting a small island of tidiness in the middle of the table; at each end, parchments unrolled themselves in springy piles among glass jars of powders and leaves, labelled in Snape's spiky handwriting. On the counter by the sink a cauldron bubbled quietly to itself over another burner, trailing heavy violet smoke. Snape's kitchen.

Snape and Harry's kitchen.

'So,' said Hermione, 'how's married life?'

'Fine,' said Harry. His glasses flashed suspiciously. 'How's school?'

'Oh, fuck off,' said Hermione. 'You're still at school as well, you know.'

'Technically,' said Harry, airily. 'Okay, then, how's dormitory life?' He smiled at her smugly, then – as she tripped on her tongue, trying to answer – smugness faded out of his face, concern faded in. He put down his cup of tea and studied her.

'That bad,' he said.

Hermione shrugged, drank some tea, tried to find a way out of the conversation.

'It could be worse,' she said. 'At least I don't run the risk of bumping into McGonagall on the stairs. In her nightie.'

Harry shuddered. 'Oh, God, don't,' he said. 'Did I tell you, she's invited us over? For sherry?'

'Seriously?'

'Seriously.'

'Oh well,' said Hermione, 'that'll teach you to get married. Just think, you'll be trapped in McGonagall's tartan sitting room drinking sherry out of tiny glasses, while we…' She paused.

'While you're all sitting round in the Gryffindor common room listening to Lavender and Parvati pronouncing on who's – omigod – gay, hee hee hee, and Ron and Dean having a farting contest?' said Harry. 'I think I'll take the sherry, thanks.' He paused, looking down, tracing the rim of his teacup with one fingertip, then looked up, almost shyly.

'It's actually… okay, you know,' he said. 'I mean, I know it's kind of boring and everything, but I don't really mind boring, at the moment.'

'Huh,' said Hermione cautiously.

'Yeah,' said Harry. He hesitated, then went on. 'You know how, when I was little, before I came to Hogwarts, I, like, had to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs, and do all the cooking, and everything?'

Hermione stared at him. Harry never talked about the Dursleys. Her heart began to beat.

'Well,' said Harry. He was fidgeting with a jar of tansy, lining it up with the edge of the table then knocking it out of alignment, again and again. 'Severus says that was kind of like what happened to me here, you know, with the war and everything. Like having too much responsibility and none at all, at the same time.' He glanced up at Hermione, a quick, searching look, then away. 'So.' He shrugged. 'I like this. Being… domestic, and everything. Does that sound stupid?'

'No,' said Hermione automatically. (But – Snape? Of all the people to be domestic with, Snape?)

'Really?'

'Really,' she said, then, trying to find a way to let him know that she'd been listening: 'It doesn't sound boring to me. It sounds like – safe.' To her horror, her voice cracked on the last word and out of nowhere she was almost crying.

'Yeah,' said Harry, then, looking at her closer, 'Are you okay, Hermione?'

She took a breath, and opened her mouth, and just then (but she'd only been going to say yes, anyway: yes, of course, I'm okay) there was the sound of the front door opening, Snape's voice calling.

'Hello? Angel divine?'

'Angel divine?' Hermione mouthed at Harry. He went red.

'Are you in?' Snape went on.

'I'm in here, Severus,' called Harry, and, just as Snape appeared at the kitchen door, 'and Hermione's here too.'

'Ah,' said Snape. His face went instantly blank, but not before Hermione had intercepted the look he had meant for Harry: it made her warm and ashamed and inexplicably cross.

'I was just going,' she blurted.

'Not on my account, I hope,' said Snape, still framed in the doorway.

'Yes, stay,' said Harry. 'It's okay, Hermione. Sev's probably got loads of marking, anyway.'

'Loads,' agreed Snape.

'No,' said Hermione, 'no, really, I have to—' She got up, disentangling her jacket from the back of her seat and pulling it round her, fumbling. 'Thanks for the tea.'

*

The next night Hermione was in the Gryffindor common room pretending to do homework and actually reading an eighteenth-century wizard novel called Manfred Muggle, when she gradually became aware that the pattern of giggles and silences was beginning to focus on her. So it was going to be one of those nights.

It didn't happen every night, but it could happen any night. There didn't seem to be any pattern to it, and that made it harder, because she was always walking around angry and hurt and scared and when people just tried to be nice to her, when Luna started up one of her spacy conversations or one of the Ravenclaw fifth-years offered her a mint, she just snarled at them, until it started feeling like her own fault, because maybe she really was sort of a bitch these days.

Hermione tightened the muscles in her shoulders and propped her book up more squarely in front of her face and read on, harder. Manfred Muggle was being hilariously outwitted by a group of wizards who seemed to have the same kind of sense of humour as the Weasley twins, or Harry's dad and his friends back in the seventies.

… think she ever had a threesome…?

She'd used to think that most people liked her. But now Harry had essentially dropped out of school and Ron had, well, dropped in, hard and with both feet (Quidditch team, prefect, tipped to be Head Boy next year), she didn't seem to have any friends.

I dare you to ask her.

Giggling.

Manfred Muggle was upside-down in a tree, wondering how he could have tripped and fallen upwards.

'Hey, Hermione?' It was a fifth-year, Rose Kennedy. She'd never even spoken to Hermione before she'd gone to Azkaban and come back fair game.

'What.'

'When Harry and Snape were getting it on—' her three friends collapsed in giggles behind her— 'didn't they ever ask you to join in?'

Oh, God, it was so stupid. They were so stupid, they were idiots. How could this be getting to her?

She closed her book and got up, leaving the common room amid applause and catcalls, and climbing the stairs to the girls' dormitory.

'Dormitories out of bounds during prep,' said the comfortable lady in the portrait on the door.

'I just need to get my jacket. I'm going over to the library.'

'Library out of bounds during prep.'

'I'm a prefect,' said Hermione through clenched teeth. 'Let me get my fucking jacket.'

'Language,' said the comfortable lady serenely, and opened the door. Hermione bolted up the stairs, grabbed her jacket, and ran back down, through the common room and out, out, into the big cold night, and round a corner and then another, to the staff tower, where she gave the password and climbed the stairs and knocked on Snape's door. There was a pause, and then Harry (thank God) opened it.

'Hermione,' he said.

'Can I come in?'

'Are you… Of course,' said Harry, stepping back and letting her through the door, 'but are you okay?'

'Yes,' she said automatically, 'it's just—' They were passing the door to the sitting-room, and Harry put his head in. She hovered behind him, awkwardly: Snape, sitting in an armchair, in a white shirt with the top button open, facing a bit of the room Hermione couldn't see, turned his head over one shoulder to look up at them.

'Hermione's here,' said Harry.

'So I see,' said Snape.

'We're going to be in the kitchen, okay? See you later, Sev, Professor Sinistra.'

'See you later, Harry,' Sinistra's voice came from the bit of the room Hermione couldn't see into.

'Is that okay?' Hermione whispered as they went down the short corridor to the kitchen. 'I didn't know you had—'

'It's fine,' said Harry, firmly, going to a cupboard on the wall. 'They'll be happier not trying to include me anyway. They're just going to have the same incredibly boring argument that they have, like, every week, about whether Potions work by astrological correspondences which some wizard worked out in, like, the fourteenth century or something.'

'Sixteenth century,' said Hermione. 'John Dee.'

Harry rolled his eyes. 'Whoever. Do you want a beer, or do you want to go and join in the history lesson?'

'No, thanks,' said Hermione hurriedly. 'I mean, yes please, I'd like a beer.'

Harry pulled two bottles of beer, clinking, out of the cupboard and put them down on the table. He pulled his wand out of his pocket and pointed it at them.

'Frigo,' he said; a white film spread over the glass and it began to sweat. He handed one of the bottles across to Hermione, flipping its top off with a muttered 'Aperio.'

'Show-off,' said Hermione, and took a drink of the beer, beginning to relax.

'So,' said Harry, 'what were you saying?'

'What? Oh, nothing. Just— Nothing.'

Harry looked at her, considering, and then took a drink of his beer.

'Okay,' he said. 'Will you do my Charms homework for me, then?'

Hermione grinned. 'Yeah. If you help me with my Potions homework.'

*

After that, she started going over to Harry and Snape's quite often. Sometimes Harry would sit with her in the kitchen and they would talk or do homework, and Snape would come in from time to time to make a cup of tea or do something to the cauldron that was always bubbling away next to the sink, and say something to her, something polite (if he didn't mind her staying) or ironic (if he did, in which case she would leave and go to the library or wander round the grounds).

Then one afternoon she was in a double Potions class, whisking mandrake juice into a foam with an actual whisk and thinking about Molly Weasley's kitchen and whether it would be possible to enchant a whisk to foam things and whether Potions was really just an enormous waste of time, when a note landed on her desk, flapped its paper wings once, and unfolded itself.

'Thank you,' said Snape, smoothly intercepting it before Hermione could pick it up. He read it slowly and deliberately to himself, standing at the front of the room, one eyebrow raised: giggles, more-or-less muffled, broke out in the back row. When he'd finished, theatrically bored, he flicked it into the flame under his cauldron and it burned to ash immediately.

'Five points from Ravenclaw for wasting my time,' he said, and went back to his desk. He didn't say anything to Hermione about it, but as she was leaving his rooms that evening he caught her in the hall.

'If you ever needed to get in here when Harry and I were out,' he said abruptly, 'the password for the inner door is Crofts.' He turned round crossly and started to walk away.

'Thanks,' said Hermione.

'Don't mention it,' said Snape, without looking back.

*

It was Wednesday afternoon and she was in the library, a little wall of parchments and scrolls around her like a fort. She was supposed to be doing her Defence Against the Dark Arts homework, but mostly she was staring into space or doodling on the edge of her parchment.

By the time she noticed them, she realized that the giggles had been going on for a while, shading into audibility, then getting louder.

Hermione, someone whispered. Giggles. Hermione, again, in a louder whisper, then out loud. Madam Pince glanced up from the main desk, registered what was going on, and looked down again.

'Hermione,' the girl said again, and Hermione looked up, just as a foil-wrapped condom landed on the open book in front of her and the five fifth-form Hufflepuffs exploded into laughter.

'Oh, fuck off,' she said, and Madam Pince looked up and said 'Shh.'

'It wasn't—'

'Don't argue with me, Miss Granger,' said Madam Pince. 'You know the rules. Quiet in the library.' Her eyes travelled over Hermione, hot and blushing and angry and ashamed, and the Hufflepuff girls, and then she looked back down at her desk with a satisfied little smile.

So there was another place she couldn't go any more.

She picked up her jacket, tumbled her stuff off the table into her bag and swung it over her shoulder, and walked out and round and through the main door and up the stairs to the left-hand door on the dark, narrow landing. She knocked and waited. No-one answered.

'Crofts,' she tried. The door swung open.

'Hello?' she said tentatively. 'Is anyone in? It's Hermione,' but there was an empty feel to the flat, and her voice echoed, so she stepped in and closed the door behind her.

And there she was, in Snape and Harry's rooms, all alone, with two passworded doors between herself and all the other students at the school. The silence was absolute.

She went into the sitting-room, put her bag down on the sofa, and looked out of the window, just to reassure herself that the grounds were still out there. There they were, and there was Harry, it looked like – a thin boy on a broom, skimming low over the lake, showing off. And actually, Snape taught on Wednesdays and then supervised detention and then had top table duty at dinner. So she could be here, all alone, with two passworded doors between herself and all the other students in the school, for hours. She felt her shoulders drop; she hadn't even noticed that they'd been hunched so tight and high around her ears.

She ambled (because she could be here, all alone, for hours) over to the shelves on the right-hand wall. Snape's books. Gerard's Herbal. Shennong Bencao Jing. She picked up Hildegard of Bingen: Physica, a heavy, compact little book, and opened it: it was in Latin, covered in underlinings and annotations in Snape's spiky handwriting, in faded, rusty ink. She put it carefully back in its place and kept looking.

A History of the Dark Arts. Monas Hieroglyphica. On the Summoning of Demons. The Left-Hand Path. On Blood and Blood Treason. The Classification of Magical Creatures (what was that doing there? Oh, of course, it was Phineas Black, again, the one Draco approved of so strenuously; the one who wanted to have Muggles and Goblins reclassified as Creatures, alongside House Elves). The Qabala and the Dark Arts. On Death. Some of these fizzed and prickled at her as she ran a finger along the shelf. She didn't touch them.

The next shelf down, at about waist height, held no books at all, just a shallow, stone basin, carved with runes around the edge. She squatted to look at the books below (novels: The Picture of Dorian Gray; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) when something twinged in her memory and she looked again at the basin.

It was full of grey-white curls, like smoke, but heavy and contained. A Pensieve.

What are you doing, Hermione? she thought as she reached a finger towards it. Haven't you had enough of sneaking around, eavesdropping, putting your grubby fingers into other people's lives?

And then she was somewhere else altogether. Someone else altogether.

A rush of noise in her head, someone else's half-articulated thoughts and sensations. A tune she didn't recognize. The dizziness of seeing a room from slightly too high up, a wrong-shaped body under someone else's control. She felt herself on the edge of panic. She felt her own body stagger and clutch the edge of the bookshelf, in Snape's rooms, her own body that was somehow containing this body, this room, this time.

In the rush and the dizziness, at first she couldn't tell what she was looking at; she could only feel the wave of warmth, joy, incredulity, washing through the body she was in, hear the mutter of not-quite-thoughts running through the head she was in: mine, mine, beautiful warm alive, mine, want. Her own panic going on quite irrelevantly, an annotation in the margin of this oblivious text.

And then her cock began to get hard. She felt it like her own arousal (the ache in her lower abdomen, the extra sensitivity of her clit) somehow materializing, pushing out of her body into this new shape, this crude metaphor for desire.

It pulled everything into focus, the urgency, the overlay of her own body with this body. She felt herself slide into place somehow, felt herself find a way to ride this strange flow of experience, sensation, thought-noise, where she could not even choose when to blink, and now she could see what she was looking at.

It was Harry. Naked on a bed in front of her. In front of, oh dear God it must be, Snape.

Oh, fuck, I'm in Snape's memories, and why the hell did he leave this in the Pensieve?

Harry, naked and smiling, familiar yet not. It was like looking at a portrait, a painting: it was something strange and new and never-seen-before in its detail, its patterns of line and colour (such long legs! And the little explosions of dark hair under his arms and at his crotch, and his throat white and shining), but all the same the Harryness of him took her breath away.

This is how Snape sees him.

Snape's eyes blinked, a long, slow blink, and the image of Harry became abstract and imagined, a white statue-boy on a black background, then faded away altogether into darkness, then reappeared as Snape's eyes opened.

'Harry,' breathed Snape, not-quite-aloud. His voice sounded different from inside his head, more felt than heard: shivery, not so designed.

The boy on the bed grinned, open and easy, like Harry when he'd caught the Snitch, Harry pushing loudly through the corridors with Weasley and Granger, Harry waking up in Snape's rumpled bed the morning after the wedding: a cascade of memories not her own, and the fast, hard beat of a heart not her own shaking this body.

Snape's fingers fumbled at the buttons of his robe, six, seven, eight, nine, and off, and then the little cold buttons of his shirt, the cloth-covered buttons of his trousers, and Harry watching warmed his skin with a kind of fearless, shy delight.

That boy. That boy, and then Snape climbed onto the bed and Harry hurled himself onto him. A tussle of limbs, warm and strong; a soft fight, a soft explosion of sensation in Snape's head/body, like a pillow bursting in a pillow-fight, all his thoughts scattering into the silent drift of feathers; soft kisses against his cheekbone, his collarbone, Harry's hair trailing softly against the hollow of his throat.

And then he was on his back, with Harry's familiar weight on him, Harry's hands holding his wrists down above his head, Harry smiling down at him. Everything still apart from Harry's cock, dragging and rubbing rhythmically against his hip, so that the smooth skin of Harry's stomach dragged and rubbed against the head of his own cock.

And Hermione felt herself loosening, melting, coming apart, her own body-memories of that cock pushing against her hip (then against the entrance to her cunt, then in) translated and remapped across this body, its memories, its desires. And Harry looking at her (at Snape) so intensely, as if she (as if Snape) was the only thing in the world to look at. And the big bed, and the shut door between them and the rest of the school, and no prefect or teacher or Filch patrolling and spotting light under a door at two in the morning, and the way that Snape's head emptied of thought at Harry's touch on his cock (he was holding it now, holding it tight and beginning to move his fist, and Hermione could feel the skin on her thighs goosepimpling).

Snape bucked his hips, once, shoving up into Harry's hand, and Hermione could feel the need in his cock/her abdomen to rush over the edge, to have the pleasure now, at once, now, but then he stilled himself with an effort.

'Slow down, brat,' he said between his teeth.

'Don't want to,' said Harry.

'Of course you don't,' said Snape, and all his muscles bunched and then released in a practiced kind of way, and Harry was tipped off onto his back, with Snape hunched over him, holding him down, 'but you're going to.'

Harry smiled at Snape and Snape smiled at Harry. Ridiculous, to be so happy. Ridiculous altogether. You and this boy. This boy and you. Death Eater, Snivellus, teacher: the way the children look at you, as though you were as old as Albus. A sudden memory: being at the front of a class, awkward and self-conscious in stiff, expensive new robes, back at school again with everything fucked up, and the room full of bullying faces. Taking a deep breath full of scorn and anger and darkness. There will be no foolish wand-waving or silly incantations in this class. And the moment when he felt them believing him, believing that he was a dangerous adult, not a scared boy three wasted years older than them. And then—But the memory and its feelings broke up and dissolved back into the present, Harry's voice, his breath on Snape's cheek.

'I don't want to slow down,' Harry was saying again, wriggling to get his cock wedged into the hollow of Snape's hip. 'I want to make you come, in my hand, or in my mouth. I want to see you all cross and flustered because I went too fast for you. I want to get everything I want,' and Snape's mind joined in with the last line: ... to get everything I want, and he leaned down and kissed Harry.

'Everything,' he agreed. 'But if you're serious about this Pensieve idea, wouldn't you rather...' let me fuck you? but the last bit wasn't aloud, it was a rush of words and memories and feelings, heat and closeness and darkness.

'Oh,' said Harry, understanding, and his eyes went huge and dark. 'Oh, yes.'

Snape licked his lips, and Hermione felt the sudden vertigo in his stomach, in her own stomach: an edgy, excited feeling a little like fear, but fear like getting a test back and secretly knowing you'd done okay, not fear like the split-second sight of a basilisk, or even like asking your boyfriend if Draco was still in Azkaban.

Snape sat up and leaned over to the bedside-table (cluttered with things that he didn't notice, but Hermione saw: a glass of water, a pair of green-and-silver cufflinks, a Biro with a chewed lid, a scatter of small coins, a paperback book). He opened the drawer, which was full mostly of springy-edged, curly parchments (Hermione knew, because Snape knew, that they were pamphlets and papers on magical theory, mainly Potions theory), and took out a small glass jar: meanwhile Harry was a storm of movement in the corner of his eye, busy and serious, scooping armfuls of pillows into the centre of the bed, flinging himself on top of them, bouncing back up, rearranging them, flinging himself down, bouncing back up. That boy.

Snape unscrewed the lid of the jar, dipped his fingers into the cool, slippery, not-quite-sticky stuff inside, and smeared it onto the shaft of his cock, then rubbed it over the already-sticky head: familiar to Snape's fingers, strange to Hermione, Snape's cock had the same plushy soft-over-hard feel as Harry's, but it was somehow flatter in his hand, and... smaller, or was it that Snape's hand was bigger than hers?... and the tug-and-slide of its loose skin ended just below the head.

Still dizzy, with the vertigo feeling tight in his stomach, Snape shuffled on his knees into the centre of the bed, balancing, careful, holding the open jar of lubricant, until he was kneeling between Harry's legs: Harry was lying on his stomach over the pile of pillows, propped on elbows and knees, muscles tense and standing out in his buttocks, in his skinny thighs. He was absolutely still, but Snape could feel the air around him quiver and prickle in a heat-haze of waiting.

Snape dipped his fingers into the jar again and drew circles with his index finger around the wrinkle of Harry's arse, then pushed it slowly in, past the ring of muscle at the start, which tightened, then opened a little, then tightened again on Snape's knuckle, squeezing like a hand, and Snape pushed past there to warmth and tightness and unbelievable smoothness, like nothing Hermione had ever felt before.

Harry made a muffled little noise into the pillows, and Snape heard himself groan, and Harry gave a little breathless laugh, and Snape laughed too, helplessly (at his own helplessness, at Harry's power over him, at Harry's delight in it, at his own delight in it), then said: 'Shut up, Evans.'

'You shut up,' said Harry.

Without taking his finger out, Snape draped himself over Harry, his chest against Harry's warm, smooth back, nuzzled his face into the crook of Harry's neck, and bit him, gently, where his neck met his shoulder.

'Shut up,' he whispered into Harry's ear.

'I love you,' said Harry, and his arse clenched down tight on Snape's finger, and warmth hit Snape in the chest and stopped him breathing.

'I love you too,' said Snape, pulling his index finger out just far enough to push it back in, together with his middle finger. 'Brat,' he added.

'Oh, God,' said Harry, 'oh, fuck.' Snape could see the side of his face, his eyes squeezed shut, his teeth biting his lip, sweat beginning at his hairline.

'Are you ready?' he asked, his voice sounding hoarse in his ears, gauche. Death Eater. Snivellus.

'Oh, God, yes.'

Gratitude was the closest Hermione could come to a name for the feeling. Snape rocked back on his knees, planted one hand on the mattress by Harry's waist and balanced, guiding his cock into place with the other hand. It butted against the wetness of Harry's arse once, then twice, then three times, and it was sliding slowly in as that ring of muscle began to open, and Hermione felt Snape wanting to go harder and faster, to bury his cock in Harry in a single thrust, to fuck him and bite him and blot him out and lose himself in this secret heat (life eater went through his head as his heartbeat went through his body, life eater); but he didn't, he went slow and careful, listening for every little quiver in the boy, letting Harry open up a fraction of a second before Snape followed, pushing further in, until at last, at last, he was in as far as he could get, and his cock was settled snug and tight in Harry, and his body was settled snug and tight against Harry's, his chest against Harry's back, his lips against Harry's ear, his arm tight and snug around Harry's chest.

'Yes,' whispered Harry, and Snape gasped, and Hermione gasped too, feeling her cock held in that blind, tight, grip, as if someone had reached into her body and found all its deep aching places and gathered them into a single place, compact and small enough to be held in one hand, held and rubbed and, and now Snape was moving and she was drowning in thick pleasure, he was pumping his hips and Harry was shoving back against him, hard and fast, harder and faster, over and over again, and Harry was saying 'yes, yes,' louder and louder, 'yes, I want you to, I want you to, I want you to,' and Snape felt like a landslide, like a storm.

'Harry,' he said, 'Harry.'

'Severus.'

'Oh, fuck, Harry, I'm going to come.. let me...' Blearily, Snape tried to get his hand down to Harry's cock, but bumped into Harry's hand, already working there, and 'No need,' said Harry, laughter at the edge of his voice.

'Wicked boy,' said Snape, and Harry cried out ('Oh, Jesus') and wriggled under Snape, and Snape choked 'Oh, fuck, now, Harry, now,' and came in three hard thrusts into Harry's arse, the feeling boiling up from his balls and emptying in spurts of wet release from the head of his cock, while Hermione's orgasm radiated out from the hardness of her clit, the tightness in the pit of her stomach, the strong, hard contractions somewhere inside, to fill her whole body with blankness and pleasure as Harry shouted and pushed up against Snape, taut and balanced, and then collapsed back into the pillows, warm and limp under Snape.

Snape stirred, getting ready to fidget his cock out of Harry, but Harry mumbled protestingly and he stopped.

'Aren't I heavy?'

'Want you to stay in me,' said Harry firmly, reaching back with one arm to pat Snape's hip. 'Nice,' he added, more to the pillow than to Snape.

'All right,' said Snape, and fitted himself more closely to the arch of Harry over the pillows, taking some of his weight onto his knees and elbows and resting his cheek against Harry's shoulder, so that Harry's hair was tickling his nose and he was breathing the strong, sweaty smell of him, feeling peaceful and sleepy and... something, some feeling...

Hermione felt Snape struggling to put the feeling into words, at the same time as she was putting it into her own.

Like the world isn't on the verge of ending, thought Snape.

Like whatever happens, Hermione thought, there would be a safe place left to go.

And then, with absolute abruptness, it was over and Hermione was back in only one body, her own, clothed and sticky and out of place in Harry and Snape's living room. Twilight was closing in, and there were tears on her face.

*

The next day she had Defence against the Dark Arts straight after breakfast. She dawdled down the corridor from the Great Hall, thinking about Snape, her unpleasant, impatient, vicious teacher, the way she still blushed and hid inside and wanted to kill him when she thought of him looking at her grotesque overgrown teeth, the day Draco Malfoy had hit her with the Densaugeo jinx, and him saying I see no difference, no difference at all; and the Snape she had been yesterday. His hand on his own cock. His nervous delight under Harry's eyes.

She came into the classroom and sat in her usual place at the back. Harry wasn't there yet, so she pulled her book out of her bag and looked at it, but she was still thinking about the Pensieve: it hadn't been at all like Harry had described it, when he'd looked into it in Dumbledore's study. Not like a three-dimensional film at all.

Maybe there are different ways of using it? Because how could you get a film out of your own memories, anyway? I mean, you can't see yourself in your own memories. Maybe Dumbledore was using it more like... a scrying pool? Scrying into his own past? I wonder how that would work...

She started doodling in her Dark Arts notebook, thinking about the scrying she and Hestia had done, the way it had to be triangulated via Arithmantic points, trying to diagram the way it had worked, wondering how you might do something like that with the Pensieve: then the door slammed and the class went silent and she suddenly felt hot and caught and guilty, and as she turned to look towards Snape she heard herself thinking: I don't care. You owe me. You owe me.

But it wasn't Snape. It was Hestia, wearing black trousers and boots and a long black top all seams and ragged edges, a bit like a witch's robe and a bit like a Muggle jacket, striding down the aisle of the classroom, really quite Snapeishly. At least until she saw Hermione and winked at her.

Hermione stared back in utter surprise.

Hestia reached the front of the class and wrote her name (H Jones) in big, flourishy letters on the blackboard, then turned to face the students.

'I'm Miss— I mean, Professor Jones,' she announced. 'I'm taking over from Professor Snape as Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher until the winter vacation, when Professor Dumbledore hopes to have employed a permanent member of staff to take over. I understand you've had quite a disrupted year so far—' groans of agreement from the class—'but, you know, there has been a war on and everything... Yes, um, Mr Weasley?'

'Why can't Dumbledore teach us again himself?' Ron, from the front row. A few people made agreeing noises.

'What part of there's been a war on don't you understand?' said Hestia sternly. 'Professor Dumbledore is the head of the Wizengamot as well as being your headmaster, and the Battle of Godric's Hollow has shifted his priorities slightly. Okay? Any more questions?' She looked at the class, who all looked down at their books.

'Good. Now, Professor Snape tells me you're working from Alaric Penfold's Defence textbook, so can you all turn to page three hundred, and we'll do a little bit of theory.'

It was actually a pretty good lesson. Hestia didn't pay any particular attention to Hermione, and Hermione wasn't in the mood to answer any of the questions in class, but at the end, when they were all leaving for morning break, Hestia stood back to let Hermione out of the door first, with a smile like one friend to another.

'See you, Hermione,' she said, and went off down the corridor towards the staffroom, leaving Hermione to the curious stares of Lavender and Parvati.

'Do you know her?' Parvati asked.

'Yes,' said Hermione cautiously.

'I don't know what she's doing teaching here,' announced Lavender. 'I heard she's head of a secret organization that wants to repeal the Statute of Secrecy and abolish Hogwarts and make everybody live like Muggles.'

'Oh, shut up, Lavender,' said Parvati.

What? thought Hermione.

'What?' said Lavender.

'I'm so bored of all this political stuff,' said Parvati. 'Quirrell's a Death Eater, Snape's a Death Eater, Umbridge is in league with the Ministry to abolish Dumbledore, Jones is in a secret Muggle terrorist organization... I don't care, okay? At least she's not nine hundred years old and she's halfway bloody competent, and I might be able to pass my NEWTs next year rather than...' she waved her hands, looking for the words... 'being eaten by a werewolf.'

Hermione burst out laughing. Lavender glared at her.

*

Harry handed Hermione a beer. She took it absent-mindedly ('Thanks'), and turned the page in Advanced Arithmantic Equations. Harry sat back down at the other end of the table, took out a Snitch, and let it go: it hovered in the air for a moment before starting on its buzzy, random way around the kitchen. Harry was following it with his wand, trying to Transfigure it in mid-flight; he kept missing, making little ozone-smelling sizzles as the undirected magic burned itself out in the air.

Oddly enough, it wasn't all that annoying.

Hermione took a drink of her beer, pushed her hair back, and frowned at her homework. 'Twenty-seven occulted,' she muttered.

'You want to factor that by threes first,' said Hestia's voice behind her, making her jump. 'Hello, Hermione. Hello, Harry.' She stood in the doorway for a moment watching Harry, then pulled her wand out, waved it vaguely in the direction of the Snitch, and said 'Apple!'

The Snitch suddenly dropped straight down and bounced on the counter, narrowly missing a little cluster of glass jars, then fell to the floor, making a slightly soggy noise. Hestia picked up the apple and handed it to Harry with a little bow.

'Very good, Professor Jones,' said Snape, coming into the room behind her. 'Always nice to see a Latinless Transfiguration. Perhaps, though, you and Harry might be able to find a manner of passing the time that doesn't involve endangering my property? Just while I go and find those notes,' he added.

Hestia blushed violently, muttered, 'Sorry, Professor,' and sat down promptly and neatly in the seat next to Hermione.

'Hello, Professor,' said Harry cheerfully.

'Oh, shut up, Pott—Evans,' said Hestia, then, recovering a bit, 'And why weren't you in class today, anyway?'

'Order business,' said Harry airily.

'Really?' said Hestia. 'Was it—' And then she went instantly silent, closing her mouth on the impossible words. 'Fuck,' she added, 'I forgot. Sorry, Hermione.'

Hermione mumbled something (dsn'tmtr) and started factoring her equation by three.

'Haven't they reinstated you?' demanded Harry.

Hermione shrugged.

'That's ridiculous,' said Harry hotly. 'You didn't do anything wrong!'

Yes I did, thought Hermione, I must have done, or people wouldn't be treating me like this, and it was shocking how sudden and bone-deep the thought was, even though she knew it was ridiculous.

I just wish I knew what it was.

'I'm going to talk to Albus about this,' Harry was going on.

'No,' said Hermione, 'don't.' She heard tears in her voice and stopped talking abruptly, taking a sip of beer to cover it, then took a breath and went on: 'Really, Harry. It's okay. I mean, I was only in the Order for a couple of weeks, really, and now, you know, the war's over and everything, so...' She shrugged again.

'Oh, all right,' said Harry irritably, shifting in his chair. He kicked the table leg and added: 'I don't think it's right, though. But if you don't want me to.'

'I don't,' said Hermione sharply.

'All right,' said Harry back, mimicking her.

'Hey,' said Hestia. 'The lady wants to drop it, Harry, okay?'

'That's no lady,' said Harry, but he smiled at Hermione, and she smiled briefly back.

'Here,' said Snape, coming back with a sheaf of papers.

'Thanks,' said Hestia, standing up to take them. 'I'll leave you to it, then. Um – thanks.'

'Not to mention it,' said Snape. He had his back to Hestia by now, heading over to the cauldron by the sink.

'I'll come with you,' said Hermione.

'Okay,' said Harry. 'Night, Hermione.'

'Night, Harry. Good night, um, sir.'

'Good night, Miss Granger,' said Snape without turning round, and Hermione followed Hestia through the hall and down the stairs and out.

'Oh, God,' said Hestia when they were safely out of the staff tower. 'Brr.' She shook herself, like a wet dog, as if trying to shake something off her skin. 'I will never get used to being a teacher. And I can't believe I took Snape's job.' She made a face at Hermione. 'Argh,' she added.

'What's going on?' asked Hermione. 'Or is it—'

'No, it's not Order business,' said Hestia. 'That's the weird thing. As far as I know, everything's all above-board, public-record stuff, Ministry business or Wizengamot. I don't know why the Order would be... Anyway,' she interrupted herself. 'It's just what I said in class, as far as I know. Now that half the Death Eaters have repented, Lucius Malfoy' – she spat into the bushes beside the path – 'is taking credit for the mutiny, so now he's a war hero and he's basically dictating his memoirs to the Aurors. Which means Dumbledore's deep in secret negotiations and deals and everything, which as you can imagine is suiting him down to the ground – probably that's where the Order comes in, because...' she stuttered and stopped, 'Bugger it. Anyway, he asked me to take over as Defence teacher. Just till Christmas. And I said yes, because, you know, the election's coming up and it's a good idea to get in with the Hogwarts parents and everything, and he totally didn't tell me that I would be taking the job away from Snape. I mean, I said, why can't Snape do it? And Albus was all like, oh, it's too much work with Potions, and I was like, okay, obviously he's still just refusing to give it to Snape for whatever fucked-up reason he has in his fucked-up head, and... ' Hestia sighed.

'What are the negotiations about?' asked Hermione.

'I wish I knew,' said Hestia. 'I'm really worried about them. I mean, okay, we've got rid of Voldemort so there's one fewer genocidal racist on the loose, which I suppose is something, but I just don't know what kind of concessions Malfoy's going to be able to get out of the Ministry and the Wizengamot – have you seen the Daily Prophet drooling all over him? Disgusting. Oh,' she added, 'they're having an amnesty on most of the prisoners taken after the Battle of the Ministry, though, so that's good. The kids will be back at school really soon, I think.'

Marietta Edgecombe, grey and skeletal, her eyes empty in her caved-in face. Draco Malfoy, saying Your people aren't even human. Mutants. Animals.*

The next morning Hermione went down to breakfast and there was Pansy Parkinson at the head of the Slytherin table, her hair carefully waved, her skin grey, sitting next to Daphne Greengrass and Blaise Zabini, and there was Marietta Edgecombe, a stick figure next to Cho on the Ravenclaw table, under the great purple banner of remembrance.

Hermione turned round and went out again. She hung around in the shadows by the staff tower until she saw Snape and Harry walking down towards the main building, on their way to first-period Potions, and then she went up to their rooms, and this time she didn't even ask herself what she was doing when she went to the Pensieve.

The clamour almost knocked her off her feet.

She was standing in an underground room, cold and stony, its details blurred in darkness and irrelevance around the only thing in focus: a tall, angry man, his hair falling into his eyes, staring her down. She was Harry. Not watching-Harry, like she had been with Snape last time: overwhelmed by Harry, barely able to hear her own thoughts above the noise and the hubbub of Harry. She was cold and stony and furious and scared, her head – his head – like rough water, swells of feeling and thought running chaotically into one another, their peaks and troughs cancelling one another out or doubling one another. Not fair and take that sneer off his stupid ugly face and going to die and need him, need him, need him and fuck them, fuck everyone, and make him kiss me again and bastard and secret and mine.

He took a step towards Snape. Snape's face flickered and he half-raised one hand for a moment, as if involuntarily, then lowered it again. 'I don't think so, Potter,' he said.

Fuck you. I can make you. If I want. What I want.

'What?' Harry said rudely. 'I'm ready.'

Snape's lips thinned. 'Very well,' and the anger crackling off him prickled over Harry's skin, raising the little hairs on his arms, his legs, the back of his neck.

'Legilimens,' said Snape, and Harry raised a wall of contempt and rage so solid that the shock as Snape's mind slammed into it took Hermione's breath away.

'Better,' said Snape, breathing hard, advancing on Harry. His mind kept up a steady push against Harry's; Harry pushed back, leaning into it, like leaning into the wind as you cornered round the Astronomy Tower on your broom, and suddenly there was Snape, slipping round the crack in his concentration and into his memories: cornering round the Astronomy Tower on his broom. Flying, all alone in the sky, in the cold, letting himself be sharpened on the wind, all alone, free and clear, Dementors all around the Quidditch field, falling...

'Ten seconds,' said Snape, letting go so suddenly that Harry gasped and staggered and grabbed at the back of a chair. 'Pathetic.'

'Fuck you,' said Harry.

'Don't speak to me like that, Potter.'

'Fuck you, sir.'

'Fortunately,' said Snape in a growl, 'Albus has not asked me to teach you manners—' inside Harry, a surprised golden bubble of laughter rose, then burst in acid-grey resentment, I hate him, I hate him — 'Legilimens!'

Again the feeling of clash and shock as Harry blocked, settling into an edgy equilibrium of forces, Snape pushing, Harry pushing back; then, suddenly, Hermione felt Harry give way deliberately and all at once, and there was the bluish, wet-metal tang of Snape's mind, shadowing the edges of the memories that Harry had let loose.

The feel of Snape's balls in Harry's hand, their loose skin, their prickly hair. Snape's mouth opening, his eyes dark and unfocussed, his hair falling dark and messy over his face; the small pained sound he made as his cock jerked and spurted in Harry's hand. Kissing Snape, balancing on the balls of his feet, feeling Snape's hard-on against him, pushing his tongue into Snape's mouth, scared and breathless and delighted. Standing two paces away from Snape, unfastening his trousers, getting his cock out; seeing Snape shiver, unable to look away, unable to move. (Snape fully dressed, turning away; Harry's heart hurting. Snape passing Harry in the corridor as if nothing had happened. Harry lying awake at four in the morning, wanting to cry.) The silky feel of Snape's hair under his palms, the satiny feel of Snape's mouth on his cock. Snape against the wall, against Harry; the warmth of his body, the coldness reflecting from the stone; the way Snape twisted and hissed and shoved his hips against Harry's when Harry got one hand in through a mostly-buttoned robe, a mostly-buttoned shirt, his fingers brushing through hair, and found Snape's nipple. Hidden. Secret. Mine. Snape's voice saying Stop it, Potter. Harry's voice saying Please.

Hermione felt Snape disengage, saw blackness as Harry closed his eyes, then opened them again, and there was Snape, three paces away from Harry, neat and buttoned and impeccable.

'Very funny,' he said. 'Are you going to try that one on the Dark Lord?'

Harry shook his head, looking Snape in the eye, waiting. Come here, you bastard. Come here.

There was a long pause, and then Snape shivered and something softened in the air between them.

'I can't,' said Snape quietly, as though he could hear Harry, and Harry bit his lip.

'Please,' he said aloud.

'Harry,' said Snape, but then he didn't say anything else. His hand crept up to his throat. Harry was watching him fiercely, barely thinking, just watching, as Snape stood there, still and silent in the dim room.

Hermione had absolutely no idea what might be going on in his head.

Snape sighed, and his eyes slid to the left and then to the right, as though he was checking to see whether anyone was in the room.

'Once is a mistake,' he said. 'Twice is deliberate.' And then he moved, three paces in one long stride, and Harry's head filled up and overflowed with the warmth of Snape's body so nearly touching his own, with the feel of Snape's palm on his cheek, Snape's fingers stroking his jawline.

'Twice is serious,' he said, and waited, and Harry only had to rise onto his toes and arch very slightly for their bodies to be touching, and Snape groaned quietly into Harry's mouth as Harry kissed him, and Hermione was nearly knocked off her feet by the rush and the heat and the noise, vast, big as the sky, like an organ playing the soundtrack to a silent film. Melodrama, she tried to think, but the tumult of thought and sensation carried her onwards, away from herself.

Yes. Yes. Need it. Need him. One of Harry's hands moving upwards into Snape's hair, making a nearly-gentle fist; the other moving down over Snape's arse, tracing the shallow curve of his buttock through his robe. Pushing his body as hard as he could against Snape's, feeling Snape pushing back, solid and hard and warm. Snape's arms around him, Snape's tongue in his mouth, Snape's cock getting hard against his stomach. I made him do this. Me. Do what I want. Give me. Need it. Mine. Images and memories coming faster than Hermione could keep track of them: the cupboard under the stairs, the door closing, the sound of the lock; Sirius falling into darkness, into cold; Dumbledore explaining about the prophecy, looking away. The darkness and cold that had always been waiting for him, coming closer. This body, this mouth, this man, solid and hard and warm, between Harry and the darkness.

Harry pulled out of the kiss, panting, and butted his head against Snape's shoulder. He could hear himself making stupid little noises, messy little noises that he couldn't keep in, as Snape's hands pulled his shirt out of his trousers and found skin, and they turned him on and annoyed him at the same time. Stupid boy. Messy little kid. Can't even do this right.

His cock was so hard it hurt. He undid his trousers and pulled Snape's hand down onto it, feeling the resistance in Snape's arm give way, hearing Snape groan into his ear as Snape's fingers locked around the shaft of his cock.

'Harry,' said Snape.

'Just,' said Harry, then shut his mouth so he wouldn't say anything else. Fuck me. Oh, God, you have to, you have to, you have to. Fuck me. Fuck me. Sir. Severus. He clung to Snape and buried his head in his shoulder, shutting his eyes, and Hermione could feel him wanting to be enfolded in Snape, blotted out. Wanting it hugely and noisily. Wanting to get to the good dark nothing place he was hurtling towards (teeth clenched, stomach tight, body taut and trembling). Wanting this painful wanting to be over, finished, done with, silenced. Now. He pushed his cock into Snape's fist impatiently. Do it. Do it.

'Fuck me,' he said half-aloud, into the dark, soft cotton of Snape's robe against his mouth, then, more daring, louder, sounding angry in his own ears, 'Fuck me.'

Snape's hand slowed, then stopped, tightening around Harry's cock, holding him still. He waited until Harry took his face out of Snape's shoulder and glared at him; then, his arm still strong around Harry's shoulders and his other hand still locked firm and tight around his cock, he dipped his head to kiss him, once, gently, on the mouth, and then shuffled-and-steered the two of them five paces across the cluttered room and settled Harry against the wall. He put his forearm across Harry's chest, just below his throat, like a safety bar on a roller-coaster, holding him still, and held Harry's gaze while he brought his other hand to his mouth and licked the palm before returning it, gloriously wet, to Harry's cock.

'Jesus,' said Harry before he could stop himself, and Snape bared his teeth in an almost-smile.

'I think actually, this time, Potter, we'll do it my way,' he said, and began to move his hand on Harry's cock, slowly, slowly, slowly. Harry wriggled and growled and said 'Faster', but it only slowed Snape's hand down even more, and the good dark nothing place receded into the distance until it wasn't just the other side of one more good jerk any more, and his cock became an infinite surface instead of a vehicle to get him there, to get him off, and the world narrowed down to the hot wet touch of Snape's fingers on him. He shut his eyes and went limp against the wall, letting go of himself, letting himself feel what Snape wanted him to feel.

Everything went timeless and wordless and edgeless. Three slow pulls on his cock, then Snape's thumb rubbing over the head. Four slow pulls, then fingers stroking his balls, finding their way behind them and circling his arsehole. (What if...? Is he going to...? Pictureless feelings/fantasies of himself being pushed down over a bench, Snape's cock sliding smooth and effortless into his arse, himself dissolving into darkness and pleasure.)

'That's it,' Snape murmured, 'oh, that's it...' and Harry heard himself whimpering as Snape took his hand away for a second, then returned it wetter and tighter and slicker and faster, pumping hard on Harry's cock. He was pushed up against Harry now, his other arm sliding in between the wall and Harry's back. Harry pushed his face into Snape's neck, breathing in his smell, feeling himself surrounded, contained, held. Feeling (he didn't let the word form, but Hermione knew what it was) safe.

'Please,' he said, and the sound of his own voice, or the knowledge that Snape was hearing him ask, pushed him over the edge, and he came in Snape's hand, and there was that strange double orgasm again, Harry's narrowing and gathering from the whole surface of his flushed skin to pour from his tightening balls, his tightening arse, out through the tip of his cock; Hermione's starting in that unnamed place in the pit of her stomach and widening out through her body, clit and nipples and fingers and toes. Hermione's clit jerking and twitching. Harry's cock melting into wetness.

And then, sudden as a curtain falling, they fell together into a sadness so vast and endless that she couldn't tell whether it was Harry's or hers. But then Snape pulled Harry in close, wrapping both his arms against him as Harry began to cry, painfully, and the scene ended and Hermione was standing by the bookshelf where she'd started, dazed and lonely and bitterly sad.

She let go of the Pensieve and sat down on the sofa, curling her legs up under herself and looking out of the window. She could see nothing but sky.

He never felt like that about me.

*

She was walking through the grounds. She didn't know what to do. Every time she tried to think anything, it sounded overdramatic and false, so she was going in circles in her head.

I can't do this. I can't go back in there.

Yeah? Where else are you going to go, Hermione?

But she couldn't see herself in the castle, in the classroom, talking to Harry, listening to Professor Vector, anything. It all just seemed like something that wouldn't ever happen again.

She ducked under a low branch, pushing a tail of ivy out of her way, and found herself on the path to the Hogsmeade road. Why not.

By the time she reached Hogsmeade it had been sleeting for about ten minutes. She wasn't wearing a coat and she was cold and wet, and Madam Puddifoot's was warm and lit and smelt of chocolate, but on the other hand she didn't have any money on her, either.

She stopped outside the window, looking at the menu. They know me in there. They'll let me pay next time.

But I'd have to smile and laugh and say oh, silly me, I left my purse at school, and I can't face it.

But oh God, it's so bloody cold and wet and I can't walk all the way back, I just can't.

Beside her, the bell on the door tinged.

'Hermione?'

Oh fuck, thought Hermione, and turned, ready to tell whoever it was that she was fine, no, not cold at all, just on her way back, and start the long trudge back to school and Harry and the Gryffindor common room and—

'I thought that was you,' said Hestia. 'Come in, I'll get you a cup of tea.' She turned round and went back into the shop before Hermione could say anything. Hermione hesitated for just a second, and then followed Hestia in, to a table near the window, with Hestia's laptop on it, and two empty cups, each with a ring of hardening marshmallow-and-cream near the rim.

Hestia saw Hermione looking. 'I know,' she said, 'but it's a really fucking horrible day, and the hot chocolate here is really good.'

'I didn't mean—' Hermione started, but Hestia was already ordering two more hot chocolates ('all right,' said Madam Puddifoot, 'but after that I'm cutting you off'). She sat down in the chair nearest the wall. Hermione sat down opposite her, feeling the warm air of the shop burning on the skin of her face. Her jumper was steaming slightly.

'Don't they teach you this one any more?' Hestia pointed her wand at Hermione. 'Siccatum,' and Hermione's clothes and hair were dry.

'Yes,' said Hermione. 'I just forgot.'

Hestia waited for a moment, then when Hermione didn't say anything else: 'God, I'm pleased to see you,' she said. 'I have to write a speech, and Tonks threw me out of the house because I was pairing all her socks and it was driving her mad, so I came here but I'm not getting anywhere. You've rescued me.'

I haven't rescued anyone. I'm just a schoolgirl at a what was it, a minor public school in the middle of nowhere. Just a stupid girl who doesn't matter to anyone and oh God, I feel so sad. Hermione swallowed.

Just then their drinks arrived, so Hermione didn't have to say anything: instead she took a spoonful of cream off the top of her hot chocolate and ate it, then had another one. It was viciously sweet – too sweet, she would usually have said, but just now it was actually sort of nice.

'Are you going back to school today?' said Hestia. She shut her laptop and slid it into a bag, then down onto the floor.

Hermione ate another spoonful of cream. 'No,' she heard herself say.

'Good,' said Hestia, 'because I could really do with your help. There's a public meeting next week – that's what I'm writing the speech for – and I have like a thousand flyers to fold and send out, and really there's just me and Tonks at the moment...' She made a hole in the tower of cream topping her hot chocolate with the end of her spoon, then took a long drink, emerging with cream on the end of her nose. Her eyes crossed as she wiped it off with her napkin.

'Okay,' said Hermione.

*

Hermione was sitting on the floor of the little house in Darnholme Lane, folding flyers into envelopes. Tonks was sitting on the sofa, reading the draft of Hestia's speech on the laptop; Hestia was perched on the arm of the sofa, reading over Tonks's shoulder.

'Go away,' said Tonks. 'I can't concentrate. Make our guest some tea, seeing as how you've already put her to work.'

Hestia went into the tiny kitchen and came out again immediately. She sat down on the floor opposite Hermione and began taking flyers off the stack between them and folding them, then got up again and went to look over Tonks's shoulder.

'Go away,' said Tonks. 'Have you even told Hermione what this meeting's about?'

'Oh,' said Hestia, 'no, I haven't.' She flopped down in the big armchair by the door and sighed heavily.

'What is it about?' asked Hermione.

'Reforms to the blood laws,' said Hestia gloomily. 'Part of Lucius Malfoy's—' she pretended to spit onto the floor, and so did Tonks—'new truth-and-reconciliation thing. Which makes me sick, actually,' she added parenthetically, 'because, a, what the fuck does Lucius Malfoy know about truth, and, b, why the fuck should I reconcile with someone who wants me dead? But anyway, this is all part of the deals Malfoy has been doing with the Wizengamot and the Order and God knows who; Fudge is seriously thinking about changing the blood laws in line with their recommendations. Which would be fucking lunacy. So I'm having a public debate with Fudge about it. Next Friday. God help me.'

'Don't say fucking lunacy in your speech,' said Tonks from the sofa.

'I thought you wanted the blood laws changed?' said Hermione.

'I want them abolished,' said Hestia.

'Okay,' said Tonks, 'I'm finished.'

Hestia leapt up from the chair.

'Make the bloody tea, Jones,' said Tonks, and Hestia went into the kitchen and clinked affrontedly, then came out with three cups and distributed them. Hermione put hers carefully on the bookshelf, just out of arms' length, and went on peacefully folding flyers into envelopes while she listened to Hestia and Tonks talking.

It didn't really solve anything. It didn't mean that she mattered any more than she had half an hour ago, or that Harry had ever loved her, or that when she got back to school there would be anyone on her side. But it was mindless and soothing, and she was warm and dry, and Hestia was so full of quick, warm energy that it was hard to stay frozen around her.

'Oh, no,' Hestia was moaning now.

'Yes,' said Tonks.

Hestia whimpered. 'I don't really have to put all this tragically and regrettably and stuff in, do I?'

'Yes,' said Tonks flatly.

'But it sounds like…'

'Like a politician,' said Tonks.

'Exactly!'

'Which is what you want to be, Jones.'

Hestia wriggled. 'Well... but not like that. I mean, obviously it's tragic, it's just so slimy to say so.'

'It's a convention,' said Tonks. 'If you don't say it's tragic, it's like giving the other side the opportunity to say you don't think it's tragic.'

Hestia covered her face with her hands. Tonks grinned at Hermione, and Hermione grinned back.

'Oh, God, I can't do this,' Hestia said muffledly. 'I don't want to be the Minister any more. I'll have to compromise my principles and wear robes and a stupid hat and go to meetings with Lucius Malfoy' (spit). 'I want to be an armchair revolutionary! Armchair!'

'No, you don't,' said Tonks.

'No, I don't,' agreed Hestia. 'Okay. Show me where I have to do this thing.'

Hermione looked up at them, sitting warm and close to one another, bent over the screen of the laptop, heads touching, Hestia's arm around Tonks's shoulder, her fingers stroking Tonks's arm. But just as her eyes were beginning to prickle, Tonks looked over to her and winked, and Hestia said: 'Hermione, after I'm done with this, can I ask you a favour?'

*

Hermione locked the cubicle door and sat down on the toilet, reading the graffiti while she peed. She'd taken to stopping off here on the way to breakfast most mornings: like the way Luna kept up with the latest soap-opera twists in the latest conspiracy theories in the Quibbler, or the way Harry used to track the progress of the war in the Daily Prophet, or Professor Sinistra following the lines of force in the stars, she tried to divine her future from the rune-scatter of words on the door of the last cubicle along in the ground-floor Gryffindor girls' toilets.

NEVILLE + LUNA (yes, we know), HERMIONE GRANGER IS A MUDBLOOD WHORE (God, someone feels really strongly about that, it's been painted over about six times and they keep writing it back up), SLYTHERIN SUX, SEAMUS 4 PROFESSOR JONES (really?), CRABBE SUX GOYLES COCK (quite possibly), MARIETTA EDGECOMBE IS A SKINNY BITCH, PANSY PARKINSON PUTS OUT FOR THE DARK LORD.

So I guess the Slytherins are really back.

Hermione stood up, pulled her knickers up and arranged her skirt neatly, flushed the toilet and went out to wash her hands, checking herself in the mirror. Her hair was okay. She didn't have any stains on anything. Her face was clean and there weren't any spots coming. Her eyes were big and grey-shadowed in her pale face, but there wasn't anything she could do about that. She took a deep breath and went in to breakfast.

And really, it was like any other day. Nearly. The scrape of chairs on stone, forks on plates, spoons in bowls; the hubbub of owls and talking and Daily Prophet pages turning. And here and there, spots of silence, around which the rest of the school kept turning. Hermione on the Gryffindor table. Marietta Edgecombe with the Ravenclaws. The deep whorl of silence that centred on the Slytherin table, fifty-five students eating without looking at one another, without saying a word.

Somewhere between her egg and her bacon, Hermione looked up from her book (On Blood; Hestia had lent it to her the night before) and found herself looking at Marietta Edgecombe, who looked back at her. They held each other's gaze for a moment, as if the silence that enveloped each of them was a radio signal, a telephone wire, connecting them across space; then Marietta nodded briefly and dropped her eyes to her plateful of wet scrambled eggs and fatty bacon.

And so from then on there were a few of them, silent girls and boys, walking around the bright and noisy school, trailing the grey breath of The War like Dementors trailing despair.

*

'Hey,' said Harry, dropping into his seat next to Hermione in the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom and nudging her with his elbow in a friendly, hello way. His body was warm and loose next to hers and he had come straight from his husband's bed in the staff tower, straight from fucking Snape, and he didn't have the chill of Azkaban in his bones and his name wasn't babykiller and he hadn't ever loved her and he was a liar and a slut and she hated him.

'Hey,' she mumbled, not looking up.

'All right then,' said Harry cheerfully, and shut up. He started getting his books out of his bag, his wand out of his pocket. 'Scorchio,' he muttered to himself, practising a double-axel with the tip of his wand: a spot on the edge of the blackboard blackened and began to smoulder.

'Oops,' he said.

Hestia, arriving, with a bag on one shoulder and a mug in one hand, rolled her eyes, put down the bag and the mug, and pulled her wand out. 'Quench,' she said. The fire went out. 'No fire magic in the classrooms. What idiot did that?'

Harry put his hand up.

'Mr Evans, I might have known. Five points from Gryffindor for setting fire to the classroom, and I'll have your wand – accio wand – for the rest of the lesson.' Harry's wand flew down to rest neatly on the teacher's desk at the front of the classroom.

'We're a bit crowded today,' Hestia went on, 'because, happily, your Slytherin colleagues are back – hello, Slytherins, welcome back – but this has all happened on extremely short notice, and Professor McGonagall has not yet had time to draw up new timetables, so for the next couple of weeks all four Houses will be having lessons together.'

There was a brief babble and murmur in the class as people looked around at Pansy and Crabbe and Goyle and Daphne sitting in a tight little cluster half-way up the left-hand side of the room.

'Where's Draco?' said Harry.

Hermione blinked, and looked, and looked again. He wasn't there.

'Probably his dad's finally sent him to Durmstrang,' said Harry. 'Or maybe he refused to renounce the Dark Lord and he's still in Azkaban where he belongs.'

Draco in the visitors' room at Azkaban, staring into space, biting a nail.

'Shut up, Harry,' said Hermione.

'Jesus, Hermione,' said Harry, 'you're in a really bad mood today. I'd storm off if I had anyone else to sit with.'

Hermione laughed, unwillingly. 'Yeah, well,' she said, 'that goes double for you, Evans.'

'Why?' said Harry. 'What have I done?'

Hermione looked at him. You lied to me. You let me go to Azkaban. You never loved me. For a giddy moment she balanced on the edge of saying it, really saying it, out loud, and then Hestia started talking and she looked away, folding her hands neatly on her lap.

'In our last class,' Hestia was saying, 'we covered some of the theory about sources of power, so today I want to see what you can remember. Put your books away—' everyone groaned—'yes, I know, I'm mean – put your books away and work through these questions.' She pointed her wand at the board and a list of questions began to write themselves there in Hestia's big sprawly handwriting. 'No conferring,' she added, and sat down behind the teacher's desk. The mug she'd set down there began to steam, and she took a sip from it, scanning the room, as the students sighed and shifted and settled down to write.

1. What distinguishes Dark sources from other sources of power?

Hermione fiddled with her quill and fiddled with the ends of her hair and tried not to think about Harry, sitting beside her, warm and Harry-smelling and irritating. Malicious intention, she wrote, and then something moved in the corner of her eye and she looked up to see a beautifully folded origami crane fluttering around her head.

Here we go again, she thought, reaching up to pull the note out of the air, meaning to drop it onto the floor and crush it with the toe of her shoe: but Hestia's voice – 'Accio note' – came from the front of the room, and the crane zoomed out from between her fingers and flew down to Hestia.

Hermione felt her skin redden, her heart beat. I don't want Hestia to read it, she thought. I don't want her to see what it says. But Hestia was already reading it, frowning in concentration, smoothing the paper out with one hand, lifting her cup to her mouth with the other hand. Smothered giggles from the Ravenclaw girls on the right-hand-side of the room: Cho Chang, sending Hermione a bitchy I-don't-care look.

'Hmm,' said Hestia eventually. She looked up at the class. 'Well, I congratulate you on your gossip network. Yes, I'm Muggle-born, though as it happens I prefer Mud to Mudblood. And yes, I'm queer. And yes, I've had an abortion.' She put the note down and touched it with the tip of her wand, whispering something to it under her breath; it rose gently into the air and hovered above their heads, in the central aisle, flapping its paper wings lazily, as Hestia kept her wand trained on it. Everyone stared at it, silent.

'You got my name wrong, though,' she added. 'The H is for Hestia. My mother was a hippy.'

She moved her wand a little. The note/bird moved with it, swaying from side to side.

'Now,' she said, her eyes fixed on the note, 'here's one of the eternal questions about the Dark Arts that makes this subject so interesting. It's an unanswerable question. How dark may we become, to defend ourselves against the dark? How dark must we become?' She flexed her wrist, twitching her wand, and whispered something, and the note unfolded, slowly, almost languorously, in mid-air, and the letters scrawled on it in black ink began to glow. From where Hermione was sitting, they were too small to read, just fiery doodles on the air.

'For instance,' said Hestia. 'I'm sure you all remember this from first-year Defence classes; it's a basic principle. Never leave traces of yourself where a Dark wizard can find them. Hair. Nail clippings. Handwriting.'

The note was beginning to consume itself, turning itself into a plume of toxic-green smoke, hanging and twisting in the air.

'Because a Dark wizard can use those things to track you down. A Dark wizard who has any of those things will be able to find you, wherever you are, for the rest of your life.'

The smoke was beginning to stream now, pouring itself in a fluid stream through the air, towards the Ravenclaw girls.

'But then,' said Hestia, 'these very same techniques were used against Gellert Grindelwald in the forties, and against Voldemort's Death Eaters in the seventies and early eighties. They were used to track down the people who had written anti-Mudblood manifestos, or left blood or bone behind in places where Muggles were massacred. They were used by the Wizengamot and the Ministry of Magic and the Order of the Phoenix.'

The smoke had settled, circling slowly, a fat, green tornado, over Cho Chang's head.

'So is this a Dark spell, or a legitimate defence against a Dark spell?' asked Hestia. 'Two thousand words on the subject from all of you for next week.' She turned and put her wand down on the desk, and turned back to face Cho Chang, and Hermione saw that she had been getting angrier, not less angry, all the time that she'd been talking.

'And as for you,' she said, 'you rotten little bitch... are you of age?'

'Yes,' whispered Cho.

'Good,' said Hestia between her teeth. 'Then I, Hestia Jones, challenge you to a—'

'Hestia, no!' called Harry urgently from beside Hermione.

Hestia's head whipped round to glare at him. Her eyes were glowing. She looked furious and hardly sane. But she caught Hermione's eye, and blinked, and shivered, and closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

'Detention,' she said tiredly. 'I challenge you to a detention, Miss Chang. Report to Argus Filch tonight after dinner.' She went back around the desk and sat down, spreading her hands out flat on the surface in front of her. 'And ten points from Ravenclaw,' she added, so quietly that Hermione could hardly hear her.

Hermione looked at Harry questioningly, and he mouthed I'll tell you later and turned back to his test. No-one said a word for the rest of the lesson, until the bell went and they all filed meekly and silently to the front to hand their papers in to Hestia, then filed just as meekly and silently out of the room.

'Hang on,' said Hestia as Harry and Hermione put their papers on her desk and turned to go. 'Here's your wand back, Harry.'

Harry nodded and pocketed it.

'And thanks,' Hestia added. 'That could have... That was really stupid of me.'

'No comment,' said Harry cautiously, and Hestia gave him a tired smile.

'I mean it,' she said. 'Thanks. See you later, Hermione?'

'Sure,' said Hermione. She hesitated, then said: 'Thanks.'

Hestia winced. 'It was really stupid of me,' she said again. 'I hope I haven't... made it worse,' and Hermione didn't know what to say.

Outside, Cho was waiting for her; the rest of her group were in a little knot some way down the corridor, by the turn-off to the Potions lab, whispering and watching, apart from Marietta, who was leaning against the wall by the door to the Dark Arts classroom, arms folded, face inscrutable. Hermione felt her heart lurch, felt Harry bristle beside her.

'Hermione,' said Cho.

'Yes?'

'I'm sorry.' She hesitated for a moment, her eyes darting back and forth between Hermione and Harry. 'Okay?' she added.

'Um,' said Hermione. 'Okay.'

Cho gave her a tight little smile, then turned and made off towards her friends. Marietta unfolded her arms and pushed off from the wall, but before she followed Cho, she nodded to Hermione.

'That wasn't cool,' she said. 'See you.'

'What's that all about?' asked Harry, hitching his satchel up his shoulder.

'I don't know,' said Hermione, even though she thought she probably did.

'Girls,' Harry diagnosed. 'All right. Are you coming to Charms?'

'Yeah. I suppose so.'

*

The Charms classroom was full of whispering and glances and fidgeting, and by lunchtime it had spread beyond sixth year to what looked like most of the school. As she and Harry walked the length of the Gryffindor table to sit next to Neville-and-Luna, they walked through overlapping circles of gossip, still rippling outwards: got a Muggle girlfriend and a television and the radiation is stopping Sprout's mandrakes from growing and challenged Cho Chang to a duel.

'Harry?' called Lavender as he sat down next to Hermione.

'What,' he said unencouragingly.

'Is it true that Hestia Jones challenged every single person in Gryffindor to a duel in her last year at school?'

'Oh,' said Harry. 'Um, yes, actually. And half the Hufflepuffs, and a couple of people in the other houses. I think it's some kind of a record.'

'Really?' said Hermione.

Harry nodded, and started eating his lunch. 'Tonks told me,' he said through a mouthful of shepherd's pie. 'She's got sort of a reputation. She slowed down a bit when she left Hogwarts, but she duelled Sirius last year, and Kingsley before that, and Tonks before that. That's how they met.'

'What did she duel Tonks over?'

Harry shrugged.

'Well, I do,' Seamus's voice came loudly from three places down the table. 'I think she's hot.'

'Seamus!' squealed Parvati.

'And challenging Cho Chang to a duel? You know you want to see that,' agreed Dean, and they slapped palms.

'Ugh,' said Hermione, and found herself exchanging oh-for-heaven's-sake looks with Lavender Brown before they both looked away, startled.

'Finished,' announced Harry, putting his knife and fork down. 'I'm off home. Are you coming over later, Hermione?'

'Um,' said Hermione. She looked down at her plate. 'No.'

Harry looked at her for a moment, blankly. 'Oh,' he said. 'Okay. What—'

'I'm going over to Hestia's,' said Hermione, and felt the attention of the whole table switch to her.

*

'Wotcher, Hermione,' said Tonks, opening the door. 'I hear Jones fucked up in class today.'

'Oh, don't,' said Hestia as Hermione stepped in. She was sitting in the big armchair, a scatter of books and scrolls open around her, marking them up with post-its, bright and incongruous against cold-tea-coloured parchment. 'I feel like a complete idiot.'

'Actually,' said Hermione, taking off her scarf and draping it on the pegs by the door, 'I think it's made you sort of... cool.'

'Ha,' said Tonks, and Hestia scowled at her.

'Everyone's talking about you,' Hermione went on. 'Is it true you two met because you challenged Tonks to a duel?' She sat down on the floor.

'Oh God,' said Hestia. 'I don't just feel like a complete idiot, I am a complete idiot... Yes.'

'Heard this story,' said Tonks, and went into the kitchen.

'Five years ago,' Hestia said. 'It was the year Tonks joined the Order, and she said something about Mud rights that really pissed me off, I can't even remember what it was now. Something about activism and not going too far, or something, and I called her an appeaser and she called me a fanatic and anyway, in those days, when people really pissed me off I would, you know. Fight them. I mean, when I was really young I used to just fight them. I got into duelling my last year at Hogwarts—'

'I heard,' said Hermione, and Hestia blushed.

'Oh,' she said, 'but I really liked duelling. The ritual of it, you know? The spectacle and the arcane little rules. So much classier than just hurling yourself on Mafalda Brown and trying to pull her hair out... Anyway, so that's the story. Tonks pissed me off and I challenged her to a duel and then afterwards we were both really high and we went dancing together, and that was it, really.'

'Who won?' said Hermione.

'Tonks,' said Hestia, and 'Me,' said Tonks, coming back from the kitchen with the familiar mugs of tea, blue for Tonks, green for Hestia, brown for Hermione.

'Thanks,' said Hermione, taking her mug. 'Have you got any flyers for me?'

'Not today,' said Tonks. She took a pamphlet off the top of the pile on the floor by Hestia's chair and handed it to Hermione. 'Look through that,' she said, 'and mark up anything that might be useful.'

'Useful for what?'

'My speech,' said Hestia in the doom-laden tones she used whenever she mentioned it. 'You know, anything that shows how when most people say wizard they actually mean pure-blood, or anything with a real anti-Muggle feel to it. If there's anything you're not sure about, mark it up anyway, just in case.' She threw a packet of post-its to Hermione.

After about half an hour, Phineas Black's Blood Treason: A Treatise on Miscegenation was bristling with post-its and Hermione was starting to feel sick. She reached out for her tea and saw that her hand was shaking: when she looked up, she saw Tonks looking at her.

'Hermione, you've gone green,' she said. 'That's enough for tonight.' She took the pamphlet away from Hermione and looked at the cover. 'Ugh. Black. Shouldn't have started you on that one.'

Hestia shuddered in exaggerated agreement. 'I can only take about about five pages of Phineas Black at a time, and I'm used to him... Tonks, do you want to put a little bit of Firewhisky in Hermione's tea?'

'Good idea,' said Tonks, and reached over to the bookcase for a small bottle. She poured a capful into Hermione's mug. 'Drink up.'

Hermione drank obediently, feeling the heat in her stomach. 'Thanks,' she said.

'No problem,' said Hestia. 'I could do with a break myself, actually.' She leaned over and took the Firewhisky from Tonks, pouring a generous slug into her own mug, and drank.

'Have you had a chance to think about what I asked you?' she asked. 'About the fund-raiser, the Muggle disco?'

'Um,' said Hermione. Selling tickets to Cho, to Lavender, to Pansy. Taking tickets on the night, watching the girls file into the Great Hall, wondering which of them was the one who kept on and on writing MUDBLOOD WHORE on the toilet door. 'I don't know if I—'

'It would really help,' said Hestia. 'Now I have this teaching gig, and everything.'

'Maybe,' said Hermione.

*

The bell went while Hestia was in mid-explanation. 'Bugger,' she said, and a little excited buzz went through the room. 'Sorry,' she added. 'I mean, oh dear. We'll finish this on Friday.' She raised her voice above the hubbub of people slamming desks, loading books into bags, scuffling their feet on the stairs: 'Make sure you do your banishings properly before you go to your next classes! Trust me, you don't want any of this energy sloshing around the next time you cast – what is it, Seamus?'

'You know what you said about the Nefanda curses? Isn't that true about the Unforgivable curses, too?'

Hestia pushed a hand through her hair. 'Um,' she said, thinking. 'I guess so, if...'

Seamus, at the head of the little cluster of students that formed at Hestia's desk at the end of every lesson these days, nodded seriously as Hestia went on talking. Hermione caught Harry's eye and grinned, swinging her bag onto her shoulder: Harry grinned back. They reached the classroom door together just as Parvati was asking: 'Can you show me how to do that banishing you showed us last week again? I've forgotten what you said about...'

'Bye, Hermione!' called Lavender as they left the room, and a little chorus of voices joined in: 'Bye! See you tonight!'

'Bye,' said Hermione over her shoulder. She rolled her eyes at Harry. 'Unbelievable.'

'Ah, the fickleness of schoolchildren,' said Harry cheerfully. 'Enjoy it while it lasts. I used to be the Boy who Lived, you know,' he said loudly as a couple of first-year boys jostled past them: 'Boy who Lived to take it up the arse!' shouted one of them, and they broke into a run, swiping each other with their bags as they disappeared round a corner.

Harry raised an eyebrow at Hermione.

'I take your point,' she said.

*

And then it was Friday, the night of the public meeting, and Hestia and Tonks and Hermione were standing in a huddle in the corner of the hall at the foot of the stairs leading up to the platform.

'Malfoy's here,' said Tonks, scanning the audience. 'But it could be worse. I was worried they were going to Port in the whole Society for the Preservation of Our Kind or whatever they're called.'

Hestia didn't reply. She was white.

'Is she okay?' Hermione whispered to Tonks.

'She's fine, aren't you, love?' Tonks patted Hestia's arm.

'Fuck off. I'm not fine. I'm going to die.' She glared at them. 'Or be sick.'

'It's the adrenaline,' Tonks said to Hermione. 'She was just the same before the Battle of Godric's Hollow. Once she's up there, it'll kick in properly and she'll have a fine old time, and then she'll be so high for the rest of the night we won't be able to manage her.'

'Oh God,' moaned Hestia, as Madam Miniver mounted the steps to the platform, catching Hestia's eye.

Tonks kissed Hestia on the cheek. 'Good luck, Jones,' she said. 'Come on, Hermione,' and as Hestia went up the stairs, looking like doom, Tonks and Hermione went to take their places in the second row. Tonks immediately turned round to gossip with a couple of people in the row behind. Hermione didn't know them, so she looked round the room. It was pretty full, mostly of adults in wizardly clothes, apart from the cluster of t-shirted and jeaned Mud Pride types near her and Tonks. No-one from school seemed to be there: apparently Muggles were only cool when they weren't talking politics.

There was a rustle beside her and she turned to look: Harry and Snape came in and took the two seats between her and the side aisle. Snape nodded to her politely. 'Miss Granger,' he said. 'Miss Tonks.'

'Tonks,' said Tonks without looking round.

'Hello, sir,' said Hermione, then to Harry: 'I didn't know if you were coming.' She felt suddenly shy, seeing him here, in her other life.

Harry shrugged. 'You never come over to ours these days,' he said. 'And Severus wanted to hear the speeches.'

Hermione didn't know what to say next, but before the silence stretched too far, Madam Miniver stepped to the front of the platform and began to speak, and the hall fell silent.

'Welcome,' she said, 'to this debate on the wizarding blood laws, which have already become one of the most controversial areas in the reconciliation process following the second fall of Voldemort. We're very lucky to have with us today Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic, and Hestia Jones, local resident, veteran of the Battle of Godric's Hollow, and chairperson of the Mud Pride organization. Each of our guests will speak for ten minutes, followed by questions from the floor, and then we will open the question to debate. Minister?'

Hermione clapped politely as Fudge stood up, but her eyes were on Hestia, sitting neatly behind the long, splintery trestle table in her neat, beautifully tailored, grey suit. She looked like a person from an old film when Hermione thought of her as a Muggle; she looked daring and sharp-edged and young when Hermione thought of her as a witch. Hestia was clapping for Fudge too: as the applause died down she took a sip of water from the glass in front of her and dropped her eyes to her notes.

'Thank you,' Fudge said, and Hermione felt herself wriggle with contempt for him. You put that woman in our school and she made Harry cut himself up, she thought, glaring at him. You nearly got us all killed. She wanted to listen to him, so that she could think of a brilliant question to skewer him on, but she hated him so much she could barely hear him.

'… and of course these are tragic, tragic events,' Fudge was saying (Hermione saw Hestia widen her eyes at Tonks: see?) 'but perhaps we can be grateful, at least, that, in raising the so-called blood question, they have forced us to come to terms, as a community, in all our diversity, with what it is that unites us as wizards, what we are, and what we can hope to become in the future. This is why the blood laws are both symbolically and actually crucial to the process of reconciliation, and this is why I believe that our best hope for that process is a thorough overhaul of those laws, in a way which will give a voice to those who – regrettably – feel unheard, those who feel left behind, those who feel excluded from our community.'

'Thank you, Minister,' said Madam Miniver. 'Are there any questions?'

'Not exactly a question,' came Lucius Malfoy's graceful voice from behind Hermione. She turned round to see him rising to his feet, three rows back, and felt Harry going tense next to her.

'But may I say, Madam Miniver, how much I agree with the Minister? As I am sure everyone in this room knows, although I came to my senses in time – and was even able to play some small part in ridding the wizarding world of the genocidal maniac that he became – I was nonetheless, in my youth, most regrettably, drawn to the extremist movement led by Thomas Riddle precisely because there was no other outlet through which I could express my own deep, deep sense of exclusion and injury. As a member of one of our oldest pure-blood families, I saw the traditions and values in which I was raised lost forever as Muggle-born and mixed-blood wizards with only the sketchiest, shallowest knowledge of those traditions, those values, were raised to positions of power.'

Hermione was breathing so hard and fast that she felt faint. 'I can't believe this,' she whispered, and felt Harry quivering in agreement next to her.

'I saw pure-blood families like the Weasleys – heroes and veterans of both wars against Riddle – sink into obscurity and penury. I saw pure-blood wizards like Sirius Black tarred with Riddle's genocidal brush and falsely imprisoned.'
'Don't you dare say his name,' Harry whispered, tense beside Hermione. She saw him clench his fist.

'I saw my only son lose himself in the errors of my own youth, for want of a better way, and now he is lost to me forever. And, tragically, I saw wizards whose loyalties were divided between their own community and the community of those who have persecuted us for centuries, and who – understandably, perhaps – could not cope with the strain. I now believe that Tom Riddle was one of those wizards, and that a man who could have been one of the finest, wisest leaders our community has ever had, was lost to us because of the irreconcilable tensions between his identity as a mixed-blood wizard and his belief in a unified wizarding community – unified by our ancient, ancient traditions and culture.

'So I would agree with the Minister that the blood laws need radical overhaul, if these harmful divisions in our society are to be addressed. I would add, however, that as part of that process, it is absolutely urgent to bear in mind the deep disaffection, the alienation, of pure-blood wizards. Furthermore, until we understand more about the genetic basis of wizardry, no reform to the laws can really proceed on a firm basis of fact; I would therefore urge the Minister to give favourable consideration to the proposal for the study of wizard genetics which I understand is currently before him.'

Lucius hesitated, gave a half-bow, and sat down. There was scattered applause, though not from Hestia or anyone in the Mud Pride section. Hermione was almost sure she heard Snape mutter 'Wanker' under his breath.

'Thank you, Mr Malfoy,' said Madam Miniver. 'Minister?'

'Yes,' said Fudge, 'thank you, Mr Malfoy, for that very honest and courageous speech. I can assure you that your concerns are indeed central to our work in the reconciliation process, and that I am looking upon the proposal you mention with great interest. You will understand that, since the question is still before the Ministry, I cannot say any more about it for the moment.'

Hermione twisted round to look at Malfoy; a curious, self-satisfied smile was on his face as he nodded to Fudge in acknowledgement.

'In fact,' Fudge went on, 'perhaps in this connection I might be allowed to make a brief announcement?' He looked at Madam Miniver, who raised one eyebrow, but nodded.

'It gives me great pleasure,' said Fudge, 'to be able to inform you that, in light of the crucial role he played at the Battle of Godric's Hollow, and in light of the tireless work he has done ever since that time for the reconciliation of the wizarding community, Mr Malfoy will next month be awarded the Order of Merlin.'

Into the brief silence before the applause started, Snape said very distinctly: 'Oh, you are fucking joking.' And when people started clapping, he got to his feet in a rustle of black and walked out. The door banged behind him.

'Well,' Madam Miniver said, slightly flustered. 'If there are no more immediate questions or, or comments, let's move on to our second speaker, Hestia Jones. There will be the opportunity for further discussion later on.'

Hestia cleared her throat, took another sip of water, and stood up. Hermione could see that her hands were shaking, with nerves or with anger.

'Thank you, Madam Miniver,' she said, 'and thank you all for coming along tonight. Many of you know me already as the chairperson of Mud Pride, as a Muggle-born witch with a mixed-blood partner, as a Hogsmeade resident, as someone who has been active in the questions of blood law reform and Muggle-wizard relations since some years before the second rise of Voldemort.' She paused for a moment, then went on.

'You might be surprised, then, to hear that I agree with many of the points that Mr Malfoy has raised, although I emphatically do not agree with his conclusions. But when Mr Malfoy says that even some of our most talented and brilliant people are unable to see a way to create a livable life as a Muggle-born or mixed-blood wizard or witch, I agree. I have to agree, because I've seen it. I'm afraid I am not compassionate enough to grieve for Tom Riddle, as Mr Malfoy does, but I do grieve for Kylie Moss, for Peter Wills, for Myrtle Tonks. Their names are not known to you, to – to most of you…' Hestia caught Tonks's eye, and stuttered, and lost her thread, and coughed, and carried on. 'They are the young women and men I knew at Hogwarts who died. Who killed themselves.'

Hermione stopped breathing.

'They were eleven years old when they left their families and their culture and came to a school where blood-based bullying is common to this day; and more subtly, more insidiously, to a culture where, although more than a quarter of us have Muggle families by birth or marriage, Muggle culture is invisible. It is made invisible. It is erased. Assimilation into wizard culture is expected to be total, even though this is never possible. I know this because I have lived since I was eleven in the reality of the divided loyalties that Mr Malfoy alluded to. They are divided, not because I don't know who I am or where I came from, not because I don't believe in building a community for all wizards, but because our society is divided.

'And when Mr Malfoy says that many so-called pure-blood wizards feel so alienated from the wizarding community that they seek refuge in the easy certainties of racism, I agree. Again, I agree because I've seen it. Many, many, times since I entered Hogwarts and the wizarding world nearly twenty years ago, I have seen it. I have been made aware by wizards who consider themselves pure-bloods that my very existence threatens their sense of…' Hestia choked, then – as Tonks, Hermione saw, shook her head frantically – took a sip and a breath and carried on: '… of identity, of inclusion in a world which reflects their values and their cultural traditions.'

Cultural traditions? thought Hermione. Vomit-flavoured jelly beans and Quidditch?

'Some people, believing that wizards are defined by blood, derive their sense of belonging and of identity from the so-called purity of their blood. For these people, the large-scale presence of Muggle-born and mixed-blood people in our community is a constant threat to their sense of belonging, a constant and painful contradiction. Mr Malfoy has eloquently explained how he, in his misguided youth, sought to reconcile that contradiction by removing that presence: by killing us. By joining Riddle's genocidal Death Eaters.

'Well, Riddle is dead and the Death Eaters are gone, and good riddance. But they were only ever a symptom of a deeper, more insidious, more systematic violence against Muggle-born and mixed-blood wizards. And that is what the reconciliation process must address.

'All of us here, I think, deeply, deeply opposed Thomas Riddle. Many of us fought against him. You know that I, like Mr Malfoy, was at the Battle of Godric's Hollow. Unlike Mr Malfoy, though, I did not come away from that battle thinking that it would be worth compromising on blood law reform in order to prevent a tiny minority of so-called pure-bloods from joining openly genocidal organizations. I came away thinking that everything that we have done so far is meaningless if we continue to allow the systematic erasure of Muggle cultures from the wizarding world; if we continue to enforce assimilation into an insular, separatist and conservative society as the price of belonging. Because this wastes and kills our young people, our brightest and best, just as surely as Death Eaters do.

'Mr Malfoy asks us to reform the blood laws, but to do so gently. To do so in such a way as to allow him to retain his belief that this community is based on blood, and that it can only be unified through the enforced acceptance by all of us of the traditions and values of the minority. I say that this is not reconciliation. This is conciliation.

'The reconciliation process can only serve its purpose if its aim is not to make our society even more comfortable for those who cannot tolerate the existence of those who fall outside their narrow definition of wizard identity, but to expand that definition so that our society can become a place where all wizards and witches can expect to live and to be safe. We must acknowledge that all of us live in a culture which is not, and cannot be, and should not be, separate from the wider world. Reconciliation can only succeed if we are working for reconciliation not just between ex-Death Eaters and those who fought them, but between all wizards and the Muggle world in which we all live. The abolition of blood as a legal category, and consequently the repeal of all laws referring to "blood", might not bring this about overnight.

'But it will be a damn good start.'

Hestia stepped back from the lectern and stood there, shining, her chin high. Hermione felt herself start breathing again as she started clapping, hard and loud, making her hands sore.

*

Just as Tonks had promised, Hestia was high. Sweeping through the narrow streets of Hogsmeade in the dark, the rest of them bobbing in her wake, she was almost glowing. It was contagious. It was glorious.

'That was brilliant,' she said again, flinging the pub door open with such force that it crashed against the wall and started to close again. 'Just brilliant. I kicked their arses.'

'You did, love,' agreed Tonks, catching the door and holding it for Hermione and Harry. 'Unquestionable victory for the forces of light.'

'Ha,' said Hestia joyfully and swept them into the crowded, dimly-lit pub. They'd had to stay behind for a while after the debate, Hestia somehow managing to dim her blazing excitement for long enough to exchange platitudes with Fudge and Madam Miniver, and most of the Mud Pride crowd had got to the pub ahead of them. As Hestia entered, a couple of tables turned to applaud her.

'Too kind,' said Hestia, 'too kind,' and she went straight over to talk to someone, wedging herself onto the bench between a couple of t-shirted women who wriggled and shuffled to make room for her.

Tonks looked at Hermione and Harry and shrugged. 'I think there's room over...' Her voice faded slightly, then she finished, determinedly cheerful, 'there. At Snape's table.'

Hermione looked where Tonks was looking, and there was Snape, sitting alone at a table near the fire, staring at nothing, his shoulders hunched, drinking something colourless from a tumbler.

'Wotcher, Severus,' said Tonks cautiously as Harry settled down next to his husband and Hermione sat down opposite them. 'Do you want a drink?'

Snape raised his head to look broodingly at Tonks. His eyes were hooded and the line of his mouth was slack, and it seemed to take a little effort for him to focus on her. He's drunk, Hermione realized, horrified.

'Gin,' he said.

'Okay,' said Tonks. 'Hermione? Harry? Beer?'

'Please,' said Hermione, and Harry nodded.

Snape, drunk. She couldn't imagine it. But there he was.

'Miss Granger,' he said. 'How nice to see you. Somewhere other than my own kitchen,' he added.

So Snape drunk was very like Snape sober, but scarier.

'Um,' said Hermione. 'Thanks,' and she was very glad to see Tonks coming back from the bar.

'Please tell your girlfriend,' said Snape as he took his glass from Tonks, 'I apologize for missing her speech. I hope it went very well.' He was articulating his words very carefully; he always articulated his words very carefully, so it was strange how obvious it was from his speech that he was very drunk indeed.

'Pretty well,' said Tonks. 'Why did you walk out? Did Lucius Malfoy get to you?'

'Lucius Malfoy,' said Snape, 'is the bane of my fucking life.' He drank half his gin in one swallow. 'I hope he takes a long time to die, somewhere where nobody can find him.'

'Severus wants an Order of Merlin,' explained Harry. He patted Snape's arm.

Snape turned his head, slowly, and narrowed his eyes at Harry. A strand of hair fell across his face, and he left it there.

'It's... a little more complicated than that, Harry,' he said with enormous patience.

'Severus wants an Order of Merlin and he also hates Lucius Malfoy,' said Harry to Hermione and Tonks.

'Here's a little homework project for you, Hermione,' said Snape, ignoring Harry. 'Research. Look it up in the archives. See how many working-class queer Jewish half-bloods have ever been awarded the Order of Merlin.' He relapsed into morose silence.

'Well, it is pretty fucked-up,' said Tonks. 'The Order of Merlin is supposed to be for improving wizard-Muggle relations—' (Snape snorted) '—I'm not entirely clear on how campaigning for pure-blood rights qualifies you for it.'

'Oh, my God, don't even get me started,' said Hestia, arriving, still glowing. She put her pint down on the table and slid in next to Tonks, putting her arm around her and kissing her noisily on the cheek. 'Hello, my darling,' she said. 'Sorry about that. Some very nice women wanted to buy me a drink, and who am I to... Oh. Hello, Professor.'

Snape lifted his eyes, barely, in acknowledgement, then looked back into the fire.

Is he drunk? Hestia mouthed, and Yes! Tonks mouthed back. Hestia made an oh-my-God face and took a long, discomfited drink.

'Congratulations, Hestia,' said Hermione, and Hestia grinned and glowed again.

'Damn right,' she said. 'That, my children, was history in the making. That was war heroism, Jones-style. Lucius Malfoy can take the Battle of Godric's Hollow and shove it up his arse.'

'Oh, Christ,' agreed Tonks. 'The nerve of the man. I myself played some – ahem – small part in saving the universe from the dark evil darkness – no, no, don't all rush, everyone will get an autograph...' Her hair whitened and lengthened, flowing back from her forehead and down over her shoulders.

'Oh, ugh,' said Hestia. 'Don't do that. What if he comes in here? How will I know which of you to kill?'

'Lucius Malfoy is hardly about to come into this... dive,' said Snape. 'Lucius Malfoy is currently in a suite in a five-star hotel, drinking champagne out of the navel of a Muggle rent-boy.'

Everyone looked at him.

'How do you know?' asked Tonks cautiously.

'I don't,' said Snape furiously. 'It's a baseless slander.' He returned to morose silence.

'Well,' said Tonks. 'That was a mental image I didn't need.' She shook her hair back into the short, curly, reddish crop she'd been wearing lately.

'Amen,' said Hestia sincerely. 'Where was I?'

'Malfoy was taking the credit for the Battle of Godric's Hollow,' said Harry. 'In which he did kill Voldemort, you know,' he added, a little bitterly. 'So it's not all that ridiculous.'

Hestia snorted. 'You and Snape won the Battle of Godric's Hollow,' she said, 'no thanks to the rest of us, and certainly no thanks to Lucius Malfoy. He just saw what was happening, and jumped ship a fraction of a second before it sank. If anyone's going to get an Order of Merlin, it should be you guys.'

Snape got up and walked away.

'What did I say?' hissed Hestia.

'Snape wants an Order of Merlin,' said Hermione and Harry together.

'Oh,' said Hestia, 'was that what that was all about? What a weird thing to get hung up on. No offence, Harry.'

'None taken,' said Harry peaceably.

'Do you really not think it was such a big deal, Lucius killing Voldemort?' said Hermione. She took a sip of her beer, trying to put her thoughts together. 'I mean,' she said, 'it's all I heard about, ever since I got to Hogwarts: the Dark Lord and the Boy Who Lived. And Harry going up against him every year, and...' She could feel Harry's eyes on her. She didn't look at him. '... thinking he was going to die, and then Cedric, and then the Ministry' – black marble, their faces reflected everywhere in little pieces, Lucius coming round a corner, thinking she was going to die – 'and Sirius, and then all of a sudden, Voldemort's dead, he's really gone, and – everything's different. The war's over. Everything's changed.'

Hestia sighed. 'Listen,' she said, 'I didn't mean that. I'm in the Order, remember? I never thought Voldemort wasn't a big deal, or that we shouldn't take him the fuck out as soon as possible. I just – as long as Voldemort's there, with his no nose and his mates in scary-arse masks and his crazed ranting and everything, it looks like that's what an anti-Mud looks like, and everyone else is cool and groovy by comparison. As long as they have a nose. And people like your little friend Cho Chang get off scot-free, when it's that kind of day-to-day tiny little fucking constant unimportant little defeats that get most of us.'

'That's our Hestia,' said Tonks. 'Taking down blood racism, one duel at a time, since 1989.'

'Gah,' said Hestia good-naturedly as four bottles of beer chinked onto the centre of the table. Snape sat back down, holding another glass of gin, and stared into the distance.

'Is that what you meant about – about assimilation killing people?' asked Hermione.

Hestia nodded, looking past Hermione, her face grim. 'Hogwarts has a pretty high suicide rate,' she said, 'and it's disproportionately Muggle-born or mixed-blood kids that do it.'

'Very politically put, Jones,' said Tonks, and Hestia winced. 'For disproportionately, read always.'

Snape turned his head, slowly, frowned, and hesitated. Then he said: 'I remember your sister. She had an interesting mind.'

'Thanks,' said Tonks. 'She did. She hated you,' she added, and Snape laughed, surprised and brief.

'I've never been popular,' he agreed.

I used to hate him too. So did Harry, thought Hermione. She wondered what Tonks's sister had been like, how old she had been, what had made her do it.

'So that's all I meant,' said Hestia. 'It's not just Death Eaters that kill Muds. And – you know, after the Second World War, the Muggle civil rights movements got started. Black rights, and feminism, and gay rights. We – wizards – we never had the sixties, because we just kept replaying the war, over and over again: Grindelwald in the forties, then Voldemort in the seventies, then Voldemort again in the nineties. I just hope this time it's really finished, and we can sort out our own fucking house.'

'Hestia's Theory of History,' said Tonks, patting her arm.

'Martin Luther King's,' said Hestia. 'The arc of history is long,' she quoted, 'but it bends towards justice.'

'I'll drink to that,' said Tonks, and they clinked glasses.

'It was a good crowd, wasn't it?' said Hestia. 'Dumbledore didn't show up, though.'

'Doesn't surprise me,' said Tonks.

'Ach, I really thought he might, this time,' said Hestia. 'I know he usually stays away from anything to do with the Ministry, but...' She shrugged. 'Never mind.'

'Have you talked to him lately, Harry?' Tonks asked.

Hermione felt Harry tense up beside her, but he just shook his head. 'I haven't really seen him since Godric's Hollow,' he said.

'I don't think anyone has,' said Hestia, 'except Lucius.' She fake-spat.

'Isn't that strange?' asked Hermione. 'I mean, I thought Hogwarts was all he really cared about. Didn't Hagrid say he'd turned down being Minister for Magic? More than once?'

'Yeah,' said Harry briefly.

'And now the war's over, and everything. So why is he off with Lucius all the time? Isn't it a bit... uncharacteristic?'

'No,' said Snape shortly, unexpectedly emerging from his silence. 'Albus has always been queer for the Dark Side.'

Tonks blinked. 'Is that another baseless slander?' she asked.

'Oh, no,' said Snape, 'that one's quite true. Isn't it, Harry?'

'Shut up,' said Harry.

'What?' said Hermione. 'Are you saying... Is Dumbledore gay?' Too? But she managed not to say it.

'I have no idea what form Albus's sex life takes. If, that is, such a thing exists.' ('Thank God for that,' said Hestia.) 'I simply mean that it takes just a touch of darkness to get him interested in someone. And if the someone who is touched by darkness, and in need of someone to guide him back to the right-hand path, just happens to be a beautiful young man, well, that's hardly Albus's fault, now, is it?'

'Shut up,' said Harry between his teeth.

Snape, apparently ignoring Harry, began counting on his fingers, elaborately. 'Gellert Grindelwald, in the thirties. Alas, Albus couldn't save him. And then Thomas Riddle, in the sixties, and Albus couldn't save him, no matter how many overheated conversations they held in private about the nature of good and evil, corruption and sacrifice, wickedness and repentance and forgiveness. And then,' his voice suddenly cold, 'me. But Albus did save me, of course. Well, perhaps not so much saved as... preserved. Kept around as an exhibit. Albus's pet reformed Death Eater. It was terribly exciting for him, to have one around all the time, and how he enjoyed telling people that he could personally vouch for my good character because he knew all my secrets. Which, of course, left them not so much basking in the glow of my spectacular virtue as wondering quite what those dirty little secrets might be.'

He emptied his gin.

'And then,' he said, holding the empty glass up and turning it in the firelight, staring at the little flashes of red light it made, 'there was Harry.'

'I mean it,' said Harry. 'Don't.'

'Whose defining characteristic was to be touched by darkness.' (Harry was messing with his hair, trying to cover his scar.) 'And yet entirely untouched. The Boy Who Lived. A pure-hearted Gryffindor with a yew and phoenix-feather wand. A warrior on the side of light, carrying the power of the Dark Lord inside him and tormented by it. And – coincidentally – a beautiful young man.'

'Fuck you, Severus,' said Harry.

'What did you think your fifth year was about? As soon as you were a beautiful young man, he dropped you like a hot brick. He ignored you for months, he refused to train you, he handed you off to me, until he saw you on the floor, Harry, on the floor at the Ministry, entirely possessed by the Dark Lord. And isn't that when it was back to the study for a clammy little chat about darkness and corruption and penance and the power of self-abnegating love?'

'Fuck you.'

'And then he didn't let you out of his sight,' Snape went on, 'until it turned out that you were fucking me, and at that very moment another beautiful man in need of saving turned up. Not so young this time, but otherwise, Hermione, I would say it was entirely characteristic.'

Harry finished his beer and got up.

'See you, Hestia, Tonks, Hermione,' he said. 'Severus, you're drunk and you're jealous and you're disgusting, and I'm never talking to you again.'

Snape lifted his glass to Harry. He turned and walked out.

Silence for a stretching, awkward moment: Snape staring into the fire; Hermione watching her fingers nervously shredding the edge of her beer mat; Hestia fiddling with one of her rings; Tonks taking three long, disconcerted pulls on her beer.

Then Tonks put the glass down and said: 'How on earth did you survive all those years as a double agent?'

Hestia laughed, horrified and quick, and Hermione froze, but Snape narrowed his eyes and looked at Tonks consideringly, the way he looked at students when they asked questions that interested him.

'Well, for one thing, I never drank gin,' he answered. 'And for another thing, somehow, even Lucius Malfoy never – annoyed me as much as that boy does. But you're quite right—' he swallowed the last mouthful in his glass, banged it down on the table, stood up— 'it's time for me to go home. Goodnight, Tonks, Hermione. Congratulations again, Miss Jones.'

'Thanks,' mumbled Hestia.

'Boys,' said Tonks, rolling her eyes as the door shut behind Snape. 'Honestly. I don't know where they get the energy from. All those feelings. Everything so important.' She stretched and yawned; Hestia caught her hand and kissed it.

'I love you, Nymphadora,' she said, and Tonks made an evil face at her.

They stayed at the pub until it closed. Once Snape had removed his bird-of-ill-omen presence from their table, there started to be a back-and-forth traffic of people coming and going between the big tables and the nook by the fire. Hestia talked and talked, waving her hands as if she was drawing plans for the future on the air. A skinny twenty-year-old boy in a t-shirt with a picture of a scruffy-haired boy and girl, saying HOW WOULD YOU FEEL ABOUT LIFE IF DEATH WAS YOUR OLDER SISTER?, sat next to Hermione and explained the blood law reform debate to her for twenty minutes without stopping for breath, then told her she was the most interesting girl he'd ever met and wrote his phone number down for her on the back of a beermat. A blonde girl in fishnet tights and an Army jacket talked to Tonks in a low voice for ten minutes, before hugging her, hard and brief, and bolting away, leaving Tonks quiet and staring at her hands. A scary, bolt-upright, grey-haired woman, in full witchy robes, demanded that Hermione tell her whether 'the Potter boy' was 'on-side' now, before leaning across the table to tell Hestia that it was absolutely wrong-headed to push for the abolition of all blood laws and who on earth did she think she was to stand for Minister for Magic, and Hestia's hands made bigger and bigger circles in the air and she talked and talked and talked. And Hermione listened.

And then Madam Rosmerta shooed them all out into the bright, frosty night, and Hermione was drunk under the stars, surrounded by noise and laughter, full of plans to save the world, surrounded by friends.

'It must be hours past curfew, Hermione,' said Hestia ('You are the worst teacher ever,' said Tonks), and they walked her back to Hogwarts through the staff entrance. And somehow, on the way, Hermione must have made a decision, because the next day, in the common room, when Lavender paused from doing a hair wrap in Parvati's hair and sighed and wriggled her shoulders and said 'Oh, I wish there was going to be a Yule Ball this year,' Hermione heard herself saying: 'Actually, there's going to be a dance in Hogsmeade at the end of term.'

Parvati sat up and stared at Hermione. 'I haven't heard anything about it,' she said accusingly.

'It hasn't been announced yet,' said Hermione. 'I just know about it because I'm helping Hestia—I mean, Professor Jones—organize it.'

'Really?' said Lavender and 'Will she be there?' said Seamus and by the end of the day, people Hermione had never met were coming up to her and asking for tickets.
*

'Is the dance still on?' Hermione demanded.

'What dance?' said Hestia, standing back to let her in through the front door. 'Hello, Hermione.'

'The Muggle disco,' said Hermione. She dumped her bag on the floor by the telly and sat down in her chair. 'The fund-raiser. Is it still on? Because I've sold twenty-five tickets,' she added.

'Excellent,' said Hestia. 'Sure, why not? But you'll have to do most of the organizing, because—' she pulled her most agonized face '—I've been asked to present to the Blood Law Reform Committee on the twentieth.'

Hermione looked at her. 'But isn't that—'

'Very, very exciting,' said Tonks from the kitchen. 'Yes, it is. That's the unaccustomed sound of Jones trying not to gloat, if you were wondering. Tea?'

'Congratulations,' said Hermione. 'That's fantastic. Yes, please, Tonks.'

'But I still need cash,' Hestia said. 'Galleons by the bucketload. Or good old-fashioned quids, I'm not proud. So go forth and sell tickets, my child. I bet Madam Rosmerta will let you have the back room of the pub for free. And Tonks'll do the music, won't you, Tonks?'

'Well, in principle,' said Tonks from the kitchen, 'but—', but Hestia was talking over her already: 'Good. Now, in the meantime, Hermione, have a look through this—' she threw a book over to her— 'and mark all the bits about the classification of magical creatures.'

Hermione settled herself more comfortably in her chair, took the cup of tea that Tonks handed her, and opened the book.

*

The common room was warm and busy and noisy, and no-one had picked on Hermione since the day Hestia hadn't challenged Cho Chang to a duel. She curled into the cushiony curve of an armchair and took out a notebook.

Music license, she wrote. Ministry? She put the end of the pencil in her mouth and looked up, thinking.

Parvati and Lavender had baggsed the sofa by the fire. They were leafing through a tattered copy of The Face ('These photos don't even move! How are you supposed to tell if the clothes hang right?') which they'd borrowed off a Muggle-born fifth-year in Ravenclaw.

'Those shoes are weird,' said Parvati.

'Mmm,' agreed Lavender. They turned the page.

'What does indie mean?' asked Parvati.

'Search me,' said Lavender. 'Hermione—?'

'I don't know,' said Hermione automatically. Getting back to Hogwarts – curfew? she wrote. (Carriages??)

'I like her eye makeup,' said Lavender, then: 'Oh, it's a boy. Hermione, why do Muggle boys—?'

'I don't know,' said Hermione. 'Didn't you do Muggle Studies for your OWLs?'

'Yes,' said Lavender, 'but that was all about trains and Parliament and how to cook Muggle food. They never showed us anything like this.' She held the magazine out to show Hermione a picture of two pouting boys, one who looked rather like Draco Malfoy, and one who had a long, dead-straight black fringe falling into his eyes. They were both wearing eyeliner.

'I like it,' said Parvati unexpectedly. 'Don't you think it would suit Ernie?'

'Shut up, Parvati!' said Lavender, and hit her with the magazine until they both started giggling.

Hermione went back to her list – Get more tickets printed; Decorations?; ELECTRICITY!!! – until a commotion in the far corner made her look up.

'I don't know,' Dean Thomas was shouting, 'and I don't care! Can't you get that through your thick head, Longbottom?' He was shoving his way through the common room now. He caught Hermione's eye and paused.

'Thanks a lot,' he said bitterly, then shouldered his way through a group of second-year girls giving each other hair wraps and out of the room.

'What was that all about?' said Lavender.

'I don't know!' said Neville. 'I just asked him if we were doing that Muggle dancing right, and he just – shouted at me.'

'He was really off with me earlier,' someone began, 'when I just asked him—' but Hermione didn't hear the rest: she was already going after Dean.

She found him outside, leaning against a buttress, smoking.

'I didn't know you smoked,' she said.

'Not the only thing you don't know.'

'Why are you having a go at me? What have I done to you?'

He glowered at her and took a drag on his cigarette. Its tip glowed redder, then dimmed again as he breathed out a cloud of smoke.

'I've kept my head down for five years,' he said at last. 'Five years being a Muggle in this dump, and never any bother until you and that Jones woman come along and turn me into a freakshow.'

'I didn't—'

'Yeah, you did. Every five minutes now it's Dean this, Dean that. What's Oasis, Dean? Can you explain the offside rule again, Dean? Well, fuck the lot of you. I turn seventeen next month, and then I can leave this place and never see another witch or wizard again as long as I live.'

Hermione's heart began to beat. To get away. Clean away. Never see any of them again. But—

'What will you do?' she asked. 'I mean – you won't be able to tell anyone where you've been, and you won't have any qualifications or anything and—'

'My uncle's got a shop. He's going to give me a job.'

Clean away, thought Hermione again, but then her brain caught on something, something from the endless legal papers she'd been reading for Hestia.

'They'll track you, though,' she said. 'They keep track. You've got to register with the Ministry, wherever you go, and you'll probably have to have a license, like a residency permit, if you want to live among Muggles. And if you move house without notifying them or ever do any magic, even by accident, they'll send the Aurors for you.'

'I don't care. It's still going to be better than this. And it's not like it was when I was ten any more. I can control it now, the magic. There'll be no reason for them to come after me.'

'You're just – going to give it up?' The books in the library, living knowledge. The world changing under your fingers. The electric-shock feeling when a word correctly spoken connects to a figure rightly drawn. A living window opening in the grey air of Azkaban.

'Give what up?' His voice was contemptuous. 'Living with a lot of posh bastards who wear dresses to work? Turning snuff-boxes into mice? Well, I don't know what it's like where you're from, but I don't have any snuff-boxes, and I don't want any mice, ta. I just want to go home, back to my mates and my family, somewhere I can watch the football on the telly, and forget about all this crap.'

He took another drag on his cigarette and threw it away.

'I mean, I get where you're coming from,' he added. 'You made your decision a long time ago, didn't you? Between the real world and this lot, you picked this lot. So you have to keep in with them. I get that. But do me a favour and leave me out of it.'

 

*

The Gryffindor toilet door: ELASTICA RULES. parvati patil fancies ernie macmillan pass it on I DO NOT. LAVENDER BROWN FANCIES GREGORY GOYLE ← NOT!!! ORLANDO. DAMON ALBARN IS FIT. mud pride!!! Becky Black Sucks Muggle Cock ← BECAUSE MUGGLE COCK IS BETTER!! HESTIA JONES IS A LESBIAN (BUT DON'T TELL SEAMUS).

HERMIONE GRANGER IS A MUDBLOOD WHORE.

*

Breakfast in the Great Hall. Hermione, eating toast, plugged into the Walkman Tonks had lent her, listening carefully: thin, wavering sounds; a trumpet, strings being plucked, a man's voice singing distantly, as if he was in the next room: We got the news, there's good rocking tonight, hoy hoy hoy, there's good rocking tonight. Owls flying overhead. A Hufflepuff first-year distributing the Muggle post. An envelope by her plate, her mother's handwriting. She picked it up and tucked it into the back of her Transfiguration textbook and went on listening.

*

Music license
Getting back to Hogwarts – carriages
Get more tickets printed
Decorations

ELECTRICITY!!!

*

The big Hogwarts clock was just beginning to strike as Hermione hurried into the courtyard: she broke into a run for the last few yards and made it through the great main door just as the tenth and final note was sounding. Argus Filch, standing by the door with his clipboard, showed his teeth in disappointment as he crossed her name off.

'Sorry,' she said to him in a general sort of way as she passed, and started the long walk up the moving staircases to her dormitory. She was just passing the third floor when she realized she'd forgotten to do her Transfiguration homework.

'Bugger,' she said out loud to herself, and turned around, heading back down the stairs to the library.

It was dim and quiet, almost deserted at this time of night. She dodged around Madam Pince, who was reshelving scrolls in the Medical Charms section, and headed for the Transfiguration section. There was a row of carrels between the high shelves: only a couple of them were lit, one at each end of the row, as far from each other as possible. As she passed the first, Ginny Weasley looked up, recognized her, gave a tiny nod, then looked down again at her work. Hermione went on, gathering a couple of books as she went, then heard the other student hissing at her: 'Ss! Hermione!'

'Harry,' she said. 'What are you doing in the library?'

'Transfiguration essay,' he said gloomily. 'Severus is making some new Potion or other and...'

'... you haven't got anything better to do than homework?' Hermione finished drily.

'Pretty much.' He scraped his chair over sideways, scuffling his papers over to one side of the carrel with his arm. 'Sit down?'

'Shhh,' said Ginny from the other end of the row.

'All right,' said Harry, then, to Hermione, barely dropping his voice: 'You haven't been round in ages.'

'I've been busy,' she said vaguely.

'Well, look, are you going home for Christmas this year?'

She shook her head.

'Good,' said Harry, 'you can come over to ours.'

Christmas with Harry and Snape? She started rummaging round in her head for an excuse, but Harry was still talking: 'Now, what are we going to put for this essay?'

'What do you mean, we? I'm not doing your homework for you, Evans.'

'No,' said Harry, 'I'm going to do yours. You might know everything in the world, Granger, but the one thing you don't know is how to fill up ten inches of parchment with something you don't know anything about. In less than an hour.' He pulled one of Hermione's books over to him and flipped it open to the Index.

'There we go,' he said, 'You find all those page numbers where it talks about animate-inanimate Transfigurations and copy out what it says.'

'Harry, we're sixth years! You can't just copy your essay out of—'

'That's not copying, that's note-taking. Get on with it, and I'll do our paragraph headings.'

'But you haven't done any reading! How will you—'

Harry sighed loudly, heavy with patience, and flipped open his notebook at the page where he'd copied down McGonagall's blackboard notes from yesterday's class. 'There,' he said. 'Paragraph headings.'

'Shh,' said Ginny Weasley again, and 'All right,' said Harry and Hermione together. They were quiet for a few minutes, apart from the scratching of quills, while Hermione copied out quotes and page numbers on her parchment and Harry drew diagrams on his.

'Okay,' Hermione whispered. 'Now what?'

Harry looked at her. 'Now,' he said, pushing his parchment over to the middle of the desk so that Hermione could see it, messy with arrows and circles and numbers and crossings-out, 'we write the essays.'

It felt very strange, at first, and unsafe. Like stepping out on a narrow bridge, over deep darkness, writing down sentence after sentence without knowing what surrounded each one, without ever being able to be quite sure that they would bear the weight of her argument (Wouldn't Ystrad Simois disagree?). Like walking by the light of a torch, not looking further than the small circle of light that travelled with her; she had to cut off short, one by one, all the long and tangled lines of thought that would normally sustain an essay (How would this line up with Persifal Dumbledore's theory of sentience? Why should the size of a creature relate to its capacity for thought?).

But in forty-five minutes, she had ten inches of writing, and though she winced from rereading it, she had to admit, from the glances she could manage to throw over it, that it did look disconcertingly like a proper essay.

'See?' said Harry complacently.

'Oh, shut up,' she said. But when she kissed his cheek to say goodbye at the foot of the staircases, before she went up to the dormitory and he went out to the staff tower, she felt fonder of him than she had for a while.

*

When she got the essay back it said: O++. Clearer and more focused than usual.
*

Hermione curled into her armchair in the noisy, busy front room of Hestia's little house in Darnholme Lane, reading a little, folded-and-stapled booklet called Magic And Other Recessive Genes, underlining everything in it that contradicted Death Eater blood theory (which was a lot: Death Eater blood theory was woefully out of date and inaccurate). A couple of other people from Mud Pride sitting on the floor, folding flyers into envelopes. Tonks on the sofa, frowning at the laptop, typing something with rapid little clicks; Hestia in the beanbag, marking Defence Against the Dark Arts tests. Everybody drinking tea.

The clock struck six, and Hermione put her booklet down.

'Are you going?' said Tonks.

'I have to supervise prep,' said Hermione apologetically.

'Gah,' said Hestia. She wrote something in the margin of the test she was marking. 'Can't they just abolish it?'

'You're a terrible teacher,' said Tonks automatically. 'Here.' She reached another tape down from the shelf behind her head and passed it to Hermione. 'This is where things start getting interesting.'

'Thanks,' said Hermione, taking it: 1960s/1970s. 'And thanks for the last one, too. It was – cool.'

'Well, the recording quality is often very bad,' said Tonks enthusiastically, 'and they're mostly in mono – that'll start getting better from this tape on. But the forties and fifties, they laid down some really important conventions. You really can't understand anything about later pop music without that background. But then the Beatles – you'll hear them, they're the first track on that tape, "Love Me Do", and then the third, too, "Norwegian Wood" – they changed everything, they made everything that follows possible. And the Supremes, they're on there too, they're like a direct link from bubblegum into disco. And then...' She saw Hestia looking at her, amused, one eyebrow lifted, and interrupted herself. 'Just listen to it. And shut up, Jones, you're a musical illiterate.'

Hermione smiled at Tonks. 'Thanks,' she said again. 'See you in class tomorrow, Hestia.'

Hestia waved goodbye, and Hermione let herself out. She slotted the tape into her Walkman, and pressed play: the thin wail of a harmonica, boys' voices in harmony. A bouncy, jaunty beat, so that she was almost skipping as she walked along the road back to school; words that seemed to be about unrequited love, about begging for love. Which, surely, wouldn't sound like that at all, or she would have been bouncing and skipping all through this last year at Hogwarts.

Seven tuneful tracks about heartbreak later, and suddenly there was a strange, scratchy little tune and over it a woman's voice, torn-up and hurt but strong. It went all through Hermione, setting her teeth on edge in a way that felt good, goosepimpling her skin. She had to stop walking to listen, sitting on the forest-edged path halfway between Hogsmeade and Hogwarts, her heart clenching terribly. Then she had to rewind and listen to it again, and the second time, when the voice sang I know you're unhappy, she started crying.

Unhappy.

As simple as that.

The whole of the last year (and before that, as far back as she could remember, it felt like). The grey of Azkaban, the grey November sky she'd wanted to walk into, to disappear. Wanting not to be alive any more. Every day, the feeling of disappointing her parents, letting Harry down, the War inexorably being fought and lost somewhere beyond her reach. Not knowing how to join in the soft, trivial patter of Lavender and Parvati's conversations. Lost to herself and to everyone else, and not even knowing it until she heard Janis Joplin sing: I know just how you feel.

The vast simplicity of it. Unhappy. No story to it, no myth, no reasons or justifications, no Dark Lords or dead fathers or being shut in a cupboard. Just the feeling, and the word, and that huge, ragged-edged voice.

She listened to the song three more times, until she stopped being able to hear it properly. Then she got up, turned the Walkman off, coiled the headphones up, put it into her bag, and carried on walking back towards school. She felt shaky and exalted, as if she might collapse, or fly.

*

The night of the dance. Jonathan (the skinny boy in the HOW WOULD YOU FEEL ABOUT LIFE tshirt, except that today he was wearing a tshirt with a picture of a tufty-headed girl in cut-off jeans and a gun-holster, grinning and aiming a kick towards the camera) was setting up the generator that Tonks had borrowed from a friend of hers who DJ'd at raves. Tonks herself, serious-faced, was rifling through boxes and boxes of vinyl records, occasionally taking a disc out of its place and slipping it in somewhere else. Madam Rosmerta was behind the bar with Mary, another Mud Pride regular, setting up. Hermione was sitting at a table, ready to take tickets, counting and re-counting the change in the little metal box in front of her, fiddling with her hair (which Tonks had put up in two little knots), and feeling self-conscious.

Seven o'clock. No-one came. Hermione lined up the little book of cloakroom tickets against the corner of the table, lined up the cashbox against the tickets, then pushed them out of alignment again. Tonks came and sat on the corner of the table.

'They'll show up,' she said.

'I know,' said Hermione. She pushed the tickets back into line with the table edge.

Seven-thirty, and Emily Creevey and a couple of Hufflepuff third-years pushed open the door, saw they were the first to arrive, hesitated, then tiptoed in. Emily – chosen by a bit of shoving and giggling – pushed their tickets bashfully across the table to Hermione, who took them mutely and stamped their hands with the MUD PRIDE stamp (more giggling and shoving). They went to the bar, and then stood by the wall in silence, drinking Butterbeer and looking wistfully at the dust whirling and sparkling as the lights flashed on the empty dancefloor, as if three tall and handsome Durmstrang boys were suddenly going to appear there.

Eight-thirty: the room was almost full and people had almost stopped arriving, so Hermione was sitting with her feet up on the table, drinking a beer and watching Tonks changing discs, frowning and leaning over the decks, when the door flung open and Hestia arrived in a burst of joy.

'Hermione!' she shouted over the music. 'This is wicked! How much money have we made?'

'About two hundred Galleons,' said Hermione, 'and we're going to take a collection after your speech. How did the committee hearing go?'

'Oh,' said Hestia, 'you know.' She waved vigorously at Tonks over Hermione's shoulder, grinning. 'But this is really wicked. God, they've really got into it, haven't they?'

Hermione glanced towards the dance-floor: two hundred teenage witches and wizards in boot-cut jeans and t-shirts, or short skirts and DM boots, their hair in spikes or knots or pigtails, in pairs and groups, bouncing determinedly up and down or with their arms round one another, trying to fit ballroom steps to pop beats.

'It's really strange,' she said. 'All of a sudden, everything Muggle is – cool, or something. I saw a Slytherin pure-blood writing with a biro the other day.'

'Yeah,' said Hestia, rolling her eyes. 'I've seen it before. Enjoy it while it lasts, but in the long run it's not really all that much better than being hated. It's just another way of writing us off.' She took a deep breath and pushed her hand through her hair. 'And now, lead me to my public.'

Ten o'clock, and the third and fourth years had had to go home, and Tonks was playing 'Common People', and the dance floor was rippling and heaving like a many-limbed sea as the fifth/sixth/seventh years danced enthusiastically on under the many-coloured lights. Mary had taken over the door (which at this stage of the evening meant that she was drinking beer with Hestia and listening to her stories about the committee meeting); Hermione was leaning against a wall, watching the dancing. Tonks caught her eye ironically, mouthing over Jarvis Cocker's lyrics: Muggle people like me.

Hermione smiled and watched and listened. Smoke some fags and play some pool, sang Jarvis, pretend you never went to school, still you'll never get it right... and the wizard kids danced harder and harder. And she was still on the edges, still on the outside, but that was all right.

Someone came and stood beside her, warming her all down one side. You want to sleep with common people like me. She turned her head and looked, and it was Harry, of course, bleached-out under the lights, beautiful, wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt. He smiled at her and reached out his hands; she took them, and he pulled her onto the dance floor, and they were moving together, to the same beat, the beat that was so loud she could feel it through her bones, the beat that connected them physically, as if they were puppets worked by the same strings. And he smiled at her and she smiled at him, as if the same feelings were flowing through both of them, too. Closer than they'd ever been when they were fucking.

And if this sore and complicated feeling was love, then she still loved him.

Damn it.

They danced for six or seven songs, fast and rocky, then a slower one came on: Harry looked at her, hesitating, but she shook her head.

'Let's go outside,' she said. 'I'm hot.'

Outside, the lovely shock of cold air; in the narrow cobbled lane, a huddle of fifth-year boys smoking, a few couples kissing in the shadows. Harry and Hermione walked past them in silence, down to the end of the lane and onto the village green, grey-shadowed in the moonlight under the trees. The music from the Three Broomsticks distant and faint already.

They sat on a bench, looking out over nothing-in-particular: Harry put his arm round her and she leaned her head on his shoulder, half-comforted, half-resentful: he loves this gay-best-friend thing, he acts like he doesn't even remember...

So she couldn't have been more surprised when he bent his head round and kissed her.

Harry's lips. The taste of them, the little electric feeling. She kissed him back. His tongue delicately licked along the seal of her lips, opening them onto his mouth, and the ache low in her belly began, the one that she thought of as an internal hard-on ever since she'd looked in the Pensieve, and she remembered how it felt to slide her cock into Harry's arse and she broke the kiss and pulled away from him.

'What are you doing?' She heard her voice squeak and break.

'Kissing you,' he said. He moved in to kiss her again, and she dodged.

'What the fuck, Harry? Stop it!'

He flung himself back away from her and ran his hand bad-temperedly through his hair. 'All right,' he said. 'Sorry.'

'Jesus Christ, Harry. You're gay—' ('Bisexual,' Harry interrupted) '—whatever, you're fucking married. What about Snape? He really—' the lift in his heart when he saw the boy, the statue-beautiful boy on his bed; the delight, the hushed feeling, can this really be me, can this really be happening— 'he really loves you.'

'Oh, yeah,' said Harry sarcastically, 'really. He only married me so he could keep his stupid job. He doesn't—'

'Fuck you, Harry Potter,' said Hermione furiously. 'And fuck Snape, too. What about me?' She was suddenly full of tears and horrified at herself, but she couldn't seem to stop this, to go back to quiet and compliance and safety: the words just kept coming out. 'I love you, you bastard. How dare you use me to get back at him?'

'I wasn't—'

'Yes, you were! Right from the start, that's all you ever— I love you,' she said again. 'And all the time we were together, you were with Snape, and you never told me, and you lied to me, and you let me go to Azkaban, and when you found out it wasn't your baby you didn't care, you never even asked how I felt, and you got out, you got married, and I'm still in that fucking dormitory with those fucking girls, and...' A big sob interrupted her, and she gulped for air and sobbed again. Harry reached out, trying to pull her in for a hug; she swiped his arm away and wedged herself into the furthest corner of the bench, putting her own arms around herself and crying into her hands.

When she'd quietened down enough to hear him, Harry was saying: 'Sorry.' He said it very quietly.

She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve and rubbed her eyes with her other sleeve.

'I'm sorry, Hermione,' he said again, and then: 'I'm such a fuckup,' and then: 'I do love you, you know.'

'No, you don't,' she said crossly. 'Don't say that.'

'I do!' he said. 'You're my best friend, and—'

'Oh, best friend. And you always kiss your best friends, do you?'

'Well, yeah,' said Harry, 'when they let me.'

It made Hermione laugh, but she hadn't quite finished crying yet and it turned into a hiccup.

'You're an idiot, Harry,' she said.

'Yeah,' he said ruefully. 'I really am.' He stood up and held out his hand to her, as if they were finished and it was time to get back to the dance; but Hermione didn't think they were finished, so she stayed where she was until Harry sat back down. She held out her hand, and he took it, rubbing the back of it with his thumb.

'Seriously,' she said, 'why did you – not just then, but before? If you were already' (in love with) 'sleeping with Snape, why did you start sleeping with me, too?'

Harry wriggled his shoulders agonizedly, as if he was trying to shake off his skin, his feelings. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I'm just a fuckup, that's all. A fuckup and an idiot.'

'Well, I know that,' said Hermione. 'I've known that for years,' and Harry smiled reluctantly. 'But more specifically, Evans. Why?'

'Argh,' said Harry. He pushed his hair back with his free hand and wriggled again, as if trying to find a more comfortable position on the bench's old wooden slats. Then he looked at her, carefully.

'I do love you,' he said. 'In lots of ways, just not... But I do. And I thought – well, I didn't think I was going to be alive, after Godric's Hollow. Albus didn't think so either, I could tell, and everyone kept saying Hallowe'en, Hallowe'en, all summer. Like it was the end of the world. And I was so fucked up and so scared, and you seemed so unhappy, and I couldn't talk about anything, and anyway, I just wanted to. I've always fancied you, you know. And – well, I didn't think I was ever going to have to choose, to be honest.'

'Thanks,' said Hermione. 'But you did have to choose, didn't you?'

He bit his lip and looked away.

'Do you love him?'

He nodded.

'Why?' Hermione burst out. 'He's twenty years older than you, Harry! He was at school with your dad! He's a–' (grown-up) – 'teacher! You hate him! You've always hated him!'

Harry shrugged, still looking away. 'I love him,' he said. 'I just do. It's like... that's my real life.' He looked back at her, a bit nervously. 'I don't know why.'

Hermione tried to find a way to fit the phrase real life together with Snape –the dubious past, the drawling, the swirling of robes and tossing of hair. The messy kitchen, the weekly drink with Sinistra, the way he loved Harry.

'Well, God knows I don't know why either,' she said at last. 'But I'll take your word for it.'

Harry smiled at her, a bit shyly. 'Thanks,' he said. 'And thanks for staying friends with me. I know I don't deserve it.' He hesitated, then asked, cautiously: 'Are you really sad about the – you know, the baby?'

Hermione looked at him, and wondered what to say, and realized she had no idea. No idea what to say, and no idea how she felt.

'I don't know,' she said. Then: 'Sometimes I think I am, but then I think I might really be sad about something else. How can you tell?'

'Fucked if I know,' said Harry honestly. 'Do you even want children, though? I never really thought about you as a mother.'

A mother, thought Hermione, genuinely startled. I wouldn't just have had a baby, I'd have been a mother. Pictures of her own mother: talking on the phone with one hand, pulling a brush painfully through a tangle in Hermione's hair with the other. Letting Hermione play with the putty in her surgery one morning when she'd had to take her to work. Chopping vegetables at the kitchen counter last summer, looking so sad in the fraction of the second before she realized Hermione was looking at her. Sitting next to Hermione on the sofa, watching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and putting her arm round her extra tight when the Witch got Aslan. Grabbing her roughly and shouting at her (don't you ever do that again, ever, ever, ever) the time Hermione found out how to freewheel her trike down the drive and into the road.

'Are you all right?' said Harry, and she realized she hadn't said anything for a long time.

'Yeah,' she said. 'I think so. But I'm cold. Do you want to go back in and get drunk?'

'I thought you'd never ask.'

*

Hermione left Harry queuing in the bar and went to the loo, as much for a minute alone behind a locked door as because she needed to pee. After she'd finished, she sat for a couple of minutes, staring at the door, almost-unseeing.

And there it was. HERMIONE GRANGER IS A MUDBLOOD WHORE. She reached out with one finger, disbelieving; the ink smudged when she touched it.

Whoever wrote it is here, she thought. Not that it narrows it down much. She pulled her knickers up and stood up, numbly, then suddenly kicked the door, hard. It trembled and crashed satisfyingly.

'Fuck you,' she said aloud, and took her wand out.

She'd looked up the Locator spell that Hestia had cast on Cho's note: it was a difficult one, well past NEWTs level, but with something so recent, and someone so nearby, she might be able to manage it. She aimed her wand at the handwriting and pronounced the words as carefully as she could.

And the letters wriggled and quivered, detaching themselves from the surface of the door, forming a streamer of black smoke, winding away over the cubicle door. Hermione let herself out and followed it into the main room, and watched it snake, a dark stain, through the pale smoke of the dry ice that filled the room, until it coiled around one particular head, one particular girl. A red-headed girl, who turned, laughing and miming exhaustion, as the track changed, and walked away from the dance-floor, the black halo of smoke still trailing her.

Ginny Weasley.

She couldn't believe it.

'Here,' said Harry, handing her a bottle of beer, then: 'What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost.'

'Ginny,' said Hermione.

'What about her?'

'She just – someone just wrote something on the loo door in there,' said Hermione. 'Calling me a Mudblood whore. And it was Ginny.'

'Are you sure?' Harry demanded.

Hermione nodded towards her. 'That black mark above her head,' she said, 'that's the Locator charm Hestia showed us. I'm sure I got it right.'

'That bitch,' said Harry. He put his arm round her for a quick, fierce squeeze. 'Don't worry about it, Hermione, it's not worth it. She's just jealous.'

'I didn't know she was... like that,' said Hermione. 'I mean, I know the Weasleys are pure-bloods, but I really thought they—'

'They're not,' said Harry quickly. 'They're not like that. No-one in that family has ever been anything but good to you, have they? They've had you in their house so many times, and practically everyone's a member of the Order of the Phoenix—'

(And Arthur Weasley's been in the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office for thirty years and he still can't pronounce 'electricity', thought Hermione. Just like Hestia said.)

'And the Blacks have disowned them for being blood traitors – remember? – and—'

'But how can they be blood traitors?' Hermione interrupted. She took a drink of her beer, thinking. 'I mean – if it's as hard as all that to keep a family pure-blood, like Sirius said when he showed us the tapestry, how can the Weasleys just have managed it by accident?' (And seven children, like they're single-handedly trying to improve the pure-blood birthrate.)

Harry shrugged. 'I dunno,' he said impatiently, 'but honestly, Hermione, it's just Ginny. It's not like Draco, or anything. She's just hurt, and she knows it's the easiest way to hurt you back. Don't take it seriously.'

'But that's what blood prejudice is,' Hermione said, realizing it for the first time. 'Just – using it. Taking the easiest way to hurt someone.'

Harry raised an eyebrow in an almost Snapeish way. 'If you say so,' he said. 'I thought it was more about the massacring, myself.'

Everyone is cool and groovy, thought Hermione, as long as they have a nose. But she didn't want to fight with Harry, not now, not about this. So instead, she said: 'You know when you said you always kiss your best friends if they let you? Does that mean you and Ron—'

'Nah,' said Harry, and looked at her sideways. 'He wouldn't let me.'

*

The next day, Hermione had her second-ever hangover and Parvati and Lavender were packing up in the dormitory, slamming things around and giggling and talking endlessly about who had said what to whom and who had danced with whom last night and who was having a party over the holidays. Hermione put on her oldest jeans and her most shapeless jumper, and walked over to Hogsmeade.

It was Tonks who opened the door, looking ill, wearing stripey flannel pyjamas and thick socks. She nodded at Hermione – 'Wotcher' – and stood back to let her in.

'Thanks,' said Hermione, stepping into the warm, crowded room. 'Is Hestia in?'

'In the village,' said Tonks. 'She forgot to bring me any cherry Coke from London last night, and now she says she's too hungover to Apparate, so I sent her out into the snow for Mr Wulfric's Superb Sparkling Raspberryade.' She went over to her decks, which were crammed into the corner by the fireplace, making the room even smaller than usual, and slung her bulky I'm-a-DJ headphones round her neck, then swivelled one of them up to her ear. Her eyes took on their faraway, listening look, as the beat began to run visibly through her body.

'It's not snowing,' said Hermione.

'Typical,' said Tonks. 'What do you want to listen to?'

'I don't mind,' said Hermione. She hesitated for a moment, but it didn't seem like Tonks wanted her to go away, so she took her coat and scarf off and hung them on the peg on the back of the front door, then lowered herself gently into the beanbag: oh, exactly right. She wriggled a little, making a nest for herself, then shut her eyes.

'Something chilled-out,' Tonks said, and the music started: spacey, electronic/stringy music over drums, a woman's high, ethereal voice (Inside you're pretending...). It sounded very much the way Hermione felt: dreamy and floaty, a little bit fragile, a little bit outside reality. She lay and listened in comfortable silence for a while, but then Tonks suddenly turned it off.

'Making me anxious,' she said. 'Too eerie. Need something rockier,' and then, as she frowned down at the box of records between her feet: 'Ah!'

She slipped the record out of its sleeve and put it on the turntable. 'This is the unofficial Mud Pride anthem,' she explained as a lone piano began to play. 'Very unofficial: Jones hates it. But then Jones is a musical illiterate.'

Hermione grinned, and watched Tonks listening to the song, watched her get rosier and sparklier as the music got bigger and bigger, until, by the end of the track (huge strings and kettle-drums), she was frankly dancing. She lifted the needle off the record, beamed at Hermione, and said: 'I'm playing you that again.'

'Why is it the Mud Pride anthem?' asked Hermione (who had only managed to catch the words cavemen, Mars, and the Norfolk Broads).

'Because,' Tonks began; then she stopped and frowned. 'I'll give you the lyrics.'

She threw Hermione a squarish sheet of cardboard, and started the song again, while Hermione read:

It's a god-awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling 'no', and her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she's hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she's lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on:
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
(Oh man, look at those cavemen go!)
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy
Oh man, wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best-selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It's on Amerika's tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame, cos Lennon's on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a saddening bore
Cos I wrote it ten times or more...

'See?' said Tonks.

'Um,' said Hermione, thinking, wanting to get it right. She liked how Tonks thought about music, as if it was as serious as school. 'It's what we were talking about after the meeting, I guess. How they ask us to focus on the wrong things.'

'Exactly,' said Tonks, beaming like a teacher. 'As if what mattered was Voldemort and his Death Eaters – his ten Death Eaters. That same old tedious story about boys fighting. The same old saddening bore. They try and sell it to us every thirty years, so the girls with the mousy hair will just sit and watch instead of actually changing things.'

Hermione squinted at the lyrics again. 'But what does the bit about the mice mean?'

Tonks shrugged. 'Who knows? It's Bowie, it could be anything. But the bit about Rule Britannia is out of bounds, to my mother, my dog and clowns, that's about blood racism. Except in my case it's my dad,' she added.

'Play it again,' said Hermione.

After one more play, Hermione had memorized the lyrics; after a second, they'd made up some new ones; by the third, Hermione was conducting vigorously from the beanbag and yelling along with Tonks: 'We could SPIT in the EYES of FOOLS as they ask us to focus on... Harry, fighting with the Dark Lord!'

Then Hestia came back and made them turn it off. Things quietened down. Tonks put on some fifties girl-groups for Hestia; they lay around and read the Sunday Prophet and drank raspberryade. At about two Tonks went out for chips. Then, at about four, when she heard the whistle of the Hogwarts Express leaving from Hogsmeade station, Hermione got up to go.

'Cheers, Hermione,' said Hestia from the sofa, waving one toe in time to Stupid Cupid. 'Well done for last night.'

'Thanks,' said Hermione, winding her scarf around her neck. 'See you, Hestia, Tonks. Thanks for the chips.'

'Any time,' said Tonks, and Hermione let herself out. She was a few yards down the lane when she heard Tonks calling after her from the door and turned to hear what she had to say.

'I forgot!' Tonks yelled. 'The girl with the mousy hair, in the song?'

'Yeah?'

'She was David Bowie's girlfriend in the sixties. Her name's Hermione.'

*

Morning, two days after the end of term. Everything was hushed and muffled and quiet. Hermione was warm and quiet, wrapped in the heavy Hogwarts covers, still in her bed with its curtains closed tight around it, in the dormitory in Gryffindor Tower, with mist and cloud wrapped tight and close around it. She was listening to the rain falling, quiet and monotonous, against the windows, when there was a tap on the door.

'Come in,' she said, sitting up and poking her head through the curtains at the foot of the bed. The door squeaked open cautiously and a tray came through it, a tray almost bigger than the House Elf who was carrying it. She stumped towards Hermione's bed, put the tray down on the table beside the bed, regarded Hermione suspiciously, and made immediately for the door.

'Thanks,' said Hermione, but the House Elf only narrowed her eyes. 'My job, mistress,' she said squeakily, and left before (Hermione supposed) she could have an item of clothing foisted on her.

Hermione balanced the tray on her knees in the bed and started buttering toast. SPEW felt like a long time ago now. And what had she been thinking with that acronym? It made her blush, even here, alone in the room, in the whole tower, to think of it. How stupid.

Not to mention Elvish Welfare, she thought, taking a bite of toast. It sounded like some kind of Victorian charity for the protection of fallen women. So patronizing. Nothing fierce about it, nothing angry, nothing proud.

I suppose I thought that was how you had to talk to wizards. After that nightmare moment, not so much when she'd found out about the House Elves at Hogwarts, as when she'd found out that if she said But this whole society is founded on slavery, on the enslavement of a whole race, the wizards would just blink at her and say Yes. But they like it. And so would the House Elves.

Had that been when she'd finally taken sides, as quietly as she could, with the wizarding world and against her parents? Because Dean was right, that was exactly what she'd done. Had that been the last untranslatable thing? It was hard enough to explain the rules of Quidditch; or to explain, when her Nan broke her hip, why wizards didn't share their medical magic; or to say Of course, people like you get their memories wiped if it's more convenient for people like Malfoy or Dumbledore… or me. But she could make some sense of those things, if she had to: she could argue them through, she could see there were points on both sides. She couldn't do anything with puzzled silence and But they like it.

Yes, I'm getting on okay at school. And my meals are prepared, my clothes are washed, my toilets are cleaned, by slaves. Happy slaves. Natural slaves. Members of a slave race. There in the kitchen with the Free Nelson Mandela sticker still in the window.

She hadn't been able to say it. And that had been the first brick in the great silent wall.

She put her toast down, got up and started getting dressed. She'd walk into Hogsmeade, then Apparate to King's Cross, and then if she changed at Blackfriars it was only half an hour on the train home.

*

Walking up to Hogsmeade, washed and dressed and packed, listening to the 1980s/1990s tape Tonks had made her, she tried to think about what she would find when she got home, what she would say (should she try and ring from King's Cross?), but her mind kept skidding off it, thinking about Harry and Snape having Christmas together in Snape's three rooms, or about something Tonks had said about the song she was listening to.

I haven't read their last – how many? three? – letters, she realized, and her heart jumped guiltily, and then she found herself thinking about House Elves again.

Why doesn't it matter if they like being slaves? Why doesn't that solve the problem for me, the way it did for Sirius and Hagrid and everyone?

She frowned and hitched her bag up her shoulder and pulled her hat down over her eyebrows and wondered.

What could it even mean, to be a natural slave? For it to be in your nature not to want wages? To need to be bound to someone, owned by someone?

Wouldn't it have to mean that there was a place for slaves in nature? And slaves can't exist without masters, it doesn't make any sense. So saying you believe that House Elves are natural slaves is the same thing as saying that you believe wizards are natural masters. The master race.

All the rest of the way to Hogsmeade, she tested out her idea from every angle she could think of, phrasing and rephrasing it in a dozen imaginary arguments, with Hestia, with Sirius, with Harry, with Ron, with Snape. And the idea kept on ringing true.

*

She got off the train at Loughborough Junction and suddenly she was cold and numb and terrified, her hands sweating, her heart beating so hard she couldn't breathe.

I've been in prison. I've had an abortion.

She swallowed and tried to take a deep breath and coughed and started walking.

I don't know how to tell them. I don't know how to begin. I haven't told them anything in years. How can I start with this? Any of this?

One foot in front of the other, dead, mechanical, and then she was there, at her familiar red front door with the familiar battered Christmas wreath on it. No magic, no Death Eaters, no blood racists, no elf slaves. She lifted her hand to ring the doorbell and it was the most frightening thing she'd ever done.

There was no answer.

Okay, she thought with confused relief, I tried. They weren't here. I can go back home. Back to school, I mean.

But instead she fumbled in her wallet for her key and opened the door, and it all got a lot scarier.

A pot was boiling over on the stove. The lights were on in the kitchen and the front room. Her dad's best tankard was on the table by his favourite chair, half-full. There was no-one there.

She turned the gas off and stood in the kitchen. Her head was wild. She had no idea what to do.

Hestia, she thought. In her wallet with her key was the little piece of paper that Hestia had written her phone number on and given to her ('just in case') before going to London for Christmas yesterday. She scrabbled it out with clumsy fingers and rang the number, getting it right second time. It was engaged. She redialled, twice, three times, and when it finally rang someone picked it up on the first ring.

'Hello?'

'Hestia,' said Hermione, then she couldn't seem to say anything else.

'Andy? Has anything—?'

'No, it's Hermione. Hestia, my parents have vanished.'

A tiny pause. 'So have mine.'

*

'Listen,' Tonks was saying. Hermione was clinging to the phone with both hands. 'Hestia's barely in any state to Apparate, and I don't think you are either, but I've never been to your house, so I can't visualize it closely enough to get us there. Is there anywhere that's near enough, somewhere I'd recognize, somewhere that you're sure you know well enough to Apparate to? Really sure?'

'Trafalgar Square?' whispered Hermione. 'By the lions?'

'Er,' said Tonks. 'It's going to be very full. I don't want to land in the middle of a tourist. Or be picked up by the Aurors,' she added. 'It's risking a major breach of the Secrecy Statute.'

'Fuck the Secrecy Statute,' Hermione heard Hestia say in the background. 'Yes, I know, love,' Tonks said muffledly, away from the phone, then back into it: 'Can you think of anywhere else, Hermione?'

She couldn't. Then: 'Platform Thirteen-and-three-quarters,' she said suddenly. 'The Hogwarts Express won't be running. There won't be anyone there.'

'Brilliant,' said Tonks. 'We'll see you there straightaway,' and she hung up.

*

Hestia was white, and if Tonks hadn't been holding her up Hermione didn't think she would be on her feet. She held her free arm out to Hermione and Hermione walked automatically into her and Tonks's close, warm hug, but she could barely feel it. She disentangled herself and stepped back.

'What happened?' said Hestia.

'I just – I came home, and there wasn't anyone there. But not like they were out – there was a saucepan on the stove, just about to boil over, and the lights were on, and – it was like they'd vanished. Like they saw me coming and...'

'It's not your fault,' said Tonks immediately.

'It's Malfoy,' said Hestia in a voice Hermione had never heard before.

'We don't know—' Tonks began, then she looked at Hestia and said: 'Okay. Probably it is Malfoy. But what is he doing?'

Hestia ignored her and said to Hermione: 'My parents – we were at my house, Tonks and I, and my mum had just gone to make a cup of tea, and my dad and Tonks were talking about Buddy Holly – which is what they do – and then they were gone. Just like that. Nothing, no noise or nothing. Just a – sort of a blue smell, and... if it's her parents too,' she interrupted herself, turning to Tonks, 'it must be the parents of Muggle-borns. If your parents are okay, and it's just me and Hermione who... It must be Malfoy. Oh, Jesus Christ, Tonks, Malfoy's got my mum,' and Hestia started to cry, big, terrified sobs.

Hermione watched Tonks wrap Hestia in her arms, rub her cheek against the top of Hestia's head. She began shaking.

My mum. My dad.

'They wrote to me,' she said suddenly. 'Last week. It might have said—I didn't read it, I didn't read the letter. I couldn't—'

'Have you got it on you?' demanded Hestia. She straightened up a bit, but kept Tonks's arm around her.

'It's at school,' said Hermione. 'I left it... somewhere. In a book, I think. I could accio it – should I accio it?'

'No,' said Tonks, and Hestia shook her head. 'It's in Scotland, it'll take hours to get here. Do you think you could Apparate? If all three of us try for Hogsmeade Square, and hang on tight to each other – do you think it's too far?'

Hermione took a deep breath, and closed her eyes, looking inside herself. At first all she could find inside was the silver, quivering bubble of fear; she bit her lip and breathed again and deliberately let the fear out, let it go, let it wash all through her like a tide. And there it was, left on the shore, dumb as a rock, small as a pebble, but there: the still, small bump of a place where her magic came from, the place that had stayed intact all through Azkaban, all through everything.

She nodded, once, briefly, and took Tonks' and Hestia's hands.

*

They were sitting in a huddle on Hermione's bed, reading the last-but-one letter from her parents, the one which had arrived the day the Slytherins came back to the school and which she'd shoved straight into her bedside drawer.

Dear Little My... questionnaire from the school, assume you've seen it? ... a Mr Malfoy, is he the father of that boy you used to dislike so much?

'It fucking is Malfoy,' said Hestia between clenched teeth. 'I fucking knew it. Where's the next letter, Hermione?'

'I left it in a book,' said Hermione. She screwed her face up, remembering. 'My Transfiguration textbook.'

Hermia rummaged in the pile of books by the bed. 'This one?' She threw it to Hermione, who caught it and riffled through the pages.

'It's not here,' she said blankly, then, as she reached the title page (PUDDLEMERE UTD, it said), 'This is Harry's book. He must have taken mine.'

*

And so there they were, Hermione, Hestia and Tonks, on the dark, familiar landing, knocking on the familiar door.

Harry opened it, tousled, wearing a dressing-gown, and blinked at them. 'Um,' he said. 'Hello.'

'Do you have my Transfiguration textbook?' said Hermione.

'I don't know,' he said indignantly. 'Do you really need it right now, Hermione?'

'Yes,' said Hestia, stepping forwards. 'She really does.'

Harry looked from Hermione to Hestia. His expression changed, and he stood back from the door.

'You'd better all come in, I think.'

*

Hermione, Hestia and Tonks were crammed onto Snape's tiny two-seater sofa, huddled over the last letter from Hermione's parents. Snape, barefoot in a thick green dressing-gown, squatting by a small table, was pouring tea into five cups from a battered pot, listening as Hestia read bits aloud.

...meeting to discuss legislation (apparently passed last week – have you heard anything about it?)... must say it will be nice to meet some of the other parents; we do feel quite isolated a lot of the time and it's sometimes quite hard to keep up... not surprising, really, though, if half of what Mr Malfoy says about the state of wizard-Muggle (God, I really hate that word, you know – isn't there anything that sounds less stupid?) relations is true...

Hermione kept reading. We miss you. Dad says to tell you he saw a sock in a tree the other day – oh, sorry, very high up in a tree, he wants to stress. It was pink, apparently. (I don't know why he wants you to know that. Do drop us a note, My, so we have something more interesting to talk about.)

Harry came in, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and towelling his hair dry.

'Well?' he demanded.

'Miss Jones is right,' said Snape, handing Harry a cup. 'Lucius Malfoy does indeed seem to be abducting the Muggle parents of wizard children.'

'But why?' said Hermione. 'I thought he was all on the side of law and order these days.'

Snape looked at her sarcastically. 'I hardly think—' he began, but Hermione interrupted him, hardly noticing that she was doing so. She was thinking furiously.

'He's not just putting on a mask and taking people off the streets at random any more,' she said. 'He's going through the Ministry, through Dumbledore, through the law... Slytherins want power, that's what everybody says, and that's exactly what he's got now. What if he wasn't changing sides at all? What if it was just – a purge? Like he decided he could get what he wanted better if he was in charge, instead of a ranting madman without a nose?'

'But what does he want?' said Snape.

'He wants us all dead,' said Hestia.

'In Azkaban,' said Hermione, 'Draco said something about reclassifying Muggles as beasts. And he said that Muggles with wizard children were mutants, that they were the reason that pure-bloods were dying out. And Lucius, at the public meeting, he said he wanted to do more research into wizard genetics, and...'

'And,' said Snape, his voice absolutely colourless, 'it might be relevant that when he was at Hogwarts interviewing the Muggle-borns, he approached me to ask whether I could arrange the supply of a large quantity of Fleabane from my contacts in Romania.'

'What's that?' asked Harry.

'They use it in the Sterilitas potion,' said Hermione. 'Hestia, what happened at the committee in the end? The blood law reforms, did they get passed?'

'I don't know,' said Hestia. She picked up her cup of tea, put it to her lips then put it down again without drinking any. 'I presented evidence last week, but they didn't vote on it until today, and it's the last day before the Christmas break, so they won't be reported till the New Year now. And anyway, the actual provisions, the detail of them, will be confidential under the Death Eater Act, the one that increased their powers of arrest and confinement.'

'Fuck that,' said Hermione. 'I think we need to have a word with Lucius Malfoy.'

'And I think I know what that word is,' said Hestia, getting up.

'Sit down, Miss Jones,' said Snape (Hestia sat down). 'You don't know where Malfoy is, you haven't drunk your tea, and I doubt you've eaten anything in a long time. There is absolutely no honour in delivering yourself, hungry and hysterical and in disarray, into the hands of the enemy. Believe me.' He took a cup of tea between his hands, settled himself into a chair, leaned back, slowly and deliberately, blew on the tea, and took a sip. 'Harry,' he added, 'will you make us all some cheese on toast? And then,' he said over Hestia's stirring, 'we will make a plan.'

*

Hermione ate one bite of her cheese on toast, felt sick at the rubbery, slippery, chewy texture of it, and put it down. Then she was suddenly starving, so she picked it up and ate the rest of it.

'Good,' said Snape, coming back in, fully and immaculately dressed. 'Now, Hestia, Harry tells me you're a first-class Locator.'

Hestia swallowed her last mouthful. 'Not bad,' she said.

'Then might I suggest you use Hermione's mother's letter to find out her present location?'

Hestia looked dazed. 'I should have – why didn't I think of that? I'm sorry, Hermione.'

'You're in shock, Jones, love,' said Tonks.

'I think I must be. Can I have the letter?'

Hermione passed it to her. She took her wand out of her pocket and pointed it grimly at the letter, whispering the words of the spell to herself as the letter rose, wobbling, into the air. It hung motionless for a moment; then it exploded in a huge and silent flash of absolute blackness.

When the light came back and Hermione came back to herself, Harry was holding her hand tightly.

'What does that mean?' he asked. Hermione squeezed his hand gratefully.

'Um,' said Hestia, biting her lip. 'It could mean that – I'm sorry, Hermione – that your mother is dead. Or it could just be that she's in a place with too much magical protection for a simple Locator charm to work. Fuck. I should have—'

'All right,' Snape cut in. 'It looks as though we will have to go through Malfoy after all.' He hesitated for a moment, then took a much-folded, much-creased piece of parchment out of the pocket of his robe and gave it to Hestia. 'See what you can do with this,' he said. 'It's nineteen years old, I'm afraid, but it doesn't have any protections on it; anything more recent will be absolutely solid.'

Hestia unfolded the parchment and put it on her knees, frowning at its old-fashioned, spiky, hard-to-decipher wizardly handwriting. Severus, Hermione read, I must see you, before the paper quivered and fluttered and rose, following Hestia's wand tip, into the air.

It hovered, struggling, in the silent air. Hermione held her breath, and the very edge of the paper began, quietly, to feather and bleed into green smoke, pluming faintly in the air.

'Come on,' Hestia whispered. Her wand wavered, and the parchment dipped, before suddenly going up in a brief, spiky, burst of flame and vanishing, leaving a faint spiky trace of itself (a castle, a mountain, a crown) in smoke on the air, just for a second, before it faded into nothingness.

'I don't—' Hestia began.

'Malfoy Manor,' said Snape briefly.

'Are you sure?'

Snape nodded.

'How are we going to get there?' asked Hermione.

'I'm not at all sure that you are going to get there at all,' said Snape freezingly. 'For one thing, it's at least a day's journey by any non-magical means, short of chartering a private jet, and since I don't think any of you have seen the Manor – Miss Jones?' (Hestia shook her head) – 'I am the only one who will be able to Apparate there.' He wrapped his robes more tightly around him, shivering or squaring his shoulders.

'I'm not staying behind,' said Hermione. 'Not this time. You owe me this one. All of you.'

'Hermione's right,' said Harry.

'Morally,' said Snape, 'no doubt. In terms of pleasing narrative structure, psychological closure, and dramatic justice, absolutely. But the fact remains that—'

'You can show us Malfoy Manor,' said Hermione.

Snape raised an eyebrow at her: how?

'In the Pensieve. You've got one, haven't you?'

'As it happens, I do,' said Snape slowly. 'How did you—' And then he shut his mouth with a snap, as Hermione felt herself blush, but refused to look away.

'Oh, dear Merlin,' he added to himself.

'What?' said Harry.

*

Snape's small and shabby front room, too small for the five of them, muffled with carpets and cushions; a moment of blackness, just one; then space opening out around them, space and cold. They were standing in the place Snape had shown them in the Pensieve, carefully twisting the shining white thought-stuff around his wand and dipping it into the basin, refusing to meet Hermione's eye: the high, spiky gates of Malfoy Manor. Through the bars they could see the drive twisting away through yew trees, and beyond/above them, the high grey battlements of the house itself.

Snape took hold of the knocker (a metal ring held in the mouth of a horned goat's-head) and knocked three times.

'Yes?' said a voice.

'Severus Snape and party,' said Snape. 'I think it would be to Mr Malfoy's profit to admit us.'

A moment of silence, then the gates and the open space blinked out and they were in a long, high room, space opening onto dimness all around them, small noises echoing, cold striking up from the tiled floor. Light came from torches high on the walls, above a double line of portraits, receding towards a door at the far end of the hall, which, to Hermione's bewildered, Apparated eyes, seemed about half a mile away. She blinked, and perspective skewed back into place, just as the door opened and a man in neat grey-and-scarlet robes stepped through it.

'Marius,' said Snape, inclining his head towards him, just as he seemed about to speak.

'Professor Snape,' said the man. 'Mr Malfoy says this is an unexpected pleasure, and will you please come through into the library?'

*

Another cold, high-ceilinged room, all white and pale blue and pale gold. A big marble fireplace in the centre of one wall, with a dark-silver mirror above it, reflecting an even colder room, its golds turned to silver in the glass: below the mirror a pale fire burned and crackled.

Narcissa Malfoy was standing in front of the fireplace, wearing a long, silver dress. Her long, silver hair was braided in complicated loops over her temples, then loose over her bare shoulders. Beside her, in two of a group of chairs pulled into a rough horseshoe around the fire, were Lucius and Dumbledore.

'Ah, Severus,' said Lucius, standing up. 'Miss Jones, Mr Potter – I do beg your pardon, Mr Evans – Miss Tonks, Miss Granger. Come in, please. Can I ask Marius to get you a drink?'

'No thanks,' said Hestia coldly. Hermione could feel Harry, beside her, breathing hard. 'We're just here to ask you a couple of questions.'

'My dear,' said Lucius. He took up a position next to Narcissa, by the fireplace, and spread his hands out (nothing to hide here). 'By all means.'

'Where are my parents?' Hermione burst out.

'Your parents?' Lucius looked elaborately astonished. 'I haven't the remotest idea.'

'Liar,' said Hestia.

'Be quiet, Hestia,' said Snape. 'I apologize, Lucius. Miss Jones and Miss Granger are understandably worried: their parents seem to have been removed from their homes by magical means, and the last letter Miss Granger received from her mother mentioned your name in connection with a meeting to discuss the reforms to the blood laws.'

Dumbledore smiled and put down his glass. 'There's absolutely nothing to worry about,' he said.

'You knew about this?' whispered Harry. Hermione saw his fingers gripping the edge of Snape's sleeve.

'Of course,' said Dumbledore. 'Now that the blood law reforms have lifted certain restrictions on the movement of Muggles – and particularly because Muggle parents of wizarding children are, naturally, exempt from the majority of the provisions of the Statute of Secrecy – the Committee for Truth and Reconciliation is taking the opportunity to consult with some of the parents of Hogwarts about various issues. Nothing sinister about it at all, let me assure you.'

'What issues?' Hestia asked dangerously. 'Lucius Malfoy, where are my parents?'

'My dear Miss Jones, I honestly—'

Hestia's wand was out and pointed at Lucius's throat. 'Lucius Malfoy,' she said – Dumbledore made an inarticulate, displeased sound, and Narcissa drew in her breath sharply, and Harry said 'No,' low and urgent, but Hestia stayed still and taut and unblinking as a statue of an archer – 'I challenge you to a duel.'

A calculating look passed over Lucius' face, and for a moment Hermione thought he was going to refuse, but then she saw him catch Snape's eye; whatever he saw there must have changed his mind.

'I accept,' he said.

'Oh, really,' said Dumbledore, stirring in his chair. 'This has gone quite far enough. I give you my personal assurance that—'

'Too late, Albus,' said Snape, and he subsided.

With a little flourishy twist of his wrist, Lucius pulled his wand out of his cane and handed the case to Narcissa. She took it silently, eyes downcast, then suddenly leaned in and clung to him for a second, kissing him on the cheek. He said something to her, but Hermione didn't listen: she was watching Tonks gripping Hestia's arms fiercely, listening to her say: 'You fucking magnificent idiot, Jones, don't you ever do that again.'

'All right,' said Hestia, 'I won't,' and she rested her forehead on Tonks's for a second. Then she looked up, straightened her shoulders, and walked into the centre of the room.

'Ten paces?' said Lucius, and Hestia nodded.

They faced one another. Hestia bowed neatly, gravely, from the waist; Lucius returned the bow with an ironic flourish of his hand; they turned, and began to pace it off.

One. Two. Three. Hermione felt Tonks' hand looking for hers, and held it firmly.

Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight, and a flicker at the edge of Hermione's eyesight was Narcissa Malfoy, wand in hand, getting ready to aim, and 'Petrificus Totalus,' shouted Hermione. Narcissa stiffened and fell, all-of-a-piece, so that Hermione almost expected her to shatter on the cold, tiled floor. Neither of the duellists gave the least sign that they'd registered anything.

Nine. Ten, and Lucius and Hestia turned and cried out at exactly the same moment, and there was a whirl and a flash, a boiling feeling and an acrid smell in the air as spells met and clashed and shattered and merged. Time stretched, and Hestia and Lucius stood absolutely unmoving, and the air between them warped and bulged with the struggle.

And then Hestia took one step forward, and there was a flash and a bang and all of a sudden Lucius was on his back on the floor and Hestia was kneeling on his chest, her wand at his throat.

'Get his wand, someone,' she said, and Snape stooped and picked it off the floor by his foot where it had rolled.

'Now,' she said. 'Where are my parents?'

Lucius bared his teeth at her, breathing hard, but didn't say anything. She jabbed her wand a little tighter against his throat.

'Do I need to remind you, Lucius Malfoy, that, under solemn and binding law, no person or institution may take reprisals against me for your death in a duel that you accepted? Where are my parents?'

'Azkaban,' Lucius snarled. 'They're being taken to Azkaban.'

'And Hermione's? And the others, if there are any?'

'The same place. Now let me up, you degenerate bitch.'

'Oh,' she said, getting up but keeping her wand pointed at Lucius' head, 'I don't think so. Petrificus Totalus,' and Lucius stiffened where he lay.

'Nice one, Hermione,' she said over her shoulder. 'Now, let's go.'

'Goodbye, Albus,' said Snape, and the last thing Hermione saw was Dumbledore's face, shocked and blasted and older than she'd ever seen it, staring back at them as the five of them took hands to Apparate.

*

They appeared outside the prison gate, at the end of the road which wound halfway up the rocky crag into which Azkaban was built. The wind was bitingly cold (Hermione shivered and wished for her coat, back at Hogwarts). Below them, at the foot of the crag, a tiny boat was pulling up onto the stony, narrow strip of shore, and tiny figures were getting out of it: on the far shore, even tinier, long lines of people, heads down against the wind, were waiting patiently for the boat to return and pick them up. There was a grey, obedient feeling in the air.

'Mum!' shouted Hermione, but the wind took the sound and scattered it like smoke.

'Try the far side,' said Hestia. 'I'll stay here and try and stop them bringing those people in. Tonks?'

Tonks nodded and stepped closer in to Hestia's side. Hermione took Snape's hand in one of hers, took Harry's in the other. They Stepped wordlessly across the strait and found themselves among the queues: about fifty people, all in Muggle clothes, quiet and blank-faced and shifting from foot to foot, like people who have been waiting for a long time on a cold platform for a train. Here and there quiet conversations went on; behind Hermione, someone lit a cigarette, sheltering the flame against the wind; to her right, someone else took out a packet of gum and offered a piece to her neighbour.

She didn't recognize anyone near her. She was beginning to pull Harry towards the next knot of people, further down towards the shore, when a man in black-and-scarlet Ministry robes came towards her, holding a clipboard.

'Name?' he said.

'Hermione Granger,' she said automatically.

'Not on my list,' he said. 'I've got a Christine Granger, and a Robert, but that's it.'

'That's them,' said Hermione, 'that's my parents. Where are they?'

He gestured with his clipboard. 'London and Home Counties queue. Over there. This is the queue for the north-west,' he added, as if it was very funny that she hadn't known that, but Hermione was already picking her way across the rocky ground to the London queue.

And there they were. Her mum and dad, waiting in a queue to be taken to Azkaban. Her round, beginning-to-go-bald dad, in his ancient anorak with the rubbed-bare patch on the sleeve. Her mum, huddling into her best leather jacket, her hair red and surprising in the growing dark. Hermione's heart squeezed painfully in her chest.

'Mum,' she called. 'Mum,' and Christine turned around to see her.

'My!' she said joyfully. 'What are you doing here? They never told us you'd be here!' She held her arms out and Hermione took one more step forwards, and there she was in her mother's arms, breathing her mother's smell. She felt a lump start in her throat and struggled out of the hug, but then her dad caught her – 'Oh, little My, little My, we've missed you!' – and her eyes started streaming. She cuddled in against her dad's chest, hiding her face, while she tried to get her breath under control.

'And this is Harry, isn't it?' Christine was saying. 'And – are you one of the children's teachers?'

'Severus Snape,' said Snape, diplomatically avoiding the question. 'How nice to meet you, Mrs Granger.'

'Ms,' said Christine sharply. 'But call me Christine.'

Hermione took three shaky breaths without sobbing, and pulled out of her dad's embrace. Snape was shaking hands with her mum, and Harry was looking on with a strange expression on his face which she didn't have time to think about.

'Listen,' she said. 'You mustn't get on those boats. No-one must get on those boats.'

'Why not?' said Robert, but Christine shook her head. She was looking at Hermione intently.

'It's something serious, isn't it? Something bad.'

Hermione nodded. 'That's Azkaban, the wizarding prison, over there. They've – Lucius Malfoy, he's lied to you. You mustn't get on those boats.'

'All right,' said Christine. 'We won't. What should we do?'

'I don't know,' said Hermione desperately. 'How did you get here?'

'Search me,' said Robert. 'One minute we were home, getting ready for lunch, and the next we were here. Mr Malfoy did say he'd collect us magically, for this meeting your mum told you about, but I wasn't quite expecting this.' He waved vaguely at the bleak and rocky shore, the queues, the boats.

'What's going on, Hermione?' asked Christine.

'Oh, God,' said Hermione. 'I don't even know where to start...' She looked around, as if something in the vicinity might explain what she was supposed to do, and noticed Snape, a few yards away, talking quietly to one of the Ministry guards. 'Wait here,' she said, though she didn't really know where else she expected them to go, and went to join him.

'I appreciate that it is entirely lawful,' Snape was saying, 'but you have no legal grounds for bringing these people into Azkaban against their will, do you?'

'Not really sure,' said the guard. 'Hasn't arisen.'

'It's arising now,' said Snape dangerously. The guard sighed, shifted his weight to his other leg, rolled his eyes.

'Tell you what,' he said, 'if it's so important to you, I'll check. I can Apparate to the nearest village with a connection to the Floo network, then get to the Ministry that way. It'll take a while, though,' he added, 'and I don't think you'll be very popular. We've only just started taking them across – that's the first boatload, over there – and it's been a long, cold wait.'

'Thank you,' said Snape, as the guard vanished, then, to Hermione: 'Mission, oddly enough, at least partially accomplished. Amplificare,' he added, then, in a voice which seemed to reach directly into Hermione's ears, 'may I have your attention, please, ladies and gentlemen?'

A stir ran through the crowd, like the crowd on a station again when an announcement is made, and Hermione saw that everyone was listening.

'I'm afraid the business of the day is cancelled,' he said, 'and you will all have to return to your homes.'

A mutter of discontentment. A voice, somewhere near Hermione, calling out: 'But we're freezing! We've been waiting for hours!'

'I apologize for any inconvenience,' said Snape smoothly, and Hermione found that she was laughing. 'We will try and get you back to your homes as soon as possible. Cancello,' and his voice dropped out of Hermione's head.

'How?' she said.

'I don't know,' said Snape, 'but we'd better think of something. Fast. Perhaps you could Apparate over to the prison and see what Hestia and Tonks have found, while Harry and I try to keep things under control at this end?'

*

Back in Azkaban. The tall, cold, entrance hall, sadness and self-hatred falling onto her shoulders like a physical weight. A small, incongruous desk had been set up near the door; Hestia was talking to the black-and-scarlet-robed wizard sitting behind it.

'I assure you, Miss Jones, it is all entirely legal,' the wizard was saying. 'Please don't concern yourself. The prohibitions on Muggles entering Azkaban have been lifted under the new legislation—' he handed Hestia a report, and she paged through it while he went on talking—'and the parents have all volunteered to take part in this consultation—' he handed her another sheaf of papers—'so...'

Hermione dodged into the shadows at the edge of the hall and crept round, shoulder to the wall, feeling its cold strike into her heart, until she reached the door leading to the main corridor. There was another guard there, leaning bored against the wall, but just then Hestia shouted: 'I don't CARE if it's legal, this is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!' and he cocked his head towards the disturbance.

Hermione slipped past him into the corridor. There were little signs everywhere, like the SHOWERS and VISITORS' ROOM signs: CONSULTATION ROOM 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b... She dodged into the nearest one: another desk, another black-and-scarlet-robed wizard.

'Hello,' he said, unsmiling, consulting a list. 'Miss Ryan? Do sit down.'

Hermione sat down, watching him, her heart beating. This is it. Whatever they were going to do to my mum, to my dad, this is it: this desk, this list, this ordinary, grey-faced man in uniform. A god-awful small affair. But why would Malfoy—?

'Thank you for coming all this way,' he said, still without smiling. He filled a glass with water from a jug on the table, and pushed it towards her, together with a piece of paper and a ballpoint pen. 'We have a standard questionnaire here, regarding your experience of being a Muggle parent of a wizarding child, but I see—' consulting his list again—'that your child has not yet been born, so you might find that many of the questions do not apply to you. We would ask you just to answer them as best you can.' He smiled then, a swift baring of teeth; Hermione wondered if it was written on his script. Smile here. (And how had they managed to summon Muggles who hadn't had wizard children yet?)

'Any questions about the form,' the official was saying, 'I'll be happy to answer them. Then, when you're finished, I'll ask you to wait in the lounge area for the main question-and-answer session which Mr Malfoy will lead.'

'Lounge area?' asked Hermione. In Azkaban? 'What is this place?'

'It's a conference centre,' he said briefly. 'Do have some water.'

Hermione curled her fingers around the glass, then suddenly – the cold rim of the water glass against her teeth as she took the first two Mifepristone tablets; the flatness of Snape's voice saying 'large quantities of fleabane' – she let go of it again. She pulled her wand out and pointed it at the glass.

'Analuso,' she said, and the clear liquid in the glass began to swirl and boil, like the mist in the Pensieve, showing, just for a second, sharp and black-outlined like botanical drawings, the shapes of the leaves that had gone into the potion: Fleabane. Mugwort. Rue.

'Sterilitas,' Hermione whispered.

'I think you'd better put that away,' said the wizard. He was on his feet, his voice metallic, his own wand out. But Hermione was in the strange, shocky, doubled state that she'd been in when she fought in the Battle of the Ministry, when she confronted the Dementors outside the Shrieking Shack, when she thought Snape was trying to kill Harry during the Quidditch match, and before she knew she was doing it, while her mind was still thinking about the potion and the questionnaire and the ballpoint pen, she had cast (Stupefy!), and the official had hit the floor.

Quickly (who knew what magical alarms she had triggered?), she went round to the other side of the desk, shoved the official's papers into her pocket, and rifled through the drawers. Nothing. Dust. Then, a drawer full of small glass vials, each labelled with one of the names on the list. She put one of the vials into her pocket, and dodged back into the entrance hall.

'Hermione,' said Hestia, seeing her. 'What's going on? Are you—'

'A slight hitch, I'm afraid,' Hermione said apologetically to the Ministry wizard. 'The Muggles are refusing to enter Azkaban, and you don't have the authority to bring them in against their will. Your colleague on the far shore is just checking with Fudge to see what can be done, but in the meantime, we're going to have to take the first party back to the mainland.'

He rolled his eyes and shoved his chair back in an exaggerated I-give-up motion. 'Fine,' he said. 'Just get this Mudblood harpy away from me, will you?'

'Fuck you,' said Hermione, grabbed Hestia's arm, and towed her out and down the stairs onto the rocky scrap of beach where Tonks was talking seriously to one of the Muggles. She looked enquiringly up at Hestia and Hermione as they arrived.

'Back in the boat,' said Hermione, and everyone groaned. But they obeyed.

*

On the way back over the strait, Hermione told Hestia and Tonks what Snape had done and what she had found in the consultation rooms.

'So – they can just all go home?' said Hestia incredulously.

'Now we're here,' said Hermione. 'If we're fast. But how are we going to—?'

'Easy,' said Tonks. 'Lucius got them here – somehow – so he can get them back.'

*

'Harry,' said Dumbledore as they Apparated into Lucius' drawing-room. He got up from his chair, holding his hands out to them as if in supplication. 'Harry, you must believe me, I had no idea...'

'No idea about what?' said Harry.

'Lucius' plan,' said Dumbledore. 'His plan to eliminate Muggle-born wizards once and for all. Oh yes,' he added, 'he's told me all about it.' He sank back down into his chair and passed a hand over his eyes. He looked exhausted; he looked broken.

'There seemed little point in not doing so,' said Lucius. He was sitting, awkward and rigid, in the chair opposite Dumbledore; Narcissa was in the chair beside him. 'Don't worry,' he added, giving a fractional nod to Hestia, whose wand was pointed at him again, 'Albus has only relaxed the spell very slightly. Petrificus Mostly, as it were.'

'Good,' growled Hestia, but she didn't put her wand away. 'You can tell us all about it later, Albus, but now, Malfoy, tell us how you got them to Azkaban and how we can get them home. Because we can get them home: you didn't even bother to get a warrant for their arrest, so if they don't go willingly, they won't go at all, and you couldn't have kept them there. You arrogant moron,' she added.

Lucius gave a tiny shrug. 'They were willing enough,' he said, 'and we weren't anticipating that it would take very long to process them all. And in any case—' his face hardened—'no-one knows better than me how easy it is, once someone goes through those doors, for them to be forgotten.'

Narcissa made a small, whimpering sound. Draco, Hermione remembered.

'Yes, yes,' said Hestia impatiently. 'Very moving. Now tell me how to get them back.'

'A simple reversal-spell should do it,' said Lucius. 'The lists that the guards have are modified Portkeys, keyed to the unique blood-identity and location of the people listed.'

'Thank you,' said Hestia.

'I'll come,' said Dumbledore, getting up. 'I'll help.'

Harry looked at him, at his blasted, desperate expression. This is the real final battle, this, here, now, and it's all going on without him, Hermione realized. He doesn't know what's going on. Albus Dumbledore, the Secret-Keeper of the Order of the Phoenix. It's the worst thing that could have happened to him.

'Don't bother,' said Harry, and the five of them Apparated away.

*

The reversal-spell turned out – unsurprisingly – to be more complicated than Lucius had implied: there were several layers of protection over each of the five modified Portkeys, slightly different on each one. Hermione had tried to help with the first one, but it twisted in her mind and knocked her over, and Tonks had ordered her and Harry to sit down, for God's sake, so they were walking slowly over to Hermione's parents.

'Hang on,' said Harry suddenly, as they reached the London/Home Counties queue. 'Isn't that—?'

'Who?' said Hermione, peering. She saw a big, dead-eyed boy in a bulky jacket, looking aggressively bored; he reminded her a bit of Crabbe.

'Dudley Dursley,' said Harry.

'Surely not,' said Hermione. 'Unless he's got a wizard baby you don't know about...' and then her voice faded out as she saw that he was standing next to a small, dark-haired, visibly pregnant girl.

'Dudley!' said Harry, raising his voice as he strode up to the couple. 'I see you're going to be a father! Congratulations.'

'Nothing to do with me,' said Dudley. The girl rolled her eyes and sighed heavily.

'Don't mind me, will you?' she said.

'Hello,' said Harry to her. 'You're Malcolm's sister, aren't you? Gwen?'

'That's right. And you're Harry. I haven't seen you around in ages.'

Hermione left them to it and went on towards her parents. She was nearly there when she heard Harry's voice, exploding: 'Over my dead body! Over my dead body are Vernon and Petunia getting another...' She would have turned back, but her mother had seen her and was waving her over.

*

Only two more Portkeys left to go, and Hermione was sitting with her parents in the minimal shelter of an overhang in the cliff, and in the slightly more effective glow of a warming spell. She had an ache in the pit of her stomach and a sick feeling that she wouldn't be up to any more casting for a while, but also a buzzy, wide-awake feeling layered over the top of what was probably exhaustion.

'You said this was serious,' said her dad. 'How serious? What's been happening?'

The wind gusted past, blowing through the warming spell, which was beginning to shred. Hermione shivered and pulled in closer to her mother's side.

'I don't know, exactly,' she said slowly. Draco, in Azkaban: Muggles with wizard offspring. Mutants. Shouldn't exist. The Sterilitas potion. Lucius, plucking the hair from her lapel. The little glass vials behind the desk. The handwritten questionnaires. The spell which was keyed to the unique blood identity of all the parents there, and how had Lucius done that? Lucius, asking Cornelius Fudge to legislate for investigation into wizard genetics, to put the pure-blood question on a solid basis of fact. His plan to eliminate Muggle-born wizards once and for all. 'I think – I think Lucius Malfoy was trying to stop any more wizard children being born to Muggles.' ('I hate that word,' said Christine). 'He must have collected – hair, or handwriting, or something, from all the Muggle-borns at Hogwarts, and somehow used it to bring all of you here.'

'But what was he going to do with us?' asked her dad.

'I'm not sure,' said Hermione. 'I think he might have been going to – sterilize you. But,' she added quickly, 'he might have just wanted to do genetic testing, or something. There are some wizards who want Muggles to be reclassified as animals, and—'

'There. Are. What?' Christine exploded. She sat absolutely upright, and Hermione saw the two little red spots on her cheeks which only appeared when she was uncontrollably furious. 'You were at a school run by people who thought you were an animal? This last five years?'

Hermione felt a lump rising in her throat, and swallowed it down.

'I knew you were unhappy,' said Christine. 'I knew it was bad for you, but I didn't know it was... I swear to you, Hermione, if I had known anything about this, I would have got you out of that bloody place. I would have walked over Scotland in my bare feet, shouting, until they had to let me see you, and I would have taken you home.'

Hermione sniffed, and her dad took her hand and rubbed it comfortingly. With his other hand, he patted Christine's shoulder: 'Not now, love,' he said quietly.

'Well,' said Christine. She took a long, quivering breath. 'All right.'

They sat in silence for a few moments, looking over the strait to Azkaban.

'That place looks awful,' said Robert. 'I did think it was a bit sinister, but then from the books of yours I've seen, your lot do go in for turrets and battlements and things. So I thought it must be all right.'

'It's not,' said Hermione, 'it's really not. It's a prison.' She hesitated, then said: 'I was there, this term. I mean – They put me in prison.'

And that was it. She'd told them. Not everything, not even the worst thing; but the first thing. She suddenly felt as exhausted as she knew she must be, as if it was okay to feel it, as if she could rest now.

The South-West queue vanished, and Hestia hurried over. 'Are you ready, Hermione?' she asked.

Hermione nodded, and Hestia leaned in and kissed her on the corner of the mouth.

'That was a good day's work,' she said, then she raised her voice. 'Ready, Londoners?'

A sarcastic cheer went up. Hestia gave Hermione one last smile, raised the Portkey over her head and said: 'Finite Incantantem!'

The grey of the shore blurred, shredded, dissolved, and they were back in the front room of her house in Northway Road. She swayed, and her dad caught her.

'Bed,' said her mother. 'Now. We'll talk in the morning.'

Tucked into her old, narrow, curtainless bed, Hermione snuggled more tightly into her old Holly Hobby duvet and looked up at the ceiling. Its polystyrene tiles were marked and scarred all over in the places where she'd kicked the light cord again and again, bored and restless and wanting something that she couldn't name. They made a pattern above her, like the stars she'd tried to read her destiny in, the night of Harry's wedding to Snape: but this one was a pattern of her own making.

Chapter Text

Things can only get better.

- D:Ream

'All right, tell me this,' said Christine. 'What is the formula for calculating the skew in trajectory of a wizard travelling by Portkey caused by a fluctuation in the level of ambient magic?'

'Ugh,' said Hermione, and screwed her eyes shut. She took a deep breath against the squeeze in her stomach that kept threatening to choke her, dropped her shoulders, concentrated. 'Skew, measured in minutes, equals V times the root of the difference between the ambient level at the point of skew and the ambient level at the point of origin, measured in milli-occs, where V is Vector's Constant. Positive skew is deosil and negative skew is widdershins,' she added hurriedly.

'Good,' said Christine. She shut the book. 'You're going to do fine, you know.'

'Yeah,' said Harry, on the other side of Hermione, 'and then you're going to leave school and desert me.'

Hermione made a face at him. 'I'm only taking my NEWTs a year early,' she said. 'You're going to be at Hogwarts for the rest of your life.'

'Just living here,' Harry protested. 'I'm not the one that's going to go on studying for – what was it? Ten years?'

'At least,' said Hermione. Training in wizard law at the Ministry, and then a degree in Muggle law, and a Legal Practice Course, and a training contract. And then she would be the first solicitor qualified on both sides since the Statute of Secrecy was first passed. (Herself, grown-up, in a chic black suit, behind a huge desk in a chrome-and-glass office halfway up a skyscraper, passing a document over the desk to Hestia; Hestia, now with a distinguished streak of grey in her hair, signing it and smiling at her. The repeal of the Statute; the judicial review of the Muggle government's failure to disclose information about the wizarding war; the class action against the Wizengamot for the infringement of the human rights of Muggle-borns.

(Or, if the election went the other way: herself, in witchy robes, queuing in silence for a stamp on a card. Lucius' many-times-magnified face smiling graciously down from the great animated billboard at the Ministry. Tonks clearing out her desk while Ginny Weasley walked serenely past, neat and pretty, carrying a pile of files to the Minister. Hestia, her hair black and dull, the fire gone out of her voice, holding up her right hand and swearing allegiance to the Wizengamot in return for being allowed to keep her house in Hogsmeade. The clear shimmer of the Sterilitas Potion. The patient grey queues outside Azkaban. The starving grey bodies inside.)

'You are an incurable swot, Granger,' said Harry.

Hermione returned to the present, and shrugged. 'Well, you're a high-school drop-out. And a gym-slip bride. And—' but Harry had jumped to his feet and hurried over to the door, where Snape was coming in, carrying Victoria and the big bag that went with them everywhere, now.

'—a teenage mother,' she finished.

'How old is that baby now?' Christine asked.

'Two months,' said Hermione. Two months of being unable to carry on a conversation with Harry about anything but Victoria; two months, after two more months of being unable to get hold of him at all, because he was carrying on a pitched three-cornered battle with Dumbledore, the Ministry, and the Dursleys (and, Hermione rather suspected, Snape) for the right to adopt her. But he had managed to sneak an illicit flash of a VOTE JONES badge into the photo on his Chocolate Frog card, and Tonks said she thought that would probably get them as many votes as all the rest of the campaigning put together.

Christine, still looking at Harry as he started poking through the bag, took Hermione's hand and squeezed it. 'I'm proud of you, you know,' she said.

Hermione rolled her eyes. 'It's not actually that hard to just not be married to one of my teachers and bringing up my cousin's illegitimate baby at sixteen, you know,' she said. 'It's not like I had to work at it.'

'That's not what I meant!' Christine protested. 'I meant—' But just then a burst of applause and cheering came from the corner, where a small knot of people were huddled round a television, and Christine looked longingly towards them.

'Do you mind if I—'

'Go ahead,' said Hermione. 'I know it's a great day for you, seeing our fine nation released from beneath the jackboot of Tory oppression after nine million years.'

'It's a great day for you,' said Christine severely. 'You just don't know it, because you were born under Thatcher, you poor baby.' She kissed Hermione's cheek and hurried off to squeeze her chair into the circle next to Robert's and see what Jeremy Paxman was doing.

Hermione yawned and stretched and blinked. It was nearly eleven, and the final count for Hogsmeade was due any minute: one of the perks of being the smallest constituency in Britain, Hestia had said, pale and sweaty and fiddling with the edges of her please-Merlin-let-her-need-it acceptance speech. Not so long to wait.

Which was good, because Hermione didn't know how long she could bear waiting. It was strange, because really she'd been waiting for four months, ever since they got back from Azkaban and found out that not only had Lucius Malfoy not done anything they could prosecute him for – because they'd got there in time and stopped him, but how could they have done anything else? – but, also, he was going to stand for Minister of Magic. But it was different, now that the end was nearly here: it was like the volume had been turned up on that sick, disbelieving feeling which had been the background music to the last four months. Now it was loud past the point of human tolerance, to the point of pain.

She opened her Arithmancy textbook, stared at it uncomprehendingly for a minute, then closed it again and went outside to where Tonks was standing under the eaves of the hall, smoking a cigarette. She nodded tersely at Hermione, but didn't say anything.

Tonks smoking again was one of the things they didn't mention, like Hestia's bitten lips and the way Hermione stayed in the library until three or four every night. They didn't talk about what would happen if the election went the other way, either, except in the calm and mercilessly logical terms they used for Hestia's campaign speeches.

Except once, the day the polls in the Daily Prophet had showed Lucius Malfoy with a ten-point lead, and Cornelius Fudge had asked Hestia to stand down to avoid splitting the anti-Malfoy vote, and Lavender and Parvati had got bored of New Romantic Muggle boys and decided to have a crush on Lucius instead. That night the five of them had stayed up, drinking Firewhiskey and talking low and anxious and urgent, until four in the morning. Hestia, exhausted and shaking so that her glass chimed on her teeth every time she took a sip, had wanted to agree to Fudge's request, and it had taken Tonks and Snape three hours to talk her round.

Tonks, now, finished her cigarette, ground it out under her heel, and turned to go back into the hall. 'Sorry, Hermione,' she said, 'I just can't talk yet.'

Hermione nodded, and followed her back in. Harry caught her eye, and she went over to sit with him and Snape. He smiled at her, tense and brief, then went back to stroking Victoria's cheek.

'How's the revision going?' asked Snape.

'Fine,' she said. 'How are you?'

Snape ran a hand through his fringe, in the mannerism he'd developed since what Harry still referred to as The Haircut. 'Tired,' he answered.

'Is this one of Gwen's weekends to visit Vixen?'

'Don't call my daughter Vixen,' said Snape automatically. 'Why you girls feel the need to give everyone a nickname...' (You girls was Hermione and Hestia and Tonks, and it still gave Hermione a warm feeling.) 'No,' Snape went on, 'Gwen's not coming up this weekend. She has no interest in the election results, so she's coming next week instead. But—'

But just then Madam Miniver came onto the platform, and a stir and a rush went through the hall. Someone turned off the television, and everyone turned to the front of the room: Christine and Robert and Tonks came over to sit beside Hermione and Snape and Harry. And there they all were, and there was Cornelius Fudge, looking grey and old-fashioned in his suit and his bowler hat; and there was Lucius, looking sleek and rich and condescending; and there was Hestia, looking rumpled and white and grim.

Hermione felt sick.

'Thank you,' said Madam Miniver. 'I, Veronica Amaryllis Miniver, being the Returning Officer for the Hogsmeade constituency, hereby give notice that the total number of votes recorded for each candidate at the election is as follows. Fudge, Cornelius Oswald: six hundred and twenty-one votes.'

'There can't be that many people in this village!' whispered Robert. 'How—?'

'Postal votes,' Christine whispered back before Hermione could say anything: she'd borrowed Hogwarts: A History at Christmas, read it straight through in one afternoon, sitting tight-lipped and furious in her battered armchair, and now remembered more of it than Hermione herself. 'All wizards and witches in the United Kingdom are registered to vote in Hogsmeade.'

'Jones, Hestia Ottavia, one thousand, five hundred and seventy-three votes.'

Hermione felt all the air leave her body. But that means—

Christine grabbed her hand and held it tight. Time slowed.

'Malfoy, Lucius Denzil Xavier, nine hundred and sixteen votes.'

And Hermione was on her feet, and so was everyone, and the hall erupted in cheering and applause. Victoria woke up and started to cry.

Hestia, whiter than ever, took two uneven steps forward to the front of the platform, and the applause hushed. She pulled the index cards on which her just-in-case speech was written out of her pocket and looked at them, dazed, for a moment: then she let them fall to the ground and looked around the hall. There were tears in her eyes.

'Thanks,' she said gruffly. 'I'll try and do my best.'

And there was Hestia Jones, Minister for Magic. The final battle had been won; the world was changing.

And there was Hermione Granger, watching, as usual.

But no, she thought. Not as usual. This time it was different. This time it was in the light, in a shabby little hall; no blood, no secrets, no climactic confrontation between hero and villain. Instead, there was Tonks, grabbing Hermione into a hard and jolting hug (We did it, My!); and Harry, handing the baby to Snape to kiss Hermione on the head (You tell her, Orders of Merlin all round, or I'll want to know the reason why); and her parents, whistling and clapping and beaming, part of the victory. And her, the girl with the mousy hair, right in the middle of it all.

She caught Hestia's eye, and winked.

THE END