It is a church full of life and that is what draws her to it, despite herself. This is not an ornate building where stained-glass windows matter more than people, and she has no reason to launch into a tirade about organised religion and its prioritising of ostentation over what really matters.
On her first visit, and even on the second and third, she was waiting for the hypocrisy to reveal itself. She watched a group of children rehearsing a play, some Biblical story she half-remembered, and waited for something – for the worn-out teacher to lose her temper, for a child to be berated for missing part of her costume, for, if she's honest with herself, a bishop to let his hand rest a second too long on the shoulder of the smallest boy. Some small act to point to and declare that she'd known it all along, that they were corrupt, that they were just like the rest of them.
Them: the Ministry, who are an entire ocean away from her new home and who she still can't forgive. The ones in charge, the ones innocent fools placed their trust in. The ones who didn't do the right thing until it was far, far too late for any of it to make a difference.
Hermione visits the church every day for no reason that she can explain to herself. Some days she tells herself that she's still waiting, waiting for the moment someone slips up and forgets that the quiet woman half-hidden in the shadows might notice. Other days she tells herself that she is watching, conducting research for some as-yet-unknown project. She watches preparations, rehearsals and choir practices, the replacing of flowers and the testing of microphones.
One day, as she's leaving, as the congregation file in, someone catches her sleeve and says, "You never stay."
Hermione looks into the face of a woman, older than her by at least a decade, she guesses, and simply nods. She has never stayed for a service. She worries that the life might leave the building as soon as the performance begins, the prayers and recitals and the catering to an audience.
The next day, the woman is already there when she arrives. Hermione is irrationally irritated. She is rarely the only visitor, but this time she is not anonymous. Someone else has seen her, noticed her, seen her.
Hermione sits at the very back of the church. The woman has red hair which she keeps tucked behind her ears. It's the first time Hermione has watched another figure in the half-shadows.
It is not that shade of red, could not be mistaken for it even in this light, and that makes it bearable.
Three visits later, the woman sits next to her and says, "You've been watching me, haven't you?" But it's not really a question.
"You started it," Hermione says, surprising herself, and they both burst into laughter.
"You sound like my little brothers," the woman says, and somehow they are talking about their families. Hermione's parents are dentists and this woman's parents are scientists; she wonders aloud if you need to share your life's passion with your partner. Hermione is an only child, and this woman has six siblings, four brothers and two sisters.
Seven. Six plus her makes seven.
"That's not counting honorary family members, of course," the woman is babbling on, and Hermione can't breathe because how dare this woman, this woman with her red hair, talk about honorary family and have her family of seven still intact and not broken, how dare she?
Her feet are moving before she is aware of it, and outside she takes several deep gulps of the cold air.
She doesn't intend to go back, ever. She hates that woman for ruining it all for her. She misses the peace that comes from watching so much activity, from being around so much life even if she can't quite bring herself to participate.
Two weeks into her self-imposed isolation, she dreams of red hair spread out on the pillow next to her. When she wakes up, aching to be touched, she can't remember the exact shade of red, and this is unsettling.
When she goes back to the church, the woman with the red hair is not there the first time, or the second. Hermione wonders if she dreamed her up entirely, if she is in fact losing her mind. It would not be an unheard-of response to losing everyone in her – and she thinks of the woman as the phrase comes to her – honorary family.
Her parents are still alive, and well-intentioned if oblivious. They've never understood her world, not really, so it doesn't hurt – too much – that they can't comprehend what it means to lose it.
She still carries her wand in her pocket, out of habit. It still works, can still tap into what little magic there is left. She can make feathers float. First year basics. Trying to use her wand for anything beyond that is akin to – well, hoping for a miracle.
She considers this, as she sits in the church and waits for that flash of red. Closing her eyes, she knows that Accio redhead! will not bring this woman towards her. She knows that simply wanting her to appear will not make it happen.
She wants to believe in something, but logic insists on stepping in time after time. She used to believe in good, in people. Once upon a time.
When she opens her eyes, she examines that shade of red and tries to figure out if it matches up with her dream.
It would be progress, dreaming about someone still alive.
The woman introduces herself as Polly, short for Polyhymnia "but no one's called me that in years, understandably enough".
Hermione doesn't need the etymology lesson that Polly provides. She wonders how a muse measures up to a queen. Muses, she thinks, don't die. Queens are horrifying mortal.
She discovers that Polly is still in her twenties, only a few years older than Hermione rather than ten or fifteen. She notes the surprise in Polly's eyes when Hermione reveals her own age, and she wonders how old she looks, if her face tells the story of the past ten years.
They go for coffee, for walks. Polly asks her, early on, why she goes to the church.
"It's alive," Hermione says, "and – and peaceful. Does that make sense?"
Polly nods, and watches her over the rim of her ridiculously large coffee cup.
Another time Polly asks who she's lost.
"Everyone," Hermione says. It doesn't occur to her to repeat the question at the time, though later she wonders if she should have.
She asks, instead, why Polly goes to the church.
"It's alive. And peaceful," Polly smiles.
Hermione sticks her tongue out, a gesture she'd given up on by the age of ten but which feels utterly right here and now.
She wonders what it is about Polly that makes her feel as young as her birth certificate tells her she is. Sometimes, when the light catches her hair in a certain way, she worries that she might be able to guess.
They go to a bar. It's Polly's suggestion, which Hermione finds reassuring. Polly is a church-goer with faith, not one hoping for it, and with that Hermione half-expects an overblown proclamation about the evils of the world, about alcohol and sex instead of the real evils, the murder and the violence and the letting it happen.
Instead, they drink wine in a quiet corner and Polly tells her about a woman named Max and a boy named Joshua and at some point they start talking about lovers because all the death talk is getting depressing and Hermione says, without intending it to sound quite as bitter as it does, that she can't extricate the two.
Polly covers Hermione's hand with her own, and Hermione stares into her eyes. Blue, not brown. She can tell the difference even as she's counting up the similarities.
"My girlfriend," she begins, dragging that Gryffindor courage out of its hiding-place, "was a lot like you."
The hand over her own twitches for a moment, but stays. "Do you want to talk about it?" Polly says softly.
There are tears falling into her wine glass before she realises it. Why hasn't she cried before?
"I'm not," she says in between gulps, "even sure what" – another swallow and sniffle – "I'm crying about."
She has so many reasons for tears, she thinks as Polly's thumb brushes over her knuckles in small, reassuring circles. They are all gone, all of them, and she has no reason to believe in anything or anyone, now.
Why is it the glimmer of goodness still left in the world that makes her sob like a small child and duck her head in embarrassment as other patrons start to stare?
Two weeks later, one of the girls in the children's choir trips on her way up to perform a solo. Hermione offers up a band-aid and a sympathetic smile, and from then on several of the girls come to talk to her after their rehearsals, asking her what she thought of this or that.
Polly slips in one day when an eleven-year-old is admiring Hermione's red scarf, and grins at her over the girl's head.
One day when they're out walking together, Hermione slips her hand into Polly's and fits their fingers together.
"This isn't what I imagined it would be like," Polly says over dinner that night.
"My life. The person I – you know. I didn't expect this. It took me so long to get over Max, what she did – I didn't think I'd ever –" She gestures ineffectually. "I can't find the words. I can't."
"You speak nine languages," Hermione reminds her, and they both laugh.
But of course she understands. This is not what she imagined her life, her person, would be like, either. She imagined the magic, and a position in the Ministry where she could effect change while maintaining her principles, and her best friends by her side, and Christmases with the Weasleys, and Ginny, always Ginny, always.
She never imagined sitting in a church listening to children singing, or uncertainty, or Polly. She never imagined that anyone could cry because it was time to start living instead of time to stop, or that a woman with red hair who was not Ginny could still look at her and make her feel part of the world again.
She puts her wand in the bottom drawer for safekeeping, and keeps a still photograph of Polly beside her bed, next to the alarm clock, even though she doesn't need the reminder. This is her world now.