She spent January with the word Hallows waiting to spring off her lips. The wand, the stone, the cloak. Master of Death. What was it, she wondered, to master death? Had Voldemort thought he'd done it, with his trail of horcruxes? (Breadcrumbs, she thought. The trail out of the forest. It made her chest burble like Pepper-Up potion in the cauldron; up and down, heaving, inexpressable pockets of lightness falling back into the dark cradle of her ribs.)
She wondered where her parents were, if they were happy. She wondered about Lavendar and Parvati, and Dean and Seamus. Neville. Luna, if she was alive. She hoped she was alive. She didn't believe, but in the lonely watches, she prayed.
When she fell asleep at night, her mind raced through the faces of classmates and friends. Luna's face would always reappear, staring and smiling secrets, and she wondered if she was broken now, if she understood the concept of mastering death better than Hermione did.
She figured it was a losing proposition all around.
Ron tried to be romantic for Valentine's Day; she couldn't help but laugh. He'd transfigured a handful of twigs from the forest they were staying in into a small bouquet of perfect pale pink roses, their stems long and graceful. Naturally, he also impaled himself on the thorns, and ended up missing a few smears of blood on the underside of some petals. They really were beautiful, though. A pretty piece of magic.
She lost herself in kissing him, trying to ignore the part of her that insisted that everything was wrong, that she oughtn't be doing this with Ron, that kissing someone because it was Valentine's Day was a poor reason. Everything feels wrong in a war, she told herself.
Not everything, that little part of her replied, and she shoved it away violently and concentrated on lips, hands, whatever she could that wasn't doubt and fear.
She felt like she had screamed for hours. Cruciatus was a hard-sounding word, the ragged harshness of k and the hiss of s and the explosion tus. She hadn't understood before. She couldn't think of anything except the pain, and the strange spelled sounds rushing in her ears, and Bellatrix Lestrange standing over her with hair haloed. She looked like what Hermione had always imagined Lucifer looked like when she was little.
The second bout left her on her side, heaving. She opened her eyes and found herself barely able to see through the tears. All she could make out was a figure in black, blond hair, tall and thin. She blinked, and saw a drawn face that she recognized, and fingers clenched around a wand. He looked upset.
That's the torture talking, Hermione, she told herself.
The spell hit her again, and she heard Bellatrix's laughter as she writhed. At least someone was enjoying this war.
The second week she spent at Shell Cottage brought her the first spell of peace she'd felt since the wedding. She made a habit of sitting out on a promontory near the cottage, feeling the sea air whip through her hair. She always snuck away, some time when Ron and Harry weren't looking; she was tired of looking at their worry, she realized, and the questions in their eyes. Sometimes Luna came out and sat with her. She never started conversation, but sometimes she sang, Cornish songs she said her mother had taught her when she was little. "My mum came from Tinworth," she'd said simply, proudly. "Tintagel, the Muggles call it."
Late one afternoon, when Luna had just finished a song (Muy lowen yu'n tus ma es myghtern po'n gos ughel, she sang, and her light voice tripped over the words like a lark), Hermione turned towards her. "How do you do it, Luna?" she asked.
"Do I, really?" Luna returned.
They sat in silence for a while. The sun was beginning to set, lowering over the ocean; the waves broke salty against the promontory.
"Do the songs help?"
"Every moment that passes."
Luna leaned against her then, and Hermione wrapped her arms around the girl. They sat until the sky was red and purple, the sun winking out, and Hermione was fiercely glad for the sunset, and the stiff wind on her face, and the friend sitting beside her.
And, she realized with a thrill, for the coming dawn.
"I've decided that I'll wear sun colors to your wedding."
Luna just laughed.
* * * *
When Remus came to ask Harry to be godfather, she smiled so broadly that her face ached.
She rode a dragon. She rode an Ironbelly. She rode a dragon that could crush buildings with a single razor-clawed foot.
Somehow, in the days after the battle, as they cleared rubble and contacted families and spread the news He is dead he is dead he is dead, the fact that she had ridden a dragon was more astonishing to her than the fact that she had fought in a battle. She had expected the battle. She had anticipated the knot in her gut, and the flashing spells, and the debris and the dirt and the pain and the death.
She had not anticipated the dragon, the part of her heart that twisted when the goblins shook the clackers and she heard the giant creature roar its anguish, the way her stomach fell when she saw that it was old and blind and terrified. She hadn't planned on cursing its chains off, in what she realized was as much shame and sympathy and compassion as defensive instinct. She had not ever thought she would experience the exhilaration of flight, the way the dragon's joy in moving its wings seemed to seep into her.
She sat with Harry and Neville and Luna outside under a tree one afternoon, sweaty after a morning of clearing the broken bits of Hogwarts, and wondered aloud if the dragon was safe.
"Of all the things to worry about, Hermione," Harry said, with a shake of his head and what seemed to her to be something of an exasperated smile. Neville gave her a quick grin.
"It's right that we should worry about those who have no one else to worry about them," Luna said softly, absently, her voice stilling the summer air.
Harry paused, and nodded.
She shook her head when Ron asked her if she would be his girlfriend. "I can't," she whispered. "It's just---it's not---I love you, and I always will, but---"
"---but not like that," he ended for her.
"No," she said, "not like that." She gave him a bitter smile. He left shortly after for the Burrow, and she stayed there at Hogwarts. She pondered, sometimes, whether she should find an apartment, and empty the storage locker into which she'd packed the few possessions that she'd wanted to keep but couldn't take on what she was beginning to think of as the camping trip from hell. She liked the noise of the castle, though, the sounds of the older students and alumni who had come back to help rebuild in earnest: Lee and Dean and Seamus goofing about in the common room and Parvati tending faithfully to Lavendar, who had refused to stay in the hospital wing while she healed, and threatened to hex anyone who even tried to take her to St. Mungo's. Parvati told her that Lavendar had simply said to Madam Pomfrey, "I want to wake up to Gryffindor colors," and Hermione knew that it meant I need help to be brave right now.
She thought to herself that she had discounted her housemates for far too long.
She had, mind wandering to blond hair and pale eyes, discounted a lot of people for too long.
She began to sit out on the dock in the early morning, just as the sun was coming up; she liked to dangle her feet in the cold water, the Giant Squid occasionally coming over to inspect the goings-on and, very rarely, to tickle her feet. The dew on the grass always felt warm after, when she walked back up to the castle.
Luna joined her, some mornings, dangling her pale feet next to Hermione's. They chatted sometimes, and sometimes Luna tried to teach Hermione the Cornish songs she'd sung at Tinworth. Hermione protested, on the grounds that she had no talent; eventually, Luna pronounced that Hermione had musical talent and could carry a tune perfectly well, but suffered from the unfortunate malady of having a voice less suited to singing than Trevor's. The next morning she felt like singing, Luna brought a tambourine down with her to the docks. Hermione just laughed and laid out a beat for Luna's song, surprised to find that yes, she was better at this than she had thought.
Several mornings, they waded into the edge of the lake and had a splashing fight; Hermione laughed then, deep belly laughs, the kind of laughter that reminded her of being young and unafraid of the monsters in the dark. Breakfast tasted better, she thought, with prune-skinned feet and a side stitch and a tambourine in her hand.
They repaired the towers that month. It was hard work, and dirty; Hermione had never realised how exhausting Leviosa was when performed over and over on heavy stones. By the end of the day, she was always too exhausted to even read; she wanted only to lie on the floor and listen to her friends chatter. Luna took it upon herself to teach Hermione and Harry proper chess strategy in the evenings. They sprawled near the fire in the Gryffindor common room, prodding at their castles and knights and pawns.
"You need to hold back more, Hermione. You bring your bishops out too early."
"Harry, you need to use your queen!"
"Oh, that's too bad," when a piece walked brokenly off the board.
"I should be better at this," Hermione muttered into the board one night, piqued after losing another pawn. "Isn't this supposed to be all about war strategy? It's not like we're lacking experience with war strategy."
"Chess is a very different game from war," Luna replied, shaking her head as Harry ordered a knight to a new space. "Chess is all about protecting one piece, one person, from harm. War is not."
"Chess," she continued a moment later, "is a lot more like love."
The other Gryffindors left on the morning of September first, Apparating from outside the gates.
"I'll miss you," Harry whispered to Hermione as he hugged her. She hugged him back, so fiercely that he let out an oomph of air.
"Be careful, Harry. Don't hex any reporters. Or get yourself killed in Auror training," she whispered back.
"Master of Death, remember?" he joked. She punched him in the shoulder. She remembered the nights in the tent, cold and terrified and hungry, and she was glad for the excuse to smile; it helped her hold back the tears that were suddenly burgeoning in her eyes.
"We should meet up in Hogsmeade sometime," he said. She nodded, and hugged him again. After he turned on his heel and disappeared, Luna reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.
That night, as students filed into the Great Hall with shouts and tears, she sat the Ravenclaw table with Luna, leaving for the Gryffindor table only when the Sorting was about to start and Ginny beckoned to her.
She could feel Luna's eyes on her during the whole dinner.
Afterwards, having led a distracted and terrified group of first years up to the tower, she flopped down on the hearth with a book. She opened it and tried to read, but the only thing she could focus on was the sensation of being watched---and not minding it, not at all.
At least five students asked Hermione to the first Hogsmeade weekend. She gave the first two startled nos, trying to understand why boys whose names she barely knew would ask her. After the third, her no was a bit more forceful; by the fourth and the fifth, she had to hold herself back from hexing them.
She knew she was a public figure. Her picture had been in the papers, and there had been stories told accompanying the pictures. Some of the students had clearly been whispering around her, glancing over, discussing rumors. She'd heard the term war hero more than once, and she tried to keep her head held straight and ignore them. She didn't want to be a war hero.
She just wanted to be Hermione, whoever that was, and whoever that was did not go to Hogsmeade with boys who wanted a bit of notoriety.
When Luna walked over the Gryffindor table the Friday before, expression as airy as usual, and said quite straightforwardly, "You should go to Hogsmeade with me." Ginny nearly chocked on her tea. Hermione just looked up at Luna. Airy expression, yes, but one with a quirk in the brows that Hermione now knew was an anxious one.
"All right," she replied after a moment. Luna grinned, and she couldn't help grinning back.
She was beginning to think that whoever Hermione was happened to like girls more than she had expected, and happened to like Luna Lovegood in particular.
They went to Hogsmeade together in November as well, after Hermione---feeling far shyer than she ever had before, and wishing somehow that she could get relationship tips from Parvati or Lavendar, as inapplicable as they would inevitably be to this particular situation---had gone up to the Ravenclaw table and repeated Luna's line to her. They walked around, Hermione pondering whether to take Luna's arm, and what that would mean to her, and to Luna, and to anyone who saw them. When Luna suggested that they go to the Three Broomsticks, she said yes, and then took a deep breath and tucked her hand in Luna's elbow. Luna looked surprised, but also pleased, and they made their way through the crisp air down the street.
Their entrance to the pub was marked by a shout of "Hermione!" and Harry rising from a side table with Ginny, beckoning them over. It felt odd, sitting there as if on an impromptu double date, except that they had never called it a date and she wondered, sometimes, what Luna's affection meant; she couldn't tell, couldn't quite understand what meant friend to Luna, and what meant more. A wave of excitement and fear and wonder, all mixed up, washed over her, and she was on edge. In some way it was like standing in the sorting line all over again; waiting, nervous, for the reactions all around her. When Luna and Ginny went to the bar to get another round, she let out a sigh.
"So Ginny tells me you've been spending a lot of time with Luna," Harry said conversationally as they waited for the others to come back.
"Oh, shut up," she said, her face start to burn.
Harry elbowed her, and then wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "I'm glad. She makes your face light up."
She felt calmer at that, and rested her head on his shoulder. "Thanks, Harry. That---it means a lot to me, you know. That you---that you're okay with it." She sat up and swallowed. "Am I that transparent?"
Harry laughed. "Completely."
She took Luna's hand under the table when she came back; Luna laced their fingers together and leaned against Hermione's shoulder, blond locks laid over brown curls.
The night before they left for the Christmas hols, Luna found her after dinner in the Great Hall and beckoned her to follow. Hermione grabbed her bag and walked after, catching up to Luna as they left the hall.
"This way," Luna said, point down a flight of stairs. Hermione followed again, curiosity growing, and did not expect Luna's hands on her hips, pressing her back against the cold, rough stone of the wall, her lips on Hermione's. She stiffened, for just a moment, and then was lost. Luna's lips were chapped, and she smelled like the forest, and this was Luna and Luna was kissing her and oh, this was how kissing Ron or Viktor had never felt.
She pulled Luna closer, wrapping her arms around the other girl's waist, and breathed deep.