Actions

Work Header

the brightest witch of her age

Work Text:

When Hermione Jean Granger was one year old her parents died in a car crash. She knew all about it because she asked a lot of questions and her aunt and uncle believed in answering them.

Why is the sky blue, auntie? Why are b's and d's like in the mirror? Where do songs come from? Why did Jenny Hopkins call me a--?

Her father had accelerated into a green light, like you were supposed to. (By the time she was eight, Hermione had the driver's rulebook memorized). A truck driver, going the opposite way, hadn't stopped at a red.

Hermione had been strapped in a car seat in the back, her aunt and uncle told her. She hadn't been hurt at all except for the scar that stood out, jagged, on her forehead.

As Hermione grew up into a gangly, bushy-haired, buck-toothed wonder, she thought she could remember it-- a glaring green light, a rush of cold air.

Hermione's Aunt Meg worked in a hardware store and wrote poetry on her smoking breaks. Her Uncle Harold taught classical languages at a local university. When she was small, Hermione would sit with him at the kitchen table and solemnly scribble in crayon on his graded papers.

Aunt Meg took her to libraries and museums on the weekends, like they were county fairs or circuses, the same way she would have had her little sister and brother-in-law not died in a car accident and left Hermione on her doorstep (figuratively). In every life, Aunt Meg had bought Hermione her first book.

They had lived in a big city when they first got Hermione, but they had moved before her second birthday. Hermione grew up in a sleepy suburbs, a short bike from open fields. Aunt Meg showed her how to change the tires on her bright purple bicycle, and Uncle Harold bought her a little bell for the handle.

When her aunt and uncle fought, which they did-- about dishes, or what to do about That One Rude Neighbor, or the proper classification of Herodotus, or why they had moved out here (they both remembered a charismatic recruiter from Harold's university, but not much more than that)-- Hermione would pick up her latest book and wander over to Mrs. Figg's.

Mrs. Figg had three cats and gave Hermione candies she could never find in the store. "These ones are good for your teeth," Mrs. Figg promised, when Hermione asked, her small face wrinkled with concern.

"My parents were dentists," Hermione explained.

"Well," said Mrs. Figg. "I suppose someone has to be."

Sometimes Mrs. Figg's portraits seemed to move, which Hermione's aunt and uncle never believed when she told them. They worried about Mrs. Figg some, actually, because there were often loud bangs from her home and yard, as though someone had dropped something heavy (or displaced a human-sized portion of air instantaneously).

--

When Harry James Potter was one year old, his mother was killed during an Order mission against You-Know-Who.

Peter Pettigrew had been captured by the Death Eaters days before, though his friends thought he was dead. Sirius and Lily had gone ahead with the mission anyway, even though they had planned to have Peter with them. Sirius had been adamant-- he believed in their capability, in their cause, and in not letting Peter's last efforts go to waste just because there was no one else to step in for him.

It was Lily's last mission, but it was also one of the last of the war. In the few days it took Sirius to stumble his way back home through backwoods gloom and raging grief, the war ended. Voldemort vanished. All around the wizarding world people began to whisper about Hermione Granger, the Girl Who Lived.

Maybe in wartime they wouldn't have pinned so much guilt on Sirius. Maybe in wartime it would have been worse-- a traitor's execution. But they were limping into peace now and the Ministry was looking for scapegoats. Peter was gone, and Lily was dead. Maybe if Remus and James hadn't been out of contact, hunting down sources, it would have gone different. Maybe if his last name wasn't Black. But Sirius went to Azkaban without a trial, and Amelia Bones watched Harry until James got home.

There had been nothing left of Peter to bury but a finger. They'd cremated Lily so James could bury the ashes. He and Remus went out to the Potter family plot in Godric's Hollow after the first snow of that winter and buried her in frozen earth. Harry fussed in a sling around Remus's chest. James had written to Petunia, but she didn't come, just sent a bouquet of white flowers that the poor Muggle florist had awful trouble finding the proper place to deliver.

James got involved with the local children's Quidditch leagues, after. He taught tykes to fall safely off brooms and chase each other through the skies and whack at soft foam Bludgers with light plastic bats. It took him a full six months to get Remus to take a bedroom, instead of just crashing on the couch. Remus wafted from odd job to odd job, even dipping into the Muggle world when too many had wizards had turned him and his scars away. 

Harry grew up knowing what his parents looked like-- the grey gathering in his father's hair, and the way his mother smiled down wide and wild from mantles and frames. He had a bedroom all his own, with a soft green rug and a big bed he slowly grew into. His hair never lay flat, just like his father's, and he fluffed it up on days it dared to look vaguely tame. His father taught him how to fly, and he tried to learn how to smile--wide, wild--from how his mother did in photographs. 

"Hey," said Remus once, watching Harry scribble colored pencil outside the lines while James attempted spaghetti in the kitchen. "I'm sorry." 

"For your ugly mug?" James asked idly, poking at a bubbling pot of red sauce. It burbled at him. "For telling Harry about that thing with the Kneazle? Kid's never gonna respect me now, you know." James flicked his wand at the flame and it flickered, dimming. "Sorry about what, Remus?" Harry put the end of his pencil in his mouth thoughtfully, gnawing at it. 

"It was always you and Lily," said Remus. "Or... before, before whatever it is happened to him, I don't know how..." Remus took a small pause. "It was always you and Sirius. Potter and Black, hell in hats." 

James had put down his wand. The pot had splattered his sleeve with specks of red and his hair was flopping forward into his eyes. At the table, Harry's hair was falling into his own green eyes and Remus missed Lily so much he couldn't breathe sometimes. "Moony, don't be a dumbass," James said. 

"I'm sorry you got stuck with me," Remus finished, stubborn. "If someone was going to stay, it shouldn't have been me." 

"I didn't get stuck with--" James scrubbed his hands up through his hair, which made it worse rather than better. "You're not-- I miss Lily. I miss Peter. I miss Sirius, even. We lost them, both of us, but both of us are still here."

"Small blessings," said Remus sourly. 

"Giant blessings, what the hell, Remus. We didn't lose everybody. I didn't lose you," James said and Remus dropped his chin. James said, "Lily was Lily, and she-- and Sirius was-- but we were a family. The Marauders. This was never about any one of us, you've got to know that." 

James shook his head and Harry asked, "Fire?" 

James leapt for the smoking sauce while Remus gathered himself quietly. When they had sat down to eat and Harry had started to cheerfully splatter tomato all over the cleared table, Remus said quietly, "I can't imagine being the only one of us left. I don't know if I could have survived that." 

Harry grew up in Godric's Hollow, in a house strewn with scuffed brooms and dented Quaffles. James taught him to tie his shoes, to fly, and to have candy for dinner sometimes. Harry sat on the grass outside the pitch for every game his father coached or refereed, cheering on both teams before he figured out you were supposed to be partisan. 

Harry grew up watching Remus come home to the house in a rotating cast of uniforms, roles, and schedules-- archivist, waiter, Knight Bus technician, tutor, gas station attendant. But it was always Remus underneath the dirt or melted ice cream or ink or cellar dust-- his scars, his soft smile, the long arms that would lift Harry up and ask him about what he had learned that day. 

--

When Ron Weasley was one year old, his little sister Ginny was born, robbing him of even the distinction of being the youngest. He tried not to be bitter about it, but Ron, even as a toddler, had never been very good at not wanting to be more than he was. (Any of them would have done well in Slytherin). 

But Ginny was small and red-headed and loud, and Ron got used to being not the best, not the wittiest, not the bravest, not the strongest, not the youngest. He pulled up weeds in the garden (and sometimes (often) accidentally vegetables) while Ginny learned how to crawl, then to walk, then to run. 

When he had nightmares, Ginny let him sleep in her downstairs room, far away from the creaks and groans of the ghoul in the attic. The ghoul didn't scare him in daylight, but he had bad dreams. 

--

When Hermione was one year old her parents died. She was clutching the bars of her crib, staring out, when they died. They thought it was a robbery. They were dentists. They were asleep at 11:39 p.m. on Halloween night. When they heard the window glass break and the front door blast open, they both ran for their daughter's room in their pajamas. 

Voldemort, working off a prophecy overhead by Severus Snape, discovered her before Albus Dumbledore could track the Chosen One down. The Order was looking. The Aurors Dumbledore trusted enough to tell were looking, too, but Tom Riddle got there first.  

When Hermione was one year old, her mother stood in front of her crib in a ratty too-big t-shirt of a band she had liked very much in university. When Hermione was one year old, her mother stood in front of her, crying, standing over a dead man in polka-dot PJs, and said, "Not her. Whatever you want, take it, but don't hurt my daughter." 

Not even a day after she had been turned orphan every adult in the wizarding world knew Hermione Granger's name. They whispered it, they shouted, they raised their glasses to the Girl Who Lived. When Albus Dumbledore himself came to give her her Hogwarts letter ten years later, every child in the wizarding world knew about Hermione and her lightning scar. Only the curious--historians, hobbyists--knew her parents' names. 

They shook her hand in Flourish and Blotts, where she had her head tilted to the side, trying to read the titles of every book on the shelf while Uncle Harold questioned Dumbledore more thoroughly about school fees. A tiny wizard hugged her outside the Owlery and Aunt Meg snatched her back. Hermione lifted her head up from Hogwarts, A History, hardly noticing the slight ruckus. "Auntie, the Great Hall ceiling is enchanted to look like the weather." 

"That's nice, dear," said Aunt Meg, keeping a suspicious eye out for any other surprise huggers. The passerby stared back at where the scar peeked out from under Hermione's bush of hair. She had a pencil stuffed behind one ear. 

The first person Hermione met at the Hogwarts Express was Neville, and he didn't recognize her because he was too worried about Trevor, who had misplaced himself. Hermione squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and marched Neville up and down the corridor of the train. In every train compartment they knocked on the door of (except for the one filled with huddled rest of the first-year Muggleborns) someone stopped, stared, and said, "You're Hermione Granger!" 

At the first she said, "Yes, nice to meet you. And you are?" She squinted suspiciously in case they tried to hug her, too, but her aunt and uncle had raised her polite. 

At the fourth compartment she was more efficient: "Yes, but have you seen a toad?"

"He's named Trevor," said Neville. 

By the sixth she was trying to pull her hair down to cover her scar, but it just got in her eyes and then sprung away in big frizzy hanks. 

By the eighth she knocked, ripped the door open, and said in rapid succession, "Yes, hello, I am Hermione Granger, no I don't remember anything, I'm not even sure I quite believe you, my uncle told me my parents died in a car crash, and they weren't wizards anyway, yes I'm sure, no I wasn't adopted, no you can't touch my scar, no you can't touch my hair, and have you seen a toad?"

"He's named Trevor," said Neville. 

"This is Neville," Hermione added hastily. 

Sitting in the eighth compartment amid a pile of candy wrappers, Ron and Harry blinked slowly up at her. 

"Hi," said Ron. 

"Oh," said Hermione, spotting Ron's drawn wand. "Are you doing magic?" She stepped inside the compartment, dragging Neville with her, and sat down. "Go on, then." 

Ron looked at her eager face uncertainly, then pointed his wand at Scabbers. "Uh," he said. "Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow... turn this stupid, fat, rat yellow.

His wand spluttered. Neville twitched. Harry scrubbed a hand through his own hair sympathetically. 

"Are you sure that's a real spell?" said Hermione. 

"Fred and George said..." Ron's voice trailed off and he shrugged, poking Scabbers with his wand. Scabbers went on nibbling a Pumpkin Pasty. "So you're really the kid who killed You-Know-Who?"

"I told you. I don't remember and I'm not yet convinced," Hermione said. She shifted slightly in her seat and said, "And you are?"

"Ron Weasley." 

"Harry Potter."

"Potter?" said Hermione, turning so all her focused interest was suddenly on Harry, who squirmed slightly in his seat. "Are you related to Lily Potter?" 

Harry eyed her with confusion, pushing his messy bangs back. "That's my mom." 

"I was reading up on the Wizarding War, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and Death Eaters, because apparently everyone thinks I stopped the war as an infant." She made a face. "I couldn't even read then." She thought for another moment and added, "I couldn't even walk. Anyway. But in the books, her name comes up, in the war. Lily Potter. Peter Pettigrew. The Prewett brothers." 

Harry smiled wanly. "Lists of the dead." 

"Um," said Hermione. "Yes, I suppose so." Harry unwrapped a Chocolate Frog and Hermione added breathlessly, "She was a war hero, though, you know. Joined up as soon as she got out of Hogwarts. Fought Death Eaters and giants and dementors." Hermione shuddered. "I looked up what dementors are... She was really brave, and really strong."

"I know," said Harry. "Oh, ugh, I got Dumbledore again. I have like eight of this card." 

When they reached the castle, Hermione whispered to anyone who would listen about the charms on the Great Hall ceiling, even as she threw her head back to see for real what she had read about. She had grown up on as much Diana Wynne Jones as she had on encyclopedias-- she was used to magic on the page not being real. "Did you know that that charm's been up there since the castle was built?" she whispered to Susan Bones, who shrugged and scooted away. Hermione tried to count the floating candles, moving up there among copied stars. 

Brown, Lavender went into Gryffindor. Bones, Susan-- Hufflepuff. Goldstein, Anthony got Ravenclaw, and then the Hall went silent because Professor McGonagall had read out Granger, Hermione

Whispers charged through the silence like a sudden break in a dam and Hermione shook out her hair and moved towards the Hat and stool without looking at anyone. When she put on the Hat, it fell down over her eyes, her hair sticking out in all directions from under its brim. 

"Well, well, well," said a voice inside her head. "The Girl Who Lived. And where should we put you?" 

"I've read about the House system," Hermione thought at it, as loud and clearly as she could. How did one enunciate thoughts? Enunciation was important. Enunciation was perhaps the word she was best at enunciating-- because you were thinking about it, weren't you, when you said it? "And you. You were Godric's hat."

The Hat laughed, soft and silent. "Read about that, did you? You'd do well in Ravenclaw, you know." 

Hermione's brow furrowed in the darkness. The scar creased-- she could feel it pulling on her skin. She'd been called smart all her life, and she guessed it was true. But books, cleverness-- there were more important things. 

"But I want to be good," Hermione said. "I want to be brave." 

"You could be good in Ravenclaw. You could be great." 

"I know how to learn," she told it sternly. "I know how to think and wonder and read and collate." She had learned the word collate a few weeks before and was very fond of it. "I haven't learned how to be brave yet." 

"Well, then," said the Hat. "Better be-- GRYFFINDOR!"  

The boys from the train-- Weasley, Ron and Potter, Harry-- got Gryffindor, too. The blonde boy who had sneered when she and Neville had tried his train compartment-- Malfoy, Draco-- got Slytherin. Hermione wondered fretfully if there was really a whole quarter of kids every year who deserved Slytherin. Then she thought back to Muggle playgrounds and wondered how all the mean ones could fit into only one House of four. Probably they didn't. 

Hermione had a magical wand in her luggage, (and even more thrillingly) various textbooks to read, and (less thrillingly) clothes to unpack, but she dropped her bags by her four poster and headed back down the stairs from the girls' dormitory nearly as soon as she'd entered it. Behind her Brown, Lavender and Patil, Parvati chattered happily about something. Her school counselor back home would probably have some things to say here about Socialization and Peer Groups and Putting Down Roots. 

But, you see, this was a school. Schools had libraries. Hermione had priorities. 

Harry had priorities, too. While Hermione walked the high, stuffed aisles of the library, Harry trekked down to Madame Hooch's office first thing the next day to ask about Quidditch team tryouts. 

"Wait til you're older, sweetie," Hooch said. "They don't put first years on teams. Potter, right? Yeah, you look like your dad, the menace. Even your pops didn't make the team til third year." 

Harry pulled at the pockets of his robes with his thumbs, nodding. "Thanks, professor." 

She squinted suspiciously. "You're rather polite for a thwarted Potter," said Hooch. "I meant it about that menace." 

"Dad says he learned all his lessons about not being an asshole, so I wouldn't have to." Harry grinned. "Then he tells me not to repeat the 'asshole' part."

"I'm glad to see James got the kid he deserved." 

When Harry jumped on a broom to go after Malfoy and his stolen Rememberall during their first Flying lesson, he wasn't thinking about the Gryffindor House team. He was thinking about the little rich kids who took flying lessons from his dad (as his dad told him, often, "Harry, kiddo, you're a spoiled little rich kid, too"). He was thinking, a little bit, about Wronski Feints, but mostly he was thinking that Malfoy was, as usual, a twat and Neville, as usual, had looked like he was going to cry. 

Harry made the House team-- Seeker. James sent him a stern letter about playing safe and keeping up with his classwork. He also sent him a Nimbus 2000. 

Hermione wrote home about the library, the Great Lake, and the nice gamekeeper on the grounds who was the size of Fezzik from The Princess Bride and who made her tea some afternoons. She didn't write home about how she drew her four poster curtains like shielding walls at night or that when she showed up at Hagrid's it was often because she had needed a cry and he wouldn't tease her for it. People whispered or snapped things in the hallways. Some she had heard before-- know-it-all, teacher's pet, suck-ass-- but others were new. And the kids who weren't mean-- they still stared. No one would talk to her. 

The night of Halloween, it was too dark and cold out to make it all the way down to Hagrid's so she ducked into the girls' bathroom. Hermione had always been a crier, and she hated it. She was also a kick-em-in-the-shins kid, a know-all-the-rules-regarding-expulsion-and-choose-when-to-break-them kid, the kind of kid who could be standing in front of a three-headed-dog and notice the trapdoor at its feet-- though she didn't know that about herself, yet. But when you were a crier, unless you did something really big, that was the main thing people noticed. 

She was washing her face off and shoving her hair back when the troll came stumbling down the hall and into the brightly lit room. Ron and Harry were almost on its heels. The story here went about the same-- there are some things you can't go through without being friends, after, and one of them is facing down a ten foot mountain troll in a girl's bathroom. 

The year went by quicker with friends. 

They were the first friends she had really had, and she studied them like she studied everything else important. Harry was terrible at essays, but he liked explaining things. He and Draco Malfoy had challenged each other to sixteen duels before they turned nine, over stolen toys and verbal slights and Draco's incessant bullying of Neville. 

Ron ate every single thing he put on his plate at supper, even if halfway through he regretted his decisions. For Christmas, Ron got a hand-made sweater and loads of sweets. Harry got a parcel of ginger cookies from his Uncle Remus and, from his father, an invisibility cloak.

Harry looked like his dad, but he had his mother's eyes-- Hermione knew this because Harry kept a picture of his mom and dad's wedding on his bedside table, but also because adults kept telling him so. 

Ron was far cleverer than his academics suggested-- he just never bent his mind to anything he didn't care about. His essays rambled uselessly, but his wit was steady and sharp. She wondered if the Hat had offered him Ravenclaw, too. 

They were the first friends Hermione had ever really had, and as they sat through Binn's History of Magic and braved Slughorn's Potions, walked past moving portraits and up moving stairs, she realized she was one of the first friends they had ever had, too. Harry had grown up quiet in a house that was haunted no matter how hard his father worked to smile. Ron was the sixth of seven-- his house was full, sure, but you can be lonely in a crowd. 

When they realized they had to go after the Philosopher's Stone, it was just the three of them. It felt like it would always be the three of them and Hermione tried not to cling too tight to that expectation-- to that hope. Ron's hands fidgeted over his worn old hand-me-down wand and Harry shoved unruly bangs back out of his eyes. They were eleven, and no one was listening. They went up to the third floor corridor, and Hermione squashed down any whispers in her head about rules and expulsion. They put Fluffy to sleep and then they fell down into darkness-- no, into green

The Devil's Snare twined around her, vines twisting her robes, vines squeezing muscles, skin, blood vessels, bones-- she was remembering nursery rhymes and Muggle photovoltaics and she was going to die right here, she wasn't Chosen, she wasn't special. She'd been orphaned by an automobile accident and Dumbledore had messed up his paperwork, that's all, surely, because here she was trying to be brave and she couldn't breathe, couldn't think-- what was she if she couldn't think-- books, cleverness--

"We need fire," she said. "But there's no wood." 

"Are you a witch or not?" Ron hollered back, and she caught her breath. 

Harry took the next room-- broom and flying keys. He had what Hermione thought was possibly a bit too much fun with it, grinning wide and whooping as he ped for the old iron key and its squashed feathers. 

They left Ron passed out on the floor of the chess game he'd won for them. Neither Harry or Hermione looked back, clutching each other's hands, remembering the tilt of his head as he'd given his last command to the towering pieces. They were eleven. There were rules. Hermione wasn't scared so much as angry. Ron was laying out on that cold stone, out cold, his head pillowed on Harry's folded-up robe. This wasn't what the world should look like. 

Hermione solved the riddle, ice rising in her stomach as she realized the answer. There was the potion that would let them cross the fiery doorway-- just enough for a single swallow. 

"You're the Girl Who Lived," Harry said. "It should be you." 

"But I'm--" she took a shaky breath, furious at that nervous flutter in her lungs. "I'm not-- I've just read a lot of books, that's all." 

"Books! Cleverness!" Harry said. "There's more to you than that, Hermione-- friendship, bravery. You can do this. I'll go look after Ron." 

Hermione drank the potion down. It sat with the icy lump of fear in her stomach and kept her safe as she stepped through into the final room. It was Quirrell, not Snape, who looked back at her. Her scar throbbed and she didn't run. 

Love is magic-- that's the story, right? Old magic, powerful magic, things the Dark Lord knew not. 

Julia Ethel Granger had not been magic. She had been twenty-five when she died. She had wanted to be a dentist since she was six years old, because dentistry had made her think of lion tamers putting their heads in lions' mouths and she had been too shy then to want to join the circus.

Julia Granger had not been magic, but Hermione was. When Quirrell reached out to grab her, her mother's love reached up and killed him. 

When Hermione woke up, she was in the medical wing with a table piled high with sweets. She sat up, sorted through them to find the kind that were good for your teeth, and then worked her way slowly through them while she watched bright light tumble through the open windows.

The other bedside table was stacked unevenly with textbooks, missed assignments, and Ron and Harry's best attempts at taking class notes for her. She'd pull them into her lap in a moment and reassure herself of their wellbeing by grimacing at their terrible penmanship, but for now she was sitting and watching the light. 

She had seen Quirrell burn, before the world went black. What did you call this? A haunting, or a curse? She ran one hand's fingers over the palm of the other, over and over again. The sunlight tumbled in. In a moment, she'd pick up a textbook. In a moment Madame Pomfrey would come in to check on her, or a teacher would come to scold her. Any moment now. 

When Hermione went home that summer, she wrote Harry and Ron. Both were terrible and unreliable correspondents and she didn't push. She rode her purple bike out to the fields and wished grumpily that you were allowed to practice practical magics over summer. Instead, she curled up at the knees of old ignored apricot trees with the stacks of library books Madame Pince had kindly let her bring home. She got ice cream in town with the few Muggle schoolgirls she'd been on vague friendly terms with. She went over the Mrs. Figgs's house for the sort of candy that was good for your teeth and read the old woman stories to practice her enunciation. Aunt Meg took her to museums every other week, both of them gleeful in their best coats, and Hermione tried to see if she could find any hints of wizardry in the paintings, artifacts, recreations, or histories. 

When Dobby came to warn her not to go back to Hogwarts, she almost believed him-- that she didn't belong, that the castle wasn't for her. An orphan from an automobile accident-- a dentists' daughter with terrible teeth-- the way she sweated and studied to earn her magic and Harry barely cracked open a book. 

But she got distracted-- Dobby was pounding his head on her bedpost, talking about masters and punishments and house elves, and acid was rising up in her throat. He tried to tell her about dangers and she knelt on the floor next to him, asking, horrified, "You're bound to a master you have no choice but to serve, and forced to violently punish your own disobedience?"

There was no pudding for Dobby to magic and smash, no bedroom Hermione was confined in. She called for her aunt and uncle and Dobby vanished. 

The Grangers met up with the Weasleys and Potters in Diagon Alley. "They should send these at the beginning of summer," Hermione complained to her aunt and uncle as she tapped open the brick wall behind the pub. "Imagine how much pre-reading I could have gotten done." 

"But then could you have also managed to read through 101 Uses for Unicorn Bile? Because that seemed a fascinating read," Aunt Meg said.

"Oh, that reminds me," Hermione said. "I want to grab a book or five on house elves..."

"House elves?"

"It's a long story," Hermione said grimly.

The Weasleys were a giant redheaded mass and Hermione braced herself before they swarmed over the three of them. Arthur went straight for her parents, shaking hands and beaming. Molly swallowed Hermione up in an all-engulfing hug and Hermione squirmed and patted her scapula until she pulled away. 

"Oh, yes, Hermione's talked so much about both of you," Uncle Harold was saying, smiling. "How you're so good at chess, Ronald." 

"Uncle Harold," Hermione hissed, blushing. 

"How you called her a know-it-all last year and made her go crying to a bathroom," said Aunt Meg. She glowered. "On Halloween of all days." 

Ron edged closer to Hermione. Harry asked cheerfully, "Didja tell them about the mountain troll?" His uncle Remus was trying not to laugh behind a raised hand. 

"Mountain troll?"

"No, auntie, it's not what-- that's just a-- a nickname for a school bully-- come over here, I want to show you what supplementary schoolbooks I want for this year--"

In Flourish and Blotts, they met Gilderoy Lockhart. Hermione, who had already read his whole bibliography, clung to a breathless Molly's shadow and tried not to blush too hard when Lockhart dragged her out into the light for Daily Prophet pictures. 

In Flourish and Blotts, they also met Draco Malfoy's father, whose wit was a lot less subtle than he thought. Hermione had never seen Arthur furious before, but Lucius murmured bile about his wife, his children, the Grangers and eventually Mr. Weasley snapped. 

Aunt Meg handed Uncle Harold the book bags she'd been carrying, then rolled up her sweater sleeves and waded into the scuffle with an aim of socking Lucius in the face. Aunt Meg had few ambitions in her life, but she tended to achieve them. 

It was later, after the books had been put back on the shelves and Lucius had knocked into Ginny's cauldron of textbooks and stalked away, that Hermione recalled that these two men had a war between them. 

She reread the histories she had swallowed before her first year. The Prewett brothers-- that was Molly's maiden name. The Longbottoms-- Neville brushed dirt off sprouting mandrakes and placed them gently in new pots of dirt, the only one in the class who seemed to find the shrieking roots beautiful. Lily Potter-- Hermione had met James, now. She knew what Harry might look like, grown, if you could imagine him without his mother's eyes.  

At Dueling Club that year, Hermione 'set' a snake on Millicent Bulstrode and every horrified, accusing eye in the room turned her way. She had read enough to know what those hissing words tripping off her tongue meant. 

"The Hat offered me Ravenclaw, first," Hermione whispered glumly to Harry and Ron at breakfast. "I don't..." 

Harry crunched through a piece of toast piled high with sugar. "It offered me Slytherin," he said, with the tone of someone discussing the weather. 

"Oh," said Hermione. "Harry, I..." 

"Huh," said Ron. "It just called me a Weasley and gave me Gryffindor. I feel minimized." 

People started avoiding her in the hallways, so Hermione went to the library. Whispers slunk through the Great Hall, so she hauled out whatever book she had on her and bent her head over it. Colin Creevey was staring wide-eyed after her, and Ernie Macmillian was calling her a monster when he thought she couldn't hear, and Pansy Parkinson was telling sneering horror stories about Slytherin's creature, so Hermione studied. 

She was not supposed to be here-- her with her impossible hair, her dentist parents, her magicless home. Aunt Meg smoked on the back porch and Uncle Harold cursed cheerfully in Latin whenever he burnt dinner. Uncle Harold could deconstruct the origins of every spell Hermione had brought home. Uncle Harold had opinions and research questions about the existence of non-Latin-derived spells. But in his hands, her wand was just a polished twig. This was where she had come from. She was not supposed to be here-- here with these moving stairs and dancing lights and quarreling paintings, here with power in her hands, here where anyone could fly. 

Or was she? She was supposed to be better. She was the Girl Who Lived, and her mother and father had died for that distinction. They had died for her life, so she had to make it worth their while. Everyone stared, whispered, expected, and mocked-- so she had to be better, the best, the very brightest witch of her age. She would live up to the promises she had not made herself. She would prove that she deserved this life. She would prove that where she came from had nothing to do with where she was going to go. 

So she studied. She also dug into some books on House Elves and started the first fledgling chapter of S.P.H.E.W. She made buttons.

Mrs. Norris got hung by her tail beside red-painted warnings. Colin got petrified with his camera pressed up to his eye. Justin Finch-Fletchley and Nearly Headless Nick joined them in the hospital wing. Hermione studied-- Transfiguration and Charms, Potions and History of Magic, and what sort of creatures or curses would turn a person to living stone. 

When she heard Parseltongue around the corner, coming back from the library with a torn page clutched in her hand, she screwed her eyes tight and hissed out go away. But it didn't go.

She had the mirror, so she didn't die. Being petrified was like being wrapped in stiff cotton sheets. She couldn't hear Ron and Harry reading schoolbooks aloud to her-- didn't hear them find the paper clutched in her hand and figure out about the basilisk. She didn't hear Pomfrey worry and argue with Dumbledore about evacuations. She laid there in binding, sightless white and listened to the little voice inside her head whisper supposed supposed supposed to be. 

She never met young Tom Riddle but she pulled the story out of Harry later, over blueberry muffins in her uncle's kitchen. Harry was the first of them to murder a Horcrux, back before they knew what that word meant. She never saw Ginny pale and crumpled on the damp Chamber floor, but Ron told her about it on one of the last few late nights in the Gryffindor Common Room before they both went home for summer. 

"I should've been there," said Hermione. "I shouldn't have let that thing get me. I should've been cleverer."

"Cleverer?" Ron scoffed. "Hermione, you get any cleverer and reality would collapse. The sky would fall. Your brains would be too big for you to fit through doors."

Hermione twisted her hands in her lap. 

"But seriously," Ron said. "You were there. I mean-- you're the one who figured it out. We wouldn't have been able to do anything without you. And.." He shrugged, looking up at the ceiling. "That's what friends are for, right? We were there, so you were, too. It was all our fight. You know?" 

Hermione included Ginny, that year, among her correspondents. Ginny's letters were short but more regular than Harry or Ron's had been. Ron started writing more frequently. Hermione wasn't sure why, but she thought he might be competing with Ginny's clockwork correspondence. Harry didn't get any better at writing, but sometimes he and his dad flew over for afternoon tea. They brought Remus's ginger cookies, which was a surefire way into Aunt Meg's heart. 

The Weasleys won a prize and spent the money to go visit Bill in Egypt. Hermione didn't know how the owls made it across so much water and land so quickly, but she got letters from Ron and Ginny all summer long. They wrote about baklava and roasted meat and Hermione looked up recipes to ruin with Uncle Harold (together, they could burn water). 

Ginny told her about how tall Bill was now, his earring and his growing hair, how she had barely recognized him. It was a good look, but she hadn't liked that moment of uncertainty before her big brother opened up his arms for a hug.

Ron told her about the tombs and curses, the same way he took notes when she missed class-- with a focus and an eye for detail that people forgot he had. She looked things up in her library books and wrote back with questions for Ron to ask Bill and his coworkers. Ron tried to sketch symbols and vistas for her, photography not being allowed inside the tombs. 

The Weasleys came back as pale as ever, but with their freckles tripled. Ginny's shoulders were stiff, but she let Hermione give her a hug and sat with them on the Express. 

The train was cold on the ride to Hogwarts, that year. The windows of their compartment frosted over. Harry was reading through Quidditch Through the Ages again, and Ron poking through Bertie Bott's Beans, but Hermione felt a million miles away from them. When Ginny started to shiver, Hermione didn't notice. When Ron scattered candy all over the compartment floor, her world was already starting to go black. 

 

Get Hermione-- 

The voice was young, nothing like Aunt Meg's smoky grumble. The voices were so young it took her a moment to realize what she was hearing. 

 

Daniel, is that a gun? 

It was dark, because these echoes were twelve years buried. It was dark, because the nursery curtains had been drawn-- they had had dinosaurs embroidered on them, in yellow and purple and blue. 

 

Oh my god. Daniel? Daniel! 

Aunt Meg had put the curtains up in the new house, so Hermione as an infant could have at least one constant thing in her life. She didn't take them down until she was seven and too old for inaccurate triceratops. 

 

Not her. Whatever you want, take it, but--

Hermione woke up sprawled on the seat of the Hogwarts Express compartment to find Ron and Harry leaning over her, hands full of slightly melted chocolate. Ginny was nibbling her own in the corner, breathing soft and shaky. Hermione couldn't even see her behind her curtain of hair. 

"It's alright," said Harry. "Those were--"

"Dementors," said Hermione. "I've read about them." 

After Madame Pomfrey had looked over her in the sick bay, Professor McGonagall swept through and ferried her away to her office. "You are alright, Miss Granger?" 

Hermione nodded. Minerva nodded back, and settled herself at her desk chair. Hermione wobbled into the open chair in front of the desk. "As we discussed in regards to your schedule last year," McGonagall said, drawing a long gold chain and small hourglass out of a drawer. "The Ministry put up some degree of a fuss, but your academic records persuaded them eventually to approve the Time Turner." 

Staring at the light on the gold chain, Hermione felt emotion thrumming inside of her-- something warm for the first time since the train. The work to be done, the scheduling to maintain, the knowledge this would let her swallow whole. "Thank you, professor." 

"Let me be frank, Miss Granger, and perhaps a bit uncouth. We talk as though prejudices against Muggle-born wizards and witches is something we've overcome as a community, but I'm afraid it remains to some degree."

"Oh," said Hermione. "Yes. I'd noticed." 

"You are one of the best students Hogwarts has seen in my tenure-- and my tenure is no small thing," McGonagall added, with a twinkle Ron would never believe when Hermione described it later. Hermione squirmed in her seat and McGonagall steepled her fingers, face going stern again. "You are more visible than the average student, I'm afraid-- for your history, if nothing else. I want you to have every opportunity to excel, not only because you deserve it, but because your visible excellence may change minds." 

Hermione read every instructional and warning pamphlet McGonagall gave her on the Time Turner. Arithmancy was a delight. Pination was a horror. She felt a need to defend Care of Magical Creatures, which was at the very least an experience. The new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher--an anxious little fellow named Johnson--was a vampire, she was pretty sure, but he knew his material well enough.

For the first time that year, Harry and Ron joined her in the library. She curled up in her favorite chair while they poured over Dangerous Creature legislation and pulled up the records of old cases. Madame Pince, who she had been slowly befriending over the past years, helped them with the more complicated shelf sleuthing. 

The dementors patrolled outside the grounds, waiting for Sirius Black, escaped convict, loyal son of House Black, to come for the Chosen One. Hermione shrugged and turned back to her books, but Harry stared out the rainy windows and thought about what might happen if his father's murderous ex-best friend came for Hermione.

When the dementors came to the Quidditch match, Hermione didn't see Harry drop out of the sky because she was busy herself, listening to her mother cry her father's name like he might still answer her. Ron's world dimmed, darkened, and froze, but he reached out to grab Hermione before her head hit ground. 

Heart like a rabbit's in his chest, Ron held onto her and tried to remember good things into the dark. He reached for victorious chess matches, for really good cakes, for meeting Harry that first day on the Express. Dementors swarmed over the freezing field and Ron couldn't breathe through the crushing emptiness of it, so he reached for other things-- when happiness can't stay, go for anger. He screwed his eyes shut and breathed and filled every empty place in himself that he could. 

When Hermione woke up, she was not bruised, not cold. Ron refused to take back the cloak he'd draped around her and handed her a Chocolate Frog instead. "I want the card though," he said, and she gave it to him. "Darn," he said. "I've got like nine of this one." 

"I've been doing some research," said Hermione at breakfast the next week. 

"No duh," said Ron. 

"There's a spell called a Patronus," she went on. "It holds off dementors... I want to learn it." 

Harry's head had lifted up. Ron squinted at the description in the book she pushed across the table at them. "It looks tough." 

"I can't just faint every time one of them breezes past," Hermione said. She hesitated. "I hear my parents," she said. "When they come close... I hear them dying." She bit her lip. "I only just realized," said Hermione. "They're dead because of me." She didn't feel in the slightest the urge to cry, and that drove her up the wall. Here, this was the sort of thing you wept over, but her tear ducts only leapt into action when someone called her a bad name, or when it would be particularly inconvenient to be in tears. She bit her lip harder, hoping that would help. 

"Yeah," said Harry. "Mom died for me, too." 

Hermione frowned at him. Ron eyed the big bowl in front of him gravely then reached out and took another blueberry danish.

Harry shook his head. "I don't mean-- like, I wasn't there. She wasn't leaping in front of a curse heading my way. Except, y'know, she was. I mean, that's why she was out there. For me. And she didn't come back." 

Hermione ducked her head. "I was told it was an accident. Chance. And I always wondered... but it wasn't chance. Do you think that makes it worse?" 

"I don't know," said Harry. "Does it?" Then he scrabbled around in his pockets. "Here," he said. "Uncle Remus sent me some more chocolate." 

Hermione took the chocolate. Ron said, "Well, we can try practicing it in one of the empty classrooms." 

Professor Trelawney continued telling Hermione she was doomed to die, and Hermione kept ignoring her. "I see the Grim in this cup," said the professor and Hermione asked politely if maybe it was a donkey instead. 

"But I'm the one who keeps seeing a Grim," said Harry, as they made their way down the stairs after class. "I mean, you haven't, right?"

"Wait, what?" said Ron. "An actual Grim?"

"I saw a big black dog, back in the summer, and then I saw one at the Quidditch match, too." Harry shrugged. 

"Grims are nonsense, Harry," said Hermione. "Don't worry about it, okay?"

"My uncle Bilius--" Ron started, but then Scabbers tried to make yet another break for it and he went chasing him down the steps. 

Scabbers ran, again, one windy night from Hagrid's cabin. After Ron had snatched him up, a large black dog took him by the leg and dragged him down the hole at the base of the Whomping Willow. Harry followed, and Hermione, too, but this time Harry had realizations rising in his gut. 

Sometimes when Harry went out flying in the more deserted woods, a great stag would run below, keeping apace. On full moons, Uncle Remus took his potions and slept shiveringly by the hearth, paws twitching. Harry watched the last of the dog's black tail whisk down the passage and realized he knew what it was. 

"I told you Grims were nonsense," Hermione murmured breathlessly when they'd reached the end of the passage, had their wands wrested from them, and were standing staring at Sirius Black, escaped convict, wanted man, missing uncle. 

"Hermione," Ron hissed, high-pitched with pain on the bed. "The escaped murderer seems like a decent herald of death!"  

There was no Lupin to interrupt. There was no Map for Snape to find and follow to the Whomping Willow. There were just the three of them-- it seemed like it would always be the three of them. 

Hermione had read about Sirius Black, traitor. Ron had heard of him, vaguely. Harry had grown up on stories and stories of Padfoot. They were accidental, sometimes-- half-told before Remus would cut himself and mutter, "Well, that was before," or before James would say, "Actually, you feel like a fly? Good winds today..." 

Ron was pale on the bed and Hermione was furious, wandless, but Harry stood there on the gouged floor and looked at the man in front of them. He was gaunt, with shaggy black hair and hollow cheeks. He looked like a nightmare, and he'd been haunting Harry all year. No-- he'd been haunting his house since always. There were pictures of Lily and Peter all over the Godric's Hollow house, but there were none, anywhere, of Sirius Black. 

"You killed my mom," Harry said and Sirius didn't disagree then. It was Sirius who had pressed to continue with the mission-- it was Sirius who hadn't guarded her flank well enough-- it was Sirius who had made it out, who was breathing harsh and shallow, who ached. 

"Where's the rat?" he said instead, and it all came out in the same tumbling mess-- Sirius like a skeleton, and Peter scrambling into a human form, looking like he'd still like to run for mouseholes, Sirius told them the story, and when he drew his wand to kill Peter Harry still stepped in front of him. 

"Dad wouldn't want you to." 

"And how would you know that?" Sirius rasped. "Peter got Lily killed. You don't know what James'd do if he knew-- You weren't there--"

"Yes I do know," said Harry. "Because he thinks you got her killed. And he doesn't hate you. He doesn't want Uncle Remus to hate you. He just... wants to understand why."

"I didn't," said Sirius. It was a quick murmur, horrified, desperate, like he'd been whispering it to uncaring walls for thirteen years. "I didn't, it wasn't me--"

"I know," said Harry. "And we're gonna tell Dad, too, okay? But he wouldn't want you to kill Peter. He wouldn't want Peter to die, and he especially wouldn't want you to have to do it." 

"He'd just want to understand why," Sirius repeated, his face twisting as he turned to Peter's cowering form. "Well, I know why-- he was a coward, he broke--"

 

"They were going to kill me!" Pettigrew pleaded. 

"And any one of us would have died for you!" Sirius roared. "For our friends! He was scared, that's all the why there is--" 

"And that's enough," said Harry, moving further in front of Pettigrew, his hands outstretched and empty. "Dad's not going to hate him. He's not going to want you to hurt him, okay? You have to believe me." 

Sirius's knuckles whitened around his wand. His knuckles bulged on his thin fingers. There was no fat anywhere on him. "You look like your dad, you know? At that age. We were best friends, at your age. Everything was..." 

"But let me guess," said Ron, pain doing nothing for his good humor. "His mom's eyes, right? Yeah, we've heard." 

They splinted Ron's leg and bound Peter's wrists. The moon rose, full, but it was the dementors coming that let Peter slip his bonds and flee through the underbrush. 

None of them had ever managed a corporeal Patronus, and even Hermione didn't manage one on that beach. The fog of the dementors reached up and swallowed them all down. 

Hermione fought to stay standing. Her parents' voices were rising in her ears, but she could also feel muffling cotton wrapping around her, the paralyzing grip of the basilisk's reflected gaze. The dark rose up around her and she could see sights she'd never seen-- Ginny pale and cold on the Chamber floor, Harry bleeding and poisoned, Ron trapped behind a rockfall. She would not be useless again. 

But the dark rose up and up. The cold slunk in. Right before the world went black she saw a flash of silver rushing across still waters. 

"Maybe it was your dad?" Hermione whispered to Harry when they'd both woken in the infirmary, but Harry shook his head. Ron was asleep, his leg magically knitting back together. 

"I don't think Dad can do a Patronus," said Harry. "And he wouldn't vanish. He'd be here." 

"Unless he was getting Sirius out?" 

"He doesn't know Sirius is innocent, remember?" Harry knead at his forehead, and then Dumbledore swept in to smile at Hermione. 

"Three turns should do it."

"Oh," said Hermione, and pulled Harry into a closet. 

The other side of the frosted lake, when they made their way out to it, was empty. They left torn footsteps in the mossy pebbles, which seemed to have been untouched for seasons. 

As the small figures on the other side of the lake crumpled and fell, Harry managed the vague shape of an antlered beast, and Hermione something aquatic and sinuous that danced through the frigid water on its way to go save their lives. Hermione thought about her uncle on his knees in the green yard, attaching a bell to her bike because she'd read a story about a little girl with a bell on her bike who rode around a little Illinois town and solved mysteries. Harry thought about what his father's face would look like when he brought Uncle Sirius home. 

After they had set Buckbeak free and flown up to Sirius's window, Harry dug into his pocket for a scrap of paper. He shoved it at Sirius, who took it, confused.  

"That's our address," Harry said. "You have to come. Dad'll-- dad'll-- you have to, okay, don't just vanish." 

Sirius let the paper fall open and looked down at it. "Harry, I know where Godric's Hollow is." 

"Then I'll see you this summer," Harry said. 

When Hermione went home, she kissed her aunt and hugged her uncle and rode her little purple bike out to the fields. She wished more than anything that she could practice, and when that frustration rose too high in her chest she put her books aside. She practiced wrist movements over and over, mouthing spells she didn't speak aloud, until her flicks and swishes were precise and perfect. She screwed her eyes shut under those old apricot trees and tried to drag up joy from inside her chest-- happy memories-- the things that would keep dementors at bay.

Mrs. Figg caught her at it once, out on a walk with the one cat she'd trained to walk on leash. "This is just a-- a game," Hermione stuttered, shoving her wand into her pocket. Mrs. Figg big Maine Coone head-butted Hermione's shin affectionately.

"Are they letting you do summer courses or something?" Mrs. Figg asked. "I never heard of Hogwarts letting kids take work home-- especially not to Muggle towns."

That summer, Hermione learned what the word "squib" meant. "You're a witch, but you live in a Muggle town?" she asked the next afternoon, over for tea and raisin-studded scones. "Or are you just here to keep an eye on me?"

"I'm a squib, darling, it's different." Mrs. Figg shrugged. "Some of us do live in the wizarding world, but sometimes it's simpler, you know? To live someplace where not everyone can do something you can't."

"But--but everyone can do something someone else can't. That's..." She chewed on her lip anxiously. "I'm sorry," she said.

"And I'm alright," said Mrs. Figg. "Have another scone, dear."

At the Burrow, Ron played pick-up Quidditch with his brothers and sister. He de-gnomed the garden and tried to read the books Hermione had lent him. When he couldn't sleep, he played chess against himself in the dim family room, wrapped up in one of his mother's thick knitted blankets. 

And over at Godric's Hollow-- it took a full month before Sirius slunk up onto the Potters' porch on four feet. 

Remus was swallowing down a last gulp of morning coffee, pulling on his jacket as he headed off to work in the predawn. He stopped cold in the open doorway. Sirius's tail gave a sad half-wag, but when Remus took a slow step backwards Sirius padded quietly into the house. 

"I," said Remus. "I've-- Work. I've got to go to work." Staring with horror, scars stark on his pale face, he stumbled outside and went with a BANG of Apparation. 

But James managed to grab for Sirius's scruff before he vanished, too, and to shut the door. "Hey," said James. "Hey, hey it's alright, he's just startled. You hungry, bud?" 

When Harry bumped sleepily down the stairs hours later, he found his father asleep on the couch amid a few empty cans of corned beef, with a scruffy black dog curled up on the sofa next to him. 

Remus didn't come home after work-- these days, as a frycook at a local diner-- until late. From his dirty boots, James was sure he'd been out walking in circles for hours. "Is he still here?" Remus said, rough and low. Harry was already upstairs, asleep.

"Of course he's still here," said James. "He's sleeping-- it's been a long thirteen years." He grabbed Remus's elbow as he turned to move past him. "Hey, you can't just ignore him. You've got to come home, he's going to think you still hate him--"

"Thirteen fucking years," said Remus and James stopped talking. "Thirteen, and we just-- I don't hate him, James." 

"And you don't hate me," said James, with an exhausted sort of certainty. 

Remus shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "I just need some sleep. I... James, we left him in there." 

"We didn't know." 

"We should have known!" 

"Remus," said James. "Moony."

"How can he not hate us? How can he have come back? How can he trust us, ever again? How can we--" He covered his face with his hands. 

James reached out to pull him into a hug. They were still standing in the open door where Remus had frozen that morning, staring at the spectre of a friend-- come back to life-- a miracle. "He doesn't hate us," James said. 

Remus's shoulders shook. "That's worse." 

"Come on, old man," said James, pulling him inside and shutting the door. "Let's get you to bed." 

Remus woke in the morning to pale grey light filtering through his blinds and a shaggy black shape curled up by his side. Sirius's ribs rose and fell, peaceful, and Remus reached out and tangled his fingers in his coat. 

That summer, Sirius chased butterflies and ground squirrels in the backyard while Harry practiced pes and twists on his new Firebolt. Sirius slept curled up on the couch, or cycled between the foot of each of their beds. When he dreamed, his paws twitched, growls catching in his throat, and Harry hoped he was chasing down rodents or hamburgers or something in beautiful green fields. He liked to lay on Harry's feet under the dinner table and gnaw on his untied shoelaces. When Remus went out to get the mail in the morning, Sirius followed, leaving cheerful pawprints in the wet grass as he bounded along.  

That summer, Sirius swapped out of dog form rarely-- for the sake of a good, long, hot shower now and then, or a particularly tasty meal brought home in squashy takeout containers, or on long summer nights when the house was all closed up and the four of them gathered around the unlit fireplace with eight human-shaped palms cradling steaming mugs. 

"I'm sorry," said Sirius one of those late evenings. They'd been telling stories over hot cocoa-- every cup but Harry's spiked with Firewhiskey. Remus, who had a morning shift at the diner, had retired to bed. Harry was conked out on the sofa, chin tipped back, snoring. "About Lily." Sirius's voice was quiet, shuttered. "I saw the curse coming, James, and I just--" 

"You're not the one who should be apologizing here," James said. "We let them take you and we believed them when they said--"

"It's fine," said Sirius. "I mean, it's true. You should've-- you should've--"

"We should never have let them have you. I'm so sorry, Sirius."

"You-- Maybe I'm not Peter," said Sirius. "But I still got her killed. I did, James. I was there--"

"And I wasn't there," said James. His hands were still on his mug. His back was curved over it, and it struck Sirius like a blow sometimes how much older he was. "At least you were there, Padfoot." 

"It wasn't your fault," said Sirius, the words falling over themselves to escape the knot in his chest. "Lily, dying-- it wasn't your fault." 

James smiled softly. "I know it's not. These days, I do, anyway. It wasn't yours, either. I mean, come on," said James. "No one should ever try to take responsibility for Lily." 

Remus still slunk out early most mornings and came home late, skulking through the door with his shoulders up to his ears. Sirius still curled up on his bedspread more nights than he slept on any other, still woke Remus up before his alarm with a wet nose pressed to his cheek to make him squawk. 

"Full moon's in a few days," said James one night, dropping a bowl of salad onto the table because Vegetables. "Harry, why don't you go have a sleepover with Hermione?" 

"I'll call and ask them," said Harry. Remus had made sure he could use a fellytone-- er, telephone. 

"And the rest of us?" Remus asked suspiciously. 

James grinned at him and Harry almost recognized it from the pictures of his mother. "We're going camping. It's been a long time since you got a good run in." 

Sirius woofed curiously from under the table, where he had been gnawing on a dropped carrot, but he was giving a cheerful dog's grin, tongue lolling out. 

"All for one and one for all," said James. 

"I never should have lent you that book," said Remus. 

Arthur Weasley scored tickets to the Quidditch World Cup that summer-- for his family, but for Hermione, too. James had got his own set for Remus, Harry, and himself months before. Upon hearing the Weasleys were going, he swapped his mid-field seats for a set in the same nose-bleed box the Weasleys were in. "And you're coming, Padfoot, obviously," James added. 

After a long, fragile summer, it was Sirius's first big public outing. His tail waved like a big black ostrich plume, smacking enthusiastically into everything as he wove around their knees and ankles. When they got close to the Portkey, he took off running at the crowd of Weasleys and one Granger and Ron squeaked and fell over in the tall grass. 

"We got a dog!" Harry announced, breathless, as he caught up. Remus and James were coming at a more respectable pace. "His name is Snuffles." 

"Charmed," said Ron, squashed under the paws Sirius had planted cheerfully on his chest. He clutched a little at his unaching leg as he stood up, but when Sirius nosed apologetically at his palm with his wet nose, Ron sighed and scratched him behind the ears. 

Hermione and Ginny slept in the same little room in the tent, the night before the match, and whispered about crushes and ambitions and lifetimes. Harry came over from his family's tent as soon as light peeked over the horizon the next morning, bursting with energy, and helped Mrs. Weasley with breakfast with Sirius napping on his toasty feet. 

Victor Krum caught the Snitch, though Ireland won, but the real fireworks came later. Hermione had read about the Death Eaters, the Dark Mark, the evil they told her she had ended. Ron had heard stories. Harry had heard stories. He had grown up with his mother smiling down from every mantle, now far closer to his age than to his father's. 

Hermione had read about them, but there was nothing to prepare her for the sight of that family of Muggles lifted into the cold air. Children, a father, a mother, a high shrill laugh-- all Hermione could think of was Aunt Meg and the cigarette smell of her, of Uncle Harold burning dinner, of dinosaur curtains she had outgrown. She ran with Harry and Ron, clung to their hands and braved the panic, but all she could think was that's my family, that's my people, that's where I'm from

Hermione went home. She kissed her aunt and she hugged her uncle and she packed her bags for school. Before she left, she asked Mrs. Figg what she remembered of the last war.

The Triwizard Tournament was not what Hermione was expecting when she got to Hogwarts. She was looking forward to a year where she could actually focus on school. She had six books on squib-adjacent history and legislature piled up by her bedside table. Her name flying out of the Goblet was even less what she was expecting. "It wasn't me," she snapped when Ravenclaw table whispered as she walked past them to the back of the Hall, when Cedric asked in that little clump of champions, when Dumbledore asked. She stewed and crossed her arms and listened to Karkaroff argue and McGonagall explain the rules, until she could finally flee back towards real life-- the Tower, her waiting textbooks, a good crackling fire. 

But then she heard a familiar two pairs of footsteps and slowed warily down. 

"Who put your name in the Goblet, d'you think?" Ron said, dropping into stride next to her on the way up to the Tower. 

Hermione scrubbed at a cheek that still felt damp. It was creasing up in a smile under her scrubbing fist. "What, you don't think I could've done it?" 

"'Course you could've done it," said Ron. "I mean, if anyone could get past Dumbledore's age line..." 

"But you wouldn't've," Harry agreed. "I mean, there are OWLs to study for-- for next year, but, still, we know you." 

Hermione covered her face with her hands. "Oh no. The OWLs." 

Her first stop was the library, to read through the descriptions of all the past Triwizard Cups-- the challenges, the details, the deaths. "You're just going to freak yourself out," Ron said as she regaled them with the last twenty Triwizard-related deaths over their morning eggs and toast. 

When the tasks came, the photoshoots and interviews frightened Hermione perhaps more than dragons. For the dragons, she made herself unflammable and invisible and unnoticeable and then she picked her way to the nest and took the golden egg in hand. But Rita Skeeter and the Daily Prophet? She didn't think they'd like it if she went invisible. 

She sat through the weighing of the wands with her shoulders hunched. She liked her wand-- holly and phoenix feather-- but she didn't really want it and its scuff marks poured over and recorded. It had survived a Devil's Snare, she wanted to tell them-- survived a doorway filled with flame, a basilisk, dementors-- but she just took it back from Ollivander with a quiet thank you. 

Ms. Skeeter's eye fell on Hermione for first interview, but Fleur, lithe and smiling, shoved Krum in her path and drew Hermione away to the edge of the room. "You look terrified, little bird," Fleur told her, pulling out a hand mirror. "Now breathe." 

"I am breathing," said Hermione. 

"Is it good if I tie your hair back?" Fleur said. "I think you will feel better with it out of your face. Look less like you are hiding." 

"Maybe I want to hide," said Hermione, but she nodded permission and Fleur pulled at locks, twisting them gently into something that felt not as simple as 'tying it back.' 

"Yes, but do not let them know," said Fleur. "There, does that feel braver?" 

A breeze touched along the back of Hermione's neck. She felt the back of her skull, where her hair was twisted up. "Did you magic it?"

Fleur giggled and Hermione turned to stare a little at the unelegant sound. "The only wandless magic I can do," she said. "But it is good, isn't it?" 

The egg Hermione solved within two weeks, giving it careful study in the hours she blocked off from her schoolwork-- she was determined the Tournament wouldn't interrupt her studies, so she'd set aside sternly regimented time for it. 

After Ron's disastrous attempt to ask Fleur out to the Ball, Hermione passed her in the halls and hesitated. Then she hitched up her book bag and hurried after her. "Hey, Fleur! I just... wanted to say thanks."

Fleur looked lovely and startled. Hermione wondered grumpily if Fleur ever looked anything but lovely. She went on, "For the thing with the Prophet. That was kind of you." She shuffled her feet on the floor. "Helping me out. So I wanted to-- could we take a walk?" 

They went down to the grounds to pace through Hagrid's giant pumpkin garden. Hermione told her about the egg and the riddle. "One good turn," she said and hesitated again. "Why did you do my hair? Doesn't seem very competitive." 

"Looks matter," said Fleur. "I of all people know that. But lots of things matter." She shrugged her shoulders and even that was beautiful and Hermione tried not to grit her teeth in irritation. "It does not mean they are the only thing, or that they have to matter to you. But you looked like you needed something kind." 

Hermione nodded and said briskly,  "There are a lot of things in our lake. I was reading about it, because OWLs are coming up and I don't think our DADA teachers have been very comprehensive about creatures... The thing about grindylows," said Hermione, "is their fingers are very brittle..." 

Krum asked Hermione to the Yule Ball, which startled her-- he had been sitting with her in the library, studying, for some weeks now but she had just thought he liked the help. When she poked through anti-squib legislature and wrote up critiques and letters to Ministry officials about it, he signed his names to the petitions and got half his classmates to add their names, too. "You're not even citizens," Hermione protested.

"No, these dozen all are," Krum said confidently. "They were sent away for school-- their parents do not like Hogwarts. And I am not a citizen, but they will recognize my name." He scowled at that, but Hermione laughed.

"I," she added. "Er, I've got some house elf petitions, too, if you might take a look at those?"

No one but Ginny believed her when she told them she had a date to the Ball, though, which didn't surprise her. "Screw them," said Ginny cheerfully. "That's what you told me, right, about crushes? You do you, and then if people don't notice that you're kick-ass then they're not worth your time." 

"That isn't... the precise language I used," said Hermione. "And, er, this isn't about crushes." 

"Yep," said Ginny. "It's about Viktor freaking Krum, and also his biceps. Think you can get me his autograph?" 

"I don't know how I feel about brave new you," said Hermione. 

"You love it," said Ginny, socking her gently in the shoulder. Hermione rubbed her arm. "Let's go tease my brother about being single again." 

Hermione was set for the second task on everything except how to breathe. She had ideas, but nothing solid, and nothing she was comfortable learning in a few short days. On the last night before the task, Neville shuffled over to her library table and told her about gillyweed. She squeezed his hand. "Next time you need help on Transfiguration homework, you come get me, okay?" 

"I always do anyway," he said. "Thanks, Hermione." 

Hermione, who grabbed Ron from the bottom of that lake but let Gabrielle Delacour, Cho Chang, and a chubby Durmstrang boy be, got first place. Krum scraped in at second (she gave him an extremely shy congratulatory kiss on the cheek for it), but his botched dragon-taming from the previous task left Fleur (who surfaced third, with a spluttering Gabrielle) at second overall for the Tournament. 

When Fleur hauled herself dripping out of the water, she found Gabrielle a soft towel and then she found Hermione to give her her own sopping-with-lake-water peck on the cheek. "Grindylows!" she said in that fluting accent and vanished to go find Gabrielle a hot drink. 

They grew the maze for the third task on the Quidditch pitch and Hermione ignored Cedric and Harry's sorrowful protests. McGonagall offered, but Hermione did not invite her aunt and uncle to come watch the task-- "They'd probably make me wear a bicycle helmet," Hermione said, but meant that she didn't want them worry. The Weasleys came, though, and James and Remus, too. Sirius curled up on Harry's feet in the stands and barked encouragement when the starting shot rang out. 

She and Fleur were the first into the maze, tied for points after two tasks. Hermione countered curses and out-riddled a sphinx. Under Imperio, Krum knocked Cedric out of the game. When they hit the last stretch of the maze it was just her and Fleur, again, with the Cup between them. 

Hermione had been on the end of a lot schoolyard taunts. A lot of pretty girls had tugged at her hair or mocked her teeth or stolen her books. She didn't expect games to be fair-- she didn't expect to be invited to play at all. "Together?" said Fleur. "That is how we got here, after all." 

They both took the Cup. The Portkey sunk hooks into both their guts, yanked-- they both hit gravedirt on their knees. They both heard a high voice ring out, "Kill the spare," and then it was just Hermione. 

The heart of Hermione's wand was the same as Tom Riddle's. This was only the second time she'd ever met him. He'd been a grimace on the back of Quirrell's skull, back when she was eleven years old and had not yet heard her mother weep her father's name in darkness. He was standing, now. He could touch her now. 

Their wands met, on that grave-studded battlefield where his father was buried, and Voldemort's spell history was dragged backward out of his wand. If it had been Hermione's wand, all those silver wisps would have been counter-curses and Accios, three dozen practiced Cheering Charms. But it was Voldemort's, so Fleur stumbled out, silver, into translucent half-life. Other figures, other victims Hermione didn't know, or knew only from dreams. And then-- "Mum," said Hermione. "Dad." 

The ghosts--the afterimages--Hermione would read up, after, trying to discover what exactly had held her hand and kissed her forehead and told her it was proud-- what exactly had had looked at her with silver tears on silver cheeks and said, "Take my body back to my sister. Tell Gabrielle I'm sorry." The specters held Voldemort and his men off while Hermione grabbed Fleur's hand and then the frigid metal of the Portkey Cup. 

She crashed down onto the Quidditch pitch grass. Fleur's hand wasn't cold, yet, under her grasping fingers. 

"He's back," Hermione said. "He's back," she said, and no one listened. 

The Girl Who Lied-- they called her hysterical, naive, an attention seeker. Hermione read the articles. It was good to know what the opposition was saying. 

"The man who killed your mom and dad? He's back?" Uncle Harold said when she told them over a read-in on a humid summer night. 

"And no one believes me," said Hermione. "There was a graveyard, and a cauldron-- magic, I don't think I should go into details." 

"I really think you should," said Aunt Meg, putting down A Wrinkle in Time with a frown, so Hermione did. 

"And no one's sent any protection home with you? With this-- this-- war criminal on the loose?"

"Not that they've told me at least," said Hermione. 

"We should do something, Harold," Aunt Meg said. 

"No, Aunt Meg, I've got it covered, I think," said Hermione. "I have a plan." 

"Of course you have a plan," said Aunt Meg. 

"You know you're a kid, right?" said Uncle Harold. "Kiddo, plans are supposed to be our job." 

"You have papers to grade," Hermione said, staring at the open pages of her book. "You should-- you know I love you, right?" 

"Duh," said Aunt Meg.

"We love you, too, kiddo," said Uncle Harold. 

Her aunt and uncle started poaching her Daily Prophets at breakfast and paging through them. "That's against the Statute of Secrecy, I think," said Hermione, stealing the Business section back from them while Aunt Meg poured over the front page. 

"There are lots of rules in this world, Hermy, dear, and if you paid attention to all of them you'd go mad. I need page 13, pass it over, would you?" 

One of the loudest supporters of Hermione in the press was a young, foreign teenager-- Gabrielle Delacour, who sent vicious letters to the Daily Prophet's editors from her dorm in Beauxbatons. 

"I like this one," said Uncle Harold. 

"Delacour," said Aunt Meg thoughtfully. "French. Did she know the girl from the graveyard?"

"Not all French people know each other, dear," Uncle Harold said. 

"Shush you," said Aunt Meg. 

"Fleur was her sister," said Hermione, pushing all the scraps of her egg around her plate until they made a neat little mountain at the center of it. 

The kitchen was a bright little space, painted white with large windows. Her uncle still graded his papers at the wide table there, though now instead of drawing very serious crayon masterpieces on them Hermione just helped with checking his students' grammar and spelling. 

The house was a short bike ride from open fields. She had outgrown her bike, with its bell and the nicks in its purple paint. She walked out to the open fields and thought at least I'll see them coming, except she knew she wouldn't. 

She might hear them-- the pop-bang of an Apparition, the gunfire sound of a flurry of them. Every cloaked, masked figure from that graveyard, their half-familiar voices, snapping into looming existence in the clean white space of that kitchen. 

 

Is that a gun? Oh my god. Daniel? Daniel! 

Hermione wondered how difficult Hogwarts' Anti-Apparition Charms would be to replicate. She wondered what she would do when she was back at Hogwarts, not here lying in her childhood bed all night and jarring herself awake at every backfiring car or distant shout. 

She thought about the Muggle family at the Quidditch World Cup, turning slowly in the sky, the mother's bared undergarments, the laughter that rose up through cloaking fabric. 

 

Whatever you want, take it, but don't hurt my daughter--

She had been thinking about it since she'd gone down to Hagrid's cabin, after the graveyard. She'd gone through his chest of belongings while he was out investigating a conjured noise in the garden, and then she had thanked him for the tea and the time and gone back up to the castle. 

Hermione packed up her bags, first-- clothing, toiletries, trinkets, any books she thought she might want. She pulled on her comfiest shoes and tied her hair back and dug Hagrid's pink umbrella out from where she'd hidden it. Then she went downstairs to the kitchen. 

Her uncle was bent over an old, annotated copy of a collection of Eurydice myths. White light streamed through the windows. Her aunt was rummaging through the cupboards. "Harold, you know where I put that chocolate?" 

Hermione smoothed shaking hands over the pink fabric of the umbrella. She had better repaired it and practiced with it in a closed closet just off the girls' dormitory, wanting to make sure the broken wand would work with the precision she required. 

"The chocolate you hid from yourself?" 

"What other chocolate could there be?" 

Hermione took the last step down, silent. Aunt Meg knocked over a box of dried pasta and cursed under her breath. 

"I've got some I hid from myself. But I'm not sure where that is, either." 

"Obliviate," whispered Hermione. Aunt Meg, who had been on her tip-toes, dropped down and rested her weight on the counter. "Obliviate," Hermione said, a little louder, and Uncle Harold's head sagged forward, breath stuttering in his chest. 

There were a few more spells-- reconstructions and fabrications, a new set of passports, an ambition to immigrate to Australia. Then Hermione hid the umbrella away again, waved good-bye to Mrs. Figg out on her porch next door, and Flooed herself to the Burrow. 

She always felt like the Burrow's cluttered living room should have stressed her out, but it didn't. Blankets hung off worn sofas and eclectic armchairs. Stacks of Daily Prophets and Witch Weeklys careened unevenly. Sweaters were abandoned here and there, by untied muddy boots and stained mugs. This was a house where people lived, and she had always liked that about it-- but right now, it was empty. 

Hermione walked through the whole ground floor, then climbed the stairs and peered in every empty room. She didn't put down her suitcase until she had searched the whole place. There was a faint sheen of dust over everything. She sat down in the living room and put her suitcase between her knees. She waited there, running over contingencies in her mind, until Hedwig pecked politely on the window. Where are you? it read, in Harry's slanted script. Everyone's freaking out. 

 

So this is what it takes to get a letter from you? Hermione responded. I'm at the Burrow. I'm okay. But I think something happened to my aunt and uncle. 

It was hardly any time at all before Kingsley Shacklebolt, Nymphadora Tonks, and Mad-Eye Moody-- the real Moody, he insisted-- showed up on the doorstep to take her away to Grimmauld Place and the Order of the Phoenix. 

Molly swept her up in that same old engulfing hug as soon as she stepped into the entryway. "Oh, here, let me take that," she said, but Hermione clung onto her suitcase. 

"No, I've got it. Hi Molly." 

Molly held her face in her two doughy hands. "I'm so pleased you tried to come to us, and I'm so sorry we weren't there," she said. "We've been-- it's been-- quite a summer." 

"Yes," said Hermione. "But we're all here now."

"Right, right. Now go right on up those steps. Third door on the left." 

She had to meet Mundungus Fletcher and say hi to Harry's dad and uncles, who were lurking in the kitchen. She had to watch Fred and George Apparate up and down the stairs, calling punchlines to each other, and get a very serious hug from Ginny after the other young woman took one long look at Hermione's face. She had to smile at Harry, and frown at Ron, and accept their worries, and then finally she could step into the empty room she'd be sharing with Ginny and shut the door.

Her suitcase was bigger on the inside. Hermione snapped it open and sat down on the bedspread next to it, staring down into the depths of everything she owned. Bigger on the inside. Uncle Harold loved Doctor Who, and Aunt Meg loved mocking it. Hermione was supposed to be unpacking some clothes, but instead she sat on the bed and cried.

The court summons came shortly after Hermione's arrival to Grimmauld Place. Underage Magic-- multiple charms performed at the residence of Granger, Meg and Harold, Muggles. 

Hermione pled innocent. She let her lip wobble and her eyes tear up. She'd gotten better at this. "Have you been able to find my aunt and uncle?" she asked the court. "I don't know why anyone would-- you said they used Obliviate?" She felt the first tear spill and didn't wipe it away. "That's terrible." 

When they pulled the spell history out of her wand, the last event was an Accio from months back. 

"From the Triwzard Tournament?" one witch asked. 

"From just after," Hermione said shortly.  

"You don't know who might have tried to sabotage you?" asked a wizard. 

"We don't know that Miss Granger is innocent!" 

"Let's look at all the information, alright, Dolores?" 

"Maybe for school?" Hermione said, wavering. "I'm top of my class, and there's some people who think, because my parents were Muggles..." 

"What about your claims about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? You don't want to lay the blame on that fiction?"

"I've said everything I feel compelled to say on that subject," Hermione said, and then tried to soften the sternness out of her voice. "I just want to know that my aunt and uncle are okay. Do you have people looking for them?" 

Dumbledore stalked in then and scolded the whole Wizengamot within an inch of their lives. Hermione watched him do it and wished she had something to take notes with. 

The room was old and ornate. The judges were elevated, literally looking down on where she stood and Dumbledore paced. She'd read about the history that had happened in this room, read about its construction, its refurbishing, its occupants. This was not how she would have first liked to meet this place, but it was always good to know how things looked from multiple angles. She'd be back one day, and she'd be up in those long wooden benches, listening, weighing, deciding, instead of standing here waiting for Dumbledore to wear them down to a favorable verdict. 

 

The first thing she did once they'd opened the chamber for her to leave was wipe her cheeks on her sleeve. As soon as they were behind a closed door, outside of the courtroom, Dumbledore turned to her. "Where are your guardians?"

"I just got declared innocent of that accusation," Hermione said. Dumbledore glared, an expression she hadn't seen before, and she added, "They're safe. That was the point." 

"You must be under the guardianship of family," said Dumbledore. 

"The Weasleys--" 

"Aren't family. They aren't your mother's blood." He stepped toward her, weary. "Hermione, you must understand. Protection of your mother's blood is the only reason her sacrifice continues to hold sway over you. Her magic keeps you safe, the summers you spend in your aunt and uncle's house." 

"My mother wasn't magic." 

"She loved you."

"She wasn't magic. And I'm not that safe." 

"You have not yet seen what it is to not be safe," Dumbledore said gravely and an urge to slap him rose up hot in the pit of her chest. He sighed, pressing a few long, slender fingers to his forehead. "Where are your guardians, Hermione? Your safety is crucial. I know you were only trying to do what you thought was right, but do you understand why this is important?" 

"What about their safety?"

 

"We need you safe." Dumbledore looked severe and wise and noble, towering before her. He looked sad. 

 

Tears were starting to brim in her eyes and she hated hated hated that she still cried so easy, that she ever cried when she didn't want to. "Well, I need them! I need them safe." 

He shook his head. "We'll put them under a Fidelus. Maybe at Grimmauld Place. We'll hide them." 

"No," she said. 

"Hermione--" 

"Look all you want. Bring them back, if you can find them, but I won't do it, and I'll hide them away again the moment you try to put me back in their house. Excuse me, professor," she said, and stalked away to where Arthur Weasley was awkwardly waiting in the corridor. 

She spent the rest of the summer in Grimmauld Place. They scoured out rooms and banished doxies with Molly and Hermione tried not to remember Fleur's moonlight hair spread out over yellow grass and grave dirt. She tried not to think of her aunt's shoulders falling forward, a confused breath rattling in her chest. They were alive, right, and wasn't that the point? They were alive. 

Hogwarts was different, with Dolores Umbridge smiling at the Great Hall's podium. Hermione listened to her speech, drawing out the poison that lay between every line. Hogwarts was different, after having a young woman's body cool on the Quidditch pitch lawn while her little sister raced down from the stands, feet pounding and pounding on the steps.

Umbridge told them to copy lines from their text, to memorize, to be children at passive, obedient play. Hermione had read the whole simpering textbook and so she raised her hand and asked patient, pointed questions. She did not talk about Voldemort, because she had a bigger evil to fight than the stifling air of this woman's classroom. Hermione had made sacrifices, and one of them was to hold her tongue. Instead, she called together interested students to the Hog's Head and had them sign their names to a long piece of parchment.

When Hermione wrote down "Dumbledore's Army," she meant it. This would be a war. Most people didn't believe in that yet, but Hermione had seen Fleur slump, limp, onto grave dirt and yellowed grass. She had nightmares about a green light. He was back, he was back, he was back, and no one was listening.

Hermione had studied for class, for the Triwizard Tournament, to solve the basilisk-- she had studied. She brought her books and books to the Room of Requirement and the Room conjured blackboards. She did practical demonstrations and set up labs, but Colin Creevey, Lavender Brown, and Sue Li all ended up in tears (the Room conjured tissues and cocoa).

"Not everyone gets things as easy as you do, Hermione," Ron said, watching Parvati go after Lavender. "Gotta have patience."

"Like you have patience," Hermione snapped.

Ron shrugged.

Hermione practiced patience and Ron let himself be dragged up for demonstrations. But Harry had watched his father teach children to fly, all his life, and so he pulled his hands out of his pockets and stepped in to help teach his classmates Defense. All three of them had survived the forbidden third floor corridor, the basilisk, the Whomping Willow. They had sat with Hermione while she studied for the tasks and let her use them as practice dummies. Harry had been practicing, and he could conjure a corporeal Patronus.

Hermione studied, all that year. When there weren't classes in the Room she was there anyway, hurling precise hexes again and again at a bit of blackened wall. She would learn. She would be better. She would be the brightest witch of her age. She would show them all that where she came from had nothing to do with what she could do.

During Quidditch matches, Luna sat with Ron, Neville, and Hermione, and Hermione watched her with something uncomfortable roiling in her gut. Luna wore a lion's head hat she'd made herself that roared when Harry dove for the Snitch. Hermione wanted to call her crazy or weird, but the back of her head was whispering brave and she couldn't quiet it.

I turned down your House, Hermione thought as Luna fiddled with her bottle-cap necklace. I'm fighting a war. Do you know the choices I've made?

Hermione dreamed she was a snake, twisting through Ministry halls. She thought about the basilisk, which she had only ever gotten a single glance at. Smothering cotton was threatening the edges of the dream, promising nightmares, but instead she saw Arthur Weasley standing skittish by a darkened door-- and Hermione opened her jaws and struck.

She spent the trip to the hospital with her brain swaddled in white cotton. Harry got Mrs. Weasley a terrible cup of hospital tea. Hermione tried to fill her chest with breathing. She tried to look at the long fall of Ginny's red hair and tell herself look look she's not lying cold on the floor, you can move now, but her brain just sniggered and whispered yes, and you were useless back then, too.

Ron fell asleep on her shoulder. Hermione didn't sleep, all that long night. She tried to imagine setting the smothering cotton aflame inside her head, but all that happened was that Molly's empty paper cup turned to ash.

Arthur slept, and healed, and color flooded back into the faces of each of the Weasleys. Molly brought in armfuls of knitted blankets to cover up her husband with. The kids went back to Hogwarts.

"Of course you're coming home with us," Ginny said, when Christmas came. "Mum wouldn't hear of anything else."

Even filled with almost every Weasley, Grimmauld Place was quiet and echoing that winter. The stairs creaked, and there always seemed to be more dusty, dark rooms. They clustered at one end of a long table for Christmas dinner, even their blazing wizard lights not banishing shadow from every corner. Arthur was paler than Hermione had ever seen the already pale man. She'd gotten him a big, soft purple scarf for Christmas. But not everything was shuttered and dim-- Fred and George set off hopefully purposeful explosions in their room. When he visited, Harry played chess with Ron while his uncle Sirius raced four-footed around the house and chewed on all of his mother's favorite pieces of furniture. After Ginny and Molly had their rows (the portraits shrieking counter-point), Ginny would drag Hermione or Harry out to kick through the frost and fume.

They went back to school, and Umbridge found the DA. The door of the Room of Requirement was trampled down, and the Room conjured up nothing. Hermione traded fear for fury and stalked through the days afterward, feeling ground down, feeling aflame and anxious with it. Accusations sprouted ugly on Marietta's face and Hermione tried to turn fury to certainty.

Marietta cried, slumped at the Ravenclaw table, and Cho Chang sat with her, an arm around her shoulders. When they walked through the halls, none of the DA would speak to them. Hermione saw Susan Bones turn her face away, passing them. She saw Neville turn away and Cho firm her chin. She hadn't seen Cho cry in days. Hermione wanted to call her coward or turncoat, but her mind was whispering brave.

I'm fighting a war, she thought at the shiny back of Cho's raised head. Do you know the choices I've made, so that we might survive it? I refused your House.

Brave, whispered her mind. Brave, brave, brave, thought Hermione. If they're brave, what does that make me?

The war was bigger than that-- than Marietta's fear for her mother's Ministry job, or how Neville went pale and still at the table when news of Bellatrix's escape hit, or the way Hermione locked herself in a closet sometimes to cry because she missed her aunt and uncle, because she was sure she'd made the right call, because she wasn't sure they'd forgive her. They had been pawns--a store clerk and a professor, magicless--and pawns get sacrificed, and there were some things not even the Girl Who Lived could survive. Hermione cried, but the war was bigger than that.

Except-- the war was exactly that small. Hannah Abbott's mother died that year. They pulled her out of Herbology to tell her, and then she didn't come back. The Creevey brothers were Muggleborn and they knew it, because people hissed it at them in hallways. Harry pored over censored letters from home, gnawing at his bottom lip. "I think Uncle Remus is going undercover," he said. "He used to do that, last time."

"He'll be careful," said Ron. "Your Uncle Remus is the carefulest person we know."

Harry shook his head and Hermione tried to drag her eyes back down to her homework. "No," he said. "He'll be brave."

"I bet Siri--Snuffles is going with him," said Ron.

Harry smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, you're probably right."

Hermione dreamed of her Aunt Meg. This wasn't new, and once hadn't even been bad. Your life shows up in your dreams. But Hermione dreamed of her Aunt Meg in a long dark hall of glowing spheres, twisting on the ground under Voldemort's Cruciatus. She woke up sweat-soaked and gasping, already reaching for her wand. 

Parvati and Lavender slept through her getting up, but Ginny heard her running down the stairs on her way to Ron and Harry's dormitory. Ginny hadn't slept well in years. Hermione clutched at her hands in the dim light. "He's got my aunt, in the Department of Mysteries." 

They went by thestral-- Harry and Hermione and Ron, Luna and Ginny and Neville. Once she had thought it would always be just the three of them but Neville was clinging to a thestral mane that everybody but Ginny and Ron could see. Luna was trying to keep her wisps of hair out of her face and Ginny was grinning, even here, even now, the wind in her teeth. Hermione had thought it would always be them-- and when they hit ground Ron took her hand in his for a moment.

When they reached the prophecy's shelf, Aunt Meg wasn't there but Lucius Malfoy was. The last time Hermione had seen him, Fleur's body had been cooling on gravedirt. She whipped a curse out of her wand, grabbed the prophecy, and they ran.

First, Harry went down with a shattered ankle and Ron got his arm around his shoulders and dragged him along. Next, Neville took a hit for Luna and Ginny pulled them both into a room that turned gravity on end. They stumbled, they ran. They trampled over mysteries Hermione would have spent better lifetimes studying. All six of them made it to a room that held nothing but a stone archway filled with drifting veils, and the Death Eaters trapped them there.

Hermione held out the prophecy, ready to smash it. She thought about Muggles in nightclothes turning slowly fifty feet off the ground. She thought about Aunt Meg writhing on the floor of her dream. She thought about the way her aunt's shoulders had slumped forward in their kitchen. Lucius smiled.

Then, the Order came-- Mad-Eye Moody and Nymphadora Tonks, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Arthur and Molly, James and Remus, and Sirius on two feet, wand in hand.

Harry was sweating, wincing with pain, trying to aim his wand from where he was propped up on the floor. Hermione and Ron crouched around him. "What do you think's worse?" Harry said. "Dying, or the lecture we're all about to get?""Honestly, Harry," Hermione said, but Ron laughed. "Stupefy!"

"Petrificus Totalus! I'm no good at multiple-choice quizzes," Ron said. "But I'm thinking maybe let's take the lecture."

"Dad might kill me, so there's that," said Harry. "Expelliarmus! Yeah, take that!"

Sirius and Bellatrix were trading curses across the bare ground. They were cousins, it was clear, from their dark hair and sharp features, the ugly ways both their faces twisted. It was unclear where it ended-- what they shared because of blood, and what from a quarter of a life each strewn in Azkaban's cold cells.

Sirius had run away from home at sixteen and lived with the Potters. Hermione had run her own home away, and then looked for refuge with the Weasleys. Bellatrix whipped a streak of green out of her wand and Arthur Weasley took it in the breastbone. Arthur hit the floor with a thud and Bellatrix vanished.

Hermione had never seen Ron's face like this, somewhere between slack and stone. Ginny had gone still, and she should never be still, that fidgety, impatient girl. Hermione had never seen Ginny still and cold on the Chamber floor, but she had dreamed it, and there Arthur was, his eyes open, his cheek pressed into the ground.

The Death Eaters vanished, but the Ministry admitted Voldemort's return. The Weasleys went back to the Burrow. So did Hermione. There was an apple orchard behind the house and Hermione hid out there with her borrowed books. She couldn't bear to watch Molly putter in the kitchen, scrubbing at stains that wouldn't come up. Sometimes the kids would come out flying in the orchard, and Hermione would take herself away to Arthur's closed garage and read there instead.Weeks in, Ron sat down beside her before she could go anywhere. She tensed every muscle in her, but he didn't do anything, just sat there. He poked in the dirt with a stick. He tore up some long stalks of grass and braided them together. "When we were little," Ron said eventually, "Ginny used to make me do her hair. After Bill left for school. I think she missed him more than any of us."

"Ron, I'm sorry about your dad," Hermione said.

He shrugged, shaking his head. "I think some of these are ready," he said, pushing himself to his feet. He reached up into the tree-- he was tall, she always forgot he was tall--brushing his long fingers over fruit. Finally he dropped back down with his shirt full of little yellow apples. "Want one?" he said and Hermione reached out and took one.

She nibbled through hers while he devoured the rest and tossed their cores at knots in nearby trees. They didn't talk, but the wind was whistling through the orchard. After awhile Hermione said, "You could've brought a book, you know. Aren't you bored?"

Ron had his head tilted back against the trunk of their tree, his eyes half closed. Sunlight filtered down through clusters of leaves and ripening apples. "You don't always have to be doing something, you know."

She snorted and turned a page.

By all appearances, Hogwarts was kinder the next year. Umbridge was gone. Harry's Uncle Remus had been hired on to replace her and even only three weeks in Hermione was convinced he'd be the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher they'd ever have. That year, people didn't roll their eyes at Hermione in the halls-- they smiled, or nodded. Ernie Macmillian came to the Gryffindor table one breakfast to shake her hand and apologize for not believing her. Hogwarts seemed kinder, that year, and it made all the hairs on Hermione's back stick up like Sirius's ruff did when the temperature dropped too quickly.

Where Dolores Umbridge's office had been pink and doilied, Professor Lupin's was an organized hodgepodge of books, artifacts, and tanks of grindylows. There was a worn mat laid by the hearth for the big black dog he'd brought along with him.

"I thought you were undercover," Harry said. "Talking to giants. Trying to get in with Greyback. All this summer--"

Remus ruffled Harry's hair out of his eyes. Harry, who was now Remus's height, scowled. "I am undercover, sort of," Remus said. "It's a long story. Now go do your homework."

Sirius gave a disapproving whuffle from the hearth, where he was gnawing on something that looked like a full smoked leg of ham.

Ron started going out with Lavender. Hermione didn't take it well. "We have work to do," she said. "And while you're snogging with Lavender, I'm trying to figure out how to win this war!" 

This turned to shouting, as it often did. Harry alternating sitting with each of them at lunches. Dumbledore started calling Hermione in for rambling stories of forgetful house elves and impoverished old Slytherin families. She tried to drag import out of him with pointed questions, but she'd learned years ago that Dumbledore detested straight answers.

Everything Dumbledore gave her she took to the library and researched-- the Gaunts, the methods of immortality. She went out during the winter holiday to a Muggle library to find Voldemort's mother's obituary, just a single line about a homeless woman and her orphaned babe. Molly escorted her there and Hermione tried not to think about how much she would have enjoyed getting Arthur a library card.

Hermione found the word Horcrux before Dumbledore told it to her-- hidden in a dusty stack in the Restricted Section, which she perused from under Harry's borrowed Cloak. When she asked Slughorn about Horcruxes, trying to find more, the professor almost fainted. 

Malfoy was skulking about suspiciously, but Hermione was thinking about great magics and the wide tides of war. She left Ron to pace and Harry to skulk curiously in Malfoy's shadow. 

The war was bigger than that-- bigger than Malfoy's twitchy temper, bigger than Lavender's inane pet names or the taunts the Quidditch crowd yelled at Ron. It was bigger than the way Hermione felt tired at midday, ready to curl up in a corner of the library and not open her eyes for hours. It was bigger than the way she instead nibbled through the chocolate espresso beans her Aunt Meg had always sworn by and reached for another book.

But that was the war. Hermione just hadn't seen it yet. The war was living in the tense curve of Malfoy's shoulders. Peter Pettigrew had been scared once-- Lily's blood was on his hands, and Sirius's stolen years, and Fleur. Draco was scared.

When they reached the top of the Astronomy tower, after the sea, after the poisoned cauldron, the grasping hands of the dead-- when they reached the top of the tower, Draco was there. Dumbledore left Hermione, invisible and frozen, to watch and witness. Draco was scared and Hermione was unable to shake, wrapped in the kind white cotton of Dumbledore's magic. She threw all of her self against the bindings that were keeping her still and silent and listened as Draco tried to turn himself murderer.

Severus Snape had been in Azkaban for years longer than Sirius Black, now. He had never been a double agent. Snape was not skulking in those Astronomy tower shadows waiting to save Draco from himself and to earn his place in Voldemort's trust with the death of an already dying man.

But Remus Lupin was up there, scars stark, robes shabby.

"Draco," Remus said, and even in this he was kind. "Draco, step out of the way. It's going to be alright."

Hermione tried to move her hand just one inch, one inch. Death Eaters jeered at Draco, at the tall frail frame of the wandless headmaster, waiting for death. Remus was thinking of who Peter had been, once, terrified and barely older than this shaking boy. He was thinking of what he might have done to save him. "Please," said Dumbledore. "Please, Remus."

A flash of green light leapt from Remus's wand. Hermione felt the bonds around her fizzle out as Dumbledore's body toppled out of the tower and made the quick journey to the flagstones below.

She ripped the Cloak off of herself and came out cursing. She did not aim for Remus-- she remembered Dumbledore's wizened, blackened hand, the potion he had made her forcefeed him in that cave; she remembered Remus bringing ginger cookies to her family's kitchen and she knew there must be a explanation hidden here that she could live with. But she threw ugly light at Death Eaters and at Draco, who stood frozen until her first curse hit. Draco fled and she followed, hurling curses after him. She shouted to the paintings she passed to sound the alarm. "Tell the Fat Lady! Tell Nigellus! Tell the ghosts! Sir Cadogan, go!"

She got Draco crying out. She got him clutching an arm. She got him limping. But he made it far enough outside the wards to Apparate before she caught up to him all the way. "COWARD," she screamed, but he vanished in a loud bang. She smote the ground briefly and then she ran back inside to help with the fight.

The Death Eaters were long gone by dawn. So was Remus Lupin. Professor McGonagall cancelled classes for the day and set about preparing for defenses, reconstruction, and the funeral of Albus Dumbledore.

Hermione climbed up to the boys' dormitory and sat herself down on the foot of Ron's bed. They were in the middle of one of their not-speaking-to-each-other periods, but she didn't actually care. "I'm sick of this," she said. "I'm going. I'm not pretending that any of this--" She waved a hand at the walls, the windows, the textbooks and crumpled notes. Seamus, Neville, and Dean were blinking at her from their own beds, but she was studying Harry's face and Ron's frown. "That any of this matters, not now." She balled her fists and said, "Well?"

"Obviously we're coming, too," Ron said and Harry grinned.

"Remember second year?" Ron said, hours later, their hastily packed trunks shrunk in their pockets. They'd sworn the other Gryffindor boys to secrecy and glared Ginny into staying at Hogwarts when she'd busted in to check on them. "Exams got canceled and I think you cried for an hour."

"A lot of things hadn't happened then," said Hermione. They climbed down the stairs, all huddled close under the Cloak, and then hiked out over frosted grass until they passed outside the Anti-Apparition wards.

As they looked for Horcruxes, they heard news of the rest of the wizarding world. They picked up a tent, supplies, a small radio as they moved. Sitting listening to the crackle of distant voices on blustery moors and damp little glens, they felt so far away from everything. It felt like it was just them, like it would always be just them.

But Hermione looked at her hands in the early morning light before the boys woke. She took down the wards and she looked at her hands in the dim sunlight, remembering sitting in the infirmary in her first year and wondering-- was this a curse? Or a haunting?

She had read everything she could on Horcruxes. She had questioned Slughorn up and down, and Dumbledore, too, though neither of them gave satisfying answers. She had eventually asked Madame Pince too and the librarian had, as always, been of far more help than anyone else. To make a Horcrux required a murder, a dark curse, and a vessel. She looked at her hands, and she wondered. She hypothesized. She suspected.

A twitchy old owl brought them a packet, a month into their quest. They had almost found the locket. They had fought off three bands of snatchers who had stumbled across them. Lee Jordan had started his radio station. The owl's packet read simply, in a no-nonsense script Hermione recognized as McGonagall's, He left these to you three. Be safe.

Inside was a Put-Outter, a book of Beedle the Bard's stories for Harry, and a capped ink well for Hermione. Ron uncapped it. "There's no ink inside," he said, shaking the well, which rattled. Hermione put out her hand for it and then smashed it onto the ground.

"What the hell?"

"I had a suspicion," said Hermione, poking through the shards and picking up a small grey stone, which she slipped into her pocket. "C'mon, let's get moving."

Gabrielle Delacour showed up on Cedric Diggory's doorstep that summer. "I remember you from the Tournament," Gabrielle said while Cedric puttered uncertainly around his flat's kitchen, making tea for his unexpected guest. "Wherever the fight is, you were going to get involved, Diggory. I want in," she said, so he took her with him when he headed out to join up with Lee Jordan's operatives.

While Gabrielle and Cedric flew missions alongside the Weasley twins, Viktor Krum, and Nymphadora Tonks, Dumbledore's Army took the train back to Hogwarts. Ginny sat cross-legged in a train compartment stuffed with their generals-- Neville Longbottom and Hannah Abbott, Anthony Goldstein and Luna Lovegood. "While Hermione fights the war out there, we fight the one in here," said Ginny. "We have to hold on until she finds what she's looking for."

While Ginny watched a tiny crop of first years shift in the line for the Sorting, a crew of snatchers caught up to Hermione and this time they didn't escape them. In the last scrambling moments before the trio realized they wouldn't be getting out of this one they tried to curse each others' faces into something swollen and unrecognizable.

The head snatcher sneered at them as another bound their hands. "Probably a bunch of mudbloods, eh?"

One of the ones they'd injured snorted. "Not with curses that strong. Half-bloods, maybe. Traitors."

People had been sneering mudblood at her for years, but something about his certain smirk set Hermione aflame. Yes, she wanted to scream. Yes, that's me. I didn't believe in magic until I was eleven years old. My parents were dentists, and I've been beating back goons like you for years. What, like it's hard?

At Malfoy Manor, Draco didn't put the names to their swollen faces and neither did Bellatrix, but she took Hermione all the same for questioning. Harry and Ron were shoved down into the locked cellar. The snatchers headed out and up, but Draco lingered, taking the stairs slowly.

"Having fun?" Ron taunted up at him, and Draco whirled back down to the bottom landing. "Going to go help your auntie out with--"

Draco nearly slammed into the door, jerking to a stop. "I don't want to be here," Draco hissed. "I don't-- it's awful, and I never--"

"Then why are you here?" said Harry when Draco cut himself off. Ron was sneering, but Harry said, "You didn't give them my name. I know you recognized us up there."

Draco sneered, too, as good a twist to the face as Ron's, and started to turn away. "Red hair, freckles... Weasley wasn't hard, and it's always the three of you."

"I've got three uncles, you know that?" Harry said.

"I don't-- I really don't care, Potter."

"I do," said Harry. "Lucky you. I've got three uncles, and one of them's that ugly wreck who's skulking around your house. Peter got my mom killed, and Sirius put away, and he brought Voldemort back. Because he was a coward who didn't have a way out. So I'm giving you a way out, Malfoy. You unlock this, and we'll get you as far as London. You can take it from there. Deal?"

Draco's hand twitched on his wand. "My parents, too."

"Alright," said Harry.

"Harry," hissed Ron.

"They're just going to run," said Harry. "DId you see their faces up there?"

"Alohomora."

"Excellent," said Harry, stepped out the open door and snatching Draco's wand from him. "I'll take that now."

"Hey, I need--"

"Keep up and shush up," said Harry. Griphook and Ollivander hid in a coat closet but Dean and Luna came with them. They snuck, stupefying every Death Eater or snatcher they saw, until they had a wand for everyone, and then they went to find Hermione and Bellatrix. 

Draco, Lucius, and Narcissa they dropped off near London before Apparating their way to one of Lee's safehouses and getting Griphook and Ollivander into safe hands. They had the locket, but next they needed the cup and Gryffindor's sword. While the Malfoys made their way to Iceland, Harry, Ron, and Hermione brewed Polyjuice Potion and asked Griphook about Gringott's security. "If you take anything other than what you need to win this," the goblin warned them and Ron nodded solemnly as he sketched plans.

The cup, the diary, the locket, the ring, the snake-- Hermione tried to track the lines of Voldemort's obsessions through all the careful pieces Dumbledore had deigned to hand her. "I think the last Horcrux is at Hogwarts," she said. "Something to do with Ravenclaw." Ron nodded, Harry started packing up, and Hermione didn't add that she was pretty sure the actual final fragment was living in her chest.

When they stepped back onto Hogwarts ground, the first thing Hermione saw was a streak of red as Ginny barrelled into her, arms open. When Ginny pulled back, smiling, Hermione tried to find new freckles on her creasing cheeks, but mostly she just saw how the students arrayed behind her were all looking to Ginny, not to the Chosen One. Hermione smiled back. Ginny darted away to slam in Ron and then to kiss Harry cheerily on the cheek. She waggled her eyebrows at each of them and then dragged them further into the crowd. "What do you need?" she said. "You're here for a reason, clearly."

Hermione looked around at the gathered crowd. Neville looked older, after less than a year. Ernie Macmillian nodded at her, familiar, respectful, a little full of himself, and Hannah Abbot wrung her hands. There were first years Hermione didn't know. "Voldemort's protected by a series of bespelled objects," she said. "We think the last one is here. We need to find it, and find a way to destroy them all."

"The Chamber," said Ron. "Hermione-- the basilisk fangs. That's how Harry did the diary--"

"Right," said Hermione. "Harry--"

"I'll find the last," said Harry. "You take care of the cup and everything. Hey, crowd, I need some Ravenclaws."

Ginny grinned as Hermione and Ron dashed from the room. "Well, we've got those."

When Ron and Hermione came up from the Chamber, holding hands, the Great Hall was lively and loud. The DA flocked between the four long tables, but they weren't alone. The teachers flicked their wands, waking statues and suits of armor, raising the wards. The Order of the Pheonix had arrived, too. Hermione could see Molly Weasley arguing hotly with Slughorn. Professor McGonagall spotted Hermione and pushed through the crowd to reach her. She stopped a prim foot from Hermione. "Miss Granger, Mr. Weasley. I am pleased to see you well."

Ron grinned up at her. Hermione said, "You, too, Professor," but then McGonagall closed the gap and took Hermione's hand in one of her long bony ones.

"I'm very pleased," McGonagall said and Hermione squeezed her hand back. "I'm very proud of the both of you. You do our House proud."

"Thanks," said Hermione and then a wave of DA kids with questions washed over them.

Across the hall, Gabrielle Delacour was tapping her wand against a table while Cedric and Cho bent over the map Gabrielle was spelling into the wood. James Potter had his fingers curled in the ruff of a big black dog who stood at his side. Harry hadn't heard from Uncle Remus, but the Order kept having information on Voldemort that it shouldn't.

Death Eaters and their allies were converging on Hogwarts's outskirts. Sitting on the Gryffindor table with her feet tapping on the wooden bench, Lavender nibbled at her sparkly purple nails. Parvati had braided back both their heavy heads of hair. Hermione gripped her own wand tight. Her mind whispered brave and she did not try to quiet it.

As they headed out the fight, people moved in little clustered groups. DA students, who knew the castle so well, teamed up with adult wizards. Anthony Goldstein and Dean Thomas got pinned down in a hallway together. Gabrielle and Cedric moved like clockwork around each other, and Hermione remembered Fleur rising up out of the Lake, the way she got a warm towel for Gabrielle before she did anything else.

One of the first deaths Hermione saw was Professor McGonagall's. She'd taken down eight Death Eaters in a courtyard half-shaded by an old willow tree. The ninth had gotten her. Colin Creevey, who the professor had shoved out of the way of a curse, got that ninth.

Hermione injured and Stupefyed and blocked. She'd lost track of almost everyone when the fighting died down to a ceasefire, but she found them again when she made it back to the Great Hall-- Harry, laughing at a joke of Ginny's; Molly scrubbing something off Ron's face while he rolled his eyes; Parvati, alone, wringing her hands.

Harry was laughing when they brought Remus's body in, because Ginny was making a joke, smirking as sly as the tricksters who had raised Harry from birth. Harry was laughing, and he stopped. He saw the look on his father's face first. He had once cast a Patronus by imagining the way his father's face would look when Harry brought his best friend safely home to him. Harry turned around slow and there were Fred and Percy carrying Remus in, laying him down on the cold floor. He stumbled toward them.

"He came in with the werewolves," Percy was telling James. "And then he turned on them, of course--"

"Of course," said James faintly.

"He--" Percy shook his head. "I'm sorry." James grasped his shoulder, wordless. Fred had sat down next to Remus's body and not gotten up, like he didn't know what to do with himself.

Sirius howled, a thin note, a breaking one, and no one who heard it could mistake it for anything but grief.

Harry stood still, three strides too far away to hug his father, and felt a weight slam into his back: Ron, and then Hermione, warm at his sides. "Hey, Harry," Ron said, fumbling for his hand.

"C'mon," said Hermione and dragged Harry forward towards what remained of his family.

Voldemort gave his ultimatum-- Hermione's life, for all of theirs. Hermione didn't think he even knew what he was asking. She was sure he didn't know all the ways he was cutting himself to the bone with that request. But when she saw Harry was pressed up against his dad's chest and Ron was occupied with distracting Fred from Madame Pomfrey's work on his arm, she slipped away from the Hall.

She had to be the best of them. She had to be-- This was the best she was going to be. This was as far as it went-- eighteen years old, some spectacular but imperfect OWLs under her wing, her shoes still damp from kissing Ron in a water-logged underground chamber. She knew where she was going. She knew what she was going to be.

She came from this-- from Harry's dad's stories, from Professor McGonagall pressing more time into her hands, from the cluttered, living warmth of the Burrow. Fleur had tied back her hair and asked her if that felt braver. Aunt Meg had given her her first book. Where she came from had everything to do with where she would go. Hermione had read books and books with Lily Potter's name carried proudly on their pages. She had seen Lily grinning down from photographs all over the Godric's Hollow house. She had seen Harry shove his hair back out of his eyes and grin just like his mother, like he had learned from her, like he had studied it. I asked for your House, she thought, and made her way across the grass to the Forest. She hadn't cared about things like "forbidden" in years. She had once thought expulsion was worse than death, but she supposed that she had also once not believed in magic.

Hermione turned the Stone over in her hand, three times, slow. She held her breath for one long second and then the clearing was filled with pale light. Julia and Daniel Granger beamed at her. Her mother looked like Aunt Meg, minus nearly two decades. Hermione had gotten her nose from her dad, which she had known from pictures, but there was something else to have in seeing his eyes crinkling up over it. "Mum," she said, "Dad," and her words were caught in her throat. "I--" Words were what she was, had been building her since she could first translate them, and she'd lost them somewhere in her spleen. She gulped in air. She stammered out, "I floss every day."

Julia laughed and Daniel moved forward to brush a weightless hand over one of her wet cheeks. "We miss you, too. Oh, my baby girl."

Hermione squeezed her eyes shut and when she opened them she saw they weren't alone. The ghostly figure of Arthur Weasley fiddled with his shirtsleeves, smiling shyly at her. Hermione tried to squeeze her mother's hand but her fingers just went through the light. "Mr. Weasley," she said. "I'm so sorry." But that wasn't enough, was it? Words, that's what she was about-- words, and she needed them, and nothing was enough. She wanted to shout out we need fire but there's no wood. She wanted Ron to holler are you a witch or not? She wanted answers to light up in her chest. "I'm so sorry," she said.

"Me, too," said Arthur. He blinked, a little owlish, at the Grangers. "You should've seen this little girl, the first time she stepped into my house. Smartest thing I've ever met, bag full of books, head full of spells, and worrying about every creature in sight. Brave, you know? To care that hard. To try. You should be very proud."

"We are," said Daniel, and Arthur smiled.

"You have work to do now, sweetheart," Julia said, lifting her hands like she could take Hermione's shoulders. Cold wind whipped around her ankles. "You've got to go. We'll see you soon." Hermione's mother's face was puckering, holding back emotion. "Soon. We love you--"

And Hermione let the Stone drop onto forest dirt. It felt like Dumbledore toppling from the Astronomy Tower, like watching Ron's face go to stone in the Department of Mysteries. Everything was quiet. Everything was still. Hermione put her wand in her pocket and walked out to die.

She drew her wand. She was pretty sure she had to die here, and at Tom Riddle's hand, but she might as well take some of them out first.

The last thing she saw was a flash of green light, and it was familiar. Hermione felt herself fall, but she didn't feel herself hit ground.

When she woke up, she wasn't in the Forest. She wasn't in a train station, sprawled on clean tile. Her cheek was pressed into parchment and smooth wood and she thought frantically, Is there a test? Am I late to class?

She pushed herself up to sitting in a library chair she'd fallen asleep in dozens of times before. The Hogwarts library spread out around her. Light fell through the high windows. The shelves curled away, heavy with more words and worlds than she would ever be able to read.

Across the table, Aunt Meg tapped her cigarette on an ashtray, humming a warbly little tune Hermione hadn't heard in years.

"You shouldn't smoke in a library," Hermione said. She narrowed her eyes, suspicious. "You wouldn't smoke in a library."

"This one's special," Aunt Meg said. "The books will be fine."

She took another drag and Hermione stared at her, heart thudding as she remembered-- a clearing, a green light. "You're not dead, too, are you?"

"Oh, no," Aunt Meg said. "Oh, sweetheart, this is just in your head." She leaned forward. "And you're not dead, either, not yet, not quite. You get a choice."

"A choice?" said Hermione. "I chose. I went out there and I died."

"And now you get a choice-- to stay, or go back."

"And if I go back, he stays dead?"

Aunt Meg nodded. "There was more than one life in you-- you, and the bit of himself he left in you when he killed your parents. You get to choose how many of those lives die."

The parchment under Hermione's hands was filled with her own hand, but she didn't recognize the notes and diagrams. She traced her fingers along the dry lines of ink. It felt like years since she'd learned anything that didn't have to do with keeping alive or keeping other people alive.

She looked back up and it wasn't Aunt Meg anymore. It was Professor McGonagall, tall and stern with her rectangular glasses. Hermione swallowed hard, caught somewhere between grief and an urge to straighten her spine and give a report on the complications of life form transfiguration. "You could rest," McGonagall said. She reached out with her bony, pale fingers and took Hermione's hand. "Hermione, you've earned this."

"I've earned a lot of things," said Hermione.

"You've earned this. Do you want it?"

There were books here she'd never read. There were secrets she'd discover, things lost for centuries, things written in her own hand. "Yes," she said, but she shook her head even as the word dropped off her lips.

"Just stay," said McGonagall. "There are people waiting here who love you."

"There are people back there who love me," said Hermione. "They're waiting. I can't stay."

"Hold your wand a litter firmer when you use Accio," McGonagall said, and Hermione woke up on the cold Forest floor.

They sent Pettigrew to check on her body. She held her breath, eyes closed, body slack. Peter called out, "She's dead," and she never bothered to find out after the battle if he was just stupid, or if he'd finally grown a spine. Harry was convinced it was the latter, but that was Harry for you.

Hagrid carried her back to the castle, weeping. Hermione tried not to think about being eleven and going to his hut to cry safely. Avada kedavra took hate to cast, something pure and hot and ugly, and she needed not to remember all the parts of Hogwarts that had been a kindness.

Hagrid took a great shaking gasp, chest shuddering, and Hermione tried not to shake in turn. Maybe she did need to remember-- Hagrid's beautiful little home, the pumpkin patch that was now smashed and rotting in its shadow. The library--oh, the light in the library, the shelves and shelves-- this place was supposed to set people free, to allow them new worlds, to let anyone fly. On her way out to the Forest, Hermione had seen Lavender crumpled under fallen stone, still and silent the way that twitchy, irritating, shallow, brave girl never should have been. McGonagall was laid out in the Great Hall, and just an hour ago she had been standing there, upright and almost smiling, telling Hermione she was proud of her.

When they reached the courtyard, carrying Hermione's body like a trophy, Voldemort boasted in the face of Hogwarts's grief. Hermione dropped out of Hagrid's arms, rose up, and cursed Tom Riddle down with every ounce of furious love she carried in her.

"Leave," she thundered at every shell-shocked Death Eater who stood gaping. "Every one of you. Never come back. Never bruise another soul, or I will find you." A few tried to fight, but most just ran, and they let them go.

Once they were gone, Hermione let herself start trembling. She moved through the crowd, taking in gleeful grins and the thuds of congratulatory hands against her back, knowing exactly what she was looking for. When she found them, she stumbled the last few steps forward and fell into Harry and Ron. They all stood there, gripping each other tight enough to hurt, as though it was just them, as though it had always been only them.

"I need to go to Australia," Hermione said, days later, after they'd finished the cleaning, the burying, the beginnings of healing. "I need to make some apologies." 

Ron went with her. Hermione was anxious about their ability to Apparate across oceans--and anxious about what was waiting at the end of the journey--so she bought two plane tickets to Sydney. 

"Dad would have loved this," Ron said at 30,000 feet, his freckly nose pressed to the airplane window. 

They found them in a little beachside town, Aunt Meg having a smoke on the front porch while Uncle Harold trimmed the hedges. Hermione dropped her bags and dragged her wand out of her belt, whispering counter charms. Uncle Harold dropped his pruning shears with a thud. Aunt Meg calmly put out her cigarette in the ashtray then leapt down the porch steps to wrap her niece in a hug. 

"I am so upset with you," Aunt Meg whispered into her hair and they clung and clung to each other. 

Ron stood awkwardly to their left. "Hey, Mr. Granger."  

"Ronald."

"We won," Ron offered. 

Aunt Meg squeezed Hermione tight. "You're going to tell us everything."

"I will," Hermione said, her face hot and squashed into her aunt's shoulder, her eyes burning. "I promise," she said, and she did.

Oceans and continents away, Harry, James, and Sirius went home to Godric’s Hollow. Remus’s coat was still hanging on the hook by the door.  Harry dropped his own jacket on top of it and went to the kitchen while James stood in the doorway with his hand curled in Sirius’s ruff.

James had been with Remus, when Lily died, out sleeping in dirt and trying to save the world. They had buried her together. Harry had fussed in his sling and James had stood there in the cold wondering how he was going to be able to do this.  Harry had been so small. Lily had been so alive until she wasn’t.

Harry came back out of the kitchen with his hands full of two steaming mugs to find his father still standing in the open door. “C’mon,” Harry said. “Shut that and come sit down. Sirius, you want cocoa or a bone?”

Sirius gave a sad little half-wave of his tail and stayed four-footed, so Harry put the mugs down on the coffee table and went for a bone. 

When he came back, he got James sitting and folded himself down next to him, pushing his hands through the unruly hair that looked so much like his father’s. “I’m going flying with Ginny, tomorrow,” he said. “Want to come? Dad?”

James turned to him, blinking his eyes open.

“She’ll try to race you,” said Harry. “Probably’ll win.”

“Oh?” said James. Harry started to smile. “I’d like to see her try.”

“We can arrange that,” said Harry, and Sirius curled up and went to sleep on James’s feet.