Hermione never thought of herself as a quitter, but after Harry and Ron died... well, she figured she had two choices: rail against the Wizarding world until they accepted her, which could be a long time, or take her wand and go home.
She opted for the latter.
She didn't officially Withdraw -- she enjoyed firewhisky too much, and the conveniences her wand afforded, and being able to Apparate. And the interest rate on her account at Gringotts was better than what she'd get at the best Muggle bank. Not to mention having to then pay taxes on what Muggles would see as a giant lump "income".
But she packed up her eight editions of Hogwarts: A History, and all her other books, and Crookshanks's old toys, because maybe one day she'd get another cat. She packed up her robes and her notebooks and scrolls, and the small ring Ron had given her for her seventeenth birthday, and the Invisibility Cloak, and Harry's photographs of his parents and Sirius, and the Marauders' Map. She reducio'd it all, shoved it in her handbag, and left for London.
Hermione picked London because it was a large city where a slightly eccentric twenty-something with almost no knowledge of current Muggle events could go unnoticed. She had Harry's fortune, her own award money from helping stop Voldemort, and the money from the two hair-smoothing charm patents.
And her inheritance from her parents. That she wouldn't use -- they were killed by Death Eaters. That was her fault. Not really; she knew perfectly well it wasn't her fault that she existed and that Wizards hated her existence. But it felt like her fault, and that was enough.
She would never touch that money.
Hermione booked herself into a small hotel, found a flat -- slightly more expensive than she'd've liked, but in a nice neighborhood, near a park. She picked it because all the other tenants were older, childless, seemed tired and uninterested in finding out about her. There was eastern sun in the bedroom, window boxes already set up with dirt, just waiting for her to plant something.
And it had no fireplace.
She paid cash, the bills from Gringott's crisp and funny-smelling, with a crease through the center. She unpacked quickly, only what she needed. She didn't shelve her books, just in case. She didn't hang up her robes. She used the last of her Muggle money to buy a takeaway curry and some cuttings; bloodbloom and asphodel and knotgrass all grew well amongst lavender and basil and lemon mint.
A pot of blue forget-me-nots also called to her; she traded the gnarled old woman her platinum Hogwarts ring for it. Surely the ring was worth more than a two-quid pot -- but not to Hermione, who felt she'd come out on the right side of that deal.
The flowers went into her bedroom.
Gringott's London happily exchanged Galleons and Knuts for pounds and pence; Hermione made sure to get more than she would need. She stocked her kitchen with Muggle ingredients -- even if she'd never use tinned tomatoes, she never knew when she might need them. Just in case.
She'd learned the hard way to plan for just in case. She could write a book: chapters each on Just in case the Death Eaters kill your parents, Just in case you accidentally kill your best friend while trying to kill his worst enemy, Just in case a git turns traitor and comes over to your side, Just in case you don't know what to do when you're stuck in a basement for three days, Just in case your school explodes, Just in case you're twenty-three and you look forty and feel sixty and you need to find a job to keep your mind from whirling about in circles around itself all the time.
Just in case you lay in bed all day and think of your lost friends.
Just in case you decide it would be a good idea to cut your hair with nail clippers.
Just in case all your clothing is two sizes too big and you're forced to go about in Wizarding robes.
Hermione spends a week moping about, eating tomatoes right from the tin -- good thing she bought them -- with tiny shreds of basil leaves and salt and pepper, watching the Muggle telly that came with the flat, sitting on the corduroy sofa that came with the flat, with her feet up on the small table that came with the flat.
She comes to several conclusions, the number one being that Muggles are stranger than she'd ever imagined.
Was she ever like this? Like these Muggles, who go blithely about and don't think about politics or -- or anything, really, beyond whether or not they should store their old food in bags or in plastic wrap, which makeup to use? Was she really? She must have been, before Hogwarts -- but she has a hard time remembering life before Hogwarts.
She thinks it might be because life before Hogwarts was dull, but she also thinks it might be because life before Hogwarts was life before Harry and life before Ron.
Hermione strolls around the park, watches the teenage boys skateboard -- she can't be so much older than they are, she's only twenty-three now, but she feels like she's in her forties, and...
She reads novels bought off the rack at the grocery, and is astounded equally by how stupid they are and how much better they are than Wizarding novels. She buys takeaway curries and sushi and pizza, drinks tea at the small shop on the corner, and doesn't stray out of her neighborhood.
One hand is always on her wand. Old habits that keep one from dying tend to... well, die hard.
Muggle newspapers are hard to read, and Hermione doesn't understand at least half of what's going on in the Muggle world anyway.
Two blocks away from the park is a dusty bookstore. It looks like it's run by a down-on-his-luck Pureblood -- at least, Hermione's imagination tells her so. She imagines he's like the woman with the flowers, it has to be a him, and he's bent over, part goblin, two hundred sixty years old. Maybe he rides around on an enchanted skateboard and has a floating monocle.
The Book Shoppe is not listed in Hermione's pamphlet on Wizarding businesses in the area, but there's a geas around the store to keep Muggles out. When she steps over the threshold, the geas glows pink, and doesn't fade.
The proprietor wears glasses and a frown. Her chest hurts for Harry when she sees the thin wire rims, and he smells of Mrs Weasley's tea, bergamot and lime. He looks up at her from where he's pushing buttons on a computer, and for a moment, the crossing of Wizardry and Muggle technology makes her brain hurt.
"Hello," he says.
"Hello," she says. "Pink?"
"Mudblood." He looks back down at the computer.
"How come this spell isn't more widely used?" she asks. She looks down onto the floor, where there's a tracery of silvery pink lines, and wonders if this is the practical application of Arithmancy. She feels a strong impulse to run away, and can't decide if this is caused by the spell, or if it's just her natural cowardice finally making itself evident.
She should have been in Ravenclaw.
Her life would be so different.
"Could you imagine, really, all those Pureblood families admitting there's a Muggle in their genealogy?" He looks up at her, over the tops of his glasses. "Come now. That's frightfully naive."
"How come you have it?" She steps forward, steps onto the silvery pink, and it disappears.
He counters with, "How come I'm not listed in your guidebook?"
"That was my next question." She looks around. "Are these all magical texts? I don't recognize them. I --"
"They are all magical texts," he says. "You are not allowed to touch them."
"Please leave. Those of Magical extraction aren't welcome here. Not to mention you could get me in trouble with the Council. We're not supposed to mix, you know." He goes back to his computer, and something -- a force, against her chest and stomach -- pushes her out the door. A little bell tinkles, and she's standing on pavement again, staring into the dusty windows.
Hermione pays her ten quid for her two hours on a computer -- she could go to a library, but she doesn't want to have to worry about kids looking over her shoulder. She could buy her own computer, she has enough money, but she doesn't want to have to deal with setting it up, installing a phone line into her apartment, paying a bill every month. And she doesn't want to have to worry how her wand will affect it.
Her wand hasn't affected the television yet, but Hermione's not convinced that sprites don't live in there anyway. Silly, fanciful, ridiculous, and yet it seems slightly plausible.
Dean Thomas is the one who told her about google.wz -- she never would have thought too even check. Too many of the Wizards she met were completely baffled by Muggle technology. One more way that Hermione just didn't measure up.
She refuses to be bitter about it, and refuses to think about how Dean died, and instead surfs onto the search page, and typed "council". Of course, the first thing to come up is the Wizarding Council of Europe, which had only recently formed. They'd offered her the position of Consultant -- she knows what that means. She'd be a figurehead: Look! Harry Potter's best friend is helping us! How can we go wrong?
A political club to make people like Mrs Weasley think that the British Ministry was actually working with the other Ministries, with the other Wizards, was working in general. Hermione knows better -- she knows no one should trust the Ministry, or the Council. But what? Everyone should run amok?
The problem is that Wizards are stupid. That is one of the things Hermione decided at the end of the war. Wizards are stupid, none of them are to be trusted, and she doesn't have the patience to be bothered hanging about while the rest of the Wizarding population figures it out, especially when they can't be bothered to take a silly little Mudblood seriously, even if she was Harry Potter's best friend and instrumental in first the destruction of the Dark Lord and then the destruction of the Death Eater cabals.
Hermione checks the time and refocuses on the computer search. The Wizarding Council of London, the Wizarding Council of Bath, the Wizarding Council of Paris, the Wizarding Council of Political Refugees... Hermione scrolls through them all, 37 pages of various Wizarding councils, and then she hits personal home pages -- like the Pittsburgh Wizarding Cultural Trust Council for the Exchange of Ceramics, which is on GeoCities for Merlin's sake.
"Get more specific," she mutters to herself -- searching the internet can't be so different from searching through a library card catalog. But nothing she types in pulls up anything strange, anything weird, anything out of the ordinary.
She sighs and clicks into the regular internet, clears her cache, and decides to do some surfing so that it looks to anyone watching like she's normal. Which couldn't be further from the truth. She sneaks a look at some music websites -- Green Day is still together, but blink-182 broke up. It's sad, the way the world changes.
At google.co.uk, she types in "council+old guy+Book Shoppe+Watersplash Lane", just for fun, just because it's so ridiculous. She hits search, and the very first link on the page is The Book Shoppe on Watersplash Lane.
Musty Old Books for Sale! Buy One Musty Old Book With A Cracked Binding, And Get A Second At Regular Price!
Rupert Giles, Proprietor and Old Guy. The Book Shoppe UK is totally the best place to buy musty books, none of which have anything to do with modern life as we know it, or as anyone else knows it. All books are archaic, whatever that means, and also boring, and so falling apart. A few may even have bugs in the pages, which is perfect for people who collect gross bugs. At least one has fallen to dust upon being opened. Totally exciting and compelling. Shop hours are 10:00 to 5:00 every day except Wednesdays.
PS, Members of the Watchers Council should stay away, because we totally hate you.
"Hello," she calls. The bell over the door jangles as she forces her way past the geas. It casts a pink light onto Rupert Giles, Proprietor and Old Guy.
"You again?" he says, looking up from his computer. He squints at her. "And what do you want now? Pushed out again?"
"What's the Watchers Council. I did a bunch of web searches on Watchers Council, but nothing came up except a bunch of weird websites about the Illuminati." Hermione walks foward, pushing against the geas.
It is not real, she tells herself, and fights against it the way she fought against Imperio. This is harder, more tangible; she feels as though it's slipping through her fingers, wrapping itself around her, pulling her back toward the door.
"You're Hermione Granger," he says, and she knows that it's supposed to be both a question and a statement. She doesn't pull out her wand and demand to know how he knows who she is. She nods, and slides back a few steps.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," he snaps irritably, and makes a gesture with his fingers, and the geas is gone, and she falls forward awkwardly onto her knees.
"Hey," she says. "You didn't have to do that. I'll leave. I just wanted to know what's going on in here. It looks interesting, and I'm bored, and -- Merlin. Never bloody mind then!"
By the end of her statement, she's yelling, and close to tears, and she's not sure why.
"Why me? Why always me?" Rupert Giles comes round the desk and puts and arm round Hermione, stands her up. "Come on, then, let's have some tea."
"I love books," she sobs through her tears. "I just thought this looked like an interesting shop!"
She's embarrassed, but she's also -- gratified. He doesn't toss her out again, or make fun of her, or call her a big girl's blouse for crying. He just holds her a little tighter, steers her down a dark corridor -- and she has one moment of panic, what if he's a Death Eater? What if this is a plot?
But then she realizes that's silly, because if the Death Eaters wanted her, they wouldn't have waited until she'd been eating tomatoes out of a tin and drinking tea at a small shop on the corner, they wouldn't have waited for her to cut all her hair off with her manicure scissors. They would have just taken her the very first day, when she forgot to lock her door, when she didn't check the locks on the windows.
And anyway, before the thoughts are even fully formed, she's sitting in a brightly lit room, at a table covered in books, with a cup of steaming bergamot tea in front of her and a plain white handkerchief in her hand.
"You're courting death, you know," says Rupert Giles grimly, and Hermione blinks, because that's just what she was thinking. But.
"But there's no one left to kill me," she says to him.
"There's always someone left," he replies. "Sugar?"
Rupert Giles tells Hermione to call him Giles, and gives her a pamphlet. "So you're a slayer..." she reads out loud. "I'm not a slayer, Giles, I'm a Witch."
"Yes, yes," he says impatiently. "But it will explain to you about the Council far better than I ever could."
"It's a comic book," she says.
"It's still a decent and uncomplicated explanation of an old and complicated society." He looks at her, and she knows he's annoyed. She smiles at him a little, and then looks back at the comic book pamphlet.
The Watchers Council is an old and complicated society. The Council itself is a governing organization, which governs Watchers, who Watch Slayers and Vampires. The Council headquarters are secreted in England, where Watchers are trained and historical records are kept.
Sometimes the Watchers Council is a ridiculous organization of self-important and pompous old men who don't know what they're doing and go out of their way to get in the way of Slayers who do know what they're doing, so watch out.
That night Hermione dreams of vampires and Death Eaters. She wakes up curled around her wand; instead of keeping her hand on it in the special pocket in her trousers, she slides it up her arm and holds it. Tightly.
When she leaves her flat, the sun is shining and it's warm. No rain. No clouds. Children in the park. Dogs.
Hermione looks suspiciously at everyone. She's not sure she believes in vampires, but she still doesn't leave her flat after dark. Ever.
Giles doesn't invite her back to The Book Shoppe, but she goes back anyway. There's a small pop as she pushes through the geas; once she's in the store, she can't feel it anymore.
He raises his eyebrows at her over his wire rim glasses -- Oh, Harry, she thinks, her heart twisting a little -- but doesn't say anything. At lunch, he pulls out sandwiches: liverwurst, tomato, and mustard. There are four sandwiches.
"Were you expecting company?" she asks, when he divides the sandwiches between them.
"Just you," he replies wryly.
He has the best collection of ancient texts Hermione has ever seen, all in the back room, all under strong protection spells.
Hermione wants to know why no one ever told her about the Watchers Council, why the Watchers Council doesn't have a possessive apostrophe, and why Wizards and Watchers aren't supposed to mix.
Giles refuses to answer her questions, but does let her eat the last scone.
"What are you researching?" he asks her the next day.
"I don't know," she says. "I just like to know."
"Ah yes," he says. "I wish I knew more children like you." She can't even take offense to that, because he's more than twice her age.
"What are you researching?" she asks.
"The Apocalypse." He says it mildly, like it's something that happens every day.
"Are you trying to bring it about or --"
"Prevent it." He looks up from the book he's always reading to look at her. The book is thicker than Hermione's palm across, and taller than her entire arm, and bound in what looks like red leather. But it doesn't smell like leather.
She only hesitates for a moment. "May I help?"
Giles pulls off his glasses -- Oh, Harry -- and rubs the lenses on a handkerchief. Then he rubs his eyes. Then he pinches the bridge of his nose. Hermione stays very quiet.
Finally he says, "Yes, of course you may. I can use all the help I can get here."
"What about not being allowed?" she asks, and her voice sounds tentative to her ears. She hopes Giles doesn't think that's because she's changing her mind.
"Well, we'll deal with that when we come to it, won't we?" he says, and comes away from the desk and the computer, and sits beside her. "Do you see these symbols?" There's a piece of paper in his hand. She looks at it; it's gibberish. Scribbles.
"It's -- that can't possibly mean anything," says Hermione. "You're teasing me."
"Don't be childish," he says. "It's Sumerian."
Suddenly, all words have new meanings. Powers aren't just magical ones that Hermione has -- the Powers control the world. Senior partner isn't just the top level at a barrister's -- the senior partners are controlling all the evil in the world. There are Circles and Cabals and gateways to Hell. Real Hell. Lots of them.
"What about Death Eaters?" she wants to know. They're looking through the red book for all of the references to the Sumerian words she's not allowed to know how to pronounce.
"That has nothing to do with this." Giles is biting the earpiece of his glasses. Hermione is at the point where she doesn't think "Oh, Harry" every time she sees Giles's glasses, but red-headed children still make her think of Ron.
"I don't understand. This seems quite ridiculous to me. What's the point of destroying the world? Then their playground is gone." Hermione takes a sip of tea and frowns; it's cold.
Giles looks at her like she's stupid -- and maybe she is. She feels stupid. "Not all magical communities are connected," he says. "If you can't handle this, no one would fault you for going back to Magical London."
Hermione is tempted, oh so tempted -- to maybe go to the Burrow, or what's left of Hogsmeade, to take her deed to No. 12, and live there, with the portrait of Sirius's mother, slowly descending into madness.
"No," she says firmly. "Are you kidding? And miss my chance to learn lots more spells? More languages? You promised to teach me, Giles -- are you backing out of our deal?"
Giles smiles at her, but he looks tired. "No, Hermione, I'm not backing out of our deal. You help me find a way to stop the Apocalypse, and I'll teach you Sumerian. Would that all deals were so straightforward."
"They can be," she says, knowing she's being naive, but not caring.
Hermione finds that she really likes her flat, her flowers, and the tiny kitchen with the tins of tomatoes. She eats tomatoes on toast, which is lovely, and tomatoes on scones, which is not, and tomatoes with beans, which isn't bad, and tomatoes over pasta, which is. The way they're supposed to be eaten. She thinks.
She makes curtains for her windows out of her old band t-shirts, and they don't look so bad, and she only used a little bit of magic for them. She buys a pan and cooks more than one thing at a time. She sits in the park on Wednesdays, when The Book Shoppe is closed, and watches the boys skateboard and the girls watch them, and thinks about how nice it must be to be a Muggle, so oblivious to the looming destruction of everything, all the time.
No one ever comes in to The Book Shoppe, but sometimes Giles is gone for long periods of time -- Africa, China, the States, Canada, Thailand, Belize. The first time he leaves, he doesn't tell her, and she's confused and upset, and reads all the Muggle papers to see if anyone's killed a sardonic old man in wire rims.
When he comes back, he's got a large cut on the palm of one hand, he doesn't want to talk about it, and she makes him tea.
The next time, he knocks on the door of her flat at three in the morning on a Wednesday and says, "I'm going to Africa, I'll be back in three days, don't let anyone in the shop, here is the key, and don't try to pronounce the words, I'll do it next week." She nods dumbly and says nothing and he leaves as fast as he came.
By the third time, she's used to it. He presses the key into her hand and she wears it around her neck on a chain, just like she used to wear her house key, when she was a little girl and came home after school to an empty house and a stack of books.
Hermione likes to be in The Book Shoppe by herself. She knows the Apocalypse is coming, knows there's a group trying to bring it about, knows there's something called The First Evil, which should be said in a hush, the way she always refused to say Voldemort. There are no metaphors here; this is real. But she still likes it. It's not that she feels important -- she feels tiny. Nothing she does will change anything, and, she thinks, there's a certain kind of comfort to that.
Giles used to be a Watcher. He lets it slip when Hermione asks about the Hell Mouth he used to live on. Oh, he didn't say "Watcher" -- but he did talk about the vampire Slayer that he used to work with, and Hermione read that comic book pamphlet. She knows all about it.
"But they're evil," she says, aghast.
"People cannot be divided into simply good and simply evil," says Giles sternly. "Please overcome your public school education in the Wizarding world and understand that shades of grey almost always apply."
She wants to ask more questions: Have you killed people? Are you really evil? Why aren't you a Watcher anymore? Why do you hate the Council?
But if she asks him questions, that would be giving him permission to ask her questions. He knows who she is -- and he wouldn't if he didn't know what she'd done.
Hermione doesn't want to answer any questions.
And that's okay, because she's really good at research.
Giles used to live in the States, in California, where there's now a big crater. He's listed as a consultant on a website for a private investigating firm called Angel Investigations in Los Angeles, which sounds suspiciously witchy -- We Help The Hopeless scrolls across the top of the screen, and there's a whole page about the sorts of demons they've fought in the past -- but the website hasn't been updated since late 2002.
Hermione isn't sure if she's trying to find out about Giles because she really wants to know, or because she's bored. Her wand hand is twitchy. She's not sure if she's annoyed or relieved when Giles tells her the next day to stop poking into his private business.
The Ministry contacts her on Monday. A snowy white owl -- Oh, Hedwig -- drops a letter with a very official looking seal on her breakfast plate, right after she finishes her toast.
She burns it at the stove, and goes to The Book Shoppe.
The Ministry contacts her again on Tuesday. Seventeen letters, arriving one by one. Giles raises his eyebrow when one falls into his tea, but says nothing. Hermione gathers them together and tosses them in the bin with all her copies of The Daily Prophet that she brings to the Shoppe every day. Just in case. Just in case Giles decides he wants to read it, because Hermione never will again, but they won't stop sending them to her.
Wednesday, the Ministry sends Percy Weasley.
"Don't they know any better than to send you?" she says when he sits down next to her.
"I'm the best man for the job," says Percy. Hermione snorts. "But I actually work for the Council now. Don't forget."
In Hermione's head, the Council is a bunch of fat old men with thick white walrus mustaches staring at young girls who do gymnastics and kill vampires, not Wizards. Wizarding England seems far away and uninteresting.
"Did you know vampires are real?" she says to him.
"You have to stop associating with those Muggles," says Percy. He's earnest. She wants to cry. What is a world in which Draco Malfoy is earnest? He's a true believer, wants to make the world a better place, knows for a fact that the way to do that is disassociate Wizarding England from Muggle England.
"I'm not coming back," she says.
"They don't want you back." Percy clears his throat. "Not unless you're willing to disavow your relationship with that Muggle who thinks he's a Wizard --"
"Warlock," says Hermione.
Percy looks old in the sunlight, older than how Hermione feels -- which is pretty young, now that she thinks about it, because the more she works with Giles, the less she feels like her world is crumbling around her. Books will shore her up, always, and there's no place she can't be, nothing she can't handle, as long as she can still pull knowledge from a book.
"Giles," she says, "is a Warlock. A powerful one. He doesn't need a wand to do magic."
"Tosh," scoffs Percy. "Did you know he was kicked out of the Watchers Council? And then he helped destroy it? And now he's in charge, but refuses to take responsibility? Do you know how many Muggles have died at his hands?"
Hermione finds that she doesn't care. "Sorry, Perce," she says, and hears jaunty Ron in her voice. She suddenly wants a Canary Cream. "I'm going to stay here for a while, do what I can to --"
"Help Muggles?" Percy sneers.
"Yes," she says. "If the Muggles bring about the Apocalypse, the Wizarding world will be destroyed too."
Percy rolls his eyes and stands up. There's a breeze, and his robes billow. He straightens them, then jerks. "Ouch!"
"Tosser!" yells one of the boys skateboarding a few meters away.
"Nancy boy!" yells another, and throws another -- Hermione squints -- pebble.
"Take your dresses away from here!" yells a third.
Percy huffs and puffs.
"Better leave, Percy," says Hermione. "You never know what Muggles will do."
She doesn't watch him go, but once he's gone she waves at the boys, and they wave back.
That night, Hermione buys a skateboard and skates home. The boy who sold it to her had shaggy hair. He asked her, "A deck with bearings and wheels and --" and she had no idea what he was talking about. She said so. He said, "A complete," like that meant something, and Hermione was reminded of the first time she opened Hogwarts: A History.
She realizes too late that he was flirting with her.
The wind blows in her ears. She needs a haircut -- the last time she cut her hair, with her manicure scissors, she didn't do a very good job, but it was short, and that was what she wanted. Now she wants it to actually look like a haircut. She's not going to go back and flirt with the boy, but she's going to -- do something.
Her skateboard is awesome, and she loves it, and she gets home just as dusk is falling. She pulls out the small box in her old handbag, buried in the closet in her bedroom, and enlarges it until it's normal size. On the underside of her skateboard (on the underside of the deck, she says to herself), she puts a blink-182 sticker.
In the same box are her mix tapes from when she was sixteen, and her Walkman. She fingers them, but leaves them in the box, and reduces it again. She's not ready yet.
Thursday morning she puts her wand back into her trousers and skateboards down the blocks to The Book Shoppe, twirls a little at the door, and does the first half of a no comply to pop the skateboard up into her hand. She's a little rusty, but she's still got it.
Giles is staring at her with a funny look in his eyes when she walks in. "Was that a skateboard?" he asks.
"Still is," she says, and displays it.
"Hm," he says. "All right."
She grabs two books on demon cults, and goes into the back. She wants a cup of tea and a scone. Her wand is pushing against her leg, and the skateboard is under her feet.
Hermione breathes in the smell of musty books and bergamot and opens the first book.
When she skates home, she tries an ollie and her shoes slip off the board. She lands on her arse, scrapes her hands. They burn when she washes them with water -- she doesn't bother to heal them with her wand.
She feels great.
That night, Giles bangs on her door, and she lets him in. She doesn't even bother to put on a robe first.
"I'm going to Los Angeles," he says, a bit breathlessly. "There's a problem."
"What kind of problem?" she asks. He's handing her things, loading her up with books, bags --
"Can't you feel it?" he asks impatiently.
"No," she says, and staggers a little under the weight of all the books. "Do you want a cup of tea before you go?"
"No," he says. Then he stops and looks at her, and looks at the books. "Can you --"
"No," she says. "You'd have to make them bigger when you got there, and you can't do that without a wand."
"I bet Willow could," he murmurs.
Hermione frowns at him. "Can't you take me with you?" she asks. "I can help."
"You can't fight," he says. "We need fighters, not thinkers."
"You're a thinker."
"I could kill you four different ways right now," he says, "before you even knew you were about to die."
That makes her shiver. And it also makes her annoyed.
"If you'd been teaching me how to help you fight all these weeks, I could be helping right now," she says.
"The city of Los Angeles is about to fall to the greatest evil known to this earth," says Giles. "And --"
"The First Evil? Didn't you defeat it?" Hermione is busily packing books into boxes. She'll reduce them all, and her skateboard, tuck it all into one small tote bag. Her passport is expired; she'll just use an obfuscation charm.
"The First Evil can never be defeated," says Giles, and Hermione tacks "stupid child" onto the end of that. She pulls out her wand and begins reducing the boxes. Giles had the books on some kind of transporter with wheels -- very strange. "This is the Senior Partners. The Wolf, the Ram, the Hart." Hermione rolls her eyes. Just like Wizards, Warlocks and vampires are ridiculous with their names and metaphor and Great Evil Stretching Back To The Dawn Of Time, et cetera.
"Of course," she says.
"I've been asked to help. A coven I work with has --" Giles stops and shakes his head impatiently. "You can't come."
"I'm coming," says Hermione.
"You're in pyjamas," says Giles.
"Five minutes," she replies. "Less. Wait here."
She dashes into her bedroom and looks around. What does she need? What does she want? She wants her mix tapes. She wants clothing that can get dirty, not the prim button-downs and trousers she wears to The Book Shoppe.
Hermione doesn't hesitate -- she pulls out the tiny box with her clothing from years ago, enlarges it. The jeans are tight around her hips, but with a fitting spell they're made comfortable. The t-shirts are tight -- when she got them, most of them were loose. Her foot is the same size; the Converse sneakers she bought that summer. They still fit. She reduces the box again, tucks it into her pocket, grabs her shoulder bag, and she's ready to go.
Then she takes one moment to look in the mirror. It's not a magical mirror, so it doesn't say anything to her. She thinks, wistfully, about a haircut -- she's going to meet Giles's friends, and she needs a haircut. Hermione sighs, closes her eyes, and walks out of her bedroom.
Giles is still standing in her tiny living room. She's relieved -- part of her really did think he was going to leave, and find someone in the States to fix his books.
"I'm ready," she says. "Let's go."
"You're probably going to die," says Giles.
"That's okay," says Hermione. "But I'll try not to."
Los Angeles is beautiful. It's nothing like Hermione has ever seen before, and she doesn't think she's going to see its like again. Of course, she's only looking at it through the window of the bloody airport, because Customs won't let her through. She's waiting for their liaison officer to the Wizarding Council of Europe.
Giles is in a different room.
They've enlarged all her bags, confiscated her skateboard, and catalogued all the books. They're piled around her. She hadn't even looked at them before she reducio'd them for Giles earlier. Hermione thinks she'd like to read all of them at some point -- they're full of spells and curses that she's never heard of, written in languages she can't read. She still has her wand, so she performs translation spells -- but they don't work on all the books. Those are the ones she's really interested in; she thinks, perhaps, they're written in demon languages. Or pig Latin.
A tall man with dark skin and no hair comes into the room. He says to Hermione, "Do you know how many laws you've broken?"
She pulls herself together and takes a deep breath. She couldn't sleep, so she hasn't slept in almost a full day. She knows she must look frightful, but -- she won't allow these ridiculous Americans to intimidate her.
"If you'd be so kind as to inform me which laws you allege that I've broken, I'd be happy to count the alleged breakings, and inform you of the total," she says crisply, with a confidence that she absolutely doesn't feel. She wants her skateboard, and she wishes she wasn't wearing a blink-182 t-shirt that stretches tightly over her breasts.
The man doesn't smile at her. "You're a Wizard, working with a Warlock," he says. His accent is flat and nasal and oh, so very American, and she hates it, and she wishes she was back in England, and she wishes it was 1994 and she and Harry and Ron were fourteen with their arms linked, having a Hogsmeade weekend.
"Yes," she says. "He's doing important work preventing the Senior Partners from bringing about the Apocalypse with the help of the Circle of the Black Thorn. Now, if you're not going to charge me with anything, please allow me to enter the country so that I can --"
"The Circle of the Black Thorn?" The man raises his eyebrows. "That's like the boogeyman."
"If you're familiar with the Wizarding world," Hermione says, and stands, and puts her hands on her hips, "then you'd know that the boogeyman is actually quite real, although never referred to by such a crass moniker."
"You don't seem to realize how much trouble you're in, young lady," says the man.
"You may address me as High Merlin Wizard Mistress Granger, or Ms Granger, or Hermione," she replies. If he was her friend, he'd call her Hum-Wim-Hermione... but she doesn't have any friends anymore. She only has Giles. She only has her plants. She only has her skateboard and her old mix tapes and the ghosts that don't come near her.
She never breaks eye contact.
The man sighs, but he won't be able to stare her down. She's seen things much worse than a bureaucrat.
"Fine," he says, and his speech pattern gets oddly more formal, more in keeping with his perfect suit and expressionless face. "Do you, High Merlin Wizard Mistress Granger, former Assistant Associate Minister of Defensive Spells and Official Wizarding War-Against-You-Know-Who Hero, declare that you official renounce your former alliances in order to continue your association with the Watchers Council, the Anti-Evil Demon League, and the Warlock --" The man stops here, closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them again, he resumes in a language Hermione doesn't understand.
When he's finished, he stares at her. She's frowning. He's waiting for something.
"Yes," she replies.
"Do you understand what you've just done?" he asks her -- and for the first time, his face changes expression. He smirks at her. He looks like he could be a Malfoy when he does that.
"Yes," she says instantly.
"I don't think so, somehow," he says, turns, and leaves.
She bites back a scream of frustration, bites back her desire to yell for them to let her out of the room she's in. She's hungry and she needs to use the loo and she wants a drink.
She takes a deep breath and sits down, and picks up the book closest to her. It's a small treatise on Middle Egyptian grammar, and Hermione loses herself in reading about direct nouns.
Hermione pulls out her wand from the pocket of her jeans, and lays it across her thighs. Her fingers caress the wood; her wand shoots off sparks every few minutes, which startle Hermione the first few times. But she gets used to it. It becomes comforting.
"Are you really that stupid?"
Hermione's head snaps up. Giles is standing in front of her, looking frazzled, his hair sticking up. The glass of his lenses is smudged. His mouth is tight.
"Excuse me?" She blinks her eyes and fights the yawn threatening to consume her.
"Do you have any idea what you've done? I don't have that much influence! The whole Council doesn't have that much influence! You can't just change sides like that, don't you know anything? How could you do such a thing? You're lucky they didn't immediately take away your wand!"
Hermione's fingers convulse around her wand. She thinks, for a moment, that Giles is going to hit her, or punch the wall, or do something else -- something --
In her head, she can hear Professor Snape, see Malfoy's sneer, and she thinks: Oh, Giles, don't do something Gryffindor!
She's horrified at herself, and misses the next thing Giles says, and then he walks away, running his hands through his hair. He pulls off his glasses, facing the wall away from her, and rubs them clean.
When he turns around, he looks a bit more steady.
"Do you know what you did?" he says to her.
"No, but I can guess, Giles." She stands, wand still in hand. "I threw my lot in with you folk."
"That was the stupidest thing you could have possibly done. Now we have no contacts in the Wizarding world."
"You had no contacts before me," she says. She means it as a question, but the bossiness she thought she had conquered was reasserting itself. She hated being spoken to as a slow child when she was a child. She hated being spoken to as a slow child when she was eleven and just being introduced to the Wizarding world. She hated being spoken to as a slow child when she was fifteen and learning of the Order of the Phoenix. She hated being spoken to as a slow child when she was the simultaneously the savior of the Wizarding world and its bane -- for killing Voldemort and Harry Potter. She hated being spoke to as a slow child when she was seventeen and the Assistant Associate Minister of Defensive Spells, working with Professor Snape, Professor Vector, and Blaise Zabini to prevent the rise of another Dark Lord --
She hated it. She still hates it. And she refuses to take it. She's an adult; she'll be spoken to as one or not at all.
"You had no contacts before me," Hermione repeats. "And I bring you nothing. I brought you nothing. I haven't had contact with the Wizarding world since --"
Giles begins to smile as she talks, and when she stops, he's grinning.
She wonders if he's gone a bit mad.
"You really are so much like her," he says cryptically.
"Tell me what's going on," she demands.
"You know what's going on. You just renounced your European Wizarding Council citizenship," says Giles, and it makes Hermione want to laugh.
It hits her in the auto on the way to Giles's friends -- she's renounced her Wizarding citizenship. She'd said she hadn't wanted it. She'd said she hadn't been interested in participating in the society. But she'd kept her wand, damn it. She hadn't wanted to leave entirely -- but, she realizes, living one foot out and one foot in was good for no one. And by no one, really... really it isn't good for her.
Now she's made a decision -- albeit a possibly foolish and dangerous one. She made it without all of the information, she made it without thought, she made it without intent
Oh, Hermione, she thinks mournfully, you are such a Gryffindor.
Hermione is introduced to Giles's compatriots. They are all from the States, but they've traveled from all over the world to be here for this, to fight alongside a bunch of private fucking investigators who've started a war that's going to make the Third War of You Know Who look like a joke, like a television programme gone wrong, like an overly melodramatic episode of Coronation Street.
Giles is friends with vampires. Demons. Warlocks.
They all think Hermione is a hero. They've all heard of what she did in Wizarding England. They've all heard about what she did in the airport.
She wants to scream at them, to tell them to stop being so sanctimonious. She wants to tell them that they have no idea what true suffering due to mystical war is -- but one of them has lost an arm, another has lost her mind. Another has hair the color of Ron's and a magical wall built around her so that she can't draw too much power into herself, because she almost destroyed the world once. Two of them are scarred inside and out; Hermione can feel the pain emanating from a small, tight core inside the blonde -- she, Hermione knows, will be one of the first to die. She's longing for it, for the peace of death.
Hermione never realized that the higher level med scans could tell her so much about people. She's never used them before -- the Order needed her for higher level spells than finding which ribs were broken.
The red-headed Warlock is the most interested in the mechanics, and talks about crystals and her stomachache.
Hermione doesn't want to talk to her; she looks too much like a Weasley. But when Hermione does her physical examination after she takes her turn in the field, she discovers that the Warlock's hair color is the same mousy brown as Hermione's, and she only dyed it red.
"Why didn't they take away your wand when you left?" she asks.
"I have no idea," replies Hermione. "Please stand up and reach for the ceiling with your fingertips."
Los Angeles is ugly. The sky is dark. It is raining, and cold.
Creatures Hermione could never imagine fly through the sky. Blood is everywhere; it runs in rivers. Hermione is grateful in a way she never thought she could be -- she's grateful her parents are dead, grateful Ron is dead, grateful everyone she loves is dead.
In death, they don't have to experience this.
Although Harry and Ron would probably think the flying demons were absolutely smashing.
Los Angeles is ugly. The scarred blonde girl is dead; after she dies, the sun doesn't return. The vampire private investigator -- Hermione found out his true story days after she met him, but she still retained her original, low, impression of him -- died moments later. The scarred brunette is still alive; she leaves as soon as the battle is over.
Fires are burning everywhere.
Hermione and Giles are living in a hotel that the vampire private investigator had used as his base of operations years ago. Hermione and the red-headed Warlock -- Willow -- teamed up to use their magics to fix it, to keep it protected. It's exhausting, it's like working with the Order, and Hermione... Hermione loves it and hates it.
She feels needed and important, and people ask for her opinion, but she can't shake the feeling that she's an imposter. She's not doing enough and she's doing too much -- she doesn't know anything, she knows everything.
Hermione does locator spell after locator spell. She runs through her entire gamut of magical Wizarding knowledge, and then starts in on the Warlock books. She works with Giles, and remotely with his coven.
This is nothing like the Voldemort Wars; this is not fought face to face. Hermione and Giles and Willow and so many other Warlocks sit in a small room while others are out fighting, wading in the blood, covered with the dust of bones and skin.
Nothing Hermione trained for has ever prepared her for this.
There are still people left alive who don't know that this is a magical war. Hermione finds them and sends teams out to get them, coordinates everything from the hotel, from the tiny room.
She runs tests on them, physicals, and discovers that everyone who is found is magical in some way. Los Angeles seems to be a convergence point for people with Talent, as she begins referring to it. Magic is something else. Mysticism is something else. They need new words -- words like Senior Partner and --
Hermione hates everything. Her blink-182 t-shirt has a hole in it that her wand can't fix.
In England, back in her flat, her plants are dying.
The black man from the airport never did return her skateboard.
Sometimes Hermione sees Harry sitting in a corner. He looks at her. He tries to talk to her.
Hermione knows about the First Evil. She will not be lured or tempted. She will not be moved. She's as bloody fucking stubborn as any evil being, damn it, and she won't allow this nonsense in her world.
Hermione is nothing if not eminently practical; after the first few times, Not Harry leaves her alone.
Giles tells her it's time to leave. She makes a list of people they haven't found yet -- the Potential Slayers are one list, the others with Talent are another list. Hermione doesn't know where they are, only where they could be.
Willow wants to come along, but doesn't want to leave her companions, doesn't want to stop searching for potential vampire slayers who have come into their powers.
Once the idea is presented, Hermione can't get it out of her head. A companion, almost her same age, with so much power and knowledge of the craft.
And Hermione wields a powerful force she uses to convince Willow:
"I can take the block off your magic," she says.
"No you can't," says Giles. "My Coven put that on. You cannot take it off. You may not take it off."
She whirls on Giles while Willow is still dumbstruck.
"I can and I will. You think the Senior Partners aren't going to have their revenge for this? Los Angeles is a warzone, and it's not the only place. You've heard what England is like now. You know what's going to happen -- you know. This isn't time for your -- for your horrid and backwards Gryffindor non-logic!"
"Gryffindor?" says Willow.
Giles has blanched -- only slightly, but Hermione is triumphant.
"Come with us," she says to Willow, ignoring the question.
Power is seductive; Hermione has power. She is seductive. She will take Willow, she will take Giles, and they will return to England and Giles's mystical library, and they will fight the Senior Partners and the First Evil and whatever else the wrong side can throw at them. But they will do it on their terms -- to stay in Los Angeles is to stay on the battlefield and have to react.
Reacting is what the Order always did wrong.
Hermione knows how to be proactive.
"You'll take off the block?" says Willow.
"I will take it off and no one will ever be able to put it back on. For that, I'll need to make an amulet. And... other things." Hermione is promising things she's not sure she can deliver on, but still she makes the promises. Still she says she will do it, can do it. Hermione isn't limited to her own magic anymore; Hermione isn't limited to Wizarding magic and its bizarre contradictions. She stretches out her wand. "Accio Urugal Gu-ul." The book flew into her hand.
"Hermione, don't do this," says Giles.
"Shut up," says Willow, and holds her hand out. Giles is frozen to the spot. Willow's power courses through Hermione's wand, into Hermione, into the book. She chants from the Sumerian text on drawing greatness; one of the books Giles never wanted her to look into. Luckily, she paid attention when Giles spoke about translating and transliterating the Sumerian words, and she's almost positive that she's doing it right.
All she needs is the chanting -- no potions, no charms, nothing. Her wand points itself at Willow and sucks more power out of her, tainted power, the power of the Coven, and she feels her teeth shaking, her fingernails growing, her hair getting longer. Her eyes tear and her voice grows hoarse, and the room shakes.
Giles won't speak to her.
Hermione's eyes are black. Entirely black.
Willow loans her a pair of sunglasses, and holds her hand during the trip back to England. Willow and a lawyer named Gunn filed papers that gave Hermione status as a political refugee. Hermione will be allowed to keep her wand and keep her magic and keep her status as a Wizarding War Hero -- but she will not be allowed into Wizarding England.
Ridiculous -- but the entire world has gone mad, the Apocalypse is being urged upon the world by entities who run law firms and refer to themselves as the Senior Partners, and inside Hermione's mouth, under her tongue, and behind her teeth, she holds a powerful block strong enough to encase Voldemort.
Why did the Ministry never call upon Warlocks for help? Hermione wants to know. She feels bitter. She feels that the whole of the war could have been avoided had the Wizards not been so exclusionary, had they had more of an open relationship with the other magical communities in the world, and Hermione wasn't thinking about the Giants or the Ogres or the Goblins.
But that was always the problems of the Wizards, wasn't it? The Wizards are so terribly afraid of everything outside their small communities -- even each other. Even within Hogwarts; House rivalry was the perfect example.
Hermione sighs. They're sitting in a small cube; her legs are scissored with Giles's legs, and her side is pressed against Willow's.
"I can't believe you did that," mutters Giles.
"I'm not dangerous," says Willow. She sounds hurt.
"I'm worried for you," says Giles, but he doesn't sound as though he's even convinced himself.
"We need all the power we can get," says Hermione firmly. She catches Giles's eyes with hers, pushes the glasses up to the top of her head. Her hair is huge again, puffy again; when she gets home, she's going to find her manicure scissors and cut it all off again. Giles is afraid of her black eyes. Hermione rather likes them. "Even yours."
"My power?" Giles snorts.
"Yes, Ripper," says Willow, and squeezes Hermione's hand.
"Isn't this just like old times," says Giles, and rests his head against the back of the cube. They will be back in England in another half-hour -- faster than flying but slower than Apparating. Hermione wonders briefly if she can even still do that.
Willow says, "Old times, except we used to win," and Giles says, "We haven't lost yet," and Willow says, "We lost when the world was created," and suddenly Hermione is depressed and angry.
"Shut up, both of you," she snaps. "We're still here, so there's still hope." Hermione thinks she might be lying, but she's not sure, so it must not matter.
She slides the sunglasses off her head and back onto her nose, in front of her eyes, and makes sure her tongue is pressed firmly to her teeth so that the magic doesn't slip out.