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The Ghost of Grimmauld Place

Chapter Text

Thursday 6th January 1994

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Seventh Floor

Moonlight filtered through the windows, casting shadows across the floor and illuminating the cracks in the aging stone walls. Crevices and alcoves were conspicuous by their darkness, coats of armour and statues looming from the blackness to appear, all of a sudden, to shock those that passed. Not that many traversed these halls this night, for curfew was but a half hour away and patrols had begun in earnest. It was too cold to linger in the corridors for all but those with the staunchest of dispositions, the biting Scottish wind penetrating through even the smallest of gaps in the imposing rock face of the castle. Most students were in their common rooms, playing Exploding Snap by the comfort of the fires, or gossiping through the curtains of their four-posters to a backing track of giggles and snorts.

Remus remembered those days fondly, even now when everything seemed to be falling apart. He preferred to think of the past when his present seemed so bleak, it helped alleviate some of the crushing grief and guilt he suffered on the daily. Being back at Hogwarts helped, for he had always found the place to be his home, despite its many and varied faults. There were numerous rules and strictures placed upon him and yet he had never felt so free as he did here. Hogwarts to him represented safety and comfort, qualities which had been sadly lacking these past twelve years.

His footsteps on the stone, smoothed by centuries of passage, echoed oddly in the air, seeming to return to him tenfold. It was embarrassingly slow and shambling, evidence of his years catching up with him, but in the silence even the repeated noise was comforting. Tap-tap-shush-tap-tap-shush, it went as his slight limp caused the heel of his left shoe – a heel which was held onto its casing by a few strings of glue and willpower – to catch on the lip of the stones and slip across the surface. It was musical to his ears, a homely noise, reminding him of who he was in a world where everyday his personality seemed to slip further away.

The sound of water rushing through the pipes in the walls touched his ears, followed by the laugh of a far-off student, no doubt enjoying a pre-curfew rendezvous with a lover. It came from the East, nearer Ravenclaw Tower, but sound travelled oddly here. Remus made a note to give them twenty minutes or so before he headed in that direction, he saw no reason to spoil their fun. There was so little joy to be had in the world, he firmly believed that people should enjoy it while it was theirs.

He turned the corner onto the outer corridors, not really expecting to find anybody around. The air here was frosty, the ice almost visible and waiting to clog someone's throat. No students used this path, and even the staff avoided it when they could, for it was open to the air in several places where erosion had thinned the rocks from their neighbours and they had fallen victim to the gaping fissure in the earth several floors below. Headmaster Dumbledore kept promising to have the wall repaired, but after fifteen years of the problem they had stopped holding their breaths and simply skirted the entire area.

Not Remus, though. Remus had always liked it up here, even when he had been a little firstie getting lost on his way to bed. He could stand here for hours, looking out over the hills and rivers and lakes of Scotland, breathing in the fresh, life-giving air, free from the claustrophobia that always seemed to attack when he spent too long indoors. His heightened body temperature protected him from the icy winds, and if that didn't work, then he had his cardigan and his robes, tatty though they were. It was a fact of his nature that he could stand in a snowstorm and still be warm as long as he had a jumper.

He leaned against the make-shift balustrade at a section of wall where the whole thing had succumbed to gravity years ago, and peered out over the castle-grounds. It was the best view in the whole castle, he believed, even better than the Astronomy tower. He could watch the Thestrals fly above the forest canopy, dancing with one another on the wind currents, their foals playing and nickering in the night air. Above him owls cooed, down below foxes pranced in the frost-coated grass, barking warnings at each other when Pomona shuffled out into her gardens. In the distance he could see the streak of smoke spiralling up from Hagrid's hut, almost able to taste the bitter tang of his over-steeped tea, feel the stab in his gums from his lovingly baked rock cakes. A hippogriff broke free of the trees as he watched, launching itself towards the moon and gliding off across the lake in search of its own prey.

For twenty-eight years of his life Remus had been fighting his more feral instincts. He shied away from anything reminiscent of the Wolf - he barely ate meat, he refused to get a dog, he stayed firmly in the daylight and lived mainly in the city – but it was nights like this where he could hardly deny his furry inheritance, a heritage passed on by Fenrir Greyback which, while having its obvious downsides, allowed him to appreciate the beauty and wildness of nature. Let him feel at home amongst the majestic creatures of the night. The other wolves would always welcome him, he could slink amongst the Thestrals with nary a problem, and the centaurs would allow him passage in either form – cold comfort in the daylight when he suffered estrangement from wizardkind, but at night it felt like a blessing.

He took the cool air into his lungs, held it there, with the taste of winter on his tongue. His senses were so much less sensitive today, the wolf tired after a long night, though the cool air had a revitalising effect on his insides. Remus himself was tired, but he had promised Minerva he would patrol, even if he made a distinctly half-hearted effort of it. Pushing away, he made to continue his trek down the corridor, and that was when he spotted her.

She stared up at him fearfully, half-hidden in the shadows of a suit of armour, somewhere she had obviously taken shelter when she had sensed his approach. That he had missed her said a lot about his state of mind, but he didn't particularly want to take points from anybody today. Especially not someone who had been crying, as it was obvious this girl had. She blinked tear-filled big brown eyes up at him, her face as pale as snow, obviously expecting a scolding, or even detention. Remus wished he was that sort of teacher, that he had the temperament to shout at a girl for hiding away for a cry, because life would have been so much easier if he was just a smidgeon more ruthless, but he never had been and probably never would, not with children.

And she was definitely a child. All of twelve, with fiery ginger hair that added a distrustful element to her mournful visage. She looked like she would rather be fighting than crying, like she would grow up to hex-first, ask-questions-later. It just hadn't come to that point yet.

"Miss Weasley?" he asked in his gentlest voice, kneeling down beside the plinth behind which she was curled. "Are you alright?"

She sniffed, wiping her nose on the edge of her robe, which had Remus fighting a wince. Instead he offered her his handkerchief, one of a collection his assigned house-elf had monogrammed lovingly for him when he had arrived and first began to come across weeping women in the halls. "I'm s-sorry, Professor," she sniffled, her chin jutting out in a juvenile gesture of defiance. In her eyes he could see her embarrassment morphing into frustrated anger, but even stronger was her despair. "I'll just get back to my d-dormit-tory."

She lifted herself to her feet unsteadily and made to set off down the corridor, but Remus stopped her with a sympathetic frown. "Would you like to talk about it?" he said, his voice still low, inviting confidence. She blinked up at him, looking startled.

"I wouldn't want t-to impose," she whispered, staring at her feet before remembering that she wanted to project a tough-girl appearance and whipping her head up to stare determinedly up into his eyes. "I'm sure you're very busy."

Remus, who viewed the assistance he gave students as the highlights of his short teaching career, smiled encouragingly. "Not at all," he said pleasantly, "I was just going to have a cup of tea in my office. It's rather cold out tonight, isn't it?"

Shuffling her feet, she nodded. "Would you care to join me?" he prodded further, jerking his head in the direction of his office. Her eyes flicked between him and the hall where he pointed, then back. He stayed quiet to let her decide. He'd found that you couldn't force these things, and he didn't want to. If the girl wanted someone to talk to, he was there. If she simply wanted to return to her room, he would allow her that, too. The only reason he pushed was because of the pain in her eyes, it was heart-wrenching, and he didn't see how she could bear that burden alone.

After a long minute, she nodded again, and fell into step behind him as he led the way back towards his classroom. They walked in companionable silence, but Remus' head was whirling with questions. Why would Ginny Weasley, of all people, be crying in the corridor late at night? He had seen her around, had taught her in his lessons, and thought she was rather well adjusted. Especially considering the fiasco her first-year had turned out to be. She must have been damaged from that experience, but she had a large family. Her brothers seemed both proud and protective of her, and the other children in her year didn't eschew her company. Indeed, she was in a better position socially than he had been at her age.

Well, no doubt he would find out soon, he thought to himself as he opened the door to his office and ushered her inside. He left the door open a couple of inches, just enough for propriety but not enough that any passer-by might overhear the conversation, and bustled over to his kettle. "Tea or chocolate?" he asked, and nodded when she indicated the chocolate. "Good choice. Honeyduke's finest hot cocoa. It's my favourite, I must get through two tubs every winter."

He continued to blather absently about nothing as he pottered around collecting mugs and ensuring their cleanliness, and then as he stirred the cocoa and added cream. He was aware of her examining his desk in the corner of his eye, playing with his quills and prodding the little box in which he kept a small, semi-sentient Nundu model for his seventh-years to examine. As she poked, the Nundu opened one eye and snarled, sending Miss Weasley back into her chair, wide-eyed. Remus stifled a snicker as she looked in his direction to check if he had seen, guilt plastered over her face.

Finally he walked back over, falling silent as he placed one steaming mug in front of the girl and taking the other to his chair, sipping it with grave concentration, relaxing inside as the rich liquid seeped over his tongue. He carefully avoided looking in Miss Weasley's direction, not wanting to pressure her into any revelations she was uncomfortable with, and instead focused himself on calming the Nundu back to sleep. It was only a little plastic model, incapable of the real Nundu's poisonous breath, but accurate in nearly every other aspect. They had even given it the ability to breathe a grey-green fog when threatened, which Remus thought was ingenious.

"It's silly," Miss Weasley blurted abruptly. He turned his attention back to her in time to see her blush.

"It's not silly if it upsets you," he replied delicately. Miss Weasley shook her head, her hair falling about her face as if to provide her with a shield.

"I wasn't- I mean, I was- look, Professor, I'm not usually like this. I don't get upset very easily, especially not about something so pathetic." Her eyes dared him to comment, challenging him. Instead he took another sip of his cocoa, enjoying the taste, the silky texture. Miss Weasley drank a little herself, the heat putting roses back into her cheeks. "It's my brothers." She said finally, quietly, her eyes inspecting the surface of her drink. "I have six brothers, did you know?" She tapped her little black pumps against the floor, having to stretch her feet to do so, as they dangled an inch from the ground when she was seated. "I'm the little one, the only girl and the youngest. It's a curse."

Remus could imagine that. He was an only child, but he had known boys who had younger sisters, had witnessed the unique mixture of protectiveness and exasperation they bestowed upon them as children, emotions which only strengthened as they grew older. Often the girls felt stifled and abandoned in turns. It wasn't an uncommon problem.

"I don't want you to think it's like last year, because it's not," Miss Weasley clarified hurriedly, responding to something she might have thought she had seen in his eyes or his face. "I'm not talking to diaries or anything, I swear. I've learned my lesson." She gave a laugh that held within it such a wealth of bitterness that it threw Remus. Suddenly she seemed older, world weary, though in her physical state she looked like a porcelain doll. He recognised himself in her, in her traumatised psyche, in her loneliness. "They're avoiding me," her voice was mournful but accepting. "I know it's my own fault, and I deserve it, probably, but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt." Tears began to slip from her eyes again, sliding along her lashes and quivering on the ends like jewels in the candlelight before falling and splashing onto the wool of her robes and being absorbed. "We used to be so close, and they've just forgotten about me!"

He reached over with a box of tissues, replacing the now empty mug with them. She clutched a handful gratefully, bunching them up beneath her eyes as though to stop the flow entirely. "I'm fine about it most days, I don't cry all the time, it's just that… well tonight I was in the common room and Fred and George were laughing about something-or-other with their friends and Ron was playing Wizards Chess with Harry Bloody Potter-" (somehow Remus knew this was a frequent curse for her to use, something to do with how the 'bloody' fit so perfectly, like it was his real middle name instead of James) "-and none of them recognized that I was there. Even bloody Pompous Percy was swanning about, and usually I can count on him to come over and embarrass me, but he was too busy whispering with swotty Granger!" She let out a few loud sobs, then; "I don't mean to call her a swot, she's a really lovely girl, she's just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and please don't tell Percy I called him that, even though he is, because he'll be really upset. You've got to promise me, Professor."

"I promise," he intoned solemnly, trying not to smile. She was so somber about it, with eyes regarding him gravely to check on his seriousness. She couldn't really believe that Percy Weasley didn't know what she called him, but she didn't want him hurt anyway, which was admirable.

"Good, thank you, sir." She gave a hiccough and then sobbed again, looking surprised even as it happened. "I just… I want my brothers back! We used to be so close. Fred and George were always a team together, but I was their little assistant. Now we're at Hogwarts they don't seem to care about me at all." She wiped her eyes again with the sodden mass of tissue. "I feel so stupid to be feeling like this, but it's… I feel like I'm losing them. Like they're abandoning me. The utter twats!" Her eyes flew wide and she stared up at him, her face burning red. "Sorry, sir."

He couldn't hold back the laugh this time, letting it trickle out of him as a chuckle. She went to look offended, but it didn't hold and she ended up laughing too. Her eyes lost some of their glassy appearance from the mirth, and soon she was smiling faintly, if a bit uncertainly.

"I'm sorry, Miss Weasley, I wasn't laughing at you, I swear," Remus assured her, his chuckles dying off. "You remind me of someone I went to school with. She had the same problem. At home she and her brother were as thick as thieves, absolutely inseparable. Where one went, the other followed. When her brother went to school, though, he made other friends, much like yours did." She gave a nod, and Remus joined the motion. "She felt adrift, confused and alone, no doubt like you do."

"It's so hard," Miss Weasley whispered.

"I understand. It was hard for her too. When she joined Hogwarts she thought it would get better, now that she could be a part of his stories, but he kept pushing her away, snapping at her for getting in his business, to get a life. I understand it was very hurtful for her, in the beginning."

"I bet she didn't set loose a monster, though," Miss Weasley said, a thread of morbid humour in her voice. Remus shook his head, still smiling.

"No, she didn't. What she did do, was start making friends with all of his enemies. When James began to bully someone, she would sneak up on the other side and fight back. When he disliked a teacher, she would suddenly become the best in class. She was quiet at first, but sneaky, and she fought dirty."

"She sounds like a Slytherin," Miss Weasley smirked. "Did it work?"

"She was a Gryffindor." Remus cast his mind back through the years, remembering a little girl with black hair and hazel eyes, snarling her displeasure across a hallway. She had seemed so young then, the age gap nearly insurmountable for the lads and her, despite it being less than a year. "James did begin to regret how he treated her, yes. It cost them a lot, though. With the both of them fighting one another, they grew apart. Their relationship was never the same, despite them attempting to overcome their differences as they got older. He was never quite able to overlook her choice of company, and she was never able to overlook his attitude. By the end of her schooling they had a good relationship, but the trust wasn't there."

Miss Weasley's mouth fell open, obviously shocked by the turn the conversation had taken. "But they made up, right? They were family!"

Remus shook his head sadly. "No, I'm afraid not. She left school and got engaged to the wrong person, and then she and her fiancé both disappeared. It was a war," he said, his feeling of loss seeping into his voice before he could stop it. "Times were uncertain, as they are now. I suppose the best advice I can give you is to hold onto your family with both hands. Nothing is forever, and even love you have to work at. Your brothers love you, but at the moment they're growing up. You're all growing up, and you need your space to explore yourselves and make other friends. It's a temporary situation, and you need to be there for each other at the end. Don't do anything you can't take back."

"But what if I've already done the unforgivable, sir?" Miss Weasley asked, her face pale and head spinning.

"What, your little debacle last year?" he teased lightly. "I rather think it's already forgotten, don't you?"

She bit her lip, eyes lowered to pick at her nails. "I'm not sure. I thought everything was getting better, but then school began again and…"

"These things take time," he advised her, sounding quite sage if he did say so himself. "Try to be the best person you can, that's all you can do right now. In time things will fade, the memories won't be so fresh, and you'll all be older and wiser. Give the boys some space. They'll come to you soon enough."

She smiled up at him. "Ok, I guess I can do that." Slipping down off the chair, she fastened her cloak securely and smirked impishly. "But I can still hex them if they're rude to me, right? That won't severely affect our future relationship?"

Grinning, Remus stood up, a permission slip in one hand and using the other to open the door. He pushed the slip into her keeping as she walked past. "Of course you can, Ginny. If anything, I think they'll expect it." Suddenly wrinkling his nose, he lowered his voice as he adjusted his wards. "But I must ask you not to tell anybody I said that, it could mean my job."

"Of course not, sir. You can trust me." With that agreement between them, he sent her back to Gryffindor tower and resumed his patrols. The Ravenclaw couple had vacated the area, presumably having completed their rendezvous while he was otherwise occupied. There was a third-year Hufflepuff using a Charms classroom for homework, a sixth-year Slytherin lurking in the Astronomy Tower, and a second-year Ravenclaw wandering absently around the Entrance Hall, but once all were safely ensconced in their beds Remus managed to turn back to his rooms.

Outside of his office, Severus lurked like a spectre of death, scowling into the shadows.

"How long have you been there?" Remus asked, dispensing with the pleasantries. It was obvious he wanted to be seen, perhaps even to talk. He only wondered how much the Potions Master had heard.

"Long enough, wolf," Severus spat, his eyes dark with anger. "You broke our pact."

"I never agreed to your pact," Remus returned, his voice sharp. "I think it's shameful what you've all done, and I want no part of it."

Severus hissed, appearing less than inches from Remus. The other man worked not to step back, but Severus had an intimidating aura that none could withstand for too long. "What part of dangerous do you not understand?"

"All of it!" He took a deep breath, pushing his own emotion far, far down where nobody could find it. "I'm not discussing this with you. She deserves better than what you're all giving her, and you of all people should agree."

"She is gone, it matters not what she deserves."

Remus snarled, shoving violently with his magic, wandlessly expressing his ire to the other man's cost. Severus stumbled back a few steps, just enough for Remus to get through the door. His wards bore up against Severus' sudden attack, keeping Remus safe on the other side. "You're a cold-hearted bastard," he growled, allowing his revulsion for the man to show on his face. Sparks shattered, littering the floor around them, winking red and blue. Remus ignored the show, staring straight at Severus, his face set. "You, Sirius, James, Peter, all of you took that oath out of guilt, out of shame. I have nothing to be ashamed of, not when it comes to herYou betrayed her, you all betrayed her, and now you're trying to pretend she didn't exist, like she didn't mean a thing to you." He stepped back, ignoring Severus' wrath as he pummelled the wards, as he roared in outrage.

"You're pathetic, Snape," Remus said, his voice level, chillingly smooth. "How do you live with yourself?"

The door slammed shut, locking him out, locking Remus in. He staggered back a few steps until his bottom hit a desk, stunned at his own actions. He hadn't known he could be so malicious, had spent years being kind.

But Snape had had to bring it up. Acting all holier-than-thou, threatening him outside his own quarters. Pretending that wiping an entire woman from history was an ok thing to do.

Remus couldn't take back what had happened, but he could protect her memory. It was the least he owed her.

Chapter Text

Tuesday 18th June 1996

Ministry of Magic, Department of Mysteries


The shriek rattled Hermione's bones, chilled her blood, it was so fearful. Her brain froze her for a moment of sheer terror, but then Harry had her hand and was tugging, and Ginny was running away, and Neville was shooting bolts of light from spells she wasn't aware he could even do. 'Go Neville!' she wanted to shout, but it didn't seem in the spirit of things, and perhaps she was a little hysterical, for surely these weren't the thoughts one was supposed to have when one was running for their life?

She was now running for her life, it seemed her feet had picked up the slack where her brain had given up, and they were carrying her away from the battle. A part of her brain shrieked out that Ron and the others were back there, she needed to go back, but then a streak of red flashed past her and somehow she knew they were out. Harry had her firmly and they were powering through the aisles, the shelves collapsing into chaos behind them as the voices of Seers past rose in chorus.

She should have known it was a trap. It seemed so obvious now, looking back. And Harry! Harry promised her he was working on his Occlumency! She supposed it was a bit much to ask that he master a complex art of mind-magic in three or four months, even were he assisted by someone competent and not entirely terrifying (see: anybody but Professor Snape), but it seemed like a personal betrayal that he quite obviously hadn't even tried. Now, they were being chased through a secretive Ministry department by a bunch of zealots that would love nothing more than to dance over her corpse, where the best case scenario probably included a hasty Obliviate, and the worst was Lord Voldemort's conquering the world.

Her hands seemed to be throwing spells of their own accord. Logically she knew that in one part of her head she was doing it herself, but her awareness seemed disconnected somehow. She didn't deal well with great deals of emotion, she tended to cry, and it was a bad time to burst out in tears, so she ran instead. It was like she was two people, one of whom was this amazing warrior woman, throwing curses with ease, and the other was a panicky, distressed wreck who only wanted to be back home with a book. Her most rule-abiding self was scolding her without guilt, telling her that Azkaban waited, and she ran as much from that possibility as she did the very real fanatics on her heels.

Someone grabbed Harry, she wasn't certain who it was, but they fell quickly at the point of her wand. She kicked his hand as she passed and he didn't stir. The body was soon covered in dust and glass and splinters of wood, down for the count. She shouted back for Neville and their hands found each other, alternately dragging and being dragged until they slammed through a door and locked it behind them.

Hermione took what felt like her first breath of air since the fight had begun. Her senses, so overloaded before, were starting to calm. A ticking seemed to burrow into her brain, clicking along to her heartbeat, mesmerising her until she turned and faced the room full of clocks.

"Hermione!" someone yelped, and something tugged at her robes. She was pressed up against the door, listening to Malfoy strategise and the footsteps approaching. She looked at Harry, real terror in her face. Her mind replayed 'you can kill the others if necessary' over and over. "What do we do?" she asked, desperate for a lead.

"Well, we don't stand here waiting for them to find us, for a start," he said, and glanced around the room. The bell jar flickered beguilingly in its centre, the bird swimming up out of its egg once more. The clock's ticking seemed friendly, inviting, luring her in, and Hermione quite wanted to curl up here and stay forever. "Let's get away from this door."

They ran quietly, fleetfooted across the floor towards the other door. The room seemed to get longer the farther they ran, but Harry and Neville didn't appear to notice. Hermione did. The walls stretched like plastic, the floor seeming to change substance, a sticky tar-like goop claiming her shoes. The boys pulled ahead, not looking back, completely unaffected by the switch while she appeared to be running through quicksand.

There was something niggling at the back of her mind, clawing for attention. The grandfather clock near the exit seemed to be whispering to her, loathe to allow her exit. She very much wanted to keep running, launch herself out of the door and never come back, but at the same time, the light from the bell jar was so very seductive…

There was a thud from the back door, and then the sound of a man's shouting. Harry and Neville froze in place, looking back at her with wide eyes.

"Stand aside," a gruff voice said. "Alohomora!"

As one, the teenagers dived under desks. Hermione shuffled herself in, drawing her legs up to her chest until they would be invisible to any casual glance, but left her wand-hand free for casting. She didn't have much movement in it, so couldn't think to use any more complex spells, but a stupefy would be possible. She could see Harry curled up in a similar position just yards away, and the sole of Neville's shoes. They were a bit worn, she noticed. She'd have to warn him about that. She had to stifle a giggle at the thought, adrenalin making her lightheaded.

The two Death Eaters drew closer, the hems of their robes brushing the floor as they slinked through like hunting leopards. "They might've run straight through to the hall," said the gruff one, sending hope to Hermione's poor overtaxed heart.

"Check under the desks," the other directed. There was a beat of silence as one of them bent their knees.

"STUPEFY!" Harry yelled, the bolt of red light striking the nearest Death Eater. He wheeled backwards and fell, knocking a grandfather clock to the ground with him, its curlicued face smashing deafeningly against the hard stone floor. Hermione swung into action, crawling from her hiding space to get a better aim, only to stare straight up into merciless brown eyes. Her breath caught, their gazes clashing, his mask jiggling on his face as though he laughed.

He wasn't laughing, she realised, as the sound reached her ears. "Avada-"

Harry was there, around the man's legs, knocking the two of them sideways so that his spell went askew. In Hermione's head the ticking ratcheted up in volume, like angry clicking insects swarming her, dizzyingly loud in the absence of all other sound. Neville was causing a ruckus, disarming both men, but Hermione was on her feet now, staggering to one side until she had reached the bell jar. The little bird within seemed to look at her, swimming an extra loop for her benefit before being absorbed back into its shell. She blinked, and the image was gone.

The men were charging for the door for some reason, the Death Eater lunging at something on the floor. Hermione stopped, frozen, simply observing the scene through a curiously clouded head. It seemed the second she had taken this spot she had lost the ability to do all else. The clocks still murmured to her, soothing sounds now, like she had done something right. She liked that feeling, having pleased them, and it brought a smile to her face.

A flash of scarlet stung her eyes, sending her stumbling backwards, blind. Cool glass touched her neck and then it seemed to be raining. Sight returned in time for her to see the rain, beautiful golden droplets mixing with diamond-like glass. Mesmerised, she watched it fall, settling on her fingers and absorbing into the skin, setting facets of her flesh to glowing in the light. She felt it sprinkle her face, her hair wetted down by the odd glimmering substance, like some sort of sand, before disappearing.

And with it, she began to disappear, too.

Her fingers melted away into invisibility as she watched. It took a second for her to realize what was happening, and then even when she opened her mouth to scream the other boys were busy. The Death Eater struggled with the bell jar, which his head seemed to have acquired, and then they were running in fear and Hermione was left alone to watch the man teeter closer.

"No," she whispered, fear inflaming her nerves, trying to pull away from the cabinet, but stuck in place somehow. Glitter winked up at her sinisterly, coating her clothes, burrowing further to reach her skin as though it were alive. The man's eyes were suddenly on her, widened in absolute dread. She watched his head shrink and grow, and then he fell.

The jar smashed, the bird and the Death Eater freed, but the odd golden wind blew out into the room. The Death Eater's entire body was sucked up, reduced to a stunted child's figure with an ugly man's head, the opposite of what had happened when he had been ensconced within. Hermione could only stare, open-mouthed, as his fingers shrank further and his legs shrivelled beneath his robes.

The bird was returned to its egg, which rolled harmlessly away to hide under a table holding antique French carriage clocks.

The wind whirled and spun, perhaps looking for signs of life, only inches from Hermione. She was resigned now, staring into the dead eyes of Rabastan Lestrange, held open perhaps forever by the horror of his death. She looked up at the whirlwind just as it struck her where she hung, staked out like a sacrifice against the Time Chamber wall. She knew nothing more.

The Ministry was dark, empty enough that their presence went unnoticed. Moody slinked along one wall, Nymphadora along the other, providing cover for Kingsley, Remus and Sirius as they led the charge through the centre of the atrium. The waterfall shimmered gloriously in the sparse light, but no one paid any mind to it, instead heading determinedly for the lifts. Moody slipped in first, then Kingsley and the other men, with Dora bringing up the rear, her usually mischievous face set in the mask of her profession, wand held out in preparation for battle.

It was incongruously normal in spite of the strain, standing in the lift as it slid down through the levels of the Ministry. Sirius even tapped his foot, and Remus thought that maybe he would start to whistle if Moody hadn't shot him a black look, promising retribution if so much as a single note left his lips. Despite outside appearances, Remus could feel Sirius's muscles bunched tight with tension inches from his own, his jaw clenched. He was terrified on the inside, torturing himself with thoughts of what could be happening below them, of how they might be too late to help.

"The second that door opens," Moody growled, his one good eye fixed on the panel where numbers flickered and flashed as they continued their descent, "we separate. Tonks, go left. Black, right. Shacklebolt, you and I will take the furthest doors, and Lupin you can cover us." He used his magical eye to glare at each of them in turn, lingering for the longest on Sirius. "This is an extraction. Defense tactics only, no heroics. Get in, get the kids, get out."

Sirius shifted slightly, his eyes going dark as a scream echoed through the walls. It was the first indication that anything less than mundane was occurring anywhere in the building, and it set Remus' teeth on edge. Dora's wand twitched, her legs bending to prepare to launch herself out. The lift hit level nine.

"Reckless behaviour could get us all killed." Moody grunted as a reminder. It was a remark obviously tailored to Sirius, though Dora twitched as if absorbing the reprimand as her own. Remus touched Sirius' arm briefly, a gesture of comfort for himself and a warning for his friend. There was no time he felt better than going into battle with Padfoot at his back, but Sirius' protective instincts had a habit of overwhelming his good sense. If Harry was in danger…

The doors slid open, the witch's voice overhead chiming their destination pleasantly. Dora flew out, already shooting off curses in every direction as she lunged to the left. Kingsley ran through straight ahead, covering Moody behind him with a shield as Moody did the same for him. Remus' eyes met Sirius' cool grey orbs for a moment, reading the vengeful madness there. Something clenched in his gut, foreboding racking his body, and he wanted to shout, drag the man back, take him home where he would be safe.

The moment passed and they were out in the dizzying blackness, lit by the burning of the walls and the spellfire from the surrounding rooms. It was empty at first glance, Tonks' attacks apparently precautionary. His foot hit an obstruction and he glanced down to see a man, his silver mask askew, with legs bent in either direction from the influence of a jelly-legs jinx and a bootmark on his face. He stared up at the ceiling, seeing nothing, and it took a moment for recognition to kick in.

"Travers," Remus murmured, leaning down to check his pulse while continuing to survey the area for action. Fights continued on in the adjoining rooms as the Aurors and Sirius incapacitated those Death Eaters that had been left behind. He looked down at the man beneath him – a man who had undoubtedly killed numerous people, and tortured countless more. Remus' stomach twisted with shame when he realised that he thought the man's death no real loss.

He swept his fingers over the man's lids to close them and stood up to his full height. The entire interaction had taken less than a minute, and that was all the time it had taken for Nymphadora to return to him, her face pale. "Remus," she whispered, holding something in her hands. At first glance it appeared to be twigs, broken carelessly as someone walked across them, but the vine pattern on one curiously tapered tip suggested otherwise.

"Hermione?" He asked, meeting black eyes, fearing the worst.

"No sign of her, but there are two broken wands here. Hermione and at least one other are unarmed." She was trying to stay calm, unaffected, but her voice was too strained to carry it off.

Kingsley strode up to the two of them, cradling a limp form in his arms. "The Lovegood girl," he told them. "Stunned. I figure, leave her that way, then we can get her out without a fight." His teeth flashed in a grin.

"Some 'elp over 'ere!" Moody shouted, struggling out of a room, his limp more pronounced than usual due to the six-foot ginger he was toting along. "Need me wand arm free." Dora took the opposite side to her mentor and between them they lugged the boy over to the lift, his head rolling around on his shoulders, pitiful moans pouring from his lips. Kingsley joined them, lowering Luna to the marbled floor.

"Someone should stay with them," he said, looking down at the pile with his mouth set in a straight line.

"Ward 'em in until we know what we're dealing with," Moody offered instead, again prowling the chamber.

"Three of them are down," Nymphadora reported dutifully. "One in here, two in the Time Chamber." She wasn't going to look too closely at what 'down' entailed, not until the battle was over. "Two of the kids are unarmed, by my guess."

"Found the little one," Sirius' voice echoed, and all four Order members watched him haul little Ginny Weasley through an unidentified door. Remus couldn't tell exactly what was wrong with her, but she was hopping and wincing. Sirius guided her gently to the lift, settling her next to her brother.

"There's loads of them," she whispered, pain thrumming through her tone. "Malfoy, Lestrange… more that I didn't recognise. At least ten, maybe…" She gasped as agony rocked her, then spat out, "Harry, Neville and Hermione should be around somewhere. Neville has my wand…"

The five Order members exchanged looks. That meant there were still at least seven of them in the game, and three kids. As if on cue, a shout came from behind one of the doors marked by a blazing cross, and the aurors all kicked into action.

The door flew open at the power of their passage. Nymphadora shot off a stunning spell immediately, and Remus joined her once he caught sight of a target. Lucius Malfoy took the brunt of the curse, staggering backwards, freeing the boy he held captive to run. Remus charged the room, Sirius at his back, the two of them heading for the boys. Do not engage, Moody's voice said in his head. Get in, get the kids, get out.

A figure grabbed hold of Harry as he passed, but Neville stabbed him in the eye, sending him hurtling forward. With the heartbreakingly quick reflexes of a child who had once been a target for bullies, Harry span out of the man's arms and cut him down with a stupefy. The two boys raced up the stairs towards the exit, ignorant of further danger. Sirius changed directions the second that happened, hurtling upwards, tackling Dolohov to the floor as the man attempted to cast. Neville, the hapless victim of a dancing hex, teetered dangerously close to the lip of the stairs until Kingsley grabbed him, countering the hex smoothly and shoving him up towards the door.

Rookwood and Rodolphus descended on Kingsley with a vengeance. The two men were quick, but no better tactically than the auror, who began to thwart their attacks with the skill of a man who had worked his way to the heights of defensive magic. Too much was happening even for Remus to decipher; he heard Bellatrix' familiar cackle in the background, but he was fighting his own cloaked enemies; men he didn't recognize, but undoubtedly had fought before, for the men's magic had a familiar taste. Sirius flashed past, charging to the floor in protection of his cousin. Dolohov lay still, half hidden by the chairs surrounding the dais.

Kingsley's opponents fell and he ran to Moody's aid, who had fallen somewhere along the way. Remus used the cover of a strong shield to take up his position, pushing Neville, who had looked frozen in terror, towards the door. "Protect the others," Remus snapped, shoving again. The boy came to his senses, fear-filled eyes fixed on his old professor, before giving a nod and leaving the room at a clip. Something fell from his pocket and shattered on the ground, but Remus barely noticed, and if he spared a single thought to the occurrence it was probably something acidic about priorities and stealing from the Ministry.

His back to the door, Remus didn't see Dumbledore arrive, but he witnessed the result. Immediately his opponents fled, Moody and Kingsley's too. Malfoy, who had found his feet at some point, was taken down by a swift curse from the Headmaster, as well as Dolohov, who had begun to stir without any of their noticing.

Dora and Sirius both were too wrapped up in their attack on Bellatrix, dodging and weaving together in a dance that seemed perfectly choreographed. It stuck in Remus' mind, that dance, the graceful leaping and spinning through the lights that flashed purple, red, green. Sirius was laughing, the prick, a venomous grin on his face as he circled the archway, keeping it between himself and the woman at all times.

Dora backed off only to come back blazing, manoeuvring herself behind the other witch, sending curses her way until the Death Eater was swivelling between them in an attempt to keep up, shielding and casting with a mania-induced strength no one with sanity could ever hope to achieve.

Remus glanced back, suddenly wondering why Dumbledore wasn't intervening when he had done so for every other duel. The old man was stood watching, his face inscrutable but nonetheless riveted, eyes bouncing between Sirius and the archway with some sort of morbid fascination. It unnerved Remus, sent his skin crawling, suddenly remembering a warning he'd brushed off earlier in life – Remus, he doesn't do anything that doesn't benefit himself. He helps you because you're useful – the day you're no longer an asset, you become the target.

His head swung around to watch Sirius again, his breath catching in his throat at his grace, the grin on his handsome features. Bellatrix was getting angry, her magic going haywire, finding itself other targets as it disintegrated rocks and demolished stone benches, any way to release itself. Whips of it shot forward and backwards, injuring anything it could to assist in the fight, working with a cold sort of self-preservation.

Nobody else seemed to notice, but he did, because he was a magical creature attuned to the wild magicks. He saw the vibrations, therefore saw as it began to retreat back inside of her, building up for a grand finale. He was running before he could stop himself, almost flying up to the dais. Dora recognised what he was doing, some instinct preparing her for action.

They left the ground at the same time, colliding with Bellatrix and sending the lot of them rolling off the edge of the dais to hit the ground mercilessly hard. Bellatrix gasped for breath in his ear, but Dora's wand was already there. Remus' body pounded with fury, the memory of her wand lighting, green and sickly as she powered her Avada. He'd cut her off at the first syllable, but it wasn't enough for him, not when she had planned to kill Sirius, and would happily do it again.

Wide-eyed, the woman looked up at him and Dora, the two of them bent over her as human shields. "Going to kill me?" she asked in her childish voice, batting her eyelashes. Remus' hands were on her throat, Dora's wand against her chest, the two of them struggling together between the urge to kill and the wish to stay pure, not to dirty their souls with murder. She watched them fight the instinct, smiling up into the faces of her captors. She turned her head a quarter inch to stare into Remus' eyes. "I would have killed him, you know," she murmured, a soft, confiding tone. "And, you know what, little wolfie?" She beamed, her teeth darkened from her years without proper hygiene, distractingly decorated with blood spatter. "I would have enjoyed it, too."

"Enough!" Albus' voice broke the spell, and Dora cast a stunner directly into the dark witch's heart. Any good defense instructor would have scolded her, told her of the danger of that action, how a stunner to the heart could just as easily cause death as an Avada. Instead, to his shame, he looked up at her and nodded.

Remus let her go, his mind fogged, weak and disoriented. His first instinct was to turn his head in search, but he was right there in front of him, a couple of feet behind Moody and Dumbledore, whole and hearty and looking just like he always had. He was offered a hand up and Remus took it almost absently, ignoring everybody else, even Dumbledore's orders, to find his best friend.

"Good one, Moony," Sirius said lightly, though his face showed rightful apprehensiveness as he watched the werewolf approach.

"Don't you ever do that again, Padfoot," Remus scowled, reaching the other man's side and punching him hard in the shoulder. Sirius staggered, but turned his face up and laughed, the whole thing brightening his dour disposition beyond measure.

"Were you worried about me?" he coughed, backing up when Remus took a menacing step forward. "Oh, sweet Moony, I love you too."

Growls ripped through his throat but his next touch was tender, one finger to the man's cheek to check his face for injury. Sirius shook his head, strands of ebony hair dancing across his neck and shoulders. "You worry too much," he advised, before peering up into Remus' own green eyes. "Are you alright? You took quite a fall."

"Fine," Remus responded once satisfied that his friend was uninjured. He turned to scan the room, which was slowly emptying. The Aurors were securing the prisoners for transport to Azkaban, and Dumbledore had disappeared with Harry – the most unsurprising occurrence of the evening. He assumed the lot of them were headed back to Hogwarts, but something bugged Remus enough to keep him there. "Have you seen Hermione?" he asked, scanning the wreckage.

"Nah, mate. We sure she was here?" As was Sirius' way, his voice questioned Remus but his body was already joining in the search. He trusted Remus' judgement, which continued to be a novel experience, despite how long they had been close.

Remus led the way to the door, pushing through and surveying the area. "Dora found her wand," he muttered, searching the air for signs of the young woman. He followed her distinctive scent to an unmarked door which had been left cracked open, and he recognized it as the one Dora had found the wands in. The other team had swept through already, Remus could tell by the absence of any bodies, but the smell of Hermione lingered.

He took two steps inside, and stopped, frozen. He heard Sirius' voice outside, but didn't – couldn't – answer. "Merlin," he swore, as his mind shifted and pieces of a puzzle he hadn't known existed slipped into place with a click to match the ticking of the clocks that surrounded him. Dust glittered on the floor, distinctive golden frames littering the mess. A human-size shape, distinctively Hermione from the shape of the head, was silhouetted about two feet above the floor against the remains of a cabinet, the outline illustrated by a paste of yellowing sand.

He would never like gold the same way again.

Once he pulled himself together, he checked the place out and ascertained that the trail had indeed gone cold.

Slipping out of the room, he closed the door behind him as though to block out the truth. Sirius waited patiently by the lifts, though his foot was tapping again, and his eyes skated over every detail of the room. Now that the battle was over, Sirius was realising where he was – a highly classified area filled with secret Ministry projects and lots of fun, dangerous trinkets – and his curiosity must be killing him. Indeed, his fingers were curled into a fist to help hold back that pesky habit he had for touching things that didn't belong to him.

The entire image was endlessly endearing to Remus, and he didn't have the emotional fortitude to hold back a grin. "Good dog," he teased as they boarded the lift. Sirius barked softly on a smirk, winking at Remus. They were quiet for a moment, absorbing the events of the day and, for Remus, the consequences of his revelation.

"Will you remind Moody that I didn't do anything excessively stupid today, please?" Sirius asked in a low voice, suddenly serious. Remus looked over to see a mournful expression taking the place of a smile on his dear face. "I don't think I can handle being stuck in that house for much longer."

"He doesn't listen to me," Remus told him, trying not to sound resentful. Then, feeling guilty, he added, "I'll talk to Dumbledore, see what I can do." This only reminded him of the detached look on the old man's face as he watched Sirius come close to dying, though, and he fought back a shiver.

The doors swung open to a torrent of flashbulbs and an ocean of press. Remus stumbled, startled, and Sirius froze.

"Sirius Black!" A voice shouted, and a tiny man in a bowler hat shoved his way through to stand in front of them. Sirius flinched back at the appearance of the Minister, Remus automatically taking up a protective position. Fudge, ignoring this, pressed on. "We need to speak, privately," he muttered, entering the lift and pressing the door to close it, effectively locking them in together. "Immediately," he said, taking advantage of the men's shock. He didn't seem to be hexing, and he was without security, so Remus was inclined to be hopeful, but it seemed too much to ask after the night they had had.

"No, you don't!" Dora shrieked, tumbling in as the doors slid shut, Harry on her arm looking determined. Perhaps nobody had ever looked as beautiful as she did in that moment, an angel sent to save him as he stood in a lift, the only witness between an escaped convict (however wrongful his sentence was) and the man responsible for his misery. "I think we'll sit in on this, if you don't mind, Minister." She sniffed, suddenly looking haughty and regal. Her mother was eminently visible in her face and stature, even decorated as she was with blood and developing bruises. Remus sent Harry a questioning look, to which the boy just winked back cheekily. His face was flushed with excitement, practically radiating self-satisfaction. "Representatives of the family. Just to make sure it's all above board, you realise. We wouldn't want any more… misunderstandings."

Clearly rattled, Fudge nodded briskly. "Indeed, Miss Tonks. A wise idea… a very wise idea indeed."

Sirius and Remus, mashed against the wall of the lift, exchanged confused, wary looks, which Dora simply grinned at. "So long as we understand each other, sir," she replied jauntily. "Lead on!"

Chapter Text

Thursday 18 th  June 1970

Potter Manor, Front Garden

She landed – with a crash that winded her, leaving her gasping and crying silently with pain – in a field. At least, she assumed it was a field, for it was so large, but the building that rose above her gave lie to that idea. It definitely wasn't a farmhouse – she didn't know any farmhouse so grand, and it was grand, despite its image being rendered homely by years of additional construction. The centre of the house, presumably what had been the main house many centuries ago, was built from old stones similar to that of Hogwarts' walls. It was square, four windows chipped out, with a large wooden doorway leading to an impressive staircase that hugged the foundations to reach the ground and a driveway, both of which were a more recent addition, probably sometime in the 18th Century. Spread around that were small panels of Tudor architecture, where the smaller house had been expanded to accommodate a growing family, perhaps also to fix where it had been falling apart; it was hard to tell, what with its generally improvised appearance. The furthest wing to the west was built from the traditional Yorkshire sandstone, and the East was built in the Georgian style, smoothed sedimentary stone shimmering in the afternoon light. The roof was the only part that stayed consistent across what she could see of the building, the thackstone adding a quirky charm to bring the whole lot together. It was… charming, if you stretched the definition. Well-loved. Definitely beautiful, if not anything else.

Whoever lived there was both rich and had a sense of humour, Hermione thought with a dazed smile, realising with relief that this crossed the Malfoys from the list. She could feel wards buzzing around her, beginning at the end of the driveway where a set of wrought-iron gates prevented entry, and stretching overhead in a dome as far back as the eye could see, giving the impression of her being trapped inside a large, invisible cage. They felt thick and powerful, but subtle, and she had no idea how she had made her way past them, for it was fairly obvious she was uninvited.

Her head sent a fork of agony down through her neck and into her limbs, wrenching a cry from her chest as she attempted to sit up. Undeterred, she pushed on, coming up to her knees and panting, out of breath and exhausted. She couldn't remember the last time she had eaten – or, rather, she couldn't remember very much at all. Vague images of stars falling and a black-haired boy with green eyes opening his mouth in a shout swam through her head, but aside from that, it was quite blank. Memory-wise, anyway.

She could still remember magic, and spells, and her name – Hermione Granger. Her family was lost to the abyss of her brain, but she could recall learning to walk and talk, and knew that she spoke three languages; English, French and Latin. Strange names and knowledges popped up – like that strangely comforting line about the Malfoys. She knew that she had once known a Malfoy, and that she didn't like him very much at all, but for the life of her she couldn't remember what he looked like or how they met. Either way, with her knowledge of the French language, she thought she would have been wise enough to steer clear of him from the start.

Her hands scrabbled in the grass, searching for … she wasn't sure what, but she knew it should be there. They closed around a twig, which she held up triumphantly, before suddenly realizing that it wasn't right. Wand, she thought. She needed her wand.

On her hands and knees, she scoured the area, but aside from a few more sticks and twigs from the ancient oaks lining the garden – or field, she might stick with field – there was no sign of the wand her mind informed her was so very important to her livelihood. Eventually, she collapsed on her front again, completely knackered.

"What have you gotten yourself into this time, you complete and utter divvy?" she murmured, turning her head to the right for air and jumping slightly at the pitch of her voice. It seemed much higher than it used to be, but perhaps her hearing had been damaged in the fall. No answer to either question was forthcoming from her mind, rather a frustrating occurrence for the girl who knows everything.

It was a clattering and the dragging that followed it that warned her to another human's presence. The gates at the end of the road swung open to allow through two skeletal-looking black horses, pulling a regal looking black carriage. The horses slowed to a negligent trot as they turned onto the drive, coming closer to her. She realised as it neared that the horses were not horses but Thestrals, a fact that popped up in her mind accompanied by a dizzying flying sensation, neither of which were very comforting. The textbook definition she knew told her that only those who had witnessed death could see Thestrals, which didn't communicate any good things about how she had arrived at this place – she was quite certain she had never seen one in the flesh before this point. It occurred to her to hide, but it was already too late.

A barking noise arose from the cabin, and seconds later a tan-and-white nose poked itself through the curtains. Immediately, its little black eyes fixed on her in the grass, and it set off another volley of barks that set Hermione to wincing, a hand automatically reaching up as if to soothe the pain in her head before she aborted the movement in favour of more immediate concerns; see: the yappy little dog whose territory she had apparently invaded, which seemed quite desperate to teach her a lesson. With a bend of its legs, it propelled itself from the window to land feet from her in the grass, though it didn't allow the distance to remain so far for very long, as despite Hermione's frenzied backpedalling, it bounded to her, panting and whoofing, and proceeded to bathe her face with its tongue.

Through a sheet of crup saliva, Hermione watched the worst guard dog in the world yelp excitedly at its owners over its find.

"What is it, Monty?" A woman's voice called, her head appearing in the window. The Thestrals had slowed to a complete stop the moment the crup had been released, allowing the woman a perfect view of Hermione laid prone on her lawn, the puppy sat proudly on her back. She blinked large grey eyes in shock upon noticing Hermione, before her eyes drifted back to 'Monty'. "Oh, Charlus!" The woman laughed, stifling it behind one gloved hand, "Monty has incapacitated an intruder!"

"Baby's first catch," a very male, very dry, voice rumbled from the confined of the carriage. "Quick, Dorea, get the camera. We'll need it to document the occasion, for it most assuredly will never happen again."

Hermione felt the little dog pad over her back to settle its nose between her buttocks, an eminently uncomfortable position. She shifted, turning doleful eyes on its owner. "Can you have him release me, please?" she asked, very nicely she thought. The odd pitch to her voice remained, leaving her sounding like a child. Certainly, the woman in the carriage wasn't acting like she had just found a teenage witch sprawled across her lawn.

"He can't do that, love," the male voice said again, his face now coming into frame. He was an older man, perhaps in his late forties, with a bristling moustache and a smile on his face. "What if you're dangerous? How would poor Monty feel if he released you and you suddenly murdered his family? The elves certainly aren't going to feed him."

"Oh, stop it, Charlus," the woman scolded, opening the door to step down. Hermione could now see that she reached an impressive height of over six feet, and her entire image was that of supreme elegance and sophistication. Hermione, laid on the grass with a dog on her back and her face in the mud, felt suddenly insignificant. "She won't hurt us, she's a child. Besides, can't you see she's scared?"

Was she scared? Ok, well, she felt a little scared, but mostly very confused. She didn't get any sinister vibes from the couple, who if anything looked amused and concerned by the situation, which allowed her to focus her attention on the bigger question – how did she get here? And, to that end, where did she come from, and how did she go back?

"It's alright, dear," Dorea said, kneeling down by Hermione's head, heedless of her beautiful gown getting trampled in the mud. They were obviously on their way to or from some fancy occasion, and Hermione felt an odd sort of guilt for disrupting it. Dorea, seeing her line of sight or perhaps sensing her thoughts, looked down at her gown and chuckled. "Lunch with Augusta Longbottom. Do you know her, child? She insists on formal attire, despite the fact that she'll just sit there in trousers and a duelling robe because she lost track of time while working. I don't know why she bothers."

The name rang a bell, but not personally. She was too focused on Dorea and Charlus, wary of their attentions. Dorea seemed nice, but lots of people seemed nice at first – the Child-catcher one of them. They were obviously trying to put her at ease, which, while working, was also more disturbing. Apparently the woman could also read these thoughts in her mind, for she immediately changed tack. "Do you know how you got here?"

It was an odd question. Most people would say, "what are you doing here", or even "how did you get here". Asking whether she knew… that required a whole different set of answers, and more questions, like how did she know to ask that one? Was it so hard to believe that she had simply come across the house, found nobody inside, and decided to take a nap in the garden?

Ok, she could accept that that seemed an unlikely situation, yes, but to skip right to drugs/kidnapping/whatever she might be thinking was a little extreme.

However much it might be true. She didn't know for sure.

"Errr…" she responded, the height of intelligence. "No?"

"Poor dear," Dorea murmured, reaching a hand out to stroke a curl back from Hermione's face. She tried not to flinch at the contact, she really did. "Well," the older woman continued, getting the message and removing her hand. "How about you come in, we'll get you sorted out with a nice cuppa, and see what we can do for you, hmm?"

Hermione, thinking that this was probably a better idea than braving the wards and trying to find her way back to Scotland (why Scotland? She asked her brain. I'm from Islington. Again, no response came), nodded and made another attempt to stand up. "Argh!"

"Oh dear," Charlus chipped in, eyeing the young witch laying on the grass in a heap, looking somewhat perturbed. "Is she injured or drunk?"

"Charlus," Dorea hissed in warning, scooping Hermione up into her arms in an impressive show of strength.

He widened his eyes innocently. "Whatever is it, my wife? It's another pertinent question – do we really want our young son subjected to pretty young prepubescent drunks?"

Hermione felt the woman's laugh in her chest even though it didn't come out of her mouth, choosing instead to level a scolding glare at her husband. "Send Batty out for the Thestrals and have Bell put on some tea. I'll get her settled."

"You know James will be waiting," he told her, even though he was already on his way back to the driveway.

Dorea secured Hermione closer to her chest and began the trek up to the door on her own. "Well now, do you have a name?" she asked. It took Hermione a moment to decipher the words, her brain spinning more with every step the other woman took across the grass.

"Hermione," she muttered, stopping herself as she felt nausea rise up her throat. She swallowed it back down and took several deep breaths, the best she could do squashed up as she was. "I think I can walk," she spat out in a rush.

"Really?" Dorea said, looking down on her sceptically.

Well, no, not really, but walking seemed a better alternative to being cradled like a baby and having to endure the mortification of vomiting on an admittedly lovely woman's equally lovely (and expensive looking) gown. "Yes." She said firmly, wriggling to get out. Dorea wrinkled her nose but leaned over obligingly, letting Hermione slip to her feet.

This was new. She was about waist-height on the other woman, and while she wasn't all that certain of her past life, she was still pretty sure she had used to be taller than this. Also, her jumper suddenly seemed incredibly spacious, and her jeans several inches too long.

Glancing down, she stifled a gasp. Not because of the blood – though there was a little blood – nor the bruising, but because she was missing certain things she knew she had grown quite used to.

Breasts, for one.

Hips, another.

"Problem?" Dorea asked, looking even more curious as she watched Hermione have a little freak out. It probably did look quite odd, actually, finding a girl on your lawn in too-large clothes who immediately, at the first opportunity, seems to stop and inspect her chest with great interest. Still, it wasn't strange to Hermione. She felt, instead, an odd sort of loss. She had waited years for her figure to come in, for the day that she would be obviously feminine, no longer one of the boys, and while what the Gods had granted her wasn't all that to shout about, it had been hers. Now, inexplicably, it was gone.

"How old am I?" she questioned, still staring at her too-small body.

"About nine? Maybe ten?" Dorea slid her wand from her sleeves gracefully, twirling it in her fingers. "I can check, if you like?"

That the question didn't come across as offbeat to the older woman should have made Hermione more suspicious, but there was something about her that said she took a lot in stride. Hermione couldn't imagine her stressed, she had that aura of entitlement that seemed to scream "I get what I want, and nothing less". If a strange girl showed up on her land, fine, she would make it work, just another Tuesday.

If it was still Tuesday.

How did she know it was Tuesday?

"Please," Hermione could hardly disguise the relief in her voice, but Dorea didn't seem to mind. Instead she swung her wand in a professional manner, matte red symbols appearing in front of her face.

"Nine years, nine months. Almost ten. Why, is that not correct?"

Hermione paused, her head whirring rapidly. Should she tell them? What would be the point? As soon as she was able, she would leave this place, get back home (wherever home was) and get fixed. No problems.

That in mind, she shook her head and carried on, refusing to wince as pain twinged through her nerves. The door was much closer than expected, only the stairs to go now. Stairs weren't that bad, she climbed dozens of the things everyday. She had well developed calves from all of the exercise – or, would that be had? She took a peek down at her legs, but they were swathed in layers of denim. She could no more see the shape of her thighs than communicate in Mermish.

Sighing, she took one step after the other, excruciatingly slowly, with Dorea behind her waiting patiently. Her pounding head begged her to ask for help, but her already injured pride refused to allow her to do so, which left her limping at a snail's pace, clutching the stone balustrade with one ludicrously tiny hand while the other attempted to hold her jeans up. She dreaded to think how she much look – a child who was not a child, with mud in her hair and dog spit on her face, swimming in clown's trousers, battered and bruised and practically crawling up the stairs to an ancient manor house in the country.

When she was older, she panted to herself, she was going to make it illegal to have stairs like these without an accompanying lift.

Finally she reached the top, the door towering over her. She was the same height as the handle, which would mean she would have to reach up to open it. If everything else hadn't been completely demeaning, that would have finished her off, surgically removed her dignity, never to return. Instead of risking that she simply stood to the side, one hand bunched in her waistband but her head held high. If she was flushed and breathless, Dorea sweetly ignored it.

The doors swung inwards without a sound, which somehow made them more imposing. Dorea beckoned her in, careful to keep her distance like Hermione was some sort of unpredictable wild animal, and closed the door behind her. "Well then, where's that tea?" she asked, pulling her gloves off and looking around, though Hermione had stopped listening.

Up on the staircase that took up the centre of the room, seated on the second to last step, was a little boy. He looked about ten, with messy black hair and deeply tanned skin, grazed knees and cheeks red from an afternoon in the sun. His mouth was stretched into an impish grin, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "Mum," he shouted, getting to his feet and bowling down the stairs, not taking his eyes from Hermione, "Who's this? Where did you come from?"

"Monty found her in the garden, love," Dorea told him, ruffling his already disastrous hair affectionately. "You know what I'm like with strays, had to bring her home."

"Cool!" He was hopping around now, coming close to Hermione. She realised that he was ever-so-slightly taller than her, with dirt smudged on his cheeks that she wanted to wipe away in the worst way. Everything about him was familiar, from the way he walked to the curve of his lips, except that his attitude was all wrong and his eyes a different colour. "Can we keep her?" He asked, grabbing her hand and swinging it gleefully. "I've always wanted a sister."

"I've always wanted a brother," Hermione confessed, not sure why. There was something about him – when their eyes met there was an affection bursting inside of her, like it was just waiting to awaken. His touch on her hand was gentle, fraternal, and though he was watching her like she was his exciting new toy there was also something else there, a desperate loneliness, and a hope for something to fill it.

Hermione was lonely too, she realised. She would like to be his sister. He actually cheered, his other fist pumping the air at her response.

"Now, James, we don't know anything-"

"That's it sorted, then. You're my sister." James talked over his mother loudly, his face almost split in two with joy. "And I'm your brother."

He pulled her into a painfully tight bear hug, and while it hurt, it also helped. She tucked her face in his neck, laughing at his exuberance, revelling in how she just seemed to fit. She might not know anything about her life but the basics, and she might not be able to remember her family or friends, and she might be worryingly young, and there was something very familiar about them all that seemed very important but she couldn't place them just yet… but right then she had James, and somehow she knew, a bone-deep knowledge that was as much instinct as logical sense, that James would look after her. She felt safe, which was something she hadn't felt in a while, so she sank into the embrace and just let the world spin on.

Over James' shoulder Charlus stopped to drape an arm around his wife's waist. "And so the family grows," he muttered in her ear, and then, smiling, raised his voice. "Welcome to Potter Manor, Hermione."

And that… That was the exact moment Hermione realised she was in trouble.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 19 th  June 1996

Ministry for Magic, Minister's Office

"So, you see, in light of recent revelations…" Fudge glanced over at Harry, who scowled fiercely. Fidgeting with his quill, Fudge pulled his face reluctantly back to look at Sirius, who had taken a seat in front of the Minister's desk, looking a bit dazed. "…we – that is, the Ministry, led by myself – have thought it prudent to look over other mistakes we might have made in the past, mistakes brought to us by Mr. Harry Potter, who appears much more wise than perhaps we might first have assumed."

"What you mean is, you'll have to step down unless damage control is undertaken immediately," Dora said from her chair near the back. Up until this moment, as Fudge had lectured, she had been quiet, but now she was picking up the Black mantel again and forging forward. She leered across at Fudge, purposely making him uncomfortable until the man was shrank back in his chair. "The best way to do this is to get Harry on side, and what Harry wanted more than anything was a pardon for his Godfather."

"Well, well… I always doubted your guilt anyway, Mr. Black, a real shame your conviction was, a real shame…" Fudge muttered, unable to make eye-contact with anybody.

"I wasn't convicted," Sirius sneered, his arrogance swelling him to twice his size. "To be convicted, there needs to be a trial. Something I was not granted."

Fudge frowned, his bowler hat clasped to his chest as if in protection, and looked up into Sirius' implacable expression. "You must understand, Mr. Black, it was hardly… the evidence was against you, there was so much uproar back then, it was just easier…"

"Easier?" Sirius seethed, his face thrusting forward over the desk until it was just inches from Fudge's. Madness swirled in his eyes, and Remus itched to pull him back, but perhaps a little insanity would be helpful in this situation, push things through a little faster. He didn't claim to be a Slytherin, but he had picked a few things up over the years. "Easier to imprison an innocent man than bother to find and capture the real criminal?"

"Now, now, Mr. Black," Fudge soothed, straightening up to his full height and scowling, some of his ministerial pompousness touching his face. "There was – and is – no evidence to suggest that there ever was a different criminal, this is all me giving Harry the benefit of the doubt, it doesn't mean I buy into your Pettigrew story one bit-"

"Minister Fudge," Dora piped up smoothly, still half-hidden by shadows. She was hamming the whole performance up a bit, Remus could tell by her voice and the barely restrained glee in her stance. He let her have her moment – who cared if she had seen too many Bond films if it got the job done? "We have multiple witnesses to Pettigrew's return, including members of the widely respected Weasley family who unwittingly harboured him under their very noses for twelve years, one of whom works right here in your very cabinet. You also have a stock of Death Eaters waiting to be processed and questioned under veritaserum; an opportunity you might take to ask them questions about Mr. Pettigrew's current occupation and whereabouts, which might lead to the capture of even more Dark wizards and witches." She paused, bringing her nails up in a blasé manner for inspection. "Of course, that's just what I would do, but I'm not the Minister, just a lowly Auror. Politics isn't my wheelhouse."

Plumped up and purple, Fudge fluttered his hands, his face conflicted. "Oh, no, Miss Tonks, I'd say you've gotten the hang of it quite well…" he shuffled the papers on his desk, not quite hiding his face enough for the rest of the room to miss the look of anticipatory greed that flashed across it. He might be trying to get Harry Potter on side, with the House of Black as a bonus, but it would be something entirely different if he could capture more Death Eaters. It would restore the country's faith in his government, possibly cover up for the many recent faux pas quite well.

Of course, he did have a block of temporary cells full to the brim with unmasked Death Eaters a few floors below, but he knew, as Remus knew, that there was no way in hell the circumstances of their capture would remain secret. It was up to Fudge to get ahead of what could become a major embarrassment for his establishment, to find a way to twist it in his favour before the floor fell out from underneath him and he was finished.

He would be finished if he didn't bend to their will; Harry and Tonks had made it quite clear that they would be the willing tools of his destruction. Remus was proud of them for that, as a werewolf he didn't get much opportunity to see politics in action, and he had always thought that back-door dealing was a bit slimy and evil, but this was for a good cause.

He glanced over at Sirius: tall, dark, handsome and trying to supress the hope Remus knew was blooming inside of him, scared to open up in case he just got beaten right back down. A very good cause, he acknowledged to himself.

"What we can do here, today, is reopen the investigation." Fudge was saying, still shuffling papers as though he was very busy and they were intruding on his day. It's past midnight, Remus said sardonically within the confines of his own mind, somewhere he couldn't cause any trouble, no-one is buying what you're selling.

"Not good enough, I'm afraid, Minister." Dora said, leaning forward out of the shadows and turning her impishly pretty face up, piercing him with the Black family eyes she had morphed onto her face for the purpose of this meeting. It was important that the Minister knew who he was playing with, what forces were at work here. "Downstairs you have Mr. Malfoy, Mr. Nott, Mr. and Mrs. Lestrange, the heads of many influential Pureblood families, all of whom assisted you in your rise to power, about to be marched off to Azkaban. Macnair, your prized executioner, is down there with them. The men that ran your campaigns, shaped your tenancy – why, you were photographed taking lunch with Mr. Malfoy only last week, and here he is now, with the Dark Mark on his arm and an Avada in his wand! I'm not the only person who will make these connections, you know, Minister. There are many clever people in the country, all of whom will see what I see.

"And as if that isn't enough, are you aware that even now those journalists who were blasting you in the foyer are working up an angle? An angle, I need not remind you, that could very well mean your job. I can see it now; 'Minister In Bed With Dark Lord's Followers, Britain Ruled By Voldemort?'. You'll be painted as a biased man, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's proxy. Nobody will touch you with a barge-pole because our memories are long, and we will all remember how you assured us he wasn't back, how you made Harry Potter a deluded young boy when he was just trying to keep us all safe.

"Harry, even now, is being written as a hero, and you the villain of the piece. He could walk out of here right now, all of his scars held high, and tell them all about how you rubber-stamped torture in our children's school, all about how you had the opportunity to prevent the Dark Lord's return on numerous occasions, but stepped back because you were scared.

"Tell me, Minister, in politics - which, again, I admit to knowing nothing about - is it worse to be evil, cowardly, or just plain incompetent?"

Silence fell, oppressive and expectant, as Dora held Fudge's eyes with her own. He had gone pale, what little hair he had limp and stringy, and even his fingers had stopped their incessant fidgeting as he faced down the representative for the House of Black. Dora had the power, they both knew that, and her eyes glinted triumphantly as she willed him to do it – to give them what they wanted, as she knew he would eventually. Nobody moved, Remus willing himself to melt into the background, Harry looking stunned and a little confused, which pretty much summed up what they all felt. Never had Dora ever seemed to powerful, so in control. Where was the clumsy young witch who could never remember where things lived, whose idea of a good time was morphing into other people and wreaking chaos, now? She seemed to have disappeared, all traces of her good-time visage melting under her determination to get the best deal for her cousin.

Fudge lifted a finger in the universal gesture for 'one moment' and reached for his quill. The parchment he scribbled on was folded and sent out, wings flapping in the air the only break in the tension. It disappeared through the hole in the door, leaving the five occupants to stare at one another for a while longer.

A tapping at the door heralded Percy Weasley's entrance, who looked bedraggled and harassed without any product in his hair and his face pale beneath a mask of freckles. He glanced around at the crowd, blanching even further when his eyes landed on Sirius. Sirius drew his lips back in a snarl at the staring, and Remus could have sworn he heard the young man whimper.

"Minister," He greeted, his eyes then landing on Harry, his expression taking on a constipated sort of quality. "I brought the papers you ordered."

"Thank you, my boy, thank you very much," Fudge muttered, taking the parchment sheaf Percy handed him and waving him back towards the door.

Percy paused though, not leaving. "Is everything alright, Minister?" he asked quietly.

"Perfectly fine, Weasley. Just sorting out a few loose ends, you know how it is."

"But, sir," Percy stammered, as though he just couldn't stop himself. "That's Sirius Black."

Harry, who up until that point had been quiet, gave a jerky start and gasped. "Oh, wow, is it?" he asked excitedly, his eyes comically wide. Remus had to work to smother a grin, though Sirius and Dora looked on him approvingly. "Gosh, we didn't know. He told us his name was Gordon!"

Percy's mouth pinched, the offense written across his face. Fudge was aghast. "Mr. Potter-"

"I'm sorry, Minister," Harry said, looking suitably contrite, but definitely not feeling it. "Only, I'm so very tired. Long night, what with the battle in the Department of Mysteries, catching all of those Death Eaters for you, battling with Voldemort -" gasps at the name, but Remus was more preoccupied by the 'battling with Voldemort' part of it; they hadn't been filled in on what had happened in the atrium yet, only in so far as they were told that Voldemort had appeared, and Dumbledore had fought him off. Unconsciously, he scoured the boy for injuries. "- I'm sure you can understand why I'd be impatient."

Fudge grumbled under his breath, glaring up at Harry, who Remus supposed had suddenly become the bane of Fudge's life as well as his only hope. "These things take time," he snapped.

"Much longer if you're dawdling," Dora pointed out, pleasantly.

Gritting his teeth, Fudge began to sign papers. "A full pardon. Will that do?"

Sirius sat up, his eyes alight, all ready to nod, but Harry stopped him with a hand. "Compensation," he said.


"Twelve years of Azkaban can have a traumatising effect on the psyche," Dora hummed, still smiling. "It's only fair."

"But he's a Black," Fudge protested, spluttering and turning purple. "The Ministry budget is stretched tight!"

"That's discrimination, Minister," Dora scolded. She was loving this. "The budget isn't our problem. No doubt you'll make enough back when you convict those lovely rich people you've got locked up." A pause. "Five hundred thousand galleons, to replace that which was taken from the family vaults upon Sirius' imprisonment."

Looking a bit faint, Fudge noted that on the paper. "Anything else?"

"A press release apologising for your hasty conviction and everything that followed. You must put your complete faith in Sirius Black and his innocence." Dora grinned toothily. "In return, Harry will give a statement regarding his belief in your administration, and how he'll be working alongside your Auror team to win a war."

"Prevent a war," Percy corrected, his tone precise and measured again.

Dora rolled her eyes, the first childish thing she had done since entering the room. "Where have you been hiding, Percy? There was a battle here tonight. The war has already begun." She huffed, turning back to Fudge, who was scribbling away and then signed at the end of the page. "Good, good. Remus, read over that for us, will you?"

His mouth fell open in surprise as Dora strode over to him and dropped the pile of parchment in his lap. "Wha-?"

"You're the clever one," Dora whispered so that only he could hear her. "Make sure there aren't any loopholes. We want Sirius free by the time we leave this room, if it takes all night."

There was a flash of… something… in her eyes, trepidation, maybe. Concern. It wasn't for herself, but for Sirius, and Remus could understand that. He was supposed to have died tonight – Remus knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt, the spectre of death had been stalking him since the lifts. If Remus had not been there, nobody else would have saved him.

Dumbledore would have stopped them from doing so. There was no doubt in Remus' mind about that. Remus had been allowed to save him, for what reasons he didn't know, but were it not for him Dumbledore would have watched him die. Harry would have seen him die.

Perhaps the Headmaster thought that was needed, to ensure Harry's cooperation, but he would have been wrong. That death would have ruined Harry, and, yes, in the process tied him closer to the Headmaster as a mentor. What Dumbledore didn't realise, though, was that with Sirius gone, Harry would have been cut adrift, vulnerable to any sort of emotional attack, and there would be no guarantee of his stability. Dumbledore saw Harry as a weapon and a soldier, but Sirius and Remus knew the boy. The boy could be just as reckless and temperamental as his godfather, and even Dumbledore wouldn't be able to control him for long.

The Headmaster wasn't likely to be pleased if Padfoot was freed, but they were lucky in that he obviously had other issues to attend to and hadn't heard of this meeting yet. The paperwork needed to be rubberstamped and filed before he did, so that sabotage was impossible. Remus wouldn't put it past him to try.

The paperwork was in order, as best as he could tell, and he signed the witness line after checking it for tampering and hexes. Ministry Parchment was, normally, made invulnerable to magical and physical tampering, but when you were playing games with the Minister for Magic it was better to be safe than sorry.

Dora signed the line meant for Sirius' representation, and Percy acted as witness for Fudge, despite the man's attempts to get him to leave the room. If Percy hadn't been there, the paperwork could be filed as fraudulent, but as Percy was a government official and a trustworthy, upstanding one at that, nobody would argue his assessment of the situation. Fudge trying to get rid of him had been one last clumsy try for a void on the pardon, but it hadn't worked, and the second Sirius' quill touched the parchment he was free.

A black mist detached itself from Sirius's chest and rose into the air, swirled and swam, and crushed itself onto the paper. A great green stamp appeared in its place, telling them all that the paperwork was filed. Fudge rolled the original up, hallmarked it with the wax seal of his office, and stood, his face solemn as he reached over to take Sirius' hand. Sirius wore a grin to show off those (newly) pearly whites, half threat and half genuine glee.

"I, Cornelius Oswald Fudge, Minister for Magic, Order of Merlin, First Class, hereby present to you, Sirius Orion Black III, heir to the Ancient and Most Noble House of Black, with a certificate of freedom detailing your full pardon from all crimes laid against you by the British government, and a further promise of reparations from the aforementioned parties, to be paid into the Black family vault at Gringotts Wizarding Bank."

A flash of bright, silver light filled the room and dissipated, leaving Sirius stood holding the scroll and Fudge scowling fiercely. Dora, Harry and Remus all stood to join Sirius in heading to the door, suddenly desperate to reach the others with the good news, and to find out what had happened in the time they had been gone.

"A thank-you would be nice," Fudge called after them.

"You'd be fucking lucky," Sirius snarled as they reached the lift. "Prick."

Chapter Text

Friday 19 th  June 1970

Spinner's End

Everybody else thought Spinner's End a dark, dank, miserable place to live. Plighted by typical Northern weather and populated almost entirely by factory workers and their long-suffering families, the streets were not so much alive with music and laughter as the sound of brassy housewives nagging their children at the top of their voices, as if competing with their neighbours for the loudest arguments, and, later on, these same women's husbands vomiting and brawling on their return from the pub. Crime rates were, admittedly, low, though this was more to do with the fact that crime was handled 'in house', with a fist or a knife or a heavy implement at the local pub or down back alleys, and as such nobody ever bothered to get the police involved. There were no robberies in this neighbourhood for there was nothing worth stealing, and if there were murders then nobody found the bodies. One person's problem was everybody's problem due to both the flimsy quality of the terraced houses' interior walls and the resident's propensity to yell out their grievances in full view of the neighbours.

It wasn't a pretty place; all attempts to brighten it up were thwarted by nature and neighbours. Flowers and trees planted by the short-lived Neighbours Association were ripped from the ground by the near-feral children that prowled the streets all hours of the day, and the few that their beady little eyes missed were dead by the following week, thanks to the dust and soot the factory's chimneys liberally sprinkled across the entire area.

The very prospect of driving close to the area in their pretty tin cans was terrifying to their wealthier, middle-class neighbours, whose housing estates had begun to sprout up increasingly close to Spinner's End throughout the fifties and sixties. They tried, once, to have the occupants of the creepy, run-down area evicted, but there was a bubble of protection around this working-class community. They were the backbone of industry in this area, a back-bone made of steel, and their houses had stood for much longer than the new. Some of the families that inhabited the grey-stone mews of Spinner's End dated back to the Industrial Revolution, with grandparents sat in their living rooms muttering on about Queen Victoria's reign while their children worked tirelessly to provide for them. They had no wish or reason to move, and were they asked to clear out the request would be roundly ignored. If they were pushed, Spinner's End would push back, and nobody wanted that.

Severus Snape, however, liked Spinner's End. He thought it was a fine place to live, most of the time. While all of the above was hard, irrefutable fact, it was also the place he called home. More than that, it was his worldHis world, where he knew the people by name, he could navigate the streets with his eyes closed, blindfolded. From the time he was 'asked' to leave the house of a morning with a fifty-pence piece clasped in his palm, to the time he returned of an evening, empty handed and exhausted, he was free here to do what he liked and be whomever he felt like being.

A sort of post-apocalyptic playground, complete with half-melted tires, scattered litter and the burnt-out husk of a Ford Cortina someone from the surrounding areas had unwisely parked too close to the boundary, Spinner's End stimulated Severus' imagination like nowhere else he had ever experienced. He could get lost here, in his own head, and not come back to earth for hours.

Twisting back streets and alleys allowed him to play war games and, occasionally, the more romantic minotaur, which consisted of him leaping out of blackened hidey-holes to surprise passers-by. He did so with an irresistible youthful enthusiasm that made up for his less-than stellar appearance, allowing him to escape in most cases without a beating – though on the occasions he miscalculated and was swatted, he made sure to avoid disturbing those adults in the future, as Severus was not a stupid boy – and even had him rewarded with a gift of sweets from tired, grouchy parents who in most cases wouldn't give the same response to their own children. The dangerously polluted river acted, later in the day, as canal and sea, depending on his mood; he alternated between using discarded dustbins and heavy duty crates as his trusty vessels.

And later, once he was beyond the drain and streets, he would find himself in his real territory: Spinner's End Park.

A new one had been constructed a few miles away, on the outskirts of Cokeworth, leaving this one to rot in the depths of what the Council considered an irretrievably working-class cesspit. Most parents, if they had the time and inclination, would take their children over there instead, and the older boys would steer clear of this area in the daylight anyway, which left it near-abandoned by all but Severus, who had not ever been to Cokeworth Park, for his mother never had the time to take him.

Irrevocably damaged by a flood in the 60's, caused by a build-up of rainwater in the little valley where Spinner's End nestled, the destruction to the park had never been fully repaired. On the roundabout there lay desiccated leech carcasses, still lying where they had been left when the waters retreated, and rust spider-webbed its way up the legs of the swings and back down the chains. One chain's handle had rotted completely, sending it plunging to the ground along with the unsuspecting toddler that had been using it last summer, which had been the catalyst for the community's abandonment of the area. If there was one thing they cared about in Spinner's End, it was their children.

Severus was inured to the risks of the playground by now. Occasionally he would use the one remaining swing, or brush a segment of the roundabout clear and take a spin, but mostly he would make his way past the playground amusements and up over the hill at the back. One side was entirely clear, just grass sweeping down to the flat concrete of the play-area, something which had once been made use of in the warmer weather for rolling-races between children, but now was left to overgrow. The other side was choked with trees and bushes, all the way down to the chain-link fence that separated the park from the wasteland on the other side. This was the side Severus liked.

There was a weeping willow that provided protection to him about halfway down the slope, accessible through a twisting path of thorns and weeds. Beneath the protection of its branches, however, the grass was neatly cut, there were only flowers and the dirt at the base of the tree to mar its appearance. Severus spent the last few hours of his days here, in this sanctuary where nobody else bothered to go. There were library books hidden in a nook in its trunk, transporting him to alternate worlds of monsters and warriors and occasionally magic – though Severus preferred not to read these, as he had the real thing.

Indeed, the grass was always cut because he willed it so. There were flowers because he liked them, especially the larger daisies, which perfumed the air like a rich man's lounge. The willow's vines would twist themselves together in a barrier against other childish explorers, keeping him hidden from the world. His mother had warned him when he was younger of Accidental Magic of the kind children his age could do, lurid tales of exploding schools and drowning muggles, but he had never had a problem – it was like the magic spoke to him, agreed with him, allowed him to manipulate nature to his will more easily than any other. He had experienced only one attack of accidental magic before, when his father was drunk and causing problems; the outcome of that situation had been so undesirable that he now took precautions against it.

He got his magic out of his system by using it like this during the day, so that there was no chance he would have an 'attack' back home. His father despised magic and all to do with it, and after years of suppression, his mother could now barely levitate a feather. She would have loved to train her son, but the pain of seeing his talents was too much to bear. Severus was forbidden to use magic, not even to protect himself and his mother. It didn't seem fair to him to have these restrictions, nobody to share the fruits of his magic with, but it was a fact of life he had learned to live with and nowadays he appreciated the time alone more than he did resent it.

Today, Severus spent more time than usual at the Willow. It was mid-June, the start of summer coming up on him quickly, and he knew what that meant – the local children would be out of school, and his parents would therefore be extending his boundaries. Every year in the summer his parents gave him a new limit, be it the burnt-out car, or the river, or this last year, the wasteland. This year, he knew, it would be a larger boundary change. His mother had been getting concerned about the youths in the area, worrying that Severus would fall in with the wrong crowd, so she'd allow him to move farther away from Spinner's End in the hope he made other friends. She didn't have to worry about that – Severus didn't have friends, and he didn't want the local boys as friends either. He despised them, with their cigarettes, vandalism and their tendency to kick him if he walked too close to them in the street. They had bikes and would run him down with them until it was a battle of the fastest, swiftest and most clever. Sometimes he'd lead them on a merry chase that would take them right past their parents' houses, where their mothers would run outside and smack them for being cruel, but just as often they would corner him in an alley and he would go home limping and bruised. He wanted out of their territory just as much as his mother, but tradition was important and he couldn't be impatient.

When the time came, Severus plotted, he would walk all the way out of Spinner's End and down to the Cokeworth park. His parents wouldn't take him there but he could take himself, once he got permission. He would play on shiny new slides and safe swings made of rope rather than metal, and there would be other children there – polite, clever children he could talk to without having to dumb his vocabulary down. They wouldn't hit him, or kick him, but they would invite him to play and there would be the discussion of books and schoolwork and they would be friends forever.

Or, so he assumed. He had, after all, only ever experienced Spinner's End before, but if Spinner's End was brilliant, with all of its flaws, then surely Cokeworth, of the fancy newbuild houses and the mothers who did their hair before they left the house, would be better? A temporary solution, aye, but an escape all the same.

Even if it wasn't, it was only a year now until Hogwarts. Hogwarts would definitely be better, he knew that. To be in a school full of people who understood him, learning all day every day, becoming better at controlling his magic every day that passed; that was what he really wanted, his true escape. The one he would run through his head when he lay on the earth beneath his tree, having abandoned a storybook in favour of reading his mother's battered old copy of Hogwarts: A History, imagining his life when he was finally in the robes and hat of his house, sat at the Slytherin table (for he knew he would be Slytherin, there was never any doubt) with his peers, equals where his background didn't matter.

Then, his life would truly begin.

That knowledge was, in essence, the reason he could love Spinner's End. He wouldn't be stuck here like everybody else, among the corrupt and criminal, breathing a slow death from pollution and labour every day. Once he had control of his magic he could take his mother out of this place, build them into something more than a working-class family on a factory estate. With a wand in his hand and a diploma proving his worth in the other he could save them both, be the hero, and eventually Spinner's End would be a memory, fond but distant, a tale to tell at dinner parties with other intellectual wizards and witches. One day, maybe, they could laugh about the life they left behind.

Until then he could deal with being a young boy lost in the shadows of muck and poverty because in his head and his blood he was a Prince, and one day soon the world would see him for what he was. That was all that mattered, and he was patient enough to wait for it.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 19 th  June 1996

London, Outside the Ministry of Magic

"Wow, Dora," Remus breathed the second they were free of the Ministry, turning to her on the darkened streets of London. "Just… wow."

"Who knew you had it in you?" Sirius laughed jovially, catching her in a bear hug and swinging her around in circles, their joined laughter ringing through the air. "Bloody brilliant!"

Tonks staggered as she landed, pressing her hands to her cheeks to hold off a blush. "I was, wasn't I?" she grinned at the three men stood before her. "I don't know where it came from, I was just so angry, and then I saw him talking to Harry and I just thought, 'here's my chance'!"

Harry tackled her with a hug around her midsection. "Amazing, Tonks, amazing. Thank you, thank you so much." There were tears sparkling on his cheeks, and Tonks' hand shook with emotion as she pressed it to his head.

"Ah, that's nothing, Harry. Did you see me take down Rookwood? Now that was amazing."

Remus let them all bask in the moment for a few minutes before snapping back into 'responsible adult' mode. "Harry, do you know where they took everyone?"

Harry pulled away from Tonks only to sidle up beside Sirius, who slung an arm around his shoulder and pressed his cheek to the boy's rumpled hair. There was a glint in his eyes, the slightest hint of tears, but he manfully swallowed them before scrubbing Harry's shoulder with his palm in a rough, suitably masculine fashion. "Hogwarts," Harry was saying. "Dumbledore wanted to talk to everybody about what happened, I think, then he was going to call an Order meeting. I wasn't really paying attention, I was stuck on Fudge." His face flushed red as he scowled. "Do you know, he came up to me straight after the fight and said 'well done, Mr. Potter'? Like I was a dog that had done a clever trick."

"Sanctimonious prick," Padfoot growled, his eyes narrowing. "When he bearded us in the lift I wanted to gut him."

Remus thought that this was perhaps the time to interrupt, before Sirius could get lost in his many more violent fantasies about the Minister. "Hogwarts it is, then. Coming, Dora?"

She shook her head, the previously black hair fading out to hot-pink as the strands wafted through the air. "I'd best go home and wait patiently for my dressing-down from the Headmaster. No doubt he'll have opinions about me kidnapping Harry for a meeting with the Minister." She grinned down at Harry, chucking his cheek gently with a finger. Harry watched her back, eyes adoring. "Not that I regret it, not at all. It was worth it just to see the look on his face when that pardon came through."

"We couldn't have done it without you," Remus assured her, entirely honest. They couldn't have, not successfully. Dora was adorable and terrifying in turns, her bloodline, career and power making her more respectable than Remus, Harry and a prison-ravaged Sirius by far.

Pink cheeked, Dora shrugged again, managing to look humble. "It was nothing, as I said. Though…" she winked over at her cousin, "now that you've inherited, you might want to remember my heroics. I quite fancy a new house."

She zipped off through the air, leaving Remus, Sirius and Harry stood alone. Sirius' eyes met Remus' for a moment of poignancy, stood on either side of the lad in the darkness. There was a whole lifetime in Sirius' eyes – what could have beens, what should have beens, if it weren't for mistakes or magical illnesses or mysterious disappearances. Fearful of making Harry uncomfortable with untoward displays of affection, instead Remus acknowledged all that they had loved and lost with a tip of his head and a slight, sad smile. Things would never be how they had wanted, they would never have the lives they'd planned, but right now they were together, and alive, and that gave them hope.

Sirius, his eyes still linked with Remus', blew him a kiss over the top of Harry's head. "Well then, we'll go to Hogwarts," he said, including Harry this time, "but it's my first night of freedom so can we pick up ice-cream on the way?"

Wednesday 19 th  June 1996

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hospital Wing

Severus stared around the hospital wing from his position behind the Headmaster and tried to disguise his fury. Three children injured, two missing, including the Wonder Boy. The youngest Weasley boy lay near insensible on the farthest bed, his occasional murmurs passing the flimsy barriers and disturbing the other inhabitants. The Weasley girl had two broken bones in her leg and damaged tendons, now suffering the indignities of a cast and Skele-Gro to replace the irreparably damaged femur, whose fragments had wreaked havoc beneath the skin. Luna Lovegood, they assumed, was suffering a concussion, though she was so dippy when she was healthy that the concussion was more assumption than evidence.

Neville Longbottom was the only one to escape unscathed, which surprised, amused and irritated Severus in near equal measure.

Harry Potter was off gallivanting with his good-for-nothing Godfather and the irresponsible werewolf, their only saving grace being that the little Tonks girl was with them, though it wasn't especially soothing.

Hermione Granger was just… gone.

They had interrogated the students, with Severus and Albus both employing subtle Legilimency. The Weasleys had not been near her at any point, useless, incompetent lot that they were. Lovegood seemed to be a natural Occlumens, for when he had entered her head he had found himself lost in a field of gambolling rabbits and no actual thought. It was the most undignified incident of his life, he felt, until he remembered the Pants. Either way, he found nothing useful from her, either.

Longbottom had been the most help, showing her last seen in the Time Chamber. Severus had caught a glimpse of her against the wall as Potter and Longbottom fled the scene. There had been no further sightings and her body had not been turned up, leading the Headmaster and himself to believe that she had either gotten lost and remained so, or her body would be unearthed once the Ministry started to clear the debris from the Hall of Prophecy.

The thought didn't bother him as much as he felt it should. Despite her being the thorn in his side, she was still a brilliant young witch with a lot of potential. The waste of that should have made him feel sad, maybe even angry or resentful. Instead, he was cold, empty inside, and nothing that might have happened this evening seemed to change that.

"Are we sure she's not with Harry?" a frantic Molly Weasley demanded, wringing her hands like the distraught housewife she was. Now there was a woman whose emotional systems were unimpeded, going by the woeful display she had been putting on nonstop since she arrived at the school two hours ago. Severus had to work not to meet her eyes, it would only make him feel guiltier to look at her grief, like looking upon it would be sharing in it, and he wasn't entitled to that release. "She could be, couldn't she?!"

"Molly, please, you must be calm," Albus was saying, his long, spider-like fingers clasping the Weasley matriarch's, staring into her eyes. Likely he was implanting some sort of compulsion, maybe 'be less sad' or 'shut up'.

Severus sighed. He even sounded bitter to himself. He needed to pull himself together, get over his personal problems and focus on more immediate concerns. There was no reason to think that the Headmaster was doing anything more or less than his job, comforting the woman who had adopted the missing lass into her household. No reason other than Severus' personal knowledge of the man, at least, and that seemed like a petty personal vendetta when he examined it in the stark light of the Hospital Wing, surrounded by ailing teenagers.

Leaving the two of them to their hysterics, Severus took another turn around the room. Arthur Weasley was there, slouched in the chair beside his daughter's bed, looking wan. Moody sat opposite, his good eye scanning the room while the magical one whizzed around; pointing at the door, Poppy's quarters, the curtains drawn around Weasley and then back to the door in a never-ending circuit of surveillance. Severus spared him a respectful nod which, predictably, only caused the old Auror to narrow his eyes in suspicion. Lovegood was unattended, her father abroad when he had received word of her injury, and she would likely not have a visitor while she was here. Awake thanks to her concussion, she pored over a battered copy of The Standard Book of Spells (Grade 4), reminding him sharply that this girl was no older than fourteen or fifteen, and yet had fought a battle this night. A sharp punch of disgust and pride mingled in his gut, propelling him to her bedside where he waited like a petitioner for the attention of a Queen.

"I'm revising," she told him, not looking up. "I have exams to sit this week."

"I'm exempting you from the Potions exam tomorrow." When she looked up at him, startled and uncertain, he scowled. "You'll be a hazard, wandering around with a concussion near cauldrons. I don't have a death wish." Most of the time.

Her seemingly knowing smile irked him, even more after she closed her book with a finger marking the page and reached out to pat his hand. "Good things are coming, Professor," she assured him, still smiling even as he took his hand – and his whole body – out of her reach. "I can feel it."

He sent a pointed look around the hospital wing, encompassing the three injured students and the lack of two-thirds of the infamous trio. "Of course, Miss Lovegood," he sneered, making a mental note in his mind to have Poppy examine her for mental deficiencies. The result of such a test might explain some things, though he didn't hold his breath. Her whole family was batty. "Get some rest. Madam Pomfrey will wake you in an hour."

He left her with the intention of checking on Weasley, an intention that would not come to fruition, as the missing Potter chose that moment to collapse through the door. Dishevelled, covered in glass and somewhat the worse for wear from his escapades but wearing a grin despite all of that, Potter barrelled straight into the Headmaster's motionless form.

"Ah, Harry," Albus said, voice soft and yet stern, "I'm glad to see you've seen fit to return. If you'll please follow me." Albus took a hold of one shoulder and turned to steer him out of the room, only to stop short at the sight of Black and Lupin in the doorway. It was a bit of a shock to Severus, too, though he'd never show it – the last anybody had seen of the pureblood, he'd been stood smack bang in the centre of a room soon to be swarming with Aurors. The odds had been heavily in favour of him joining the Death Eaters in the cells for a swift return to Azkaban. "Sirius," Dumbledore said, apparently as surprised as the rest of them, though he tried to hide it.

"Albus," Black nodded, an insouciant air about him as he leaned casually against the door to the Hospital Wing.

"Shouldn't you be at Grimmauld Place?" Albus asked sharply, his fingers digging into Potter's shoulder as he faced the two older men. Lupin's sharp eyes took in the gesture, narrowing slightly. Albus' attention was on him, too, as was the brunt of his displeasure. "How can you let him be out, Remus? Aurors will be here soon to interview the children – he'll be taken back to Azkaban. Do neither of you understand the amount of danger you are in?"

"I wouldn't worry about that if I were you, Headmaster," Black said levelly, the shadow of a taunt in his voice. Severus had to forcibly restrain the reflexive anger it brought out in him in favour of curiosity; Black looked smug, which had never been an abnormal look for him before prison but had been missing for the past year. Obviously, the man knew something they didn't, and was rather pleased to know it.

Severus' eyes moved without instruction to the patch of bare chest revealed beneath the gaping collar of his shirt, Albus' faint gasp telling him that the other man had seen it too. "How..?"

A feral grin on his face, Black lifted a hand to twitch the satin material an inch or two wider, revealing the freshly bare spot of flesh on his collarbone. Just hours earlier, that patch had been dominated by the stark black etchings of his Azkaban serial number. "A gift from Minister Fudge," he smirked, one finger stroking slowly over the space. "I'm an upstanding citizen of Wizarding Society, now."

Visibly gobsmacked, Albus could do nothing but gawp at the men blocking his route. Harry edged away while he was distracted and scanned the room, his victorious smile fixed in anticipation of sharing his news. Severus almost felt bad when the boy clicked onto the tension in the air, his joy evaporating instantly. Almost.

"Mrs. Weasley?" He asked the woman who still wept softly, his attention on the wider area as he searched furiously for his friends. "What is it? Is it Ron? What's happened?"

Molly's brown eyes were sodden with tears as she reached out for the boy, enfolding him in her arms like he were a small child. "Oh, Harry!" she gasped, a fresh torrent of sobs breaching her inner walls. "It's Hermione! She's gone!"

"Gone?" Harry asked blankly. His eyes, which could be seen over the top of Molly's shoulder, were wide in his confusion. Severus tried not to make comparisons, just as he always did, but it was Hell – to have two students in the one year, one of whom had the eyes of his first love, the looks of his oldest tormentor and the other of whom had the mannerisms and unvarnished personality of his oldest friend, both of whom were lost to death – to the point that his memories spent more time in vials than in his head these days, that the wall he had built to hide them behind had the metaphysical width of the ocean.

Molly was comforting Harry, but he was in shock and could not respond. Severus observed the scene through a fog of his own memories, of a similar time in his youth when he had been vulnerable and life had taken away from him that which he relied upon most. He yanked his mind back repeatedly, not wanting to go down that road, knowing it could not be taken back once it was done, but his mind wandered on regardless, showing him images of his lost friend, pointing out the similarities between the situations, how familiar Harry's reaction was as it had once been his own.

The floodgate had burst, and everything was coming back to him. The pain, the loss, the emptiness he had to live with for the years that followed, the idiotic actions he had taken in the wake of the news.

Lupin's attention was on him and obsidian eyes met forest-green. There was a knowledgeable quality to them, like the man was trying to tell him something, but Severus was far too locked within his own head to notice.

Potter was fighting his way out of motherly arms, climbing to his feet. His face was a mask of raging determination, again, so similar to Severus' own at that point in his own life. He had been a little older than Potter, yes: this had made him no less idiotic. "I'm going to find her!" the boy shouted, marching for the door, apparently thinking that he would be allowed to storm the ministry in search of his friend. It was a lost cause.

Black wrestled with him, Lupin talked to him, Albus instructed him, but in the end Poppy had to tranquilise the boy and lay him on a bed for the night. Even in unconsciousness he twitched and fought; two more doses were required to keep him calm, still and docile. For once Severus felt like he could respect the boy, an odd kinship being kindled in his stomach at the idea that, like him, he would fight endless, unbeatable forces to retrieve his friend.

Albus had retreated to his office without a word to anybody, his parting shot being a significant look that Severus knew to mean 'find out what you can and bring it to me'. The old man would be in a mood now, having failed on many counts this evening, starting with allowing Potter to run off to the Ministry unescorted and ending with not being the hero for Sirius Black. The man himself stood watch over Potter's bed, using his freedom to remain close to his godson, likely chastising himself for failing all of these years and again tonight.

The Aurors turned up and left, some of them pausing at the sight of the ex-convict huddled over his godson, but apparently word had spread quickly and all they gave him was a respectful nod. Severus remembered that Sirius had been one of them, a long time ago, a fact that made him irrationally agitated to recall. They didn't get much information from the teenagers, not with Molly and Arthur stalking around like overprotective lions, and as they retreated they bore a distinct look of defeat.

He had planned to return to his quarters, exhausted as he was from the events of the early morning, but an unpleasant surprise loomed in the form of Remus Lupin. The man was waiting in the shadows as he left the Wing. "Go to Hell," Severus snapped, out of habit and pent-up frustration.

"I know where Hermione is," Remus replied smoothly.

Severus stopped in his tracks, turning slowly in a circle to face the other man, the candlelight flickering over his scars giving Lupin's passive face a menacing look. "What did you just say?"

"Hermione Granger. I know what happened to her."

He was appalled by the notion that for the duration of that fight, of Potter's screeching and yelling, the injuries the men had sustained trying to restrain them; for all of that time Remus Lupin had known the truth and kept quiet. "You'd better explain yourself," Severus gritted out, struggling to keep his voice even, "and fast, before I eviscerate you and use your organs for potion ingredients."

Chapter Text

Friday 19 th  June 1970

Potter Manor, The Morning Room

"Can you tell us your full name?"

"Hermione Jean Granger."

"Your birthday?"

"19th September 1979."

Dorea and Charlus exchanged a look.

"Say that again, sweetheart?" Dorea asked softly, leaning forward to take Hermione's hand reassuringly.

Hermione, prepared for this, repeated the date dutifully and watched their faces change. It was only to be expected, of course – she hadn't been born yet. In fact, from what she could figure out, she wouldn't be born for another nine years. And wasn't that fun, to be stuck so far in the past that she wasn't yet even a foetus, with Muggle parents who would never understand the situation. As things stood, she was entirely reliant on the Potters, and while she had the vague knowledge that they were good people, there was no physical evidence of that fact. The things she knew about them were hearsay; while she had known a Potter in whatever life she used to live, and she had definitely loved him, he had been raised by strangers. Even he hadn't known much about his birth family, aside from their names.

She had been in Potter Manor for over twelve hours now. They'd set her up in a room on the family wing after a dinner over which the conversation had been casual. No mention had been made of the coming interrogation, but Hermione had known there would be one. Not even the nicest of people would keep a stranger in their house indefinitely without an explanation.

Still, the bath had been lovely, soothing her aches and pains from the fall. The bed, luxurious. She'd not felt anything so lovely before in her life. And then breakfast, a decadent feast over which Dorea had told her they would discuss her circumstances afterwards. She'd cleaned her plate and watched James be sent away, to much protest from the boy who had decided Hermione was his to be his new favourite toy, until finally, when he had relented and left, Dorea and Charlus had installed her in the Morning Room by a wall made entirely of windows, and the time for questions had arrived.

"You said you were muggle-born?" Dorea clarified now. Hermione had expected that. If she had been magical, there was the chance that she could have been palmed off on the people who raised her the first time. With her own parents barely out of medical school and not even acquainted with one another, that path was closed to them.

"Yes. I'm sorry," she squirmed in her chair, her eyes on her fingers locked together in her lap. "I know it's impractical for my parents to be muggles, but I can't change the truth."

Dorea blinked in surprise, then let out a laugh. "Impractical! You misunderstand me, darling. The fact is, your heritage makes this situation so much easier to deal with." Nonplussed, Hermione stared at Dorea, who was grinning madly at Charlus. "You hear her, dear? A Muggleborn! Stuck in the past! What are you always telling me – Magic will provide!"

Charlus, who had been mostly quiet up until now, was suddenly the picture of horror. "Dorea, you can't possibly be thinking-"

"You know exactly what I'm thinking, my love." She turned to Hermione, excitement vibrating off of her into the air. It was so palpable that Monty, who had been laid comfortably in Dorea's lap up until now, jumped down with a disgruntled growl and plodded off to find a less disruptive environment in which to take his nap.

"What do you mean, 'stuck in the past'?" Hermione leaned forward, frowning. It had been her own conclusion, yes, but to hear it from adults when they'd not even had time to look into it… well, it seemed ridiculous. The entire situation was unfathomable – shouldn't they be working as hard as possible to find a solution, if only to get her out of their hair? "Can you not just send me back?" Hermione wondered vaguely, trying to ignore Dorea's excitement for the moment. She wasn't ready for whatever the older witch wanted.

Her husband looked a little relieved at the reprieve, but the brackets either side of his mouth deepened. "I'm afraid not. All attempts to travel forward in time have been, up to this point, unsuccessful." Then he paused, tipping his head. "Travelling back has also been mostly unsuccessful, too, now that I think about it. How did you do it?"

She sighed irritably. "I told you, I don't know. I remember lots of spells, I fell over – I think? – and then here I was, in your garden." They had searched her pockets for anything that might give them a clue as to her identity or even the way she had travelled, but apart from some glitter, a few shards of glass and a ball of lint, she seemed to travel pretty light.

"That's another good thing, Charlus, the memory loss!" Dorea chirped, apparently stuck in her own blissful daydream, because the memory loss, to Hermione, was not only very definitively not a good thing, but frustrating too.


"It's almost like you're meant to be here, isn't it, Charlus, my love?" By now Dorea seemed to simply be ignoring the rest of them, running with her own ideas as far as they would take her.

He grimaced, tapping his fingers against the arm of his sofa. "I suppose that's one way to look at it."

"You can't travel forward in time, that's a proven fact," Dorea began, ticking that off on her finger with a smile, "so there's no way we can return you to your time just yet. Your mind has been wiped, so there's no danger of you deliberately changing the future," another finger was pushed down to join the first, "that's another possible snag all neatly dealt with, too. James loves you," she lowered a third finger with a victorious smile, as though that was the deciding factor. Hermione couldn't help but envy the adoration these parents felt for their son. "Bearing these in mind, I've got a proposal for you that might benefit the lot of us, while fixing your pesky 'no family, no home, wrong time' problem."

Charlus's discomfort rang a warning bell deep inside of her. She flicked her eyes to him, but he was determinedly staring at the floor. Obviously, he didn't want to be involved in the recommendation of whatever this scheme was in case it went horribly wrong. She turned back to Dorea, who looked about to float out of her skin, so elated was she. "Go on," Hermione beckoned to her to continue, resignation lying heavy in her gut.

"Stay here." Not expecting those words, Hermione found herself stunned into silence. Dorea pushed on. "With us. At least for a month or so, to start. If you still don't trust us, or don't like us, or don't want to stay after that time, we'll hand you over to the Ministry and see what they can do about your problem. No strings attached.

"If you do, however, like us, or trust us, or you would choose to stay, we'll adopt you as our own. You'll be James's sister in blood and bond, our daughter. We will raise you, care for you, put you through Hogwarts. Nobody will suspect your origins – we're a family of shut-ins, see, we only leave on visits occasionally and nobody ever comes here. It would be the simplest thing in the world to introduce you as our daughter, and people will believe us."

Frowning, Hermione thought it over. Under the circumstances, it seemed a logical proposition – if you had that sort of mind – but… "What do you get out of it?" she asked, perhaps more rudely than was warranted. It was a fair question, though. Their plan weighed heavily in her favour.

Charlus reached out and took one of Dorea's hands in his own, folding them so that hers was almost entirely hidden. "We're old," he told her bluntly. "We've been trying for children since we married over thirty years ago. We've been through many false starts, suffered too many disappointments to count. Ten years ago we were finally blessed with James; he was our miracle baby and we love him, but Dorea has always coveted a daughter of her own." He looked at his wife, his hazel eyes softened with so much pure love that it was painful to see it. "I, also, have always wanted a daughter. To my shame, I gave up on the notion a long time ago. Dorea, however… she prays every night that she might yet have the chance to raise a little girl of her own."

Hermione nodded, but she didn't really understand. It wasn't like she could really be their daughter. She looked too different, acted too different. Simply wasn't built to be the perfect pureblood child. Beside that, she wasn't a child, she was almost an adult, no matter how young she looked. She was too outspoken, too bull-headed, too muggle. "I'd be a disappointment," she finished the thought aloud, directing it to Dorea, who was watching her with a heart-wrenching amount of hope in her tear-stained grey eyes. "I'm a muggle-born, a certified Insufferable Know-It-All. I don't do well interacting with others, I never have, so James would tire of me eventually. I wouldn't be able to further your prospects, or marry well, or anything like you're expecting." She took a deep breath, not quite sure why this mattered so much but feeling the need to impress the facts upon them. "I'm just clever, that's all there is to me."

The two older Potters grinned, which was incongruent in the circumstances. "Oh, darling, don't you understand?" Dorea said softly, leaning over once again to lay her hand on Hermione's knees. She realised that she had been jigging them in anxiety, which was ridiculous considering that she was the one who got to make the decision here. The Potters couldn't reject her if she rejected them first. The choice was entirely in her hands. "Those very things are what would make you an excellent Potter. We're misfits, loners, the strays of the world. I was the cuckoo in my old family, too headstrong to make a good Black, never fitting in until I found Charlus. Charlus was the quiet one in the year, too dry and sarcastic for anybody else to care for. We're genetically wired to love those who feel unable to love themselves, it's who we are."

"I understand that you believe that, but it's just pretty words," Hermione protested. "You don't know me."

"On the contrary, my girl," Charlus said in his low, calming voice. "We know you better than you know yourself. You've a good heart, a kind soul. A penchant for collecting the dregs of the world and fighting for the underdog." Hermione jerked, staring at him in shock. He smirked wryly. "The wards, my dear. They've read you, and read you well. You couldn't be more of a Potter if you were born to it."

Dorea squeezed her knee again, smiling brightly. "Hermione. We wouldn't want you to be anybody but yourself." Then, she took a deep breath. "Say yes. Please. Just a month."

Hermione frowned. "You're serious."

"As dragon pox, my dear," Charlus assured her with a smirk. "As my wife said, we'd be happy to have you."

"I'm not perfect," she warned, but her resistance was crumbling.

Dorea grinned. "Believe us when we tell you that you don't need to be perfect to be a Potter." She looked at her husband pointedly, running a hand through his shaggy head of hair. He pressed a kiss to her head, resting his chin on her crown to peer across at Hermione, the girl they've just said they wanted to adopt. Dorea turned back to her, her smile softer now, more motherly. "You just need to be you."

Chapter Text

Wednesday 19 th  June 1996

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Potion Master's Quarters

Severus and Lupin stood across from each other in the living area of Severus' rooms. He hadn't invited the werewolf to sit, mostly so that he could have the satisfaction of telling him off if he did, or of watching him squirm his way through the meeting on his feet. He was petty like that, so sue him. This was a man who claimed to know the whereabouts of a missing student and yet concealed that information from the proper authorities. He had no sympathy for the bloke, and definitely felt no obligation to perform social niceties.

The Professor had also poured himself a tumbler of rather nice firewhiskey, which he did not share. Now, sipping it and staring at his guest, he waited for an explanation.

"She was in the Time Chamber," Lupin began, his arms folded across his chest. It always made Severus laugh that people underestimated this man; for all of his baggy cardigans and scruffy hair, he was a duelling champion that housed a volatile dark creature, with all of its instincts and power locked up in his six-foot frame. Lupin was capable of great violence, could be ruthless when angered, and murdered without consideration at least one night a month. Or, so Severus assumed on that last one. He'd never really cared enough to look into it after he had almost been the victim. Traumatising experiences, and all that. "They knocked over a cabinet of Time-Turners, it collapsed right on top of her."

"So you and Black thought you'd take her away, did you?" Severus purred with deliberate malice. "Stash her somewhere safe, away from everybody else? I'm assuming Black is in on this, it's not like you to work alone." A dark, evil thought occurred to him. "Is Potter in on it, also? Was that… performance in the Hospital Wing an act?" His carefully cultivated tone broke, real, cold fury lashing through it. Already he was scolding himself for falling for Potter's tricks, for allowing them to take advantage of such a glaring vulnerability. He ground his teeth and knocked back the remains of his whiskey.

Lupin looked taken aback but it could have been put-on. Severus had never had the idea that the man was a brilliant liar, though evidence suggested he was: he had, after all, managed to hide his lycanthrope nature from a school of hundreds of people for seven years. "No, Severus. You misunderstand me." He scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration, shooting Severus a glare. "Can I sit?"

Hiding his impatience behind languorous movements, Severus refilled his glass and watched Lupin consideringly over the rim. He hadn't reacted to Severus' accusations, but then he wasn't that hot-headed. He would have to try harder if he really wanted the truth, and he wasn't sure how to do that. Maybe overtures of friendship… no, the wolf would never buy that, and Severus was likely to throw up in his mouth if he tried. Grudging civility, though… that could work…

After a moment or two, just to draw out the werewolf's discomfort, he acquiesced with a stiff nod.

"Thanks," the other man grunted, collapsing into one of the stuffed armchairs by the fire and stretching his legs out towards the heat. Immediately he looked at home, the flames even reaching towards him to provide him with warmth. Severus had to hold back a growl; one of the things he had always despised about the werewolf was his comfort in most any situation, it ranked up there with the fact that everybody seemed to adore the man for no valid reason (and he'd investigated it, so he knew. "Why do you love him so much?" he'd asked Lily once, after seeing her run into his arms for an exuberant bear hug she'd never bestow on the likes of him. "I just do," she'd grinned. He was still bitter about that – I just do is not a valid answer).

In a refusal to give up ground, Severus moved over to the mantel, staring down at Lupin. He arranged his features to look vaguely impatient, an expression that had made several students cry over the years, and waited.

Lupin grimaced, his eyes fixed on the fire. "Look, Severus… you remember Hermione, yes?"

"She was in my class yesterday, Lupin, and she's not exactly quiet. I would find it exceedingly difficult to forget her in such a short space of time." A deliberate side-step.

"Not that Hermione." Their eyes locked, a silent stand-off. Severus begged him to let it go, if only in his mind. He didn't want to think about her. Lupin's gaze was hard and challenging, a dog with a bone, refusing to give up. Severus tried to flash a warning with his eyes, telling the man to leave it, that they'd converse another time in another place where perhaps they could be more subtle, this conversation not as glaring and dangerous to have. For Merlin's sake, didn't the man know they made the pact for a reason?

"I think they're the same person," Lupin blundered on blithely, as delicate as Exploding Snap.

"Preposterous." The word was out of his mouth before he could even think about it. He'd guessed that this might be coming, that with Miss Granger's disappearance Lupin, the one who had always loved her most openly, would attach his hopes for his old friend to the young woman, but it was more painful than he'd expected to have to let the man down. The very idea that the two women were the same was ludicrous, completely absurd. While, yes, Hermione Granger had reminded him strongly at times of the other Hermione, the other had been… better. Wittier, stronger, less eager-to-please, more stubborn, less forgiving. Hermione Potter would never have put up with Hermione Granger's dunderheaded friends' dunderheaded antics. She would have headed those off at the pass, just as she had with him and Regulus.

Gods, and that was another name he'd promised himself he wouldn't think about. In fact, they had all sworn a pact against it, the first and final time the entire group of people had gathered in peace to talk about it. Ironically, that had been what Hermione had wanted her entire life: for the people she loved to get along.

"Lupin, we had an agreement." He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose to stave off a migraine, not liking the feel of pressure growing behind his eyes. If only the man would just leave, give up on these ridiculous notions and bugger off. It was clear, now, that Lupin had no real idea of where the young lass had disappeared to; no idea other than his own damaging, dangerous delusions.

"Sod the agreement and listen to me, Snape." Lupin's eyes burned in his head, bottomless pits of pent-up rage. Really, it was a shock, because Severus hadn't guessed the man could feel so strongly. Lupin's anger fed his own, though, the emotion breeding deep in his belly. "Hermione Granger has disappeared because she is Hermione Potter," Lupin enunciated every word clearly, with an edge.

"Lupin…" Severus' voice was a roll of thunder, a warning against Lupin's foolish actions. "What you speak of is impossible, I will not entertain it."

"Hear me out, Severus."

"Miss Granger-"

Lupin was talking again, louder, though his voice was still a mere grumble of sound, the way it always was when he was angry. Severus had heard him shout perhaps twice in his entire life, on neither occasion had it lasted very long. "I heard an interesting story this evening. Apparently, Dolores Umbridge disappeared with Harry and Hermione into the Forest, in search of Dumbledore's secret 'weapon'. We know that Harry and Hermione then went to the Ministry – but where was Dolores?"

Lupin's eyes flicked down to the fire again, focusing hard. A flash of malicious amusement zipped through his expression as he spoke. "Hagrid received a message while we were sedating Harry, that's where I went. Apparently, the Centaurs have taken a teacher prisoner. Bane claims that she breached the Treaty between the Centaurs and the School at least twenty times in her duration of her Headship, which gives them the right to revenge themselves upon her. He claims, also, that a representative of the school was the one to hand the criminal into their keeping."

Lupin's eyes reflected leaping, licking flames, shining with the near-feral excitement of an inquisitive man close to solving a long-standing mystery. "While I doubt Hermione took Umbridge to the Forest with the express intention of handing her as a criminal over to the Centaur Colony, that is what she did. She saw the opportunity to protect herself, Harry, and everybody else and took it, without dithering over morality and ethics or even the witch's fate. Now, Severus, tell me – who do we know who is loyal enough that she might take this opportunity to avenge her friends, clever enough to get herself and her friends out of a situation like that without harm coming to herself, cunning enough to twist such a dangerous opportunity to her advantage, and ruthless enough to use it to get rid of an enemy? It's a fairly unique trait, wouldn't you admit?"

Severus held his breath. When it was laid out like that, it seemed sensible, a plausible explanation. Hermione Potter had done much over the years that crossed into a moral grey area – of course, she hadn't fed anybody to dangerous dark creatures, but she had come close. Hermione Potter would do anything to protect her friends and family, even if that loyalty was misguided. It was the best and worst thing about her. The chances of Miss Granger also sharing that trait and yet not having any connection to the missing Potter were astoundingly slim.

Still, though… he would rather believe that Hermione Granger was just some random muggle-born girl who coincidentally had the same name and mannerisms as his old friend, than to think she actually was her. Not just because he disliked the chit, but also because Hermione Potter was dead. If Granger and she were the same person, then Granger was now dead, also, and he wasn't sure that Potter could get through this War without her. This, even before his own feelings came into the matter.

It hurt him to think that she might have been under his nose all these years and he had not noticed. Hermione had been his closest friend, even after Lily had left him. She had stood by him through thick and thin, patching him up when he was injured and encouraging him when he was well. Even were she in a different body, surely he would have been able to feel the connection between the two of them?

But then, the possibilities were endless – was Hermione Granger an obliviated Hermione Potter? Was Hermione Potter an obliviated Hermione Granger, even? And, why did they look so different? There was no doubt that either girl had belonged to their respective families, they had the look of their parents. He had even seen the bonds between them. Strong bonds, the type that could only be forged of blood.

Were they both dead? Or were they both alive? Was he insane to contemplate this theory, to think it could be truth?

"If…" he began, then had to start again when his voice cracked. "If Miss Granger is, indeed, Miss Potter, how do you suppose that would come about?" Lupin's eyes shot to him in shock, Severus painted a forbidding glower on his features. "Do not make me regret entertaining this lunacy, Lupin. Explain yourself or leave."

Lupin snorted. "Like there's a choice," he muttered. Then, "I saw the Time Chamber once everybody had left. There was a silhouette on the wall, spattered with the sand from the Time-Turners, and all mashed up with some other odd substance I assume came from the smashed fish-bowl we found lying on the floor. It looked like someone had been pinned to the wall and attacked by the artefacts of the room." Impatiently, he shot Severus a significant look, and once again enunciated his next sentence carefully. "Someone with mad, untameable hair that wouldn't be cowed by a bit of glass, water and sand."

Severus, not a stupid man, added two and two together to get four. "Time-Travel."

"With a bit of prototype de-aging potion thrown into the mix; according to Dora, Rabastan Lestrange's body was that of a newborn, with his ugly, full-size head bobbling about on the shoulders."

Realization was swamping him, his mind having the same clicking sensation that Remus' had experienced earlier that night. "Very neat," he murmured, turning the information over in his head. "So she was sent back in time, somehow winding up with the Potters."

Lupin nodded, a faint smile ghosting over his lips. "Lucky witch that she is, they take her in as their own. No memory, no family: she's a ready-made second child, right on their doorstep. All they had to do was adopt her."

Severus stopped his pacing to slump into his chair, summoning another glass and passing it over to Lupin. He deserved it, for all of the stress he had been under this evening, and for solving a decades-long mystery. Now, though, they had a new problem. "What exactly do you expect me to do with this information?"

The fiery liquid disappeared down his throat as quickly as it was poured. Lupin watched himself pour another glass as if he couldn't quite believe he was doing it. As sharing a drink or two with Remus Lupin hadn't been on his to-do list, Severus could sympathise with his bewilderment. "We need to hide it, for now." He took in Severus' expression and sighed, just on the right side of pitying. "I know, I know, but… what exactly will they do with the truth, except stress about it? Harry would never trust any of us, ever again, if he found out about his long-lost Aunt this far in. It could destroy him, turn the tides of the war against us. If she's not coming back – which we both know she isn't – it's probably best to wait. At least until things are more settled."

Agreeing with him was a bitter feeling. He'd rather have been able to argue, but the point was made. Plus, he didn't trust what the old man would do with the information – especially now that Black was back. Potter needed Black, that much was obvious, and Albus would almost certainly, ill-advisedly, use the information to turn them against one another.

Lupin laughed lightly, looking vaguely guilty when Severus turned to him. "Sorry, but – you should see your face. It's like you've just found the snot flavoured Every Flavour Bean. I know it'll hurt you to say it, so I'll say it for you:" his voice lowered into a gruffer imitation of Severus' own baritone, "'you have a good point, wolf, though if you tell anyone I said that I will gleefully hang you from the highest of towers, using your own entrails as the rope.'"

Another thing Severus had always hated about Remus Lupin was just how hard he had to work to dislike him. He covered the smirk he couldn't repress by taking another swig of his whiskey, then glared at Lupin to even the score. The wretched man didn't have the decency to pretend not to have noticed, instead donning a gloating expression beneath his tired eyes as he went for the exit. "As long as we're in agreement, anyway, Severus. I'll owl you within the week."

"We're not friends, Lupin," Severus snapped.

"I won't expect a reply," the werewolf shot back airily, the door thudding closed behind him.

Chapter Text

Saturday 24th June  1995

12 Grimmauld Place, Entrance Hall

"What in Merlin's name is he doing in my house?!"

The shout echoed around the entranceway, but no one flinched. Truthfully, she hadn't expected anyone to. In the long years she had been trapped here, she had become accustomed to her limitations, and talking to other humans was one of them – along with eating, sleeping, peeing, ageing. Pretty much all aspects of life were denied her, trapped as she was, wherever she was. The only time she could have any effect on the outside world at all was with wandless magic, and that had taken years to figure out. It had to be at a certain pitch, and used nearly all of her power for very little gain. The last time she'd tried to take a book for herself, it had taken her a whole day of drifting around a near shade before she could get the energy to try again.

She could, however, see and hear what was going on around her. She had free reign of the house, dull and dank though it was. She couldn't sit or lie down on furniture, but she never got physically tired, so it didn't particularly matter all that much. If she was really desperate, there was always the floor, but she didn't trust Kreacher's cleaning ability enough to dare. Not in the main areas, anyway. Regulus' room was another story.

Kreacher listened to her orders, could pass her things to do; parchment, ink and books, but she had to use the floor or walls as her desks. Then she would have to give them back, because if she let go they would vanish into the ether. How it worked, she wasn't sure, and Kreacher refused to tell her. The old elf was quite useless in that regard; for all that he had spent the last decade walking around the house talking to her nearly non-stop, he very rarely said anything she could actually use.

He would tell her other things, though. He brought her information on the outside world, occasionally took her out for trips to visit friends. Of course, her friends couldn't see or hear her, or even know she was there, but it was often a comfort to just watch them go about their lives. It kept her awake, aware. It kept her sane. She had gone to see Harry Potter frequently as he grew up, angry though the experiences made her; Remus Lupin occasionally, for she felt a great deal of responsibility towards her old friend; Severus just the once. That had been too miserable an experience to repeat.

It seemed things were about to pick up, however, in this wretched little hovel to which she was confined. She had almost exploded with excitement when she'd felt the changes in the wards, moving to the entrance hall with a speed she'd nearly forgotten she was capable of. The anticipation had been unbearable, just waiting for the door to swing open…

Now, the excitement was gone, and she was just angry. She remembered anger, her loving, constant companion during her imprisonment. Impotent rage at Harry's aunt and uncle as she was forced to watch them push him around as a child. Resentment for the conditions Remus had been forced to live with due to his illness. Wrath for the bastard who locked her here.

More than anything else, though, her fury towards the man who had just walked into her house like he owned the damn place burned in her. The wizard who now had her shrieking like a harpy, making her sound a little too much like the Black matriarch for comfort. Older, grayer he might be, but she would be hard pressed to forget those eyes, that kindly mask. His aura of self-importance and greed. The sinister way the blue of his irises twinkled in the light…

Maybe that was pushing it a bit, but she was acting on nearly sixteen years of pent-up emotion. She was due a little slack.

Her hands were held in front of her, electricity arcing between her fingers. Cobalt sparks danced down her curls and played on her skin as she gave over to the rush of power in her veins, the burning as it fought against her commands. She gathered it in her palms like sand or water, ready to escape at any given moment, a volatile substance that didn't do well without instruction.

Her aggression fuelled it, though she knew that was a dangerous thing to allow. One wrong move could turn that beautiful purple lake she cupped into something evil and black, and she had enough to worry about without the old man's death on her conscience. Without turning so Dark that murder would be her choice, her first and only choice, despite all of the precautions she and those around her had taken in an attempt to ensure her safety and purity when all was said and done.

If she could even kill him, the state she was in.

She whipped her hands back, curled into fists and flung them forward, releasing her hold on the magic and setting it free. Her concentration never wavered as she guided it past the barely-visible barrier between her and the physical world, but managed the feat with the ease of long practise. Her magic smashed on forward, an ultraviolet display invisible to the naked eye, and she bared her teeth as hit its target.

Headmaster Dumbledore's hat fell off.

"Oh?" he said, startled, looking down at the pile of felt sitting crumpled on the ground. Behind her barrier Hermione Potter growled her disappointment, trying to punch the wall but failing, as always. She cursed Kreacher under her breath, but the elf had the wisdom to stay well away. The old man bent down to scoop the hat up, mashing it back into place as he eyed the hallway speculatively,

"I think there might be a breeze," a woman's voice said as she came through the door, followed quickly by a yelp and a clatter as something smashed against the wall. "Shite!" the same woman shouted, but it was too late. Hermione watched in interest as Dear Walburga's portrait was unveiled to a new audience for the first time in over a decade, free to spew her tirade of abuse and racial hatred upon the unwelcome intruders. Hermione had mastered the art of shutting her up in her time at the house with minimal magic use (Kreacher liked to open the curtains to chat with her, thinking that Hermione wouldn't notice. She always noticed) but left her to screech, liking the way Dumbledore flinched as she reached the high notes. Small, petty acts was the least he deserved.

"Will someone shut that bloody hag up?!" the yell came from outside, and there was a scuffle at the door. Suddenly, Dear Walburga was silent, her heavy drapes obscuring her face once more. Dumbledore was in her way, blocking the door so that Hermione couldn't see the newcomers, but she had a good feeling.

Well, a feeling more pleasant than the one she had had before, when there had been only Dumbledore to look at.

"Why don't you all come in?" Dumbledore invited benevolently, moving off down the corridor.

Hermione snarled after him, "'come in', he says, like it's his fucking house," but was quickly distracted by the arrival of yet more people.

"Don't wan'na," a voice whined, the same one that had shouted seconds earlier. There was a huff and a scrabble at the door, and then; "Cousin?"

An agreeable noise came from the carpet. Or, rather, the girl sprawled out across the carpet. Hermione moved to help her before remembering that there was no point, and by that time the girl was moving. "I'm fine!" she chirped, untangling her legs from Dear Walburga's prized troll-leg umbrella stand and leaping nimbly to her feet. Hermione couldn't help but admire the fact that a woman so clumsy could look so very elegant, even as she lamented the fact that Dave the Troll's Leg was still in one piece.

The newcomer had amethyst coloured curls that were styled short around an elfin face with bright cheeks and a mischievous tilt to her lips. Something about her was familiar, and the back of her mind provided the name Tonks without any prodding. Hermione could remember Tonks then, vaguely, even though she hadn't been a massive part of Hermione's life in the Early Days. A respect she had nurtured from the very beginning took root again in her consciousness; she knew it would bloom given time and patience. Preferably, also interaction between the two of them, but that time wasn't nigh yet, not according to Kreacher. Damn elf.

The one she thought was called Tonks moved out of the doorway and looked back expectantly. It appeared she had slammed the door shut in the commotion. "All clear, lads!" and then, "Shit, sorry!"

"It's fine. Come on, you great daft lump," a fond voice reprimanded as the doorknob jiggled. She drifted forward unconsciously, somehow knowing that this coming moment would be important. Not just for her but for everybody, and she would hate to miss it. "And I'm thirty-five, Nymphadora, hardly a lad." The door clicked open to reveal to faces, faces so dear to her she almost passed out from relief.

She had never, ever seen such a wonderful sight. In the afternoon sun the two men were silhouetted like heroes returning from battle, a vision that would forever be associated in her mind with the day hope returned to her.

The men shifted, blocking the light, and suddenly the image was much more mundane. Still wonderful, she reminded herself, just… realistic. She inspected them carefully, drinking in their appearances like a woman dying of thirst.

One was too skinny but had the build of a much bigger man, with ink-black hair so dark it was almost blue curled against his neck and clear grey eyes that assessed his surroundings critically even as his mouth continued to pout in the other man's direction. His cheekbones and jawline were chiselled, but with upon closer inspection she could tell it was from starvation rather than style. Shadows gathered behind his eyes, shadows he valiantly tried to hide with teasing. Her heart ached for him, long missed affection rising to settle in her chest as she reached out in an attempt to caress his cheek, stroke his hair, anything to convince herself he was real.

Her hand stopped an inch from his face and would go no further. As he moved forward, she was forced back. Her eyes stung with tears as she let her fingers curl into a fist and fall to her side.

"Just as fucking awful as I remember," Sirius Black ("The Prodigal Heir" Reg's voice laughed in her head) sneered, his gaze raking the elf-heads on the walls with contempt. She would have to agree; no matter how she bargained or wheedled, Kreacher wouldn't take them down. Still, something stirred in her that she thought might be offense (you try not to be offended when people walk into your house and insult it straight off the bat. It might be a hovel, but it was her hovel).

"Sirius," the other man said, voice gently chiding. Hermione's gaze swung to him. She was able to breathe again at the first glimpse of his beloved face, despite it being more worn and stressed than ever. Remus had always had that effect on her – somehow comforting, a port in a storm. Even in the Early Days, the time she struggled to recall, she knew that she had adored and admired him greatly. Above any of their other DADA professors, certainly.

He was still lanky, thin, graying sandy hair drifting lazily over his forehead as it had since he was a child. His eyes were infinitely kind, but now bore warmth with a hint of irritation as he tried to drag Sirius further into the house. The other man was making it as hard as possible without fully dropping himself to dead weight. She couldn't resist a smile watching them.

"Remus," Sirius parried playfully, huffing and tossing his hair in a gesture he'd had since he was twelve. Remus shook his head and rolled his eyes, digging long fingers into the space between Sirius' third and fourth rib. Sirius let out a great shriek, pushing Remus away and hopping to the other end of the room. "Evil, you are, Lupin. Pure evil."

Remus smiled serenely, leaning back to shove the door closed. "Welcome home, Padfoot." His voice held sympathy, but also a firmness that brooked no argument. Sirius sagged against the wall.

12 Grimmauld Place, Kitchen

Hermione was leaning against the larder door, watching the house's inhabitants argue. If anyone were to ask her whether she was enjoying her first ever Order meeting, the answer would have to be a resounding no. It was ridiculous, a complete mess, which was a pity because Hermione had spent most of both of her lives begging to be involved with it. Watching Dumbledore preside over the Order now with the airs of a benevolent dictator, she rather wondered why she bothered.

"What I don't get is why we don't have any other safe houses," Sirius asked for the fourth time that meeting. People were starting to ignore him because he wouldn't take Dumbledore's answer. Really, though, was he supposed to buy that 'nobody else's was available'? With all of Dumbledore's contacts? Hermione completely got where he was coming from, more than that, wondered why nobody else could see it.

"Pads…" Remus said beside him, laying a hand on his arm in warning. Sirius shrugged it off. Remus didn't get it. Or, maybe he did, but he couldn't understand the extent to which Sirius loathed this house. He felt trapped here, locked away, which for all intents and purposes he was. It wasn't too bad right now, not with Remus by his side and others in the house, but he knew that the second they left it would become his mausoleum. He hadn't escaped Azkaban just to be imprisoned in another House of Horrors. Hermione could understand that – even lived it, most days.

"Explain it to me once more," Sirius pressed, leaning over the table towards the older man. Dumbledore was losing patience, Hermione could see it in his eyes. They no longer twinkled and danced, but instead sat flat in the crags of his face, staring out with icy resentment. Dumbledore had had very little patience for Sirius since Azkaban, a fact that Sirius was well aware of, but he seemed to enjoy the thrill that came with pushing him. Dumbledore couldn't do anything about it, either. Sirius was too valuable to Remus for Dumbledore to 'lose'. If Sirius was left to fend for himself, Remus would abandon Dumbledore, and he would have no golden werewolf.

Dumbledore disliked the idea of their loyalties being stronger to each other than to him, Albus the Great and Powerful, but if he were to keep harping on about the power of love he couldn't exactly break them up, could he? Not Remus and Sirius. They had been together through thick and thin; the two of them shared the strongest bond Hermione had ever witnessed. Stronger even than her parents'. Certainly stronger than my own, Hermione laughed to herself, twisting the thin gold band she wore around her finger.

Dumbledore was careful not to show any outward signs of pique, but Sirius could smell it on him. It was one of his talents, the very thing that made him the irritating little scoundrel he was today. Remus never did, probably never would, he trusted the man too much to go looking for ulterior motives, but since the debacle with Regulus, Sirius had been keeping a close eye on the Headmaster. His trust had been dented by the old man's abandonment of his brother, just as James' had by his abandonment of his sister. Hermione saw these things in him clearly. He knew he skated on thin ice: gaining Dumbledore's displeasure often led to unpleasant things, but there was a part of him that was reckless and wild enough that he couldn't help it. He wanted the old goat to lose his composure. Sirius wanted him to take a shot, any shot, that might justify retaliation.

Hermione skirted the room to stand behind Sirius' chair. She loved Sirius, perhaps not as much as she loved others, but there was still a soft part of her heart that belonged entirely to him. He had been a second brother to her, growing up. He had protected her from her own idiocy on more than one occasion, and now she looked to return the favour. Resting her hands above that barrier between them his aura created, she cleared her mind of all but calmness. Beneath her palms she sensed Sirius' spiralling temper, the desperation within him not to be locked in this damned oversized coffin. She locked onto that, placing it firmly in the centre of her mind, and began to hum.

This had taken her a while to master. She'd discovered the ability when visiting Remus during a particularly bad full moon, just after Sirius had been arrested. She'd found him in his wolf-form, launching himself at the walls of his basement, howling for his friend and beloved playmate. Bowled over by his loss, she'd demanded Kreacher bring her back, but he'd refused. Instead, he'd informed her that she could calm him, as only a family member could do. A mother, maybe, perhaps an aunt at a push. Definitely a sister, which is what she'd always been to Remus and the rest.

Kreacher'd directed her to stand close to the wolf, so close that she felt the automatic pushback of his aura. Then she'd have to think soothing thoughts ("like some loony faith healer, you mean?", "Kreacher does not understand Mistress. Mistress want to heal like elf? Must follow instructions, like good elf") and use her magic to push the emotion through that barrier, allowing it to sink into her subject's consciousness. The singing allowed her greater control over the magic; like a wand using the correct movements, hitting the perfect notes would direct her magic to where it would need to be. As she didn't know any magical lullabies, nor was she a particularly good singer, she replaced the melodies with nursery rhymes and football chants. It seemed to work just fine, despite Kreacher's deeply disgusted observation.

With exaggerated slowness, she hummed The Grand Old Duke Of York into Sirius's crown, closing her eyes against distractions as she penetrated his many layers of protection. He jerked slightly when she made contact, but she refused to push back, instead allowing her magic to seep deeper into him, soothing his anger and sorrow on the lowest notes. He relaxed, eventually, though his eyes remained suspiciously on Dumbledore – something Hermione could not in good conscience discourage, not after the life she'd lived.

"We have used all of the other safe houses at least once over the course of the war, as you well know, Sirius. This is the only one we have left, and you promised it to us."

"That was before I saw it," Sirius sniffed, looking at the grimed-up surfaces of the kitchen pointedly. "It's like my mother only just left."

Tonks snorted loudly on the other side of the table. "Did you not see that portrait, cuz? Aunt Wally never did leave." She tilted her head up to the ceiling, squinting her eyes as if to see right through. "I'm kind of concerned that we might go into a room and find her body, all rotting and shit in her favourite chair."

Remus, Sirius and Tonks all shivered in tandem. "Don't say things like that, Dora," Remus muttered, entirely serious. "I'll have nightmares."

"Worry not, old friend," Sirius said with a grim smile. "After a lifetime of feeding on the souls of small children and the blood of virgins, she probably just up and turned to dust after being left in the light for too long. No nasty corpse to bother yourself with."

"I think that's even worse, actually, Pads," Remus was slightly green now, staring at his dust-covered hands like they had betrayed him. "Oh, gods." Sirius snickered lightly, bumping Remus' shoulder affectionately with his own. Remus looked genuinely scarred for life.

"Enough," Dumbledore scolded in his best commanding voice. Remus and Sirius broke apart immediately, their attentions turned to the man watching them. "We need to discuss our next move, if you can take the time away from your jokes." The last word was said with enough emphasis to assure them of his displeasure. Hermione was offended enough for the both of them. She'd missed the boys, their laughter and merriment. Seeing them together was like a balm to her tattered soul, and if it were up to her, she would make time for their jokes. Their happiness. Allow them the time to love one another, even in the midst of war. Love, as Dumbledore was fond of preaching, was something much too sacred to lose.

Arthur Weasley, seated close to the head of the table (as opposed to Sirius, Remus and Tonks, who had been sequestered much father back), leaned forward to gain Dumbledore's attention. "I'm ever so sorry to interrupt, Albus, but I have a point to raise, also." He took a deep breath, seeming to gather his confidence, fisting his hands on his knees.

"My wife is really rather concerned about the safety of our children at Hogwarts. I have to agree, I'm afraid, and it won't just be us – I don't think there has ever been such a period of turmoil at Hogwarts as there has been these past four years. Basilisks in the walls, escaped lunatics in the corridors – no offense intended, Sirius – teachers allowing our children to study the Unforgivables at such a young age…" he trailed off, Dumbledore's gaze squarely on him. He took a moment to steady himself before he spat it all out at once: "The thing is, Albus, I know there are reasons enough for all of these occurrences, but our children are in danger. We need some sort of guarantee that next year we won't be receiving a letter informing us that our son is in the hospital wing, or our daughter has been kidnapped by a Dark entity. Otherwise… we'llhavetomovethem." The last words were rushed out, Arthur retaining his composure even as Dumbledore glared. To give him credit, he did not shrink away from the headmaster, instead keeping his head held high. He had a good point, he knew that, and he wasn't leaving without confirmation of their children's safety. Hermione quite admired him.

Dumbledore seemed to consider Arthur's words for a moment, his grandfatherly smile softening his expression but not his eyes. "I understand your concerns, Arthur, and I share them. Nobody is more invested in our children's safety than I am – is that not what this war is about, after all?" He paused to allow for nodding – Arthur, Kingsley and Remus all nodded along, but Tonks tilted her head. Sirius sat straight in his chair, and Hermione knew what he was thinking: the safety of all children except for Harry, and in her own head she added and Hermione, Ron, any child that can be crafted into a tool for the Greater Good. Mad-Eye Moody, so very quiet as he watched the room, grunted something that might have been an agreement. Albus watched them, ever the good general rallying his troops.

"Still, I must urge you to have faith in me, Arthur. Have faith in Hogwarts to protect what is ours. No matter what comes to our door, you must remember that there is no safer place in the world for our children than Hogwarts School."

Arthur, mollified, nodded. Hermione, not nearly so, bared her teeth even though she knew nobody would see it. He was a snake, a venomous python in their bosom, training their children to be the front line, cannon fodder in a war that was not their own, and doing so right under their parent's noses. Could they not sense that? By the gods, he'd used the same words a million times now, until they all repeated them over and over even outside of his presence, like mindless sheep.

She'd forced herself to sit through the half-hour of strategy planning at the beginning of the meeting, while Moody, Kingsley and Dumbledore had rattled off instructions for the others, and then she had sat through Sirius' unsatisfying Q&A, but she wouldn't listen to Dumbledore hand out more false platitudes. It was beneath her dignity to have to, knowing she could do nothing about it.

Luckily, Dumbledore chose that moment to end the meeting. He gathered his things and departed with his 'best wishes' for Sirius at Grimmauld, taking Moody and Kingsley with him. Arthur disappeared through the door shortly after, leaving only Sirius, Tonks and Remus behind. The second the front door closed, Sirius collapsed back into his chair, letting out a gusty sigh. "Did you notice he didn't give me anything to do?" he asked, leaning his head back to watch Remus and Tonks. "It was all, 'stay here, Sirius, we need you here. Recover, Sirius, then we'll talk'."

"He has a point," Remus told him primly, ever the voice of reason. "You can hardly go fighting Death Eaters in your condition. A strong wind would snap you in two." He stood from his chair, passing Hermione without any sign that he could sense her presence, in order to search the cupboards. "Do we have any tea?"

"Did you bring tea?"

"No," Remus hummed, still opening and closing doors.

"Then why would there be tea, Moony? For the ghosts?" Sirius laughed bitterly. "Someone will need to go shopping."

Remus paused, frowning, to pull a tin down from a shelf. He opened it, sniffed slightly, and frowned again. "I found it," he said slowly, placing the little box carefully down on the table, as though it were a dangerous artefact. "Fresh tea leaves…" Thoughtfully, he scanned the room, reaching out to run a finger down the kettle. He clicked the lid open, peered inside. Then he moved to the crockery cupboard, more swiftly now, and Hermione tensed with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

"What do you mean, fresh tea leaves?" Sirius snorted, not really catching on, but Tonks did. She hopped from her seat to crouch down beside Remus, who moved aside for her. Hermione held her breath, knowing what they would find. "There can't be fresh tea leaves, nobody's been here since the old witch died."

Tonks drew out a plate, a mug and a glass, dropped them next to the tea leaves, and then pulled out another set to place beside them. "Sirius," she said slowly, "are you absolutely sure of that?"

"Of course I'm sure," he snapped, though it was obvious he was getting drawn in by the mystery. He joined the other two as they stared at their finds, bemusement creasing his brow. "What is it?"

"These plates have been used," Tonks said quietly, darting looks around the room as if she could see the entity that occupied the house simply because she wanted to. "This mug has been continually washed." Hermione was entirely to blame for that, to be honest. She liked tea, it reminded her of her mother, of her first day at her new home. The mug was another relic of that time, plain white china with no distinguishing characteristics, but imbued with the nostalgia of her second childhood. She couldn't just leave it to rot, not when Kreacher was there to make her drinks in it. She liked to watch him eat, too, and if he preferred to eat on the household china then she wasn't going to object, not when he was her only companion these days – and one prone to fits of temper that could have him vanish for days on end, at that.

"That's not possible," Sirius repeated again, running his fingers across first the clean plate, and then the grime-speckled surface of the other. Hermione waited patiently. She wasn't sure how the between worked, but considering the circumstances of her entrapment, perhaps Sirius was the one who could call her back? He'd have to know she was there first, obviously, but they looked on the edge of figuring it out…

"Unless…" He murmured. He exchanged an expectant look with Remus, who returned it with a confused one. Hermione tried not to be excited, tried not to hope that he could possibly have guessed, but the anticipation stirred her gut until she fought down nausea.

Sirius pushed away from the table, moving to the fireplace and the open space of the hearth, before he turned his face to the ceiling. There was a battle of emotion there, which looked painful, until it settled into the look of one who had smelt something particularly bad and he opened his mouth to cry – not Hermione's name, as she had hoped though not truly expected, but "KREACHER!".

Chapter Text

Wednesday 19 th  August 1970

Potter Manor, Hermione's Room

Hermione awoke to an insistent scraping and tapping at her door, like every other morning. The sun had risen perhaps two hours before, shining cheerfully through the parted drapes half-heartedly concealing her window, lighting the gleaming hardwood floor in a path straight to Hermione's face. Sleep-drunk, still, she flung a hand over her eyes and groaned for the disturbance which would not stop.

She had been at Potter Manor for a month now, the month she had originally promised Dorea after their emotional encounter in the Morning Room the day after her arrival. The days were filled with demonstrations of family life; affection and teachings from Dorea, who had taken to her role as Mother like a duck to water, whose instruction of Hermione in all things 'pure-blood Potter' were interspersed with rides around the grounds on the backs of Thestrals – "the best magical horses," Dorea claimed, "strong, loyal and loving" – and time spent in the ladies parlour playing games and listening to stories of Dorea's own childhood. She was also subject to endless dry jokes and lectures from Charlus, who took great pleasure in educating her on any topic under the sun, all of which she listened to avidly with the thirst for knowledge that so characterised her.

It was the time she spent with James that stayed with her, though, memories of their time together somewhat making up for the increasingly large gaps she found in her own mind. He was a playful child, often laying traps and pranks on her around the house, but preferring when they could work together on a project – his mischief combined with her innate intelligence making them a formidable pair. More than once Charlus had found the furniture of his study stuck to the ceiling, a changed colour, or on one occasion moved two-point-five inches to the left (that one had been Hermione's idea, and they had hidden behind a tapestry to observe Charlus banging his ankles into every piece of furniture, swearing up a storm with no idea what had occurred).

They were nine and ten years old, nowhere near proficient in magic but competent at controlling their accidental outbursts – something James' parents had taught him from the very first, skills which seemed to come naturally to Hermione and was blamed on her natural discipline (though she knew better). They messed about in abandoned suites, hunting for treasure, playing hide-and-seek and tag across the polished floors of the ballroom. They rough-housed with Monty, and James introduced her to the working dogs that lived in the stables; one male and two females, all Muggle sheepdogs, trained to rid the grounds of gnomes but equally happy to take a few hours out for fetch and wrestling.

Hermione thought she had never been so dirty in her life as she had gotten this past month, nor quite as happy as she felt running headlong through the forest at the back of their property, hand in hand with James until they fell, at speed, into the river that separated the wild trees from the carefully cultivated orchard, coming up for air laughing and spluttering with mud in their shoes and fish down their shirts.

Every-time they referred to one another as 'sister' or 'brother', Dorea would smile a little more and Charlus would send his wife soft-eyed expressions of a father's satisfaction.

Still, there were no guarantees, as Hermione knew too well. Today she would decide whether she should stay with them or find accommodations elsewhere. If she chose to stay with them, she knew they could send her away on a whim. She felt like family, but there was a wedge between them, thin but existent. Her brown hair and eyes reminded her whom she was and was not as she looked in the mirror. Her skin tone so much darker than Dorea's porcelain, a few shades lighter than James and Charlus'. It wasn't just a question of whether she'd like to stay with them – the answer to which would be a resounding 'yes' – but whether she could trust them with herself.

The scratching at the door had grown louder, which wasn't a sign that they had grown more impatient, but rather that James had gotten on his knees to join in. Hermione rolled her eyes at his antics, but was unable to surpress the smile that twitched her lips. He was so impatient, her brother, couldn't wait for anything for more than ten minutes without wreaking havoc.

"Get up, lazy!" he shouted as if to punctuate the point, Monty barking along.

"I'm awake!" she shouted, laughter thrumming in her voice. It had taken her a few days to get used to the change in her voice, and now she barely blinked at the difference. It was like that with other things, too – the more time she spent with James, the more comfortable she was in her nine-year-old body, doing childish things. He brought out the bits of her personality she had thought buried, the parts that craved excitement and mischief. She didn't know for sure, but she had a sneaking suspicion that in her old life there hadn't had much call for fun and games.

Slipping from her bed, she pulled her robe to her and slung it around her shoulders. In the mirror above the bureau she checked that she was decent, patting down her curls as if that could make them any tamer (which it would not, would never) before crossing to the door.

It swung open at her touch, spilling James into the room. Monty, ever the opportunist, yelped excitedly and burrowed his way under the boy's shirt, twin tails whirring with glee. James gave a shout, his arms flailing helplessly, but Monty was too comfortable in his new home, his entire body disguised by the folds of material, all but the tails that continued to thud out a perky tune on James's rump.

"You know better," Hermione scolded him through giggles. Monty was only a puppy, and while he'd been house-trained, nobody had yet been able to teach him manners. The little crup had a weakness for small, dark spaces and human body heat, so if the two were offered in one neat package, he just couldn't help himself. In the time Hermione had been resident here, she'd found him in her laundry basket twice, her bed every night for a week, and even after a stern warning Monty still tried to crawl up her skirt when she was sat down.

"Get 'im off! 'Mione! Help!" James shouted through a mouthful of rug, flailing his arms. Monty held strong, causing Hermione to laugh ever harder. The little crup buried his nose in James' neck, making the boy squeak most manfully at the sensation. Hermione, feeling like the torture had run its course, kneeled to help drag the thin material of his pyjama shirt up. Monty squirmed in displeasure, more so when she dug her hands beneath his belly and pulled, turning his head to peer at her confusedly.

"You know you're not supposed to do that," she said in the firmest voice she could manage, which was, sadly, not very firm at all. "James doesn't like it."

Monty's nose twitched as she lifted him in the air, then he flexed his body and squirmed around, reaching up to lick her on the nose. She smiled for him, and he yapped happily. James scrambled up from the floor, pulling his pyjama shirt down with a scowl. "Bloody dog," he said with affection, reaching out to scratch his ears. Then his face turned more serious, looking up at Hermione. "Today's the day."

Today was, indeed, the day. She sighed, setting Monty down on her bed, where he burrowed beneath the dishevelled covers until only his nose was visible, poking out the end of the duvet. His split-tails disturbed the covers slightly as they tapped against the mattress, but otherwise he was near-invisible. "Look, James-"

"Hermione," he interrupted, looking much older than his ten years as he stared down at her. "I want you to stay."

She frowned. "It's not that easy." It wasn't, she told herself firmly, though by now she was trying to convince herself just as much as she was James.

"Of course it is," James pouted, confused that she would even try to disagree. "You're my sister, and I want you to stay."

"But, your parents-"

"Mum and Dad," he stressed. "Mum and Dad want you to stay, too. We all do. You're family, and if you leave me, I'll…" He cast around for a suitable threat, before grinning brightly. "I'll cry!"

She gave him a little bemused smile to mask her faltering resolve. "You said only yesterday that boys don't cry."

He shrugged, not at all ashamed. "If you leave me, I will. And I'll scream. Probably break some stuff, too."

Snorting a laugh, she watched him smile back at her. "You're so spoiled, James."

Apparently sensing some chink in her armour, he backed up to flop down on the bed. "I know," he replied smugly, folding his arms beneath his head. He looked so very small, even starfished out. His limbs were gangly and thin, his hair so desperately messy she felt the need to attack him with a comb, despite knowing that her attempts would be futile. The Potters had as much magic in their hair as she did, and like hers being bushy, theirs liked to be messy. There was no getting around that. He twisted over onto his stomach to watch her with big, hazel eyes. "I get what I want and I want you to stay."

Hermione smiled softly, though she was frozen inside. Panic rose through her limbs, and she knew why. She wanted to stay. She wanted it more than she'd wanted anything else in her life, at least, than she could remember wanting anything. Spending years trapped in the Ministry waiting for advances to be made in time-travel theory sounded interesting, but cold. Empty. No amount of research could take the place of a family – especially not this family, with their laughter, affectionate hugs, loud arguments and louder love. Growing up with James would be a gift, she knew. He was sweet and loyal as much as he was spoiled and stubborn. A tantrum or two didn't detract from the time they spent together when everything just seemed to synchronise.

But he was a little boy, he'd move on to the next big thing soon enough. If she left he would be sad for a few days, and then Charlus would bring him a new puppy and he'd forget all about Hermione. If she stayed, Merlin knew how long he'd appreciate her presence before that soured into resentment for the girl who stole his parent's time and attention.

Plus, there was something in Hermione's head telling her to leave. It got louder every day, and while she couldn't quite decipher its message, she could feel its terror at the idea of her assimilating herself into this time, with these people. It wasn't her instincts, more her conscience, though she had no clue why her conscience would weigh in on this issue. She wasn't hurting anybody by being here, was she?

Whether she was or wasn't was moot, anyway. Her conscience wasn't the problem. She could pretend it was, but it wasn't. Mostly, she was just scared, and she was lion enough to admit that… at least, to herself.

James was watching her from where he laid on her bed, waiting for her to come back to the real world. Once she focused back on him, he smiled. "Mum made crȇpes," he sang, then pulled a disgusted face, "Dad's been squeezing fresh lemons all morning. I think they're trying to bribe you."

She fastened her robe more securely. "Why didn't you say so earlier? Bribery is much more successful than emotional blackmail, James, you know that."

"So you'll stay?" He hopped off the bed with a grin.

"I didn't say that. It'll take a lot more than pancakes to convince me."

Potter Manor, Dining Room

"More crȇpes?" Dorea asked, pushing the serving dish towards Hermione. James lunged forward and took another three, humming happily as he spread melted chocolate over the top, industriously avoiding Dorea's scolding eye. "James!"

"No, thank-you, Mrs. Potter," Hermione demurred, laying her cutlery parallel on her plate and licking the remains of lemon and sugar from her top lip. "I think eight is enough, really."

The older woman clucked but let it go, starting to clear the dining table. Usually, one of the elves would take the job, but it was obvious that this morning they were playing to their audience – hiding the elves that made Hermione so inexplicably uncomfortable, instead working on breakfast as a family. Dorea had to wrestle the little pot of melted chocolate from James's grubby mitts, plying him with the last of the strawberries before he would release his prize. Charlus chuckled from the top of the table, ducking away from Dorea's chiding slap when she realised he wasn't helping.

Hermione got up to help only to be pushed back into her chair. "Don't worry about it," Dorea said, a hand patting the young girl's shoulder. "This is your breakfast."

"Oh, Mrs. Potter, you shouldn't have -"

"But we did, so now you'll have to live with that." Charlus told her, popping a blueberry into his mouth while Dorea wasn't looking. "It's your day, Hermione, whatever you choose to do. And, please, if you can't call me 'dad', please call me Charlus."

She wasn't sure she could do that, she'd been raised to have too much respect for authority figures to dare call them by their first name. Just the thought sent her cheeks flagging red, her tongue felt too big for her mouth. "I can't do that, Mr. Potter," she said shyly, staring down at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. She heard him let out a gusty sigh before he spoke again.

"Will you come with me, please, Hermione?"

Her head shot up to scan his face. It was inscrutable, but his eyes were kind. Dorea had paused her bustling to stare at her husband. He held up a hand, holding Hermione's stare. "Please."

James's head swivelled between Hermione and Charlus as if he were watching a tennis match, waiting for one of them to break. Hermione held her breath. Terror ripped through her chest. Was that the final straw? Were they sending her away now, without giving her a choice? Because she wouldn't call him by name? But that would be ridiculous – she was only being respectful! They were high-class people, they would understand that. It must be something else, and there were plenty of offenses to choose from: she was too messy, too bossy, too lazy. She'd waited too long, given them too much hell, they didn't want her anymore, she was too late. Tears welled up behind her eyes.

Nodding, she deposited her handkerchief on the table and followed Charlus out of the room, up the stairs and across to a room beside the library without making eye-contact with anybody. This was humiliating, that they knew what was going on. Would she get to say good-bye, or would he just hustle her out the back door? She saw a little wrinkly face out of the corner of her eye and another possibility occurred to her – was it because she didn't like the elves? Oh, gods…

He held the door open for her to go through, passing under his arm without even ducking. She felt more and more small, young, with each passing day, and she knew she needed someone to look after her – it could have been the Potters, but she had been too stubborn, too over-protective of herself, and now that chance was slipping away.

"Take a seat, Hermione. We need to talk."

She hustled over to the chair that faced the desk, hopping up and folding her hands on her knees, crossing her legs at the ankle. Her chin was raised, watching Charlus closely as he settled across from her in his worn leather chair. If he had made his choice, she would accept it. She wasn't going to sacrifice her dignity by shouting or bawling. She was a Gryffindor, and a grown woman, despite her small frame.

His hazel eyes moved across her face, seeming to drink in every feature. There was something unfathomably sad there, disappointed.

"You're not staying, are you?" he asked, but it was phrased more like a statement. Confusion whirled through her, pushing back the tears. Was that him letting her down easily? Or was he talking about her decision again? "Hermione," he said gently, bringing her attention back to him. He smiled again, sadly. "Talk to me. What are you thinking?"

She opened her mouth, then closed it again, perplexed. What was he asking? "I'm sorry, sir, I don't understand."

Charlus frowned, leaning his elbow on the desk, chin in hand. Somehow, despite him being an undeniably imposing presence, sitting behind that desk he still looked like a kid playing adult. Charlus Potter just wasn't the sort of man to spend his life behind a desk. "You're holding back, sweetheart. I need to know why. It's only fair, after all, that we know why you're rejecting us."

"Rejecting you?" she reared back in shock. "I'm not rejecting you!"

"You don't want to be our daughter," Charlus pointed out.

"Of course I do," she responded quickly, without a single thought. "You're wonderful, of course I want to be your daughter."

Charlus's mouth ticked up, but his eyes remained untouched by mirth. "Then why are you rejecting us? No, my dear, you can't argue with that. You can't even call me by name."

Hermione crossed her arms defensively. "I can too, Mr. Potter."

"There you go again. Are you so uncomfortable here that you dare not call us by anything other than our titles? I've let it pass this past month, thinking you'll relax about it, but here we are, the morning of your decision and nothing has changed. You're holding back."

"And if I am?" Hermione bit her tongue, wincing. She wanted to be quiet, just let him give her the speech and send her away, but it wasn't in her to do so. She was a fighter.

Charlus shook his head sadly. "Then I suppose there's no point in continuing. We asked you to be open to us. You've resolutely kept yourself closed, which is as big a sign as any that this won't work out. So, what I'm going to do, is write a letter to the Ministry." He pulled a sheaf of parchment onto his blotter, uncorked an inkwell and coated the nib of a ruby-red quill. "I'll send it straight to Mr. Donovan, he's the head of the Department of Mysteries. He'll take you in, make sure you're comfortable, and you won't have to see us ever again." He glanced up, face blank. "You'll be out of here by the end of the day."

Frozen, Hermione could only stare. She hadn't expected that – any of that. She realised she hadn't really thought they'd send her away, either. For all of her fear and concern, they had always been there, reassuring her, acting as a safety net. It was all well and good for her to play it up in her mind, to hold onto that terror, but now that it was becoming real… She realised she hadn't truly believed it.

And now here Charlus was, all ready to send her away. She must have done something awful to trigger it – something larger than refusing to say their names. It was clear that Charlus considered that but a symptom of a larger problem.

She thought back; Dorea and Charlus had made it clear over the past month that they would adore her as their daughter. They craved a daughter so badly it was nearly painful for them. Over the past four weeks they had pulled her further and further into the fold with a desperation no one could miss, not even the blind. Dorea had asked her every day to call her 'mum'. Charlus had held her as she cried for her lost life twice.

The evidence revealed itself slowly, showing Hermione that it was, in fact, her that held back. Her that backed away a step for every two she took forward. Her that buried herself in a book whenever things got emotion. She that looked away from Dorea when the older woman watched her with affection. Charlus was right. And now, the idea that she had hurt them so badly with her actions shattered her inside. "Mr. Potter-"

"Charlus," he corrected sharply, his eyes like ice. Hermione swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat, trying that out.

"Ch… Charlus," she mouthed every syllable exaggeratedly, unable to resist a wince. Charlus's face softened though, looking marginally more approachable. "I'm so sorry," she continued, widening her eyes to hold back her tears. "I didn't mean to hurt you, or Mrs.- Dorea. I just…" she flinched involuntarily, her eyes gliding off to one side. "This is the sort of thing I do, and I can't help it. It hurts people, hurt people, accidentally but it happens all the same. You'd get tired of it, they always do.

"I can't remember much, but I know that I hurt my parents back… then, whenever or wherever it was. I had no friends, very little family. At night I dream of being trapped in an empty room, starved and lost, the way I would be if you sent me away and I couldn't… I just can't take that risk." Salty, stinging tears rolled out from her eyes and down her cheeks.

Charlus took her hand, tugging her forward until she was out of her chair and stood in front of him. "Hermione, dear. We've been over this." He shook his head. "People don't love you in spite of your flaws, sweetheart, they love you because of them. And we do. We love you already. Sending you away would hurt more than anything you could possibly do while here – short of murdering us, probably." Hermione let out a watery chuckle, tapping him lightly on his shoulder in reprimand. He pulled her under his arm, squeezing her in a hug.

"Look, Hermione, we do love you. You're a part of this family we didn't even realise we needed until you appeared. However… we can't spend the rest of our lives trying to prove it to you to keep you from running. It's not fair, not on any of us." Pulling her back, he set his hands on her shoulders and kneeled on the ground, setting their faces at an equal height. His eyes were a tumultuous swirl of muddy green, showing a warning even before he said his next words.

"You need to take a leap of faith, Hermione. We can't do anything more to convince you – this needs to be your choice. Either you trust us, or you don't." He tapped her on the nose gently. "I'm afraid I'll need to hurry you on that, too. What will it be?"

Shuffling her feet, she frowned even as a determination formed in her brain. "I told James I wouldn't bow to emotional blackmail," she scolded lightly, and was rewarded with a smile.

"Ah, yes, but James is only ten. I'm much older, and much better at it." He grinned widely, transforming him into an older version of James in the throes of mischief. "What'll it be? I warn you now, little girl, if you leave me, I'll cry."

She couldn't hold back the laughter.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 19th August 1970

Potter Manor, Basement

They were gathered in the basement, which seemed a shifty sort of place to be practicing magic. Dorea had assured Hermione that the ritual was entirely legal with a sort of dodgy gleam in her eyes that made Hermione think it might only be legal for now. The second the Ministry got wind of its existence, there was likely to be legislation on the matter passed through.

Right now, however, there wasn't any, and Hermione was sort of grateful for that. If there had been, that would mean dealing with Ministry bureaucracy. It would have taken days, maybe even weeks, just to lead to a fifty-fifty chance of her being locked up in a Ministry sub-basement cell for experimentation. As things stood now, she didn't have time to chicken out, and nobody would know she wasn't supposed to exist.

Dressed in the ruby-red House robes, Charlus, Dorea, James and Hermione were gathered around a cauldron, waiting for the sun to set so that they might begin their ritual. Dorea was practically bouncing off of the walls, she was so excited, and James was no better. There had been a ten-minute window in which he'd been solemn and respectful towards the ceremony, but the patience required was simply beyond what his ten-year-old mind was capable of.

"It's setting," Dorea said now, her face lifted towards the ceiling, her eyes closed. Immediately, everybody closed into a tight circle. Charlus took her hand on one side, James on the other, the three of them connecting with Dorea in the centre. As the Matriarch, she had explained earlier, she was the one who needed to perform the ritual – female magic was stronger when it came to tying a person to the family. Bell the House-Elf stood off to one side in order to seal the magic at the end; until then, Dorea was in charge.

Hermione had been given the vaguest outline of what was to happen here. The cauldron was filled half-way with a concoction made of roots from the potions garden Dorea maintained, topped up with molten Antimony, giving the potion a silvery glow that bounced off of rough-hewn walls. The flames beneath the pot flickered, the main source of light in the cavern, casting dancing shadows across the gathered wizards faces.

Dorea held a dagger of folded iron, an ancient piece that had been passed through the Potter family for generations. It could be traced all the way back to the Peverells, which Charlus had boasted about with bursting pride. A ritual dagger, it eschewed violence, providing neat, deep cuts that could never kill and healed quickly. The Potter family crest had been carved into its wooden, cloth-wrapped hilt, later embedded with rubies for style.

In the centre of their group, Dorea took up a chant in an old, guttural language Hermione couldn't understand. Harsh and deep, it transformed Dorea's usually uplifting, cultured tones into something near-demonic. Goosebumps rose on her arms and legs, leaving Hermione fighting to prevent a shiver.

Beside her, Charlus and James were swaying, their eyes glassy from the magic, completely lost in the ritual. A tremor of apprehension rocked her bones – shouldn't she be lost, too? Would it even work on her? – even as she leaned closer, interested. How could she not be interested? This was an ancient magical ritual, and she thirsted to know all she could about magic. Even though she couldn't understand the words, she could watch and remember Dorea's actions. The older woman was doing a dance, now, her tall, thin body gliding lithely around the cauldron in what little space there was left. Her voice ebbed and flowed with some beat only she could hear, her feet moving in time, ceremonial dagger glinting.

Then she stopped, raising one arm over the cauldron, and slashing down with the dagger. Blood sprayed in every direction, spattering her robe, nearly invisible against the sumptuous red of its material. Not a whimper of pain was released as she shook her arm, agitating it to draw more blood. Thick red rivulets dripped down her wrist onto the surface of the potion, absorbed into the mixture. The silver stirring rod took one quick trip around the pot without guidance, and then Dorea was stepping back.

Charlus released James, shaking his sleeve up to his elbow and holding his own bared flesh out to his wife. The procedure was repeated once more, a deep gash marring his skin, showing muscle and a severed vein for a split second before the void was filled with more of the scarlet liquid, pouring into the brew.

Hermione switched to breathing through her mouth, the tinny scent of blood and flesh clogging her throat. She would not gag.

James reached out to his father, reclaiming Charlus's hand for his own, allowing his mother access to his palm in the process. She gave the centre a nick, a single bead of blood welling onto the blade and being shaken into the cauldron with an impatient flick of Dorea's wrist.

Then she turned to Hermione, her hand outstretched. "Only a little blood," she said, her voice harsh from overuse and atmospheric pressure. The potion's surface was a marbled red and gold, now – a choice of colours very suitable for her new family. She bit her lip, but offered her hand.

The cut was painless, a mere sting, and then the pressure of her blood being squeezed from her. It only took a drop, nothing compared to what Dorea and Charlus had donated. The moment it fell into the cauldron the mixture hissed, bubbling and spitting like it was overboiling, steam rising in scorching pillars to collect upon the ceiling. Dorea produced a chalice from her robe, chanting faster now, casting the spell that would bond them together.

She swooped down, submerging the goblet entirely and raising it again, crossing the circle to stand before Hermione. Her grey eyes glittered beneath her hood, familiar and comforting in spite of the environment.

She sank to her haunches, the robe spreading across the ground at her feet, and with her spare hand motioned for Hermione to do the same. She glanced across at Charlus, who nodded encouragingly, and James, who seemed to sense that the end was coming and now bounced on the balls of his feet in excitement. Hermione bit her lip, then kneeled in front of Dorea.

Bell appeared to stand next to them, her head bobbling about at the same height as Hermione's now that she was sat. The little elf was almost effervescent in her excitement, reaching out both of her hands to grab one each of theirs. She wrapped parchment-coloured fingers, sagging flesh over brittle bones, around Hermione's left hand, and grinned. "Mistress invite Miss Hermie to join family," Bell recited, her eyes shining. "She invite you to be her door-terr, to stand with her in family, to share power and prest-ige and bring with you your own. Does Miss Hermie accept?"

Hermione took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. The stink of blood and magic still permeated the air, giving the elf's words more weight. "I accept," she replied, as she had been directed before the ritual began.

"Drink of the chalice, my daughter," Dorea smiled, offering the cup with her free hand. Hermione took it in hers, noting Bell's hand warm against her own. Out of the corner of her eye she could see them glowing, two points of power where the elf joined to each of them.

The chalice was warm, heavy in her hand, and the liquid smelled of apples. Hermione glanced up at Dorea again, searching for reassurance in her eyes. The older woman nodded. The chalice touched Hermione's lips, the liquid slipped over her tongue and down her throat, tasting of summer night-time, humidity, warmth. It pooled in her stomach, heating more and more, until Hermione had drank every last drop. The chalice clattered to the ground.

Something odd was happening in Hermione's body. The potion seemed to sear her insides, burning and reaching out, leaking into her veins and being carried around her body. The elf was saying something, finishing the ceremony, but Hermione's eyes had rolled back into her head until only the whites remained and toppled over, her fall cushioned quickly by Charlus who dove to catch her.

She shivered and twitched, blind and deaf and ignorant to all sensation but the burn. Her hands slapped lifelessly against the stone floor, her mouth opening and closing, loosing guttural sounds.

Then the change came upon her so quickly she was overwhelmed. She felt her skin shrivel, her hair recede into her head, some crawling feeling in her nerves as her very make-up was adjusted. She suffered it for what felt like hours, holding on to what reality she could fathom, before even awareness was stolen and she fell into the awaiting blackness.

Thursday 20th August 1970

Potter Manor, Hermione's Room

"That was a cruel trick, Charlus," Dorea fumed from somewhere above Hermione's head. Her eyes remained closed, but she knew she lay in her bed from the scent of the sheets. Her hair curled around her face, a reassuring brush and tingle as her magic awoke. Someone held her hand clasped in theirs, a heavy weight next to her on the mattress.

"Did it not work, my love? Is she not ours, now?" His voice was laced with amusement, followed by a brush of fingers against Hermione's cheek. She couldn't stop the smile – it was a warm gesture that summoned happiness from her, familiarity.

"She was already ours," Dorea told her husband firmly. "She would have realised that eventually."

"Then where was the harm in pushing her a bit?" Charlus hummed. There was a rustling of robes as Dorea harrumphed, and Hermione knew that she had turned her back on her husband. Charlus let out a sigh that was more of a chuckle, and then three footsteps sounded against the carpet. "You know I'm right," he teased.

Dorea harrumphed again, though it was less committed this time. Hermione could imagine the scene – Dorea determined to be mad at her husband, but unable to sustain it as he wrapped her in his arms, smirking as he lay kisses against her neck. It was a typical resolution to any minor arguments between the couple; Hermione knew that Dorea could no more resist Charlus than she could over thirty years ago, when they'd first met and fallen in love. As for Charlus, well, it was obvious every second of every day how much love he had for his wife. "You could have buggered it up!" Dorea hissed.

A muffled snort from somewhere next to Hermione's shoulder told her that James was awake, laid next to her on the bed. She pried her eyes open a smidgeon to see his own, hazel orbs gleaming wickedly, a grin on his face from hearing his mother swear. He held a finger to his lips to warn her to keep quiet, and they both waited to hear more.

"She was pulling awa – awake, are we, James?" Charlus changed tactics at the last minute, his voice going back to a normal volume as he called on James.

"No!" James denied vehemently, blushing bright red and snapping his eyes shut tight. Charlus let out a laugh and bent over, reaching out. Suddenly, James started to squirm manically. "No! No! No!" he laughed, squealing as he tossed and turned. Hermione lifted her head to see that Charlus had captured one of James's feet in his hands and was tickling the bare soles, grinning widely.

"What was that?" Charlus inquired in an arch tone. "You're asleep? Merlin, guess we'll have to wake you up, then!"

Another peal of laughter escaped James as he scrambled for purchase on the duvet, kicking out viciously at his father. "Stop!" he squeaked. "Hermione's awake, too!"

"Traitor!" Hermione hissed without any real heat, a smile on her face as she watched the scene. She pulled herself up on her elbows and propped herself against the pillows, still feeling weak. "What happened?"

"Everything went according to plan," Charlus beamed, still holding both of James's feet in one hand, pressing them to the mattress to prevent him from moving. "I think the backlash was a bit much for you to handle, though. The spell is calibrated for babies and toddlers, rather than children, so we had to amp it up. We may have miscalculated."

"May have?" Dorea snapped. "Definitely miscalculated." She was at Hermione's side with a swoosh of amber robes. "How do you feel, darling?"

Hermione frowned and tried to catalogue her body. Everything was normal – her head hurt a little, and her eyes stung, but other than that, she was fine. "Perfect," she reassured Dorea, and the other woman smiled widely.

"I'm glad." Then her eyes swept over Hermione's face and downwards, her mouth tightening slightly in displeasure. "Though I admit to hoping you would look a bit more like me afterwards. It seems the Potter magic is a stubborn foe."

"What do you mean?" Hermione asked, though she could guess by the way Charlus was practically dancing in the background every-time he looked at her. In answer, Dorea summoned a mirror from somewhere, holding it to her face.

Oh. Well. That was different.

Her hair, while still curly, had calmed from a bushy, tangled hive of knots into messy, corkscrew ringlets that sprang out in every direction while still appearing smooth and soft around her face. She was vaguely relieved, but also a little mad – it seemed she'd simply traded one unmanageable hairstyle for another. Perhaps someone had cursed her at birth, or something.

It's colour had darkened to the raven of the Potters, hanging beautifully against the deep olive of her skin. Her eyes, once a dull – at least to Hermione – brown, now mirrored Charlus and James's; a dark green ring holding a starburst of hazel that splayed outwards in jagged triangles from her pupil. Her facial features remained, in the main, the same; her bone-structure was unchanged, but managed to look completely different with the new colour scheme it found itself subject to. Lips a few shades darker than their original pink fell open, dragging air into her lungs on a shocked gasp.

"Wow," Hermione murmured, absently touching fingers to her hair, then her brow, and beneath her eyes. "I look so…"

"Beautiful," Dorea informed her smartly, rapping her knuckles on James's knee when he snorted at her word. "Any daughter of mine is beautiful," she informed him mildly, "though sadly I cannot say the same for my son."

"Mum!" James whined, wriggling around on the bed until his head lay backwards over Hermione's lap, his eyes wide and pleading up at his mother. He prodded Hermione's cheek and smirked. "Don't listen to her, she's lying. I'm the most handsome boy in the world, you know, everybody says so." He stuck his tongue out, "you're not so bad, but you're not anywhere near as cute as me. Hey!"

Even Dorea couldn't hold back a snort as James flipped over the side of the bed, the victim of a vicious shove. His head popped up almost immediately, eyes narrowed and set on Hermione. "You'll pay for that," he warned her, eyes sparkling with mischief.

"What are you going to do, huh?" Hermione taunted. She let out a shriek as James scrambled up onto the bed, diving across the mattress to the other side when he lunged for her. Her feet tangled in the duvet, bringing all of the bedding down on top of her as she fell, still laughing, into a heap on the floor. Quickly the heaviness of the day fell away as James jumped down onto her, snatching up a pillow to bludgeon her in the head, their shouts mingling with the thud of their weapons loud enough to mask the sounds of Dorea and Charlus's satisfied retreat.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 5th July 1995

12 Grimmauld Place, Entrance Hall


The old elf paused in his meticulous dusting of the elves heads lining the staircase, turning his head slightly to fix his cloudy lamp-eyes on Hermione where she sat at the top of the staircase, her chin cupped in her hands as she watched him work. She'd been mostly silent for the last hour, just observing him and absorbing the peace of the house so late at night. Noise and movement had cluttered it over the past day, what with the Weasleys moving in, and Hermione Granger joining them; Hermione had barely the space to breathe, never mind relax. So much was happening all over the house, with old rooms being excavated, their associated memories being dragged forth into Hermione's mind. Kreacher, too, had been on edge, the wanton violation of a space he had been maintaining (however badly) for the past three decades grating on his sensibilities, sending him into a mental tail-spin. Never before had Hermione considered Kreacher's situation, how he was forced to stand by and see the legacy of which he was caretaker destroyed, especially not in the Early Days when all he had done was taunt her, but now that she was forced into a similar position there was no way her empathy could remain untouched.

Don't misunderstand, it was nice to have the old place filled with life again, to shake the cobwebs from the drapes and let in the sun. After years of loneliness Hermione was glad to see people, especially given what it meant for her – the approaching end to her imprisonment – but it took some getting used to. She was shaken, to have all these new sounds and sensations thrown at her, to have her territory stirred up and, in some cases, destroyed. Hermione found she had a new emotion to feel in regard to Molly Weasley, the woman who had stomped through the front door and immediately ordered Kreacher out of his own home; Resentment. A dark, boiling resentment that began at her toes upon seeing Kreacher cower helplessly, and travelled slowly but surely throughout her body as time passed. It reached her hips when the witch took over the kitchen, throwing out the few pieces of Potter china she had hoarded over the years, hit her elbows when she ordered young Hermione and Ginny to clear out Hermione's old room, and settled deep in her chest upon seeing Molly send Sirius a distrustful, dismissive look when he dared to encroach on what she had claimed as 'her' territory – the kitchen.

Of course, she still held a certain fondness for the woman who had been a wizarding mother to her in the Early Days, but it was somewhat eclipsed by her near-irrational fury at the harridan who dared to wipe all traces of occupancy from Hermione's own home.

By mid-afternoon, neither Hermione nor Kreacher could take it anymore. Molly was in the kitchen cooking up a storm, the scent of shepherd's pie permeating even the farthest, darkest niches of the house, and the Weasley boys were playing with all sorts of objects they'd pilfered from the library and the parlour. Sirius was lumbering around, half-heartedly scolding them only to recieve consternation from their mother in return; Remus was preparing for the full moon in his room next to Sirius's; Hermione the younger was organizing her book collection in a rickety bookcase Hermione Potter had left in her room over a decade ago. With cravings for gravy torturing her, despite her lack of hunger, Hermione Potter and Kreacher absconded to the attic, hiding away until the occupants had disappeared to bed.

Now, with her emotions over the move neatly packaged away in the back of her mind, Hermione was watching Kreacher as she had nothing better to do. Besides, she was in a mournful mood, and didn't fancy being alone.

"Yes, mistress?" Kreacher prodded, his little hairless brow scrunched down. He was used to Hermione's oddities by now, having spent so long by her side, though he didn't let on that he was. He didn't let on how much he liked her, either, but Hermione could tell he did.

"Do you think he knew?" she asked, her voice low, plucking at a thread on her dress. A dress she had been wearing day-in, day-out for the past sixteen years. She was sick of the sight of it, and its hemline was nearly entirely unravelled from her fiddling.


She sighed. "When he locked me here. Do you think he knew how awful it would be?" The question was one she had repeatedly thrown from her mind over the years, loath to even contemplate the possibility that someone she knew could be so cruel as to purposely lock her in suspended space for years on end, but today, with tears and frustration already so close to the surface, there wasn't much reason to avoid it.

Kreacher blinked slowly, his eyes still fixed on Hermione. "It is not for Kreacher to know how wizardses think," he replied. Predictably.

She pinned him with a look, one that told him she emphatically wasn't buying what he was selling. "You must have some ideas," she pressed.

He shrugged his little shoulders, his ratty tea-towel slipping off one shoulder. "Wizards is stupid, elveses know this."


"Very stupid. Look at how they treats their womens. Locking them up, 'protecting' thems, pretending like they is less. Elveses know better. Womens is miracles." He looked longingly down the stairs, and Hermione rolled her eyes, knowing he was thinking of the late, lamented Dear Walburga. "Clever like cats. Powerful."

"While I appreciate your defense of my sex, Kreacher, you haven't answered my question." Tapping her foot to punctuate her point, she raised her eyebrows.

He busied himself dusting until Hermione thought he might continue to ignore her, then surprised her by continuing on. "Kreacher is old elf, very wise. Kreacher knows many things. Kreacher understands why elveses tie themselves to women over wizards – womens is miracles, clever and strong. Wizards is prats." He grinned, a twisted painful looking thing. Hermione knew his glee came from the use of one of the words he had learned from her over the years; he really enjoyed swearing, especially insults. Hermione just liked him using any word that wasn't 'mudblood'. "Elveses is for women, heart of house, of magic. Kreacher knows, he sees. Wizards is-"

"Stupid, I know. Gods, if only Reggie could see you now. He'd accuse me of ruining you with my 'queer female agenda'." She smiled at the thought, for she could almost see it in her mind. He'd always been a snotty brat, Reggie, but she loved him all the same.

As did Kreacher, whose ears flopped forward dejectedly immediately upon hearing his name, stirring guilt in Hermione's gut. "Master is dead," he snapped, rubbing at one of the heads so hard their eye almost fell out. "Not here to hear. Not here to care. Master is dead, mistress is dead, all are dead. Kreacher's family is gone."

"Oh, Merlin, Kreacher, I'm sorry," Hermione darted forward, thinking maybe to hug him, or comfort him somehow. He cringed back. "You've still got me," she reminded him, stopping in her tracks, her voice small. His answering glare was venomous.

"Oh, yes. Kreacher has mistress. Kreacher even has dog. Such wonderful prize for Kreacher." He spat the last words out, his face a mask of misery-fuelled wrath. Hermione, at a loss for words, searched frantically for anything she could do to fix the situation. "Ancient and Noble House of Black has fallen around Kreachers ears. Kreacher can do nothing. House full of mudbloods and half-breeds and -"


Hermione winced even as Kreacher stiffened. Sirius had appeared from the basement entrance, somewhat the worse for wear, and clearly pissed. He pointed a finger at Kreacher, restrained violence vibrating in the air. "You will stop saying shit like that in this house!" Sirius barked, his voice shaking. Even Hermione could sense his exhaustion, and at the same time realised that the sun must be rising. As if on cue, a moan came from behind the basement door that still stood ajar.

Kreacher bowed, his nose brushing the floor. Both Hermione and Sirius could clearly see the spiteful expression on his face even as he made his subservient reassurances to Sirius. "Whatever Master says," Kreacher told the floor. "Even though Master is a dog, a traitor to his house," Sirius began to walk away during this point in the tirade, disappearing into the kitchen for potions and returning to the basement, slamming the door behind him. Kreacher continued: "not fit to lick my Mistresses boots, is Master, but Kreacher must serve, Kreacher must always serve."

That struck a chord in Hermione, almost choking her in guilt. It was, after all, her fault that Kreacher continued to serve the Blacks. If it weren't for her, he would have been released upon Dear Walburga's death, or he would have sacrificed his life to be hung alongside his predecessors, the greatest honour he could fathom. That was what he had wanted, what he had lived and worked for all those years, but because of her actions, he was stuck. Here. In this damn dump, with a Master who hates him and countless others who see him as less than the dirt on their shoes.

"I'm so sorry, Kreacher," Hermione whispered to him, tears pooling in her eyes as she imagined a life as bleak and endless as Kreacher's. To think she had complained to him of her prison so many times over the years, when he was living a worse truth. She, at least, had a reason to live.

He sniffed, glancing at her suspiciously. Upon seeing her weakness, he scowled. "Blacks don't cry," he snapped at her, as he had many times over the years, part of his constant mission to shape her into a 'suitable' mistress. She let out a snort, laughter clogging in her throat. "Mistresses don't apologise," he added, poking her in the shoulder to make certain she was listening. "What's done is done."

"Right, okay then," she sniffled, pulling herself together with a smile. "Though you're wrong, you know." Kreacher narrowed his eyes at her, but she didn't stop. Couldn't, not really. "Blacks do cry. Reggie used to cry all the time. He was a regular fountain, our Reg."

"Mistress will stop talking before Kreacher removes her tongue," the old elf glowered with very little bite, collecting his cleaning materials in his bucket. He ignored Hermione's laugh, muttering profanities under his breath. Hermione might have calmed down, except that when her titters began to die off she heard him mumble 'fuck' with particular relish, and that set her off all over again.

It was the next morning and Kreacher was scarce before she remembered that he still hadn't answered her question.

Chapter Text

Saturday 19th September 1970

Potter Manor, Dining Room

"Happy birthday, Hermione!" Dorea, Charlus and James all shouted as one as Hermione entered the room for dinner, with James stood on the side throwing copious amounts of glittering confetti in her direction. She blushed even as she waved her hands to fend off the clumps of shredded tissue paper her brother was – deliberately, she was sure – aiming at her face, grinning.

"You didn't have to do all of this," she gasped once James ran out of ammunition and she was able to see the room. They'd hung banners and bunting all around the room, stuck to the ceiling and walls. The tablecloth was a rich midnight colour, with silver embroidery around the edges, and matching sashes were tied around every chair. Charlus and James strutted like peacocks in circlets made of gold-and-red stones, while Dorea bustled towards her with her own hair knotted up beneath her own diadem, so light it could have been made of spun sugar.

"Of course we did," Dorea sniffed; offended, as she always was, by the suggestion that she would make anything less than the best effort for one of her children. "I know you said you 'didn't want a party'," she began in that tone she reserved for sweet-talking the most stubborn and infuriating of her class, "but we couldn't let the occasion pass without at least some recognition of what you mean to us." She thrust a large, shallow box into Hermione's arms.

"And, since I know you're too old for princess parties," Dorea continued, opening the box herself and ripping away the tissue that protected its contents, doing a good job of concealing her disgust at this statement (she had really wanted to throw a princess party), "it's a historical re-enactment instead." She shot her daughter a grin as she lifted a diadem out of that box, cradling it in her hands like it was priceless. "It's not the real thing," she informed Hermione hastily when her eyes popped wide, one finger tentatively reaching out to trace the wings that emerged from either side of what looked like a genuine sapphire in the centre. "Only a very good reconstruction – Ravenclaw's lost diadem, see?"

Hermione gaped, tracing the engraving. Of course, she'd never seen the real thing – this one was beautiful enough to make up for it, though. "Where did you get this?" she asked, her voice hushed in seemingly appropriate awe, and then, as her natural cynicism rose to the surface; "…why do you have this?"

Charlus snorted out a laugh behind them, and Hermione glanced at him, taking in his costume properly. It appeared he and James had decided that the both of them would attend as Godric Gryffindor, which would explain the argument she'd heard the night before – "I'm the child, I get to choose!", "I'm your father, I make the rules!" – and appeared to consist of red, ruby studded velvet robes that were likely antiques worth more than Hermione's entire wardrobe. They could have been twins, both grinning boyishly at her. "She's trying to bribe you," Charlus winked, indicating the room. "Silver and blue being your favourite colours gave her ideas. We're having a not-so-subtle Ravenclaw party."

"I told her that Ravenclaw is bronze," James stage-whispered, "but she wouldn't listen."

"Hush, you two!" Dorea hissed, leaning forward to perch the diadem on Hermione's head, then stepping back to admire it. "Lovely. Don't listen to them, they're being ridiculous – like it matters to me what house you'll be in! We've got another couple of years yet before we have to worry about that in any case."

James sniggered, and Charlus shot her a sceptical look. Dorea sighed, continuing to fuss with Hermione's hair as though she hadn't caught them, but she had. "Of course, I'd certainly like you to be a Ravenclaw, or even a Slytherin like your mother, but truly it's your choice. Now – cake!"

Charlus strode over to give her a hug while Dorea began to slice the cake. He crushed her against his chest and kissed her on the head, murmuring, "we'll not tell her you're a Gryffindor yet, darling. Let her have her fun."

Hermione froze even as Charlus released her and went to ruffle his son's hair.


She was a Gryffindor…

A grin spread over her face as another part of her puzzle fell into place.

Saturday 27th March 1971

Potter Manor, Dining Room

"It's here!" James's shriek echoed through the halls, so high pitched even Dorea winced as she reached for the eggs. Charlus smirked as he held the dish out for her, earning a scowl from his wife.

"Did you here that, my love? It's here!" Charlus snarked with a toothy grin.

"Yes, I heard him," Dorea sighed, turning her dark head towards the door. "I'd almost forgotten."

Hermione's head jerked up at the forlorn note in her mother's voice. Dorea had been growing increasingly more withdrawn as James's eleventh birthday approached, spending a lot of time simply hanging on the outskirts watching her children play. She'd become more affectionate, also, almost constantly hugging or touching Hermione and James as the date approached. Now, it was here, and an entirely different Dorea was present than had been there at Hermione's tenth.

James trotted around the corner, his face so sunny as to be almost blinding, waving an envelope in the air. He raced to the table, throwing himself into his chair and holding it out like it might burn him. "What do I do?" he asked, his voice awed even as he bounced around.

"What does anyone do with a letter?" Charlus drawled, an eyebrow raised. "Bloody open it! Can't exactly read it through the envelope, can we?"

"Language, Charlus!" Dorea snapped, though her eyes were fixed on the envelope and she was startlingly pale. Hermione shuffled over a few feet and wrapped her hand around her mother's, clutching it tight for support. Dorea shot her a tight smile.

"Do we not learn that at Hogwarts?" James asked with an impish grin, but his fingers were already tearing at the seal, depositing a thick stack of folded parchment onto the tablecloth. He snatched up the top sheet and read, his mouth dropping open in awe. Dorea slipped the list of required materials from the bundle, tucking it into her robes. "Dear Mr. Potter," James read in a voice threaded with a large helping of excitement. "We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

"Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

"Yours sincerely, Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress." He let out a shriek, hopping up and down again on his chair. "Mum, Dad! I'm going to Hogwarts!"

"Not if you ruin my best chairs, you're not," Dorea scolded, smiling slightly as she reached across to grab James's wrist, guiding him down off the chair. "How nice that Minerva got the Deputy position at last. We'll have to send her a card, Charlus."

Charlus grunted his agreement, distracted by James who was now shoving the letter under his nose. "I can't read it from there, kiddo," he tutted good-naturedly. "Why don't you show Hermione?"

James whipped around almost immediately, his face flushed with pleasure. "Look, 'Mi!" He shouted, racing across to throw himself into the chair at her side. He held the parchment right in front of her but refused to release it, as though if he let go it might disappear. "I'm going to be a brilliant wizard," James announced. "Everybody says so. I'll blow their socks off in the first lesson!"

"I should think that's the opposite of great wizardry," Hermione replied snottily. The sight of the letter and all of James's excitement had given her a warm feeling, but it was rapidly draining away in the face of reality – soon James would leave her, and she would be alone. She felt guilty for those thoughts almost the second they materialised, but she couldn't shrug off the feeling of dread. What would it mean for them when he left? He was her main anchor in a world not her own; could she survive without him?

He let out a loud laugh and shoved his shoulder into hers. "You're just jealous," he replied smugly. "Don't worry, 'Mi, I won't forget about you. I'll write every day, and you'll be joining me in no time. And then Hogwarts will tremble at the combined might of the Potter siblings!"

"James!" Charlus called from the head of the table. "What have we said about nefarious plotting?"

James scowled, running a hand through his hair. "Err – not at the table?"

Hermione giggled behind her hand, leading James to bestow her with another blindingly brilliant smile. "It's true," James muttered quietly, so that only Hermione could hear. "I won't forget about you, sister mine." He grabbed her hands in his and squeezed tightly, before jumping down from the table. "Presents!" He shouted to the skies, ignoring Dorea's grumblings. "Where are my presents?!"

Chapter Text

Saturday 31 st  July 1971

Potter Manor, Entrance Hall

"Are you two ready yet?" Dorea called from where she stood at the base of the stairs, adjusting her husband's cravat. Smoothing it into place, she continued her movements until her hands rested on his broad shoulders, using the leverage to push herself onto her tiptoes and press a gentle kiss to his lips. He pouted exaggeratedly when she pulled back, chasing her forward until she laughed and submitted to another.

"Ew!" James's voice rang out. "'Mi, they're doing it again!"

Hermione rounded the bannister to start down the stairs after her brother, her focus fixed on the complex button sequence attached to her cloak, so very fiddly to do-up with her tiny hands. "Doing what?"

"That thing!" Below her, James turned to shoot her a massively disgusted look, waving his hands as his parents. "Look! It's just wrong."

"I think it's nice," Hermione smiled as she passed him, glancing up from her buttons to the scene. "Everybody deserves romance."

"Blech," James gagged. "You're such a girl."

Hermione grinned as Dorea and Charlus separated. Dorea's cheeks were a touch pink, and Charlus wore a supremely satisfied grin. "I am, rather," she replied happily, "but if it means I can appreciate the good things in life, then I'll not complain."

"Just you wait until you fall in love, son," Charlus rumbled, ruffling James's hair with one hand while the other kept Dorea tucked close to his side. James ducked out from under the hand, nose still wrinkled with confused horror. "You'll find yourself doing all sorts of odd things just to get her attention – and that's even before you get to the kissing."

"I will never kiss a girl!" James declared. He liked to do that – make loud, sweeping statements in his theatrical style. Now, he had one foot on the floor, the other bent up on the first step of the staircase, his hands extended in the air like a seasoned thespian, milking the drama for all that he could get.

It fell rather flat when Charlus just shrugged. "A boy then. Whichever. It will happen, that's the Potter curse."

"I thought the Potter curse was the hair?" Hermione pondered aloud, growling a little as she continued to struggle with her buttons.

Dorea kneeled down in front of her, a secret smile on her face as she threaded the last ones through their holes. "thought it was the arrogance," she said wryly, sending a wink at Charlus.

"No, no." Charlus refuted, gathering the same drama his son made use of into his face, puffing up his chest and linking his fingers into the belt-loops at his waist. Amusement sparkled in Dorea's eyes as they met Hermione's. "It's the women. All Potter men, son, are cursed to fall in love with veritable harpies." James nodded solemnly, both men maintaining composure even as Dorea drew back from her daughter, rising to her full height with one brow raised in challenge. "They make you fight for their attentions, possibly even for years before they'll deign to give you the time of day – your mother led me a merry chase for five years before she even let me hold her hand." He shot her a warm look which completely bounced off of her, obviously still holding a grudge from the 'harpy' comment. "It's hard, because they're always beautiful, and all the other men will be after them, too, isn't that right, dear?"

Dorea sniffed haughtily. "Perhaps I should have married Abraxas if you find me such a bother."

Charlus ignored this, continuing on with his loud, slow words of questionable wisdom. "Of course, you'll barely notice the stress of it all in the end, because you'll have landed yourself a treasure beyond measure." He nodded firmly. "You do have to work past that other famous Potter curse, first, however."

He kept up his stance, but his eyes drifted to his wife, who clipped out; "and what would that be?"

"Why," he replied, a sparkle of mischief in his eyes, "the Potter foot-in-mouth curse, obviously."

Dorea let out a titter, and Charlus gathered her into his arms again. From against his neck, Hermione could just hear Dorea say, "if you ever refer to me as an inanimate object again, you're in the guest room for a week." Charlus wrinkled his nose but pressed a kiss to her crown in agreement.

James tapped one foot impatiently. "That doesn't actually help me at all," he frowned.

Charlus tweaked his chin. "You'll understand when the time comes. Now, are we all ready?"

Diagon Alley

Hermione tumbled out of the public floo onto the stone floor of the Leaky Cauldron, her arms and legs akimbo. She'd not used a floo since arriving in the past, and as such wasn't used to controlling her new body. She found herself looking up at a much younger Tom from her landing spot just to the left of the booths, who gawked down at her from behind the bar. "You alright, missy?"

"Quite well, thank-you," Hermione replied with an embarrassed smile. "It was my first time."

"Ah." He nodded sagely then, seeing that she was fine, moved on. Charlus appeared through the floo, followed closely by James and then Dorea. Hermione patted down her hair, checking that the bun Dorea had wrestled it into that morning was intact, and joined her family at the bar.

"Right, we'll go to Ollivander's first, I think," Dorea hummed, checking the list she held. "It'll be quiet around this time, so it'll be a quick-in, quick-out situation. Charlus, you and Hermione can then visit Flourish and Blotts – and Hermione, remember, three book limit; you, too, Charlus, you needn't spoil her -" Charlus stuck his tongue out at his wife and sent Hermione a conspiratorial wink. Since discovering her love of books he'd made a habit of bring one or two rare or new tomes home each time he returned from his travels, presenting them to Hermione with excitement. They'd then spend an evening in his study going over the themes of the book, and rip them to shreds. She'd learned more during these sessions than she ever had simply by reading a book, and had been amazed to find that sometimes – and this had shocked her to her core – the books could be wrong.

"- while James and I visit the apothecary."

"Mum," James hummed, his eyes wide and bright. "Can I get a new broom?"

Dorea fixed him with her soft grey eyes. "No, dear, I'm afraid not. First years aren't permitted brooms."

James shuffled his feet, his act still up. "What if I promise not to bring it to Hogwarts?"

"Well then you needn't have one at all." Dorea responded quickly. "What's wrong with the one you have at home?"

He shrugged languidly. "Nothing, really. I just thought, if Hermione is getting new books, then…"

Charlus smiled, nodding in understanding. "Yes, but, lad – you're getting a wand. Don't you think Hermione would rather have a wand than books?"

Hermione nodded her head violently, a pang in her chest as there always was when someone mentioned her wand. She knew she'd had one, but it was lost, and being without a wand was like having part of your soul ripped away. James, however, turned a calculating eye on her. "I'm not convinced. She loves books."

"I do love books," she responded quickly, the words tripping over one another in their haste to leave her mouth, "but I'd really, really rather have a wand. I'd give up most of my books for just a day with my wand." Then, rethinking that, she added: "well, maybe not most of my books, but definitely the ones I'd buy today."

"You see?" Charlus prodded. "Now, would you rather have a broomstick than a wand? Because if you would, we can just pop to the Quidditch shop and then mosey right on home. There's still time to retract your acceptance, isn't there, Dorea?"

"No!" James shouted, flinging his hands up as if to physically stop them from moving. "I'll get the wand! I don't need a broom, anyway. Not yet." He nodded. "Next year, though, I plan to be the best Chaser Hogwarts has ever seen!"

"That's a wonderful goal, James," Dorea smiled as she steered the rest of them out of the pub and down the street, heading unerringly for Ollivander's. "I'll tell you what. If you get good marks this year, and I don't get too many letters from teachers, then I'll buy you a new broom in time for school next year."

James considered this for a long moment. "How many letters are too many?" he asked.

Charlus smothered a laugh, his eyes twinkling with fatherly pride even as Dorea scoffed. "That you feel the need to clarify worries me, James," she said sternly, but she'd lost his attention now that they'd arrived at their destination.

Ollivander's loomed above them, its rickety sign swaying gently in the breeze. An unseen bell chimed lightly as they crossed the threshold, light filtering through to shimmer over the dust-covered shelves, lined with boxed upon boxes of hand-crafted wands. Ollivander was nowhere to be seen, but a rustling in the back called their attention.

"Garrick?" Charlus called, remaining by the door with Hermione, his arm slung lightly across her shoulders.

"Charlus?" A voice croaked, and a man loomed out of the gloom. His eyes, large and blue and unnervingly intelligent, grazed across the group to come to a stop on Hermione's father, his mouth splitting into a smile. "I was wondering when your young would come in. Is it that time already?"

"Indeed," Charlus replied. "James is due to start Hogwarts this year, and Hermione the year after."

"How exciting for you," his eyes slid back to rest on James. "Ah, the wands are always so peculiar with Potters. Come here, child." James shot his mother a nervous look and she pressed him forward with a smile. He sauntered closer, eyeing the older man warily. "Just some measurements, nothing to flinch from, boy," Ollivander told him, using his wand to direct a tape measure across his shoulders, his legs, his palms, his arms, around the top of his head and his hips, mapping each section of his body. Hermione leaned closer to watch, the procedure ringing bells in her head that she couldn't access. It was completely fascinating, the way the tape moved seemingly of its own accord, how Ollivander nodded and muttered under his breath as though the numbers meant something. His eyes would light up every now and again as though it was particularly informative that his wrists were four inches in circumference, or his chest was twenty-eight centimetres across.

Finally he stopped, the tape curling up on the floor, flicking its end contentedly. He stared at James for a moment with an expression of the utmost concentration, before he shot off into the stacks. Within seconds he was back, brandishing a thin, rectangular box. Placing it delicately on the counter and slipping off the lid, he made eye contact with James and motioned towards it.

"Vinewood, Unicorn hair core, 11 ¾ inches," Ollivander murmured as James stepped up to the counter and reached for the wand. The second he touched it, however, Ollivander was there, yanking it back. "I didn't think so, no, but it was worth a try…"

He slipped off again, James turning to give his family a wide-eyed look. Hermione smothered a giggle at his confusion. Ollivander was so very odd, really.

"Ah! Here we are," the man in question announced, pushing another wand at James. "Hawthorn, Phoenix Feather core, 10 inches, reasonably springy. Try that."

James frowned, curling his fingers around the carved handle. He managed to lift it, this time, staring at the wand like it was the strangest thing he'd ever seen in his life. "How does it feel?" Dorea asked, a glimmer of excitement in her eyes despite her ongoing depression.

The bell clattered behind Hermione and she spared the newcomer a passing glance. Two children of about her age, accompanied by a redheaded woman with awe splashed across perfectly formed features. She was a muggle, Hermione could tell from her clothes – she had her hair curled up around her face, a bright copper held in place by massive amounts of hairspray, and wore a maroon wool suit with heels. The girl she stood with had the same hair, a sweet face smattered with freckles, and an anticipatory grin.

The other child was different, though he rang a bell in her mind. Taller than her though not by much, he had sallow skin that denoted a terrible diet, wore fraying muggle clothes that hadn't been in style for twenty years, and the darkest eyes she'd ever seen on a person.

And then James was yelping in pain and her attention was drew back to him, causing her to laugh aloud. "Maybe not that one," Ollivander was saying, looking entirely serene, while James hopped up and down clutching his wrist, his face purple from holding back what she was sure would have been some impressive swear words. The handle's pattern had been burnt into his skin. "It's the phoenix feather. So very picky."

Dorea was holding back a smile as she held up James's hand to heal it. "I understand, Garrick, no harm done." She glanced up, taking in the newcomers with a welcoming smile. Hermione knew she'd given them the same assessment as Hermione had, because her smile quickly morphed into her 'I get to help the muggles!' smile she'd enjoyed deploying often in their conversations about pureblood culture and history. It wasn't that she meant to be condescending, only that it had been bred into her, and she didn't know any better. Certainly, a little condescension was better than genocidal tendencies.

Hermione wasn't sure where that last thought came from, but she kept hold of it for future reference.

"Hello, there!" Dorea beamed, striding over with her hand outstretched. "I'm Dorea Potter. What lovely children! Hogwarts First years?"

The woman shifted on her feet a little, her cheeks flushing as she gazed up at Dorea. She looked a little out of her element, which Hermione didn't blame her for at all – her mother was an intimidating woman at the best of times, and she'd turned all of that terrifying attention on her. "Rose Evans," she replied mildly, her shoulders straightening out as she prepared to stand her ground. Brave of her, it made Hermione more fond of the three of them. "Yes, my daughter Lily and her friend Severus will be attending H-Hogwarts-" she stumbled a little over the name but recovered quickly, "this year. We're here to buy their wands."

Dorea's smile got, if possible, even brighter. "Oh, wonderful! As are we – my son James is going to be in the same year." She turned her warmth on James, who was ignorant to the goings-on, now fiddling with a shorter yew wand. "Oh, excuse my rudeness; this is my husband Charlus and our daughter Hermione. She'll be joining them next year."

Lily flashed her a small smile, which Hermione returned. Severus simply let his dark eyes rest on her for a moment before they returned to her mother, completely expressionless. Hermione let out a little huff of offense. To dismiss her out of hand – how extremely rude.

"This is it, mum!" James shouted suddenly, as a rain of gold sparks began to fall from the ceiling. He danced excitedly around, grinning from ear to ear. Next to Hermione, Charlus clapped enthusiastically.

"Well done, son."

Ollivander nodded. "A very good wand. Mahogany, Unicorn tail core, 11 inches. Pliable. Excellent for transfiguration," he added on the end, as Dorea plucked coins from a pouch and laid them on the table.

"Thank you, Garrick," Charlus boomed. "Perfection as always."

"It was lovely to meet you," Dorea informed Rose as she deposited James's wand into her bag, expertly evading his attempts to pickpocket it back from her. "I'm sure we'll see you in September. Come along, James. Say thank-you to Mr. Ollivander."

"Thank-you Garrick!" James called cheekily, waving as he was swept from the store. Charlus chuckled, leading Hermione out. "Until the next time," he told his friend before the door swung shut behind them and Ollivander had moved on to the next customer.

"Books," he announced then, sharing a secret smile with Hermione as they joined the others. "To Flourish and Blotts!"

Diagon Alley, Flourish and Blotts

Hermione ran a finger down the spine of the book closest to her, a contented smile on her face. She was surrounded by the smell of ink and parchment, ensconced in the warmth of a place she knew so very well. Though she'd not visited this shop in this life, automatically upon entering she'd been transported to a world of familiarity. She could map it out, if pressed, though she'd prefer to explore it, given how it had changed between now and when she would first visit it.

Time was so very confusing.

Still, she was humming happily as she wandered the aisles. Charlus had found something else to occupy him upstairs, no doubt hunting down some rare tome or the other with Mister Flourish himself, leaving Hermione to manoeuvre the place alone – exactly as she liked it. The words and plots on these pages would occupy her long after James was gone; perhaps, if she found a good enough book, she'd not even notice the time passing.

Opening a volume of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them in order to trace the differences in her knowledge, she perched on a forgotten footstool and threw herself into Mr. Scamander's odd narrative.


She blinked, frowned, and tried to refocus on the page.

Swish, whoosh, scratch, scuff.

Biting her lip, she peered more intensely at the writing, but the odd sounds wouldn't stop. With a groan, she snapped the book shut and lurched to her feet, shoving aside books in the shelves until she had a clear view through to the other side.

"And just what do you think you're doing?" she snapped, stamping her foot in agitation. "This is a book shop, you know. Some of us are trying to read."

A boy peered back at her, grey eyes wide, shock read in them. She arched an eyebrow, trying to imitate the move her mother used to make the boys spill their secrets. "Well?"

"I'm sorry," he said, his voice lilting. He sounded very posh, like the people Hermione had grown up with in her other life, the one she could hardly remember and forgot more every-day. From London, but a higher class of Londoner. "I was just trying to reach a book." He pointed upwards, but his eyes stayed fixed on Hermione, like she was a particularly terrifying predator. Hermione huffed again, looking him over. He was only about her age, her height, very skinny with velvet black robes tailored to his tiny frame. He wore grey gloves adorned with tiny crests, neither of which she could read from her position, but proclaimed him as a pureblood as surely as did his hair and eyes.

She scrambled back down and smoothed off her own robes before staring at the stool and book she'd been reading. She'd liked to have gotten straight back to it, but he looked so lost, and anyway, he would no doubt just start that irritating noise again. Scooping it up, she marched around the shelves and dropped it at his feet. "There," she said, hands on her hips, lips pursed in another of the expressions she'd borrowed from her mother. "I should like it back when you're done."

He looked from her to the stool and then back again. "Thank… you?" he frowned now, but shook his head and dragged it over to the shelves. In no time at all he'd jumped up, grabbed his book and was back down again. Hermione nodded, smiled, and said goodbye before dragging the stool back to her spot.

Sitting down, she opened her book.

A shadow fell over her.

"Yes?" she asked in a clipped voice, looking up to see that the same boy was there again, now looking rather sheepish.

He thrust a hand out, his cheeks tinting pink. "Regulus Black," he blurted out, he couldn't stop himself.

Hermione eyed the hand, and then the offerer, with some trepidation. "Hermione Potter," she replied finally, placing her own gloved hand in his. He afforded her the smallest of smiles, his eyes warming infinitesimally.

"Thank you – for the book, I mean. Not… shaking my hand, though, obviously, thank you for that, too." He blushed even brighter, making Hermione fight back a smile.

"You're welcome. For both." There was a breath of silence, in which he shuffled on his feet, glancing up at her and away again. She grinned, settling her book in her lap, giving him her full attention. "Are you a first year this year?"

Shaking his head, he seemed to decide he wanted to stay, because he sat down on the floor in front of her, curling his legs beneath him. "No, that's my brother, Sirius. He's gone to get his wand with Mother." He waved an arm towards the entrance, covering up for how he seemed to shrink when he spoke about them. "You?"

"My brother, too." They both nodded, watching each other for a minute, half-warily, half with interest. Hermione knew she used to have friends, but in this new reality the only people she spoke to were her parents and James, and there was an awkward part of her that found conversation with a new person excruciating, despite her genuine interest in him and his life. He was sweet looking, and she felt like they could be friends, but he wasn't pushing for conversation any more than she was and so they just sort-of sat… staring.

"He's called James," she blurted out, then blushed a little herself when he blinked up at her owlishly. "My brother, I mean. He's so very excited for Hogwarts, he hasn't stopped talking about it for weeks. Dad got him a Gryffindor scarf for his birthday, which is a bit ridiculous, when you think about it, because we don't know that he'll be a Gryffindor." She stopped, panting a little from rushing the words out. He didn't seem to mind her babbling though; on the contrary, he was obviously listening closely, leaning in.

"He'll be a Gryffindor," Regulus said with confidence, more confidence than he'd shown so far. "Potters are always Gryffindors. Like us Blacks, we're always Slytherins." Then he shrunk a little again. "Of course, my brother wants to be a Gryffindor…"

Hermione huffed, flicking hair out of her face in exasperation. "Oh, so because I'm a Potter, I can't be cunning and ambitious, and because you're a Black you can't be brave and noble? Ridiculous. I thought they used a Sorting Hat, not a DNA test!"

He tipped his head to one side, brows crumpled in confusion. "What's a DNA test?"

She stopped, frowning. "Do you know, I'm not sure. It just came out." Batting at the air as if to ward the thought off, she continued; "Anyway, the point is, you should be able to be in whatever House your personality fits, not wherever your family wants you! What if I were a Hufflepuff at heart, but I was thrown into Gryffindor because I'm a Potter? They'd rip me to shreds!"

"Are you a Hufflepuff?" Regulus asked.

"Well, no. But you see my point."

"Not really," Regulus shot her a little smirk that jerked at her heart – he was nice-looking when he smirked, as though his features actually fit his face rather than looking out-of-place like they did when he was despondent, which had been his base expression the whole time they'd been talking. "I'm a Slytherin at heart, so I don't worry about it."

Hermione opened her mouth to reply but was beaten to it by a tall, slender woman with a severe face and thick black eyebrows. She marched into the aisle and grabbed Regulus by the sleeve without any real introduction. "Sitting on the floor?" She barked, aggression radiating off of her. "Disgraceful! Just you wait until I tell your father, young man! And who are you?!"

Manners overtaking indignance, Hermione hopped to her feet to perform a little curtsey. "Hermione Potter, ma'am."

The woman sneered down at her, the expression on that face ringing that familiar bell in Hermione's mind. She shook off the feeling, keeping her eyes on the danger. "A Potter?" She scoffed. "You're socialising with a Potter, Regulus?" She gave the boy a shake, his entire body rattling with the force of it. Hermione made a movement forward before she could stop herself, catching the woman's cool grey eyes. "Blood-traitor filth," she spat, saliva flecking Hermione's face with the violence of it. "You stay away from my sons, you understand? They don't need the likes of you."

One hand still clutching Regulus to her side, she turned around to sweep off, revealing another boy behind her skirts. This one, Regulus's double, had supressed fury written across his face, so fierce that when he looked at Hermione she flinched. "Sorry about her," he drawled, gesturing to his retreating mother with his thumb. "She's…" Smirking, he lifted his other hand to his head and twisted his finger at his temple.

"Sirius Orion Black!" His mother screeched from the front.

Sirius winked at her. "You see? Coming, mother!" he shouted, and loped off into the milling crowds, leaving Hermione alone in her corner, still clutching her book.

"Mental," she said to herself, watching the door swing open as the Black Matriarch ushered her progeny into the streets. "Absolutely mental."

"Hermione?" Charlus's voice sounded. She looked up to see him leaning over the bannister, his eyes on her, filled with concern. "Alright, love?"

Shooting him a sweet smile, she hurried around to meet him. "I'm fine. Have we got everything?"

He patted the packages he carried under one arm fondly. "Aye, we have. Did you find anything you wanted?"

She linked her arm through her father's, shaking her head. "Nothing new today. Have I ever told you how much I love you, papa?"

He sent her a pleasantly surprised look as they reached the street. "It's always nice to hear."

"Well, I do." She informed him, matter-of-factly. "I love you, and I'm so glad I'm not a Black."

"Don't let your mother hear you say that," he warned, but chuckled softly anyway, holding her tighter as they navigated the crowds.

Chapter Text

Tuesday 31 st  August 1971

Evans' House, Cokeworth

The Evans' house was exactly the same as every other house on their street. Two-up, two-down, built of redbrick with brown windows and a shiny red door, a well-kept front garden separating it from the street and a back garden twice as large cluttered with swings and toys and other such detritus as was expected of a family with two adored children. A flowerbed blooming even in the early September chill bordered the gate, decorating the garden with smatters of red and purple and yellow, and a dog with a stump for a tail barked madly as it raced neighbouring families down the path. On one windowsill a fat black-and-white cat sunned itself, her tail swinging like a metronome as it glared down at the dog, irritated that its peace must be so disturbed.

The front door was ajar, spilling the faint sounds of the living room television into the street, allowing the shouts of the inhabitants to be heard. Every now and again a woman would appear in the doorway, smiling both widely and nervously, to drag a suitcase or a bag to the car.

Severus stood at the gate, dithering. He wasn't generally a dithering sort of person, but today was a big day, the first of the rest of his life, and he felt the enormity of this allowed for a little dithering. His mother had dropped him off at Cokeworth Park an hour ago, complete with battered old trunk stuffed with second-hand robes and dog-eared textbooks, and he'd walked himself up the street. Eileen had offered to take him to the station herself, or at least to drive him straight up to the Evans' house; Severus had declined. He loved his mother, but he knew what she looked like – what they looked like – and it was bad enough the way the residents of this cul-de-sac reacted to him, he'd never inflict their disdain on his mother.

The dog, a big daft brute called Grumpy with stubby legs and an enormous head, abandoned his chase of the twins from next-door and sprinted madly across the garden at the sight of him. He had only seconds to brace himself before Grumpy hurtled himself over the fence and into Severus' arms, yapping loudly and squirming madly, bathing Severus in generous amounts of dog saliva. He tried to pet him, if only to settle him down, but the beast was only too excited. Instead, sighing, he clamped the creature to his chest and slipped inside the garden gate, toeing his trunk before him. So much for his best clothes – they were now covered in slobber and fawn coloured dog hair, and that was without considering the damage his claws might have done.

Mrs. Evans appeared in the doorway once more, grinning at the sight before her. "Good morning, Severus," she greeted him, a thread of laughter humming through her voice as she observed Grumpy whipping around in his arms, determined to lick every piece of skin he could reach. "You didn't by any chance eat meat this morning, did you?"

Severus scowled, in the midst of pulling Grumpy from his chest. "Mum made bacon," he said, and then regretted it when Grumpy barked even louder at the mention of the 'b' word.

She tutted, grabbing the back of Grumpy's collar and dragging him bodily off of the poor child. "You should know better by now," she hummed, then jerked her head back towards the house. "Go on in, then. Lily's been waiting for you all morning. She's practically bouncing off the walls – it's driving Petunia insane."

It doesn't take much, Severus remarked snidely within the confines of his own head. Petunia Evans was the most disagreeable woman he'd ever met – and that was saying something, considering he came from the land of the overworked factory wife. Petunia had taken an instant dislike to him when they'd first met; no real loss, considering Severus wasn't there for her. He'd been there for the other girl, the one with the magic.

For all of his plans when he had finally been able to visit Cokeworth, he'd never expected to find one of his own kind. A Muggleborn, too, with no real concept of her own power. He'd watched her for a while, seeing the magnificent things she could do without even thinking about it. Like him, she didn't exhibit the normal Accidental Magic. Her magic was controlled, if only subconsciously, and wondrous to behold. They'd grown close over the previous weeks, him and Lily. He hadn't expected that, either, but he was grateful for it. To have someone to share the discovery of magic with, someone to teach and help.

They'd approached her family together, after Deputy Headmistress McGonagall had visited to break the news to them about magic. Petunia hadn't liked that, either, but Mr. and Mrs. Evans had. They'd been grateful Lily had a friend so that she didn't have to join that strange new world alone, and from that moment had begun to treat Severus as family. He spent more time in Cokeworth at their house than he had in his own.

"Sev!" Lily shrieked, bowling into the corridor and flinging her arms around his neck. He grinned, wrapping his arms around her in return. She pulled back and beamed up at him, her pale face alight with joy. "It's today!" she sang, pulling away and dancing in a circle. "I almost can't believe it. Can you? Hogwarts! A school for Magic! It's like a dream…"

"It's real," he reassured her quickly, rewarded with another shining smile.

"Daddy says I'm driving him up the wall with my excitement, but I just can't help it. Aren't you excited, Sev? Oh, this is the best!"

Mrs. Evans appeared back in the doorway, eyeing her daughter with mild amusement. "Aren't you ready yet?"

Lily flushed bright red. "Oh – I was waiting for Sev. I'll go and do it now, promise!"

Turning, she flounced up the stairs, trilling some song at the top of her lungs. A door slammed open to reveal Petunia's pinched face. She scowled at her sister, then at Severus when she caught him watching. The door slammed closed again.

Mrs. Evans sighed, leaning against the doorway carefully, so as not to crumple her clothes. She'd been in a flap since Diagon Alley, having seen the way the witches dressed. Her run-in with Dorea Potter had sent her self-esteem through the floor, and as such she had dressed herself in her Sunday Best, so as not to be showed up by the witches at the station. "She's been like that all week," she pouted down at her surrogate son. "I don't know what to do with her."

Severus dropped one shoulder in a shrug. Sulky kids weren't his specialty, he didn't have the patience. Especially not for Petunia, spoiled cow that she was. He wasn't being outwardly hostile, that was all they could expect.

Mrs. Evans came out of her reverie to smile down at Severus. "Robert has been in the kitchen all morning, cooking up treats for the trip. I dare not even look – no doubt it's a state." She gave an exaggerated shudder. "If you make it quick, I'm sure you can nab a sandwich before we set off."

"I'm alright, thank-you," Severus demurred, as always. If Mr. Evans had spent all morning preparing for the food, he wasn't going to take any now. Besides, it was a five-hour car journey; he'd like to store up their goodwill until he was really in need.

"Suit yourself," Mrs. Evans replied. "Then you can help me with the suitcases. You'd be amazed how much Petunia has decided to pack for a simple overnight trip. I swear, she's just doing it to punish us."

Together, Severus and Mrs. Evans piled the last of the luggage into the boot and returned to the kitchen to wrap up the last of the food while Mr. Evans absconded to the garden for one last cigarette before they began their trip. Severus always found it fascinating to track the differences between the Evans family and his own, no matter how miniscule they might be. For example, his family had had the same car for the past ten years, and it was falling apart; rust in the hinges and an acrid smoky smell emanating from the engine. They preferred to use the buses if they had to leave Spinner's End, though his parents would much rather never leave at all. His father drank cheap lager and smoked Turkish tobacco he bought in bulk from the single immigrant on their block. Mr. Evans, however, owned a brand new Ford he'd gotten a discount on from the dealership he managed, smoked Marlboros he'd bought by the packet at a local corner shop, and shared the odd glass of wine with his wife of an evening. Small differences that seemed to demonstrate the vast crevasse between their social standings.

Sometimes Severus felt like their under-privileged charity project, but he'd push that thought away quickly lest it lead to resentment. They appeared to have genuine affection for him, and he could do no less than return it.

Finally everything was packed, and Lily had bounced back down the stairs, her hair piled up on the top of her head and dressed in a new skirt and blouse. She'd taken his arm and wasn't showing any signs of letting go, instead talking rapidly at the top of her voice about the history of Hogwarts Castle, the mysteries of the Forbidden Forest, the lessons they would be required to take. Mrs. Evans shot her indulgent looks even as she wrestled with Petunia's determination to not leave her room. Mr. Evans ended up storming up the stairs and shouting at the girl until she climbed into the car, scowling and cowed.

Mrs. Evans dropped Grumpy into Lily's lap in the back seat before climbing into the front. Mr. Evans adjusted the rear view until he could see them better, and Severus had a good view of his bright-green eyes and bristling brown moustache. "We all ready?" He grunted, reaching for the keys.

"Yes!" Lily cried from the middle of the bench seat, grinning still, so wide it looked painful.

"No." Petunia grumbled, staring determinedly out of the window.

Of course, Severus thought as he met Mr. Evans's eyes in the mirror. I've been waiting for this my whole life.

And then they were off, angling towards the motorway, heading south for London and the Hogwarts Express.

Wednesday 1 st  September 1971

Potter Manor, James's Bedroom

James jumped up onto the bed then sat on his trunk, groaning as he attempted to force the lid closed over a collection of books and socks and jumpers, all piled haphazardly into the case. He shuffled on his bottom, bounced a few times, then growled out his frustration when the latches wouldn't stick. Hermione, lounging on an armchair with a book, watched the process with great amusement.

"Why don't you try folding them?" she asked mildly, flicking to the next page.

He looked up, a frown on his face. "The books?"

"The clothes, silly," she laughed. At his perplexed look, she giggled again. "I can't believe you waited until the last possible minute to pack your trunk. Honestly, how on earth will you survive this year without me?" she asked, getting up to help.

Turning big doe eyes on his sister, James pouted. "I don't have a clue. Why don't you jump in instead, and I'll take you to Hogwarts, then you can look after me?"

Hermione hid her smile. She knew he couldn't care less, he was too excited, but that he'd take the time out of his own anticipation to try and cheer her up was touching. "Mum would notice," she said blandly. "Perhaps you should pack Bell instead."

He wrinkled his nose. "Bell would never leave mum, not for all the money in the world. Besides, with the way she's always scolding me, I may as well take mum herself. I'd take Pollo instead." Brightening, he turned on Hermione. "Hey, do you think Pollo would pack my trunk for me?"

"Not a chance. Mum said you had to pack it on your own. Even my help was prohibited," she sent him a solemn look even as she re-folded each of his shirts into a pile. "I'm taking a big risk doing this, you know."

"I knew there was a reason I liked you," James grinned. He gave Hermione's work a cursory glance and picked up his broom instead. Hermione paused in her folding to raise an eyebrow. "What?"

"First years aren't allowed brooms. How many times – honestly, it's not a difficult rule to get your head around!"

Wrinkling his nose, he stuck out his tongue at his sister, running a proprietary hand over the sleek mahogany handle. "You don't get it, 'Mi. It's my broom. Asking me to leave it behind is like asking you to – oh, I don't know, kill a badger."

Hermione's mouth fell open and closed again with a snap. "I – kill a – what?"

"Exactly." James said sagely, purposefully ignoring his sister's look of utter confusion as he opened his broomstick maintenance kit. Digging out the clippers and setting the polish to one side, he began to snip at the thick knot of twigs that formed the tail. "I'll find a way to get it there, you just watch and see."

"You'll be too busy to even think about it," Hermione predicted, both hands on the Standard Book of Spells as she attempted to wedge it between a pile of folded pants and an old shortbread tin which, Hermione knew, held James's collection of 'necessary prankster paraphernalia', deliberately wrapped in a case which Charlus had assured him nobody but Professor McGonagall would take a second look at. "What with all of the learning you'll be doing."

"Right. Yeah. Learning." Hermione pretended not to hear the thick layer of mockery he'd underpinned his statement with. They'd found, over the months, that practicing selective deafness in each other's company was quite conducive to a prosperous sibling relationship; a conclusion battled towards through weeks of Hermione snapping and crying at every fly-away comment of James's (a Potter not best known for his sensitivity) and James shouting and tantruming whenever Hermione made a half-joking observation of his work (Hermione, also, not exactly a world leader in tact). Their new compromise worked, most of the time, though there was a nagging insecurity on Hermione's part that he or she might forget about their pact while he was at Hogwarts, and their reunion at Christmas time would be punctuated by awkwardness and arguments.

She pushed away her encroaching anxiety. She'd gotten a bit better over the past year, as a solid foundation was built beneath her, but she had her moments of self-doubt. Generally she made the effort to ignore them; especially right now, her last minutes with her brother before he left.

James looked up from his work to watch Hermione wrestle with a box of new quills, a thoughtful expression on his face. "You'll be alright?"

She sent him a droll look. "Me? You're worried about me? With all of this going on?" She waved an arm to encompass the mess he had made of his room.

He didn't take the bait. "Hermione."

She looked at his implacable face and sighed, throwing herself down on the bed beside him. "I don't know," she admitted quietly, turning her face into his arm. "It's… a lot. But I'm a fighter, James, and I've lived without you before. One year without your company isn't all that awful in the grand scheme of things." She paused, her face solemn as she reassured him. Then a sparkle lit her eyes and she wrinkled her nose, pushing herself up quickly. "Particularly since you smell so bad, gods, James, when did you last take a bath?"

He stuck his tongue out at her, digging his fingers into her ribs until she screamed. "I am offended," he announced, pouting. "How will you ever make it up to me?"

Hermione threw herself to one side to escape his clawed hands, launching herself across the bed and onto the floor. Her hip smacked into the trunk and it wobbled precariously, its bounty tilting forward. James watched, wide-eyed, as it tipped towards the floor.

"Ha!" Hermione shouted, her hands shooting forward to prop it up. "Got it." She shoved it back onto the bed and stood up, rubbing at her back. "I'm packing your trunk, regardless of instructions given to me by our mother. You understand? I am literally risking life and limb to ensure you're ready for Hogwarts. I am defying our mother." James paled dramatically, and Hermione gave a satisfied nod. "The real question is, how will you make it up to me?"

Wrinkling his nose, he tapped his chin in thought as Hermione sat on the trunk's lid, latching it shut decisively. "You will have my undying love and affection?"

She shot him a wry look. "You mean I don't have that already?"

"Well, I don't know what else I can give you!" he threw his hands in the air, huffing in exasperation.

"Love and affection isn't a reliable shield against our mother's wrath," Hermione informed him shortly. "She's a Black."

"You're a Black," he snipped back. "Insanity runs in the female bloodline, you know, not the male."

"That's sexism, and entirely incorrect. Unless you're calling mother mad?"

"He'd best not be calling me anything, not if he wants to make it to Hogwarts in one piece." Dorea's voice floated in from the door. She took in the scene, one manicured eyebrow rising. "I see the 'pack your own trunk' decree is working out well."

James squirmed on the bed. "She offered!"

"I've no doubt she did, considering how much of a display you likely made of your own incompetence." Dorea slanted a sympathetic look at her daughter. "Really, Hermione, you must stop falling for his act. He'll walk all over you if you let him."

"That was an act?" Hermione shrieked, turning on James. He avoided her eyes, guilt written across his face. "I can't believe you, James!"

"I don't see why not," James muttered. "You know me by now."

Huffing, Hermione turned and charged for the door. Dorea stopped her quickly with an arm across her shoulders. "James," she tutted. "Apologise to your sister. I'm sure you don't want to leave for the year with her in a bad mood, now, do you?"

"I think leaving for a year is the best thing to do when Hermione's in a bad mood, actually," James replied smartly, cringing back when Hermione swung around to glare at him, her hair sparking blue. "I'm sorry, 'Mi!" he said quickly, his hands in front of his face. "Don't hurt me!"

Ignoring the laughter in his voice, Hermione gave a regal nod. "You're forgiven, James." Then, as an afterthought, "you can pack your own bags next time, and I'll just watch and laugh."

Dorea beamed. "See, now isn't that better? Hurry up then, both of you. It's almost half-past and I'd rather beat the crowds."

"Yes, mum," the two of them intoned as she turned to leave. James stuck his tongue out at Hermione, and in return she flicked a spark of magic at him to smack him in the nose. He returned it with a yelp, his hitting her in the arm. She squeaked, threw another at him and dived from the room.

Kings Cross Station, London

"It's not real," Petunia laughed snidely for the fourth time as they wandered in circles. "Platform 9¾ doesn't exist. They're playing you for fools, and you fell for it!"

"Petunia!" Mrs. Evans snapped. "If you don't have anything helpful to say, say nothing at all!"

Petunia flipped her curtain of auburn hair behind her shoulders and smirked, but kept her mouth shut. It was a good thing, too, because Lily looked close to tears. She hung onto Severus with one hand, the other in her father's large one, and jerked her head from one direction to another. "It must be here," she murmured, her voice shaking. The sheen of tears in her eyes wrenched at Severus's chest, so he worked more diligently to find the bloody thing. It was ridiculous that they'd sent them the address of a warded area without any instructions as to how to find it! How insensitive could you be? How many muggleborns must have been lost at this very stage, when their parents just give up and go home for lack of ability to find the right place?

A curl of anger simmered in Severus's stomach on the Evans's behalf. It was utterly humiliating to stand here, blocking the foot traffic, with security guards and train officials eyeing them strangely, as they attempted to find the entrance to a mystical land.

Lily let out a little sob, her fingers tightening around Severus's own. He glanced across at her, seeing her massive, glowing green eyes, so full of desolation.

And then, in the corner of his eye, he saw a family of six disappear into thin air.

His head whipped around to see whether he had imagined it, and as he did so, another pair – a sixteen year old and their mother – stepped up to the ticket barrier separating Platforms 9 and 10 and simply… melted through. "Mrs. Evans," he said loudly, cutting through her near hysterical panic. "I think I know where it is."

Everybody fell silent as they looked in the direction he indicated, just in time to watch a redheaded man march back out of the wall. Mr. Evans sucked in a shocked breath. "My God…"

Letting out a delighted shriek, Lily wrenched herself free of her father and tore off across the station. "Don't run!" Severus snapped, even as he was dragged along behind her. He glanced back for help, but Mr. and Mrs. Evans were already following, Petunia slinking along behind them. He turned back forward just in time to see them coming up on the ticket barrier, to glimpse the startled face of a ticket-inspector as they raced past her on the platform, and then he was being sucked through the illusion and spat out in a new place.

"Holy…" Mrs. Evans muttered as she fell through the portal behind them, her eyes widening. Their view was riveted on the large, shiny red steam train that chugged lightly on the tracks in front of them. The scent of coal-fired steam hung heavy in the air, the sun sparkling off of the impeccably clean exterior to shine in their eyes as they stood, gawping in amazement. All around them milled groups of people, some in the odd Victorian-esque garb they had observed in Diagon Alley, some dressed in strange combinations of muggle clothes – there was a pirate to Severus's left, and a whole family of what looked like Romani travellers directly in front of him – and others who were obviously muggles, in linen suits and woollen skirts. Almost everybody had a sturdy brown trunk, except for one older student who walked ramrod straight and towed a Calpol-pink painted trunk behind her. And everybody, with the exception of the muggles and younger children, held wands.

There was a shove behind them and a jolly laugh as a man wearing a fez and a bright purple cardigan toppled through the portal. "Sorry!" Mrs. Evans cried, pulling Severus and Lily to one side. Petunia had already found her place; leaning against another archway, the image of a petulant teenage girl. The man in the fez shook his head and ushered a tiny girl with dirty blonde hair away, waving off their apologies.

"Right, then," Mr. Evans began, unloading their trunks from the trolley and handing them both to Severus. "I guess we'd best be off. You two be good, and we'll keep an eye out for any owls. Good luck, my love," he addressed the last part to Lily, leaning down to return her embrace when she threw her arms around his neck, kissing her cheek fondly.

"You'll look after our Lils, won't you, Severus?" Mrs. Evans asked him anxiously as she gave him a hug that smelled strongly of tea and potpourri. "Keep her safe?"

"Of course, Mrs. Evans," he replied solemnly, looking over her shoulder at the girl who meant more to him than anyone he'd ever known before her, with the exception of his mother. His first ever friend. Of course he'd look after her. Wild Thestrals would have to drag him from her side.

"Oh, good. And you'll write, yes?"

"Yes," he nodded. Lily sidled over and grabbed his hand again, going up on her tiptoes to kiss her mother goodbye.

"We'll see you at Christmas, then." Mrs. Evans said with some hesitation, as though she wasn't quite sure what to do now. Her eyes landed on Petunia and she jumped. "Oh, Petunia, won't you come say goodbye to your sister?"

Petunia sneered, her eyes raking over Lily and then Severus. "Good riddance," she spat, her vehemence somewhat dampened by the wobbling in her voice. She turned her back on them with echoing finality.

"We'd better…" Severus gestured to the train helplessly. Lily frowned and shook her head.

"You go on, Sev. I'll catch up with you in a bit."

He paused, but Lily ignored him, moving toward her sister. He shot a confused look at her parents who simply waved him off with apologetic shrugs. Grabbing their trunks, he turned and hurried towards the train.

After stashing them in a compartment, he glanced out of the window to see that Petunia and Lily were talking now; Lily gesturing wildly while Petunia shook her head, face twisted into an expression of supreme distaste. Well. He couldn't do anything about Petunia; she was jealous, and cruel, and she'd always be that way. As much as he hated to leave Lily to her sister's malice, he couldn't do much to help, either. Instead he ducked into the toilets and changed into his robes, only too glad to be rid of his ratty muggle shirt and trousers and into the new robes, which were warm and soft against his skin. He took a few minutes to appreciate the feeling, even allowing a faint smile to cross his face.

He'd almost forgotten how brilliant they felt, how cleanliness and a perfect fit could make him feel like an entirely new person. He wouldn't again.

Enjoying the brush of the heavy fabric against his legs, he returned to his compartment to see that it had been taken over by a group of boys, and Lily was sat in the corner gazing out of the window. He hesitated for a second, his old self-consciousness returning as he took in the other inhabitants. He recognised one from Ollivander's, the Potter boy whose mother had made Mrs. Evans feel so insecure. The other was unfamiliar to him.

He slipped in and took the seat opposite Lily, startled to notice that she'd been crying. "I don't want to talk to you," she said, her voice tight.

"Why not?" He tried not to feel offended, he really did, but she was his friend and he'd only been gone a matter of minutes. What would happen when they were separated for hoursDays?

"Tuney h-hates me. Because we saw that letter from Dumbledore."

"So what?"

She threw him a look that shook him to his core. "So she's my sister!"

"She's only a-" he caught himself quickly. He wasn't certain what he was going to say there; muggle? Cow? Right bitch? All were true. Instead of finishing a sentence which would only get him into trouble, he instead tasked himself with trying to bring back her earlier euphoria. "But we're going!" He reminded her, letting his excitement seep into his voice. "This is it! We're off to Hogwarts!"

She nodded, mopping at her eyes, half-smiling now in spite of herself. "You'd better be in Slytherin," he teased. She'd never really had a House preference, but he really wanted her in his. He didn't have real hopes for it, she was much too nice, but a boy could dream. And who knew? This past year, it seemed his dreams had had a habit of coming true.

"Slytherin?" The boy from Ollivanders broke away from his conversation to stare at Severus. "Who wants to be in Slytherin? I think I'd leave, wouldn't you?" He directed this one to the boy who lounged opposite him, taking up most of the seats on Severus's side of the compartment. The other boy did not smile.

"My whole family have been in Slytherin," he drawled in a voice that was almost obnoxiously posh. At least the other one had had a touch of Yorkshire in his accent, the one sitting next to Severus made Severus feel even more of a peasant than he usually did.

"Blimey, and I thought you seemed alright!"

Severus rolled his eyes at Lily, who stifled a chuckle, her eyes sparkling.

"Maybe I'll break tradition. Where are you heading, if you've got the choice?"

Perhaps the most irritating thing about their cabin-mates was that they spoke so loudly it didn't leave room for any other conversation, and yet didn't attempt to involve either Lily or Severus in the one they were having. He added inconsiderate to the list of things he disliked them for, keeping up a constant stream of silent mimicry for Lily's benefit as they spoke.

"'Gryffindor, where dwell the brave at heart!' Like my dad."

He couldn't help the noise that escaped his throat, drawing the Ollivander boy's attention back to him. Gryffindors. He'd heard stories of them from his mother, and to be honest, none of them had been particularly good. "Got a problem with that?"

"No," he replied, feeling his lip curl up into an involuntary sneer. Yes. "If you'd rather be brawny than brainy-"

"Where're you hoping to go, seeing as you're neither?" the other one said.

Lily shot up from her slumped position, instantly all fight, a lioness protecting what was hers. Severus's heart sank even as a thrill went through him at her protection. "Come on, Severus, let's find another compartment."

"Ooooo… See ya, Snivellus!" their imitation followed them down the hall as they left, Lily marching ahead so quicky Severus had to hurry to keep up.

She stopped in front of another compartment and threw the door open, gesturing him inside with an imperious sweep of the hand. "I thought he'd be nice, you know," she said, flopping down on a seat and crossing her arms, her expression conflicted. "I mean, his mum seemed nice, if a bit uppity, and his sister had a nice smile, remember?"

He remembered a little black-haired lass smiling at them, yes, but she hadn't been much of anything as far as he could tell. Spoilt and sheltered, like the other purebloods, no doubt. "I don't know," he replied, glaring out of the window, the anger in his stomach seeming to multiply. "He's a prat. His mate's a prat."

"I wouldn't mind, but they didn't even introduce themselves!" Lily huffed primly. "How rude, to insult a person whose name you don't even know. Besides, we've not even arrived at Hogwarts yet, it seems ridiculous to already be making enemies. Nasty, no-good bullies!"

She shook her head in frustration, and Severus realised that in the stress of the past few minutes she seemed to have forgotten she was mad at him. At least the other two boys were good for something. "Your mum packed us some chocolate," he said instead of allowing her to continue their rant, determined to make the most of their time together before school got in the way. "Would you like some?"

Her entire face lit up and she leaned forward. "Love some, thanks. When do you think the food trolley will be here? Did you know that in Hogwarts: A History they say she's…"

He handed over the chocolate, letting her lecture wash over him. If the rest of his schooling could be just like this, he'd be eternally content.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 1 st  September 1971

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

Severus watched Lily wander over to the Gryffindor table with an expression of the utmost trepidation. She'd smiled at him, but it wasn't a promising expression. Not when it was so sad. He felt her loss like the loss of a limb. Wildly, he searched his mind for anything he might give the hat to convince it to place him in Gryffindor, before suddenly realising that maybe manipulating the hat to put him in a different House would be the most Slytherin of moves.

She was sat opposite the boy from the train, Sirius Black, whose entire family had been in Slytherin. He was talking to her, but she was ignoring him. Good.

The Sorting was continuing around him. He'd lost enthusiasm for it. There was no mystery in his sorting, his very blood might as well run green and silver, he'd known that most of his life.

He'd never regretted it before, though.

Thursday 2 nd  September 1971



Was there ever any doubt?

It feels like home. No, really. It feels exactly like home, with all the red and gold hanging from everywhere. I wonder if that's where Dad got his inspiration from for the Manor? I'll ask him in my letter.

Anyway, you'll be happy to know I made a friend. I told you people would love me! His name's Sirius Black and he's a Gryffindor too. We met on the train and we've got so much in common it's scary. You'd like him, I think. He's funny! There are another three boys sharing the dorm with us, Frank Longbottom, Mum's friend Augusta's son. I quite like him but we've not seen each other since we were both in nappies. There's Remus Lupin, too. His dad used to be something in the Ministry but he left, I don't know why, Dad doesn't like to talk about it. You'd like him, quiet. He opened his trunk last night and there were millions of books in there! I'll introduce you next year, maybe you'll get married!

Actually, you know what you were saying about me being annoying? Don't lie – I know you say it. Well, I met this third-year at dinner and he said, "yer an arrogant twerp ain't ye Pottah? Cannae ye no' shut ye mouth?". Thinking back on it now, I actually reckon you and him would be a perfect match. I'll get mum to draw up a contract, shall I?

It's almost lights-out, I'll owl next week.

Love, James.

P.S. I forgot about Pete! Sorry, Pete. (He seems a bit touchy)

Friday 3 rd  September 1971

Dear James,

I am unsurprised. We are all unsurprised.

Papa gives 'no comment' on the Manor's décor, so I think you might be right!

Sirius Black? I met his brother. He was lovely. I think I recognise the name Lupin, too. I'll have to look him up.

Stop trying to marry me off! That said, he was entirely right.

Love, Hermione.

P.S. Mum misses you. I do too.

Friday 17 th  September 1971


I can officially levitate a feather! I know that doesn't sound impressive, but it is. Swish and Flick!

I've put my notes in, like you asked. Do I have to? It's ruining my reputation. Sirius keeps looking at me funny when I get my quill out.

Remember I told you about Remus? Well, I reckon he's alright, actually. Got a sense of humour, if a bit morbid. We're friends. Sort-of.

Love, James.

P.S. Two weeks later and no death threats!

Saturday 18 th  September 1971

Dear James,

I'm so proud! So many lesson notes, it's quite mindboggling that you managed to concentrate long enough to take them! Thank you, my brother. They're very helpful.

Oh, poor James, whatever will you do?

Love, Hermione.

Sunday, 19 th  September 1971



Did you get your letter?

I know you did. You're coming to Hogwarts!

You and me, little sister. We'll show the world what the Potters are made of!

Love you,


Monday, 20 th  September 1971

Dear James,

Oh, thank you for my present! I love it. Did you make it yourself?

Yes, I'll be at Hogwarts next year! Mum's going round the bend, but she'll be okay. You and me, brother.

Love you, too,


Thursday 28 th  October 1971


The thing with the toilet seat was a fluke, I swear! Tell mum that, please. She's still mad. Remind her that only one letter home in two months is a miracle! I'm being good!

Love, James.

Friday 29 th  October 1971

Dear James,

Of course it was. Mum says no sweets this week. (I got to deliver the good news!)

Love, Hermione

Monday 15 th  November 1971


Detention is boring. Do not recommend.

Sirius says hi (apparently you met before?) and Remus sort-of blushed, which I think is his way of saying hi too. We're in the library. Studying. Don't you look at me like that, I study!

And if mum just so happens to see this letter, and how I'm studying, that would be ok.

How's the Manor? How's Monty? The others? Let me know.

Love, James.

Monday 13 th  December 1971


We'll be home next week!

See how I said 'we'? Sirius is coming! I can't wait for you to meet him. He's looking forward to seeing you again.

Miss you, little sister.

Love, James.

Monday 13 th  December 1971

Potter Manor, Hermione's Room

Hermione folded the last of James's letters and slipped it into the keepsake box he'd sent her for her last birthday. Made of polished wood carved with the Potter crest, it was only the size of an envelope but was quite the most lovely thing she'd ever received. While her parents has spoiled her rotten with jewellery and stationary and books, there was nothing quite as charming as something made with someone's own two hands with love poured into the making.

She sighed and pushed away from the desk, glancing back at the box and shaking her head. He hadn't kept his promise to write every week, but she'd not expected him to. Hogwarts was a new and exciting place with much to do and explore, he'd never be able to resist that temptation. It didn't bother her all that much. Well, that was a lie – it bothered her sometimes, when the days seemed long and empty, and she had nobody to share them with, but then Dorea would appear with some new piece of pureblood culture to examine or Charlus would sit her next to him and go over some proposed legislature and the loneliness would seep away in favour of learning.

It was still there when she returned, which was the real problem.

She sighed again, and checked the clock. Dorea was going to a dinner party that night with Augusta and some other matriarchs whose names she forgot. It was a bi-annual thing, and would leave her alone in the house as Charlus was off on a business trip to Paris. She had no plans, other than practicing her meditation and speaking to the elves. Dinner for one in the kitchen, bed by nine.

Her gaze crept back to the box filled with letters. Yes, the loneliness was always there, waiting for her to return.

Chapter Text

Saturday 18 th  December 1971

Potter Manor, Entrance Hall

"James!" Hermione shrieked, careless of her dignity as she threw herself down the stairs and into his waiting arms. He laughed as he hugged her, scrubbing his hand through her hair.

"Alright, alright. I wasn't gone that long."

"Not that long!" Hermione gasped, pulling back to stare him in the face. "Four months!"

"Hardly," James snorted, but smiled. "Did you miss me, then?"

"Nu-uh," she grinned, and James grinned straight back at her. Then he moved her slightly to one side and waved someone forward.

"Hermione, this is Sirius Black and Remus Lupin. Remus, Sirius, this is my sister Hermione."

Two boys stepped into her eyeline, both the same age as James, both looking like distortions of familiar images. She recognised Sirius as the boy who'd apologized for his mother in Flourish and Blotts, though he'd only been there for a few seconds. Up close, she had a worrying double-vision when she looked at him, as though she saw both future and past overlaid. He was striking even as a boy, with creamy skin she doubted would ever see the pains of acne and thick black hair lying sleek against his head, but she knew he'd make an extraordinarily handsome man. "Pleased to meet you," Sirius beamed, stepping forward to bow over her hand, laying a smacking kiss on her fingers and winking up at her. She couldn't contain a laugh even as she shook her head.

"Don't you know you're not supposed to actually kiss the fingers?" she asked in a prim voice, though her amusement added a pleasant thrum. "Not unless they're your wife or…" she blushed, but forced the word out, "lover."

"A bloke can hope, can't he?" Sirius joked, dodging out of the way of James's elbow. "Oi!"

"Feel free to ignore him," James rolled his eyes. "He was raised by wolves."

The other boy, Remus, let out a soft snort and looked faintly startled for doing it. He smiled shyly when Hermione turned to him. "Hi," he said with a wave, and Hermione was swept away on another tide of memories. Broken images of Remus as an older man, greying hair and scarred where now there was soft, unblemished flesh, flashed through her mind. He had the same moss-green eyes he'd have then, and the same three-inch scar across his cheek and temple which would stretch as he grew. She saw a snippet of him standing at the front of a crowd, a smile on his worn face, draped in patchwork robes. Another of him stooped over a kitchen table somewhere, huddling with a mug of some steaming liquid as though it were the Gods' Ambrosia. Another of him slouched on a couch with Sirius sat next to him, laughing loudly at whatever the other man was saying.

Hermione's smile felt warm and bright and genuine as she returned his greeting. She knew these boys. Well, she thought. All of the details weren't there yet, but they would be. She could be patient.

If she'd come from the future, then it stood to reason that she'd return, eventually, wouldn't she?

Wednesday 24th December 1971

Potter Manor, Family Sitting Room

"James, you put that down right now!"

"Ha! Look at your face, Sirius!"

"Your father and I knew each other from the Ministry, you know. I was a great supporter of his bill to enhance living conditions for hags."

"James! Leave Monty alone!"

"But mum, Monty likes it!"

"He's got a point, Mrs Potter…"

"Whuff! Ruff!"

"Oh? He never mentioned it… but I don't think he likes talking about his Ministry days very much."

"A pity, really, what happened. Oh well. All's well that ends well, eh?"

"Bork, bork, bork!"

" James Potter that dog is not a reindeer!"

"But mum, look! He can fly!"

Hermione watched the chaos from an armchair in the corner, where she pretended to read a book so that James wouldn't drag her into his trouble. She hadn't gotten past the first page, however, so absorbed was she in her watching. James was on top form this afternoon, driving their mum completely mental, with Sirius as his partner-in-crime, every bit as mischievous and maybe slightly cleverer. Remus, sadly, had been button-holed by Charlus and therefore was unable to join the fun, which might turn out for the best, actually, given that Dorea looked about to maim someone.

She sniggered as Dorea grabbed both of the boys by the back of their collars and shook them once as though they were misbehaving puppies. James pouted up at her while Sirius cringed back, causing Dorea to drop them immediately, her demeanour changing from irritated to concerned between heartbeats. Hermione dropped her book into her lap and sat up straight, her eyes along with her mother's on Sirius.

"What…" Dorea managed to articulate as she looked down at Sirius, who had paled out at the realisation of what he had done. Then, with no warning, Dorea's expression heated to pure furious fire, and she charged out of the room. Charlus hopped up immediately to run after her. Sirius turned to James, his eyes wide.

"Did I do something?" he asked, but James was staring after his mum with an incredulous look.

Later that night, once Dorea had gathered herself and returned, the whole family was once more gathered in the family room, music playing lowly from the radio, melding with the hum of conversation. Dorea and Charlus were swaying beneath the kissing bough suspended from the ceiling, mistletoe half gone, smiling at one another and talking in low voices sporadically. Remus was curled up on the edge of a settee, a book in his lap. Sirius and James sat opposite one another by the fireplace, playing Wizards Chess with tense faces of complete concentration. Hermione was sprawled on the floor by James's feet, using his legs to prop her up as she re-wove the wreath that, originally, had been hanging on the kitchen door – that is, until James, Sirius and Remus had decided they really wanted to play quidditch, a game which, in the descending dark, had ended with James losing control of his broom and smashing into the poor thing. Of course, with James, a quick spell had repaired the damage, but wreaths had to be made by hand, and James was rubbish at that.

The clock above the mantel chimed nine, breaking Dorea and Charlus apart, catching the boys' attention and riveting it to her mother. Dorea walked slowly, regally, towards the timepiece and tapped it with her wand with great ceremony, the silence that fell laced with anticipation and excitement.

"It's time," Dorea announced, an indulgent smile on her face as she saw how her children had perked up, even Hermione vibrating with excitement. She clicked her fingers and Bell appeared in the doorway, laden down with old-fashioned torches, which she laid on the table by the French doors, the yule-candle that flickered there lining their wooden handles with gold. Behind her, Pollo followed, his arms full of coats and hats and scarves, which he dumped unceremoniously on the carpet at Charlus's feet, to an amused look from his Master and a scathing glare from the Head House-Elf. Batty brought up the rear, his tiny feet clad in elvish wellington boots from his outside work, his darkened, calloused skin looking harsh against the delicate red, white and green ribbons he carried. These he dropped on the sideboard beside the torches, before all three elves bowed and retreated.

"Come on, coats on!" Dorea hurried them, picking through the pile to throw each one to its respective owner. "Charlus, the lamps, please!"

As each child lined up in front of Dorea, Sirius looking rather confused as he did so, Charlus picked up a torch in one hand and proceeded to tie a ribbon around its shaft, before bending it to the candle and lighting its wick. Flames flared up instantaneously, licking at the metal cage that encased it, crackling merrily. While Dorea supervised the dressing, he used his free hand to sling open the French doors into the night, allowing entry to a brisk, cool wind that carried the earthy smell of the woods with it.

Hermione snuggled happily into her mittens and scarf, hurrying over to tie her own ribbon to a torch. She chose the white ribbon, and it fluttered in the breeze as she hoisted the torch into her arms, overbalancing a little at the unexpected weight of it. There was a sense of age in the wood, and the metal was close to rusting out, but it hardly mattered – the torches were more ceremony than function, as Dorea would have lit the woods with witchlight at various intervals, and the pure white shine of the moon was also beneficial. She bit her lip to fight off a manic grin in answer to James, who stood opposite her, bouncing on the balls of his feet, all of his teeth bared as he stared off into the night.

Once everybody was wrapped up and cozy, Dorea led them into the garden and whirled back to face them. Sirius still looked rather nonplussed, which put a smirk on Dorea's face, and Remus seemed somewhat subdued, but no less anticipatory as he gazed into the night. "Right, kids," Dorea said, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "I want no funny business. You get the log, you come right back, understood?"

"Yes, mum," James and Hermione chorused, stretching up on the balls of their feet, their attention fixed on the treeline that was their goal.

"Good. Now, I know it was supposed to be your turn last year, James, but as we have guests, I'd like Sirius and Remus to be the ones who choose it. Is that understood?"

"Yes, mum," James said, slightly more subdued. Beside him, Sirius startled and grinned up at Dorea, his entire face alight.

"Good. Be smart about it. Don't go harassing the poor creatures. Your father and I will be waiting."

"Let them go, Dorea," Charlus grumbled, leaning against the doorframe. "It'll be midnight before they get back at this rate, and then what will we do?"

Dorea shot her husband a sharp look, but sighed. "Alright. Ready? Set? Go!"

On her word, all four children set off at a gallop for the treeline, James pulling ahead with a joyous whoop. Hermione ran just behind him, laughing with the sheer joy of being free, ignoring how the wind whipped and stabbed at her bare cheeks and eyes. They called the tradition 'Bringing In The Log', a way of finding the perfect yule log to burn in their fireplace, and it took more instinct than eyesight.

They reached the treeline in less than a minute, stumbling to a stop in the shadows of the oaks, whirling and panting as they waited for Sirius and Remus to catch up. Remus stumbled to a stop just in front of them, his cheeks glowing red and eyes sparkling from the exertion. Behind him, Sirius leaped over a bundle of twigs and halted, his face confused but exhilarated. Last year, when it had just been James and Hermione, they'd ran and ran with their hands linked until they'd been in the deepest, darkest part of the woods, where there was always the lurking idea of danger, despite the safety enforced by the property's wards. There, they'd both searched blindly for that guiding light, the flicker of magic that would guide them to whatever they needed for the ceremony. It had been a quiet, playful affair with the two of them sharing jokes, helping each other over logs and fallen trees, generally demonstrating their closeness and affection.

It would be different this year. Not bad, but different. Hermione had been experimenting for most of the holiday, trying to find a place in his life where she could fit now that he had other friends, other people to play and laugh and prank with. Of course, it was unlikely that any of his new friends would scold him, correct him and care for him the way she did, but he was an eleven-year-old boy – he wasn't old enough to appreciate that as anything other than interference.

James cleared his throat, pulling himself up into an imperious position as he surveyed them like they were his loyal subjects. "Sirius Black! Remus Lupin!" He cried in a fair imitation of a King's Summons. "You have been called to service in finding The Yule Log!" Pronouncing it carefully to ensure the capital letters were emphasised, he jumped up onto a rotting tree stump to continue his town crier routine. Hermione rolled her eyes and leaned against a tree, unable to help the curl of her lip. "Are you aware of the responsibility you now hold – in – your – very – hands?!"

Sirius smirked. "No?"

James did an exaggerated double-take, though there was some genuine shock there, too. "No?"

"No," Sirius shrugged. "We live in a town house. In London. Besides, Walburga doesn't like Yule."

"Doesn't like Yule?" James poured disbelief into his words.

"Nope." He shuffled a bit in place, staring at the ground, until Hermione took pity on him and changed the subject.

"It's not so difficult," she said in a reassuring tone, patting his arm. "There are hundreds of discarded logs in the woods, all over the place; Charlus leaves them around all year. You've just got to choose one for our house. It should have – I don't know how to describe it – a pull?"

"And it could be anywhere?"

Hermione nodded. "Any log you like, so that we can burn it into the new year."

Sirius turned to Remus. "Have you done it before?"

Remus shrugged with his hands dug deep in his coat pockets, the furry inner lining of the loaned garmet brushing his cheeks. "We lived in a village once where all of the villagers would get together on Christmas Eve and search together in the local forest. I chose the log then – really, I don't mind, you do it."

"Alright, then," Sirius nodded, a smile growing on his lips. "Let's go."

Sirius took the lead from there, crashing through bushes and around trees like an excitable pup, stopping every now and again to spin in a different direction and stomp that way. James followed, nimbly dodging obstacles and springing over bushes and tree-stumps like he belonged there. They shouted to one another gaily on their trip, occasionally throwing things at each other, generally causing a ruckus. More than once, Hermione had heard the frightened squeal of one animal or another as they dove back into their dens, hiding from the rampaging humans. Remus and Hermione followed, chatting quietly. Hermione found she liked Remus; despite his ability to be just as loud and offensive as the other boys (and Hermione knew from James's stories that he wasn't as sweet as he appeared to be; he was, after all, the reason poor Eden Simpkins had ended up walking around with a toilet seat stuck to her stomach – though it was anybody's guess as to exactly why she was using the men's bathroom in the first place, not to mention the odd positioning. All James had to contribute was the opinion that 'fifth-years are very strange') he was also more thoughtful, and though he might not be as naturally intelligent as Sirius or James were, he spent more time reading, which gave them much to talk about.

It was at least an hour before anything of note happened, as she and Remus were passing under a pair of ferns and lost sight of James. There was a yell of victory, a great scuffling, and as the pair of them emerged from their evergreen prison they caught sight of James and Sirius wrestling on the ground. James was on top, with Sirius wrenching his head back with one hand in his hair, a foot pressed against his stomach as the other reached for something hidden in the undergrowth. James, in turn, was alight with the thrill of a fight, one knee pressed against Sirius's groin, the other foot against his flattened calf, as he lay punches anywhere he could reach. Remus choked slightly upon seeing the situation, but Hermione waved him away.

She let out a piercing whistle through her fingers, and stamped her foot right by their heads. Both of them, conscious of their overgrown hair, flinched back automatically so that she wouldn't catch their precious locks in her movement. "What are you doing?" she snapped. "What part of 'no funny business' don't you understand?"

"This isn't funny business – argh!" James gritted out as he pressed forward and Sirius yanked his head back even further.

"You're right," Hermione grunted, reaching down and grabbing an ear each, and twisting quickly and with all of her strength. Their immediate yells were gratifying. "This isn't funny, idiots."

"Sirius found a log!" James whined, scrambling off his friend as Hermione tugged upwards by their ears, bringing them to their feet. "I just wanted him to wait!"

"Well, Sirius?" she asked, turning to the other boy, who was trying to shake her off. He glared up at her sullenly.

"I was just cleaning it," he pouted, and did quite a believable job of it, too, because Hermione was feeling herself soften when James spoke again.

"You've never cleaned in your life!" he said, rolling his eyes and looking entirely comfortable despite the death grip Hermione still had on his ear. "You were going to pick it up without all of us here to see it."

"That's not very nice," Hermione frowned, letting go of them both.

Sirius frowned repentantly. "I couldn't help it, it's so nice."

Sighing, Hermione waved him on. He flashed her a boyish grin and lunged for the base of the oak, scrabbling around with his hands, dirt flying. Then, he lifted something into his hands and turned to them triumphantly.

The log was as thick as his arm, with a rich, dark chocolate colour outside and a butter-yellow centre. It had lay half-hidden beneath mud and decomposing leaves from the autumn just passed, and Sirius shook loose a colony of beetles that had taken root in one of the many craters littering its surface. "Perfect!" Sirius declared, taking no notice of Hermione's dubious expression. It wasn't the best-looking log in the world. Tying their ribbons around it would give new meaning to the phrase 'mutton dressed as lamb'. But Sirius appeared pleased, cradling it like it was a precious treasure. She and James shared a look before turning smiles on him.

"Alright, time for these, then," Hermione reached up and loosened the ribbon from her torch, leaving it dangling from her fist. She handed the torch to Remus and stepped forward, reaching through Sirius's arms to tie it securely around the centre, and then stepped back. The white of her ribbon glowed against the darkness of the wood.

The others followed the same routine until it was divided into fifths by the colours, and then turned, hunting for the edge of the treeline, and then taking a slower route back to the house in deference to Sirius's added weight. Dorea waited at the door, and beamed when she saw him. "Look at that!" she sang, admiring the bundle with the genuine admiration of a mother whose child has created something, no matter how horrific the result might be. "Come in, come in!"

Charlus had cleared the fireplace while they were out, leaving it bare and devoid of ashes but for a few sparse pieces of kindling and one nearly burnt-out log from the previous fire, which crackled merrily in the corner of the grate. They circled the hearth and watched as Sirius, under Charlus's instruction, placed the log dead-centre and stepped back. Dorea produced a bottle of wine from behind her back and uncorked it efficiently, stepping forward and poured it over the wood.

"Wait," Charlus said with an air of slow realization, watching Dorea systematically cover every inch of the log with her wine. "Is that my '64 Chateau de Pierre?"

Dorea paused, her eyes widening innocently as she checked the label. "Oh. So it is." She grinned wolfishly as she glanced back at her husband. "A pity."

"Dorea! The Minister gave me that!"

"The Minister must not like you very much, my love. This is the worst wine I've ever tasted." She shook the bottle so that the last drops splattered the log and smiled warmly at her husband. "All done."

"At this point in the ritual, you'd typically say a blessing," Dorea said as she turned back to her family. "But as you can see, we do things differently here." Remus nodded slowly in understanding, watching fire begin to lick up the alcohol-soaked log.

James turned to his father with a grin. "Is it time for wassail?"

Hermione let out a choked laugh as Charlus reached behind him for a tray of drinks. He met his wife's eyes over his son's head as he handed out cups of warm cider. "And you were worried that she was the alcoholic," she sniffed with a smile.

Monday 3 rd  January 1972

Kings Cross Station, London

"Come on, come on! I don't want to have to explain to your parents that the reason why you didn't make it back to Hogwarts was I just couldn't stop you dawdling!" Dorea shouted, pushing at James's back as he and his friends pressed through the crowds, using their trolleys as battering rams. Hermione wandered beside them, amused and somewhat desolate, as she prepared to send her brother back to Hogwarts for another six months.

"Cheer up, 'Mi," James said, catching her expression and nudging her with his elbow. "Only eight more months and you'll be there with me."

She shot him a scathing look from pure defensiveness. "I'm not sulking, James. I'm just thinking how stupid this whole system is. I mean, come on! Getting through to Platform 9 ¾ requires you to run at it. Run! On a train station platform! It's like they're running some survival of the fittest experiment where they expect the weakest to experience death by train!"

He rolled his eyes, shaking his head at Sirius over Hermione. "Mental, isn't she?"

"Oh, shut up!" she snapped, but nuzzled her head against his arm. "Hey, isn't that – what's her name – Lily?"

James's head whipped around towards where Hermione was pointing, and they both paused for a moment to look at the scene. It was, indeed, Lily Evans, with the sulky boy she'd had by her side in the wand shop and the same perfectly coiffed mother. Hermione tilted her head to one side as she observed them – who was the boy again? And why was he so familiar? Familiar in a way that even Remus wasn't, like she saw him every day back where she came from, wherever that was. She couldn't access the memory however hard she tried, so she shrugged off the strange feeling.

"What are you staring at?" The sulky boy snapped at her. She realised that she'd been left behind by the rest of her group, and she'd wandered closer in her trance.

"Oh – sorry," she apologised immediately, feeling the flush burn up her cheeks. "It's just that you remind me of someone."

"No I don't," he said, rather disagreeably, but his harsh features had relaxed a little. Lily, at his side, frowned down at her.

"Aren't you James Potter's sister?" she asked, with a tone in her voice that made Hermione bristle.

"Yes, is that a problem?"

"He's a bully," she replied smartly, linking her arm through Severus's. "You know that? He's always picking on Sev, calling him horrible names, hexing him in the corridors."

James was? That didn't sound quite right. And then there was 'Sev', who hardly looked like a victim. In fact, he was rather imposing to her, taller than her and so very scowly. There was something instinctive in her that wanted to flinch away – which, of course, only made her more determined to stay. "Why?" she asked, then realised that might seem rude, and apologised again. "Sorry, I don't mean that there must be something objectionable about you for him to bully you, only – well, it doesn't quite add up with the James I know."

"Hermione?" And there was James, approaching with Remus and Sirius flanking him. "You wandered off – you know you're not supposed to do that."

"I didn't realise I had," she replied haughtily, bristling again at the idea that she was some helpless child to be fluttered over and protected. "I turned around and you were gone. Besides, I'd not gone far."

"You're not supposed to go anywhere at all," he said sternly.

"I'm the same age as you, James, don't you baby me!" she flipped her hair over one shoulder, not at all sure where the sudden aggression had come from. There was something about the whole situation – James being away for months, then coming back and having less time for her, and now he was apparently a bully? She loathed bullies, she knew she'd had awful experiences with bullies in the past, glimpses of herself crying in bathrooms and on her bed, crying so very much, so very heart-wrenching. She couldn't condone that sort of behaviour if it was true. Not at all.

James stared over her shoulder, his eyes calculating. "Evans. Sn-" he looked at Hermione and then back, his face twisting into a pained sneer. "Snape."

"Bugger off, Potter," Evans grunted, turning her back on them. "Come on, Sev. Alice said she'd save us some seats in her compartment."

They wandered off and Hermione was left with her brother and his friends. She crossed her arms and glared at him with all of her strength. "Do you bully him, brother?"

He looked taken aback. "Bully?"

"Yes, bully. Do you call him names, and hex him in the corridors?"

James turned to his friends for support, but they backed away, showing their hands. James looked back at her with a pained look. "Oh, Gods, you do, don't you?"

"He started it," James said firmly.

"I don't care who started it!" Hermione shouted, careless of the people around her. "You do not bully people, James Potter! You are better than that!"


"Stop doing it," she said coldly. "I can't condone that behaviour, James. Stop it."

He shook his head sadly, shrugging. "I'm not just going to let him hurt me and not fight back, 'Mi."

Their eyes met, identical hazel orbs, both shuttered and protected. "Well," she said, stepping back. Her voice sounded distant, almost alien. "I'll see you in the summer, then. I'd best go and find mum, she'll be frantic. It was lovely to meet you, Sirius and Remus."

"'Mi," James pleaded, but she shot him a look so cold it was freezing.

"Stop doing it, and we'll talk."

Chapter Text

Monday 24 th  July 1972

Kings Cross Station, London

Hermione had been brought to collect James because her mother thought it was best, despite the constant buzz of low-level anxiety in her gut. Their relationship wasn't on what one might call 'good terms'. Owls between them had been on the decline, finally stopping completely by the beginning of May, and those that had been sent between then and the beginning of the new term had been, at best, blithe and at worst, downright curt.

It hurt, but she knew that she'd said the right thing. James, her James, couldn't be a bully. Bullies were awful people, picking on the weak and destroying their sense of self-worth for life. She wouldn't be able to live with herself if James turned into that and she didn't do anything to stop him.

Out of the crowd she spotted a flash of black hair, and she focused in, only to find it was Severus Snape. Well. She clenched her fists and squared her jaw, using all of her willpower to stay in one place. She wouldn't check up on James, she wouldn't. She just needed to trust him. He'd have done the right thing, she was sure of it. And Severus didn't look terribly psychologically scarred; no more than the average eleven-year-old, at least. He was smirking down at his ginger friend while she gestured wildly with her hands, hair flipping every-which-way as she spoke.

"Oh, my boy!" Dorea yelped suddenly, sending Hermione spinning back around to see her scoop James up into her arms and pepper his face with kisses, not something she'd usually do in public. "You were missed," she assured him when his feet touched the floor again, mussing his hair. Her eyes were slightly misty, and everybody else ignored that.

"Hello, son," Charlus said, reaching out to ruffle James's hair with one large hand. James shrinked back, grimacing as his hands came up automatically to fix it. "How was school."

"Great," James said, then darted to the left, out of the range of his mother's arms as she went to hug him again. "Mum, stop, people can see."

Hermione couldn't hold back the snort at Dorea's fallen expression. She did so hate whenever one of them did something that expressed their growing maturity. James didn't notice, slyly scanning around to make sure nobody was watching their interaction – because the Gods forbid anybody know he loved his mum.

"Welcome back," she said finally, shyly, stepping up next to their mother and bracing herself. James glanced over at her, his hands pausing in his hair as he sized her up.

"Hermione," he said, and then his eyes softened and he smiled. She grinned back, she couldn't help it, she had missed him. He opened his arms in invitation and she burrowed against his chest, sighing at the comforting feeling of being back with her brother.

Dorea clucked approvingly in the background.

Friday 25 th  August 1972

Potter Manor, Entrance Hall

"Hermione!" James shouted, his voice echoing through the halls. "Hurry up! They're meeting us in ten minutes!"

Hermione scoffed as she shoved the last of her hair into a bun. It had somehow grown more unruly as summer had worn on, and while it wasn't quite as bad as the curly mass she'd appeared at the manor with, it was full of cowlicks and jagged ends and strands that refused to bow to gravity. Some of it was wavy, some of it poker-straight, and all of it was a mess. "They're meeting you in ten minutes," she corrected sourly, shaking her head to check the stability of her hairstyle. "I'll be off to the wand shop with Papa the second we land."

"You're making me late," he scowled, coming up behind her and tugging on a loose strand at the nape of her neck.

"Merlin forbid," she sniffed, smacking his fingers away. "You're always late. Besides, mum isn't here yet. At least I'm ready."

"Yeah, but I can't yell at mum," James smirked, ducking away from her as she went to smack him again. "Excited?"

"Yes," she smiled brilliantly at him. "Good luck getting rid of me now."

He scoffed gently. "As if I'd try," he rolled his eyes.

"Are we all ready?" Dorea's voice boomed as she rounded the corner, fiddling with the ends of her cloak. "Where on earth is your father?"

"I'm here, love," Charlus said, coming from behind her and pecking a kiss against her perfectly coiffed hair.

"It's about time!" James exclaimed, pouting in their direction. "I've been ready for hours!"

"Goodness, I wonder what that feels like, waiting on people to get ready?" Dorea said with heavy sarcasm, winking at Hermione as she giggled softly. "How terribly rude we've been, James."

"Yes, you have!" James snapped, yanking the pot of floo powder from the mantel and holding it out in front of him imperiously. "I'll forgive you if you hurry up!"

"Can we get that in writing?" Charlus drawled.

Scowling at his dad, James shook the tin in his direction insolently. "Chop-chop! Come on! Time's a-wasting!"

"Hermione, you go first, then Dorea, and I'll follow up with Charlemagne, here." Charlus commanded, slapping a hand on James's shoulder so that he nearly crippled under the strength, still scowling up at his father as he recovered. Then, when they didn't move immediately, he shook the arm with which James was holding the floo-powder and said, "you heard the boy! Chop-chop!"

Diagon Alley, London

It was somehow different, Hermione thought, visiting Diagon Alley when you were the one being inducted into the magical world. Somehow more mysterious. Enchanting in an entirely different way. She looked at the shops with a sort of satisfaction, admiring wares with less of the detached curiosity of childhood and more of the adult browsing, with a knowledge that if she cared to, she could now buy these things and use them as she wished.

She saw parents steering their children through shops, children that looked her age and older, and realised that come September these people would be her classmates, as opposed to random children she came across in the streets and waved at occasionally. In less than a month – less than two weeks, even – she would be living in close quarters with them all, immersed in their friendships, cultures and the politics of boarding school.

Giddiness began in her gut and spiralled up through her body, the cynical part of her brain that she knew as Old-Hermione not even butting in to distract her this time. Sure, she might have been to Hogwarts before, but she didn't remember it, which meant that this – these people, these supplies, these books and her future wand – was all new to her. She had no doubt, too, that even should she remember her first time at Hogwarts this time would be entirely different, for there were different people, it was a new, more relaxed world, and she had a family. A family she loved, who accepted and adored her in turn.

The cobblestones were eroded underfoot, the concrete that held them in place almost gone, leaving them wobbly and unpredictable. Their seemingly random placement was only flattened into a less dangerous terrain at each side of the road, where it had been worn down by centuries of carriage passings. People walked in those two ruts rather than in the centre, safe, since very few travelled by vehicle here, where by some silent agreement children stood to play and customers checked out their wares, a still spot among the never-ending foot traffic on the street. The original paths, smoothed out by feet and built inches above the road, was impassable due to the merchants that monopolised it, with owls in cages and cauldrons and snapdragon plants in pots that reached out to munch on the unwary all lined haphazardly across it, as though the street were more travelling fair than shopping center of Wizarding Britain.

Hermione watched everything as though it was new, feeling connected. Feeling like, when she got her wand, she might truly belong. A witch like everybody else, with a magical family in good standing, a family which people stopped on the street to greet and chat with, looking at Hermione with warm, encouraging eyes as they asked 'excited for Hogwarts?' or 'she'll be a Gryffindor, just like you, Charlus'. It was as though a whole new world had opened up in front of her, a world in which she was comfortable rather than confused, a world where she was accepted – not only accepted, but in demand as a connection, people wanting to be close to the Potter siblings. She'd heard more than one husband tell his wife that they were 'rising again' and were expected to 'do big things'.

As fascinating as she found this glimpse into later life, however, she really only wanted her wand. The yearning she'd felt for it since she'd landed in this time had been exceptionally painful, a jolt in her insides whenever she saw her family use their wands, a searing pain in her chest every-time they passed Ollivanders on some errand or the other. The pressure was close to bursting, so close that she was shaking more and more as they neared the shop, and she wanted to hurt every person who stopped them in the streets until they learned to leave them alone.

Finally, finally, they reached Ollivanders, which, according to trend, had a queue. Hermione tried to restrain the urge to growl, but her constipated-looking expression caught her father's eye and he snorted. "Patience," he chided, manoeuvring them away from the door and toward the back. It was only the two of them as James had arranged to meet Sirius and Remus at the Leaky Cauldron, where Dorea had stayed to chat with Hope Lupin while the boys went to buy James's long-anticipated new broom. Walburga Black, making no secret of her distaste for the lot of them but most especially Remus's muggle mother, had simply shoved her eldest son into their group with more force than necessary and stormed off.

So it was the two of them, and together they took up very little space, which was helpful when the shop was so tiny itself. At the counter was a father and daughter, the father having – of all things – bright blue hair, his daughter hanging off his arm in a shredded yellow tunic, her short chestnut-brown hair curling around her shoulders. They were talking to Ollivander and laughing heartily; Hermione was inclined to doubt their sanity for Ollivander might be many things but by no stretch of the imagination was he funny.

Just to the side of them, an Amazonian-looking woman with dark skin, dark hair and dark eyes leaned against a window with her arms crossed, glaring at the laughing pair. A blonde man stood next to her, watching the process at the counter with curious eyes. They seemed to be lacking a child –

There was a crashing sound from the back, and immediately the blonde man stood up, his eyes wild and panicky. "Marlene!" He shouted, while the woman beside him scowled deeper.

Ollivander turned from his conversation to look into the back of the shop, where a whole shelf of wands had collapsed to the floor. The heap shifted slightly, seemed to vibrate, and then suddenly they were pouring to the floor. A slim brown arm appeared from the top of the pile, reaching around for leverage and then shoving downwards with her arms, propelling her out of the trap and back into fresh air.

She shook herself all over like a dog, then flipped a mane of perfectly formed blonde ringlets back over her head to smile brightly at Ollivander, who was gaping at her in surprise. "Sorry!" she said with a thick accent. "I were just looking around!"

The two at the counter burst out laughing again, the girl covering her face as she giggled continuously. The blonde man, who looked like some sort of conquering warrior, all large and muscular with scars on his face and arms, rolled his eyes. "How many times, Marlene?" he scolded in the same accent as his daughter, grabbing her off the counter as she pulled herself up onto it. "Stealing is wrong."

"I wasn't stealing," she frowned up at him, as though that was the most offensive thing she'd ever heard. "Check my pockets! I wasn't stealing!"

"Breaking and entering, then," he corrected himself with a heavy sigh. His companion was staring at the child as if she was something disgusting on the sole of her shoe. "I'm so sorry, Mr Ollivander. Marlene doesn't understand boundaries."

"I do too!" she snapped. "Ignoring isn't the same as not knowing, Pa!"

"Sorry," he said again, ignoring his child's protests. Hermione got the impression that he spent a lot of time apologising for his daughter's actions, not that it seemed to bother him, because there was something proud in the lines of his face as he looked at her.

"Not a problem, Mr. McKinnon," Ollivander nodded, then turned a stern eye on little Marlene. "Curiosity is good, of course, but these wands are precious."

Both parents turned a gimlet eye on Marlene until she sighed. "I'm sorry, Mr Ollivander," she droned as if by wrote. Then, she rushed out, "if only you weren't taking so long with Dorcas I wouldn't have to entertain myself!"

"Marlene!" the adults chorused, and Hermione couldn't hold back a laugh. Marlene was stood in the centre of the shop, hands on her hips, glaring back at Ollivander as though she were entitled to the world on a plate, right now thank you very much, and none of the adults, not even her parents, seemed to know what to do about that.

"We're done now, Marley," the girl at the counter finally said, waving her wand hand as if in evidence. Her father reached out and grabbed her wrist to stop her the second sparks started flying and she shot him an apologetic look. "You can get your wand."

"Thank you, Dor," Marlene huffed, tossing her perfect ringlets again and striding up to the counter.

Dorcas and her father wandered over to where they stood, her father turning a smile on them when they were finally noticed. "Hello!" he said in a cheerful voice. "Who do we have here, then? I'm Auggie Meadowes, this is my daughter Dorcas – hey, I know you! You're the one with the hair – what was it called again?" he looked down at Dorcas as though she could provide the answer, which she did, with an indulgent smile.

"Sleekeazy's, dad."

"Sleekeazy's!" Auggie repeated with a grin. "Brilliant, that is. My late wife loved it."

"Charlus Potter," Charlus said, holding out a hand for him to shake. As he often did in the presence of other, new people, Hermione's father seemed to close in on himself, throwing up a formal mask. She knew it was out of shyness rather than anything insulting; it was easier to retreat to a place where all interactions were scripted than to risk making a fool of himself, he thought.

"Pleased to meetcha!" Auggie said, shaking the offered hand enthusiastically before turning to Hermione, who provided her name to receive the same treatment. "You'll be in our Dorcas's class," he informed her warmly, pushing the girl forward. She was the same height as Hermione, with wide brown eyes and olive-tones skin, and a warm smile for everybody she met.

"And Marlene's," Dorcas tacked on the end, nodding back towards the other girl, who was now scowling ferociously at Ollivander, looking rather like a pitbull about to strike. "She's really not that bad once you get to know her," she said with the voice of a person often defending their friend when their fathers turned away from them to chat to one another. "She's just easily distracted, and when her mum's here it's worse."

Hermione only nodded, not feeling quite right about having someone's personal secrets spilled to her in a shop. Dorcas quieted and they watched the spectacle that was Marlene, who appeared to be purposefully using the malfunctioning wands to try and bring down the shop – or, actually, all of her 'mistakes' veered off towards the Amazon woman, who Hermione assumed was her mother. She stood there with a shield charm up and a bored expression on her face, and Hermione could understand why Marlene felt so compelled to act up around her, if not to the extent that she did.

It took twenty minutes for her to find a wand, after she'd had a particularly bad experience with a hazel one, the wand nearly exploding and setting her fringe on fine. Ollivander had acted like that told him everything he needed to know. He brought down a long, slim, ebony-black wand which Marlene had swished, flicked and spun, with no harmful consequences. Looking disappointed that her fun was over, she had the wand boxed up and stowed away in no time. Her father, Hermione noticed, paid about three times the price, and was about to start picking up the boxes when Ollivander looked him in the eyes and shook his head firmly.

"Alright, books next!" he proclaimed instead, drawing himself up from his knees and reaching blindly for Marlene, who was tapping her foot impatiently. "Thank you so very much, Mr. Ollivander, sir."

"Not a problem," Ollivander replied, sounding remarkably sincere even as he surveyed the ruined remains of his shelving and sent the exiting girl a doleful look. "No problem at all."

"Come on, Dor!" Marlene yelled as her father towed her out to the street. "Pa's buying us Fortescue's!"

"I'll see you on the train," Dorcas said with warmth, smiling at both Hermione and her father, even as her own father tugged on her hand and said "Fortescue's, darling!".

"See you!" Hermione called after her, still giggling slightly from watching Marlene. Charlus rolled his eyes, and got his wand out to help Ollivander once the coast was clear.

"Ah, Charlus. Back again, I see," Ollivander hummed, sparing a soft look for the two of them as they rebuilt his shelving. "The McKinnons have always been a difficult family," he explained as he stacked wand boxes.

Charlus smirked a little, nodding in agreement. "My father always said it was the Scots blood. If they're not at war, all the aggression builds up and sends them loopy. Plus," he added with a knowing look at Ollivander, "they're from Glasgow."

Snorting in derision, Hermione began scooping loose wands up from the floor and fixing them back in their boxes, sparing a moment each time to give them a test. Of course, in terms of helpfulness, it's effectiveness was debatable, but Hermione enjoyed it, and it allowed her to skip all of the measuring. Ollivander and Charlus chatted in the background, their work a low hum as Hermione tuned them out, examining each wand and pairing them with discarded cases.

She'd made it through six before she was on her hands and knees and spotted the hazel wand which had reacted so badly to Marlene lingering near the wall, under one of the shelving units. She looked at it with some trepidation, one hand coming up automatically to smooth at her eyebrows, which Marlene had been conspicuously missing when she'd left. She didn't fancy taking the risk, hazel wands being as temperamental as they were, but she could hardly leave it there. What if it was someone's wand, and because it was hidden they ended up leaving without it? She would never forgive herself if someone went wandless because she was a coward.

She flattened herself onto her stomach and took a bracing breath, before thrusting her hand through the layers of dust, scrabbling around until they finally located the carved handle. Wrapping it in her fist, she pulled it out quickly, bringing herself up on her knees, dropping it out of preparation before she recognized the warmth spreading up and through her arms to settle in her chest. With an excited yelp, she grabbed it again, swishing it through the air and watching with awe as the shop filled with millions of tiny golden sparks, shimmering in the sunlight. The wand – her wand – twitched happily in her hand.

"Hazel, Unicorn hair core, 12¼ inches, reasonably supple," Ollivander's voice said behind her. She glanced back to see him nodding approvingly. "Exactly the sort of wand one might expect for a witch of your standing and calibre," he added in an offhand manner, picking up the corresponding box and offering it to her. She clutched her wand to her chest, battling back the urge to snap out a warning. He surely didn't think she would let it go now?

Charlus watched her for a moment before reaching out to the wall and unhooking something from a shelf, dropping it on the counter. "I think we'll be needing one of these, too," he said.

They paid and Charlus revealed his last-minute purchase; a wand holster for her forearm. He strapped it to her bare arm with a knowing smile, but said nothing as she slid her wand into place. Keeping it close to her skin was immeasurably comforting, and she felt like she was floating as they escaped the shop for the street, and continued to float all the way through their trip until she was home again, sitting cross-legged on her bed, examining it with awe.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 19 th  June 1996

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Entrance Hall

Remus sat on the first step of the butterfly stairs that lived in the Entrance Hall, his eyes fixed on the hourglasses. He wasn't really seeing them, though; he was far too wrapped up in his own head to notice anything that might be happening in the real world.

It had been a whim to inform Snape of his suspicions, based on the knowledge that aside from Remus, Snape had the most right to know. He'd been friends with Hermione Potter for years before her disappearance, even closer to her than Remus, and at times, even James. They'd shared everything with one another, and while Remus sometimes suspected that Severus had lost the ability to feel sometime along the way, there had been no questioning how much he'd loved her at the time.

Part of Remus had been hoping that Snape had answers. That telling him about what he had seen would have triggered something in the man, something that might lead to him telling Remus her secrets. He'd been sure for many years now that Snape was keeping something from them in regards to Hermione and her final disappearance, but due to the 'pact' the other men had made there had been no right way to address it. He'd entertained the idea that he'd known it was Hermione Granger before for all of two hours, until he'd spoken to Snape in person and seen the utter shock he'd experienced at Remus's theory.

There was definitely something missing, though. Something they'd all missed. He couldn't believe that she was dead – it didn't make sense. Yes, people had been killed nearly every day back then and yes, people went missing frequently but… well, not Hermione. She had been powerful, wicked, quick with her wand. A pureblood, too, which at the time had been akin to blanket protection. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named had been too busy recruiting to kill valuable purebloods at the time, the Boneses notwithstanding.

Add to that the other mysterious disappearances that occurred nearly on top of Hermione's – Regulus Black, Marlene McKinnon, Dorcas Meadowes; all friends of Hermione's, all of whom simply dropped off the face of the Earth within days of Hermione herself. There was no other pattern there; two of them had been purebloods, one half-blood; Regulus had been a Slytherin while Dorcas had been a Ravenclaw and Marlene a Gryffindor; Regulus was a Death Eater, Marlene was in the Order, and Dorcas was – well, simply awful at defensive spells, and those were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to their differences. The only connection had been Hermione's friendship with them all.

Severus Snape was the only remaining member of Hermione's inner circle. For him to claim ignorance… it wasn't believable. Not in the least.

Remus shook his head free of that nebulous web of thought. He wasn't going to make any more sense of it that night, so why beat himself up? Instead, his thoughts went to the Infirmary, where Harry and Sirius, the only two remaining members of his pack, were sleeping soundly.

They were going to have a fight on their hands come morning. Sirius would want to take Harry home with them, whereas Dumbledore will insist on keeping Harry under his own guardianship. Come Summer, Sirius will expect to have Harry living at Grimmauld, whereas Dumbledore will insist on his remaining with his aunt and uncle. He'll cite the blood wards as the reason, and nobody will be able to argue with it, because it's not something they understand. It was a murky area of magic, grey and ill-defined, something Remus knew all too well after spending most of last Summer trying to find a solution to the problem in the Black library. Of course, many of the books were off limits to him, him being a half-blood werewolf and all, but he'd carried out a good search of the ones he could read, and the results hadn't been promising.

Though there was definitely something hinky there, nobody could prove it. Last Summer, Hermione Granger had brought up a good point about the blood protection – if Voldemort had been remade of Harry's blood, then surely that would negate the protection? – but there hadn't been any way to test the theory, not and keep Harry safe, especially with no one knowing exactly how Lily had enacted it. Without proof, there was nothing they could bring against Dumbledore with the purpose of bringing Harry home.

Of course, last Summer Sirius had been a fugitive, rather than a free man. And they could never have transferred guardianship to a fugitive…

Remus sighed. There was something there, some possibility that niggled at the back of his mind but wouldn't present itself. If he could find it, then he'd have the makings of a plan, he just knew he would, but it was just out of reach… he'd never been very good at plotting, he didn't have the mind for it, which was why there'd been the four of them.

Now, however, there was only two of them, and he didn't know if Sirius was stable enough to figure out how to solve the problem yet. He sighed again, his head dropping into his hands.


He started. The girl hadn't set off any of his internal alarms, he hadn't even realised she was approaching, which was a measure of how lost in his own head he'd been. She stood in front of him, a smile on her face and a bandage covering half of her head, her platinum hair standing up on end where it was disturbed. "Miss Lovegood," Remus frowned. "Shouldn't you be in the hospital wing?"

She shrugged, a fluid roll of her shoulders that made her seem more spirit than corporeal being. "Are you alright, sir?" she deflected, her wide eyes scanning Remus's face, making him feel uncomfortably transparent. "You left in such a rush…"

Remus hopped to his feet, suddenly realising what he must look like, moping around Hogwarts like a lovelorn teenager. Gods, what if the students had seen? Unless they were in on what had happened, he'd just look suspicious. "I'm fine, Miss Lovegood. Can I escort you back?"

She shrugged again, her lips twitching into a smile. "If you feel the need," she replied airily, hopping up onto the first stair with Remus on her heels. "It's so very tense in there," she informed him, hop-scotching her way up the remainder, throwing herself around with no regard for her own safety. Remus winced every time she landed on the lip of the stair, or too close to the bannister. Heedless, Luna continued on, her hair flying behind her. "Everybody's worried about Hermione," Luna sang, her voice sticking to the beat she tapped out with her feet so that it sounded staccato. "They don't understand – 'the ones we love never really leave us', do they, Professor?" She shot him a wide smile. "You of all people know that."

"Miss Lovegood, Hermione's missing," Remus said slowly. He'd never known how to deal with Luna Lovegood; sometimes she seemed half-witted and nonsensical, but at other times she proved herself to be the wisest child he'd ever known. Whether she had some connection to the wider world or she was just cracking was a mystery. He took care to be gentle with her, anyway, just in case. "We don't know where she is, or how she got there, or how to get her back – if we can get her back…"

Luna stopped so abruptly that Remus almost tripped over her. They were still climbing the stairs, but they were the changing stairs now, Luna leading him back to the Hospital Wing. She'd stopped two steps above him, so when she turned to face him she almost reached his nose. Taking another step back, her frown came into focus.

"Professor Lupin," she snapped, sounding exceedingly disappointed. Thrown, he could only blink and listen. "Don't you lie to me. Hermione's my friend, and you know as well as I that she's still out there."

"I…" he stopped himself from responding in the negative automatically, and instead thought back over what she was saying. She claimed that Hermione was still alive, which, even if she was Hermione Potter, was nearly impossible. Hermione Potter had gone missing. Nobody had seen her in over sixteen years. Luna could, however, be speaking of Hermione Granger, but then, how would she know? He scrutinized her closely, lips pressed in a thin line, as though the sheer amount of concentration would allow him to read her mind.

She raised an eyebrow.

"Hermione's still here." Luna enunciated clearly, obviously frustrated. "I know her. She'd never leave Harry to fight this alone. She's just waiting to be needed."

She turned and flounced away, somehow disappearing right into the shadows so that Remus wound up doubting whether she had ever been there at all.

Thursday 20 th  June 1996

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hospital Wing

"What do you mean, you haven't found her yet? Where the bloody hell could she be?!"

"Language, Mister Weasley!"

Weasley winced but held his ground, glaring up at Minerva and Severus where they stood at the end of his bed. They'd come to give both boys an update on the search – not at Severus's suggestion, nor did he volunteer – and Severus would have rather neither of them were there; him, because he couldn't stand the boys, and Minerva because she was only recently released from St Mungo's and looking worryingly fragile. She'd refused to admit it, but on their way up to the Hospital Wing she'd taken his arm as support. That said enough. In addition, given that they had very little to report, it was only to be expected that Potter and Weasley would not react well.

However, they were still students, and Severus and Minerva were teachers, therefore due some respect. Minerva was here out of the good of her own heart, also (as opposed to blackmail, Albus's current preferred method of pulling his puppet strings) because she genuinely adored Granger, and felt the boys had the right to discuss the matter with her. It was beyond disrespectful for them to then throw this kindness in her face. He opened his mouth to award a particularly nasty detention in retaliation, only to be stopped by Minerva's gloved touch on his wrist. She ignored his glare and fixed her eagle-eye on her two lion cubs. "We are doing the best we can," she reiterated in clipped tones. "Do not mistake yourselves the only ones who care about Miss Granger's wellbeing."

"Yeah, because Snape is just desperate to have her back!" Weasley sneered.

"Mister Weasley, I have given you some leeway because this is a difficult situation for you. That will only stretch so far." Minerva hissed, her eyes glinting cat-like gold. Even Severus quelled a shudder. She was a lioness on the warpath. She'd woken up in her hospital bed almost the second Granger had gone, and according to the nurses, had been up and dressing with nary a care for her own weakness. She'd flooed to Albus's office last night, sparking with fury that he hadn't called her, and Albus had been in hiding all day in case she felt like a reprisal. Recruiting Aurora and Septima, she'd then stormed the Ministry and inspected the Department of Mysteries for herself.

Fudge was still ranting about their invasion as they'd left, sweeping past a crowd of Aurors with their wands drawn. Nobody had cared to detain her. Not this time.

"I'm sorry, Professor McGonagall," Potter said, his eyes positively shining with sincerity. "We're just worried."

"We're all concerned for Miss Granger's safety, Mister Potter," Minerva said, but her tone softened. Severus bit back a curse. She was so soft on him. "We will be sure to let you know the moment we find anything out. Right now, all we have is speculation."

Accurate speculation. Severus hadn't spoken a word of what Lupin had proposed to him, but Minerva was an intelligent woman. She would put two and two together sooner or later. The trick was simply convincing her to keep it from Albus, which shouldn't be too difficult, considering the distinct lack of interest he had shown in Granger's disappearance so far.

Potter scuffed the toe of his shoe against the floor, watching it as though it were the most interesting thing in the world. "Can't you track her, somehow?" He suggested, raising his eyes to theirs. "Through the Trace, or something?"

"That, Mr. Potter, is-"

"Actually a rather ingenious suggestion, Mister Potter." Minerva cut in, curtailing Severus's sneer. He choked back a growl of frustration. "I do wonder why it is none of us have thought of it already. I'm sure Minister Fudge will be more than amenable to it – it's no good for him, after all, if there is a teenage witch on the loose."

Potter let out a blinding smile that made Severus quite nauseous in its intensity. Minerva shot him a proud look before taking Severus's arm again. "Escort me to my office, Severus," she commanded, turning on her heel to drag him away with surprising strength. "I'll be back to speak with you later, Mister Potter, Weasley."

They made it to the corridor, Minerva smiling placidly at a confused looking Lupin as they passed, before she yanked him down to her height by the earlobe.

"You will tell me what is going on, Severus Snape," she hissed over his undignified yelp of pain.

"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about, Minerva. Really, your bedrest must have affected your-"

"Don't you dare." She reached her office door and shoved him inside, slamming the door behind them. He straightened up, brushing off his robes, to see her fix him with a thunderous look. "I have known you since you were but a wee lad, Severus. I know when you're hiding something from me."

He sneered, jerking his chin. "I hardly think -"

"Aye, that's right, lad," she cut him off again, "you hardly think. Now, you tell me, what has happened to that poor lass?"

Severus filled his lungs with air and let it back out slowly, calming himself. "Minerva," he tried again, in his most patient voice. He truly respected the Deputy Headmistress, sometimes even liked her, but she was so very difficult to deal with sometimes. She was too Gryffindor, couldn't understand the concept of secrecy.

She stared him down, eyes bright and focused, unnervingly bright. "Dinnae give me that. Unless you want to be drinking cat piss for a year, you'll get talking, and do it now."

He met her hard green eyes, searching his mind for some way to distract her. Then, it happened.

The jolt of pure relief that zipped through him made a nice contrast to the burning that ripped up his arm and pooled in the base of his spine. Clutching his forearm melodramatically, he flashed Minerva his most innocent eyes. "My apologies, Deputy Headmistress. It appears duty calls."

She let out a most feline hiss, but the battle was already won. She released Severus from her chambers without a fight, and he hurried out to the apparition point. Sadly, when it came to a choice between lying to Minerva and lying to the Dark Lord, there was absolutely no competition.

He still liked Minerva.

Chapter Text

Tuesday 1st September 1972

Kings Cross Station, London

"You'll be good?" Dorea asked, somewhat hesitantly. Hermione beamed up at her mother, coming up on her tiptoes to press a kiss to her powdered cheek.

"Who are you talking to?" she teased, reaching out to poke James in the side. "I'm not the prankster, you know."

"Yes," Dorea said, frowning as she turned to her eldest. "And you'll cut down on that this year, won't you?"

"I solemnly swear," he intoned with a smirk. "No more than three letters home this term, mum."

"I'd prefer none," Dorea said with a quirk of her brow.

James pressed a hand to his chest with a smile. "Well, so would I, but I'm not a miracle worker."

"Less of the cheek, mister," she chided, but a smile twitched her cheek, and that was all he was looking for.

Satisfied, he reached up to kiss his mother on the cheek also, then wrapped a hand around his luggage trolley. "See you at Yule," he said before disappearing into the crowd. Hermione frowned, clutching her own trolley a little tighter. Dorea made a sympathetic noise in her throat.

"James's attention span still leaves a lot to be desired," she observed, shooting Hermione an apologetic look.

Hermione smiled and shrugged, struggling to look unaffected. "It's fine," she lied, while a part of her hoped he'd pop back out of the crowd and exclaim 'Come on, 'Mi! What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?'. Going to Hogwarts with James was exciting, going on her own…

Anxiety bubbled up within her, and she pressed a hand to her abdomen as if that could stymy its onslaught. "I'd best go," she said reluctantly, smiling tightly at her mother. "Wish me luck."

"All of the luck in the world, my darling," Dorea said warmly, pressing Hermione's hand in two of her own. "Write me."

"Of course," Hermione took a deep breath, wrapping a hand around her trolley, and started through the crowds towards the train.

The halls of the train were filled with milling students, shouting greetings to friends and catching up on the summer in excited voices. Older students shrieked and hugged their friends as they boarded, clogging the walkways, but Hermione couldn't find it in herself to be irritated, she was so busy feeling conflicted. It appeared James's unceremonious abandonment hadn't, in fact, quashed the flame inside of her, which burned steadily as she wove her way through the carriages, but she also felt jittery, and she just needed to sit down.

She caught a glimpse of the two girls from Ollivanders in a compartment, smiled and waved at Dorcas when she noticed her, and moved on with the intention of finding either an empty one for her own, or her brother. Marlene appeared to have other ideas.

"Hermione, right?" she chirped as she slid open the door, extending a hand for Hermione to shake. She did, and Marlene shot her a wicked smirk before using the hand as leverage to pull her into the cabin. She shut the door, and turned to Hermione, smirk still in place. Bemused, Hermione looked across at Dorcas, who wore the exact same expression of mirth.

"Were you running away from us?" Marlene asked slyly. "I think I'm offended."

"Sit with us, please," Dorcas begged from the seat, widening her eyes until the brown irises were surrounded by white. "We can't arrive at Hogwarts only knowing each other. They'll eat us alive!"

"They'll eat you alive," Marlene corrected easily, winking at Hermione.

"Aye, and you'll just stand and watch them do it," Dorcas pouted. "You see what I have to deal with, Hermione? Please don't leave me alone with her."

"But I-" Hermione started, only to lose the train of her excuse. She didn't really have anywhere else to be, did she, not with James off with friends. And surely sitting with girls her own age would be better than sitting alone, or sharing a compartment with loud strangers.

"Plus," Marlene said slowly, "if you abandon us, a bunch of sixth-year Slytherins have said they'll come back and take the carriage. We'll end up sitting in the hallway and it would be all your fault."

"I don't think I could be much help against sixth years," Hermione replied with a hint of anxiety. Dorcas rolled her eyes.

"They don't want the carriage, they just want Marlene gone. She made some remark about the ringleader having dyed his hair, and he took it badly. He's a Malfoy," Dorcas added, with the air that it was a supremely informative statement. "We all know how they are about their hair."

"I have no regrets," Marlene announced smartly when Hermione turned a shocked expression on her. "He needed to be taken down a few pegs."

"That doesn't mean you have to be the one who does it, Marley!" Dorcas's voice was pure exasperation as she turned pleasing eyes on Hermione. "Please, please, help me."

Hermione shot one last longing glance at the hallway, where the crowd was thinning out, then turned back to the others. She couldn't in good conscience leave sweet Dorcas alone to manage trouble-making Marlene, and she had the feeling that if she took Dorcas away, Marlene would get herself killed. Sighing, she pushed her trunk into the luggage rack. Maybe if she had been more grateful that she needn't babysit James this year, she wouldn't have found herself in this situation. Handful that James was, she could tell by looking into Marlene's eyes that she was ten-times worse.

"My mam calls me demon-spawn," Marlene told Hermione with a grin, apparently catching her apprehensive look. "I've no idea why."

Hogsmeade, Hogsmeade Station

For all that Marlene was a tornado of trouble, and she was, Hermione still found herself having fun. It was nice to be with girls, she thought she'd not had much of a chance in her old life, and certainly not at Potter Manor. And while she had absolutely no idea how to be friends with girls, these ones weren't the sort of girls that intimidated her so she found it all came quite easily to her. Far from the talks about make-up and clothing that she'd quite dreaded, they instead talked about their families, which Hermione could participate in with enthusiasm; their pets, during which time Hermione enchanted the crup-loving Marlene with tales of Monty's general ineptitude at life; their summers; their friends. When the food trolley came, Dorcas bought out the entire store of Chocolate Frogs for an impressive amount of galleons, and then proceeded to stuff them into whatever nooks and crannies she could find in her trunk, her knapsack, and the bottom of her owl's cage.

"What?" she said, seemingly nonplussed to look up from handing some off to Marlene to store for her and find Hermione watching with wide eyes.

"Oh – nothing?" Hermione turned her eyes to Marlene for an explanation, but she just winked.

"Did you want one?" Dorcas asked, still not acknowledging the strangeness of the situation. Having filled both trunks, she heaved them back onto the rack and gestured to the small fortune in chocolate amphibians she still had on the floor, with no place to store them. "Help yourself. I always get a few more than I need."

All strange habits aside, and the Gods knew Hermione had a few of those herself, she grew quite fond of her new friends, who accepted her with enthusiasm. Even when she seemed to have made a conversational blunder – "so, what's your position?" "On what?" "…in Quidditch." "Oh, I don't like Quidditch." – Dorcas filled the gap easily with bubbly enthusiasm, and Hermione found that this was because Marlene wasn't the most sociable of people either. Prickly, rude and dry, Marlene had more trouble than Hermione when it came to relating with people, and the other girl's difficulty in this area only made Hermione more comfortable with the two of them.

So much so that when they went through the last village on their way to Hogsmeade and the notification came through that they were almost at the castle, it came as a shock and heralded a stressed sort-of chaos as they changed swiftly into their robes for the first time. They stood, dressed with their hats on, facing one another.

"I guess this is it," Dorcas said, her voice betraying nerves for the first time. "By this time tomorrow, we'll be students, Sorted into Houses. We might no longer be together," she directed this last part at Marlene, her eyes glassy with tears.

Marlene scoffed, flipping her hair impatiently. "Like something as arbitrary as House boundaries could keep us apart," she sniffed haughtily. "If two hundred miles of Highlands couldn't do it, that hat surely can't."

Dorcas gave a wet sort of smile and grabbed each of their hands, and together they left the train to gather on the Hogsmeade platform. A booming voice carried over the crowds, calling 'Firs'-Years over 'ere!', and they stumbled along towards it, unused to walking in the long skirts of their robes, until they found a bunch of children their age staring nervously up at a mountain of a man dressed in animal skins. He grinned down at them, baring teeth the size of dinnerplates, or so it seemed to the small people he was herding.

"No more'n four to a boat!" he directed, helping people climb down. Hermione saw that one of the first to enter was the small, pale boy she'd met in Flourish and Blotts the previous year, Sirius's brother Regulus. He caught her eye as he sat down, and he sent her a quick, curt nod. She stifled a smile at his formality, and returned the gesture. He looked spectacularly unimpressed by his companions, though his mother would likely consider them appropriate company; a stringy blonde boy sat to his right, and Hermione knew him to be a pure-blooded Rowle cousin despite their never having met, and opposite him in the boat sat two chestnut-skinned doll-types with large, slanting brown eyes and pursed pink lips; the Shafiq twins who had caused such controversy with their birth.

They were classed as pureblooded, though the fact had been disputed over the years, as twins did not run in the Shafiq line, nor in the line of their mother. The issue of their true parentage, however, had been discarded about the time they started to grow, when their astounding looks had corresponded to an avalanche of Betrothal requests descending on their House. The eldest, Rida, had been betrothed to an Indian business-wizard some fifteen years her senior since her fourth birthday, and the younger, Rue, was set to marry an Italian Master of Potions upon her graduation. If Hermione was inclined to be envious of a girl's looks, simply the mention of their prospective futures would have cured her of any such fault.

Marlene, Dorcas and Hermione stepped into a boat, Marlene shrieking as it wobbled under her weight, and were joined by an unassuming looking brunette boy who smiled shyly at them and then committed himself to observing the lake. They were one of the last boats to be filled, and it took very little time before they were off to Hagrid's bone-shaking bellow of "FORWARD!".

Even Marlene was silent as tension rippled over the occupants of the boats, waiting with bated breath. They pushed through the last of the thin stretch of lake, turned a corner and –

There. Hogwarts.

The beauty of it ripped the very breath from Hermione's lungs, and she was overcome with a feeling of powerful yearning. The stone turrets reached up to touch the sky, the star-sprinkled night a perfect backdrop to the ancient building. It was grey and weathered, yet projected such an aura of power that its damage only made it look stronger, more intimidating. Golden light shone from scores of windows, flickering with the interior candles, and overhead flew dark creatures of indeterminate shape and breed. The breathless silence of the new first years as they stared up at the beauty of their new home was only broken by the soft cooing of the school's owls and the gentle patter of their oars as they broke the surface of the lake. It was truly as if time had stopped for that moment.

Finally, without them noticing, their boat was clunking up against a stone barrier, and Hagrid was there to steady it as they climbed out. Still in awe, Hermione and her classmates obediently followed the half-giant across the grass that lined the front of the castle and to the front door, which was formed of oak. It, like everything else about the castle, radiated power, and Hermione noticed for the first time the tiny runes that had been engraved into its surface by the hinges and handles. The door swung open at Hagrid's knock, revealing a stern looking witch waiting for them.

Hermione remembered, suddenly, that this was Professor Minerva McGonagall, the new Deputy Headmistress and Head of Gryffindor House. She had jet-black hair not unlike Hermione's own, and a face that had an austere beauty, only increased by her age. For all of her looks, though, she had an air of warning about her, and Hermione knew that she could be as harsh as any teacher to roam these halls.

"Firs'-Years, Professor McGonagall," Hagrid said, his voice filled with respect.

She thanked him graciously, and turned a gimlet eye on the gathered children. "Follow me," she ordered crisply, and turned to lead them indoors.

The entrance hall was large, airy but warm, with a fireplace in one wall burning merrily. The floors underfoot were flagstone, and their feet slapped against it in rhythm. Every child's eyes span restlessly from spot to spot, several students leaning their head all the way back so that they could admire the exquisitely painted ceiling at least three floors up, where some intrepid painter centuries back and designed a mural featuring wizards, witches, centaurs, elves, goblins, and myriad other magical creatures, all frolicking in harmony through a forest. It didn't move, not like most magical portraits, but it was all the more stunning for this effect.

And then they were funnelled into another room, and Professor McGonagall closed the door behind them, the heavy sound causing more than a few terrified yelps from the assembled crowd. Marlene let out an evil-sounding growl as one of the Shafiq's stumbled back into her, and treated the other girl with a swift elbow to the ribs.

"Welcome to Hogwarts," Professor McGonagall said before Shafiq could retaliate, her voice calm but precise. "The start of term banquet will begin shortly, but before you take your seats in the Great Hall, you will be sorted into your houses. The Sorting is a very important ceremony because, while you are here, your house will be something like your family within Hogwarts. You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory and spend free time in your house common room.

"The four houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. Each house has its own noble history and each has produced outstanding witches and wizards. While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your house points, while any rule-breaking will lose house points. At the end of the year, the house with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honour. I hope each of you will be a credit to whichever house becomes yours.

"The Sorting Ceremony will take place in a few minutes in front of the rest of the school. I suggest you all smarten yourselves up as much as you can while you are waiting."

She shot quick looks at various students, including Dorcas whose robes had been splattered with mud and lake-water from Marlene's haphazard boarding. Grimacing, she looked helplessly around, but Professor McGonagall had already disappeared. "Well, how rude," she said in a low voice, looking pained. "How am I supposed to clean this up if I don't know the spell, and I can't leave here?"

Almost immediately the correct incantation appeared in Hermione's mind, and she fumbled for her wand.

"Let me," a familiar voice said from behind Hermione's shoulder. A long, pale, silvery wand appeared in her periphery, and the same voice declared "scourify!".

Soap suds appeared on the hem of Dorcas's robe, appeared to smoosh themselves around a bit, then dripped limply to the floor. All three girls turned to the owner of the voice, Dorcas appearing on the edge of tears as she held up her now sodden skirts. Hermione was surprised to find a sheepish looking Regulus Black, with his nose in the air but a light blush on his cheekbones.

"My apologies," he said, his voice cracking a little. His cheeks flushed even redder under their eyes. "I thought I – well, that is to say, I have – it should have worked!" he added this last part defiantly, glaring up at Marlene only to look away when she narrowed her eyes menacingly. Hermione didn't blame him, she was a terrifying girl.

Looking between the disaster that was Dorcas's dress, Marlene's rabid-attack-dog expression, and Regulus's dwindling bravado and growing fear, Hermione sighed. "He didn't mean any harm," she told Marlene, trying not to flinch when she turned her burning eyes on her. "It's a complex spell! It's impressive enough that he managed what he did at eleven with no training." She turned to a flustered Regulus. "Really, very impressive. Where on earth did you learn it?"

He shuffled his feet, realised what he was doing and stopped. His grey eyes met Hermione's, then strayed over to Dorcas. "My House-Elf taught me. I'm really sorry, Miss Meadowes. It worked the last time I tried it, I swear!"

Dorcas frowned, looking entirely downtrodden as she continued to eye her robes. "No harm done," she said, with no real conviction. Marlene twitched as if to move, and Dorcas looked at her with an alarmed expression. "No, Marley! I mean it," she turned to Regulus and offered him a sweet smile. "It was very kind of you to try, thank you."

Regulus gave a sort of stiff bow to Dorcas, his cheeks still flaming, and slipped off into the crowd again. Dorcas stared after him, looking puzzled. "Did he just bow at me?" she asked faintly, the shadow of a smile crossing her lips.

"Called you 'Miss Meadowes', too, like you've suddenly got class," Marlene sniggered. "Bloody Hell, and he was a Black, an' all. Wonder what he'll say when he learns you're half muggle?"

Marlene grinned unrepentantly as both girls shot her a chastising look. "I'm sure nothing," Hermione reassured Dorcas, who had gone a bit pale. "He's a lovely boy." I think, she added in her head.

The door clicked open and Professor McGonagall reappeared. "Now, form a line," she told them, "and follow me."

So they did.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

The feeling of hundreds of eyes suddenly upon her had Hermione so distracted she could barely pay attention to the grandeur of the Great Hall, even as Marlene and Dorcas ooh-ed and aah-ed next to her. She glanced up at the ceiling, smiled faintly at the brightly twinkling stars, and then glanced over to the Gryffindor table, where her brother sat surrounded by his little gang of friends, which appeared to have expanded to include a watery-eyed boy who watched her with calculating eyes. Hermione's skin crawled at his regard, but she wasn't certain why. She only knew that James had a penchant for collecting the best of the best, and whatever the new boy was the best at couldn't be good for her.

The Hat had sang its song, and Professor McGonagall was rusting her list importantly as she ran through the names. Already, Regulus had been sorted into Slytherin, to the tune of her and his brothers' ill-natured muttering. The boy had kept his chin high and his gait slow and leisurely, but Hermione could see how he tensed up, and wanted to slap Sirius for it. The list went on, and then Marlene was up. She sauntered carelessly through the crowd to the stool, crossing her ankles demurely and smirking up at Professor McGonagall, who, wisely, ignored her.

"It'll be Gryffindor or Slytherin for sure," Dorcas said, wringing her hands. Hermione took one of hers in her own, and received a small smile. "But I'll never get into those. I'm not cunning enough to be a Slytherin, and if she joins them then our friendship is done for."

Eyes fixed on Marlene, for whom the Hat was taking quite a while, Hermione mumbled out of the corner of her mouth, "what happened to 'our friendship is stronger than House affiliation'?"

Dorcas huffed, her shoulders slumping. "I know she says that now, but what about in a year? Or two? And she's around all of these people who-"

"GRYFFINDOR!" The Hat announced, and the table split into raucous cheers. Marlene winked at the two of them and glided over, sliding into a seat next to Sirius, only to immediately ignore him and start talking to the russet-haired fourth-year on her other side.

"Dorcas Meadowes," Professor McGonagall called, and Dorcas wobbled up, her nerves almost getting the best of her as she climbed the few steps to the dais and caught her shoes in a crack. She went flailing forward, only saved from falling by Professor McGonagall's quick reflexes. "Come along, child," she said, pulling her up by the hand and sitting her on the stool. "Ready?"

Dorcas's eyes shot over to Marlene, who gave her an encouraging nod, then to Hermione, who smiled. She said 'yes' and the hat fell over her eyes.

It only took a couple of seconds before the Hat shouted "RAVENCLAW!" and a shocked looking Dorcas stumbled her way over to be clapped on the back by her new Housemates.

The Sorting went on, and on, before Professor McGonagall was finally calling her name, and she strode up, straightening her spine. From the dais she could see her brother watching her apprehensively, and she knew what he was thinking – that she'd be put in Ravenclaw, too. She was not so sure.

The Hat dropped over her head, and there was a beat of silence. Then, he said, what is this?

What is what? Hermione asked primly, rather offended by his disgusted tone.

Your mind, it is so… muddled. The Hat said curiously. There is something there, something I cannot access. I have spoken to you before. I can feel it, yet I cannot see it, nor is it in my memory.

Hermione gave a little shrug, gritting her teeth so that nerves didn't overcome her. He wasn't the only one who didn't know what she was missing.

You are not eleven, he said decisively. You are much older than you appear. Your mind is definitive, rather than malleable. You know much.

The monologue is a bit much, Hermione told it coolly, not fond of this thing rooting through her head. It pricked the hairs on her arms and neck, made her suspicious. Plus, the feeling was rather uncomfortable. If you want to know something, ask.

Where do you belong? It asked, and there was something about the question that made her shiver.

Gryffindor, she replied firmly, ignoring the true meaning of his question. The Hat huffed, but relented, sensing it wouldn't get anything more from her now.

"GRYFFINDOR!" It shouted, and Hermione dumped the thing on the stool, grateful to get away.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Gryffindor Tower, Girls' Dormitory

The Sorting ended without more surprises, aside from the Sorting of the Shafiq twins. The elder, Rida, ended up in Slytherin, while Rue was dumped in Gryffindor. The two had cried loudly, Rue begging the Hat to reconsider, and they'd clutched each other tight in the centre of the Hall, Rida snarling at anyone to come close. Eventually, they'd both had to be stunned and removed from the hall unconscious. The spectacle would likely be talked about for years to come.

The feast went by quickly, with Hermione so tired and thoughtful that she hardly remembered what she'd eaten or whom she'd spoken to. James had greeted her with a hug and a kiss, cheering at his friends, then seated her next to him on the bench with an arm thrown around her shoulders. She was so grateful for the warmth and security of his presence that she'd just let it be, even though her natural reaction would have been to scoff and throw it away.

Hours later, they were led up to their dorm, given the password – earwig – and left to unpack. Marlene had grabbed Hermione the bed next to hers, and they'd chosen to claim beds at the far side of the room, closer to the bathroom than the door. Their other roommates, aside from the absent Rue Shafiq, were a pair who had hit it off immediately, a half-blood called Emily Fawcett and a muggle-born named Louise Shepherd. They had spent the feast whispering to one another and sneering at Marlene and Hermione, until Marlene had snapped and asked them what their problem was, they'd turned their noses up and said, in superior voices, 'you pure-blood bigots, that's what. God, Harmony, is it? Don't you own a hairbrush?', and then fallen into fits of supercilious giggles.

"Do you know any hexes?" Marlene had asked quietly, drawing her wand from her sleeve in a threatening manner. Hermione, panicked, had only just managed to stop that particular train-crash.

Thankfully, Fawcett and Shepherd had thought better of bringing the fight back to their room, and had taken the furthest beds from theirs, right neat the door. The middle bed would eventually house Rue. Hermione was very much not looking forward to that development.

Exhausted, it took very little time for Hermione to fall asleep, and when she did, she dreamed of lakes filled with Chocolate Frogs and James casting improper scourifys and a Marlene who transformed into a giant dog, protecting a tower in which Dorcas lived alone, with Marlene eating any intruder.

She woke at six, disoriented and unimpressed to find a red-and-gold painted Chocolate Frog sitting on her chest, ribbet-ing happily.

Welcome to Hogwarts! Said the note attached to its feet in James's messy scrawl. Hermione harrumphed, turned over, and went back to sleep to the sound of the frog attempting to jump through the paned window.

Chapter Text

Monday 4th September 1972

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

Hermione found herself quickly overwhelmed by Hogwarts, all of its grandeur and bustle, and most of all the sheer number of students. Sharing a room wasn't something she was accustomed to – even if she'd experienced it in her old life, which seemed likely, she'd had over a year of peace and absolute silence in her room at the Manor, and readjusting to company wasn't likely to happen in a day. It seemed that from the second she woke up in the morning she was surrounded by people and chatter, a situation she couldn't stand, as she'd never been much of a morning person. At least nobody made the effort to speak directly to her; Fawcett and Shepherd spared her disdainful looks over the top of their morning ablutions without actual words, and Marlene appeared like nothing so much as a sleepwalker when they made their way down to the hall.

"How did you sleep?" A mischievous looking James asked as she folded herself into her seat. She glared up at him through a curtain of messy black waves. "Not well, huh?" he said, pressing closer, his white teeth shining demonically.

"I swear to Morgana, James Charlus Potter, if you don't back up right now-"

"Did princess not sleep well?" Sirius asked then, flopping onto the bench beside her. She favoured him with a growl, and he reached out to scruff her hair. "There, there, love. It gets better."

"Shut up," she groaned, reaching for the platter of scrambled eggs. It wasn't her favourite dish, but it was closest, and after a night of tossing and turning she wasn't sure she could reach much farther than that without passing out on the table. On the other side of her, Marlene stirred, making a grunting noise. Hermione handed the eggs over, and Marlene dumped half of the tray on her plate, only to then stare at it uncomprehendingly.

"Who's this?" James asked, eyeing Marlene askance. Marlene flipped her eyes up to watch him through her fringe, and dismissed him after a second to go back to her egg contemplation.

"Marlene McKinnon, this is my brother, James Potter," Hermione said with all the formality she could muster. Marlene shrugged, finally picking up her fork.

"Right," she mumbled. "Brother." She reached out and dragged a platter of bacon across the table so that it was right next to her plate, and started to load rashers across on her fork. She dropped a few pieces onto Hermione's plate and went back to eating. A boy from a few seats down put out his hand to grab some for himself, only to yelp when he found Marlene's fork skewering his hand. "Mine," she spat, huddling further over the plates.

James raised an eyebrow at Hermione. "Well," he said slowly. "It's nice to see you're making friends."

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Charms Classroom

Luckily for everybody, Marlene warmed up to the world after a few hours, finally managing more than one-word sentences just in time for her to tackle their first lesson. Charms, Hermione knew, could be tricksy, and you had to be up to paying complete attention as the slightest twitch of the wand could turn your levitation charm into a blasting hex. She was grateful to see that their charms teacher, while young, was a master in his field, and had almost a decade of intermittent teaching beneath his belt. She also recognised him from Old Hermione's time at Hogwarts, and the surge of warmth she felt for Professor Flitwick was reassuring. Old Hermione, she was learning, could be a terrific judge of character.

They were paired with the Slytherins for this lesson, which led to the predictable school hall posturing; disgraceful that despite their having less than twenty-four hours here in the school, the rivalries had already established themselves. It couldn't be at all healthy. Determined not to play into the stereotype, Hermione shifted herself so as to be just over the invisible battle lines, and smiled at Regulus. Marlene, who'd followed, sized him up blatantly.


Regulus jumped, looking around skittishly as if Prefects were about to jump in and take points for just being spoken to. "What are you doing?" he hissed back, panic written on his face. Some of the other Slytherins turned around at his question, their eyes alight in curiosity as they landed on Hermione and Marlene.

"Just saying hello," Hermione responded, her voice a bit smaller as she tried not to feel offended. He looked at her like she'd just sprouted an extra head. "What?"

"You're a Gryffindor," Regulus said, as though she was a bit slow. "I'm a Slytherin."

Brow furrowed, Hermione tried to work out his point. "And?"

He gave her a bemused look and opened his mouth to reply, but the classroom door opened and people began filing in. He looked at her again with confusion, shaking his head, and followed the group in. Hermione glanced at Marlene for an explanation, but she just shrugged.

Inside, Regulus had disappeared into the ranks of the Slytherins and when she saw him again he was seated at the opposite side of the room. With a sigh, Hermione took a seat between Marlene and a male Gryffindor she thought might have been called Christian, from a half-blood family. He smiled at her when she sat down, and then turned to chat with his roommate on the opposite side.

Professor Flitwick, she found, was equally as endearing now as he had been back then. Lecturing from a pile of old Charms textbooks, he looked out over the class with warm eyes behind his spectacles, and was perfectly happy to both ask and answer questions from the class. Hermione found that she knew most of the answers, but thought that perhaps this came from an unfair advantage over the others, and therefore resolved to give the other students a chance. She kept her hands clasped in her lap with great effort, especially when the other students showed reluctance to get involved. One or two of the students – not only Slytherins, Hermione noted with interest, but also Emily Fawcett, who appeared to take issue with anything purely magical – showed distaste for their half-goblin tutor, though they said nothing aloud at any time during the class.

When the last half-hour was dedicated to a practical application of their lecture, Hermione was unsurprised to note that nobody managed the spell first time, and in the interests of not garnering praise where none was due – and also, of hopefully heading off any resentment the other students might harbour should she prove herself to be as proficient as she was – Hermione cast her charm with a limp wrist, then an incorrect incantation, and then a completely wrong wand movement, all of which she chose quite carefully so as not to cause too much damage.

Marlene, beside her, grumbled and stabbed at the candle they were attempting to light, eventually kicking the table in frustration. All of the students' candles then fell to the ground, and Marlene found herself with no additional fans. In fact, they were the first out of the classroom, despite Hermione's hope that she might be able to stick around and talk to Regulus, because the glares Marlene had garnered from the other students had escalated to quite threatening levels.

Friday 8th September 1972

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Library

The first week passed quickly in a haze of new people, new lessons, new homework, new teachers. It had quickly become clear that Hermione and Marlene would have no opportunities to see or speak to Dorcas during lessons, and the one time Marlene had sat at the Ravenclaw table Professor McGonagall had swooped down impressively quickly to set her straight. They were allowed to sit with Dorcas at breakfast, Professor McGonagall had explained, but at lunch and dinner we were relegated back to our own Houses. Even she had seemed perturbed by the segregation when questioned further, but rather than answer their questions, she'd instead said 'two points from Gryffindor for insubordination' in a frosty tone.

Hermione had the distinct impression that she wasn't pleased with her own response to their inquiry, if the way she had glared at the Headmaster for the rest of the lesson had anything to do with it. There were unpleasant undertones in the air that Hermione couldn't quite understand yet, from both students and teachers. Something nebulous and dark waited in the shadows, and Professor McGonagall's staunch dismissal of their concerns only heightened the feeling - which the teacher seemed to understand. Still, her primary concern was that she and Marlene missed Dorcas, so they searched for a way around these complications.

Hermione had also been spending less and less time with James as time wore on. The first weekend before school had started, she had spent her time either with Marlene and Dorcas in the Hall or the Library or even in one of the chilly, deserted courtyards around the grounds, or sat in Gryffindor Tower with James and his friends, even the creepy Peter Pettigrew, playing Exploding Snap or Wizard's Chess or simply lying around and talking into the evening. As the two siblings got more involved in their work and their friends, however, this time had narrowed down to nothing. They would sit close by one another at breakfast and chat then, if what Hermione did before she'd eaten could even be classified as chatting, but cosy nights in the common room had gone out of the window as he and his cohort worked on homework and pranks and she tried to integrate herself into Hogwarts.

It was both their faults, and Hermione didn't hold a grudge. Even if they couldn't spend so much time together, they'd find each other on the weekends, and even if that didn't happen, she knew James would be there for her if she needed him just as she would be for James.

Besides, he had his friends, and he didn't need a little sister hanging off of him all the time. Hermione could understand that. She was making friends of her own – or at least acquaintances. She'd met Alice Brown, Frank Longbottom, Lily Evans and Mary McDonald from James's year and they all got along quite well. She'd also met Pandora Lovegood, a Ravenclaw girl who had literally changed her own name to that of the boy she quite fancied, because 'we'll be married, you'll see'. Hermione was inclined to back away slowly from her, and never show up again, but Marlene and Dorcas found her delightful and as such Hermione had been dragged along for the ride, despite her deep discomfort. Why her parents, whoever they were, had allowed their child to do such a thing was beyond Hermione's understanding.

Rue Shafiq had eventually returned to their dormitory. She didn't talk much, but she was eloquent in what she didn't say – she refused to even look at Emily Fawcett, as though looking at her would infect the quiet girl with the half-blood's particular brand of lunacy. In the case of Marlene, Rue would give her sharp glares when she got too loud or too brash, and Marlene would reel it in. Hermione had the bed next to Rue, was paired with her in Potions, and sat beside her in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and yet she'd never heard her say a word.

Silence, however, was golden in Hermione's world, so she was inclined to like her.

Their last lesson on Friday was Potions, and Hermione's robes were wet from where Shepherd had 'accidentally' spilled her potion over her as she'd crossed to give her potion to Professor Slughorn. Luckily, neither Shepherd nor her partner Michael Higgins were any good at the subject, and their adding of diced rat spleen rather than minced toad (an easy mistake to make, if you can't read) had rendered their entire concoction harmless rather than abrasive. It was still uncomfortable to walk around with damn robes, but Professor Slughorn hadn't stirred himself to clean them for her, and she didn't have time to make it back to Gryffindor tower before she was supposed to meet Dorcas in the library that evening. Rue had given her a sympathetic look but walked away, and so Hermione was alone when she entered the library, making her way through the stacks to the alcove they'd found at the back.

It was quiet, but not silent; she could hear the low hum of noises, the scratching of quills in the background, footsteps and the soft swish of books as they were removed and replaced on shelves. She was reading, herself, lost in the intricate explanation of Red Cap behaviour she'd found in her Defence textbook, and wondering within her own mind just how much of what the Muggles consider fey was actually real, and magical. She was remembering tales from her own childhood, of pixie-like creatures that come to the door of country houses, whom you must invite in and feed and lull to sleep lest they subject you to a grisly death. Her mind supplied books she could reference in order to check on their existence, alongside Red Caps and Will-O'-the-Wisps and other creatures she knew were real.

She was so lost in her own twisting thoughts that she walked right into him without noticing. It was only when she'd stopped walking and she realised her book was on the floor that she pulled herself out of her own head and blinked up at the boy she'd run into.

"Watch where you're going," he snapped, brushing off his robes. His eyes went to Hermione's book and he jerked as though he'd started to pick it up and then thought better of it. He scowled, looking down his nose at Hermione. "That's a third year book," he pointed out, with curiosity lacing his voice where she knew, just knew, he'd meant there to be scorn.

"Hello, Snape," she said pleasantly, bending down to pick it up and folding it into her arms protectively. "How are you? My brother hasn't been giving you any more trouble, has he?"

"I can handle your brother, Potter," he sneered. Hermione let herself feel a flicker of amusement at how hard he was working to come off like he didn't like her, when he could simply have shown his indifference towards her existence to better effect. "I don't need your help."

She shrugged at that, moving around him to continue on her way. She paused though, at the last minute, and turned around to see that Snape was still stood in the centre of the aisle, watching her leave. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely.


"For running into you," she clarified, holding up her book. "This is quite heavy, I think it would hurt to be hit by it. It's my fault, I wasn't looking where I was going, so… I'm sorry."

He paused, a frown pinching his lips as he glanced around as if searching for whoever had put her up to this. She pressed her lips together and, again, tried not to feel offended. That he didn't trust her was his problem, not hers, and she shouldn't bother herself with it. "Okay," he sounded out slowly, his narrowed eyes on her. He appeared to be looking for the punchline. Oh, well. She tried. Shooting him a polite smile, she turned on her heel and wandered off.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 4th October 1972

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Library


Hermione ignored the whisper, instead marking out sections of the essay she'd just received back from Professor Alliott, of Defence Against the Dark Arts. It had been awarded an E, and Professor Alliott had helpfully given her references to other, better resources for her to use, and highlighted the areas in which Hermione had dawdled off subject to consider something else. It was a flaw of hers, she knew – the insatiable curiosity that had her running off subject in most essays. Professor McGonagall and Professor Flitwick had said nothing of it, and Professor Slughorn had mentioned it only to add his own comments ('do they really? How interesting!') but Professor Alliott had been honest and concise in her criticism, which Hermione could appreciate and take on board.

Her own blue ink was now all over the page, crossing through Professor Alliott's red in places, and completely overwhelming the original black. On a new piece of parchment, she was rewriting it to give back to Professor Alliott, just to make certain that she'd gotten her technique right that time. Her father had warned her before she'd arrived that different teachers would appreciate different styles of essay. Hermione could cater to that, she thought.


The nib of her quill broke, and she tutted at it. It wasn't one of her new ones, instead one she'd been using all the past year as she'd researched with Charlus and written letters to James and made notes on her lessons with Dorea. Clearly, it was running out of life. She tossed it into its embossed, peacock blue case and reached in her bag for the other, less beautiful set.

"Hermione!" the voice snapped, and she jumped, turning in her seat. At first glance, there was no one there, but when she looked up she could see a pair of eyes peering through a gap in the shelves. She cocked an eyebrow, stifling a smirk. Instead, she took her time rising from her chair, twisting the caps back onto her ink and stowing them in her bag. She curled up her new essay – thank Merlin for Quick-Dry Ink – and dropped it next to her ink, and then pulled the whole bag onto her back. Finally, she turned and made her way to the bookshelf, where the eyes still watched her impatiently.

"Yes, Regulus?" she asked with exaggerated innocence. He scoffed on the other side, grey eyes narrowing so that she could see his thick black lashes.

"Follow me," he whispered, then stepped back and turned around. She stayed where she was, her eyebrows raised. After a few steps, he turned back to see that she was still behind the bookshelf. Their gazes clashed, and he sighed. "Please," he gritted out.

Smiling happily, Hermione found her way around the shelves to where Regulus stood. "Lead on, Macduff," she said with appropriate dramatics, and Regulus rolled his eyes.

"Potters are the worst," he said quietly as he led them away. Hermione, having heard many variations upon that theme for the past month, snickered quietly. Her brother had earned himself quite the reputation, and her by proxy. She'd wondered at first why the only people who seemed to have any actual problem with her were her roommates when everybody else seemed to be getting accosted in corridors – the Prefect system was a very ineffective way of maintaining order – and at first, she'd put it down to the others' generally prickly personalities. After her second week, however, it had occurred to her that she herself was not the most easy-going of people, and Dorcas definitely was, but she'd still had to hold an ice-pack over the other girls' eye for a half hour that Monday evening. After some investigation, she'd uncovered James's machinations.

She wasn't complaining, not at all; it had given her the perfect cover to take revenge for Dorcas. While she didn't consider herself a particularly malicious or violent person, it had gone against all her Gryffindor, and Potter, sensibilities to let the insult fly.

So the third year Gryffindor who had attacked Dorcas spent the weekend in the hospital wing coughing up all sorts of insect life, with no idea where it came from. Hermione herself wasn't sure how she knew the spell – or where the inspiration had appeared from – but she was proud of the results.

Over the past month of study, Hermione had learned that Hogwarts in the seventies was like a battlefield. Slytherins versus Gryffindors, Gryffindors versus Ravenclaw, Hufflepuffs versus Slytherin, Ravenclaws versus Hufflepuff… and the alliances could change any time. The Head Girl was a Slytherin and the Head Boy a Ravenclaw, and they were currently in a relationship. A tempestuous relationship. None of this James had mentioned in his letters, of course, but James lived for chaos, whereas Hermione was more of a controlled chaos sort of person. It was a shadow war, but anybody could get held up in the crossfire, hence why Regulus had at first refused to speak to her in public.

That hadn't really changed, though Hermione was trying. She was of the opinion that the segregation of Houses was part of why the student body were so at odds with one another, and so she had set out to change that. The only problem was, nobody seemed to want to make the first step, least of all Regulus Black.

Which made it all the more curious that he was approaching her now.

"What is it?" she asked, following his quick steps as he left the library and led her down the hall. He turned and shot her a wide-eyed look, speeding up.

"You like Severus, right?"

"Severus?" she pondered that for a moment. "Like is an awfully strong word," she said truthfully. The two of them had barely interacted since she'd arrived at Hogwarts, him being a year older than her and entirely wrapped up in Lily Evans. Her only interest in him was how James related to him – there was something about him that seemed to rub her brother up the wrong way, and it wasn't his abrasive personality.

"You like your brother though, right?" Regulus pressed, sliding a portrait across the wall to reveal a small passageway and waiting for her to step through. She didn't, instead stopping to narrow her eyes at him.

"What is this about?" she asked again, more suspiciously this time. It couldn't be anything good if it concerned both her brother and Severus Snape. She tried to push the feeling of foreboding in her stomach down, but it wouldn't go.

"You'll see," Regulus muttered darkly, setting off again without bothering to look and see if she was following this time. It seemed he had a limit to his patience, which was reassuring to learn; Hermione quite liked him, but if he was going to survive in Slytherin he'd need a strong backbone, or he'd end up following some idiot around like a lost puppy. Hitching her bag over her shoulder, she followed again.

By the end of the corridor, she could hear the sound of voices, echoing oddly through the halls. The passage ended with another portrait, sealed off at both ends, and as Regulus opened it she could catch the words. The group stood in the centre of the corridor mere inches away from them, and were they to leave their position, they'd come out just in front of Malfoy. That was not an appealing idea.

"Back off, Malfoy!" James was shouting, his voice pure fury.

"Oh dear, dear, have I offended you?" Hermione stiffened in automatic response to the silken tones of Lucius Malfoy's voice. Regulus had also frozen, the gilded light from the outer hall lighting up the expression of utter horror on his face. "Perhaps, then, you shouldn't corner unsuspecting, innocent students in the halls. I'm afraid it does fall upon me to teach you a lesson, Mr. Potter."

Sneering, James spat, "'unsuspecting'? 'innocent'? Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?"

Malfoy's mouth twitched up at the corners into a condescending smile. "I'm sure I have no idea what you mean, Mr. Potter. Do you know what he means, McNair?"

A beefy boy stood to Malfoy's left leered down at Hermione's brother, his face twisted into a nasty smirk. "Nah, sir. Not me."

"Goyle?" Malfoy asked, and the man to his other side, a giant potato of a man, blinked confusedly. Nodding as though Goyle had just said something profound, Malfoy turned back to James, who was kept upright by sheer defiance. Sirius was behind him, Remus too, and the Pettigrew boy. That didn't shock Hermione. What did shock Hermione was Marlene's snarling presence at James's side, a position even the eldest Black hadn't been fool enough to occupy.

"As I said, Mr. Potter. We happened to stumble upon you and your little friends attacking another – defenceless – student in the halls. Five against one. How terribly unsporting." He gave a patronising tip of the head to a boy who was being held against the wall by another abnormally large sixth year – Crabbe, Hermione thought? – and after a moment of staring, Hermione realised that it was Snape. At Malfoy's movement, Snape grit his teeth, pushing against the arm acting as a vice across his chest. Crabbe didn't so much as twitch. Malfoy, however, cooed; "don't worry, my friend. They'll get what's coming to them."

It was such an odd situation. James and his friends were obviously furious rather than shamed. Marlene had her back up, her hands clenched into claws she would obviously like to use to maim Malfoy in some way. Snape was obviously here against his will.

She glanced at Regulus, who pulled the door closed and whispered, "it wasn't this bad when I left, I swear. Then it was just Severus, Potter and Black. They wouldn't leave him alone, so I thought getting you might help."

"What's going on with Crabbe and Snape?" she asked. She needed a sense of the situation in order to know how to deal with it.

Regulus bit his lip, obviously battling with something. After a second, he sighed. "Lucius is Severus's… Mentor."

"Mentor?" Hermione asked with her mother's arched brow on her face.

"Sometimes the older purebloods take the half-bloods under their wing. Teach them about the wizarding world and how it works. Put them in a good position for graduation – look, does this matter?" Regulus clenched his jaw, gesturing at the door. "Can you help, or can't you?"

As she stowed that information away for later, she nodded. "Yes. And here's what we'll do."

Severus wasn't sure how he'd managed to find himself in this situation. Really. Sometimes the confrontations seemed inevitable. Sometimes, he went searching for them. This time, though, he'd just been on the way to the library and had taken a wrong turn. It was a big castle, and he was a second year. Things like that happened fairly regularly even to the smartest of students. Usually, it was no big deal, unless they happened to be running late to Professor McGonagall's class.

Today, however, he'd been unlucky enough to stumble on Potter and his gang as they set up one of their 'amusing' practical jokes. As always, seeing Severus, James had attacked.

In analysing the situation, Severus couldn't be sure what irritated James to such an extent. Perhaps it was his being a Slytherin, but that didn't warrant the sheer amount of venom the other boy held for him. It could be his poorness, his unfortunate appearance, the fraying of his robes. It was more likely that his friendship with Lily was the trigger, however. Potter had made overtures of friendship towards Severus's best friend in first year, but after the scene on the train, she had been unimpressed. Severus liked that about her, that Potter's pretty face didn't blind her to his faults. Almost as much as he liked that each time he approached her, Lily would turn in the opposite direction, generally to Severus.

If Lily was to blame, Severus would take the abuse. He wasn't planning on giving up his best friend anytime soon. The Slytherins tried to make him, but he'd refused even them. Eventually, Lucius had made them back off. He had no such sway over James Potter, more's the pity.

Potter and Black had been the aggressors, and they liked to play with their food. That was not to say that Severus himself did not often take shots at the two of them; he did, in the interests of self-preservation. Hexing first, he found, often gave him the upper hand he would otherwise lack, even for all of his brains and skill, going up against the two boys. Lupin and Pettigrew often remained in the back, looking on, Lupin with a constipated look of guilt while Pettigrew revelled in the bloodshed. It was disgusting.

Luckily, or unluckily as the case may be, Marlene McKinnon had been on hand. The girl reminded Severus of a Jack Russell Terrier amongst Rottweilers – always barking and snarling, vicious because she knew that otherwise she wouldn't win. If he liked any Gryffindor aside from Lily, he would like McKinnon.

"James," she'd said in an eerily normal tone as she came across them, Severus in a full body bind as they debated how best to humiliate him that day. Looking at Severus, she'd cocked her head. "What are you doing?"

"None of your business, McKinnon," Black had snapped. McKinnon had rolled her eyes, stomped over to him, and gone to punch him in the shoulder. He'd managed to deflect that blow, just in time to receive a sharp kick to the testicles.

Sighing, as if that whole display had been an inconvenience, she'd turned to the other three boys, all of whom were gaping at her. Severus would have rolled his eyes if he'd been able to. He wasn't in McKinnon's House, or even her year, and he'd heard the stories. Seen the damage she could do. If she wasn't being protected by Potter's sister she'd have been put down like the rabid dog she was. Yet, Potter thought his sister – who Severus suspected might be equally as psychotic as her friend, if not in as visible a manner – had hung the moon, and therefore ignored any sign that she might be less than the perfect Pureblood princess he expected. Such as the violent little harpy she was usually joined at the hip with.

"Tell me again how it's none of my business," she dared them in a biting tone. Potter and Pettigrew stepped back, leaving their moaning friend on the floor at McKinnon's mercy. Lupin had already been against the wall, pretending to studiously read a book, as he always did when Potter and Black were being… well, themselves. He looked up briefly at McKinnon, careful not to meet her eyes, then turned a page nonchalantly and buried his nose back in the book. McKinnon turned to Severus and flashed him a smirk. "Evenin', Sev."

If he could move, he might have ran away then. There was no shame in running away from her. In fact, a lot of being Slytherin was about knowing when to retreat. Generally, the rule was when you knew you couldn't win the fight, and very few people would win a hand-on-hand battle with the demented Scot that was Marlene. Instead, he went to say a respectful 'McKinnon', which got trapped behind his lips from the body bind curse and came out as a garbled groan. There was a snicker from the gallery, and McKinnon shot Potter a glare.

"Must I break bones, James?"

Snorting, Potter shook his head. "You wouldn't hurt me. You like Hermione too much."

"That's true," McKinnon said, an evil look pinching her features. "I can't hurt you, no. But I can hurt Sirius, so I'd shut up if I were you." She looked back at Severus, adding as an afterthought, "oh, and release him."

"But it's only Snivellus!" Black whined, having crawled back towards the wall, cupping his crotch.

McKinnon shrugged. "I don't make the rules. Hermione said no bullying, not, 'no bullying except for Severus, him you can bully all you like'. When she changes the rule, let me know, and we won't say another word about it."

Potter, his face sulky, flicked his wand at Severus and immediately he felt the pressure on his limbs ease. He shook his hands to get blood back into them, scowling past McKinnon's diminutive form at the four Gryffindors. "I won't forget this," he hissed, which, on reflection, was rather ill-advised.

Potter whined 'it's talking to me!' at the same time as Marlene's foot came down on his instep, sending him howling with pain into the wall. "I don't like you either," McKinnon informed him in a bored drone, "so when I say no fighting, I'd like you to take that seriously." And that, well, that was when Lucius showed up.

Severus was restrained because Lucius didn't trust him not to disrupt proceedings. 'Proceedings' being one of the few chances Lucius gets to indulge in many of his favourite past times at once: endless pontificating; torture of small creatures (including second years but never first years because he has 'morals'); and the abuse of authority and power to do the aforementioned things. Severus rather pitied the people he would work with after school – the Wizengamot was about to become infinitely more boring, yet two hundred per-cent more stylish.

Lucius, knowing Severus as well as he did after a year of mentoring – the unofficial programme Slytherin had instituted because while they might be sneaky and vicious and untrustworthy, they take care of their own – knew that he wouldn't want a big scene. Whereas Lucius lived for scenes. He was hoping one of them would take a shot at him so that the image would be complete.

McKinnon, displeased with having been lumped in with Potter and Company after trying to help him, was about ready to kill, so Lucius might get his big dramatic scene. Of course, by the look in her eye, it might have been his last scene, too, if Lupin wasn't holding her back.

He caught a twitch of movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced over to see the portrait on the opposite wall had opened a bit. Joy. Because what they needed right now was more people.

"Let's see how pretty you are after I rearrange that Merlin-forsaken face!" McKinnon roared suddenly, launching herself out of Lupin's arms and at Lucius's – well, face. Suddenly, Hermione Potter was there, her arms wrapped around McKinnon's waist to keep her off of the Prefect, her eyes taking everything in calmly.

"Ten points from Gryffindor for language," Lucius recovered smoothly, after stumbling back into Goyle at the ferocity of her attack. He smoothed down his robes and cocked an eyebrow. "And five more for intent to assault another student." McKinnon lunged again, not getting very far. "Tsk, tsk, Miss McKinnon. Would you like to try for more?"

"Enough, Marlene," Hermione snapped, then released the human-shaped bludger, as if her order alone was enough to keep her from attacking. And, shockingly, it seemed to be. McKinnon skulked off into the shadows, her eyes glinting with hatred at the Slytherin gang. "What on Earth is going on here?" Hermione then asked, her hands planted on her hips, her face set in an expression Severus could only call 'terrifyingly matriarchal'. Everyone her stern eyes set down upon – up to and including Lucius himself – visibly flinched, as though her disappointment were a physical blow. She must have learned that at her mother's knee, for Severus had met Charlus Potter once when he had been five, and there was no way that man – sarcastic though he might be – was able to cow an entire room with a glare. It was impressive that Hermione had picked it up, what with her being twelve-years-old.

It was things like this that had him referring to her as 'Hermione' rather than 'Potter'.

"Miss Potter," Lucius drawled once he'd recovered. This time there was a modicum of graciousness in his tone, which amused Severus. Lucius didn't like the older Potter, and had no reason to be polite to him, but the girl Potter, well. The old families always had reason to be pleasant to the female pure-bloods, in case of marriages and betrothals and alliances. The Potters might be on the cusp of Blood-Traitorship, but they were still the third richest family in Britain, and powerful to boot despite not being Sacred Twenty-Eight. If Malfoy's betrothal to Narcissa Black fell through – which it wouldn't, but if it did – then his having an 'in' with the Potter girl would only work to his advantage. "My apologies for disrupting your evening," he said with a head bob.

"Not a problem, Mr. Malfoy," Hermione replied with equal equanimity, as though they were having tea rather than conversing over battle-lines. "I don't believe it was you who started this… skirmish, after all. But perhaps you could fill me in?" Her eyes skipped across to Severus, who raised his eyebrows in response. "And release Mr. Snape, too, I think. Unless you believe he's a danger to me? Should I be calling Professor McGonagall?" she asked that question with expert acting, her big eyes blinking innocently, using her youth and petite stature to her advantage as she gazed up at the older boy, a faint quaver of fear mingled with trust in her tone.

Lucius smiled condescendingly down at her. He always did have a weakness for flattery, and while it wasn't outright, the way Hermione had looked at him and deferred to his assessment of the situation was, to Lucius, flattery. "No, Miss Potter, Severus is not a danger to you. Crabbe was only keeping him out of the fray, as it were. Your brother seems to harbour quite the burning dislike for our half-blood friend."

Crabbe dropped his arm, and Severus found himself able to move again, his second paralysis of the hour causing his lungs to complain and his ribs to ache. He tried not to scowl. He did.

"James," Hermione said, turning her head slightly to the side while not turning her back on any of the Slytherins. She wasn't in danger, but it was a wise choice anyway. "Did you attack Mr. Snape again?" There was an acidic bite to her words, and despite her lack of outward expression Severus couldn't help but think of the first time he'd ever spoken to Hermione Potter, when she'd gone to his defence against her terror of a brother with all guns-blazing, dressing him down with the eloquence of a woman ten years her senior.

Potter shuffled his feet, two spots of pink rising on his cheekbones. He tried to look away, but Lupin elbowed him and he met Hermione's eyes reluctantly, his blush only growing. "Yes," he admitted, trying to sound haughty and failing. "But he attacked us first."

"When?" Hermione asked, voice still steely.

"Last week," Black butted in, nodding fervently. "He used a tripping jinx on Peter when he was climbing the stairs to Charms -", yes, he had, but only because he'd been aiming for Black and missed by inches, "-and a stinging hex on me when I caught him!" The stinging hex had been an admittedly petty retaliation for Black's having walked out of shot of his tripping jinx. He still regretted his rashness there, but when Hermione turned her eyes on him he kept his face blank.

"Be that as it may," Lucius said, steering all attention back to him, "it does not justify ambushing a man in an abandoned corridor when all he was planning to do was visit the library." That was a blatant attempt to garner Hermione's sympathy by mentioning something she would empathise with. Not that she would – Hermione Potter had never had the experience of being ambushed in a corridor when all she was trying to do was study, and likely never would, not while she had the protection of her sex and her blood status. Still, it seemed to resonate with her, and her face was stony when she turned back to Lucius.

"With your permission, Mr. Malfoy, I would take this matter to our Head of House and have it dealt with there. I'm sure you have already taken points and assigned detentions, as is your right as Prefect, but I find such punishments … insufficient." She said the last words with a glare at her brother, who shrank back against the wall. Lucius, perhaps only now realising that he had been too busy blowing hot air to actually assign any detentions, nodded with feigned thoughtfulness at this out.

"If you insist, Miss. Potter. I trust you will do what is best." With one last, impotent glare at Potter, Lucius snapped his fingers. "Come along, Severus. We shall escort you back to the common room, where you shall make use of my personal collection."

Hermione shot him a questioning look from behind Lucius's retreating back. He couldn't help it. Her impressive display had him softening towards her, and before he realised what he was doing, he shot her an answering grimace. She giggled softly, the pretty, light-hearted noise drifting down the corridor towards him.

"There you are, Regulus. I thought you'd gotten lost," Lucius's voice snapped him back to the present, as did Regulus sliding into step beside him with a blank expression. Feeling Severus watching him, Regulus gave a minute shake of his head. He knew what that headshake signified for him – plausible deniability.

"What have I told you about attacking Snape, James Charlus Potter?" Hermione demanded as soon as the Slytherins had retreated, almost incandescent with rage, the situation unhelped by the dirty, oily feeling she had from simpering up at Lucius Malfoy like a brainless twit. She would do almost anything to protect her brother from harm, but that didn't mean she had to be happy about it. "Are you trying to start a war? No – don't answer that. I don't want to know!" She let out a wordless scream of frustration, raking her hand through her hair.

"And you!" she snapped, whirling on Marlene. "Can't you stay out of trouble for five minutes!"

Marlene, unoffended and completely used to people yelling at her, shrugged. "Probably not."

"I expected better of all of you!" Hermione growled, pointing at each and every one of them. "Come on!"

"Where are we going?" James asked, though not before following obediently. He knew better than to cross Hermione when she was in this mood. That's how things got mysteriously broken, or his hair fell off during the night, or his underwear suddenly became green and silver with 'I heart Snakes' scrawled across the arse. Not so much a problem now, but he didn't want her to get fond of that particular charm as it could cause problems in later life.

"To Professor McGonagall's office." She snarled when the footsteps behind her stopped. "What? You didn't think I'd just let you get away with this, did you? You're lucky I'm not owling Mum!"

James gasped. "You wouldn't."

"Don't test me, Potter."

Chapter Text

Thursday 14th December 1972

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Gryffindor Common Room

Hermione loved school.

It was a simple phrase, entirely correct. Everything about it was fantastic, from the classes right down to the food.

What she didn't love, however, was James's personality when he was at school. She wasn't sure if he had always been like this and she just hadn't noticed, or if the people he surrounded himself with here only served to inflate his head further than usual. Whichever it was, she often found herself shooting him quelling looks, which served to slow him down only about fifty-percent of the time.

He'd landed two weeks of detention with Professor McGonagall after the corridor incident, which he'd managed to laugh off quite easily though Sirius still harboured some resentment towards her for causing it. She didn't think that was fair – it hadn't been she who had bullied Snape, after all, and they'd only actually spent a week of their punishment under Professor McGonagall's eagle-eyed stare, after which Professor McGonagall handed them off to Slughorn of all people when Headmaster Dumbledore assigned her somewhere else. Their detentions from this moment on, from what Hermione had gleaned both from gossip and walking in on their detentions under the guise of asking for brewing advice, had consisted of the two of them writing lines while Slughorn peppered them with questions about their parents. Not at all the sort of punishment Hermione had envisaged when she'd led them to their Head of House, but, she supposed, still a punishment, if only from the continued anxiety that came with having Slughorn rest his ever-expanding gut on the flimsy dungeon tables while they wrote.

Far from having a punitive effect, however, it seemed that their detentions only increased their popularity. Though some of the older years were as likely to sneer at their little gang of four as they were to smile, their own year, and those in Hermione's, seemed to view them as heroes of a sort. They would descend on James the moment he crossed the threshold into the tower, begging him for attention, all the while James remained arrogantly aloof, answering questions but otherwise staying slightly apart from his fellow students, as though he viewed himself a Prince among peasants.

"No offence, 'Mi," Marlene said one day as they worked on Transfiguration homework in the Gryffindor common room, "but your brother is a tosser."

"He's not that bad," Hermione protested weakly, glancing across the room to where James was holding court with a collection of first and second years including – ugh – Fawcett and Shepherd, who appeared to have forgotten that the Potters were 'evil blood supremacists' at a single flick of Sirius's rumpled hair.

Rue, sat in the window seat with her ankles crossed on the edge of Marlene and Hermione's table, flicked her eyes up at the scene, and lifted an eyebrow at Hermione, who huffed. "Well, what do you expect me to do about it?" she snapped ill-temperedly. It seemed everybody liked to blame her for her brother's misdeeds – including Regulus and Severus, who had taken to sitting a table away from them in the library to complain loudly – purposefully – about James. She'd really rather they at least had the decency to complain directly to her, so that she had the opportunity to respond, but they were much too afraid of the consequences to do so. Which meant she was stuck with responsibility she could not reasonably reject without sounding like a crazy person.

Damn Slytherins.

At least she'd gone up somewhat in popularity amongst the younger Slytherins, not that she particularly liked that. Some of them were creepy, even at eleven. The older years seemed caught between admiring her strength of person – "she took her own brother to McGonagall!" – or denigrating her for her lack of loyalty – "her own brother". She liked to think she'd found a middle ground, but her position was impossible to explain since others seemed to think in a purely black-and-white manner about such things, and didn't particularly want to hear from her anyway.

"Owl your mother," Marlene said mildly, chewing on the end of her quill as she checked over her essay.

Hermione blanched. "You're joking."

"No." Marlene gave her a look, and Hermione rolled her eyes. Right, yeah. Marlene never joked about food, shoes, or parental involvement. "If you don't want to be responsible for him, pass it on to someone else. Your mum. Your dad. Whoever." Marlene shrugged. "It has to be someone."

"Why not him?" Hermione groaned. "He's not five-years-old. He knows right and wrong. Why do his wrongdoings have to fall at my door?"

"Such is always the way," Rue nearly whispered in her lilting, musical voice, without looking at either of them. Then, she was silent again. Hermione tried not to look startled – this was the longest sentence she'd ever spoken to them, and possibly more words than she'd ever said, full stop.

Marlene had no such qualms. "I didn't know you could talk," she said curiously, squinting at Rue. "Since when?"

Rue slammed her book shut and stalked off, glaring at Marlene over her shoulder. Hermione sighed.

"What'd I do?" Marlene asked obliviously.

Friday 22nd December 1972

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Moving Staircases

"Potter!" A clipped voice called, pronouncing it "pot-TAH". Hermione groaned, slowing to a stop and frowning hard at the wall in-front of her. Whoever it was sped up, their feet slapping against the stone floor hard as they jogged over. Hermione turned, finding an unfamiliar looking Ravenclaw bent double, panting at the floor. She estimated them to be in their fourth year; a handsome bloke twice her height, so that they were closer to her face now than they had been when they were stood tall.

"Whatever he's done, I apologise," she said quickly, her hand fumbling for her wand. Too many people had attempted to hex her in retribution for her brother, and while they never succeeded, there was always a first time.

"What?" he said, looking nonplussed. He saw her hand clenched tight in her robes and flung his hands up, backing off a few steps. "You gonna hex me, girl?"

"If I have to," she snapped, jerking her chin out. "What do you want?"

He let out a deep chortle, a sound both vaguely familiar and entirely foreign to Hermione. As she often did when her 'past' clashed with the present, she tensed up, searching his face. If only she could just remember, then she wouldn't be so out-of-sorts when things like this happened. She'd know who to trust and who not to trust. "I don't believe we've met before," he said smoothly, holding out one large, dark hand. "Kingsley Shacklebolt."

His name flickered in her brain for a moment, along with a feeling of intense intimidation and naïve admiration. Then her mother's lessons came to mind, and she blushed at her rudeness to the heir of one of the most politically prominent Sacred Twenty-Eight families. "Oh," she said faintly. "Sorry," she released her wand to shake his hand. "You can call me Hermione."

He shot her a good-natured grin that showed off his pearly white teeth. "Hermione, then. I've been trying to get your attention for a while, you were off in your own world."

"Err, yes." She shifted awkwardly. Wizarding royalty or not, the mix of his overwhelming presence and her half-memories made her feel uncomfortable. "Can I help you?"

"I'm running an errand for Professor Alliott. She wants to see you." He passed over a slip of paper, flashing another smile. "It's nothing bad, promise."

Hermione looked at the parchment, the onyx ink splashed across its surface. "Is this about James?" she asked again warily. "Because I keep telling people, I'm not his keeper. Whatever he's done-"

"It's not about James," Shacklebolt soothed, his air amused. "Don't worry. Just – go and see her. She doesn't like being kept waiting."

Biting her lip, she nodded, hitching her bag up higher on her shoulder. "Okay, thanks."

"And -" he added as she turned. She closed her eyes, pulling her patience up. "- I don't know if you've heard about the Duelling Club yet -"

"You mean the one where you're tested to get in, and somehow next to no women get through, and even fewer muggle-borns?" she asked acidly, not turning back. "I've heard."

"Right, okay," he sounded rather taken aback, but recovered quickly. "That's what it used to be like, yes, but now Fabian Prewett has taken it over – he's a sixth year – and he has a lot of plans to reform it. And, with Professor Alliott being interested in you, I think you might be interested in joining."

"I don't know if this is going to be something good," she warned, waving the parchment at him. "It's just a summons."

"Trust me, it's good," Shacklebolt winked. "Alliott doesn't summon just anyone to her office. She's too… discerning for that."

She snorted. Discerning was a funny way to say 'lazy'. Alliott was famed for her ability to keep her responsibilities within office hours. Nobody would dare go to her outside of lessons for work, and she would never give extensions. For all that, though, she was a good teacher, hence why she'd been working at Hogwarts in one capacity or the other for seven years now after moving here from Beauxbatons. She was due to retire at the end of the year, with the Headmaster already interviewing for her replacement.

"I'm only a first-year," she reminded him. "I doubt I'd be much use."

"Ah, but you can't know until you try," Kingsley coaxed. "Fabian is an excellent teacher, and you'll be ahead of your own class in no time – always assuming you aren't already." He gave a cheerful grin at the end, burying his hands in the pockets of his robes. "But it's up to you, really."

She could feel herself swaying to his side and reigned herself in just as quickly. "You'd make a brilliant politician, Shacklebolt," she said with only a little sarcasm.

Grimacing, he shrugged. "It's in the blood."

"I'll think about it," she promised begrudgingly, and he shot her another of his blinding smiles. "No promises." She flipped the letter through her fingers thoughtfully, her mind puzzling on the mystery of Alliott's summons. "Any idea what this is about, then?"

"More than my life's worth to tell you," he shrugged.

"Great," she swore, glancing at her watch. Office hours ended in a half hour, and she was supposed to meet Dorcas in the library in fifteen minutes. They had an essay for Astronomy due in at midnight, their last lesson before they left for the Winter holidays, and she needed to do one last mass edit. Alliott, she knew, would not wait patiently. She eyed Shacklebolt speculatively. "Don't suppose you'd send a message for me, would you?"

"Is this what owls feel like?" he hummed. "All dirty and used?"

"You can just say no," she snapped irritatedly, her condition only worsened by his laugh.

"Feisty for a little one, aren't you. Go on then, what do you need?"

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Alliott's office

She made it to Alliott's office with ten minutes to spare, just in time to watch Regulus leave. He looked stunned, stunned enough not to notice her, wandering off with a peculiar look on his face. Hermione knocked lightly, and was bid to enter.

"Miss Potter," Professor Alliott boomed from behind her desk. "Cutting it a bit fine, aren't you?"

"Sorry, Professor," she apologised dutifully, dropping her bag beside the desk and taking a seat opposite one of her favourite teachers. Professor Alliott was tall, almost seven-feet, with a bean-pole shape and glittering black eyes. Her pure-white hair, which she often said came from 'forty years of teaching those little Veela twits', was cropped close to her head, and she wore deep blue robes as a constant. Hermione rather thought she was fonder of Beauxbatons than she pretended, but had never dared to say so out loud.

She waved a spindly hand in the air to dismiss the apology. "Yes, yes, let's get down to brass tacks, shall we? Some of the other Professors and I – that is, Professor Flitwick, Slughorn and McGonagall – are trying out something new, and I thought you'd make a good test subject. Agree?"

"Yes, Professor," Hermione said, because there was no other way to answer, not with Alliott, who disliked questions perhaps more than she disliked working.

"Excellent. It'll start after the holidays, the fifth. You'll be in my classroom for eight, yes?"

"Er – yes, Professor?"

"Good. I'll see you then." Hermione stood, then paused. Alliott sent her an exasperated look from beneath her glasses. "What is it, girl?"

"Sorry, Professor, only – what will I be doing?"

"Learning, girl. What else? This is a school, or at least, it was the last time I checked." She scowled up at the clock. "Fifty-four seconds, Miss Potter."

"Thank-you, Professor," Hermione said quickly, and left the room at a clip. Rida Shafiq was outside, about to knock, when the door slammed shut behind Hermione and the unmistakeable sound of wards being flung up crackled through the air. She grit her teeth.

"Horrendous old bag," Rida hissed when her fist was stung by the wards, pulling her fingers into her chest. She glanced at Hermione. "What are you looking at?"

"You're late," Hermione snipped instead of the pleasant greeting that originally had been planned. Rida narrowed her eyes dangerously, but Hermione ignored her, sniffing haughtily. "Professor Alliott stop seeing students at seven."

"I know that," Rida snapped, now openly glaring. "It's not my fault I only got the summons two minutes ago, now, is it?" She turned to the door. "Stuck-up harpy!" she shouted, loud enough for Alliott to hear. Not that the Professor would respond. It was, after all, past office hours.

Monday 25th December 1972

The Hogwarts Express, Somewhere In The Dales

"Watch it!" Dorcas shrieked, diving for cover as Marlene ripped open the dust-cover on her Bertie Botts' Every Flavour Beans, the contents flying across the carriage. "Bloody lunatic!"

"You'd think, what with you spending every waking hour with those swotty mates of yours, you'd have learned some new words to call me," Marlene smirked, offering a handful of her bounty to Hermione, who accepted greedily. She'd missed breakfast that morning, helping Marlene pack her trunk and then getting into a staring-match with Rue, who had apparently heard tell of Hermione's confrontation with her sister in the Defense corridor. By the time they'd made it out, the Thestral-drawn carriages had left, and Rue, Marlene and she had had to run down to the station instead.

"You don't want to know what the Ravenclaws call you," Dorcas said ominously, biting into a bean and pulling a face before spitting it out of the window. "Ugh, tea."

"Whatever it is, I take it as a badge of honour!" Marlene declared, whipping a chocolate frog out of her pile and throwing it at Dorcas instead, causing the girl to brighten considerably. "They're too tightly wound, your lot. Need some shaking up."

"You put a venomous tentacula in the Prefect's bed," Dorcas sighed. "Soil and all."

Shrugging, Marlene downed a fistful of beans without so much as a wince. "She called me a barbarian troll. I was supposed to just let that go?"

"Her boyfriend found it," Dorcas told Hermione, for possibly the fourteenth time. Dorcas was fond of lecturing Hermione on her lack of ability to restrain Marlene. "He spent a week in the infirmary and still can't enter the greenhouses without having a panic attack."

"Karma," Marlene announced unrepentantly. "No boys in the girls dormitory. It's a rule."

Dorcas groaned and Hermione stifled a giggle. Even Rue, in the corner, gave a little snort. There was very little that could be done for Marlene when she was on a rampage.

The door slid open, then, to reveal Regulus. He frowned at the beans strewn across the floor distastefully. "Are we interrupting?"

"Not at all," Hermione said brightly. "Come in."

"We?" Marlene sneered. Regulus stepped in, Rida just behind him. She snarled at Marlene who snarled back. "What'd you bring that cow for?"

"'That cow' is here to save her sister from your influence," Rida spat, picking her way over to Rue, who didn't move. Sighing, Rida took a seat next to her twin, her animosity an almost physical shield against the world.

"I just wanted to thank you," Regulus said quietly as he sat down. "I heard about what you did."

"What who did?" Dorcas asked, sounding a little panicked as her eyes shot to Marlene. Hermione rolled her own, nodding at Regulus.

"Don't mention it." She shrugged. "It was months ago, and besides, we're friends. It's what friends do."

Regulus grimaced, turning his head away guiltily. "I've not been a great friend," he admitted quietly. "I'm sorry."

She smiled, poking his arm lightly with her finger. "No problem, Reg. You can make it up to me."

"So," he said, discomfort on his face as he changed the subject. "Professor Alliott, huh? What do you think she wants?"

"She didn't tell you either? I thought it was just because I was there so late."

"Oh, no," he frowned. "So you have no idea?"

"I can't think of anything – we being first years and all, it's not like we're much use."

Regulus frowned, curling up into the corner of the compartment, watching Hermione over his knees. "Severus said she didn't do this last year."

"James said nothing about it either," Hermione replied, recalling her conversation with her brother the day before. He hadn't been especially forthcoming – he'd been waiting for Sirius in the common room, and his agitated demeanour had made Hermione feel both suspicious and unwanted. It didn't help that while she'd originally gone to ask him about Alliott, it had predictably deteriorated into a discussion on his excessive pranking, and how it was affecting her.

"James, just listen to me!" Hermione had ended up begging, hating herself for doing so. "I can't keep doing this - I'm not your keeper!"

"You seemed happy enough to be my keeper when you sold me out to McGonagall," he'd snapped, his eyes bouncing between her and the stairs to the boy's dormitory. "Look, Hermione - I'm busy, okay? I'll talk to you later."

"No, James. You'll talk to me now," she'd said firmly, harnessing all of her patience to prevent herself from stomping her feet. "This is important!"

He'd scowled, turning back to her with cold eyes. "It's none of your business, that's what it is. Just tell people that, and leave it out, alright? This is my life, get your own."

The conversation had been cut short for both their goods. "Maybe I'll find out something more over the holidays."

"I'll owl you," he said suddenly, then blushed. "I mean – if you don't mind."

Hermione blinked in surprise. Regulus didn't initiate conversation between them as a general rule, and now… "You want to owl me?"

"I don't have to," he snipped defensively. "It's not like I'll have anything interesting to say, what with Sirius being at yours. You'll probably be busy with that lot anyway."

Hermione refrained from rolling her eyes again. Busy? With James and Sirius? And worse, Peter would be there for Christmas Eve. She'd not had much direct contact with the fourth member of James's gang, but he was always there, attached to one or the other of them, being… weird. The notion that she'd spend the holidays wrapped up in them, especially considering the lack of contact they'd had over the school year, was bordering on ridiculous. She ignored the pang of sorrow that caused in her gut, instead forcing a shadow of a smile to her face. "Never too busy to write you, Regulus. I'd like that."

"Good," he said, flushing faintly again. "That's – that's good."

Kings Cross Station, London

"Papa?" Hermione frowned up at her father, confused. "Where's mum?"

He smiled, pulling her in for a hug. "Just the thing all fathers want to hear – 'where's mum?'. Might as well say 'sod off, dad, you're not my favourite parent'."

She flushed guiltily, wrapping her arms around his neck and squeezing hard. "I'm sorry, papa. You know I love you. It's just that mum always picks us up, I was a bit shocked."

"She's got business as Mungo's," he informed her, setting her back on her feet and glancing around. "I was in London, so it seemed more sensible for me to come. Now, where's that toerag brother of yours?"

Hermione bit her lip against the bitter response she wanted to give, and joined her father in scanning the crowds. "No idea. I haven't seen him since Hogwarts."

Suddenly, the crowd at the other end of the platform was engulfed in a thick, purple cloud of smoke. Charlus, seeing the spectacle, sighed heavily. Hermione scowled, then sniffed the air. It – it smelled fruity?

"Dad!" James shouted from behind them. They turned, and he waved at them with a goo-slick hand, somewhat hurriedly. "Ready to go?"

Charlus exchanged a look with his daughter, an eyebrow creeping up his forehead. "Should we tell him?" he wondered aloud.

"Hermione, hurry up!" He shouted, him and Sirius now heading for the floo without them, their manner agitated. Hermione narrowed her eyes, thinking of all the times she'd had to take the fall for them this term.

"Certainly not, papa," she said confidently, eye on the purple-dyed boys in the distance. "He wouldn't want us to involve ourselves. This is his life, after all." Changing the subject, she turned to look up at him, beaming. "I learned a new word today."

"Oh, did you?" Charlus asked with genuine interest, his whole focus on his daughter, even as a mob of angry rhubarb-and-custard coloured (and scented) students and parents descended on his son in the distance, the boys having been caught, well, purple-handed, as it were. "What was it?" he raised his voice a little to be heard over the furious yells and James's cry for help.

"Karma, papa," she said, with no small amount of satisfaction. "It was karma."

Chapter Text

Thursday 20th June 1996

Malfoy Manor

Severus landed just outside the gates, the pain in his arm not lessening for proximity. He kept his wand clutched tight in his right hand, waving his left at the gates and passing through. He'd been concerned when he hadn't been Summoned straight after the failed attack – there were many reasons why he'd be unable to attend, but the Dark Lord had never bothered himself with menial concerns such as Severus keeping his position as spy or saving the lives of the ungrateful wretches he forced him to teach – and had been entirely on edge the past day, too, as he knew that when the summons came it would be painful. He had not been wrong.

There was no telling what mood the Dark Lord would be in today. There would be a reason – or what passed for a reason in the Dark Lord's mind, which was becoming less and less rational by the day – why his master had waited until now to call on him, but there was no telling what sort of reason it would be. Sometimes he was Summoned just so that the Dark Lord would have fresh meat to play with. Other times he was given a genuine job. Most of the time it was only so that he could stand next to the Dark Lord agreeing blindly to the man's every whim. He did so like being flattered, did their Lord.

He kept a close eye on his surroundings as he made his way up to the house. There were few people around – the ranks had been severely depleted after the arrests made at the Ministry, and no doubt the Dark Lord would be angered by these – but one man paced restlessly by the door, every now and again lifting his head to stare around him before committing to his pacing once more. As Severus drew closer, the metallic tang of blood invaded his senses, as well as the scent of fresh dirt and wild animals. The man's head flicked up, wild yellow eyes fixing on Severus, and he smiled.

A shudder of utter revulsion started through Severus's body as he took in the state of the other man's teeth – yellow, with blood staining the sides and an unidentifiable glob of something meaty attached to his incisors. "Snape," he growled, still grinning like a madman. "Finally seen fit to join us."

"Some of us have jobs, Greyback," he murmured in return, not stopping as he swept past to mount the stairs. "We're functioning members of society."

"Jobs," Greyback sneered, tasting the letters as they left his mouth as though the word was utterly unfamiliar. "Wolves don't need jobs. Don't need 'society', neither."

"As you like." He pushed open the front door and slipped through, closing it in Greyback's face. One werewolf a day – a year – was enough for him.

The emptiness of the halls was a contrast to how it had been during his last visit, when the place had vibrated with manic excitement at the prospect of a fight. There had been Azkaban escapees everywhere, to the point that you couldn't open a door or get a drink without falling over some raggedy, near-insane ex-prisoner. Narcissa had handled them well, for she had reminded them all of their own mothers, and all purebloods had respect for the formidable females who had raised them. Even those whose family lived had been less than desirable looked up to Narcissa, who did the impossible in ruling a house of Death Eaters with an iron fist. Indeed, Azkaban had much to learn from the current Malfoy matriarch, who had had them all washed, dressed and practicing their 'please' and 'thank-yous' within a day of their return. Indeed, it was obvious that it was her affectionate indulgence of Draco that had led to his current spoilt state, for none of the other inhabitants would dare pull his tricks under her purview.

"Severus," the woman in question said now, gliding down the stairs looking immaculate as always, even with her husband in Azkaban. "How are you?" she asked, pressing her powdered cheek to his own sallow one in a fond caress. "I've not heard from you since the incident."

So delicate, their Narcissa.

The older sister he'd never had and didn't bother to ask for, she was the one who ensured he kept taking care of himself even in his darkest of times, when everything had felt like it was falling apart. Indomitable, she'd never seemed more at home than when she was running Lucius's house, even when it was under the Dark Lord's questionable hand. Even he, the Dark Lord, the man with no emotion and less of a soul, had a soft spot for beautiful Narcissa with her soft voice and wickedly quick draw.

"The Headmaster has been most demanding in the aftermath," he responded, pressing his lips quickly to her cheekbone and pulling back to look her full in the face. "He's… displeased."

Narcissa gave a quick nod, a smirk flitting across her lips. "About my cousin?" she smiled wider at his nod. "Sirius was ever unpredictable. I've no idea why Dumbledore took him on, he's not the sort of man one controls with any measure of success."

"He has the wolf," Severus reminded her quietly, and Narcissa pursed her lips.

"If he thinks he can control a Black through whatever means, he is mistaken. We only go where we wish to go, and he would do well to remember it. That wolf is no more under his thumb than I am."

"You needn't remind me," Severus drawled with amusement. Narcissa gave him a full, blinding smile, flashing perfect pearly white teeth.

"Of course I needn't," she parried, linking her arm through his and patting his arm with her other hand as she drew him forward. "You're clever."

He ignored the warmth he felt at her compliment; one of the few people left in this world he felt any need to impress. They traversed the halls together, Narcissa leading him towards Lucius's office, where the Dark Lord had taken up residence. "He's upset," Narcissa told him flippantly, as though he was not in fact an obscenely powerful and murderous dark wizard, but a child throwing their toys out of the pram. "Losing Bella was quite a blow to him, and now, to add insult to injury, of his most loyal he only has the rat left." She rolled her eyes in an eloquent and yet unladylike fashion. "More's the pity."


"Quiet," she replied, "don't take that to mean anything, though. I don't know what's worse – when he's thinking, or when he's not."

Severus rather thought it was when he was thinking, because that meant he was coming up with unpleasant plots and plans, many of which would turn out unsuccessful and end in pain for all those involved. He was more rational when he was quiet, yes, but at least when he was riled he was predictable. You knew, seeing him when he was angered, that it was like to end in death or excrutiating pain or humiliation. When he was quiet…

Shuddering from the memories, Severus nodded his farewell to Narcissa as she slipped off into the shadows, and knocked at the door. "Enter," a soft voice wheezed, and Severus pushed through.

Lucius's office had always been opulent, but at least when he had occupied the place it had also been tasteful. Lord Voldemort, however, didn't seem to be a fan of such trivial things as 'taste', not when he could surround himself with priceless objects studded with rubies and emeralds and other such baubles, like an insecure dragon. He'd had the old ebony desk replaced with one carved of marble, filled the shelves which had previously held family heirloom ornaments with tchotchkes made of ivory and gold, and replaced all of the functional books with expensive, rare tomes he'd raided from his followers houses. The study must now have been worth millions of galleons, but it looked horrendous.

He hid these thoughts, as he always did, far far below his Occlumency shields, and instead fell to his knees at the Dark Lord's feet, eyes fixed on the rug. His glance around the room as he'd entered had told him that the Dark Lord was lounging in the antique leather desk chair, pushed toward the centre of the room. Wormtail, his ever loyal servant, stood hunched at his shoulder, his hands curled into claws.

"Riseee, Severussssss," the Dark Lord hissed, touching one bony finger to Severus's shoulder, leaving a burning cold behind that seeped through his clothes to numb his shoulder. He stood, as commanded, his hands folded behind his back.

The Dark Lord looked him over with frosty eyes, taking in his perfectly starched clothes, his face drawn from lack of sleep, his pallor, paler than usual from stress. "Tell me you bring good newssss-" he instructed, leaning back, his arms spread casually over the arms of his chair, ankles crossed.

"I do, my Lord," Severus answered obediently, and then, at the Dark Lord's nod, continued on. "While Harry Potter was not injured, and the prophecy not retrieved -"

"We don't n-need you to tell us what went wrong, S-Snape!" Wormtail spat, then cowered back when the Dark Lord held up a hand to him.

"Hush, Wormtail," he said. "I'm sure that isss not what he meant."

"No, my Lord," Severus relented with a short bow.

"Besssides, I know what happened. What I wish to learn isss the… aftermath. What did our esssteemed headmaster say?" His eyes went wide, expectant, manic.

Severus nodded, quickly sorting through events in his mind, working to find what would please him most so that he might keep it for last. "Many of the students were injured," he began, only to be cut off by an impatient noise from the Dark Lord.

"Many of oursss are dead, or imprisoned. Am I to care that a child breaksss a bone or – or two?" The delighted, hungry expression on his face told Severus that he would, in fact, like to hear about these children in pain, but he kept that back, instead shaking his head and saying 'no, my Lord', as expected.

"The Headmaster is most displeased with Black -" he tried again, only to be interrupted.

"Yesss, yesss, Black has been freed, that isss not good newsss for usss, no matter how Dumbledore might hate him."

Severus bit back the argument he would have liked to have had, about how Sirius's freedom and Dumbledore's displeasure weakened the Order, for people would begin to trust him, and distrust Dumbledore, or at least have less faith in him because freedom was supposed to be the thing only Dumbledore could grant any of them and yet he had had nothing to do with this, it had been all Potter and the little Tonks girl and Black himself. Dumbledore had told everybody that Black was reckless, and couldn't be trusted to make his own decisions, never mind those pertaining to Potter's wellbeing, and yet there he'd gone and saved himself, had a rational conversation with the man responsible for his twelve years in Azkaban and not attacked him, negotiated a settlement like the political animal he had been raised to be…

Nobody knew exactly what had happened in that office the night of the attack on the Ministry, but they all knew that Black had come out a champion, and Fudge hadn't a scratch on him. All this evidence to the fact that Black was not the mentally unstable man Dumbledore had expected him to be. Evidence that would have people doubting Dumbledore. Evidence that would have them all asking questions.

He pushed all of that back, resorting to the news that would be most likely to please Lord Voldemort.

"Hermione Granger is missing."

Wormtail jerked as though he'd been hexed, his eyes widening with shock. The Dark Lord inspected Severus closely, a half-smile playing on his lips. "Hermione Granger?"

"Potter's muggle-born friend. The clever one," Severus snapped out quickly.

"Hermione…" the Dark Lord hissed, savouring the word. "Did I not know another Hermione?"

"Yes, my Lord," Severus replied at the same time Wormtail recited, "Hermione Potter, James Potter's sister – she went missing in 1979 and no one has seen her since!" He must have sounded a bit too excited at the end of that, for the Dark Lord shot him an acidic glare, to which Wormtail whimpered and added "my Lord" in the most simpering tones possible. He shot Severus a victorious look from behind the Dark Lord once he'd turned back to him, however; Pettigrew had never liked Hermione Potter, and had, in fact, spent most of 1979 begging the Dark Lord to let him be the one to dispose of her.

"An unlucky name, it seemsss," the Dark Lord leered down at Severus, his lips stretched grotesquely across his bony face.

"Quite," he agreed. "It appears Miss Granger was killed within the Department of Mysteries, her body lost within the Hall of Prophecy."

"Or not…" the Dark Lord breathed, his eyes thoughtful. Even lost in the onset of insanity, he was still an intelligent man. "It is the Department of Mysteriesss…"

A beat passed, and the Dark Lord shook his head, bringing himself back to the present. "The little mudblood iss gone either way. She won't be helping Potter anymore. Without her, hiss luck will run dry quickly."

Severus nodded in agreement, his consensus not faked. A Potter without Granger was a worrying possibility. A Potter without Granger but with Weasley, bumbling idiot that he was…

He supressed another shudder. He needed to find out what happened to Granger, and following on from that, what happened to her Potter counterpart. If there was a way to bring her back, she must be brought back, or… he glanced up at the Dark Lord, who had turned back to Wormtail, cupping his face with one skeletal hand as he whispered in his opposite ear like a lover. As Severus watched, his serpentine tongue flicked out and licked around the shell of Wormtail's ear, and the other man shivered, his eyes half-closing.

Yes. He would find Potter. And of all the people who might know her location, he knew the one with which to start, too.

Thursday 20th June 1996

Belladonna House, Cornwall

The house sat nestled into a cliff, its walls the colour of the stone around it, the reinforced windows all lit up. A staircase, carved directly into the cliff face, ran upwards from the door, winding around the rock to the grassy land above. It was a kilometre climb down to reach the entrance, and the stairs had no railings, making the trek a test in itself; one might fall to their death at any time. Severus pushed through the laughably thin wards – not that she needed wards for she was perfectly capable of looking after herself, as seven husbands would testify if they had retained the ability to speak once they'd crossed the veil. As it was, husband number three had attempted to remain on earth in his spirit form, only to be roundly exorcised the day following the funeral.

Severus remembered Ms. Zabini from school, and though that familiarity might get him through the door without him being maimed, there were no promises from that point onwards. He did, however, need answers, so he pushed onwards, descending the stairs carefully so as not to fall prey to the battering winds. The stairs weren't eroded, protected as they were by powerful enchantments, making his passage much easier.

The door was open by the time he reached it, a beautiful woman lounging against it in her nightgown, a laughably thin shift made entirely of lace, cut obscenely low to show off the dark tips of her breasts. Thick dark-brown hair tumbled over her shoulders to her waist as though it had been purposefully styled, framing a face whose base was silken milk chocolate, with deep brown eyes and plump red lips. If Severus had room for such urges, he knew he would have fallen prey to her spell long before now. As this would have certainly led to his death, he could not find it in himself to regret the lack.

"Severus, caro mio," she purred, pulling the door open wider. "This is a surprise."

"Hardly," he replied, taking the unspoken invitation and brushing past her into the foyer, grateful for the shelter from the gale outside. She followed him in, pushing the door closed softly and pulling on a robe. An intelligent woman, she knew when her charms were wasted.

"I should have known you'd be all business," she said, but not as though she regretted the fact. There was a begrudging pleasure in her voice, which Severus could understand – it had been a long time since anybody had visited Ms. Zabini for the pleasure of her mind, rather than her body. "One of these days, Professor…"

"I doubt it," he sneered, wandering through to the living room. The last and only time he'd been to Belladonna House, it had been to escort an eleven-year-old Blaise Zabini to Diagon Alley for his supplies. Ms. Zabini had been in mourning at the time – husband number four – and had requested him specifically. "Your son is doing well," he informed her, ever knowledgeable of her soft spots, as any good Slytherin should be.

Her eyes softened marginally and she waved him to the seats. "Of course he is. He is ever his father's son. But you didn't come to discuss my Blaise, did you?" She swept across the room to a lavender chaise longue, positioned beneath a large picture window, through which he could see endless night sky and endless sea.

"Hermione Potter," he said, and waited for her reaction.

Her eyes flickered, but otherwise there was nothing as she stretched herself out on the chaise, plucking at her robe until it covered her legs. "What about her?" She shot him a rueful look, indicating the other chair. "Do sit down, caro. Let us be comfortable, at least."

Rolling his eyes, he perched on the edge of the seat, giving her that satisfaction even as he snapped, "you are not Italian. Stop it."

"Oh, but I am Italian, caro. For I was reborn in Italia, like the majestic phoenix rising from the ashes of her old life. Then, I was a weapon, to be wielded without my consent. In Italiacaro mio, I shucked those chains and reclaimed myself. My origins before then ceased to exist the moment I was freed. For that, I will ever be Italian." Her dark eyes met his, their depths piercing with some intelligence he could not read. "When will you free yourself, Severus?"

"Some of us do not wish to be free at such a high cost."

"No cost," she purred, waving a hand dismissively. "I had learned all there was to know."

Severus snorted, couldn't help himself. "We all know that, Rida. He was one of the best Potions Masters in the world."

She let out a little scoff, a miniscule amount of the Rida he remembered breaking through her facade. "They claim he was the best, and yet, I was better."

Severus opted to ignore this statement. How the woman had never been arrested and tried for her many, many crimes was beyond him. Instead, he steered her back to the topic at hand. "Do you know what happened to Hermione Potter?"

Rida cocked an eyebrow. "You ask me seventeen years later if I know what happened?" She shifted, sitting upright, the entire movement smooth like water rippling over rocks. "Her fiancé killed her, I thought. Found out she wasn't as pure as his precious family believed, and Avada'd her rather than live through the shame of a broken engagement. Simple."

It wasn't simple, though. There was a shadow in Rida's eyes that belied the casualness of her statement, but she stared right back at him, challenging him to bring it up. He glanced away first, then remembered what she'd said. "Not pure? She was a Potter."

"Adopted. She was almost certainly a mudblood before that." She laughed when she caught him fending off a wince. "After all these years, you still hate that word? My, my, caro. What a terrible Death Eater you are."

"I would appreciate if you would not call me that," Severus said stiffly.

"What, caro?" she smirked. "Why not? I do so adore you, Severus, and it is what I call those I adore."

"Those you adore wind up dead," he snapped, only to regret it when she just laughed once more, her eyes sparkling with mirth.

"Oh, Severus," she sighed, reaching over to pat his arm fondly. "You are entertaining. All pent-up passion and repressed emotion. Truly, there is nothing so amusing as watching men bumble through life, especially those men who should know better."

He snatched his arm away from her. "Why do you keep his name?" he asked suddenly, another subject change betraying his discomfort.

She smiled, all sharp edges. "Why, Severus, is that not obvious?" She let out a little laugh. "Gio made me who I am today, at great cost to himself. The least I can go is honour his memory, is keep his name." A somber look fell over her like a shawl. "It is not like my own meant much."

He wasn't touching that. "You think he killed her?" he asked, no longer talking about Giovanni Zabini.

"Yes," she said softly, her eyes far away. "My experience with men is that they will always take the easy way out. He was devoted to his mother an unhealthy extent, and… well, he knew he couldn't have kept her, even if they were married. So he killed her."

"A body was never found," he reminded her gently.

"Neither was Zacharias's," she countered, naming her second husband. "Nor was Julian's. Bodies can be hidden, caro. Don't be naïve." She cocked her head. "I know you liked him, Severus, but he was dark. That kind of darkness is unpredictable."

He was reminded of Narcissa's earlier words, and Rida's own met their mark with perfect accuracy. He stood to leave, not ready to confront the obvious conclusion, as every part of him rebelled against it.

"Leaving already?" Rida asked, looking resigned.

"Yes," Severus said shortly, heading for the door, suddenly feeling claustrophobic. "I'll send Blaise your love."

She followed him to the door, a twinge of desperation in her voice as she asked, "and the girls?"

He stepped outside, his eyes fixed on the horizon, his gut roiling with pity for her even as he responded. "And the girls," he agreed, with no intention of fulfilling it, not even bothering to push sincerity into his voice and knowing she'd hear the lie. "Until later, Rida."

"You know she's dead," she called to his back, her false accent dropped in favour of her original British, the better to hurt him with. "He'd have killed her if she wasn't!"

A different 'he', this time, again. He barely twitched at her honesty, shoving through the wards and apparating back to Hogwarts.

Chapter Text

Sunday 24th December 1972

Potter Manor, Library

James was sulking, which was good. Hermione liked that he was sulking – it told her that something had finally gotten through to him. And for once, that something hadn't been their mother.

No, it had been one Remus Lupin who had given James a good seeing-to about the prank James had rigged up in Hermione's room directly following the King's Cross debacle, as revenge for her lack of assistance. He'd noticed her foul mood the minute he'd arrived that morning, and immediately took James aside to give him a bollocking. Hermione had been shocked to hear his vehement defence; shocked and flattered, as she would be the first to admit she hadn't spent very much time with Remus. The sensation of remembering-but-not that came with his presence was highly uncomfortable, and as the only times she'd seen him he'd been mindlessly following her brother, she hadn't seen any evidence to say he might be anything other than James's sycophant. She should have known better; James liked admiration, but he would never admit into his inner circle people who couldn't keep up with him, nor people who would be afraid to stand against him on occasion. Flawed he may be, but he was self-aware in a way most twelve-year-olds were not.

"I'm sorry," he said finally, appearing by the side of her armchair. She glanced up from the book she was reading – The Flaws of The Animagi – to peer over at him. His eyes were earnest, and he shifted impatiently from foot to foot. "Remus says – oi! I was doing it, wasn't I?" He glared over his shoulder after the bright orange of a weak hex hit his arm, hissing and gritting his teeth. Hermione tilted her head a little, bringing Remus into view behind James, dressed in an oversized cardigan that swamped his skinny form and with a maternal scowl on his face.

"You can't start an apology with 'Remus told me to'," he snapped exasperatedly. "That's not how it works!"

"But you did," James replied, rolling his eyes. Remus let out a little growling noise, looking sort of like Dorea did when she tried to teach Hermione to 'glide, darling, pureblood women glide, they don't stomp'. Huffing, James turned back around to Hermione. "Right, well – I'm sorry. I was frustrated and I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

"Apology accepted," Hermione replied graciously, earning her own smile from Remus, which she returned brightly, adding in his direction, "you should know that James doesn't take to 'manners' very well. If you're installing yourself as his conscience, you're setting yourself up for disaster."

"I figured as much," he replied wryly, shooting James a dark look, which had the other boy scoffing and throwing his hands in the air.

"That being said," Hermione winked, "good job."

He preened a little under the praise. "Thanks! Right then, we'll leave you to it. Come on, James."

"No…" James whined, stamping his feet and crossing his arms. "I want to stay with Hermione!"

"You do?" Hermione and Remus asked at the same time, sharing incredulous looks.

"Of course I do. You're my sister." He looked at her as if she was being dim, which she didn't think was particularly fair considering the lack of time they'd actually spent together at school. She couldn't deny the creeping warmth in her chest though, or the hope that encouraged her to grab the opportunity with both hands and never let go of.

"Okay," she said, closing her book and setting it carefully on the end table. "What do you want to do?"

Potter Manor, Gardens

She was having fun!

It seemed ridiculous to be so amazed, but she was! She was having fun!

"Hurry up, 'Mi!" James shrieked from the other side of their trench, his hands filling with ammunition which he promptly hurled over the wall they'd spent an hour building, ducking back down and listening for a thwack that would denote hitting his target. "Come on, come on! We're running out of -"

"Here!" She cried, lunging through the ditch with her arms around her painstakingly sculpted ammo, protecting it from harm. "Quick, before they melt!"

Together they dumped the lot out of her folded-up coat, James grabbing handfuls and creeping back to his spy-hole. He pressed his face to the gap, holding up a finger for silence. There was nothing except the whistling of the wind in the trees and the pattering of the snowfall, and the faintest far-off sounds of their parents whipping up dinner in the Manor kitchen. If she leaned out of her hole, she would be able to see the shining of the open kitchen windows across the stretch of garden, but she wouldn't dare do that now. They were at war.

"Is this enough, do you think?" she asked James in a whisper. He looked at the pile for a split-second, his nod melting into the movement to look back through his spy-hole.

"Aye," he murmured back. "Where are you, you little buggers?"

There were a few moments of silence before Hermione huffed, her breathe coming as a mist. "They're waiting for us to make a move."

"They'll get impatient soon," James said assuredly, nodding at his own statement.

"Or, they'll just wait." Hermione bit her lip, searching through her mind for things that would help them, but the adrenaline rushing beneath her skin was making her mind fog, all focus on the here-and-now. Strategics had never been her strong suit, either. They'd always had Ron for that.

She startled, blinking rapidly. Ron? Who was Ron? Shaking her head to clear it, the name wouldn't leave. But – she didn't know a Ron. Or, she was fairly certain she didn't. She rattled through her head in search of more information but it simply disappeared into the fog at the back of her mind, the one which she had never been able to penetrate, though not for a lack of trying. The one where all of the information about her life previous to the Potters lived.

"Hermione?" James's voice snapped her out of it, and she met his hazel eyes warily, wondering if he'd ask. He didn't, instead looking as jittery as she felt. "Why don't they attack," he asked desperately. His fingers were twitching, and he looked like he was on the brink of throwing his load at the next thing to move.

She froze, a smirk growing on her face. "Get ready," she commanded, grabbing her wand in her hand.

"Oi, you can't do that, no magic allowed, remember?"

"No offensive magic, James," Hermione corrected. "I'm not going to use magic on them, so it's allowed."

He frowned at her, and then seemed to realise what she meant, light growing in his eyes. "Brilliant, 'Mi," he murmured wonderously. "Alright, I'm ready."

He moved himself into position, snowballs organized at his sides like row upon row of troops. Hermione shuffled her way to the opposite side of the trench, where she had a clear shot of the bushes close by, just in front of her. Pointing her wand, she whispered "bombarda!"

The bush collapsed, shaking its snow-laden branches as if someone had charged into the back of it. Immediately, their foes hurled their ammunition in that direction, standing up behind their wall so that their heads and shoulders were visible as they shouted their attack. Grinning, James shot Hermione a wink as he used this new view to launch a counter-attack they couldn't prepare for, not with them facing in the wrong direction. As they fell both she and James leaped over their wall, charging their opponent's den without mercy, still flinging snowballs as they let out a joint cry of victory.

"You cheats!" Sirius spluttered, clawing snow out of his face to scowl up at them from his position on his back. Hermione was gratified to note that the snow on his chest from the ball which had overbalanced him was the deep blue she'd dyed hers. After being spattered with silver-and-black for the last hour and a half, Hermione was of the opinion that Sirius deserved all he got.

"Don't be a sore loser, mate," James chortled as he offered the larger boy a hand up, which he declined with a scowl. "Just because you got beaten by a girl…"

"Oi!" Hermione snapped, shoving James backwards so that he stumbled, still laughing. "This girl is the only reason you won!"

"We won because they're useless, and we're the best!" James crowed, wrapping an arm around Hermione and scrubbing his fist in her hair. "What did I tell you, little sister? Potters always win!"

"Yeah, yeah," Hermione snorted, inwardly glowing but outwardly punching him on the arm without real force. "I see your head is as big as ever."

"It's the haircut," James parried, smoothing his hands over his hair. "Mum went a bit over the top."

Snorting, Hermione went to reply but was cut off by James's face lighting up as he looked over her shoulder. "Pete!" He cried. Sirius jumped up too, joining the shout. Remus, sat against the wall, rolled his eyes but got to his feet more slowly, turning to face the newcomer. Hermione did the same.

She didn't like Peter. It wasn't a sort of apathy, like she had with most people, it was a genuine, bone-deep dislike. From the moment she'd met him he'd made her skin crawl with his watery eyes and smarmy smirk. She didn't say anything to James, because she knew how irritated she'd be if he started passing judgement on her choice of company, but there was something there… something untrustworthy. He was the sort to dither endlessly without getting passionate about anything, always sucking up to James, agreeing blindly, always making sure to be at the back in case of a fight. Hermione knew she'd said earlier that James didn't allow sycophants into his inner circle, but that was Peter's magic – he agreed nearly all the time, except when he didn't; he'd disagree with small things rather than the large things. He would never turn around and say "James, leave Snape alone" or "James, do your homework" but he would say "actually, James, I don't fancy treacle tart, I reckon I'll have some chocolate instead". And those sorts of things don't harm a friendship. It only ingratiated him further by giving him the barest hint of spine.

He strolled over the snow towards them, buried in layers and layers of jumpers, jackets and coats, with a hood over a woolly hat and gloved hands shoved deep in his pockets. He almost fell into a Badger Sett once, but nimbly hopped out of the way with an agility that didn't fit his rather pudgy form. "James!" he called back, a smile spread wide over his cheeks. "What's this? Snowball fight?"

"Potters vs. Outsiders," James told him as he arrived at the group, all of them exchanging half-hugs in the way of teenage boys uncomfortable with their bodies. Peter turned to Hermione for a cuddle after they had all greeted one another, his eyes glinting, but she just stepped back, her face set. She didn't miss the 'you see?' look Peter shot to James, nor the slight hardening of the edges of James's mouth in response. "We just finished, but we can go another round if you like? You don't mind, do you, Hermione?" James peered beseechingly at his sister.

"I don't mind," she ground out, glaring at Peter. "I can still kick your arses no matter how many you have on the team."

"What?" Peter squinted around at them. "It seems unfair if I'm on Sirius and Remus's team, all of us being lads. You know," he turned to Hermione, a weird expression on his face. "Us being stronger than lasses and all."

"Good point," James said brightly, Sirius nodding knowingly at his side. "It really wouldn't be fair on us, 'Mi. We'd lose easily."

She gaped at her brother in shock. "Have you forgotten how roundly we just trounced them?" she asked. "For Merlin's sake, James, we don't need his help – I certainly don't, anyway. I do well enough even being the weak little girl I am." She shot those last words at Peter with a poisonous look. His eyes sparkled with amusement.

"Yeah, but you cheated," Sirius said in that slow way he used when he was explaining something. "If you hadn't cheated, we'd have won, fair and square, because your team was at a disadvantage." Seeing her glare turned on him, he stumbled on, "not 'cause you're a girl or nothing, but 'cause you're younger than us and… well, yeah, weaker, too."

"Far be it for me to be a disadvantage," she spat, her face heating up with rage.

"Aw, come on, 'Mi! You know we didn't mean it like that!" James whined, reaching for her, but she spun out of his grasp, clambering up the incline to the rest of the garden.

"I think you did mean it 'like that', James," she growled, her eyes scanning the four of them, before she turned away with a snarl of disgust. "I don't want to play anymore, I have letters to write. You lot have fun."

There was a few minutes of silence as she stormed through the thick snow to the house, but it didn't last long. By the time she was seated at her desk, steadfastly attempting to ignore the scene down below, they had started up again – this time with Peter in the trench with James, and Hermione left out. Endeavouring to ignore their shrieks and laughs, she inked up a quill and started her letters.

Thursday 28th December 1972

Potter Manor, Dining Room

"Letters for you, dear," Dorea trilled as she glided into the room where breakfast waited on the tables. James lifted a hand to take the bundle from her, but only got a slap on the hand instead. "Not you, darling, your sister."

"Hermione?" James asked, his tone unflatteringly incredulous. "Who's writing you? Ow!" He glared at Remus, who was innocently eating his full English without even a glance up.

"I do have friends," Hermione replied snidely, smiling at her mother when she handed her the thick bundle of letters. "Thank you, Mum. Maybe," she turned to James again. "If you spent less time joined at the hip with your mates, you'd get letters too."

He stuck his tongue out at her over the table, to which she responded by scrunching up her nose and crossing her eyes. Truly, around James she was the height of maturity. A sharp word from Charlus put an end to the posturing, and she looked down at her letters. There were the usual, from Dorcas and Marlene, both updating her on the Yule they'd spent in Dor's family getaway on Loch Achray with a collection of the local Wizarding Clans, and their exploration of the Trossachs with their parents. According to Marlene, her mother had gotten lost for an entire afternoon after stubbornly refusing to listen to their guide, and the only reason they'd found her was because she had stumbled across a dog she had been certain was a wolf come to eat her, and had screamed the whole woodland down. The poor canine and its elderly owner had been treated for shock at the Meadowes's home – the poor man having seen Mrs. McKinnon, with her long dark hair and shrill scream, and mistaken her for a bean nighe predicting his imminent demise.

Hermione envied their excitement; from all of their stories you'd be forgiven for thinking that Scottish witches and wizards were much more interesting than their English counterparts.

Next there was a letter from Rue Shafiq, asking whether she had made any progress on the Potion's winter assignment, because Rue was quite lost and obviously she couldn't just ask Rida because otherwise she'd have to put up with her gloating. For a girl who never spoke, on paper she was terribly loquacious.

She dropped that one onto the table on top of the others, ignoring how James had shuffled around to peer over her shoulder, and went onto the last. It was an envelope of expensive material, the card thick and smelt slightly of herbs. Frowning at the unfamiliar writing, she slid her finger under the seal and pulled it open.


I'm sorry it took so long to write – it has been busy here. I know, I know, how busy could it be without Sirius around? Well, I don't mind telling you; he comes by his personality honestly.

Mother held a party on Saturday for the family, including my cousins, Narcissa, Andromeda and Bellatrix. Mother always puts a lot of effort in when they and Uncle Cygnus visit, she says it's one of the responsibilities of being Head of House – not that Mother is, of course, that's Father, but he doesn't plan parties. I don't think he'd know where to start. Uncle Cygnus is always angling for the Patriarch position, says that Father isn't interested enough, though I don't know where he gets that idea because Father is always at the Ministry or galas or charity events for this and that. He might be the single most influential person in Government, aside from Abraxas Malfoy. It's a close call.

We don't do much for Yule. Mother has the elves make traditional wassail but that's the extent of it, and even then it's only for the taste. I'd never been allowed to try it before but this year I got my own cup in lieu of Sirius and it was nice. Made my head go all fuzzy, so I couldn't write you then, either.

Does your family have Yule traditions? I'd imagine you do; I remember Mother telling me once that the Potters' one redeeming trait was their commitment to the Old Ways. Sorry, I shouldn't have said that, should I? Not that I agree, of course, you know that – I think the Potters are perfectly nice, though they'd have to be, wouldn't they, to raise you?

I think perhaps the wassail was stronger than I expected as it seems to still be affecting me now. I'll leave it here in case my mind decides to embarrass me more.

I hope your holidays are pleasant.


Regulus Arcturus

of the Ancient and Noble House of Black

She snickered a little at his words, smiling when her eyes caught on the sections where he'd blotted the paper while thinking of something to say. She hadn't expected him to write her, in honesty; he was wary and shy, and after the first few days without any letters she'd simply put it to the back of her mind, thinking that perhaps he'd thought better of it, or decided not to rock his perfectly comfortable boat by starting an illicit correspondence with a Gryffindor and a blood traitor. Now… there was a warmth in her at the idea that even though it had been a great risk, he'd written her. He'd made that step, taken that chance, and decided their friendship might be worth it.

She ran her fingers over the seal at the bottom, smiling vaguely. She enjoyed her letters from Dorcas and Marlene; they were her best friends. This one had greater significance, though.

She went to fold it up and tuck it away when a tugging at her hair caught her attention. Turning her head, she met James's stare. "What?" she asked.

"Regulus Black, 'Mi? Seriously?" He was giving her a stern look that ruffled her feathers.

"Yes, seriously. What's your problem?"

"You shouldn't write him, Hermione. He's… not like us." James shifted slightly, gnawing on his lip. "Not… light."

"He's eleven," Hermione snapped back, shoving the missive into the pocket of her dress as she stood from her chair. "He's no more light or dark than I am!"

"Hermione, he's not good for you – not a good influence, I mean."

"Oh?" she bristled, stabbing at his chest. "You're worried about me, are you? About poor, defenceless Hermione, weak-willed, unable to stand up for herself?"

"Hermione!" Dorea cried from the top of the table.

"Is this because he's a Black, because he's a Slytherin, or because he's friends with Snape?" Hermione pressed on mercilessly. "Well? Go on, James, I'd like to hear it."

"All of the above!" James shouted back, then gathered himself and stared at Hermione with burning eyes. "Hermione, you're my sister and my best friend, and I'm telling you, as a friend, that this won't end well."

"Oh, sod off, James." She sneered, shoving him out of her way. "'Best friend'? Hardly. I can count the number of times you've spoken to me this year on my fingers. You've got new friends, why is it so bad that I have them?"

"Because you're not choosing them well," James replied stonily. "There are plenty of other wonderful people at Hogwarts, you don't need to go after Regulus and his lot – Emily Fawcett says you never talk to her, but she'd love to be your friend!"

She stopped in her tracks, mouth agape as she span on her heel to face him. "Excuse me?"

Seeing an opening, he ran into it eagerly. "Yes, bet you didn't even notice that, did you? You were too busy with that – that pitbull, Marlene."

"So now it's not just Regulus, it's Marlene as well?" Hermione scoffed bitterly. "What about Dorcas, huh? How unsuitable is she?"

Wary, perhaps sensing how wrongly he'd stepped, James backed up a little. "Dorcas Meadowes is lovely," he soothed her. "Everybody loves Dor. And I bet they'd love you, too, if they were given half a chance."

"Lots of people do love me, James, they're just not all your precious Gryffindors." She began to strut away, then turned at the last second. "Oh, and James? Emily Fawcett? I would have thought you'd have known better than to listen to lying little harlots like that. Did you really believe that I'd have just blanked a girl I didn't know?"

He winced. "Well, you have to admit, you are a bit…"

"Wrong answer," she snapped, and stormed off to her room.

Friday 5th January 1973

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Alliott's Office

Hermione didn't claim to be the most intuitive of people, but even she was able to deduce a great many things the very second she walked into Professor Alliott's office on Friday night, at the allotted time of eight.

The first was that despite Alliott's insistence that whatever this scheme was came from the minds of herself and Professors Slughorn, McGonagall and Flitwick, it was clear that in fact none of the aforementioned teachers were comfortable with it. Hermione watched them shift, hem and haw, shooting each other looks of discomfort, and knew that this, whatever it was, came from the mind of someone higher. Someone they were afraid to naysay.

The second, that the reason Alliott was involved despite her coming retirement was her obvious neutrality. They were using her room so that the scheme couldn't be pinned on any of the others, heads of houses that they were, and no bias could be claimed.

The third was that whatever was going on was certainly more serious than extra credit.

Hermione and Regulus were not the only students invited. The group consisted of Hermione, Regulus, Rida Shafiq, Xavier Smith and Clarence Abbott of Hufflepuff, and surprisingly, Dorcas and Marlene. The latter two had apparently been contacted over the holidays, which Hermione found suspicious but refrained from contemplating for the moment. Kingsley Shacklebolt was also present, leaning languorously up against a desk in the back, to all appearances ignoring those present in favour of scribbling on some parchment. If Hermione hadn't known what she did – of his favour with Professor Alliott, his connection with the Duelling Club (upon further research Hermione found that Shacklebolt was undefeated except by the Prewett boys) and her own feelings about him in the future – she would have thought that perhaps he was in detention. The whole vibe of the meeting, however, the lingering tension and feeling of importance, pressed into her that this was not the sort of place where teachers would multitask disciplinary actions. This, and he seemed to fill the space of their missing Ravenclaw, despite his being much older than the rest of them.

When looking at the assembled, she could make a few quick guesses about what had drawn them here. They were the top performing students in their year, not that it meant much less than six months into their first year. They all, with the possible exception of Regulus, came from magic-neutral or light-leaning families. All of them, without exception, had been in trouble with staff in their short time at the school – yes, even Hermione, who had gained a detention the previous term for 'backtalking', which, in her defence, would not have been a problem had Dumbledore hired a more competent staff.

(It had later been stricken from the record after a letter from her father to the Prophet was published, in which he hinted at his sudden about-face on the matter of a 'Hogwarts Oversight Committee', as was being presented before the Wizengamot later that month. Still, that episode when combined with her status as Marlene's close friend brought attention to her, and not in the best of ways.)

Marlene, of course, had been reported for assault many a time, only the fear of her own father's retribution keeping her in school. Regulus was more subtle in his crimes, as was typical of Slytherins, but he had been caught out hexing a Hufflepuff in November. Hexing any student was a crime, but hexing a Hufflepuff? Despite the truth of the matter being that Hufflepuffs were as likely to be cruel as any other child, most of the staff seemed to be blind to their faults and equated crimes against Hufflepuffs with kicking puppies as they slept. This meant that while hexing a student usually carried a mandatory punishment of a week's detention, Regulus had still been serving them as they'd broken off for Yule.

Smith and Abbott being the exception, as they liked to pal around with second- and third-year Ravenclaws, which their fellows appeared to view as a betrayal of their House. So, when the two of them had been caught breaking into the Quidditch locker rooms as the cumulation of a spate of thefts, no teacher, not even their own Head of House, was of a mind to go easy on them as they might any of the 'harmless' Hufflepuffs.

Rida Shafiq had a temper, especially when it came to her sister, but also in general. Mostly this manifested in petty acts: teachers who took points from her were likely to find themselves throwing up for an afternoon; Prefects who did the same would mysteriously sprout boils or sores or, on one occasion, fur; nothing that could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be linked back to Rida, though the suspicion was strong. What brought her here, though, was her ingenious 'miss-brew' of a Herbicide Potion that somehow became an especially strong Sleeping Draught, administered to a gang of third-year Ravenclaws who'd followed Rue around for a day, picking on everything from her hairstyle to her skin colour. The third-years had slept for a week, and nobody had been able to waken them – until Slughorn found the remnants in Rida's badly-cleaned cauldron (because while she was a whizz with Potions, she, like many pure-blood princesses, had no concept of manual labour).

Dorcas was the only exception, her rap-sheet as clean as her skin. The rest of them were basically budding sociopaths.

"Thank you for meeting with us," Alliott said in such a way as to acknowledge the complete lack of autonomy they'd had in making the choice. She smiled at each of them in turn, the expression laughably false because Professor Alliott was the least smiley person in the world. "I hope these sessions will prove useful to you."

Smith scoffed, folding his arms over his chest, his nose in the air. Rida shifted on the spot, her body language outwardly hostile as she eyed the Heads of House. "And why are we here?" she asked.

Alliott glanced back at Slughorn, whose shoulders twitched in a bare shrug. Alliott hissed through her teeth, and turned back to Rida. "I thought you'd have been told…"

"By who?" Marlene asked now, her eyebrows raised. "I got a letter to my dad saying, and I quote, 'Miss McKinnon is expected to attend a meeting for delinquent students on the 5th January, in Professor Alliott's office. Failure to attend may result in suspension.' It doesn't exactly tell me much, thanks."

"Mine said 'gifted students'," Dorcas said with a frown, "and promised extra credit."

"All I got was a two-minute meeting with you, Professor," Abbott pointed out. "And you told me knack all."

"Language, Mister Abbott," Professor McGonagall chastised from the back, a pinched expression on her face. "It seems we have been remiss in informing you of the true nature of this meeting. Understand, students, that this is not an opportunity we are offering to all pupils, and therefore all of the secrecy was necessary. I do apologise that you were confused."

"Indeed, indeed," Professor Slughorn agreed from the back, his head nodding so violently that his belly shook along with it. "It's not a punishment – in fact," he grinned, "it's an opportunity!"

"Aye," Professor McGonagall agreed, eyeing Slughorn with concern, as though she feared his belly might jiggle him off-balance and out of the window, or, perhaps, that was her hope. "We'd like you to work closely with a range of teachers on your projects. And Shacklebolt, of course," she added, nodding to the boy in the back. "He'll be our eyes and ears, allowing us to know exactly who needs us and for what. Think of him as your…" she cast about for an expression, her face relaxing slightly as she hit upon a comfortable quidditch metaphor, "Team Captain."

"Alright, all," Shacklebolt drawled with a wink to Dorcas, who blushed bright red from her neck all the way to the tips of her ears.

Rida had no such response, instead widening her stance and staring down Professor McGonagall as she clipped out, "I don't work in teams. Especially not mysterious, secret teams my own sister isn't allowed to know about." She flipped her hair over her shoulder defiantly. "Thanks, but no thanks."

"Miss Shafiq," Professor Slughorn called, stopping her at the door. "Just because this isn't a punishment doesn't mean we can't punish you otherwise. Did you not, after all, poison fellow students?"

Spinning around, she snarled at her Head of House. "What do you want from me?"

"Your hard work, m'dear," he said with an ingratiating smile. "You've a particular skill in Potions, for instance. I'd like to see that honed."

"Why?" Rida spat, eyes hooded suspiciously. "We'd learn that stuff anyway."

Professor McGonagall stepped forward, effectively drawing attention to her. "The Headmaster suggested that we pull you into this group because you might not get the assistance you need to fulfil your potential in regular classes. You are all of above average intelligence in at least one area of study; this study group is to prevent that talent from being lost within the sea of other students."

"The secrecy is to prevent jealousy," Professor Alliott said smoothly, answering the next question before it had left anybody's mouths. "You're all brilliant. Surely you want to be able to use that?"

"H-how long w-would it be for?" Dorcas asked, her voice quiet and cracking as it always did when she was around authority figures.

"This term as a trial period. If it works out, it'll continue." Alliott shrugged carelessly. "Either way makes no difference to me, but the Headmaster seems keen."

"W-we shouldn't want to disappoint the Headmaster," Dorcas nodded in relief. "I'm in." Marlene scoffed, but Abbott and Smith voiced their agreement too.

Rida scowled fiercely at Slughorn, saying something in a rapid-fire, melodic language Hermione didn't understand, but made Slughorn pale. Then, she half-turned her head towards Professor McGonagall and said, "fine. But only Potions. And I refuse to be paired with that useless bitch." She waved at Marlene unrepentantly, ignoring Professor McGonagall's snapped "Language!".

"I'll do it," Hermione offered, still trying to think her way around what was happening. It didn't make much, if any, sense at all. A secret study group? Pull the other one. Beside her Regulus made his agreement, his eyes still on the smouldering Rida.

"Good. We'll begin next week, the same time, the same place. Don't be late, and bring your homework." Alliott looked down at her desk, and then, a few seconds later, glanced up again with a raised eyebrow. "Are you still here?" She thundered, making even the other Professors jump as the students lunged for the door.

Hermione was halfway down the corridor with Marlene and Dorcas when Regulus caught up, Rida at his side. His voice low, he muttered, "does this whole thing seem odd to anybody else?"

Surprisingly, it was Dorcas that nodded, if a bit uncertainly. She was a girl who liked to see the good in everyone, though right then she looked skittish, glancing around as though someone might be observing them. Suddenly, it occurred to Hermione that perhaps her nervousness wasn't to do with authority, but with the situation as a whole. "I don't understand why they'd do this now, and why it's a secret," she said quietly. "It just doesn't make sense."

"Plots and plans," Rida sneered. "That's all the old goat is good for, and it's the one thing you can always count on him to have. If Dumbledore's involved, then there's no doubt – something else is going on. Something other than a bunch of marginally clever pre-teens getting preferential treatment." Checking her watch, she said, "and I'll give him until tomorrow noon to put a geas about it on the lot of us. Mark my words; that man has plans. And we're right in the middle of them."

Chapter Text

Friday 19th January 1973

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

Hermione was glad to be back at school, in the company of friends. James wasn't speaking to her, but that was unsurprising, after the Yule they'd just had. Marlene and Dorcas were in good spirits, however, and after listening to her rant they'd thrown themselves into distracting her. Marlene had also promised to 'take care' of the Emily Fawcett issue in her own special way, which Hermione wasn't exactly comfortable with, but aside from putting in a token protest couldn't do anything about.

Remus, having made overtures of friendship, didn't seem terribly content to let them lie. Instead, she found herself with a new library companion. The first time he'd joined her, she'd been rather shocked, staring at him until he'd shot her a crooked smile and nodded to a table just around the corner. "I normally study there," he informed her, "but I thought I'd join you. You don't mind, do you?"

She hadn't. Remus was smart and insightful, and she enjoyed watching the way his mind worked. He learned perhaps more slowly than she, and had a problem with information retention, but made up for that with useful study tricks like building the information into a single picture which he could focus on remembering instead, or composing catchy tongue-twisters and mnemonics.

"I might not be as clever as your brother," he told her on Tuesday night after she'd spent an hour repeating his song for remembering the elemental laws of Potions work and showering him in so much praise as to make him blush, "but I'm a damn sight more creative."

"And better looking," Marlene had said from the other side of the table, eyes not lifting from her Herbology project, causing Remus to blush even harder. "Not that you're all that spectacular, mate, don't get your hopes up, but at least your head is in proportion to your body."

"Err – thanks?" Remus said with an amused brow lift in Hermione's direction. Hermione flashed him a grin and went back to reciting under her breath the latest rhyme he'd dragged from his average-sized head.

Sometimes Sirius would join them, only to make a token effort at study, though. Instead, he'd try to wind up Marlene and Dorcas as much as possible and see how quickly he could make a get-away. Hermione learned that she quite liked him, too; even if he was as wide as a bear, didn't shower terribly much and flicked his hair about so often she was surprised he wasn't expected to fill in a risk assessment about it, what with how it kept ending up in people's eyes. She wasn't entirely sure what it was about him that appealed but she thought it might be the brotherly way he'd tease her and how he was so casually affectionate, always wrapping an arm around her shoulder like James would or crushing her in too-tight hugs where she could feel his heart beating through his chest. He was so endearingly harmless that she was tempted to overlook the times when he wasn't, and as it was, just ignored what she didn't see happening.

In fact, the only person who didn't turn up at all in the past two weeks was James, who appeared to spend the time Remus and Sirius were with Hermione either slinking about the school with a scowl on his face or finding new and creative ways to taunt Severus, who ended up studying at the same time and with the same frequency as Hermione if only because at least then he would know he was safe. Lily Evans joined him, and the two of them would give Hermione a nod as she walked past, previous animosity stemming from her blood connections dropped.

So the past two weeks had been brilliant for Hermione, her wrapped up in her bubble of friends and lessons and warmth. The first Friday after the meeting, the 12th, their study group had been cancelled due to Alliott having to assist in interviewing for her own replacement. The next Friday morning, however, brought a summons to Alliott's office, reminding Hermione that despite her own opinion on the subject she was obliged to turn up, and she'd have to cancel on Remus (an appointment she'd made with unusual optimism, hoping that if she had alternate plans Fate might decide to cancel the damn study group). She was nibbling on a piece of toast when she noticed Kitty Forsyth prancing between tables, trying for innocuous but missing it by a mile as she leaned down to whisper first in Reg's ear, then Rida's, then making her way across to Marlene opposite Hermione. Kitty was a sweet girl, Hufflepuff as ever they came, with bright red cheeks on a chubby face and a school skirt that reached her ankles. Despite being the same age as her, Hermione always thought she seemed frightfully young.

"'Er Majesty 'as summoned ye," Kitty said brightly, nodding without subtlety at Professor Alliott, looking suitably regal as she poured tea for herself and Professor McGonagall, tipping her head to acknowledge whatever Professor Sprout was saying on the other side of her. "Six t'night, she says. Don' be late, though why you'd ever risk 'er temper I can' say." With another grin, she flounced off back to her own House table, where Xavier and Clarence handed over a plate piled high with fare they'd saved for her, gaining themselves a shiny smile.

"Professor Alliott?" Sirius asked, ignoring James's warning flash of the eyes to lean over the table, curiosity writ across his features. "What does she want? And at six?" He shot them a meaningful look. "She never works outside of hours."

"Group research," Hermione responded promptly before Marlene could get off a snarky comment. "I'm so sorry, Remus, I guess this means we'll have to postpone."

"That's alright," Remus said with typical affability. "I suppose I can figure out how to neutralise a Mandrake by myself, though I'd rather not." He wrinkled his nose, and Hermione smiled, tapping his hand lightly. For some reason, a reason Hermione felt she knew and therefore didn't bother researching, sure that her brain would tell her at some point, Remus had particular trouble with the loud or smelly plants. He was also hopeless at Potions, but that was nothing she could help with.

"Group research?" Sirius repeated, looking doubtful. "With 'The Sloth'?"

"Don't call her that, Sirius," Hermione chastised, rolling her eyes. "And yes. Just because she doesn't want to work with you, a situation I can definitely empathise with, doesn't mean she doesn't appreciate my brain."

"Yeah, alright," he relented, then stabbed his fork in Marlene's direction. "But then why is she invited?"

Marlene eyed Sirius past the wobbling fork with the sort of malicious intent that a cat might a particularly irritating mouse. "'She' is right here, you know, Black, and doesn't particularly appreciate sharp objects being waved in her face." She shot a smile at the lad who'd tried to nick some bacon off her at the start of the year. "Do I, Fenwick?"

"Don't push her, mate," Fenwick replied, trying to appear unmoved but clutching his hand unconsciously to his chest. On the back were the four shiny scars where Marlene's fork had broken skin. "She's psychotic."

Sirius, paling, pulled his fork back quickly, earning a nod from Marlene as she dug into her food. Hermione finished her slice of toast and pushed her chair back. "Don't worry about Professor Alliott, Sirius," she said, running a fond hand over his hair, studiously avoiding James's eyes. "Worry about Professor McGonagall." She nodded at the head table where instead of listening to the conversations going on around her, Professor McGonagall had her eyes narrowed and set on Sirius, who squirmed uncomfortably. "What did you do, by the way?"

"We may have…" he flinched away as their Head of House stood from her chair, prompting Sirius to stand too, "…rubbed catnip all over her office. It was great, 'Mi, you should have seen it, she was purring and rolling around – shit – bye!"

Sirius bolted, Professor McGonagall on his tail, the Gryffindor table cheering on his escape.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Alliott's Office

They were all clustered around a large table, their homework out, quills inked and in hand, looking at each other in confusion. Regulus and Rida sat across from Dorcas and Marlene, Hermione sat next to Kingsley Shacklebolt, who was leaning back with his chair on two legs, watching Xavier and Clarence through half-closed lids. Professor Alliott, alone today, wandered around, looking exasperated.

"But I don't get it," Dorcas said, puzzled. "You want us to – talk – about our homework? To each other? And … to you? Isn't that… cheating?"

"No, dear, not at all," Alliott said in a bored tone. Kingsley snorted softly. "We just want you to do well, and we find that often discussing a problem helps one solve it. Do you understand?"

"Well, yes, of course I understand, but it doesn't make sense," Dorcas huffed crossly, glaring at her paper as she couldn't bring herself to glare at Alliott. "Aren't we supposed to do it, well, you know – on our own?"

Alliott knelt down at a corner of the table between Regulus and Clarence, eyeing Dorcas with concern. "Are you a bit slow? Did we make a mistake in sending for you?"

"No!" Dorcas burst out, colouring. "I just – well – I suppose it doesn't matter now, does it?"

"No. Exactly." Alliott looked around the group, eyebrow cocked. "Anymore questions?" A few hands crept up. "No? Good. Do your bloody homework. For Merlin's sake, it's not advanced arithmancy."

Thursday 12th July 1973

And that's all they did in those sessions – homework. For the rest of the year. Eventually they got faster, and smarter, and by July Hermione and Regulus and both Hufflepuffs were on fourth-year Astronomy work, while Marlene duelled at a third-year level with Kingsley Shacklebolt goading her on, charmingly mischievous grin fixed firmly to his lips as the blonde first year tried desperately to shoot it off, and Rida had become Slughorn's new favourite student, shoving the previously prestigious Lily Evans out of place. Dorcas, after the first few months, had been taken to study with a different teacher; Professor Vector, new that year, of Arithmancy, had apparently seen great potential in Dorcas, so she focused entirely on her new favourite subject and was separate from the rest of them, instead doing her homework during their out-of-class time, like any other student.

But at the base, it remained homework. Nothing suspicious, nor particularly special, aside from a group of particularly intelligent students working with teachers to learn faster. Those – Marlene, Dorcas and Rida – who had readily apparent skills were taken aside to improve on them, while those who hadn't shown a particular aptitude for any specific subject – Regulus, Hermione, Clarence and Xavier – were mainly working their way through the syllabus, knocking off the easier subjects first – Astronomy, Muggle Studies, things that Hermione considered 'mostly irrelevant' – before moving onto the more complex stuff, like Herbology and Charms. Professor McGonagall refused to take them any further with the practice of Transfiguration than a first-year syllabus until she knew the extent of their power, as it could be a dangerous science, and for now had them working through large, dusty tomes that covered the history of Transfiguration back from before the Dark Ages. If she caught any of them attempting Transfiguration beyond their grade she would have them expelled, she swore without a hint of a lie. Regulus seemed to think this was a challenge to do it as secretly as possible, and only Dorcas and Hermione's quick intervention prevented him from trying. Damn Slytherins.

They had specific instructions for the rest of the school time, too. They were not to draw attention to themselves. They were not to tutor other students in the things they'd learned outside of class. Rida's trunk was raided and her Potions equipment locked away, though she was given extra lab time with Slughorn's supervision to make up for it. Marlene had to keep up her physical fitness; not a difficult task for an eleven-year-old, though she jogged every morning anyway.

And, again, they were not to tell a soul. Not even their siblings, which Hermione found difficult once James took it upon himself to apologise to her, mid-June.

She was on her way back from the library, taking the long route through the back-corridors. She wasn't sure why she did so, only that it felt familiar, like a habit, and she liked familiarity. Dumbledore was still interviewing for Alliott's replacement, a task that only seemed to grow more onerous and desperate with time, so she was unsurprised to bump into a tall, dark-haired stranger. It was, however, odd that she would do so on the seventh floor, but she thought little of it, except to wonder why.

"My apologies," the man had said as they'd collided, long, pale fingers holding her up as she swayed. He'd plucked at her red-and-gold collar with something that approached amusement on his face. "Lost, little Gryffindor?"

"No, sir," she said politely, frowning up at him. She supposed he was quite handsome, but much too old for her – in his forties, only a decade younger than her father. At twelve, the gap seemed huge. She stepped back out of his grip, ignoring the icy spider that seemed to trip across her spine.

"Good," he said in a smooth voice. "Best get back to your common room, then. It's getting late."

Indignance at his condescension reared up inside her and she scowled. "Who are you? Are you a teacher?"

"I might be," he replied, an enigmatic smile dancing about his lips. "'Professor' does have quite the ring to it." Stepping aside to clear the way, he waved her on. "Go on, then. Run along."

Suspicion curling in her gut, she nonetheless heeded his words, tripping quickly down the corridor before she turned to see him smirking still. He flicked his fingers in her direction, and she turned to walk away. This time, when she looked back, he was gone. That niggling was back in her brain, telling her something was quite wrong, but her mind was otherwise delightfully empty, so she ignored it until she was back in the common room, and James was stood talking to her.

"I'm sorry, what?" she said finally, snapping back to reality and shaking the remaining fog from her brain. Had something just happened? She thought something might have, but she just couldn't remember… How did she get back to the common room? She frowned up at her brother in confusion.

"I said, 'I'm sorry'," James said, huffing. Now that she was looking at him she could see slight bruises under his eyes, as though he hadn't slept well for quite a while now, and he was pale. Compassion nudged her to smile him on. "I shouldn't have said that stuff about Regulus. Or Marlene. And it won't happen again." He watched her anxiously, his brow furrowing when she shrugged.



"Yep." It all seemed quite simple, really. She'd probably overreacted in the first place, and she did love him, so why not just accept the apology. Then, following her gut, she added, "and I'm sorry, too. You're my brother, I should have seen that you were just being protective. Wanting to protect your little sister isn't a crime." With every word, she felt more normal, and by the end her mind was her own again. Smiling, she held her arms out to him for a hug, suddenly missing him something fierce. "We're okay?"

"We're okay," he said, sounding uncertain, but scooping her up anyway and crushing her to his chest.

Friday 20th July 1973

Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor Alliott's Office

A present wrapped in shiny black paper clutched in her grip, Hermione set off to find Professor Alliott. They'd had their differences over the year, but the truth remained that she was her favourite teacher, and Hermione would never forgive herself if she didn't manage to give the woman a personalised fare-well. The Express was leaving that morning and Hermione had to be on it, but this shouldn't take long.

She made it to the office and went to push the door open, but paused when she heard voices floating out. There was a crack in the door, and – well, Hermione always was curious. Peering through, she saw Headmaster Dumbledore standing before Alliott's desk as the woman tried fruitlessly to shove the last of her things into her large, battered trunk.

"Are you sure I can't convince you to stay on, my dear Geneva? Quite sure?" Dumbledore was saying. He was clasping one of her hands in both of his like a kindly uncle and Professor Alliott shot him a look of utter and complete disgust, snatching it back.

"The only thing I hate more than this school and these students, Albus Dumbledore, is stood directly in front of me wearing a bell on his hat. There is absolutely nothing – nothing – you can promise me that might entice me to spend another year under your much-vaunted purview. Now, sod off, please, Noddy. I have packing to do."

Headmaster Dumbledore pushed himself up off of the desk as Professor Alliott continued piling things back into her bag, and eyed her speculatively. "Not even… Severus?"

Hermione's breath caught in her throat, eyes going wide in surprise. Alliott had halted all movement, eyes turned to a side. "He's just another student, Albus. Isn't that what you said?" Her voice was devoid of all warmth, eyes burning with pure hatred as she turned to look at the Headmaster. "Goodbye, Albus. Please, don't stay in touch."

Hauling her trunk off of her desk, she strode out of the door, nodding once to Hermione and then prowling off down the corridor, her robes flapping around her feet in a way that sent a shiver down Hermione's spine. In the classroom, Dumbledore turned, spotting the parcel in Hermione's hands. "Miss Potter," he said softly. She'd never really trusted men with soft voices. "I'm afraid you're too late, she's already gone." He pushed past her and strolled away, whistling.

Thursday 9th August 1973

Potter Manor, Dining Room

It was in the Prophet that morning. Hermione unfurled it by her plate as she took a sip of her tea, and then dropped the mug, quite forgotten. Horror choked her, and she threw back her seat and ran from the room.

James, staring after her, pulled the paper to him and glanced at the headline. There, in bold, read:


The Floo Network: Friend Or Foe?

Reported by Alrich Bumblewit

Chapter Text

F riday 21 st June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Kreacher was gone again. For a being that was supposedly bonded to her, obliged to fulfil her every whim and want, he spent a lot of time keeping secrets. It was almost as though he had another master, one he was cleverly hiding; not that, if asked twenty-five years ago, Hermione would think he was clever enough to keep those secrets.

But she knew him better now, and knew that were Kreacher a wizard and not an elf, he would have been the most Slytherin of Slytherins to ever Slythr. Or whatever. Fifteen years of conversation with only a crotchety old elf had affected her brain in some weird and wonderful ways. The point was, he was extremely adept at keeping secrets from his 'Mistress', the most glaring of which being where he disappeared to every now and again, only to return hours later with a self-satisfied smirk on his face and smelling faintly of cardamom. She knew he was talking to someone, but who, Hermione had no clue.

It was the early morning, and she'd been alone in the house but for Kreacher and the occasional passer-by since Tuesday. It was beyond dull to wander around on her own, especially since she felt all tightly wound, as if she were waiting for something to happen. Something big.

She winced at that. It was probably a symptom of insanity, to be so convinced that something was right around the corner, something that would change her life forever for the better. Maybe she'd even get out of this half-life, be able to live again. Gods, what she'd give…

There she went again, waxing lyrical about the possibilities of the future. It wasn't likely she'd even have one, outside of these insanity-induced fantasies where someone stormed into the house and saved her from her miserable existence. That was highly unlikely – the only person who could come close to fixing her was long dead, and all of the people who might figure it out thought she was dead.

She bit her lip, wandering into the library and glancing around the familiar haven. Of course, she couldn't read books without Kreacher there to help her, but the sights and smells of the room still relaxed her, and she sat cross-legged in the centre of the Persian rug Kreacher had spent hours cleaning once he realised that was her favourite spot, closed her eyes, and simply took in her surroundings with a contented hum.

What felt like minutes but could easily have been hours later, she became aware of footsteps. She didn't open her eyes, but she did frown. Sirius wouldn't be back yet, she was sure, but perhaps Remus had come to bring him clothes? Or it could be Tonks, little Nymphadora, come to wander and mope a bit like she liked to do, opening the door to Remus's room and gazing at his perfectly hung cardigans like they contained the secrets to the universe rather than simply being the soft, worn, hideously ugly lumps of wool that they were. Hermione felt for Tonks, she really did, but if she were able to speak to the woman she'd tell her to move on, and quickly, before she got hurt. Remus was a lovely bloke; sugar and spice and all that was nice, but with women…

He wasn't good with women. A flash of Dorcas's heartbroken face flashed through her mind, and Hermione chuckled a little, running her fingers through her hair. Of course, he wasn't meant to be good with women. He didn't understand them particularly well at Hogwarts and the intervening years hadn't changed that at all. Men, however; Remus had always been a heartbreaker of an entirely different kind when he let that side of himself have a play, not that he'd done that much since Sirius was locked up in Azkaban. Before, they'd been partners of all different types, even while Sirius cut a swathe through the woman of Hogwarts and Remus carried on a liaison with – well that hardly mattered right then.

She'd tell Tonks not to bother, anyway. Now that Remus had Sirius back the only way to break them up would be to literally break them up, with a sledgehammer or an Avada.

Climbing to her feet, she ambled over to the door and wandered through, trampling the familiar path towards Remus's room where she fully expected to find one or both of her friends, only to stop abruptly when a word was spoken from the base of the stairs.

No, not a word. A name.


Monday 1st September 1975

Kings Cross Station, London

Hermione ignored the shrieking of owls, the shouting of students and the panicked flapping of parents to stay here, holding tight to her father, for a few more moments. Behind them the Express waited, shiny, hopeful, puffing steam into the air until the atmosphere was so humid a matronly woman shrieked, her hair curling into ringlets instead of the straight locks she'd so painstakingly styled that morning. Dorcas was already aboard, having arrived with Hermione after they both had spent the last month of summer in Aberdeen with her family, and no doubt she was already stockpiling the chocolate.

"Hermione?" Her father said, his gruff voice easily discerned over the cacophony of the station, his calloused hand coming up to stroke her curls. She'd grown a lot over the past two years, now topping five-five, but in his arms she always felt small and protected, which she often needed and truly appreciated. "You alright, darling?"

"'M fine," she mumbled into his shoulder, still clutching him. "Just want a moment."

His chuckle rolled through her and made her smile, pulling back finally to settle on her feet. "I've missed you all," she told her family. James smirked, Dorea smiled kindly, and Charlus ruffled her hair, left down and wild – "like a Potter's hair should be," her father had said when he'd seen it a half-hour before – despite Dorcas's objections. She'd hugged her mother first, of course, and then James, but her father had the longest because she'd missed him the most. When she'd been home at the start of the summer, she'd had only a day before he'd shot off on some business trip to some other continent, and hadn't returned until she'd been dropped off in Scotland.

James, however, she'd spent the first two weeks with. They'd had their ups-and-downs since first year, but the months of separation had taught them a lesson they'd sorely needed; that they loved each other, and shouldn't let stupid things divide them. Since, they'd certainly argued, but since Hermione had spent most of her time at school in her 'study group' sessions, this had the dual effect of hiding Hermione and Regulus's close friendship from James's scrutiny, and had also kept her from stumbling across James while he was in the midst of what Marlene euphemistically called 'shenanigans'. And, as Sirius pointed out the previous year: if she hadn't seen them doing anything wrong, and nobody else had caught them, then how did she know they'd done it at all?

They were lucky she hadn't sniffed out any large-scale bullying. She might love her brother dearly, but that would not stop her from blowing her top if she found he continued to make Snape's life a living Hell.

A shrill whistle blasted through the air, warning them that the train would depart in ten minutes. James jumped, and then grinned at them all. "We done with the lovey-dovey stuff? Good, because I can see a muggle-born with my name on it, and she's getting away!" He made a ridiculous spectacle of himself, dramatically leaping across the platform to help Lily Evans load her suitcase, for which he got a sharp slap around the ears and a glare. Hermione sighed. Over the years he'd only grown more terribly flamboyant, with Sirius growing with him, and to add to that embarrassment he'd also, apparently, lost control of his hormones. Mostly, she ignored his obsessions, but Lily Evans…

That one was a problem.

Not only was he the bully of Lily's best friend, but he was also hilariously horrible at flirting, so half the time he accidentally insulted her/her friends/her family. Like at the end of Hermione's second year, when he'd butted into a conversation she was having with her parents and sister on the platform to say "Merlin, Lils, is this your sister? You obviously got all the looks in the family!". To be fair to him, he wasn't to know about her precarious family situation, but either way he shouldn't have said it. In a way, Hermione felt bad for Lily, but also not at all – the redhead never told him to stop, only made a show of how annoyed she was about it. Hermione knew James – no matter how infatuated he was, if the lass told him to stop, he'd stop, and just go back to pining after her from across the common room. But she didn't, and now it was all school-wide pranks to show his undying affection; flowers sprouting out of the seat of Slytherins' robes, Hufflepuffs paid to follow her around littering petals in her path, Ravenclaws hexed to sing love songs when they sit next to her in Herbology.

He really was going to tremendous lengths to win her affections; last year, everybody had refused to leave their common rooms on Valentine's Day until the other 'Marauders' – that's right, they had a name now – had eventually taken written promises of peace to their respective Seventh-Year Prefects, each sheet of paper notarised by Dorcas, the only Ravenclaw who dared to step outside.

Hermione watched as Snape glowered at James from over Lily's shoulder, grabbing the trunk himself and dragging it inside. Lily followed her devoted servant, nose in the air.

Shaking her head, Hermione told her parents she'd see them at Christmas and boarded herself, meandering around and through crowds of students, waving greetings here and there, until she found Dorcas and settled in with her. Dorcas gave her an absentminded wave, her eyes fixed on something outside of the window.

"What's happening?" Hermione asked, shuffling over to the edge of her seat to join her friend.

"Look," Dor murmured, pointing at a group of people stood together. It took a second for Hermione to recognise the Shafiqs.

Rida and Rue, always beautiful, had surpassed expectations as they went through puberty, both seeming to transform the second they hit fourteen into willowy, vibrant creatures that male students frequently stopped to stare at as they passed in the corridors. Rue, still ever the introvert, would blush and hurry away, but Rida had taken to sashaying her way through the halls, glamorous and untouchable. Hermione, seeing their mother Amira for the first time, could understand where they got it. Tall, regal, with sharp cheekbones and pouty lips, even happily-married wizards were giving her second looks, all of which were returned with disinterested, dismissive eyes from the matriarch as she hung from her equally handsome husband's arm. Her husband, Tahir, seemed to take notes of them all, glowering possessively from her side. Stood with them was another tall, handsome man with smooth dark skin the colour of Dorcas's beloved chocolate, only this man smiled down at the girls, nodding as Rue – talked!

"Merlin's beard!" Hermione gasped, watching her usually reticent friend gesticulate, a smile on her lips even as she seemed to argue with him. Rida stood with her arms folded slightly to the side, watching the interaction sulkily. After a few minutes, the whistle sounded again, and she tugged on Rue's arm, bodily dragging her away from the older man, who watched her leave, looking as though he'd just had a spiritual experience.

"That's Harish Patil," Dorcas murmured, sounding awe-struck.

"But…" Hermione's quick mind worked. "Isn't he…?"

"Rida's betrothed, yes," Dor breathed. They swapped wide-eyed looks as the compartment door flew open and Marlene bounded in, apparently unhindered by the weight of her own trunk.

"Good news!" She declared, throwing her trunk atop the bench and sprawling out next to it, pink-cheeked with excitement.

"Where have you been?" Dorcas asked rudely, crossing her arms. "I haven't heard from you in weeks!"

"Did you not hear me say 'good news'? Here, I'll try again – GOOD NEWS!"

Hermione winced at the shriek, Rida and Rue doing the same as they entered, Rue still being dragged along by her sister. "Oh, goodie," Rida drawled, depositing Rue onto a seat. "The freak is still here."

"Yes!" Marlene said, volume still way too loud. "And she has good news!"

"Unless it's of your impending expulsion, I could not care any less, I really couldn't."

"Pshh. Spoilsport." Marlene waved Rida off impatiently and grinned at the rest of them. "My parents are getting divorced!"

"What?!" There was a sudden intake of breath from everybody, until Rida, again, broke it. "How shameful," she sneered. "I don't see how that's good news at all."

Flipping her hair, Marlene scowled at Rida. "It's good news because it means my father won't be shackled to that hag any longer. Okay with you?"

"No," Rida said calmly. "I thought I was quite clear that it was not. Divorce – tearing apart and soiling the very sanctity of marriage. It's disgusting."

"Congratulations, Marlene," Rue said softly. "To be married to a person one does not love – I can imagine no worse fate." Then she fell silent again, a far away look on her face as she gazed out of the window. Harish Patil, Hermione noted, was still watching the train.

"Thank you, Rue," Marlene nodded, smiling at the quiet girl. "At least someone has the appropriate response."

"Yes, yes, congratulations to your parents on their decision to tear their lives asunder and risk losing their blessings and their magic," Rida sneered.

"Yes, alright, we get it," Hermione snapped. Rida jolted, glaring in her direction. "Gods, you sound like… like…"

"Like a Muggle," Dorcas supplied helpfully. Hermione gave her a dark look.

"I was going to say religious fanatic. You can't lump all muggles in as 'the big bad thing'."

"Aren't they, though?" Rida asked. "Thanks to Muggles, we all run and hide. We're unable to be ourselves without fear of persecution."

"Not true," Hermione replied, scowling. "That's not the Muggle's fault as a whole, it's a small amount of muggles whom you're using to represent the whole race. You know better than that, Rida Shafiq."

Rida sniffed, but let it go, Hermione's point making its mark. "Whatever. It's not like there's anything that can be done, anyway." They all turned to look at her with varying amounts of suspicion on their faces, and she grunted. "Don't look at me like that. You think I'm going to become a Death Eater? You really think Rida Shafiq will bow down to some 'Dark Lord'? No, thank you." She smiled, a real, toothy smile as sharp as any knife. "Dark Lords bow down to me."

As creepy as the statement was, it was also oddly reassuring, and Hermione knew by looking around that the others felt the same relief. Rida alone was terrifying, but Rida as part of a scheme to murder hundreds and overthrow a government? They would be completely screwed.

The compartment door – which they should probably just leave open, the amount of traffic that made its way through – was opened by a toned, muscular arm, which revealed itself to be attached to an equally muscular man, stood in the doorway with his elbow resting on Regulus Black's shoulders, his shiny blue 'Head Boy' pin in pride of place on his lapel. "Alright, girls?" Kingsley asked in his rolling baritone, Regulus meeting Hermione's eyes with a resigned look so deadpan she couldn't stop herself from giggling. His eyes lit up in return, and twitched with amusement. Kingsley, noticing her lack of composure, scowled good-naturedly down at Regulus.

"Reggie, for Merlin's sake, you were meant to just stand there and make me look cool in front of the ladies. Is that so much to ask?"

"I mean…" Regulus looked him up and down slowly and winced.

Kingsley's booming laugh rolled out and he released Slytherin, who has dwarfed under his size. "Git," he said fondly, reaching out to touch his hair. Regulus, in a move so similar to his brother's Hermione caught her breath, darted out of the way and span in the older boy's direction, his hands coming up protectively. Kingsley laughed again, rolling his eyes. "You Blacks are all the same," he teased, confirming Hermione's thoughts. Then, apparently ready to get down to business, he looked around. "Where are Clarence and Xavier?"

Regulus dumped himself in the space next to Hermione, grimacing at her. "I tried to escape, I really did," he confided in a low voice, a wary eye on his tormentor. "But he was waiting outside the carriage for me – I don't know how he does it but I swear he's half Seer."

"Or half sniffer dog," Hermione mused as Kingsley lunged into the corridor for a split second, coming back in beaming proudly with a Hufflepuff hanging from each arm. "So impressive," she sighed, taking a moment to give in to her hormones and admire the flex of his arms when he threw the two boys into their seats. The sigh she heard from Dorcas mirrored hers, but Regulus only gave a disgusted grunt, which she ignored, as well as the obligatory 'what's a sniffer dog?'.

"Right, now we're all here…" Kingsley looked around again, seeming to suddenly take in the fact that they were entirely out of seats. Last year he'd fit easily with the seven of them, but it seemed all of the lads had grown some over the summer, and some of the women too. "Oh," he wrinkled his nose, before his face lit up as they came to rest on Rue. Rue, unused to the complete focus of the gigantic Ravenclaw, seemed to shrink in her seat. "You're not meant to be here," he said accusingly.

She blinked up at him.

"You need to go, please," he told her politely, waving to the door.

She blinked again, uncomprehendingly. Hermione muffled a snigger. It was a good act, and one Rue'd employed to great effect repeatedly over the years. Because she didn't like speaking and had dark skin, people assumed she was simple or stupid, and just ignored her. Kingsley often did, too, but that was because he thought she was harmless and sweet. Up until she stole his seat, of course.

"I'm not buying it, Rue," he continued sternly. "You can take yourself and your big doe-eyes and go sit with the other Gryffs. It's not like they're not going to tell you what's happening."

Finally, Rue shrugged and squeezed herself out of her spot, stalking to the door. At the last minute, though, she stopped in front of Kingsley and prodded him on one of his (delightfully shaped) pectorals. "Tuh," she tutted. "Like you'll fit." Then she pushed past and slinked off, the door slamming shut behind her.

True to Rue's prediction Kingsley did not fit, but Marlene took pity on him, reaching out and tugging Dorcas over onto her lap. Kingsley winked his thanks, which did nothing to cool Dorcas's burning cheeks, garnering another disapproving noise from Regulus.

"Right, fourth year! My last year with you lot, too. Oi, you could at least look sad."

Marlene snorted into Dorcas's shorn hair. "Sad? Without you, Gryffindor might have a shot at the Quidditch Cup. I'm planning to have a party."

"Aw, Marley, you know just how to charm a man." He reached over and bumped her fist with his own, Clarence watching his every move closely so that, Hermione suspected, he could remember it to try himself later. "Still – my last year, so we're stepping up the Defense work while you've got me. And, Marley, of course – my glamorous assistant."

Dorcas raised a hand waveringly into the air. She was in the habit of treating Kingsley like a teacher, if one that could also be a centrefold in PlayWitch. Which, yeah, didn't help her shyness at all. Kingsley smiled kindly at her as he told her to ask her question, and she almost melted into a pool of goo. "Erm – King – Mr. Shacklebolt, sir…" she coughed a little and Marlene rolled her eyes with great affection, resting her chin on the top of Dorcas's head, an easy task given Dor was so diminutive next to Marlene's Amazonian form. "Even me?"

"Yes, Miss Meadowes, even you. Dumbledore's orders."

Dorcas winced, as did Hermione, Rida, and Regulus. That phrase was something they heard all too often in their little sessions, especially considering the Headmaster was never there, and none of them had spoken to him more than perhaps four times total over the past three years. It seemed he was an ever-present puppetmaster, leading them blindly into the future, preparing them for some purpose he had yet to reveal. Whatever it was, Hermione had to agree with Rida: it wouldn't be good for them.

"Sorry," Kingsley said with a sympathetic moue, noticing all the flinching. "But – well, it's true. And he's the one that got me into the Fast-Track Auror scheme, so I'm not going to argue. So, we'll be meeting every two weeks on a Tuesday at seven in the usual place."

There was a general groan, but nobody argued. Kingsley beamed and nodded again, before checking his watch. "Oh. That's all there was." He leaned back out of the way when Rida glared at him angrily. "Yeah, I know, but how was I supposed to know I'd get through it so quickly? At the very least I expected Dorcas to cry, then Marlene to punch me, then you to hex Marlene – and then we'd be at Hogwarts. Really, it's a shock to everyone that no-one's been hurt."

"I can change that if you'd like," Marlene bantered sweetly, blowing on her knuckles with a wink. Kingsley grinned at her – a more warm, natural grin than he'd given the others. For all that they spent time together and were friends, of a sort, everybody knew he favoured Marlene, who had spent the past three years of Fridays, Wednesdays and whenever else they could get together wrestling, boxing and duelling him in some dark room in the dungeons. Marlene, when asked, would say that "nothing bonds a person quite like a fight", but Hermione thought maybe it also had something to do with the fact that, at almost-fifteen (with a birthday on the 2nd November), Marlene stood to his shoulder, had thick blonde hair to her waist, sinewy muscle on every inch of her body and did, in fact, look like a teenage boy's warrior woman wet dream. Kingsley had some sixth-year girlfriend he'd been going out with for two years now; it didn't measure up to his relationship with Marley.

Kingsley didn't seem to notice his own attraction however so Hermione didn't bother to bring it up.

"Ah, let me at least have a day of rest, love," he rumbled. "But I'll take you up on that tomorrow, yeah?"

"Oh, yes," Marlene gave a sultry wink.

Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

"Hermione," Rida called as they made their way to the castle. The girl caught up to her, threading their fingers together and ignoring Hermione's incredulous look. Together they wove through the crowd until Rida had her hidden behind one of Hogwarts' many large, random stone pillars. "I need a favour."

"A favour?" Hermione blinked rapidly, trying to compute. Rida Shafiq needed something from her?

"Yes, a favour!" Rida snapped, then breathed deeply to calm herself again. "Just a little research project, nothing big. Betrothal bonds and the like." She was aiming for nonchalant but was off by a mile, which more than anything told Hermione how distressed she was. If she'd simply looked upset, Hermione would have assumed she'd simply shown that emotion to manipulate her.

"Betrothal bonds…" Hermione clarified slowly.

Rida shot her a sharp look. "Aren't you meant to be clever?" she demanded. "Yes. Betrothal bonds. Gods above, how do you reds get anything done?" she turned to strut away on her ridiculous spindly shoes, but paused to throw a glare over her shoulder. "Soon, please, Potter." Then she disappeared, leaving Hermione stunned – mostly because she'd said please.

Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

It was business as usual for the Welcome Feast. The Marauders were strutting like peacocks, all posturing to ensure nobody attempted to take their place on the food-chain; Marlene was in a staring contest with Benjy Fenwick again over the last of the gravy (a condiment Marlene didn't even like, but enjoyed wasting while she watched the look on Fenwick's face grow more and more desolate); Hermione and Regulus exchanged sarcastic notes across the hall about both old and new staff members – notes he showed to Snape to entertain him and had once been known to get a smile (a smile!) out of the grumpy fifth year. Professor McGonagall oversaw the Sorting, Dumbledore gave an incomprehensible speech, and they were all sent off to bed with full stomachs and the warmth of their second home surrounding them. Fawcett and Shepherd didn't even acknowledge them.

"Business as usual," Marlene told Hermione as they climbed the stairs to bed.

Hermione would have agreed, but that was when Fawcett screamed.

Chapter Text

Friday 21st June 1996

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hospital Wing

Remus watched Sirius dig into a plate of sausage links and eggs, a smile creeping over his face. Despite the fact that the other man hadn't left the Hospital Wing in the days since the battle, already he was looking more like his old self – less haunted, more joyful, with a spark of mischief growing in his eyes that Remus found ever endearing. The news of his pardon was set to break that morning, but just the knowledge that he himself was free had loosened his old friend up, opened him to the simple joys of conversation with other people, allowed him to consider taking a stroll around the grounds or a quick drink in the Three Broomsticks. Possibilities abounded and, whether or not he took advantage of them, knowing they were there had been infinitely comforting.

Guilt, that everpresent burden, gnawed at Remus's stomach, wilting his smile. He didn't want to think on it, and he knew it was irrational, but he often found himself to blame for Sirius's long imprisonment. If only he'd been more trusting, a more vocal advocate, had pressed Dumbledore to investigate further…

It was the same impotent guilt that he felt towards Harry as he considered the boy's home life. Lily's sister had never been a walk in the park to get along with, and had only gotten more resentful as the years passed. By Lily and James's wedding the two sisters had been estranged to the point that both women were ignorant of the other's pregnancy until the birth announcements had been sent out. Even those joint experiences, where in other relationships might have brought them together, only served to exacerbate their rift. When Lily and James died Remus had begged for custody, but been refused – first by the Ministry, then by Dumbledore himself, and the harder he pressed the fewer audiences he was granted with the headmaster, until at last in the summer of '84 Professor McGonagall had been the one to answer his owls with a perfunctory but sympathetic request to no longer contact the Headmaster.

Which, he realised now, should only have made him more suspicious when the older man had brought him in as Defence teacher, though at the time he'd been too blinded by gratitude to recognise it.

Still. He felt that if he'd done something different – anything – he might have been able to provide Harry with the childhood he deserved; perhaps not in material things, but emotionally, and as he knew Harry he knew that he was the sort of child for whom love would have been enough. Now he was a jaded, suspicious fifteen year old who eyed all affection with tangible wariness, as though he waited for the inevitable flip-side. Not so much with Sirius as with everybody else; perhaps because Sirius was, after all, a dog in many ways, and the thing one most identifies in a dog is their unwavering loyalty.

This, plus Sirius's first introduction to the boy had been with the results of twelve years plotting vengeance on those who'd killed Harry's parents caked onto his skin and haunting his eyes. There was no better way to present oneself as a protector to a lad such as Harry, who hid anger and loss and destructive sorrow beneath a façade of daftness and pliability. No way better than to stand before him, strong and unbending, ready to carry out any amount of destruction – yet stopping immediately when told to stop.

Really, he was less Grim, more Hellhound.

"Y'alrigh', Moony?" Sirius garbled from the other side of the tiny table Poppy had set them up in the corner of the Hospital Wing. The older woman hadn't bothered to question their continued presence there, even though Harry had long since returned to his dormitory to finish the school year. A year which would be ending today, Remus suddenly realised, feeling as though time had slipped away from him when he should have been closely guarding it. There was so much still to do, so much to learn. He'd smuggled books from the library into his briefcase – Madam Pince had been most unimpressed but had always had a soft spot for him that made it easier to convince her to keep the check-out strictly off-the-books, thank goodness – but he hadn't yet gone through the lot, couldn't see whether they'd help him at all. And Severus, no doubt he was making inquiries of his own. He'd been out of the castle since he'd left the Hospital Wing yesterday, and while he couldn't be certain, Remus was fairly sure he hadn't spent that whole time at his Master's knee. Remus wanted to stay until he could interrogate the Potion's Master about his findings, but wasn't going to press the point. At this juncture, discretion was of the utmost importance. And, despite what Severus thought, he was quite capable of discretion.

"Moony?" Sirius swallowed his mouthful and frowned across at his friend, who had his teacup suspended midway between his mouth and the table as he gazed off into thin air, a ruffle between his brows betraying his thoughts.

Blinking rapidly, he came back to earth with a minute shake of his head and dropped the cup back to the table without taking a sip. "Fine," he said with a faint smile. "Sorry, I was… thinking…"

Sirius shot him a sympathetic look. "Worried about Hermione?" he asked, because while he had been wrapped up in himself over the past two years, it took someone far more blind than he to miss Remus's fondness for the girl. Sirius himself was quite fond of her; she had saved his life, after all. A life debt didn't make him like her, of course – that was his own prerogative – but it helped in that it allowed him to see past her prim and proper exterior to the protective, exceedingly loyal lioness that prowled within.

"Yes," Remus sighed, his eyes going far-away again.

"She'll be fine," Sirius assured Remus with a lopsided grin. Remus rolled his eyes – that had been the party-line from Sirius the past few days when he spoke of her disappearance. But 'fine' didn't particularly help matters – one could be 'fine' and dead, after all. Scoffing as though he'd sensed Remus' morbid thoughts, Sirius added, "she's not dead," firmly.

"How do you know?" Remus asked plaintively. It seemed to be the general consensus, after all – Hermione Potter was dead. If Hermione Granger was Hermione Potter, then…

"I can feel her," Sirius said, munching absently on a slice of apple. "In here," he tapped his temple and winked. "The bond, see – the life debt. If she was dead, it would have expired."

Turning more fully to face Sirius as a shiver of something – apprehension? Foreboding? Hope? Or simply knowledge? – passed over his skin. "You can sense her?" he asked quietly, aware of the students in the beds close by.

"Not sense, really," Sirius was still acting unconcerned, but talking about it made him nervous, Remus could tell. It was in the way his fingers danced above his plate, as if choosing the best part of the meal but in fact animated by agitation. There was a turn to his lips that denoted stress, only the slightest turn, a turn all the same. "More… I don't know. It's like, she's here, but not." He paused, fiddling with his fork. "On our way to the ministry, she changed. Faded, sort of. Like a curtain?" He shook his head rapidly, hair flying. "Like she was taken away or…" Shrugging, he dropped his fork, the conversation souring his appetite. "She's alive. Muted, though, I suppose."

"Could you find her? If you tried?"

A screeching noise cut the air as Sirius's knife scraped roughly against his plate. "You think I haven't?" he muttered sullenly, glaring over at Remus, whose heart sank. It was so easy to provoke Sirius into a sulk nowadays, as though the depression was slinking around him, waiting eagerly for any breach in his defences, constantly prepared to strike. Losing him to his own darkness might be happening less and less, but it was stronger, the currents pulling him further under for whole days at a time. There was really no cure once it latched onto him other than to be patient and supportive and, well, wait. "You really think I'd waste all this time without even trying?"

"No – that's not – Padfoot, you know me better than that," Remus sighed once more, scrubbing his hands over his eyes. "Forgive me. It's the stress and the lack of sleep."

"And the wondering," Sirius added bleakly. "Not knowing where she is, or what she could be going through…"

Yes, that too.

Resisting the urge to rip out his hair until it accomplished something, instead he pulled his tea back over and took a ponderous sip. Opposite, Sirius looked mournfully at his plate, then after a moment shoved it away, instead opting to pull his trusty silver cigarette case from his jacket. "Outside," Poppy's voice floated to them, causing Sirius to roll his eyes, but all the same he got to his feet and weaved his way out. Remus followed, his tea still clasped in his hands like a lifeline.

They reached one of the courtyards and Sirius lit up, sucking in a deep breath and letting out a stream of smoke. Remus, leaning against the wall upwind of him, thought through their options. "You couldn't find her?" he confirmed, eyes on the clouds that drifted lazily across the sky. Even in Scotland, summer had arrived, and the air was warm and clear, a sweet-scented breeze curling against his skin. It wasn't the sort of day one would expect to have with children in the hospital and another missing.

"I tried," Sirius grunted again, watching the smoke dance through the air. "But something is blocking her. I keep getting Grimmauld, probably because all of her stuff is there."

Frowning, Remus puzzled that through. It didn't add up, not at all. "Her stuff is here, and at her parents', isn't it?"

Something crossed Sirius's face – guilt? – and he turned away quickly. "Sure. Here."


He whirled around, eyes wild. "What do you want from me, Moony? I tried, okay? It went wrong."

"That's just it," Remus said, his mind working. "I don't think it did… there's no reason for you to think she's at Grimmauld, unless, of course, she is."

That strange expression lit Sirius's face again, firing suspicion into Remus' mind. "So – what? You think she's there, just huddled in the library, not telling us where she is? I can't believe that of Hermione. She must know we're all looking for her."

"Unless she can't tell us where she is," Remus thought aloud. "Either way, I don't think it would do any harm to check."

"Tonks already did," Sirius said, growing despondent again. "She didn't find anything."

Remus snorted. "Yes, but Tonks is hardly…" he shook his head, cutting himself off. He wasn't sure what he could say that wouldn't come out sounding offensive, and he didn't want that. He liked Tonks well enough; had seen a different side of her at the Ministry, that was for sure, but still couldn't get past the image of her as a somewhat ditzy, clumsy little girl. "She doesn't know the house like you do. Really, we should check." They should check, he realised, excitement kicking in. This was a lead.

Twitching slightly at the idea of going back to what had been, for Sirius, his prison, he nonetheless agreed. "Later," he pressed. "Not now. When Harry's on the train, then we'll go back."

"That's not until tomorrow," Remus groaned, exasperation cutting through him and bearing back the adrenalin. "I'd rather go now."

"And leave Harry here?" Sirius scowled, as though this wasn't the boy's school and he wasn't protected here, as though this wasn't where he spent his life outside of the Dursley's and the Burrow. "Remus. I can't do that."

"Why not?" Remus snapped, too stuck in his mystery to be gentle right then. He had a lead…

"Dumbledore is why not," Sirius replied bluntly. "I don't trust him not to send Harry back to those people, and I'm not letting that happen."

"Staying here isn't going to accomplish anything. If anything, it'll work against you – you can't bear to leave him, not even to sort out your own house to make sure it's habitable and appropriate for a young boy. If this goes to the Ministry, Albus will use all of that against you, and you know that Fudge doesn't like us right now." Or ever, he did not add. It was all true, no matter how much the statements served his purpose. Albus would not give up his plan for Harry without a fight; they'd seen similar before.

"But…" Sirius's jaw worked furiously, and he growled. "Fine. An hour. At the most."

"Thank you," he said, with all of his sincerity and relief obvious in his tone. "Thank you, Padfoot."

Shooting him an odd look, Sirius scraped out the end of his cigarette on his boot and vanished it with a flick of his fingers. "Yeah, fine. In, out, no pissing about, alright?"

"Yes, Auror Moody, sir," Remus parried dryly, skipping deftly to the side to avoid a punch.

Friday 21st June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

"Hermione?" The man called again. Hermione felt the tension melt out of her bones, even as a curious disappointment filled her. He couldn't see her. But – how did he know she was here?

She leaned over the banister on the stairs and could see the top of his head; dark, curly hair cut short. Beside him stood Kreacher, which – well, that explained some things, at least. "Mistress is on the stairs, Mister," Kreacher confirmed her suspicions by telling him as she descended, eager to see her guest, to know how this would play out.

He swung around, as much as a man as proper as he could 'swing'; turning on his heel, more like, but with haste. She blinked in surprise at the sight of Harish Patil darkening her foyer – literally the last person she had expected to see. He looked much as he had the last time she'd seen him, when he'd been nearing thirty. A long, downturned nose over a plump set of lips, the top thinner than the lower one. Dark eyes, intelligent and curious. He even groomed his facial hair the same way – a short moustache and beard, almost stubble, framed his lips and enhanced his cheekbones. Hermione had never known him very well, he was just the husband of a friend, but she'd enjoyed his wedding. Everybody had thought him handsome, too, and she'd thought there was something missing – something which appeared when he looked at Rue and presumably his daughters.

He reminded her painfully of Severus if he lost his flair for the dramatic, only more pretty and less substantial.

Why Kreacher would bring him of all people was a mystery.

With someone of the human persuasion acknowledging her presence, however ineptly, it was as though her personality came rushing back, and she realised with relief that which she'd thought lost was, in fact, only sleeping. Minding her manners, she immediately ordered Kreacher to bring them some tea, and through him related a request that they move to the parlour. Her guest stiffened at the hospitality, his eyes widening in shock.

"Hermione…" Harish said to the wall three inches beside her. "Is that really you?"

"Ask him if he's always been this daft or if fifteen years of marriage to the love of his life has merely made him soft," Hermione said to Kreacher, who nodded solemnly, dark amusement flashing in his eyes as he turned back to the man.

"Mistress wonders if Mister was always this 'daft' or if fifteen years of marriage to the 'love of his life' has made him soft," Kreacher parroted obligingly, grimacing in disgust over the quoted sections. Kreacher didn't believe in love – Hermione had been treated to several treatises on the fact over the years. Their guest seemed unaffected, his face brightening, though he didn't smile. Smiling was much too common.

"Oh, my. When your elf first came to us, I thought – well I thought he lied, and simply wanted to get my wife's hopes up. To know that he tells the truth… She will be delighted." He nodded to himself, a softening at his lips telling Hermione he was thinking of his wife. His perfect, beautiful, clever wife, whom he fell in love with at first sight and forsook all others in order to claim, despite his being promised to someone else.

Suddenly discomfited, she wandered through to the parlour and sat cross-legged on the floor. It might have been dreadfully improper, but he couldn't see her, and, further, she could hardly sit on a chair. Kreacher led him through shortly thereafter.

"Grimmauld Place, how legendary," Harish was murmuring now, inquisitive eyes taking in all he could see. "I visited once, when I was a child. Walburga had the run of the place then, and she thought to match me with one of her nieces." He winced, a barely there twitch of his eyebrow. "I've never been more grateful for a Malfoy than the day Abraxas claimed Narcissa for his son."

Hermione let his blather wash over her, using all of her magic to pour him a cup of tea. She should have let Kreacher do it, but for what else was she saving her magic, really? He paused in the middle of his sentence to watch, and let out a little gasp when the cup floated to his knee, playing his fingers in the air above it. "I can feel your magic," he said, still in awe. "It's definitely you."

"Quite," she said, and Kreacher repeated it to him in his humourless way. "How did you find me?"

He leaned back on his chair, confirming what Hermione had known – he was uncomfortable, hence the ceaseless chatter. Harish had never been a talker, much like his wife he'd preferred a good book and the corner of a room. How they, together, raised two such outgoing girls was a mystery. Padma and Parvati practically shone, vivaciousness bleeding from their pores, the complete opposites of their introvert parents. "Your elf – Kreacher? He has been visiting my wife. He never told us outright that you were alive, of course, but it was suspected when he kept coming back. I understand he's forbidden from speaking of it?"

Hermione blinked. Oh. It was so simple. "Kreacher is banned from talking to any of my… close friends and colleagues of the matter." It was one of the first things that she'd checked upon her imprisonment. There was a geas over Kreacher, preventing him from seeking out any who might have the ability to free her – Rida, Marlene, Dorcas, Kingsley, any of that gang. He was further gagged from talking to Remus, Sirius, James or Peter about it, and Snape, too. They all believed she had died that day and that was the impression her jailor wished to spread, until there was no doubt. He could also tell no one that she was still alive – not directly.

But Harish and Rue Patil were not part of her inner circle, no matter how much Rue may inadvertently have gathered over the years. They'd also gone to India straight after their wedding where they stayed over the course of the war, only returning in '86. It was plausible they could have been forgotten, and so like Kreacher to exploit loopholes for his own gain.

Or, in this case, hers.

She smiled at Kreacher, feeling a rush of fondness in her chest. Over the years he had been, by turns, her jailor, her nurse, her cook and maid, her confidant and friend, but she'd always thought he'd be the one who would keep her locked up in the end. That he'd sit there and watch her slowly fade away, following orders to the letter. Never, never would she have guessed he'd spent this much time gearing up for her escape.

"Mistress, you're doing the thing again," Kreacher warned her, leaning away from her look.

"It's a smile, Kreacher," she giggled. He cringed, looking at her as though she'd grown horns.

"It is most off-putting, Mistress," he grumbled. As he always did.

He loved her though. She was pretty sure.

"What brings you here today?" she asked Harish, letting Kreacher free of her 'off-putting' smile.

Harish took a sip of tea and nodded at her question once it had been relayed. "Your elf believes it is time for you to be freed. My wife wants to bring the group back together to do so. As she is in a somewhat delicate condition, I set out to see if there was, in fact, hope, or if we were the victim of some cruel trick."

Harish's lingering over the word 'delicate' informed Hermione of the nature of her condition, and she felt joy for him even as she was simultaneously jealous of that joy. A new baby… she'd thought she'd have her own by now. Harish's protectiveness made sense in light of the new information, too – he'd always thought of Rue as something precious to be guarded, much like her sister had, and with her pregnant once more, knowing how difficult the birth of the twins had been, it was only to be expected that he'd investigate thoroughly any new threat.

"Congratulations," she smiled. A genuine smile. "But… I hardly think bringing the lot of us together is a good idea. Not if she's pregnant again. The stress…"

"She'll not be heavily involved," Harish assured her, a hardness in his voice reinforcing the statement. "They should know, anyway. That you're still alive. With another war brewing, you'll be needed – all of you."

"Most of us are dead," she reminded him softly.

"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Harish murmured. "My wife, she gets these postcards. Mostly from Europe, but America too, sometimes. Morocco, twice. Pakistan, once. They're unsigned but we can make an educated guess at who sends them." A wry smirk twisted his face. "I think that more of you will be alive than one would prefer."

Hermione tried to help him after that, to give him details of what had happened to her, but as they were relayed through Kreacher the geas prevented Harish from hearing them. After a half hour, Hermione gave up, tired and irritable. Harish shot a sympathetic look at the couch above her head and leveraged himself to his feet.

"We will find a way to free you," he swore, determination hardening his face. "If only so that we can all sleep soundly at night once more."

Kreacher looked to Hermione for permission, and she scoffed before nodding. Without any other notice, Kreacher grabbed the man's hands and popped out of the room.

Sighing, Hermione dropped full-length to the floor. Her first interaction with another human in fifteen years. It had been… exhausting. And why must it have been Harish? Surely she deserved someone she'd actually known, even someone she'd loved.

But no. Harish Patil was it.

She peered out of the window, watching the sky darken, and ignored Kreacher when he returned. Something had been set free inside her, actual emotion, but with the good came the bad and she felt a crushing black weight on her chest, endeavouring to drag her down into misery. She fought it – she was a Gryffindor, when would she not fight? – but she knew that at some point she'd lose. She could only hope that she was out of here when she did.

Chapter Text

Monday 1st September 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Gryffindor Tower, Girls' Dormitory

Living in a room with four other girls accustoms one to loud exclamations; the squeal when one's crush acknowledges their existence, the shout when one receives their favourite magazine in the post, the cry when their hair falls slightly out of place – Hermione was familiar with these, and guilty of most of them and more. She and Marlene contributed just as much to the overall level of noise in the place as Fawcett and Shepherd, if not on such a regular basis.

Rue, of course, was innocent on all counts.

This particular scream raised the hairs on the back of Hermione's arms, tore through her ears without pity, and stirred her into a run before she realised she was frightened. She and Marlene burst through the door, Rue following more sedately behind, her face a mask of polite disinterest.

Fawcett was on the floor by Shepherd's bed, eyes bugged completely out as she rocked, keening, in Shepherd's arms. Shepherd carried on a constant stream of "don't look don't look don't look" in her friend's ear, all the while staring at her bedspread with a sort of fascinated horror. Upon their entry, she spun on her heels and snarled.

"You," she hissed, abandoning Fawcett to stalk across the room, stopping in front of Marlene to punch a finger into her sternum. "You're sick, do you know that? Sick. Wait 'til I tell McGonagall, I'll have you expelled for this, mark my words."

"Yeah?" Marlene asked, peering around the other girl to try and get a good look at the spectacle. Hermione's own view was blocked by the curtains, but she knew that whatever was on the bed, it was likely she'd not want to see it. "You and whose army?" With a huff, she shoved at Shepherd's arms until she stumbled back a few steps and used the distraction to wander forwards.

She stopped. Her eyes widened, and her face was tinged slightly green. "Oh, Merlin," she murmured, shaking her head. "Bloody Hell, Fawcett, who did you piss off?"

"Don't you talk to her, you psychopath!" Shepherd screeched. "You think we don't know it was you?"

Marlene scoffed, but it was a mere shadow of a thing. Someone brushed past Hermione and she realised it was Rue – sweet, sensitive Rue approaching whatever was on the bed. She lunged forward to grab her arm and hold her back, but it brought her in view of the… thing… and a sudden wave of nausea pinned her to the spot.

It was – or had been – a cat. A familiar cat, with queer yellow eyes and soft tortoiseshell fur – not that the fur was visible anymore. Splayed on its side across the bedspread, the material underneath hardening slowly as the blood dried and congealed, it could have been sleeping but for the skewed angle of its spine; too hard, too bent, even for a cat. The stomach was torn apart with six vicious gashes, each bisecting fur and flesh from one leg to the other, at equal intervals all the way down. Fur was intermingled with spilling innards and other such gore.

Apart from the mess, the whole scene was reminiscent of June last year, when Cleo – that was her name – would spread herself across the bed as though she owned the place, sunning unselfconsciously, hissing whenever someone drew close. Even her eyes, still open, gave the impression of glaring glassily out at them, despite the fact that she was most certainly dead, and had been so for an hour at least.

"Wow," Rue said without inflection, leaning over the mass of fur and blood. "That's quite the dissection."

Fawcett was hyperventilating now, but Hermione was too shocked to do anything about it. She felt sick; she was sick, running for the bathroom to void her stomach. From the slam she could tell that Marlene was doing the same thing – perhaps Hermione's reaction was a trigger, breaking their concentration so that they could focus on trivial things such as bodily function instead of the –

The thought of Cleo, Fawcett's evil Maine Coon, her prized familiar that her parents had had imported for some obscene amount of galleons just so it could terrorize her dormmates, lying out there on the bed, an empty shell, never to hiss or spit or scratch – and that someone would do that, to a cat, pet – she threw up again and again, not sure how long it had been until there was something cold touching her face, bringing back visions of a pool of rapidly cooling blood – far too much blood for such a little creature, surely? She jerked back, giving a little scream of her own.

"Potter," Rue snapped, slapping her lightly on the cheek to bring her back to earth. "Drink this, you'll feel better."

Hardly, she wanted to say. But she didn't. Instead, she took the glass she was being offered – crystal, of course, fucking Shafiqs – and used the contents to wash out her mouth, before sucking back half in one go. She pressed the side to her clammy forehead, feeling the clouds clear somewhat, and peered up at Rue. "The cat-"

"Shepherd finally left to get McGonagall," Rue said dispassionately, casting another aguamenti to refill Hermione's glass. "I said she should have gotten someone else – this being a bit close to home for McGonagall – but she just swore at me, which I think means no?" Hermione nodded, and Rue scoffed. "Why not just say it, then? It was a perfectly rational suggestion." She watched Hermione try to get her bearings for a few seconds before she said, "do you require help?"

"No, I'm good," Hermione muttered, levering herself to her feet with one hand on the wall and another on the toilet seat. "How – are you alright?"

Rue shrugged. "It was cruel, yes, and horrifying, and I pity Fawcett, but I was more concerned for the cat." Catching Hermione's raised brow, Rue smiled sadly. "Cleo didn't suffer, you know. I know enough from watching Gio prepare his ingredients to know when the incisions were made. The blood – it comes from the wound in the neck. They cut her throat. I think the other wounds were a later decision, 'overkill', as the muggles say. She was dead; she felt nothing."

"Rue…" Hermione groaned aloud, then shook her head. She didn't want to think about it, not as a thing present in her life. Instead, she decided to follow Rue's example, as though it were all scientific intrigue, and felt better immediately. "Yeah, alright. Any idea who did it?"

"I should think that was obvious." Rue turned piercing eyes on Hermione, who snarled a little.

"It wasn't Marlene."

Rue smirked. "Did I suggest that? The woman is unhinged, and her family barbarians, but one has to admit – the only things safe from her temper have four legs." She held out her arm, which Hermione took with a grateful look, and together they hobbled slowly back to the bedroom. "No – this is the work of another. The single perpetrator is irrelevant – rather, the group…"

Shivering, Hermione was careful not to look at the bed as she re-entered the bedroom. Fawcett was wrapped in a blanket from her own bed, curled up on a chair, with Marlene hovering attentively. It was odd – these girls had hated them since they'd first looked at one another, to the point that they would accuse Marlene of something so horrific, but Marlene was still kind-hearted enough to offer support. "You think it was Death Eaters? But that's -"

"Obviously not something their Dark Lord would order, no," Rue whispered, back to her habit of talking almost without volume now that Fawcett was nearby. "It's not the first time one of them has taken actions that would otherwise be considered… ill-advised."

"Who was missing from the Feast?" Hermione asked, ignoring the reference to Avery, who just last year had been accused of using the Cruciatus on first-years. The only reason he remained in school was because no victim had come forward, and without evidence they could hardly expel him.

"Rowle, but I don't think he has those sorts of allegiances. Crouch Jr…"

"Merlin," Professor McGonagall swore, her voice preceding her as she entered the room, eyes fixed on the cat. Rue had obviously moved the curtains aside, and Hermione realised then that her friend had dried blood under her nails, though she'd obviously made some effort to clean it from her fingers – which would explain her presence in the bathroom, if nothing else. She steeled herself from flinching away at that – Rue was an odd girl, but harmless, really. Completely harmless.

"Miss Fawcett, please pull yourself together," Professor McGonagall said in that clipped voice of hers, though it was softened slightly around the edges. "Hysterics will not help us get to the bottom of this crime."

"I already told you, Professor – it was her!" Shepherd accused again, pointing one wobbling finger at Marlene. Really, to do so when the other girl was presently comforting Fawcett just made Shepherd look petty, even though Hermione could quite understand her concern – it had, after all, been Shepherd's bed the creature had been found slaughtered in and were she not to shout in all likelihood she would instead break down.

"Miss Shepherd, please do contain yourself," Professor McGonagall snapped to Shepherd, though again, it was not without compassion. "Perhaps you might make yourself useful and take Miss Fawcett to the Hospital Wing, so that I might begin my investigations." McGonagall's eyes flicked to the cat again, and she paled yet further. "And perhaps, Miss Shafiq, you could find and bring me Mr. Filch and the Headmaster. Both of them will want to be aware of this, I'm sure."

"Yes, Professor," Shepherd said, practically yanking her distraught friend from Marlene's arms and shuttling her out of the room. Rue nodded her assent and disappeared equally as quietly as she'd appeared, leaving Marlene and Hermione to face Professor McGonagall alone.

She did not think this was accidental.

"They are becoming more violent," Professor McGonagall observed, twitching the curtains back into place to hide the body. "We've always had some mischief-makers, blood purists, but never – to do this – to kill someone's familiar – devastate that most sacred of magical bonds…"

Even Minerva McGonagall, tall, stern and unbending, seemed to have trouble processing the scene. She stared unblinking at the curtains, the tiny fingerprints of red where Rue had pulled them back to assess the crime in her own weird way. She turned on them, her face a mask once more. "I must ask – did you have anything to do with this?"

"No!" Hermione gasped, nausea rising once more at the very idea. Marlene, for once not herself, shook her head vehemently. McGonagall gave what appeared to be a sigh of pure relief, sagging slightly.

"I am glad to hear it. I trust that you would have better sense, but I had to hear it denied." Closing her eyes for a second, McGonagall pulled herself together with difficulty. "That leaves one remaining possibility, which, having eliminated all else, must therefore be true."

"Sympathisers?" Marlene asked shakily. McGonagall gave a terse nod. "But – why? Fawcett's a half-blood."

"Miss Shepherd, as you well know, is muggle-born." McGonagall shivered. "I believe it is a message."

"Quite so, Minerva, quite so," Professor Dumbledore concurred, appearing in the doorway. Skulking behind him was Mr. Filch, a relatively new addition to the school, if one which you could easily believe had been here for millennia, such was his propensity to threaten students with medieval torture. Dumbledore swept over to the bed and stood for a moment, suspended over the mutilated corpse. "Ah, Cleopatra…"

With a shake of his robes, he spun on the spot and pinned Hermione and Marlene with his large blue eyes, devoid of humour. "I hope that this event has opened your eyes to the necessity of your lessons," he rumbled ominously. "Indeed, I assume that you will submit your best efforts to learning all you can in the light of this horrific invasion. The dark forces we face have no mercy nor scruples…"

And neither should you hung in the air, ever unsaid. He rarely attended their lessons; even rarer was the occasion that he'd acknowledge their existence, but when he did, he would hint at such things – that they were allowed to be devoid of morality, that they should work as hard as possible to be the best no matter the cost. Such directions were not followed, not in the main, though the implicit permission for students to explore their sadistic sides was an invitation that some of the others couldn't refuse.

Rida, for one, enjoyed testing the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable, and as yet hadn't been pulled back.

Hermione doubted she'd ever take up the mantel; her morals and ethics meant too much to her. His instructions did, however, give her an insight into what he was attempting to mould with these lessons, and the knowledge was unwelcome. Stubborn as she was, she refused to give him the satisfaction of bowing to his wishes, whether or not he claimed it was 'for the Greater Good'.

"Yes, sir," Marlene said, the rebellious glimmer in her eye hidden for his benefit. Perfect little soldiers they were not.

"Very good. Now, I've sent for Miss Evans, who I believe is your prefect. She'll get you settled somewhere else while we sort this out."

"Thank you, sir," they replied in tandem, and he twinkled at them.

"Go on, then. Good night, ladies."

"Good night, sir."

Tuesday 2nd September 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Gryffindor Common Room

"Hermione! Oi, Hermione!"

Smiling, Hermione skipped down the last few steps and dropped into a seat next to Remus by the fire, where the newly self-styled 'Marauders' awaited her. It had been all she'd heard the first few weeks of summer – 'Padfoot this' and 'Moony that'. They were abominably unsubtle, but she kept her own counsel. "Morning," she greeted them brightly, leaning over to drop her satchel on the floor, only then noticing James' face. "What is it? Do I have something in my hair?"

"No – no," Remus reassured her, rolling his eyes. "I told you, Prongs. She's fine."

"Are you?" James asked. Hermione's heart clenched at the earnestness with which he asked that question; he was pale with restless eyes that checked her over again and again. "We heard what happened."

"Oh, the cat?" she replied, feigning innocence with everything she had. Hermione loved James, but he was prone to drama, and if he knew how much it had affected her – how she had a dark pit at the bottom of her stomach, draining all of her energy; how, when she'd gone to sleep last night, she'd slept fitfully, dropping into nightmares of dead cats walking and her friends, slowly bleeding out while a masked man hovered over them carving slurs into their stomachs. She'd felt like she was drowning in blood, her screams non-existent and gurgling, and there had been pain – real pain, as she thought a Cruciatus must feel, except more, and endless. How she'd woken up to Marlene desperately trying to soothe her, and then couldn't get back to sleep until the two of them were curled up together so tight there was barely room to breathe, with Rue sat on the pillow, gazing out into the dark like a gargoyle on watch, and she finally felt safe.

He didn't need to know these things. He didn't need to know any of those things. "Really, James – I was a bit flustered, yes, but Dumbledore's taken care of it now and I'd rather just forget it, if you don't mind."

She thought for a moment she might get her wish, but then – "CAT? What cat?" James was aghast. "I meant Emily being shunted off to the Hospital Wing – cat?"

Damn. "Oh, it was nothing – just, well, someone killed Fawcett's cat. Nothing big, really. Oh, look, it's Marley – Breakfast, Marley?"

She hopped up, almost tripping as her bag strap tangled itself around her ankles, and hurried Marlene out. "Quick, quick," she hissed, practically dragging the girl through the portrait hole.

"Hermione? What? You do know James is shouting for you, right? Is this about the cat? Oi! Give her some space, alright! No – don't you stick your tongue out at me, Black, or I'll cut it out and feed it to you! There, they've stopped following us. Does that help?"

"Marlene McKinnon," Hermione sighed, linking her arm through her friend's and leaning her cheek on her arm. "You are amazing. I love you."

"Ew," Marlene grimaced, peeling Hermione away and holding her there at arm's length. "Emotions. Bleurgh. Not before breakfast, please. I refuse to watch you cry without pancakes."

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Library

"You've had an eventful night," Regulus drawled, dropping into the chair opposite her. Hermione shot him a scathing look, but he pressed on. "How did I know, you ask? Well, though I constantly bemoan Severus's unreasonable attachment to the Gryffindor with the tart hair-"

"Lily Evans," Hermione filled in for him, abandoning her quill and giving him her full, undivided attention, just as he demanded.

"Lily Evans," Regulus repeated with an exaggerated expression of disdain. "It appears there are some – very few, mind – advantages to having him follow her around. One of these advantages is that she brings with her readily available opportunities to practice our duelling – and you can thank your brother for that, from the very bottom of my empty heart – and the other is that when my darling, dearest friend, Miss Hermione Potter, is hiding something from me, Severus, because of his creepy spying ways, will always know the answer." He folded his arms on the table and gazed at her unblinkingly. "So, darling, dearest friend, why don't you tell me about this cat?"

"What cat?" she said blithely, already tired of the subject. "Do you know, I don't think I've ever noticed how lovely your eyes are before."

"Nice try," Regulus rebutted, though not fast enough to prevent a faint blush from splashing his cheeks. She smirked in victory. "You know, just once I'd like you to tell me your secrets, rather than having to learn them through Severus."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "I don't see why you should have to learn them at all – and as for Severus, shouldn't he be stalking Lily, rather than using Lily as a reason to stalk me? He's not a very good obsessive if he can't stay on target."

"I don't know if you're aware of this, Hermione – and why should you be, with all of the men in your life in love with her – but Lily Evans is really quite dull. All she does is study and flirt. No inappropriate liaisons, no secret spy classes; she's not even in the duelling club. Severus is an intelligent man – don't laugh, I'm being serious – and he requires more entertainment than that."

Hermione scowled. "Then why doesn't he stop following her around?"

He shrugged with a smirk. "The heart wants what the heart wants. Even if it's vapid."

"She's not that bad," Hermione chastised. A bit hypocritically – she wasn't a fan of Lily Evans. They didn't have much in common, not really, and Lily tended to look down on her with the superiority of one who might be older but was not wiser. She also had the unfortunate habit of tarring Hermione with the same brush as her brother, and nothing scared 1975's Lily Evans so much as a lesbian on the prowl, even if said lesbian was wholly a product of her own imagination.

"I'm sure," Regulus said without inflection. Hermione knew his opinion was unchanged – he'd never liked her, and thought that Severus was a different person in her company; a person who disdained Regulus, which Hermione also couldn't forgive. "The cat, Potter. Tell me about the cat."

Wrinkling her nose, she pushed her work aside. "It was dead. There was a lot of blood. It was disgusting." Aware that in her effort to detach herself from the experience she had begun to sound like a five-year old writing prose, she opened herself up a bit more, only to pour everything out, as happened around Regulus. "Oh, Gods – it was awful, so small and pitiful and lifeless… and poor Emily! She hasn't said a word since, Shepherd told us, and I can't imagine – if it had been Monty – and the nightmares…"

She was sobbing, she realised with curious absence. Regulus had the look of a boy trapped, but he still offered his handkerchief and patted her arm gently. "There, there," he hummed awkwardly, his eyes darting around the room as if desperately searching for help. It wasn't forthcoming – their table was hidden at the back where nobody else went, for obvious reasons. It was where their 'study group' congregated outside of hours, and the only place in the school they'd found where Slytherins consorting with Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs went unnoticed.

"Stop it," she said half-heartedly between cries. "Your boundless empathy will only make me cry more."

He acknowledged this with a wry look and backed off, leaving his handkerchief clutched in her grip. "Nightmares?"

"It's silly," Hermione muttered, drying her cheeks. "Just lots of blood and pain. You'll think I'm being ridiculous, but they felt like memories."

Regulus studied her for a moment. "Well… maybe they are memories." Hermione raised an eyebrow – possibly not as effective as usual, but Regulus was kind enough to pretend it was. "Traumatic events can often break Obliviates, you know."

"I do know," she rolled her eyes. "I was the one to teach you that."

"Well, see, it came in handy. Severus can help, he's a whizz with mind magic."

"Severus hates me," Hermione grumbled.

Regulus waved that assertion away impatiently. "Severus hates your brother. You, he finds, and I quote, 'remarkably tolerable, given her background'."

"I am so very flattered." It was said in her most dry tone, her deadest of deadpans, and Regulus cracked the tiniest of genuine smiles. "Truly, I shall write my mother straight away and notify her of this, the highest of compliments."

He smiled wider and tapped her on her hand. "So you'll do it? You'll ask him for help?"

"If I have time," she warned him. "With Kingsley upping sessions and Professor McGonagall claiming all my free time, it's not likely I'll have the chance."

"There are twenty-four hours in a day, Miss Potter – no doubt you'll find something. Now, what I was going to ask you was-"

"Regulus," she asked suddenly, and he startled, visibly backtracking over the speech he'd prepared. "It wasn't you, was it?"

Far from being offended, he smiled kindly, eyes softening until they were swimming pools of mercury. She hadn't been lying – he really did have the loveliest eyes. "The cat? No, Hermione. It wasn't me."

She let out a breath she hadn't noticed herself holding. "Thank Merlin. Rida?"

"It wasn't one of us," he reassured her again. "I swear."

Nodding, she pulled her work back and picked up her quill. "Right, then. You were asking?"

Chapter Text

Friday 21st June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Remus slotted the key into the lock, still ignoring Sirius's muttering, and pushed open the door. Walburga's tapestry, thank the gods, didn't wake, and the two of them crept toward the parlour. It was evening now, Sirius having dawdled the day away until curfew had been and gone and he was certain Harry was in bed, and Remus had been antsy the whole day. From the kitchen he could hear Kreacher clattering and cursing, but there was no other sound in the house.


He stopped in his tracks as he crossed the threshold, eyes fixed on the coffee table. "Sirius…?"

"What?" The other man pushed past, glaring at the items on the table. "A tea tray, what about it?"

"Why is it there?" Remus asked, prodding Sirius along so that he could inspect it. One cup was half-full but cold, the other empty.

"Probably Kingsley and Tonks shared it. Does it matter?" Sirius narrowed his eyes, looking around the rest of the room. "Look, none of Hermione's stuff is here. I don't know what you're looking for but you're not likely to find it in here – she never liked this room. Too many muggle-traps."

Remus grit his teeth, reminding himself not to get annoyed – Sirius was going through a hard time, he was allowed some leeway, he had no idea what was happening inside Remus's head, etcetera, etcetera. Still, he couldn't keep all of the edge out of his voice when he said, "Considering how neither of the cups are broken, I rather doubt it was Tonks."

He gave the room another once over with all five senses. There were traces of Hermione in the air, but nothing more than what could easily be explained away by the girl visiting last Summer. A curl of black hair was twisted over the couch cushions, which appeared new, but Remus didn't spend much time in here either. Black hair was not uncommon in pureblood circles anyway, it didn't mean anything.

He wasn't a sniffer dog – his werewolf-enhanced senses weren't so good that he could identify scents he wasn't attuned to. He didn't know either Tonks or Kingsley well, so objectively, the new scent in the room – a familiar one, but not so familiar he recognised it on the spot – could belong to either of them. He was doubtful, though he really couldn't think of any way there could be someone new in the house. Hermione was one thing – she had been given the secret by Dumbledore, and Hermione Potter was part owner. Anybody else…?

It didn't make sense. He examined the little black hair; thick, curly. It came from the same person who'd left the scent over the room – the one who'd been drinking tea. He'd hazard a guess at it being a man, but that hardly meant much with Tonks around. "That's odd," Sirius suddenly said, causing Remus to leap nearly out of his skin. He turned his head so quickly he thought it might snap to find Sirius looming over him, looking pensive.


Sirius paused, then nodded reluctantly. "That hair -" he grimaced. "I don't know whose it is, so don't get your hopes up, but it doesn't belong here." Catching Remus's look, he groaned. "Don't look at me like that, Moony – I still don't think she's just lurking in the attic or someplace. But knowing someone new has been in the house is a good start."

"A good start?" Remus repeated, nonplussed. "How? It's not possible. Grimmauld Place is one of the most well-warded residences this side of the Atlantic."

Sirius rolled his eyes and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "It is, yeah, but you're forgetting something." He pointed in the direction of the kitchen. "There's a little reprobate tied to this house who can come and go on a whim. And I'm guessing – just guessing, mind – that he can bring people with him."

"What – Kreacher," Remus leaped to his feet, clutching the hair, forgotten, in his hands. "You're brilliant, Sirius. Brilliant!" He grabbed the man's head and smacked a kiss on his forehead before lolloping out of the room and down the hall. Sirius, suddenly in a much better mood than a minute earlier, followed. He found Remus in the kitchen, yards away from his evil little elf.

"Kreacher, please," Remus was saying, while Kreacher ignored his existence. Remus turned giant, pleading eyes on Sirius, who was pretty certain his heart melted.

"Kreacher," Sirius snapped. Kreacher's shoulder's stiffened. "Look at me."

The little elf turned on his heels, resentful eyes glaring at his Master. "What does Master want?" he snapped. "Kreacher works." Indeed, he held up a pan and scourer to that effect. Sirius wasn't sold. No House-Elf cleaned manually.

"Kreacher, did you bring someone into the house?" The little elf looked like he was going to rebel, so Sirius added a quick "I order you to answer me, now."

For some unfathomable reason, Kreacher perked up then, glancing at the wall behind him. Sirius turned to look, but there was nothing except some hideous miniature of his great-great-great aunt Ursula. "As Master requests," he gave a mocking bow, a nasty smirk on his face. "Kreacher brings Mister Hair-eesh to the house of his ancestors." Then, in case they thought he was being too cooperative, he went on a little rant about 'good Mister Hair-eesh, noble Mister Hair-eesh would never shame the house of his father, no'.

Ignoring him, Sirius turned to Remus, who looked stunned. "Do you know who that is? Because I've never heard of him."

"Harish Patil," Remus said. "That's – that's Rue Shafiq's husband. The girl who used to follow Hermione around, she never liked anyone, remember?"

"The hot one?"

"No, that's Rida," Remus corrected, then shot him a scolding glare. "The 'hot one'?" Sirius lifted his palms in surrender. "Rue was her twin. Gryffindor?"

Sirius wrinkled his nose. "Oh, yeah. I'm pretty sure she bit me once."

Ignoring that, Remus frowned down at Kreacher. "Why would you bring Mr. Patil here?"

Kreacher looked at the wall again, his wide mouth twitching into a scowl. "Mister Hair-eesh wanted to talk to Mistress."

"My mother?" Sirius clarified, more confused than ever. "He wanted to talk to my mother? Why would he want that? And why would you bring him here?"

"Mister Hair-eesh wanted to talk to Mistress," Kreacher repeated firmly. "Kreacher brings Hair-eesh to Mistress. Kreacher is a good elf."

Sirius made a noise of disbelief in his throat. "We'll not get anything else out of him," he told Remus with a look of disgust for Kreacher. "He's mental."

Remus was staring hard at the elf, who glared right on back. "…yeah," he said finally, shaking his head and stepping away. "I'd still like to run through the house, if you don't mind. Then I should talk to Severus…" Remus drifted away into the hallway and seconds later he was heard tramping up the stairs.

"Tea, Master?" Kreacher asked suddenly, appearing at Sirius's side with a decorative cup half-full of pale liquid. Sirius frowned at him suspiciously, but took a sip.

Immediately, he coughed it back up again. "Gods, Kreacher – that's cold!" Dropping the cup on the counter, he stormed out, muttering "bloody elf," under his breath.

Kreacher faced the wall with his hands on his hips. "Kreacher tried," he said snippily. "Is not Kreacher's fault the stain on our house is a fool. Kreacher didn't make the half-breed stupid."

"Shut up, Kreacher!" Sirius shouted from upstairs.

Monday 15th September 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Transfiguration Classroom

She was sat on dried leaves that crunched as she shifted, sharp points digging into her thighs and calves. She was naked – or felt naked, or… she had never been clothed? Trees enclosed her, not stifling, but welcome. Natural. They were a part of her life – sustained her life, with hidey-holes and fruit and insects. Fell trees provided her with a home, a place to store cubs when – if she had them.

Something crawled over her knee and dropped to the floor in the space between her legs. She twitched to brush it away, but her very movement spooked it, and it flew – fast and far. There was a split-second temptation; to follow, to chase; which died as quickly as it came. She fell back into her silent vigil, listening to the birds above and the snuffling of rodents in the undergrowth.

A soft padding, quick and nimble, crossing behind her. It was anxious, its pulse pounding, but it thought it would get past. It thought she was sleeping, unconscious, and this was its chance. Fool thing crossed within a foot of her back and she flipped, too fast for the creature to have chance to react, her lashing out with one paw to pin it down, but she was slow, encumbered, and the flash of pale flesh as she leaped confused her – where did it go, her lovely summer coat bronzed and glittering in the sun, the one that she used to hunt, the one she was so endlessly proud of, the prettiest-

Hermione snapped back into her body with force enough to send her sprawling, disoriented by the sudden change in environment. Dirt was replaced by cool stone, the noises of the forest replaced by the low hum of the classroom. Her wand slipped out of her hand and rolled away, but she couldn't summon the energy to do anything about it. A mixture of exhaustion and loss, the usual suspects, swirled in her stomach, and she realised her clothes were soaked through with sweat.

"Two hours and twelve minutes, thirty-six seconds," a voice said proudly, and Hermione opened her eyes to see Regulus smiling down on her. "Not bad."

"Like you can do any better," she returned hoarsely, breaking off into a coughing fit. Regulus kneeled down beside her, passing over a cup of specially-brewed tea, meant to soothe the after-effects of the meditation. Part of why the Animagus transformation was so hard was due to the meditations – you got lost in your other form, became a wild and primal thing of nature, and some wizards couldn't resist the lure. Three of the beds in the Janus Thickey Ward were taken by witches and wizards who'd attempted to master the Animagus transformation on their own but due to some unfortunate lack in their personalities had found themselves trapped in their own mind, believing they are the animal they so recklessly attempted to claim as their form.

It was not a fate Hermione desired.

She was in the second stage of her meditations, but they were coming along well. The Mandrake leaf had been held in her mouth the entirety of the last term, and she had begun her meditations over the summer. The first stage was the easy stage; you had to connect and identify with your form. Then, you had to hold the meditations. The first few would only grant you a glimpse; an hour at the most, but you worked your way up.

At the end of August, she and Dorcas, under Professor McGonagall's tutelage, had held their meditation for the required eight hours, and then let go. The second stage was about control.

She needed the ability to slip in and out at will. As the meditations locked you into your form's more primal mind, you needed to be strong enough to pull back, to force your human mind's will over that of your instincts. This was the tricky bit – the one that locked people in, as it required you to surrender, then return. The faster you could do it, the sooner you could move onto the actual transformations.

People had starved to death before they could move on to the actual transformations.

Wresting back control in under three hours was a new record, so she was doing well, though it would be better if she could remain in the vision while having control of her human mind. She'd only managed that once. Dorcas had managed it four times.

Hermione quashed the competitive streak that threatened to rise again, instead drinking down the tea and sighing happily when it set to work. Regulus grasped her hand in his and pulled her to her feet, leading her off the floor to a table where Dorcas was sat fiddling with bandages, Madam Pomfrey by her side.

"Nasty fall," she said when Hermione sat in front of her, automatically reaching out to press down on her skull. "New record, though."

Madam Pomfrey clicked her tongue disapprovingly, shooting a dark look at Professor McGonagall. "I don't know what they're about, teaching you to do this. It's much too dangerous. You're only children!"

Hermione and Regulus shared an amused look. Luckily, Madam Pomfrey had never been invited to sit in on their duelling sessions, or Marlene's physical combat training; no doubt she'd have had much to say about them.

"I think you're fine," Dorcas said uncertainly, turning Hermione's head so that Madam Pomfrey could examine it too. Once Dorcas had proved absolutely useless at any sort of violence (not that they didn't still try to teach her, because they did – to the pain and embarrassment of all involved) Dumbledore had taken the opportunity to assign a 'team healer'. Despite the fact that she fainted at the sight of blood, Dorcas now trained under both Pomfrey and Vector in the hopes she might be useful behind-the-scenes.

Hermione often felt a pang at the sight of her running through the hallways, hair and clothes rumpled, books piled in her arms as she shot from one mistress to the other. It was like the sight was familiar, a bitter-sweet vision, and part of her thought it should be her. She should be the one poring over books in the library, she should be the one snuggled up with Vector tweaking equations all night.

Which was ridiculous, really – she spent far too much time studying already, and besides, she enjoyed her practical work. She loved her duelling, her Transfiguration, her ability to pin the boys to the floor in three quick moves. She felt strong and confident, like she was worth more than her brain, and she wouldn't give up the close bonds she'd formed with her classmates for anything.

Still, though. She missed the books. She missed ink-stained fingers and brushing her hair out of her eyes hour after hour as she stooped over some ancient volume. She missed constant lower-back pain; the ache of victory, a reminder of how hard she'd worked to finish this essay or master that spell. She missed getting so lost in a tome that twelve hours could pass and her friends would appear, snapping their fingers with both irritation and fondness, and they'd lead her down to the Great Hall for dinner with their arms linked through hers because they knew she was still groggy from her study-fog, and if left alone would fall over.

She blinked as Pomfrey pressed her fingers into her temples and frowned. That had never happened. Sure, Dorcas and Marlene would prod her out of it after about three hours, but she'd never visited the library alone, here. There were always too many people who'd join her – Dorcas, Marlene, Regulus, Rida, Severus, Rue, Remus, Sirius, James, Peter, occasionally those Hufflepuff lads (though mainly they just copied her work then snuck off). And yet she had this memory, all of a sudden so strong she could taste it, of her sandwiched between two boys as they dragged her down the stairs, laughing and teasing when she lost balance, but always keeping her safe.

She shook her head. Ridiculous. She was going mental.

"Miss McKinnon!"

McGonagall's voice cracked over the room like the lash of a whip, sending everyone spinning around to watch. She was facing off against Marlene, who had her hands on her hips and a belligerent look on her face. "What time do you call this?" McGonagall hissed.

Marlene made a show of checking her watch and giving their Head of House a quizzical look. "It's almost nine, why are you still working?"

"A successful Animagus transformation requires a great deal of work, Miss McKinnon – something you would know had you been attending the sessions!"

"Oh, that," Marlene shrugged a shoulder negligently. "I don't really want to."

"Don't really want to what?" Professor McGonagall was going purple with restrained rage. She and Marlene had never been on brilliant terms, and Marlene's utter disinterest in Transfiguration only worsened the situation. Being forced to teach her Advanced Transfiguration was a slap in the face.

Dropping her backpack on a nearby table, Marlene waved a hand. "You know – the animagus thing. I don't think it's for me, really."

"Oh, heck," Hermione murmured as the vein in McGonagall's temple started throbbing erratically. Dorcas whispered "she's insane!", her eyes fixed on her friend, who was now perched on a table, swinging her long, tan legs beneath her.

"Not for you?!" Professor McGonagall appeared on the brink of hyperventilation. "I hardly think that's your decision to make, Miss! Do you realise how many people would sell their children for an opportunity like this? Do you?"

"Yes," Marlene replied, "but I'm not one of them. I have no desire to become an animal – none. I mean, there's no guarantee I'd be a good one, like Dor or Hermione. More likely I'd be something shit, like Abbott."

Clarence, who'd just the previous day managed to recognise his Animagus form as a stoat, scowled across at her. "I'll have you know I'm proud of my animal," he said snippily.

"Aye, but when you stand next to Dorcas and her bear-sow I reckon you feel a bit ridiculous, don't you?" Marlene retorted quickly. "I just don't want to have to go through all of this stress and trouble only to realise I'm a bloody squirrel."

McGonagall appeared to be doing some meditations of her own, her nostrils flaring with each drawn-out breath. Finally, she pinched the bridge of her nose and when she spoke her voice was cold as ice. "Whether you wish to do this or not, Miss McKinnon, the fact remains that the Headmaster has ordered me to teach you. Believe me when I say that I would no rather have you in my classroom than you would like to be here."

"I don't understand why I need it, though," Marlene pouted, the reasonableness of her question off-set by her stamping her feet. "It's not like I'm a useless human – I've beaten Flitwick in a duel, you know, and I defeat Kingsley in six-out-of-ten bouts."

"That's a lie," Dorcas murmured. "It's only four out of ten, but that's only because at a certain point she gets distracted by all the hot, sweaty man." Hermione choked on a laugh, and Regulus pounded hard on her back to 'help'.

"The Animagus transformation is not about making up for imagined deficiencies," McGonagall lectured. "It's about connecting with the other part of your brain, opening you up to foreign magics, and, yes, having another weapon in your pocket. But it's not all about the weapon. People often use their Animagus forms to get close to magical creatures for study, or to support friends and family in difficult situations – like Werewolves, who cannot be accompanied by humans but are no danger to a wizard in their animagus form."

Seeming to take this in, Marlene nodded thoughtfully. "Okay," she said, smiling. "Except, I don't know any werewolves, and even if I did, I'm pretty sure they'd eat a squirrel."

There was a loud crack as the quill McGonagall had been clutching snapped in half. Nobody said anything, Marlene even managing to keep a straight face, as the Professor walked serenely to her desk and lay the ruined quill on top. "Class dismissed," she muttered, but in the silent classroom it could have been a shout. Even the Gryffindors, a reckless bunch though they were, seemed to understand the direness of the situation and lunged for the door, Hermione dragging Marlene behind her.

"Well done, McKinnon," Rida snapped as they fled the corridor towards the main stairs. "I had some questions to ask, you know."

"I'm sure pretty much anybody else in the world can teach you how to read, Shafiq," Marlene replied airily, striding out in front. Rida snarled and split off, Hermione glancing back warily.

"Do you have to provoke her?" she asked, nearly running to keep up with Marlene's long legs. "One day you'll go too far and talk yourself into a shallow grave."

"I hardly think so," her friend scoffed. "What would be the point of all these lessons if she couldn't find a better way to dispose of my body?"

Taking a long, slow breath herself, Hermione muttered, "so not the point, Marley. So not the point."

Wednesday 8th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Transfiguration Classroom

"Regulus tells me you require my assistance," a voice said, sending Hermione flailing back in her chair.

"My Gods, Snape, must you?" she snapped, trying in vain to shuffle her papers back into place. He sneered down at her from his ridiculous height, looking like the ghost of some horribly disenchanted student from centuries past, with his robes buttoned up so high on his neck a tie would be redundant, and all of the buttons – which Hermione was half certain her own brother didn't realise existed, never mind know what to do with – on his cuffs firmly sealed. He, like she and most of her merry band of soldiers-in-training (they think? Nobody had been clear on what the training was for), wore his wand in a holster; his hung at his waist whereas she preferred the forearm version (though, again, with all those buttons it wouldn't be practical, would it?).

He cocked an eyebrow at her, looking thoroughly unimpressed. "You asked for my assistance," he repeated, his eyes wandering to her work. It lingered for a moment on the reading she was doing for Flitwick, who had over-taken their extracurricular Defense instruction in lieu of a constant teacher. He was planning to teach them the Patronus charm that Thursday, and she'd been absently doodling animals in the margin, wondering what her little protector would end up being.

She threw an arm out over it, defensive for some reason she couldn't quite decipher – probably his attitude. "Yes, I did, a month ago."

"I'm busy," he responded to the implied reprimand. "OWL year."

"Oh." Blushing slightly, she fiddled with her papers, then scolded herself for letting him get to her and straightened up again. "Well, you don't have to do this, if you're too busy."

He rolled his eyes, crossing his arms. "Are you going to tell me what you want, or not? I do have better things to be doing, you know."

Well, now she was feeling comfortable. He had 'talk to me about sensitive personal problems' written all over him. She didn't really have a choice, though, did she?

"I'm having memory difficulties," she finally said, not meeting his eyes, instead flipping through the closest textbook. Centaur Tribal Law. Interesting. She didn't remember picking that up.

She appeared to have piqued his interest because he slid into the chair beside her and clicked his fingers in her face. She resisted the urge to bite him. Gods, she spent far too much time with Marlene.

"What sort of memory difficulties?" His voice wavered with – excitement?

Sucking it up, she turned to him and met his eyes, regretting that the moment it happened. It wasn't that they were cold, exactly, just… impenetrable? The effect was unnerving, like she could fall into them but knew she would break her neck upon landing. It took a few attempts to find her voice, and it came out thin. "I – I keep remembering things, but they're not… Never mind, it doesn't matter." She set about clearing her things away, and he watched her do so for a few seconds before he opened his mouth.

"My apologies if I make you uncomfortable," he said, his voice nearly, but not quite, toneless. She froze and looked back at him. He was watching her hands work with interest. "I am unused to hearing confidences."

That waver in his voice, she realized, was uncertainty. She wouldn't go so far as to assume he wanted to help; she wasn't deluded. But perhaps he wanted the opportunity to help?

She'd not ignored Snape over the past four years. He was there on the periphery of her life. He was Regulus's best friend (she would like to think they tied for that prize), he was Evans' best friend, and the Gods knew she couldn't avoid Evans (though she bloody well tried). He was one of a small contingent of Slytherins that held out against the lure of Dark Magic, something Regulus couldn't claim. She didn't think he had many other friends, however, and she wasn't convinced that he didn't dabble in the darkness. While that wasn't a problem for her, it would be for Evans, and the rest of the Light.

The chances were that Snape, unless some serious intervention occurred, would become a Death Eater after school. The only thing holding him back now was Evans, and how long would that last? The girl was lovely, Hermione could admit that, but she wasn't… strong enough to cope with a Dark best friend and all of the implications of that. She was also strictly moral, and strictly light. Spending time with Snape often meant spending time with Evans, and she had no interest in helping the redhead collect the whole set of sycophantic Potters.

Thinking back, Hermione wondered why else she hadn't made more of an effort with him. It couldn't all be about Lily, but then there wasn't anything wrong with him that her other friends didn't share. Marley was impetuous and quick to anger, like Snape. Regulus could be cold and cruel, like Snape. Rida was basically a murderer-in-training, and yet she'd made more of an effort with her than she had with Snape, who was, as she said, her best friend's best friend. Why hadn't she bothered?

She realised, looking back, that even Regulus had suggested they meet up more than once over the years. It had been the Slytherin version of a suggestion, where they hinted vaguely at something parallel to their aims and then got mad if you didn't figure it out straight away, but the fact remained that he'd tried. She had just been deaf to it, or ignored it completely. They'd studied together, on occasion, but Snape had always been cool and rather standoffish.

Which made sense, considering her brother despised him, and she loved her brother.

Overall, though, Snape was defensive and shy, which weren't crimes.

And – what had Regulus said? Oh, yes – he found her 'remarkably tolerable', which, from what little she knew about him, was stunning praise. The least she could do was give him a chance.

Why on earth did she find him so off-putting?

That, she supposed, was one of those things that might be explained when – if – she got her memory back.

For which she needed Snape.

"No," she said slowly, taking her seat again. "No – no. I'm sorry. I just don't really know what's going on. There are these memories, swirling in my head, and I can't… I can't access them!"

"That must be… frustrating," he replied at the same speed. He looked like the attempt to empathise was painful.

"That's an understatement." She ruffled a hand through her hair and grimaced. Because this was working well. "Regulus said you could help."

He stared at his hands for a moment, stretching them out and clenching them again. Finally, he nodded. "Alright. When do you have a free evening?"

She stared at him for a moment, her brain unable to understand. "You'll… help?" She'd really thought there'd be more of a fight. She'd call him some names, he'd hex her, they'd get rid of all this tension.

Apparently not.

He shot her a scathing look. "I'm not a monster, Potter. And I've been looking for an opportunity for further research. You'll do. How about Sunday, seven?" Still gawping, she nodded. "Good. I'll meet you in the abandoned classroom just down from Slughorn's. He's never there so it shouldn't be a problem."

He swanned off, disappearing into the stacks, leaving Hermione to stare until the shock had worn off. "I'll do?" she repeated, suddenly irritated. "Did he just say 'I'll do'?" Slamming the books shut for effect, she snapped "bastard."

The bookshelves creaked in sympathy.

Chapter Text

Saturday 22nd June 1996

Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall


My husband and I are hosting an Alumni get-together this afternoon at 3pm. I'm certain you'll find the experience rewarding.

-Rue Patil

Severus –

I'll be dropping by your office this morning. I have a question.


Severus stared at the two letters, his eyebrows risen as far as they could go. It couldn't be a coincidence that Mrs. Patil had contacted him so soon after his visit to Ms. Zabini. His curiosity was nigh unbearable. And then there was Lupin. He'd disappeared the previous night claiming he was returning to Grimmauld to make the place habitable for Potter, and had never returned. He found that, too, deeply suspicious.

He glanced across at the Headmaster. He wasn't allowed to leave the castle until the train had left later that morning, but afterwards his time was his own, if he could be sneaky about it. He was Severus Snape – sneaky could quite possibly have been his middle name, but even his parents weren't that insipid.

Folding a piece of toast in a napkin, he slipped it into his pocket and lay his cutlery on his plate. Minerva glanced up questioningly as he stood, and he nodded at her briefly. He avoided Albus' eyes.

The dungeons were pleasantly cool that morning, a cool that filtered through to his skin and woke him up. The upper levels of the castle had never been for him – he suffered from migraines and the constant sunlight, even as weak as it was in Scotland, burned his eyes. Hence the 'Vampire Snape' rumours, though he rather thought his students would be disappointed to find it was less about a craving for human blood and more about the constant stress of being responsible for their actions in a highly combustible environment.

His classroom, as ever, was perfectly clean, the work-surfaces glowing under the warm yellow light of the sconces. The student's storage room was messy and needed reorganizing, a job for later in the holidays when he was feeling more optimistic about the coming year and less like he'd rather drive a stake through his skull than come back.

There he went with the vampire references again. He let out a low groan, clamping his eyes shut. No doubt they were a sign of his lapsing sanity. He was getting much too old for this old dance.

He swept through to his office, throwing up a rudimentary Sentry ward on the outside door. Normally he wouldn't bother with this dance as woe betide the student who bothered him outside of office hours, but as he was expecting a visitor he might as well observe the niceties. Far be it for him to risk being impolitic enough to push the wolf just far enough away he wouldn't bother notifying Severus of his revelations.

On his desk sat five piles of paper, all marked essays ready to be returned that morning. He had a system during the school year, a complex one Lily had derived for him when he'd started assisting Slughorn with his first-years at school (in exchange for extra potions tutelage – hardly the sort of thing he'd do out of the kindness of his heart) and it had become clear that his help was merely an excuse for Slughorn to offload his marking on someone else. That had been in fifth year, and the year following Hermione had 'improved' it to the point that even he was no longer sure how it worked; which she'd no doubt counted on to prevent him from moving it back the way Lily had crafted it.

The base, however, remained the same – a slab of stained oak Lily had pilfered from her father's shed and spirited away to Hogwarts, where she'd then prevailed upon Babbling of Ancient Runes to craft it to her specifications. She'd carved his initials – S.T.S – into the base, and warded each section. It hadn't been perfect, but it had been from Lily, and he'd have treasured it even when the flaws Hermione had pointed out started to show and Lily's touch on it had weakened.

Of course, he didn't need to worry about that anymore, since Hermione – pushy, interfering witch that she was – had woven her magic in just enough that the warding was secure, but Lily's magic remained the main attraction. In fact, when he touched it, he could feel Lily's bright, optimistic sparkle more than he could Hermione's more jaded, crackling shock, despite how he knew she'd stolen the damn thing away and spent three months working on it.

As he pushed his fingers through the magic and felt Lily playing against his skin, he wished, not for the first time, that there was a little more Hermione in there. That he had something more to keep of her than her reinforcement of someone else's trinket and a picture he couldn't bring himself to look at.

He winced. It was funny how the implications of your own, or others', actions could come back to haunt you years after the fact. He should have known then that Hermione knew him too well, that they were both in too deep, but…

Well, he'd never been a stellar judge of human relationships, had he?

He pushed the slab of wood into the cupboard where he stored it in the absence of work to attend to, and instead filled his arms with marked essays. The Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw papers had all been returned during lessons, but he'd kept a few Slytherin ones back as a prelude to discussions he'd been meaning to have with them. Discussing intellectually-deficient schoolwork was much better than taking them aside to shout at, which was what he'd have to do in any other circumstances. Over the years he'd received more gratitude for his subtlety than consternation.

The Dungeons were as cool as always, the damp air settling on his brow pleasantly. He knew it wasn't the best environment for someone of his complexion – those with naturally sallow skin needed more time in the sun to beat it back – but for his personality, his humour, his health and his migraines it was perfect. His looks had never been a bother to him anyway, except for when he was interested in a woman, and those occasions were so rare since school that it didn't seem worth the effort. Besides, the culture was looser, the sex casual, these days – plenty of women had more use for a night with an ugly man who knew what he was doing than a night with a pretty man who remained hopelessly inept.

It was his visible hygiene than proved the real problem, but a quick – though expensive – potion cleared that up.

The entrance swung open the minute he mounted the stairs, an unintentional action on his behalf that provided him with the opportunity to make an entrance. He did enjoy that part – his robes billowing around his ankles in a non-existent breeze of his own power, a dark shadow in the halls; it fulfilled a fantasy he'd had since he was a kid and if he were to be provided with so little vanity these days he might as well give himself this. As expected, the students waiting in the common room had turned as one to await him, and he gave them a short nod of acknowledgement. Many faces were apprehensive, which was good – he might be a bastard in class but in his own House he was fair and just, so if a person looked apprehensive it told him they felt guilty. Even Slytherins were as hopelessly readable as everyone else on occasion.

The scrolls he'd brought went onto the main coffee table, names facing outwards. He retained three in his arm, and backed off to watch the melee.

The first students to come forward came slowly, cautiously, seeking out their names and darting back with the spoils. After two or three of them came the main surge, all arms reaching, scrolls tossed back or handed to their rightful owners, the whole thing lasting about five minutes. Finally, there came the apprehensive few, and the more cunning of the lot. The apprehensive were held back by their trepidation, the realization that if their scroll was not on the table then they might be able to be subtle about it then. The cunning recognized that waiting allowed the other students to do all the work; it was easier to wait, if you had the patience.

Two of the scrolls in Severus's arms belonged to those apprehensive, and he shot the others a dark look for their crimes. He wasn't aware that any had been committed, but such was the beauty of humanity – all the evidence he needed was on their very faces. The other two he took aside and chastised, leaving them shivering and repentant in his wake.

The final scroll belonged to Draco Malfoy, who had waited until the very end of the process, lounging across a sofa to enjoy his last few hours of school. He'd given the table a cursory glance when everybody else had collected their work, unsurprised to find it empty. He was a clever boy, Draco. A headstrong idiot, too, but clever. Severus hadn't had such honest affection for a child since he was one himself, which of course made him all the brusquer. His mother thought she could parent through coddling, Lucius through expectation, but Severus subscribed to the idea that children should be left to make their own mistakes, their parents present as a support system and to bollock the boy when he was wrong.

Hence why Draco and Severus's relationship was fond, but tumultuous. Draco had far too much of his father's pride in him to accept being bossed around by a half-blood with any sort of grace. Severus had too many sharp edges to soften his commands.

Draco gave him the prerequisite resentful look as Severus approached, dropping his legs from the sofa and coming to his feet with typical youthful insouciance. "Did you want something, Uncle?"

Severus gave him a cutting look and jerked his chin toward the portrait hole. "Outside."

Draco swaggered, an irritating habit he'd adapted from watching the older pure-bloods and something he only did when emotional. Crabbe and Goyle had picked it up, too, which was really something Severus could have done without – as wide as they were, their jaunty steps sent them veering dangerously side to side: the boys were a walking health hazard, and Severus looked forward to never having to have them in his classroom again. "Stop that," Severus snapped at Draco, too, as they ascended the stairs. "You look like a damn fool."

The boy opened his mouth as if to speak then thought better of it and if anything made his strut even more pronounced. Severus felt a headache building behind his eye. Finally, they were in the cool air of the open corridor and Draco slouched against a wall, staring sulkily up at Severus through a fringe of white-blond hair. He'd be getting a hair-cut the second he reached home, Severus knew. Narcissa would never allow him to attend any of the seasonal festivities this scruffy.

"What do you want?" Draco asked, his voice bearing the tell-tale scratch of his emotional turmoil.

"The Summer will no doubt be difficult for you," Severus began, idly stroking one finger down the side of Draco's essay, still furled in his hand. 'Difficult' looked set to be a very poor euphemism for what the boy would endure as a result of his father's failure at the Ministry, and Severus had to bite his tongue to prevent himself from inviting Draco away – far away, somewhere safe, where he and his mother could live out their lives in whatever pretty, vacuous way they wished. They weren't weak – Severus knew weak, looked at weak each day in the mirror – but they were fragile, these Malfoys. Narcissa was a whirlwind of power and authority but that was only because of her silver tongue and clever wit, it was hard to know whether under pressure she would bend or break. Shatter, even. And Draco was a child, far too young and immature to bear the responsibility of his father's mistakes.

But he couldn't save them. Severus wasn't a hero – he couldn't save anyone, and he wouldn't dare even try to save someone he cared about. Not this time. He'd deal with the devil and do his part, that was all he could do. Whisking his friend's family away to New Zealand could only end in disaster.

"I wish to offer my assistance, should you need it," Severus said awkwardly nontheless, meaning it. If they saved themselves, then perhaps his jinx wouldn't pass to them. Perhaps.

Draco narrowed his eyes and jutted his chin. "Hardly," he sneered. "What could I possibly need from you?"

"Careful, Draco…" Severus warned, his voice at its most lethal. "Do not burn bridges you might later need to cross."

He shifted, still looking rebellious, but Draco was as resourceful as any Slytherin and nodded all the same. "I shall inform Mother," he said. "She'll be happy to know you care."

"I doubt it will make much difference once you return," Severus told him quietly, wanting to put a reassuring hand on this child's shoulder but unable to all the same. "She'll be grateful to have you back; she misses you."

"She misses father too," Draco said, suddenly fuelled by something other than base teenage resentment. Anger, impotent fury, flickered in his eyes. "How could you let them take him?" He hissed suddenly. "I thought you were close to Dumbledore – that's what we keep you around for, isn't it? Well what good are you if you can't even save my father!"

"Draco-" Severus halted, cleared his throat and started again. "Your father was caught in the bowels of the Ministry out-of-bounds, attempting to murder Ministry Aurors and Hogwarts' students. Even with all of our influence, there was no way to prevent his arrest."

"You could if he'd been on your side," Draco sneered. "Potter didn't go to Azkaban, did he? They all tried just as hard to kill my father and the rest, they broke into the Ministry too. They broke out of school and not so much as a detention between them! Black – my murderer cousin! – got a sodding pardon out of it!" He blushed bright red with anger, his eyes shooting daggers at Severus, who felt each one like a stab to his own heart. Draco was the closest thing he had to his own child, he'd been second father to the boy, donned the mantle of 'Godfather' graciously, and to have the boy so angry, so hurt, by something Severus hadn't been able to change but, admittedly, not tried to…

"This is rubbish." Draco stamped a foot childishly, and Severus eyed the movement blankly, inside wishing he were fifteen again so that he might do the same. It wasn't seemly for thirty-five year olds to rage and scream and tantrum though, so instead he stood still and cold, frozen, contenting himself with an agitated ripple of his robes. "If my father were one of Dumbledore's lot, he'd be free right now!"

If your father had been one of Dumbledore's lot, none of this would have been a bloody problem!

"Fat lot of good you are," Draco spat, crossing his arms and standing off against Severus, radiating contempt. "I don't want your help and neither does Mum. Can I have my essay back, now?"

After a second, Severus extended his arm and flicked the parchment out between two fingers. Draco snatched it away as though his mother hadn't spent fifteen years painstakingly drilling manners into his head. "Oh, an 'O'," Draco said, shooting a nasty look at Severus. "I bet Granger got an O-plus."

He disappeared back down to the common room, slamming the door behind him and leaving Severus alone to smack a hand over his face. He was exhausted and it wasn't yet noon. He had a meeting to keep with Lupin and his pet mutt, and a later meeting with Mrs. Patil and her psychotic friends. If ever one thought the End Of Term might herald a holiday, they would be wrong.

Allowing himself a single sigh, Severus spun on his heels and stormed off, exercising his frustration by billowing harder than ever, sending two second years head-first into a wall with fear as he passed.

Sunday 12th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Dungeons, Abandoned Classroom

Severus almost cancelled.

He'd written the letter cancelling and taken it up to the Owlery on Thursday night. Then, upon reaching the Owlery, he'd talked himself out of it. On Friday, when he'd been eating lunch with Regulus, he'd changed his mind again – Regulus talked about her enough that he didn't particularly want to spend any extra time with her. He made his way up to the Owlery, but only got as far as the sixth floor this time before a headache struck and sent him back down. On Saturday, he was ambivalent about the appointment, but there was a knot in his stomach he usually got when he was close to perfecting a spell, which he took as a good omen.

But then, on Sunday afternoon, an unseasonably warm day, he'd been studying outside with Lily, Regulus and Alice Brown (who hated him with a passion, but he dealt with it because he liked how Lily glared when she was a bit too obvious) when he'd seen her skipping across the grass.

She looked cheerful and carefree, which was a kick to Severus's gut because he didn't know the meaning of the words. It didn't help that seconds later her brother and his merry band of idiots rounded the corner and tore after her, Black tackling her to the ground right before Severus's eyes. He'd thought she'd cry or scream – most of the girls he knew would; the Rosier girls were known to shriek like banshees if a lad so much as passed them too close in the hallway and everybody avoided touching Rida Shafiq after she'd come close to slicing up Barty Crouch Jr.'s throat last May when he asked her to the dance a little too forcefully – but instead their raucous laughter drifted across to them from feet away, causing something to churn in Snape's stomach that he labelled as disgust because he didn't want to admit it was bitterness.

Lily glanced up at the sound of the chaos and tutted loudly. "Idiots, the lot of them," she pronounced, shuffling closer to Severus but keeping an eye on their roughhousing. "And what sort of girl does – well, that? Surely James should be protesting? Black is practically mounting her!"

"Potter," Severus corrected her with a sigh.


"You called him 'James'."

"No I didn't," Lily denied, flushing bright red. "Potter, I said Potter. Anyway, are you going to just let them manhandle her?"

This last was addressed to Regulus, who still had his nose buried in a book, unlike Alice who was watching the scene wistfully and might have said "my mother would bury me if I acted like that" but nobody was listening. Sometimes Severus pitied the poor girl, who only ever seemed to be on the peripheral of Lily's attention around him, but mostly he was proud. Regulus blinked slowly as if a potted plant had just started talking to him. "Let who manhandle who?" he asked blurrily.

"Your brother and Hermione!" Lily stabbed an accusing finger towards the group. It appeared Potter had thrown himself on top of Black, and Lupin and Pettigrew had joined after, toppling the lot of them onto their sides. They now rolled in the glass laughing and teasing one another, gathering strands of dry grass on their robes until they looked like sixteenth century peasants.

Regulus turned a lazy eye on them and shrugged. "No. She looks fine."

"Fine?" Lily was aghast. "She's snuggled up with another man!"

"Lily…" Severus warned quietly, freezing up with anxiety.

Regulus turned to fully face Lily, giving her a queer look. "And? I don't know what you think is going on between myself and Hermione, but whatever it is, you're wrong, and it's none of your business besides."

She frowned, her eyes flicking to the group again as though they couldn't quite stay away. Hermione had crawled over to Lupin now and was rubbing a handful of dried grass through his hair while he howled for mercy. Potter watched on with a satisfied expression. "I thought she was your girlfriend."

"Why on earth would you think that?" His tone was not at all flattering, and Lily blushed again.

"Because you're just so close!"

"And?" Regulus got a sly look in his eye and completely ignored Severus's warning glare. "You and Severus are close, but you're not together."

Lily shifted uncomfortably away from Severus and he cursed Regulus mentally even as he mourned the loss of her warmth. "That's different," Lily sniffed. "Severus and I aren't like that."

"Well, neither are we," Regulus retorted, though nobody missed the way he cast a protective eye across to his friend when she yelped in surprise, Black having pulled her back down to the floor and now proceeding to tickle her. "So keep your big mouth shut in future."

Lily opened her mouth several times, looking confused as she glanced between Hermione, still rolling around with the boys, and Regulus, who looked patently unbothered by the scene. Eventually, she scowled, muttering something unpleasant under her breath.

The atmosphere thus shattered, they soldiered on for only a few minutes more before Lily and Alice disappeared into the castle with some vague excuse about it suddenly getting cold. Severus left Regulus behind, stomping back to his room in a mood, determined not to help Hermione if only to punish Regulus for ruining his day. There he spent the last four hours, sulking.

And yet, he was still here. Waiting for the chit to arrive, glaring at the clock as it ticked the quarter hour. She could at least have been on time, didn't she know he didn't want to be here? He was only doing this out of mild curiosity and a favour to a friend, he didn't have to.

A scuffling sounded in the corridor seconds before the door burst open and Hermione toppled in, her black hair flying everywhere and robes half-on, half-off. He averted his eyes as she pulled them over her shoulders, but not fast enough to avoid the glimpse of flesh it allowed him. He blushed to his ears, dipping his head forward to hide it behind a curtain of hair.

"Sorry!" she gasped, sounding as sincere as she was out of breath. "Kingsley – kept us late – lost track of time!"

He narrowed his eyes at her. Observation had told him that there was something going on in her year and had been for quite some time now; Regulus was hardly ever around, Shafiq was constantly sat in Slughorn's office brewing this-or-the-other, the Meadowes girl was always in a rush if she was to be seen at all, and McKinnon showed up to meals with bruises she displayed proudly by wearing the shortest uniform she could get away with. They had joined Duelling Club in their first year, despite the rules not allowing that, and they'd all progressed to the point that it was obvious they were holding back even as they trounced all of their competitors – including the Prewett twins, who had been fast-tracked into Auror training they were so talented. Yes, he smelt a rat around the younger students, but he hadn't yet figured out what it was. Shafiq was apparently undertaking an Advanced Apprenticeship, but no teacher would say a word about the other students, or, at least, not to him.

"Duelling Club doesn't meet on Sundays," he said, hoping to draw something out of her. Instead, she just grinned.

"Oh, I know, but Kingsley and Marlene teach Muggle self-defense every week. Don't tell anyone, will you? They'll get in trouble." She shrugged her satchel onto a table and dropped the books she was holding down next to it before pulling her hair back into a messy bun. "That's better. You should join us. I think you'd like it."

"I highly doubt that," he drawled. Him, punching someone? A more ludicrous suggestion he'd never imagined. Honestly, how was he meant to work with someone so obviously delusional?

"As you like." She smiled brightly. "It's really good for getting rid of your pent-up aggression."

He snorted. "What makes you think I've got any of that?"

There was a pause in which she got an almost constipated look of conflict on her face. "Is that a trick question?"

He met her eyes and she blushed, tearing her gaze away under the pretence of rifling through her bag. "I'll take that as a no, then. It's an open offer thought – I'm sure Marley wouldn't mind, and Kingsley says everyone is welcome. He even lets Rida in, so you know 'everyone' really does mean everyone."

Severus couldn't think of anything he'd like less than to be in a position where his scrawny little body and less-than-average strength could be compared with the great Kingsley Shacklebolt's, a man who regularly had a harem of students following him, giggling, through the halls. It was a miracle the man had any time for secret defense club meetings from the rumours he'd heard, too. Busy man, that Shacklebolt.

"Right," Hermione said in a business-like tone, and Severus snapped back to reality to watch her throw the last of her thin muggle work-out clothes into her bag. "How are we going to do this?"

She turned to look at him, her eyes wide and eager, as though she'd been looking forward to this all week. Which was ridiculous – who looked forward to spending time with him, never mind time which he'd be using to shuffle through her innermost thoughts like they were a book in the library. There would be little-to-no privacy afforded her during this, she shouldn't be excited. Neither of them could fully control what he saw.

He told her this, in the interests of full-disclosure, and she grinned. "I know that," she said, jumping up onto the table beside him. Apparently, she was still hyped up from her afternoon romp with her brother and company, because there was no way she'd be sitting so close to him so comfortably on a normal day. He inched away, disconcerted, but she didn't seem to notice. "I have some Occlumency skill from Mum, but I didn't think it would be helpful in this situation, not when the whole point is to find a natural block." She suddenly went subdued, watching her shoes, still clad in muggle trainers, kick back and forth beneath the table.

Severus was about to prod her when she suddenly took a large, sucking breath that shocked him, nearly sending him flying with how hard he flinched. "Thethingis," she said so quickly it took a moment to decipher, "I know this seems a lot to ask and I am grateful, truly grateful. I mean, I wasn't, earlier this week- I really didn't want to do this, if I'm honest, but I did some research and talked to Regulus and, well – you're a good guy, Snape, and I trust you. This isn't about a lack of trust, really, it's just about… safety. My safety. Your safety." Severus was dizzy, so he stopped listening, pretty certain he had the gist of it. He pushed off from the desk and walked to the centre of the room, contemplating a chair, before transfiguring it into an armchair.

He then took another and did the same, setting them down opposite one another. A table went next to them, and he conjured a pair of glasses. They'd need water, he thought, aguamenti. Thus filled, the glasses were set on the table, and he chanced a look up at Hermione.

She had an eyebrow cocked as she watched him. "Bore you, did I?" she asked, a thread of amusement ringing through.

Severus shot her a mocking look that was only half as cruel as his usual ones. Despite her yammering, her nerves were oddly soothing. "Regulus didn't mention you were so eloquent," he drawled, gesturing to the chair with a significant look.

Obediently, Hermione hopped down and took her seat, fingers tracing the chintz pattern. Severus blushed faintly, not realizing he'd put the detail on until then – but he liked chintz, it reminded him of his Grandma's house just up the road from his in Spinner's End, and how when she had been alive she'd read to him from her lap and smell of smoke and honeysuckle and home. It was automatic, and personal, but he didn't change it back because that would only be more obvious. "Regulus doesn't make me nervous," she replied with an apologetic smile. "So will you do it?"

"The Oath?" she nodded her head. Severus considered it for a moment and then took his seat. "Might as well, I suppose. If it's the only way."

Hermione brightened predictably, leaning forward. She looked rather ridiculous – not having had the last of her growth spurts yet, she was only five-foot-four at the most, and her feet didn't touch the floor when she sat all the way back in the cushions. "If you could just promise not to communicate in any way the contents of my mind to anybody not present in this room today, that would be great."

He shot her a wry look, but raised his wand and repeated her words – in a more formal manner, of course. One must respect the magic. "This I so swear," he finished, and the two of them watched the bright amber ribbon of his oath melt into his skin. On her wrist, just below the thumb, a small yellow triangle etched itself onto her flesh. She stared at it in awe.

"Sometimes I think I take for granted all of this," she muttered, waving her other hand around to encompass – well, everything. "The beauty, the life, the magic. Imagine what we'd do if we woke up without it – masses of us would just… die. It's a miracle, it really is."

"If you say so," Severus grunted. He didn't like seeing that triangle – the mark of what he owed her in this oath. The hold she had over him now. "Can we just get on with it?"

"Oh, yes," she said, now drawing her wand into her hand and tucking it between the cushions of her armchair. "Please."

Severus took his seat gingerly. They were so close to one another now; his legs were inches from hers, he could see the queer amber ribbon that ringed the green and brown of her eyes, count the freckles on her sun-darkened skin. She was nothing like Lily, the only girl he'd ever been this close to before, and it was uncomfortable, like her difference made this a betrayal.

"Legilimancy is uncomfortable," he reminded her, and she rolled her eyes. "It is," he hissed. "You have to be certain."

"I am certain," Hermione replied impatiently. "You're the one that's dithering."

"Dithering?" He narrowed his eyes. "Legilimens."

He was assailed by pictures immediately, the connection strong. He wanted to contemplate this – his practice came mostly with Regulus and this was the first near-stranger he'd used – but his thoughts slipped out of his grasp and were replaced with hers; he could see himself, his eyes black and shining, his hair pulled forward so that he was but a sliver of flesh, those eyes, and a nose. He prodded, pushing further into the depths of her mind. There were endless snippets of classrooms and lectures, conversations with friends about the banal that he shoved through without thought. Her brain was much like anyone else's – full to the brim of endless nonsense he had no interest in. That was the inherent difficulty with Legilimency, there was so much information, most of it useless. You had to be patient and clever to find something of use, and from there make it further.

Figuring the best road to the unplumbed depths, and therefore the block she wished him to check out, would be through family, he grasped onto the first memory that passed him within which he spotted her brother.

He was younger, about thirteen, sat on a chair at a dining table somewhere posh – likely the Potter manse. He pushed a herd of vegetables around his plate with distaste, and then caught Hermione's eye. Hermione was filled with trepidation and amusement when he winked, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and Hermione knew that below the table he held his wand.

Potter mouthed something slowly and the sprouts rose into the air slowly, drifting across the table toward Hermione, who opened her mouth in annoyance, shoving her hands out to halt their progression, but they spilled all over the table and suddenly a woman's sharp voice cut in, saying "oh, Hermione!"…

Severus latched onto the feeling of exasperated affection she had for this woman, her mother, and travelled through. He saw several more scenes of domestic bliss with the Potters before things began to get strange.

At first it was subtle. A memory would flash by so quickly he'd barely have a chance to see it, and he thought at first they were faded. But then a second came, and a third; pictures of a woman with straight, brown hair and a man with frizzy curls, doing various activities. They were mundane but they didn't stay long, slipping through his fingers like he'd unexpectedly come to the end. Fragmented, he decided they were. There were others – one which appeared to be her mind playing tricks on him, a split-second glimpse of a young boy with black hair and a scar, accompanied by worry, anxiety, affection – but not the same affection she had for her brother. That was how he really noticed the difference. There was a ginger boy, a girl with blonde hair he at first took for crazy Pandora Lovegood, a redhead. Spells flicked on, dizzying him with their speed and distortion – he thought that might be a Killing Curse, but where would this girl find a killing curse?

Beneath his own thoughts were Hermione's present thoughts, a growing confusion, panic and concern. Through the haze he saw her face had slackened, paled out, her eyes wide and glassy, and he knew he had to stop now, he had some knowledge if not all, but then someone came swimming out of the mist. It was a full memory, this one, clear and stark like the ones from today and days previous.

Professor Alliott. He frowned, unable to delay his curiosity, but he held out a hand for her to latch onto anyway, so that he could keep track of her vitals before diving in.

Professor Alliott stood behind a desk, looking harassed as she shoved things in a bag. The Headmaster was there, too – taunting her. "Not even… Severus?" he asked, and Severus physically jerked. He couldn't pull his eyes away from the scene, not even when Hermione's nails dug into his skin far enough to draw blood.

"He's just another student, Albus. Isn't that what you said?"

A sudden flicker, something – his own face, when he faced her down at Kings Cross, but then, another – familiar? It was but a fragment, a sliver of something – dark hair, eyes and a nose, he was reminded of Hermione's view of him, only it was wrong, terribly wrong-

He was pulled from the memory by Hermione biting – biting – his arm. She looked thunderous, but he was too dazed to care. "What?" he asked, voice hoarse. "What was that?"

Hermione grabbed her bag and nearly sprinted for the door, slamming it shut behind her.

Chapter Text

Tuesday 14th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Library

"Severus is looking for you," Regulus said casually, after a good fifteen minutes of silence. Hermione finally relaxed her shoulders; they'd been sat together in the library for over an hour, and for all of that time she'd been anticipating this conversation. The expectation had her wound tighter than a spring and Regulus knew it – had designed it. Damn Slytherins. "You're avoiding him."

"Am not," she denied automatically.

"Hermione," Regulus chastised lightly making Hermione cringe in shame. He pinned her with a patient look that only made her feel worse. She didn't want to talk about it, not really, but this was Regulus, and if anyone could make her talk it would be him. "What happened? Why are you hiding?"

She wiped the nib of her quill off with a handkerchief she'd nicked from Remus and replaced it gently in its case, buying herself time while she organized her thoughts. Which was a difficult procedure, considering even she had no idea what was going on; she'd ran away from him because something had been triggered in her mind, something amorphous that had come to her as a wave of anxiety, and she'd only known to run. Hermione had no immediate plans to humiliate herself with an emotional outburst in front of Snape and that wasn't likely to change.

"I don't know," she said honestly. "You were right – he helped, a bit, but I'm starting to think it would be better if he didn't."

Regulus frowned at her expression, reaching over to rest his hand gently atop hers. She stared at his tapered fingers, so pale and perfect. The boy had never had so much as a blister from quill use and that was just unnatural. "You're not making sense," he said, but in a soft tone so that she wouldn't be offended.

She bit her lip and scrubbed a hand through her hair. "This – block? Whatever it is. When he came close, tried to pass it, it was so painful… and I got scared, really scared." Shaking her head, she let out a nervous laugh. "Gods, how odd, for me to be the one suggesting we not pull at this, but, I think in this situation it would be better just to let it be?"

"Hermione," Regulus's brow knitted. "Just last week you were determined to figure it out. This is a whole section of your head that's missing, a whole part of your personality. Who knows what's hidden there?"

"I've done just fine without it so far, haven't I?" She replied belligerently.

He scoffed. "Last year you bumped into Auror Moody in Hogsmeade and fainted. You were out for an hour and ended up in the hospital wing with a concussion from the fall. That's not alright."

"And you have no proof that was related to my memory loss," Hermione argued, though rather weakly. "He's a scary man, Reg. All those scars…"

"You fell asleep on Lupin yesterday."

"Remus is a pussy-cat! Look, I get what you're trying to do and I'm grateful for the concern but I just want to leave it, okay?" She glared him down when he opened his mouth, his eyes mutinous. "Okay?"

He set his jaw, nodding curtly. Relief flooded her and she smiled brightly, until he opened his mouth again. "You're going to have to tell Severus." It was his turn to look stern when she began her automatic rejection. "It's only fair. He's confused, and angry because he's confused, and you can't just avoid him for the rest of your lives."

"Yes I can." Making a show of looking around, she spread her hands out. "See, he's not here now, and I haven't seen him for the last two days. I'm already making a pretty good start."

Regulus grimaced. "Don't get too attached to that lead," he warned, before his eyes flicked upwards. "Alright, Severus?"

Hermione snorted. She'd just looked there. He wasn't fooling her.

"Miss Potter."

Screaming was unladylike and if asked she would deny that accusation. As would Reg, because he was a good friend.

Severus, however, was nobody's friend and as such he clamped his hands over his ears and winced. "Kindly end your banshee impression," he snapped as Hermione tried to get her heartbeat back under control.

"How did you do that?" she asked, smacking him in the hip (the closest place she could reach without causing permanent damage). "And why didn't you warn me?!" This last was addressed to Regulus, who gave her impressively neutral eyes and replied 'how was I to know you didn't see him?'.

Hermione was still silently seething as he swept across to one of the more dinky library chairs, looking for all the world like a dementor in a particularly horrific mood. "I am not angry," he said once settled, as though worry about his emotional state had been keeping them all in suspense. "I am hardly even curious." He bestowed his best and most convincing dismissive look on her and turned to Regulus. "It is you I have been hunting for."

"You are aware I've known you for four years now, Severus," Regulus replied with an eye roll. "You can't lie to me, and the attempt was abysmal."

"It was the dismissal," Hermione chipped in with a sage nod. "You tried too hard."

Regulus gave her an approving look and she smiled widely, showing her teeth in a threat he ignored. Damn boy set her up. He'd get hell for that later, no matter how nicely he played now.

Snape sneered impressively at the two of them. "Do you split the brain in half or is it a time-share situation?"

Ignoring that – Snape and snide had more than a passing acquaintance, and every student was used to it by now – Hermione said, "thank you for helping me on Sunday" in her politest, most pureblood-princess-y voice.

"It was an intriguing session," he said, narrowing his eyes. "Most interesting."

"I'm sure it is, for one interested in mind magic. Myself, I found it quite dull, if somewhat uncomfortable." His eye twitched and she smothered a victorious smile. A hit! "You are very skilled," she added, in a voice that on Rida might have been called seductive but in Hermione came out a bit 'frog in my throat'. Regulus kicked her in the shin anyway.

"Legilimency requires a great deal of work, patience and focus," Severus told her snippily. "I have been practising for years." She nodded, and he stared at her significantly. In return, she batted her eyelashes, going for guileless but, again, missing by a mile. Hermione had never been one for acting – once, in third year, Slughorn had had their little group brew Polyjuice potion and spend a day as someone else. Hermione had been hoping for Dorcas, simply for ease, but she'd gotten Rue instead, and been caught out within the first hour. How does one fail at impersonating a girl who doesn't do anything but eat and scowl, you ask? With great difficulty.

The only other person to fail was Marlene, who, impersonating Dorcas, only failed because she punched the Ravenclaw prefect in the face. It had been hard to explain that one away.

Snape, after a good fifteen solid seconds of uncomfortable eye-contact, seemed to get the message that she wasn't talking and hissed out an annoyed breath between his teeth. Another swell of triumph blossomed in Hermione's chest – if he was going to play oblique Slytherin then she would play clueless Gryffindor, and they wouldn't get anywhere, which didn't bother Hermione at all.

Unfortunately for her, Snape seemed to recognize this too, because he went on the attack. "Who was that man I saw in your head?"

"Man?" she repeated, tilting her head. She wasn't faking it this time. Her memories had cut out in a blur of black and white after the Alliott memory, and she'd come-to with Severus shaking her about like a sack of potatoes. "What man?"

He grit his teeth even harder, and Regulus winced back, his eyes watching his friend's mouth with some concern. He and Hermione shared a love of good dentistry, which for him came from his ludicrously snobby upbringing ("smoking doesn't cause bad teeth; poor people do") and her – well, whatever was hidden behind the shield. The thing she'd decided to stop being curious about.

She wasn't curious, damn it!

"A man. He had black hair and black eyes, and he was angry." Severus clearly loathed being forced to give that much detail, because his lip curled back about half-way through and he couldn't seem to flatten it.

"That's you," Regulus said, never one to fear repeating the obvious. "You've just described yourself."

"I am not angry." Severus shot Regulus a poisonous look that belied his words. It had no affect – Regulus was the King of letting things roll off of his back, as long as they didn't come from or involve a member of his family. You couldn't get more than one syllable into 'Walburga' before the boy turned purple with reflexive fear and fury. "He was much too old – he had wrinkles, and his eyes…"

"You in ten years, then," Regulus joked, before yelping and clutching his arm where Severus had hexed him. "Must you?!"

"Who was it?" Severus asked again, leaning over the table on his hands so that he loomed above Hermione. She shrank back in remembered fear, her throat tightening. "If you know, you must tell me."

"I – I -" she couldn't get her words out, her tongue appeared to have swollen to twice its size, and then she felt the distinctive clicking as he invaded her mind. Her eyes slammed shut and she threw her palms out in defence.

"Oi!" A voice yelled, new and furious. Somewhere in her mind, Hermione heard a resigned sigh. "You get away from my sister!"

"Oi, Snivellus!" Came the matching pair, removing all hope that there might be a peaceable end to this misunderstanding. "Come and pick on someone your own size, you great greasy git!"

"Oh, shit," Regulus swore, the curse so unexpected on his lips that it had Hermione opening her eyes just in time to see him pull his wand. He caught her eye and twisted his lip. "You stay out of this," he warned, which went to prove that even Dark wizards could be idiotic white knights. Also, that he definitely wasn't as bright as he looked, because her wand was already in hand and nobody was stopping her now.

Saturday 22nd June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Severus was already half-way to London by the time the Express pulled out of the station, too curious to wait even the few extra minutes to watch the scarlet engine disappear into the horizon – a practice he usually made time for, as though if he wasn't there to see it, it might never leave.

This was important, however. It must have been, or Lupin would never have contacted him, and certainly not urgently. The train would end up in London whether or not he indulged his faintly obsessive impulses, and the search for Hermione – Potter or Granger – was infinitely more important.

The door to Grimmauld Place swung open the second he landed on the doorstep to reveal Black, who spared him only the barest of scowls, which more than anything else indicated that they had knowledge of actual importance to impart to him. In keeping with this theme, Severus ignored Black completely as he pushed past, and headed directly to the kitchen, where he found Lupin cringing (with what Severus assumed was his innate politeness and empathy - he didn't know what that felt like but it was probably the only thing that could have you sympathising with the worst House-Elf in the world) at the table as Kreacher skulked in the background, curiously silent despite his angry gesticulation in their direction. "Severus!" Lupin cried with what sounded suspiciously too close to relief for his comfort.

Severus snooped around the kitchen to try and get his bearings. Nothing else was out of place, except that it was stunningly clean - yet another symptom of Lupin's shiny white soul (he cleans when he's stressed, and just knowing that makes Severus want to boil his head in oil). The werewolf was moping over a tea-tray. "What is it, Lupin?"

"You remember Harish Patil, right?" Lupin asked with startling relevance considering the letter burning a hole in Severus's pocket. Severus gave a miniscule nod, careful not to betray his mounting interest. "He was here yesterday."

"Here?" Severus took a moment to experience shock, such a rare occurrence. "The Headmaster invited him?"

"No." Black snorted, still looking darker than was his usual wont. "The bleedin' elf did."

He blinked in shock, turning his attention to Kreacher, who surprisingly had turned his glare on Severus, still mouthing what were no doubt scathing slights on his character, his bloodline and, because he was a Black elf, likely his personal hygiene for good measure. Like Master, like elf. "Why?" Severus asked, not taking the time to flatten his tone as he should have. The whole situation was too curious, though it was disturbing to learn that if the Dark Lord wanted to wrong-foot his spy all he'd have to do was bring him a mutely racist house-elf with notions of independence. "I was under the impression that elves must have their master's permission to bring visitors into their home."

Lupin sighed, scratching wearily at the scruff on his face. "Yes, well, Kreacher claims that Patil wanted to visit his 'Mistress'." He and Black shared knowing looks that gave Severus a ghost of the old jealousy he'd experience whenever Hermione and Regulus were together. "Apparently she can still give orders, despite her being a portrait."

"Which is bloody inconvenient, let me tell you," Black growled. "What if one day she decides he should hare off to Voldemort with all of our secrets?"

Lupin grimaced. "It is a rather severe security breach," he allowed, still apparently mesmerised by Kreacher, who at Black's words had turned to stare at him incredulously and was now mouthing what could easily be deciphered as "idiot master, stupid master, where is master's brain, after all my mistress did to teach him…" and so on and so forth. For once, Severus was inclined to agree with the crotchety old creature.

"You are all idiots," he said in his most deadpan voice, allowing himself a roll of his eyes at their expense. "Of course a portrait cannot give a house-elf orders – Hogwarts would be full of the damn things playing whatever pranks the Founders thought of, or we'd be constantly out of sherry because of the Fat Lady. It would be a massive security breach for all pure-blood families and there would be no line of succession!" He levelled each of them a disdainful glare. "I honestly find it hard to believe that either of you graduated First Year."

Black, all blown up with righteous indignation, growled. "Well what else could it be, if you're so clever?" he demanded. "There aren't any other mistresses around!"

"Oh, no?" Severus raised a condescending eyebrow, though he wasn't certain it played off as well as he wanted. There was too much excitement bubbling in his gut, electrifying his nerves. If he was right… "Release the elf from his silence," he commanded, not even bothering to look at Black.

There was a scoff, and then, "You may speak," said in the bitterest tones possible. Suddenly the kitchen was filled with Kreacher's vitriol – and listening to it, Severus noticed that he was using a great many muggle obscenities. That, alone, would have convinced Severus. If he'd ever noticed before, which he hadn't. And looking at the dawning comprehension on Lupin's face, he didn't think he was the only one regretting ignoring the beast for the past year.

Kneeling down to the elf's height, Snape went ugly-nose-to-ugly-nose with the beast and hissed, "where is your mistress, elf?".

The expletives cut off immediately and the most ungodly smile crossed Kreacher's face. "Master must ask," he said, but he wasn't being obstructive. The two of them turned on their heels to look at Black, who scoffed.

"I don't know what you're playing at, Snivellus, but it's not going to work."

Severus turned dead eyes on Lupin. "Control your mutt, please."

Lupin hesitated, then glanced at Black. "Padfoot, can it really hurt?"

"It's Snape," Black spat, as though that was a ridiculous question. Severus would allow him that one, if only through the mounting impatience he was struggling not to show. There were two Mistresses of Grimmauld Place at one point. One overt and one secret; one who 'died' before it could be announced to the world. Portraits were only shades, not even House-Elves could be bound to a shade, but a living being…

"Please, Pads," Lupin murmured, his voice cracking with exhaustion and some unidentifiable emotion. Black took in the other man's expression and his eyes softened, the rebellion in every line of his body melting into forbearance. He lifted a hand to brush a strand of hair out of Lupin's eyes – at which point Severus, on the verge of vomiting, span away. Kreacher followed suit, and the two of them shared a moment of mutual suffering before Severus remembered that the damn thing was the worst elf he'd ever encountered and scowled fiercely.

"Alright!" Black finally huffed. "Alright, fine! Kreacher, where is your mistress?"

Mischief took over the elf's face as he lifted a wizened finger. "Right there, Master," he said, with more subservient obedience than he'd shown in twenty years. "Mistress stands there."

Chapter Text

Saturday 22nd June 1996

Patil Residence, The Circus, Bath

The Patils had lived in the Circus for nearly fifty years now, and showed no signs of moving. They'd taken up the house as their English residence upon the fall of the British Raj and since then refused to give it up, no matter the offer – for them it was a status symbol, showing how far they'd come; not that they'd come very far at all. The Patil's had been rich and powerful in India even under British rule. Still, they'd found their niche and they were claiming it, come what may. There were challenges; despite the area's prestige, the Patils were looked down on by the British Pureblood aristocracy because the choice of home made them unable to remove themselves entirely from the Muggle world, but as the Magical world of India had no such prejudice and as they currently lived in one of the most fashionable homes in England, the Patils couldn't find it in themselves to care.

From the front, the terraced house was a prime example of the era's Bath architecture, all yellow-stone, frequently cleaned so that the dirt of the common folk wouldn't stick, with simple windows and ornate carvings. Wrought iron fences encircled servant's staircases on the front, some of which now led to ludicrously expensive flats but many of which retained their original purpose: the Patil residence was one such house.

Severus couldn't help but note that the air on the Circus seemed fresher and more clean than that of any of the adjacent streets. Tourists mingled with residents, easy to tell apart by the quality of their attire, the tourists chatting excitedly in a low hum as they pointed to various parts of the architecture in awe – "look at the frieze!", "That symbol's Masonic, you know". The poor Mancunian boy inside him kept a wary eye out for the police, as if he expected to be arrested at any moment for having the gall to use such an expensive, exquisitely made footpath.

The only sign that the Patil's house was different from any other came from the fact that nobody passed close to it – or, at least, no tourists. There was a noticeable berth given to their entryway, and no member of the adoring crowd examined their house too closely. Some of them gave Severus and his companions odd looks as they passed through the crowd, but the moment they set foot past the wrought-iron fence enclosing the property their eyes slid away, completely distracted.

"Weird," Black muttered as he watched a woman who had previously been ogling him quite blatantly suddenly turn her attentions to a triglyph carved into the next house over. Severus snorted; rather rich for a man whose entire house disappears from sight to say.

The stark white door had no knocker attached, and Severus was still debating whether to knock on the frame or search for a bell when it swung open. He was afforded only the slightest glimpse of marble flooring and an impressive archway before his vision was blocked by a man wearing that look of professional impassivity all manservants seemed to have. Severus wondered if it was a sort of Muggle Occlumency that afforded them that skill, or whether they practised the face in the mirror every night before bed.

"Yes?" The man asked, taking in the three of them. A slight turn-down at the corner of his lips was the only sign he disapproved of them, though it was clear enough. Lupin with his tatty patchwork robes, Black with his bright purple smoking jacket paired with ripped jeans, and Severus who, while dressed sensibly and well, was quite obviously not at the same level as this servant's Master – or, indeed, the servant, who wore a starched straight set of tails circa. 1874 and clean white gloves. Something about the man was familiar, but Severus didn't have the time to consider that right then.

Instead, he handed over the letter he'd received that morning and drawled, in his most empty voice, "our presence has been requested."

The man – butler? – gave the letter a once over before passing it back. "Might I take your coats?" he asked, stepping aside to usher them inside, closing the door solidly behind them. He gathered their outer-clothes with all the airs of a man gathering garments of the finest silk, and then handed them off to a younger footman who had been lurking unobtrusively behind him. From the start Sirius gave, it was obvious nobody else had noticed him either – a sign of good training in the lad, but Severus resented it. He didn't like being taken by surprise.

"Mr. and Mrs. Patil await you in the green room. Please, follow me," the butler said, setting off down the corridor, the soles of his shoes tapping pleasingly against the marble flooring. He led them up a flight of stairs and through a hallway until he reached a door with a carved white frame, on which he knocked officiously.

"Enter!" A man's voice called from within, and the butler pushed the door open wide.

"Master Severus Snape and guests, sir, madam."

"Thank you, Winthrop," the man said again, and Severus tracked the voice to a tall man lounging in an armchair that must have been two centuries old at least. Harish Patil, he noted absently. The man had hardly changed, and if Severus were a lesser man, or even less focused, he'd currently be feeling quite envious of how well the man aged. Of course, behind him, Black was self-consciously patting at his own black hair, tangled and not yet fully recovered from his twelve-years of prison. "Come in, gentlemen, please. Oh, Winthrop? Could you ask Mrs. Winthrop to bring up some tea once our last guest arrives? We're only waiting on one more."

Severus then realised that the room was quite full. Behind Patil, on a chaise set directly under the window, sat his wife, Rue. He had a moment of double-vision where the picture of her twin laid languorously across her own chaise in her own sea-side house, a picture of sensuous appeal, tried to impose itself on the current picture, but he shook that away quickly. Rue Patil had none of her sister's carnal attractions, instead giving off the image of a woman with class; she wore a pale silk dress that covered her up to her wrists and dipped only slightly at the neck, tied there with a claret ribbon. Beneath it, her abdomen swelled outwards, her hands clasped beneath her bump demurely. She wore very little make-up, and her hair was twisted into a bun at the crown of her head, wisps tumbling down towards her shoulders. Her eyes, the only thing to ruin the picture of upper-class prosperity, were cold and calculating as she looked them over. He dipped his head in acknowledgement.

"Ah, you must be Severus," Patil said, standing and clasping his hand. The other man was stiff, uncomfortable with the greeting, but doing his duty as host in any case. "My wife said she'd invited you, though I was unaware you'd be bringing friends." He looked curiously over Severus's shoulder.

He took in a breath to introduce them, but was cut off by a shriek, the familiarity of which sent dread pooling in his stomach. He turned just in time to see a blonde blur lunge at Remus, wrapping her arms around his neck and squeezing until he went purple. "Remus Lupin!" The blonde declared, pulling back and smacking two wet kisses on each of his cheeks. "My oh my, don't you look nice! And Sirius Black!" She detached herself from Lupin to throw herself at Black, who flinched back out of her trajectory. "What, no hug for your old friend?"

"Show me your hands and I might believe you," Black sniffed. The blonde gave him a sly smirk, batting her eyelashes as she raised her fists. The fingers of her left hand peeled open with deliberate slowness, the light from the chandelier glinting perkily off her rings. A stiletto blade was sandwiched between her index and middle fingers, so thin as to be nearly unnoticed. Black gave her an unimpressed look, and Severus was relieved to note that the blade was clean of blood.

"Marlene," Remus said, blinking stupidly. "But – I thought -"

"I was dead, yes." Marlene McKinnon – and if someone had to be dead, why couldn't it have been Marlene McKinnon? – grinned wolfishly. "Did you really think they could kill me? Oh, bless your heart."

"Marley," a soft voice chastised her, and Severus let out a silent sigh of relief. At least, if he was going to be subjected to McKinnon, he had been granted the woman who held her leash, also. "Sit back down."

McKinnon frowned over her shoulder but backed off all the same, revealing Dorcas Meadowes, who looked just the same as she always had, only with a bright blue streak in her hair. "Hello, again," she said awkwardly. Lupin met her eyes then looked away just as quickly, a faint blush lighting his cheeks.

Black scowled, opening and closing his mouth like a fish, staring at McKinnon. He'd always had a thing for McKinnon, Severus remembered then. Likely because she was the only person who could sympathise with his lack of sanity. "You survived…"

"No, Sirius," Dorcas said quietly, gently. Black looked heartbroken, and the reason hit Severus like a train.


"But – if you're alive, and McKinnon, then surely..?"

Dorcas gave him a small, sad smile. "I'm afraid not. He… he went earlier. In fact, it was his death – him and Hermione - that stirred Marley and I to make alternate arrangements." She gave a bitter twist of the lips. "It became obvious we weren't going to make it out alive."

Clever, Severus wanted to say, but he couldn't get the words out past the lump in his throat. Which was ludicrous. He'd known that Regulus was dead. It had been clear – if he'd been in hiding, he would have let Severus know. Somehow. When Hermione went missing around the same time, he'd known that if Hermione was dead, then Reg certainly was too. The boy would give his life for her and on several occasions very nearly had. It made sense that he'd do it one last time.

He remembered Kreacher's revelation at the house, and straightened his spine. If the elf was right, and Hermione had survived, then at least Regulus's sacrifice hadn't been in vain.

A movement at the back drew his eye, and he noticed Shacklebolt was stood there with Smith. Abbott, of course, wouldn't be coming – Clarence Abbott was dead, Severus knew that for sure as he'd seen the corpse, been present for the murder. They'd had to tie him down after taking his wand, and even then the man had taken one of the Inner Circle with him. The elder Rowle had all scoffed at the idea that any of his 'fancy muggle tricks' could hurt him, and so it'd come as a terrible shock when Abbott had snapped the man's neck with his bare hands.

Severus would rather they'd killed Smith if they'd had to kill anyone because at least Abbott had had redeeming qualities, unlike Smith, who was a miserable excuse for a human being at school and then had proceeded to raise a second miserable excuse for a human being in his son, Zacharias.

"Severus," Kingsley greeted him in his baritone rumble. "I see you brought Remus and Sirius. That was a good call."

"I do wish you'd asked," Rue said, then lapsed back into silence. She'd gotten no more loquacious over the years, then.

Patil, seeing Black begin to get his tail in a knot, explained quickly, "only because it's such sensitive information, you see, what with Marlene and Dorcas taking the trip especially. Nobody can know they're alive."

"My apologies," Severus replied sincerely, giving a short bow in Rue's direction. "It was rather last minute."

The woman simply shrugged, shifting position as she clutched at her stomach. "Where is Mrs. Winthrop with that tea?"

"We're waiting for someone, darling," Patil cooed at his wife, reaching a hand back to rub her outstretched calf. "Only a few more minutes, I'm sure."

"Call her to bring it now," Rue ordered, the only bow to her husband being a slightly softened tone. "We can't wait around all day."

There was a clattering from the hall and the doors swung open to admit a harried looking Winthrop, who didn't even manage to introduce the latest guest before she was shoving past.

"Don't bother calling her," Ms. Rida Zabini drawled as she strut into the room, throwing a silk wrap back at Winthrop as she did so. "I'm here now. You needn't have waited on my account, sorellina."

The twins exchanged frosty looks, Ms. Zabini extending hers to Patil, whose discomfort appeared to multiply at her appearance. "Oh, joy, the gang's all here," she mocked, looking around. "Even the McKinnon brat. What a prize."

"I see you haven't changed, Rida," McKinnon smirked. "Though your body count has, as I hear it. It's amazing any men yet survive."

"And such a pity I haven't found my way around to you, yet, cara," Rida parried in a sickly-sweet coo. "Oh well. Plenty of time for that." She turned to Severus then, her smile getting broader. "Ah, Severus, Tesoro, another visit in so short a time? I am so lucky." She pecked at his cheeks twice. "But did you have to bring the mutt? I know it's bad form to leave them in the car but one can make exceptions, si?"

"Hello, Rida," he drawled, gently pushing on her hips to move her out of his personal space. He seemed to be suffocated by her perfume, some derivative of Amortentia she likely hadn't bothered to license, and it took a studied effort not to cough.

"So what is this about?" She asked, tracing a finger down Severus's jaw. "Will anybody be so kind as to fill me in?"

"Stop pawing the guests, Rida, and we just might," Rue snapped from her seat. "This little display is nauseating."

"No, no, sorellina, I think you'll find that's the cross-breed parasite sitting in your womb," Rida replied brightly, but she mercifully dropped her hand and moved away. "At least that one had the good grace not to procreate."

There was a crash even before Ms. Zabini had finished tilting her head at Lupin, caused by Black smashing a vase in his haste to lunge at her. Kingsley caught him in time, but Dorcas did not make it fast enough to stop McKinnon, who drove her fist into Ms. Zabini's nose with relish, grinning in satisfaction even as she was pulled off. Blood spurted, the crack as it broke echoing through the house.

"I've waited fifteen years for that, bitch," Marlene hissed, "and I'm nowhere near done. Don't you test me."

She received a cool look from her victim. "Ah, Gryffindors," Rida taunted, her hand pressed against her nose to staunch the flow of blood, dark eyes sparkling over it. "Always so quick to resort to physical violence. So reckless. No wonder your life expectancy proves so short."

Black made another dive, Shacklebolt banding his arms around his chest, struggling to hold the man back even with Lupin's calm, droning voice talking him down. Rue, however, just glared coldly from her seat. "If we weren't in need of you, I would not allow you into my house." She flicked her hand out from the side of her body and pointed it across at her sister. "And were you not family, I would not give you the mercy of my magic, either. Episkey."

The crunch of the bone mending made them all wince, but Rida looked unperturbed. "I do not make it my habit to visit kennels, sorellina, so you needn't worry on that count." She looked graceful even with her own blood now drying on her face. The door slid open to admit a woman with steel-grey hair and a frilly apron carrying a tea tray loaded with cups, saucers and napkins, and immediately Ms. Zabini turned her attention to her. "You – squib. Pass me that cloth, per favore." The woman, who Severus assumed was Mrs. Winthrop, placed the tray on a sideboard and busied herself pouring. Rida snarled. "I am talking to you!"

"She can hear you," Patil said calmly, shaking his handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and holding it out towards Ms. Zabini. "Now, are we all quite finished? Can we get down to business?"

"Yes," McKinnon said, pulling her arms away from Smith, who had dived to hold her back. He gave a disdainful sniff, rubbing the palms of his hands against his trousers. "What is this about? You weren't clear – and no, Rue, sending me a portkey and a time is not clear."

Rue blew out a breath, a strand of hair dancing in it for a moment. "The portkey was for Meadowes. You weren't invited."

"Aw," Dorcas shot her a beam of delight. "That's so nice, thank you."

"Don't thank her for that," McKinnon scowled. "What do you mean, I wasn't invited?"

"Is any of this relevant?" Severus finally snapped. He felt a headache starting up behind his temples and groaned quietly. It was a miracle they got anything done when they carried on like this.

Smith snorted derisively. "Never has been," he said highhandedly. "They're all useless at staying on topic." He shot Severus a knowing look, stapling a contemptuous 'women' on the end. Severus's eyebrows rose incrementally. A brave jibe for the man to take, considering present company.

"Aye, because you've been so helpful over the years," McKinnon sneered, even Meadowes murmuring her agreement. "We're missing three of our ranks and at least one of those deaths you've had a hand in, so I'll thank you to keep your big gob shut."

"Marlene!" Kingsley snapped then, apparently recognising she'd gone too far when Smith's countenance darkened rapidly. The blonde glanced at her old friend with a challenging look, but Kingsley hadn't been promoted to Head Auror on his appearance alone, and shot her the darkest, most paralyzingly terrifying look Severus had seen outside of the mirror. "Stop," he ordered. "We're not getting anywhere squabbling amongst ourselves."

"Where should we be getting?" Dorcas asked mildly, looking towards the Patils quizzically. "You called us here, so there must be something important happening."

"Yes," Lupin said, patting Sirius's shoulder the way one might absently pet a dog. "What's going on?"

Rue smoothed out her skirt and glared at each of them; the crowd thinned out as they dropped back into their seats. Mrs. Winthrop pushed a pair of spindly white dining chairs over to Lupin and Black, and they too sat down, leaving Severus and Kingsley as the only ones standing. Their eyes met across the room and they shared a brief nod – they were insurance, it appeared. Rue had elected them as security by keeping them on their feet, which made sense – they were, after all, the only ones in the room with mastery over their own emotions. Dumbledore had trained up the group surrounding them from puberty in everything ranging from medicine to martial arts, but had neglected to teach them self-control.

Such a volatile group; in hindsight, they were lucky it had only been Rida that slipped off the deep end.

"My husband and I," Rue began, and for all that she was and had always been a cold-hearted harpy, there was a tangible warmth in the air when she said those words, as if she still relished them even after nearly twenty years and two children, "have been receiving a frequent visitor these past years. Don't-" all heads turned to look at Marlene, who had Dorcas's hand over her mouth to stifle whatever smart comment she'd been planning to make. How the woman had put up with her all of these years was beyond Severus, but then he hadn't experience with that kind of all-encompassing love. Rue flashed a fierce look in their direction, apparently deciding that she was done with talking because her husband took up the slack.

"It began when we returned from India after the war. He'd pop in every now and again to skulk around the servants quarters – we'd not know about it if it weren't for Cerula," He nodded at his housekeeper, who was handing around cups of tea. Severus accepted his with a short nod, his eyes lingering on her face – he recognised her now. Cerula had once been a Rosier, with their endless stock of daughters, but Cerula had shamed the family by being born a Squib. The Rosier's had discarded their mistake into service, and she'd not been spoken of in pureblood circles for more than fifty years. "Cerula recognised him and alerted me immediately, which was when he begun to speak to us.

"You must understand, he didn't say anything substantial for many years – we thought he was bored, so we put him to work. Until yesterday, when his hinting came to a head." Patil took his cup with a warm smile and turned his eyes back to their group. "He hinted that Hermione was alive and well, and that we could save her."

A beat of silence that was shattered by Marlene's cup crashing to the ground. "What?" she hissed. "She's – what?!"

"She's alive," Severus repeated, the fact cementing in his chest. "She's alive."

Patil nodded thoughtfully. "We were shocked, certainly, which is why we called -"

"No, no," Kingsley said impatiently. "We don't care about that, Patil. If she's alive, we need to find her. We need to get her back. Where is she?"

"That is the problem," Patil sniffed. "When I was brought to her yesterday -"

"She's at Grimmauld Place," Severus interrupted, all disbelief falling away to leave unavoidable truth, a truth that crushed his windpipe until he was stuttering the words out. Gods, to think of Hermione, who was so strong and yet so sweet, who'd inspired so many to protect her, including him, who had failed, leaving her - to think of the madness she must have experienced, the loneliness... He shoved that back, bitterness coating his tongue, of all the times to discover unplumbed depths of empathy... He nodded firmly, pulling his frock-coat closer as a shield from his own emotions, and met Kingsley's disbelieving eyes. They were all disbelieving, but that didn't change what was true - what seemed obvious, now that it was an option. "Yes," he muttered to himself, then addressed the others in a voice more confident. "She's trapped at Grimmauld Place."

Tense, brittle silence, and then –

"Well, then," Rida sniffed, sweeping to her feet, faux-Italian accent abandoned. "We'd better get her out."

Chapter Text

Tuesday 14th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Library

Severus had already turned to face his new opponents, delight and ire intermingled in his eyes. Christmas had obviously come early for him; idiot macho men.

And that, sadly, included her brother. James and Sirius stood, silhouetted between the bookshelves, a primal light in their eyes as they faced off against the two Slytherins. "James!" Hermione snapped. "What are you doing?"

"Don't get involved, 'Mi," Sirius murmured, gleefully tracking the rhythmic clenching of Severus's fists. "You stay over there."

Regulus shot her a smirk which made her want to punch him. Instead, she danced in front of Severus too quickly for him to respond, and threw out her arms. "No fighting in my library!"

"C'mon, 'Mi!" James groaned, twisting his wrist to aim around her. "He offended you. It's my right to duel him on it!"

She stamped her foot in frustration. "This isn't a duel, James, it's a recipe for a bloodbath. Back off!"

Behind her, Severus grunted. "I don't mind," he muttered maliciously. "Get out of the way, Potter."

She turned her head, careful to keep her body directly in the other boys' line of sight. "You shut up, Snape," she spat. "I'm still mad at you."

"Ha!" James hooted delightedly. "Hear that, Snivellus?"

"Shut up, James! What is wrong with you?"

"I saw him, 'Mi," James sang, edging closer, fierce eyes fixed above Hermione's head. "With his greasy nose in your face." Suddenly, his happy-go-lucky face failed and he flicked haunted eyes to her. "You looked scared."

"Of course I looked scared," Hermione sighed. "He's twice my size. That doesn't mean you have to kill him!"

"I'm not going to kill him," James said, at the same time as Sirius said, 'no, but it's a bloody good excuse'. "I might break a limb or two…"

"I'd like to see you try," Severus sneered. Hermione brought her foot down on the instep of his shoes with as much strength as she could muster. He didn't flinch – bloody dragonhide.

"This is ridiculous," she huffed, then swivelled on the balls of her feet to bring the sharp point of her elbow driving down into Severus's right wrist. He shouted in pain, automatically cradling his injured arm closer, loosening his grip on his wand. Hermione yanked that out of his hand and tucked it into her pocket, finishing the turn gracefully to face her brother. "See?" she snapped, ignoring Regulus' snort of amusement. "It's very sweet of you to defend me, dear brother, but I can look after myself."

If anything, this only served to make James' face scrunch further in displeasure. "But you don't have to," he said stubbornly, not lowering his wand, despite his 'opponent' now being both incapacitated and unarmed. "That's what I'm here for."

Miraculously, Hermione was able to keep from rolling her eyes. "No it is not," she sniffed. "You're my big brother. You're supposed to support me and love me and be embarrassed by my feminine antics."

"And kill anyone who threatens you," James added. "Dad told me that one. You're not going to argue with Dad, are you?"

"He did not say that," Hermione denied, if a bit dubiously. It did rather sound like something Charlus would say, actually, but then he was as reckless and protective as the next man, and quite senseless when it came to the people he loved. "Besides, Severus is my friend."

Severus, still cradling his wrist while he glowered at where his wand poked perkily out of Hermione's pocket, let out a grunt of disagreement. Regulus, much closer to him than Hermione, solved this problem by pinching closed the nostrils of Severus' prodigious nose. He avoided losing that limb only by the grace of being Severus's best friend, though Hermione thought it had been an uncomfortably close call.

James's lips crimped around the corners, his eyes growing stormy. "Your… friend?" he coughed out, as though he'd never heard the word before. "What do you mean, friend?"

"Well what do you think I mean?" she snapped, propping her hands on her hips and glaring at him. "We study together, we have conversations, occasionally he smiles and he once told me that I'm 'not entirely disagreeable company'. How else would you classify that?"

"Far too close to my sister, is how I'd classify that! I forbid you to be friends with these… these… Slytherins!" He marched over to where his sister stood, quite in shock, and wrapped his arm around hers. Together, he and Sirius lifted her up and carried her out, ignoring how she flailed and shouted with the helpful addition of a Silencing Charm. To Regulus and Severus, as a parting shot, he shouted "You stay away from my sister!"

Friday 17th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Gryffindor Common Room

"You're still mad."

"Yep." Hermione flipped the page in her Transfiguration book and pointedly ignored Sirius's puppy-dog eyes. The boy was ridiculously proficient at them and she knew that if she looked she'd fall victim to his sheer adorability. Hence why James was using Sirius as an ambassador rather than himself or Peter (he'd tried Remus on the first day, but thought better of that after she returned him to his dorm Confunded and sprouting a tail. The prevailing logic appeared to be that if she was willing to hex Remus then she'd have no qualms doing worse if her brother showed his face. An accurate assessment).

"He's sorry," Sirius told her, for the fourteenth time that week. He placed his hands on her knees and leaned forward, staring beseechingly up towards her eyebrows (her eyes were hidden by the book). "He's really, really sorry."

"As well he should be." Another page turn. She wasn't reading anymore but it wouldn't do to let Sirius think he'd gotten her attention. All across the common room people were surreptitiously watching the exchange; everybody knew and suffered when James was in a bad mood, so they were all rooting for him. Alice, Lily, Dor, Marley, and some of the other girls were on Hermione's side, though they as much as anyone would like Hurricane James to settle down.

Sirius Black on his knees before a woman was a rare sight, too. Hermione thought she could see Rue settled in the windowseat she'd adopted as her own (complete with name stitched into the cushion) frantically sketching the occurrence. "I'm not sorry," Sirius reminded her, as he always did. She pulled the book down a few inches to raise an eyebrow, then covered her face again before the full impact of his lovely brown eyes could hit –

Wait, brown?

She dropped the book into her lap and grabbed his chin, pulling his face closer. Yes – his eyes were brown. A rich chocolate colour, the iris taking over almost the whole whites while his pupils dilated. Narrowing her eyes in suspicion, she pulled back.

"What, no kiss?" Sirius pouted, rubbing his chin where her fingers had left red indents.

"What have you lot done?" She hissed in return, gesturing to his eyes. A flicker of surprise, then trepidation crossed his face, and he blinked frantically before turning his – now grey – eyes back on her.

"I don't know what you mean," he replied guardedly. She scoffed in frustration.

"Do you think I don't know what a partial Animagus transformation looks like, Sirius Black?" she whispered, leaning down so that her words couldn't be heard by anyone else. "I'm not thick."

"How would you know?" he whispered back, face fierce. "Maybe it's just a family thing."

An explanation that might have worked had she not spent the last four years by Regulus's side. His eyes had been solidly grey that whole time, except for a few blips during his Animagus training. "Take me to my brother," she commanded him. If Sirius had become an Animagus, then so had James, and likely Peter, too. She'd like to think that Remus had more sense than that but that point would be moot, too; he was too easily led for her to think anything different.

Sirius pulled himself reluctantly to his feet and offered his arm. "It's not what you think," he muttered as he pulled her in the direction of the boy's dormitory.

"So you haven't all risked your lives by becoming Animagus? That's a load off my mind," she snarked, tightening her grip on his forearm until he winced. "Honestly, what on earth possessed you to do something so idiotic?"

Something akin to pain flashed in his eyes. "It's not my place to say," he murmured.

"How convenient." They reached the door and he knocked loudly. It swung inwards under his fist, and Hermione crossed the threshold to see Remus dangling off the end of his bed, head on the floor, feet tangled in the curtains. A book hovered two inches above his face, and he used a quill to annotate parchment on the floor close-by. Hermione couldn't resist a chuckle at this, which had the unfortunate side-effect of breaking his concentration.

"Hermio-ah!" Remus yelped as he smacked into the floor, one foot swinging free while the other stayed locked in place by the scarlet upholstery. The book dropped onto his face, muffling another groan of pain, leaving his spread-eagle with his lower body hung in the air. Hermione snorted a laugh, Sirius shaking in silent agreement.

"Comfortable, mate?" he asked jovially, leaning over to lift the book. Remus made an incoherent sound that Sirius took to be an affirmative, because he let the book fall again and straightened up. "He's fine," he assured Hermione, who was sceptical. "Happens all the time. He's like a cat – we once found him suspended between the beams; he couldn't even remember how he got there, never mind how to get down."

"He's exaggerating," Remus scowled. Having managed to remove the book he was now stabbing his wand at the curtains in a hapless attempt to release himself from their confines. "It was James's curtain rails."

"Would that be your Animagus form, then?" Hermione asked politely. "A cat, like McGonagall?" Something about this triggered a bell in Hermione's mind, but she ignored it – they were too frequent to do anything else.

"Ah!" Remus's foot came suddenly free and he flopped onto his back, winded. His eyes sought out Sirius's, wide with fear. "Padfoot..?"

"She doesn't know, Moony," he soothed his friend.

"Doesn't know what?" Hermione repeated, more than a little petulantly. "Will someone perhaps fill me in?" She glanced around and let out a gusty sigh. "And where is my no-good brother?!"

"In the bathroom, thinking about Lily," Peter squeaked. Hermione's head whipped around to spot him half-hidden behind his own drapes, only one eye visible and a thatch of blonde, fly-away hair. He gave a smarmy wink, and Hermione shuddered.

"Pete!" Sirius snarled, tossing a pillow to smack him in the face. "You can't say shit like that in front of Hermione! She's his sister."

"Yes, and getting very impatient." She rolled her sleeves up. "If you'll not fetch him, then I will." With that, she marched toward the door set into the only flat section of the circular room's walls, and flung it open.

It was warm, steamy – she could hardly see two inches in front of her face, which was just as well; she had no wish to see James naked. Instead, she drew in a deep breath and bellowed "James Charlus Potter!" as loudly as she could.

"Shit!" A voice came from unnervingly closeby, and the sound of rushing water cut off. "Hermione? What are you doing in here?"

She stamped her foot mulishly, peering into the fog. "Waiting for an explanation, brother mine."

"Look-" his face came swimming out of the steam, hair slicked back. He'd wrapped himself in a ludicrously large towel the feminine way, the cloth tucked demurely inwards just below his shoulder. "-I know you're mad, but it's for the best. Snape is not the sort of bloke you want to be hanging around with, trust me. Lily says he's into all sorts of dodgy dark magic; creating some of his own, too!" He took her elbow and steered her back into the main dormitory. In the sunlight, she could see that he was wearing his unbearable 'brother knows best' face, and her palms itched to slap it. "He's a Death Eater-in-training, 'Mi," he explained slowly, his tone more than a little patronising. Out of the corner of her eye, Hermione spotted Sirius desperately making slicing motions across his neck, but James only spared him an irritated glance before going back to Hermione.

"You don't want to be involved with this stuff. Trust me."

She ripped her arm from his grasp and stepped back. "Do I not?" she asked sweetly, brushing off her robes. "Because creating the odd spell-"

"It's more than the odd spell, Hermione. Lily's shown us some of his notes – they can get really nasty."

"-doesn't mean… wait." She blinked in surprise. "Lily showed you these?"

James suddenly looked awkward, itching his shoulder nervously. "Well, not show exactly… more like… she left them in the open?"

"And you just happened to walk by, slip, and accidentally read all of it?" Disgusted, Hermione shook her head. "It's unhealthy how obsessed you are with Severus, James," she told him tiredly. "Don't you have enough to do – you know: annoying teachers, pranking Slytherins, becoming illegal animagi, being a general bloody nuisance to have around – without adding a pointless, useless waste-of-time vendetta to the list? How will you pass your OWLs when you've got such a full schedule?"

James lifted an eyebrow in surprise. "Do you know, I've never thought of it that way. Don't worry, love. I make time for Snivellus."

With a cry of impotent rage, she kicked him in the shin, hard. "Back off, James! Just stop! I don't have time for your stupid games!"

"Wait," Peter said from his bed, "did she say 'becoming illegal animaguses'?"

"Yes, she did," Sirius said – in a voice so small Hermione thought he might be hoping she didn't realise he was still there.

James gathered himself at that and turned a narrow-eyed look on his friends. "What? Who told her?"

"Nobody told me, James," she spat. "I do have a brain of my own, you know. I'm not just an extension of your sodding hero complex."

"'Mi…" James winced; she was maliciously glad to have landed a hit.

"No. Sod it. I'm off." She sniffed, flouncing to the door. At the last minute, she turned back and looked James directly in the eye. "Count yourself lucky I'm not a more vindictive person, because otherwise I'd be going directly to McGonagall."

"Hermione!" Sirius gaped. Remus just whimpered; not having moved from the spot he'd fell into when she first entered the room.

She wasn't particularly proud of that parting shot, but it certainly helped vent some anger.

Monday 20th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Defence Against The Dark Arts Classroom

It was during DADA that everything fell into place for Hermione.

She'd been listening to the lecture, making notes as they drifted across the room to her from Professor Dim's mouth (Marlene had stopped learning their names after Professor Norton, heart-stoppingly handsome and unforgivably dull, second year, had broken her heart by rebuffing her advances. Holding this offence against all Defence teachers – and all men, too – she instead referred to them all as 'Professor Dim' for 'Does It Matter?', and it'd caught on), following along in her mind. It was a lecture on Dark Creatures, in which Dim briefly summarised a creature, proceeded to then forget where he'd gotten up to, and start the same section all over again. They were now stalled on Vampires, and Hermione was reading ahead.

Next up: Werewolves.

The bell that had jingled in her mind during the confrontation in her brother's bedroom had let up, but now it rang louder than ever, yet she could not decipher the puzzle. How did that – her brother's ridiculous decision to lead his friends into a dangerous, often deadly transformation – have anything to do with her Defence class?

It must, though, because she trusted her mind. Most of the time.

She knew about werewolves. There was a whole section of her mind devoted to werewolves; their habits, their packs, the poison in their bites and the long-term affects of their affliction. It was all tied up with a pretty bow – 'Outstanding' standard work, she was sure. But why..?

She turned the page and her eyes caught an image of a werewolf mid-transformation, all jerking muscles and tearing flesh. It seemed too graphic for its environs, but Hermione was mesmerised. There was something there… something…

The blackness at the back of her head lurched with a suddenness that stole her breath, absorbing her consciousness until she was in the dark entirely, white flecks in her eyes the only sign of light, and when it cleared, when her vision returned…

Well, she knew.

Monday 20th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Gryffindor Common Room

It followed her through the castle, a vision of blood and snarls and earth-shattering howls, so that when she finally stumbled into the common room her mind wasn't quite what it should be. The images were awful, the accompanying emotion bewildering – fear and adrenalin and trust

Remus was settled in an armchair, looking so blissfully normal she almost wept. Her eyes lingered on the scars that criss-crossed his cheeks, the lump where his lip had healed oddly from some unknown attack – except it wasn't unknown, not anymore. She remembered him telling her he'd gotten it at school, during his first ever transformation, when he'd been in the shack. The wolf had been so scared, so confused and alone, that he'd spent the whole night beating himself against the wall; running headfirst with the hopes of escape. The change at dawn had fixed his broken nose and eye-socket but ripped the lip even further.

These memories; the ones she'd thought she'd lost forever, but it turns out had only been stored away. Safe. If they were all like this one – the terrifying, life-threatening encounter with a werewolf who had once been a teacher and trusted ally – she wasn't sure she wanted them back.

He didn't realise she was there until she knocked the book out of his hand and onto the (thankfully, empty) hearth and bundled herself into his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and snuggling into his shoulder. He let out a little cry of surprise, but hugged her gently all the same.

"What's this for?" he asked with a thread of amusement, shifting slightly as the sensation of her tears wetting his shirt registered. "Hermione?"

"I'm sorry," she muttered. "I won't tell McGonagall – I never would, I swear."

He grew rigid, his hands pausing on her back. "…what?"

"I promise," she said, pulling back to look him in the eyes. There was a lot in the murky green depths – fear, hope, loneliness, trepidation. She forced a smile. "You might want to ask them to be more subtle, though. It's hard not to notice when a bloke's eyes change shape while you're looking at him. And God know what James turned into; I'm betting it's not something compact and easily explained, though. Not for James."

Realising she was still draped across his lap, she stood hurriedly. To mask her blush, she continued to blather on; "and Moony, really? It's like they're asking for trouble."

"That was Pete," Remus said blurrily, watching her with a furrowed brow. "Erm, Hermione?"

"I'd better go," she mumbled, making a show of checking her watch. "I'm meant to meet Dor in the library…" She flashed him a grin. "I skipped out of Defence to come here."

"Your brother will be so proud," Remus nodded, relaxing as he seemed to get the message that she wasn't going to press him on it. There was a glimmer of relief in his eyes that she revelled in. "Alright. I'll tell James…"

"Tell him I still think he's a git," she sniffed. "A good friend," she smiled wistfully, "but still a git."

And a git who became an Animagus before me! She shrieked on the inside as she traversed the corridors towards the library. That would not do. She changed direction at the last minute and barged into the old classroom her group had commandeered for their lessons. Clarence was in the centre of the floor, cross-legged on a mat as he did his meditations (unsupervised – silly boy). Hermione noted with envy that his hair had turned black, with a startling silver streak down the fringe.

This sight only bolstered her motivations, and she flopped down on another mat, crossed her legs, and closed her eyes.

"One…" she counted, letting herself fall into the rhythm of her breathing. "Two… Three…"

She was gone.

Chapter Text

Monday 20th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Abandoned Classroom

She came around to the sound of sniggering. Male sniggering, probably two of them. Maybe three. She recognised Regulus's low tone – it was still unfamiliar, his voice only having cracked the year before, but undeniably Reg in that it held ounces more class than the other. She frowned at them without opening her eyes, using the time to stretch her aching legs.

"What's so funny?" She snapped when they just kept laughing.

Fabric shifted nearby and she recognised a presence as it came into her personal space and tugged at a lock of her hair. "Nothing," Regulus said innocently. "Nothing's funny."

"Then why are you laughing?" she crossed her arms petulantly, her eyes snapping open. Regulus was knelt in front of her, a soft expression on his face as he fiddled with something on the top of her head. Behind him, Clarence was sprawled across his mat, watching them with amusement. He caught her eye and smiled mischievously.

"He's telling the truth, it's not funny." He smirked. "It's actually quite sexy." Regulus half-turned to scowl at Clarence, who hooted out another laugh. "You see? We laugh so we don't have stare, and end up provoking your fearsome protector." He gave a dramatic shiver, winking.

"Orange is a good look on you," Xavier said, and Hermione's head whipped around to see him leering playfully – or maybe playfully, you never could tell with Xavier. "I always did have a thing for gingers. Tell me, do you think the carpet- oi!"

Regulus had lunged at him, cutting off the question as they rolled around on the floor. That provoked another snort of laughter from Clarence, who watched avidly, his eyes sparkling. "Fight! Fight! Fight!"

The lack of any other feminine presence in the room was palpable in that the two boys didn't bother to be civilised about it – Xavier elbowed Regulus in the stomach, yanking viciously on his lovely hair and attempting to bite his ear. In return, Regulus managed to burrow one of his long-fingered hands in the material at the back of his shirt, twisting and dragging it upwards to strangle the other boy. Praying desperately for some sort of salvation from their ridiculous games, she reached upwards to see what had them all so fascinated, yelping when her fingers made contact with something soft and twitchy.

Ears. Frantically, she dug beneath her hair for her human ones and found they were missing, having moved a few inches upwards to balance on the top of her head, half buried in her mane of hair. When it fell forward, she realised with no small amount of shock that her hair too had changed – become heavier, more bristled and a bright, fire-engine red. She yelped again, some long-buried fear triggering a fight-or-flight response in her gut that had her scrambling to her feet.

Through her haze, she saw Clarence come to stand before her, smiling lazily. "Don't worry," he drawled, curling a strand around his finger and staring at it, fascinated. "It won't last too long. You'll be back to normal before you know it." He sighed. "Red really is your colour."

She was relieved to note that her hands remained the same, even though the downy hairs on her arms had thickened and bronzed, too. "What in Hell is going on?!" she demanded, staring at Clarence.

"It's a partial change. Looks like you were further along than you thought." He shrugged languorously. "It'll be troublesome until you make the full one – trust me, I know. I woke up yesterday with a tiny black nose and a tail." Suddenly, he grinned proudly. "It was really long and fluffy, I'm quite pleased."

"Good for you," she muttered, subconsciously touching her nose. Perfectly fine, entirely human. She gave a deep sigh of relief, then drooped. Clarence caught her as she flopped, her bones suddenly feeling twice as heavy as before.

"C'mon – I'll get you back to your dorm. Those two won't be finished for a while." He shot her a wry look, tapping her head with the tip of his wand. She felt his magic spill over her; a simple glamour to disguise her changes. She was too weary to do much more than smile. "Really, you've got a hell of a guardian in Regulus. How'd you manage that?"

She shrugged, then discounted that as a bad idea when her legs went all wobbly again. "Only the Gods know," she burbled.

They managed to stagger back to Gryffindor tower just in time to catch James and his friends as they left. Remus, she noted, was not among them. James's eyes widened at the sight of her draped across Clarence, and he was none too gentle dragging her away. "What happened to her?" he demanded fiercely, clutching her to his chest hard enough that she moaned.

Clarence, a con-man at heart and therefore no stranger to getting himself out of (and into) sticky situations, threw his hands up at the first sign of a wand. "We were practising Transfiguration," he said boredly. "She overexerted herself. Nothing on me, mate."

"I'll be the judge of that," he hissed, gesturing to Sirius. "Get a wand on him. I'm taking Hermione inside."

Without waiting for a reply he hoisted Hermione into his arms and through the portrait hole, scaring two tiny first years away so that he could prop Hermione up on the settee. He covered her with a blanket and stood to go. "No," she muttered, using the last of her strength to grab his wrist.

He glanced at her in surprise – perhaps that she'd willingly touch him, or maybe that she was still awake. "You alright, 'Mi?"

"Don't you hurt him," she said, sounding as threatening as she could while being as weak as a kitten.

"Did he hurt you?" James asked, his voice hard. "Because if he did…"

"Clarence? Pfft," she scoffed derisively. "As if he could."

James's face contorted with frustration and he stroked a gentle hand over her head. A bewildered look told her that he'd felt her ears, but shook it off for later. "I don't like this," he said firmly. "All these secret classes, dodgy mates. Marlene swaggering about with cuts and bruises all over the place. Don't think I don't know you're involved in something big, Hermione."

Ice settled in her chest, stiffening her spine. "What are you going to do, James?" She was panicky now, clutching his hand to her. "Don't – don't -"

Conflicted, he winced. "Aw, 'Mi, don't look at me like that. You know if I was any sort of brother I'd tell Mum, and she'd put a stop to it."

"No," she whispered.

He paused, his head flipping to look at the door. Outside, the sky was growing dark, the full moon preparing to rise. Hermione spotted the anxiety in his face and released his hand. Biting his lip, he nodded once. "We'll talk about this in the morning," he promised. Glancing around, he nodded at a girl close-by. "Mary! Will you help 'Mi upstairs, she's suffering magical depletion. No, I don't know why. Do you need Madam Pomfrey, love? No? Okay – you get some sleep." He kissed her forehead gently and glowered at Mary – a silent threat. The older girl rolled her eyes but manhandled Hermione up the stairs anyway, with such alacrity that Hermione didn't even see James leave.

Tuesday 21st October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Transfiguration

"Your brother is terrifying," Clarence told her the next day as they attempted to transform a piglet into a guinea pig.

"Not as terrifying as I am," she replied without missing a beat, leaning over to correct Marlene's wand movements before she accidentally cast bombarda and slaughtered the poor animal. This was the problem when you were so advanced at such a young age – the easier spells became second nature to cast, and that led to accidents while you learned the harder ones. Marlene grimaced, shooting her a thumbs-up. Hermione twisted in her seat to look behind her, where Clarence sat with a Hufflepuff girl Hermione only knew vaguely. "You didn't tell him anything, did you?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Hermione, he was about two seconds from setting his vicious little pal on me. What do you think?"

She groaned, facing forward once again to pout at her newly rodent-ified friend. Clarence subscribed to a very particular code, in which loyalty came before all things, except perhaps his own continued existence. "He wouldn't have killed you," she said, quietly, uncertainly. Clarence scoffed.

"James wouldn't have, no. He's too honourable." He snickered at that word, as if the very idea was ludicrous. "His little friend? I take no chances."

"Sirius wouldn't hurt a fly," Hermione sniffed.

"I wasn't talking about Sirius," Clarence murmured. There was a pop and a flash of light, and when Hermione glanced across Marlene had successfully turned her pig into a stuffed toy. She stared at the results of her labours in complete bemusement.

Professor McGonagall swooped down from the front to glare. "Miss McKinnon! How on earth-"

"I have no idea," Marlene said, throwing her hands up in the air. "I just – I have no idea."

Wednesday 22nd October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

"Hermione. Hermione. Hermione."

Hermione ignored her brother as he tried desperately to get her attention, folding a sandwich up in a napkin and stashing it in her bag. She grabbed an apple and stowed it away, too, before dropping a handful of nuts in her pocket. James's voice got gradually more frustrated, but she ignored him, turning and sweeping out of the hall. She couldn't avoid him forever, she knew, but she could bloody well try.

Friday 24th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Abandoned Classroom

"Ha!" Dorcas hooted a laugh as she tripped Rue to the floor, doing a victory dance around the transfigured ring. "I did it!"

"Well done!" Kingsley beamed, applauding. "We'll make a brawler of you yet."

"Oh – oh, no, I don't want – argh!"

Rue hooked an arm around the other girl's neck and dragged her to the floor, flipping her onto her back and straddling her bottom. A rictus grin swept across her face as she smashed Dorcas's face into the padding, holding her head down. With the other, she counted the seconds on her fingers; one… two… three.

She leapt off, offering a hand up. Dorcas took it warily, a thin trickle of blood dripping from her mouth.

Kingsley rolled his eyes. "I suppose that round goes to Rue," he said in a wry voice. "For sheer brutality."

"For Merlin's sake, Dorcas! You grew up in Glasgow – how can you be a bloody pacifist!" Marlene ranted, taking Dorcas from Rue with a vicious hiss at the other girl, carrying her to the bench where they'd all left their wands. She picked one up at random and cast a hasty Episkey on whatever was broken, not halting her rant. Kingsley watched them with a fond smile before shaking his head and turning back to the ring.

"Alright," he said, his deep voice rumbling through the room, rich with authority. "Next up we have… Regulus and Hermione."

Regulus, settled next to her on the bench, winced. Hermione sighed. "Really?" she said, propping her chin on her fist. "Must we? I mean, I love you, Reg, I really do, but… well you're not really a challenge."

Regulus scowled, folding his arms. Kingsley raised an eyebrow. "Not a challenge? Regulus can beat Clarence and Xavier any day."

"Yes, but not me." Hermione bit her lip, unsure if she should press her complaint further. It wasn't that Regulus wasn't an excellent fighter – he was. His movements were quick and lithe, his punches well calculated to always do the most damage in one blow. However… "Can't I fight Rida?" she asked desperately. At the other end of the room, Rida's head flicked up from her book and she gave a sly smirk.

"I would be happy with that," she said, batting her eyelashes.

Kingsley looked like he wanted to argue, but gave it up, throwing his hands in the air. "Fine," he stepped back, gesturing to the ring with a flourish. "Give it all you've got."

The fight lasted twenty-five minutes before Kingsley called a halt to their sparring, with Rida limping, a chunk of Hermione's hair caught in her rings. Hermione's ears were ringing from having Rida smack both at once, and her tailbone ached from falling one too many times. They were pretty evenly matched; Rida was taller and stronger, but loathe to get too dirty, whereas Hermione was a scrapper. They shook hands amicably, Rida still smirking whenever Hermione winced.

The rest of the group had packed up and were preparing to leave, so Hermione wandered slowly over to her corner, careful not to jolt herself. Regulus stood there, his arms folded and jaw clenched. He was quiet as she drew on her robe and tossed her bag over her shoulder, but when she went to walk past him he jerked out of whatever mood he'd been in.

"What was that about?" Regulus demanded, grabbing her arm to stall her forward progress. "You don't want to fight me, now?"

Hermione sighed and glanced around. The room was emptying, Kingsley the last one through the door. He raised an eyebrow in question and she nodded. He left, closing the door behind him. "Look – Regulus…"

"I'm not a bad fighter," he said, his bottom lip sticking out petulantly. "I'm not."

"You're a great fighter, Reg," she assured him quickly, but his eyes still narrowed.

"I've beaten you before."

"On off days." She shook her head. "Look – it's nothing to do with skill. It's about… well…" Desperately, she looked around for help, but there was nothing available. Just her and Reg. It wasn't an unusual occurrence – far from it; most of her time at Hogwarts had been spent in his company. This time, however? There was a weird current in the air, some tension she couldn't identify, and it made her uncomfortable. Looking at Regulus, she realised that most of it came from him. He was practically shivering, his every limb tightly controlled, his eyes dark. She bit her lip, and his eyes flew to it, his own pursing.

Imagination. That was simply her imagination playing tricks on her, because Regulus was her best friend and they didn't think of each other like that. Objectively, she knew that he was an attractive bloke; long, black hair, grey eyes, a lovely refined jawline and cheekbones you could use as a knife. But they just weren't like that. She'd never even considered it.

Shaking those thoughts away, she ruthlessly dragged her mind back to the subject at hand. "You're too nice," she said, finally. His eyes flared in surprise and she stifled a laugh – he couldn't really be that ignorant, could he? Or, did he just not think she'd noticed? "You pull your punches," she informed him, checking the points off on her fingers. "You kick too softly. You never put your full weight into your tackles. You're a big bloke, Reg – you could do some real damage if you wanted to."

"I don't want to," he replied, confirming her suspicion that he'd known all along. "I could hurt you."

She blew out a frustrated breath. "I'm a big girl, Regulus. We all are. You can't dance around our delicate feminine sensibilities." Hermione laughed without humour. "I don't think any of us, bar Dor, even have feminine sensibilities."

He opened his mouth to reply then abruptly shut it again, squeezing his eyes closed. "It's not about them," he said with exaggerated patience. "It's about you."

For some reason this hit her like a punch in the gut, and she was inexplicably offended. "What?" she asked, fighting to keep her voice level, "do you think I'm not strong enough?"

"Of course not!" He snapped, the leash on his temper flying off. "You're too bloody strong, always doing something or fighting someone. You're constantly covered in bruises – don't think I don't notice when you're stiff, just because you don't show it off like McKinnon doesn't mean they don't exist! You're always tutoring, or learning, or sneaking off to watch Meadowes learn to Heal so that you can learn too. Salazar, Hermione – you collapsed of Magical Core depletion on Monday night and the next day you were back in lessons! I don't want to add to that! I just can't!"

Hermione gaped stupidly, unable to think of a reply. He bore this for a few seconds then growled in the back of his throat, shoving past to leave. Even then, it wasn't a hard shove – barely a push, and for some reason that irritated her more. That in his anger he still treated her like glass.

"Oi!" She barked, darting in front of him to block the door. "You can't say something like that and just walk off."

He looked at her with an empty expression. "Why not? It's not like anything I say will stop you, is it?"

She huffed, crossing her own arms. "It's not like I have a choice," she retorted, miffed. "We're forced into these classes, and then there's the homework, and our everyday courses – what, do you think I should just stop? Because you don't like me working too much?"

"Nobody else works this hard," he said sharply, moving forward to reach for the doorhandle. He snarled as she inserted herself between him and the door again. "Move."

"No!" she leaned back against the door in a parody of relaxed insouciance. "Make me, idiot."

His eyes flashed, and the next thing she knew he had his hands wrapped around her shoulders and had deposited her out of his way. She tried not to betray her surprise – Gods, but she forgot he could do that. He was so perfectly polite, entirely noble, with his pressed robes and careful speech. It made one forget that he shared his brother's wide figure, a body that could be considered oafish on anybody else.

She blinked up at him dazedly. Her head still span a little from knocking her head on the floor, but unless she'd managed to slip outside the timestream – and it wouldn't be the first time, sadly – he'd not moved. His fingers flexed on her arms, his expression troubled, but he didn't move. She was loathe to say something and break his concentration. It seemed inappropriate.

After a long moment, he sucked a breath in through his teeth. She opened her mouth to speak – ask what he was doing, perhaps, or chastise him for lugging her about like furniture – when his mouth came down on hers and whatever she might have said was lost in a wordless moan.

He wasn't sweet, not how she'd have expected. His lips were soft but unyielding, pressing against hers, pushing them apart. He licked a line across her bottom lip that had her shivering, opening to him entirely on instinct, allowing his entry. His tongue swept in to prod at hers, once, twice, then retreating, his lips returning to press demanding demi-kisses along hers.

She wasn't his first kiss, she knew that. He'd had a brief relationship with an older girl the year before, but it hadn't lasted. She'd sat with him as he gushed about her, then later about their dates, about the magic of her kiss and then the disconnected apathy once they'd broken up. But Hermione… no boy came near her, not with the threat of James hanging over their heads. And to the Slytherins and Ravenclaws, who couldn't care less about James, there was Regulus – her constant and fiercely protective companion.

It felt right that her first kiss should be his.

Tentatively, she pressed forward against his counterweight, her first active encouragement. His hands flexed again on her arms, smoothing down to her hands and then back upwards, one wrapping around her neck to bring her closer while the other sat on her hip. Again, he swept his tongue into her mouth and she closed her eyes at the sensation, unable to do much else but suck lightly, pressing closer with her own, dragging a ragged groan from his throat. Something pleasurable and warm pooled in her stomach at the noise, wrenching a pitiful half-moan from her own throat. Of their own accord, her hands flew up to clutch at the hair at the nape of his neck.

One minute they were there, drifting in a haze of building desire, and the next he'd wrenched himself back. His eyes were wild when they locked on hers, panic flitting through. Carefully, he reached up to clasp her hands in his, and pulled them back down to her sides. "I…" he stopped, swallowing thickly. A bright pink flush flooded his face and he stepped back. "Yes. I'm – sorry."

Before she even had a chance to articulate the confused "why?", he was gone, disappearing out of the door she was no longer blocking.

Chapter Text

Tuesday 31st July 1984

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Regulus's bedroom was not a friend to spirits. Or, at least, not this spirit.

If a spirit was what she was, anyway. It was hard to discern the exact nature of her existence; she'd certainly tried. There just didn't seem to be any other explanation.

She couldn't remember dying, though. One would think one would remember that. Hermione rather thought that the end of one's earthly existence would be traumatic enough to stand out, but apparently not.

Kreacher assured her she wasn't dead, simply cursed, but really, was there a difference? Not that she could see. Either way, she was unable to contact her loved ones, interact with the world, leave the house or even put on new clothes. Indefinitely. She'd never heard of a curse that could do that. Never even sensed a whiff of one. It would have to be either very new or exceedingly old, and Hermione couldn't imagine that she'd never heard of it. Death, however?

Shaking off those maudlin thoughts, Hermione proceeded up the stairs. The physics of this condition were fascinatingly arbitrary – she could climb stairs, she couldn't walk through walls, she could open doors (just about), but she couldn't use the furniture without great effort, and the less said about people, the better. She just couldn't understand it, and she'd certainly tried – Kreacher had gotten tired of all the books on the subject he'd had to schlep around in her time here.

And it had been years. Years since Regulus had left; gone out into the night with only the clothes on his back and a wand, Kreacher hanging off his arm. He'd ignored her as she'd begged him not to go, her fear stemming from the knowledge that she didn't remember him. Of all the things she half-remembered of her past life, she had thought over the years that he'd come up at some point, but no. She even recalled Andromeda's infant child, but not her Regulus. And what could that mean, except that something awful would happen to him?

She'd had a bad feeling, that night. Watching him smile, press a kiss to her cheek; see the flash of solemn acceptance in his eyes as he assured her he'd be careful. He'd come home. The liar.

When, three hours later, Kreacher appeared on the kitchen floor, sobbing and gasping and absolutely unable to leave, she'd known. She felt it in her gut, stood there watching Kreacher try and fail to apparate. What she hadn't known then was that nothing about that would hurt as much as watching him succeed had.

So busy mourning, it had been days before she'd realised she couldn't leave the house. Days after that, when Walburga finally stumbled back through the door and not said a single word about her presence, did she finally realise she was non-corporeal.

Since then, she'd not entered Regulus's room. She saw his mother go in there and weep, she saw Kreacher clean it, but she didn't enter herself. First, she'd been too angry to risk it. She couldn't trust herself not to… not to…

Well, she supposed she could, in fact, trust herself not to destroy the place, given as she could barely lift a cup of tea, but the principle of the thing still stood. She couldn't pollute the place with her rage, her resentment.

Today, she had no choice.

In the kitchen downstairs, Kreacher was cooking up a storm. Hermione would be worried about them drawing attention to themselves if Walburga noticed things anymore, but the sad fact was that the older woman had simply… left her body after Regulus's death. With no husband and no sons, her purpose in life had abandoned her, and she was shattered, broken, left behind with no will to go on. She ate with mechanical movements and spent most days in her bed, shunning all company but that of her memories and misery.

As much as Hermione disliked the woman, it was horrifying to see this strong, terrifying woman brought so low. The days were bad, with her wheezing out sobs as she lay prone, but the nights were much worse – the older woman would awaken, then, with screams and howls of rage, insults screeched into the night, vile threats of bodily harm and mutilation, the revenge she would lay against her eldest son for the loss of the younger. They haunted Hermione, replaying in her head in vivid detail and images in the darkness, until she felt as though she was in a living nightmare as she fought to find a place in the house where she might be granted a reprieve.

She'd yet to find one.

Taking a deep breath and pushing those thoughts away, too, Hermione scratched at the door, attempting to grasp the handle of the door. Her mind was so scattered that it took several attempts, plus the fact that once she finally had a grip a howling, haunting wail from upstairs shocked her so much she dropped it again. Eventually, however, she managed.

She wouldn't be here today except that Hermione was searching for a gift.

She knew that James might disapprove of this course of action. He always had disliked Regulus, for no other reason than his attitude, his political beliefs, his House, his tendency to make no secret of his affection for Hermione – well, okay, perhaps James had had a foundation for his dislike. But he wasn't here to stop her now and she had responsibilities.

It's not like she could buy something herself, or make him something. She didn't have that ability.

Instead, she braced herself, staring at the placard on Regulus's door, and shoved her way in.

It had been preserved the way he'd left it. Slytherin green and silver on his bedsheets, his walls, streamers hanging from the ceiling. Marks of his personality scattered the place: glass dice in a cup by his bed, covered by a few galleons he'd won from his housemates; a ratty cushioned post in the corner where he'd kept his beloved owl, Lilith; piles of books where they would no longer fit in his expanded bookshelves; and his plotting evidenced in what looked, to the untrained eye, like a shrine to the Dark Lord. Hermione turned away from this part immediately, not caring to look.

His bedsheets were ruffled, as if they'd been replaced in haste, and one drawer laid open, contents spilling onto the ground. Hermione blushed and looked away from that – even glancing at his underwear seemed like a violation. Over all, it looked as though he might be home any second, come striding in with his face all pinched like it got when he was embarrassed, calling "forgot my damn socks again!" or something of the like.

Gritting her teeth, she pushed on, ignoring the stabbing pains in her heart. Her legs moved sluggishly, her strength waning, and she had to bite her cheeks to push back the stinging in her eyes. Gods, she missed him. For all of his faults, she missed him so much. What she'd give to have him back, so that she could hug him, slap him, hug him again, yell at him, then have him hold her while she cried. To have anyone hold her seemed like an impossibility, nowadays, but, oh, how she yearned for it.

The next thing Hermione noticed was the distinct lack of, well, her. The few previous times she'd visited, every surface had been scattered with photographs, letters, the various paraphernalia of long-term friendship. There, on the top of his wardrobe, had been a picture of she, Regulus and Severus by the lake in their sixth year; Hermione in the water, goading them into joining her, while Severus had scowled off into the distance and Regulus laughed from the bank as he pulled off his shoes. He'd had an ornately carved keepsake chest, the counterpart to her more feminine one, on the desk in which he kept their correspondence – that was also gone. In fact, everything – right down to the green-and-silver tie she'd embroidered a golden lion on and forced him to wear to graduation – was missing.

A sudden rush of pure, murderous fury energized her, the darkness in her mind spurring her to hurt the woman who'd done this, to wring her neck and pull back before she was dead just so she could do it again and again and again and again!

No, Hermione. She sucked a deep breath in through her nose and out through her mouth, contenting herself with scowling in the general direction of the old witch's bed. He'd loved his mum. Probably wouldn't forgive her if she murdered the hag. And, when they reunited in the afterlife, if she ever got out of this hellhole, she didn't really want Walburga to have anything more to hold over her head.

Calmer, Hermione used her meagre influence to open the wardrobe door and root through the boxes trying not to wince when she realised that Kreacher and Walburga had preserved Regulus's scent. That bordered on the weird, if you asked her. She'd loved him, and everything, but this shrine passed unhealthy a few years back. Especially given how they'd rid themselves of anything about him that might have been questionable – his alliance with her and Severus, just one example.

Not that she'd change it, of course. It was strangely comforting even as it was creepy – but then Hermione had accepted his death a while back; unlike Walburga, she didn't really expect him to walk in the door any moment, no matter how much it broke her heart to admit it.

Her fingers slid over the top of something smooth and she gave a victorious grin, using the last of her strength to yank it out of the cupboard and into her arms. The minute it was in her arms, it no longer took so much effort to hold it – helpful.

She stroked her fingers over the engraved top, relishing the smooth wood, smelling the polish. It was brand new – a betrothal gift from her brother. It had her initials engraved in the bottom corner – H.P. – and she'd given it to Regulus for safe-keeping until she'd found a place of her own. It was the closest thing to acceptance of her choices James had ever given her, and she'd cherished the memory of it, even if she'd never used it.

Taking a last glance around the room, Hermione smiled, sad and fond. Everything in here hurt her, sharp edges against her battered heart. Whether she would come back, she wasn't certain – it would be unhealthy to become attached to his few earthly remains.

In the kitchen, Kreacher was finishing his work, using a piping bag to smooth icing over a tiny cake. It wasn't much, but it was the best they could risk, and Hermione smiled at the image. In another life, they wouldn't need to sneak about so much, be so secretive. Perhaps at some point in the future, they could be more free.

Finished, Kreacher shoved the confection into a little carboard box and brought it across to her, grabbing her hand without a word, a soft look on his wrinkled face. Together, they apparated across the county to Privet Drive.

He was in the garden, drowned in over-sized clothing as he lay quietly on the grass, reading a battered newspaper. His eyes were intent, his nose scrunched up as he silently mouthed out the pronunciation of the words, sketching his path along the page with his finger. Canned laughter drifted out of the window, along with a disgustingly pig-like snort from one of the inhabitants. In one of the rooms upstairs, another TV played, projecting crashing noises and the pop-pop of guns into the street. He soldiered on through these distractions, shaking his head when he got something wrong and returning to the start of the sentence to begin the laborious process all over again.

Hermione's throat closed tight, her lungs screaming for air as she fought not to cry. Gods, but he was sweet, and so small, so delicate. Despite his circumstances, he didn't look morose, nor resentful – simply excited and interested by what he was reading and his own accomplishments in doing so. A fly buzzed past his face and he laughed, waving it off with childlike glee. He was so innocent, it wrenched at Hermione, clawing and begging that she change his fate.

Not that she could. If she'd been able to change anything, she would have changed everything.

She collapsed to the floor nearby, watching through blurry eyes as her nephew – her nephew – turned a page and lit up when he realised he'd reached the comics. Seven months had passed since Kreacher had last consented to bring her here, and his face had smoothed out more, his hair growing longer, taking on that life of its own that was so uniquely Potter. It amazed Hermione how much he grew each time she saw him, how much he changed. He really did look exactly like James, enough to make her heart clench, her breath stutter. This was the childhood she'd not seen – the childhood she couldn't remember, no matter how hard she tried.

As if sensing their presence, he looked up, crooked glasses flashing in the light, a curious tilt to his head. "Is someone there?" he asked in the high-pitched voice of little boys the world over.

Though Hermione itched to be the one to greet him, to introduce herself and form a bond, to be able to adopt him and whisk him back to Potter Manor and raise him as he was meant to be raised, she knew it was impossible. Instead, she nodded at Kreacher, who used his free hand to take the gift she'd wrapped for him and drop it on the floor. The second he'd let go of it, it became visible to the boy, who gasped.

"What?" Harry grew wide-eyed, and Hermione gave a soft smile. She'd never been present for him to find the gifts she'd left him before, always having to drop them into his bedroom – a cupboard under the stairs! She seethed silently – and leave. They'd gotten lucky to find him alone today.

He reached out hesitantly, brushing his fingers over the fine wood, and gasping when he caught the initials. "For… me?" he asked, looking around wildly. Kreacher, who was valiantly trying to hold back a smile – Hermione could tell, because nobody, not even the world's grumpiest house-elf, could resist Harry's naïve charm – took the other box and dropped that atop it with a grunt. Harry smiled even wider when he saw it. "Are you there?" he asked excitedly, climbing to his feet. "Talk to me! Please? I just want to know who you are!"

Oh, Hermione couldn't hold back the tears as Kreacher dropped the final package on the grass, a card that Harry snatched up greedily and ripped open the tab of. He sat cross-legged on the ground, his eyes squinted as he tried to read. "'To Ha-rry,'" he grinned, "'Happ-y birthday'!" His head flew up, searching for something in the air. "How did you know it was my birthday?" he asked, clutching the card to his chest. "'We wish you all of the joy in the wor-ld. Lots of love'," Harry frowned, turning it in his hands to search for a signature. "You didn't write your name," he told the air with a frown. "Miss Peckins says you always have to write your name at the end of a letter. Don't you know that?"

When no response was forthcoming, he shrugged with a smile, folding it carefully and setting it down beside his present. "You'll have to remember next time," he informed them sternly, making Hermione cough out a laugh, before opening the box. Inside sat a cupcake, one of Kreacher's best, iced carefully with bright red buttercream and a yellow 'H' on the top. With a sound of feral glee, Harry fell upon it, glancing panicked back at the house even as he stuffed his face with the cake. Hermione clenched her fists so as not to give into the temptation to run right into that house and haunt the Dursleys to insanity.

When he was done, his hands covered in glutinous cream and crumbs, Kreacher clicked his finger to clean the boy off. Harry jerked, looking at his hands in surprise before letting out a peal of laughter. The sounds from the television inside muted for a split second, silence falling across the garden as Harry's eyes widened. Quick as a flash, Kreacher threw a disillusionment spell over the gathered presents, just in time for Petunia to stick her pencil-thin nose out of the window.

"Keep it down!" she squawked, scowling ferociously at Harry, who looked down guiltily. "It's Vernon's day off and I won't have you spoiling it by making a racket! Do you hear me? You be quiet or you can go straight back to your room!"

"I'm sorry, Aunt Petunia!" Harry said, thoroughly chastened. Hermione burned to slap the cow across her beaky face, and only Kreacher's claws digging into her arm restrained her. "It won't happen again."

"See that it doesn't!" She slammed the window and scurried off, and the volume on the television hitched back up to maximum. Harry flinched as the sound assailed his ears, but was soon distracted by the reappearance of his gifts. Kreacher cleared away the discarded paper, then tugged on Hermione's arm, a warning that they'd be leaving soon.

"Five more minutes," she begged, unable to look away from the little boy as he ran his fingers reverently over the lid of the wooden box.

Finally, his fingers located the latch and he flicked it up, his tongue tucked between his teeth in childish concentration. The lid lifted easily, well-oiled even years since its last use, and the little boy let out a yelp of shock at the contents. "Oh!" he pulled out a little marble horse, posed on its rear legs, forelegs kicking in the air. With his other hand, he pulled out an ornately carved soldier of the same solid stone, his eyes flicking over the intricate features, his lips popped into an 'o'. "It's… so cool!" he grinned, propping the figures carefully on the grass as he pulled out more.

It was a hand-carved chess set, muggle – James had always unflinchingly indulged her fondness for things of that origin, and for this he'd been even more excited by the fact that he'd been allowed to help them decorate the pieces. It was worth over two hundred pounds, and Hermione had had Kreacher put a disguising spell on it for that very reason; to any but the initiated, it would simply look like a cheap set on an MDF board. Just in case those dreadful Dursleys got their hands on it.

Now, she knew that Harry was too young to enjoy chess, but she thought that maybe he'd appreciate it for other reasons – the exquisite figures would be a set of toy soldiers to make any other child scream with envy, at least until he was old enough to learn to play properly.

She liked that he'd have something of his father's, something James had picked out with his own hands, had smoothed out and decorated, even if he didn't know what it was.

Awe-filled, Harry replaced the figures carefully, and closed the lid. Gathering it into his arms, he cuddled it to his chest, tears brimming in his eyes. "Thank-you," he whispered, still uncertain where to look but somehow managing to look straight at her. "I love it."

Kreacher tugged her arm again, and he whisked them away from where Harry sat, still gaping at his gift, tears running down his face. Hermione felt hers, too, pour over her cheeks. When they arrived back at Grimmauld Place, she dismissed Kreacher immediately and ran straight for the attic as somewhere to sit and mourn away her lost time.

Chapter Text

Saturday 22nd June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Rida hung off of Severus's arm for the apparition, with Dorcas and Marlene sharing Kingsley, Rue on Black's and Xavier on Lupin's, a fact which did not please the werewolf at all. Harish had decided to stay home, pleading out on the basis that this really wasn't his business, and nobody disagreed with him.

An expectant silence washed over them when they landed in the park, and they all paused to stare at where the house should have been. "The Secret-Keeper," Black groaned, smacking his forehead. "Merlin, I forgot about that."

"There's no way Dumbledore will let them in," Lupin said, nibbling the corner of his mouth. "So what are we supposed to do now?"

"Use the elf, obviously," Severus sneered.

Black blinked, then nodded slowly. "Oh, yeah! Kreacher!"

There was a silent moment, then the elf appeared with a reluctant pop, bending until his nose scraped in the grass. "You called, Master?"

"Alright, Kreacher, I need you to take this lot inside. Can you do that?"

Kreacher dragged his gaze insolently across the gathered crowd, brightening when he came to Rue. "Missy Patil!"

"Hello, Kreacher," Rue greeted him with a wan smile, one hand propped on her bump. "How good to see you again."

Turning back to Black, Kreacher said, "Kreacher brings friends in, Mistress will be glad to see friends." He skipped over to Rue on gnarled legs and disappeared with her, coming back momentarily to grab Marlene, Dorcas and Xavier all at once, before disappearing with them, too. He came back for Rida, who backed off a bit.

"Isn't that Walburga's prize elf?" she asked, sounding nervous for the first time since Severus met her twenty some years ago. The significance wasn't lost on Black or Lupin either, who both glanced at her in shock. Realising she'd been noticed, she scowled and offered her hand.

Kreacher popped away with her, a sinister grin on his face. Suddenly, Severus, Kingsley, Lupin and Black were alone.

"This is an unexpected turn of events, I must say," Kingsley rumbled warmly as they walked towards the house. He squinted up at the windows, a thoughtful expression on his face. "To think she might have been there the whole time! Crikey. How horrible."

"Creepy," Black corrected him, shoving his hands into his pockets. "The word you're looking for is 'creepy'."

"How did she even get here in the first place?" Lupin wondered aloud. "I can't imagine she'd choose this sort of life."

"Indeed, not," Severus drawled, pushing through the door into the foyer. "It's quite obvious that Hermione was inveigled into this life. But by whom, and how?"

"It's not like she had enemies," Lupin said, wrongly, proving that his view of the girl after all of these years remained hopelessly optimistic. "I know she annoyed some people, but not enough to trap her here…"

"You don't think-" Black stopped, his face twisting as he glanced at the fabric draped portrait on the wall. "Well, mum - or, maybe even…"

"Don't even suggest it, Black," Severus warned, his tone venomous. "Regulus wouldn't do anything like this." He believed that, he had to believe that of his friend, because he couldn't conceive of a world in which Regulus would do something so torturous, so deliberately malicious…

'I need your help, Severus. It's about a spell - a curse…'

Shaking away the unwanted memory, he fixed Black with a murderous glare. "Your sainted mother, however."

Marlene forestalled any reply by sticking her head through the drawing room door and asking loudly, "are you ever joining us, or must we come back out there?"

"By all means, McKinnon, do join us. Your input on our lives is so valuable…"

Marlene grinned, leaning back to shout, "Dorcas! We might be needing your medical expertise. It appears Severus still has a stick lodged in his rectum, by this time it may require surgical removal!"

His glower only triggered mischievous laughter, and she beckoned them through to join her. "Come on, come on, we don't have all day. We're terribly busy for dead people, you know, and if Rida doesn't bathe in the blood of fifteen virgins by sundown she'll probably disintegrate."

"It's a good job you're such a whore, then, cara, or you'd be an appealing prospect," Rida could be heard hissing, followed by Marlene throwing her head back and laughing even louder.

"You couldn't get the drop on me when we were twelve, Shafiq; what makes you think you might now?"

"Stop it!" Dorcas demanded as the men filed into the room, throwing herself between the feuding women. "Don't you have better things to think about than insulting each other? Like, maybe, how to free Hermione?"

Both women sobered with alacrity, Rida turning to examine the walls. "Sì, you are right, of course. How rude of us to forget. Tell me, little elf - is she in here?"

Kreacher raised a finger and pointed it at a corner, where the wallpaper was fading. As if on cue, the group turned and as one squinted at the space as if they might be able to see her, should they try hard enough. Kreacher rolled his enormous eyes, and Severus stayed back, though he had to admit his eyes also strayed to the area indicated. It was as if there was some sort of compulsion; it might be madness to think she was there at all, but it felt like the sort of madness he'd happily give himself over to if he could only have his friend back.

"Is she saying anything?" Xavier asked, still boring holes in the wall with his stare.

"'My eyes are up here'," Kreacher reported dryly, setting Marlene off snickering. Xavier scowled, his cheeks burning red, but obligingly shifted his eyes up a foot or so.

"So, how do we do this?" Kingsley asked, pulling his eyes away to look at the others, and Kreacher in particular. "Is there anyway we can talk to her directly?"

"How should Kreacher know?" Kreacher demanded, shrugging his slender shoulders. "Kreacher doesn't need to try, and no wizard bothers."

"That's not fair, Kreacher - we didn't know she was here," Dorcas frowned.

Kreacher looked at Dorcas and visibly softened. "Kreacher doesn't blame Missy Dor," he reassured her, patting her hands gently. "Missy Dor was dead. Missy Dor didn't abandon Mistress." With this, he turned to growl at Black, Lupin and Severus where they were stood at the opposite end of the room. Severus narrowed his eyes and smothered a pang of guilt. You can't abandon someone you don't know is alive. Kreacher, however, seemed to blame them, which didn't help.

He suddenly stiffened, turning towards the corner. "As Mistress wishes," he said through gritted teeth, then turned back to them, his fangs on aggressive display. "Mistress suggests a wiggy board," he proclaimed.

"'Wiggy board'?" Rida blinked in confusion. "What..?"

Marlene's brow crumpled, then cleared and she grinned. "A Ouija board, did she mean? The Muggle thing?"

"Merlin, no," Severus found himself whispering under his breath, even as Kreacher nodded 'yes' and Marlene let out a whoop of pure delight.

"That's so great! I've always wanted to try one." she was almost hopping with excitement, even as everyone else looked confused.

"It's a spirit board," Severus explained, while Marlene tried to figure out how to get her hands on one. "The Muggles use them to talk to ghosts."

Xavier frowned. "Why don't they just use words?"

"Because they can't. Honestly, Xavier." Marlene shook her head despairingly.

Rue looked at Kreacher. "Where can we find this Widgy-whatever? Need we find a hedge-witch? A Shaman?"

"Or a Hamleys," Marlene sniggered.

"Remus has one," Black revealed, Lupin next to him wincing. "You can get it, can't you?"

"Oh, please, Remus, do," Dorcas murmured, blushing when his eyes slid to her. Black's eyes narrowed, but Lupin's gaze skittered away just as quickly.

He huffed a sigh. "Fine."

So it was, a half-hour and a set of apparition later, Lupin laid a gaudy-looking box on the floor, its face covered with cartoon approximations of ghosts and scared-looking teenagers. Severus raised an eyebrow, and Lupin jerked his chin defiantly, though his eyes remained mortified. Black and McKinnon fell on it with mischievous excitement, but Severus remained where he was.

His eyes, without prompting, slid over to where Hermione was meant to be standing. They hadn't left on the best of terms. She must have had so much to say to him, and about him over the years. Would she even want to see him? To speak to him? He could have sworn he felt her eyes on him, impossible as it sounded. He fancied she was weighing him up, judging him. Deciding whether she should trust him again, after all these years. Whether he was still trustworthy at all.

At that thought, the sensation lifted, and he felt a curious disappointment. As though he'd been found wanting.

Over on the floor, Marlene and Black exclaimed loudly. A look in their direction showed gaping faces as the planchet they'd been messing about with was ripped from their grasp and clattered across the board in a most agitated, un-ghost-like manner. Three letters were pointed to, the planchet landing with pointed bangs.

Black barked a laugh and leaned back. "I think this one's for you, mate," he snorted, beckoning Severus closer. The planchet stopped to give him time to approach, and then, when he was stooped over it, retraced its path.

G - I - T.

"Git," Black snickered. "Oh, man, that's definitely Hermione."

Severus crushed his own smile, but couldn't quash the awe building in his chest as he watched the planchet shake then fall. Hermione Potter. Back with them again. For now, at least.

Sunday 26th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Library

"What did you do now?" Severus snapped, slipping into the chair opposite her. The chair Regulus would usually have sat in, except that he was avoiding her.

"I feel like we should put a sign up over this table, you know, just so that everyone is aware that this is the 'Ambush Hermione' table. Take a seat at your own risk." Hermione frowned at him and went back to her book.

Severus's hand landed, spread into a star, over the writing, and when she looked up his lips were curled into a snarl. "He is moping," he said, snapping his teeth at the end of each word. "Moping."

"And you just assume that's my fault?"

"Miss Potter," Severus drawled, his eyes glinting dangerously. "As much as I find your connection with my friend to be inadvisable, dangerous and very much ridiculous, I must admit that for the most part you appear to make him happy. Whether this is due to some as-yet unforeseen wondrous quality you hold, though what it could be I cannot imagine, or simply that he enjoys the company of a reasonably fair woman, I can allow it as long as it continues to do so." Severus narrowed his eyes, hissing, "but Regulus is not happy, and I demand that you fix it."

"You really think I'm 'reasonably fair'?" Hermione mocked, batting her eyelashes. "My, oh, my, Severus - I didn't know you felt that way."

"Is this a game to you?" he demanded.

"Of course not, but what do you expect me to do? I've not done anything wrong, for Merlin's sake! He's avoiding me, not the other way around!" And he was - Hermione hadn't seen hide nor hair of Regulus for days, aside from in lessons, when he'd give her a pained sort of look and move to sit next to Rowle. She'd been a ball of low self esteem ever since - had she done something wrong? Was she not a good kisser?

Had they irreparably damaged their friendship, which she could admit meant so much to her, and made all of the little spats and foibles of teenage life at Hogwarts worth living through?

Severus scowled at her with his eyes, thunderous. "Do I care who started it? You sound like a child. Be an adult and talk to each other."

"Tell me, Severus, have you had this conversation with Regulus?" Hermione leaned forward, her face set in challenge. "Or have you cast me as the bad guy in this little melodrama?"

He paused, and his eyes softened minutely. "Regulus doesn't want to listen to logic," he said. "Not when it comes to you."

Startled, Hermione battered back her urge to ask more questions. A bubbly feeling began in her stomach, though, and wouldn't be beaten back. Severus eyed her, apparently satisfied with whatever he saw on his face because he gave a slight nod.

"Will you still be requiring my assistance?" he asked, segueing so quickly from one conversation to the next that it took a few seconds for Hermione to orient herself, and he gestured to his temples discreetly.

"Oh," she bit her lip. Did she still need his help? She couldn't deny that she was curious, but the last session hadn't ended how she'd expected, and she rather sensed that spending more time with Severus in that manner would be dangerous. His patient expression didn't alter as he waited for her to make up her mind.

Whatever was in her head could be important. She knew that. It was a bone deep knowledge, that the hidden memories were not all learning to walk and talk and read. What little she'd seen had concerned her, and the fact that she knew that she was from the future made her cautious about it, too. The only ones who knew of the flashbacks were Regulus and her parents; now Severus, too. Could she trust him? Should she?

Whatever had happened in the future had given her an odd mix of emotions towards the boy, mainly respect and anxiety. She was careful around him, always. Trust, in the way of friends, wasn't a part of it, but a more naive trust prodded its way through. That of student to teacher. And she didn't think Severus would like that. He wasn't a natural teacher - sure, he tutored some of the first- and second-years in Potions, but he didn't enjoy it, and neither did the kids.

How would he react if he knew what his fate was, as she knew it?

She shook her head. "No, thank-you, Severus. No, I don't think I do."

Tuesday 28th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Duelling Club


"Did you see that?"


Severus snorted through his prodigious nose and shifted his weight on his feet. Within a circle of shields, Hermione fought a seventh-year Ravenclaw with quick, deft flicks of her wand, perfectly studied shaped melded with her own embellishments. As he watched, the red-faced Ravenclaw snarled and shot off a slicing hex, which Hermione twisted out of the way of elegantly, hopping a scant inch to the left and firing back a Confundus. She, too, missed - the Ravenclaw leaped to the side in a flurry of blue and black, only to be caught in the direct line of Hermione's follow up; a Stupefy.

The Ravenclaw crumpled, a shocked expression on his face as he met the floor.

A raucous cheer flew up from the spectators, chanting Hermione's name. She grinned, proud with a hint of shyness, and took Gideon Prewett's hand to hop down. The older boy leaned over to whisper something in her ear and Hermione's eyes lit up, replying with a storm of hand-gestures, making Prewett laugh.

Beside Severus, Regulus sulked, scuffing his shoes on the floor as he glared at the red-head.

"Talk to her," Severus gritted out, irritated beyond measure by his friend's pig-headedness.

He shot Severus a glare, jaw working. Severus didn't even respond to that. He didn't understand the younger boy's problem - not that he knew all of the details, but as far as he'd learned, he'd kissed the girl. She'd kissed him back. It had been "brilliant", but now Regulus was… giving up.

"I just don't know if she likes me that way," Regulus had said on Friday night in the common room, head thrown back dramatically. Severus had sneered as a response - of course she did. He was a Black. Regulus Black, better than the original; aristocratic, rich and handsome. Girls fell at his feet, he was always tripping over the damn things. Why would the Potter girl be any different?

It wasn't like he was Severus, who was ugly as sin and bitter to boot. Lily was the only girl who'd choose to come within feet of him, and if Severus dared try to kiss her she'd scream the school down. "Ask her to Hogsmeade," Severus had advised, hiding his frustrated envy in the pages of a book. "It's not that hard," he'd added, hypocritically.

But, no. Regulus would much rather stand at the opposite end of the room, snarling and spitting with jealousy whenever someone brushed her arm, or spoke to her in less than a shout. And people were, now - the estrangement between the two had not gone unnoticed by the male population, who resembled sharks smelling fresh blood. They'd begun to circle the girl in their droves, pouncing in for a flirt whenever there was a gap.

Severus, as much as he wanted to find fault in the Potter girl, didn't even think she'd noticed. Most others would have used this opportunity to rub their popularity in Regulus's face, but all Hermione seemed to do was send pining looks at her friend across the room.

He glanced at Regulus, who was returning one of said pining looks, looking like nothing so much as a very sad, very stubborn puppy.

Severus snorted in disgust. Merlin help him, if he ever became this soppy and useless over a girl he hoped someone would avada him.

Shacklebolt and the other Prewett had taken the stage now, squaring off against each other, as Hermione was led over to the refreshment table on Gideon's arm. The two's heads were close together, Prewett laughing. Regulus's ears were steaming, his cheeks bright red, and Severus considered reminding him that the Prewett in question was gay.

Observing the way his friend seemed to teeter precariously on the edge of sense, Severus decided that no, he wouldn't tell him. It wasn't vital information, anyway.

Hermione's giggle drifted over to them, causing Regulus's eyes to bulge. At this rate, his teeth would be chalky stubs.

"Severus," a voice purred in his ear, and he glanced around, startled, to see Rida and Rue Shafiq stood by his side. Rida had, as usual, sultry-dark eyeshadow on, and observed him from beneath lowered lids. Rue, however, remained clean faced and impassive. "Won't you duel?" Rida asked, gesturing towards the front. "I could use a good partner."

"No, thank you," he replied politely. One was always polite to the Shafiqs, for they were immensely influential. One never knew when one might need their assistance in the future.

"Ah," Rida nodded, glancing behind him. "Baby-sitting, I see. What a shame. I've heard such good things about you."

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "All lies, I am sure."

She smirked, glancing away to where a spot of red danced within the crowd. "Oh, I don't know. I've never known her to lie."

Lily? Rida gave him a wink and stalked off, heading directly for another unsuspecting boy, this one who greeted the girl with a large smile. Severus went back to eyeing Regulus for signs of impending explosion until a light cough drew his attention back.

It was Rue, who'd never left. A Gryffindor, Severus had never had occasion to speak with Rue, and as far as he knew she never had occasion to speak much with anyone, never mind seek them out. And yet, her dark eyes bored into his. "You could be the best duellist here," she murmured quietly. "You should practise. You'll need it." With a hard, significant stare, she drifted off.

Severus gaped at where she had disappeared for a moment, before a niggling feeling reminded him of his priorities.

Priorities he'd been neglecting, because Regulus had disappeared at some point without him noticing and now he could hear raised voices. Following them, he found himself in the deserted corridor out back of the classroom, one on the third floor that nobody used.

"Back off, Potter!" Regulus's voice said, harsh like a whip. Confused, Severus quickened his pace until he turned a corner and saw -

"Don't think I don't know what you want, Black!" James Potter snapped. He was in the middle of the next corridor, facing off against Regulus, with Hermione obviously under the effect of a silencing charm between them. She spotted him first, her face mottled-red and angry as she jabbed at her mouth, demanding the counter-jinx. "Walking in on you with your paws all over my little sister!"

Severus didn't lip-read very well but he didn't have to in order to know Hermione had just said 'Circe, Mother of Magic, someone shut the man up!'. "She is not some toy for your dirty games!" Potter continued, quite pompously. "She's just a sweet little girl!"

"She's older than I am," Regulus pointed out, rolling his eyes. "It's not like she's never been kissed before."

Potter seemed aghast at the very idea, turning shocked eyes on Hermione. "You - kissing - what? You just go around kissing boys now? You're twelve!"

"Fifteen," someone coughed, and Severus leaned to the left slightly to see Pettigrew stood slightly behind Potter, his wand in hand. He grimaced disgustedly - Potter, he hated, but at least the boy was his own man. Pettigrew? Pettigrew had no spine, and only seemed to live for bloodshed. He was the one that had escalated Severus and Potters' first few fights with well-timed jinxes, and it was clear that he hoped to do the same now.

"Still too young!" Potter snapped. "And don't you think you can use this against her," he added, entirely to Regulus, now. "She's not playing your game."

"What game?" Hermione mouthed, and Severus agreed. What game? Regulus seemed to know, because he blushed an angry red.

"I'm not messing about with her," he said slowly, his eyes intent. "This is no game."

Potter grit his teeth. "Exactly what I was afraid of. I told you he was dangerous, 'Mi! Did you listen? No. Well, I'm saying it now, again, for you to hear, Black - Hermione doesn't know what she's doing. She doesn't know what the Blacks are like, and she's certainly not - not -" Potter screwed his face up, and in that moment Severus saw a lot of things - panic, disgust, and stark fear flashing through the boy's face.

"Potter," Regulus warned, his voice low and stern.

Potter didn't listen, growling out, "and she's certainly not marrying you!"

Chapter Text

Saturday 22nd June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Severus stood at the board as the others kneeled around it, leaving a space for Hermione. It hadn't been a conscious choice to do so, but automatic, as if they couldn't imagine being in such a place without her by their sides. Smith, too, had an empty spot to his left, though Severus wasn't sure whether that was for the late, lamented Clarence Abbott or simply because nobody wished to be that close to him. Severus certainly didn't.

"Hermione, is that really you?" Lupin asked, always the first to say something insipid if there's an opportunity. There was a brief pause, then the planchet clattered over the 'yes'. Rida snorted.

"Well, of course it's her, you idiot. Who else would it be?"

"This is a Black house, in case you haven't noticed. Who knows how many ghosts haunt its halls?" Black snapped in immediate defense.

A quick double tap of wood against wood cut through whatever Rida was going to reply by bringing their attention back to the board, where the planchet was stubbornly rapping the 'NO'. "I don't think she likes you arguing," Dorcas smiled fondly from across the board. Marlene smirked, wrapping her arm about the other girl's shoulder and dragging her close.

"Of course she doesn't. When has she ever liked people she loves arguing?"

"Can we get back to the point, please?" Rue shifted, wincing as she rubbed a hand across her portrubent stomach. "Hermione, do you know how you got … trapped?"

Severus could see the faint disturbance of the air this time when Hermione leaned forward to answer the question. He blinked, resisting the urge to rub his eyes - had he simply been imagining it? Visual aura was a symptom of his migraines, it could have just been that. But he could have sworn…

'YES', came the answer.

"How?" Black asked quickly. Lupin frowned, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"Padfoot, maybe easier questions would be better?"

Black scowled, then corrected himself to 'who?'.

Everyone waited with bated breath, but the planchet didn't move; instead, Kreacher said, "no." Before they could question him, however, the tapping of wood began and the planchet skated across to spell out a word - CURSE.

"Do you know what curse?" Lupin asked, while Rida and Rue glanced at each other, their eyes going far-away. They were considering the long list of curses they knew that could have this affect, the Shafiqs being well versed in that area. Severus, too, was considering it, but he couldn't… he'd never heard of something that might hide a person for twenty years. Most curses would wear off without an anchor supplying the renewal. So, either it was a long-lasting, well sustained one, or…

He looked over at Kreacher, who was waiting unobtrusively in the corner, his back arched uncomfortably as he gazed adoringly in the direction of Hermione (or, where they assumed she was). Could he..? If it had been Regulus, which Severus would prefer not to believe, then Kreacher could have taken up the spell, continuing to feed power into it, keeping her trapped. But why? Why would they do such a thing to a girl they'd all purported to love?

'NO', came the response. Marlene frowned, then plucked up the planchet. "Okay, so what do we know so far? Let's start at the beginning and work our way forward. Then, we might be able to find some answers."

Black nodded at the suggestion, and Shacklebolt took charge, his deep voice rumbling with authority across the room as he laid out the case in such a way as only a successful Auror could. "Hermione Potter went missing in Autumn, 1979, on the same day as her fiance, Regulus Black." He checked their faces to see if anyone might disagree, then nodded sharply. "She'd visited her parents the day before, as well as Marlene and Dorcas and I."

And me, Severus thought to himself, though he kept his mouth shut. He'd been silent for sixteen years, he wasn't about to give himself away now. Though memories of that night had haunted him - her sad eyes, her resigned smile. The way everything she'd said or done had seemed so intense, as if she were a storm about to break. He'd known something was wrong, just known it, and yet he'd still let her walk off into the night.

Not that he could have stopped her, he supposed. He'd been worn, too tired and frustrated to do anything except contemplate his own self-loathing.

"It was like she knew," Black said abruptly. When Kingsley raised an eyebrow, he looked at Lupin, who sighed, and said, "the day before that… she came to see James and Lily. We were all there, and she spent most of the night with us. Then, at about two or three, she just upped and left. James was at the door saying goodbye to her for about half-an-hour, and when he came back…"

"He wasn't right," Black continued. Severus realised with a nauseated jolt that they were literally finishing each other's sentences. Ugh. "He was subdued, and sent us all away. Then, when Hermione just didn't come back…"

Marlene gave an uncomfortable cough, and pointed awkwardly at the gap in the air. "'She' is right there, you know."

"You're right," Rida drawled. "So, Hermione, did you know that you were to leave us?"

The planchet, placed at Marlene's feet, wobbled, then was discarded. Kreacher jolted out of his stupor, his eyes widening, and he stumbled over to the circle, looking very much like any other bloke when confronted with an emotional female. "Mistress says - "not like this", yes, that's what she says. She doesn't know she was going to be trapped. She was tricked." He squinted, worked his mouth as if preparing his pronunciation, then added, "also, she said "fucking c-"," he cut off abruptly then scowled. "How is Kreacher to know you don't want him to repeat that?" he demanded of the air, then threw his arms up in frustration and stomped back to the wall.

"Okay…" Marlene snickered. "Someone learned a few new dirty words."

"So," Shacklebolt boomed, bringing them all to attention. "Hermione knew she was going to be leaving somehow when she came here that morning, but didn't expect this. Since then, she's been trapped for sixteen years. Can you eat?"

A pause, then 'NO'.



"How about read and write?"

Another break, then, written out slowly and painstakingly, 'SORTOF'.

"Mistress is tiring," Kreacher said worriedly, wringing his hands.

"Can you touch us? No, actually -" Shacklebolt stood, then inched around the circle to where Hermione was sat. "Can I?" Without waiting for a response, Shacklebolt began to press his hands around the air, frowning in concentration. It didn't look like he met any resistance, but his eyes widened incrementally until he'd gestured a vague outline of a person in the air. "Very subtle," he said admiringly. "I'm no curse-breaker, but I'm thinking it's some sort of inverted ward, adjusted to your aura." Severus took note that Shacklebolt now seemed to be talking directly to Hermione, as if feeling her personal space had finally convinced him she existed. "Maybe based in the foundations of the house, or even its wards?"

Dorcas gasped. "Oh, that makes so much sense! In that case, it wouldn't be a curse at all, but more a protective charm. Not a very nice one, but not many of them are nice, are they?"

"Old," Rida added, nodding along, for once looking entirely absorbed and losing her expression of permanent disdain. "Nobody would have considered that sort of protection for hundreds of years. I don't suppose you cast it on yourself?"

'NO' came with a resounding, angry clack.

"If it's old, then it would have been a pure-blood who cast it," Lupin said. "I've never heard of the like, but I know that in the older families they teach these charms from the cradle…"

All eyes slid to Black, who growled. "What? Just because it's old, you're going to blame Regulus?"

"Well, it is a Black house," Marlene pointed out.

"Only because she was already here!"

Severus decided to intervene then, though a sinking feeling was passing over him. Old, protective charms? That did sound like Regulus. He'd never harm Hermione, but he'd certainly protect her, in whatever way he thought was best… "Perhaps we should check the library," he suggested lightly, much lighter than he was feeling. "That is where one generally finds spells."

Black gave a short nod, and everyone stood as one. Lupin stayed kneeling, staring at the board. "I'll go and check ours," Marlene said, hooking her bag over her shoulder. "We have some of the more ancient, Gaelic spells there. It doesn't sound like something Clansmen would do, but there's no harm in trying. Coming, Dor?"

"I'll check ours, too," Rue said, struggling to her feet. "Watch out for my owl."

One by one the crowd dissipated, until it was only Lupin, Black and Severus remaining. They looked between each other awkwardly. "Regulus knew that library from top to bottom," Black finally said, looking pained. "If there was a charm such as this, he'd have been the one to know it."

Lupin got to his feet, the now packed-away board beneath his arm. "Don't, Padfoot," he warned. "We don't know it was Regulus, and speculation won't help. We need to free Hermione, and then… then she can tell us herself."

Severus stepped back, cloaking himself in the shadows of the room as Lupin guided Black up the stairs. Finally alone, he looked around. "Hermione…" he found himself saying. At a loss, he frowned, then, with Regulus's image firmly in his mind, simply said, "I'm sorry."

He turned to leave, and paused as something… warm. Comforting. Alien. A wave of that travelled through him, as if he were a little boy again and his mother was singing above his cradle, or he was ten years old and had just had his first hug from a friend, or he was sixteen, humiliated, and Hermione had just grabbed his hand for the first time, her eyes blazing fierce with protective fury.

Swinging around, he stared at the empty room. She was gone.

Chapter Text

Saturday 22nd June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Rue stopped after hopping down the stairs from Grimmauld Place, her twitching nose the only sign of her discomfort as the ache from sitting on the floor made itself known in her back. As if sensing it, the babes in her belly gave a kick, too, just to even out the unpleasantness. She smiled inwardly, resting a hand above her prominent bump as she stared sightlessly into the distance.

Hermione, alive. She'd spent so many years fervently denying the possibility that now it felt unreal. They'd not been best friends; that was a title she'd always reserved for her twin; but they'd been close. Closer than she'd been to vivacious Marlene and shy Dorcas, anyway. Hermione had always had the unnerving habit of knowing what she was thinking without words needing to be exchanged, which had been helpful for Rue, growing up. Half of her childhood had been spent mute, her sister her trusty mouthpiece, and even after gaining her voice it had become more natural for her to be silent. The only other person who'd been able to understand her so well, aside from Rida, was Harish.

But that was a turbulent tale all of its own.

Checking her watch - enchanted to always be accurate and further, unbreakable, by her husband, who knew how secretly clumsy she was and still loved her (even though he'd had to replace half of the house in their first year of marriage) and engraved on the base with the Sanskrit translation of beloved - she wondered what to do next. The logical, perhaps responsible choice, as a heavily pregnant woman, would be to return home immediately and use the time between now and when the twins arrived to research Hermione's charm in the Patil library. She was sure to find at least ten options in the first hour - Indian Wizarding parents had shown uncommon willingness to lock up their daughters during the Raj, what with all of those dodgy English soldiers sauntering about town, but…

She craved her family. By now Harish would be on his way to London in their car, and she'd have only the Winthrops and their army of servants for company. As much as she appreciated them, they weren't where she'd go for comfort. She wanted her husband, who loved her completely and always had, and her children, who somehow still, despite their age, believed her to be the cleverest and kindest woman in the world. Well, Parvati more than Padma; Padma had inherited her aunt's snark.

Not that they'd ever met Rida, properly. Rue and her twin had been fully estranged since before they were conceived, and since then Rida had been too busy bed-hopping and travelling to make any overtures of forgiveness. Rue quickly quashed the rising disapproval she always felt when thinking of how her sister led her life. She didn't know the reasons behind it, Rue reminded herself. Something had happened to her in their seventh year, something that had ended with Hermione shell-shocked, Harish changed, and Rida… Rida distrustful of men to the point that she was nicknamed the 'Black Widow' here in England, and the 'Praying Mantis' back home. If her children knew about their aunt, they never spoke to Rue about her, and their cousin had never been invited over for tea.

Rida had apparated away the second she'd crossed the anti-apparition boundary, without bothering to say goodbye to anyone. That much, at least, hadn't changed - she'd always expected the world to conform to her whims. It came from growing up with such a docile sister, Rue guessed. They'd been isolated as children; moving frequently among the pureblood elite, but never staying long enough to make friends, especially not when Rue and Rida were such good spies from birth. It was difficult to be nice to a boy when you heard his mother telling him, five minutes earlier, that 'I know they look funny, dear, but they're very rich" or, in the case of Almeida Malfoy to Lucius, "your father had an Indian mistress once, you know - apparently they're quite inventive". It was easier back home, but the cultural norms were different and it wasn't expected that Rida and Rue be sent out to play with the local children there, either, considering they were all Muggles, and they, girls. Rida had been attached to Rue at the hip, and having her forcibly removed seventeen years ago had left her completely adrift, but she'd become accustomed to that feeling by now and it had been with only the slightest pang of regret that she'd watched her sister, the mirror image of herself pasted onto a much less conventional person, disappear into nothingness.

At that, her mother's voice - beautiful, flighty, notorious Vanya Shafiq who'd raised her girls under the shadow of her own reputation - popped into her mind, scolding her as she had so often when she was alive: too maudlin, my darling. Perk up, perk up! Men don't like a woman who scowls so often! Rue stroked a hand over her bump again, smirking at how well she'd proven the woman wrong, then rolled her eyes and gave in, anyway. She was right - Rue should look on the bright side. Her friend was alive; they could free her any moment. Her family was to be reunited today. She lived the sort of quiet, happy life she'd never expected when she was a child. All was well in her world.

Turning, she knocked back on the door and waited patiently for it to open, smiling shyly at the face of Remus Lupin when it did. "Mister Lupin," she said, without any purrs or frills to the words. She wasn't her sister, and he was an oblivious target anyway. "I was wondering if you might side-along me to Kings Cross?"

Platform 9 ¾, Kings Cross Station, London

Rida Zabini ignored the stares of those around her as she waited for the train to come in. It was to be expected - she was infamous. Reclusive, yet seductive. Bitchy, yet well-loved. The women eyed her, wondering if she'd slept with their husbands - the men, they wondered if she would. It had always amused her that as her notoriety rose people began to assume she was - what was the word - easy, when in fact the truth was quite different.

Yes, she had had many husbands, but she had rarely lain with a man who did not share her marital bed. She had been raised better than that, to her mind. A few teenage slip-ups aside, she was the very model of monogamous fidelity. That her husbands met unfortunate ends had nothing to do with her supposed promiscuousness and everything to do with their own nefarious intentions.

But she didn't want to think about that. Business was for term-time; today was about family.

Blaise. The bright point of her life, he was everything that was good about her rolled into one, stunning package. The dark skin of his father's father with her mother's attractions, his father's rolling accent and Rida's command of potions, languages and the art of seduction; Blaise was the man she'd despaired of ever meeting, and it amazed her that she'd managed to create something so precious, so very pure.

And she loved him. Despite spending so many years ensuring that her heart was locked away, untouchable, her little boy had wormed his way in their before he was even born and kept her under his thumb in all the years since. Rida had even stayed with her husband for years longer than she had intended, simply so that he could have a male role model in his life. A poor decision, as it turned out, but she had been naive and idealistic, so she could just about forgive herself for that.

For all that she adored her boy, however, they did have a somewhat strained relationship. Her infamy had never sat well on his shoulders, and he didn't understand why she did what she did. She, in turn, couldn't understand why he spent so much time with the horrid Malfoy boy when darling Theodore Nott was available. They'd hit a moot point on both topics, but rehashed them like it was tradition.

Spinning the ring on her fourth finger, Rida considered a possibility she'd not thought of before that moment. She could retire. She was getting older, now; thirty-four was a respectable age to leave the business. Before it took over her life. She could, instead, devote herself to being a loving mother, perhaps take a long-term lover of her own. Not an English one, of course, and not a man, either, but in France lovely part-veelas were aplenty, and she could live with one of those for the rest of her life.

The eldest Weasley boy had recently acquired one; she'd have to interview him about it. Research.

The chug-chugging of a train in the distance reached her ears and she glanced up, towards the tracks. She'd only meant to look, as one instinctively does, but then her eyes caught on someone…

Her arms fell to her sides quite without direction. There he was, stood in a cluster of other doting parents, laughing along to something someone was saying. She'd only seen him earlier that day and yet the rush of anger was fresh, penetrating. Harish Patil, the man responsible for her sister leaving her, for her life up to that point, for everything.

A beast is still a beast, whether it walks on two legs or four.

She slipped behind a column automatically, withdrawing into the shadows as though she truly believed he didn't know she was there. He'd have noticed the second she entered the room, of course; he was simply ignoring her. He was good at that; always had been, even when she was the one he was to marry, rather than her dear, impressionable young sister. Before 'love at first sight' happened, and Rue became entangled in his sticky web.

Hermione used to say she was paranoid. That her childhood biased her against men, had her searching for ulterior motives. Which may have been true; her father had never been demonstrative, not with them. He'd chase her mother around the house, laughing with her, and carry her off to their bedroom at least once a day but never even wish the girls a good morning. They were an inconvenience to him; not even reliably his. When they were younger, too, they'd spent winters in Pakistan with his family, with his grandmother who would simply moan about missing the old India and a grandfather who dictated their lives from his armchair, swaddling them in fabric whenever they left the main house on the compound and hiding them in cupboards when male servants came by. Rue had been silent and trembling, but Rida had been alert, always watching - hearing the comments made by the manservants in the kitchen, listening to her father barter their hands in marriage with men who described them as having "potential" with a wink and a leer. By the time she was ten it had been clear to her that men were the enemy and women should be permanently on guard from them.

Patil was no different, she was sure. The contract had been made when Rida was a babe, organised by Patil's mother and Rida's own, then finalised when she was ten. She'd not known him as more than the large, terrifying man who would be her husband, and he'd never taken a moment to introduce himself as anything different. For all that he seemed so gregarious, so kind, so nice, she couldn't forget that and the suspicion it rose in her.

That he had been able to marry her sister and whisk her away to India, that he defiled her body and she bore his twins, was something she would never forgive herself for, and made the acidic burn of her hatred even stronger.

"Rida Zabini," a voice drawled with a thick Scots accent, the sort of accent she'd always flinched away from when Marlene had used it. She jumped in surprise, to her everlasting shame - how long had it been since someone had successfully sneaked up on her? Ten years, at least. If this was what home would do to her, she needed to get straight back on the road immediately.

And then recognition struck, and she cursed herself even more. Male, with a deep voice, grating and compelling somehow at the same time. It was liberally lined with scorn and suspicion - in fact, the only person she knew who could summon up that much paranoia on a momentary basis (Rida-level paranoia, even) was a man who'd been trying (and failing) to hunt her down and imprison her for well over a decade. Since her darling Gio had met his unpleasant, premature demise. She'd known at the time that it should have happened back in Italy, but circumstances had become dire and she'd had no choice. As punishment for that rash decision, however, she now had… this.

"Alastor Moody," she replied, keeping her voice modulated and husky. A turn of her head brought his scarred visage into her line of vision, scarecrow-esque ginger hair spiking up in every direction. His magical eye whizzed around his head, but his human eye was fixed firmly on her. "It has been such a long time," she said with a hint of a sneer.

"Not long enough. Here to pick up the boy?" Moody rested his weight on his cane as the sounds of an incoming train filled the platform. He looked, for all the world, as if he was simply chatting to an old friend and not a woman he wanted to see clapped in irons, or deported, or Kissed, or however it was he wanted to punish her nowadays. The last time they'd locked horns, he'd alluded to wishing a Prometheus-style punishment on her, but that might have simply been because she'd almost chopped off his genitalia. Men tended to get quite het-up about that, even if they don't appear to be using it for anything important, like Moody.

"My son, yes." She peered over the heads of the clouds that had begun to flock the edge of the platform, obscuring the scarlet engine from view. Steam punched up into the air, thickening the air in her lungs and clinging to her hair. Impatiently, she shook it out of her face. "I wasn't aware you had children, Auror Moody?"

Moody snorted, shifting his weight onto his uninjured leg. "Nah. Just doin' a favour for a friend. An' I'm retired, Ms. Zabini, as you well know."

"You'll never retire," Rida said, with no small amount of bitterness. "You'll still be trying to shove me into Azkaban when you're nothing but dust."

Feeling both of his eyes on her, now, she strode off into the crowd. As a rule, she avoided them, but anything to get away from Alastor Moody and his belief in her guilt. To think she used to like that man…

"Mum!" she stopped in the centre of the crowd, bewildered, as an unfamiliar teenager flung her arms around her shoulders and squeezed. "Merlin, it's packed in here. Is it just me or do there seem to be fifty more students than last time? Oh, you're so slim, did you have the-" the chattering child fell silent when she met Rida's eyes, and Rida found herself staring at a young Harish in woman form. Very pretty, with a fall of dark hair and - of course. A Gryffindor tie. So this one must be Parvati. How did Blaise describe her? Brash, but not overly clever. Not like the other one, who was the spit of her mother in intelligence, but so very like herself in temperament, or so her son told her, laughingly, after the Yule Ball. Rida felt somethng very like guilt-edged affection and stiffened.

She disconnected the frozen teenager's hands from about her person and pushed them gently back to her side. "I think you've got the wrong person, cara," she told her niece gently, then pointed back to where she'd seen Harish. "That way."

Parvati stared at her a moment longer before jerking back to herself and skittering off, her hand clamped over her mouth as if to stop herself exclaiming. Rida watched her go, saw the shorter-than-regulation skirt and the flounces she'd put on her socks, and shook her head. Too much. This day had been much too much. She was going home.

Chapter Text

Tuesday 28th October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Duelling Club

"...marrying you!"

There was a long silence. Regulus still looked mad. James was panting hard. Severus was shocked - even Hermione could see that.

And she…

Well, she just didn't know. Everything had gone from nought to sixty way-too-bloody-quickly, and she was quite sure she had whiplash. The sweat from her duel had hardly cooled on her skin before Regulus had been dragging her out of the room and into this corridor in a manner far more dominant than she was used to. Then, somehow, she was being kissed - properly snogged - again.

She hadn't expected this sort of behaviour from Regulus. Really she hadn't. He'd always been relatively mild, though she had to admit he displayed a certain ferocity when fighting. But when he kissed her, it was like a man possessed; hard, unforgiving. She'd say possessive but it had negative connotations her mind shied away from, her being an enlightened woman of the 20th Century, and all.

Whatever it was, she loved it. She drank him in, parched when she hadn't realised she was even thirsty.

That was about the moment James had come in and started spouting that nonsense about marriage, Peter handily Silencing her so she couldn't interrupt.

Marriage, thoughShe was only fifteen. She couldn't get married - wasn't even thinking about it! Again: enlightened woman! Right now all she wanted was to make it through the year without being killed, which was always harder than it sounded.

Something about that statement niggled.

"I haven't asked Hermione to marry me," Regulus replied stiffly, his face carefully blank. "We're only in our fourth year; why on earth would we be considering marriage?"

"Blacks have a history of that sort of thing. They tried to marry my mum off to Nott, Snr. when she was thirteen!" James seemed to be losing his steam, though, in the face of Regulus's utter rationality. James was only a nut if you let him get angry; the rest of the time he was a normal person, if somewhat quick to anger. Rather like with a dangerous wild animal, talking to him slowly, calmly, while backing away, appeared to be the best measure.

"And yet she wasn't," Regulus pointed out, reasonably. "Surely you of all people know better than to believe all the rumours, Potter."

James narrowed his eyes, jaw working. "Hermione," he said, turning to her with pleading in his eyes. "You see how he's not denying it?"

She felt the pressure of the Silencing Charm lift and coughed past the block in her throat. "I have no idea what any of you are talking about," she said slowly, looking between the two of them in confusion. "But I can assure you that I've no intention of getting married. Not yet, anyway. Besides, Regulus and I are just friends!"

James appeared to choke on his own tongue at her brazen denial, Peter scoffed, and even Severus raised an eyebrow. Regulus, however, turned to her incredulously. "Just friends?!"

"Two snogs don't make a relationship, Regulus Black," she lectured him, a bit miffed at his presumption. "I don't know how you think relationships work, but not speaking to me for days on end and then randomly dragging me into corridors is not the best way to go about it!"

"What else was I meant to do?" Reg asked, looking bewildered. "If I asked you to Hogsmeade you'd think I was just being friendly, and if I tried to buy you a courting gift you'd lodge it somewhere uncomfortable!"

Hermione thought about this for a moment, then wrinkled her nose and shrugged. "Well, I don't know. But then, I'm a Gryffindor. We're blatant and physical creatures." James paled in horror to hear her describe herself such, but Hermione wasn't inclined to have mercy, not when he caused the problem in the first place. "You, however, are a Slytherin. Plotting is your house activity. I've seen you wheedle your way out of a twelve galleon tab at the Hog's Head but you can't figure out how to ask me out, like a normal person?"

"You're intimidating," Regulus sniffed, rolling his eyes.

"That has never stopped you before." Hermione cocked her head. "In fact, you're the only one it hasn't stopped. Even Sirius pauses every now and again."

"I don't," James said grumpily.

Hermione shot him a withering look. "Nothing short of Merlin himself can stop you when you're on a roll. Since when has my love life been your business?"

"Since you got one," James gave a roll of his hand as if to say 'obviously'. "I've been hoping you were going to stay celibate forever, to be honest."

"That's why he's mad," Peter said helpfully. "He's lost ten galleons to Sirius over this."

"Pete!" James turned on his friend, slack jawed in betrayal. "What did we specifically say?!"

"Don't tell anyone except Hermione," he replied cheerfully.

"No. No. It was 'don't tell anyone - especially Hermione, because she'll castrate us'!"

"You bet on this?!" Hermione shrieked, causing all men in the vicinity to flinch.

"N-no, not this, specifically, more a general…" Peter promptly shut up when he met Hermione's eyes, seeing they were spitting fire. He skittered back a few steps until he was firmly situated behind James, and whispered, "are you sure she doesn't know any Unforgivables?"

Hermione hissed, her hand clenching into a fist as she tried not to reach for her wand. She knew some wonderful hexes for this situation, but James would never forgive her if she so much as touched a hair on Peter's head, him being a special project and all.

On the other side, Severus caught her attention by flicking his eyes in her direction and stroking a single finger down his wand's hilt. She almost belted out a laugh - he was offering to hex the man on her account! Catching the amusement in her eyes, his own gleamed. Oh, but that satisfied something vindictive deep within her that turned her downturned lips into something akin to a feral smile.

"It's alright, Peter, I don't blame you," she said benevolently, her mood lifted by Severus' support. "That little trick has my brother's name all over it."

James winced. "Don't hex me?"

"Oh, I won't," she sang in a childish voice. "But you'd better watch your back, brother mine. You and Sirius, both."

Her brother paled dramatically and took a step back, eyeing her warily. She smiled sweetly and took one forward, only for him to mirror her in a move back again. "Run along," she murmured, still smiling. "Better warn your pals. Be prepared. Constant vigilance!" She wasn't sure where the last phrase came from but she liked it.

James looked conflicted, then finally nipped off.

Hermione, buoyed by success, turned back to Regulus and Severus, who looked impressed. "I'm finally seeing some perks to your existence," Severus smirked, as if their little exchange had never happened.

"Intimidating," Regulus repeated.

Hermione abruptly remembered that she was mad at him and scowled, propping her hands on her hips. "Here's what's going to happen, Regulus Black. You're going to take me to Hogsmeade. We'll do sickeningly romantic things; you'll buy me chocolate and flowers and we'll go for lunch - Puddifoots, if we have to - and see where this is going."

She scowled even harder at his hopeful look. "This doesn't mean you're forgiven! Far from it, in fact. In the future, if you fancy remaining in my good books, try not implying I'm some sort of snogging slut to my brother, or anybody else, okay?"

"Yes, my lady," Regulus said with a neat bow, eyes suddenly sparking with mischief. "Anything else?"

She thought on that for a moment, then shrugged. "I do fancy some butterbeer, if you're offering."

"Your wish," he drawled, bowing once more. Then, dropping the act, he stepped forward hesitantly. Hermione rolled her eyes, then tilted her chin forward to angle her face up. He brushed his lips over hers sweetly, then grinned, his face lit up from within.

Hermione couldn't resist that, leaning up for another, which he gave her willingly. By the time they pulled apart, Severus was gone.

Friday 31st October 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

"Pass the milk, please?" Hermione asked Dorcas, ignoring how she gaped.

"Hermione…" she gawped, and Hermione sighed, turning to Rue.

"Can you pass the milk, please?"

Rue blinked, passing it absently, her eyes still fixed on the door, where her brother and Sirius Black stood, enraged, scanning the room for someone.

Her. They were looking for her.

Unbothered, Hermione took a heaping mouthful of porridge and sipped her milk. It was lovely and quiet that morning, what with everyone distracted by the spectacle, which made it so very easy to concentrate on the Prophet. The exchange rate for galleons to pounds was down, now one to eight rather than the traditional eleven, due to an influx of muggles in Goblin mining territory. Three half-bloods had gone missing from a cottage in the dales, suspected werewolf involvement. The Minister was seen leaving his Mistress's house in the early hours of the morning; his office had no comment. The Wizengamot had knocked back another bill by the Pureblood groups, demanding that Muggleborns be removed from their families-

Her reading was interrupted by a sudden mass of hissing from behind her, and she set the paper down with exaggerated care. The room was still silent, all waiting for a scene. All down the table Ravenclaws who would usually be debating the declining value of Goblin gold had their clever eyes turned in her direction. Letting out a silent sigh, Hermione turned to face her fate.

And promptly burst out laughing.

It was even better than she'd dreamed, and their expressions of utter fury only added to the satisfaction. James, her charming, handsome brother, had sprouted scales overnight, his tan skin now an undulating mass of greenish, pearlescent plates, intersecting elegantly to stunning effect. His hair remained a glossy black mop perched atop his head, jaunty and shabby. As she watched, he flicked a sinuous, reptilian tongue from between his lips to smack his nose (or what remained of it, for it was only a faint outline and two slits, flattened into his skull in a way that rang alarm bells in her head), where apparently he'd had an itch. He didn't even notice, which was simply precious.

Given his whole body transformation, it should have been him that was the most pissed by the change. This deduction proved wrong, however, for Sirius was nearly spitting.

"What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck."

That was Marlene, finally taking time out from her breakfast to see what the fuss was about. She took one look at Sirius and began to cry with laughter, silently miming his pouting lips. All around the room girls were glaring at Hermione (likely for daring to spoil his perfect looks) but she couldn't bring herself to care.

The thing was, he looked the same. The exact same. With only one notable difference.

Every single strand of hair on his head had been replaced.

By snakes.

Big ones, little ones, all jammed together in a writhing mass that somewhat approximated the size and shape of his natural hair, except when they got distracted by something and slithered off as far as they could go (which for the most part seemed to be six inches to the left, coincidentally exactly where Remus stood stifling his amusement, at which point they entertained themselves by twining themselves affectionately through his hair and licking at his face. Since Hermione hadn't charmed them to do anything but reflect Sirius's personality, she found this course of action intriguing…). Hermione was quite pleased with the effect, making a mental note to buy Rida some of that Amortentia perfume she liked, considering she had supplied that particular potion to be slipped into his traditional midnight milk and cookies.

Yes, Hermione had sent him full on Medusa, only leaving out the part about turning people to stone, because if she'd given him that she knew she wouldn't have lasted ten seconds in his presence.

Remus had fangs that dripped viscous venom and round, bulbous snake eyes, moss green to match his own. He seemed to have some difficulty seeing, but that would wear off soon - she didn't believe he was innocent in the whole scheme, but she knew he hadn't participated, so he was punished for being a silent bystander. That had taken some complex human transfiguration, but not as much as James' had. Hermione was endlessly pleased McGonagall had taken her under her wing. They'd brought it on themselves, after all - if they hadn't been out so late last night setting up a prank on the Slytherin portrait, they might have woken up before she'd finished the charms work.

Peter, as promised, was untouched. Mostly.

Despite it feeling traitorous, she couldn't stop her eyes from wandering over to the Slytherin table, where each and every face was filled with glee. Regulus met her glance and widened his eyes, and she knew he'd be asking her exactly how she managed it later. Beside him, Severus simply smirked, touching a finger to his forehead in respect.

"Sister," James began in a strangled voice. "Sweet sister of mine. Might you please…" he gestured to his body helplessly.

"But it's Halloween," she said innocently, widening her eyes. "You look brilliant, by the way. Just wonderful. And snakes - how original! Tell me, however did you get the idea?"

Sirius made an angry sound that changed abruptly into a yelp, just as Remus and James flashed her identical angelic smiles. She'd not seen either of them move, but she was pretty sure Sirius had just been kicked.

"I'm not sure scales suit me," James said through gritted teeth. Then, lowering his voice, he added, "Taking bets on your love life was a horrible thing to do and we really regret it. Now please, help."

Hermione tipped her head in faux sympathy. "It sounds like you all made some bad life choices."

They nodded as one, Sirius a bit slower to act. Given how hard he was gritting his teeth, Hermione was surprised he could move at all.

"I hope you've learned your lesson," she continued, then waited for their nods to turn back to her breakfast.

"Wait - you're not going to help us?!"

"Help you with what, brother?" She smiled sweetly. "You look so wonderful, it would be a shame to end it early."

James' face turned an intriguing shade of violet, and for a moment Hermione worried he'd have a premature heart attack. "What if I tell mum?" he asked, belligerent.

"Go ahead," Hermione waved her hand in invitation. Dorea Potter might be a terror, but she was also a Slytherin as well as a mum, and she'd watched them both grow up. The likeliest response would be a congratulatory letter, giving Hermione kudos for finally getting her own back.

James seemed to realise this too, because he drooped. "When will it end?"

"When my friends get a glorious twenty-four hours of freedom from your pranks."

Horror struck at the very thought, James nonetheless gave his assent.

And that was how Hermione bought Hogwarts a peaceful Halloween.

Saturday 1st November 1975

Hogsmeade Village, Scotland

Hermione waited at the bridge, fidgeting anxiously, pulling at her dress and coat. She was in Muggle clothes, a paisley summer dress Marlene had let her borrow, covered by a double breasted coat of navy that swept the floor. She been gifted it by her mother last Christmas, and it could be charmed to withstand snow and icy rains, helpful in the wild Scottish climate.

Her wand was buckled securely to her wrist as a precaution; with whispers of a blood supremacist group operating in the area McGonagall had demanded that all Prefects, Head students and their small group of talent carry wands at all times, looking out for the vulnerable. Technically, this Hogsmeade trip they were supposed to act as security where the prefects couldn't, but it was a relaxed enough order that a date wouldn't interrupt it.

She checked her watch again and fidgeted, tapping her fingers against the side of the bridge. It seemed silly to be nervous, but she was. She wanted it to go well. Not just because she didn't want to jeopardise her and Reg's friendship, but also because now that the possibility of something romantic had arisen, she found herself quite eager for it.

Nobody had ever known her as well as Regulus. He knew her inside and out, flaws and all, and yet remained at her side as if it had never occurred to him to be anywhere else. They fought sometimes, debated often, and yet always made up, their relationship stronger than ever.

Wasn't that what everyone wanted from a romantic attachment? It sounded ideal to her. And she would be lucky if it worked out - so lucky to have found him so young. They'd always joked about being the other half of each other's souls, this would be natural progression.

His mum would hate her, but that was a bridge to be crossed when they came to it.

She smiled and waved at Mary Mcdonald as she passed, arm in arm with Lily Evans, who shot her a wary look. A group of third year Ravenclaws rushed by, chattering excitedly. Clarence and Xavier trundled by in the company of some sixth year Slytherins, looking suspicious with their heads bowed together.

And then, eventually, once most of the school had passed, Regulus appeared, trotting up and looking mildly dishevelled. He'd made an obvious effort, too, Hermione noted - with lovely charcoal trousers and a perfectly starched white shirt, a dark green peacoat worn open over the top. He stuttered to a stop when he spotted her, wide eyes scanning her outfit, and she had a moment to process the wholly new, entirely pleasant butterflies that swarmed her stomach.

"Hello," he said, after swallowing hard.

"Hello," she parroted, her mind curiously blank. They stared at each other for a moment, about five feet apart on the bridge, and something about the air felt expectant. As though this were a pivotal moment. They could leave now, go back to the castle, and live out the rest of their lives without acknowledging their brief romantic attachment. Regulus would go on to marry a pretty Pureblood girl raised on the principles of "yes, sir", "no, sir", and "three bags full, sir". He'd be miserable but a treasure to his family, with perfect grey-eyes children to carry on the family name.

Or, they could take the step forward. Go to Hogsmeade. Make goo-goo eyes over heart shaped sandwiches and see how it went. Forever change their dynamic and hold their breath, see how it goes.

She felt the fragility of the moment beneath her, and closed her eyes for a moment to savour it, then smiled.

"Did you bring my chocolates?" she asked, shattering the tension with Potter aplomb, holding her hand out in demand. He looked at it, then at her, his mouth spreading into a slow, devastatingly handsome smile, and Hermione finally saw in him what the population of Hogwarts saw in his brother.

"Patience, Hermione," he chastised, coming forward to wrap her hand around his arm. "Patience."

They spent hours in Hogsmeade, sort-of drifting along in a bubble of their own making, smiling and laughing and talking endlessly. Freed from the bonds of friendship, Regulus turned into the most incorrigible flirt, all while remaining perfectly proper for any witnesses. He'd smile, and wink, and stroke his fingers affectionately up the sensitive skin of her wrist. Opening doors for her solicitously, brushing his hand over her lower back while smirking as she shivered. The teasing lilt to his voice, so familiar, took on a deeper meaning, and she lost count of the looks that lingered on her skin - seemingly innocent areas, like the flesh of her sloping collarbone, or her calves, freed to the chilly air.

They went to Puddifoots and ordered a "Lover's Feast", complete with fragrant, pink teas and heart-shaped scones, only to rag on it as they ate, then slipped into the Three Broomsticks and share a butterbeer in a darkened booth, Regulus's eyes darkening when she licked the foam from her lips, him bumping her legs casually beneath the table.

They'd been to Hogsmeade countless times; alone and as a group; and yet today… today had been different. Intimate.


They waited until the very last possible minute to start heading back to the castle, meandering casually up the path in companionable silence. Regulus's arm was curved around her waist, only loosely, keeping her close as the evening fell and brought icy breezes with it from the north. She rested her head into his shoulder, relishing in the closeness, dissecting in her brain all the ways their dynamic had changed for the better.

The air was cool but bearable, darkness hanging, held back by the glow of strategically placed lanterns. Regulus was a warm, comforting presence at her side, the two walking in sync. Even the laughter ringing back from the group in front didn't disturb the comfortable quiet.

Ahead of them, Hermione's roommates, Fawcett and Shepherd, laughed and giggled, each of them hanging off the arms of a Hufflepuff boy, who exchanged proud looks every two minutes. Apparently they'd not expected to get so lucky, convincing the Gryffindors to go on a double date, and in their eyes Hermione could read their hopes for the evening. She tried not to scoff too loud but it was difficult. Instead she snuggled into Regulus's side, trying to make the most of the warm glow she was experiencing.

Then, suddenly, Shepherd coughed. Only a small one. She jerked and her companion stepped away slightly, turning just enough for Hermione to see the concerned look on his face. "Alright?" he asked, his voice floating back to them on the breeze.

"I'm fine," she replied, sounding puzzled. "Must have caught a -" she was cut off by another volley of coughs, and she was forced to bend over, something dark splattering the ground in front of her. Fawcett gave a gasp, her hand flying to her mouth, and Hermione felt a shiver run up her spine. Fighting off a feeling of foreboding, she forced Regulus to step up their pace until they drew alongside the group, just in time to hear one of the Hufflepuffs say "ew - what have you been eating?"

Shepherd continued to cough, each one more prolonged and vicious, beginning to choke and gag as she spat more viscous, dark liquid into the floor. At first glance, Hermione thought it was blood, and that sent terror ricocheting through her. Regulus, however, realised something entirely different.

"Shit," he swore, and Hermione almost giggled, for it sounded so odd in his perfect, cultured voice. He let go of her and hurried forward, ignoring how the three spectators flinched back as if he was a wild and violent criminal. He kneeled down in front of Shepherd, the trousers she'd admired earlier that day getting splattered with dirt, and dug a finger into the puddle at Shepherd's feet. "Shit, shit, shit," he said again, then threw a commanding look at a lingering Hufflepuff. "Go and get Hagrid, then Pomfrey. Quickly." He turned back to Shepherd, drawing his wand. When the Hufflepuff didn't move, he snarled "now!"

That jerked Hermione out of her shock, and she stepped aside as the boy hurried away. Fawcett had grabbed a still retching Shepherd and wound her arms around her shoulders, talking loudly and hysterically to her friend. Hermione moved to Regulus's side, and he looked up at her with horrified eyes.

"It's mud," he said, succinctly. "She's coughing up mud."

"Dear God." Hermione barely noticed the disconcertingly muggle slip of the tongue, leaping to her feet. Shepherd was more coughing than choking now, and she frantically searched for a solution in her mind. What would Dorcas do? She was the healer, owner of a massive, compassionate heart and had taken to medicine like a duck to water. Hermione had studied with her occasionally, but not enough to have the same knack as she did - even Madam Pomfrey was impressed, hardly ever healing so much as a broken nail without her trusty apprentice by her side.

Think, Hermione.

Stunning the girl wouldn't work because she'd choke. Fluid leaked out of her thick and fast, dribbling down her nose. Her eyes were almost entirely white and black with fear, rolling back with every convulsion. A stream of brown, smelling pungently of moss, dirt and peat, slid down her front, so thick it moved at a snail's pace. Fawcett, despite her hands being coated, clutched her friend to her.

"I'm going to put her into stasis," Hermione said aloud, first questioningly, then again, firmer. She directed her words to Fawcett, who nodded frantically, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Hold her still."

Casting a stasis charm on a human was a tricky business, especially when they moved as much as Shepherd was, and generally Healers viewed it as a last ditch attempt to keep someone stable until more comprehensive medical treatment could be found. This was that exact scenario. In lieu of being able to cure whatever curse had been laid upon her, it was likely better not to even try and run the risk of making it worse. Hermione, despite how much she disliked the girl, certainly didn't want her to die.

So she gathered all of her concentration, blocking out Regulus and Fawcett and the Hufflepuff (who was no longer so proud of himself), and cast the strongest Stasis spell she could summon, feeling her magic abandon her to flood towards the other Muggleborn. Almost immediately, she stopped thrashing, frozen in time. The bubbling mud in her nose and throat was also momentarily stymied, pausing mid slide.

Fawcett's sobs sounded even louder now as she lowered herself to the ground, Shepherd cradled in her lap. "What is it?" she asked, over and over. "What's happening to her?"

"I don't know," Hermione muttered, floundering. The few diagnostic spells she knew of were simply bouncing back, telling her that nothing was wrong. She tried a spell to clear Shepherd's airway, but all she could see was more mud, and the tenuous grip of her stasis spell was shaken. Regulus, stood above her, was waving his wand in complicated patterns, frowning at whatever he could see. Hermione assumed he was looking for the sort of Dark Magic she was unfamiliar with.

Finally, after a long, tense few minutes, she could hear running footsteps from the castle and Madam Pomfrey's wimple appeared over the horizon.

Chapter Text

Sunday 2nd November 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Professor McGonagall's Office

"Remember…. The cat?"

Hermione furrowed her brow at McGonagall's delicate tone and nodded briskly. Of course she remembered that horrifying scene. She couldn't forget it. She'd not thought about it directly in the past month or so, too caught up in her own life, but she dreamed of it. Seeing its limp form splayed out like a horrific muggle science project…

She fought down a swell of nausea.

It had been a long night, following a long day. She'd stood by Shepherd in the hospital wing as Fawcett held her hand. Marlene had even brought her favourite Teddy in, tucking it under her prone arms. They'd managed to stop the flow of mud, clearing her body of it, but the malignant magic remained, and all of them had held their breath as Madam Pomfrey and Dorcas attempted to treat her, to no obvious avail. Eventually, Fawcett had had to give a statement to McGonagall, as had the Hufflepuffs, and now it was Hermione's turn.

"It appears it was used in a curse. We thought so at the time, but with a lack of evidence, no perpetrators and no imminent danger occurring, there was little to do about it. As term continued and nothing happened… We thought - hoped - that it meant nothing. Perhaps the curse was unsuccessful, when in fact it seemed to have been… delayed."

Hermione listened, assimilated this information, then nodded slowly. "So the cat is linked to what happened to Shepherd. But… how?"

Dumbledore, stood behind McGonagall, stepped in before she could reply. "Very dark magic, the sort we don't tolerate here at Hogwarts. It goes back to the days when we didn't have wands, and therefore had to use more… Unseemly ways to channel our magic. Death and the like."

Hermione furrowed her brow. "I don't understand. It didn't look like a complex spell - really no different to someone vomiting slugs, or…"

"At this stage, that is true. But it is a most insidious curse, if not countered. Today, she might vomit some mud. Tomorrow, it may begin to infiltrate her blood. The next day, fill her lungs. On and on until her magic can no longer sustain her, and she would die, if she had managed to live through the first stages. Miss Shepherd is fortunate to have succumbed to it while at Hogwarts, rather than at home. It is most unpredictable."

Oh, Merlin… she fought the urge to vomit. It wouldn't help the situation, as much as she'd probably feel better. Instead, she looked up at Dumbledore and forced herself to continue the conversation.

"Do you have any idea who could have done it?"

Professor McGonagall shot Dumbledore a look she couldn't decipher, and the Headmaster's expression became even more grave. "Witnesses say Mr. Black had his wand out. Is that true?"

Hermione lurched in surprise and sudden horror. "What? No - yes, he took his wand out, but only after and to help. He didn't do this. He couldn't."

"You must understand how this looks, Miss Potter. Multiple witnesses say he had his wand in hand, and, to put it as delicately as I can, is it possible he would have access to your room?"

She grit her teeth, hard. "No. It's not."

"Miss Potter…" McGonagall said gently but that only aggravated her more.

"No! I don't like what you're insinuating, Headmaster!" Seething, she snarled. "Regulus has never been in my dorm, not with me and certainly not without me. If you don't believe me, I'll happily submit to veritaserum - or would you rather cast a purity charm? Check I'm still unsullied?"

Dumbledore levelled her with a disappointed look, unfazed by her accusations. "We are simply following all avenues of investigation, Miss Potter, and I apologise if our thoroughness offends you. The fact remains that Mr. Black has a reputation for dark magic among his peers, as do several of his friends - Mr. Snape, Mr. Avery, Mr-"

"I don't need a list, Professor. I'm well aware of his questionable taste in friends." Hermione clenched her fist. "Your theory makes no sense and I won't credit it. Regulus was with me on the train to Hogwarts, in the company of at least four other students, all the through to the feast. You will also have seen him at the feast. He didn't have time to slaughter a cat!"

Professor McGonagall finally leaned forward, her face stern but sympathetic. "Miss Potter, I know how close you and your classmates have become over the years. Like brothers and sisters, I've seen it. But…

"You mustn't feel obligated to protect one another. If one of you has done wrong, they must confront their mistake, rather than bury it. None of you can help them the way we can."

"This is a serious crime, Miss Potter…" Dumbledore added, as if she wasn't aware.

Angry, hurt and frustrated, Hermione threw back her chair as she stood. "You're pinning it on Regulus because he was there, and tried to help. Your evidence is circumstantial at best, and I shan't let you get away with this prejudice. Wearing green robes doesn't make him a criminal, it makes him a victim of the ridiculous Sorting system you force on us! Rest assured, you will not get away with this witch hunt."

She turned and strutted to the door, throwing all of her anger into her stride until she appeared confident when inside she was shaking. This was only worsened when Dumbledore, never one to quit while he was ahead, couldn't resist one last dig - "he may not be the boy you think he is, Miss Potter."

Scoffing, she slammed the door behind her.

Sunday 23rd June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

"I hate him!" Sirius spat for the fifteenth time that day, the thirtieth, at least, that weekend. Remus hummed noncommittally, encouraging him to vent. Not that he needed encouragement. "Who does he think he is? I'm Harry's Godfather - me, not him!"

"I know," Remus murmured, glancing up from his book to pat Sirius' hand sympathetically, making sure his face was set in an appropriately angry expression. "How dare he?"

"He doesn't have the right! Sending him back to the Dursleys to be miserable while I'm here, and I love him, and I'd be a brilliant father!"

Something in the book caught Remus's eyes and the buzz of his pounding heart almost drowned out Sirius' complaints. Almost, but not quite.

"Padfoot," Remus sighed, looking up at his pouting friend. He was sulking on the edge of the couch, a half-full glass of firewhisky at his elbow and a long-neglected book face-down on the floor at his feet, where it had fallen when he'd jumped up in his excitement the last time they'd rehashed this conversation. "We've been over this. It's horrible, yes, but we can't do anything about it. Not yet. With this place serving as Order Headquarters, we can't exactly invite Child Services to take a look around - which they'd need to do in order to approve a request for guardianship."

"A request I've not been allowed to file, yet," Sirius snarled into the amber liquid, "because Dumbledore has delayed my official pardon!"

"His logic is sound," Remus murmured softly, lacing his fingers through Sirius's.

"I don't care about his logic," Sirius scowled sulkily. "I care about what's best for Harry, and the Dursleys are not it! I don't care how many Order members threaten them - it's not like they'll change. Harry told me that even their fat son being half-transfigured into a pig only made them put him in a bigger cage!"

"Besides," Remus continued, unwilling to rehash the whole argument again, "it's only for a month. So the blood protection can be renewed. You know that's necessary, Pads."

"I don't know anything of the sort," Sirius sighed, but he nonetheless fell quiet and brooding again. Remus ignored the swell of guilt in his stomach. Maybe if he'd not insisted on coming back to Grimmauld…

No. That was a useless track. If Harry had been picked up by Sirius, it would have been classed as kidnapping and Dumbledore would have promptly taken him back anyway. It was a tricky situation.

Not as tricky as Hermione's, though. They couldn't do anything about Harry, they were trapped in a corner on that, but to help Hermione would only take research.

He turned back to the passage that had intrigued him and frowned as he read it through. It fit, but… a sticky, bad feeling rose in his gut. If he was right, then…

He reached for a piece of paper and a quill and scrawled out a note, careful not to alert Sirius to his discovery. If he was right, the truth would break his heart.

Spinner's End, Cokeworth, Greater Manchester

The pecking at the window roused Severus from his studies. He'd spent the morning and most of the night before immersed in his Dark Arts tomes, searching for an answer, with his own teenage scribblings haunting him. The amount of spells he'd altered for greater efficacy both astounded and sickened him, as did the smaller, neater handwriting next to his own - Gods, Severus, when will you ever need to disembowel a Hippogriff? and jelly organs? Really? See a therapist, love. Hermione had never out-and-out demanded he not study the Dark Arts, she wasn't like that, but her snarky notes had made him think twice more than once. He never used to catch her at it, either - he'd just open the book one day and there'd be all this writing in the margins.

There were even some he'd never noticed in his less widely-used tomes, ones he'd not opened since his sixth year. They sent chills down his spine, like messages from beyond the veil. And where there wasn't snark, he could see the places she'd gotten distracted and simply doodled instead, creeping ivy up the words obscuring god-awful recipes, caricatures of his old friends - the ones she'd never liked - in varying embarrassing and life-threatening situations. His favourite lay on page 263 of Darke and Deadley Charmes, on which she'd scribbled a detailed diagram of Barty Crouch Jr. being strangled by Devil's Snare, his eyes popping madly from his skull, his tongue lolling comedically.

Once, he'd teased her by asking how she could cope with defacing books, to which she'd given him a droll stare and said, "those aren't books, they're poorly-veiled revenge fantasies on vellum. Half of them don't even work".

Despite the stroll down memory lane, however, he'd not found anything to cause her imprisonment. Plenty of variations on imprisonment, of course - spells to trap one in a cage, spells to make someone into a cage, spells to paralyse a person so that they are a prisoner of their own mind…

But nothing to turn a person invisible and tie them to a place. Which is probably why he felt so relieved to see the owl - a tawny, daft thing he knew belonged to the werewolf. It waited as he read the missive, flying around his kitchen in search of treats, then ran head-first into the window as he left. Severus, rolling his eyes, had to lift the thing up and throw it out in order for it to catch its wings, and even then it nearly fell down old Mrs. Gregory's chimney. The letter itself was short, asking him to visit at his first convenience.

Checking his watch, he smirked. What luck, Lupin. It appears I am free now.

12 Grimmauld Place, London

He exited the floo directly into the library, where Lupin appeared to be pulling out the last of his already-thinning hair in frustration and Black snored obnoxiously on the sofa. Severus tried not to judge, but it came so naturally to him...

Lupin glanced up at his entrance and nodded toward the door. Severus followed him into the hall trying to contain his own impatience. The book under his arm looked promising, but surely if Lupin had found the answer he would be celebrating, isn't that what Gryffindors did?

"It's blood magic," Lupin told him bluntly after closing the door quietly behind him. "Black blood magic. A spell that could only be performed by the Head of the family, and only released by the Head, too."

"Show me," Severus demanded, holding his hand out for the book. Lupin scrutinized his expression for a long moment, but Severus refused to give anything away. His thoughts were his own, and he would keep them that way.

"I need to be certain before I tell Sirius," Lupin muttered as he handed it over. "You're brilliant at curses, so I thought…"

"You thought correctly, for once," Severus sneered, his heart beating faster as he read the words scribbled on the page, a cold, calculating paragraph documenting the spell and its effects. A laugh caught in his throat at the stated purpose of the spell - to keep a bride chaste and pure, unattainable to all but her betrothed. No-one but the intended groom could see her, speak with her, or love her, if he were to be delicate about it. She could not come to harm at another's hands, nor her own. She would not need to eat - to prevent intentional starvation, Severus could only assume. A 'loyal servant' was also assigned to cater to their needs - that would be Kreacher - in the case that their groom is otherwise indisposed.

'Otherwise indisposed' was an interesting way to refer to 'dead'.

Regulus had always been clever, but he'd had an unfortunate habit of not looking any further into the future than the end of his own nose. Severus could imagine him coming across this spell, casting it for Hermione's protection, and assuming that he would return, or Sirius would soon happen upon her and remove it. This, of course, did not work out, seeing as the oaf had gone to Azkaban, and Regulus had neatly sentenced the love of his young life to a never-ending purgatory.

Anger toward his absent friend was short lived, for the action was reminiscent of the same endearingly short-sighted schemes he'd played out over and over throughout his childhood, often ones Severus would be involved in. He had that privileged child problem where he expected the world to morph to his will, but he was so nice about it you couldn't begrudge him that belief.

Even Hermione probably forgave him in the end.

Severus squeezed the bridge of his nose as a headache began to build, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. It was not Reg's fault this had turned out the way it had. It was not. If only Severus could know more about why Regulus had done it, where he'd gone… The assumption had always been that they'd been killed together, by either side of the fight. This discovery changed things. It now appeared that Regulus had known he was going to die, and had protected Hermione in the event of that happening.

He'd always thought her weaker than she actually was. Severus wasn't sure if this was a Pureblood thing, or protectiveness, or simply condescension, but it was nonetheless true. Perhaps that had been part of what she'd liked about him? Their relationship had worked for a reason, after all, despite… Distractions.

"Severus?" Lupin said hesitantly, and Severus suddenly snapped back to reality at the feel of the werewolf's hand on his arm. He snarled and jerked away, shoving the book back between them.

"It looks like we're to rely on your mutt," he sneered, trying to look down his nose at the man, which was bloody difficult what with him being so tall. "Think he's capable?"

"Yes," Lupin answered with the irritating calm he'd become so known for in his adulthood. "Sirius is… the source of the spell will be difficult for him to deal with."

Severus rolled his eyes. Harder than it was for him? Regulus had been his best friend, Hermione the third part that, as soppy as it sounded, completed them (he patted himself on the back for getting through that sentence without vomiting). Sirius, however, had spoken all of three kind words to his brother since graduation. "Kindly write me when you are ready to proceed. I would like to be present. In the meantime, I shall leave you to do whatever hand holding you must in order to free Hermione."

Severus turned toward the Floo, then stopped and glanced back. "Should he prove less than willing, perhaps you should remind him of Ministry policy towards orphans." Lupin glanced up quizzically and Severus sighed. Must he always spell it out? "Priority for guardianship will always be given to blood relatives, no matter the whims of mercurial Headmasters. That, I believe, will be encouragement enough."

Chapter Text

Sunday 2nd November 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

Severus watched across the tables as Hermione fell asleep in her porridge, Dorcas barely noticing through her own haze of sleeplessness. Marlene prodded her awake, but her eyes only opened a fraction, deep purple bruises beneath her eyes a sign of her rough night. Severus had only heard about the incident this morning at breakfast; Regulus had never come back to the dorm and he'd retired without knowing how their date went, nor why it should matter to him at all. Neither could he understand why watching Hermione droop stirred irritation in his stomach, but it did all the same.

He'd heard about Shepherd only through gossip; it had been all around the Slytherin Common Room that morning. Apparently a Ravenclaw third year had been in the Hospital Wing overnight, and he'd told his roommates through a piece of enchanted parchment, who had then spread the tale far and wide.

Coughing up mud. Severus's blood ran cold at the very idea, the images in his mind haunting. Out of habit, he found Lily over at her table, his mind screaming for him to check that she was alright. Fine, looking disgusted as someone chatted to her, but fine. Beautiful as ever, with her hair in perfect order, those bright, intelligent eyes of her focused on her neighbour. She caught him looking and her face went from open to blank in the blink of an eye, and he was too far away to know what she was thinking, but his heart sank, knowing it couldn't possibly be good for him.

Surreptitiously he ran an eye up the table, picking out suspects. Nobody would confide in him about the prank, not when he was so close to Lily, but he knew enough about his classmates to make a few guesses. Avery, for one. Perhaps Barty, but he was only thirteen. A vicious thirteen, but still young. Severus couldn't countenance him doing such a malicious thing, but perhaps he was being needlessly optimistic.

He snorted. Right, because he was such a glowing optimist.

Silence rippled outwards over the tables and Severus looked up to see Regulus at the door. The Hogwarts grapevine was an efficient thing, and through it Severus knew that his friend had last been seen entering McGonagall's office just before curfew. By the looks of him, he'd never left.

Pale and tired, he was a twin of Hermione in his exhaustion, but instead of wilting as she had he held his head up high, raising a quizzical, superior eyebrow to those who stared at him. After a momentary pause he set off down the center aisle of the hall, making his way briskly to where Hermione sat, still half asleep and unaware of what was going on about her. Reg, a master of the Pureblood mask, visibly softened when he came close to her, kneeling down beside her and leaning close to murmur in her ear. Hermione jerked in surprise, fear chasing relief across her face as she looked at him. He smiled softly, brushing a thumb across the dark circles beneath her eyes and moving his lips in such a way that Severus could tell he was chastising her, even if the tenor of his voice as heard across the tables wouldn't have told him.

Severus felt an odd mix of fondness and jealousy to look at the two. They made a stunning pair, even so young - when the softness of their faces eventually melted away they would be even more striking, perhaps even booting Narcissa and Lucius to the kerb to take the title of Most Beautiful Couple. Regulus's ivory skin contrasted with her caramel, his glittering grey eyes a cool counterpoint to her heated amber.

There was no wonder everyone in the hall was riveted to the scene as Regulus stroked a hand through her hair, leaning across to say something to Rue. At his direction, Rue stood from her seat, and Regulus guided Hermione to her feet with affectionate exasperation. "Get some sleep!" Severus heard him demand, before handing her off to her friend. The three of them walked together to the door, but Regulus turned to the Slytherin table while the girls left in the direction of Gryffindor Tower.

The buzz of conversation had once more risen by the time Reg took his seat between Barty and Severus, nodding tiredly to Rida across the table. Rida, who had second sight when it came to drama, gossip or excitement, would nonetheless never stoop to asking about the night's events like a common peasant, and instead pointedly struck up a conversation with one of the numerous Greengrass progeny that littered their table (the family, while ostensibly limiting themselves to a fashionable two or three children each, somehow managed to have at least one child in each year at any given time. Severus had no idea how they managed it).

"That was interesting," Regulus drawled, forgoing his usual toast to dive straight for the bacon, which, if nothing else, showed how awful his evening must have been. "They think it was me."

"Of course they do," Severus rolled his eyes. If there had ever been a man less inclined towards murder and mayhem than Regulus, Severus had yet to hear of him.

"I blame this," Regulus flicked his green and silver tie in disgust. "If I was a Hufflepuff, none of this would happen."

"Indeed, you would be innocent of all crimes," Severus muttered, sipping on his tea while keeping one wary eye on his surroundings. "However, you would also be insipid and generally insufferable. This way, I think, is better all around."

Regulus scoffed, stabbing at the meat in his plate moodily. Usually, the man was a grazer, with an annoying tendency towards a herbivore diet; today that was truly thrown out of the window. Severus watched with some concern as he stuffed the bacon into his mouth. Though his face was blank, his agitated movements were disturbing.

"McGonagall has been my teacher for four years," Regulus grumbled. "You'd think…"

The sentence trailed off into nothingness. Regulus abruptly looked disgusted and somewhat lost. "That poor girl," he said in a low voice. "Gods, Severus, if you'd seen her… she was so scared. And her friends were just watching her drown in it…"

Severus sent a dark glare to Barty, who'd been eavesdropping on the conversation without even an attempt at subtlety. The boy stuck his tongue out but turned away, though Severus had no doubt he was still listening. "Perhaps this is not the place?" he told Regulus, who blinked and came back to himself with a shiver.

"You're right. How indiscreet of me." He rolled his shoulders, running a hand through his hair. "Salazar, but I need sleep."

Severus bit down on his tongue to keep from agreeing. Hogwarts politics was a tricky, imbalanced thing, and as the respected heir to an ancient family, Regulus was under more pressure than most. If he retreated to his bed, gossip would only breed and by the end of the day he'd be a Dark Wizard hell bent on world destruction, whereas if he stayed calmly and stubbornly in the spotlight he could control the narrative. It seemed hopelessly exhausting to Severus, who had never been so glad to be sired by a muggle.

He would prefer a different muggle, of course, but beggars and all that.

"Library?" he suggested instead, offering support in the only way he was comfortable with - to wit, silently.

Regulus shook his head. "The courtyard."

Sunday 2nd November 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Clocktower Courtyard

"Shut up, Marlene," Hermione begged, rubbing her temples while attempting to balance her overfilled knapsack. She'd managed a three hour nap, but couldn't in good conscience remain abed any longer, not when she knew what Regulus would be facing - alone, except for Severus, who, while arguably honourable, was not the most demonstrative of champions.

"I'm just saying," Marlene grinned, walking backwards in front of Hermione, somehow managing to avoid every obstacle despite Hermione's fervent prayers that she'd fall over or knock her head or anything, actually, that might stop her talking. "Before, he was the heir to House Black, but a bit stuffy and correct without much special to recommend him. The whole murder thing, though? It gives him that.. That added… genesaquay?"

Dorcas stifled a smile behind a pale hand. "Do you mean je ne sais quoi?"

"Isn't that what I said?" Marlene tossed her hair, entirely unrepentant. "Seriously, Hermione, you need to take this seriously. You should hear what they're saying about him - I actually caught Felicity Smokeheart swooning over his picture in the updated Sacred 28 in the library. She was practically licking it, Madam Pince had to have her removed."

Hermione paused, raising an eyebrow sceptically. "You were in the library?"

"I do read, you know." Seeing they weren't buying that, she threw her hands up in disgust. "Fine. I was meeting Kings for…" she darted a look at Dorcas and glanced away guiltily. "Does it really matter? That's what I saw, and she's not the only one. Your boyfriend is the only person in school on whom evil is sexy."

"This is ridiculous," Hermione huffed, stopping still in the centre of the corridor. "First off, Reg is not my boyfriend. Secondly, he's not a murderer either. He didn't do anything wrong!"

"Madam Pomfrey says she thinks Dumbledore is going to call in the Aurors," Dorcas said quietly. She shrugged when they both turned to gape at her. "He might not have a choice, short of casting Priori Incantatem on everyone in school. That cleared Regulus," she reassured her friend with a soft smile. "Apparently the last spell he cast was a minor transfiguration to turn a handkerchief into a flower."

Hermione blushed at Dorcas's knowing look, which was somehow worse than Marlene squawking with laughter. "It was sweet," she defended him. It had been sweet, done just as they left the village, when Hermione had teased him that she'd never gotten those flowers he'd promised her. He'd rolled his eyes and flicked the hankie from his pocket, transfiguring it with ease, the only pall on his arrogance that he didn't quite manage to change the pattern, leaving her with a large white rose, his initials monogrammed into the petals.

She'd left it in the pocket of her robes, which lay crumpled on the floor of her dorm room after last night. She'd have to save it when she went back upstairs.

"But it doesn't really clear him, does it?" Marlene said sceptically. "Or he wouldn't have been in the office all night."

"He was in the office all night because Dumbledore is as big of a bigot as Walburga Black, and that's all there is to it," Hermione snapped as they crossed through into the courtyard. She took in the scene as they entered; Regulus and Severus were sat on a bench with books, Reg sat cross-legged while Severus was as stiff as ever, highly conscious of the eyes on them.

There were a lot of eyes on them, too: students gave them a wide berth but groups had formed, not-so-subtly gossiping with one another. As she passed, Hermione heard snippets of their conversations, and none of it was good. Worse, however, was the blinding red blur that rushed past her towards her friends.

"Oh, bloody -" Marlene scoffed, crossing her arms. "Here comes Lily Evans, all set to make things worse in the relentless pursuit of justice."

Indeed, everyone had quietened in a stunning lack of subtlety as Lily came to a stop in front of the two Slytherins, her hands fisted by her side. Severus mooned up at her as if she were a Goddess, come to Hogwarts to fulfil his every pleasure; Regulus, reasonably, was not so pleased to see her. Hermione quickened her pace as the older girl took a deep breath to speak.

"Regulus Black!" she cried, in a way that reminded Hermione of - someone? Someone exceedingly shrill, obviously. Apart from that, it was difficult to recall. "How could you?"

"Why, hello, Evans. Looking nice today, aren't we? Did you do something with your hair, perchance?" Hermione rolled her eyes at Regulus's deadpan words, throwing him a warning look as she reached them. Circling around their backs in a deliberate show of fealty, she made certain to pinch Severus hard in the hopes of pulling him out of his idiotic daze.

"Don't you laugh at me!" Lily was fuming, Hermione noticed with dispassion. Her perfect complexion was mottled, her eyes bright with green fire. "Severus! How can you stand by and watch him mock me, after what he did?!"

Hermione exchanged a look with Marlene, flicking her eyes to the arches. Her friend grabbed Dorcas and obligingly departed to wait by the entrances, ready to warn her if the situation might get worse - for example, if her brother arrived.

"He didn't do anything, Lily," Severus said in a surprisingly level tone. Still kind of adoring, though. Hermione supposed if five years with the witch couldn't take the edge off his love for her, Lily shrieking like a harpy at his best friend wasn't likely to do it. "Regulus would never do anything like that."

"You're defending him?!" Lily snorted in disbelief. "Of course you're defending him. That's all you do nowadays, isn't it? Dark Arts and Death Eaters; there's no room for your little mudblood pal."

Severus scowled, standing. He was about a foot taller than Lily, looming large, yet still seemed to look up to her. "I have never called you that - that is not what you are!"

Lily grit her teeth, but she'd softened. One glance at Regulus steeled her, however, for another attack. "How long until it is? A week? A month? The more time you spend with people like him, the more you'll start to think like them, Sev. You know that. Just look how much you've changed since…" She took a deep breath and stepped back with a poisonous glance at Regulus. "You won't get away with this," she swore. "You and your friends - you can't just go around hurting people. It's not right!"

Hermione stepped in then, because Regulus was starting to look a little weary, and Severus was too busy flaying himself with her guilt stick. "Lily," she said, from the side, this time. Nice neutral ground for a decidedly not neutral girl to inhabit. "Regulus didn't do it. I was there, I know this."

Remembering her accusing looks for Severus, and her hate-filled looks for Regulus, Hermione found herself offended when she received a pitying look. As if she were some naive little girl in need of guidance rather than someone the same age as her and infinitely more qualified to speak on the subject. "You'd say anything to protect him," Lily said, loudly. There was an agreeing murmur from the crowd. "I don't blame you, he's your friend. You love him. But he is not worthy of your love, not if he's doing things like this." She stepped closer, her voice going into a whisper. "If he's hurting people like this now, imagine what he'll do to you, later. He's not a good person, Hermione."

She felt her fingers curl into fists, her eyes narrowing to slits as she raised her chin in defiance. "Back up, Evans," she spat, her every word adorned with ice. "You don't know what you're talking about. Sod off."

Resolute, she turned her back on the redhead and took a seat next to Regulus. Severus lingered, standing, but she reached up and tugged on his coat until he, too, sat. Lily frowned at them, and she went ignored. "So," Hermione said, deliberately light. "Summoning charms, eh?"

Wednesday 3rd December 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Abandoned Classroom

Life moved on as life does, the incident with Shepherd being blotted from the collective consciousness of the student population almost as soon as the girl was released from the hospital wing, four days later. Four horrible, uncertain days for Hermione, who was convinced that at any minute Aurors would storm the castle and drag Regulus away to Azkaban. She had nightmares of it, with stunningly clear images of Regulus in irons and the faded, striped prison pyjamas, his hair long, matted and straggling, so thin he was nearly all bone. In some, he would talk to her, or cry, or, worse, tell her that they were right - and in others, she wasn't even sure it was Regulus. There were simply grey eyes, alight with madness, focused on her. These were the worse of the two options, for at least with the others she knew objectively that they were false images thrown up by her subconscious to haunt her. The others?

They felt real. Not real as in the vivid, cutting brightness of a nightmare, with all of its cloying fear, but real, as in memories. She was there, feeling emotions - yes, terror, but also relief, and compassion, and fondness. The eyes were often accompanied by jumbled impressions - once, there had been a caw, like a giant bird. In another, she could smell fresh earth and feel branches lashing at her arms, her midriff. In yet another, a more relief-centred one, she could faintly hear a man's voice - not dissimilar to Remus's, but only if the boy took up smoking.

She didn't tell Regulus about them. He'd only feel guilty, and he had enough guilt to be getting on with, she thought. He put up a good show for the public but Hermione could tell that the constant suspicion weighed on him, and he kept darting uncertain looks in her direction, as if he expected her one day to turn to him and accuse him of the curse, too. For all of her nightmares, however, she remained certain on that point - Regulus was innocent. She knew it deep in her soul.

It did, however, set her to thinking about her memories again. The ones that were locked away, kept safe in the back of her mind where she couldn't access them. She told herself she didn't want them, didn't need them, but these dreams…

It was different when it had just been a sense of familiarity, of knowing things and people. The occasional slip of the tongue that had her saying 'Hell' and 'God' rather than 'Hades' and 'Merlin'. She could understand them; knew she was, at her heart, muggleborn, and these things would stay with her. Even the disturbance over what had happened to Shepherd could be safely explained away.

But the dreams? They were a window into the darkness that could be lurking, a darkness she'd all but forgotten about while she'd been living her life here. When her days were full of friends and family and teachers and work, she could imagine that all was fine, her memory wasn't needed.

What if it was, though? What if her knowledge of the future held something important, something pressing, something she needed to fix? After all, she wasn't sure how long she'd be here; perhaps the future as it was no longer existed. Perhaps the time-travel cautionary tales were just that, and she should be changing things, if only she knew what they were?

Anxiety rippled through her frequently on this matter, and more than once she'd opened her mouth to ask Severus for help, but… each time, she closed it again, words unspoken. Cowardly, she knew, but in this life she had a sense of acceptance and tranquility she wasn't sure she wanted to disrupt.

So she watched at Madam Pomfrey lifted Shepherd's curse, submitted her memories to the Aurors without a fuss, and comforted Regulus as best she could. And she worked. Life happened, time passed, and before she knew it, December was there and Christmas was on the horizon.

Severus, Regulus and she had gathered in an abandoned classroom, the one they'd found and designated their own. There were no end of abandoned classrooms in Hogwarts, so many that each little clique seemed to have their own somewhere, and a classroom one might have thought was abandoned in fact hosted several groups every day. Theirs, however, was theirs alone. Hidden in a corner on the third floor, it was one of the places that Hermione had felt drawn to in her first year and frequented ever since. Nobody wandered this far since the wing had long been in disuse except for furtive student snogging, and she felt safe enough to ward the place while they got up to all sorts of mischief; mostly in the form of teaching Severus to duel.

"Why?" Hermione had asked the first time, a few weeks before, and the boy had coloured slightly, avoiding her eyes. "Must I answer to you?" he'd snapped, and her curiosity had gone unassuaged.

He was a natural duellist, however; if somewhat Dark about it. He had an economy of movement that translated into grace, much more pleasing to the eye than some of the other males' prancing about and flailing of arms. His robes, too big for his slim form, whirled about him until he was the centre of his own storm, the fabric snapping about and completing his half-turns and flicks for him. Sometimes, when they duelled, Hermione would get distracted by simply watching him and end up with a hex-mark or two for her troubles.

Today, they'd duelled for an hour; Regulus against Severus as the older boy tried to perfect the double-hex, in which one cast a mild spell as a feint, and when it was blocked used that distraction to send a more debilitating one. It was a complicated manoeuvre that Kingsley had spent weeks teaching them the year before, usually only taught to sixth years or above. With Severus's skill level so high, however, Hermione felt no qualms about egging him on.

"Faster!" she jeered from the sidelines as Severus shot a stupefy in Regulus's direction. The other boy blocked it with an elegant curl of the wrist, grinning with joy. He loved to duel; some masculine instinct was satisfied by the mimed bloodshed, and it helped that he was so good. Severus lulled for a half-second before sending off a stinging jinx, a half-second too long, as Regulus was prepared for him. "Gods, Severus, slow down, why don't you," Hermione remarked dryly, then yelped when a bolt of orange zapped her in the wrist.

"Oi," Regulus taunted, smirking. "Eyes on me, mate."

Severus rolled his eyes, but couldn't resist a smile of his own. Timid, but there. He'd not gotten into the habit of smiling around Hermione, but she was determined to make him. "Then keep her quiet," he said with a dismissive nod. "Isn't that the point of you? To keep her in control?"

Both Hermione and Regulus snorted at once. "You wish," Hermione winked at the two of them with a laugh. "Control? Me? I'm afraid I don't understand your statement."

Regulus threw up a shield just as Severus let loose a surprise bombarda, sliding back a few feet with the force of the hit. "No wonder you don't have a girlfriend," he teased. "You seem to have completely misunderstood the point of the male species. We're here to please women, agree with them, and occasionally give them babies. Anything else is just wishful thinking."

"You've trained him well," Severus told her with mock solemnity, bowing his head respectfully. Hermione grinned, fluttering a hand in front of her face as she feigned shyness.

"I do try."

Their talk was interrupted by a pecking at the window. Hermione waved them on to continue as she went to collect the letter from a stern looking Great Horned Owl, one which appeared to scowl when she appeared. "That's mother's owl," Regulus said from behind her, sounding puzzled. "What could she…"

As she turned around, Hermione caught him paling dramatically. She couldn't hold back a wince, not knowing it was personal.

Though she had been known to protest the label, she and Regulus had become 'officially' boyfriend-girlfriend two weeks ago. They hadn't gone to Hogsmeade to mark the occasion, neither had they done any furtive snogging on the Astronomy tower; in fact, it had been unplanned, the two of them happy to be in relationship limbo until the day a shy-looking Hufflepuff girl had asked Regulus to come to Hogsmeade with her.

Hermione had stepped in, gently detached the girl's hand from Regulus's sleeve, and said, with as little a growl as possible, 'that's my boyfriend you're touching. Do stop'.

There hadn't been that much gossip, or not so-as she'd noticed, but it was clear what Regulus was thinking; the same thing she was. What if Walburga found out? Hermione's parents already knew. It was hardly a massive change for them, and Dorea had seemed to be rooting for them from the very beginning; it was only Charlus who seemed blindsided. To Hermione, he'd been sweet and accepting, but she also knew that he'd written Regulus a letter. A letter which both males steadfastly denied existed, even though Hermione had seen her boyfriend's fear when he'd locked it away. Walburga, of course, would be none of these things. Hermione knew that as she handed over the letter and watched Regulus slice through the thick parchment envelope. To be honest, she was surprised it wasn't red - Howlers were considered ill-bred by the Blacks, but she was sure the matriarch would have made an exception, unless whatever she had written was too awful for public consumption.

Oh, Gods, it was, wasn't it? She was likely calling Hermione all sorts of names, from trollop to mudblood, though how the woman would know that secret was beyond Hermione's comprehension, but the irrational fear was there….

"Oh, Merlin, Reg, just tell me," she burst out as she watched him read the words, in agony of waiting. "What is it?"

He worked his mouth once or twice as if the words just wouldn't come, and looked between the two of them in bewilderment. "Mum wants you to visit at Christmas."

Severus fell victim to a coughing fit while Hermione simply gaped. "Which one of us?" Not that either being invited wasn't a minor miracle, what with Hermione being a blood traitor and Severus being less than pure.

"Both of you?" He shook his head, rubbing at his eyes as if that might change what he was reading. "From the Solstice through to Christmas Eve."

"What? You must be reading it wrong." Hermione snatched the missive from his hands, too confused to use manners. It couldn't be true. They'd been friends for five years and she'd never been invited to the Black house - never.

But there it was - in impeccably calligraphed letters. Please invite Miss Potter and Mr. Snape to join us for our festivities. There followed some scathing comments about the lack of 'proper celebrations' in their lives up to the present, but that could be overlooked for the fact that they were invited at all.

"Is she alright?" Hermione found herself asking. "She's not ill or anything, is she?"

"Not so far as I know?" Regulus looked as confused as she. Then, suddenly, he looked hopeful. "Will you come?"

Her gut instinct was to say no. Who knew what horrors the woman had planned, after all. What good could possibly come of it? But then she looked at Reg, saw Severus's interest, and knew she couldn't. "Looks like it's a Black Yule, then," she sighed, handing the letter back with severe misgivings. "Should be interesting, at least."

Chapter Text

Monday 8th December 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Transfiguration Classroom

"It's not working!" Hermione cried in frustration, throwing her hands into the air. "I'm so close - so close, but there's something blocking me!"

Professor McGonagall frowned, watching Hermione struggle over the top of her glasses. "Blocking you?"

"Yes!" Hermione sighed, pulling her legs out of the lotus position and stretching them before her, rubbing out the aches from her hours of stillness. She'd come to her Head of House the day before, once she'd realised she'd hit a wall with her Animagus transformation, and the woman had kindly offered to observe the process while guiding her through the difficult parts. It had sounded like a good idea, at the time, but now that she'd attempted the transformation several times under McGonagall's watchful eye and still gotten no closer than sprouting a tail or ears, it seemed hopeless.

"Will I be stuck like this?" she asked with sudden horror. It wasn't just the ears or the tail she had a problem with - though they were, undoubtedly, a problem, given that neither were inconspicuous; the tail was chestnut brown despite her black hair, and bushy beyond imagining, with some of it going so far as to curl - it was that her mind, when in this state, took on some of the beast. It smelled everything, heard everything, and thought endlessly of hunting and playing and sleeping. It took all she had to keep her human mind in the forefront and focus on McGonagall's words.

McGonagall clicked her tongue in disappointment. "Of course not, silly gel. You're one of the most capable witches I've ever had the pleasure to teach. If anyone can master the Animagus transformation, it will be you. We're simply missing something."

Hermione ground her teeth, pushing her pride at McGonagall's matter-of-fact compliment away for the moment. "But what? You said you can't see anything wrong with my form, nor my casting, and my meditation has been perfected for weeks! Unless it was the mandrake leaf, but I'm certain it wasn't, because me and Marley and Dorcas did that together and-"

"Calm yourself, Miss Potter," McGonagall chastised her. "It was none of these things. Why, I, myself, only managed my transformation after lying in a cat bed for two hours, scowling and meowing at everyone who passed." She stopped abruptly, glowering across at Hermione. "If you know what's good for you, you will not share that information, Miss Potter."

But Hermione's mind was working too quickly for her to even notice the threat. "Of course!" she exclaimed. "You put yourself in the position of your animagus form - which makes perfect sense, really, because it's just another form of meditation. But yours was a cat, so that's much easier than mine, I think."

"I agree," McGonagall nodded, her eyes sliding over Hermione's ears. She shuffled a few books aside and drew out what looked like a chequebook, but Hermione recognised as the ubiquitous Permission Slip Book, a sight she was used to since she'd been using them since her first year to get into the Restricted Section, and yet still sent a tremor of pleased anticipation through her. "Now that I think about it, Mr. Abbott seems to be having the same problem. Perhaps the two of you can meditate together," her Professor murmured, scratching away with her quill and then handing across the crisp piece of parchment. "I believe I can trust you to have some sense about this, Miss Potter? Never alone, never off the beaten track, and never at night."

Hermione glanced down at the slip in her hands, her smile broadening when she read the words Forbidden Forest. "Yes, ma'am," she grinned happily. "You can trust me."

Wednesday 10th December 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hogwarts Grounds

Red hair, sparkling in the sun, with pale, elegant hands twisting the air to her purpose. Her green eyes flashed passionately, the girl stopping occasionally to brush a wisp of fringe from her face. Severus had to admit that he wasn't paying overly much attention to her words, instead studying how the sun lit her up, gilding her perfection like a marble statue in living motion.

"And then, Sev, and you won't believe this, but it's true-!"

He wondered how it was that even after six years of friendship, they could still be so close? He was never bored, they never ran out of topics to discuss, and he never, ever tired of her presence - and if he read her right, she didn't easily tire of his, either.

"...of course, Marlene had to chip in, nosey cow that she is, and I had to say to her, 'excuse me, Marlene, only, your accent is so strong I can't understand a word you're saying!' which is complete rubbish, of course, but it shut her up, which, good! I wasn't talking to her anyway!"

The Regulus issue had caused a momentary rift, yes, but that was only to be expected; Lily was muggleborn, after all, so it was only natural that she'd be scared. He couldn't have expected anything less, not from his Lily, who had always been hot-tempered and inclined to act before she thought. She'd change her mind about it, eventually, he was certain. In the meantime, the only way he got to spend time with her was by editing out all mention of Regulus. It was difficult, but he did it. His friend would understand.

"Really, Sev, I don't know what you see in her." This sentence, clearly directed at him, jerked him out of his daze. Lily was frowning, not in dislike but in slight consternation, as if studying a puzzle she just couldn't solve. Severus followed her eyeline to see Hermione Potter walking quickly across the grass, her head buried in a book, alone for once. Severus felt a faint stirring of fondness at the sight, so very Hermione, but didn't realise he'd started to smile until Lily smacked his leg playfully. "See, there you go again! What is it about Hermione Potter that has all you boys falling over her?"

"She is… nice," Severus answered lamely, at the same time recognising the problematic part of that statement - Hermione wasn't nice, exactly, she just had a way about her that said she was listening, she heard you, and she was perfectly willing to give you a chance. In fact, many people would say she wasn't nice at all, not with how she unflinchingly launched duelling partners across the floor, or how she always had a sharp comment at the ready for those who crossed her. But…

She was nice to him, unfailingly, and even her barbs had soft edges, to the point that he was almost convinced she liked him, sort-of, as much as anyone could like the spindly, greasy Slytherin who couldn't manage a compliment to save his life.

Lily huffed out a sigh, rolling her eyes. "She's not nice to me," she sniped.

"You did accuse her boyfriend of being a Death Eater," Severus said quietly, aware that he was crossing a line but somehow unable to stop himself. Lily closed up, like a book snapping shut, her lips pinched at the edges. Severus groaned to himself. "Oh, Lily, you know I didn't mean it like that-"

"Regulus Black is a bad sort, Sev," Lily snapped. "I don't believe for one moment that he wasn't involved in what happened to poor Louise. It's too much of a coincidence!"

Severus closed his eyes, feeling the beginnings of a migraine come on. And they'd been having such a lovely time, until Hermione passed by and yanked then into the present. He felt a quick flash of resentment towards the witch for ruining his time with Lily - as OWLs grew closer, free time was at a premium, and time with Lily ever more so. The last time they'd been alone together had been so long ago he could hardly remember it, and now this one had been tainted.

Hermione disappeared into the woods and Lily started packing her books. "Where are you going?" Severus asked warily.

"To Professor McGonagall, of course," Lily told him matter-of-factly. "James, Sirius, Regulus, Remus, Marlene - even you might be stuck up Hermione's arse, but I am not! That girl just broke school rules, brazenly, directly in front of a Prefect!" Lily jabbed her badge proudly. "I'm not going to let her get away with it."

"Please don't do this, Lily," he had a feeling that this was going to go badly for her.

"She's breaking school rules, Severus," Lily repeated, already walking away. Severus hurried to catch up to her. Idiotic move or no, he would support her while she made it. He felt uneasy about it, however. In Slytherin, there was a code of honour; Slytherins stand together. It seemed too much to hope that Gryffindor had the same.

"It won't help," Severus said as soon as he caught up. "You know McGonagall dotes on her. Hermione could be slaughtering-" he caught himself before saying 'cats'; no need to give Lily any more ideas.

She didn't seem to notice, however, stopping dead in her tracks. "You're right," she muttered, executing a spin on her heels that left her staring in Hermione's direction. "She won't do anything. Not without evidence."

On this note, Lily began marching again, this time towards the forest. "Now what are you doing?" Severus demanded.

"Following her, of course. She's up to something, I just know it."

He tried very hard not to roll his eyes, because one didn't just roll their eyes at the love of their life. "Hermione's always up to something," he pointed out, his long strides putting him in front of her, all the better to talk her down. "Most of it school sanctioned. How do you know she's not meant to be in there? Besides - even if she's not, she knows the forest. You don't!"

Lily scowled at him fiercely. "Why do you call her Hermione?" she suddenly demanded. Severus gaped, but she didn't stop. "Four years you've spent with Mary and she's still 'Mcdonald' but her? She gets a name!"

"Mcdonald is Mary's name," Severus said, slightly bewildered by this turn about. "And she calls me Snape!"

"That's not the point!"

Now Severus was fully bewildered, and also pretty certain that Lily hadn't gotten the owl about the rolling-of-eyes, either. Knowing he couldn't reason with her about this, he simply dropped into step beside her, hoping they weren't about to walk into trouble.

The trees were upon them suddenly, the canopy blocking out the sun, leaving them in shadow. Lily squinted into the darkness, looking for a trail. Severus listened to the sound, his migraine-sensitive ears picking up the birds chirping, the leaves rustling, but not a single footstep.

No, wait - there was something. A low murmuring. Then, in the trees directly before them, a flare went up, dim but visible through the branches.

He opened his mouth to say something, leave it, maybe, but Lily was already powering on, choosing a path and crashing down it. Severus followed at her heels.

"I knew it!" she whispered, somehow finding a rhythm and sticking to it, her feet growing more nimble with every step. "I knew she was up to something!"

"It might not be her," Severus murmured, eyeing the light warily. "There are many things in this forest more dangerous than a teenage girl, Lily."

Lily paused at that, then shrugged. "Nonsense. They can't be that bad, James comes out here all the time, and he's fine!"

"What?!" Severus yanked her around to face him. "Potter is in here all the time? You know this? And yet we're still chasing his sister around like she's a bloody criminal?!"

"Well, yes." Lily shook him off, her button nose in the air. "You don't get it, Severus, because you're blinded by her, but James - Potter isn't evil. He's just… misguided. He likes his freedom, and it's not like he's causing any trouble out here. I highly doubt he's clever enough. Hermione, however, is dangerous."

And she stomped off before he could reply.

They followed the trail for a few minutes, the sound of voices getting louder until they met a thick aisle of bushes and trees. The path continued on, with no sign of human interference by the bushes, but it was obvious that the voices were coming from the other side. Lily, of course, stepped daintily off the path and peered through a gap in the branches. Severus followed.

A group of students stood in a clearing, all with their hoods up, which gave them a vaguely sinister air. They were talking amongst themselves, excitement riding the air. Severus could make out no faces, though one figure caught his eye - slightly shorter than the rest of them, his cloak was pinned closed all down his front to hide his uniform, and he wasn't talking to anyone, his head bent to the spell fire in the centre. Nobody seemed to notice his presence; in fact, Severus might go so far as to say they were deliberately ignoring him.

Lily shifted her weight, pressing closer, and - crack!

"Who's there?" One of the boys shouted, spinning around. Severus caught his face - Avery. Brilliant. Because what they needed was that sadistic prick to get his hands on Lily in a dark forest when no one knew where she was. Obviously Hermione was long gone, so their little foray had been good for nothing but to put Lily in danger.

Speaking of Lily, Severus looked across to see her quickly hiding fear by pushing her chest out, her Prefect badge shining dully. Oh, Gods.

He didn't know what possessed him to do it, perhaps concern over her wellbeing, but suddenly he'd shoved her deeper into the brush and stepped out himself, shouting "it's only me!", as if he'd been expected.

"Snape?" Avery sneered, his eyes alight with malice. "What do you want?"

"What do you think?" Severus matched him sneer for sneer, gesturing to the group. "What's this, then?"

"None of your business," someone else hissed, their face in shadow, though Severus would guess from the voice that it was Rosier, one of the very few males of their line.

"It is when you're being so obvious about it. What happened to ne capiaris?" Severus flicked his eyes dismissively around. "You're only about two minutes from the Castle, and it's broad daylight. I could hear you from the Lake."

At this, Avery swore viciously, turning to the little figure in the cloak. "I thought you said it was safe!"

The cloaked boy - or maybe girl - shivered noticeably. "It is!" it squeaked, his voice somehow familiar but too distorted by fear for Severus to recognise it. "He's lying!"

Severus scoffed. "How did I find you, then, if I'm lying? Look, I'm just giving you a heads up - when we heard you, Evans ran off to McGonagall. I couldn't stop her. Do with that what you will." Turning on his heel, he stalked back off into the bushes, listening to them swear and pack up. He grabbed a hold of Lily as he passed her, firmly marching her out ahead of him. "No more," he declared, glaring down at her once they met the border. "No more sneaky trips into the Forest, no more following Hermione. You want dangerous, Lily? Avery is dangerous! I don't even want to think about what might have happened had I not been there!"

She sniffed. "I'd have taken points and give detentions," she informed him. He grit his teeth, grinding down to prevent himself from screaming.

"Right," he snapped. "Whatever. I'm off, anyway. Got an appointment with Slughorn. Maybe you should go back to Gryffindor Tower."

He stormed off without waiting for her to reply, an action he'd no doubt regret later but couldn't bring himself to now - he needed to cool down before he said something he'd regret.

Gods, but she drove him mental, and not at all in a good way.

Chapter Text

Wednesday 10th December 1975

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Forbidden Forest

Hermione had always loved the Forbidden Forest, for all that its name intimidated her. There was something darkly inviting about its sun dappled trees, the shifting shadows, the thick magical aura that encompassed it. It felt alive, not in the same day as the castle, which was all the comforts of home with a mischievous streak, but instead with the presence of many others, unseen but there nonetheless. It was as though the very trees watched her, weighed and measured her, sending her where she needed to be when she needed to be there.

She was there to see Severus blunder on into the meeting in the name of protecting Lily, for example. Hidden behind a tree, she'd been observing the group, her original mission forgotten as curiosity and suspicion overwhelmed. Lily's approach had not been subtle, or perhaps that was simply to her; as she got closer to fully mastering her animagus form, her hearing had become increasingly more acute, her eyesight sharper. To her, the other girls footsteps had been trampling, every twig available snapped, every tree shuddered away from her and every dried Autumn leaf disintegrated in a chorus of sighs.

How the students within the circle didn't notice was beyond her.

That Severus saved her was no surprise, for he was always the one standing in the way of Lily and any threat to her. She and Regulus liked to joke about it, liked to rag the living daylights out of their friend, but it was a sad fact of their life that Lily was, and would likely always be, the most important person in Severus' life, and he'd do anything for her without her ever needing to ask. The saddest part, Hermione thought, was that Lily was not on the same page at all; yes, she would stand up for her friend, but the days had long passed since she would do it without doubt, with trust and the whole of her soul.

Now, Hermione had no choice but to stand and watch as Severus put himself in harm's way once more, with a bitter Lily waiting to chew him out from the sidelines. At least the girl had the sense to stay put, for now.

The warning Severus delivered in true Slytherin fashion was responded to with alacrity, the group packing up so quickly that all Hermione caught was spare flashes of eyes and hands as they bundled things into bags and hid them about their persons. She kept an eye on the short one, for no discernable reason other than a bone-deep mistrust, but aside from those few words he'd spoken in Severus' presence he remained silent. That was not to say that he was ignored: the group milled about him, patting him on the back and muttering condolences she couldn't quite hear. In response, the short one simply smiled and nodded, then tugged his robe tighter around him and melted into the trees.

Hermione slipped around the clearing to follow him, but she could find no signs of passage, the foliage undisturbed by human hands. She frowned and circled back on herself, but the only place footsteps were seen was the gap through which the rest of the students were escaping. Perhaps it was simply her lack of tracking experience, or maybe her new senses were failing her, but she could swear that the figure had simply… vanished. And now the rest of the group had left, leaving her unsure as to their next destination, and unable to follow her instincts to investigate.

Alone once more, she remembered her original purpose and swore. She'd been led astray by her self-set task, far off-track from where she'd arranged to meet Clarence. Searching for a starting point, she set off west in the hope that at one point their paths might cross.

It was dim, but not dark, and the untroubled scuttling of creatures in the undergrowth was comforting, helping her focus outside of her own head so that she wouldn't get caught up in the wondering - who was the mysterious cloaked figure, why did they appear so very familiar, and why, when she'd looked at him, did her skin feel as if it might crawl from her, leaving her red raw and exposed to a horrible truth? No, she pushed those thoughts away for consideration later, ensconced in the safety of her four poster. Now, she entertained herself by separating and identifying the sounds she heard, of the birds cooing to one another in the trees, of late-season squirrels attempting to be subtle as they hoarded the last of Autumn's nuts, and a pair of rats fighting over territory in the depths of a nearby bush.

Clarence, she missed until he was directly behind her, though she didn't jump. That preserved her at least some dignity. Not, of course, that she planned on telling him that she had been too amused by the goings-on of rodents to practice vigilance, but the look on his face said he wasn't buying her nonchalance.

"I didn't think you were coming," Clarence said as a greeting, squeezing her hand. "I've been here for ages."

Hermione pulled it back with an apologetic shrug, though she kept her eyes on those tricksy fingers of his. Bloody pickpocketing 'puffs couldn't be trusted. "Didn't you notice the troop of kids trampling through the Forest? I got stuck hiding from them." She glanced back into the trees, frowning. "Speaking of which, you didn't happen to see a short bloke in a cloak come wandering this way, did you?"

His face hardened immediately, though it took her a moment to notice for she was scouring a particularly dark section with her eyes, only for it to turn out to be a thick bough. For some reason, despite their privacy, she felt as if she was being watched. "Why? He didn't hurt you, did he?"

"So you did see someone?" She tugged at a strand of her hair in frustration when she could find nothing - there was something out there, she knew it. She was on the verge of marching in there to search when the sight of her bare wrist distracted her, and she scowled at Clarence. "Oi! Give it back, thief!"

"No, I haven't. But if I had, would he have attacked you?" Clarence huffed at her outstretched hand, and she flexed the fingers demandingly. "Woman, I don't have whatever you're looking for."

"Sure you don't, and I'm Guinevere of Camelot. What happened to not using those pickpocketing skills of yours on friends?"

"Oh, are we friends, now?" he shot her a charming grin. "Does this mean I get to be involved in all those super secret 'meetings' you and Reg hold?" She scoffed at his wink.

"You wish, creep. Hand it over, and we'll forget this ever happened." When he still looked mutinous, she lowered her voice to a growl. "Unless you'd rather I take it from you…"

Clarence gave an exaggerated shudder, leering at her. "Promises, promises." Seeing her hand rise with the threat of violence, however, he rolled his eyes. "You're no fun, 'Mione."

"So I've been told," she murmured in response, smiling victoriously as he dumped the pretty, silver chain her father had given her for her thirteenth birthday in her hand. "Now back to business."

Clarence was, perhaps, the best of their group to meditate with. For all of his mischievousness, he was the patient one between him and Xavier; the planner, the stabilising force. He settled on the ground opposite Hermione, leading her in her breathing, his low, melodic voice pulling her under. His descriptions of the Forest around them kept her connected to both the environment and his presence, preventing her consciousness from slipping away, but the sound of him was not intrusive.

Professor McGonagall had said that they suffered the same problem, but Hermione found that difficult to believe with how confident he was in the process, how easily it seemed to come to him. Her eyes flipped open the moment his voice cut off in a strangled gurgle, and it was happening to him, as if without effort.

His magic was a shimmering, opalescent haze about him, manifesting in a protective cloud, so dense that all Hermione could catch of his transformation were the preliminaries: a thick, short coat of hair sprouting on his skin, grey and white; eyes rounding, shrinking; his arms reversing track, being sucked back into his torso. It was grotesque, it was mesmerising, it was beautiful.

And after a few minutes, the barrier melted away to reveal a small, long rodent, snuffling in the grass.

"You're actually pretty cute," Hermione said, shell-shocked. She'd seen others transform, of course, but never for the first time. They'd perfected it, it was smooth and effortless, without expending so much energy. The energy, however, was what had made it so awe-inspiring.

Also, exhausting, if the way Clarence flopped into his back and panted heavily was any indication. Hermione had a strong urge to tickle his fluffy, white underbelly, but strangled it down. She didn't want him to get any ideas, animal or no.

She sighed, knowing what was coming next. Already, her competitive streak was railing at her, demanding she show him what she could do. If it was what easy for him, it reasoned, surely it would be even easier for her?

Ignoring his squeaks and sneezes as he explored the area, she closed her eyes, trying to pick up where she'd left off. He'd talked about being in tune with the forest, being at one with nature, part of the cycle. Peace between the birds, the mammals, the insects. Ignorance of human interlopers.

Drawing on her meditative revelations, she tried to mesh the two together, pulling herself into the mind of her animagus form with all its teeth and claws and languid temperament. She listened for the scrabble of paws in the undergrowth, to the chittering of the birds in the trees, and with every sound became more of the beast, less of the human.

Keeping her limbs loose, she released her magic; searching tendrils at first, and when she felt the hook, yet more. This had always been the sticking point previously, at which she would stall, the transformation would fail, and she would be stuck with a tail for the next three hours. Just the thought gave her anxiety, and she had to even out her breaths, pausing the outflow to relax herself.

Panic. Irrational, all encompassing panic as her ears sprouted from her head. The prickling of fur only made it worse, sprouting from her skin, sickeningly familiar. She was hyperventilating; something in her head was telling her that this was wrong, wrong, wrong - she had an image of her, stuck - half-changed - the forefront of her mind dominated by feline eyes and face on a human body, a grotesque melding of the two - it was her - that was what would happen! No, no, no, no-

Around her ankles, Clarence flitted, making a questioning noise. She flapped, trying to regain control of herself, but adrenalin was pounding through her veins now. Each breath brought the thick, enchanting air of the forest into her lungs, and she felt herself being pushed closer to the brink, and she didn't want this, didn't want that vision, yet also, she did, she needed this, and she didn't understand either side or what was going on at all-

Clarence dug his tiny teeth into her foot and she screeched, but it turned into a hiss halfway through as she lost the final grip on her magic, mind and body swirling away in a chaotic, mangled mess. She felt as if she were being disintegrated and reformed, only slightly different in every way. She was still Hermione; only, she was also a predator, and prey, and a cat but also a huntress. She had power in her body, but no access to magic; she had conscious thought, but her analytical brain was becoming more dulled by the second. She tried to soak in as much as she could while she could, with her hindbrain launching an attack for control from the back.

Tiny stoat-Clarence didn't help, either, squeaking and squirming at her from the floor. Hermione ignored him to the best of her ability, but he smelled, even in his animal form, of a curious mix of his human aftershave (applied liberally, and despite the fact that he was as yet free of facial hair) and the woodsy, warm scent of rodent. It was terribly distracting, her attention flying to him no matter how hard she tried, which was what made the switch from human-thought to animal possible.

The first thing she noticed, was the hunger, mangled up with something horrible. Distasteful. Fake. Something behind her brushed her feet, but that felt natural, easily discarded. All of her attention remained on that irritating smell, for it burned her nostrils, and she bared her teeth.

It was trying to hide. Expecting her not to notice it. Expecting that, were its scent smothered, she would not be able to tell what it was. But it was wrong, she could still hear its heart, solid and quick in its chest, pumping thick, delicious blood through its veins. It was small, but she liked small; she was only small herself, if five times its size, and besides, the chase was always better when they were able to fit places she couldn't. The hunt more exciting when they thought they'd escaped. The kill far more satisfying.

Her belly twinged at the thought, and she knew it was time to eat. A low rumbling left her throat, anticipatory, warning. The small thing gave a squeak, confused, frightened. She liked that. Perhaps it would run, now.

No. It dawdled. She wondered if she was hungry enough to take it without a fight, but that hardly seemed sporting. A little push..?

Her paw shot out, claws swiping in its direction, and it skittered backwards, but circled her warily, still. She growled. That was a good noise, new. Pleasing.

Lazily, she lapped at her chops, showing fangs. She was hungry.

Her eyes flashed open when the snuffling grew nearer, and she snarled, her forelegs bending, hindlegs stretching. Tiny creature, not much flesh to it, stared boldly back at her. Silly thing. Didn't it know it was close to death?

It would.

She pounced.

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Hospital Wing

"I'm so sorry," Hermione cried again, covering her eyes with her hands. "I don't know what came over me!"

Clarence, comfortably swaddled in three blankets, several layers of bandages on his shoulder, and pleasantly high on pain potion, gave a lopsided smile Hermione was unable to see. "Ah, I'm fine," he told her, the last word elongated until it had several more syllables than the original. Amused by the sound, he tried it again, this time adjusting his pitch as he went. "Fii-II-iineeeeee," he slurred, giggling. "Just a scratch!"

Hermione heaved a breath that came out as a sob. "Oh, Gods. What have I done?" Scrubbing at her face, she continued, "they're going to expel me, I just know they are. I'll be put in Azkaban. They'll tie my magic!"

"You'll be fiiiineeee." Clarence reached out, patting her arm fondly. "Like they'd expel the great Hermione Potter. 'twas their own fault. Who sends a cat out into the woods with a stoat?" He grinned lazily, his eyes cloudy. "Almos' like they wanted me killed, innit?"

Hermione went to slap him, then at the last minute remembered that he was injured. "Don't talk like that!" She hiccuped, tearstained face frowning hard. "Nobody wants you dead!"

"I dunno, love. Reckon ol' Sluggie might have given it a go, given the chance." He looked down at his bandage, where discharge draining from the wound stained it yellow-brown. "Still time, like. You've got some teeth on you, haven't you? Bet Reggie loves that." His wink was slow and somewhat blurry, but somehow still obscene.

"Stop flirting with me," she commanded with a scowl, smoothing the bedcovers closest to her. She needed something to do with her hands, else she might have another panic attack. Three was enough, thank you. "I've got a boyfriend, and you're in no state to take further beating."

"Is'all good fun. He knows I'm not interested - no offense, but you're far too high-maintenance for me. I prefer the sweet girls, like your friend Dorcas." He flashed her a leer, gesturing at his prone form and failing to adequately hide his wince of pain. "Speaking of, is she single? If she is, I'd be happy to let her play Nurse."

"Touch Dorcas and Marlene will break every single one of your fingers," Hermione warned him. "Twice."

"Ah, but so pleasurable it would be…" he drifted off into a daydream, and Hermione scoffed. He was ridiculous, really. Bearable when Xavier was nowhere to be found, however.

"Miss Potter?" Hermione froze, her earlier fear rushing back at the sound of Professor McGonagall's voice. She turned to see her favourite professor stood in the gap between curtains, eyes on her. All of a sudden, she was ten years old, with none of the emotional control she'd spent the last few years protecting, and all she wanted to do was cry.

"Professor McGonagall, I'm so sorry," she nearly whispered, cowed by her calculating gaze. "I wasn't ready - I shouldn't have forced it. I was wrong, and I am -so- sorry."

Professor McGonagall's gaze lingered for a second more, before she broke the connection with a sigh, crossing to Clarence's bedside. "It was not your fault," she said softly. "The blame lies with me. Sometimes you all act so competent, so adult, that I forget you are only fifteen. You needed supervision, but I did not provide that."

"Oh - no, Professor - it wasn't your fault!"

The older woman looked at her sadly. "Oh, but it was. Yes, you lost control of your form, but had I been there the consequences would not have been so harsh." She reached across to brush a stand of pure-white hair from Clarence's chubby face. He'd fallen asleep at some point, and he must have needed it, for he didn't so much as twitch at the touch. "I shall answer the consequences, my dear. In the meantime, you'll need more training."

"Oh - but-"

"What's done is done," Hermione was told, briskly. "You have your form now, but you'll report to my office on Mondays for lessons in control. The Headmaster has kindly decided not to report this mishap to the Ministry, so there will be no legal repercussions, but should you miss a single lesson you can be assured, Miss Potter, that I shall hand you over to Mr. Filch for detention, every day until the end of the school year. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Professor." It was easier to defer the decision to the teachers, she realised once she'd let go of her arguments. She would have to find a way to thank Professor McGonagall. There had been no need for her to fall on her sword for Hermione, but she had, and now…

Relief. Sweet, all-encompassing relief. She'd gotten off easily, this time, she knew; mauling a fellow student was not acceptable under any circumstances. Juggling her extracurricular activities were difficult enough as it was, but she wasn't going to complain. Not if she got to keep her form. Until everything had gotten terrifying, her change had been exhilarating, wonderful. She'd felt new, and powerful, and as if she'd connected with a part of herself she'd never even known was there. Hermione wasn't certain whether she'd be able to transform so easily the next time, but once was enough. She knew she could do it. And, after all, only practise makes perfect.